Tag: Iraq

Ideas Have Consequences: The Neoconservatives

The New York Times has produced a useful video about the “super-predator” scare from the 1990s.  At that time, we were already waging a drug war, so we were advised to build more prisons–and so we did.  Then regrets.

You can watch the video here.

As it happens, we are also finding more scrutiny of neoconservative ideas at the movies. A new documentary film directed by Errol Morris looks at former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war.  Here is the film trailer:

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.

Hadley and Gates on Iraq

Former Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley took to the Wall Street Journal’s op ed pages last week to try to make the case that the Iraq war was worth fighting.

The particulars of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny are familiar: 

two wars against his neighbors resulting in about a million deaths; brutalization of his own people killing tens if not hundreds of thousands; use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurds; lifelong support for terrorism; open defiance of the U.N. Security Council…. 

Leaving Saddam in power would have badly undermined the credibility of the U.N. and the U.S. As Iran—Saddam’s mortal enemy—restarted its nuclear program after 2005, Saddam would have resuscitated his own, igniting a nuclear-arms race. Saddam would likely have intervened in the uprising against Syria’s Bashar Assad, fanning the sectarian conflict that now threatens much of the Middle East.

The removal of Saddam opened up a very different possibility: an Iraq in which Sunni, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and other minorities would work together to build a democratic and peaceful future…

Notably, Hadley does not repeat all of the claims made by others in the Bush administration in the run-up to the war.

For example, he does not allege that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda terrorists, including those individuals directly involved in the 9/11 attacks (recall Dick Cheney’s assertion that Mohamed Atta had met with “a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service” in Prague; Cheney subsequently denied making any such connections between Iraq and 9/11). Instead, Hadley explains that al Qaeda took advantage of the chaos that ensued in Iraq after the invasion and overthrow of Hussein.

Hadley does not contend that Hussein had a functioning nuclear weapons program (in contrast to Condoleezza Rice’s warning that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”; or Bush’s famous “sixteen words” about Iraqi yellowcake), and Hadley’s prediction that Hussein would have restarted one after 2005 is purely speculative, and ignores the possibility that Iran restarted its program in response to the U.S. invasion.

Hadley’s bottom line, however, is the same as Cheney, Rice, and Bush’s: the war was worth fighting.

The Violence in Iraq: What Can Be Done?

Just over two years after the last U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq, an insurgency is raging throughout the country. The black flags of ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – now fly over Fallujah, the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the U.S war in Iraq. These recent gains by extremists, and the apparent inability of the Iraqi government to exercise control over its territory, have many in U.S. foreign policy circles worried.

Many blame Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for the uptick in violence, arguing that his heavy-handed policies toward the Sunni minority laid the groundwork for the current insurgency. (e.g. here) Others blame the Obama administration for failing to successfully negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have allowed a small residual U.S. force to remain in the country to help train the Iraqi army and conduct counterterrorist operations. The claim that such forces would have been able to exert great leverage over the Iraqi political class, and that Obama himself bears some blame for the violence because he withdrew U.S. troops rather than leave them in Iraq without a SOFA, ignores that our forces were unable to fix Iraq’s shattered political system even when they were in Iraq in large numbers. (More on this here.)

Iraqi politics, Iranian influence, and a spillover of violence from the Syrian civil war make the situation far more complex than most want to admit. It’s one thing to assign blame, it’s quite another to find solutions.

At an upcoming Cato policy forum, “Understanding the Continuing Violence in Iraq,” experts will provide context for the current situation, outline obstacles facing the Iraqi government, and debate what role, if any, the United States should play. Speakers include Douglas Ollivant of the New American Foundation, who wrote on this subject earlier this month, and Harith Hasan who, with Emma Skye, commented on Iraqi politics here last year, and has also written a book on the subject.

The event begins at Noon, on Tuesday, February 12th. To learn more, and to register, click here.

U.S. Leverage over Iraqis? When Did We Have That?

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a front-page story (may be paywalled) on the civil war raging in Iraq. The headline observes that the United States has minimal leverage in Iraq, and that American officials fear that they will therefore be unable to halt the war, at least not any time soon.

Despair over our supposed “lost leverage” has been building for a while. Late last month, Max Boot lamented “the tragedy of Maliki’s Iraq” and opined “Maliki needs to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign…whose central feature must be outreach to the estranged Sunnis.” “The tragedy,” Boot concluded, “is that Maliki lacks the acumen to do that–and the U.S. lacks the leverage to compel him, because of the ill-advised pullout of American forces at the end of 2011.”

Such recommendations are based on two fundamental misconceptions: 1) That Americans once had leverage over the Iraqis, and that we lost it around the time U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq; and, 2) that there is a durable political solution within reach, if only we had the gumption to go back in.

Instead, the hard fighting of brave Americans to secure Iraq’s future have been, in the inimitable Boot’s words, “squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington.” 

Boot ignores there was no public appetite for leaving U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, and there is even less enthusiasm for sending them back in today. If he wants to criticize politicos in Baghdad and Washington, he must also criticize the voters who elected them. Otherwise, he is effectively howling at the moon.

Thankfully, there is intelligent, informed commentary on what is happening in Iraq, commentary that recognizes political realities in Iraq, and doesn’t succumb to fantasies about the United States’ magical democracy-making powers. I especially appreciated the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant’s piece at ForeignPolicy.com. His advice to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Fight. There is no talk in Ollivant’s piece about American soldiers fighting for him.

Why We Shouldn’t Expand Government

Fareed Zakaria’s new column is titled (at least on the Washington Post website) “Why Americans Hate Their Government” or (in the paper) “Why We Hate our Government.” But some of the points he makes might better be seen as reasons not to keep on expanding a government that has grown beyond its competence.

Washington is having one of its odd debates as to whether the Obama administration’s rollout of HealthCare.gov was worse than the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But whatever the answer, if there is one, the real story is that both are examples of a major, and depressing, trend: the declining competence of the federal government. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, has been saying for years that most Americans believe their government can no longer act effectively and that this erosion of competence, and hence confidence, is a profound problem.

“The federal service is suffering its greatest crisis since it was founded in the first moments of the republic,” scholar Paul Light writes in his book “A Government Ill Executed.”

Over the past decade, the federal government has had several major challenges: Iraq, Afghanistan, a new homeland security system, Katrina and Obamacare. In almost every case, its performance has been plagued with mismanagement, massive cost overruns and long delays.

Zakaria argues that this was not always the case: “In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, federal agencies were often lean, well managed and surprisingly effective.” Maybe so, depending on your metric. But of course in those decades the federal government had not yet undertaken cradle-to-grave responsibilities. Maybe the lesson is that if you want competent government, you should limit it to manageable tasks.

On the other hand,

If you want the federal government to tax (and borrow) and transfer $3.6 trillion a year, if you want it to build housing for the poor and give special benefits to Alaska Natives, if you want it to supply Americans with health care and school lunches and retirement security and local bike paths, then you have to accept that such programs come with incentive problems, politicization, corruption, and waste.

In that case, this is the business you have chosen.

Obsession with Syria Obscures Other Middle East Problems and Pertinent Lessons

The Obama administration and most of the U.S. foreign policy community have become so obsessed with Syria that other important developments around the world are receiving inadequate attention. In a piece over at the National Interest Online, I describe some of the key trends in South Asia and East Asia, two regions that are more important than the Middle East to long-term U.S. security and economic interests.

Crucial events include India’s growing financial woes, the simmering tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and Japan’s increased willingness (in large part because of its problems with China) to boost its military spending and adopt a more confrontational stance toward Beijing. 

I also note that Syria is hardly the only source of worry in the Middle East itself. The renewed sectarian violence next door in Iraq is escalating at a frightening pace, Sunni-Shiite tensions in Bahrain are moving from a simmer to a boil, Libya is imploding, and Egypt is perched on the brink of civil war. The problems in Iraq and Libya hold pertinent lessons for those Americans who are eager to embark on a war against Syria. After all, those were Washington’s last two military crusades to oust odious dictators. And to be blunt, they have not turned out well.

Since the early spring, the level of bloodshed in Iraq has reached alarming proportions. And much of the violence reflects bitter sectarian divisions similar to those that make Syria such a fragile political entity. Iraq after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein has not turned out to be the peaceful, democratic, multi-religious society that George W. Bush’s administration touted as the goal of U.S. policy. 

The situation in Libya is even worse. Overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi has led to an awful aftermath. The horrifying September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was an early symptom of the chaos that has made Libya a thoroughly dysfunctional country. Today, a growing number of militias (many of which have rabidly Islamist orientations) have established small fiefdoms throughout the country, and the national government in Tripoli becomes increasingly impotent. Libya’s oil production has plunged, and with it the government’s principal source of revenue. 

Given the dismal outcomes of Washington’s last two military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa, one would think that proponents of a crusade in Syria would be sobered by the experience. But warhawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Representative Peter King, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol appear to have learned nothing from those debacles. More prudent figures in Congress and the broader foreign policy community need to overrule their wishes.

Learning to Leave Bad Enough Alone: Washington’s Clumsy Meddling in Fragile Countries

U.S. officials too often succumb to the temptation to try to impose order and justice in unstable or misgoverned societies around the world. The temptation is understandable. It is hard to learn about—much less watch on the nightly news—brutality, bloodshed, and gross injustice and not want to do something about it. Some foreign policy intellectuals, including the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have become strident lobbyists for the notion of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations.

But it is a temptation that wise policy makers should avoid. U.S. meddling has frequently caused already bad situations to deteriorate further—especially when Washington has based its humanitarian interventions on the false premise that the subject of our attentions is, or at least ought to be, a coherent nation state. As I point out in an article over at The National Interest, U.S. administrations have made that blunder in Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, and other places.

In many parts of the world, the Western concept of a nation state is quite weak, and the concepts of democracy and individual rights are even less developed. The primary loyalty of an inhabitant is likely to be to a clan, tribe, ethnic group or religion. U.S. officials appear to have difficulty grasping that point, and as a result, the United States barges into fragile societies, disrupting what modest order may exist. Washington’s military interventions flail about, shattering delicate political and social connections and disrupting domestic balances of power.

An especially naive and pernicious U.S. habit has been to try to midwife a strong national government in client states when the real power and cohesion lies at the local or subregional level. Thus, Washington still insists on keeping the chronically dysfunctional pretend country of Bosnia intact and on international life support more than 17 years after imposing the Dayton peace accords that ended the fighting there. Similarly, the United States harbored the illusion that Hamid Karzai could run a strong, pro-Western, democratic Afghan central government from Kabul, and even Karzai’s ineptitude and extensive misdeeds have not entirely dispelled that notion. In both cases, the national cohesion, underlying democratic values, and strong civil societies needed for such a scheme to work are woefully lacking.

One would hope that U.S. officials would be sobered by those bruising experiences, but there is little evidence of that. Even now, the Obama administration continues to flirt with intervening in Syria. That would be a huge mistake. Syria’s ethno-religious divisions make those of Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya look mild by comparison. Bashar al-Assad is undoubtedly a thuggish ruler, and the humanitarian situation in Syria is tragic. But a U.S.-led intervention could cause Syria’s fragile political and ethnic tapestry to unravel entirely, and that might make the current situation far worse. The Obama administration needs to exercise great care and restraint.

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