Tag: foreign policy

Voters Deserve a Better Debate

We had our second debate of the primary season on Wednesday, a grueling five hour affair pitting fifteen Republican hopefuls against each other in two debate sessions. When CNN’s hosts weren’t asking inane questions – i.e., whether candidates had considered their Secret Service nickname or whether they would trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes – they did find some time to focus on foreign policy issues. I have a piece over at the National Interest discussing the debate, and highlighting some of the misleading narratives underlying much of the GOP debate.

Though there were some factual errors, the bigger problem was the reliance of most candidates on fundamental ideas which are effectively untrue, like the idea that the U.S. military is weak or small compared to that of other nations:

Ben Carson noted that “our Air Force is incapable of doing the same things that it did a few years ago. Carly Fiorina argued that “we need the strongest military on the face of the planet,” while Marco Rubio noted that “… we are eviscerating our military.” Such claims are entirely false: the U.S. military is among the world’s largest, spending more than the next 13 countries combined in 2013 (including China and Russia)!  Today, the United States makes up 38.4% of all global military spending, and spends substantially more on the military than it did on average during the Cold War.

Many candidates also expressed support for the idea that it is U.S. absence from conflicts which creates problems, rather than U.S. intervention itself. Again, this narrative has proven to be demonstrably false in the last ten years, as examples from Libya, Iraq and elsewhere show:

Jeb Bush noted that “when we pull back, voids are created. We left Iraq… and now we have the creation of ISIS.” Again, this narrative is convenient for many candidates, allowing them to blame President Obama’s troop withdrawals, rather than the initial disastrous decision to invade Iraq, for the rise of ISIS. Unfortunately, it is similarly false: Iraq’s sectarian problems existed long before the U.S. withdrawal of troops in 2011, and the rise of ISIS is at least partly a result of the Bush administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army.

When we base our foreign policy debates on such misleading ideas, candidates will present policy options which are unworkable or even counterproductive. Voters deserve a better debate, one which acknowledges the nuance and complexity of foreign affairs. You can read the whole piece here

A Blinkered Foreign Policy Debate

Foreign policy didn’t get a lot of air time in last night’s GOP debate, which often seemed to focus primarily on Donald Trump and the fact that John Kasich’s dad was a mailman. The candidates appeared worryingly ill-prepared to discuss foreign policy issues, with confused and misleading statements, incorrect facts, and a few truly bizarre comments.

There is a lot of great news coverage - see here or here for examples - highlighting these statements, from Jim Gilmore’s call for the U.S. to create a Middle Eastern NATO, to Ted Cruz’s decision to describe the opinions of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as nonsense. At least one candidate conflated Iran with ISIS. The first debate included a baffling discussion of ‘cyberwalls,’ a never-before heard term that seemed to encompass both the Great Firewall of China, and the refusal of private companies like Google to hand over data to the U.S. government.

The bigger problem with the debate, however, was the mass oversimplification of foreign policy. Only one candidate, Carly Fiorina, acknowledged that foreign policy can be complicated, a statement immediately undermined when she noted that some issues are black and white, and promised to tear up the Iran deal on her first day in office. Unfortunately, foreign affairs is actually complex. Take the Middle East, where the United States is involved in conflicts both in opposition to, and in alignment with Iranian proxies. Or our relationship with Russia, which isn’t limited to confrontation in Ukraine, but includes cooperation on the Iranian nuclear deal and Syrian issues. Debates, with their reliance on manufactured soundbites, aren’t the best place to delve into these complexities. But no candidate on the stage gave any indication of a willingness to engage with the complicated nuances of 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.