If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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I know many foreign policy mavens are obsessed with Obama's trip to Israel, and we are already seeing an explosion of punditry attempting to tell us What It All Means. Because I don't think the trip will accomplish anything worth remembering, I've decided to refrain from commenting unless something surprising or significant occurs. So far, nada.
Instead, I gave an interview to The European (an online publication in Germany) offering a post-mortem on Iraq and its implications for transatlantic relations. You can read it here.
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The ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is generating a variety of post-mortems and reflections from many of the participants in the pre-war debate. Andrew Sullivan has been especially forthright in acknowledging his own errors during that time and has a lively thread up and running probing what some famous people like Bill Clinton had to say on the matter a decade or so ago.
Going to war is a fateful decision for any country, but it is now clear that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment performed abysmally during the run-up to the war. Top officials in the Bush administration told several important lies to bolster the case for war, such as the claim that there was no doubt Iraq had WMD -- indeed, they said they knew where they were - -and the charge that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda.
The majority of prominent Democrats and plenty of card-carrying liberals backed the war as well. Indeed, almost all of the top foreign policy officials in Obama's first term were vocal supporters of the invasion, with the president himself being a notable exception. Denizens of the usual Washington think-tanks -- including supposedly "moderate" organizations like Brookings and bipartisan organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations -- were also filled with pro-war cheerleaders. The same was true of the New York Times and Washington Post, whose editors and reporters swallowed the Bush team's sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. All in all, the decision to invade was taken with a degree of carelessness and callowness unworthy of any country with pretensions to global leadership. And one should never forget that this reckless decision cost more than $1 trillion and led to thousands of American battlefield casualties and many ruined lives. Of course, the Iraqi people have suffered even more over the past decade.
But not everyone thought invading Iraq was a good idea. In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, "War with Iraq is Not in America's National Interest." You can read the original ad here. It is striking how accurate its warnings were. At the risk of sounding like I am bragging, I was one of the signatories, although I certainly take no pleasure in having anticipated the trouble ahead. It would have been better for the United States, not to mention Iraq, if the hawks had been proven right. Sadly, this was not to be.
As the ten-year anniversary nears, I want to call attention to the other people who signed the ad and helped pay for its publication. Some of them are no longer with us, but their prescience and their willingness to resist the stampede for war should not go unremembered. Here are the other signatories, with their professional affiliations at the time.
Robert Art, Brandeis
Richard Betts, Columbia
Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia
Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky
Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas
Alexander L. George, Stanford
Charles Glaser, University of Chicago
Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State
George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky
Robert Jervis, Columbia
Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh
Carl Kaysen, MIT
Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington
Deborah Larson, UCLA
Jack S. Levy, Rutgers
Peter Liberman, Queen's College
John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
Steven E. Miller, Harvard University
Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern
Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago
Barry R. Posen, MIT
Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley
George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland
Richard Rosecrance, UCLA
Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland
Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State
Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina
Jack L. Snyder, Columbia
Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland
Stephen Van Evera, MIT
Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia
Cindy Williams, MIT
It is worth noting that none of the signatories on this list has held a government position since then, and my guess is that none is likely to do so in the future. Instead, it is mostly people who backed the war who have occupied key policymaking positions in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Even today, a reputation for hawkishness is a prerequisite for being taken seriously in Washington.
Policymakers and pundits love to disparage "ivory-tower" academics for being aloof, out-of-touch, or insufficiently sensitive to how the real world works. Sometimes those charges are valid. But in this case -- and many others -- it was the "experts" inside-the-Beltway who got it tragically wrong and the academics who got it right.
Postscript: A subsequent effort to critique the Bush administration's handling of the war -- organized under the aegis of "Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy" -- produced an open letter signed by 851 people. The text is here; an account of this group's activities can be found here.
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The flap over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense -- brought to you, like so many other foolish things, by hardliners in the Israel lobby -- has been a distraction from the real questions that the next secretary of defense ought to be ready to address. I happen to think Hagel is a good choice for the position, but he shouldn't get a free ride when he testifies tomorrow. In that spirit, here are the Ten Questions I'd Ask Chuck Hagel on Thursday.
1. On China: "Do you think China's rising power poses a serious threat to U.S. interests? If its power continues to rise, should the United States continue to strengthen its Asian alliances and move more military forces to Asia? What other steps should the United States take now to protect its geopolitical interests in Asia, and how can we avoid a new Cold War there?"
2. On Taiwan: "As China's naval, air, and missile capabilities increase, defending Taiwan will become increasingly difficult. If at some point defending Taiwan is no longer militarily feasible, what should the United States do?"
3. On cyberwar: "Are you worried that America's use of cyberwarfare capabilities -- such as the famous STUXNET attack on Iran -- is setting a dangerous precedent for others? Given our growing dependence on computer networks, shouldn't we be actively pursuing some sort of a global regime to limit this danger, instead of assuming we will always be better at it than others?
Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"
#4. On nuclear weapons: "If it were solely up to you, sir, how many nuclear weapons would you maintain in the U.S. stockpile, even if other states did not reduce their arsenals at all?"
#5: On U.S.-Japanese relations: "The U.S.-Japanese security treaty is decidedly one-sided. As MIT professor Barry Posen points out, the treaty commits us to defending Japan while Japan promises to help. Shouldn't this arrangement be reversed? Why should America be more committed to defending Japan than the Japanese are? As secretary of defense, what will you do to produce a more equitable sharing of burdens between the U.S. and its wealthiest allies?"
#6: On torture: "Are you comfortable with how the Obama administration dealt with the previous use of torture by U.S. personnel? Do you think the officials who authorized torture and other war crimes should have been prosecuted?"
#7: On Iraq and Afghanistan: "In the past decade, the United States has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in two major conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the obvious lesson that we should not start foolish wars, what other lessons should the U.S. military be learning from these twin failures?"
#8: On the global military footprint: "The United States has hundreds of bases and other military facilities in every continent of the world; no other country comes even close. In the absence of a serious peer competitor, does our security really depend on this enormous global footprint? Which facilities could we do without?"
Bonus follow-up: "Defense experts also agree that America's basing structure at home is inefficient. As Secretary, are there any bases you would close or consolidate?
#9: On rape in the U.S. armed forces: "President Obama has recently authorized the deployment of women in combat roles. Yet sexual harassment and rape have reached epidemic proportions within the U.S. military, with over 3000 incidents per year being reported. What do you intend to do about this?"
#10: On veterans' benefits: "The United States should pay its soldiers a fair wage and stand by its veterans. Yet a number of budget experts now believe that ever-escalating benefit packages threaten our ability to maintain an effective defense. Do you think our current approach to military compensation is about right, or does it need to be fundamentally rethought? If the latter, how?"
If anybody asks him a few questions like that, they might even forget about some of those other issues, and the Senators might learn something useful about his qualifications and judgment.
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FP colleague Dan Drezner is clearly feeling generous this holiday season, which is a wonderful thing. Yet at the same time, I miss his normally sharp-elbowed intelligence. To be specific, his recent post is too forgiving of the incestuous relationship between Iraq/Afghan commander David Petraeus and inside-the-Beltway operators Fred and Kimberly Kagan, as well as of the other think-tankers Petraeus "consulted" with during his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his credit, Dan acknowledges that there are troubling features in this case. It bothers him that Kimberly Kagan hinted that they'd say critical things about the Afghan campaign unless they got more cooperation from the Pentagon, and then penned upbeat stuff once they got what they wanted. Dan also thinks exploiting their relationship with Petraeus for fundraising purposes was "unseemly" (an uncharacteristically timid charge for him.) And he's bothered by the reports that they overstepped their role as consultants and seemed to interfere with the chain of command.
Dan's main defense of the Petraeus/Kagan relationship is that military commanders ought to get outside their own bureaucratic environments on occasion and solicit informed advice from independent experts. It is hard to disagree with this general observation, but the devil is in the details and in this case they are pretty damning.
The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that's exactly what they did.
Here's the basic structure of the situation. If you're a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren't known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.
Next, consider how this looks from the consultants' perspective. If you're an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you're someone who depends on soft money), it's a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let's not forget the role of ego: it's just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
Your well-scripted tour of the battle zone will probably convince you things are generally okay, of course, but you may still have a few doubts or questions and you may even express them to the commanders who invited you over. But what you won't do is tell them that the entire enterprise is misguided, or return home and write a hard-hitting piece explaining why the strategy is wrong or that the war effort is likely to fail. Because if you did that, it would be the last invitation you'd ever get and you wouldn't be able to play up your insider status anymore. Even worse, powerful people inside the national security bureaucracy might start bad-mouthing you, thereby diminishing your clout in Washington and destroying any hopes you might have had about serving in the government.
To see how well this works, ask yourself: How many of the people who took advantage of Petraeus' hospitality ended up writing critical assessments of his strategy or offered pessimistic forecasts about the prospects for victory? Not Michael O'Hanlon or Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, not Max Boot or Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and certainly not the Kagans. I haven't done a comprehensive survey of everything that Petraeus' various advisors have written since then, but my impression is that virtually all of them remained upbeat about both wars for quite some time and none were critical early on. And it isn't as if there wasn't plenty of evidence that both of these wars were going badly.
Dan and I agree in principle: U.S. government officials and military commanders should sometimes solicit independent outside advice. And I have no problem with academics offering advice if they feel they have something to contribute. But we ought to recognize from the start that these relations are fraught with the potential for corruption and cooptation. Powerful leaders aren't likely to solicit advice from people who aren't already sympathetic to their views, and even scholars with considerable integrity will find it hard to keep their bearings, speak truth to power, and tell the rest of us what's really going on.
I'm in Dubai for meetings of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils, which provide some of the background information and agenda setting for Davos and other WEF activities. I've been assigned to the group assessing "geopolitical risks" for 2013, so I'll be spending the next two days trying to figure out where dire things might happen in the next year (and where they won't).
Dubai itself is sort of like Disneyland-on-steroids, and I won't try to embellish on all the other descriptions of the place. But as I rode in my taxi to the hotel last night, I was also struck by the thought that the UAE (of which Dubai is a part) and other states like Qatar and Brunei, might be something of a realist anomaly. The puzzle is this: How is it possible for very small, very rich, yet militarily weak countries to retain their independence? Why haven't rapacious great powers or greedy neighbors gobbled these countries up long ago, and seized all that valuable oil and gas for themselves? If the world is as dog-eat-dog as realists depict, why are these states still in business?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that these states have enjoyed great power protection for a long time, originally from Great Britain and subsequently from the United States. Their rulers have accommodated their protectors in most ways, in exchange for implicit or explicit security guarantees. In short, realism does explain a lot of why these states have survived: It was in the interests of some powerful countries to keep them safe and secure.
But why didn't Britain or the United States take these places over and keep all that oil wealth for themselves? Simple. It turned out to be easier to let local elites run these societies, instead of turning them into sullen and resentful colonies. In the British case, moreover, the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing center coincided with Britain's imperial decline, signified by the Suez debacle in 1956 and the decision to withdraw military forces east of Suez in 1967. So Britain was in no position to take these places over anyway.
The United States has never been a very enthusiastic colonial power, and U.S. leaders wisely preferred to exercise influence indirectly and keep U.S. ground forces out of the region. As the experiments with "dual containment" in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, getting too heavily engaged trying to run the region directly is not something the United States is very good at. Nor was it necessary.
A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else's expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.
The third reason why these states retain their independence is the norm of sovereignty. It may be an accident of geology that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and others ended up with so much wealth underneath their soil, but once a country's government and borders have been recognized by others, the status quo takes on a life of its own and efforts to overturn it face an uphill fight. Saddam Hussein tried to convince the world that Kuwait was Iraq's "19th province" in order to make his invasion seem more legitimate, but nobody bought the argument and his invasion was seen as naked aggression. Because altering borders via force has become less and less legitimate over time, states can be really rich and really vulnerable and still be somewhat protected.
Finally, small countries like Dubai enhance their security by making themselves more valuable to others as independent entities than they would be as colonies. Dubai has established itself is a financial center, entrepot, cultural oasis, and diplomatic hub, which is precisely why the WEF is here this week. It has close ties with the West, but still has formal and informal dealings with others, including states such as Iran. In the broadest sense, the global community is probably better off with a few countries occupying this sort of niche, just as Switzerland did for decades, and that means that most countries would rather have it be independent than out of business.
Which is not to say that security in the Gulf is guaranteed, or that realism can't account for these states' survival (see #s 1 and 2 above). Given the diplomatic stalemate with Iran, in fact, it's easy to imagine scenarios where the present Gulf order would come under significant strain. But I'm betting it won't, if only because hardly anybody really has much interest in that happening. Now if only one could be confident that sensible self-interest would always prevail....
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As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he'd implement Obama's foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush's second term foreign policy agenda.
But Romney's sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn't ask:
"Governor, you maintain that you're a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God's name are you listening to them?"
To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn't dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn't imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam's character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.
Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don't look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won't remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.
The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren't very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don't hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool -- military force -- is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America's deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America's liberal/Wilsonian ideals.
Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran's interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.
Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third -- an even more expensive camera with even more features -- the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.
And that's the genius of neoconservatism's frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don't bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don't like (and it's a long list). No president -- not even George W. Bush -- has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they're pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.
Neoconservatism's final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn't follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that's because Bush didn't attack Iran and Syria too, or it's because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush's watch, it's because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it's because we didn't send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn't go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.
To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama's stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn't big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there's hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded.
In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you'll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they'll just say you failed because you didn't follow their advice to the letter.
In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can't tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.
Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what's he doing with all those neocons?
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If you're one of those people who still thinks it would be a good idea to attack Iran, you might spend a moment or two reflecting on the past week of events in the Middle East. If a stupid and amateurish video can ignite violent anti-American protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, just imagine what a joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran would do.
And don't be misled by the fact that a few Arab leaders are also worried about Iran's nuclear program. Some of them are, though they aren't going on the American airwaves to demand "red lines" and set the stage for preventive war. More importantly, surveys of Arab opinion suggest that these publics aren't that worried about Iran's nuclear potential, which they rightly see as a counter to America's military dominance and to Israel's already-existing stockpile of nuclear weapons. If the United States and/or Israel decides to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, it's going to be seen in the region as the latest manifestation of Western hostility to Islam, as well as another sign that we are actively trying to dominate the region. Public sentiment will be overwhelmingly against us, and current governments will have little choice but to go along with it.
There are big problems throughout the Middle East these days: civil war in Syria, low-level violence in Iraq, pervasive instability in Yemen, armed militias in Libya, uncertainty in Egypt, slow-motion ethnic cleansing on the West Bank, and a host of others. But no set of problems is so great that we couldn't make them a lot worse.
Today we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
Effective strategy requires thinking more than one move ahead, and not basing momentous decisions on worst-case assumptions about the risks of inaction and best-case forecasts about the benefits that war will bring. It was obvious at the time that destroying Iraq would tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in Iran's favor, and there was no good reason to expect it to produce the pro-American tilt that the neocons promised. So America ended up replacing an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad with one that is at least partially attuned to Tehran's wishes, with the bill for the operation being footed by the U.S. taxpayer.
This issue might not matter that much had we really learned from the experience, and if the people who got us into that foolish war had been put out to pasture. But as I've noted before, failure doesn't have any real consequences in America's foreign policy community, which is why the architects of the Iraq war still have safe sinecures at D.C. think-tanks, still have prominent platforms on FOX News and other major media outlets, and still have trusted positions advising the Romney campaign. Of course, the Democrats who backed the war haven't suffered any career penalties either, which may help you understand why things haven't improved as much as some of us hoped they would back in 2008.
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I'm just back from a brief trip to Maine, to give a lecture at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. As I have in a couple of other venues, I spoke on the similarities and differences between the earlier campaign for war with Iraq and the current debate over war with Iran. The main similarity, of course, is that the same groups and individuals who pushed hardest for war with Iraq are also in the vanguard of the groups pusshing for war with Iran today. But there are also some critical differences, most notably the fact that the Obama administration isn't staffed by die-hard neoconservatives and Obama isn't as gullible as Bush and Cheney turned out to be. For those of us who believe that war with Iran is neither necessary nor wise, this is good news.
My hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the attendees asked a lot of smart questions, so I had an excellent time. A fair number of the people I met have backgrounds in international affairs (in business, academia, government, intelligence, etc.), and all are obviously engaged by the subject. I didn't hand out a questionnaire so I don't know what everyone in attendance thought, but I was struck by two themes in both the Q & A at my talk and in my private conversations with various members.
First, I detected no support for any sort of war with Iran. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not by us, not by Israel, and not by anybody else. It's possible that some people in the audience would use force as a last resort, but no one in the audience or in private spoke in favor of that option or even asked a question that leaned in that direction. (One retired government official said he believed there would eventually be a war, but he made it clear that he thought that it was a terrible idea). Instead, they were mostly interested in what could be done to prevent a war, and several questions centered on what could be done to improve U.S.-Iranian relations over the longer term. That view, by the way, is more-or-less consistent with recent surveys showing relatively little support for the "military option." This result is especially telling given that Americans also seem to hold quite alarmist views about Iran's nuclear intentions, and given that the war party has been working overtime to hype the threat for years.
Second, I was also struck by the intelligent skepticism that several attendees expressed regarding America's global role. This was a sophisticated group, and most of the people with whom I spoke would be considered "internationalist" in orientation. Yet several also spoke against what they perceived as excessive U.S. interventionism, and one openly complained about the U.S. serving as the "world's policeman." Statements such as these reinforce my sense that a lot of well-informed Americans recognize that trying to run most of the world isn't in America's interest or the world's interest, and that a smarter and more selective approach to global engagement would be easy to sell.
In fact, because the United States is in reality amazingly secure (relative to most other nations) it takes a lot of effort to get us to shoulder all these international burdens. Our leaders and other interested parties have to do a lot of threat-mongering, usually by treating minor powers as if they were looming international dangers. And these minor powers can't be portrayed merely as regimes with whom we have differences; they have to be given scary labels like the "Axis of Evil" or demonized as the Greatest Threat to Human Decency since Hitler (or Stalin, or Saddam, or Genghis Khan or whomever). Advocates of endless intervention also rely on elaborate domino-theory scenarios whereby some obscure setback somewhere eventually leads to a snafu, which triggers a defeat, which in turn provokes a crisis, which then undermines our credibility, which leads allies to defect, and eventually leaves us isolated and vulnerable. Via this sort of logic, victory is necessary in Afghanistan or else someday North Korea will invade and conquer all of North America.
As I said, these impressions aren't based on a scientific survey, and the views expressed above are my own. But the whole trip made me wish that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could spend less time with their advisors and less time cuddling up to fat cat donors with bellicose agendas, and more time talking about foreign policy with well-informed regular citizens. I'll bet they'd discover that what passes for unquestioned truth inside-the-Beltway is much less widely accepted in a lot of other places.
Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
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A heads-up for readers with time on their hands: I'll be delivering the annual Hisham Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington DC tomorrow at noon. The title of my talk is "Deja Vu All Over Again?: Iraq, Iran, and the Israel Lobby," and I'll be comparing the campaign for war against Iraq and the current campaign for military action against Iran. There are some obvious similarities between these two episodes but also some important differences, for which we can be grateful. The lecture will be live-streamed here.
UPDATE: You can watch a recording of the lecture here.
Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
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This month marks the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless of your views on the wisdom of that decision, it's fair to say the results were not what most Americans expected. Now that the war is officially over and most U.S. forces have withdrawn, what lessons should Americans (and others) draw from the experience? There are many lessons that one might learn, of course, but here are my Top 10 Lessons from the Iraq War.
Lesson #1: The United States lost. The first and most important lesson of Iraq war is that we didn't win in any meaningful sense of that term. The alleged purpose of the war was eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but it turns out he didn't have any. Oops. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran's position in the Persian Gulf -- which is hardly something the United States intended -- and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan), and it made the United States much less popular around the world.
This lesson is important because supporters of the war are already marketing a revisionist version. In this counter-narrative, the surge in 2007 was a huge success (it wasn't, because it failed to produce political reconciliation) and Iraq is now on the road to stable and prosperous democracy. And the costs weren't really that bad. Another variant of this myth is the idea that President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus had "won" the war by 2008, but President Barack Obama then lost it by getting out early. This view ignores the fact that the Bush administration negotiated the 2008 Status of Forces agreement that set the timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and Obama couldn't stay in Iraq once the Iraqi government made it clear it wanted us out.
The danger of this false narrative is obvious: if Americans come to see the war as a success -- which it clearly wasn't -- they may continue to listen to the advice of its advocates and be more inclined to repeat similar mistakes in the future.
Read the entire piece here.
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You know a case for war is weak when its advocates have to marshal blatant untruths in order to convince people that their advice should be followed. Exhibit A is today's alarmist op-ed in the New York Times, in which former IDF general Amos Yadlin argues for a preventive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
He recites the by-now familiar arguments for an attack, and makes it clear that he thinks Obama should make an "ironclad" pledge to do it if Iran doesn't cease its nuclear activities. But the big historical howler comes in the middle of the piece, where he attempts to deal with the counter-argument that an attack would only delay an Iranian program, and probably not for all that long. He writes:
"After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed."
This claim is at best deeply misleading and at worst simply false. It's technically true that there hasn't been a resumption of either the Iraqi or Syrian programs since 2007, but what about there the twenty-six year gap between the Osirak raid in 1981 and the raid on Syria? What happened during those intervening years? As Malfrid Hegghammer, Daniel Reiter, and Richard Betts have all shown, the destruction of Osirak led to an elite consensus that Iraq needed its own deterrent, and led Saddam Hussein to order a redoubling of Iraq's nuclear program in a more clandestine fashion. This effort was so successful that the UN inspectors who entered Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War were surprised by how extensive the program was and how close it had come to producing a bomb. Indeed, if Saddam had been smart enough to wait a few more years, he might have crossed the nuclear finish line.
Thus, the true history teaches the opposite lesson from the one Yadlin is proposing. In the Iraqi case, a preventive strike reinforced Iraq's interest in acquiring a deterrent, and led Iraq to pursue it in ways that were more difficult to detect or prevent. That is what Iran is likely to do as well if Israel or the United States were foolish enough to strike them. U.S. intelligence still believes Iran has not made a final decision to weaponize; ironically, an Israeli or U.S. attack is the step that is most likely to push them over the edge.
It's hardly surprising that some Israelis would like the United States to shoulder the burden of bombing Iran. It's also not surprising that they would make up specious arguments or distort history to do this; the Bush administration got us into the Iraq war in the same way. But the Times' editors ought to insist that op-eds, whatever their positions, meet at least minimum standards for historical accuracy. And they don't even need to scour the academic literature; all they had to do was keep track of what they had already published.
In any case, if Americans fall for this sort of contorted historical analysis, we'll have only ourselves to blame. Instead of giving "ironclad" guarantees that we will launch preventive war, we'd be better served if Obama merely reminded Netanyahu that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak doesn't think Iran is an existential threat, and that the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has called an attack on Iran the "the stupidest thing I ever heard."
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A perennial preoccupation of U.S. diplomacy has been the perceived need to reassure allies of our reliability. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that any loss of credibility might cause dominoes to fall, lead key allies to "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union, or result in some form of "Finlandization." Such concerns justified fighting so-called "credibility wars" (including Vietnam), where the main concern was not the direct stakes of the contest but rather the need to retain a reputation for resolve and capability. Similar fears also led the United States to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, as a supposed counter to Soviet missiles targeted against our NATO allies.
The possibility that key allies would abandon us was almost always exaggerated, but U.S. leaders remain overly sensitive to the possibility. So Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the road this past week, telling various U.S. allies that "the United States isn't going anywhere." (He wasn't suggesting we're stuck in a rut, of course, but saying that the imminent withdrawal from Iraq doesn't mean a retreat to isolationism or anything like that.)
There's nothing really wrong with offering up this sort of comforting rhetoric, but I've never really understood why U.S. leaders were so worried about the credibility of our commitments to others. For starters, given our remarkably secure geopolitical position, whether U.S. pledges are credible is first and foremost a problem for those who are dependent on U.S. help. We should therefore take our allies' occasional hints about realignment or neutrality with some skepticism; they have every incentive to try to make us worry about it, but in most cases little incentive to actually do it.
Don't get me wrong: having allies around the world is useful and some attention needs to be paid to preserving intra-alliance solidarity, especially when the ally in question does have important things that we want or need. But an excessive concern for credibility encourages and enables allies to free-ride (something most of them have done for decades), and it can lead Washington to keep pouring resources into shaky endeavors lest allies elsewhere doubt our resolve.
This logic is wrong-headed, because squandering billions on fruitless endeavors (see under: Afghanistan) ultimately leaves one weaker overall and eventually diminishes public support for active engagement abroad. By contrast, liquidating a costly burden enables you to rebuild and regroup and puts you in a better position to respond in places that matter. The real message that Biden and other U.S. representatives should be telling their listeners is that getting out of Iraq (and eventually Afghanistan) is going to improve America's ability to protect its real interests, and that important U.S. allies need not be that concerned.
More importantly, worrying a bit less about our credibility and "playing hard to get" on occasion would have real benefits. If other states were a bit less confident that the United States would come to their aid if asked, they would be willing to do more to ensure that we would. If key U.S. allies are not entirely convinced of U.S. support no matter what they did, they would be less likely to engage in dangerous or provocative acts of their own. Moreover, playing "hard to get" reduces the likelihood that the United States will be perceived as a trigger-happy global policeman. As the cases of the Balkans in the 1990s and the recent Libyan intervention illustrate, when Washington is more reluctant to take on collective burdens, it ends up being appreciated (and less feared) when it finally does get involved. Thus, worrying a bit less about U.S. credibility is a way to get others to do more, and to resent what we do less.
To be clear: I'm not saying the United States should cultivate a reputation for unreliability or capriciousness. It should make commitments that are consistent with its interests and, so long as those interests do not change, it should do its best to fulfill the pledges it has made. But it ought to be hardheaded about this process, and proceed from the clear understanding that most of our allies need us more than we need them (at least most of the time). There will still be hard bargaining on occasion, a need for constructive and empathetic diplomacy, and there is little to be gained from treating our allies with visible disdain. But the United States still holds a lot of high cards, and we should expect allies to spend as much time reassuring us that they are worth the effort as we do reassuring them.
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It's Thanksgiving once again, and it's become something of a ritual for me to record what I'm feeling grateful for each year. For starters, I want to thank the various people who responded to my request for advice on "policy analysis" yesterday, both via the "comments" section and to me directly. I got some very good suggestions, and I appreciate the help. Whether my students will be similarly appreciative remains to be seen.
This year, I'm thankful that the euro hasn't collapsed - yet -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't. It's true that the unraveling of the eurozone would be a striking vindication of a broadly realist view of international relations, but it would also produce tremendous human suffering and that's way too big a price to pay to vindicate a theory. So I hope Europe's leaders manage to defy my usual pessimism and navigate through the crisis. If they do, I'll be even more thankful next year.
I'm also grateful that there's been no war with Iran. Whatever the Obama administration's other shortcomings might have been, those at the top seem to have understood the folly and futility of unleashing major military action against Iran. I won't give them high marks for imaginative diplomacy, but at least they haven't done great harm.
I'm also giving thanks that the United States is getting out of Iraq, and I wish I could believe that we will draw the right long-term lessons from the debacle. On that score, it is not a good sign that many of the architects of that war are still taken seriously as foreign policy "experts," and some are even advising GOP candidates. Doesn't say much for our national learning curve, does it? But even if historical amnesia sets in quickly, I'm pleased that we are finally leaving Iraq to its own leaders. Now if we can just draw a similar conclusion about that other exercise in imperial futility ... Afghanistan.
Like nearly everyone, I'm troubled by the continued turmoil in Egypt and by the Assad regime's brutal behavior in Syria. But I'm thankful that the situation in Libya has thus far defied my worst fears and made at least some modest progress toward the establishment of a more legitimate political order. The capture of former heir-apparent (and accused war criminal) Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and former security head Abudullah al-Senussi pretty much eliminates any possibility of a "loyalist" insurgency, which is a good sign too. The country still has a long way to go, but I will be keeping my fingers crossed.
On a purely personal note, I'm thankful for the courageous policy analysts, writers and bloggers who make it easier for me to do this blog. I'm talking about people who seek puncture conventional wisdom, challenge orthodoxies, and rock the boat on occasion. I value them because they are an antidote to the flood of cautious semi-official narratives that dominate most of the writing on foreign policy, and so they help me think outside the box. So heartfelt thanks to Carl Conetta, Phil Weiss, Juan Cole, Gordon Adams, Martin Wolf, Jerry Haber, Uri Avnery, Jim Lobe, Helena Cobban, Glenn Greenwald, M. J. Rosenberg, John Mueller, Andrew Sullivan, Spencer Ackerman, Jerry Slater, Gideon Rachman, and many others too numerous to list or even remember. I don't know a lot of the people just mentioned, and I don't always agree with any of them. Heck, I don't always agree with this guy either. But I'm glad they are doing what they do.
Of course, I cannot omit my annual word of thanks to the whole gang at FP, including the reporters, writers, and bloggers with whom I've occasionally tussled. The editors remain a delight with whom to work, and it's been a pleasure to be part of their team. And because all bloggers ultimately depend on readers, I'm especially grateful for those of you who take the time to read this stuff.
With each passing year, I've become more aware and more appreciative of my own good fortune. It's been a pretty soft gig to be born a white American male in the mid-1950s, in a country enjoying enormous geopolitical advantages and considerable prosperity. I like to think I've done ok with the advantages I was handed, and there's no doubt that the deck was stacked in my favor from the start. And that goes for a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries too.
More broadly, if you compare the era in which most of us have lived to the previous fifty years (1900-1950), there's little question that we've enjoyed a period of comparative benevolence. The first half of the 20th century witnessed two enormously destructive world wars, the worst economic depression in history, and several brutal genocides. The past sixty years has its own share of tragedies, to be sure, but the overall level of violence was much lower, economic growth was fairly steady (until recently), and many of us never had to endure the insecurities, travesties, and sacrifices that earlier generations experienced or that were still common in other parts of the world.
Most Americans ought to be especially grateful for their extraordinary good fortune, and Thanksgiving is an appropriate time for us to reflect upon it. And as I watch Europe teeter on the brink of financial collapse, observe the violent political contestation that is sweeping the Middle East, note the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia, and contemplate the tragicomic follies of our so-called leaders in Washington, I do wonder how long it will last, and whether I will look back with regret at the tranquility we have lost.
But tomorrow, I will give thanks for the good that remains, and think about what can still be done to preserve and extend it.
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The New York Times reports that the United States is planning to beef up its security ties in the Gulf, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq. On the one hand, this makes sense given global dependence on stable oil exports from the Gulf region and the damage that the war in Iraq has done to the strategic balance there. On the other hand, a large ground or air force presence in the region is precisely the sort of thing that invites accusations of Western "imperialism," and puts the United States in a close embrace with regimes like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain. One could argue that this is one of those places where strategic necessity requires us to compromise the idealistic commitment to democracy, human rights, and other desirable things like that.
There is little question that the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 weakened our strategic position and bolstered Iran's. As the Times story makes clear, some hardliners now complain that Obama's decision to cut our (considerable) losses in Iraq will undermine U.S. interests even more. That's what I'd expect them to say, but there are good reasons to question that judgment (and not just because these same hardliners have been wrong so often in the past). In fact, withdrawal from Iraq could actually bolster our strategic position in other ways, mostly by encouraging greater frictions between Iraq and Iran.
Ever since 2003, the U.S. presence in Iraq has reinforced cooperation between Iran and some significant portions of Iraq's Shiite community, and especially those elements (such as Muktada al Sadr's Mahdi Army) who really wanted the United States to get out. But once we withdraw, then it is far from obvious that the bulk of Iraqis -- including most Iraqi leaders -- will want to become a satrap for Iran. It's true that the Sunni-Shiite divide provides Iran with some avenues of influence in Iraq society, but there's also the enduring division between Arabs and Persians and Iraq's overriding interest in not allowing Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Gulf region. Let's not forget that the two countries fought a brutal and costly war for most of the 1980s, and plenty of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites killed each other during that conflict.
The Indochina war offers an obvious historical analogy. One of the reasons the United States fought there for so long was the familiar domino theory -- the dubious idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would trigger a cascade of falling dominos and undermine the entire US position in Asia (and possibly elsewhere). But when the United States finally got out, the exact opposite thing happened: none of our other Asian allies abandoned us and China and Vietnam had a rapid falling-out that led to war between the two communist states in 1979. And over time, of course, China abandoned Maoism and Vietnam grew more and more interested in better relations with America. And let's not forget that fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash-heap of history. Once we stopped pouring troops and bombs into Indochina, in short, our strategic position began to improve and we could focus on the more serious aspects of Cold War competition.
In short, if you really think Iran is a threat to dominate the Gulf region, and if you also believe that states tend to balance against threatening powers instead of band-wagoning with them, then you should also expect the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to encourage more regional powers--including Iraq--to take actions to limit Iranian power and influence. And that might also include being a bit more favorably inclined toward the United States, despite all the other things we do that tick off people in that part of the world. That could be why we're getting a positive response to these new initiatives, and that's why getting out of Iraq may actually bolster our overall strategic position.
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If you're still wondering why the United States is in trouble these days, a good place to start is Bill Keller's piece in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. It's a softball attempt at self-criticism, in which Keller reflects on why he was wrong to favor war in Iraq, and it illustrates a lot of what is wrong with entire foreign policy establishment in the Land of the Free. The tone is mildly sorrowful, but there's only a hint of genuine regret. One gets little sense that Keller has lost much sleep over his error, and he barely acknowledges that the war he and his associates enabled left hundreds of thousands of people dead, created millions of refugees, and squandered trillions of dollars.
Instead, he tells us that his post-9/11 hawkishness came from "a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the [9/11] attack." Excuse me? I'm all for fatherly devotion, but I also expect people in a positions of authority like Keller's to keep such feelings in check and think with their heads and not just their hearts. And did Keller ever stop to think about the Iraqi fathers and daughters whose lives would be irrevocably shattered by the U.S. invasion?
Keller makes much of the fact that lots of other liberal pundits were hawkish on the war, a group he refers to as the "I Can't Believe I'm a Hawk Club." This defense amounts to saying "Ok, I was wrong, but so were a lot of other smart guys." What he fails to mention is that plenty of others got it right, including the thirty-three international security scholars who published a paid advertisement on Keller's very own op-ed page on September 27, 2002. But did Keller or any other members of the Times' editorial board reach out to them, to see if their opposition to war was well-founded? Of course not.
Finally, Keller's reflections are silent on what the Times has done to prevent similar debacles in the future. Let's not forget that Keller & Co. hired William Kristol, who deserves as much blame for the war as anyone, to write an op-ed column a few years back, long after the Iraq War had gone south. That little experiment didn't work out too well, but it gives you some idea of the Times' learning curve.
To cap it all off, turn to yesterday's Book Review, where the cover story is neoconservative David Frum's review of Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's new book on how America can get its mojo back. Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who gave us the phrase "axis of evil," and co-author (with Richard Perle) of one of the most comically over-the-top books on the "war on terror." And like Keller, Frum, Friedman and Mandelbaum were all enthusiastic Iraq War hawks too.
There you have it, folks: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Times gave prominent place to four people who were all vocal supporters of the invasion of Iraq, a decision that did far more damage to the United States than Al Qaeda ever did. Instead of holding itself accountable for its past misjudgments and looking elsewhere for expert advice, the Times -- like most of the foreign policy establishment -- continues to run on autopilot and recycle the same ideologues. And if the country keeps relying on advice from those who gotten so many big things wrong in the past, why should it expect better results?
Postscript: I did not feel inclined to join the orgy of 10th anniversary reflections this past week, but I did offer a brief assessment on the Belfer Center's website here.
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According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is backing a plan to keep some 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end-of-year deadline, albeit only in a training role. This plan would violate President Obama's pledge to remove all U.S. troops by that time, but it is fewer troops than 14,000-18,000 figure that the military reportedly recommended.
But the real kicker comes later in the article, where the Times reports:
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department ... "
The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats (my emphasis)."
My question is: Whom do we think we are fooling? Surely not the Iraqis, who aren't likely to see much difference between U.S. soldiers and U.S. "paramilitary security contractors." Indeed, the Sadrist movement has already denounced these plans, and is holding a major demonstration in Baghdad today to demand a complete U.S. withdrawal. And we aren't fooling the remaining anti-American extremists in the rest of the region, who believe that the United States is an aggressive imperial power seeking to dominate the region with military force and who will use our remaining presence-no matter how it is camouflaged-as a recruiting tool.
The real answer, I suspect, is that we fooling ourselves. By removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq. This will make it easier for Obama to claim that he ended an unpopular war and for Americans to think we won some sort of victory. Of course, the fact that the Pentagon still thinks we have to have troops there to "stabilize" the situation underscores how false the latter claim is. But one danger is that we will think we have left Iraq when we really haven't, and so we won't understand why many people there (and in neighboring countries) continue to see the United States as having designs on the region.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.
Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.
Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.
The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.
Specifically: invading Iraq was never necessary, because Saddam Hussein had no genuine links to al Qaeda and no WMD, and because he could not have used any WMD that he might one day have produced without facing devastating retaliation. It was a blunder because destroying the Ba'athist state left us in charge of a deeply divided country that we had no idea how to govern. It also destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and enhanced Iran's regional position, which was not exactly a brilliant idea from the American point of view. Invading Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, which helped the Taliban to regain lost ground and derailed our early efforts to aid the Karzai government.
President Obama inherited both of these costly wars, and his main error was not to recognize that they were not winnable at an acceptable cost. He's wisely stuck (more-or-less) to the withdrawal plan for Iraq, but he foolishly decided to escalate in Afghanistan, in the hope of creating enough stability to allow us to leave. This move might have been politically adroit, but it just meant squandering more resources in ways that won't affect the final outcome.
Today is the 21st anniversary of a key date in world history. On this date in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a train of events that would have fateful consequences for Saddam himself, but also for the United States. Indeed, one could argue that this invasion was the first step in a train of events that did enormous damage to the United States and its position in the world.
Of course, we all know what happened in the first Gulf War. After a brief period of vacillation (and a vigorous public debate on different options), the first Bush administration assembled a large and diverse international coalition and quickly mobilized an impressive array of military power (most of it American). It got approval from the U.N. Security Council for the use of force. Although a number of prominent hawks predicted that the war would be long and bloody, the U.S.-led coalition routed the third-rate Iraqi forces and destroyed much of Saddam's military machine. We then imposed an intrusive sanctions regime that dismantled Iraqi's WMD programs and left it a hollow shell. Despite hard-line pressure to "go to Baghdad," Bush & Co. wisely chose not to occupy the country. They understood what Bush's son did not: Trying to occupy and reorder the politics of a deeply divided Arab country is a fool's errand.
Unfortunately, the smashing victory in the first Gulf War also set in train an unfortunate series of subsequent events. For starters, Saddam Hussein was now firmly identified as the World's Worst Human Being, even though the United States had been happy to back him during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. More importantly, the war left the United States committed to enforcing "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq.
But even worse, the Clinton administration entered office in 1993 and proceeded to adopt a strategy of "dual containment." Until that moment, the United States had acted as an "offshore balancer" in the Persian Gulf, and we had carefully refrained from deploying large air or ground force units there on a permanent basis. We had backed the Shah of Iran since the 1940s, and then switched sides and tilted toward Iraq during the 1980s. Our goal was to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, and we cleverly played competing powers off against each other for several decades.
With dual containment, however, the United States had committed itself to containing two different countries -- Iran and Iraq -- who hated each other, which in turn forced us to keep lots of airplanes and troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We did this, as both Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi have documented, because Israel wanted us to do it, and U.S. officials foolishly believed that doing so would make Israel more compliant during the Oslo peace process. But in addition to costing a lot more money, keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for the long term also fueled the rise of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was deeply offended by the presence of "infidel" troops on Saudi territory, and so the foolish strategy of dual containment played no small role in causing our terrorism problem. It also helped derail several attempts to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Dual containment, in short, was a colossal blunder.
But no strategy is so bad that somebody else can't make it worse. And that is precisely what George W. Bush did after 9/11. Under the influence of neoconservatives who had opposed dual containment because they thought it didn't go far enough, Bush adopted a new strategy of "regional transformation." Instead of preserving a regional balance of power, or containing Iraq and Iran simultaneously, the United States was now going to use its military power to topple regimes across the Middle East and turn those countries into pro-American democracies. This was social engineering on a scale never seen before. The American public and the Congress were unenthusiastic, if not suspicious, about this grand enterprise, which forced the Bush administration to wage a massive deception campaign to get them on board for what was supposed to be the first step in this wildly ambitious scheme. The chicanery worked, and the United States launched its unnecessary war on Iraq in March 2003.
Not only did "Mission Accomplished" soon become a costly quagmire, but wrecking Iraq -- which is what we did -- destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and improved Iran's geopolitical position. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources away from the war in Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to re-emerge as a formidable fighting force. Thus, Bush's decision to topple Saddam in 2003 led directly to two losing wars, not just one. And these wars were enormously expensive to boot. Combined with Bush's tax cuts and other fiscal irresponsibilities, this strategic incompetence caused the federal deficit to balloon to dangerous levels and helped bring about the fiscal impasse that we will be dealing with for years to come.
Obviously, none of these outcomes were inevitable back in 1990. Had cooler heads and smarter strategists been in charge after the first Gulf War, we might have taken advantage of that victory to foster a more secure and stable order throughout the Middle East. In particular, we would have pulled our military forces out of the region and gone back to offshore balancing. After all, Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 did not force the United States to choose "dual containment." Nor did it make it inevitable that we would bungle the Oslo peace process, pay insufficient attention to al Qaeda's intentions, or drink the neocons' Kool-Aid and gallop off on their foolish misadventure in Iraq. But when future historians search for the moment when the "American Empire" reached its pinnacle and began its descent, the war that began 21 years ago would be a good place to start.
MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images
If you're relaxing on Memorial Day and reflecting on the sacrifices that some of our fellow citizens have made to advance the common good, I have three suggestions for things to read. All are drawn from the Sunday New York Times, and together they paint a worrisome portrait of the challenges we face as a nation.
The first article, appropriately, is a portrait of several soldiers from the 1st battalion, 87th infantry and the challenges they face as they return from Afghanistan. Several have been wounded, one has seen his marriage dissolve, all of them face an array of medical problems or personal obstacles, and none seem to have bright prospects once they return. Together, their stories remind us that most of the people who have been fighting these wars aren't members of a privileged elite; quite the contrary, in fact.
The second article, by Gretchen Morgenson, summarizes a recent paper by Joseph Gagnon and Marc Hinterschweiger of the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Here the subject isn't the human cost of war; it is the economic consequences of a decade or more of American profligacy. The basic story is that our society has lived well beyond its means, and we will face a rising mountain of public debt -- in the best case rising to more than 150 percent of GDP by 2035 -- unless we "design a long-term plan to reduce fiscal deficits in the future." Gagnon and Hinterschweiger believe there is still time to ward off this gloomy scenario, but only political leaders are willing to make hard choices about entitlements, tax rates, and other forms of government spending (including defense).
And the third article is Robert Reich's review of a new book on the financial crisis: Reckless Endangerment, also by Gretchen Morgenson (the same) and Joshua Rosner. The book (which I have downloaded this but not yet read) is a portrait of some of the key individuals who helped create the environment in which the mortgage crisis and financial meltdown occurred. Here's the paragraph (by Reich), that caught my eye:
The real problem, which the authors only hint at, is that Washington and the financial sector have become so tightly intertwined that public accountability has all but vanished. The revolving door described in "Reckless Endangerment" is but one symptom. The extraordinary wealth of America's financial class also elicits boundless cooperation from politicians who depend on it for campaign contributions and from a fawning business press, as well as a stream of honors from universities, prestigious charities and think tanks eager to reward their generosity. In this symbiotic world, conflicts of interest are easily hidden, appearances of conflicts taken for granted and abuses of public trust for personal gain readily dismissed."
Reich is quite familiar with this world, having famously been a "Friend of Bill (Clinton)" from the latter's Oxford days, as well as faculty member at Harvard and Secretary of Labor in Clinton's first term. As someone who has been lucky enough to teach at prestigious universities, I've some experience with these interconnected webs of influence myself, though hardly at the highest reaches, and Reich's summary here rings true to me.
Put the three pieces together, and it makes somber reading for Memorial Day. For they remind us that the people who have engineered our biggest failings in recent decades -- including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-have largely escaped any of the consequences. Similarly, most of the people whose mistakes led to the financial meltdown have retained their wealth, status, and political power. And as we spend the next couple of decades digging ourselves out from these various messes (assuming that our sclerotic political system actually manages to make do something effective), it's ordinary Americans who will pay the biggest price. As usual.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images
With the U.S. and NATO's thumb firmly on the scale, the balance of power in Libya seems to be shifting steadily toward the rebel forces. That's bad news for the Qaddafi family, though their lack of attractive alternatives to fighting on makes it unlikely that they will simply surrender. This outcome is also not that surprising, as the Libyan military was never a first-class fighting force and it was not going to have real trouble standing up to the rebel forces once they started getting lots of outside help. The danger, however, is that the rebel forces will not be able to consolidate control over the entire country without a lot more fighting, including the sort of nasty urban warfare that can get lots of civilians killed.
As with the invasion of Iraq, in short, the issue wasn't whether the West could eventually accomplish "regime change" if it tried. Rather, the key questions revolved around whether it was in our overall interest to do so and whether the benefits would be worth the costs. In the Iraqi case, it is obvious to anyone who isn't a diehard neocon or committed Bush loyalist that the (dubious) benefits of that invasion weren't worth the enormous price tag. There were no WMD and no links between Saddam and al Qaeda, and the war has cost over a trillion dollars (possibly a lot more). Tens of thousands of people died (including some 4500 Americans), and millions of refugees had to flee their homes. And for what? Mostly, a significant improvement in Iran's influence and strategic position.
In the Libyan case, same basic question. Hardly anyone thinks the Qaddafi family deserves to run Libya, and few if any will mourn their departure. But assuming the rebels win, will the benefits of regime change be worth the costs? Secretary of Defense Gates has reported that the war has cost the United States about $750 million thus far, which is not a huge sum by DoD standards but not exactly trivial in an era of budget stringency. More troubling is the cost to Libya itself: NATO and the US intervened to ward off an anticipated "humanitarian disaster" (which might or might not have occurred and whose magnitude is anyone's guess); what we got instead was a nasty little civil war in which thousands may already have died (and the fighting isn't over yet). So we can look forward to lively debate on the wisdom of this intervention, with advocates claiming that we prevented a larger bloodbath and skeptics arguing that there was never any risk of a genocide or even a deliberate mass killing and that our decision to intervene actually made things worse.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is about to hit the 60 day deadline imposed by the War Powers Act, and so it is marshaling a lot of clever lawyers to find some way to keep the war going. But here's a radical suggestion: why not just go to Congress and ask for authorization? Such a step would be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and President Obama made this very point himself before he became President. As he told the Boston Globe in 2007: "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." And if the case for this war is so strong and it is so clearly in our vital interests to do it, surely the articulate advocates in the Obama Administration won't have any trouble convincing Congress to go along.
At the same time, the US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya, due in good part to the lack of effective political institutions and the likelihood that some of the people we are backing now will want to settle scores with loyalists. And that possibility means there's also a risk of the same sort of loyalist insurgency that sprang up in Iraq, possibly rooted in long-standing tribal divisions.
So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq. And you know what that means, don't you? We'll be there for longer than you think, and at a higher cost than one might hope. But no worries; it's not as though we have any other problems to think about (or spend money on) these days.
I'm generally not inclined to take issue with my FP colleagues, but David Kenner's recent posting on the WikiLeaks release of a cable recounting Saddam Hussein's infamous meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie deserves a response.
In an article headlined "Why One U.S. Diplomat Didn't Cause the Gulf War," Kenner argues that the new release shows that Glaspie should not be blamed for the U.S. failure to make a clear deterrent warning to Saddam. And that is what he accuses me and John Mearsheimer (and the Washington Post) of doing. In his words, "the Washington Post described her as ‘the face of American incompetence in Iraq.' Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie's remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait."
I agree that the WikiLeaks release may exonerate Glaspie for being personally responsible for a diplomatic gaffe, but there are two problems with Kenner's version of events.
First, we never accused Glaspie of diplomatic incompetence, and we certainly didn't "pile on." Here's what we actually said in our 2003 piece:
In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.' The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."
Notice that we offered no opinion on whether Glaspie was free-lancing, mis-reading Saddam, or simply following orders from Washington. Our article was focused on the issue of whether Saddam was deterrable, and the key issue that concerned us about the Glaspie meeting was whether she had conveyed a clear deterrent threat to Saddam, or whether she might have unintentionally given him reason to think he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait without facing a strong military response from the United States.
I've been in Kuwait since Monday morning, attending a conference celebrating a ten-year collaboration between Harvard and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science. In addition to giving a talk on the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East, I've been listening to various Harvard colleagues give talks on the situation in Iraq, public health in the Gulf region, urban planning in Kuwait, educational development, the future of global energy markets, Kuwaiti politics, and the prospects for democracy in the Arab world. There's an obvious irony here: I flew halfway around the world for the opportunity to find out what my colleagues have been up to.
Despite a sandstorm that made fogbound London seem transparent, it's been an interesting trip. It coincided with an interesting kerfuffle within Kuwaiti politics, revolving around parliamentary opposition criticisms of the current prime minister, the removal of parliamentary immunity for at least one MP, and various charges and counter-charges from the opposition and the government itself. I don't pretend to be an expert on Kuwait's domestic politics, so I won't try to provide a full analysis of the situation. But as others have documented at length, Kuwait's political system is an unusual fusion of a traditional monarchy with various participatory institutions, including a parliament that on certain issues and on some occasions exerts real influence. It is also a traditional Arab society where women occupy increasingly prominent roles, belying the usual stereotypes.
The Kuwaitis with whom I've spoken have been well-informed, eager to discuss a variety of issues, and quite open to talking about just about any subject. I haven't done a random survey and for all I know the views I heard were atypical, but several themes from my conversations were particularly striking.
First, America may be unpopular in much of the Arab and Islamic world, but not in Kuwait. The United States is very popular here, for two obvious reasons. First, we liberated the country from Saddam Hussein in 1991, and then we got rid of Saddam for good in 2003. People can't say enough good things about the elder President Bush, and I even think that Dubya would get reasonably high marks here. Kuwaitis are not happy with how the occupation of Iraq was handled (who is?), and they remain worried about political developments in Iraq, but on the whole, the United States is regarded with favor and even affection here. At least that's the clear impression I got, and I don't think my associates here were just being polite or trying to snow me.
Second, despite what I just said, the Israel-Palestine issue resonates here much as it does elsewhere. As one Kuwaiti official explained to me, it's not due to any deep affinity for the Palestinians themselves -- most of whom were expelled from Kuwait after Yasser Arafat foolishly backed Saddam in the Gulf War -- but rather reflects both a broader Arab concern about what they regard as unjust Western interference in the Arab world and a realistic sense of how that issue fuels extremism and gives states like Iran an issue they can exploit. Everyone I spoke with emphasized the importance of the issue, with no prompting from me.
Third, although Iran was and is a concern, it's not a particularly pressing one. They aren't naive about Iran, and one official expressed support for the current sanctions regime and said he thought it was having a significant impact. In short, I heard nothing from Kuwaitis that would have raised any eyebrows, even if it had appeared on Wikileaks.
Given Kuwait's history and location, in fact, Iraq continues to be a more looming worry. As one Kuwaiti remarked at one of our sessions, the central problem is that Iraq is a large country with long borders and it needs to be militarily strong in order to protect itself. Unfortunately, a strong Iraq is inevitably a potential threat to Kuwait, which is right next door and far smaller. History reminds them of how unpleasant it can be to share a border with a much stronger neighbor. They would like to think that Iraq will stabilize and establish tranquil relations with Kuwait, but there is no guarantee that this will happen.
Let me repeat that these deep and profound insights are based on a relatively small number of conversations; you should regard them as my impressions and not much more than that. But I did find them interesting, and all in all, the trip has been worth the various aggravations that I discussed in my last post.
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
George Orwell once wrote: "In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." I thought of that line as I tried to sort through my reaction to the latest set of releases by Wikileaks, consisting primarily of detailed action reports from Iraq. My question is: Are we better off having an organization exploiting the viral potential of the internet in order to make public information that government officials would prefer to keep secret?
On the one hand, it doesn't thrill me to see individuals inside the national security bureaucracy take the classification process into their own hands and decide to leak large quantities of information. As much as I admire the courage of a whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg, government agencies can't operate without a certain degree of discipline and there's always the danger that someone will leak material that isn't just political embarrassing but actually contains information that might put us at greater risk. There's also the obvious concern that leaked information might expose people who have been helping us in places like Iraq or Afghanistan (although Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged that earlier Wikileaks releases did not in fact compromises sensitive information or methods). Still, I think some secrets need to be kept, and that belief makes it hard for me to see Wikileaks' activities as an unalloyed good.
But several other considerations override these concerns, and lead me to conclude that, on balance, Wikileaks is performing a valuable service. To begin with, official outrage at Wikileaks' activities is more than a little disingenuous given the frequency that top officials leak classified information when it suits their political purposes. If former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal can successfully tie a president's hands by leaking a confidential report calling for more troops, then why shouldn't others use Wikileaks to share information that they believe the public ought to know? And as long as senior officials try to advance their political agendas by sharing inside information with sympathetic journalists in off-the-record "background" briefings, it is hard for me to feel outrage when their subordinates decide that the information to which they are privy deserves a wider audience.
Furthermore, we live in an age of "universal deceit," when it is hard to trust anything someone in the national security world tells you. From the very moment that the Iraq War was conceived, for example, top U.S. officials deployed a vast array of disinformation and deceit -- supposedly based on top-secret intelligence information -- to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein posed a mortal threat to U.S. national security. Nor were they the first leaders to lie to the American public. And the lies continued well in to the war, as former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmayer makes clear here. (H/T to Glenn Greenwald, whose own posts on this topic are well worth reading).
As Eric Alterman and John Mearsheimer have both documented, it is clear from the historical record that all governments lie for a wide variety of reasons. But unless you're willing to believe that the people in charge are always right and that their lies are therefore justified (and if you think that, you haven't been paying attention), you ought to be in favor of any mechanism that brought more facts to light.
It is also increasingly clear that the U.S. taxpayer is funding a vast array of clandestine activities of which they are only dimly aware, and whose value they have been asked to take almost entirely on faith. If some of these activities are misguided, then not only will we get stuck with the bill, but we are paying for activities that could be making us less secure.
Furthermore, if we have no idea what our government (or that growing army of private contractors) are really up to, then Americans won't understand why other countries may not like us very much. If we don't know about all the bad stuff we're doing, we'll think they hate us for "what we are" instead of "what we do." As I've noted before, Arab or Muslim hostility to the United States really shouldn't be a mystery, given the policies that the United States has adopted towards many of these societies over the past several decades. Do you really expect Iraqis to be grateful that the U.S. invaded their country and set off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and millions became refugees?
The Founding Fathers thought that separation of powers and an independent press would ensure accountability, and but it's not as if Congress were performing rigorous oversight over all these activities, engaging in spirited debates over the merits of military intervention, or forcing either this administration or the last one to justify what it is doing overseas. The mainstream media hasn't exactly covered itself with glory over the past decade either, despite some isolated bright spots that subsequently disappeared down the memory hole. And lord knows that few, if any, of the architects of our recent foreign-policy debacles have been held accountable in any meaningful way.
Realist that I am, I believe that human beings are more likely to misbehave if they think they can shield what they are doing from public view. For that reason, I also believe that democratic societies are more likely to adopt better policies when information is plentiful and when government officials cannot determine which facts are available to the public and which are not. Because its primary function is to make more information available on issues that concern us all, I therefore conclude that what Wikileaks is doing is on balance a good thing.
Given the great power at the United States' disposal, I want the people running foreign and defense policy to know that what they are doing might be exposed to public scrutiny. I want them to think twice about whether the policies they are pursuing are defensible on either moral or practical grounds. I wish we'd known the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, or that we'd known the truth about Saddam's WMD (and his non-existent links to al Qaeda) before we invaded. And I'm glad we're finding out more about the Iraq War now, because that knowledge might help us avoid similar quagmires in the future. And if our elected officials, their appointed representatives, and a politicized and co-opted media won't tell us what we have a right to know, then I guess I'm glad that Wikileaks will.
Postscript: Contrary to FP colleague Peter Feaver's view, I don't think the documents offer that much help to defenders of the so-called "surge." No one denies that violence went down after the surge began, and those who discount the impact of the surge concede that the additional troops and new tactics played some role in that development. The new releases also confirm that changes within Iraqi society were also critical; i.e., violence also declined because Iraqis were war-weary and because prior ethnic cleansing had eliminated the mixed-sectarian neighborhoods where much of the prior violence had occurred.
The new releases also confirm that Iran was meddling in Iraq and backing some of the insurgents. This is not news, of course, and Iran's behavior was hardly surprising, given its obvious interest in trying to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq. Moreover, the U.S. is hardly in a position to accuse anyone of "interfering" in Iraq, given what we started in 2003. But this not-very-stunning "revelation" doesn't mean the surge was a success, because it didn't end Iranian influence in Iraq any more than it led to political reconciliation among the various Iraqi factions (who still can't manage to form a government). Once the United States had dismantled Saddam's Ba'thist and predominantly Sunni regime, Iraq's Shi'ites were bound to be more powerful and Iran's influence was bound to increase. (Too bad the Bush administration didn't think about that possibility before the war!) The surge didn't reverse that trend, and so the new revelations don't demonstrate that it was anything more than a tactical success whose long-term achievements remain very much in doubt.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Back in 2005, I wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times on the value of having a reputation for competence. My inspiration was the lame U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina, and I argued that one ingredient in U.S. global influence was other states' perceptions that Americans knew what they were doing, would deliver as promised, and would get the job done. The Marshall Plan, the moon landing, and other straightforward displays of competence reinforced America's material power and made other leaders more inclined to listen to our advice. By contrast, repeated blunders lead other states to doubt our wisdom or our capacity to deliver, and make them more inclined to tune us out. You can read it here.
I was reminded of that piece this morning, when I read about all the problems India has experienced trying to prepare for next week's Commonwealth Games. The obvious contrast is with the Beijing Olympics, which were intended to demonstrate Chinese efficiency and competence, and clearly did just that. By coincidence, Tom Friedman picked up on the same theme is his column today, and made some invidious comparisons with America's current situation.
How competent do we look these days? Although the United States is still an attractive society in many respects, one doesn't get the sense that others are dazzled by how competent we are. The 2008 economic meltdown made Wall Street look inept or corrupt (or both), and the endless partisan squabbling in Washington isn't going to impress foreign audiences either. And as I've harped on before, our foreign policy record in recent years is mostly a litany of failures, and I don't expect it to improve much in the near future.
A big part of the problem, however, is that the United States has chosen to do a few things that are very difficult, and where failure is to be expected. Like nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to occupy and govern foreign societies that are rife with internal divisions, where there is a well-founded hatred of foreign intruders, wouldn't be easy for anyone. Indeed, trying to create a political system there based on our historical experience rather than theirs has got to be one of more ambitious -- if not utterly misguided -- objectives that Washington could have picked.
You don't see the Chinese trying to do anything silly like that, which may be one reason they are looking more competent these days. (I'm not saying they actually are, however, because China's own development plans have some significant downsides too). But no matter how much we try to spin the story ("the surge worked!") our dismal record in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the United States look like it doesn't really know what it is doing. Why should anyone follow the U.S. lead anymore, if this is where it gets you?
The solution is not to retreat into isolationism and cede the initiative to others. Rather, the solution is to remind ourselves what American power is good for, and avoid taking on tasks for which it is ill-suited. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale aggression, and thus good at ensuring stability in key regions. (That assumes, of course, that we aren't using that same power to destabilize certain regions on purpose). We are sometimes good at brokering peace deals -- as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans -- when we use our power judiciously and fairly. And we've often done a pretty fair job -- in concert with others -- at encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy. The United States is not very good at governing foreign societies, especially when the local inhabitants don't want us there and when we have little understanding of how they work. And if we keep trying to do this sort of thing, we're likely to look inept far more often than we look effective.
In short, regaining an aura of competence isn't just about trying harder, or restoring the work ethic and "can do" attitude that we associate (rightly or wrongly) with earlier eras. It also entails picking the right goals and not squandering time, money and lives on fool's errands.
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When great powers intervene in minor countries, sometimes they win quick and fairly decisive victories. (Think U.S. in Grenada). When this happens, the only short-term problem is where to hold the victory parade and how many medals to give out. But when a war of choice goes badly, then national leaders have to decide either to cut their losses and get out or to "stay the course." If the opponent is an insatiable great power like the Third Reich, there may be little choice in the matter. But if the enemy is an insurgency in a relatively weak and unimportant state, and the challenge is nation-building in a society that you don't understand very well, it's a much trickier decision.
As we've seen in Iraq and are seeing again in Afghanistan, getting out of a quagmire is a whole lot harder than getting into one. Indeed, I'd argue that this is a general tendency in most wars of choice: they usually last longer than the people who launch them expect, and they usually cost a lot more. I'm hardly the first person to notice this phenomenon, which does make you wonder why it keeps happening.
In any case, now that we are (supposedly) leaving Iraq, here are my Top Ten Reasons why wars of choice last too long, and why it's so hard for politicians to wake up, smell the coffee, and just get out.
1. Political leaders get trapped by their own beliefs. All human beings tend to interpret new information in light of their pre-existing beliefs, and therefore tend to revise strongly-held views more slowly than they should. Having made the difficult decision to go to war (or to escalate a war that is already under way) it will be hard for any leader to rethink the merits of that decision, even if lots of information piles up suggesting that it was a blunder.
2. Information in war is often ambiguous. Another reason wars of choice last too long is that the case for cutting one's losses is rarely crystal-clear. Even if there is lots of evidence that the war is going badly, there are bound to be some positive signs too. Remember all those "benchmarks" the Bush administration developed for measuring progress in Iraq? If you have enough of them, you can always find a few items on the list where things are looking better. When the evidence is mixed (as it usually is), leaders are even less likely to rethink their beliefs that the war is worth fighting.
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On the eve of President Obama's speech to the nation on Iraq, some of the people who dreamed up this foolish war or helped persuade the nation that it was a good idea are getting out their paintbrushes and whitewash. I refer, of course, to the twin op-eds in today's New York Times by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and neoconservative columnist David Brooks.
Wolfowitz, you will recall, was one of the main architects of the war, having pushed the invasion during the 1990s and as soon as he became Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Bush adminstration. He was the guy who recommended invading Iraq four days after 9/11, even though Osama bin Laden was nowhere near Iraq and there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with it. For his part, Brooks was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war in the months prior to the invasion, and he continued to defend it long after the original rationale had been exposed as a sham.
The main thrust of Wolfowitz's column is that the United States should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to yield a "stable country." His analogy is to Korea, where the United States has stationed troops for nearly sixty years. Of course, Wolfowitz ignores the fact that our role in Korea was defensive: we entered the Korean War after North Korea invaded the South (with Soviet help), and we did so with the full authorization of the U.N. Security Council. In Iraq, by contrast, the United States went to war on the basis of bogus evidence, as part of a grand scheme to "transform" the entire Middle East.
Staying in Korea was also part of the broader strategy of containment, which made good sense in that historical epoch. The Soviet Union was a serious great power adversary and North Korea was a close Soviet ally, and there was every reason to think the North might try again if South Korea were left on its own. By contrast, maintaining a semi-permanent military presence in Iraq isn't going to contain anyone, and it is precisely that sort of on-the-ground interference that fuels jihadi narratives about nefarious Western plans to dominate Muslim lands. It is perhaps also worth remembering that our prolonged military presence in South Korea isn't very popular there anymore, and that most Iraqis want us out of their country too.
Notice also that Wolfowitz says very little about the costs of this adventure in the past, or how much more blood and treasure the United States should be expected to spend in the future. There are boilerplate references to the "brave men and women" of the U.S. military, and to Iraq's people "who have borne a heavy burden." All true, but he doesn't offer any numbers (either dollars spent or lives lost), because he might have to take his share of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people who would be alive today if the United States had not followed his advice. It would also remind us that he once predicted that the war would cost less than $100 billion and that Iraq's oil revenues would pay for reconstruction and so it wouldn't cost the American taxpayer a dime. Given that track record, in fact, one wonders why the Times editors thought he was a reliable source of useful advice on Iraq today.
As for Brooks, his column is a transparent attempt to retroactively justify an unnecessary war. He marshals an array of statistics showing how much things have improved in Iraq, but all his various numbers show is that after you've flattened a country and dismantled its entire political order, you can generate some positive growth rates if you pour billions of dollars back in. He claims this "nation-building" effort cost only $53 billion (hardly a trivial sum), but that figure omits all the other costs of the war (which economist Joseph Stiglitz and budget expert Linda Bilmes estimate to be in excess of $3 trillion). And like Wolfowitz, Brooks is mostly silent about the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and thousands of dead and wounded Americans who paid the price for their naïve experiment in social engineering.
Of course, what Wolfowitz and Brooks are up to is not hard to discern. They want Americans to keep pouring resources into Iraq for as long as it takes to make their ill-fated scheme look like a success. Equally important, they want to portray Iraq in a somewhat positive light now, so that Obama and the Democrats get blamed when things go south.
All countries make mistakes, because leaders are fallible and no political system is immune from folly. But countries compound their errors when they cannot learn from them, and when they don't hold the people responsible for them accountable. Sadly, these two pieces suggest that the campaign to lobotomize our collective memory is now underway. If it succeeds, we can look forward to more "success stories" like this in the future.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.