Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Washington Should Stop Equating Ugly Regimes and Security Threats

President Obama raised eyebrows last week when he issued an executive order declaring Venezuela to be a threat to national security.  It would be pertinent to ask just how that deeply divided, nearly bankrupt country could menace the security of the global superpower.  Venezuela has no long-range ballistic missiles or bombers, much less nuclear weapons.  It does not have a large, well-equipped army.  The Venezuelan navy is both small and antiquated.  Although rumors continue to circulate that the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro flirts with terrorist organizations in neighboring Colombia and elsewhere, those reports remain little more than rumors.

Most telling, Obama’s executive order did not cite evidence that Venezuela actually posed a threat to the security and well-being of the United States.  Instead, it focused on the Maduro regime’s ill-treatment of the Venezuelan people.  The executive order is a textbook example of an overly broad definition of national security.  The White House emphasized that the order imposed sanctions on officials who undermined democratic processes or institutions, abused human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression, or were guilty of corruption.  White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared that the United States now had the tools to block the financial assets of Venezuelan officials “past and present” who dare “violate the human rights of Venezuelan citizens and engage in acts of public corruption.”

Those are all tragic aspects of that country’s dysfunctional political system.  There is little question that Venezuela’s government is horrifyingly corrupt and autocratic.  Cato’s Juan Carlos Hidalgo has ably described the many abuses committed by both Maduro and his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez..  It may well take Venezuela a generation or more to recover from the socialist idiocies of those two rulers.  But as I point out in the pages of the National Interest Online,  just because a regime is repugnant does not make it a credible security threat to the United States.

Obama’s executive order is ominous because it signals a return to the overuse of national security justifications that was so common in previous administrations.  It should be recalled that U.S. officials asserted, apparently while maintaining straight faces, that such small, weak adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Iraq, and Cuba posed dire national security threats.  The ensuing policies produced frustrating, counterproductive results.  Indeed, in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, the outcomes of such a promiscuous invocation of U.S. security needs were disastrous wars that squandered hundreds of billions of tax dollars and snuffed out the lives of thousands of American military personnel.  One might hope that policymakers had learned from those bruising experiences and would avoid such folly in the future.

It is imperative to adopt a more rigorous standard about what does and does not constitute a threat to national security.  A foreign regime’s domestic behavior, however reprehensible, does not per se pose a menace to America.  The actions of Maduro and his henchmen fall into that category.  Venezuela’s government is riddled with corruption and behaves in a disturbingly repressive fashion toward political opponents.  But that makes Venezuela an obnoxious neighbor, not a security threat to the United States.  

Administration Should Speed Military Withdrawal From Afghanistan

America has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 13 years. U.S. troop levels peaked at 140,000 in 2010. More than 2200 Americans died in a conflict reflecting little more than purposeless inertia.

The U.S. is leaving, but not entirely and maybe not soon. Warned NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove in January, “we are going to continue to have casualties.” The formal combat mission might be over, but combat is not.

Roughly half of the 10,600 American troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, with the rest scheduled to go in 2016. But the administration is considering slowing the withdrawal.

Washington intervened in Afghanistan with two overriding objectives:  destroy al-Qaeda and oust its Taliban hosts. The U.S. quickly fulfilled both goals. But then the Bush administration lost interest in the country.

Instead of ending Washington’s half-hearted misadventure at nation-building, the Obama administration twice doubled down. Some progress was made, but when I visited I found only limited confidence in private.

Washington and its allies built a large government bureaucracy and security force in Kabul, but on a potential foundation of sand. The Afghan government is noted for venality, incompetence, and corruption.

The Iran Policy Clownshow

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

Russia Befriends North Korea to Punish U.S. Over Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has reached out to one of the poorest and least predictable states on earth: North Korea. So far, the new Moscow-Pyongyang axis matters little. But the effort demonstrates that Russia can make Washington pay for confronting Moscow over Ukraine.

The United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II. Moscow’s zone became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, while the U.S. zone became the Republic of Korea, better known as South Korea. But North Korea denounced Moscow in 1991 after it recognized South Korea. Since then, Russo-North Korean relations have been minimal.

In contrast, Seoul provided investment and trade in abundance. After President Vladimir Putin held a summit with South Korean President Park, Russia leaned toward Seoul in denouncing the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

However, Moscow is rebalancing its position. Last year North Korea and Russia exchanged high-level visitors and inked a number of economic agreements. Russia indicated its willingness to host a summit. Both governments talked of “deepening” economic and political ties.

Although Russia’s North Korea initiatives are new, the interests being promoting are old: regional stability, denuclearization, improved transportation links, expanded commercial and energy activities, and enhanced diplomatic clout.

Another Petty Dispute Involving U.S. Allies

Alliances tend to entangle America in confrontations that have little or no relevance to the security and liberty of the republic.  A prime example of that problem is the ongoing, bitter dispute between Japan and South Korea over some largely uninhabited rocks and the waters surrounding them.  Tokyo and Seoul cannot even agree on the correct name of the islands or the body of water.  Japanese call the islands Takeshima, while South Koreans insist on the name Dokdo.  For Japanese (and most of the world), the spits of rock are located in the Sea of Japan, but South Koreans hate that name and instead call it the East Sea.

As I discuss in a recent National Interest Online article, outsiders might be tempted to snicker at such a parochial feud, but it has significant policy implications.  U.S. officials are seeking to strengthen Washington’s alliances with both Japan and South Korea to counter China’s growing power in East Asia.  A key component of that strategy is to encourage closer bilateral military cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul.  The Takeshima/Dokdo dispute is a major impediment to such cooperation.  Beijing has been quick to take advantage of the animosity by actively courting South Korea.  

Japanese and South Korean leaders also pressure Washington to take sides in the controversy.  Such efforts should be rebuffed firmly.  Which country has sovereignty over the islands and the surrounding fishing waters should be a matter of profound indifference to all Americans.

There is a larger lesson in this petty territorial dispute.  As my colleague Doug Bandow has correctly observed, Washington collects allies with less thought and discrimination than most people collect Facebook friends.  In doing so, we also collect all of the disputes and feuds that those “friends” wage with other parties.  That is an unnecessary and unwise policy for a superpower.

Bibi vs. Frost

There is a lot to say about Israeli Prime Minster’s Benjamin Netanyahu’ speech to Congress today. I could object to his use of worst case scenarios and overstatements of Iranian power. Instead I’m taking issue with his treatment of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. My point, besides being pedantic, is that Frost’s realist sensibility makes him a poor reference for Bibi.

Netanyahu tells us that we face a crossroads. One path is the deal being negotiated, which may contain the Iranian nuclear program temporarily but will “lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war.” Or we can do the difficult thing and hold out for a better deal, which “would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, a nuclearized Middle East and the horrific consequences of both to all of humanity.”

Hold Politicians Accountable for Debacle in Libya

Will America ever again be at peace? Pressure is building for the U.S. again to intervene in Libya.

Less than three years after Libya’s civil war the country has ceased to exist. This debacle offers a clear lesson for American policymakers. But denizens of Washington seem never to learn.

The administration presented the issue as one of humanitarian intervention, to save the people of Benghazi from slaughter at the hands of Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.

Although he was a nasty character, he had slaughtered no one when his forces reclaimed other territory. In Benghazi he only threatened those who had taken up arms against him.

In fact, the allies never believed their rhetoric. They immediately shifted their objective from civilian protection to slow motion regime change. Thousands died in the low-tech civil war.

Alas, Libya was an artificial nation. When Khadafy died political structure vanished. The country split apart. Today multiple warring factions have divided into two broad coalitions.

“Operation Dignity” is a largely secular grouping including Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” and the internationally recognized government. Last May Haftar launched a campaign against the Islamist militias with covert support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

“Libya Dawn” is a mix of Islamists, moderate to radical, and conservative merchants which now controls Tripoli. They are backed by Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey, and deny that the Islamic State poses much of a threat.