One of the great successes of the Obama administration has been its ability to divert attention from the wars the United States is still fighting, such as Afghanistan. Given Obama's decision to escalate and extend that war is looking worse and worse with time, you can understand why they are doing this. It's possible that sending more troops bought Obama time and is making it easier to get out now; the problem is that we ended up squandering more lives and money without getting a significantly better outcome.
My real fear is that this is merely a preamble to telling ourselves a lot of self-serving myths about that war. Count on it: Our exit from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a lot of feel-good stories about the U.S./NATO effort there designed to convince Americans that the surge "worked" and that we really did give it our all. If things go south later on, that will be the Afghans' fault, not ours, and so it won't be necessary to learn any lessons from our mistakes.
But two recent news stories suggest a very different read. The first, from Saturday's New York Times, offered an account of the farewell gathering for the deparating French Ambassador in Kabul, Bernard Bajolet. According to the Times, Bajolet told the attendees:
"That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West's investment in it, would come to little."
And then there was this passage:
"At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan's government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said."
Think about that statement as you read the second story (from today's Times) describing the millions of dollars of slush funds that the CIA has paid to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But instead of purchasing Karzai's loyalty or enhancing U.S. influence, the money merely contributed to the endemic corruption that has marred the NATO effort from day one. As the Times reported:
"The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan," one American official said, "was the United States."
There you have it: The French ambassador (and everyone else) says the Afghan government needs to reduce corruption, yet a key element of the U.S. effort there has been contributing to that problem. I wonder if H.R. McMaster, the general who was assigned to head up NATO's anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan, knew what the CIA baksheesh office was up to. If so, he'll be in a great position to write a sequel to his earlier book on the U.S. failure in Vietnam.
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Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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The flap over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense -- brought to you, like so many other foolish things, by hardliners in the Israel lobby -- has been a distraction from the real questions that the next secretary of defense ought to be ready to address. I happen to think Hagel is a good choice for the position, but he shouldn't get a free ride when he testifies tomorrow. In that spirit, here are the Ten Questions I'd Ask Chuck Hagel on Thursday.
1. On China: "Do you think China's rising power poses a serious threat to U.S. interests? If its power continues to rise, should the United States continue to strengthen its Asian alliances and move more military forces to Asia? What other steps should the United States take now to protect its geopolitical interests in Asia, and how can we avoid a new Cold War there?"
2. On Taiwan: "As China's naval, air, and missile capabilities increase, defending Taiwan will become increasingly difficult. If at some point defending Taiwan is no longer militarily feasible, what should the United States do?"
3. On cyberwar: "Are you worried that America's use of cyberwarfare capabilities -- such as the famous STUXNET attack on Iran -- is setting a dangerous precedent for others? Given our growing dependence on computer networks, shouldn't we be actively pursuing some sort of a global regime to limit this danger, instead of assuming we will always be better at it than others?
Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"
#4. On nuclear weapons: "If it were solely up to you, sir, how many nuclear weapons would you maintain in the U.S. stockpile, even if other states did not reduce their arsenals at all?"
#5: On U.S.-Japanese relations: "The U.S.-Japanese security treaty is decidedly one-sided. As MIT professor Barry Posen points out, the treaty commits us to defending Japan while Japan promises to help. Shouldn't this arrangement be reversed? Why should America be more committed to defending Japan than the Japanese are? As secretary of defense, what will you do to produce a more equitable sharing of burdens between the U.S. and its wealthiest allies?"
#6: On torture: "Are you comfortable with how the Obama administration dealt with the previous use of torture by U.S. personnel? Do you think the officials who authorized torture and other war crimes should have been prosecuted?"
#7: On Iraq and Afghanistan: "In the past decade, the United States has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in two major conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the obvious lesson that we should not start foolish wars, what other lessons should the U.S. military be learning from these twin failures?"
#8: On the global military footprint: "The United States has hundreds of bases and other military facilities in every continent of the world; no other country comes even close. In the absence of a serious peer competitor, does our security really depend on this enormous global footprint? Which facilities could we do without?"
Bonus follow-up: "Defense experts also agree that America's basing structure at home is inefficient. As Secretary, are there any bases you would close or consolidate?
#9: On rape in the U.S. armed forces: "President Obama has recently authorized the deployment of women in combat roles. Yet sexual harassment and rape have reached epidemic proportions within the U.S. military, with over 3000 incidents per year being reported. What do you intend to do about this?"
#10: On veterans' benefits: "The United States should pay its soldiers a fair wage and stand by its veterans. Yet a number of budget experts now believe that ever-escalating benefit packages threaten our ability to maintain an effective defense. Do you think our current approach to military compensation is about right, or does it need to be fundamentally rethought? If the latter, how?"
If anybody asks him a few questions like that, they might even forget about some of those other issues, and the Senators might learn something useful about his qualifications and judgment.
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There was a terrific NOVA program on the tube last night, on the subject of remotely-piloted vehicles (aka "drones") and their rapidly expanding role in the American military. The show focused mostly on the technical aspects of these weapons, but didn't omit some of the tricky ethical and political questions associated with their use. FP's Rosa Brooks argues that the advent of drones is a recipe for perpetual war; I'm inclined to agree, at least as long as the United States can continue to use them with impunity.
I took three lessons away from last night's program. First, a reminder: for all the alleged successes of our expanded drone program (i.e., degrading al Qaeda in various locales, providing battlefield intel in Afghanistan, etc.) in the end the United States failed to achieve its core objectives in either war. Iraq did not become a stable, pro-American democracy (it remains violent and if anything tilts toward Iran). Nor did we defeat the Taliban and create a stable democracy in Afghanistan (whose fate will be determined after we leave in 2014). And this reminds us that technological wizardry does not always translate into strategic success.
Second, one of the interesting puzzles of the so-called drone wars is why so few remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) get shot down. Most RPVs are slow and don't fly that high, which would makes them vulnerable to relatively unsophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. Even the most elusive drones would be invulnerable to fighter aircraft or advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Serbia reportedly shot down some fifteen U.S. drones in the Kosovo War, and Iran may -- repeat, may -- have forced one down over its territory last year.
There are two obvious reasons why we don't lose more drones. One is that some governments (e.g., Pakistan) that object to their use are protesting too much: they are not so angered by drone strikes that they are willing to start shooting them down. Another is the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda don't have access to sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, and nobody is going to provide it to them. Even states like Russia and China aren't overly fond of non-state terrorist organizations, which makes it much harder for the groups that we are targeting with drones to acquire counter-measures that might equalize the situation. But note: this situation also means that the relatively passive environment that we've been exploitng in places like Yemen or Pakistan may not be the norm, and things might be quite different if we went up against a foe that had better anti-aircraft capabilities and was willing to use them.
Third, I couldn't help but consider what the RPV revolution tells us about the future of the manned space program. Homo sapiens has many interesting and attractive qualities, but we also have real physical limitations and keeping us alive in demanding environments like space is very hard and expensive. Sending machines to explore space makes a lot more sense than sending human beings; we will learn more at far less cost if we abandon our romantic notions of "space exploration" by humans and send sophisticated machines instead.
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Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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FP colleague Dan Drezner is clearly feeling generous this holiday season, which is a wonderful thing. Yet at the same time, I miss his normally sharp-elbowed intelligence. To be specific, his recent post is too forgiving of the incestuous relationship between Iraq/Afghan commander David Petraeus and inside-the-Beltway operators Fred and Kimberly Kagan, as well as of the other think-tankers Petraeus "consulted" with during his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his credit, Dan acknowledges that there are troubling features in this case. It bothers him that Kimberly Kagan hinted that they'd say critical things about the Afghan campaign unless they got more cooperation from the Pentagon, and then penned upbeat stuff once they got what they wanted. Dan also thinks exploiting their relationship with Petraeus for fundraising purposes was "unseemly" (an uncharacteristically timid charge for him.) And he's bothered by the reports that they overstepped their role as consultants and seemed to interfere with the chain of command.
Dan's main defense of the Petraeus/Kagan relationship is that military commanders ought to get outside their own bureaucratic environments on occasion and solicit informed advice from independent experts. It is hard to disagree with this general observation, but the devil is in the details and in this case they are pretty damning.
The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that's exactly what they did.
Here's the basic structure of the situation. If you're a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren't known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.
Next, consider how this looks from the consultants' perspective. If you're an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you're someone who depends on soft money), it's a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let's not forget the role of ego: it's just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
Your well-scripted tour of the battle zone will probably convince you things are generally okay, of course, but you may still have a few doubts or questions and you may even express them to the commanders who invited you over. But what you won't do is tell them that the entire enterprise is misguided, or return home and write a hard-hitting piece explaining why the strategy is wrong or that the war effort is likely to fail. Because if you did that, it would be the last invitation you'd ever get and you wouldn't be able to play up your insider status anymore. Even worse, powerful people inside the national security bureaucracy might start bad-mouthing you, thereby diminishing your clout in Washington and destroying any hopes you might have had about serving in the government.
To see how well this works, ask yourself: How many of the people who took advantage of Petraeus' hospitality ended up writing critical assessments of his strategy or offered pessimistic forecasts about the prospects for victory? Not Michael O'Hanlon or Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, not Max Boot or Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and certainly not the Kagans. I haven't done a comprehensive survey of everything that Petraeus' various advisors have written since then, but my impression is that virtually all of them remained upbeat about both wars for quite some time and none were critical early on. And it isn't as if there wasn't plenty of evidence that both of these wars were going badly.
Dan and I agree in principle: U.S. government officials and military commanders should sometimes solicit independent outside advice. And I have no problem with academics offering advice if they feel they have something to contribute. But we ought to recognize from the start that these relations are fraught with the potential for corruption and cooptation. Powerful leaders aren't likely to solicit advice from people who aren't already sympathetic to their views, and even scholars with considerable integrity will find it hard to keep their bearings, speak truth to power, and tell the rest of us what's really going on.
In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan.
The president has already made it clear that he intends to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. But because Americans don't like to admit defeat and no administration likes to acknowledge mistakes, they have to pretend that their Afghan policy has been a great success. In particular, the administration would like us (and the world) to believe that their decision to escalate the war in 2009 was a game-changer that broke the back of the Taliban and enabled us to build an independent Afghan security force that will carry on the fight after we've left. As we head for the exits, therefore, get ready for a lot of upbeat stories and well-orchestrated spin.
The only problem with this story is that it isn't true. The Taliban hasn't been defeated, the Karzai government isn't more effective or less corrupt, Pakistan hasn't stopped backing its various proxies, and efforts to train competent Afghan security forces haven't worked very well. The Afghan government can't even afford to pay its troops' salaries, so they'll have to stay on the Western dole for years to come. I don't know exactly what will happen after the United States and its NATO allies leave, but the outcome won't be much better than what we could have expected back when Obama took office. By that standard, the 2009 "surge" was a failure.
But if pretending that we've won some sort of victory makes it easier for us to do the right thing and get out, then shouldn't commentators like me suspend our judgment and help sell the story? Nope. Because if we tell ourselves a lot of politically expedient untruths about the Afghan campaign, we'll learn the wrong lessons from the experience and we'll be more likely to repeat this sort of debacle in the future.
Specifically, the idea that the 2009 surge led to a significantly different outcome reinforces the idea that counter-insurgency in societies like Afghanistan is something we're good at, once we get the right generals in charge and adopt the right tactical menu. It encourages us to think that if we just keep trying, we'll eventually get really good at social engineering in war-torn societies that we don't understand very well. And the more we think that doing this sort of thing is just a question of mastering the right techniques, the easier it will be to convince ourselves that we've learned how to do it and that next time everything will be different. Except that it won't.
I don't really blame the Obama administration for trying to spin this one as best they can; that's what the politics of the situation demands. But if we want to avoid learning the wrong lessons, it will be up to scholars, journalists and other independent thinkers to give us a more objective appraisal of America's longest war.
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Today's post is something of a follow-up to yesterday's query about integrity in the policy community. According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has just issued a gloomy new report suggesting that we've made far less progress in the war than is often claimed. Money quotation:
"A bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners."
The Times continues: "The report, released Monday, also found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010.
The assessment found that the Taliban remain resilient, that widespread corruption continues to weaken the central Afghan government and that Pakistan persists in providing critical support to the insurgency. Insider attacks by Afghan security forces on their NATO coalition partners, while still small, are up significantly: there have been 37 so far in 2012, compared with 2 in 2007."
Here's what I'd like to know: did any Pentagon officials or military leaders tell Barack Obama that the "surge" was a mistake? Did any of them ever say something like this to him:
"Mr. President, we respect civilian authority and if you order us to continue this war we will give it our all. But in my best professional judgment I believe this is not a war we can win at an acceptable cost. The conditions for waging a successful counterinsurgency do not exist, and we do not need to defeat the Taliban or build a stable new state in Afghanistan in order to destroy the original nucleus of al Qaeda. I will follow whatever orders you give me, sir, but my advice as a soldier is that we end this war."
If not, then Obama got very bad advice. And for the United States to have fought so long and with so little to show for it is a stunning indictment of our entire national security establishment: civilians, military leaders, and think tank experts alike. Time to start working on Dereliction of Duty: The Sequel.
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If you read this blog, you've probably heard about the various "isms" in the field of international relations. There's realism, of course, but also liberalism, idealism, and social constructivism. And don't forget Marxism, even though hardly anybody claims to believe it anymore. These "isms" are essentially families of theory that share certain common assumptions. For example, realists see power and fear as the main drivers of world affairs, while liberals place more weight on human acquisitiveness and the power of institutions.
But there's another major force in world affairs, and sometimes I think it deserves an "ism" all its own. With tongue in cheek and apologies to a famous Chinese sage, I'll call it "Confusionism." For Confusians, ignorance and stupidity are the real key to understanding state behavior, not fear, greed, ideals, class interests, or any of those other things that people think drive world affairs. When Confusians seek to explain why states act as they do, they start by assuming that leaders do not understand the problems they face, have only a vague sense of where they want to go, and no idea at all about how to get there. Instead of starting with the rational actor assumption beloved by economists, realists, and most liberals, Confusians hone in on all the reasons why humans typically get things wrong.
Confusionism is the opposite of the assorted conspiracy theories that you often read about. Some people believe that the world is run by a shadowy network of elites (e.g., the Trilateral Commission, Bilderberg, Council on Foreign Relations, etc.). Other people think everything is ultimately the product of some secret Zionist conspiracy, or the machinations of oil companies and the military-industrial complex. Islamophobes are convinced there is some sort of well-oiled Muslim plot to infiltrate Europe and America, impose Sharia law, and stick all our young women in harems. If you read enough Robert Ludlum, watch The Matrix too often, or spend enough time patrolling the nether regions of the blogosphere, you might find yourself thinking along similar lines. If that happens, get help.
These warped world-views all assume that there are some Very Clever People out there who are busy implementing some brilliant long-term scheme for their own selfish benefit. But if you've actually met a few real politicians, run a small business, or merely tried to get a dozen family members to a wedding on time, then you know this is not how the world really works.
Which is where Confusionism comes in. It begins by recognizing the limits of human reason, as well as the inherent uncertainties and accidents that accompany all human endeavors. Because men and women are fallible and because our knowledge is imperfect, screw-ups are inevitable. Why do you think the first two letters in the acronym SNAFU stand for "situation normal?" Clausewitz taught us "in warfare everything is simple, but the simplest things are very difficult," but his insight was not limited to the battlefield. Leaders rarely have accurate information, they are usually guessing about the results of different choices, and even well-formulated plans often go wrong for no good reason. For Confusians, world leaders aren't Megaminds implementing fiendishly subtle stratagems; they are mostly well-meaning ignoramuses stumbling around in the dark. Just like the rest of us.
Evidence that supports Confusionism is easy to find. What explains George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003? Simple: he was deeply confused, and so were the people advising him. How are we to understand Mao Zedong's disastrous decision to launch the Great Leap Forward? Easy: his head was full of goofy ideas, he had no idea what he was doing, and he didn't realize how badly he'd blundered until millions had starved. The Russo-Georgian War of 2007? Clearly the product of rampant confusion on both sides. The Euro crisis? Isn't it obvious that the people who created the Euro were confused about the feasibility of a common currency that lacked the institutional framework to sustain it in hard times.
Confusionism doesn't explain every case, of course. There are times when countries identify clear interests, devise effective strategies for achieving them, and implement those strategies more-or-less as intended. Realism is right to emphasize the importance of insecurity and fear, liberalism is sometimes correct in pointing to institutional arrangements that can facilitate cooperation, and social constructivists have a point when they argue that norms and identities also affect state behavior. But we shouldn't forget the important role of human folly, which is where Confusionism shines.
When will Confusians see things more clearly than others? Watch out for the following deadly warning signs:
1. New circumstances. When leaders are facing a completely new set of problems, it will take them awhile to figure out what it all means. Until then, confusion will reign. It took a decade or more before Americans and Soviets understood the full implications of the nuclear revolution, and even then a lot of idiotic things were published and uttered on that topic for decades afterward. And because both sides were deeply confused about how deterrence worked, they spent trillions building well over 60,000 thermonuclear weapons, more than enough to destroy each other many times over.
2. Unfamiliar environments. It is hardly surprising that the United States has been stumbling its way over the past couple of decades, as we've wrestled with the politics of places that are vastly different from us. We were confused when we sallied forth to Afghanistan, Iraq, and a handful of other places, and no country as ignorant of world history and as linguistically-challenged as America is likely to sort these places out. It's the downside of American exceptionalism: if we're as unique as we like to think we are, then the rest of the world is very different and is bound to confuse us. A lot.
3. Overflowing in-boxes. Policymakers are bound to be confused when they are constantly rushing to put out today's new bonfire and don't have time to think about what they are doing or saying. (This is what got Susan Rice into hot water, right?) Confusionism helps you understand why ambitious great powers get into trouble: they are always trying to do too many things in too many places, and that inevitably leaves them operating with a flawed understanding of most of the problems with which they are contending. Getting involved everywhere also makes you a prisoner of the locals on whom you have to rely for advice, and they'll work 24/7 to convince you to do what they want. Needless to say, this is a good way to maximize one's state of confusion.
4. Taboo topics. Nations are more likely to sort out problems when information is readily available and alternative views can be debated freely. It follows they will get confused when secrecy abounds, or when topics become taboo and hard to discuss openly. Small wonder, therefore, that totalitarian societies commit some of the biggest blunders (collectivized agriculture, anyone?), or that governments in open societies get confused whenever they start shielding their actions from public scrutiny and accountability (see under: Gitmo, drone warfare, covert action, etc.).
5. Ideological blinders. Rigid and all-encompassing world-views are a fertile source of confusion. A simple set of dogmas can provide great psychological comfort to believers, but they invariably clash with reality and thus provide a poor foundation for policymaking (or for running a national election, as today's GOP seems determined to prove). Whenever you hear anyone offering up universal and unquestioned truths about politics or society, your Confusion-detector should start pinging and you should hope that they never get close to power.
6. Success. Paradoxically, states can be more vulnerable to confusion after victory, because it often fosters over-confidence. "Victory disease" is a familiar wartime phenomenon, as a string of successes increases the appetite and encourages leaders to believe they can do no wrong. And once leaders stop thinking with their heads and start operating with their hearts and hopes alone, they are bound to stumble.
More seriously, I don't really think Confusionism will become a school of thought in IR, and there is already a pretty extensive literature on the closely related phenomenon of misperception. But the label reminds us when we are puzzled by what national leaders do, an obvious explanation is that they are just as confused as we are. And sometimes more so.
Did the "surge" work in Afghanistan? The Obama administration would like you to think that it did, mostly so that it can declare victory and get out. I'm all in favor of the latter option, but let's not deceive ourselves about the wisdom of the Afghan surge itself.
Courtesy of Belfer Center fellow Matt Waldman, the chart above nicely captures why escalating was a bad idea in 2009. Contrary to claims that we've "broken the back" of the Taliban, this chart (based on official ISAF figures) shows that the Taliban remains a potent force. U.S. casualties increased significantly as the surge proceeded, and the pace in 2012 is roughly similar to the toll the previous two years. Whatever else we may have accomplished, we don't seem to have retarded the Taliban's ability to kill and wound our soldiers very much.
Equally important, the final column (based on figures reported by Simon Klingert) suggests that the Taliban's ability to inflict casualties on Afghan security forces (ANSF) remains undiminished. Given that U.S. hopes of a "soft landing" following withdrawal depend on the ANSF taking up the fight themselves, this does not augur well for Afghanistan's post-American future.
And not to beat a dead horse, but if four more years of effort haven't altered the basic strategic realities, then what does that tell you about the people who lobbied forcefully for the surge back in 2009?
With so much attention riveted on Election Day, some important contributions to our discourse are bound to get less attention than they deserve. Case in point: yesterday's NYT op-ed by Aaron O'Connell on the "permanent militarization of America." It's an excellent piece, and I just hope his arguments don't fall into the memory hole while we're all breathlessly awaiting the outcome in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or wherever.
Drawing in part on former president Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous speech on the "military- industrial complex," O'Connell documents how far we have departed from the original traditions of the Founding Fathers and the first 150 years of our history. Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were deeply wary of a permanent military establishment, which they recognized as a threat to a republican order. Eisenhower also understood that a country cannot be at war more-or-less permanently without creating a gross imbalance between military institutions (including weapons labs, contractors, and even some universities feeding at the DoD trough), and becoming vulnerable to spiritual erosion. We've long since forgotten that our rise to world power was facilitated by staying out of wars (or getting into them late). And we've clearly lost sight of the fact that smart great powers make allies bear their full share of the collective burden, instead of taking pride in one's own "indispensability" and rushing eagerly into the next quagmire.
The problem isn't so much a misallocation of resources -- defense spending is only about 4 percent of U.S. GDP -- but rather the deference that the military now receives from nearly everyone. On the very same day that O'Connell's piece appeared, Brooks Brothers ran an advertisement in the Times announcing a 25 percent off sale for active and retired military personnel. Not for firemen, police, EMTs, or other risky occupations (fishing, logging, coal mining, etc.): just for the military.
Don't get me wrong: I think our soldiers should be treated with respect and the country as a whole should compensate them adequately and be grateful for their sacrifices. We certainly ought to make sure that we provide excellent care for those who are wounded in the wars in which they have fought, and provide them the other benefits they were promised when they signed up. But this isn't a citizen army that has rallied to defend the nation against attack; it is a force made up solely of people who have voluntarily chosen a military career, with all the risks that this entails. They have done so in part because our country has offered them increasingly generous compensation packages, even though only a small percentage will ever serve in harm's way. But aren't we going just a bit overboard when joining the military gets you cheaper button-downs, early boarding privileges on civilian airlines, and endless words of praise from opportunistic politicians?
The final absurdity is the tendency to defer to military advice, even on matters where having worn a uniform confers no particular wisdom or insight. Veterans know a lot about the conduct of military operations, but serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else doesn't give you any special insights into whether such wars are in the national interest or not.
Similarly, having served in the military doesn't give you any special insight into who ought to govern the country. It was supposedly big news when a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and former Secretary of State), Colin Powell endorsed President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Not to be outdone, last week a bevy of retired generals and admirals endorsed Mitt Romney.
In fact, neither of these endorsements ought to carry much weight. Whatever his other virtues and achievements, Powell was an embarrassing failure as Secretary of State, and mostly because he misread the political tea leaves inside the Bush administration and didn't have the good sense or integrity to resign when his counsel was rejected. As for all those retired officers who endorsed Romney, has anyone noticed that the United States has lost not one but two wars in the past decade, and that America's senior military leaders did not exactly acquit themselves brilliantly in conducting either one? The civilian leadership (both Republican and Democratic) deserves plenty of blame too, but the quality of senior military advice that they received was often abysmal. One can be grateful for the sacrifices that our enlisted men have made, yet be underwhelmed by the strategic wisdom of their commanders.
As I noted last week, the composition, character, and current direction of the entire national security establishment is one of the big issues that the next president ought to address. But it's hard to believe either Obama or Romney will. Why? Because questioning the current militarization of American society will make you plenty of enemies and won't win you many friends. Which is precisely O'Connell's point.
Postscript: I'm just back from my neighborhood polling station, and am now basking in the psychological income of exercising the franchise. Feels good. If you're a U.S. citizen and registered to vote, don't miss out. VOTE.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he'd implement Obama's foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush's second term foreign policy agenda.
But Romney's sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn't ask:
"Governor, you maintain that you're a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God's name are you listening to them?"
To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn't dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn't imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam's character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.
Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don't look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won't remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.
The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren't very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don't hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool -- military force -- is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America's deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America's liberal/Wilsonian ideals.
Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran's interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.
Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third -- an even more expensive camera with even more features -- the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.
And that's the genius of neoconservatism's frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don't bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don't like (and it's a long list). No president -- not even George W. Bush -- has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they're pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.
Neoconservatism's final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn't follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that's because Bush didn't attack Iran and Syria too, or it's because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush's watch, it's because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it's because we didn't send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn't go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.
To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama's stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn't big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there's hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded.
In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you'll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they'll just say you failed because you didn't follow their advice to the letter.
In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can't tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.
Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what's he doing with all those neocons?
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
I hadn't even finished my morning coffee, but one didn't have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today's New York Times:
The first story details the various reasons why the long and costly U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces is mostly failing (illiteracy, desertion, corruption, etc.). The second story suggests we've learned little from that experience, and that U.S. leaders again think the way to achieve our aims in Libya is to get U.S. military officers in there to teach Libyans how to be good soldiers. Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that this is something we know how to do, particularly in these contexts.
I know, I know: Libya is not Afghanistan, and training a small elite force is a lot easier than trying to build an entire national army from scratch. But we're going to face some similar problems (i.e., diversion of funds or weapons by corrupt Libyans, mistrust among the Libyans we're trying to recruit and train, infiltration by extremists with the wrong agendas, etc.). And some Libyans are bound to suspect that the real purpose of the training effort is to cement American influence (which, in a way, it is). There's also the danger that we'll succeed, and end up creating the nucleus of a new authoritarian regime.
But as you may have noticed, concerns like that rarely stop us from meddling in other societies. I hope this new effort works, but our recent track record doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.
According to yesterday's New York Times, assorted "senior American officials" are upset that adversaries like al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Somali pirates are not simply rolling over and dying. Instead, these foes are proving to be "resilient," "adaptable," and "flexible." These same U.S. officials are also worried that the United States isn't demonstrating the same grit, as supposedly revealed by high military suicide rates, increased reports of PTSD, etc. According to Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, these developments
"raise concerns that the United States is losing ground in the New Darwinism of security threats, in which an agile enemy evolves in new ways to blunt America's vast technological prowess with clever homemade bombs and anti-American propaganda that helps supply a steady stream of fighters."
Or as Shanker and Schmitt put it (cue the scary music): "Have we become America the brittle?"
This sort of pop sociology is not very illuminating, especially when there's no evidence presented to support the various officials' gloomy pronouncements. In fact, the glass looks more than half-full. Let's start by remembering that the Somali pirates and al Qaeda have been doing pretty badly of late. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden is down sharply, Osama bin Laden is dead, and his movement's popularity is lower than ever. Whatever silly dreams he might have had about restoring the caliphate have proven to be just hollow fantasies. And as John Mueller and Mark Stewart showed in an article I linked to a few weeks ago, the actual record of post-9/11 plots against the United States suggests that these supposedly "agile" and "resilient" conspirators are mostly bumbling incompetents. In fact, Lehman Bros. might be the only major world organization that had a worse decade than al Qaeda did.
Second, and more importantly, the degree of battle fatigue that the United States might be experiencing has less to do with the "war on terror" per se and more to do with our decision to take our eye off the ball and do a lot of other things instead. The single most costly thing the United States has done since 9/11 -- in terms of both lives and money and strain on our forces -- was invading Iraq, but Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. (Repeat after me: Nothing.) Similarly, the United States invaded Afghanistan to catch bin Laden and oust the Taliban, but that mission eventually morphed into a much more ambitious and ill-defined campaign of nation-building that has not -- ahem -- gone very well. If U.S. military forces are stretched thin, tired, or showing signs of strain, it is because U.S. leaders made bad strategic choices. Even so, I'd argue that U.S. forces have held up remarkably well over a long and inherently difficult campaign.
As for the rest of the country, I'm not even sure how one would measure national "resiliency," but I don't see many signs that the country as a whole is curling into the fetal position. Americans are tired of fighting losing wars, especially when they don't believe there are vital interests at stake. But that's not a sign that we've lost our collective determination; it's actually a sign that the American people are pretty good at cost-benefit analysis and know a bad bet when they see one.
In fact, I think there's something quite different going on. The United States is very secure by almost any standard, and most countries in the world would be delighted to be as safe as we are. For this reason, most Americans don't worry very much about foreign policy, and the only way you can motivate them to support the sort of activist foreign policy that we've become accustomed to since 1945 is to constantly exaggerate external threats. Americans have to be convinced that their personal safety and well-being are going to be directly affected by what happens in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, or some other far-flung region, or they won't be willing to pay the costs of mucking about in these various places. Threat-mongering also depends on constantly overstating our adversaries' capabilities and denigrating our own. So senior officials tell sympathetic journalists that our foes are "resilient" and clever and resourceful, etc., while bemoaning our alleged lack of fortitude. The good news is that it's not true; if anything, Americans have been too willing to "pay any price and bear any burden" for quite some time.
One more thing: To the extent some of our adversaries do seem more willing to fight us than we are to fight them, that has a lot to do with where these wars are being waged. If somebody ever invaded the United States, I'm confident Americans would fight like tigers to throw them out. I'll bet it would be child's play to organize tough, well-armed, and resilient insurgencies against any foreign occupier of American soil. Nationalism and other forms of local identity are very powerful forces in the modern world, which is why groups like the Taliban or the Haqqani network or al Qaeda's various local copycats are able to attract local recruits and are hard for foreign occupiers to eradicate. You don't have to agree with anything these groups do or stand for to recognize that we're on their home turf, and it is hardly surprising that they care more about what happens there than we do.
Lastly, Shanker and Schmitt conclude their piece by saying that "the best weapon against terror is refusing to be terrorized. That starts with giving Americans timely, accurate information about potential threats." I agree, but assuming I'm reading them correctly, I'd draw a somewhat different conclusion. The best way to keep Americans from being "terrorized" is to remind them that the risk is extremely low -- though not zero -- and to explain further that most anti-American terrorism in the world today is largely a reaction to things the United States has been doing overseas. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey noted in 2002 that "antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically." Similarly, a 1997 study by Defense Science Board found "a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and increased terrorist attacks on the United States."
Nothing has changed much since then. The connection between U.S. foreign policy and anti-American terrorism does not necessarily mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong or misguided; perhaps terrorism is just part of the price we must pay to keep doing all these things. That's a separate issue, about which reasonable people can disagree (and do). But let's at least be realistic enough to acknowledge the connection.
Shane T. McCoy/Getty Images
Over at FP's new National Security Channel, reporter Gordon Lubold has a lengthy interview with U.S. Afghan commander John Allen. Allen offers a pretty upbeat assessment: He says the Afghan National Security Force "is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past," adding that our Security Force Assistance Teams are "really accelerating that." He doesn't actually come out and say we're going to win (or even try to define what "victory" would look like), but his bottom line is simple: "the campaign is on track."
But to where? I thought Obama made a bad mistake when he decided to escalate in Afghanistan, but this is another one of those issues where I'd love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I've heard nothing but upbeat assessments from U.S. commanders ever since Obama took office, which makes me more than a little skeptical about Allen's testimony now. Back in January 2010, for example, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he "believed we had turned the tide." His successor, General David Petraeus, issued a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments and followed by a major increase in the overall level of violence.
Well, it's déjà vu all over again: Today, despite a dramatic increase in "green on blue" attacks (i.e., attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. or ISAF personnel) and the announced departure of other U.S. allies, the latest American commander continues to portray our efforts in a positive light, especially with respect to the progress made by Afghan security forces. But you might have missed the fact that the DoD quietly lowered the bar for the latter, by eliminating the category of "independent" (meaning that a unit that can operate on its own) from the ratings system used to assess Afghan forces. Now the top ranking is "independent with advisors," which allows us to describe more Afghan units as "top rated." And even with these lower standards, less than ten percent of Afghan units are rated as capable of being able to operate semi-independently.
In one sense, Allen's optimism is neither surprising nor objectionable. You're not going to hear the U.S. commander tell a reporter that things aren't going well, because that is hardly the best way to inspire your troops to greater effort. Plus, the "surge" in Afghanistan was not designed to fix all of that unfortunate country's problems; it was intended either to 1) provide a fig leaf for a U.S. withdrawal, 2) inflict enough pain on the Taliban so that they'd cut a deal, or 3) buy a bit of time to build up Afghan security forces, at which point we'd get the hell out. Notice that these various goals aren't mutually exclusive, but none of them constitutes "victory."
And that's been the problem in Afghanistan all along. The original rationale for being there disappeared once Al Qaeda fled the country and metastasized to other areas. It never made much sense to spend $100 billion plus per year on a country whose entire GDP was less than 20 percent of that figure, especially once it became clear that the Karzai government was irredeemably corrupt and mostly incompetent and equally clear that we had no idea how to "nation-build" there ourselves. Plus, our main adversaries could always avoid us by slipping over the border into Pakistan or melting back into the local population. They knew we'd eventually go home, at which point Afghanistan's future will be determined by the Afghans themselves. As it should be.
In short, General Allen's testimony is precisely what you'd expect him to say, and thus doesn't really doesn't tell you much of anything at all. But his optimism stands in sharp contrast to the assessment you'll find in a book like Rajiv Chandraksekaran's Little America, which I've just been reading. I hope Allen is right, that the ANSF really is making headlong progress, and that it will be up to the task of providing security once we are gone. But I wouldn't bet on it.The only consolation -- if you're not Afghan, that is -- is that it won't matter much to us one way or the other.
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Remember the war in Afghanistan? You know: It was the "good war," fought in response to Al Qaeda's attack on 9/11 and the Taliban's refusal to turn them in, and subsequently justified by 1) the need to prevent future terrorist "safe havens," 2) the desire to liberate Afghan women, 3) the imperative to bring democracy and modern governance to an underdeveloped tribal society, and 4) as always, the need to preserve American "credibility."
Writing on the New Yorker's website, reporter Dexter Filkins warns that our long and costly effort there is likely to be a failure. We're getting out, he says, but there is little sign that we will leave behind a properly functioning Afghan state. He notes that neither Obama nor Romney are saying much about the war in this campaign (in part because there is about an angstrom's worth of difference in their respective positions). But he says "You can bet that, whoever the president is, he'll be talking about it [after we're gone]."
Three points. First, it is not really news to hear that our Afghan project is failing, because the effort to impose a centralized state from the outside was probably doomed from the start. It's possible that a focused international effort from 2002 onward would have succeeded (and especially if the geniuses in the Bush administration hadn't taken their eye off the ball in order to invade Iraq), but the odds are against it. Plenty of people have been warning for years now that this war was going to end up a failure, which is why some of us opposed Obama's decision to escalate the war in 2009 and called for disengagement instead.
Second, even if Filkins' pessimism is right, it is not clear why the next president will want or will have to spend a lot of time worrying about Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were truly a vital strategic interest, it wouldn't be all that hard to convince Americans to pony up the resources to stay. But the fact is that Afghanistan isn't a vital interest: it's a land-locked and impoverished country thousands of miles from our shores. The only reason that we went there in the first place is because a handful of misguided crackpots decided to hide out there, and subsequently got very lucky in staging a dramatic attack on U.S. soil. Once they were scattered and/or killed, Afghanistan reverted to being the strategic backwater it has always been. The American people understand this, yet Obama had to concoct a face-saving strategy of escalating first in order to withdraw later. If the next president-whoever it is-is smart, he'll spend as much time worrying about Afghanistan as Carter and Reagan spent worrying about Vietnam. Which is to say: hardly any.
Third, this whole sad episode should really be seen as a colossal failure of the American national security establishment. The futility of the Afghan campaign was apparent years ago, and we've heard plenty of testimony from returning soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers that the ISAF effort wasn't likely to work. Even those who continued to defend the effort usually had to admit that success was going to require a decade or more of additional commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars in additional aid. Yet our national security apparatus couldn't reach the conclusion to withdraw without first escalating the war, and without wasting more soldiers' lives and a few hundred billion more dollars.
I've offered my own thoughts on why it's hard to end costly wars here; today I'll simply say it's even harder when the culture of the national security establishment rewards hawkish postures, and tends to view anyone who counsels moderation or prudence as some sort of weak-willed idealist. Nothing does more than hard-headed and realistic assessments of the costs and benefits of alternative course of action, even when the writing was on the wall a long time ago.
I've been in Tokyo for two days, and this morning I read in the Japan Times that Japan has fallen to fifth place in the global "peace index" put out by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace. I just want to make it clear that my presence here had nothing to do with this change: The shift in Japan's ranking reportedly reflected the upgrading of its missile defenses and a loosening of arms export constraints.
Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada occupied the top four spots (beating out Japan) and the three lowest rated countries were Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Syria tumbled from 116th to 147th (no big surprise there), and overall the Middle East/North Africa has replaced Sub-Saharan Africa as the world's least peaceful region. The United States, by the way, ranked 88th, but our president does have a Nobel Peace Prize.
As for my trip, I've been having a very enjoyable visit, and my hosts have been especially gracious in arranging an interesting schedule of meetings and events. I had an lengthy meeting with a group of Japanese scholars yesterday morning and delivered a lecture on the impact of the Israel lobby on Obama's Middle East policy yesterday afternoon. Today I'll meet with a group of journalists and then head off to Kyoto, partly to sight-see but also to meet with some academics there.
My conversations have alternated between discussions of Middle East events and exchanges about the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. With respect to the former, I think it's safe to say that my Japanese interlocutors are politely baffled by U.S. policy. (But aren't we all?) And it is not just an idle issue for them, because what the U.S. does in the Middle East affects Japanese interests both directly (via energy costs), and indirectly (the more time and attention we devote to Middle Eastern affairs, the less time and attention U.S. leaders can devote to events in East Asia). This wouldn't be a big problem if the United States were doing a great job of keeping the Middle East quiet and stable, but it's pretty hard to defend our track record over the past decade.
With respect to Asia, I was struck (though not surprised) by the continued concerns that several people voiced about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Asia. I can understand why the Japanese (and other U.S. partners) fret about this, and I can even understand why they bring this up when talking to Americans. But as I told my Japanese colleagues, their concerns are misplaced and could become a dangerous source of friction within America's Asian alliances. In fact, the United States has gone to enormous lengths over the past five decades to reassure its allies around the world about its credibility, even though most of these allies need us far more than we need them. The United States spends a much larger share of its GDP on defense than its Asian allies do. It maintains a substantial military presence in Asia, even though U.S. security is not directly at risk there. So the idea that U.S. credibility is seriously in question is just plain wrong, and it won't help our relations with these states if they keep complaining about it, because it will make Americans wonder if they are being asked to do more for Asia than our Asian allies are willing to do for themselves.
A further implication is that a successful U.S. security policy in Asia will depend less on specific military capabilities than on effective diplomacy. Military power isn't irrelevant, of course, but the United States will have plenty of forces to bring to bear in Asia if they are needed for many years to come. But Asia is an exceedingly complicated strategic environment, and there are lots of cross-cutting interests that could interfere with a collective effort to maintain a stable political-military order there. To navigate these issues successfully and to avoid being exploited, the United States will need to pay a lot of attention to the region. It will need a cadre of regional experts with deep knowledge of these countries and their elites, and it will need to devote a lot of time and energy to managing these relations over time.
Which is yet another reason why the United States pays a price when it gets bogged down in fruitless conflicts in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, when it engages in half-hearted and unsuccessful efforts to advance a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, or when it gets trapped in a counter-productively hardline policy toward Iran. Diplomatic resources, political capital, and presidential time are not infinite resources, and shouldn't be invested unless we're serious about making them pay off.
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Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
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What's the most useless waste of time, money, and fuel that you can think of? A NASCAR race? A Star Trek convention? The Burning Man festival?
Well, right up there with those obvious granfalloons is the recent NATO summit in Chicago. I've now read the official statements and White House press releases, and it's tempting to see the whole thing as a subtle insult to our collective intelligence. To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many world leaders flown so far to accomplish so little.
Along with the usual boilerplate, there were three big items on the summit agenda.
First, the assembled leaders announced that NATO will end the war in Afghanistan by the summer of 2013, and gradually turn security over to the Afghans themselves. This decision sounds like a significant milestone, but it's really just acknowledging a foregone conclusion. Popular support for the war has been plummeting, and the Obama administration has been lowering U.S. objectives for some time. In fact, the war in Afghanistan was lost a long time ago (mostly because the Bush administration invaded Iraq and let the Taliban come back), and Obama's big mistake was failing to recognize this from the start. The 2009 "surge" provided a fig leaf to enable the U.S. and NATO to get out, but the cost has been billions more dollars squandered, more dead NATO soldiers and dead Afghans, and a deteriorating relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan. It's nice that NATO is acknowledging these realities, but it didn't take a summit to figure this out. Perhaps the only benefit of this announcement is that it might make it harder for Mitt Romney to reverse course in the event he gets elected, though I'm not at all sure that Romney would want to do so anyway.
Second, NATO has piously declared -- for the zillionth time -- that its members will enhance their military capabilities by improved intra-alliance cooperation. This step is justified in part by highlighting the alliance's supposed recent achievements, to wit:
"The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security."
NATO is "unmatched" because the United States maintains a global military presence, but the self-congratulation here seems misplaced. Libya hardly looks like a success story right now, success in Afghanistan has been downgraded not to what we originally wanted but to whatever we think we can achieve, and the Balkan operation now appears open-ended.
More importantly, how many times have we seen this movie? Ever since the 1952 Lisbon force goals, NATO's European members have promised to improve their capabilities and then failed to meet their agreed-upon goals. This pattern has continued for five-plus decades, and it makes you wonder why anyone takes such pledges seriously anymore. If EU countries can't find the money to backstop a proper firewall for the fragile Greek, Italian, and Spanish economies, it is hard to believe NATO's European members are going to make significant new investments in defense. I'm not saying they should, by the way, given that Europe faces no significant conventional military threats. Last time I checked, the U.S. was spending about 4 percent of its GDP on defense and the rest of NATO was averaging about 1.7 percent. Both halves of the transatlantic partnership will be trimming budgets in the years ahead, no matter what they said in Chicago. So I wouldn't put much stock in item #2.
Third, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to the missile defense boondoggle. Never mind that the Defense Science Board recently concluded that existing defense technologies are still easily spooked by inexpensive countermeasures. Please overlook the tens of billions of dollars we've spent chasing the Holy Grail of missile defense since the 1980s, without ever getting there. Ignore the poisonous effect this program has on relations with Russia, which has to assume the worst and take our efforts seriously. And pay no attention to the fact that if missile defense ever did work really, really well, it would just encourage potential adversaries to work on alternative delivery mechanisms (like smuggling) that would make it more difficult to trace an attack back to its source.
The summit did give Obama the opportunity to show off his home town to his European friends. As a former Chicagoan, I'm glad they had the chance to look around a great American city, and I hope everyone had a good time. But both the attendees and the various groups protesting the summit seem to have missed the most important fact about the gathering: It just wasn't a very important event.
Will we eventually look back on President Obama's drop-in visit to Kabul as his "Mission Accomplished" moment? He's got a tough re-election battle to fight, the endless war in Central Asia isn't popular, and he wants to remind everyone that he's The Man Who Got Bin Laden. So he pulled a George W. Bush and burned up a lot of jet fuel racing to Kabul for a mostly meaningless photo op and a not-very convincing speech. This sort of posturing may help him get re-elected -- though I doubt it will have much effect -- but it's not going to help his long-term legacy when the U.S. is finally gone and Central Asia is on its own.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don't put much value in the new U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership." It has some symbolic value, I guess, and it can provide a fig leaf for our eventual withdrawal. If everything breaks the right way after 2014, it might even provide a general framework that facilitates some additional counter-terrorist activities. But it's merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, it is woefully short on specifics, and other people will be in charge in Kabul and Washington by the time the agreement runs out. If circumstances change in ways that give us reasons to renege (or give Afghan leaders grounds to want a different arrangement), this much-ballyhooed "partnership" won't be worth the pixels it's published with.
All told, nobody came off very well in this little episode. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney sounds both petty and silly trying to minimize Obama's genuine accomplishments against al Qaeda (and especially the elimination of bin Laden himself). But Obama's attempt to turn the Afghan debacle into some kind of strategic triumph isn't much better, as Juan Cole and Ahmed Rashid make clear in separate pieces. All of which is more evidence that our agonizingly long electoral cycle is a major impediment to a smarter foreign policy.
Obama should not forget that the elder President Bush won a far more smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War than we are going to get in Afghanistan, and he went down to defeat in 1992. It's still the economy, stupid, and most voters won't care much about bin Laden's demise when they go to the polls in November, no matter how often the president reminds them about it between now and then. Needless to say, that is precisely what Romney is counting on.
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Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
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Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but the new "strategic partnership" agreement between the United States and Afghanistan strikes me as little more than a fig leaf designed to make a U.S. withdrawal (which I support) look like a mutually agreed-upon "victory." It is already being spun as a signal to the Taliban, Iran, and Pakistan that the United States remains committed, and the agreement will undoubtedly be used as "evidence" that the 2009 surge is a success and that's now ok for the US to bring its forces home.
I have no problem with cosmetic gestures that facilitate doing the right thing, but let's be clear about the limited significance of the agreement itself. Although the final text of the agreement has not been made public (which itself makes one wonder both what it says and what it doesn't say), the New York Times account says that there is no specific agreement on the magnitude of future U.S. aid. Indeed, it describes the agreement as "more symbolic than substantive." We're told that Washington has pledged to support Afghanistan for another ten years, but the actual aid amounts are unspecified and will have to be voted each year by Congress. Long-term U.S. support may also be conditional on reduced corruption and Afghan reforms, but given their track record to date, it is hard to believe that the Afghans will make much progress on that front.
Ten years is a pretty long time, and a lot will happen -- including three U.S. presidential elections -- between now and 2022. The Obama and Karzai governments can make whatever promises they want to each other, but those agreements will have to be carried out by their successors and both sides can always renege by claiming that "conditions have changed." I'm not saying that the agreement is worthless, but in the end the two states will abide by its terms only if it is in their respective interest to do so. Given the volatile nature of politics throughout Central Asia, it would be folly to assume that a deal hatched now will remain in force for ten years.
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What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.
On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.
Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.
One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.
I'd like to believe this version story -- really -- and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.
I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.
Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.
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I hope to post later today on another issue, but in the meantime, here's a link to my contribution to a New York Times' "Room for Debate" forum on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The question was whether we should get out sooner or get out later. As you can read, I favor the former. Money quote:
"Afghanistan is not a vital United States interest. President Obama had said that we must prevent Al Qaeda from establishing safe havens there, but Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda already has better safe havens elsewhere. Victory in Afghanistan will not eliminate Al Qaeda, and leaving won’t make it more dangerous. If it makes no difference whether we win or lose, why fight on?"
I would only add that I don't think most Americans have any idea what the conflict in Afghanistan has really been like, or what U.S. soldiers and commanders really did and really thought. We will learn more with the passage of time, and I suspect it won't be pretty.
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The killing of 16 Afghan civilians -- nine of them children -- by a rogue U.S. soldier is a tragedy in several senses. First, because of the loss of innocent life. Second, because the alleged perpetrator is likely someone whose psyche and spirit broke under the pressure of a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. And third, because it was all so unnecessary.
Because Barack Obama has run a generally hawkish foreign policy, his Republican opponents don't have a lot of daylight to exploit on that issue. But if they weren't so preoccupied with sounding tough, they could go after Obama's foolish decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan back in 2009, which remains his biggest foreign policy blunder to date.
A brutal reality is that counterinsurgency campaigns almost always produce atrocities. Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre, and now this. You simply can't place soldiers in the ambiguous environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some of them to crack and go rogue. Even if discipline holds and mental health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism. There isn't a "nice" way to wage a counterinsurgency -- no matter how often we talk about "hearts and minds" -- which is why leaders ought to think long and hard before they order the military to occupy another country and try to remake its society. Or before they decide to escalate a war that is already underway.
And the sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first term. Yes, I know he promised to get out of Iraq and focus on Central Asia, but no president fulfills all his campaign promises (remember how he was going to close Gitmo?) and Obama could have pulled the plug on this failed enterprise at the start. Maybe he didn't for political reasons, or because commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal convinced him they could turn things around. Or maybe he genuinely believed that U.S. national security required an open-ended effort to remake Afghanistan.
Whatever the reason, he was wrong. The sad truth is that the extra effort isn't going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted. That was apparent before this weekend's events, which can only make our futile task even more impossible.
Here's what I wrote about this situation back in November 2009:
"America's odds of winning this war are slim. The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace, making it possible for them simply to outlast us. Pakistan has backed the Afghan Taliban in the past and is not a reliable partner now. Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a U.S. victory."
It didn't take a genius to see this, and I had lots of company in voicing my doubts. It gives me no pleasure to recall it now. Indeed, I wish the critics had been proven wrong and Obama, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al. had been proven right. I concede that the situation in Afghanistan may get worse after we depart, and the more civilians will die at the hands of the Taliban, or as a consequence of renewed civil war. But the brutal fact remains: the United States can't fix that country, it is not a vital U.S. interest that we try, and we should have been gone a long time ago.
Close your eyes, and imagine the following situation...
Suppose the town or city where you live had a bunch of heavily-armed foreign soldiers living nearby. As part of their normal duties, they sent patrols down your street with some frequency, bristling with guns and other instruments of war. Imagine that these soldiers were from a very different culture and nearly all of them did not speak your native language, although they could occasionally use a local translator to order you around. You have been told repeatedly that they are there to protect you, but sometimes these protective activities involve entering your neighbors' houses, arresting people, and even shooting up the place. Of course, these well-armed foreign troops have access to lots of sophisticated airpower, including helicopters, fighter-bombers, and drones, and these sophisticated gadgets fire missiles and drop bombs on suspected bad guys in your city, town, or village. Most of the time it appears that the foreign occupiers get who they were aiming at, but sometimes they make mistakes and kill your friends and neighbors. Maybe even one of your close relatives.
The question I'd ask you is this: If you had been living in such circumstances for five or ten years, do you think you and your neighbors might become resentful of those well-intentioned but heavy-handed foreigners? Do you think you might even begin to hate their intrusive interference, even if it were done with the best of intentions? If you then discovered that some of them were burning Bibles, Torahs, or the American flag, might you leave your house and join an angry demonstration, or may even try to do something worse?
If the answer to those questions is "yes," then you can probably understand why the United States and its allies are in such deep water in Afghanistan.
You see, the outburst of public rage at the idiotic burning of a bunch of Qurans actually tells you something very important about our Afghan campaign. It's not as if the news about this act suddenly swung lots of Afghans from being really fond of the United States to being really mad at us. Rather, news of the Quran burning was just a catalyst-the proverbial straw on the camel's back-that ignited resentments that have been building up for a long time.
The fact is: Nobody likes being ordered around by a tough and well-armed bunch of foreigners, and no amount of "hearts and minds" feel-good diplomacy can totally eliminate that fact. (And a lot of that COIN-speak was rhetoric intended as much to make the war sound more genteel here in the United States). That is one of the many reasons why the Obama administration was wrong to escalate the Afghan war in 2009, and why neoconservative supporters of the Afghan "surge" were as wrong about that as they were about the similar surge in Iraq. (For more on the latter issue, see Jim Sleeper's pointed commentary here).
Sending more troops to Afghanistan escalation didn't alter the trajectory of the war in any fundamental way, and this recent article in Armed Forces Journal suggests that we've been fed a bill of goods about the real conditions there. The Afghan reaction to the Quran burning is one of those moments of clarity where the real landscape is revealed, and it's not a pretty sight.
And now, all we need to do is imagine an administration that can face these facts squarely and bring this misguided effort to an end. I can't guarantee that Obama would do it in his second term (after all, he whiffed on this decision the first time around), but I'd bet he's more likely to do it than the people who hope to challenge him in November.
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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the U.S. is going to step back from a combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, and shift over to an "advise and assist role" instead. Assuming he means it, we'll be ending our combat role about a year before all U.S. troops are supposed to be out.
As regular readers know, I've favored a greatly reduced presence in Afghanistan for a long time, simply because I didn't think a COIN/nation-building campaign there was worth the costs, and because I don't think the outcome in Afghanistan makes much difference in the larger struggle against Al Qaeda. (In other words, I reject the "safe haven" justification for the war, largely because Al Qaeda has havens elsewhere and Afghanistan isn't an especially desirable one from their point of view).
But by a strange coincidence, we were discussing an aspect of this problem in my graduate course the very same day that Panetta made his announcement, in the context of a broader discussion on international cooperation. As some of you know, one of the basic principles of the literature on cooperation is that it is facilitated when there is a lengthy "shadow of the future." States are more likely to cooperate today if they anticipate being able to reap the benefits of cooperation far into the future; they will be leery of stiffing potential partners and foregoing that stream of long-term benefits.
What does this insight have to do with Afghanistan? Although I favor getting out as rapidly as possible, we ought to do so with the full knowledge that announcing a certain date (or even an approximate date) will reduce Afghan incentives to cooperate with us now and in the interim, and their incentive to cooperate will decline more and more as the date of withdrawal nears. Once they know that the stream of benefits is finite, they will be less willing to make adjustments or concessions to us in order to keep us in the fight. So by announcing we're leaving, Panetta was tacitly acknowledging that our leverage over the Afghan government is going to erode pretty quickly. Not that it was ever that great, of course.
Notice: This situation is different than trying to encourage greater Afghan cooperation by threatening to leave if they don't shape up, coupled with a credible promise to stay if they do. In this case, continued U.S. help would be conditional on Afghan cooperation and reform. But that's not what we're saying: Instead, we've made an essentially unconditional pledge to end our combat role (and eventually leave completely). In short: We've had enough of this war and are heading home, if not exactly briskly.
As I said, I think this is the right course of action. But actions have consequences, and we should be under no illusions about what it means for our ability to determine outcomes there. Washington still has a few cards to play (i.e., we can still empower different contenders by providing them with money, arms and training), but our long-term influence over decisions there is going to decline rapidly. But unless you're one of those people who thinks it's a good idea for Americans to try to steer the politics of an impoverished, deeply-divided Islamic country in the middle of Central Asia, this development really isn't so bad.
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You know that an idea is catching on when Tom Friedman gets behind it. He's been a reliable weathervane for some time (a cheerleader for U.S.-led globalization in the 1990s, backing the Iraq War in 2002 and then reversing course when it went south, supporting escalation in Afghanistan with his fingers firmly crossed, and lecturing Americans on their recent failings once that became fashionable, too). But in this case I'm not complaining, because some of his recent writings suggest that he's coming around to the idea of offshore balancing.
Consider his column in today's Times. He makes two basic points: 1) the strategic stakes in Central Asia aren't worth the costs, and 2) withdrawal from Iraq will exacerbate Iranian-Iraqi relations and improve our strategic position. Gee, where did I hear those ideas before? And then he goes further, pointing out that getting out of our current "land wars in Asia" will restore our freedom of maneuver and give us more strategic options. Here's the money quotation from Friedman, based on testimony from a prominent Indian scholar:
'If the U.S. steps back, it will see that it has a lot more options,' argues C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, in New Delhi. ‘You let the contending regional forces play out against each other and then you can then tilt the balance.' He is referring to the India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Northern Alliance tribes in Afghanistan. ‘At this point, you have the opposite problem. You are sitting in the middle and are everyone's hate-object, and everyone sees some great conspiracy in whatever you do. Once you pull out, and create the capacity to alter the balance, you will have a lot more options and influence to affect outcomes - rather than being pushed around and attacked by everyone.'
The United States today needs much more cost-efficient ways to influence geopolitics in Asia than keeping troops there indefinitely. We need to better leverage the natural competitions in this region to our ends. There is more than one way to play The Great Game, and we need to learn it."
One might add that playing "hard to get" a bit would also make other countries do more to retain U.S. backing, and that would be good for us too.
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The New York Times has a startling report today about an incident from way back in 2007, where Pakistani soldiers attacked a group of U.S. military officials, killing one officer and wounding three others. It is obviously a disturbing report, although not that surprising to anyone who's been paying even modest attention to the highly complicated relationship between the United States, the various factions that make up Pakistan's government, and the various groups that are contending for power in Central Asia. Juan Cole has a good quick rundown here.
I have two comments of my own. First, it is interesting that this story is coming out now, in the aftermath of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen's recent denunciations of Pakistani collaboration with the Haqqani network. The Times story says that the incident was hushed up back in 2007 so as not to disturb overall U.S. relations with Pakistan, but its appearance in the news right now sure looks like a deliberate leak. If so, what's the larger purpose here? Is the Obama administration or the Pentagon contemplating a real rupture with Islamabad, or do they think that turning up the heat in this highly public fashion is going to convince the ISI or whoever is doing these things to change their ways?
Second, the incident also shows you the dangers that arise when governments keep lots of secrets. Suppose this story had come out back in 2007. It would have been additional evidence conveying just how little control we had over our putative allies in the region, and cast further doubt on our ability to achieve a successful outcome in the Afghan campaign. Success in Afghanistan depends on cooperation with Pakistan (and in particular, on getting rid of the safe havens for the Taliban there), and this incident from four years ago was a clear sign that it was going to be damn hard to get the requisite help. It would also have suggested that U.S. officials really didn't understand very much about the complicated dynamics in that region, thereby suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we were never going to accomplish our stated objectives.
So: if Americans had actually known about this attack, they might have had a clearer picture of our prospects in Central Asia, and the uphill fight we faced. Barack Obama's claims that he was going to get out of Iraq and focus on Afghanistan might have been viewed with greater skepticism, and his subsequent decision to escalate the war might have faced greater opposition within his administration and in the public at large.
In short, when U.S. officials swept this incident under the rug for various short-term reasons, they encouraged the American people to maintain a false picture of the actual situation in Central Asia. Unfortunately, making judgments and decisions on the basis of inaccurate information rarely works out well.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.