Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Superlative REAL ID Editorial

The Orange County Register has an editorial on the REAL ID Act this morning that captures the issues magnificently. Among other gems:

The big trouble is that there’s no evidence that this Draconian act, even if fully implemented, would be more than a minor inconvenience for a determined terrorist. But having all that information – including copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards – available in one database would make an irresistible target for identity thieves. And it would be a major inconvenience for millions of innocent Americans and a major expense for state governments – meaning taxpayers.

The Register’s conclusion? Congress should “bite the bullet and repeal this useless, intrusive, money-wasting law.”

The War in NATO

My recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor argues that the US objective in Afghanistan – preventing the creation of terrorist havens – does not require that Afghanistan become a peaceful, centralized state. I say that’s good news because it’s beyond us to build one. Absent this goal, the push for a surge of US or NATO forces in Afghanistan makes less sense.

I want to add couple points here that I couldn’t fit into the op-ed.

American leaders have lately been telling Europeans to make a bigger commitment to Afghanistan, even though the war is becoming unpopular in much of Europe. For instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech at a conference in Munich in February where he explained the terrorist threat to the Europeans to get them to send more troops to Afghanistan. He did not say how counter-insurgency in Afghanistan serves counter-terrorism in Pakistan, which is where the terrorists in the region who should concern Europeans mostly live. At least in the short term, 55,000 thousand western soldiers across the border seem more likely to inflame Pakistani extremism than to suppress it.

This hectoring demonstrates the trouble with NATO. Back when NATO had a clear purpose, to defend Western Europe from the Soviets, it made sense to ask the Europeans to do more. The Europeans had an incentive to avoid military spending; to free ride. That was OK with Americans at the start of the Cold War, when we were eager to spark European economic growth as a bulwark against Communism. Once Western Europe got rich, we told them to ante up, in part via publications like the Allied Contribution of the Common Defense.

Most American policy-makers believe that we remain in that Cold War relationship; that our allies are free-riding to a shared goal. But, as Stanley Kober has observed, threat perceptions have diverged, and many Europeans, rather than appreciating our wars, dispute their efficacy. Europeans seem more inclined than Americans to wonder whether the war in Afghanistan is making them safer. By asserting a common cause without providing one, NATO clouds this reality. It deludes us into thinking that our efforts are a favor that the Europeans ought to return.

It has become popular to worry that Afghanistan will destroy NATO. That would be no great loss. Today, the principle effect of NATO and its eastward expansion is to antagonize Russia. The benefit that justifies this antipathy is unclear. How do the military responsibilities that the US has so casually accepted in recent years – to defend Estonia, for example, against Russia – serve US interests? This guarantee, if it’s believed, seems likely to encourage the war it defends against by provoking moral hazard; as the defense we provide our new allies frees them to offend Russia.

The thesis that the prospect of NATO membership spreads liberal values or institutions is plausible, but I’m not convinced. Nor is it clear that NATO matters much in signing up allies for wars. It’s possible we got a few more contributions in Afghanistan by virtue of the alliance, but I doubt it mattered much. The countries that went probably did so because they believed in the mission, not because they are in NATO.

Despite its strategic obsolescence, NATO has proven politically useful on both sides of the Atlantic. However hollow, NATO will survive. What we might lose in Afghanistan are misconceptions about its usefulness.

“Why Don’t You and Him Go Fight?”

The foreign-policy blog buzz of the day is probably the story, linked by Blake Hounshell at FP, and by Noah Shachtman at Wired, about al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al Zawahiri’s online Q and A recently. Apparently, according to Blake’s excerpts, it’s tough out there for a jihadi:

The general tenor of the questions is sharply critical, so let me boil down the questioners’ main beefs here:

Al Qaeda talks a big game, but never attacks Israel (but we have killed plenty of Jews, Zawahiri responds)
Al Qaeda isn’t doing anything to overthrow the Egyptian regime (it ain’t easy, Zawahiri pleads, but it is inevitable)
Al Qaeda slaughters innocent Muslims (only if they get in the way)
Al Qaeda is too harsh on Hamas (just the leaders who have sold out sharia law, not the “mujahedin”)
Al Qaeda is rumored to be dealing with Iran (a charge Zawahiri has responded to before with a non-denial denial)
Influential clerics and ideologues have denounced al Qaeda (Zawahiri takes great pains to paint two in particular, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, the subject of “Egypt’s Contrite Commander” from FP’s current issue, as Zionist-Crusader stooges)

It’s good to know that these bastards are having at least as tough a time with public diplomacy as we are. Apparently sowing mayhem and blowing up wedding parties is a bad PR move. Meanwhile, Noah Shachtman highlights Mr. al Zawahiri’s thoughts on Iran, whom, if you were listening to John McCain or the Weekly Standard on this stuff, you may have thought was an old pal of aQ:

The dispute between America and Iran is a real dispute based on the struggle over areas of influence, and the possibility of America striking Iran is a real possibility. As for what might happen in the region, I can only say that major changes will occur in the region, and the situation will be in the interest of the Mujahideen if the war saps both of them. If, however, one of them emerges victorious, its influence will intensify and fierce battles will begin between it and the Mujahideen, except that the Jihadi awakening currently under way and the degeneration state of affairs of the invaders in Afghanistan and Iraq will make it impossible for Iran or America to become the sole decision-maker in the region. (emphasis mine)

This sounds an awful lot like the old “why don’t you and him go fight?” strategy to me. Doesn’t seem like you’d be too inclined to push Iran to the brink of war with the United States if you were really working hand-in-glove with Tehran like some have been insinuating.

Sentence of the Day

Mandarin of the Washington Establishment, Joe Klein of Time magazine appears to have had just about enough of Fred Kagan’s writing on Iraq:

On the day that John Yoo’s remarkable torture memo is released, this foolishness is a reminder that none of these people–none of the vicious, mendacious, naive, simplistic, unapologetic, neo-colonialist ideologues who promulgated this disaster–should have even the vaguest claim on the time or tolerance of fair-minded people.

Back story on the abominable green-lighting of torture is here. Kagan article on which Klein was commenting here.

All You Ever Needed to Know About the Surge

A while back, I characterized the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq as “buy time and pray for a miracle.” Now White House politics-of-Iraq guru Peter Feaver has a piece in Commentary lifting the veil from the White House machinations of surge planning. In the piece, Feaver reveals that the planners’ objective was basically to toss the Iraqi hot potato into the lap of the next administration, dust off their hands, and declare victory:

The challenge…was to develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush’s successor. Although important progress could be made on that strategy during Bush’s watch, ultimately it would be carried through by the next President….

This new and different strategy, now called the “surge” but at one point called by insiders the “bridge,” emerged out of a growing recognition over 2006 that our critics were right about one thing: our Iraq policy was not working…

As a political matter, this has a pretty airtight logic to it. Rather than admitting that theirs was the first U.S. administration to start and lose a war of aggression on their watch (bad for the legacy!), this way it comes out heads-we-win-tails-you-lose. If, by the grace of God, some subsequent U.S. president can manage to extricate us from the Iraqi quagmire without a total meltdown, the Bushies will clap each other on the back, declaring themselves visionaries. If, on the other hand, Iraq flames out entirely on the watch of a subsequent administration, the Bushies can play the Dolchstoss card and explain how The Surge Was Working and would have continued working were it not for the fecklessness of the Obama/Clinton/McCain administration.

No End in Sight

Sunday’s New York Times contains a review of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, the book version of his documentary film of the same name. The book is basically a 500 page compilation of the interviews Ferguson did for the film.

Like most of those who reviewed the film, the reviewer, Barry Gewen, has only good things to say about Ferguson’s project. For the most part, he’s right to praise. Ferguson made a fortune in software (after getting a PhD in Political Science from MIT!) and used a chunk of his wealth to travel to Iraq at great risk and make a first-rate documentary, even though he’d never before made a film. You have to give the guy credit.

On the other hand, both the film and book at least implicitly subscribe to the incompetence dodge: the idea that the problem in Iraq was the Bush Administration’s execution of the occupation, not the thing itself; means not ends. Ferguson, a liberal hawk who supported the war and, from what I can tell, still does, says in his preface that the purpose of the film was to answer the “big question of how and why all this had occurred.” “All this” means the disaster in Iraq. He answers by dissecting the management of the early occupation, particularly the decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and fire most Ba’athists from Iraq’s government. He demonstrates that these decisions were ill-considered, ill-advised and aided the insurgency. By stopping there, Ferguson implies that he has answered his question by looking at the tactics of occupation; that this incompetence is what went wrong in Iraq.

The Bush Administration was incompetent and then some in Iraq, but the occupation failed because it involved Americans trying to reorder the government of a far-off country with plenty of grievances and arms but no liberal ideology. It’s too much to say that success was impossible, but failure was likely, no matter who was President.

Gewen flags a quote Ambassador Barbara Bodine gives in the book: “There were 500 ways to do it wrong, and two or three ways to do it right,” Bodine tells Ferguson. “What we didn’t understand is that we were gonna go through all 500.”

What Gewen doesn’t say is that if she’s right and the odds of success are 1/250, the lesson is don’t chance it.

For an explanation of why civil war was likely in Iraq after an American invasion, no matter how well the President planned and whether they dissolved the Iraqi Army, read the essay, “Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq,” that I wrote for Cato with Harvey Sapolsky and Chris Preble.

On why getting this right matters, see Andrew Bacevich:

How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

Banal maybe, but worth repeating.

Back to Somalia?

Buried in a story in Thursday’s Washington Post about the mess in Somalia is the following nugget:

In recent weeks, the State Department dispatched a team of contractors to Somaliland to explore the idea of establishing a military presence at an old airstrip there, according to members of the team interviewed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Somaliland’s government, eager for recognition, welcomed the possibility.

“If the U.S. wishes to have a military presence in Somaliland territory, we will welcome them and accept them,” said Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin. “There are discussions, and we agreed to work together toward mutual ends. But things have not materialized so far.”

This demands more reporting. What kind of military presence? Most likely we’re talking about a staging ground for special operations forces or UAV flights. But that would presumably be secret, begging the question of what contractors are doing talking about it.

The State Department just designated al-Shabaab, a wing of the Islamic Courts Group, as a terrorist organization. The Courts Group is the loose-knit Islamist alliance that briefly gained power in much of Somalia before being routed by the Ethiopians and reforming as an insurgency.

Beyond claiming that “al-Shabaab is a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al Qaeda,” State’s designation does not explain itself. Reuters cites officials who claim that al-Shabaab’s leader trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that it shelters al Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 and 2002 bomb attacks in Kenya. The UN is less certain about an al Qaeda presence in Somalia.

That is thin gruel. Prior links and several al Qaeda guys in the mix, while worrying, do not mean that organization is going to attack Americans, and is therefore one we should target.

Mixing a “war on terrorism” with the promiscuous designation of Islamic insurgent organizations as terrorists is a recipe for spending the next century tied up in other people’s civil wars. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to this policy. Declaring war on insurgents may cause them to attack Americans or ally with those who do. There’s evidence that this dynamic is already occurring in Somalia. And if you agree with Robert Pape that military occupations cause suicide terrorism, American boots on the ground could create terrorists, rather than denying them sanctuary.

If we can locate terrorists bent on attacking Americans in Somalia, we should target them if the local government cannot. Aside from that, we should keep our powder dry and wait and see what emerges. Sending even a small force (and it’s possible we already have covert operatives on the ground to target airstrikes) into Somalia – even Somaliland, a relatively calm area in the south – is a terrible idea under present circumstances.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we had a system of divided war powers so that Congress could monitor what the Pentagon is doing in Somalia, inform the public, and prevent a slide into a small war?