Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

America Should Stay Out of Iraq and Stop Trying to Fix the World

KILIS, TURKEY—Syria’s civil war has washed over Turkey’s border, flooding the latter with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Washington’s efforts to solve the crisis so far have yielded few positive results. George W. Bush’s grandest foreign policy “success,” the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is turning into an even more dramatic debacle. 

The region is aflame and U.S. policy bears much of the blame. Washington’s relentless attempt to reorder and reshape complex peoples, distant places, and volatile disputes has backfired spectacularly.

The blame is not limited to Barack Obama. However ineffective his policies, they largely follow those of his predecessors. Moreover, his most vociferous critics were most wrong in the past. Those who crafted the Iraq disaster now claim that keeping U.S. troops in Iraq would have prevented that nation’s current implosion ignores both history and experience.

Rather than acknowledge their own responsibility for that nation’s implosion, they prefer to blame President Obama, who merely followed the withdrawal schedule established by President George W. Bush, who failed to win Baghdad’s agreement for a continuing U.S. force presence before leaving office. Exactly how President Obama could have forced sovereign Iraq to accept a permanent U.S. garrison never has been explained. 

Even less clear is how American troops could have created a liberal, democratic, and stable Iraq. Intervening today would be a cure worse than the disease. Air strikes, no less than ground forces, would simultaneously entangle the United States and increase its stakes in another predictably lengthy conflict.

Washington’s Middle East Policy Reaches New Heights of Incoherence

It’s hard to imagine that U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has helped make a shambles of the region over the past six decades, could get much worse. But developments during the past week demonstrate that it has the potential to do so. Hawks in both parties are shocked (shocked!) that Iraq shows unmistakable signs of coming apart along ethno-religious lines. But critics of the hawkish lobbying for U.S. military intervention in the period leading up to the invasion and occupation in 2003 warned that the move had major destabilizing implications, and that a fractured Iraq was a likely outcome. Early this year, I renewed those warnings, arguing that multiple developments indicated that Iraq was heading toward fragmentation.

As in the earlier case of Yugoslavia, the wonder is not that an artificial country like Iraq (cobbled together by British colonial officials from three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire) is coming apart. The wonder is that it held together for so long.

Rather than accept an outcome contrary to the unrealistic wishes of U.S. policymakers, there is a surge of calls for Washington to “do something” to prevent Sunni militant insurgents from continuing their string of military victories over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government. Although the Obama administration has wisely ruled-out putting large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground, air strikes and a limited deplyment of troops apparently remain an option. That would be an ill-advised move, since it would risk again entangling the United States in Iraq’s bitter, convoluted political and religious rivalries.

When Washington Prefers to Punish Ivory Owners Rather Than Save Elephants

The Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking met last week as the administration prepares to turn millions of Americans into criminals and destroy billions of dollars in property. The policy is driven by ideology and actually would kill more elephants.

Most ivory in America is legal and its sale does not endanger wildlife today. Before the international ban of 1989, millions of objects made of ivory or accented by small amounts of ivory entered the United States.

To fight poaching the government could fight poaching. That is, target those illegally killing elephants and selling illicit ivory.

Instead, the government has decided to penalize those trading in legal older ivory. Alas, doing so won’t protect any elephants. 

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service took what it described as “our first step to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory trade.”  The agency plans to prohibit the sale of even antique ivory if the owner cannot “demonstrate” the age with “documented evidence.”  Since 17th century carvers did not provide certificates of authenticity, virtually no ivory owner has such documentation, which Washington never before required.

The argument for the rule is that it would make life easier for FWS. But it wouldn’t help stop poaching. 

Iraq: The Cost of Building a Failed State

“Governments constantly choose between telling lies and fighting wars, with the end result always being the same. One will always lead to the other.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Nobel Laureate George Akerlof uses this edifying quote from Thomas Jefferson to good effect in his foreword of Hossein Askari’s excellent read, Conflicts and Wars: Their Fallout and Prevention (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2012). Indeed, Prof. Akerlof has this to say about Askari’s work:

Professor Askari begins by surveying the burden of military expenditures and of conflicts and wars. Their dollar expenditures, which are close to 15 percent of global GNP, exceed the cost of our financial crisis, of global warming, and what would be required for worldwide poverty reduction.

He bases his approach on three interrelated propositions: aggressors do not pay the full price of their aggression; governments will do nothing to change this state of affairs on their own; and, as a result, the process of reducing conflicts must originate in the private sector.

The U.S. shouldered a heavy load in the Iraq War, to the tune of $2.4 trillion from 2003-2011. As depicted in the chart below, the $2.4 trillion U.S. tab accounted for over 75% of global expenditures in the Iraq War.

If we dissect the $2.4 trillion in U.S. expenditures (see chart below), the picture becomes even clearer and, well, drearier. Iraq was a costly war for everyone involved, including U.S. taxpayers. The annual expenditure rate of the Iraq war comes out to $2991 per U.S. taxpayer from 2003-2011 (based on the level of income tax returns), far higher than the annual tab per US taxpayer for the Afghan fiasco.

President Obama announced to Congress yesterday that he is deploying 275 military personnel to Iraq to secure the American embassy in Baghdad. Here we go, again.

(Not News) Obama Opposed to Sending U.S. Troops Back into Iraq

It is good to know that President Obama is opposed to sending U.S. troops into Iraq, though hardly surprising. (I was shocked to hear a reporter ask the president after his remarks if he was reluctant to do so. How could he not be?)

As Chuck Todd noted today on MSNBC, and here, 59 percent of Americans believe that the war in Iraq was not worth it. Does anyone seriously believe that a well-crafted Obama sales pitch could convince a majority of Americans to change their minds? I don’t.

Among the many maddening aspects of this story—and there are many—I’m most frustrated by the claim that the United States should have left a residual force in Iraq after 2011. There are actually three problems with this claim. First, it is NOT a partisan issue. Bush attempted to negotiate a deal that would have left forces in Iraq, and failed. Obama tried, and failed. The claim that one or the other failed because he didn’t try hard enough is just foolish. A sufficient number of Iraqis didn’t want U.S. troops to stay there (albeit for different reasons) that the failure to achieve a status of forces agreement (SOFA) can hardly be blamed on either Bush or Obama for a lack of effort.

So what these people are really saying is that we should have left U.S. troops in Iraq without a SOFA, in the face of Iraqi opposition. We are told that the troops left behind wouldn’t be engaged in combat, so they really wouldn’t have been in danger. That is what Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on MSNBC just after the president’s statement. I think this ignores that the U.S. presence was a source of violent resistance in the first place, so it is hard to see how U.S. troops wouldn’t have been subject to at least the risk of regular attacks.

Besides, SOFAs do not protect U.S. troops  from security threats, but rather from the vagaries of foreign justice systems. So it is easy to see how a peaceful, non-threatening, U.S. military operation–e.g., a roadblock searching for bad guys–can turn south in a hurry. Maybe a husband and wife fail to stop at the roadblock, and they are shot. Maybe they are killed. Without a SOFA that extends standard legal protections to U.S. servicemen, the troops manning that roadblock would be subject to Iraqi justice, forced to stand accused of murder before Iraqi judges. Is that really what Senator McCain and others want? We don’t leave U.S. forces in foreign countries without a SOFA for a reason.

Lastly, the claim that a residual force would have convinced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern better/more inclusively, and that a residual force today might do the same (although McCain allowed today that Maliki might simply need to be replaced; by whom he did not say) ignores that a far larger force, including some of the largest concentrations of U.S. troops in 2008 and 2009, did NOT convince Maliki to cut deals with his political opponents and stab his political supporters in the back. So why would anyone think that a smaller force would have succeeded, or would succeed now?

The breakup of Iraq that many predicted before the war may now be happening. Maybe the country will be partitioned—an idea that previously was ridiculed. Maybe the Iraqi military will turn things around and crush the insurgency. I don’t know whether any of these things will happen. But I will go out on a limb and predict that the U.S. military won’t be sorting out these things. And for that, we should all be grateful. 

Department of Homeland Bureaucracy

The programs, regulations, and laws that define most federal activities are so numerous and complex that it strangles effective governance. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is no exception. During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, DHS officials were in a fog of confusion, overwhelmed by events and all the complicated emergency rules and procedures.

A key marker of excess bureaucracy is the generous use of acronyms. In government, acronyms are used to identify the building blocks of bureaucracies, such as agencies, committees, programs, job titles, procedures, rules, and systems.

Recently, I’ve looked at aid-to-state programs run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of DHS. Acronyms abound at FEMA. To get a sense of the bureaucracy, I looked for acronyms in this 84-page Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for one of FEMA’s many aid programs.

Below is a list of all the bureaucratic structures that were capitalized and had acronyms in this document for one program. Actually, I left out some common acronyms that many people already know, including OMB, FBI, CDC, CBP, EIN, DOT, EMS, IED, FTE, MSA, DOL, GIS, FCC, TDD, and NIST. So the list below mainly includes specialized acronyms that workers in this policy area would need to know. Many of the acronyms refer to government structures that have their own lengthy documents full of acronyms.

H.L. Mencken said “The true bureaucrat is a man of really remarkable talents. He writes a kind of English that is unknown elsewhere in the world, and he has an almost infinite capacity for forming complicated and unworkable rules.”

DHS must be full of “true bureaucrats” because by the time I read to the end of this document, I had counted 113 acronyms. That is an impressive achievement in True Bureaucratic Excellence (TBE).

Deterring China Isn’t Hard

My op-ed today in China US Focus gives five reasons why the United States and its Asian allies will deter Chinese military aggression for the foreseeable future. The argument responds to commentators who worry that U.S. military spending cuts or passivity elsewhere have damaged our credibility to defend Asian allies and thus encouraged China to use its growing military for conquest.

The bulk of the article concerns the particulars of U.S. military superiority in Asia, and why recent Pentagon cuts don’t much lessen it. One conclusion is that deterring war is easier than you generally hear.

Washington’s foreign policy elites have a narcissistic take on deterrence; they see it teetering with every foreign policy decision that troubles them. But East Asia’s stability remains robust—insensitive to the annual fights in Congress—because war remains a losing prospect for all major powers.

This is a good place to put that conclusion in historical context. Technology and economics have shifted the cost-benefit calculus of conquest, making it generally counterproductive. That is an explanation for the steep decline in interstate warfare. Cold War nuclear history, as I discussed in a recent co-authored report, supports that point. The balance of terror—mutual deterrence—between the United States and the Soviet Union was not delicate. Arms control agreements and shifting nuclear weapons plans barely affected stability. As John Mueller argues, conventional deterrence, reinforced by the memory of the world wars, was instrumental in keeping the peace. Nuclear weapons were largely overkill.

So the pundits now bellowing about the credibility lost because of crossed red lines or Crimea are using a theory of deterrence that lacks historical basis. Deterrence is especially robust in Asia, where water or mountains separate most major rivals, aiding defense of the status quo. Even a total withdrawal of U.S. forces and defense commitments from East Asia wouldn’t create a dangerous imbalance of power there.

Sadly, withdrawal faces high political hurtles today. For now, probably the best we can hope for is that all the beltway consternation about eroding credibility will accidently reduce free-riding. As I put it in the op-ed:

If allies take U.S. commentary about insufficient pivots and failed red lines too seriously, they may worry enough to pay more for their own defense and give U.S. taxpayers a break. Letting them sweat a bit is in the U.S. interest.

For more on these themes, come see Barry Posen discuss his book on U.S. military strategy next week at Cato.