Tag: Iraq

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.

Playing to Our Strengths—and Why COIN Doesn’t

A recent editorial in the Boston Globe noted with some glee that the Obama administration strategy document released last week included the “acknowledgement that America’s brief and unhappy foray into counterinsurgency operations has come to an end.” The Globe editorialists conclude “Given the checkered history of counterinsurgency, and its cost in lives and money, its demise is hardly unwelcome. Even better to read of it in the very document that hopes to guide how the United States conducts wars the next time around.”

As a COIN skeptic from well before the publication of FM 3-24 (when COIN was called nation-building), I am inclined to claim some vindication. Often with Justin Logan in the lead, I have probably written more about this subject than any other (including here and here). More broadly, Cato has been a hospitable venue for skeptical views of nation-building as a cure for terrorism, including these two fine papers that explained why we didn’t need to repair/reconstruct weak or failing states in order to defeat al Qaeda, and this paper by Jeffrey Record on why COIN/nation-building was inconsistent with America’s strategic culture, and therefore likely to fail.

But I expect that some COIN advocates will push back, and a few quite vociferously. Some might admit that, yes, Afghanistan has been an unholy mess, but we need to give it more time. The public has soured on the war there, and is now turning against the dominant strategy, COIN, but those attitudes, they will say, could be turned around with concerted presidential leadership. And then they will launch into their full-throated defense of COIN, which might go something like this:

COIN is still useful in particular situations, especially when the operations are in support of a credible local partner, when we are able and willing to apply the necessary resources to have a reasonable chance of success, and when we are prepared to remain for the long haul. And once we have committed to the COIN mission, we must ensure that we execute the mission properly, as spelled out in FM 3-24, which means that the troops must accept greater risk in order to minimize civilian casualties.

My response, and I think that of other COIN skeptics, is that those key ingredients are almost never in place, hence COIN almost never works.

  • If there was “a credible local partner” there likely wouldn’t be an insurgency in the first place. Insurgencies come about and grow in strength because the government they are rising up against is not serving the best interests of some segment of the population.
  • Applying “necessary resources” means, in practice, a massive number of foreign troops and vast sums of money, far more even than most COIN advocates admit in public. They are especially loathe to do so when those resources are desperately needed at home. (Equally troubling is the application of a massive, costly, long-term effort in one place when those same resources could be applied in pursuit of different – or even the same – national security priorities elsewhere.)
  • Remaining in country “for the long haul” means decades, not years, another bridge too far for most Americans. We are not inclined to lord over others for decades or longer as past empires did.
  • Executing COIN tactics “properly” means limiting the use of force such that you only kill the bad guys but never kill the good guys, or the indifferent neutrals. One unfortunate accident, involving the inadvertent killing of innocent bystanders (who the insurgents will very cynically shield behind) can undermine weeks or months of effort in building trust. We are foreigners in their country, and the locals will be disinclined to give us the benefit of the doubt, or to trust in our good intentions. Though I admire and respect the professionalism and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, I don’t think it realistic to expect them to be perfect.

Afghanistan, by itself, does not prove that COIN can’t work. COIN might be the appropriate strategy in other cases or other places. But a football analogy is relevant here. Think of the upcoming AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. A team with two-time MVP Tom Brady at quarterback doesn’t choose to pound the ball into the teeth of a run-stopping defense like Baltimore’s, especially when New England’s running backs are pretty average by NFL standards. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ Ray Rice is one of the premier backs in the league, so we can expect the Ravens to favor the ground game, run time off the clock, and keep Brady on the sidelines. In other words, each team will likely play to its strengths.

COIN skeptics said that Team USA should do the same. Although the COIN advocates claimed that there was no viable alternative, there was more than one way to win the game in Afghanistan, and we should play to our strengths. Our political culture and available resources, combined with the facts on the ground, advise us to avoid open-ended nation-building missions, generally, not just in Afghanistan. That means an air game (including air power from the sea), not a ground game.

I am pleased that the administration’s strategy seems to reflect these lessons. We’ll see, perhaps as early as next week, if their budget does as well.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Iran’s Bluster and Weakness

Iran this week punctuated 10 days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts, and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.

The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined its ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms.

Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:

Iran … lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi’a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi’a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.

Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treat it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash President Obama for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to “contain” it, as if that required great effort.

Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping, and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.

The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble.  Although it’s not clear that an oil price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.

Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, Iran would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.

The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of Iran credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of its wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based air power along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million people already deters our invasion.

The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.

Cross-posted from the the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Iraq War: 20 Years, Not 9

Here are two newspaper accounts about the conclusion of the Iraq war:

The New York Times  “Almost nine years after the first American tanks began massing on the Iraq border, the Pentagon declared an official end to its mission here, closing a troubled conflict that helped reshape American politics and left a bitter legacy of anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.”

The Washington Post:  “Nearly nine years after American troops stormed across the Iraq border in a blaze of shock and awe, U.S. officials quietly ended the bloody and bitterly divisive conflict here Thursday, but the debate over whether it was worth the cost in money and lives is yet unanswered.”

There is a problem with those accounts.  The United States has been at war in Iraq for twenty years, not nine!  George Orwell warned us not to confuse war with peace, but we are clearly falling into that trap.  More here.