Tag: american security

No Mr. Secretary, It Is Not in America’s “Interest” to Stay in Iraq

In testimony yesterday before the House Armed Service Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that the United States has an “interest” in keeping troops in Iraq past the agreed date of withdrawal, December 31, 2011.  Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) pressed Gates by asking:

How can we maintain all of these gains that we’ve made through so much effort if we only have 150 people there and we don’t have any military there whatsoever,” Hunter asked. “We’d have more military in Western European countries at that point than we’d have in Iraq, one of the most central states, as everybody knows, in the Middle East?

The logic of Rep. Duncan’s question provides some interesting context. His logic implies that the thousands of U.S. troops stationed in wealthy, developed, Western Europe is both necessary and beneficial to our current interests. But this is not a very good argument as European countries continue to cut their defense budgets in large part because they are sheltered under the American security umbrella. It is in fact highly questionable why Americans should be willing to accept massive deficits as far as the eye can see and spend still more on our military, so that our allies can continue to shirk their fundamental obligations to their own people. There is no reason why we should want to adopt the same model for Iraq.

And yet, Rep. Duncan assumes that U.S. troop deployments in Europe are the model for providing political and economic stability everywhere in the world. If U.S. troops withdraw, all of our “gains” in Iraq would be lost.

This assumes that, first, U.S. troops can provide this stability, and second that our strategic interests in Iraq are on par with those in other parts of the world. But leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another two, five, or seven years will not advance American security. It is not now, and should never have been, the responsibility of U.S. troops to create a functioning state in Iraq. That is the responsibility of the Iraqi people and their government. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.

There is no doubt that there are political and security challenges in Iraq, but these concerns should not delay the withdrawal. There will always be excuses, especially from those who favored the war at the outset, for a continued presence. And these risks will persist no matter how long U.S. troops stay. The future of Iraq lies with the people of Iraq, and it is well past the time when they must take the reins.

A handover of security responsibilities to the Iraqi people is in America’s strategic interest. As we are currently seeing with European defense budgets, the United States has been in the business of doing for other governments what they should be doing for themselves.  Now would be a good time to start to change this pattern.

Is the War in Afghanistan Winnable?

The Economist is featuring an online debate this week around the proposition “This house believes that the war in Afghanistan is winnable.” John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security agrees. Peter Galbraith takes the opposing view.

The organizers of the event invited me to contribute my two cents. Excerpts of my essay (“Featured Guest,” on the right side of the page) are posted below:

The appropriate question is not whether the war is winnable. If we define victory narrowly, if we are willing to apply the resources necessary to have a reasonable chance of success, and if we have capable and credible partners, then of course the war is winnable. Any war is winnable under these conditions.

None of these conditions exist in Afghanistan, however. Our mission is too broadly construed. Our resources are constrained. The patience of the American people has worn thin. And our Afghan partners are unreliable and unpopular with their own people.

Given this, the better question is whether the resources that we have already ploughed into Afghanistan, and those that would be required in the medium to long term, could be better spent elsewhere. They most certainly could be.

[…]

America and its allies must narrow their focus in Afghanistan. Rather than asking if the war is winnable, we should ask instead if the war is worth winning. And we should look for alternative approaches that do not require us to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive and stable electoral democracy.

If we start from the proposition that victory is all that matters, we are setting ourselves up for ruin. We can expect an endless series of calls to plough still more resources—more troops, more civilian experts and more money, much more money—into Afghanistan. Such demands demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the public’s tolerance for an open-ended mission with ill-defined goals.

More importantly, a disdain for a focused strategy that balances ends, ways and means betrays an inability to think strategically about the range of challenges facing America today. After having already spent more than eight and a half years in Afghanistan, pursuing a win-at-all-costs strategy only weakens our ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world.

The other guest contributor is Bruce Riedel from Brookings. He had a hand in shaping the Obama administration’s strategy, and therefore is a reliable “yes” vote for continuing the war.

Sentiment so far has been running nearly three to one against the proposition. Most of the comments reject the premise, and a few doubt U.S./NATO’s intentions. Nagl has at least one more bite at the apple to turn things around, but the prospects don’t look good. The key weaknesses in the pro-war position are the lack of credible local partners in Afghanistan, and the uncooperative (and, often, counterproductive) role played by Pakistan. Nagl focuses chiefly on the former, and Riedel on the latter; they ultimately fail, however, to offer credible solutions to either problem.

We all hope that things turn around in Afghanistan, and soon. But, as Galbraith points out, hope is not a strategy. I’m among those actively searching for an alternative definition of ”winning” that does not envision tens of thousands of U.S. troops being in Afghanistan for another eight (or 80) years.

Obama’s Troubles and U.S. Foreign Policy

At their National Security Experts blog, The National Journal asks:

President Obama is in a rough political patch…So, what does his weakened position mean for his handling of foreign affairs and for the tack that allies, rivals and outright enemies take toward the U.S.?

I respond:

I don’t believe that the president will rely on a major foreign policy initiative to turn around his political fortunes. He has many things on his plate right now. He spent just nine minutes on foreign policy in the SOTU, and the American people have clearly signaled a desire to focus on problems here at home.

I’m not entirely happy with this turn of events. I think the country’s turn inward – in the form of trade protectionism, nativism, and anti-immigrant sentiment – is particularly worrisome. But the wise course for those in Washington is to come up with a foreign policy that can be sustained with a modicum of popular support. They should find a way for us to be engaged in the world without being in charge of it.

So far, I see no evidence of a change away from the assumptions that have guided U.S. foreign policy through four post-Cold War administrations, two Republican and two Democrat (plus GHW Bush for part of his term). The just released QDR repeats many of the same mantras about U.S. power as a global public good that we’ve heard for years.

Up to now, the practice has been to distort and confuse the purpose of U.S. foreign policy. The policy elite in Washington and New York know that the public expects the U.S. military to be used to advance American security, when in fact much of what it does underwrites the security of others. As Michael Mandelbaum wrote several years ago, “To make sacrifices largely for the benefit of others counts as charity, and for Americans, as for other people, charity begins at home.”

Obama and his team, and probably his successor, might manage to sustain the dominant posture for a while longer. Other countries have no great desire to assume responsibilities for their own defense, or for policing their respective regions.

But at the end of the day, all politics is local. Americans can’t be expected to care more about things that occur 8,000 miles from our shores than they do about things in the Gulf of Mexico, or in New Mexico. In an era of crushing fiscal imbalance, and an increasingly complex international environment, now is the time to revisit some of the core assumptions of the past two decades and ask: Is this where we want to be 20 years from now, with the U.S. military still the world’s policeman, and with the rest of the world anxious, querulous and resentful when we use that power, or even when we don’t?

If we choose to make a change, even a modest change in the direction of greater burden sharing with allies who have grown too comfortable under the U.S. security umbrella, we might look back on this period fondly. If we don’t, we are likely to see it as a missed opportunity.

Pat Tillman Saw the Iraq War as Folly

Pat_Tillman_NFLPat Tillman, who gave up a lucrative NFL career to join the Army after 9/11, was a true patriot:  he wanted to defend America, not conduct social engineering overseas.  That led him to oppose the Iraq war.

Reports the Daily Telegraph:

According to a new book, Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in 2004 and hailed as an all-American hero by the former president, was disillusioned by Mr Bush and his administration’s “illegal and unjust” drive to war.

In Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer, the author relates the strong views of Tillman - who gave up his NFL football career to serve his country - and his brother Kevin, who joined the same Rangers unit.

The war “struck them as an imperial folly that was doing long-term damage to US interests,” Krakauer claims.

“The brothers lamented how easy it had been for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to bully secretary of state Colin Powell, both the houses of Congress, and the majority of the American people into endorsing the invasion of Iraq.”

Tillman was a true citizen soldier.  Not only did he leave private life to serve in the military after his nation was attacked, but he believed it was his responsibility to look beyond the self-serving rhetoric of politicians to judge the wisdom of the wars which they initiated.  The rest of us should remember his skepticism when confronted with the willingness of politicians of both parties to continue sacrificing American lives in conflicts with little or no relevance to American security.

Who’s the Isolationist?

There may be no more vicious epithet from neoconservatives these days than “isolationist.”  One would think the term would mean something like xenophobic no-nothings who want to have nothing to do with the rest of the world.  No trade or immigration.  Little or no cultural exchange and political cooperation.  Autarchy all around.

But no.  ”Isolationist” apparently means something quite different.  Never mind your views of the merits of international engagement.  If you don’t want to kill lots of foreigners in lots of foreign wars you are automatically considered to be an isolationist.

President Bill Clinton called Republican legislators “isolationists” for not wanting to insert the U.S. military into the middle of a complex but strategically irrelevant guerrilla conflict in Kosovo.  (He made the same criticism against them for not supporting even more money for foreign aid, which presumably meant the Heritage Foundation was filled with isolationists at the time). 

But the definition is even broader today.  It means not willing to go to war for any country that clamors for a security guarantee irrespective of its relevance to American security.  At least, that appears to be the definition applied by Sally McNamara of Heritage.

On Monday in National Interest online I criticized the argument advanced by Ms. McNamara and others that alliances and military commitments automatically prevent war.  More specifically, the claim is that  if only the U.S. would bring the country of Georgia into NATO – or simply issue a Membership Action Plan, which neither offers a security promise nor guarantees NATO membership – Moscow would never dare take the risk of attacking Georgia.

History suggests this is a dangerous assumption.  Both World Wars I and II featured alliances that were supposed to prevent conflict but which instead acted as transmission belts of war.  One can argue whether or not the alliances were prudent.  One cannot argue that they prevented conflict as so many people thought (and certainly hoped) they would.

Thus, alliances should be viewed as serious organizations.  A promise to defend another nation should be treated as a momentous undertaking.  And the public should be aware of all of the risks of policies advanced by the nation’s leaders.  This should go double when a nuclear-armed power is involved and treble when the geopolitical stakes are trivial for the U.S. while significant for the opposing state.

For suggesting this Ms. McNamara argues that I am both an isolationist and a neo-isolationist.  (I’m not sure of the difference between the two.  Maybe the latter indicates that she realizes I believe in free trade, increased immigration, and international cooperation, which makes for a curious kind of “isolationism.”  Still, advocating a reduction in military commitments and the consequent risk of war, rather than a policy of galloping about the globe tossing security guarantees hither and yon, apparently means I am at least a “neo-isolationist.”)

Even worse, I am accused of “appeasement” for suggesting that being prepared to trade Washington for Tbilisi is a bad bargain.  Ah, the “A” word.  To count the cost and not support every commitment, no matter how distant or irrelevant, is the same as encouraging the next Adolf Hitler.

Please.

It is time for a serious discussion as to why we have alliances today.  If it isn’t to promote American security, let’s be clear about that.  If NATO is an international social club, or a second European Union, or a global Good Housekeeping seal of sorts, then policymakers should level with the American people who are paying the bills.

Even more so, if the alliance is geared to defending everyone else, then let’s admit that too.  Georgia would not be defending America.  Nor will Albania, Croatia, Estonia, and the other geopolitical titans recently inducted into the NATO fraternity.  The security commitment effectively runs one way.

So for what stakes are NATO expansion advocates willing to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia?  To hope that America’s commitment is never called is no substitute for honestly assessing the risks, interests, and trade-offs at stake.

If none of these considerations is relevant – if failing to constantly add new defense welfare clients is the same as “withdrawing from the world” and giving Hitler a green light – is there any stopping point? Presumably no.  If Georgia is to come in, then presumably Ukraine too.  If Ukraine, how about Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia?  Why not Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan?  Maybe go a bit further.  Perhaps Sri Lanka? 

But why stop there?  Should not any nation which desires protection from any other nation be entitled to American protection?  After all, to say no would, in Ms. McNamara’s words, offer “a geo-political victory to Moscow” or someone else, whether Beijing, New Delhi, Ankara, or whoever.  Failing to protect weak states – East Timor, Congo, Belize, and more – would demonstrate that we have failed to learn the lesson that “appeasement simply does not work.”

It is easy to conjure up new missions for the U.S. military.  But the most important question is whether these tasks advance the security of America – this nation, its people, and its system of constitutional liberty.  Scattering security guarantees about the globe as if they were party favors – treating them as a costless panacea to the problem of war – makes America less, not more secure. 

And making that argument does not mean one is an “isolationist” advocating “appeasement.”  Unless the Founders were isolationist appeasers as well.

As George Washington observed in his Farewell Address:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

His sentiments apply even more today, when America’s adversaries are pitiful and few, and America’s friends are many and dominant.  The U.S. need not – and should not – withdraw from the world.  But Washington should stop making unnecessary and dangerous military commitments.