Back in the fall of 2003, I was in London for an conference and I took a stroll around the neighborhood near my hotel. At one point I turned a corner and saw a massive, looming building, surrounded with various barriers and fences and looking for all the world like an updated version of a medieval castle. "What's that?" I wondered, and wandered over to investigate. It was the U.S. Embassy, of course, and I was struck by how forbidding and unwelcoming it was. It seemed to me to be a vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay.
I thought of that moment today when I read the Times story on the winning design for a new U.S. embassy in London. Lord knows I'm no architecture critic, and I think my wife was too harsh when she said the winning design looked "like a big ice-cube," but the sketches in the Times don't show a building that invites the world in, or that conveys a sense of openness and confidence. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal security measures with adroit landscaping, the overall image is one where security concerns predominate: a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm's length.
What troubles me is what this tells us about America's place in the contemporary world, and the tensions between its global ambitions and its willingness to accept the consequences of them. On the one hand, the United States defines its own interests in global terms: there are no regions and few policy issues where we don't want to have a significant voice, and there are many places and issues where we insist on having the loudest one. But on the other hand, we don't think we should get our hair mussed while we tell the world what to do. It's tolerable for the United States to fire drones virtually anywhere (provided the states in question can't retaliate, of course), and Americans don't seem to have much of a problem with our running covert programs to destabilize other regimes that we've decided to dislike. We also aid, comfort and diplomatic support to assorted other states whose governments often act in deeply objectionable ways. But then we face the obvious problem that some people are going to object to these policies, hold us responsible, and try to do what they can to hit back.
So we have to build embassies that resemble fortresses, and that convey an image of America that is at odds with our interests and our own self-image, and especially with the image that we would like to convey to foreign peoples. We like to think of our country as friendly and welcoming, as open to new ideas, and as a strong, diverse and confident society built on a heritage of pluck and grit. You know, we're supposed to be a society built by generations of immigrants, pioneers, and other determined folk who faced adversity and risk with a smile and a bit of a swagger. Yet the "Fortress America" approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia.
Don't get me wrong: states in the modern world do have to worry about security for their representatives, and we ought to take all reasonable measures to ensure that our diplomats are adequately protected. But as with dangers (such as extremists with explosives in their underwear), it's possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence
If memory serves, it was the distinguished political scientist Sidney Verba who once wryly advised that "one should never write about a country that you haven't flown over." It's a sardonic comment on the tendency for social scientists to pontificate about countries they barely know, and it sprang to mind during the last leg of my trip last week.
The final item on my itinerary was thirty-six hours in Tripoli, Libya. I was invited to give a lecture to its Economic Development Board, following in the footsteps of a number of other recent American visitors, including Frank Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Richard Perle (!). I'd never been to Libya before, and was looking forward to hearing what the audience had to say.
Unfortunately, my plane from London was five hours late (thanks again, British Airways!), so the scheduled lecture never took place. But I did get to meet with several Libyan officials and spent a few hours touring Tripoli itself. Mindful of Verba's warning, however, I can't offer anything like an informed assessment, so what follows are just a few quick and provisional impressions.
First, although Libya is far from a democracy, it also doesn't feel like other police states that I have visited. I caught no whiff of an omnipresent security service -- which is not to say that they aren't there -- and there were fewer police or military personnel on the streets than one saw in Franco's Spain. The Libyans with whom I spoke were open and candid and gave no sign of being worried about being overheard or reported or anything like that. The TV in my hotel room featured 50+ channels, including all the normal news services (BBC World Service, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, etc.) along with contemporary U.S. sitcoms like "2-1/2 Men," shows like "Desperate Housewives," assorted movies, and one of the various "CSI" clones. A colleague on the trip told me that many ordinary Libyans have satellite dishes and that the government doesn't interfere with transmissions. I tried visiting various political websites from my hotel room and had no problems, although other human rights groups report that Libya does engage in selective filtering of some political websites critical of the regime. It is also a crime to criticize Qaddafihimself, the government's past human rights record is disturbing at best, and the press in Libya is almost entirely government-controlled. Nonetheless, Libya appears to be more open than contemporary Iran or China and the overall atmosphere seemed far less oppressive than most places I visited in the old Warsaw Pact.
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Declaring that "the buck stops with me," President Obama announced a set of new directives in response to the foiled bombing of Northwest Flight 253 by the now-infamous "underpants bomber." The list of presidential orders is mostly unexceptionable, and may even make a repeat performance less likely. Of course, if al Qaeda is even remotely strategic, trying an exact repeat of this attempt would be silly. Instead, they'll study the new procedures, look for holes in them, and try some new variation. The good news is that air travel will still be incredibly safe, and no sensible person should alter their normal travel plans because they are worried about the "terrorist threat."
What's missing from Obama's list of new initiatives is any sense that U.S. foreign policy might need some rethinking too. There are several dimensions to the terrorism problem, only one of which are the various measures we take to "harden the target" here at home. Why? Because bombing airliners and other acts of terrorism are just tactics; they aren't al Qaeda's real raison d'être. Their goal, as veteran foreign affairs correspondent William Pfaff recently reminded us, is trying to topple various Arab governments that al Qaeda regards as corrupt and beholden to us and establish some unified Islamic caliphate. As Pfaff notes, this is a fanciful objective, but still one that can cause us a certain amount of trouble and grief. And if they can get us to act in ways that undermine those governments (even when we think we are trying to help them), then their objectives are advanced and ours are hindered.
So one key dimension of the problem is to not act in ways that inspire more people to want to undertake such actions, or at the very least to be aware that some of our policies might have that effect and that we should not continue them unless we are damn sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. And what's troubling is the extent to which the Obama administration appears to be continuing many of the same activities that have inspired anti-American extremism and undermined the governments that do seem to like us, without much consideration about the balance of costs and benefits that this may involve.
To continue with this gloomy theme: the underpants bomber ultimately failed, but al Qaeda did conduct a successful suicide bomb attack in Khost that killed eight people, including several of the CIA's top al Qaeda experts. The perpetrator of that attack was a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had been recruited by the CIA (via Jordanian intelligence) to infiltrate al Qaeda. After providing us with some useful information (as any double-agent must to gain credibility), he was allowed to meet with a large number of CIA analysts, leading to the fateful attack on December 30.
In terms of the actual effort to defeat al Qaeda, that event might even be more significant than the Flight 253 affair, because it suggests that some of our top analysts were out-thought by the very organization they were trying to penetrate and destroy. It has also shed new light on the close connections between the CIA and Jordanian intelligence, which is hardly something that King Abdullah's regime needs right now. So while it's important to learn why an obvious suspect got a visa and boarded a plane to the United States, it may be even more important to figure out how some of our best counter-terrorism operatives got gulled so successfully.
One more thing. I noted yesterday that al-Balawi's brother told reporters that the doctor had been radicalized by the Israeli assault on Gaza last year. Today, Newsweek released an interview with the double-agent's wife, which makes it clear that she shares his opposition to U.S. policy in the region but traces his changing views to an earlier event. According to Newsweek:
Al-Balawi 'started to change,' says his wife, after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2004, she says, he began to talk to her about his strong belief in the need for violent jihad against Western occupiers of Muslim lands."
My point is not to rehash the whole debate over the invasion of Iraq (although to be honest, I don't think there's much debate to be had over the folly of that particular decision). My point is simply to reiterate that any serious effort to deal with our terrorism problem has to be multi-faceted, and has to include explicit consideration of the things we do that may encourage violent, anti-American movements. Only a complete head-in-the-sand approach to the issue would deny the connection between various aspects of U.S. foreign and military policy (military interventions, targeted assassinations, unconditional support for Israel, cozy relations with Arab dictatorships, etc.) and the fact that groups like al Qaeda keep finding people like al-Balawi to recruit to their cause.
By itself, that mere fact does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong. As I said a few days ago, one could make a case that our policy is mostly right, and that these problems are just the price we have to pay for them. But instead of having a serious debate on this question, we mostly ignore the possibility that our own actions might be making the problem worse, or we accuse anyone who does raise it of trying to "blame America first."
President Obama's briefing yesterday wasn't the place for that discussion, but I'd like to think that somebody in his administration is still asking the question. Since that infamous (and increasingly inconsequential) Cairo speech, however, there's not much evidence of that.
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Tongue firmly in cheek, Notre Dame political scientist Michael Desch offers this Swiftian solution to the threat of another underpants bomber:
How we can most cost effectively respond to the underwear bomber? I think that I have finally come up with the solution. Now that extraordinary rendition is in retirement, we've put all these CIA proprietary airlines out of business. We could just turn over the airlines to them and we'd have absolutely perfect security.
Here's how: a flight would begin with every passenger stripped and water-boarded. Then they would all be given those orange jumpsuits, blacked out goggles, and adult diapers, which eliminate the need for in-flight service, video entertainment, and bathroom breaks during the flight. Finally, all flights would be to "undisclosed locations" so any terrorist who got through the system would have no idea when to light his or her BVDs on fire.
In addition to the finally achieving absolute airline security, we'd also keep an important part of the defense industrial base in business at the same time. Do you happen to have Janet Napolitano's email?"
As for me, I guess I'm relieved that my next plane flight is on British Airways, where presumably the danger of water boarding is nil. On the other hand, I lost my luggage the last two times I went through Heathrow, so even Desch's proposal won't solve all our problems.
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I spent some time over the holidays thinking about the underwear bomber, the hyperventilating that occurred after his botched attack, and the various inconveniences and costs we will incur as the authorities scramble to "do something." Add to that the likelihood that we will now get more heavily bogged down in Yemen, in another fruitless effort to remake a country that few, if any, Americans understand very well.
My first thought is to wonder whether Osama bin Laden and his buddies are really proud of Mr. Abdulmutullab. This latest attempt will cause the United States to spend a lot of time and money to make sure nobody sneaks another crude device through in their shorts, but does it really help al Qaeda's image to have their latest hero become famous for his underpants? Yes, I know that real lives were at risk, and I'm not making light of an attempt at mass murder. But in the battle for hearts and minds, having an enemy known as the "underwear bomber" is a pretty good propaganda coup. Score one for our side.
Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
In particular, I'm struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America's highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences. As a society, we seem to believe that we can send thousands of troops to invade other countries, send Reapers and Predators to fire missiles at people we think might -- repeat, might -- be terrorists, and underwrite the oppressive policies of a host of "friendly" governments, yet never pay any significant price for it back here at home. We are a nation of swaggering sheep: eager to impose our will on others yet terrified that doing so might inconvenience us, let alone put U.S. civilians in real danger.
I'm not for one minute justifying what groups like al Qaeda do; my point is that we shouldn't be surprised by it. When a very powerful country spends a lot of time interfering in other’s affairs, and sometimes backing obvious injustices like the Gaza War, then it ought to expect some people to be very angry about it. And because there’s no such thing as a perfect defense, sometimes those angry people will hit back. They won’t do as much to us as we’ve done to them because they’re a lot weaker, but occasionally they will draw blood.
Yet Americans still find this surprising, and demand more and more extreme measures to "protect" us. We are like a heavy smoker who gets upset when they get diagnosed with emphysema, or a glutton who thinks it is "unfair" when he winds up with diabetes and high blood pressure. Face it, folks: if you want to be the world's dominant power, and you want to spend a lot of time telling millions of people how they should live, who their leaders should be, what weapons they are allowed to have, and what sorts of political beliefs are considered "legitimate," etc., and to back that agenda up with a lot of military force, then some amount of blowback is the price of doing business.
Instead, Americans are shocked when someone like the underwear bomber appears, and politicians and "homeland security experts" immediately leap to the airwaves to dissect the latest Threat to Our Sacred Way of Life. Meanwhile, other "brave Americans" protest plans to move suspected terrorists from Gitmo to maximum security prisons, as if a set of incarcerated, heavily guarded, and disoriented prisoners pose a grave threat to their local communities. And just yesterday, the United States and several allies announced they were going to close their embassies in Yemen, citing the risk of terrorist attack. I can understand the desire to protect U.S. diplomats, but what does it say about our resolve, our staying power, and our recognition that world politics is a rough business and sometimes entails costs and risks?
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I'm still swamped with grading papers and with preparations for our annual New Year's Eve potluck (about which more in a day or two), but I hope everyone takes a look at the Times piece on China's commercial activities in Afghanistan. While we've been running around playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban and "investing" billions each year in the corrupt Karzai government," China has been investing in things that might actually be of some value, like a big copper mine.
As the article suggest, it's not like U.S. troops are "guarding" China's investments. Rather, there's a tacit division of labor going on, where "American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment."
The rest of the article makes depressing reading, however. Here's what one Afghan contractor had to say:
"The Chinese are much wiser. When we went to talk to the local people, they wore civilian clothing, and they were very friendly," he said recently during a long chat in his Kabul apartment. "The Americans - not as good. When they come there, they have their uniforms, their rifles and such, and they are not as friendly."
The result? According to the Times:
"the Chinese have already positioned themselves as generous, eager partners of the Afghan government and long-term players in the country's future. All without firing a shot."
The point is not that somehow those wily Chinese have fooled us into squandering a lot of money and lives and annoying lots of people in Central Asia, while they make profitable investments. Rather, the broader lesson is that the entire thrust of U.S. policy towards a large part of the world has been fundamentally misplaced for a long time. If we think we are somehow trapped in an endless cycle of intervention in the Muslim world-Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, now Yemen-it is because our policies towards the entire region have generated enormous animosity and to little good purpose. And when that animosity leads to direct attacks on the United States, we respond in ways that guarantee such attacks will be repeated.
To be sure, some of this situation is due to America's position as the sole superpower, which means that it gets blamed for things that aren't always its fault. Plus, a dominant power does tend to end up with a disproportionate role in providing certain collective goods while others free-ride. (If China ever does supplant the U.S as the dominant world power, the same thing will undoubtedly happen to them.) But it also reflects specific decisions that we've been taking for a long time, in the mistaken belief that they would never blow back and affect us here at home. That's why we ought to thinking very strategically about our overseas involvements, and trying to shift those burdens onto locals whenever we can. Unfortunately, the predominant view in Washington still favors an "America First" approach to solving most global problems, even when it's not clear we have any idea how to do that.
Don't forget: we are fighting in Afghanistan because a radical anti-American terrorist movement-Al Qaeda-located there in the 1990s and then attacked us on September 11. Al Qaeda attacked the United States for a number of different reasons, including its support for various Arab monarchies and dictatorships, its military presence in the Persian Gulf, and its "special relationship" with Israel (which is oppressing millions of Palestinians and consolidating control of Jerusalem). Al Qaeda also wanted to strike at the world's strongest power, in the vain hope that a dramatic act like that would win them lots of new supporters. They also hoped that they could goad us into doing a lot of stupid things in response, and that achievement may be their only real success to date. We are also bogged down in Central Asia because our earlier support for anti-Soviet mujaheddin there helped create a bunch of well-armed warlords and religious extremists who proved impossible to control later on.
But the key lesson is that the current situation is not immutable. We don't have to keep implementing the same policies that led us to this situation; instead, we need to start working on strategic approaches that will minimize our involvement in these regions without sacrificing our vital interests (mostly oil) or endangering the security of key allies. One step would be to do what President Obama promised to do in his Cairo speech and then abandoned: namely, get serious about a two-state solution. A second step would be to stop trying to reorganize vast chunks of the Arab and Islamic world, and focus our efforts solely on helping local governments capture or neutralizing violent anti-American terrorists. A related step is to move back to an "offshore balancing" strategy in the region, and rely more on naval and air forces and less on on-shore intervention.
And maybe a fourth element of a new approach would be to remember that the United States rose to its position of great power by letting other major powers do the heavy lifting, while Americans concentrated mostly on building the world's biggest and most advanced economy and building influence with lots of other countries. For the most part, we also kept our fiscal house in order, which gave us the resources to maintain and expand productive infrastructure here at home and made it possible to act overseas when we really had to. This isn't the 19th century and we can't just rewind the clock, but there's still a lot of wisdom in much more selective approach to the use of American power. You know, sorta the way that Beijing seems to doing it.
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A quick follow-up to my previous post on the illusion of achieving perfect security against terrorist attack: Today's NY Times has an op-ed by Clark Kent Ervin, a former State Department official who know heads the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security program. Ervin makes a number of good points in his piece, but his wrap-up reveals a curious lack of understanding of the basic problem. He writes:
Perhaps the biggest lesson for airline security from the recent incident is that we must overcome our tendency to be reactive. We always seem to be at least one step behind the terrorists. They find one security gap -- carrying explosives onto a plane in their shoes, for instance -- and we close that one, and then wait for them to exploit another. Why not identify all the vulnerabilities and then address each one before terrorists strike again?"
Sorry, Mr. Ervin, but it is impossible to "identify all the vulnerabilities and address each one" beforehand. That is like asking a football coach to identify all the different ways the other team might try to score, and "address each one." The problem is that the other side can think and plan and innovate too, and develop creative new ways to deal with any security measure we might dream up. In any competitive, strategic interaction, there's rarely if ever a "last move" and one is sometimes forced to be reactive because the other side takes the initiative in ways we simply didn't think of. The best we can do is try to make it very hard for terrorists to attack us, which can both protect us directly and force them to take more elaborate measures that in turn makes it easier to find them beforehand.
But it is a little worrisome to read that a knowledgeable official with lots of experience still thinks it is possible to achieve some sort of perfect defense.
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What should we make of the news that President Obama is still not happy with the proposed strategy for Afghanistan, and that his doubts are being reinforced by a skeptical report from retired general Karl Eikenberry, who is now the U.S. ambassador in Kabul?
First, I think it's a sign that deep down, Obama knows he has no good options. He’s figured out that the stakes aren’t as great as he may have once thought, that the commitment is potentially endless, that we have no local partner for the kind of centralized, "state-building" approach that remains at the heart of U.S. strategy, and that going all in will commit him to a war we won't win. No wonder he keeps looking for an alternative.
Second, he's painted himself into a corner with his earlier tough talk, and he’s worried that the GOP and FoxNews and various armchair generals will all accuse him of appeasement if he gives McChrystal anything less than what the general asked for, or if he dares to put a time limit on a continued U.S. effort. So all those recent news stories stressing how seriously Obama is taking this and how much he’s grilling his advisors are designed to convince us that he’s looked really, really hard at all the options. The goal is to build support for whatever decision he ultimately makes, even if everyone secretly knows it’s not likely to work.
Third, this is an issue where Obama's instinct for compromise and his natural gift for reconciling conflicting positions is not serving him well. Given the range of problems that the United States is facing at home and abroad, bold action is badly needed. Not the sort of unthinking, shoot-from-the-hip fantasies that drove Bush's foreign policy during his first term, but rather a ruthless, hardnosed set of choices about priorities. Obama did a little bit of that during his first couple of months -- mostly about the economy -- but well-entrenched interests and conventional wisdom began to take over.
With respect to Afghanistan: it is either a worth a prolonged and costly investment of lives and money or it isn't. Either we go all in -- which in my view is still a very bad idea -- or we should get out. Trying to split the difference on this issue is not leadership; in fact, it is a recipe for failure.
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I'm crashing to finish a conference paper on why "wars of choice" last so long (and how to end them), so blogging will be fairly light this week. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at the CSPAN broadcast of a conference on Capitol Hill last week on Afghanistan policy, sponsored by the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy. Most of the speakers were thoughtful and worth a listen, although I was struck by how even the advocates of "staying the course" did not seem very confident of success. The "outside the box" perspective (in other words, disengagement) was represented by Chris Preble of CATO and yours truly. If you're interested in what we had to say, my presentation begins at about 2:35.00 into the broadcast, and Chris is right after me.
I suspect most of the AfPak attention will be focused on the revelations that President Hamid Karzai's brother has been on the CIA payroll, the Taliban attack that killed six people at a U.N. staff house in Kabul, and the bombing that killed more than 80 people in Peshawar. Plus, there are new reports that the United States is going to adopt a strategy that eschews counterinsurgency throughout all of Afghanistan and concentrates on protecting major cities. These are all important stories, because they underscore just how difficult it has been, is, and will be to do social engineering on the lives of 200 million Muslims in Central Asia.
But I want to focus on somewhat broader question today. Yet another justification for continuing the war in Afghanistan is the belief that the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and groups such as the Haqqani network form a tight ideologically-inspired alliance that is relentlessly anti-American and dedicated to attacking us no matter where we are or what we are doing. In this view, these various groups are "birds of a feather flocking together." This belief fuels the fear that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would produce a dramatic increase in al Qaeda's capabilities, once their Islamic soulmates provided them with territory, recruits, and other forms of support for attacks on the West in general and the United States in particular.
Such an outcome cannot be wholly ruled out, I suppose, and well-informed experts like Ahmed Rashid apparently think it's likely. But there are several good reasons to doubt it. The first is that we know that there have been intense frictions between some of these groups in the past, as well as intense divisions between Osama bin Laden and some of his own associates. In his prize-winning book The Looming Tower, for example, Lawrence Wright describes the repeated tensions between Mullah Omar and Bin Laden, which nearly led the former to turn Bin Laden over to the Saudis. The rift was reportedly healed after bin Laden swore an oath of loyalty to Omar, but their interests and objectives are not identical and one can easily imagine new quarrels in the future.
A second reason to be skeptical that these groups are tightly unified by a set of common beliefs or doctrines is the fact that the foreign presence in the region gives them an obvious incentive to help each other. In other words, what looks like ideological solidarity may be partly a manifestation of balance-of-power politics, and these groups' tendency to back each other might easily dissipate once the foreign presence were reduced. Afghan political history is one where diverse coalitions form, dissolve, and realign in myriad ways, and similar dynamics are likely to resurface once the the United States and its foreign allies are gone.
A third reason has to do with the nature of certain types of political ideology. Unlike liberalism, which emphasizes the need to tolerate a wide range of political views, political ideologies that rest on a single authoritative interpretation of "truth" are inherently divisive rather than unifying. In particular, ideologies that call for adherents to obey the leadership because it wields the "correct" interpretation of the faith (whether in Marxism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) tend to foster intense rivalries among different factions and between different leaders, each of whom must claim to be the "true" interpreter of the legitimating ideology. In such movements, ideological schisms are likely to be frequent and intense, because disagreements look like apostasy and a betrayal of the faith. Instead of flocking together, these "birds of a feather" are likely to fly apart.
During the Cold War, for instance, hawks repeatedly worried about a "communist monolith" and were convinced that Marxists everywhere were reliable tools of the Kremlin. In reality, however, world communism was rife with internal tensions and ideological schisms, as illustrated by the furious Bolshevik-Menshevik split, the deadly battle between Trotsky and Stalin, and the subsequent rift between Stalin and Tito. China and the Soviet Union became bitter rivals by the early 1960s -- on both geopolitical and ideological grounds -- and the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam ended another yet another period of illusory communist unity and quickly led to wars between communist Vietnam, communist Kampuchea, and communist China.
Such historical analogies should be used with caution, of course, but in this case the logic is similar and compelling. Islamic fundamentalists rely in part on specific interpretations of Islamic thought to recruit and motivate their followers, and disagreements over doctrine and policy can easily lead to bitter internal quarrels, especially once the immediate need to cooperate against a common enemy is gone. We've already seen amples sign of division within al Qaeda and its clones, and more are to be expected.
This is not to say that global terrorists won't continue to learn from each other, to inspire imitators (much as Marxism-Leninism once inspired a wide array of fringe groups who had nothing to do with Moscow) and they may even provide each other with various forms of tactical support on occasion. But there are good reasons to question the facile assumption that they are eternally loyal comrades-in-arms, united forever by a shared set of a deeply held politico-religious beliefs. And if there is considerable potential for division among both the leaders and even more among their followers, then a strategy of divide-and-conquer makes more sense than a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign that gives them every reason to stay united.
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There is grim news from Baghdad: A twin suicide truck bombing of two Iraqi ministries has left over 130 dead and wounded more than 500. It is the largest such attack in all of 2009 and a reminder, unfortunately, that the oft-heralded "surge" was not the success that its architects and advocates like to claim.
As my FP colleague Tom Ricks noted in his book The Gamble, the "surge" was a partial tactical success that succeeded in bringing casualty levels down. (I say partial, because we still do not know how much of that success was due to the surge itself, and how much was due to changing circumstances within Iraq, most notably the ethnic separation created by earlier violence and the realignment of some key Sunni groups who were repelled by the wanton violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq.)
The larger strategic objective of the surge was political reconciliation among the main contending groups within Iraq. There have been a few encouraging signs in recent months, but yesterday's bombing is another brutal indication that that goal remains unmet. Among other things, this means that pro-war pundits who invoke the purported "success" of the surge in Iraq in order to justify major troop increases in Afghanistan are not to be trusted, especially when they are the same geniuses who helped get us into Iraq in the first place.
Barack Obama inherited two losing wars from his incompetent predecessor. If he's not careful, he'll still be fighting (and losing) both of them when his first term ends. And neither will be "Bush's war" at that point; Obama will own them both by then.
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Several friends and associates have asked me how it feels to have our book on the Israel lobby plugged by Osama bin Laden. While it is usually gratifying to get kudos for your work, that is certainly not the case in this instance, given what bin Laden has done in the past and given what he stands for. I just wish we had captured him long ago, making it impossible for him to issue any statements to the world.
I do have a few additional comments on the matter, however. To start, Bin Laden's announcement that there is a powerful "Israel lobby" in the United States is not exactly a news flash. If he had not cited us, he could just have easily quoted the late Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) who wrote in his memoirs that "I was never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby ... it's the most influential crowd in Congress by far." Or he could have cited former Senator Ernest ("Fritz") Hollings (D-SC), who said that "you can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here." He might have invoked notorious terrorist sympathizer Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who called AIPAC "the most effective general interest group ... across the entire planet," or even former Senate Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) who told AIPAC's annual conference that "without your constant support ... the U.S.-Israeli relationship would not be." Heck, bin Laden could even have brought up Alan Dershowitz, who once wrote that "my generation of Jews ... became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fundraising effort in the history of democracy." In short, he didn't need our book to tell people there's an Israel lobby with a powerful influence on U.S. Middle East policy.
It is also important to ask why bin Laden called attention to U.S. support for Israel, and to the lobby's role in generating that support. He did this because he understands -- along with plenty of other people -- that the combination of unconditional U.S. support for Israel and Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians is a source of great resentment in the Arab and Islamic world. This is hardly an original insight on his part either. The 9/11 Commission reported "it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ... is [a] dominant staple of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world." imilarly, the State Department's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World found that "citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of the Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing." Not only is Bin Laden personally motivated by this issue -- as his own family and prior statements attest -- he knows it is a good way to attract support.
Third, my co-author and I have a very different idea of how to deal with this situation than bin Laden does. He recruits people to engage in despicable acts of violence against innocents, in the grandiose (and vain) hope of toppling all of the states in the region (not just Israel). He's perfectly happy to kill Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, and just about anyone else if it will advance that goal. By contrast, Professor Mearsheimer and I reject his aims and abhor his chosen means. We believe the United States should defend Israel's existence, and we said so repeatedly in our book. (My guess is that bin Laden missed those parts). We also think the United States should oppose Israel's occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza and treat Israel the same way it treats other democracies. Why? Because ending the occupation and having a normal relationship with Israel would be better for us, better for Israel, and better for our other friends in the region. In short, we want the United States to pursue a smarter and more ethical policy in the Middle East. Needless to say, that's a far cry from bin Laden's murderous agenda.
Ironically, bin Laden's "endorsement" of our book could even be a self-defeating gesture. If enough people were to read our book and U.S. policy were to evolve in the manner we recommend, bin Laden's call to arms would fall on deaf ears and he'd become even more irrelevant than he is today. Furthermore, any would-be imitators who might subsequently emerge would find an even less receptive audience.
And if Juan Cole is right and bin Laden's statement was a sign of weakness, so much the better.
Am I the only person who sees a parallel between the furor over the Scottish decision to release convicted Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, and the heated debate over whether to investigate possible criminal misconduct during the Bush administration "torture regime?"
With respect to the former, many people are upset by the decision to release al-Megrahi -- who has terminal prostate cancer and only a few months to live -- because they do not think an act of mercy was warranted in his case. Fair enough; reasonable people can legitimately disagree about whether the dying man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing deserves any form of clemency. But the real anger stems from the suspicion that al-Megrahi's release was part of some larger deal, and that British officials traded the release for commercial or political advantages. In other words, opponents of the decision to release him are incensed because they believe government officials let broader political or business considerations interfere with an important issue of criminal justice.
Yet those who oppose an open-ended investigation into what the Bush administration did -- which might eventually lead to the prosecution of top officials -- are doing the same thing for which British officials are being criticized: they are saying that politics should outweigh the requirements of law and justice. In essence, they are saying that broader political considerations should trump the normal operations of the criminal justice system. Yet I suspect most of the people making this argument would be outraged if it turned out that the British government decided to release al Megrahi in part to cultivate Libyan business or secure other political advantages.
For a country that claims to revere the "rule of law," this really isn't a hard issue conceptually. Attorney General Holder's task is to determine whether laws may have been broken, and whether an investigation of the alleged wrongdoing is warranted. Once that investigation has been conducted, he then has decide if he has a strong enough case to warrant prosecution. If he thinks he does, the case goes forward, and defendants get their day in court. Politics isn't supposed to have anything to do with this process (though a sensible prosecutor would probably be especially reluctant to bring a weak case against prominent senior officials). Finally, if any defendants are found guilty, the president could then step in and issue a pardon, if he felt that doing so was in the best interests of the nation.
Note that it is still possible to criticize and debate every aspect of this process, but not by invoking partisanship, political expediency, or the need to "look forward rather than backward." People can disagree about whether there is enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant further investigation (though I think the recent revelations make it hard to make the case that there is simply no basis for a further investigation). If AG Holder decides to indict anyone, or if he declines to do so, people will undoubtedly disagree about what he should have done so based on the available evidence. And if the cases go to trial we can argue about them too. If the defendants are acquitted, people will say the case should never have been brought; if convicted, some will claim they were railroaded. If people are convicted and the president pardons them, no doubt there would be heated discussions about whether this was appropriate or not.
But the key point is that if you genuinely believe in the rule of law, you can't invoke political expediency as a guide to whether possible crimes should be investigated and prosecuted. And the fact that the Attorney-General has decided to go forward should be seen as very positive sign, because it shows that he is willing to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities even if it is politically inconvenient for the president who appointed him. I have no doubt that the president would prefer to "look forward," because an investigation and/or prosecution will drive both the CIA and the right-wing media types crazy and because he's got enough alligators to wrestle with already. But he also promised us that he would end the politicization of the Department of Justice that his predecessor practiced, and Holder's decision, however inconvenient for Obama, is a reassuring sign that there is still life in the U.S. Constitution.
Am I being -- shall we say, unrealistic -- to stress the rule of law as opposed to the naked exercise of political power? Hardly. Realists have a rather dim view of human nature, which is why we like legitimate, well-ordered governments in which laws and checks and balances exist to keep human frailties in check. The Founding Fathers had a lot of realist instincts, so they constructed a variety of essentially liberal institutions to try to address and contain our worst instincts. Domestic politics in a well-ordered society is a lot nicer than life in the international system, which conspicuously lacks strong institutions and where the rule of law is weak. And that's why we ought to defend the rule of law in this case (and others), and try hard to keep politics out of the discussion.
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I’ll be at a luncheon panel at The Century Foundation tomorrow, discussing Central Asia strategy with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress and Francesc Vendrell, the former EU special representative in Afghanistan. As readers know, I’m something of a skeptic about our deepening involvement in this region, and I’m looking forward to an interesting discussion.
We’re getting lots of encouraging reports about the Pakistani army’s current offensive in the Swat Valley, and I hope the optimism is justified. But two features of the situation give me pause. First, the area has been pretty much off-limits to journalists, and we are therefore relying almost entirely on the Pakistani army's reporting of its own achievements. Needless to say, there is a long and rich history (and not just in Pakistan) of militaries exaggerating their achievements on the battlefield. And even if they have killed a fair number of Taliban fighters and forced the rest to flee, the real question is whether the gains will endure. Remember that it was an unnamed "senior Administration official" who warned at the outset "they'll displace the Taliban for awhile. But there will also be a lot of displaced persons and a lot of collateral damage. And then they won't be able to sustain those effects or extend the gains geographically."
That’s my second concern: does it make strategic sense to displace upwards of three million people in order to go after around four thousand Taliban, most of whom aren't "global terrorists" in the same way that al Qaeda is? The Pakistani army has reported only light losses thus far, which suggests they aren’t risking their own soldiers in careful counter-insurgency operations but are relying instead on firepower and other indiscriminate tactics (which helps explain why people are fleeing in such large numbers and could be why the region has been off-limits to reporters). If the operation has left a lot of destruction in its wake, as seems likely, will it make the government or the Taliban more popular in the long run? And given that we helped egg the Pakistani government into this, are we likely to get blamed for it down the road?
Contrary to what I suggested last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took the bait that Pyongyang dangled last week. In a direct response to North Korea's nuclear test, Gates told the delegates at the "Shangri La Dialogue" (a major Asian security conference held in Singapore) that “we will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in the region -- or on us."
Strong words, but they will ring hollow if the United States and its various Asian allies (and China) do not actually do anything, and I’m betting they won't. Gates warned that North Korea could "continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course," but it's been clear for quite awhile now that pariah status doesn't bother the government in Pyongyang. And because none of North Korea's neighbors want to deal with the consequences, there isn't much support for the kind of pressure that might cause the North Korean regime to collapse. Unfortunately, that’s also the only kind of pressure that might make it change course.
Gates was on firmer ground when he warned North Korea that the United States would consider any transfer of nuclear materials to other countries or terrorist groups a "grave threat" to the United States and its allies. Even here, however, a bit more discrimination was in order. We obviously don't want North Korea giving nuclear know-how or nuclear material to other countries, but it's not clear we would do anything to them if we discovered that they were. After all, as Georgetown's Matthew Kroenig has documented, giving nuclear assistance to another country is hardly an unprecedented act. Russia assisted China's nascent nuclear program when they were allies, France gave key support to Israel's nuclear program, and China helped Pakistan's nuclear program as well. Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network subsequently spread nuclear technology in several directions, and North Korea appears to have provided nuclear assistance to Syria. The key point: in none of these cases was it seen as grounds for war.
But giving nuclear technology to a terrorist group is another matter entirely, and we need to make it clear to Pyongyang that this is an act that would lead us to discard our normal reservations and remove them from power once and for all. Not only do we want to deter North Korea from ever trying something like this, but we also want to establish and reinforce a clear precedent for other nuclear powers. Regime survival seems to be the paramount concern of Kim Jong Il and his associates, and they must be under no illusions about what nuclear transfer to terrorists would mean for their own futures. This scenario should be the topic of some serious contingency planning by the U.S. military, as well as some serious discussions among the other interested parties, beginning with the other members of the Six Party talks (Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea). None of these states have an interest in nuclear leakage to terrorists, so it should not be that hard to get them to agree that giving nuclear materials to terrorists would be clear and immediate casus belli.
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I didn't agree with all of President Obama's speech yesterday (notably his rejection of a investigatory commission and his endorsement of open-ended "preventive detention"), but what a relief it is to watch an American president appeal to our sense of reason instead of our sense of fear.
The best thing one can say about Cheney's performance is that it was given by an ex-Vice President. Others have dissected the various lies and distortions that filled his speech (what did one expect?), I would only add that there is a track record here. 9/11 occurred on Cheney’s watch, and he helped lead us into two losing wars, at a cost of thousands of dead Americans, tens of thousands wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent, mostly in ways that have improved the strategic position of, oops, ... Iran. Plus, he gets partial credit for an unprecedented decline in America's global image and the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. At this point, taking Cheney's recommendations on any issue of public policy is like getting investment help from Bernie Madoff, marital counseling from Donald Trump, or advice on economic development from Robert Mugabe.
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Is there anything more absurd than the U.S. Congress's decision to deny funds to close Guantanamo, on the grounds that this might result in detainees being held on American soil? Excuse me, but isn't this taking the "not-in-my-backyard" principle to absurd lengths? We're not talking about letting a suspected terrorist walk around free in your hometown while he awaits trial; we talking about putting them in jail while they are tried (and by a military tribunal). If convicted, they'd end up in prison (along with over 200,000 other federal prisoners already incarcerated and the more than 3,000 convicted murderers now on death row). If acquitted, they could still be deported.
This episode betrays a certain schizophrenia about America's role as a world power. On the one hand, the foreign policy elite continually tells Americans that the United States is the "leader of the free world," and that they have a long list of global responsibilities. As a result, the United States spends a lot of money on its national security apparatus, tells lots of countries how to run their own affairs, maintain an extensive array of military bases, and send its armed forces into harm’s way in various faraway lands. Indeed, William Pfaff is not far off in saying that the United States has become "addicted to war."
But on the other hand, U.S politicians somehow believe that all this overseas activity shouldn't have any impact here at home, apart from making us stand in long security lines at the airport. So President Bush didn't raise taxes to pay for the war on terror or the war in Iraq, and now Congress doesn't think the American people would tolerate having a couple of hundred suspected terrorists in prison somewhere in the United States.
Frankly, if Americans are that skittish and self-absorbed, the country has no business exercising any sort of "global leadership" and the various Congresspersons who voted to deny the funds should immediately demand the abrogation of all existing alliances, the termination of all military activities overseas, and a return to a strict policy of isolationism. I don't think that's a good idea, by the way, but at least our Congressional representatives would be being consistent.
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I haven't said anything about President Obama's decision not to release additional photos of detainee abuse, and the related stories suggesting that the Bush administration tortured detainees in large part to find some link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that would justify invading Iraq. But I agree with those who believe the Obama administration can't put this behind us by "walking forward," or trying to sweep it under the rug. And if Jack Goldsmith is correct to say that Obama is keeping most of the elements of the Bush "war on terror" in place, then the president may be inviting more trouble than just the disappointment of MoveOn.org.
First, as I suggested in another context last week, the only way that a country can regain its reputation in the aftermath of serious misconduct is to stop the wrongdoing, express regret for it, and not do it again. Americans have wondered "why do they hate us?" ever since 9/11, and there is abundant survey and anecdotal evidence confirming that anti-Americanism is mostly a reaction to U.S. policies and not a rejection of American values, culture, or identity. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, for example, "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, the State Department's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy found that "Arabs and Muslims...support our values but believe our policies do not live up to them." And they wrote that before we knew about Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, or the full extent of the torture regime.
It follows that we aren't going to fuel more anti-Americanism by fully acknowledging and coming to terms with past abuses, because most people already understand what happened under Bush and Cheney. We are talking here about filling in details and holding people accountable. What Obama needs to do is draw a sharp break from these practices, to signal to the world that what happened under his predecessors was an aberration and not "business as usual." The more features of the Bush order that he retains, the more incidents he tries to cover up, and the more people he insulates from exposure or prosecution, the harder it will be to characterize the recent past as a shameful episode that is unrepresentative of America’s true character. Other countries will doubt things have really changed, and with good reason.
Second, although I'm even more skeptical of "blue-ribbon" commissions than Frank Rich, I've come to believe that a credible commission offers the best way forward at this point. But let's not just populate it with a bipartisan group of the usual Washington insiders and toothless politicos. There's enough evidence to suggest that some powerful Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew what was going on and said nothing, which means that both parties are to some degree implicated in this scandal. Inside-the-beltway careerists are part of a political culture where mutual back-scratching and excuse-making are well-established norms, and thus a commission dominated by the usual familiar faces is unlikely to produce a serious report and won't have sufficient credibility at home or abroad. The 9/11 Commission or the 2004 Schlesinger Report on DoD detention procedures (undertaken in response to Abu Ghraib) are cases in point: although both panels produced some useful information and identified certain errors, each pulled a lot of punches too.
One need only recall the contribution that iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman made to the presidential commission on the space shuttle Challenger disaster to recognize the value of appointing smart people who are willing to challenge powerful institutions, incumbent leaders, and orthodox thinking. So instead of an investigative commission dominated by well-known Washington insiders, I'd like to see one whose ranks include a substantial number of well-qualified critics and independent thinkers. Along with the usual (yawn) suspects, how about including Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, blogger Glenn Greenwald, conservative law professor Richard Epstein, Congressman (and former presidential candidate) Ron Paul, or former MacArthur Foundation president Adelle Simmons?
Last point: we also need to reflect on the connection between U.S. grand strategy and these sorry episodes. It is tempting to blame this whole problem on the misguided machinations of Bush, Cheney, and their minions, who took advantage of the post-9/11 climate of fear to implement a torture regime, but that convenient explanation is a bit too simple. In fact, this sort of abuse is likely to be repeated as long as the United States maintains a highly interventionist foreign and military policy. If the United States continues to send military forces and lethal armed drones to attack people in far-flung lands, some of the people we kill will be innocent civilians -- thereby fomenting greater hatred of the United States -- and the people we are going after will try to hit us back. Our enemies will use our actions to recruit sympathizers -- just as Osama bin Laden did -- and every time some terrorist group gets lucky and get through, the U.S. government will be tempted to adopt even harsher measures to try to stop the next attack. Not only does this cycle threaten civil liberties here at home, but it tends to embroil us in social engineering projects in societies that we do not understand (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc.). We can also be confident that other potential rivals are secretly thrilled to see us squandering lots of blood and treasure on lengthy occupations and open-ended counterinsurgency operations.
Unfortunately, history also shows that prolonged occupations and counterinsurgencies always lead to significant abuses. It is the nature of the beast. This is what happened to Britain in the Boer War, Belgium in its central African empire, France in Indochina and Algeria, Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya, Israel in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, and the United States in Iraq. The United States may not be as heavy-handed as some earlier imperial powers, although our treatment of native Americans was horrible and our handling of Japanese-Americans in World War II is a dark stain on our past. The key point is that the idea of a purely benevolent "empire" is a contradiction in terms and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can run one.
Bottom line: if you don't like Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, waterboarding, etc., the best way to make the problem go away for good is to get out of the business of occupying and trying to govern other countries.
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If you read today's New York Times story on Obama's meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, you got more evidence that the Obama team still hasn't figured out what its overall strategy is. This is not a good sign, particularly when President Obama keeps upping the rhetorical stakes.
Obama did what most Presidents do with weak and faltering clients: he tried to buck them up by reiterating how much we care about their situation. He declared that "no matter what happens, we will not be deterred," and reiterated that "our strategy (which he didn’t spell out) reflects a fundamental truth. The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States are linked." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chimed in too, describing the meetings as part of the "confidence-building that is necessary for this relationship to turn into tangible cooperation."
But the rest of the article suggests that little "confidence" is warranted. Zardari's meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee seems to have reinforced Congressional skepticism, with chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) complaining that Zardari "did not present a coherent strategy for the defeat of the insurgency."
As for the White House, having pushed the Pakistanis to do more against Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in the western provinces, senior administration officials admit that "they’re fundamentally not organized, trained or equipped for what they’ve been asked to do....They'll displace the Taliban for awhile. But there will also be a lot of displaced person and a lot of collateral damage. And then they won't be able to sustain those effects or extend the gains geographically."
Yet according to the Times, "none of this was said publicly on Wednesday,” because U.S. officials (including the president) "sought to strike an optimistic tone."
Excuse me, but haven't we learned that refusing to acknowledge unpleasant realities in public tends to get us into trouble, whether one is talking about toxic loans, GM's long slide towards bankruptcy, or the Bush administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to the Iraqi insurgency? Isn't plain talk better than happy talk? The unpleasant reality is that our entire approach to Central Asia is still filled with unanswered questions and unresolved contradictions, yet we continue to wade deeper into a potentially open-ended commitment.
If President Obama keeps acting like the head cheerleader for this war, he'll find himself trapped by his own rhetoric and unable to cut our losses if it starts to go south. Of course, if you're the leader of a weak and corrupt government that is dependent on continued American largesse, that may be just what you're hoping for.
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On the torture memos: I’m not a lawyer, but I think I understand the political calculations that led Obama to say that his administration would not be prosecuting individuals for their role in this loathsome episode. He understood that this could reach very far up in the Bush administration, and that beginning a legal process would be divisive and cost him some swing votes he thinks he’ll need on other issues. So the principals in the Bush administration torture regime may end up with a free pass, at least in terms of criminal prosecution. But I have three thoughts:
First, a lot of countries (including the United States) have expended considerable diplomatic effort to hold people like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic or Liberia’s Charles Taylor accountable for their crimes. Apparently Obama feels that this principle can be jettisoned when it might be politically expedient to do so. At a minimum, we ought to remember this incident the next time we get upset that some other country is declining to prosecute a former leader, turning a blind eye to some other ruler's depredations (think Robert Mugabe), or cutting a deal with some warlord or terrorist leader. Maybe they were making pragmatic calculations too, and we holier-than-thou Americans ought to be a bit less judgmental.
Second, does our failure to prosecute open the door to other efforts to do so? A number of states (France, Canada, Belgium, Spain, etc.) have incorporated a principle of “universal jurisdiction” into their own domestic legal systems, when dealing with genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity (including torture). This principle can be invoked when the home country of the alleged perpetrator is "unwilling or unable to prosecute" Earlier reports suggesting that Spanish officials were going to indict six former Bush administration officials eventually led Spain's attorney general to say that U.S. courts would be the proper venue, but Obama has now made it clear that this isn't going to happen. I don’t know what the practical implications might be, but if I were Dick Cheney or David Addington, I wouldn’t be planning a summer vacation in Spain.
Third, for those of you who think that power is of declining relevance in world politics and that normative and legal standards are becoming increasingly important, I'd just point out that the various officials who sanctioned these abuses would be in a lot more trouble if they came from a weak and vulnerable state, as opposed to a global power like the United States. Not only does power corrupt, but it allows people who sanction torture to get away with it, albeit at some considerable cost to America's image and reputation. Those reputational costs will be borne by all Americans, who ought to be furious at the crimes that were committed in their name.
Last week, I questioned whether the threat from international terrorism -- and specifically, al Qaeda and the Taliban -- was sufficiently grave to warrant a major increase in the U.S. military commitment in Central Asia. I suggested that we needed a more careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead and the always-interesting John Mueller provides one here. It’s an excellent antidote to what seems to be an emerging consensus that U.S. security is vitally dependent on "defeating" the Taliban and creating an effective central Afghan state.
Instead of nation-building (or more precisely, state-building) in Afghanistan, our main concern should be the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and we should take care not to do anything in Central Asia that increases the chance that an anti-American terrorist group gets its hands on any of these weapons. That requires careful judgment on what we should do, but also on what not to do.
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Does the threat of international terrorism -- specifically al Qaeda -- justify a costly, long-term engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan? President Obama and his advisors think so, but I'm still not convinced. I certainly understand that we have a terrorism problem; I just don't believe that it is serious enough to warrant the level and type of effort the administration is proposing. And if the results of the recent NATO summit are any indication, our NATO allies seem skeptical, too.
Just how serious is the threat? According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, there were 14,499 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2007 (the most recent year for which it has data). All told, these attacks killed 22,684 people and injured about 44,310. This sounds serious (and it is obviously not something to trivialize), but over half of all terrorist attacks (and two-thirds of all those killed, wounded or kidnapped) occurred in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and thus are not a good indicator of al Qaeda's ability to threaten the American homeland or key U.S. allies. To keep these numbers in perspective, bear in mind that over a million people die in traffic accidents worldwide each year, with many more injured. Yet no one is proposing that we allocate additional billions to try to eliminate all highway fatalities.
Even more significant for the issue at hand, the number of private U.S. citizens killed by terrorists in 2007 was nineteen, with zero injured and seventeen kidnapped. All of these deaths or kidnappings occurred either in Afghanistan or Iraq. As John Mueller has argued, if al Qaeda is as dangerous as U.S. officials maintain, why haven't there been more attacks on the United States over the past eight years? In America, the danger of drowning in a bathtub is greater than the risk of dying in a terrorist attack. And that would be true even if the United State were to suffer one 9/11-scale attack every ten years. Given these numbers, does it really make sense to double down in Central Asia?
In short, my concern is that we are allowing an exaggerated fear of al Qaeda to distort our foreign policy priorities. Having underestimated the danger from al Qaeda before 9/11, have we now swung too far the other way? I am not arguing for a Pollyanna-like complacency or suggesting that we simply ignore the threat that groups like al Qaeda still pose. Rather, I'm arguing that the threat is not as great as the administration -- and most Americans, truth be told -- seem to think, and that the actual danger does not warrant escalating U.S. involvement in Central Asia.
I can think of at least three counter-arguments to my position.
First, one could argue that there have been no attacks on the United States since 2001 because we've put al Qaeda on the defensive, and that going after them in Pakistan’s frontier provinces will deny them a "safe haven" and further reduce their ability to stage another 9/11 (or worse). This line of argument sounds persuasive, but it falls apart on closer examination. For starters, it is not clear that al Qaeda requires a safe haven to do damage, especially since the original organization has metastasized into smaller groups of sympathizers (such as the group that bombed the Madrid railway station in 2004).
Equally important, the United States is not going to mount a large scale invasion of Pakistan, which is what would be necessary to completely eliminate al Qaeda from that region. And there is little reason to think that the Pakistani military will do the job for us any time soon. Furthermore, U.S. military strikes in Pakistan -- even limited ones -- tend to undermine the Pakistani government and increase the risk that Pakistan will become a failed state. As James Traub noted in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:
Pakistan feels as if its falling apart. . .[and] American policy has arguably made the situation even worse, for the Predator-drone attacks along the border, though effective, drive the Taliban eastward, deeper into Pakistan. And the strategy has been only reinforcing hostility to the United States among ordinary Pakistanis."
Fortunately, there are ways to deny al Qaeda a safe haven (or operational base) that do not require a large U.S. ground presence in Afghanistan and do not require us to conduct extensive military operations in Pakistan. In addition to improved homeland security and more effective counter-terrorist efforts (e.g., cutting off financing, monitoring communications, sharing intelligence, etc.), the United States can launch preemptive attacks against suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan, using Predators, cruise missiles, or in some cases, Special Forces. If we remain vigilant, al Qaeda will not get the "free pass" that it enjoyed before 9/11. This will not eliminate the threat, but it can reduce its potency.
Second, one could argue that while the risk from conventional terrorism is manageable, the real danger is nuclear or WMD terrorism and that this threat justifies upping the ante in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if the commitment is costly and open-ended. Nuclear terrorism is a worrisome prospect, but doubling down in Central Asia isn't the best response to that problem. Pakistan is the key here and our primary goal should be making sure that its nuclear arsenal remains under reliable control. The best way to do that is to try to prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state. As emphasized above, using the U.S. military to go after al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas is likely to destabilize Pakistan, thus increasing the chances that nuclear materials will fall into the hands of terrorists.
Third, one might concede that the actual danger from terrorism is slight, but the political consequences of terrorist attacks are disproportionate to their actual impact. In this view, comparing the risk of terrorism to highway fatalities, or to the danger of being struck by lightning, ignores the psychological and political effects of successful terrorist operations, and rational politicians have to take the latter into account. There is no question that this is the situation we now face in the United States, but it does not have to be that way. Indeed, it is mainly the result of failed political leadership over the past eight years. If our leaders react to every terrorist incident as if it's a monumental disaster, and if they hype the terrorist threat for political advantage -- as George Bush and Dick Cheney did -- the public will surely respond by demanding that we throw more resources at the problem than is prudent. Getting the opponent to react in foolish and self-defeating ways is one of the primary goals of most terror campaigns, of course, because these blunders can help the terrorists win victories that they could not achieve otherwise. We did more damage to ourselves when we invaded Iraq than Osama bin Laden accomplished on 9/11, and an open-ended commitment in Central Asia could easily compound that error.
What we need, in fact, is a political elite (and a responsible media) that will help Americans keep the terrorism problem in perspective. Terrorism is a tactic that various groups have used throughout history, and it will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Dramatic incidents like the recent Mumbai attacks are going to happen again, no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and that includes the possibility of attacks on American soil. But if we can keep suicidal extremists from obtaining nuclear weapons, they will not be able to threaten our way of life in any meaningful way.
None of this is to say that we should ignore al Qaeda or any other terrorist group that is bent on attacking the United States, or that we should not sometimes act assertively to protect Americans at home and abroad. But the threat from al Qaeda does not justify increasing our military presence in Afghanistan, and certainly does not justify major military operations in Pakistan.
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President Obama's approach to Central Asia still strikes me as misguided. The administration isn't naïve about the scope of the task and the potential risks, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's warnings about the futility of trying to create "some sort of Central Asian Valhalla" suggests that they have more realistic expectations about what the United States can accomplish. But as our prior interventions in the Balkans, Somalia, and Iraq remind us, it's easier to walk into a quagmire than it is to walk out, and the new emphasis on "exit strategies" and "benchmarks" won't be of much help if Pakistan's internal politics remain chaotic (a safe bet) and if training more Afghan soldiers isn't the magic bullet that keeps the Taliban at bay and allows the United States to withdraw in a timely fashion. And it's clear that we won't get much additional help from our NATO allies. For some other worrisome comparisons, see Juan Cole's trenchant analysis here.
Our efforts in Central Asia are confounded by two fundamental problems. First, our understanding of Pakistani and Afghan society is limited, which makes it hard to know which groups or leaders to support and makes it virtually certain that any effort we undertake will generate lots of unintended consequences. We were once confident that Hamid Karzai would be a terrific leader, for example, but he's proven to be a disappointment. If we try to engineer his replacement, however, there's no guarantee we will end up with anyone better. Ditto Pakistan, where none of the contenders for power looks particularly promising and where their own ambitions and interests are partly (and maybe substantially) at odds with ours.
Look at this way: We have enough trouble getting reliable, efficient, and corruption-free government here at home (think Rod Blagoevich, Jack Abramoff, or the State Legislature here in Massachusetts, where the past two speakers had to resign in the face of scandals). So what makes us think we can root it out on the other side of the world? For that matter, what is the model of political transformation that we are selling to the world, given our inability to rebuild or restore deteriorating American cities like Detroit, and the serious problems of governance we observe in states like California? And that's in our own country, which we probably understand fairly well. To imagine that we know how to manage the politics of more than 200 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- who are themselves divided into a diverse array of clans, tribes, and sects -- is the very definition of hubris.
Second, our leverage in either society (and especially Pakistan) is limited by our own conviction that "we cannot afford to fail." If we are unwilling to walk away and leave either country to its fate, then President Obama's assurance that "we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check" is meaningless. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf diddled us for years because he knew we were so committed to his success that we would keep pouring in money even when we knew his government was still backing jihadi terrorists instead of cracking down on them. If, like AIG, Pakistan is "too important to fail," then what’s going to be different now?
Which brings me to the larger question: What is the strategic rationale for doubling down in Afghanistan and Pakistan? According to President Obama, the reason we are there is simple: We want to prevent these territories from becoming safe havens for terrorists who might attack the United States. In his words:
I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."
So the ultimate justification for increasing our effort in Central Asia is the danger posed by al Qaeda, and in particular, the need to deny it a "safe haven." Agreed, but while it is obvious that al Qaeda is a threat, is it of sufficient magnitude to warrant an expensive and possibly open-ended effort to re-shape the politics of this region? Although Obama denies that this is his goal, how do we "defeat al Qaeda" without doing a lot of social engineering in both places? Obama clearly doesn't think that Predator strikes against terrorist cells would be sufficient, or he wouldn't be increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and vowing to do more with Pakistan too. Vastly increasing the size of the Afghan army or convincing the Pakistani government to get serious about Islamic extremism are not politically neutral acts; indeed, their stated purpose is to alter the political environment in a positive way. Whether we admit or not, we are still engaged in nation-building.
Here we need to take a deep breath, and consider whether the actual threat we face there justifies this level of effort and commitment. In other words, we need some cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis, weighing the actual risks against the likely costs. And the latter includes the opportunity costs (i.e., the things that won't get done because we are busy trying to remake the political landscape for 32 million Afghanis and 178 million Pakistanis). I'll address that issue in a subsequent post.
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Historians a century from now will probably still be trying to explain how the United States got itself bogged down in southwest Asia, engaged in a fruitless effort to construct stable and more-or-less democratic orders there. They may understand the process, perhaps, but they will still wonder why the United States failed to learn from the costly and painful experience of great powers like Great Britain and the Soviet Union that came to grief there.
We learned yesterday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent part of her weekend making phone calls to Pakistani President Asif Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, in an effort to head off a looming showdown. The immediate crisis seems to have been defused when Zardari backed down and reappointed the former chief justice to the country's Supreme Court, but there is no reason to be optimistic over the longer term. In other words, the top American diplomat has been busy trying to manage the internal politics of a country of some 178 million people that is riddled with corruption and conflict, even though Americans have scant understanding of Pakistan's internal dynamics, little credibility with its key groups, an abysmal public image there, and few, if any, levers to pull. It is hard to think of another job for which the U.S. foreign policy establishment is less well-suited, yet we now find ourselves trying to do social engineering in Pakistan.
And if I'm reading the tea leaves right, we are probably going to get in deeper in the months ahead.
How did we get into this mess? Answer: one step at a time. Revisiting the origins of this sorry situation reminds us that great powers usually walk into debacles with their eyes wide open. Wide open, but still blind.
Mind you, I'm no expert on the politics of southwest Asia, and I don't consider myself an authority on U.S. policy there. So feel free to take the following summary with a few grains of salt. But with that caveat in mind, here's my reconstruction of the steps that led us to where we are today, and the main lesson we ought to draw from them.
Step 1 was the U.S. decision to back the Afghan mujahidin following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This step made sense at the time, given the U.S. goal of containing and eventually toppling the Soviet regime. However, the policy also involved pouring lots of money into Pakistan, which fueled corruption. Washington also turned a mostly blind eye towards Pakistan's nuclear program, because its cooperation was essential to the war against the Soviet occupation. Saudi Arabia backed the American effort with money and people (with our encouragement), and used this opportunity to fund religious schools and spread Wahhabi doctrines. As a result, the Afghan war became the crucible in which al Qaeda and other forms of jihadi terrorism were forged.
Step 2 was the policy of "dual containment," first enunciated by Martin Indyk (who was then a special assistant to President Bill Clinton) in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (which Indyk helped found) in 1993. This policy committed the United States to containing both Iraq and Iran, even though both countries were hostile to one another, and it required the United States to keep significant air and ground forces in Saudi Arabia. According to both Kenneth Pollock and Trita Parsi, "dual containment" was mostly intended to reassure Israel about a possible threat from Iran, thereby facilitating Israeli concessions during the Oslo peace process. Unfortunately, not only did we mismanage the peace process, but the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia became one of Osama bin Laden's main grievances and helped inspire his decision to go after American forces in the region and to attack the U.S. homeland on September 11, 2001.
Step 3 was the decision to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban in the wake of al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We obviously could not permit our homeland to be attacked with impunity and we certainly had ample reason to track down Bin Laden and his henchmen and bring them all to justice. But the Bush administration muffed the job. The Bush administration also committed the United States to the construction of a new Afghani political order, a challenging task which it clearly was not up to, and which maybe no U.S. administration could have accomplished.
Step 4 was the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, which reduced the resources and attention devoted to Afghanistan, allowed Bin Laden to remain at large, and enabled the Taliban to reemerge as a major actor. At the same time, our post-9/11 embrace of President Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial regime made us increasingly complicit in Pakistan’s internal affairs, at a moment when its political system was beginning to unravel again.
Lastly, Step 5: The apparent tactical success of the "surge" in Iraq and the 2008 Presidential election combined to put southwest Asia back on the front burner. The idea that "the surge worked" convinced many people that a similar approach would work in Afghanistan, even though the surge has failed to produce the all-important political reconciliation essential to genuine success in Iraq, and even though the circumstances in Afghanistan are fundamentally different from Iraq. Barack Obama, of course, took a hawkish line on Afghanistan during the campaign, mainly because doing so enabled him to criticize the Bush administration's handling of Iraq while still appearing strong on national security. Unfortunately, it also committed the new president to a foolish course of action.
The lesson is clear: we have gradually waded into the southwest Asian "Big Muddy" not as the result of a coherent strategic plan, but rather through a set of reactive and essentially tactical decisions extending back several decades. Apart from the invasion of Iraq, which was an obvious blunder, each of these other decisions might be defensible on its own. Taken together, however, they add up to a costly strategic misstep. And things could get much worse if we are not careful.
What we need to do at this critical juncture is to stop, take a deep breath, and ask the bedrock question that underpins any grand strategy: what are our vital interests in this part of the world? As I've suggested before, our interests in southwest Asia are minimal, and they are not likely to be furthered by a large-scale and protracted U.S. military presence. Specifically, we don't want terrorists using this territory to organize attacks on U.S. soil, and we want whoever is governing Pakistan to keep its small nuclear arsenal under lock and key. As Leslie Gelb convincingly argued in a recent op-ed, achieving those two goals does not require extensive social engineering in either country. Wading deeper into Afghanistan and Pakistan is a fool's errand, and one that Obama will one day regret.
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"A containment strategy places a ceiling on the threat while awaiting its eventual internal collapse. Against this, it allows more time to jihadists, possibly on a generational timescale, for further atrocities. But a hyperactive strategy of ‘rollback’ risks the more likely outcomes of financial haemorrhage, the erosion of constitutional liberties and the inflaming of other world crises. Consider this in blunt policy terms. An Al-Qaeda at large, trying full-time to stay alive, pursued by an ever-growing set of enemies, even with the remote chance that it inflicts a terrible blow, is less dangerous than wars with Iran or Pakistan, an emptied treasury or a shredded constitution. Trading off time and conceding longevity to the enemy for the sake of lowering the war’s costs is worth it. This is because Al-Qaeda’s capacity to hurt America is less than America’s capacity to hurt itself. The ‘war on terror’ is a war declared on a tactical method rather than an identifiable group, for cosmic rather than achievable goals, with little grasp of ends, ways and means or weighing of vital versus peripheral interests.”For my immediate post-9/11 thoughts on this same subject, take a look at this admittedly dated piece. I got some things wrong (i.e., I was too ambitious about Afghanistan, too willing to coddle governments in places like Pakistan, and too confident that the U.S. would act smartly), but the Bush administration mostly did the exact opposite of what I suggested and we all know how that turned out.
President Obama has decided to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by roughly 17,000 troops over the next few months. The increase will begin with an initial deployment of 8,000 Marines in the next few weeks, to be followed by subsequent deployments of an Army brigade of 4,000 troops and about 5,000 support troops next summer.
This is a fateful decision. Yes, I know; he promised that he would do this during the campaign, but ignoring campaign promises is a time-honored tradition and I can't help feeling like this was one issue where a rethink was called for. Instead of being just another one of George Bush's mishandled legacies, Afghanistan will now become Obama's war. If increasing U.S. forces doesn't work, he will face pressure to do still more, and he will incur the political costs of any subsequent failure.
As other commentators have noted, what's missing in the announcement is a clear statement of U.S. strategy. To begin with, as William Pfaff notes here, it is not clear what our present goal is. Are we trying to bolster President Karzai, and do we still hope to build a stable democracy there? Is our real objective to defeat the Taliban once-and-for-all and eradicate poppy growing while we're at it? Is the objective the long-term delegitimation of the central Asian strains of Islamic extremism, and the encouragement of more moderate forms of Islamic observance? Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already told Congress that we are not trying to create "some kind of Central Asian Valhalla" (which is both realistic and smart), but that still leaves a lot of other possibilities open.
In fact, we have only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a safe haven for groups plotting attacks on American soil or on Americans abroad, as al Qaeda did prior to September 11. It might be nice to achieve some other goals too (such as economic development, better conditions for women, greater political participation, etc.), but these goals are neither vital to U.S. national security nor central to the future of freedom in the United States or elsewhere. Deep down, we don't (or shouldn't) care very much who governs in Afghanistan, provided they don't let anti-American bad guys use their territory to attack us. As I recall, President Bush was even willing to let the Taliban stay in power in 2001 if they had been willing to hand us Osama and his henchmen.
Second, it is not clear what the additional troops are going to do once they get there. In Iraq, we faced a mostly urban-based insurgency, and the so-called "surge" focused primarily on stabilizing Baghdad. By contrast, the Taliban is a rural movement, and an additional 17,000 troops (or even 30,000), won't be enough to provide reliable protection for the Afghan people. And as Juan Cole and Rory Stewart have warned, using U.S. and NATO troops to eradicate opium poppies or to engage in other forms of social engineering is likely to provoke a local backlash and make the Taliban even more popular.
Going forward, here are some critical things to watch:
1. Do the United States and its allies devote more resources to training the Afghan national army, and do these efforts succeed? If so, then we ought to follow the Iraq model and turn the country back to the Afghans as quickly as we can.
2. Is Obama able to persuade our NATO allies to increase their own efforts there, or will they mostly free-ride on Uncle Sam? (And watch out for token deployments intended to signal that the rest of NATO is with us on this one, but that have no real effect on the ground).
3. Can Obama (or more precisely, Richard Holbrooke) get Pakistan to do more to deny safe havens in Pakistan's frontier areas? If not, more U.S. troops on one side of the border won't have much effect. Does the recent ceasefire in the Swat Valley generate a backlash against the extremists who are imposing Shariah (as my FP colleague Thomas Ricks hopes), or do these groups continue to extend their sway?
4. President Karzai is increasingly seen as the weak leader of one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. Was this new commitment of U.S. troops linked to specific changes in Karzai's policies, or did we just do this on our own? My understanding is that the surge in Iraq also involved pressuring Prime Minister Maliki to crack down on both Shiite and Sunni militias (rather than just the latter), a decision that helped reduce violence and may even have enhanced his own legitimacy somewhat. Before we decided to up the ante in Afghanistan, did we get some a clear commitment to reform from Karzai, and do we think he has to backbone to pull it off? If not, we're in trouble. Do the names Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen van Thieu ring any bells?
Given Central Asia's potential to become the bottomless pit of American foreign and military policy, I hope Obama's decision pays off. But it's hard to have much confidence at this stage, until we know what the objective is and why he thinks adding more troops is going to get us there.
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President Bush defended his presidency yesterday by noting that "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Depending on your definition of "terrorism," this claim is about as accurate as his claims about Iraqi WMD. See here or here. And it's worth remembering that the only major foreign terrorist attack on American soil in our history occurred on Bush's watch, and anti-American terrorist groups have conducted major attacks in Jordan, Indonesia, Spain, and a number of other countries since 9/11. I think the Bush administration did some smart things after 9/11 (such as ousting al Qaeda from its safe haven in Afghanistan) and I'm glad that we haven't suffered another attack, but the fact there hasn't been any large-scale foreign terrorist attack on American soil is an insufficient criterion for judging the "war on terror," not to mention an entire presidency.
A reader writes in from Colombia to suggest a topic: "what is a/the 'realist perspective' on waterboarding?"
My answer: for starters, realism doesn't take a normative or ethical position re waterboarding (or other morally questionable practices). Realism is a positive theory of international politics, not a normative theory, and it is essentially amoral. It explains why international politics is a competitive arena and why states act as they do, but it is mostly silent on whether this behavior is morally acceptable. Put differently, it doesn't purport to tell national leaders the morally correct thing to do. This is not to say that realists do not have moral beliefs of their own (which could include a firm belief that waterboarding was morally wrong). But that's not a conclusion that follows from the premises of realist theory.
Of course, realists aren't surprised when states commit morally dubious acts, whether it is dropping bombs on civilians in wartime (see under Gaza), or torturing suspected terrorists. Realism depicts international politics as a rough business, and in the absence of a central authority that can enforce moral or legal constraints, realists expect most states will be willing to cross these lines on occasion. That's why realists emphasize both the importance of power and the need for prudent statecraft: if you are weak or foolish, other states might do something pretty nasty to you. And a case can be made that following realist principles can also produce more moral outcomes as well.
That said, I think there is a fairly strong realist case against waterboarding. Realism emphasizes that foreign and defense policy should advance the national interest, and that one way to do that is to minimize the number of enemies one faces and maximize the amount of international support one can expect. Using waterboarding and other forms of torture undermines both goals, especially for a country as strong as the United States.
Other countries naturally worry about the concentration of power in American hands, and they will worry all the more if they think that power might be exercised arbitrarily or cruelly, even against suspected bad guys. Relying on waterboarding and other forms of torture also makes the United States look hypocritical; if we are willing to violate our professed principles in this realm, can others count on anything we say in other areas? Torturing people also gives our enemies a powerful rhetorical argument to use against us and makes us seem more like them, which in turn makes it harder for us to rally others to our side. And the real kicker is the likelihood that the information gained through torture is probably not as reliable as information gleaned through other methods, because someone being tortured is likely to say anything that will get the inquisitors to stop. A realist might accept waterboarding as a regrettable necessity if it provided information that was absolutely essential to protecting the country (which is why those who support the use of torture tend to rely on "ticking bomb" scenarios), but a number of experts on interrogation have cast serious doubts on that view.
Note that this last point is not a moral argument against waterboarding; it is the sort of pragmatic argument that flows from realist theory. One could make independent moral arguments against this practice as well.
For what it's worth, I think waterboarding is a bad idea on both grounds.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.