Tag: Iraq

Are We Really Going to Leave Iraq? (cont’d)

A follow up on yesterday’s post about my skepticism that we would be able to get out of Iraq by 2011 (and get all “combat” troops out by September 1 of this year):

One way to square these two seemingly contradictory statements is if the bipartisan consensus Rozen implies exists reflects an agreement between Democrats and Republicans that the United States should use Iraq as a new military base in the Middle East like we used to use Saudi Arabia.  Ricks’s report strongly implies that the military is trying to force Obama to stay, although it’s not clear whether Obama has any desire to take up a fight with them over leaving.  And that’s assuming he actually wants to leave.

Ricks writes cryptically that “this debate is just beginning. I expect that Obama actually is going to have to break his promises on Iraq and keep a fairly large force in Iraq, but of course that won’t be the first time he’s had to depart from his campaign rhetoric on this war.”  Finally, Ricks suggests

Let’s open the betting: How many U.S. military personnel will be in Iraq four years from today–that is, Feb. 25, 2014? The person who guesses closest gets a signed copy of any of my books. My guess: 28,895. Not “combat” troops, of course! Goodness no. Just “advisory” troops who carry M-16s and call in airstrikes and such.

I have enough humility to duck a precise guess, but I would be very, very surprised if the number is zero.  Americans don’t give up military footholds unless we’re chased out, a la Vietnam, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.  We’re still in Europe, for goodness’ sake.

Pottery Barn Rule, Take 27

Last week, Iraq’s independent electoral commission disqualified 511 candidates – most of them Sunnis – from running in the parliamentary elections scheduled for March. Today’s Washington Post reports that Vice President Joe Biden is hurrying off to Baghdad to try to convince the Iraqis to change their minds. U.S. troop withdrawals were supposed to accelerate after the elections were held and a new government seated. But the elections have already been postponed at least once, and the administration is worried that the obvious bias against Sunnis could stoke sectarian tensions.

“U.S. officials are in a precarious position,” the Post story explains:

They are stuck between the government they created and bolstered – a coalition of mostly sect- and ethnic-based coalitions dominated by Shiite Arabs – and politicians who have been branded as loyalists to the dictator deposed during the U.S.-led invasion.

If that weren’t difficult enough, Biden doesn’t want to appear to be pressuring the Iraqis, and Prime Minister Maliki and his crew don’t want to appear to have been pressured. As a senior administration official told the Post:

“[N]o one wants to be perceived as defending the rights of Baathists” and no Iraqi decision-maker wants to be the first to publicly declare that the ruling must be reversed.

It is times like these when I am reminded of Colin Powell’s infamous Pottery Barn rule. Never mind that he never publicly invoked that precise metaphor. Never mind that Pottery Barn has no rule. The point is that the average person understands the simple premise: you break it, you own it.

But what Powell actually told President George W. Bush in August 2002, if Bob Woodward’s reconstruction of the event is to be trusted, is actually more insightful and telling than the shorthand version. And it is particularly a propos with respect to the most-recent election kerfuffle.

“You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,” he told the president, “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, problems. You’ll own it all.”

We “own” the Iraqis without wanting to appear to own them. We are responsible for the behavior of the government that we put into power, but without the leverage (or inclination) to compel that government to do as we see fit. And we – all Americans, but especially the troops still stuck in that country – pay the price when they behave in ways harmful to our strategic interests. 

As the teenagers might say, “Good luck with that.”

Wednesday Links

  • David Boaz on Obama’s first year: “From this libertarian, Obama’s first year looks grim. …He may well end up like Lyndon Johnson, with an ambitious domestic agenda eventually bogged down by endless war. But I don’t think his wished-for FDR model — a transformative agenda that is both popular and long-lasting — is in the cards.”
  • The message from Massachusetts: “There can be no denying that this election was a clear cut rejection of the Democratic health care bills.”

The Art of Foreign Policy Punditry

Foreign Policy magazine performs an important public service, publishing a compendium of the “top 10 worst predictions for 2009.” My favorite?

If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama, and thus dominate the Panama Canal, one of the worlds most important strategic points.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Dec. 7, 1999

Rohrabacher made this alarming prediction during a debate on the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal. His fellow hawk, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, even warned that China could sneak missiles into Panama and use the country as a staging ground for an attack on the United States. Well, Rohrabacher’s decade ran out this December, and all remains quiet on the Panamanian front. As for China, the United States is now its largest trading partner.

Flowers and Chocolates?Flowers and Chocolates?

The point here isn’t to poke fun at Rohrabacher, or any of the other predictors featured on the FP list.  Rather, it’s to point out that predicting the future is really hard.  And as Ben Friedman and I have harped on, you just can’t aspire to any predictive competence without sound theory to guide you.  In order to judge that if we do (or don’t do) X, Y will happen, you need a theory connecting X to Y.  So looking back at our predictions, and comparing them to the results of our policies, is a useful way to test the theories on which we based our policies in the first place.

Putting falsifiable predictions out there is a collective action problem, though: If I start offering nothing but precise point-predictions about what will or won’t happen if we start a war with Iran, or how big the defense budget will get, or anything else, I’m going to get a lot of things wrong.  And if everyone else keeps offering vapid, non-falsifiable rhetoric, I stand to look like a real jackass while everyone can hide behind the fog of common-use language.  As I wrote in the National Interest a while back:

Foreign-policy analysts have an incredibly difficult task: to make predictions about the future based on particular policy choices in Washington. These difficulties extend into the world of intelligence, as well. The CIA issues reports with impossibly ambitious titles like “Mapping the Global Future”, as if anyone could actually do that. The father of American strategic analysis, Sherman Kent, grappled with these difficulties in his days at OSS and CIA. When Kent finally grew tired of the vapid language used for making predictions, such as “good chance of”, “real likelihood that” and the like, he ordered his analysts to start putting odds on their assessments. When a colleague complained that Kent was “turning us into the biggest bookie shop in town”, Kent replied that he’d “rather be a bookie than a [expletive] poet.”

Actually, though, it’s worse than this.  As I wrote in the American Conservative, there’s basically no endogenous mechanism to hold irresponsible predictors accountable:

In 1992, the Los Angeles Times ran an article outlining the dynamics of the “predictions” segment of the popular “McLaughlin Group” TV program.  Michael Kinsley, who had been a panelist on the program, admitted

“When I was doing the show, I was much more interested in coming up with an interesting prediction than in coming up with one that was true.  There’s no penalty for being wrong, but there is a penalty for being boring.  …Prognosticators have known for centuries that people only remember what you got right.  They don’t remember what you got wrong.”

Foreign-policy analysis works in much the same way.  Errant predictions are quickly forgotten.  It is the interesting predictions that the media want, and unfortunately interesting predictions in the context of foreign policy often mean predictions of unprovoked foreign attacks, geopolitical chaos, and a long queue of bogeymen waiting to threaten us.  (By contrast, after a given policy is enacted, its proponents have to spin it in a positive light, as in Iraq.)  Meanwhile, it is the person with the quickest wit and the pithiest one-liner–not the deepest understanding–who winds up with the responsibility of informing the American electorate about foreign-policy decisions.

So it’s very good to see that Foreign Policy has interest in holding everyone’s feet to the fire.  John Mueller does a similar service in The Atomic Obsession, pointing out the many predictions of doom, apocalypse and general disaster that have characterized both the hawkish establishment and the leftish arms-control clique.

If this sort of exercise becomes common, though, watch for foreign-policy commentators not to develop a growing sense of modesty about their predictive power, but rather to take greater care in avoiding falsifiable statements altogether.

Obama’s Nobel Speech

I have two complaints about the President’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, one factual, one theoretical. The first concerns his repetition of the common claim that we live in a world of growing instability and civil war. The president said:

The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states — all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos.

Truth requires changing “increasingly” to “decreasingly.” Andrew Mack’s Human Security Brief makes the point. The chart below shows that civil war (intrastate war) — what Obama is talking about here — has become less common over the last several decades. Elsewhere in the report, you can also see that civil war now kills far fewer people than it used to.

Friedman figure

My second gripe is Obama’s failure to acknowledge that peace is a value that competes with others. Human beings get along not by reconciling all differences but by tolerating them. Nations avoid war by accepting the small dangers others pose rather than making larger dangers by trying to achieve total safety. If the United States had sacrificed its desire to promote anti-communism and free trade and contain Communism in Korea in 1950, as we did Eastern Europe, we could have avoided the Korean War.  By accepting some risk from Iranian nuclear weapons, we avoid preventive war. We keep the peace with Sudan because we do not enforce humanitarian norms in Darfur. We could overthrow the government of Zimbabwe or North Korea and save people from disease and starvation. But we prefer peace. Pakistan undermines its uneasy peace with India because it wants Kashmir back.  Israel does something similar in the West Bank.

However one judges these choices, it is important to recognize them as such. Rightful winners of peace prizes are people who sacrificed something important to avoid war, or at least advocated doing so.

It isn’t surprising that the President, given his job, would celebrate the morality of American military hegemony and disregard arguments that it isn’t a source of peace. It was predictable that he would defend the idea that peace in the long term often requires sacrificing it in the short, as we are fighting two wars in the name of stability. What got me was that he failed to mention that peace also requires sacrifice.

To the extent a message unites the speech, it is this:  All good things go together. We do not have to choose peace at the expense of U.S. military activism, democracy, justice, or economic development abroad — they all serve that end. The President basically defined peace as a world rid of poverty and injustice.  He said, for example, that peace within states is not durable without the sense of justice provided by liberal ideology, because autocratic government causes unrest and violence. Aside from the creative use of history, what’s remarkable here is the failure to acknowledge that maintaining peace with autocracies is usually virtuous but tragic.

Afghanistan Withdrawal in July 2011? Don’t Bet on It

Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton, among other administration officials, indicated this weekend that the July 2011 date for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be interpreted as an exit strategy, but as a “ramp rather than a cliff.” It now appears the president will not be obligated to adhere to any withdrawal date and can adjust as he deems fit.

President Obama’s decision to include a withdrawal date in his speech sends a mixed message to allies and enemies about America’s commitment to the region. It is a misguided effort to placate the American public’s waning support for the mission. Obama should instead be looking for ways to leave Afghanistan, not excuses to dig us in deeper.

Essentially, the strategy is to apply the Iraq model to Afghanistan: a rapid infusion of troops followed by a painfully slow withdrawal. Of course, that strategy is premised on the hope that everything will run smoothly. There is little reason to believe it will.

In the end, the strategy aimed at defeating the Taliban and securing Afghanistan will never be perfect. Instead, a strategy of narrowly defined objectives that center on our original mission in entering the country—disrupting al Qaeda—is the only policy that is acceptable given the costs that the U.S. will incur.

Let Us Hope (and Pray) for Peace

There is something immensely moving about young men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for their country.  Indeed, patriotism mixed with a desire for action can be a fearsome thing.  This combination was on display at West Point after President Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan.

The Washington Post reported on a phone call between Academy professor Mike Meese and his son, an Academy sophomore:

Said Col. Mike Meese, chairman of West Point’s social studies department: “There has been an incredible intensity here ever since 9/11. The cadets have a strong belief that this is the defining struggle of their lifetime. Every one of them elected to come here because they want to be a part of it.”

Not long after the speech, Meese received a call from his son, Brian, in his second year at West Point, who watched Obama from the second-to-back row with a solemn face. Brian had spoken with his friends on the walk back from the auditorium to their barracks, and none of them could stop obsessing over one number Obama had highlighted in his speech: 18 months. The deployment of 30,000 additional troops was something they had expected – it was the future for which they had prepared. But why had Obama so forcefully emphasized that he would begin a drawdown of troops in 18 months? What if the war was over by the time they graduated?

Brian Meese, the latest aspiring officer in a family with three generations of service, had prepared to fight in a war ever since he was 12. He had accompanied his father to almost a dozen military funerals, and each one strengthened his resolve. At West Point, he studied Arabic instead of Spanish, judging it more practical for a soldier destined for the Middle East.

“Now I might not get to go,” Brian told his father over the phone this week, his voice betraying disappointment.

“I think you will still have your chance,” his father said. “All of the evil in the world is not going to be defeated by the summer of 2011.”

“You’re taking care of Iraq. You’re taking care of Afghanistan,” Brian told his father. “What’s going to be left for me?”

I can’t help but admire Brian Meese’s desire “to go,” almost irrespective of circumstances. I see the same desire in my nephew, who is currently training to be a SEAL.

Yet war always should be a last resort, a horrid necessity to protect life and liberty within civilian society.  The latter may seem boring in a sense, but it embodies the highest values, the ones for which we sometimes must risk everything.  Thus, we should hope and pray that there won’t be anything “left for” Brian Meese to do in the Army.  Although war can showcase the sublimest of values, such as heroism and self-sacrifice, it more often serves the worst of humanity, spreading death and destruction with wild abandon.

Alas, Mike Meese undoubtedly will be proved right.  There is more than enough evil to go around.  Indeed, there is no reason to believe that evil will ever disappear.  Which is a good reason why the objective of the U.S. government should not be to combat evil, but to protect the lives and freedoms of the American people.  Only the latter goal is realistic, let alone consistent with the principles of individual liberty and limited government.   Unfortunately, the president’s plan to expand America’s military role in Afghanistan seems more directed at the former.

But until the lion lies down with the lamb, the world will remain a dangerous place.  Which means we will continue to need the services of brave young men and women like Brian Meese and my nephew.  I can only hope that when their time for action comes (as seems certain, given present policies), they will be better served by their political leaders than have been so many equally brave American military personnel in the past.