Tag: intervention

Washington Keeps Picking Inept Foreign Clients

Yet another U.S. nation-building venture appears to be on the brink of failure.  Earlier this month, Taliban forces overran much of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.  Although government troops eventually retook most of the city, they were able to do so only with substantial assistance from the U.S. combat units still in the country. 

General John Campbell, the U.S. commander, then urged President Obama to delay the planned withdrawal of the remaining 9,800 American troops and to keep a permanent garrison that is much larger than the president’s original plan for 1,000 military personnel, mostly operating out of the U.S. embassy in Kabul.   The president has now unwisely complied with that request, deciding to keep at least 5,500 troops past the original 2016 deadline. As I argue in a new article in the National Interest Online, Afghanistan threatens to become an endless nation-building quagmire for Washington.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has asked the question that occurs to many Americans: why are we still in Afghanistan more than 14 years after the initial invasion in response to the Taliban regime’s decision to shelter al Qaeda?  There is almost no al Qaeda presence in that country any longer, and U.S. forces killed Osama Bin Laden more than four years ago.  Yet Washington continues to cite an alleged need to prop-up the Kabul government against the Taliban.  Senator Paul is absolutely correct that it is well past time for anti-Taliban Afghans to step up and defend their own country without relying on the United States.

Unfortunately, what is happening in Afghanistan is typical of the results of U.S. foreign policy initiatives over the past half century.  U.S. administrations seem to have a knack for picking corrupt, unmotivated foreign clients who crumble in the face of determined domestic adversaries.  The Obama administration’s fiasco of trying to train a cadre of “moderate” Syrian rebels to counter both Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS is only the most recent example.  Despite spending more than $400 million, the scheme produced only a handful of trainees—many of whom defected to ISIS or at least turned over many of their weapons to the terrorist group or to al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. That embarrassing training debacle, now wisely abandoned by the Obama administration, may well set a new record for expensive, ineffectual government boondoggles.

The events in Syria, though, were similar to the earlier fiasco next door in Iraq.  The United States spent a decade training and equipping a new Iraqi army at great expense (more than $25 billion) to American taxpayers. Yet when ISIS launched its offensive last year to capture Mosul and other cities, Iraqi troops seemed intent on setting speed records to flee their positions and let the insurgents take over with barely a struggle.  ISIS captured vast quantities of sophisticated military hardware that Baghdad’s troops abandoned in their haste.

That episode was reminiscent of the pathetic performance of the U.S.-backed ARVN—South Vietnam’s so-called army–in early 1975.  Although the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had waged a bloody war against both South Vietnamese communist insurgents and North Vietnam for more than a decade, which cost over 58,000 American lives, the results were dismal.  President Nixon’s Vietnamization program—training and equipping the ARVN and gradually transferring responsibility for the war effort to the South Vietnamese government–was a total failure.  When North Vietnam launched a major offensive in early 1975, the collapse of the ARVN was shockingly rapid and complete.  Indeed, it occurred so fast that the U.S. embassy in Saigon was barely able to evacuate its diplomatic personnel before North Vietnamese troops captured the city.

These and other incidents confirm that U.S. leaders habitually choose foreign clients that are utterly inept.  They are characterized by thin domestic support, poor organization, and terrible morale.  Their domestic adversaries always seem to be better organized, more competent, and far more dedicated.  Given the extent of the failures in so many different arenas, Washington should realize that lavishing funds on preferred clients cannot make them credible political and military players in their countries.  And continuing to backstop such inept clients with U.S. troops merely wastes American lives.  Unfortunately, it appears that we are on the verge of being taught that lesson yet again—this time in Afghanistan.

Why We Should Be Wary of Calls to Intervene in Syria

In a recent commentary published on the World Post, Niall Ferguson criticizes President Obama for “Playing Patience While Syria Burns.”  In his view, the Obama administration has chosen to kick the can down the road because the president “naturally prefers the path of least resistance.” 

The problem with Ferguson’s argument (and many similar articles) is that it criticizes Obama for dithering over Syria without elaborating a viable alternative policy.  Ferguson quite rightly points out that the choice is not simply between doing nothing and plunging into another Iraq—“there are many degrees of intervention in a war like the one raging in Syria.”  Yet he never explains what type of intervention would actually help resolve the conflict in Syria. He seems to imply that Obama should have armed the Syrian rebels,but he fails to explain how that would end the conflict.  Could the rebels have toppled Assad if they had American arms (and maybe air support like in Libya)?  Is such an approach still viable following Russia’s intervention?  And even if the rebels were to succeed in toppling Assad, then what?  There are more than forty different rebel groups operating in Syria.  Are they all going to cooperate in forming a national unity government?  Or will they simply start carving out their own little fiefdoms, and perhaps begin fighting each other?  These are the types of questions that need to be addressed before the United States intervenes—and they’re surely questions that the Obama administration has been wrestling with. 

Ultimately, Ferguson’s article demonstrates that it’s a lot easier to criticize President Obama for doing too little than to devise a positive strategy that would accomplish much in Syria.  The fact that the situation in Syria is currently so abysmal does not necessarily mean that a more proactive approach would improve the situation.  U.S. intervention could easily make a bad situation worse.  Since the Syrian conflict is such a complex problem, as Ferguson acknowledges, we should remain wary of calls for the United States to do more until the proponents of greater intervention are able to explicate a clear, detailed strategy—a strategy that explains specific actions the United States can implement, and, more importantly, how those actions will actually facilitate a resolution of the conflict.

What Is Russia’s Intervention in Syria All About?

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press recently about Russia’s motives for its military intervention in Syria, and many are quick to attribute the intervention to a desire to – metaphorically speaking - poke America in the eye. Surrounding this speculation are images of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, playing geopolitical chess at the grandmaster level.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s certainly convenient for Putin to make the United States look bad in any way he can. But there are a variety of other reasons for Russia’s involvement in Syria. And though Putin may briefly look like he is in control of the situation in Syria, the intervention is likely to end badly for him.

It’s notable that while many reports are portraying the Russian intervention in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, and intimating that Russia is in some way ‘winning’, Russia specialists are more likely to point to other factors, and to view the intervention as ill-fated.

Politico recently published a compilation of interviews with 14 Russia specialists on Putin’s goals in Syria. All but one pointed to a couple of key factors to explain Russian intervention: 1) Russian domestic concerns; 2) a desire for diplomatic gain; or 3) a desire to prevent other authoritarian regimes from falling. More tellingly, the vast majority also expressed the opinion that Russia’s actions are reckless, and will end badly.  

The first of these motivations – domestic political concerns – is likely the key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s an excellent opportunity for Vladimir Putin to distract domestic attention from his ongoing failings in Ukraine, and to present an image of Russia as a great power.

The Interventionist Itch

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released its 2015 survey documenting American foreign policy attitudes. Entitled “America Divided: Political Partisanship and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the Council’s report emphasizes the stark disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over foreign policy goals and the means for achieving them. While there are certainly important differences between the two camps, there is a dangerous underlying consensus today that unites left and right: Americans of all stripes suffer from an “interventionist itch.” With respect to fighting terrorism and the Islamic State, Americans are far too supportive of the kinds of military intervention that have proved ineffective and counterproductive in the past.

As 9/11 receded and the war in Iraq descended in to insurgency, Americans became less interested in having the United States play an active role in world affairs and more wary of military intervention. Over the past year, however, as concerns have mounted over the Islamic State, so has the public’s willingness to support various measures to combat terrorism. Drawing on the CCGA survey, Table One reveals public support across party lines for a host of interventionist activities. In addition, the CCGA report notes, a majority of Americans would support cyberattacks and airstrikes (though not the use of ground troops) against Iran should Iran renege on the nuclear agreement.

American Support for Military Intervention: In order to combat international terrorism, please say whether you favor or oppose each of the following measures (% favor)*






US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Using drone strikes to assassinate individual terrorist leaders





Assassination of individual terrorist leaders





Attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps and other facilities





Providing military assistance to Arab governments to combat violent Islamic extremists groups





Keeping some US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 for training and counterterrorism





These figures suggest several sobering conclusions. First, they clearly indicate a stable interventionist consensus that includes both obvious advocates (Republicans) and less obvious advocates (Democrats and even Independents). Such a consensus is somewhat surprising considering all evidence from the past 14 years of intervention makes clear just how poorly such tactics have worked and because the public has repeatedly come to oppose the interventions they previously favored after they prove ineffective. On the other hand, the presence of this consensus is understandable given the interventionist agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations and the vocal support from both Republican and Democratic leaders for more intervention of various kinds.

Second, the consensus illustrates the degree to which the threat of terrorism has come to dominate the U.S. conversation about national security. The 2015 CCGA study finds no increase in support for the use of military force to aid Taiwan, or Israel, or South Korea. But terrorism, even 14 years after 9/11, remains a lighting rod capable of inducing overheated rhetoric and overheated fears.

Finally, these figures indicate that interventionist cries from the candidates will find a receptive audience as we approach the 2016 elections. All of the Republican candidates (Rand Paul aside) as well as Hillary Clinton have staked out positions arguing for more intervention. There is thus every reason to believe that the United States will find itself further entangled in the Middle East in the near future.

*Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “America Divided,” 2015. http://www.thechicagocouncil.org

European Union Sacrifices Serb Self-Determination—Again!

The Balkans Wars ended years ago, but ethnic divisions remain strong, promoted, unfortunately, by the European Union. The latest example of geopolitical malpractice is the EU-brokered agreement for Serbia’s de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

Two decades of America’s and Europe’s toxic mix of diplomacy and war-making followed one consistent policy: the Serbs always lose. Everyone else in the disintegrating Yugoslavia got their own country. Minority ethnic Serbs were expected to live under the sometimes heavy boot of others.

Independence for Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo were perfectly reasonable responses to Serb brutality, but no side was innocent of atrocities. That is evident in Kosovo where, as I point out in my new article in the American Spectator Online: after the war NATO “stood by as ethnic Albanians kicked out more than 200,000 Serbs, Roma, Jews, and others. In 2004 another round of Albanian-led violence ensued, as mobs destroyed the homes and churches of ethnic Serbs, creating additional refugees.” Even the Council of Europe acknowledged that allied policy had “led to numerous human rights violations and [had] not produced lasting solutions for the underlying problems.”

Some 120,000 ethnic Serbs remain in Kosovo, with roughly half concentrated in four counties around the city of Mitrovica north of the Irba River. They should be allowed to stay with Serbia, but the EU was horrified by such a suggestion. Instead, Brussels threatened to slow if not kill Belgrade’s membership aspirations if the latter did not come to terms. Serbia agreed to a nominal compromise which promises Serbian Kosovars limited autonomy in return for what looks to be eventual full recognition of Kosovo.

Of course, the decision is up to Belgrade, which is under heavy pressure to concede. However, the Kosovo Serbs may not go quietly. Far better, I argue, would be to offer ethnic Serbs the same right of self-determination granted others. As I conclude:

It’s too late to remedy the geopolitical and humanitarian messes that have resulted. But if the Europeans desire a stable solution, they should encourage genuine negotiations among the new Balkans nations, Serbia, and remaining disaffected minorities. Reasonable border changes are the only means to ensure peace. Continuing to suppress the aspirations of ethnic Serbs throughout the Balkans risks renewed conflict.

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.

The Hagel Hearings: Congressional Politics at Its Worst

The confirmation hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon are mercifully over. His wobbly performance earned derision among neoconservatives, but he responded as they intended to an interrogation that was all about politics, not policy. 

As I have noted before, Hagel is under fire because he disputed neoconservative nostrums to speak unpleasant truths to the Republican Party. He was an orthodox conservative, including on foreign policy. However, he was an Eisenhower, not a Dubya, Republican: Hagel criticized the debacle in Iraq, urged negotiation to forestall Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and backed reductions in today’s bloated military budget. General turned President Dwight Eisenhower could not have put it better. 

But this enraged a GOP that has turned perpetual war into its most important foreign policy plank. Hence the ludicrous attempt to paint him as an anti-Semite. Only slightly less dishonest was the performance of Hagel’s Republican interlocutors in the Senate, who asked the sort of questions which could not be honestly answered without wrecking the political façade behind which legislators on both sides of the aisle hide. His performance was disappointing, but far more striking is the fact that the uber-hawks who badgered him over every past statement exhibited little interest in exploring the most important challenges facing America. 

Consider the analysis of questions from Rosie Gray and Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed.  They counted 166 questions about Israel—an important ally, but more important than every other ally combined? There were 144 questions about Iran. No one wants Tehran to build nukes, but U.S. intelligence does not believe Iran has an active weapons program and there is no evidence that the Iranian government cannot be deterred, as were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Surely there are options short of war. And is Iran that much more important than Afghanistan, where Americans continue to die, which rated only 20 questions? Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) fixated on Iraq, an invasion that should never have been launched, irrespective of the impact of the “surge.” And from which, if he hadn’t noticed, U.S. troops have been withdrawn. 

Nothing else received serious attention at the hearings. Not how to adjust America’s foreign policy to reflect inevitable Pentagon budget cuts, since Washington no longer can afford to police the globe. Not China, including the worrisome possibility of war between Japan and China over worthless islands in the Sea of Japan. Not North Korea and the enduring challenge of dealing with the world’s most malign actor.  

Not Europe, which continues to under-invest in the military while relying on America for its defense. Not Africa, where the U.S. is steadily being drawn into more conflicts. Not Russia, which, despite the difficult bilateral relationship, has been helpful in Afghanistan and Iran. Not Venezuela, where the possible death of Hugo Chavez could open up opportunities for reform and engagement with America.

And the neoconservatives claim to be serious about international issues and military capabilities. 

Chuck Hagel is eminently qualified to be Secretary of Defense. As my colleague Chris Preble has noted, Hagel’s thinking is mainstream and noncontroversial. Obviously, one can disagree with him on particular issues, such as the possibility of nuclear disarmament.  However, the president still will make the ultimate decisions. Hagel will bring a fresh perspective to administration discussions of foreign and military policy. That is reason enough to welcome him to the Pentagon.