Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Karl Rove’s Paean to T.R.

Gene Healy beat me to the punch in commenting on Karl Rove’s Time essay on Teddy Roosevelt.

My colleague (and office neighbor) John Samples is always telling me that Bush supporters are capital-P Progressives. In the course of some parallel research a while back, I happened on an article by the historian William E. Leuchtenberg that explains the Progressives’ comfort with ambitious, activist government, both at home and abroad. Fudge the language a bit in places, and it sounds frighteningly similar to the Bush administration today.

[I]mperialism and progressivism flourished together because they were both expressions of the same philosophy of government, a tendency to judge any action not by the means employed but by the results achieved, a worship of definitive action for action’s sake, as John Dewey has pointed out, and an almost religious faith in the democratic mission of America. The results of the Spanish-American War were heartily approved not merely because the war freed subject peoples from tyranny, but because, since the United States was the land of free institutions, any extension of its domain was per se an extension of freedom and democracy. It was an age that admired results, that was not too concerned with fine distinctions and nice theories. The Progressives, quite apart from sharing in the general excitement of middle-class America in the rise of the United States as a world power and the sense of identity with the nation which imperialism afforded in a time of national stress, admired anyone who could clean up the slaughterhouses or link two great oceans, who could get a job done without months of tedious debate and deference to legal precedents.

The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government, which would mean the reign of plutocracy at home and a narrow, isolationist concept of national destiny abroad, which would deny the democratic mission of America and leave the brown peoples pawns of dynastic wars and colonial exploitation.

William E. Leuchtenberg, “Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1916,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39, no. 3 (Dec. 1952), p. 501

Intelligence Failures

Sunday’s Washington Post featured an in-depth story on the infamous “Curveball” – the notoriously unreliable source at the center of the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had a functioning WMD program in early 2003. Both President Bush and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Iraq’s mobile biological laboratories in major speeches in the run-up to war, despite the fact that a number of senior CIA analysts had doubts about Curveball’s credibility. When asked to verify Curveball’s reports, German intelligence officials would not do so. One told the CIA’s Tyler Drumheller, as Drumheller tells the Post: “I think the guy is a fabricator…We could never validate his reports.”

Most of the attention on the Iraq war has focused on the administration’s WMD claims. (Alas, the story still doesn’t go away.) And it is certainly true that the American public would have been far less supportive of the Iraq war at the outset if they knew that a key component of Iraq’s WMD program was a figment of one man’s imagination.

But the broader intelligence failure did not pertain to Iraq’s supposed WMD program; rather, it had to do with the Bush administration’s misplaced confidence that a stable functioning democracy could be quickly established in Iraq. Richard Perle, one of the leading advocates for war with Iraq, and now an advocate of confrontation with Iran (see yesterday’s Post Outlook section), still thinks this was the case. As Justin Logan and I write in our Policy Analysis, “Failed States and Flawed Logic”:

Perle would admit in the summer of 2003 that the DOD civilians’ plan centered on installing Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the new leader of Iraq. In Perle’s view, had the Chalabi plan been enacted, “we’d be in much better shape today.”

But Perle’s (and the Bush administration’s) confidence in Chalabi was badly misplaced. As John Hulsman and Alexis Debat explain in the most recent issue of The National Interest:

the administration simply backed the wrong horse in supporting Chalabi…In its appreciation of the impeccably tailored and mannered Chalabi, the administration failed to question how his exile status and Western orientation, indeed the very qualities that made him a neoconservative fantasy ruler for Iraq, would impair his leadership capability.

Just as there were officials inside of government who were skeptical of the WMD claims, so too did government experts try to warn the Bush administration that the post-conflict period would be protracted and costly. As I wrote over two years ago, the failure to heed these warnings has been, and is likely to be, far more costly that the “failed intelligence” on Iraqi WMDs.

Frontline on the War

Readers may be interested in a well done PBS Frontline documentary on the birth of the war on terror and the war in Iraq. The entire documentary can be viewed online.

If you only have a bit of time, start with Part III, in case you held any doubts that the Bush administration took its eye off al Qaeda in Afghanistan as they refocused on invading Iraq. Several gravelly CIA types (some of whom were on the ground in Afghanistan) come forward to make clear that they feel they had al Qaeda hemmed in in the winter of 2001–2002, but they did not get the resources they needed—and asked for—to snap its neck.

There’s also a lengthy workup describing the mishandling of intelligence before the Iraq war. There’s not much new material on that topic, but the documentary is a good synopsis of what we now know. The whole documentary is riveting stuff, well worth a watch.

Dick Cheney, Dove?

Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea is about to conduct a test of its long-range Taepodong 2 missile, which would be capable of reaching targets in the United States. The prospect of Pyongyang having not only a small nuclear arsenal but the means eventually to deliver such weapons at great distances has understandably generated agitated commentary in the United States and East Asia.

The latest entry is a Washington Post op-ed by former Clinton administration defense department officials Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry. Carter and Perry suggest that if the North Koreans do not heed U.S. warnings to refrain from conducting the missile test, the Bush administration should launch preemptive air strikes to take out the missile while it is still on the launch pad. Surprisingly, Vice President Dick Cheney rejected their idea.

It is clear that extremist and reckless proposals have come to dominate a policy debate when Dick Cheney is the resident dove. The Carter-Perry article provides more evidence (as if we needed it) that foreign policy irresponsibility is not confined to neoconservatives in the Republican Party.

Those who propose attacking North Korea need to sit down and take a deep breath. First of all, the rumors about a missile test may or may not be true. On at least two occasions since Pyongyang announced a moratorium on testing in 1999, there have been reports that the test of a long-range missile was imminent. Those reports proved unfounded. This one may as well.

Even if North Korea does conduct a test of the Taepodong 2, it is not the end of the world. Granted, every sensible person would wish that the weird hermit kingdom did not have either nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. But the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them with pinpoint accuracy. We’ve deterred other weird regimes in the past, most notably Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. We should be able to deter the likes of Kim Jong-il. The North Korean regime, while bizarre and brutally repressive, has never shown signs of suicidal behavior. And attacking a nation that possesses thousands of nukes would definitely be suicidal.

The decision to launch preemptive air strikes would certainly be more dangerous than relying on deterrence. If the Bush administration follows the advice of Carter and Perry and attacks North Korea, it could easily trigger a general war on the Korean Peninsula. The last Korean war cost the lives of millions of Koreans and more than 50,000 Americans. We should spurn any proposal that risks a repetition. 

Dick Cheney is right to be a dove on this issue. One only wishes that the viewpoint becomes habit forming. 

I Voted for What?

Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) is an important man in Congress. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs its Military Personnel Subcommittee which spends $85 billion annually.

Whether he knows how that money is spent is an open question. The Hill reported today that McHugh voted for a defense authorization bill that included a provision “he said he philosophically opposed.” (The provision overrode a federal court’s decision in a dispute between National Guard members and the government about who should pay for correspondence courses).

McHugh apparently had not read the defense authorization bill. Never mind, everyone does it, as The Hill reports, “It is no secret that some — if not most — lawmakers vote on bills that they do not read in their entirety.” McHugh notes that “hundreds and hundreds” of provisions come through, and he relies on his staff “for judgment on more routine matters.”

Members of Congress are elected to work on behalf of their constituents. How can they do that if they don’t read the bills they pass? It is true that the government is so large that supervising how well past laws are being implemented, much less reading bills, takes a lot of time and effort. Maybe more time and effort than even a hard-working member has.

Here’s a thought for members of Congress: maybe the fact that you don’t read the bills you vote for means the government has grown well beyond anyone’s control. Maybe — and this will be shocking to you — the government is too big.

Still Fighting the Last War

The right half of the blogosphere is abuzz with Senator Santorum’s revelation that since 2003 Coalition forces have recovered some 500 pre-1991 artillery shells and other munitions that contain “degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent.” (Not much of a revelation, given that in 2004 the Coalition’s Iraq Survey Group acknowledged the existence [.pdf, p. 18] of pre-Gulf-War shells).

It’s all a bit sad and embarrassing. Do the folks trumpeting this story really expect Americans to hear it and gasp: “My God: Saddam might have put some of those degraded mustard gas shells on his unmanned aerial vehicles, and dusted an American city. I’ve had my doubts about this war, but in the end, it was worth it after all!”

The WMD-based justification for the war never made much sense. As Gregg Easterbrook (among others) has pointed out, “WMD” is a misnomer, particularly when applied to chemical weapons: “Chemical weapons are dangerous, to be sure, but not ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in any meaningful sense. In actual use, chemical arms have proven less deadly than regular bombs, bullets, and artillery shells.” Sure, all of that stuff will kill you, if used properly. But none of it is worthy of the scare term “WMD”–certainly not the sort of decrepit ordnance Santorum’s talking about. Still less can it serve as post hoc justification for the war.

Grand Bargain Bandwagon Gaining Steam

During Condoleezza Rice’s May 31 press conference announcing that the US would look favorably on joining the EU3 talks with Iran, Secretary Rice was at pains to point out that

This is not a grand bargain. I want to make very clear we are not talking here about what some have characterized as a grand bargain. 

Listening to Rice deliver that line, I was struck by the fact that John Bolton’s remarks not 10 days before sounded an awful lot like a grand bargain:

[I]f [the Iranians] do what Libya did, the same thing will happen.  The “regime stay” strategy is following the Libyan example…I’ve probably said a thousand times that the Libya example is there for both North Korea and Iran to see, and that’s all I’ve ever said and this wasn’t any different.

Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program and paid up for the Lockerbie bombing.  We then removed them from the state sponsors of terror list and normalized diplomatic relations with the Khaddafi government.  If that’s not a grand bargain, what is it?

Now, former NSC senior director Flynt Leverett is on the NYT op-ed page blasting his former employer.  Why?

[B]y refusing to consider a “grand bargain” with Iran — that is, resolution of Washington’s concerns about Tehran’s weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism in return for American security guarantees, an end to sanctions and normalization of diplomatic relations — the Bush administration is courting failure in its nuclear diplomacy and paving the way for Russia and China to win the larger strategic contest.

[…]

By continuing to reject a grand bargain with Tehran, the Bush administration has done nothing to increase the chances that Iran will accept meaningful long-term restraints on its nuclear activities. It has also done nothing to ensure that the United States wins the longer-term struggle for Iran. Such a grand bargain is precisely what is required, not only to forestall Iran’s effective nuclearization in the next three to five years, but also to position the United States for continued leadership in the Middle East for the next decade and beyond.

The calls for talks with Iran got so loud that the Bush administration could no longer ignore them.  One can only hope that the same thing will happen for those of us who have been calling for a grand bargain.  Otherwise, Iran may be able to use the rope-a-dope diplomacy that North Korea has used so effectively, buying the Iranians enough time to present us with a nuclear fait accompli before we can get to the bottom diplomatic line.

There’s a time to cut to the chase, and that time is now.  As Ted Carpenter and I wrote in April, a grand bargain

would test the Iranian side’s faith immediately, without endless haranguing over peripheral or esoteric issues. We would determine rather quickly whether negotiations would be worth the breath.

More importantly, with a full-scale deal on the table, the Iranians would have no excuses to back away. If they refused the deal, there would be only one conclusion to draw: Tehran is irreversibly determined to develop nuclear weapons.

We don’t need to panic, but time isn’t on our side here.  The worst-case estimate (.pdf) is that Iran could be three years away from a bomb, and the US intelligence consensus says 5-10 years.  Still, there’s no need to drag this out indefinitely.  We need to put all of our cards on the table and ask Iran what it’s holding.