Tag: foreign policy

A Word about “Gotcha Questions” and Personal Responsibility

A peculiar tic of contemporary American nationalism is the notion that the American state, particularly if helmed by a Republican president, makes no errors of commission in its conduct of military affairs. No American war was ill-founded, or aimed at a threat that didn’t exist or didn’t warrant the effort. This logic never applies in the domestic sphere for Republicans, where government programs are at best naïve and bound to make problems worse or at worst, venal and Machiavellian.

This tic is the only reason I can think of that we’re actually sustaining a debate in 2015 about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a good idea to invade Iraq. Jim Fallows at the Atlantic argues that nobody should again ask a politician the question, since

the only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney-Bolton-Wolfowitz-style bitter enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now”—the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs—and still say, Heck of a job.

I actually think this makes the case why the question should be—or at least should have been—asked, since at least one fortunate Republican son, Marco Rubio, belongs in Fallows’ bitter-ender camp. To the extent voters—and donors—care about competent foreign policy, they deserve to know that Rubio strongly opposes it, even with the benefit of hindsight.

But beyond the politics, a weird narrative has begun to emerge on the right that asking about the Iraq war is a “gotcha question.” Keep in mind: we are discussing a policy that was dreamed up by the Bush administration, marketed by the Bush administration, and purchased by the vast majority of our legislators, including the likely Democratic nominee in 2016.

In Search of a Syria Strategy: Event (April 30th)

On April 30th, Cato will host an event exploring the future of the Syrian conflict, with particular emphasis on the role of the United States. Fighting in Syria recently entered its fifth year, and there is no clear end in sight. The conflict has resulted in an estimated 191,000 deaths and has produced more than 9.5 million refugees.

The civil war is chaotic. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of rebel groups currently operating in Syria, many of whom have devoted more time to fighting each other than the regime. Foreign funding and weapons flow freely to all sides. The rise of ISIS and its spread to Iraq, along with the increasing prominence of other extremist groups like al Nusra has further complicated the situation. This map, recently released by the Department of Defense, illustrates some of the complexity:

DoD Map of Syria and Iraq

 

American involvement in Syria was minimal prior to September 2014, when the Obama administration initiated airstrikes to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This campaign is ongoing, and the United States is also funding and training Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS. 

Putin Returns

In a piece published today over at Townhall, I talk about Vladimir Putin’s recent disappearance from the public eye, and why it wasn’t as big a deal as you might think.

The rumors surrounding his ten-day disappearance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was kept busy, scotching speculation that the Russian leader was ill, quashing reports of a power struggle within the Kremlin, and refuting assertions that Putin had been absent to attend the birth of his new child.

When Putin finally reappeared on Monday, he waved away all questions about his absence, simply noting that “life would be boring without gossip.”  We’ll probably never know where Putin was for those ten days, though his pallor implied a minor illness. Given the consistent unwillingness of the Kremlin to divulge information about Putin’s personal life, the whole thing may have been nothing more than the flu.

But it’s worth asking why Putin’s disappearance caused such a media furor. Putin’s centrality to the Russian political system is so well-accepted that commentators and policymakers routinely treat Putin himself as sole representative of the Russian state, psychoanalyzing the man for insight into Russian foreign policy choices. His disappearance, therefore, implied the possibility of chaos in Russia.

Putin is certainly the key figure in Russian politics today, in terms of both personality and power. His ability to mediate between key factions inside the Russian state has allowed him to solidify power, and to govern far more effectively than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, ever did. He is still overwhelmingly popular. Yet Putin is not the only player in Russian politics. He has a number of close, senior advisors, many of whom could fill a central role in the system Putin built. His death or incapacitation would be a shock, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in major political changes.

Obviously, we can’t predict the future. After all, who could have predicted when Boris Yeltsin picked a young, unknown former intelligence operative as his presidential successor how successful Putin would be in reining in the corrupt excesses of the Russian state, or how effectively he would undermine Russian democratic reforms?

Yet it is unlikely that Putin’s departure from office, no matter when it occurs, will result in chaos and the collapse of the Russian government. It is even less plausible that his death would result in a pro-democracy or pro-Western protest movement like the one we saw in Ukraine.

Instead, as I argue in the article, it is probable that one of Putin’s close advisors would become his successor, taking over as Russia’s president, probably with a thin veneer of legitimacy in the form of largely uncontested elections. With a similar background and worldview, this successor would simply continue many of Putin’s policies. In short, Putin’s Russia – and its odious foreign policy – probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the man himself does. 

The Future of NATO (Event: March 4th)

Russian aggression in Eastern Europe during the last year has brought to the fore many of the issues surrounding the transatlantic security relationship, in particular, the role of NATO. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been floundering, seeking new missions and goals, with recent involvement in military campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya emblematic of this search. In some ways, Russia’s recent actions have brought back a sense of purpose to the alliance.

Unfortunately, NATO still has many problems. Common vision among members is lacking, a problem exacerbated by the expansion of NATO from sixteen members at the end of the Cold War to twenty-eight members today. Many of these new member states in Central and Eastern Europe feel – understandably – more threatened by Russian aggression than West European or North American member states, creating tension within the organization.

NATO itself has increasingly become a political entity. Indeed, the growth of NATO membership among East European states during the last decade has been a key impediment to improved relations with Russia. The suggestion that Georgia and Ukraine might become EU or NATO members has also been widely discussed as one of the roots of the current conflict.

NATO funding is a big problem. Though most member states hail NATO’s importance and demand its services, few are willing to pay the costs, which fall disproportionately on the United States. In 2012-2013, only three other member states met NATO’s stated military spending target of 2% of GDP: the United Kingdom, Estonia and Greece. Many countries which rely heavily on NATO nonetheless contribute little to the alliance or their own defense, relying instead on the United States.

New Minsk, Not Quite the Same as the Old Minsk

After a grueling seventeen hours of negotiation, German, French, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders emerged with a compromise agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Although similar to last September’s failed Minsk accords, the new deal provides more details on timing and implementation, which may help a ceasefire to hold. After so many prior failures, strong skepticism is understandable. But if U.S. and European leaders actually commit to the specifics of the deal, it can provide Ukraine with much-needed time to rebuild, reform and address its dire economic problems.

The all-night negotiations between leaders in Belarus showed how far apart the parties were on a number of key issues, including whether the deal should rely on the boundaries laid out in the Minsk I ceasefire, or on the current situation in Eastern Ukraine. Since rebel forces have made substantial territorial gains since September, neither side is keen to concede on the issue. Other issues, including which side will control border crossings into Russia, and the withdrawal of foreign fighters and equipment, proved equally thorny.

Admittedly, the deal still leaves many issues unsettled. It calls for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and a demilitarized buffer zone in Eastern Ukraine.  It also mandates constitutional reform to allow the eastern regions increased autonomy, as well as amnesty for those involved in the fighting. But the issue of boundary lines is left effectively unsolved, requiring Kiev to adhere to the current front lines when withdrawing weaponry, and the rebels to adhere instead to the boundaries agreed upon in September. There is also no real mechanism to ensure compliance, although the situation will be monitored  by the OSCE.

Still, Minsk II provides more concrete details on each issue, which may help this deal to succeed. Timing is more clearly defined for the start of the ceasefire, the removal of troops and heavy weapons, the creation of the buffer zone, while all constitutional reforms and elections are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. The sequencing of events is also more clearly defined: the agreement calls for control of the border to be returned to Ukraine only after new elections in the region, which themselves must follow constitutional reform in Kiev. Since Minsk I’s failure can be attributed in part to disagreement between both sides over who would implement such steps first, this is a welcome change. The restoration of social transfers from Kiev to residents in rebel-controlled areas is also welcome, and may serve to reduce some of the misery in the region.

Don’t Raise the Stakes in Ukraine

The release of a report this week by eight former U.S. government officials calling for the United States to send arms to Ukraine has reopened debate on the issue. The dispute is also lent urgency by the recent sickening escalation of violence in the Donbas, especially against civilians, as well as signs that some within the Obama administration may be reconsidering their stance on this issue. As appalling as the ferocity of recent fighting has been, however, the arguments against arming Ukraine remain as solid as they were three months ago. It would raise the stakes with Russia, while offering little prospect of ending the conflict.

The arguments made in the report, cosponsored by Brookings, the Atlantic Council and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs - seem compelling on the surface. The authors argue that the provision of lethal, but solely defensive, weapons would better allow Ukrainian troops to defend themselves against continuing attacks from pro-Russian rebels. As the evidence indicates that the rebels themselves are being supplied with advanced weapons from Moscow, American weapons would place Ukrainian forces on a more even footing. The report further asserts that such weaponry could raise the continued costs of backing the rebels for Moscow, bringing Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, arming Ukraine will cause more problems than it solves. Certainly, such a move would be a propaganda coup for Russia, which has already been using state media to perpetuate the idea that NATO is involved in the crisis. Russian media is extremely good at blurring key facts to make a coherent, anti-Western narrative, even if the narrative itself is fundamentally false. It won’t matter than the weapons are ‘defensive’ in nature; the Russian media can spin this to bolster their arguments that Ukraine’s government is illegitimate and that the conflict is being driven by NATO. It could even increase popular support for the war among the Russian population.

The Danger of Analogies

Last week I wrote a piece for the Orange County Register, talking about the dangers of describing the current U.S. conflict with Russia as a new Cold War. In it, I highlighted the problems that arise when policymakers use historical analogies as a cheat sheet to understand today’s foreign policy crises.

Drawing analogies to past crises is a natural human reaction, and one which is widespread among foreign policy decision makers. As I noted:

Political science research demonstrates that leaders often rationalize their decisions by making analogies to prior crises. Policymakers also frequently use historical analogies to justify their choices.

Such analogies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prize for most ridiculous, at least recently, goes to those who described the North Korea/Sony hacking scandal as a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.” But there were also a variety of serious analogies which dominated the news last year.

The idea that the United States and Russia are now engaged in a new Cold War has been mooted by media and by politicians. Yet current tensions with Russia over Ukraine differ in key ways from the cold war: Russia and Europe are far more economically linked than during the cold war, and disagreement centers primarily on the issue of NATO expansion, rather than on ideological grounds. By describing tensions with Russia as a new cold war, policymakers interpret all facets of the U.S.-Russian relationship in a conflictual way, preventing cooperation on other policy issues like Syria.

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