Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Washington Should Make Foreign Policy for Americans, Not Foreign Liberals

Washington’s actions abroad affect the size and power of Washington at home. “War is the health of the state,” declared social critic Randolph Bourne.

The more active America’s foreign policy, the more the United States has to spend on the military: the “defense” budget is the price of Washington’s foreign policy. American military personnel and contractors die. Enemies are created, some of whom become terrorists. A national security state develops.

Thus, Americans committed to limited government and individual liberty should support a foreign policy based on humility and restraint. An imperial foreign policy like that today inevitably inflates–indeed, requires–a Leviathan state.

Nor should anyone who understands government believe the American state to be capable of competently fulfilling more expansive foreign policy objectives. At times, war is an unfortunate necessity and government must rain down death and destruction on other peoples.

Far more often, however, policymakers turn the military into just another government tool intended to achieve complicated ends that often aren’t even important, let alone vital. Attempts at so-called humanitarian intervention and nation-building, for instance, almost always turn out badly, even disastrously.

Remaining Obstacles to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Obama administration is hailing the framework agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program as a great diplomatic triumph. It is clear, however, that several significant obstacles remain—any one of which could fatally undermine that achievement. The most obvious threat is the unrelenting hostility to the accord by hawks in the United States. The ink was barely dry when William Kristol, editor of the flagship neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, published an editorial openly urging Congress to kill the agreement. Outspoken congressional hawks, including Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Lindsey Graham, have made it clear that this is their objective as well. Given GOP control of both houses of Congress, such opposition is more than a minor worry.

But there are other sources of potential trouble. Just days after Kristol’s screed, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that all economic sanctions against his country must be lifted once the final version of the nuclear accord is signed. Yet even the Obama administration has adopted the position that sanctions will be lifted only in stages as Tehran fulfills its commitments. Clearly, that dispute could unravel the entire accord.

Disagreement about the timing and extent of terminating sanctions reflects the continuing lack of trust between Tehran and Washington. Although most Americans would argue that Iran is the untrustworthy party, I point out in a recent article in Real Clear Defense, that there is also reason to doubt Washington’s willingness to abide by its commitments. The U.S. track record is not especially reassuring. During the latter stages of the Cold War, for example, the United States proposed a procedure of “cross recognition” regarding North and South Korea. In other words, if Moscow and Beijing established diplomatic ties with Seoul, Washington would recognize the government in Pyongyang. China and Russia have since done so—and now enjoy a wide range of diplomatic and economic relations with South Korea. But the United States has yet to normalize relations with North Korea.

From Iran’s standpoint, an even more worrisome precedent is the action that the United States and its NATO allies took with regard to Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for promised diplomatic and economic concessions. Within a few brief years, those nations turned on Gaddafi, openly funding and arming an insurgency to overthrow his regime. That campaign culminated with NATO (primarily U.S.) cruise missile strikes to support the successful rebel offensive.

The Libya episode hardly creates an incentive for Iran, North Korea, and other potential nuclear-weapons states to forgo such ambitions. Indeed, it likely reinforces the opposite incentive. The pertinent lesson seemed to be that only a very foolish government would give up the nuclear option in exchange for the mere promise of normalized relations with the West.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to demonstrate to Iran that it can and will deliver on the U.S. commitment to lift sanctions, if Tehran fulfills its obligations under the new nuclear agreement.  Given the extent of the opposition in Congress, though, it is uncertain whether the administration can prevail, even if it is serious about keeping the U.S. side of the bargain.  Celebration in response to reaching the framework accord is decidedly premature.  We are still a long way from the implementation of an effective settlement to this dangerous feud.

U.S. Intervention Most Threatens Mideast Stability

The Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with Tehran triggered near hysteria among U.S. politicians and pundits who advocate perpetual war in the Middle East. One complaint is that the talks failed to address Iran’s regional role.

These critics denounced Tehran’s imperial ambitions. For instance, the Foreign Policy Initiative insisted that “Iran’s drive to dominate the region has been years in the making.”

However, if Mideast domination is Iran’s long-term priority, Tehran has accomplished little. Most governments in the region oppose the Islamic regime and America has far more influence.

Operation Decisive Failure

A front page story in today’s Washington Post highlights that the failure of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition campaign in Yemen is already becoming apparent:

Two weeks into a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, airstrikes appear to have accelerated the country’s fragmentation into warring tribes and militias while doing little to accomplish the goal of returning the ousted Yemeni president to power, analysts and residents say.

Foreign Policy makes similar points:

Through its backing of Saudi Arabia—with bombs, intelligence, refueling, and search-and-rescue capabilities—and Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen, the United States is effectively at war with the impoverished land that occupies the southwestern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. That war is going spectacularly badly.

None of this should be surprising. Yemen’s history is replete with tribal conflict and failed invasions, as I highlighted yesterday in the New York Times. Yemeni insurgencies have defeated the British, the Egyptians, and the Saudis in the last 50 years alone.

Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List

President Obama has signaled that his administration may remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list. The change should have occurred years ago, but would be particularly appropriate now, at a time when the United States is trying to resume economic and diplomatic ties with the country. Cuba’s inclusion on the list is a major sticking point in these negotiations. 

It is reasonable to surmise that the defenders of the Cold War-era embargo, including Senator Marco Rubio and the editors of the Wall Street Journal, oppose a change in Cuba’s terror sponsor designation because they want to thwart normalization. They ignore the fact that the embargo has failed to bring about regime change in Havana, and has similarly failed to expand the freedoms of innocent Cubans caught in the middle of the running dispute between Washington and Havana. The WSJ notes, for example, that the Cuban government’s repression of political dissidents and human right activists continues, but doesn’t explain how a continuation of the status quo will force a change in Havana’s behavior. 

Indeed, the embargo hasn’t merely failed. It denies Americans their basic rights to trade with and travel to the country. It also functions as a convenient excuse for the Castros and their cronies when they are pressed to explain why Cubans lag well behind others in the Western Hemisphere in terms of economic development and basic living standards. It says a lot about the magnanimity of the Cuban people, who have been lied to for so long about U.S. intentions, and who have been told that America is to blame for their misery, that they still retain a measure of affection for their neighbor to the north. If removing Cuba from the list hastens the process toward normalization, that might be reason enough to do so.

But the best reason for removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list may be because Cuba does not appear to be a state sponsor of terrorism. As a story in today’s Washington Post notes, “In many ways, the U.S. designation, first imposed in 1982, is a Cold War relic. Although the United States strongly objects to Cuba’s domestic policies, it has offered no evidence for decades that Cuba is actively involved in terrorism abroad.”

This situation is not unique to Cuba. The terror sponsor list has become a catch-all for countries we don’t like very much, including for other reasons – human rights abuses, weapons proliferation, and general roguish behavior. Countries should be scorned, and perhaps even sanctioned, for such activities, but casting them as terrorist sponsors when they clearly are not renders the entire enterprise farcical. CFR’s Micah Zenko makes a great case for abolishing the state sponsor of terrorism list entirely. 

The president is unlikely to make such a dramatic step, of course, but he could push to ensure that it includes those states that actually do sponsor terrorism. An accurate list would likely include a number of long-time U.S. allies, which, no doubt, would make for some awkward embassy cocktail parties.

Event Monday: Is the FBI Creating Terrorist Plots to Stop Them?

This Monday at noon, Cato hosts “The Newburgh Sting and the FBI’s Production of the Domestic Terrorism Threat.” The event will consider how the FBI and others elements of our domestic security apparatus now generate a sense of the terrorist danger that they combat. David Heilbroner will show clips from his 2014 documentary on the Newburgh four terrorist case, which aired on HBO. Naureen Shah of Amnesty International and John Mueller of Cato and Ohio State will comment. RSVP here.

You can get a sense of the issue from this 2007 headline, from The Onion: “U.S. Counter-Counterterrorism Unit Successfully Destroys Washington Monument.” The counter-counterterrorism unit, the satirical article says, was “created in 2004 in response to the lack of terror activity since the Sept. 11 attacks,” and tasked with “raising awareness among the American public of the ‘myriad unknown threats’ that still face the country,” by demonstrating vulnerability to terrorism.

That’s make-believe, of course. No U.S. government agency has been bombing monuments, or anything else on U.S. soil. But still, like other good satire, the article gets at truth more effectively than conventional rendering of facts.

The standard view remains that the trauma of the September 11 attacks awakened Americans to their vulnerability to terrorism from without and within—terrorists groups overseas like al Qaeda and the “lone-wolf” self-starters they inspire. While our leaders, over the last decade, have become less prone to warn of imminent apocalyptic attacks, they still mostly contend that skilled terrorists lurk among us, evaluating our vulnerabilities, exploiting technologies and always growing more diabolical. That view, of course, is what justifies several of our ongoing military campaigns, various curtailments of civil liberties, and vast expenditures of our wealth for domestic security. Its proponents cite as evidence the terrorist plots found in the country since 2001.

Mass Surveillance: From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror

At first glance, the USA Today headline seemed like many others in the nearly two years since Edward Snowden’s explosive revelations: U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades. And while the program essentials were the same—the secret collection of the telephone metadata of every American– there were two key differences between this story and the hundreds before it on this topic. The offending government entity was the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the warrantless surveillance program was launched during the first Bush administration.

Justice Department officials told Reuters that, “All of the information has been deleted.”  “The agency is no longer collecting bulk telephony metadata from U.S. service providers.” However, DoJ provided no actual proof of the alleged data destruction, and the DoJ Inspector General only recently began an inquiry into the program. While it now seems fairly clear that the DEA’s “USTO” metadata collection program served as a model for the NSA telephony metadata program conducted under Sec. 215 of the PATRIOT Act, what is also clear is that Americans are now confronting a government surveillance apparatus that is truly vast. As Ryan Gallagher of The Intercept noted, this particular DEA mass surveillance program is just one of several undertaken by the agency over the past three decades.

How many other such programs exist at other federal agencies, whether inside or outside of the U.S. intelligence community? And how far back do such programs go? How many members of Congress knew, and for how long? Was this DEA program concealed from the agency’s inspector general for two decades, or did the IG simply fail to investigate the program year after year out of apathy or indifference?

If the past is any guide at all—and the surveillance scandals of the 1960s and 1970s are a very good guide—we are once again confronting a level of government over-reach that calls for a comprehensive, public accounting.

In is new book, Democracy in the Dark, former Church Committee chief counsel Fritz Schwartz notes that “…too much is kept secret not to protect America but to keep illegal or embarrassing conduct from Americans…the Church Committee also found that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon had secretly abused their powers.” For the paperback edition of his book, Schwartz is going to have to add more American chief executives to his list.