Tag: Iraq

Has Mitt Romney Ditched His Neoconservative Talking Points?

We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us. - Mitt Romney, Presidential Debate, Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012

With these words, Mitt Romney might have made the final, crucial connection to an American public tired of more than a decade of war, and desperate not to start any new ones.

Obama did his best to remind voters of why they haven’t trusted Republicans on foreign policy since 2005. He uttered the word Iraq 10 times. Romney mentioned it three times, once by accident—referring mistakenly to “the president of Iraq—excuse me, of Iran”— and once to explicitly and categorically deny that he had any intentions of going back down that road by launching another war.

Such sentiments can’t make Romney’s neoconservative advisers happy. They are the ones who sold the war in the first place, they peddled a “surge” in a desperate attempt to create a narrative that resembled victory, and it is they, who, to this day, proudly declare that the war was worth fighting. Their every statement betrays how truly marginalized they are, isolated from a public that can see the facts plainly before it, and concludes something very different: this war was a horrible mistake, and one that we are determined not to repeat. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal all but avoided commenting on the substance of Romney’s statements last night—probably because there wasn’t much substance.

Questions remain, however. First, is Mitt Romney truly committed to avoiding Iraq-style wars in the future? If so, why did he choose to surround himself with so many of the war’s most fervent advocates? Second, why is he opposed to additional reductions in the Army and Marine Corps, forces that grew specifically to fight the war that was supposed to be a “cakewalk” but that turned out to be something very different? If Mitt Romney doesn’t intend to engage in costly, open-ended nation-building missions abroad, why does he need a conventional military geared for that purpose? And, third, what lessons from the Iraq war inform his conduct of foreign policy? Was Iraq a good idea, poorly executed, or was this a bad idea from the get-go?

A recent article explained how Romney wanted to draw distinctions between himself and President George W. Bush, starting with the war in Iraq. “The idea that Romney is following the George W. Bush approach is a caricature the Democrats want to draw,” a senior Romney foreign policy adviser told the Los Angeles Times’s Paul Richter, “We’re not going to help them with that.”

They didn’t last night. We’ll find out soon enough if it worked.

Wall Street Journal: Romney Should Be a Neocon, but Hide It in Debate

Would you buy a foreign policy from this man?

Imagine a world in which the Iraq War had gone exactly as marketed. The United States invaded in March 2003. The Iraqis, with the help of Ahmed Chalabi, rapidly transitioned to become a stable, liberal democracy allied with the United States against Iran. The marvelous and smooth transformation had ripple effects throughout the region: a handful of Arab states followed suit, and the United States had drawn down to under 30,000 troops in country by September 2003, setting up a basing agreement with the new Iraqi government to stay indefinitely. Few American lives were lost, the swamp of terrorism was drained, and an oil pipeline has just been completed running from Iraq to the Israeli port city of Haifa.

Imagine, at the same time, that opponents of the war, despite having gotten every major judgment about the prudence and consequences of the war comically wrong, had been vaulted to positions of power and prestige in foreign affairs commentary. Meanwhile, the war’s proponents, despite their support for a strategy that yielded huge strategic dividends for the United States at a low cost, were banished to the wilderness, heard from sporadically on a few blogs and at a think tank or two.

It would be strange, wouldn’t it?

And yet that situation is roughly analogous to the one in which we find ourselves today, except in real life the war was an enormous disaster, just as its opponents predicted, and the proponents of the war are the ones in denial about its implications. Foremost among the salespeople for war who have yet to come to grips with the facts are the members of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

But hey, let’s let bygones be bygones: they’ve got some advice for Mitt Romney in his upcoming foreign policy debate.

First, the good news: Even the editorial board of the Journal seems to understand that speaking openly about their plans for more wars would be bad politics. Accordingly, the Journal doesn’t “expect Mr. Romney to offer an explicit defense of the Bush Doctrine” and they worry about the implications of Obama charging Romney with wanting to get the United States into a third (and fourth) Middle East war. This is in keeping with the previous assurance of Bret Stephens (pictured above) that Romney wouldn’t start any new wars. Romney should deny wanting any more wars while doing a number of things that make them inevitable.

Second, the bad news: Instead of suggesting that Romney actually trim the neocon sail a bit, the article suggests Romney continue his strategy of wheeling out a fog machine and saying “leadership” and “strength” instead of discussing details. The American people who tune in Monday night deserve to hear some specifics. Not the level of specifics that would satisfy the people who think about international politics for a living, sure, but some specifics. Instead, while suggesting that Romney “offer[] a serious critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy that doesn’t descend to clichés,” the article suggests clichés but not seriousness.

This blends with the ugly news: like an insular clique of Bourbon royalty, the neocons at the Journal appear to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing about strategy over the last 10 years. To the extent their suggestions do go beyond clichés, they are a reminder that Bush-era neoconservatism still lies at the center of their world view, and the world view of the Republican establishment. A few examples:

  • The war in Iraq, we are informed, had “already been won when Mr. Obama became president.” Mission accomplished? Come again?
  • Obama turned that win into a loss by failing to secure “a viable alliance with Baghdad and a bulwark against Tehran.” When you have allocated yourselves 1,608 words, you may want to show your work about how this could have happened.
  • Another Obama failure is that he allowed Israel to have a partially independent defense strategy. He should have “provide[d] Israel with reassurances that it needn’t consider its own military options” on Iran. If Israelis should just rely on the United States to defend them from the most important threats facing their country, why does Israel have such a powerful military in the first place?
  • Obama’s “policies of premature military withdrawals [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have increased rather than diminished the chances that we will be at war in the Middle East again.” How? In which countries?

One could go on. But more broadly the piece suffers from the flaw that has characterized the whole foreign-policy discussion in the election: the idea that the outside world begins at Algeria and ends at Afghanistan. The sprawling essay says exactly nothing useful when it comes to the most important foreign policy challenges facing the United States: the prospect of a European implosion, the wreckage of our war on drugs in Mexico, and preventing American entanglement in a prospective World War III in Asia.

The essay closes by invoking Robert Gates’s invocation of Ronald Reagan, who said that he had lived through many wars but none of them began because the United States was too strong. Gates and the WSJ’s editorial board probably ought to think a little harder about whether the United States blundered into any costly quagmires as a function of its overweening strength and insulation from the costs of its strategic choices. The answer is obvious.

Thoughts on Little America and Afghanistan

I recently finished reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. The entire book is terrific. I highly recommend it. But one chapter in particular—Chapter 7, “Deadwood”—spoke to some of the things that my colleagues and I have written over the years concerning America’s nation-building problems.

Most Americans have by now moved on from the war in Afghanistan (even though the U.S. military has not) and are focused on, in President Obama’s words, “nation building here at home.” But we still haven’t closed the book on the theories of nation building that arose after 9/11, including the belief that the United States needs to repair failed states, or rescue failing ones, lest terrorists from these states travel thousands of miles to attack Americans. Last month, for example, Mitt Romney’s senior foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson praised Bill Clinton’s nation-building adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo. Williamson told NPR’s Audie Cornish that the U.S. government must “help in reconciliation, reconstruction, helping institutions of law and order, security be built” after authoritarian regimes collapse. From the belief that we must repair failed states flows logically the belief that we can.

These beliefs are, in fact, myths. Cato has published many different papers, articles, and book chapters challenging the claim that fighting terrorism, or preserving U.S. security generally, requires us to engage in nation building abroad. We have been equally emphatic on the point that our efforts are likely to fail, no matter how well intentioned. Little America provides additional evidence to support that argument, although I doubt that was Chandrasekaran’s object.

Take, for example, the case of Summer Coish, the striking and extraordinarily motivated woman who wanted to go to Afghanistan so badly that she appealed directly to Richard Holbrooke. She got her wish—eventually. Despite the fact that the president’s designated point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan had marked her for the fast track, it took 14 months before she was cleared to travel to there.

Once she arrived, Coish’s dream of helping the Afghans emerge from decades of war and desperate poverty crashed against the reality of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. Security regulations made it nearly impossible for Coish and other civilians to regularly interact with Afghans, and few embassy staffers exhibited any desire to do so. “It’s rare that you ever hear someone say they’re here because they want to help the Afghans,” Coish told Chandrasekaran after she had been there a few months. Instead, Chandrasekaran observes, “everyone seemed bent on departure.”

The work itself was painfully dull. Coish concluded that most of it could have been accomplished in Washington, at far less cost to the taxpayers. The reason for the costly in-country presence? The need to count them as part of the vaunted “civilian surge.”

Coish and a handful of other dedicated civilians that Chandrasekaran writes about—including Kael Weston, an experienced political adviser to Marine General Larry Nicholson, and Carter Malkasian, the State Department’s representative in Helmand’s Garmser district—could not make up for the lack of ability (or desire) on the part of many other civilians (i.e. the deadwood). “It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we’re getting the straphangers these days,” Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand province, wrote to the embassy. “Or, as one wag put it, ‘they’re just along for the chow.’ No need to go into details here—let’s just say that there’s enough deadwood here that it’s becoming a fire hazard.”

At times, Chandrasekaran’s assessment of the civilian surge exhibits an oddly optimistic tone. I say “odd” because this is the same person who brilliantly documented the dysfunction of the Bush administration’s nation-building fiasco in Iraq (in Imperial Life in the Emerald City), but who can’t bring himself to say that Obama’s mission in Afghanistan couldn’t possibly succeed. Despite everything that he has seen, Chandrasekaran often reflects a belief that it all could have worked out (or that it still might) were it not for the “lack of initiative and creativity in Washington.”

Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of Obama’s national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options.

Pray-tell, where would the government have found such people? Or, more precisely, how would the government convince those already gainfully employed to set aside their careers, homes, and families to embark upon an Afghan adventure? What additional incentives—or threats—might have sufficed to mobilize the vast army of talented agronomists, lawyers, biologists, teachers, doctors, civil engineers, etc. who were not already motivated (as Coish, Weston and Malkasian were)?

Several years ago, I co-authored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky a paper on the lessons of Iraq. Our research was informed by Chandrasekaran’s narrative from the Iraqi Green Zone, and a number of other books on the Bush administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Here is what we said (the prose in this case is almost certainly Friedman’s; I’m not this clever) about the American people’s disinclination to embark on nation-building missions abroad.

A concerted effort to improve our collective nation-building skills would require “a foreign policy at odds with our national character.”

Reading through the proposals for rapidly deployable bureaucrats to help run failing states, one usually searches in vain for the pages where the author justifies the creation of an empire and a colonial service to run it. Whatever else changed after September 11, [Americans]…are ill-suited for stabilizing disorderly states and achieving success in protracted foreign wars.

The State Department’s budget, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we explained, “is tiny because its aim is to relate to foreign nations, not to run them.”

National security organizations are formed by decades of budgets and decisions. Their organizational politics…reflect…lasting national interests, namely a disinclination to subjugate foreign peoples and lose unnecessary wars….Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense.

To repeat, Little America is a first-class read, and I hope that the book receives the attention it deserves. The anecdotes about Coish, Weston, and Malkasian, as well as countless stories about brave soldiers and Marines trying their best every day to make Afghanistan a better place, are heartwarming. We honor their service, and we should find other avenues for these people to perform their work, chiefly through NGOs, unencumbered by the massive federal bureaucracy.

But good intentions cannot distract us from the bleak reality: building a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan would require hundreds of thousands of equally dedicated civilians, to go along with a massive troop presence to protect them, tens of billions of dollars every year, and a commitment to remain in country for decades.

We aren’t going to do that. We should stop pretending that we will.

The GOP’s Big Government Baggage

Brian Myrick / AP file

The Republican National Convention is just days away, so it’s relevant to point out that the longer big-government interventionists are associated with the GOP, the more terms like “limited government” and “free markets” will lose all meaning. One Republican who epitomizes the damage of this guilt by association is former Vice President Dick Cheney. He won’t be at the convention, but his message surely will be.Below are two arguments put forward by Cheney, the first about Iraq in 2002, the second about Iran in 2007:

Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.

And on Iran:

There is no reason in the world why Iran needs to continue to pursue nuclear weapons. But if you look down the road a few years and speculate about the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world, that’s a very serious prospect. And it’s important that not happen.

What is so remarkable about this vision proffered by Cheney is how it fails to elucidate precisely how either country threatens America’s interests or economic well-being. If one were to challenge the validity of Cheney’s claims, questions would include:

  • What is the likelihood of such a hypothetical disruption?
  • What is the harm if America’s access to markets is closed, and for how long?
  • How would the perpetrators of the closure be affected?
  • How has America dealt with such disruptions in the past?
  • Would there be available alternatives?
  • And, most importantly, would the risks to America’s interests and economic well-being be worse if it took preventive action?

Cheney evokes the imagery of America spreading stability and peace, while his world view relies on aggressive militarism that destroys both. What is particularly appalling is his implication that the United States must protect “the world’s energy supplies” and “the world’s supply of oil.” Chris Preble has drawn on a rich body of literature that shows why such claims do not withstand scrutiny.

Remarkably, Cheney represents a Republican constituency supportive of free markets, and yet his world view contradicts basic free trade and free market principles. He believes that free markets thrive only when peace and stability are provided by the U.S. government—and there’s the rub.

Rather than a world of economic exchange free of the state and its interventions, government must enforce global order for free trade to occur. Cheney’s vision of free markets impels American expansion.

At its heart—and far from free market—the former vice president’s world view fulfills a radical interpretation of U.S. foreign policy. Cheney gives new life to the works of revisionist historians like William Appleman Williams, by propagating the pernicious notion that U.S. intervention abroad is required to control the flow of raw materials and protect America’s wealth and power.

War Is Too Easy, but a Draft Is Not the Solution

In yesterday’s New York Times, Thomas Ricks penned an op-ed calling for the draft to be reinstituted. Ricks offers that under his plan for military conscription, libertarians who object could opt out provided they don’t partake of Uncle Sam’s other goodies such as federally subsidized mortgages, Medicare, and college loans. As a libertarian who objects to a draft, but who also received an NROTC scholarship in exchange for an active-duty commission, I think that Ricks is offering conscientious objectors a raw deal.

Those opting out, of course, could not refuse to pay the taxes that are used to fund government programs. That would be great for the government—compel people to pay for services that they will never use—but it is profoundly unfair, especially to young adults.

Mr. Ricks’s plan will certainly cost more money than our current all-volunteer force, especially in the near term. For example, we can expect tuition to skyrocket as soon as college administrators realize that the taxpayers are on the hook to pay for these new conscripts’ secondary education. The long-term savings that Ricks anticipates from changes to the military retirement are likely to prove equally elusive; past attempts to rein in costs for military retirees, including changes to eligibility rules, have repeatedly failed. There are sensible ideas for fixing the problem, but the politics are still really tough.

A draft is unlikely to save us money, but it will certainly abridge young people’s freedom. It is unfair to older adults, too, who would see their taxes rise. To add insult to injury, many older adults would see their tax dollars go to pay low-wage workers who would then be competing with them for jobs. Mr. Ricks thinks it’s outrageous that a 50-year old janitor earns $106,000 a year, plus overtime; the janitor would disagree. Others who would suddenly be forced to compete with a taxpayer-funded horde of 18-year olds include day care providers, nurses, and construction workers.

Libertarians want minimal government, as Mr. Ricks claims, but his plan would dramatically expand government power, abridge individual liberty, and distort the labor market. Despite his claims that this will be beneficial to the economy, economists long ago concluded that the all-volunteer force is superior to conscription. Conscription is a superficially great deal for the government, but a net loss for the taxpayer and draftee in hidden costs, and lost freedom.

I am sympathetic to Mr. Ricks’s desire to avoid rushing headlong into other foolish wars. It is too easy for the United States to wage war and send resources—drones, special operations forces—to low-level conflicts. Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war and deficit spending kicks the monetary costs down the road. But the draft is not the answer. Instead, let’s begin our search for a solution by forcing the advocates for such wars to a higher standard of proof, and holding them accountable when their rosy predictions of quick success prove erroneous.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Hey Daily Kos, Cato Is Not A ‘Republican-supporting’ Institution

I guess it’s not a huge surprise that a writer at The Daily Kos would characterize Cato as “Republican-supporting” when it suits a purpose. Just for their future reference, here is a laundry list of positions taken by Cato scholars that most Republicans (Beltway Republicans, at least) tend to abhor:

We libertarians continue to be amazed at the inconsistency exhibited by the left and the right: conservatives dislike government power except when it comes to militarizing our foreign policy and, oftentimes, running people’s personal lives; liberals profess dislike for government power except when it comes to micromanaging the economy, which can quickly morph into micromanaging everything else. The Nanny-state is pushed equally by liberals and conservatives.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” (my emphasis) I think Cato scholars demonstrate a different kind of consistency in our principled adherence to limited, constitutional government, individual liberty, free markets, and peace. Our positions do not change whenever Republicrats replace Democans in office.

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above 5,000, and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that was the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States, and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria’s resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect, or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first emphasizing Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq, and fears that al Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization, and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, strengthening his support, rather than weakening it.

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely, which can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime, with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledge to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.