Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

No Veterans of Foreign Wars Need Apply

“As some of the leading presidential candidates trooped before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City this week, there was one thing largely missing at the lectern — veterans of foreign wars,” writes Peter Baker in the Washington Post, contrasting this year’s campaign with past election years.

Baker grades both former presidents and current candidates on a steep curve. He writes, “Every president from Harry S. Truman to George H.W. Bush served.” But LBJ, already a congressman, went on investigative missions for FDR, admittedly flying around the South Pacific combat zone. And the nearsighted Ronald Reagan made propaganda films in Los Angeles. He even counts George W. Bush as a veteran on the basis of his Texas Air National Guard service.

As for the current candidates, 

“The torch is being passed to a new generation that’s never worn a uniform,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a military historian at Columbia University. “It’s a significant change. It means people are now coming of age who are really the post-Vietnam generation.”

But is that really true? The leading Democratic candidates are a woman and a man born in 1961. But John Edwards, born in 1953, Bill Richardson (1947), and Joe Biden (1941) are not “the post-Vietnam generation.” They’re the non-Vietnam generation. A blogger has some more details about the Vietnam records of 2008 candidates here.

As for the Republicans, John McCain famously served, as Baker notes. But Mitt Romney (1947), Rudy Giuliani (1944), Fred Thompson (1942), and Newt Gingrich (1947) are, like their Democratic counterparts, within the age cohorts who went to Vietnam. They weren’t post-Vietnam, just nowhere-near-Vietnam. Mike Huckabee (1955) and Sam Brownback (1956), along with Barack Obama, would seem to the only candidates who are actually from the post-Vietnam generation.

Does this matter? It used to matter to voters. When I asked my parents in the 1960s, about 20 years after the end of World War II, why all the local candidates listed themselves as veterans on all their campaign literature, my mother told me that you’d wonder what was wrong with a man who hadn’t served in “the war.” Today, some worry that military veterans might be more eager to go to war. Historian Jackson sees it differently: “When you have leaders who haven’t gone [to war], I do think it changes the equation a little bit,” he told the Post. “It’s a little bit worrisome. People who have actually been to war … are actually a little less inclined to go to war. Generals know what war’s about, and they’re less enthusiastic to go rocketing off than civilians.”

That reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers, often denounced as militaristic or even fascist, especially by people who have only seen the movie. In the novel, only military veterans were citizens with voting rights. But the basis for that was classical republicanism: that only those who were willing to defend the society, and who by facing combat had come to understand the real meaning of power and war and violence, could be trusted to lead the society.

At the very least, candidates who have never served in a war should have some special humility in urging that other Americans be sent to war.

The World Is Our Domino!

President Bush’s decision to talk about Iraq in the context of Vietnam has engendered some (predictably) contentious commentary on that conflict. Here’s Ross Douthat at The Atlantic responding to his colleague Matt Yglesias:

the Communist victory in Vietnam did lead to the rest of Indochina going Communist, as the domino theorists predicted, and it played a role in the Soviet advances across the Third World during the rest of the 1970s - from Ethiopia and Mozambique to Afghanistan and Nicaragua, with various other proxy wars thrown in for good measure.

This is factually inaccurate. First of all, what the domino theorists were arguing was not that “Laos and Cambodia would go Communist and therefore we couldn’t abandon our/the French position in Indochina.” Rather, it was that basically all of Asia, from India to Japan, was going to go Communist, which would indeed have been an incredibly bad development. George Kennan was warning in 1948 that we should be worried about Indonesia, since, if it fell, “it would only be a matter of time before the infection would sweep westward through the continent to Burma, India, and Pakistan.” John Foster Dulles in 1953 testified before the Senate foreign relations committee, telling them ominously that Japan was a likely domino. Kennan later came to his senses. Dulles never did.

Douthat continues:

our enemies in al-Qaeda, Iran and elsewhere probably won’t make the kind of gains that, say, Rick Santorum and other feverish voices anticipate if we pull out of Iraq, and they simply aren’t strong enough to pose an existential threat to the U.S. over the long run. But they will win a real victory, just as Soviet Communism won a real victory in the early 1970s, and that victory will have real repercussions around the globe. I think we were right to pull out of Vietnam when we did, and wrong to be there in the first place, but it’s too simplistic to say that the domino theory looks “completely wrong” or “crazy” in hindsight; there are an awful lot of dead people in Indochina, Latin America and Africa who would quibble with that assessment.

What does Douthat mean by “a real victory”? A propaganda victory? Iran and al Qaeda will hail it as a sign of our weakness? You bet. But no one’s arguing that. The fact that people in Indochina, Latin America and Africa died after we left Vietnam says little about the domino theory, just as the fact that millions died during our war in Vietnam says little about the strategic judgment of the war. The question is about who predicted the results, and whose theory was vindicated. I think we have a clear enough result here that “completely wrong” or “crazy,” while shrill, could apply. If we don’t, then I don’t know how clear it would have to be.

Buy Time and Pray for a Miracle

That’s essentially what the Bush administration’s strategy for Iraq amounts to, if the public statements of the administration, including Bush’s speech to the VFW today, are any indication. (“Fact sheet” available here.)

President Bush began the speech by likening the war in Iraq to the wars in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The president went into detail describing his view that in its essence the war against Japan was an “ideological struggle” rather than a traditional war against one of the most advanced societies on Earth that had attacked the U.S. homeland. Bush focused on the democracy-building aspect of the aftermath of defeating Japan, and likened it to the current effort in Iraq.

The president ignored the fact that the “ideological struggle” against Japan was won after we dropped two nuclear bombs on its territory. He skirted the role of the Japanese emperor in uniting Japan’s ethnically and religiously homogeneous population behind the U.S. forces who occupied the islands after V-J Day. He ignores the fact that Japanese politics were not fractious like Iraq’s, with the faction displaced by democracy fearing that the depredations it visited on the other factions would be returned in kind under democracy.

Moving to Korea, Bush ignores the fact that U.S. forces accepted essentially a stalemate in that conflict, with Eisenhower signing an armistice that allowed the “forces of tyranny” in that conflict to remain in power with U.S. acquiescence in Pyongyang.

In the most contentious turn, Bush waded into the Big Muddy of the Vietnam analogy, pointing out (paraphrasing) that “the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of Southeast Asians.” As Jim Henley has pointed out, the price of America’s involvement in Vietnam was also paid by millions of Southeast Asians who perished as the conflict raged.

However, it is also worth remembering that U.S. soldiers stopped dying after we left, and that the “dominoes” that were to have fallen from India to Japan didn’t fall. The United States won the Cold War just a decade and a half later. Our defeat in Vietnam did not prevent victory in the Cold War, and defeat in Iraq will not ensure defeat in the struggle against terrorism. Meanwhile, does the president believe we should have stayed in Vietnam? At what enormous cost in blood and treasure?

Bush then amplified the oddity of turning to the Vietnam analogy by introducing body counts to the debate over Iraq, noting that US forces are capturing or killing an average of 1,500 “al Qaeda terrorists per month” since the beginning of the year. This again is a paraphrase since I don’t have a copy of the Bush speech, but if that figure is true, we are creating an awful lot of new terrorists, since even by the almost-certainly-inflated statements of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia itself, they only had 12,000 fighters as of November 2006.

It seems unlikely that the president’s speech is going to change many minds about Iraq, but the “the surge is working” narrative has already caused a small bump in support for the war. It seems incredibly doubtful that the Democratic Congress will be able to do anything to force the president to move in the direction of withdrawal.

At this point the smart money would probably bet on having over 100,000 troops in Iraq when the president leaves office. If we get out without a total meltdown, the president will be revered in hawkish circles as a visionary. If the next president–or a subsequent president–withdraws and chaos ensues, the Bush people will claim that it isn’t their fault, that things were moving in a positive direction when they left office.

Probably the smarter money would say what folks at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community are saying–that we’ll likely have troops in Iraq for another 10 years. Ted Koppel told NPR that a senior military official told him that Hillary Clinton had admitted that if she is a two-term president, we’ll still have troops in Iraq at the end of her second term.

Given the views of the candidates who have a realistic shot at the presidency, it’s tough to see how any president would get us out entirely much sooner.

Good News from Iran

A variety of news outlets are reporting that Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari has been released from Evin prison “on bail,” and Reuters is reporting that Esfandiari’s lawyer, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, is stating that Esfandiari is now “legally allowed to leave the country.” Encouraging news.

Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are still with Kian Tajbakhsh, Ali Shakeri, Parnaz Azima, and their friends and families.

Not the Way America Is Supposed to Work

A Miami jury has convicted Jose Padilla of charges unrelated to those that were alleged when he was first incarcerated more than five years ago. Some will argue that the guilty verdict justifies Padilla’s characterization as an enemy combatant and his extended detention, incommunicado, without charges filed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jose Padilla is a U.S. citizen, protected by the U.S. Constitution against unreasonable seizure and deprivation of liberty without due process. He was denied his rights.

In the case of suspected terrorists, the stakes are immense. So a powerful argument can be made for changing the rules to provide for preventive detention in narrowly defined circumstances. But if we do change the rules, the process cannot be unilateral − implemented by executive edict without either congressional or judicial input. And it cannot be law on-the-fly, with no knowledge of the rules by anyone other than the executive officials who are responsible for their enforcement. In the end, Padilla may have deserved the treatment he received, perhaps worse; but for those of us concerned about the rule of law, the Padilla episode is not the way America is supposed to work.

Padilla Verdict

Jose Padilla is the American citizen who was arrested five years ago at Chicago’s O’Hare airport because he was suspected of working with al-Qaeda.  At that time, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Padilla had come to the U.S. from Pakistan to set off a “dirty bomb.”  President Bush declared Padilla an “enemy combatant” and locked him up in a military brig with no access to family, lawyers, or the civilian court system.  That move turned into the most important constitutional issue that has arisen since 9/11.  President Bush says he can arrest any person in the world and lock that person up in a military prison.  No arrest warrant.  No trial.  No judicial check via the great legal writ of habeas corpus.

We filed a brief (pdf) in the Padilla case when it reached the Supreme Court in 2004.  The Supreme Court did not reach the merits of the controversy at that time.  A majority of the Court found a jurisdictional problem and basically said that the lawsuit should have been filed elsewhere.  Justice John Paul Stevens dissented and this is how he described the matter:

At stake in this case is nothing less than the essence of a free society.  Even more important than the method of selecting the people’s rulers and their successors is the character of the constraints imposed on the Executive by the rule of law.  Unconstrained Executive detention for the purpose of investigating and preventing subversive activity is the hallmark of the Star Chamber.  Access to counsel for the purpose of protecting the citizen from official mistakes and mistreatment is the hallmark of due process. … [I]f this Nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyranny even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

That was the dissent.  The majority dismissed the lawsuit on jurisdictional grounds.

Another lawsuit was promptly filed – and just when looked as if the Supreme Court was about to rehear the case and declare President Bush’s enemy combatant policy to be illegal, Bush administration lawyers moved Padilla back into ordinary civilian custody to be tried on criminal charges.  That move was presumably to keep the controversial claim of executive power away from the Supreme Court, i.e. no need to hear the case because the circumstances have changed. 

The criminal trial finally concluded today with a guilty verdict.

What’s it all mean?  Well, we should all want the intelligence and police agencies to be on the lookout for persons connected with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.  No argument there.  The real issue, as Justice Stevens noted, is the means by which the government goes about that mission.  I did not follow the criminal trial closely because the key issues surrounding Padilla’s imprisonment (military custody and the legality of the interrogation tactics that were used against him) were not in play–though they may now come up on appeal. 

Although the federal government was able to persuade a jury that Padilla broke the law and was involved in a murderous conspiracy with al-Qaeda, we should all be troubled that this prisoner was locked up for five years before an independent tribunal could affirm the allegations.  If the wheels of justice turned slowly in this case–and they unquestionably did–it means the same thing might happen tomorrow to another American citizen right here in the U.S.  On paper, the Constitution guarantees everyone “speedy trials” so as to minimize the hardship on innocent people who get charged with crimes they did not commit.  Reasonable people can disagree about what “speedy” means, but I’m sure that five years imprisonment ain’t speedy.  We need to be vigilant about the weakening of that guarantee, as well as all the others.

For some additional Cato work about the Padilla case, go here, here, and here.

For more about the constitutional record of the Bush administration, go here.