Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

How Clever Is ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’?

Anna Mulrine, US News and World Report, July 25, 2007:

As President Bush continues to stress al Qaeda as the chief threat to Iraq’s stability — a reprised effort to establish a link between al Qaeda in Iraq and the 9/11 attackers — U.S. military forces on the ground in Iraq are fighting a complex war in regions with vast networks of overlapping loyalties — and few foreign fighters. Most members of al Qaeda in Iraq, say commanders on the ground, are local Iraqi outcasts.

“I can count them [foreign fighters] as a total I have engaged, dead or alive, in the 10 months I’ve been here on one hand,” says Col. David Sutherland, the U.S. commander of coalition forces in the hotly contested area of Diyala province, an insurgent stronghold region some 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. There, Sutherland says, those involved in al Qaeda are largely dispossessed locals, not jihadists who have come from elsewhere. “The recruiting program is [that] al Qaeda may send five or eight individuals into a village. They recruit from those who have no power base, no place in society,” including, he adds, former male prostitutes and the mentally ill.

Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, November 5, 2004:

[I]t was easy for us to provoke this administration and to drag it [after us]. It was enough for us to send two Jihad fighters to the farthest east to hoist a rag on which “Al-Qa’ida” was written — that was enough to cause generals to rush off to this place, thereby causing America human and financial and political losses, without it accomplishing anything worthy of mention, apart from giving business to [the generals’] private corporations. Besides, we gained experience in guerilla warfare and in conducting a war of attrition in our fight with the iniquitous, great power, that is, when we conducted a war of attrition against Russia with Jihad fighters for 10 years until they went bankrupt, with Allah’s grace; as a result, they were forced to withdraw in defeat, all praise and thanks to Allah. We are continuing in the same policy — to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy, Allah willing. And that is not too difficult for Allah.

Randy Barnett and the Iraq War

I’m a great admirer of Randy Barnett’s work. I can think of few libertarians and few legal scholars from whom I’ve learned more. And I agree with Professor Barnett that foreign policy issues are harder to sort out from libertarian first principles than, say, the question of minimum wage laws. But his op-ed on “Libertarians and the Iraq War” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal raises many more questions than it answers. Among them:

Is libertarianism really a political philosophy that tells you what to think about mandatory recycling and restrictions on the interstate shipment of wine, but has virtually nothing of interest to say about when it might be morally permissible to use daisy cutters and thermobaric bombs?

If even the nightwatchman state is, as Barnett has argued, extraordinarily hard to justify, isn’t it harder still to justify a government with a half-a-trillion dollar defense budget, a government that has described its national security strategy as one designed to “make the world not just safer but better”?

Is “self-defense” such a blob of a concept that one can mold it to cover invading a country that had nothing to do with September 11th, no significant connection with Al Qaeda, and no apparent intention to attack us?

Is “electrifying” really the best adjective for the sensation one feels upon discovering that Rudy Giuliani is either (a) ignorant of the most basic historical facts about Al Qaeda, or (b) couldn’t care less so long as he gets appreciative hoots from the cheap seats?

Is there a hypothetical set of facts that would convince Randy Barnett that the Iraq War has turned out to be a very bad idea indeed for life, liberty, and property at home and abroad? If so, how would that set of facts differ from 3,600 American dead, thousands more horribly maimed, Iraqi civilian casualties at least in the tens of thousands, and two million refugees?

But since this subject has been done to death over the past several years, I’ll provide some links rather than take up more space. Here’s one on not getting into Iraq; here’s one on why we should get out; here’s one on a prior attempt by Barnett to justify interventionist foreign policy on libertarian grounds, and here are three on why Wilsonianism and libertarianism don’t mix.

Just one final question, though. Can we please declare a moratorium on the use of phrases like “rooting for success in Iraq” to distinguish libertarian hawks from doves? If, God forbid, single-payer health care ever comes to the United States, I’ll be “rooting” for the success of our new National Health Service, because I’m not the sort of person who wants to see people suffer and die just so I can enjoy a sense of intellectual vindication. But I hope I’ll be forgiven if I also start looking for a quick exit strategy.

Hagel on Iraq, Iran and U.S. Domestic Politics

I had the pleasure of introducing Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) at a Cato-sponsored event earlier today up on Capitol Hill.

The event was promoted as “America’s Next Steps in Iraq,” and the senator shared his insights from the very latest happenings in the Senate, including the pseudo all-night debate, and the failure to achieve cloture on the Levin-Reed amendment. Sen. Hagel also had some choice comments about the Bush White House’s bizarre attitudes with respect to Congress’s role in shaping foreign policy, and he admitted that he wasn’t comfortable with the foreign policy views of the leading GOP presidential candidates. He deftly parried a question pertaining to his own political plans, other than to say that he will make a decision about his future in the next few weeks.

I was most struck, however, by his comments regarding Iran. Hagel stressed the need for engagement with Iran, along the lines of what was put forward by the Iraq Study Group late last year, and generally consistent with what Cato scholars have argued (e.g. here and here).

In a general sense, he pointed out that the problems of the Middle East will not be resolved by pushing Iran to the sidelines. They are a major power in the region. We might wish it otherwise, but that is the reality. And while our interests often diverge, they have converged in the past (as in when Tehran assisted us in deposing their bitter enemy the Taliban in the fall of 2001) and they are likely to converge in the future. For example, one could certainly argue that they are the one country in the region that is at peace with the current composition of the Iraqi government. Diplomacy is about capitalizing on common interests; focusing on areas of potential cooperation while at the same time not losing sight of the important differences. Hagel noted that Ronald Reagan, after all, was not above negotiating with the leaders of the country he deemed “the evil empire.”

Hagel’s thoughtfulness, integrity and courage are needed in the Congress. They would be of equal or greater value on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Chapman on Iraq

Here’s libertarian columnist Steve Chapman on Bush’s Iraq report card, released last week:

On Thursday, the White House released its latest assessment of the war, and it concluded that on eight of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress, there has been “satisfactory progress.” That was enough for a presidential seal of approval. In other words, getting right answers on less than half the exam questions earns a pass. If the standards for No Child Left Behind were that low, we would be descending toward mass illiteracy.

[…]

By now, we should all know that the president is determined to portray Iraq as a success in the making no matter how much it looks like a failure. He said Thursday that the results of the surge so far are “cause for optimism.” But in September 2004, he was “pleased with the progress.” In January 2005, he said, “I’m optimistic about it.” A year later, he said “we are winning.” The president’s mood is always good and always wrong.

It’s worth pointing out that the White House moved the goalposts–yet again–in its assessment metrics. The Dems in Congress thought they were being tricky by asking the president to assess whether the Iraqis were making “satisfactory” progress on the various metrics, hemming him in by forcing him to either a) put his stamp of approval on what they suspected would be obvious non-progress, or b) concede publicly that the political process was not progressing. Here was the White House’s response, from pages 7-8 of the report, clarifying its assessment techniques:

Standard of Measurement: Section 1314(b)(2)(A) states: “The President shall submit an initial report to Congress, not later than July 15, 2007, assessing the status of each of the specific benchmarks established above, and declaring, in his judgment, whether satisfactory progress toward meeting these benchmarks is, or is not, being achieved.” In order to make this judgment (e.g., whether “satisfactory progress … is, or is not, being achieved”), we have carefully examined all the facts and circumstances with respect to each of the 18 benchmarks and asked the following question: As measured from a January 2007 baseline, do we assess that present trend data demonstrates a positive trajectory, which is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment in the near term? If the answer is yes, we have provided a “Satisfactory” assessment; if the answer is no, the assessment is “Unsatisfactory.” For those benchmarks receiving the latter assessment, we have explained what, if any, strategic adjustments may be required to improve the present trajectory. (All emphasis in original.)

So the White House defines “satisfactory” as demonstrating a “positive trajectory” that is tracking toward satisfactory accomplishment “in the near term,” a date which remains undefined. Thus, the X-axis in this case, time, could be unlabeled; it represents an infinite timeline constrained only by however the White House cares to define “the near term” at any given moment. Any upward trend could be thus deemed “satisfactory.” We got no evaluation from the White House on how fast the Iraqis should be making progress.

The White House decided to grade themselves on a significant curve, and still could only fudge the report card such that they scored a 44%. Chapman is right; if NCLB had standards like this, the future would look even bleaker.

Who’s Causing Trouble in Iraq?

This morning’s LA Times has an interesting piece on who is actually sowing the mayhem that continues to take place across Iraq:

BAGHDAD — Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.

About 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% are from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures made available to The Times by the senior officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis, he said.

Fighters from Saudi Arabia are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than those of any other nationality, said the senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency.

He said 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq come here as suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.

And yet, apropos of all the recent saber-rattling against Iran that’s taken place lately, the most interesting line in the piece may be this one:

Both the White House and State Department declined to comment for this article.

Why do they have nothing to say about the Saudis?

Conservatives and the Presidency

But for the intriguing–and unsettling–revelation that President Bush’s nickname for his attorney general is “Fredo,” there’s not much new in the Washington Post’s recent four-part series on vice president Dick Cheney.  But the series does serve to remind us of how consistently Cheney has pushed for three decades to expand the powers of the presidency.  That in turn is a good jumping-off point for examining how inconsistent post-Watergate conservatives’ affinity for powerful executives is with conservatism, properly understood. 

Almost to a man, the postwar conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review associated presidential power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the “conservative” branch.  In 1960 NR senior editor Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley’s professors at Yale, published an influential article called “The Two Majorities,” which made that case.  In 1967, Russell Kirk and coauthor James McClellan praised the late Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” for insisting that war had to be a last resort, threatening as it did to “make the American President a virtual dictator, diminish the constitutional powers of Congress, contract civil liberties, injure the habitual self-reliance and self-government of the American people, distort the economy, sink the federal government in debt, [and] break in upon private and public morality.” 

Even so ardent a Cold Warrior as NR’s James Burnham recognized that “by the intent of the Founding Fathers and the letter and tradition of the Constitution, the bulk of the sovereign war power was assigned to Congress.”  Burnham doubted that congressional control of the war power could be maintained, given the demands of modern war.  But he wrote a book defending Congress’s centrality to the American constitutional system and warning that erosion of congressional power and the rise of activist presidents risked bringing about “plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty.”

The politician who represented the culmination of postwar conservatives’ hopes for political success, Senator Barry Goldwater, could sound as extremist in opposition to presidential power as he did on other matters involving “the defense of liberty.” In his 1964 campaign manifesto “My Case for the Republican Party,” Goldwater wrote:

We hear praise of a power-wielding, arm-twisting President who “gets his program through Congress” by knowing the use of power. Throughout the course of history, there have been many other such wielders of power. There have even been dictators who regularly held plebiscites, in which their dictatorships were approved by an Ivory-soap-like percentage of the electorate. But their countries were not free, nor can any country remain free under such despotic power. Some of the current worship of powerful executives may come from those who admire strength and accomplishment of any sort. Others hail the display of Presidential strength … simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power. This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means…. If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers, it is this one.

Of course, Goldwater’s distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Rollback of communist gains demanded presidential activism abroad, and those demands began to weaken conservative opposition to powerful presidents.

In an article for Presidential Studies Quarterly examining congressional voting patterns on executive power, political scientist J. Richard Piper found that “what erosion occurred in conservative support for a congressionally-centered federal system [from 1937-68] occurred most frequently on foreign policy matters and among interventionist anti-Communists.” Even so, post-war, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress “were more likely to favor curbing presidential powers than were moderates or liberals.”

During the Nixon administration, all that began to change.  The 1970s brought increasing tension over foreign policy and, perhaps more importantly, the emergence of what political analyst Kevin Phillips called “The Emerging Republican Majority” in the electoral college. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon’s downfall helped drive the shift; as conservative M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

By the ‘70s, prominent conservatives had begun to see the executive as the conservative branch, and set to work developing a conservative case for the Imperial Presidency. In November 1974, National Review featured a cover story by Jeffrey Hart, “The Presidency: Shifting Conservative Perspectives?” Hart began by noting the “settled and received view” among American conservatives, who “have been all but unanimously opposed to a strong and activist presidency.” Foreshadowing the conservative embrace of Unitary Executive Theory in the 1980s, Hart noted the growth of the administrative state and the corresponding need for a powerful president who could hold the bureaucracy in check. Even more important, according to Hart, was the emergence of a “fourth branch of government” in the form of an activist, left-leaning press. Only a centrist or conservative president willing to use the bully pulpit could check the liberal media in the fight for American public opinion.

In Congress as well, conservatives demonstrated a growing affinity for a strong presidency. As Piper noted, of “37 major roll call [votes] concerning presidential powers of greatest long-term significance [from 1968-86] conservatives took the most pro-presidential power position… often (as on the item veto, impoundment, and war powers) contradicting conservative positions of the past.”

By the Reagan era, prominent right-wingers were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, and conservative conventional wisdom held that the real threat to separation of powers lay not in an Imperial Presidency, but in an Imperial Congress.   And during the Clinton administration, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the War Powers Act, with Gingrich urging House Republicans to “increase the power of President Clinton…. I want to strengthen the current Democratic president because he’s the president of the United States.”  The bulk of the Republican delegation supported the bill, which failed to pass the House because of Democratic opposition and 44 Republican defections.   

That conservatives were willing to strengthen the powers of the presidency even when the office was occupied by their political enemy shows principle of a sort, but it’s unclear why it’s a conservative principle.  Far more than liberals, conservatives recognize the imperfectability of human nature, and, taking man for what he is, have generally supported restraints on the concentration of power.   Russell Kirk was no libertarian, but on this point, he and most of the postwar conservative movement stood with Jefferson: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”  As Kirk put it:

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands….

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.   

Do conservatives still hold to that wisdom?  Evidence that they do is difficult to discern.  They spent much of the ’90s trying to convince the country that the nation’s highest office had been seized by a terribly unscrupulous, venal man, a man who would stop at nothing to retain power.  And they’ve spent much of the current decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power, all the while with another Clinton warming up in the on-deck circle. 

True, one of the leading conservative think tanks in D.C. still offers a Russell Kirk lecture.  In 2006, the speaker was the legal academy’s most prominent advocate of presidential war and unbridled executive power, John C. Yoo

You’ve come a long way, baby. 

Secrecy is Unsafe

The latest issue of Foreign Policy includes a commendable piece by Jacob Shapiro, “Strictly Confidential” (summarized; full article behind paywall).

Shapiro makes an intelligent case that opening government improves security. “When government officials curb access to information,” he writes, “they cut themselves off from the brain power and analytical skills of a huge community of scientists, engineers, and security experts who are often far better at identifying threats, weaknesses, and solutions than any government agency.” Shapiro provides a couple of examples where openness has improved security systems.

“Putting information behind lock and key does not make targets safe from attack. It leaves security analysts unable to find solutions to other weaknesses in the future. It also leaves government and industry less motivated to find safeguards of their own.”

Good stuff.