Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Lenin, Hitler, Bin Laden — and Iraq

In his speech yesterday before the Military Officers Association of America, President Bush focused on Osama bin Laden’s speeches and writings. “We know what the terrorists intend to do because they’ve told us,” Bush told the assembled crowd, “and we need to take their words seriously.”

For the president’s part, bin Laden’s words affirm that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. “For al Qaeda,” the president explained, “Iraq is not a distraction from their war on America – it is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided.”

We know of Al Qaeda’s intentions – to expel the Americans from Iraq, and then to establish a Caliphate there – but what do we know of their capacity for achieving such ends? History is littered with the names of kooks and fanatics who aspired to global world domination. In relatively recent times, Americans remember cult leaders such as David Koresh, and perhaps even Jim Jones, but the vast majority of these individuals merit barely a footnote in textbooks.

The president wishes us to focus on the exceptions, on the evil, tyrannical few who have managed to translate their grandiose intentions into reality. He pointed to Lenin, and to Hitler, men who laid out their plans in clear view, in published writings and in speeches, but who were all but ignored until after they had seized the reins of power.

President Bush further contends that bin Laden has much in common with Lenin and Hitler, and that “History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake.”

We must not underestimate bin Laden, but we would be foolish to fight a war on his terms. We must especially avoid the apocalyptic conclusion that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq will have the effect of handing all of Iraq over to Al Qaeda on a silver platter. For what differentiates the Lenins and Hitlers of the world from countless other megalomaniacal fanatics was their unique ability to marry their evil designs to the power and resilience of a modern state, complete with an industrial base and a functioning military.

As Justin Logan and I wrote last year, the claims that bin Laden can and will create such a super state in Iraq are absurd on their face. The Kurds will not tolerate Al Qaeda in their midst. Neither will the Shiites, including many of the factional leaders and militia groups that are outspoken in their hostility to the United States. Even many Sunni Arabs, the minority who have lost the most since Saddam Hussein was removed from power, are loathe to make common cause with the murderous jihadists perpetrating indiscriminate violence against innocent Iraqis.

Rather than empowering potential allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, the continuing U.S. military presence is discouraging Iraqis from stepping forward because it feeds into bin Laden’s cynical narrative – that the Western nations, with the United States in the lead, seek to humiliate and dominate Iraqis, and all the Arab peoples. Absent a formal pledge to leave, ideally by some date certain, President Bush’s repeated assertions to the contrary are seen as nothing more than rhetoric, in contrast to the proximate, physical reality of nearly 140,000 U.S. troops on sacred Arab lands.

The occupation is counterproductive in the war against Al Qaeda, but it is also ineffective in its other stated aims. Nearly three and a half years since American forces went into Iraq, the U.S. military presence has not delivered on the promise of establishing a stable and unified Iraq. And for those who say Americans must be more patient, that monumental change takes time, perhaps even generations, it is not too much to expect that the trend lines would at least be moving in the right direction.

But they are not. Three nationwide elections in 2005 have not delivered stability, nor have they contributed to it. If anything, the political process in Iraq has empowered some of the most radical elements in Iraqi society. The ethnic militias and the death squads have used the political process to infiltrate the Iraqi Interior and Health ministries, among others, and have subverted the good faith efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish order.

With no definitive milestones on the horizon – there are no nationwide elections scheduled for Iraq until 2009 – the occupation grinds on indefinitely. Beyond the sickening drip-drip-drip of American casualties, there is the torrent of violence against Iraqis, particularly sectarian killings of Iraqi vs. Iraqi. From this maelstrom of bloodshed, the president can offer only more of the same. “The road ahead is going to be difficult, and it will require more sacrifice.”

That it is, and that it will be.

State Department Stretched Thin, Too

For fear of revealing how tall the “to be read” stack on my desk is, this August 24 article from the Washington Post reveals how it isn’t just the military that’s stretched too thin as a result of the Bush administration’s policy of purposively destabilizing the Middle East; the State Department is feeling the crunch, too. Citing “increasing international turmoil,” Foreign Service Director General George M. Staples outlined a plan to push more FSOs into “hardship” postings, as opposed to cushy appointments in Europe and other traditional focal areas. The planned changes

are intended to shake up the State Department culture so that overseas service becomes more frequent and more focused on global hot spots.

The changes come as the number of overseas positions that prohibit accompanying children – and sometimes spouses – has increased from 200 in 2001 to more than 800 today. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who ordered the new approach, has already begun shifting personnel from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

More than 200 foreign service officers are required each year in Iraq, and already 1,000 of the roughly 11,000 foreign service officers have voluntarily served there. The number of foreign service officers needed in Iraq will grow as Rice pushes forward with a plan to establish provincial reconstruction teams across the country.

Moving folks from Brussels and Berlin into Baghdad and Basra makes sense on its face, but that ignores the fact that the administration is also currently hell-bent on trying to twist European arms into coming along with us to confront Iran over its nuclear program. Arm-twisting requires diplomacy, and diplomacy requires diplomats. Take diplomats out of Europe, decrease your chances for diplomatic breakthroughs.

And about those provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs): State’s been having a hell of a hard time finding folks to fill them. There’s been a long-standing dispute between DoD and State as to who is going to protect these folks (DoD finally acquiesced to doing it). Moreover, State made a pretty measly request for its folks to apply to PRTs in the first place–it posted 35 available positions early this year, and by April, it had only received applications for 12 of those positions, only one of which was deemed qualified. Even when State finds folks to staff a few dozen PRT positions, it’s hard to believe that 50 diplomats are going to fix Iraq.

All of this points in one direction: if you want to have an empire, you’d do best to put yourself together a colonial service and do it right. If you don’t want to have a colonial service, maybe you’d best pare back your imperial ambitions.

Liberal Media?

Interesting to see that the influential Time magazine endorses an “all imperialist, all the time” approach to looking at the five year anniversary of 9/11.

Time draws on the broad range of experts from Max “Case for American Empire” Boot all the way over to Niall “The United States Is and Should Be an Empire” Ferguson, who is, frighteningly, a foreign policy adviser to John “Sophisticated Plan for Iraq” McCain.

Time really went out of its way to get at both sides of the issue there!  You can have it either way: Empire or Empire!

Fareed Zakaria on the 20-Foot-Tall Islamofascists at the Gates

Great piece by Fareed Zakaria on why the most powerful country on the planet shouldn’t cower in fear of Iran:

Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall—and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA’s wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives’ more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA’s lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians—most prominently the Cox Commission—doubled the estimates of China’s military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein’s capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons—and because he was a madman, he would use them…

Thanks to Laura Rozen for the link.

Paging Thomas Schelling

The NRO editorial on Iran is predictably alarmist, but there’s one line in particular that stands out:

[Iran’s acquisition of a bomb] would effectively give Tehran a veto over U.S. military action in the region.

Simply put, this just isn’t true.  The Soviet Union’s and China’s possession of nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the US from invading Vietnam.  US possession of nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the Soviet Union from invading Afghanistan.  Israeli possession of nuclear weapons hasn’t prevented a series of attacks on Israel’s peripheral interests.  We could go on.

This kind of reasoning at NRO betrays how much we have forgotten about deterrence theory.  Since I’m probably younger than any of NRO’s editorialists, youth is no excuse.

Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would indeed give Iran a veto over one prospective US policy: regime change in Iran.  Nuclear deterrents are useful in protecting vital interests.  But the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would somehow give Iran a veto over the range of available US policies in the region is silly.  It would definitely make the US think twice about the implications of its policies in the region, and perhaps make America more cautious, but given recent experience, one has to wonder how bad that would be.  In the end, we don’t have evidence that Iran would be any more likely to risk escalation to the nuclear level than would any other state. 

This core-vs.-peripheral interests dichotomy is at the center of the literature on nuclear deterrence.  If NRO wishes to cast it off in the course of advocating military action, then fine, but at least a cursory effort at dealing with the work of decades of scholarship on the topic of deterrence theory would be a welcome gesture.

Retire Hitler, Please

Secretary Rumsfeld’s nakedly political speech this week likely presaged the congressional campaigns of the coming weeks.  In a sop to the denizens of the right-wing blogosphere, the formulation “Islamic fascism” is used to describe “the enemy” in the current conflict(s).  This is a useful mnemonic, since it conjures the one historical analogy that Americans remember: Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1938 and the resulting world war.

It is also useful for supporters of a neoconservative foreign policy approach because it lumps a whole host of disparate adversaries (Sunni insurgents in Iraq; Shiite groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army; Hezbollah; the Iranian theocracy; &c) into the “Islamic fascist” grouping, with the binary choices being appeasement or war.  And do you, dear voter, wish to appease the fascists?

Duke poli sci professor Bruce Jentleson helpfully points out the various hawks for whom Vietnam represented another 1938, but for right-wingers, there are a whole host of Hitlers out there waiting to start another bloody world war.

Secretary Rumsfeld has previously likened Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to Hitler, as has Pat Robertson.  Rumsfeld has also likened Zarqawi, Ahmadinejad, and bin Laden to Hitler.  Ted Stevens and John Warner felt comfortable likening Saddam Hussein to Hitler before the current Iraq war.  Recall that for British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, it was Gamal Abdel Nasser who was the next Hitler.  Right-wing pundit Frank Gaffney had Colin Powell, of all people, in the role of Neville Chamberlain.  Even two-bit dictators like Slobodan Milosevic have gotten the Hitler treatment from American pundits.  And Charles Krauthammer may be the reigning king of Hitler analogies, apparently having compared Deng Xiaoping, Boris Yeltsin, Kim Jong-Il, and (this one’s a softball) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.  And via my friend Spencer Ackerman, I see that Leon Wieseltier has catalogued many of the Hitlers staring down Israel in recent years.

I could go on like this for hours, but it’s not the best use of our donors’ money or my dwindling sanity.  Hitler, thank God, was an aberration.  The Wehrmacht Hitler commanded was eminently capable of overrunning and occupying Europe.  (He thankfully also had the stupidity and hubris to decide that Stalingrad was in play.)  But to elevate Hugo Chavez, or even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitlerian heights is to completely miss the mark.

Like in criminal investigations, we have to consider both intent and means.  Divining intent is difficult, but ascertaining means is relatively easy.  When we look at the prospect of an Iranian bomb, though, we have to rely on interpretations of intent, since the means to attack Israel would clearly be there, albeit with a sure-fire suicidal result.  But war hawks seem to think that we should assume a fundamental irrationality on the part of Iran—that is, that its government would willfully bring about its own destruction in the pursuit of religious or ideological goals.  And even Hitler did not meet that standard of insanity.  Hitler made judgments based on his assessment of what he could get away with—until the war had gone too far and he thought there was no turning back.

I’m not a huge fan of historical analogies generally, but I sometimes wish that a 1914 analogy existed in the minds of Americans to counter the 1938 analogy.  But alas, the 1938 analogy seems to get applied to everything.  And when all you face are Hitlers, there aren’t a whole lot of choices to be made.  More to the point, like the boy who cried “wolf!” we may find ourselves so desensitized to the Hitler analogy that, should one arise in the future, we are numb to the warning.

Ambrose Bierce once remarked that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but one wishes that war could teach Americans history, too.