Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Mission Creep in Syria

This week, the United States and Turkey agreed on a deal to expand cooperation in the fight against ISIS, in part through the creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ in Northern Syria. The scope of the agreement is unclear, not least because Turkish officials are hailing it as a ‘safe zone’ and a possible area for refugees, while U.S. officials deny most of these claims. U.S. officials are also explicit that the agreement will not include a no-fly zone, long a demand of U.S. allies in the region.

But what’s not in doubt is that the United States and Turkey plan to use airstrikes to clear ISIS fighters from a 68-mile zone near the Turkish border. The zone would then be run by moderate Syrian rebels, although exactly who this would include remains undefined.

Over at the Guardian today, I have a piece talking about the many problems with this plan, in particular the fact that it substantially increases the likelihood of escalation and mission creep in Syria:

“The ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria – choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting - but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.”

The plan is just another step in the current U.S. approach to Syria, which has been haphazard and ill-thought out. The United States is engaged in fighting ISIS while most fighters on the ground want to fight the Assad regime, a key reason for the abysmal recruitment record of the U.S. military’s new train-and-equip programs in Syria. Increased U.S. involvement in Syria risks our involvement in another costly, open-ended civil war.

U.S. and NATO Fear Greek Fifth Column to Aid Russia

In the midst of bitter bailout negotiations between Greece and Europe, warnings proliferated of a possible Greek Fifth Column. The European Union and even NATO would collapse should Athens turn toward Russia. It is one of the stranger paranoid fantasies driving U.S. foreign policy.

For five years Athens has been arguing with its European neighbors over debts and reform. The issue doesn’t much concern the U.S. A European economic crisis would be bad for America, but Grexit is not likely to set off such a cataclysm.

Nevertheless, some analysts speculated that Athens might fall out of the European Union and NATO as well as the Eurozone, resulting in geopolitical catastrophe. Thus, the U.S. should insist that Europe pay off Greece. Despite an apparent bailout agreement, another crisis seems inevitable, in which case the specter of a Greek Trojan Horse likely will reemerge.

This fear betrays an overactive imagination. “You do not want Europe to have to deal with a Greece that is a member of NATO but which all of a sudden hates the West and is cozying up to Russia,” warned Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Fleeting American Public Support for Murky Wars

Calls are mounting in Congress (and among some influential opinion groups) for escalating Washington’s military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and for possible military action against Iran if the new nuclear agreement with that country falls apart.  Caution lights should be flashing about both the extent and durability of such sentiment for military action.  As I note in a recent article in the National Interest Online, this country has an unfortunate history of launching ill-considered armed crusades, often initially with enthusiastic public support.  But that support has a tendency to evaporate and turn to bitter recriminations unless certain conditions are met.  Policymakers need to appreciate that history as they consider intensifying U.S. involvement in the Middle East’s turbulent affairs.

Because most Americans believe that the United States embodies the values of individual liberty, human rights, and government integrity, a foreign policy that seems to ignore or violate those values is almost certain to lose the public’s allegiance sooner or later. That is what happened with such missions as the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and, more recently, the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan.  It is not merely that the ventures failed to achieve quick, decisive results, although that aspect clearly played a role.  It was also that the United States was increasingly seen as expending blood and treasure on behalf of odious clients and dubious causes that had little or nothing to do with the republic’s vital interests.  A disillusioned public turned against those missions, and that development created or intensified bitter domestic divisions.

To sustain adequate public support for military ventures, the objective must be widely perceived as both worthy and attainable.  Without those features, public support for a policy either proves insufficient from the outset or soon erodes, and either development is fatal in a democratic political system.

Preserving public support requires officials to make an honest assessment of the issues at stake.  Too often, both during the Cold War and the post–Cold War eras, U.S. policymakers have hyped threats to American interests.  The alleged dangers posed by such adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad bordered on being ludicrous.  At times, it appears that U.S. officials have deliberately engaged in distortions to gin-up public support for purely elective wars.  On other occasions, officials seem to have succumbed to their own propaganda.  In either case, public support dissipates rapidly when evidence mounts that the supposed security threat to America is exaggerated.

That troubling history should reinforce the need for caution as U.S. leaders consider new military interventions, especially in the Middle East.  None of the proposed missions is likely to produce quick, decisive results—much less results with modest financial outlays and minimal casualties.  Moreover, escalating America’s involvement in the region’s myriad troubles puts the United States in a close de facto partnership with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies—some of the most corrupt, brutal governments on the planet.  Publics in the Middle East and around the world are watching, and the potential for unpleasant blowback is extremely high.  And as we saw with the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the reaction of the American people to associations with sleazy foreign clients can become one of profound revulsion.  The conditions are in place for new foreign-policy debacles, if U.S. officials have not learned the appropriate historical lessons.

Chinese Repression Threatens Economic Dynamism and Political Stability

BEIJING—China’s capital looks like an American big city. Tall office buildings. Large shopping malls. Squat government offices. Horrid traffic jams.

The casual summer uniform is the same: shorts, athletic shoes, skirts, t-shirts, sandals, blouses. Even an occasional baseball cap.

It is a country which the Communist revolutionaries who ruled only four decades ago would not recognize. True believers still exist. One spoke to me reverently of Mao’s rise to power and service to the Chinese people. However, she is the exception, at least among China’s younger professionals.

Indeed, younger educated Chinese could not be further from Communist cadres once determined to create a revolution. The former are socially active, desire the newest technologies, and worry about going to good schools and getting good jobs. Cynicism about corrupt and unelected leaders is pervasive.

If there is one common belief, it is hostility toward government Internet controls. Students have complained to me in class about their inability to get to many websites and readily shared virtual private networks to circumvent state barriers.

But such opinions are not held only by the young. A high school student told me that his father urged him to study in America because of Beijing’s restrictions on freedom.

While Chinese from all walks of life are comfortable telling foreigners what they think, sharing those beliefs with other Chinese is problematic. The media, of course, is closely controlled. Internet sites are blocked, deleted, and revamped. Unofficial intimidation, legal restrictions, and even prison time await those who criticize Communist officialdom on social media and blogs.

But increasingly globalized Chinese are aware of their online disadvantage compared to their peers in the West. Google, YouTube, and Twitter are verboten. Today Bloomberg and the New York Times are beyond reach.

Last week as BBC television began to detail official abuses my TV went black. A couple minutes later BBC was back, after the China report had finished.

While internet and media restrictions have not prevented rapid economic growth, barring the PRC’s best and brightest to a world of information is likely to dampen innovation and entrepreneurship. Moreover, those denied their full freedoms are more likely to leave home. Many of China’s wealthiest citizens have been departing an authoritarian system unbounded by the rule of law.

Repression also stultifies China’s political evolution to a more mature and stable political order. Democracy provides an important safety valve for popular dissent.

The Chinese Communist Party’s control may not be as firm as often presumed. The oppressive establishment which most Chinese have faced for most of their lives is Communist.

Indeed, for many if not most party members, Communism is a means of personal advancement, even enrichment. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is popular, but is widely seen as politically motivated.

Moreover, Xi has abrogated the well-understood “deal” of the last four decades, that rulers can retire and be immune from future prosecution. Will incumbents so readily yield power in the future?

Perhaps even more threatening for the CCP is the potential for an economic slowdown and consequent political unrest. Already protests are common against local governments, which tend to be ostentatiously rapacious. What if that antagonism shifts against the center?

A poorer PRC means a poorer world: China is a major supplier and increasingly important source of global demand. A politically unstable Beijing would have unpredictable effects on its neighbors.

As I wrote for Forbes online: “Since Mao’s death in 1976, the PRC has changed dramatically—and dramatically for the better. But this second revolution has stalled. Economic liberalization remains incomplete. Political reform never started. Individual liberty has regressed.”

The Chinese people deserve to be free. The Chinese nation would benefit from their freedom. The rest of the world would gain from a freer Chinese nation. Everyone desiring a peaceful and prosperous 21st century should hope for the successful conclusion of China’s second revolution.

How Drones Encourage Dumb Wars and Corrode Democratic Government

My article in this week’s Washington Examiner magazine argues that because U.S. wars seem so cheap, they tempt us into making war too casually. I explain that while this tendency isn’t new, recent technology breakthroughs, which allowed the development of drones, have made it worse. We now make war almost like people buy movies or songs online, where low prices and convenience encourage purchase without much debate or consideration of value. I label the phenomenon one-click wars.

If we take occasional drone strikes as a minimum standard, the United States is at war in six countries: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with Libya likely to rejoin the list. In the first three, U.S. military action is exclusively the work of drones. Regular U.S. ground forces are present only in Iraq, where they avoid direct combat, and Afghanistan, where they mostly do.

There’s something remarkable in that combination of militarism and restraint. How can we be so willing to make war but so reluctant to take risks in making it?

My explanation starts with power. Wealth, technological prowess, and military might give the United States unique ability to make war around the world. But labor scarcity, liberal values, and our isolated geography that makes the stakes remote  limit our tolerance for sacrificing lives, even foreign ones, in war. This reluctance to bear the human costs of war leads to reliance on long-range technology, especially airpower.

Airpower, despite its historical tendency to fail without help from ground forces, always offers hope that we are only a few bombs away from enemy capitulation. The promise of cheap, clean wars is always alluring. They would let you escape the choice between the bloody sacrifices war entails and the liberal values it offends. 

Survey: 58% of Americans Favor Iran Nuclear Agreement, but Worry about Its Efficacy

A new Cato Institute/YouGov poll finds a solid majority—58%—of Americans supports the main components of the Iran nuclear deal, in which the United States and other countries would ease oil and economic sanctions on Iran for 10-15 years in return for Iran agreeing to stop its nuclear program over that period. Forty percent (40%) oppose such a deal.

Americans also prefer Congress to allow such a deal to go forward (53%) rather than block the agreement (46%). Support declines slightly when the deal is described as an agreement between the “Obama administration and Iran.”

Full poll results found here

Despite support for the deal, Americans remain skeptical it will stop Iran’s nuclear program. Fifty-two percent (52%) of Americans say the agreement is “unlikely” to “stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” including 32% who say it’s “extremely unlikely.” Conversely, 46% believe the deal is likely to achieve its primary goal.

However, Americans are more optimistic the deal will delay Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The poll found 51% of Americans think the deal will likely “delay” Iran’s nuclear development while 47% disagree.

The survey also offered Americans an opportunity to select which one of several policy options would be “most effective” in reducing the likelihood Iran develops nuclear weapons. Doing so found a plurality –40%— think the Iran nuclear agreement would be more effective than taking military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities (23%), imposing new economic sanctions against Iran (23%) or continuing existing sanctions against Iran (12%).

Ultimately, 63% of Americans say it would be a “disaster” if Iran developed nuclear capabilities while 32% say the problem could be managed and 5% say it wouldn’t be a problem. Nevertheless, Americans tend to have confidence that the Iran nuclear agreement may be the next best step toward reducing that possibility.

The Effort to Bring TSA Under Law

Four years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to consider the public’s input on its policy of using strip-search machines for primary screening at our nation’s airports. The TSA had “advanced no justification for having failed to conduct a notice-and-comment rulemaking,” the court found. It ordered the agency to “promptly” proceed in a manner consistent with its opinion.

Over the next 20 months, the TSA produced a short, vague paragraph that did nothing to detail the rights of the public and what travelers can expect when they go to the airport. At the time, I called the proposed rule “contemptuous,” because the agency flouted the spirit of the court’s order. In our comment on the proposed rule, Cato senior fellow John Mueller, Mark G. Stewart from the University of Newcastle in Australia, and I took the TSA to task a number of ways.

The comment period on that proposal closed more than two years ago, but the TSA has still not proceeded to finalizing its rule. Continuing the effort to bring the TSA under the rule of law—and into the world of common sense—the Competitive Enterprise Institute filed suit against TSA yesterday, asking the court to require the agency to finalize its strip-search machine rule within 90 days.