Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

You Know It’s a Dark Hour When…

…you’re having wistful fantasies about staff meetings. In all seriousness, though, there’s great news: once imprisoned by Iran, Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari is back at home in Washington–and back at work at the Wilson Center. But as she says, during her stint in Evin prison, she was indeed dreaming about being back at Wilson Center staff meetings:

I had blocked, you know, thinking about my husband, my daughter, my grandchildren, the house; I blocked all that out because that would have led me to despair. So, for eight months, or for the four months in prison, I didn’t think about it.

I dreamt of my first staff meeting at the Wilson Center. (Laughter.) I seriously did. I really did that, I said, OK, I would [not] tell anybody I’m in town … I would open the door Monday morning at 9:00, walk in to the staff meeting and everybody [would say], “She’s here!”

Full transcript of Esfandiari presser here. (.pdf)

“Why Are You Trying to Give Away the President’s Power?”

Jack “I’m Not a Civil Libertarian” Goldsmith has more on the thirst for power inside the executive branch in excerpts from the book in Slate today.

[Counsel to Vice President Cheney David] Addington once expressed his general attitude toward accommodation when he said, “We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop.” He and, I presumed, his boss viewed power as the absence of constraint. These men believed that the president would be best equipped to identify and defeat the uncertain, shifting, and lethal new enemy by eliminating all hurdles to the exercise of his power. They had no sense of trading constraint for power. It seemed never to occur to them that it might be possible to increase the president’s strength and effectiveness by accepting small limits on his prerogatives in order to secure more significant support from Congress, the courts, or allies. They believed cooperation and compromise signaled weakness and emboldened the enemies of America and the executive branch. When it came to terrorism, they viewed every encounter outside the innermost core of most trusted advisers as a zero-sum game that if they didn’t win they would necessarily lose.

More here.

Cato Brief in NYT

One of the big cases the Supreme Court will be hearing in its upcoming term concerns the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act.  That law sought to revoke the jurisdiction of federal courts over habeas corpus lawsuits arising out of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.  The case will not be heard by the High Court until November, but the New York Times had an article about it over the weekend quoting from the Cato brief (pdf) that I prepared.  I argue that Congress overstepped its authority by trying to withdraw the jurisdiction of federal courts over habeas corpus claims. 

More background about the case in this NYT article (reg r’d).  For more about the constitutional record of the Bush administration, read this.

Why Is the President Amplifying Enemy Propaganda?

The president’s speech yesterday was another surreal offering, but this time we got two shocking endorsements and amplifications of essential enemy propaganda points. According to George W. Bush, the reason we are in Iraq is ― in part ― to control its oil. Also, according to the president, there is a real danger that Osama bin Laden and his cohort could establish a caliphate over the swath of territory from Spain to the Phillipines. Here he is on oil, and what would happen to it if we left:

Extremists would control a key part of the world’s energy supply, could blackmail and sabotage the global economy. They could use billions of dollars of oil revenues to buy weapons and pursue their deadly ambitions.

Out of the 20-30,000 people we have in custody in Iraq, 130 of them are non-Iraqi. Can anyone imagine the gang of idiots currently slaughtering innocent Iraqis with car bombs trying to run the oil infrastructure of a country the size of Iraq? Monitoring extraction, handling the logistics of getting oil through southern Iraq out to port and then dealing with multinationals and the sophisticated financial instruments used to remunerate oil producers? Could anything be more ridiculous?

Then we went on to the other nightmare scenario: American defeat in Iraq will birth a caliphate!

These extremists hope to impose that same dark vision across the Middle East by raising up a violent and radical caliphate that spans from Spain to Indonesia… And that is why they plot to attack us again. And that is why we must stay in the fight until the fight is won.

Who is writing this stuff? Chris Preble and I have written why al Qaeda has no hope of taking over Iraq in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal, but their reestablishing the caliphate is an even more ridiculous notion. But don’t take it from me:

“I can see the whole Arab world falling into sectarian violence, so I can’t see this caliphate happening,” said London-based anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed, referring to Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in Iraq and Lebanon.

“This is just part of (al Qaeda’s) war of slogans.”

[…]

Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi said the region had already failed to unite under the banner of Arab nationalism after World War Two.

“It didn’t work with Arab nationalism, and with pan-Islamism it is working less,” he said. “The likelihood that states would give up their sovereignty is now more remote than ever before.”

[…]

“For most of the mainstream and less mainstream political parties of political Islam, the borders of the contemporary state have been accepted,” said As’ad AbuKhalil from Lebanon, who teaches politics at the U.S. California State University.

“There is absolutely no credence to the notion that the quest for the caliphate is the overriding goal of the Islamist movement in the region.”

It’s disgraceful that the president is aping enemy propaganda, which no doubt gives people in the Islamic world the impression that we believe that al Qaeda is strong ― strong enough to have a shot at the caliphate that it gets mentioned in a presidential speech. The very idea is ridiculous. Al Qaeda is weak and should be destroyed, not revered as a world power.

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.