Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Washington Is Too Cozy with Certain Dictators

U.S. leaders routinely emphasize that America’s foreign policy is based on support for the expansion of freedom around the world.  But as I point out in a recent article in the National Interest Online, Washington’s behavior frequently does not match the idealistic rhetoric.  Too often, U.S. policymakers seem to favor even brutal and corrupt authoritarian allies over boisterous, unpredictable democratic regimes.

During the Cold War, U.S. administrations enthusiastically embraced “friendly” autocratic governments in such places as South Korea and the Philippines—even when there were viable democratic alternatives.  Because it was uncertain whether democratic governments would be as cooperative with U.S. foreign policy aims, officials preferred dealing with more compliant autocrats.  Worse, U.S. leaders repeatedly misrepresented such allies to the American people as noble members of the “free world.”

The tendency was especially pronounced in the Middle East, and that cynical policy has persisted longer there than in other regions.  It began early, as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 and restore the Shah to power as an unconstrained monarch.  The Shah became America’s chosen Persian Gulf gendarme for the next quarter century, despite the regime’s appalling human rights record and pervasive corruption.  Elsewhere in the region, Washington developed a cozy relationship with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak that lasted three decades, even as he and his military cronies looted and brutalized that unhappy country. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems just as hypocritical as its predecessors when it comes to relations with Egypt and other Middle East countries.  U.S. leaders were reluctant to cut Mubarak loose even as pro-democracy demonstrations surged throughout Egypt in 2011.   In a PBS interview, Vice President Joe Biden even objected to describing Mubarak as a dictator and rejected calls for him to step down.

Trump and the GOP: Quién Es el Más Militarista?

I’d have figured that the category of “Trump supporters who are aware of the Atlantic Monthly” would be an empty set, but it turns out there are at least 30 of them. Last week, in an open letter to Trump fans, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf asked  “why him?”, and yesterday, he published the results: “What Do Donald Trump Voters Actually Want?”

The funniest responses tend toward the nihilistic: “I really am at the point of letting the whole thing burn down and explode…. Like the joker from The Dark Knight, I just want to see the world burn”; or, “I just want to watch the chaos unfold …. I’m a young guy who is immature, a bit antisocial, and with no plans for kids or a wife ever. At some level, I don’t really care how things go with America as long as it’s fun to watch.” (Say what you want about the tenets of Trumpism: at least it’s not an ethos!)

But if watching things burn down and blow up is what you want out of politics, the other candidates may have a lot more to offer you—or so I argue in a column for the Federalist this week, “Trump’s Biggest Lie: ‘I’m The Most Militaristic Person’ In This Race.” That’s what Trump said upon his return to Fox News last week, and, even for the Donald, it’s a boast too far. The fact is, “in the 2016 election cycle, the ‘serious and responsible’ candidates for the presidency are so bellicose they make Trump look like Cindy Sheehan.”

To take just a couple of examples from the piece, there’s:

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who in June, refused a reporter’s invitation to rule out “a full-blown re-invasion of Iraq,” and in July, announced that he’d “very possibly” need to start bombing Iran on his first day in office.

And there’s Florida senator Marco Rubio, who

stands out among his competitors as the sole Republican to argue that Obama’s real mistake in Libya was that he didn’t start bombing even sooner. Rubio wants to double down on the profligate interventionism of the George W. Bush era so badly that he’s built his campaign on B-movie slogans and neocon buzzwords. A Liam-Neeson-style “we will find you; and we will kill you” [is his] message to ISIS… and his website promises “A New American Century,” – a pledge that ought to give pause to anybody old enough to remember how that worked out in the last decade.

Even candidates with residual sympathy toward an earlier tradition of Republican realism have begun to toe the party line. Rand Paul has begun to sound distinctly hawkish lately, and Jeb Bush has decided it just “wouldn’t be prudent” to hire a foreign policy director who’s skeptical about bombing Iran.

Trump, on the other hand, seems determined to demonstrate his unseriousness by denouncing the Iraq War, saying he wouldn’t “rip up” the Iran deal, and complaining that America has become “the policeman of the world.”

Meanwhile, no one in this crowd can out-hawk Hillary Clinton, whose long, ghoulish career can be summed up in her own words, “I urged him to bomb.” “We came, we saw, he died,” is how HRC greeted the news that Colonel Qaddafi had been killed by a rebel mob. The best the Donald could do was brag about how this one time, he really “screwed” Qaddafi in a real estate deal. Wimp!

Look, don’t get me wrong: Trump is a boorish self-promoter—and worse, a literal “robber baron,”—the sort of guy who’d invoke eminent domain to try steal a retired widow’s house so he can use it for a limousine waiting area. The GOP should be embarrassed to have him leading the pack. But, “most militaristic”? Not by a long shot. As I argued in the Federalist, “on this issue, in this field, he’s not quite the embarrassment he should be.” Read the whole thing there.

Jeb Bush Abandons Mainstream, Finds Inner Neocon

Jeb Bush has amassed a sizable war chest and positioned himself to be the safe establishment pick after Donald Trump’s expected implosion. Alas, on foreign policy Bush has turned hard right.

“Our security,” he recently claimed, is “in the balance.” Yet the U.S. continues to dominate the globe as no other nation before it.

Moreover, Bush contended, “if we withdraw from the defense of liberty elsewhere, the battle of eventually comes to us anyway.” Actually, the world long has been filled with horror which Washington has successfully avoided.

Bush followed the Republican stereotype in demanding more military spending. “We are in the seventh year of a significant dismantling of our own military,” he falsely claimed. Real spending continued to increase until 2012.

In Bush’s view two and a half percent of GDP for the Pentagon is too low. But as Ronald Reagan observed, military spending should reflect the threat environment, which is vastly improved. Bush seemed to recognize this reality when he suggested a strategic review since “the world’s changed. I mean, we’re, the Soviets aren’t going to launch a tank attack across Eastern Germany into Germany.”

Very true. He should launch a strategic review first, which would suggest fewer defense responsibilities and thus lower military outlays.

Bush first called his brother’s policy in Iraq “a mistake.” More recently, however, he declared that ousting Saddam Hussein was a “pretty good deal.”

Maybe so, I pointed out in Forbes, “if you don’t count dead Americans, dead allied personnel, dead Iraqis, widespread sectarian violence, mass refugee flows, increased Iranian influence, regional instability, and the rise of the Islamic State.”

Bush misleadingly argued that ISIS “didn’t exist when my brother was president” and that a continued U.S. military presence “would not have allowed” the group to flourish. This is false.

ISIS is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which developed in response to George W.’s invasion. The group grew in opposition to the U.S. occupation and Shia-majority regime installed by Washington.

Alas, the famed “surge” did not foster sectarian reconciliation, as intended. ISIS exploded when the Sunni Awakening went into reverse in response oppressive sectarian policies begun by the Iraqi government under George W., who also failed to win approval of a status of forces agreement and continued U.S. military presence. Obama only followed the Bush timetable.

Nor would a continuing presence of U.S. troops have achieved much, unless augmented and used in continuing anti-insurgency operations—contrary to the fervent desire of most Americans. And maintaining the military occupation would have provided a target for radicals of every sectarian viewpoint.

Nevertheless, Jeb urged a new war dedicated to “throwing back the barbarians of ISIS, and helping the millions in the region who want to live in peace.” Actually, those millions, rather than Americans, should fight ISIS.

Even scarier, Bush proposed that Washington join Syria’s civil war. He urged “a coordinated, international effort” to strengthen increasingly ineffective moderate forces. Worse, Bush advocated not only a “no-fly zone” but “multiple safe zones,” which would require substantial and sustained U.S. military involvement.

He complained that the administration didn’t deal with Iran’s malignant regional behavior. True, because Washington focused on the far more important issue of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Bush advocated additional sanctions, which would not have been matched by other nations. He also recommended that Washington support the Iranian opposition, as if the Islamist regime would allow increased international interference promoting its ouster.

Bush contended that America’s “alliances need rebuilding.” Which means increasing subsidies for rich industrialized states, which are capable of defending themselves. Bush also believes in placating authoritarian governments—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others. So much for democracy and liberty.
Finally, like other Republican presidential wannabes, Bush is oblivious to the consequences of U.S. policy. Droning, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations create blowback. While Washington’s behavior doesn’t justify terrorism, promiscuous intervention helps explain it.

Americans can’t afford a rerun of Dubya’s disastrous presidency.

The Bad and Ugly of the GOP’s Foreign Policy, Part II

The Republican presidential race is heating up and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is talking foreign policy. Alas, he believes intervention and war to be a first resort and seems willing to sacrifice American lives, wealth, and prosperity for almost any reason.

Rubio shares the common delusion on the Right that the world has grown more dangerous since the end of the Cold War. Actually, the end of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact has made it much safer for America.

Rubio claimed that “Turmoil across the world can impact American families almost as much as turmoil across town.” But that is only if the United States allows it. During most of America’s history, Washington avoided involvement in foreign tragedies.

Rubio worried about rising prices from foreign instability. Far more consequential is the expense of military intervention, human and financial.

No Foreign Aid for North Korea if Another Famine Strikes

SHENYANG, CHINA—North Korea is a major topic of interest in this provincial capital in China’s northeast. The “Hermit Kingdom” is just a couple hours away by car. Again, the North’s harvest does not look good. Observers warn that another famine may be coming.

The first reports of drought appeared earlier this year. The United Nations warned that 70 percent of North Korea’s population faces a food shortage.

Another famine is a grievous embarrassment. Several hundred thousand, and perhaps as many as two million, North Koreans died between 1995 and 1997 from a brutal, extended famine. The North since has been dependent on the generosity of others to feed its people.

The DPRK again has begun to bang its tin cup, seeking aid. The People’s Republic of China remains the North’s most important food supplier. The Chinese government almost certainly will continue to stand by its ally.

The Bad and Ugly of the GOP’s Foreign Policy, Part 1

The GOP’s Cleveland debate was spirited, but shed little light on foreign policy. There are important differences among the participants, but few were exposed.

For instance, elsewhere Donald Trump opined that Crimea was Europe’s problem and asked why Washington still defended South Korea. These sentiments deserved discussion.

No multi-candidate forum can delve deeply into such complex issues, however. Even those Republicans giving formal foreign policy addresses have come up short. The GOP contenders have been largely captured by a reflexive, even rabid interventionism which ignores consequences and experience.

Leading the hawks is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate’s unabashedly pro-war caucus. In the interventionist middle some candidates demonstrate hints of reluctance, such as Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Sen. Rand Paul brings up the rear, uncomfortably gyrating between his father’s views and the GOP conventional wisdom.

Chris Christie delivered a formal foreign policy address in which he easily staked his claim to being most committed to violating Americans’ civil liberties through surveillance of dubious value. He charged that his critics were “ideologues,” yet opposed any restraints on the new, far-reaching presidential powers that he demanded.

His foreign policy views are even worse. At age 52, Christie declared: “I don’t believe that I have ever lived in a time in my life when the world was a more dangerous and scary place.”

This is nonsense. As I pointed out on Forbes online: “Christie barely missed the Cuban missile crisis. During his life the Cold War raged, the Vietnam War was lost, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and China’s Mao Zedong unleashed the bloody Cultural Revolution. People talked about the potential for a ‘nuclear winter’ from a nuclear exchange. Today the U.S. vastly outspends its potential adversaries and is allied with every major industrialized power save China and Russia.”

 “Building stronger alliances” is a “pillar” of Christie’s foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy is based on “partnership with the people and nations who share our values,” he explained. Like the totalitarian Saudis, brutal Egyptian military, and dictatorial Central Asian states?

Moreover, America’s friends can defend themselves. For instance, South Korea has 40 times the GDP of the North; Japan possesses the world’s third largest economy. Europe has a larger GDP and population than America and multiple of those of Russia.

Many so-called allies are security black holes, making America less secure. Why would Washington wish to confront nuclear-armed Moscow over interests the latter considers vital by defending nations such as Georgia and Ukraine, which always have been irrelevant to America’s security?

Christie argued that “We didn’t have to be a global policeman who solved every problem.” But that’s what Washington has done with perpetual social engineering through foreign aid, military intervention, war, and more.

In Christie’s view squandered U.S. credibility is why Russia grabbed Crimea, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used force against his opponents, and “Iranian-backed militias are rampaging across Yemen.”

In fact, Washington never was going to go to war over Crimea with nuclear-armed Russia. Assad was determined to remain in power and therefore had to fight, irrespective of Washington’s view. Yemen’s Houthis have been in revolt for decades and have never had much connection to Iran, let alone America.

Of course, Christie demanded more military outlays. But it would be easier “to keep our edge” if Washington didn’t constantly squander Americans’ resources defending other nations and rebuilding failed states.

Christie insisted that “What happened on 9/11 must never happen again.” But he failed to understand that promiscuously supporting authoritarian regimes, aiding foreign combatants, dropping drones and, most important, bombing, invading, and occupying other lands creates enemies determined to do America ill.

Rubio and Bush also have given formal speeches, but sound no better than Christie. Most GOP candidates promise brave new interventions and wars.

If Republicans really believe in limited government and individual liberty, they should promote peace. It is time for a real Republican debate over foreign and military policy.

A Blinkered Foreign Policy Debate

Foreign policy didn’t get a lot of air time in last night’s GOP debate, which often seemed to focus primarily on Donald Trump and the fact that John Kasich’s dad was a mailman. The candidates appeared worryingly ill-prepared to discuss foreign policy issues, with confused and misleading statements, incorrect facts, and a few truly bizarre comments.

There is a lot of great news coverage - see here or here for examples - highlighting these statements, from Jim Gilmore’s call for the U.S. to create a Middle Eastern NATO, to Ted Cruz’s decision to describe the opinions of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as nonsense. At least one candidate conflated Iran with ISIS. The first debate included a baffling discussion of ‘cyberwalls,’ a never-before heard term that seemed to encompass both the Great Firewall of China, and the refusal of private companies like Google to hand over data to the U.S. government.

The bigger problem with the debate, however, was the mass oversimplification of foreign policy. Only one candidate, Carly Fiorina, acknowledged that foreign policy can be complicated, a statement immediately undermined when she noted that some issues are black and white, and promised to tear up the Iran deal on her first day in office. Unfortunately, foreign affairs is actually complex. Take the Middle East, where the United States is involved in conflicts both in opposition to, and in alignment with Iranian proxies. Or our relationship with Russia, which isn’t limited to confrontation in Ukraine, but includes cooperation on the Iranian nuclear deal and Syrian issues. Debates, with their reliance on manufactured soundbites, aren’t the best place to delve into these complexities. But no candidate on the stage gave any indication of a willingness to engage with the complicated nuances of foreign policy.