Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

“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?”

Gerecht Misses the Mark

Forgive the length, but below is my humble contribution to the debate that is now heating up over at Cato Unbound.

It is odd that Reuel Marc Gerecht criticizes my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter for looking at America’s successes in deterring totalitarian regimes with nuclear weapons for insights on the prospect of deterring the Iranian totalitarian regime, should it get nuclear weapons. Mr. Gerecht offers soliloquies on the (genuine) oddity of twelver Shi’ism (as does Mr. Luttwak, more briefly), but somehow misses the proper starting point for a discussion of US foreign policy: US interests and the costs and benefits of available US policy options. Indeed, Mr. Gerecht does not deign, at any point in this discussion, to evaluate even briefly the prospective costs and benefits of his preferred policy option: preventive war.

Mr. Gerecht points out that “in a pre-9/11 world, Shi’ite and Sunni radical Islamic terrorism should have been one of those things that scared us the most.” He then explains that “to President Clinton’s shame, he couldn’t compel himself into preemptive military action against the rising Sunni menace. Yet it would appear in 2006 such holy warriors scare Mr. Carpenter not much at all. They should.” (my emphasis)

It is a useful rhetorical device for Gerecht to switch back and forth between Sunni al Qaeda terrorists and the Shiite government in Tehran, but the historical record deserves to be corrected as to Carpenter’s concern about terrorism.

To that end, I would humbly point him to Carpenter’s 1995 Handbook for Congress article in which he warned that

Americans have become targets of international terrorism. Unfortunately, that danger is likely to grow rather than recede in the coming years…

Back to Mr. Gerecht’s case for war. Mr. Gerecht implies that there is something inherent in the regime in Tehran—whether theological or political—that is inevitably pushing us toward conflict with Iran. In so doing, he chooses to ignore the decades-long US policy of meddling in Iran’s internal politics and trying to overthrow the government there; one could start with the CIA-backed coup in 1953 and the 1964 SOFA agreement, to the efforts of Gerecht’s colleague Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, to allocate millions of dollars to attempt to overthrow the Tehran government, to the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, to…well, to last week’s meeting at the White House between Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Richard Perle, and the NSC’s Eliot Abrams, with a host of dissidents whose publicly stated goal is to overthrow Iran’s government. And to think that the Iranians believe that we are trying to overthrow their government!

As for a brief commentary on the prudence of various policy options, I would refer to a useful analogy offered by Mr. Gerecht’s other colleague, Michael Rubin, in referring to our options in dealing with the Islamic republic:

When faced with a hornet’s nest, the choice to destroy it or leave it alone is better than the compromise of lightly tapping it with a stick.

Agreed. For his part, Mr. Rubin did us the courtesy of openly advocating a full-blown regime-change type assault against Iran, but it is not clear whether Mr. Gerecht is advocating destroying the Islamic republic, or just tapping it with a stick. We would do quite well to learn whether Mr. Gerecht is only in favor of striking the nuclear facilities in Iran, or also attacking the locations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the missile sites, the presumed chemical and biological weapons sites, and the Iranian leadership. Of course, this would lead to a discussion of targeting, which would put hundreds, if not thousands of aim points on the table, and we would ultimately be talking (once again) of a preventive war to remove a foreign bogeyman who supposedly poses an intolerable threat to this, the most powerful country in the history of the planet.

Finally, one is hard pressed to imagine how Mr. Gerecht will explain away the reckless and shameful incompetence of the hawk faction in the Bush administration as described by the Washington Post. The Iranians approached the Bush administration directly in 2002 (after the ridiculous “axis of evil” speech!) and proposed cooperating against al Qaeda, informing the US of the identities of 290 members of al Qaeda that Iran had captured and sent back to their countries. The Iranians proposed further cooperation against al Qaeda. The Bush administration’s response?

Representatives of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought back. Any engagement, they argued, would legitimate Iran and other historic state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria… Participants said Bush’s divided national security team was unable to agree on an answer. Some believe important opportunities were lost.

Why would Iran make such overtures? Moreover, even after being rebuffed, Iran cooperated with the US on al Qaeda by transferring some of them to Afghan custody, and provided the US information on more of them. More to the point, why would the Bush administration turn them down, if they were serious about diplomacy?

The sad irony is that there is no good reason that even hawks like Mr. Gerecht should oppose offering a grand bargain to the Iranians. If the issue is indeed the nuclear program, not the regime, then we lose nothing by putting a deal on the table. We offer an irrevocable international inspections regime of Iran’s existing nuclear program, along with all attendant safeguards, in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of the regime in Tehran, lifting of the US sanctions, and a public pledge not to attack Iran unprovoked. If the Iranians turn such a deal down, there is nothing (except prudence) that would prevent us from then attacking Iran. But Mr. Gerecht seems uninterested in serious diplomacy as a matter of principle.

Mr. Gerecht’s original essay, in addition to the lengthy description of the weirdness of the Iranian government, offers little in the way of policy guidance. Gerecht’s preferred policy, for the Bush administration to “begin a crash course in covert and overt Iranian democracy-promotion, firing all those in the bureaucracies who seek to sabotage the mission” is one that he admits “isn’t going to happen.” And that tells us a good deal about its viability. Or does Mr. Gerecht believe that the Bush administration is somehow at peace with the Islamic republic going nuclear? If so, why all the public fuss about it?

So we end up back at what has become the default neoconservative option, preventive war. Gerecht should at the very least answer Carpenter’s worry about how this third US-initiated war against an Islamic country (this one truly unilateral) in the past five years would go over in the Muslim world. Would it have a negative effect, a positive effect, or no effect on the allure of anti-American terrorism for young Muslim males? Would it deflate, or substantiate the arguments of Osama bin Laden about America’s intentions? Would it help, or harm the US mission in Iraq? What would the Iranian response likely be: for America, for Israel, or for Iran’s neighbors? Would another war serve the national interests of the United States more than it harms them?

These are the obvious questions. Unfortunately, Mr. Gerecht provides no answers.

U.S. Manufacturing Expands along with China’s Economy

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) renewed his threat this week to demand a vote in the Senate on legislation that would impose steep tariffs on imports from China if the Chinese government does not move promptly to strengthen its currency.

Like many other members of Congress, Schumer believes that China has “manipulated” the value of its currency in a way that makes Chinese goods artificially cheap in the U.S. market while discouraging U.S. exports to China. One result, according to Schumer, has been serious damage to America’s manufacturing base.

Three news items this week, though, should give Congress pause before it slaps tariffs on imports from China:

  • The latest reports from Beijing confirmed that China’s economy continues to grow rapidly. China’s economy reached an annualized growth rate of 11 percent in the second quarter and more than 10 percent for the first half of 2006. 
  • But China’s growth is not coming at the expense of the U.S. economy or U.S. manufacturing. The U.S. Federal Reserve Board of Governors reported this week that U.S. manufacturing output is up 5.7 percent so far in 2006 compared to a year ago. Indeed, according to a recent Cato study, U.S. manufacturing output is up 50 percent in the past 12 years along with our expanding trade with China.
  • The number of Internet users in China has reached 123 million. That gives China the second largest group of users in the world, behind the 200 million users in the United States.

Rapid economic growth in China is not coming at the expense of the U.S. manufacturing sector. But that growth is creating a growing middle class in China that is increasingly engaged not only in the global economy but in the global sharing of ideas.America’s economic relationship with China was the topic of a lively discussion at a Cato policy forum this week. You can view or listen to the event here.