Tag: U.S. foreign policy

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.

Obama-Lee Summit: Time for New Thinking on the Korean Peninsula

Three issues are likely to dominate the talks this week between President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. On the economic front, the two leaders will emphasize the extensive potential benefits of the bilateral free trade agreement.

On the security front, there will be considerable discussion of both North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Unfortunately, leaders of the two countries are locked into increasingly obsolete and dysfunctional policies with respect to both issues. New thinking on those security matters is badly needed.

Seoul and Washington routinely contend that they will not tolerate North Korea having a nuclear arsenal. But other than the long-standing attempt to isolate Pyongyang internationally, U.S. and South Korean officials present no plausible strategy for preventing Kim Jong-il’s regime from expanding its nuclear capabilities. The much-touted six-party talks clearly have not worked. Moreover, without China’s active cooperation to deny crucial food and energy aid to North Korea (and there is no indication that Beijing is willing to take that step), North Korea cannot be truly isolated. Obama and Lee need to consider the possibility of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea, since the current U.S.-South Korean strategy for dealing with the nuclear issue is hopelessly ineffectual.

Policy regarding the bilateral security alliance is no better. Predictably, Lee and Obama will reaffirm the importance of that alliance. But from the standpoint of American interests, this commitment makes little sense. The principal effect of Washington’s security blanket for South Korea is to enable that country to shamelessly free-ride on America’s military exertions. Despite being located next to perhaps the most dangerous and unpredictable country in the world—Kim Jong-il’s North Korea—South Korea continues to spend an anemic 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. That is woefully inadequate, and the only reason Seoul can get away with such irresponsible behavior is that South Korean leaders believe they can rely on the United States to take care of their country’s security—at the expense of American taxpayers.

That arrangement was dubious even when South Korea was a weak, traumatized country facing a North Korea strongly backed by both the Soviet Union and Communist China. Today, South Korea is a wealthy country, and Moscow and Beijing regard North Korea as an embarrassment, not a crucial ally.

President Obama should inform Lee that an America whose government is hemorrhaging red ink at the rate of $1.5 trillion a year can no longer afford to subsidize the defense of free-riding allies—especially those that are perfectly capable of providing for their own defense. This summit meeting creates an opportunity for Washington to begin phasing-out the obsolete military alliance with South Korea.

Afghanistan: 10 Years and No End in Sight

When President Bush announced the commencement of military operations in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the campaign was seen as a clearly justified response to the horrific attacks of 9/11. It was narrowly targeted on those responsible for the attacks, and it had three specific goals: to punish al Qaeda and degrade its ability to carry out future attacks; to punish and drive from power the Taliban regime that had harbored al Qaeda; and to send a clear message to every other country in the world: If you support those who have killed Americans, and who wish to kill more, you will do so at your own peril.

The Afghan war enjoyed overwhelming public support at the time. It doesn’t any longer. The public mood has shifted not because the original war aims were unjust—they were not—but rather because our war aims have changed, and they bear little resemblance to those that guided the U.S. military in late 2001 and early 2002.

Few Americans could have imagined in October 2001 that there would be nearly 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan 10 years later. Few at the time would have supported a war that would cost more than $100 billion annually, as our current operations do.

As we look back over the last decade of war, we should be grateful for the sacrifices of our troops and their families. We should honor their service by remembering why they were sent to Afghanistan in the first place and by recommitting ourselves, and them, to a goal that is both achievable and essential. Tragically, the current mission is neither.

We lack the power, the wisdom, or the patience to create a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan. We need not do so in order to keep al Qaeda on the run. The 100,000 U.S. troops stationed there were essentially irrelevant to the assault that killed Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan, and they are equally unnecessary in nearly all of the other operations conducted against al Qaeda over the past 10 years. The organization has been severely weakened and bin Laden’s killing could have served as a useful bookend to bringing the long war in Afghanistan to a suitable close.

It still can. Ten years is long enough. It is time to end the open-ended nation-building mission in Afghanistan and to bring our troops home.

Ten Years in Afghanistan Is Enough

The United States executed its original mission in Afghanistan in the critical first months after the invasion: cripple al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. Now that the United States has expanded its mission to a fragile-by-design strategy of nation-building, it’s well past time for U.S. forces to leave.

In a new video Austin Bragg and I produced, Cato Institute vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Christopher A. Preble, foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent, and legal policy analyst David Rittgers comment on this dubious milestone:

Panetta’s Obligatory Warning to NATO on Military Spending Will Accomplish Nothing

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a warning to NATO allies that reducing military spending on both sides of the Atlantic will risk “hollowing out” the alliance’s capabilities. Panetta implied that Europeans cannot continue to rely on the United States for their security. Following former defense secretary Robert Gates’s comments in June, Panetta joins the long list of U.S. presidents, secretaries of defense and state, and innumerable lower-level officials who have pleaded with Europe to pick up the slack on military spending, provide for their own security, and close the gap in capabilities.

But Secretary Panetta’s speech also praised NATO for the mission in Libya and he extolled Europe’s leadership in the campaign: “The alliance achieved more burden-sharing between the U.S. and Europe than we have in the past…on a mission that was in the vital interest of our European allies.”

Relative to past NATO operations, it may be true that Europe contributed more in this instance. But this ignores the fact that the mission would not have been possible without the unique capabilities of the U.S. military. As Justin Logan pointed out, the Europeans quickly ran out of munitions and relied on the United States to conduct air strikes. “Thus, Washington essentially borrowed money from China to buy ordnance to give to Europe to drop on Libya.”

Panetta’s finger-wagging will do little to alter the incentive structure European states confront when determining what they should spend on defense. As I explain in an article recently published at Big Peace, until the United States takes concrete steps to force Europeans to spend more for their security, they will continue to free-ride on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime.

Cutting the Pentagon’s budget without imposing additional burdens on our troops requires getting our allies to do more. That is unlikely to happen unless U.S. officials, beginning with Secretary Panetta, force the issue. Unfortunately, he is merely one of many in Washington who seem to forget how incentives work:

Those who simply assume that others would not do more to defend themselves and their interests often ignore the extent to which U.S. actions have discouraged them from doing so. Just as some welfare recipients are often disinclined to look for work, foreign countries on the generous American security dole do not see a need to obtain military power. Our great power, and our willingness to use it, even when our own interests are not at stake, has allowed others to ignore possible threats, always confident that the United States will be there to rescue them.

The Obama administration’s rhetoric merely reinforces this message. The National Security Strategy, published in May 2010, declares “There should be no doubt: the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security.” Taking their cue, U.S. allies have proved understandably disinterested in military spending.

Despite Panetta’s pleas, U.S. strategy—and NATO’s very existence—allows this free-riding to continue. The Libya operation appears to have reinforced these destructive tendencies. If Washington really wants our allies to spend more to defend themselves and their vital interests, U.S. officials must jettison their reflexive attachment to the NATO alliance, an organization that has been irrelevant to U.S. vital security interests for at least two decades.

Secretary Panetta understands the United States is dealing with its own fiscal problems, but he has missed a perfect opportunity to offload a share of our burdens on to our rich allies.

Four Thoughts on the Anwar Al-Awlaki Assassination

As Bob Levy has already ably probed the legal issues surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, I’ll just append a few miscellaneous thoughts.

First, over the last decade we have been repeatedly told by foreign policy hawks that it is foolish, and even borderline offensive, to suggest that aggressive U.S. action abroad may have the counterproductive and unintended consequence of swelling the ranks of terror groups. When evaluating the wisdom of drone strikes or invasions of other countries, we need not even factor in the downside risk of “blowback” stemming from such actions, because “they hate us for our freedoms.” In other words, radical Islamist terrorists are fundamentally motivated by a vision of a global caliphate, not by any grievances stemming from real or perceived injuries inflicted by U.S. policy. I think of this as the “No Marginal Terrorist” Theory, because it posits that people are motivated to join terror groups strictly for reasons connected with either personal psychology or theology, such that reactions to specific U.S. actions never make the difference at the margin.

At the same time—and often by the same people—we are told that Anwar al-Awlaki posed a grave threat to the United States, not so much because of any particular logistical genius he possessed, but because he was so dangerously effective as a recruiter and propagandist who could inspire people already living in the West to jihad. Surely, then, it’s relevant to inquire into the nature of this lethally effective propaganda. Here is an excerpt from what The Guardian calls one of ”his most direct, English-language statements endorsing terror attacks on Americans”:

With the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other Muslim….

To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?

Possibly al-Awlaki is just a sort of Salafist James Earl Jones, and the sheer hypnotic beauty of his voice is what compels people to sacrifice their lives for him, without regard to the specific contents of his sermons. Still, it seems to be a problem for the No Marginal Terrorist Theory if a propagandist who was believed to be uniquely effective at motivating people to become terrorists used rhetoric like this to do it.

Second, a good deal of the coverage I’ve been seeing has treated the conclusions of U.S. intelligence analysts about al-Awlaki’s role and status within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as ironclad facts rather than contestable inferences from necessarily patchy data—even though the past decade should have made it abundantly clear that analysts sometimes get it wrong. Certainly al-Awlaki is no “innocent” in any sense of the word, but on the crucial claim that he’d progressed from terrorist mascot to mastermind, it’s worth noticing how much of the case depends on plots that the cleric was “linked to” or “believed to have had a hand in planning.” At least one Yemen expert has argued that al-Awlaki’s status within AQAP has been wildly inflated, describing him as a “midlevel religious functionary.”

While there is some public evidence that certainly seems to support the conclusion that al-Awlaki had gone “operational”—that he did not merely advocate jihad in principle, but played a key role in planning and directing terrorist acts—the bulk of it remains classified. As we learned to our great cost after the invasion of Iraq, a top secret clearance does not actually grant omniscience, and sometimes a case that seems like a slam-dunk on the surface falls apart under impartial scrutiny. Paradoxically, the administration’s refusal to submit to that scrutiny seems to have given its determinations an aura of oracular certainty.

Third, the case for targeted killing here relies very heavily on the fact that al-Awlaki had put himself beyond the reach of feasible arrest. The most ardent hawk would recoil at the prospect of simply dropping a bomb on a citizen suspected of al Qaeda ties in New Jersey, or London. But as Robert Farley notes, what is “feasible” is at least in part a matter of judgments about the risks and benefits of attempting a capture. So we’re required to entrust to the executive branch to determine not just when a particular citizen has joined the enemy, but under what conditions it’s worth the risk of attempting to take them alive.

In al-Awlaki’s case, one can at least say—as the judge who rejected a lawsuit brought by his father did—that the target was plainly aware the government was after him, and in theory could have offered to surrender himself if he’d been interested in seeking his day in court. (I stress “in theory” because it’s hard to imagine AQAP looking favorably on such a decision in the wildly improbable event al-Awlaki had been inclined to make it.)

But remember that this was supposed to be a wholly covert operation, and would (according to the administration) imperil national security if discussed in any way—even though the national security risk appears to have diminished a great deal now that it’s a matter of taking credit rather than blocking litigation. There was an advance leak in this instance, but the next citizen on the list may have no idea there’s a Hellfire missile with his name on it. What we think about the specific instance of al-Awlaki, then, seems less important than how we feel about a case in which everything goes according to plan. That is, an American citizen is simply killed abroad with no advance warning, on the basis of an executive determination that he has joined an enemy power and poses an imminent threat, and no guarantee that the United States will acknowledge (let alone justify) the operation even after the fact.

Fourth and finally, the debate after the fact has been a reminder of how utterly useless conventional war metaphors are for grappling with the unique problems presented by the present conflict. Anyone who imagines the very thorny issues presented in the current case are somehow illuminated by analogies from World War II is just kidding themselves: if this conflict were not so plainly unlike World War II and other conventional conflicts between nation states, on so many salient dimensions—if we could straightforwardly treat an ever-shifting array of emerging terror groups as equivalent to a sovereign country’s uniformed military—everything would be a good deal simpler.

Gov. Christie, Bill Kristol, and the Future of the GOP

The interest in New Jersey governor Chris Christie as a possible 2012 presidential candidate is understandable. His tough line against state spending, his willingness to take on entrenched interests in the Garden State, and his candor and blunt manner of speaking all appeal to Republicans weary of the current candidates. But while his views on domestic policy are relatively clear, Christie’s foreign-policy views aren’t. Indeed, governors have little reason to speak out on foreign-policy issues unless they run for president.

Without a track record, however, no one can know how a former governor will perform what is arguably a president’s most important job: deciding whether, where and when to deploy U.S. troops abroad. Recall George W. Bush’s plea for a humble foreign policy and his senior foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that the U.S. military should not be in the business of “escorting kids to kindergarten” in foreign lands. This was all forgotten by the time that Bush and Rice exited Washington eight years later. Rice essentially recanted her earlier opposition to nation building, and Bush had presided over a foreign policy that was anything but humble.

With that huge caveat in mind, can we venture a guess about Chris Christie’s foreign policy views? Not quite. But this passage from Christie’s speech at the Reagan Library hints at a measure of humility and pragmatism that is long overdue:

The United States must…become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad. We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in the national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home.

Such sentiments strike most Americans as eminently sensible. Numerous polls show that Americans want to stop fighting other people’s wars and building other people’s countries. Most believe it is better to husband our power and deploy our military abroad only when vital U.S. security interests are threatened. We should lead by our example, build a society that others wish to emulate, and avoid the temptation to meddle in other people’s affairs.

Not so, says William Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News commentator. In a famous essay co-authored with Robert Kagan in 1996  the two made the case for “benevolent global hegemony.” Kristol and Kagan especially took issue with those conservatives who:

succumb easily to the charming old metaphor of the United States as a “city on a hill.”

[…]

Because…the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.

So why would Kristol be pushing Christie to run for president?

At first glance, it appears that Kristol is willing to look past Christie’s foreign-policy views in the interest of finding a candidate best able to defeat President Obama in 2012. Perhaps Kristol believes that he will be in a better position to influence Christie’s policies at a later stage. Kristol was notably lukewarm on Governor Bush in 2000 but was nonetheless able to influence President Bush’s foreign policy.

But should Republicans listen to Bill Kristol?

Kristol’s brand of foreign-policy activism has always looked more like Woodrow Wilson than Ronald Wilson Reagan. Indeed, notwithstanding Kristol’s deliberate efforts to wrap his foreign-policy views around Reagan’s legacy, Reagan was more skeptical of confrontation with the Soviet Union than the neoconservatives, as Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke expertly demonstrate in their book America Alone. And conservatives’ understandable skepticism of nation building at home has never fit with the neoconservatives’ notions of nation building abroad.

Beyond this serious philosophical disagreement, Republicans should recall the terrible effects that the neoconservatives’ foreign policies had on Republican candidates in recent elections. Kristol was a leading champion for some of the biggest foreign policy blunders in U.S. history. Those blunders denied George W. Bush a mandate for major domestic-policy reform in 2005, cost the GOP control of the Congress in 2006, and provided an opening that Barack Obama skillfully exploited on the road to the White House in 2008. Those are all reasons enough for Republicans to ignore Kristol’s advice.

It is too soon to say whether Chris Christie’s few early comments about foreign policy signal a genuine commitment to military restraint, or whether his skepticism toward foreign military adventures will be discarded as quickly and easily as George W. Bush’s humility. But there are modestly hopeful signs that Governor Christie hasn’t fully bought into the neocons’ benevolent global hegemony, and that suggests that he will be open to other points of view.

Cross Posted from The National Interest.