Tag: Iraq

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.

With “Friends” Like Saudi Arabia, the United States Doesn’t Need Enemies

One striking feature of the first debate featuring the top tier GOP presidential candidates was how many of them described Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf as “friends” of the United States.  And clearly that is a bipartisan attitude.  Obama administration officials routinely refer to Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally, and one need only recall the infamous photo of President Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah to confirm Washington’s devotion to the relationship with Riyadh.

It is a spectacularly unwise attitude.  As Cato adjunct scholar Malou Innocent and I document in our new book, Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes, Saudi Arabia is not only an odious, totalitarian power, it has repeatedly undermined America’s security interests.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic behavior alone should probably disqualify the country as a friend of the United States.  Riyadh’s reputation as a chronic abuser of human rights is well deserved. Indeed, even as Americans and other civilized populations justifiably condemned ISIS for its barbaric practice of beheadings, America’s Saudi ally executed 83 people in 2014 by decapitation.

In addition to its awful domestic conduct, Riyadh has consistently worked to undermine America’s security.  As far back as the 1980s, when the United States and Saudi Arabia were supposedly on the same side, helping the Afghan mujahedeen resist the Soviet army of occupation, Saudi officials worked closely with Pakistan’s intelligence agency to direct the bulk of the aid to the most extreme Islamist forces.  Many of them became cadres in a variety of terrorist organizations around the world once the war in Afghanistan ended.

Saudi Arabia’s support for extremists in Afghanistan was consistent with its overall policy.  For decades, the Saudi government has funded the outreach program of the Wahhabi clergy and its fanatical message of hostility to secularism and Western values generally.  Training centers (madrassas) have sprouted like poisonous ideological mushrooms throughout much of the Muslim world, thanks to Saudi largesse.  That campaign of indoctrination has had an enormous impact on at least the last two generations of Muslim youth.  Given the pervasive program of Saudi-sponsored radicalism, it is no coincidence that 16 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi nationals.

Riyadh also has shown itself to be a disruptive, rather than a stabilizing, force in the Middle East.  Not only has Saudi Arabia conducted military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, thereby eliminating the possibility of peaceful solutions to the bitter domestic divisions in those countries, the Saudi government helped fund and equip the factions in Syria and Iraq that eventually coalesced to form ISIS.  Although Saudi officials may now realize that they created an out-of-control Frankenstein monster, that realization does not diminish their responsibility for the tragedy.

In light of such a lengthy, dismal track record, one wonders why any sensible American would regard Saudi Arabia as a friend of the United States.  We do not need and should not want such repressive and untrustworthy “friends.”

Fleeting American Public Support for Murky Wars

Calls are mounting in Congress (and among some influential opinion groups) for escalating Washington’s military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and for possible military action against Iran if the new nuclear agreement with that country falls apart.  Caution lights should be flashing about both the extent and durability of such sentiment for military action.  As I note in a recent article in the National Interest Online, this country has an unfortunate history of launching ill-considered armed crusades, often initially with enthusiastic public support.  But that support has a tendency to evaporate and turn to bitter recriminations unless certain conditions are met.  Policymakers need to appreciate that history as they consider intensifying U.S. involvement in the Middle East’s turbulent affairs.

Because most Americans believe that the United States embodies the values of individual liberty, human rights, and government integrity, a foreign policy that seems to ignore or violate those values is almost certain to lose the public’s allegiance sooner or later. That is what happened with such missions as the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and, more recently, the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan.  It is not merely that the ventures failed to achieve quick, decisive results, although that aspect clearly played a role.  It was also that the United States was increasingly seen as expending blood and treasure on behalf of odious clients and dubious causes that had little or nothing to do with the republic’s vital interests.  A disillusioned public turned against those missions, and that development created or intensified bitter domestic divisions.

To sustain adequate public support for military ventures, the objective must be widely perceived as both worthy and attainable.  Without those features, public support for a policy either proves insufficient from the outset or soon erodes, and either development is fatal in a democratic political system.

Preserving public support requires officials to make an honest assessment of the issues at stake.  Too often, both during the Cold War and the post–Cold War eras, U.S. policymakers have hyped threats to American interests.  The alleged dangers posed by such adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad bordered on being ludicrous.  At times, it appears that U.S. officials have deliberately engaged in distortions to gin-up public support for purely elective wars.  On other occasions, officials seem to have succumbed to their own propaganda.  In either case, public support dissipates rapidly when evidence mounts that the supposed security threat to America is exaggerated.

That troubling history should reinforce the need for caution as U.S. leaders consider new military interventions, especially in the Middle East.  None of the proposed missions is likely to produce quick, decisive results—much less results with modest financial outlays and minimal casualties.  Moreover, escalating America’s involvement in the region’s myriad troubles puts the United States in a close de facto partnership with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies—some of the most corrupt, brutal governments on the planet.  Publics in the Middle East and around the world are watching, and the potential for unpleasant blowback is extremely high.  And as we saw with the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the reaction of the American people to associations with sleazy foreign clients can become one of profound revulsion.  The conditions are in place for new foreign-policy debacles, if U.S. officials have not learned the appropriate historical lessons.

How Drones Encourage Dumb Wars and Corrode Democratic Government

My article in this week’s Washington Examiner magazine argues that because U.S. wars seem so cheap, they tempt us into making war too casually. I explain that while this tendency isn’t new, recent technology breakthroughs, which allowed the development of drones, have made it worse. We now make war almost like people buy movies or songs online, where low prices and convenience encourage purchase without much debate or consideration of value. I label the phenomenon one-click wars.

If we take occasional drone strikes as a minimum standard, the United States is at war in six countries: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with Libya likely to rejoin the list. In the first three, U.S. military action is exclusively the work of drones. Regular U.S. ground forces are present only in Iraq, where they avoid direct combat, and Afghanistan, where they mostly do.

There’s something remarkable in that combination of militarism and restraint. How can we be so willing to make war but so reluctant to take risks in making it?

My explanation starts with power. Wealth, technological prowess, and military might give the United States unique ability to make war around the world. But labor scarcity, liberal values, and our isolated geography that makes the stakes remote  limit our tolerance for sacrificing lives, even foreign ones, in war. This reluctance to bear the human costs of war leads to reliance on long-range technology, especially airpower.

Airpower, despite its historical tendency to fail without help from ground forces, always offers hope that we are only a few bombs away from enemy capitulation. The promise of cheap, clean wars is always alluring. They would let you escape the choice between the bloody sacrifices war entails and the liberal values it offends. 

Four Lessons to Ponder Before Going to War

In about 30 seconds this morning on Fox News Sunday, George Will laid out the prudential case for proceeding very cautiously when contemplating a war:

WALLACE: So George, with that as trailer, what’s the lesson that we should take from Iraq, and particularly as it comes to future U.S. policy?

WILL: Four lessons, I think.

First, the government has to choose always on the basis of imperfect information. I agree with Bob [Woodward]. There were no lies here [in the Bush administration’s incorrect claims about WMD]. It was a colossal failure to know what we didn’t know.

Second, the failure to ask Admiral Yamamoto’s question. When he was asked by the government of Japan could he take a fleet stealthily across the Pacific and strike Pearl Harbor, he said yeah, but then what? He knew they would have on their hands an enormous problem in the United States.

Third, Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. Just as when the Kennedy administration in November 1963 was complicit in the coup against Diem, in South Vietnam, we owned South Vietnam ever after.

But fourth and most important, the phrase nation-building is as absurd as the phrase orchid building. Orchids are complex, organic things. So are nations. And we do not know how to build nations any more than we know how to fix English-speaking home grown Detroit. 

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.