Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Obama’s Initial Reaction to Brussels Bombings: Right Decision, Poor Optics

As soon as the terrorist bombings took place in Brussels, President Obama’s many critics demanded that he immediately terminate his state visit to Cuba and abandon the rest of his trip to Latin America. Instead, Senator John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and other GOP luminaries insisted the president should return immediately to Washington and go into crisis mode with his national security team. President Obama firmly refused to do so. Instead, he continued his trip as scheduled. That afternoon, he attended a baseball game with Cuban President Raul Castro, and then completed the Cuba leg of his journey with a joint statement and press conference before leaving for Argentina.

In terms of substance, it was the right course of action. Too many members of America’s political elite, as well as the news media, hype the terrorist threat to absurd levels. Pundits and politicians even have a tendency to compare the severity of the threat posed by such groups as ISIS and Al Qaeda to the dire menace to global peace and American security posed by the likes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and they warn that we are on the brink of World War III or perhaps are fully engaged already in that conflict. It is a nonsensical comparison. ISIS and similar nonstate actors do not even come close to constituting such an existential threat. 

Instead, radical Islamic terrorism poses a limited threat roughly akin to that presented by radical anarchists in the second half of the nineteenth century. To allow ISIS to disrupt an important presidential visit to Latin America, a crucial and often neglected region in U.S. diplomacy, would have accorded the terrorist group an importance it does not deserve. The news media makes a similar error when it gives every terrorist incident seemingly endless coverage for days or weeks. President Obama sent ISIS a clear message that he would not play into their hands in that fashion this time.

However, the president’s handling of the optics surrounding his decision was extraordinarily clumsy. It would have been one thing to have been in unspecified “meetings” or “discussions” with U.S. or Cuban officials. Additional meetings with key members of the new U.S. embassy staff in Havana could certainly have been arranged at the last minute. But attending a baseball game in his shirt sleeves with Castro, relaxing and enjoying the Cuban sunshine, while the bodies of the victims in Brussels were still cooling, presented a horrible image. It was simultaneously frivolous and insensitive. 

And, unfortunately, that is the image that most people both in the United States and abroad will remember about President Obama’s initial reaction to the events in Brussels. Naturally, his critics pounced and portrayed the action as another manifestation of a feckless foreign policy. The reality is that it was the correct substantive response, but one that was ineptly executed.

Upcoming Event: Japan’s Security Evolution

While most U.S. allies seem happy to continue their free-riding ways, Japan is exhibiting a different sort of behavior. The long-time U.S. ally is taking steps to shoulder a greater share of the burden for its own defense and regional stability. Last year, the Japanese Diet reformed its national security laws allowing the country to play a more active role in East Asia. The reforms prompted many observers to declare an end to Japan’s post-World War II pacifism.

Jennifer Lind, author of a recent Cato Policy Analysis, disagrees:

Such pronouncements are misguided; these reforms are only the most recent recalibration of Japan’s postwar grand strategy…[Japan] prefers to “buck-pass” to the United States, but—at times of growing threat and uncertainty about the U.S. commitment—Tokyo has built greater military capabilities and accepted more roles within the alliance. The recent security reforms represent continuity, rather than change…

Lind, who is an associate professor at Dartmouth College, goes on to argue that Japan’s new posture may not be permanent. She explains, “Japan does less when it can; more when it must.” The new security posture is motivated by two factors: the military threat posed by China and uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to Japan. Tokyo could return to free riding if either the threat from China is reduced or the United States shores up its commitment.

Yet, while many welcome Tokyo’s reform efforts, others fear that a more assertive Japan will only increase tensions in the region. But what are the implications for U.S. security of a more assertive Japan? And does Japan’s acceptance of more responsibility suggest that other U.S. allies would act accordingly if Washington were to step back?

Please join Jennifer Lind, myself, and two distinguished panelists as we discuss these and other important questions. The event will be held at noon on March 29, 2016 at the Cato Institute. You can register here.

Responding to Brussels

Just four days after Salah Abdeslam, the mastermind of last fall’s Paris attacks, was finally captured, the Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for this morning’s terrorist attacks in Brussels. The attacks, which have killed more than 30 and wounded almost 200, provide another chilling reminder of how dangerous the world can be.

As Brussels tends its wounds, the simple question looms: How should Europe and the United States respond?

In and around official Washington, the script is becoming sadly predictable. Immediately following the news, administration officials assert their resolve and commitment to combatting terrorism: “Attacks like these only deepen shared resolve to defeat terrorism around the world

Close on their heels, administration critics line up to fear monger, launch cheap insults at Obama for not paying enough attention the terrorism, and to talk tough about striking back at ISIS. All the Republican candidates criticized Obama for staying in Cuba. Donald Trump took the opportunity to point out that he has long been in favor of closing up the border while Ted Cruz called on the president to recognize that “Radical Islam is at war with us” and for “empowering law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”

Finally, both Europe and the United States are likely to ratchet up the war on the ground against ISIS. To date this approach has born decidedly mixed fruit. On the one hand ISIS has certainly lost significant ground over the past year. On the other hand, very little of that success can be traced directly to U.S. or French military efforts.

Rather than go through the motions focused on short-term political gains, both Europe and the United States should pursue a long-term strategy. That strategy might take many forms but at heart a sound long-term approach needs three fundamental components.

First, a long-term strategy requires an enduring commitment to openness and tolerance. Both Europe and the United States benefit tremendously from immigration, both economically and socially, and from a vigorous marketplace of ideas sustained by diverse religious, racial, and ethnic populations. The costs of closing borders, polarizing society along ethnic and religious lines, and limiting civil liberties will far outweigh whatever benefits they might bring in the short run.

Second, a long-term strategy must emphasize a law enforcement approach to combatting terrorism rather than a military one. The notion that Europe and the United States can fight a “war” against terrorism is ridiculous. Terrorism is a tactic, not a disease or an organization. No amount of military adventurism will eliminate the ability of violent individuals to cause pain. Nor will destroying the Islamic State (ISIS) be enough to ensure some kind of victory. The root causes of violence in France, Belgium, and San Bernardino stem from the sweeping unhappiness and anger within the Arab and Muslim worlds. Until those issues are settled Europe’s and America’s entanglement in Middle East affairs will continue to spawn terrorist attacks in the West. This is why destroying Al Qaeda didn’t solve the problem but instead just produced the next incarnation of the threat. Simply put, killing more terrorists will not produce long-term security in Europe and the United States.

The third component is to pull back from the region.  Our over-involvement in the Middle East has not only engendered anger among many Muslims in the region; it has also worked directly against our own security in other ways. ISIS, let us not forget, is an outgrowth of the Sunni insurgency that rose up to fight U.S. forces in our war of choice in Iraq (2003-2011). They are an unintended, albeit not unforeseeable, consequence of that wrong-headed war. More bombs and boots now may have similarly counterproductive results down the line. In addition, our deep engagement in the region has resulted in a pernicious, long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is the foremost exporter of the radical Wahabist ideology that drives al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other anti-American terrorist groups.

The strategic importance of the Middle East has been greatly exaggerated. And pulling back from the region, although it would not necessarily yield positive results in the immediate term, is likely to have hugely beneficial long-term effects as far as securing us from the minor but real threat of terrorism.

President Obama and “President” Castro

News reports about President Obama’s visit to Cuba are regularly referring to his meeting with “Cuban President Raul Castro.” But Castro is not a president in the same sense that President Obama is. He’s not even a president in the dictionary sense. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “president” as “the elected head of a republican state.” Raul Castro was not elected, and Cuba is not a republic. Castro is a military dictator. That may not be a polite thing to say, but journalists are supposed to tell the truth, not worry about the feelings of the powerful. Indeed, according to the distinguished journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their book The Elements of Journalism, written under the auspices of the Nieman Foundation, journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth. The truth is that Raul Castro is, as Fidel Castro was, a dictator who rules with the support of the military.

Even the Wall Street Journal refers to “Cuban President Raul Castro.” I particularly regret this, because back in 2006 I called them out for their double standard on dictators, in a letter they published. They had written in an obituary note:

Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. Among 20th century Latin American leaders, only Cuban President Fidel Castro has served longer.

Why, I asked, 

do you describe Gen. Alfredo Stroessner as a “military strongman” and Fidel Castro as “Cuban president” (“A Flair for Flavor,” Aug. 19)? Both came to power through bullets, not ballots, and ruled with an iron hand. Mr. Stroessner actually held elections every five years, sometimes with opposition candidates, though of course there was no doubt of the outcome. Mr. Castro dispensed with even the pretense of elections. Both ruled with the support of the army. In Cuba’s case, the armed forces were headed by Mr. Castro’s brother. So why does the Journal not give Stroessner his formal title of “president,” and why does it not describe Castro accurately as a “military strongman?”

One could make the same point about Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. He was formally the president, but newspapers generally referred to him as a military dictator. Pinochet ruled with an iron hand for 17 years. After 15 years he held a referendum on his rule. When he lost, he held elections and stepped down from power. That’s more than the Castro brothers have done after 57 years. 

Obama versus Obama’s Foreign Policy

I wish the Barack Obama Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed for the Atlantic’s April cover story had been in charge of U.S. foreign policy for the last seven years. Obama’s arguments in the article are similar to those Cato’s foreign policy department are always employing in criticizing the Obama administration.

One such argument says that U.S. military leadership promotes free-riding among allies. Another is that overthrowing Middle-Eastern dictators by arming their rebel opponents tends to promote chaos destructive to human life and liberal values and that letting in more refugees from those conflicts is a better way to help people there. In the interview, Obama agrees that U.S. entanglement in the Middle’s East’s civil wars drains U.S. power and security. He sensibly applies the same logic to Russia—dismissing the idea that Russia’s meddling in the Syrian civil war strengthens it. He too is critical of Russian aggression beyond its borders but suggests that Putin is propping up friendly neighbors rather than launching an expansionist frenzy. He agrees that Russia is far weaker than the United States but also that, given our relatively limited interest in states like Ukraine on Russia’s borders, there is little sense in trying to bolster those states with aid or bluffs so that they can overcome Russian aggression.

Goldberg’s Obama is especially impressive in arguing that it is stupid to make war in the name of signaling or credibility. He rightly rejects the idea that foreign leaders start wars because Washington failed to fight in very different circumstances. He even “disdains” Washington’s foreign policy establishment for its credibility “fetish” and reflexive hawkishness.

Unfortunately the actual President Obama has sometimes taken the other side of these arguments. He has pushed to do more for allies in Europe, Asia and even the Middle East. In Syria, he is working to overthrow a second Middle-Eastern dictator by aiding a rebellion. He kept U.S. forces in Iraq and appointed two secretaries of defense that supported the prolonged occupation there. He initially supported NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine and subsequently backed military aid for the latter, which undermines its willingness to accommodate Russia. He offered NATO’s credibility as one reason to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. He initially gave a credibility rationale for bombing the Assad regime to punish it for using chemical weapons, as Goldberg notes. Obama used credibility to argue for bombing on behalf of Libya’s rebels—not intervening, he said, would send a message to other regional dictators that they could keep power by killing their people.

Under-Debated Wars

Those that like policies tend to extol the politics that produced them. Praise for the marketplace of ideas or the wisdom of crowds rarely comes from serial losers of policy debates. They are more likely to consider systemic problems that mar debate, like informational asymmetries, special interests, and elite bias.

It shouldn’t then come as a great surprise that we in Cato’s foreign policy department, who oppose most U.S. wars, hosted a panel last fall at the American Political Science Association conference to consider the question of why there isn’t there more scholarly evaluation of U.S. wars. Underlying that question is a sense that U.S. wars, at least lately, follow from rationales that offend political science, or even economics, and that more scholars, whether in the academy or think tanks, should say so. Call it a cry for help in making our case.

Upon invitation, several panelists, me included, recast their remarks in the most recent International Security Studies Forum, a publication of H-Diplo. The contributors agree that scholarly evaluation of war is flawed, though not in short supply. Christopher Preble, in his introduction, argues that journalists and defense experts considering wars defer too much to those that served in the military. But military officers, even once retired, stick to a professional ethos that prompts them to leave strategic issues–why to fight–to civilians and to focus on operational questions of how. Jon Lindsay points to the difficulties scholars face in understanding modern military technologies and the dearth of publically-available information about military operations. Alan Kuperman questions academics’ objectivity, seeing them as captives of dovish or hawkish biases.

My take, which follows from an as yet unpublished essay I wrote with Justin Logan, focuses on Washington’s analysts, as opposed to academia. I argue that defense analysis here generally serves a hawkish, bipartisan consensus. Professional incentives encourage analysts to avoid questioning the consensus’ key tenets, including war rationales. Analysts adopt an “operational mind-set.” Washington’s analysis of its wars is voluminous but shallow.

The underlying problem, to me, isn’t that politics affects analysis. That’s the nature, even the virtue, of pluralistic debate.  The problem is insufficient politics—a lack of competing interests. Because U.S. military power makes war feel cheap, the public and their representatives are often indifferent to the wisdom of wars. The historical exercise of national power meanwhile entrenched a belief among foreign policy elites that U.S security depends on global military exertions. As long as costs stay diffuse, the disinterested majority lets the elite minority have its wars without much fuss about costs, benefits, checks, or balances. Debate improves when costs gather, as in Vietnam or Iraq. That’s a limited consolation. When it comes to U.S. wars, the wisdom of crowds comes late and infrequently.

Small Steps in the Middle East

Here in America, you’d be forgiven for believing that things are on a downward spiral, as Donald Trump’s disturbing success in various primaries raises the real, and terrifying prospect that he will be the Republican nominee. So if constant media coverage of the primary season depresses you, you could do worse than consider recent developments in the Middle East, where something truly unusual has been happening in the last few weeks. With a fragile ceasefire in Syria and diplomatic negotiations in Yemen, things actually appear to be improving.

Though these developments are tenuous – and each has many problems - they show the value of diplomatic and even incremental approaches to resolving the region’s ongoing conflicts.

It’s technically incorrect to refer to the current situation in Syria as a ceasefire. For starters, it doesn’t actually prohibit attacks by any party against the conflict’s most extreme groups, ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. And unlike a true ceasefire, there is no official on-the-ground monitoring and compliance system. Instead, that role is filled in a more ad-hoc way by a communications hotline between Russia and the United States as members of the International Syria Support Group.

There are other problems with the agreement too, particularly its role in freezing the conflict in a way which is extremely advantageous to the Syrian government and its Russian backers. While this was perhaps unavoidable – Russia would probably not have agreed otherwise – it will reduce the bargaining power of the Syrian opposition in peace talks when they restart on March 14th.

Nonetheless, it’s estimated that the cessation of hostilities – which has held for almost two weeks – has dropped the level of violence and death toll inside Syria by at least 80 percent. Violence has dropped so much that anti-regime protestors were able to engage in peaceful protest marches in several towns. Likewise, despite delivery problems and delays, humanitarian aid is flowing into some areas of Syria for the first time in years.  These small advances are all the more astounding given how unthinkable they seemed even a few months ago.

Progress in Yemen is less spectacular, but still encouraging. Following negotiations mediated by northern Yemeni tribal leaders, the combatants arranged to a swap of Jaber al-Kaabi, a Saudi soldier, for the release of seven Yemeni prisoners. At the same time, a truce along the Saudi-Yemeni border is allowing much-needed humanitarian aid to flow into the country.

Again, these are at best a tiny step towards resolving the conflict, which has lasted almost a year and produced extremely high levels of civilian casualties. The truce is temporary and confined to the border region; Saudi airstrikes continue near the contested town of Ta’iz. Yet the negotiations mark the first direct talks between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, which had previously insisted that they would deal with the Houthis only through the exiled Hadi government.

In both Syria and Yemen, observers are quick to point out the tenuous nature of these developments, and it is certainly true that any political settlement in either conflict remains an uphill battle. But I prefer to view these developments in a more positive light. As numerous post-Soviet frozen conflicts have demonstrated, ceasefires do not necessarily resolve the major disputes which precipitated the conflict originally. Yet even if the end result is not a more comprehensive peace deal, the lower levels of violence and improved access to humanitarian aid can dramatically improve life for civilians. In Syria in particular, this represents a small - but notable - victory for diplomacy.