Tag: U.S. foreign policy

Afghanistan: Do We Stay or Do We Go Now?

In the last three years, the United States has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, increased the number of drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden—the highest of high-value targets. President Obama has more than enough victories under his belt to stick to his timeline and substantially draw down the number of troops from Afghanistan.

Still, the pace of America’s withdrawal and the size of its residual combat presence, even after his decision Wednesday, will depend on two things: negotiations with the Taliban and political pressure to stay the course. These two factors will feature prominently in the months ahead, as the administration reconfigures the strategy and objectives for winding down the 10-year campaign.

First, although many Afghans endorse engagement with the Taliban, in Washington, even broaching the subject of talks is divisive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that efforts were under way to negotiate with the Taliban; meanwhile, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he believes the Taliban will not engage in serious talks until they are under extreme military pressure. In a way, both are right: a power-sharing arrangement would provide the best hope for sustainable peace, but no treaty, agreement, or contract is self-reinforcing and thus requires some leverage. Either way, constructive, face-to-face talks with senior Taliban leaders will be an intensive process, and one that diplomats and military officials must be prepared to defend publicly. America is not there yet.

The second force that will temper America’s eagerness to withdraw is the power of domestic political pressure. Defense Secretary Gates, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), and a sizeable contingent of Afghanistan hawks in the media decry anything less than a troop-intensive campaign. They endorse slow-paced, graduated troop cuts subject to conditions on the ground, a policy focused on entities other than those that threaten the United States. Dismantling al Qaeda, an outfit already in disarray, calls for counterterrorism, not state-building. This can be done relatively cheaply and with far fewer troops. Moreover, as seen in Yemen and Somalia, the United States can collect actionable intelligence without a large-scale conventional force on the ground.

Whether it is talking with the Taliban on the one hand, or staying the course on the other, the president has political goals, for which there is no clear strategy, and security progress, for which there is no definitive “victory.” Looking back, however, Obama has achieved some of the goals he set out. “Blueprint for Change,” his 2008 presidential campaign literature, states (pdf):

Obama will fight terrorism and protect America with a comprehensive strategy that finishes the fight in Afghanistan, cracks down on the al Qaeda safe-haven in Pakistan, develops new capabilities and international partnerships, engages the world to dry up support for extremism, and reaffirms American values.

To a certain degree, even these goals are ambitious. Instead, he should focus not on what is politically desirable, but what is within America’s ability to accomplish. In this respect, Obama would do well to revisit his December 2009 speech on the war in Afghanistan, when he said:

We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

He also said:

Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests…America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

As U.S. forces eventually take a back seat in Afghanistan, Obama should strongly resist any calls that he has not done enough. Arguably, he has gone above and beyond what would have been a more prudent strategy. Now, it is time to come home.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

President Obama’s Afghan Decision: Previewing the Speech

Tomorrow night, President Obama will announce how many troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months. CNN.com reported this morning that the president is expected to announce a plan that would bring all 30,000 “surge” troops home by the end of 2012. This would give them two more fighting seasons in Afghanistan. The Los Angeles Times reported administration and Pentagon officials told them 10,000 troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. In an effort to quell the leaks, White House officials told Fox News that Obama has not made a final decision and that the reporting is “all over the map.”

But we should not allow this speculation over troop numbers to distract us from the bigger picture. Even if by the end of 2012 the size of the U.S. military presence is reduced by 30,000 (and I’m not holding my breath), that would still leave more than twice as many troops as were there in January 2009 when Obama took office.

We won’t know for sure what the president intends until tomorrow. More importantly, we won’t know if the president’s intentions translate into actual troop withdrawals until our brave men and women are welcomed back home. There will always be those arguing that conditions on the ground do not allow for a U.S. withdrawal. Some are making that case with respect to Iraq, a war that was supposedly won by David Petraeus and the surge back in 2008. For the U.S. military, it seems that every war is like the Eagles’ Hotel California: we can check out, but we can never leave.

Regardless of the president’s decision, the mission will not have changed. The military wants more time to put pressure on the Taliban. They believe that they have the Taliban on the run, and that continuing pressure will aid in negotiations on a political settlement. Meanwhile, the true believers of nation-building want to buy more time for the Karzai government to get its act together. They believe that if American troops and aid workers dig more wells, pave more roads, build more schools, and draft more legal standards, we will have achieved our essential goals. The public, and a growing number within the Congress, is skeptical.

And they should be. A nation-building mission is far too ambitious, and far too costly. Most importantly, it isn’t necessary. We could keep pressure on the Taliban, and deny al Qaeda a sanctuary, with perhaps as few as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. If President Obama rejects that option, and declares instead that more than 60,000 U.S. troops will be in Afghanistan in 2013, he will have bowed to pressure from some within the Pentagon, at State, and a handful of think tankers, and ignored the clear wishes of the American people who want to turn their attention to building the United States, and allow the Afghans to build Afghanistan.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Huntsman Right to Rethink Afghanistan

Jon Huntsman’s recent comments about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the need to reduce our military footprint have drawn a good amount of media coverage this week. Huntsman, who will announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination next week, is the latest among the field to call for rethinking our strategy in Afghanistan. Huntsman is advocating a reduced presence in the country, in the area of 10 to 15,000 troops, to fight a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission. Coincidentally, a just-released Cato paper makes a similar recommendation.

Today, ForeignPolicy.com examines Huntsman’s comments and the “Drawdown Debate” in a round table of opinion pieces. My contribution: “Huntsman’s Right: Bring ‘em Home:

Jon Huntsman is on the right track with his call for a much smaller U.S. military presence and a more focused mission in Afghanistan. His suggestion makes sense for at least three reasons. First, the current nation-building mission is far too costly relative to realistic alternatives, particularly at a time when Americans are looking for ways to shrink the size of government. Second, nation-building in Afghanistan is unnecessary. We can advance our national security interests without crafting a functioning nation-state in the Hindu Kush. And third, the current mission is deeply unconservative, succumbing to the same errors that trip up other ambitious government-run projects that conservatives routinely reject here at home.

Alas, although many rank and file Republicans agree with Huntsman, many GOP leaders do not. Perhaps that will change when they realize that, at least in this instance, good policy and good politics go hand in hand. We should bring most of our troops home, and focus the attention of the few thousand who remain on hunting al Qaeda. The United States does not need to transform a deeply divided, poverty-stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive, and stable electoral democracy, and we should stop pretending that we can.

Read the full piece here.

Pawlenty Understands Incentives, Except When It Comes to Defense

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s brief visit to Cato yesterday elicited some snide commentary in the blogosphere, especially this piece by the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward. Ward notes how the just-declared presidential candidate has been pretty adept at annoying audiences with his answers to questions. This one rankled the questioner, and a number of others in the auditorium.

I’m not one who is going to stand before you and say we should cut the defense budget.

[…]

I’m not for shrinking America’s presence in the world. I’m for making sure that America remains the world leader, not becoming second or third or fourth in the list.

One can sort of forgive a governor for not knowing much about foreign policy, although governors who aspire to be president should probably know that the U.S. government could cut military spending in half and still spend more than our next two potential rivals, combined.

The average governor, however, should know that people don’t feel obligated to pay for things that you are willing to give them for free. And Pawlenty does understand this when it comes to domestic spending. Check out his comments about the difference between a cash bar and an open bar at a wedding reception, via the Daily Caller:

If people have the impression that things are free, and they get to consume it endlessly, and the provider has the only incentive to provide on volume, and the myth or the lie is created that the bill goes somewhere else and that a third party pays for it, that is a system that I can tell you is doomed to failure and inefficiency. And that’s much of our government, unfortunately.

But the same principle applies in military spending. Our European and East Asian allies are consumers of the security provided by the U.S. military, and all Americans are the third party payers. As my colleague Ben Friedman likes to say, we agree to defend our allies, and they agree to let us. We shouldn’t blame them for under-providing for their own defense; it’s our fault for agreeing to do it for them.

Cato President and Founder Ed Crane’s quick take on Pawlenty’s view on defense military spending is worth repeating:

There is a difference between military spending and defense spending. The Constitution provides for a military to defend the U.S—not to democratize the world. One would hope that presidential candidates would consider America’s commitments overseas very seriously before endorsing those commitments.

Cato scholars have been out in front for years making the case for a principled, constitutional view of “defense” that does not include defending others who can and should defend themselves. If we adopted a strategy of restraint, we could responsibly make significant cuts in military spending, deliver the savings to American taxpayers, and remain the safest and most secure country on the planet. Yesterday, Tim Pawlenty took the opposite tack. He argued that the U.S. military should continue to serve as the world’s policeman/armed social worker, allow other countries to free ride, and require U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill.

Although that might be popular elsewhere in Washington, I can’t imagine it will sell in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Manchester, New Hampshire.

A ‘Special’ Relationship?

When President Obama meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, they should focus on the two wars that involve both the U.S. and British militaries (Afghanistan and Libya). But these discussions will take place in the context of diminishing British military capability.

At a time when the United States should be shedding some of the burdens of policing the globe, and encouraging other countries to step forward to defend themselves, the British are moving in the opposite direction. They are cutting their military, and tacitly becoming more dependent upon U.S. power. The end result will be a United Kingdom that is less able to assist us in the future.

The United States today spends far more on its military than does the United Kingdom, and the gap is likely to grow. This is sure to have an impact on the U.S.-UK relationship.

The number of British troops, ships and planes that are available for missions has dropped and will continue to if Cameron pushes through significant cuts in British military spending. He has proposed actual cuts, not the slowing in the rate of growth that Obama and Defense Secretary Gates have presided over so far.

The special relationship has been cemented by the numerous occasions in which British and American leaders have cooperated to address common security challenges. The most important of these involve U.S. and British troops fighting side by side.

But shrinking British defense spending could strain the relationship.  The goodwill that has prevailed between the two countries could be in jeopardy, and Americans may find it harder to look upon the Brits as the “good” ally, the one that sticks by us through thick and thin. And if the American public grows disenchanted with British contributions to U.S.-led military missions, the British public may then hold less generally positive opinions of the United States.

A version of this post originally appeared in The National Interest Online.

The President’s Next Middle East Speech

The news media is abuzz with speculation about what President Obama will say in an address this Thursday at the State Department. The topic is the Middle East, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained, “we’ve gone through a remarkable period in the first several months of this year…in the Middle East and North Africa,” and the president has “some important things to say about how he views the upheaval and how he has approached the U.S. response to the events in the region.” The speech, Carney hinted to reporters, would be “fairly sweeping and comprehensive.”

If I were advising the president, I would urge him to say many of the same things that he said in his June 2009 speech in Cairo, this time with some timely references to the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, and an explanation of what the killing means for U.S. counterterrorism operations, and for our relations with the countries in the region.

Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s long-time number two (now, presumably, its number one) railed for years about overthrowing the “apostate” governments in North Africa and the Middle East. And yet, one of the biggest stories from the popular movements that have swept aside the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and may yet do so in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, is al Qaeda’s utter irrelevance. President Obama won’t need to dwell on this very long to make an important point.

The killing of Osama bin Laden doesn’t signal the end of al Qaeda, but it might signal the beginning of the end. In reality, al Qaeda has been under enormous pressure for years, but that hasn’t stopped the organization from carrying out attacks—attacks which have mainly killed and injured innocent Muslims since 9/11. It is no wonder that al Qaeda is enormously unpopular in the one place where bin Laden and his delusional cronies sought to install the new Caliphate. How’s that working out, Osama?

Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the reform movements that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East; the United States has had little to do with them either. That is as it should be. These uprisings were spontaneous, arising from the bottom up, and they are more likely to endure because they were not imposed by outsiders. Sadly, the same will not be said of the Libyans who rose up against Muammar Qaddafi, without any special encouragement from the United States. If the anti-Qaddafi forces ultimately succeed in overthrowing his four-decades long rule, President Obama’s decision to intervene militarily on their behalf ensures that some will question their legitimacy. The same would be true in Syria, or in Iran, if the United States were seen as having a hand in selecting the future leaders of those countries.

Barack Obama was elected president in part because he publicly opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq at a time when many Americans, including many in his own party, were either supportive or silent. He had a special credibility with the American people, and among people in the Middle East, because he worried that the Iraq war was likely to undermine American and regional security, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and claim many tens of thousands of lives. Tragically, he was correct.

There is a right way, and a wrong way, to go about promoting human freedom. In Thursday’s speech, I hope that the president reaffirms the importance of peaceful regime change from within, not American-sponsored regime change from without.

The United States remains, as it has been for two centuries, a well-wisher to people’s democratic aspirations all over the world. But we learned a painful lesson in Iraq, and we should be determined not to repeat that error elsewhere. That is a message worth repeating, both for audiences over there, and for those over here.

Cross-posted from The National Interest

Has President Obama Given up on Changing U.S. Foreign Policy?

Today in Politico I have an op-ed titled “How Washington changed Obama.” In the piece, I argue that the recent appointments of Leon Panetta as secretary of defense and Gen. David Petraeus as director of the CIA, combined with revelations in the recent New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza, suggest that President Obama has given up on changing U.S. foreign and defense policy:

Panetta is a dubious choice to fulfill Obama’s recent pledge to trim military spending. Any secretary charged with realizing that pledge would need extraordinary credibility with Capitol Hill Republicans, many of whom are determined to continue raining money on the Pentagon regardless of the nation’s parlous fiscal position. Despite having once been a Republican, Panetta ran for Congress as Democrat and has served prominently in Democratic administrations. He is unlikely to craft the pragmatic consensus needed to give the Pentagon a haircut.

Petraeus’s nomination poses a different problem. He has spent the past decade focused— at the behest of his commanders in chief —  on what we used to call the “global war on terrorism.” But is U.S. nation-building in the Muslim world the most important national security and intelligence problem we face today?

[…]

The U.S. desperately needs to change its focus. We account for roughly half the world’s military spending, yet we feel terribly insecure. We infantilize our allies so that they won’t pay to defend themselves and instead allow us to do it for them. We stumble into small- and medium-sized foreign quagmires the way many people eat breakfast — frequently and without much thought.

Read the rest of the op-ed here.

Cross-posted at The National Interest.