Tag: Iraq

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.

Obama’s Win-Win on Iraq

The end of the Iraq war is a rare win-win situation for President Obama. So far, he has played his hand skillfully. And it is a fair bet that he will continue to do so. Indeed, it might be one of the only policy areas that won’t cost him votes come next year.

This week’s events surrounding the end of the nearly nine-years long U.S. military mission in Mesopotamia reveal Obama’s acumen and good fortune. On Monday, Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Makiki punctuated the fact that the U.S. mission was finally ending. Today, the president will travel to Fort Bragg to thank the troops for their service in a war that he opposed at the outset.

There is irony in this, but one that Americans have managed for many years: unlike Vietnam, the American people have learned to love the troops while still hating the war. We don’t blame the military for the fact that the war has turned out to be a bloody, costly quagmire. And with good reason: the military didn’t claim that it would be easy or cheap. The soldiers knew better. With few exceptions, the cheerleaders for the war had no first-hand experience in warfare.

President Obama will likely emerge unscathed even if the worst-case scenarios transpire in Iraq. Unlike his worn-out claim that he inherited most of the country’s economic problems, “the other guy did it” excuse rings true when it comes to Iraq. The dwindling but vocal few who call for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq indefinitely cannot fairly accuse President Obama of implementing a reckless policy driven by the political calendar. He merely executed the plan according to the timeline developed by his predecessor.

Obama was not in a strong position to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement, given the Iraqi people’s overwhelming opposition to a continued U.S. presence in their country. But it wasn’t in his interest to do so. The American people want this war to end, and he wins credit, fairly or not, for following through on his promise to end it. And if Iraq descends into chaos, and civil war, or if Iran somehow manages to consolidate power over its restive neighbor, Obama can claim, justifiably, that these things wouldn’t have happened had people listened to him in 2002. But he doesn’t have to say it. Others will say it for him. Nearly every news story reporting on this week’s events have reminded viewers, listeners, and readers that the president opposed this war. That one fact translates to a relatively favorable perception of the president’s handling of foreign policy, generally.

Indeed, the president likely wins whenever the subject of Iraq arises. Excepting Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, the other GOP contenders are unable or unwilling to speak to the nearly two-thirds of Americans who believe the war to have been a mistake. Most of the president’s Republican challengers are reluctant to cross the neoconservative cheerleaders for the war who, inexplicably, still have great sway over aspiring chief executives. On the crucial question, “Was the war worth it?” Iraq war true believers expect a simple, one word answer: yes. They will not tolerate any apostasy, even though, for most Americans, the answer is a resounding no.

Any of his Republican challengers who cannot give that same answer can only hope that they won’t be asked the question. The more they say about Iraq, the less credible they become. And Barack Obama doesn’t have to say a thing.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Ignore the Hawks on Iran, Too

This week, experts at the (neo)conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report on how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran.

The authors argue that because of the “rising consensus” that a preemptive attack is unappealing, and that sanctions likely will fail, they recommend “a coherent Iran containment policy.” That approach entails, among other things, that America “work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.” Leaving aside the fact that Washington has already once “physically transformed the Tehran regime” – when alongside the British it overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and restored the Shah – there is a broader problem that comes with listening to proponents of the calamitous decision to invade Iraq.

Take, for instance, report co-author Danielle Pletka, who years ago decreed “Saddam’s entire Ba’athist government must be replaced.” Little surprise that someone who promoted a war based on a web of misleading information is now peddling the notion that Iran is less than a year from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

More credible voices suggest otherwise. The nonprofit Arms Control Association (ACA) observed that the most-recent IAEA report suggests “[I]t remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable.” Iran was engaged in nuclear weapons development activities until it stopped in 2003, and as Cato’s Justin Logan observes, the IAEA’s own report shows there is no definitive evidence of Iran’s diversion of fissile material.

When Pletka was called out for her “less than a year” prediction, she turned up her nose and snapped:

Quibblers will suggest that there are important “ifs” in both these assessments. And yes, the key “if” is “if” Iran decides to build a bomb. So, I suppose when I said “less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon,” I should have added, “if they want one.” But… isn’t that the point? Do we want to leave this decision up to Khamenei?

Confronted with ambiguous information, and forced to infer intentions, hawks evince the very same arrogance and overconfidence that helped open the door for Iranian influence in the region in the first place by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime (Pletka advocated repeatedly for this leading up to the 2003 invasion). Pletka and others who years ago had the gall to argue that Iraq “will end when it ends” are today worthy of being ignored on Iran.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

GOP National Security and Foreign Policy Debate: What to Ask the Candidates

The economy is likely to dominate next year’s presidential race, so it is surprising that Republicans would choose to conduct two debates focused on foreign policy in the span of 10 days. The first, co-hosted by CBS News and National Journal, was held last Saturday evening. (CBS apparently thought most people had better things to do; they preempted the final 30 minutes with an NCIS rerun.) CNN, no doubt, hopes that the sequel, to be held Tuesday, November 22, will draw a wider audience.

I wonder if the RNC hopes that it doesn’t. In fact, there are many reasons why GOP leaders would want to get the whole subject of foreign policy and national security out of the way well before next year. Let Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum wax poetic about the wisdom of waterboarding, and let them do it after television viewers have stopped watching. Better to save the talk of joblessness and massive federal debt for the main event with President Obama, when tens of millions of Americans, including many independents and undecided voters, might actually rely on the debates to inform their choices. (Unlikely, I know, but hope springs eternal.)

Foreign policy blunders have cost the GOP votes in three of the last four elections. (It was a non-factor in 2010.) Once trusted by the electorate as the voice of prudence and reason when it came to diplomacy and the use of force, the Republican brand has been sullied by the war in Iraq and the quagmire in Afghanistan.

One might think that the party has learned its lessons, and that those aspiring to carry the GOP banner into next year’s elections would be determined to draw distinctions between themselves and the recent past.

Judging from last Saturday’s debate, they haven’t. The answers provided by the presumptive front-runner, Mitt Romney, and his leading challengers, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, reveal a reflexive commitment to the status quo and an unwillingness to revisit the rationales for war with Iraq or for nation-building in Afghanistan. They hinted at expanding the U.S. military’s roles and missions to include possible conflict with Iran. They continued to speak of a “war on terror.” And they struggled to draw distinctions between themselves and President Obama, at times criticizing him for doing too little, other times for doing too much.

In advance of last week’s debate, several bloggers suggested some questions. Some of these made it to prime time. However, two big sets of questions—one pertaining to the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, the other related to the costs of our foreign policies—remain unexplored. I hope that the questioners in next week’s debate, or perhaps the other candidates, would try to get some answers. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@capreble) for a conversation during the debate. Justin Logan will also be live-blogging the event over at RealClearWorld.

In the meantime, here are some questions I would like answered:

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nation-Building: Knowing what you know now, was it a mistake for the United States to have invaded Iraq in March 2003? Did any of you speak out against the war before it started? If you did not, but now have doubts, why should Americans trust you to exercise good judgment as president if you failed to do so when in a position of power and influence in late 2002 and early 2003?

Did President Bush make a mistake when he negotiated an agreement with the Iraqis to remove all forces by the end of 2011? Do you believe that U.S. troops should have remained in Iraq even if the Iraqi government refused to extend them conventional legal protections that we enjoy in other countries, including the right to be tried in U.S. courts?

What lessons have you taken away from the war, and how would they inform your conduct of foreign policy as president?

We now have nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and we will spend at least $110 billion on activities there this year. Is that too much or too little? What criteria do you use for assessing the costs and benefits of military operations there, as opposed to the range of other counterterrorism missions being conducted elsewhere around the world?

Should we be planning to conduct many more Iraq- and Afghanistan-style missions, with a decade or more of 100,000+ U.S. troops on the ground, at a cost of $100+ billion a year? Or would you employ the U.S. military in a different way, relying less on ground troops, the Army and Marine Corps, but perhaps bringing power from the sea and air when required?

Military Spending: What we spend on our military is the primary measure of the costs of our foreign policy. With respect to military spending, the Pentagon’s base budget—excluding the costs of the wars—has grown by over $1 trillion since 9/11. This year, in 2011, U.S. taxpayers will spend more on national security (in real, inflation-adjusted dollars) than at any time since the end of World War II. Is this too much? How much is enough?

By some estimates, Governor Romney’s fiscal plan would add $2 trillion in military spending over the next decade. Do the other candidates agree that we should increase military spending by that amount, or should we be spending even more? Or less?

If you agree that we should spend more, what additional responsibilities should the U.S. military take on? If you think we should spend less, what missions can we afford to shift to others? Should the U.S. military be responsible for defending other countries that could defend themselves? Should Americans be willing to spend five or 10 times as much on the military as do people in other wealthy countries?

The United States has formal security relationships with dozens of countries around the world. Many of these date back to the Cold War. Have these become, as Hillary Clinton says, embedded in our DNA? Would you be willing to revisit any of these alliances?

 Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Tehran v. Riyadh

The alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, has served to underscore that Washington and Riyadh view Tehran as a common enemy. This plot has already heightened both parties’ persisting anxieties over Iran, but the U.S.-Saudi partnership has often tended to reinforce, rather than diminish, each side’s most hawkish tendencies.

After the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran developed far greater influence among its allies and co-religionists in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and the Gulf States. Demonstrating the fear that Iran’s expanded Shia influence has inspired among Saudi leaders, in February 2007 Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal encouraged the United States to strengthen its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, telling a U.S. diplomat that the Saudis would supply the logic for America’s deployment if Washington supplied the pressure.

Of course it is the Kingdom that is alarmed by the possibility of an Iranian SCUD missile attack on Saudi oil facilities; it is the Kingdom that is petrified by the possibility of Iran’s nuclear program posing a threat to the House of Saud’s regional prestige; and it is the Kingdom that has claimed that Shia-Persian Iran has been stage-managing the massive, popular uprisings sweeping the region in order to undermine Sunni Arab regimes. If the United States moves to increase the scope of its political, economic, and military sticks against Iran, it will only serve to invite further Iranian and Saudi intrigues. It may also encourage Iran and other states like it to seek a nuclear deterrent. Responding swiftly to this alleged plot, as some political pundits have encouraged, will further entangle the United States in an intra-Islamic, Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian rivalry divorced from America’s vital interests.

As an aside, to shed some new light on the scorn currently being heaped on Iran’s odious regime, let us remember that it is America’s strategic ally—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—that remains one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. And as much as folks are fulminating over Tehran’s support for terrorism, in reality it is donors in Saudi Arabia who constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide.

Cross-posed from the National Interest.

Strength vs. Stupidity

The New York Times weighs in this morning with a timely and sensible editorial on military spending. The main focus is on the increasingly outdated pay and benefits system for the nation’s troops. Some choice excerpts:

Military pay, benefit and retirement costs rose by more than 50 percent over the…decade (accounting for inflation). Leaving aside Afghanistan and Iraq, those costs now account for nearly $1 out of every $3 the Pentagon spends.

Much of that is necessary to recruit and retain a high-quality, all-volunteer military….But current military pay, pension systems and retiree health care benefits are unsustainable and ripe for reform.

[…]

The retirement system is both unfair and increasingly expensive. Most veterans, including many who have served multiple combat tours, will never qualify for even a partial military pension or retiree health benefits. These are only available to those who have served at least 20 years. Those who do qualify can start collecting their pensions as soon as they leave service, even if they are still in their late 30s, making for huge long-term costs.

So far, so good. Two essential points bear repeating.

First, the rise in military spending over the past decade has not been driven solely by the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon costs are growing, and the rate of growth is rising. Programmatic reform is needed to reign in those costs; avoiding stupid wars won’t solve the problem (although it won’t hurt).

Second, the current system disproportionately rewards individuals who stay in the service for 20-plus years, and undercompensates those men and women who serve several tours, but who do not qualify for military retirement. A better system would allow anyone who has served to retain some of what they paid (or what taxpayers paid for them) into a portable retirement account that they control. Private industry has been steadily moving away from a fixed-benefit, pension-style system for years. I have heard the arguments against such a move, but I don’t find them particularly convincing.

One point from the Times editorial, however, calls out for clarification. The editors claim on two separate occasions that current military spending patterns are “unsustainable.” They conclude:

The United States already has a comfortable margin of [military] dominance….The Pentagon’s ambitions expanded without limit over the Bush era, and Congress eagerly wrote the checks. The country cannot afford to continue this way, and national security doesn’t require it. (emphasis added)

The latter point, “national security doesn’t require it,” is crucial, correct, and should be repeated at every opportunity. The former assertion, “the country cannot afford” it, is false. Repeating that claim plays into the hands of the inveterate hawks who never saw a war, or a weapon system, that wasn’t deserving of more lives/money.

The hawks are correct to point out that the United States has in the past, and could in the future, choose to spend as much or more on our military. Current spending levels amount to about five percent of GDP (when including the costs of the wars), and military spending as a share of total government spending has been falling steadily for years. According to the hawks, it is other spending, or too little revenue, that is putting our children and grandchildren into debt.

I wish that the Times had spent more time hammering the point that such spending is unnecessary. Contrary to anecdote and the evening news, the international system is remarkably stable and peaceful. The United States need not spend more than we did at the height of the Cold War in order to be secure from most threats. And those few genuine threats to our security could be handled with a smaller, more efficient military—if we offloaded some responsibilities to other countries that have sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella for decades.

The Times doesn’t directly address that last point. By focusing most of their attention on programmatic reforms to pay and benefits, and a bit on costly procurement of unnecessary weapons, but not enough to the underlying flawed assumptions that drive military spending, the editors contribute to the misconception that the U.S. military should continue to be the world’s policeman, and find ways to do this on the cheap.

That is unfortunate. Spending more than we need to doesn’t make us stronger. Ignoring our favorable strategic circumstances is simply stupid. We spend too much on our military because we ask our troops to do too much. To spend less, we must do less. The good news is that we can. The bad news is that too few people understand that.

A U.S. Troop Presence in Iraq Does Not Serve U.S. Security Interests

Many years ago, longer than I care to remember, I wrote an op ed wondering aloud “Who Will Decide When We Leave Iraq?” More than five and a half years later, we still don’t know the answer to that question.

Sure, we have an agreement with the Iraqis to leave by the end of this year. All U.S. troops are supposed to be gone, although a very large diplomatic presence, including perhaps thousands of security contractors, will remain. George W. Bush presided over the negotiation of the deal, and then passed it off to his successor. When he drew down to fewer than 50,000 troops over the summer, on a path to zero by January 1, 2012, Barack Obama was merely implementing the policy. He cannot fairly be accused of doing anything other than what his predecessor would have done. If it is a mistake for Obama to preside over a troop withdrawal, then it was a mistake for Bush to negotiate one.

But maybe we’re not leaving? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is reportedly supporting a deal for 3,000 to 4,000 troops to remain in a training capacity past the end of the year, provided a deal can be struck with the Iraqis.

Those few Americans who are still paying attention to Iraq cannot be enthusiastic about this. We have long since tired of the ruinous, pointless war. The cheerleaders for invading Iraq said it would be a cakewalk, and that the costs would be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues, not U.S. taxpayers. It has instead consumed nearly $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars, claimed the lives of over 4,400 U.S. troops, and wounded many thousands more. The costs of caring for the wounded and recapitalizing equipment will likely top an additional $1 trillion.

Haven’t we had enough already?

Apparently not.

A handful of U.S. senators are appalled to learn not that U.S. troops might be staying in Iraq, but rather that the administration is contemplating a troop withdrawal. (Is this news to them?) When they learned that the administration was trying to retain a U.S. troop presence beyond the end of this year, Diane Feinstein, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsay Graham, complained that the numbers being contemplated were insufficient. They claimed that such a draw down would imperil the fragile gains made in the country over the past few years, and expose the few troops left behind to serious harm.

That last point might be true. It isn’t clear to me why 3,000 troops makes much more sense than 30,000 or 300. But the essential fact is that the presence in Iraq, any presence, is unnecessary. Bush made many mistakes in Iraq, beginning with the decision to invade. He was correct to determine that the mission must end. It does not serve U.S. security interests to remain in that country indefinitely.

At the time when I wrote that earlier op ed, in early 2006, I pointed to President Bush’s insistence that we would only stay so long as the Iraqis wanted us there, and suggested that the Iraqs might ultimately determined whether we stayed or went. Bush might have been gambling that the Iraqis would not ask us to leave, at least not right away, and the polling data at the time suggested that was a safe bet.

It isn’t any longer. A few people here in the United States might want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq; but very few Iraqis agree.

Realist IR scholars will repeat ad nauseum the mantra from Thucydides:  “The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.” To the extent that this is true, no U.S. president would gamble this country’s security on the whims of a nascent parliamentary democracy rife with anti-American sentiment. We would never hand such a decision over to the Iraqis if it was truly vital to our national security to remain there.

It isn’t. It never has been. The Iraq war was a war of choice; we can choose to leave. We should.