Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

A Telling Analogy

From the Washington Post:

“At this point, it seems like the war on drugs in America,” added Spec. David Fulcher, 22, a medic from Lynchburg, Va., who sat [in a barracks in Baghdad]. “It’s like this never-ending battle, like, we find one IED, if we do find it before it hits us, so what? You know it’s just like if the cops make a big bust, next week the next higher-up puts more back out there.”

Is Opposition to the Bush Doctrine “Isolationism”?

The online version of the New York Times runs the following headline for its story covering its poll on Americans’ attitudes on foreign policy:

Americans Showing Isolationist Streak, Poll Finds

The substance of the poll shows several things: Americans want out of Iraq, they don’t want to deploy US servicemen to try to make peace in Lebanon, and they don’t think that it’s our responsibility to go around the world attempting to force peace on warring nations.

Is that really “isolationism”? I covered the topic of “isolationism” earlier this year when a Pew poll interpreted Americans’ desire to “mind our own business internationally” as a sign of isolationism. (Should we not mind our own business internationally???)

I’ll say one thing: If the media keeps portraying the choice as between the Bush doctrine or “isolationism,” then isolationism is going to end up with a lot more adherents than any of us thought.

“Precipitous” Withdrawal Defined

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has never been shy about voicing his opinions. But while his comments on the current crisis in Lebanon before a small group of Washington insiders hosted by Steve Clemons and the New America Foundation has elicited some media coverage, I was most struck by his comments on Iraq.

Brzezinski was an early advocate of a relatively swift military withdrawal from Iraq. In January 2005, he laid out the choices in Iraq in stark but simple terms:

we will never achieve democracy and stability [in Iraq] without being willing to commit 500,000 troops, spend $200 billion a year, probably have a draft, and [impose higher taxes].

As a society, we are not prepared to do that….even the Soviet Union was not prepared to [take equivalent steps in Afghanistan] because there comes a point in the life of a nation when such sacrifices are not justified.

(The full transcript can be found here.)

One year later, Brzezinski made his case again, this time on the op-ed page of the Washington Post:

The real choice that needs to be faced is between:

An acceptance of the complex post-Hussein Iraqi realities through a relatively prompt military disengagement [or]

An inconclusive but prolonged military occupation lasting for years while an elusive goal is pursued.

It is doubtful, to say the least, that America’s domestic political support for such a futile effort could long be sustained by slogans about Iraq’s being “the central front in the global war on terrorism.”

In contrast, a military disengagement by the end of 2006, derived from a more realistic definition of an adequate outcome, could ensure that desisting is not tantamount to losing.

Such talk has been widely panned by the Bush administration’s defenders, who typically dismiss any talk, of any timetable – six months, one year, or ten years – as “cutting and running”.

But Brzezinski remains undeterred. During last week’s meeting he said “We [should] start talking to the Iraqis of the day of our disengagement. We say to them we want to set it jointly, but in the process, indicate to them that we will not leave precipitously.”

He then went on to say “I asked [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay] Khalilzad what would be his definition of precipitous and he said four months.”

Four months.

Four months is tantamount to immediate. 130,000 troops cannot be extracted from any country, even under the best of conditions, in a matter of weeks. Doing so in a hostile environment requires that additional measures be taken to ensure troop safety, and this can add weeks or even months to the project. I don’t believe that U.S. troops could be safely withdrawn from Iraq over a period of less than four months, given the conditions on the ground.

However, I have long advocated (e.g. here, here, and here) that the U.S. military’s mission in Iraq be terminated in an expeditious fashion. And I’m hardly alone. Today’s New York Times reports that 56 percent of respondents in their most recent poll favor a timeline for withdrawal; and, according to the most recent Gallup/USA Today poll, 50 percent of Americans favor a troop withdrawal within the next 12 months, while only 8 percent favor sending more troops.

It may be that Khalilzad was speaking out of turn. And it is never wise to base decisions on second-hand information, even from a source as credible as Brzezinski. However, if the Bush administration defines precipitous as less than four months, then we might be onto something.

A military withdrawal from Iraq, conducted over, say, a 12-month period, would provide ample time to coordinate with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government on the handover of security responsibilities, and already enjoys support among the American public, and, increasingly, on Capitol Hill. That would hardly be “precipitous” and it certainly is better than our current open-ended policy.

Talking to Bad Guys

In an interview with NPR, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage wondered aloud why the United States was not engaged in direct dialogue with Syria concerning the ongoing crisis in Lebanon.

We’re not…using all the levers that we have, such as having the Secretary of State talk to the Syrians. I think they want to get involved. I think they want to become more central to the solution. And you might as well give them the opportunity. If they step up to it, fine. If they don’t, we’ll know them for what they are.

NPR’s Renée Montagne followed up:

The administration has made it pretty clear that they are not interested in talking directly to Syria. Why draw that bright of a line?

Armitage:

I don’t know. I think they’ve talked themselves into this.

My own view is … you have to have a dialogue….We have to be able to sit and listen to the Syrians in this case, and see if they have the desire, the courage and the wisdom to get involved in a positive way.

We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies.

On Sunday, John McLaughlin, deputy director of central intelligence from 2000 to 2004, suggested much the same thing in a Washington Post op-ed entitled “We Have to Talk to Bad Guys”:

Among the five lessons to be drawn from the recent fighting in the Middle East is this gem:

even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. The absence of a diplomatic relationship with Iran and the deterioration of the one with Syria – two countries that bear enormous responsibility for the current crisis – leave the United States with fewer options and levers than might otherwise have been the case….We will have to get over the notion that talking to bad guys somehow rewards them or is a sign of weakness. As a superpower, we ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.

Makes sense to me.

Armitage and McLaughlin are now out of government. Do they still talk to people on the inside? Is anyone listening?

What Does it Say When the Sensible Voices Are “Former” Administration Officials?

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was typically brilliant on NPR this morning, discussing the limited options available in brokering a peace agreement in southern Lebanon. Here is a sampling:

I find a lot of chatter about this peacekeeping force, but I find very few people putting their hands in the air saying they’ve got troops who are willing to do it.

It all sounds like a great idea, but, sorry, each of us are busy with our own problems.

And what of the U.S. role?

If we had excess troops, which I don’t believe we have…, we would be seen as much more partial to Israel and hence would not be acceptable [to the other side].

Armitage served in the Pentagon when President Reagan dispatched U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1982, and he looks back on that period without a hint of sentimentality.

It was a very troubled time. Actually, sooner rather than later…we were seen as taking sides in someone else’s civil war. Ultimately we lost 241 naval and marine personnel….in the October ‘83 bombing.

His experience in 1982 and 1983 conditions his view of the present and future. He was asked, “Are there parallels between that peacekeeping force and now?”

I remember with stunning clarity one of our Israeli interlocutors sitting in my office telling me that ‘Don’t worry about this peace in Galilee operation. We understand our neighbors very well. We understand them better than anyone. We know all the dynamics of the situation in Lebanon.’ That turned out not quite to be the case. I suspect that people in government now are also hearing that from Israel.

Don’t get me wrong. If I thought that this air campaign would work and would eliminate Nasrullah and the leadership of Hezbollah, I think we’d all be fine. But I fear that you can’t do this from the sky, and that you’re going to end up empowering Hezbollah.

The full interview is about eight minutes long, but well worth the time.

Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…

…there’s this piece of bad news, courtesy of the Jamestown Foundation:

In the midst of rising tensions between the Turkish and Iraqi governments over the presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in northern Iraq, the PKK has managed to expand to other parts of Iraq outside of their traditional strongholds in the northern mountains. It seems that the PKK has taken advantage of the lax security in the capital city of Baghdad and government distraction to open the “Ocalan Culture Center,” a PKK contact bureau, just steps away from the Turkish Embassy. Although Iraq has pledged that it will do what it can to crack down on the presence of PKK fighters in Iraq, the Ocalan Culture Center was opened with the approval of local government authorities, according to documents plastered on the walls of the center (Turkish Daily News, July 14). This comes despite the fact that the PKK is ostensibly an outlawed organization in Iraq.

The PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. Turkish intelligence estimates that there are between 4,000 to 5,000 PKK fighters in the mountainous border region in northern Iraq. The PKK began infiltrating back into Iraq from Turkey after it called off its unilateral cease-fire in the summer of 2004. The PKK already has a contact bureau in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

[…]Turkish officials fear that [the Baghdad center] will also be used to plan and facilitate terrorist operations around the border area and in Turkey (Cihan News Agency, July 12). Turkish officials officially opposed the opening of the Ocalan Culture Center in Baghdad. Diplomatic sources stated that Turkey delivered a note via the Turkish Embassy to the Iraqi government demanding the closure of the contact office, citing Iraq’s pledges that it would not allow Iraq to be a sanctuary for terrorist organizations (Anatolia News Agency, July 20).

The Turks have absolutely no love for the PKK, and things have been heating up both diplomatically and militarily between the Turks and the Iraqis.  In a country that doesn’t need any more flashpoints, this could easily become one.

Confessions of a Former (and Maybe Future) Hawk

Once upon a time, way back in 2002-03, I had my own blog. Unsurprisingly, given the times, I wrote frequently about issues relating to the war on terrorism. I took a hawkish line, supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the resort to force, if necessary, to prevent other terror-sponsoring states like Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Based on my blog writings, I was invited to participate in a Reason online debate with John Mueller back in November 2002 on whether to go to war with Iraq. I argued vociferously in the affirmative.

The views I expressed were extremely controversial within Cato and the larger libertarian camp. Cato’s foreign policy scholars, reflecting the “orthodox” libertarian opposition to an interventionist foreign policy, strongly opposed the Iraq invasion. But for a minority of policy staffers at Cato, as well as many other libertarians, waiting for the other guy to take the first swing no longer seemed to make sense in a post-9/11 world.

Since the fall of Baghdad, I haven’t written a word about foreign policy. Virtually all my writing energies have been directed elsewhere: to a book, due out next spring, that examines the effect of mass affluence since World War II on American politics and culture. Much has changed in the past three-plus years, including my own views as I struggle to make sense of ever-changing circumstances. As a one-time outspoken “libertarian hawk,” I feel a responsibility to explain where I stand now and how I got here. Given recent (and incorrect) speculation about my views on the brewing crisis with Iran, now is as good a time as any.

First, on Iraq, my support for the invasion was based on the assumption of active biological and nuclear weapons programs. That assumption, of course, proved incorrect. I also failed to anticipate the Sunni insurgency that has been at the root of Iraq’s post-Saddam problems. And, perhaps most egregiously, I placed my trust in the Bush administration to assess the Iraqi threat accurately and do all within its power to make the occupation of Iraq a success. That trust, however foolishly offered, was badly betrayed.

So, if I had it to do all over again, would I oppose the invasion? Honestly, I don’t know. I just can’t quite bring myself to wish Saddam back in power and, with the sanctions regime probably moribund by now, enjoying $75 a barrel oil and emboldened by having survived the Gulf War and its protracted aftermath. On the other hand, I certainly wish that the United States had not assumed responsibility for Iraq’s post-Saddam future. That mission was undertaken on the basis of totally erroneous expectations regarding its difficulty and without any Plan B in the event of unforeseen problems. Consequently, the occupation has been a fiasco – failing to accomplish its objectives, costing thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, tying down a major chunk of the U.S. military in what appears to be an exercise in futility, and highlighting the limits of U.S. power and resolve in a way that encourages our enemies.

And what to do now? For a long while I kept hoping that political progress in Iraq would lead to progress in subduing the insurgency. It hasn’t, and now the country seems to be spiraling into sectarian civil war. I don’t see any prospect for things to get better in the foreseeable future, and thus I see no U.S. interest in maintaining our presence there. So I’m in favor of getting out. We rid Iraq of a horrible tyrant and gave the country a new constitution and government. It’s up to the Iraqis now, for better or worse.

Meanwhile, the experience of the past few years, including but not limited to the experience in Iraq, has led me to reconsider my earlier support for preventive military action against Iran. I cannot say that there are no conceivable circumstances under which I would support such action. But for the time being, I do not think that preventing an Iranian bomb is worth hazarding another war – especially since it is probably the case that we still have several years before Iran succeeds in its quest for nukes, and it is certainly the case that our non-military options are far from exhausted.

My change in views is not due to any deep-seated philosophical reversal. Today, as before, I’m afraid I’m immune to the attractions of any grand foreign-policy abstractions, whether realist, idealist, or otherwise. And I’ve yet to find refuge in any bright-line rules on when military force is and isn’t called for. To my mind, international relations is a field that just isn’t amenable to much theoretical illumination.

As a libertarian, I have a healthy appreciation of the law of unintended consequences. Accordingly, I start with a strong presumption against doing anything as drastic as going to war. Unlike many of my fellow libertarians, however, I believe that this presumption can be rebutted in cases other than an outright or imminent attack on the United States.

So I muddle along, weighing the risks of action against the risks of inaction on a case-by-case basis. What has changed, for me, since the spring of 2003 is the weight I assign to the relevant risks. In particular, I currently consider the threat of Islamist terrorism to be far less grave than I feared it to be in the wake of 9/11. Yes, it is a very real threat, and one that should be addressed with the utmost seriousness. But my best reading of the available evidence tells me that both the scale and the sophistication of anti-U.S. terrorist activity are currently rather limited. Consequently, I am less persuaded than before of the need for bold and risky moves against terror-sponsoring states. At the present time, I therefore prefer a more cautious approach in dealing with rogue regimes.

But I stand prepared to flip-flop once again should changing circumstances warrant. In the words of Keynes (whom I don’t get to quote very often), “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?”