Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Five Years On — It’s (Well Past) Time to Make a Choice

Today’s Washington Post op-ed by 12 Army captains who served in Iraq is a sobering but welcome contribution to the voluminous literature on what went wrong in Iraq, and what we should do next. The entire article is worth reading, but the concluding paragraphs boil down the essential points:

There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

America, it has been five years. It’s time to make a choice.

This is how the debate over Iraq should have been framed at the outset – before Congress voted to grant the president authorization to use force.

Success in Iraq was always uncertain. How uncertain depended, in part, on the amount of effort we were willing to exert in the endeavor; but it also depended on a number of factors well beyond our control. And there is no evidence that George Bush ever seriously contemplated the costs of waging war for five years – he merely asserted on the eve of war that the costs of inaction outweighed the costs of action.

For a time, the American public went along. Now, five years on, a solid majority disagree. In poll after poll, Americans say that the costs that we have already paid in this war far exceed whatever benefits we might hope to derive from it. And they are looking to cut our losses.

They are unlikely to embrace a further escalation of the conflict, particularly one that entails the draconian step of reinstituting the draft. And they should not do so. As the Army captains concede, we might still fail, even if we flood Iraq with tens or hundreds of thousands more American troops. Hardly a ringing endorsement for that option.

If our national survival hung in the balance, if our very existence was threatened by an escalating civil war in Iraq, we would be spared such discussions: we would invest what was necessary, and worry about the consequences later.

But Iraq always was, and always will be, a war of choice. We should choose to terminate the mission, and refocus our attention – and, where appropriate, our still-strong military – on the enemies who struck us on 9/11.

That the choice is clear does not imply that the choice is easy. The ramifications of a U.S. withdrawal are likely to be horrible in the short term, especially for the many Iraqis who risked their lives by cooperating with the American forces, and the many more who are likely to be caught in a worsening civil war. We should do what we can to help the Iraqis, especially those who have helped us.

There are still other concerns. The real risk of that civil war spreading beyond Iraq’s borders, actions that could spawn a wider regional conflict, requires that a U.S. military withdrawal be combined with a diplomatic offensive to encourage all of Iraq’s neighbors to take prudent steps to contain the violence. Our problem is also their problem; they would be wise to cooperate with us, and with each other, to prevent a far worse catastrophe from unfolding there.

But such considerations do not change the basic calculus for the United States: given that we should not be willing to pay whatever might be needed to win, recognizing all the time that victory is uncertain, and might take years to achieve, we should leave.

I commend these 12 soldiers for their service in Iraq; and, although it can’t compare to their courage and sacrifice over there, I commend them for weighing in on the issue.

Barry Posen: The Case for Restraint

Director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, Prof. Barry Posen, takes to the pages of The American Interest to make “The Case for Restraint.” The gist is this:

Since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment has gradually converged on a grand strategy for the United States. Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts now disagree little about the threats the United States faces and the remedies it should pursue. Despite the present consensus and the very great power of the United States, which mutes the consequences of even Iraq-scale blunders, a reconsideration of U.S. grand strategy seems inevitable as the costs of the current consensus mount—which they will. The current consensus strategy is unsustainable.

If we understand properly the current foreign policy consensus and review the four key forces affecting U.S. grand strategy, the contours of an alternative strategy will emerge. The alternative, a grand strategy of “restraint”, recommends policies dramatically different from those to which we have grown accustomed not just since the end of the Cold War, but since its beginning. The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other.

It’s a great piece, and has rankled to no end the commentators invited by TAI, including Niall Ferguson and Ruth Wedgwood. Rarely can one be generally encouraged by the foreign policy debate in Washington, but this is one of those times, and Posen is quite a capable advocate for his–and my–position. Here’s hoping his phone starts ringing.

Lang on the Army

Former DIA analyst, West Point Arabic instructor, and Vietnam vet Col. Pat Lang has a very interesting post on the future of the army, with an equally interesting discussion (politically incorrect and with some colorful language) in the comments:

This week in Washington, The Association of the US Army (AUSA) held its convention. At that convention the Chief of Staff said that 20 years of conflict are anticipated by the Army. That is bad news for an army that is still wedded to the concept of soldiers as middle class married men with young families. A succession of pious, middle class uniformed leaders created that ideal for America’s army after the Vietnam War. People in today’s army are expected to conduct themselves socially like small town Americans. Drinking, smoking, sexual adventure are all severely sanctioned even in combat zones. Where is the “safety valve” for these guys? A set of mores of that type is not feasible in an army that lives at war in far flung places with often repeated and protracted combat tours. My active duty friends tell me that the “middle class” army is already breaking down as a form. Divorce, family dissolution and other symptoms abound. A different kind of army will emerge from the meat grinder.

Voting on Historical Truth

As the House Foreign Affairs Committee passes a resolution to call the mass killings of Armenians that began in 1915 “genocide,” defying all eight living former secretaries of state, who signed a joint letter saying that such a resolution by Congress would seriously harm U.S. relations with Turkey, I recommend the thoughts of a young Armenian-American writer, Garin Hovannisian:

As the great grandson of genocide survivors, the grandson of genocide historians, and the son of Armenian repatriates — though writing, I’m afraid, without the sanction of the generations — I am insulted by that sticker. That Congress “finds” the genocide to be a fact makes the tragedy no more real than its refusal, so far, has made it unreal. Truth does not need a permission slip from the state.

As an heir, moreover, of an American tradition of limited government, I am annoyed that the legislature is poking into a sphere in which it has neither business nor experience: the province of truth. It is bad enough that a committee of aristocrats governs the conventions of politics, economics and human rights. We the citizens scarcely need to sign over the laws of nature, too, lest gravity be repealed and the whole race goes floating about the universe.

Debating the Law of the Sea Treaty

The Law of the Sea Treaty (dubbed LOST by opponents, and LOS by supporters), represents the culmination of a decades-long project to clarify the rules governing the oceans, from the seabed to the waves. The treaty, first rejected by President Reagan in 1982, has been revised over the years; now prominent Republicans, including Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, are urging passage. The Bush Administration has quietly endorsed the process.

Doug Bandow, who wrote a paper for Cato on the subject two years ago, makes a strong case for why the Senate should reject the treaty and continue with the status quo. He squares off this week against Raj Purohit of Citizens for Global Solutions in an online debate at the Partnership for a Secure America.

If you haven’t followed the issue closely, Doug and Raj do a good job of spelling out the relevant arguments for and against.

Gerson’s Lament

In the WaPo today, Michael Gerson worries that conservatives have “beg[un] to question the importance or existence of moral ideals in politics and foreign policy.” But Mr. Gerson’s idealism, on display in Iraq, has been revealed as delusion. The war in Iraq has sown carnage and instability rather than “freedom” in Iraq, killed nearly 4,000 Americans, and bled more than half a trillion dollars from the pockets of American taxpayers, rather than making us more secure.

The distinction at the heart of the debate over foreign policy is different than that described by Mr. Gerson: it is not between instinctive opponents and proponents of radical change, but between the empirical and the notional—between, on the one hand, those who adhere to observable reality, drawing from history and social science, and, on the other hand, those who rely on the abstract ruminations of essayists in comfortable chairs.

Like so many proponents of the Iraq disaster, Mr. Gerson writes as if the past 5 years never happened, demonstrating himself to be a steadfast adherent to Max Weber’s ethic of ultimate ends and in opposition to Weber’s ethic of responsibility. The former, in Weber’s nomenclature, determines that “if an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.” The latter, by contrast, acknowledges the importance of outcomes: “he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.” Weber warned that “in the world of realities, as a rule, we encounter the ever-renewed experience that the adherent of an ethic of ultimate ends suddenly turns into a chiliastic prophet.”

There’s really a bit of irony in all this. After all, it was President Bush who once told a confab of religious writers that

The culture needs to be changed. I call it, so people can understand what I’m talking about, changing the culture from one that says, “If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,” to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make in life. I call it the responsibility era. …

Governor Spitzer Gets It Right

In a Cato TechKnowledge newsletter issued today, I’ve updated the world on the status of the REAL ID Act.

One of the more interesting recent developments is the decision by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to break the link between driver licensing and immigration status. He and the Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner announced the policy September 21st.

De-linking driver licensing and immigration will reduce unlicensed driving, uninsured driving, hit-and-run driving, insurance costs for legal drivers, and roadway injuries. Linking driving and immigration status is a requirement of REAL ID, and Spitzer’s move is another nail in the coffin of this national ID law.

In my TechKnowledge piece, I laud the governor’s action as follows:

Spitzer is not willing to shed the blood of New Yorkers to “take a stand” on immigration, which is not a problem state governments are supposed to solve anyway.It’s a welcome — and somewhat surprising — move, to see a Democrat and law-and-order-type former attorney general resist mission creep in a state bureau and hold fast to the federal system devised in the constitution. But he’s done the right thing. Thanks most recently to Governor Spitzer, and to state leaders from across the ideological spectrum, REAL ID is in collapse.

The move has subjected Spitzer to withering political attacks from Republicans. The attack most embarassing to witness, though, comes from “relatives of 9/11 victims.”