Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Biden and “Dumb Wars”

In his now-famous 2002 speech, then state-senator Barack Obama said, “I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” And that would certainly represent an improvement over what we’ve got now. Curious, then, that Obama’s picked a running mate who seems to have no such objection.

Today’s Washington Post details Biden’s role in enabling our Iraq adventure. It’s hardly a “Profiles in Courage” moment, and it also points up the gutless and constitutionally suspect manner in which Congress authorized the war: by delegating the final decision over war and peace to the president:

In the days that led up to the vote on the war resolution, Biden and McCain stood together on the Senate floor, sometimes fighting against each other, sometimes fighting in tandem. They teamed up to shoot down an amendment by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) that would have forced Bush to seek further authorization before an actual invasion. They were on opposite sides of the effort to narrow the war mission from regime change in Iraq to combating Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. And Biden expressed plenty of misgivings about Bush’s intentions.

“The president always has the right to act preemptively if we are in imminent danger. If they are coming up over the hill, he can respond. If troops are coming out of Tijuana, heading north, we can respond. If they are coming down from Toronto, we can respond. If missiles are on their way, we can respond. But that is not the way I hear it being used here. We are talking about preemption, as if we are adopting a policy,” Biden said.


But in Biden’s closing remarks before the war vote in 2002, he also voiced a remarkable degree of trust in Bush. “The president has argued that confronting Iraq would not detract from the unfinished war against terrorism. I believe he is right. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “

Walk, chew gum, and play the harmonica, perhaps–having learned little from the Iraq experience, Biden in April 2007 called for American boots on the ground in Darfur:

Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic presidential candidate, called Wednesday for the use of military force to end the suffering in Darfur.

“I would use American force now,” Biden said at a hearing before his committee. “I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it.”

In advocating use of military force, Biden said senior U.S. military officials in Europe told him that 2,500 U.S. troops could “radically change the situation on the ground now.”

The Role of NATO Expansion

My buddy Matt Yglesias takes up Thomas Friedman’s NYT column yesterday pointing out the role that NATO expansion played in creating the climate of tense relations between Washington and Moscow.  Matt concludes “you can’t draw a straight line from the initial NATO enlargement decision to war in the summer of 2008.”

Well, fine.  It’s true, you can’t draw a straight line.  But it certainly played a big role.  Moreover, Matt’s contention that the positive side of the NATO expansion ledger (“helping to consolidate democratic norms [especially in the field of civil-military relations] in a swathe of countries that’s now pretty big and prosperous and somewhat important”) balances out the negative (setting the stage for the situation in which we find ourselves today vis-a-vis Russia) just doesn’t hold up.

First, the perception that NATO is an engine of democratic enlargement has some fairly significant problems with it, as Dan Reiter pointed out in International Security in 2001 (.pdf).  (Follow up debate in IS here.)

Moreover, while the Clinton administration was making this quasi-Wilsonian argument about spreading democracy out of one side of their mouths, out of the other side they were blustering as Strobe Talbott did in 1997 that “there is no more solemn commitment the United States can make,” pointing out the implications of Article V–the part of the NATO charter that says an attack on one member shall be viewed as an attack on all.  Talbott conceded further that the American nuclear arsenal would be used to back up those obligations, and that such commitments were “serious stuff.”  In the New York Review of Books, Talbott had taken to making outright machtpolitik-y statements like his idea that the first argument that should be presented to Russia about NATO expansion was

Enlargement is going to happen; fighting it with threats will only intensify the darkest suspicions about Russia’s intentions and future.

So we’re going to do it anyway, we don’t care what you say, and you’re weak and can’t do anything about it, so you’d best shut up.  Clear enough.  Rest assured the Russians heard declarations like these in addition to the Wilsonian claptrap that the Clinton people rolled out to concerned domestic audiences.  That, in part, is why Putin today says things like he did to NATO in Bucharest, that

Russia viewed “the appearance of a powerful military bloc” on its borders “as a direct threat” to its security. “The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice,” Mr. Putin said. “National security is not based on promises.”

Either NATO is a binding military alliance against Russia, or it’s not.  It could be other things at the same time, but we shouldn’t be confused about what it was that made NATO membership so attractive to a country like, say, Poland.  It was Article V.

It ought to go without saying that Putin is far from blameless in all this, and the emerging narrative–that he laid a trap for Saakashvili–seems to me to be right.  But it ought not to be denied that the ill-advised bipartisan consensus on expanding NATO as much and as rapidly as possible helped set the backdrop for the ambiguous, fumbling, and dangerous American involvement in this conflict.

Also, even accepting the argument about promoting democratic norms as ironclad, is the status of civil-military relations in Hungary or Lithuania really worth this?  NATO expansion and the outside-the-Security Council recognition of Kosovo have been sacred cows for liberals for a long time, but it’s well past time for them to admit that they share some of the blame for the disastrous state of U.S.-Russia relations today.

Drinking Age

Yesterday, over a hundred college presidents called for a reexamination of the current minimum drinking age and suggested it should be lowered. This is great news and could serve as an opportunity to begin an intelligent national dialogue on improving alcohol policies.

Unfortunately, the neoprohibitionists at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and elsewhere have already sprung into action in an attempt to squelch any reform-minded opinions. MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney said in a press release that any discussion of the minimum drinking age “must honor the science behind the 21 law which unequivocally shows that the 21 law has reduced drunk driving and underage and binge drinking.”

Of course, MADD’s preferred “science” ignores a very interesting working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that shreds the oft-cited correlation between adoption of the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act (FUDAA), which forced all states to have a minimum drinking age of 21, and a reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

How could this study’s findings differ so greatly from the research that MADD touts?

The paper, penned by Jeffery A. Miron and Elina Tetelbaum, points out that prior research consistently errs by including states that were unaffected by the law – the 12 states that had adopted a minimum drinking age of 21 long before FUDAA was passed and forced states to do so. Those states – for reasons unrelated to the federal law – experienced a dramatic decrease in alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the 80s and their inclusion in previous studies led many researchers to falsely conclude that the FUDAA was the key factor in the national trend.

That trend, however, began well before the FUDAA was passed in 1984. As the study notes: “[T]he decline began in the year 1969, the year in which several landmark improvements were made in the accident avoidance and crash protection features of passenger cars.” The study also recognizes that medical advances probably deserve a great deal of credit for the reduction.

While drunk driving statistics tend to attract the most attention in discussions of the minimum drinking age, the core purpose of such laws is to prevent minors from accessing alcohol. To this end, these laws have been an abject failure on college campuses. Even high school students seem to have little problem obtaining alcohol. A survey by the University of Michigan reveals that 8th and 10th graders find it easier to get alcohol than cigarettes.

Still, anti-drinking advocates cling to the notion that the minimum drinking age is effective and that state governments are unable to make sound decisions for their residents.

John McCain: Recruiting for Al Qaeda?

At the “Civil Forum” at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California this weekend, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) repeated a favorite line of his about Osama bin Laden:

If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice… . No one should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated … we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century–radical Islamic extremists.

What a gift to the recruiting efforts of Al Qaeda! - to have an American presidential candidate declare himself a follower of Osama bin Laden. According to McCain, Bin Laden is so powerful that he poses a “transcendent” challenge to John McCain’s United States.

In his cogent, well-supported, and readable article, “What Terrorists Really Want,” Max Abrahms at UCLA argues that terrorists “are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists.” Think of Al Qaeda as a gang that disaffected youth might join - something powerful to belong to that gives their lives meaning.

McCain’s “gates of hell” talk is leadership malpractice, and he should stop using it immediately. Calling the threat of terrorism “transcendent” is equal parts incoherent and false. Terrorism stands no chance of defeating the United States or the West unless we ourselves collapse the society. Speaking this way about terrorism thrills our terrorist enemies and draws recruits and support to them. Silence would be much better, presidential campaign or no.

I wrote here a year and a half ago about the sensible thinking of Bill Bishop, Director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. He understood that our national ID law, the REAL ID Act, fails as a security tool. Something else about Bishop came back to me as I was recently reading Abrahms’ article: Bishop wouldn’t even speak the name of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. This is how he exhibited his loathing for a shameless terrorist killer, and it also happens to comport with sensible counter-terrorism.

Exalting terrorism - as John McCain does with his “gates of hell” talk - is precisely the wrong thing for a national leader to do. The country will be made more secure by deflating the world image of Osama bin Laden and making his movement less attractive. Our leaders must withdraw rhetorical power from terrorists by controlling their tongues.

Is There a “New Trans-Atlantic Consensus”?

John McCain, in his WSJ op-ed today, says there are at least the “stirrings” of a consensus “about the way we should approach Russia and its neighbors.”  For evidence, he provides the following:

The leaders of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Latvia flew to Tbilisi to demonstrate their support for Georgia, and to condemn Russian aggression. The French president traveled to Moscow in an attempt to end the fighting. The British foreign minister hinted of a G-8 without Russia, and the British opposition leader explicitly called for Russia to be suspended from the grouping.

I’m dubious that there’s any reason to hope for such “unity” between the major powers in Europe and the United States, as opposed to between us and the Baltic states, Poland, or Ukraine, each of which has its own, perfectly understandable reasons for supporting robust U.S. interventionism.  The point regarding England and the G-8 is somewhat more plausible, but it’s easier to take this position if you expect strongly that it’s not going to result in any action because six of the eight G-8 countries are likely to oppose such a view, scuttling the initiative.

Here are a few data points that should further call into question the idea that there will be such unity:

  • Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini argued earlier this week that “We cannot create an anti-Russia coalition in Europe, and on this point we are close to Putin’s position.  This war has pushed Georgia further away … from Europe.”
  • An unnamed EU official tells US News and World Report’s Anna Mulrine that “I think the current conflict has moved us away from the MAP plan [for Georgia]. Moving forward wouldn’t be a great idea.  When you look at it, we feel validated.”  The official added that the conflict “makes you ask about Georgia’s motives for joining NATO.”  According to the official, NATO isn’t looking to fight wars with Russia, stating to Mulrine that ”this is an alliance of responsibility.”
  • As mentioned below, the Sarkozy cease-fire deal is miles from the U.S. position, as is explained in more detail here.  So France is a question mark, at best.
  • The German foreign ministry is calling for a “balanced approach,” and is noting that it has condemned the Russian affronts it has perceived, including “the presence of Russian troops in Georgia-proper.”  Distinguishing between Russian troops in South Ossetia or Abkhazia versus “Georgia-proper” seems to imply that the Germans are not necessarily in line with the U.S. on attempting to ensure that all additional Russian troops inserted into those regions leave and go home.
  • President Bush announced yesterday that the U.S. humanitarian mission would be spearheaded by the U.S. military.  Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates is trying to cool down the rhetoric and make clear that he does not foresee the U.S. military using any force in Georgia, where are the European contributions?  It’s been a deafening silence thus far from the most important European capitals.  A European contribution would help show some unity on the matter–and invest Europeans more seriously in the mission.

In any event, McCain’s article is titled “We Are All Georgians.”  It’s tough to imagine anything even in that ballpark emerging from Paris or Berlin.  So let’s at least not kid ourselves about the prospect for serious burden-sharing.

New Errors in Georgia

While the wire services bounce back and forth between declaring that Russian forces are attempting to hold Gori or leaving Gori, President Bush has made a statement that promises to embed the United States more deeply in the conflict, and French President Sarkozy has brokered a cease-fire deal that gives the Russians much of what they want and will be hard to square with, for example, Senator McCain’s position.

First, the Sarko peace deal.  As described here, it offered six provisions:

  1. the sides in the conflict should abstain from using force;
  2. all military activities would be terminated;
  3. all persons in the region should have free access to humanitarian aid;
  4. Georgian forces would return to their positions of permanent location before the conflict started;
  5. Russian forces are to withdraw at their previous position but would be allowed to take additional security measures until an international peacekeeping mechanism was set in place;
  6. there was to be a start of the international discussion of the future status of Georgia’s breakaway provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

However, Georgian President Saakashvili rejected the sixth provision, as discussions of “future status” implied ambiguity about the nature of the two provinces, and Russia accepted, removing reference to future status.

The interesting thing about this deal is that it gives Russia much of what it has been saying it wanted, and looks eerily similar to what happened in Kosovo.  In Kosovo, NATO won the war, established a deterrent military presence in Kosovo, and kicked the can of the hard questions down the road. 

What Russia will likely do now — again, this is subject to change as events on the ground are changing by the minute — is withdraw from territories outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, appearing to make a “concession” by doing so, in order to press its case for leaving behind a much stronger “peacekeeping” force in the two provinces.

The Sarkozy plan doesn’t appear to offer much resistance to that model, which for obvious reasons the Georgians see as undesirable.  Recall that less than 10 years after the war in Kosovo, Kosovo had been pried from Serbia and its independence had been recognized by the United States and Western Europe.  Since before the Western powers recognized Kosovo, Russian officials warned that they saw a precedent for South Ossetia and other separatist regions in the former Soviet Union.

The Western powers, of course, did not deal with the objections from Russia, and recognized Kosovo as a newly independent country anyway earlier this year.  At that point, observers began claiming that “Russia’s bluff had been called” regarding outright recognition of the separatist provinces, but failed to address the prospect for catastrophic miscalculation by one of the relevant parties.  Which has obviously happened in Georgia.

Now, President Bush is dispatching Condoleezza Rice to Paris and then Tbilisi, and is promising a humanitarian mission will enter Georgia in the form of the U.S. military.  The relevant paragraphs from his statement:

I’ve also directed Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to begin a humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia, headed by the United States military. This mission will be vigorous and ongoing. A U.S. C-17 aircraft with humanitarian supplies is on its way. And in the days ahead we will use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces, to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies.

We expect Russia to honor its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance. We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads, and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit. We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia. And we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.

The italicized portions represent two parts of the statement that present big, dangerous issues.

Issue One: Where will U.S. troops be, what will they be doing, and how long will they be doing it?  Is the president saying that he expects the Russians to open lines of transport through South Ossetia to U.S. troops?  South Ossetia is recognized as part of Georgian territory.  But it seems awfully unlikely that the Russians are going to accept U.S. military personnel in South Ossetia alongside their peacekeepers, which, while they act in a lot of ways that have less to do with keeping peace and more to do with keeping Russian influence over the region, the Russians argue are there in accordance with the 1992 Sochi agreement.  Saakashvili, for his part, rushed to the telephone to tell the New York Times that he interpreted Bush’s statement as promising “definitely an American military presence.”  (Side question: What military assets are Western European powers or NATO powers contributing?)

Issue Two: the Bush statement seems to call for all additional Russian forces inserted into South Ossetia to be withdrawn.  But if the theory about the Kosovo model is right, the Russians will most likely want to leave behind some of those forces in South Ossetia to shore up its influence in the province as NATO left troops behind in Kosovo.  What happens if the Russians leave several thousand additional troops behind anyway?

Both these topics deserve more scrutiny from the press and the public.  The president appears to be looking at a much more direct involvement of U.S. troops and resources on Georgian territory.  His restraint heretofore has been prudent; this measure appears much more risky.