Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Congress Should Tell President Barack Obama No to War against the Islamic State

President Barack Obama finally is obeying the law. He wants Congress to authorize military action against the Islamic State. 

Congress should respond as it was prepared to do when the president requested permission last year to bomb Syria: Capitol Hill should say no.

Candidate Barack Obama stated: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  But three years ago, President Obama took America into war against Libya.  Three months ago, he initiated hostilities in Iraq against the Islamic State. Both without a congressional vote.

Most recently, administration officials claimed authority under the Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda adopted in the aftermath of September 11.  But the Islamic State is not al-Qaeda and ISIL’s leaders did not help organize the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. 

The president obviously changed his mind after his party was defeated in the off-year elections.  At least he now is following the Constitution. 

The Founders gave most military powers to Congress: raising and funding the military, writing the rules of war, issuing letters of marquee, and ratifying treaties. Moreover, Article I, Section 8 (11) states: “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.” 

The early Americans feared a president and war like today.  The Founders particularly opposed a system which subjected the nation’s peace to the whims of one man, accountable to no one.

Every Middle East Mistake Causes the United States to Intervene Again

Washington again is at war in the Middle East. Unfortunately, pressure for military intervention will grow with Republican control of the Senate.

The likely result of any new conflicts will be similar to America’s past interventions. The United States will be intervening again in a few years to try to clean up the mess it is creating today.

The United States is not bombing the Islamic State out of necessity. Rather, Washington is acting in response to past mistakes. ISIL exists only because the Bush administration invaded Iraq.

The Obama administration’s decision to attack the Islamic State makes no policy sense. So far, ISIL has focused on creating a quasi-government in the Middle East and has not targeted America.

Of course, the Islamic State killed two U.S. citizens who fell into its hands in truly monstrous behavior. But these murders are no different than similar barbarities committed by others around the globe. Such personal tragedies are no reason to go to war.

If successful in creating a viable “caliphate,” ISIL’s leaders might turn towards terrorism, but doing so would risk their quasi-state by bringing America’s wrath down upon it. Moreover, Iraq demonstrated the foolishness of launching preventive wars based on fantasies disguised as forecasts. The United States is more likely to turn the Islamic State to terrorism now by making war on it, encouraging it to retaliate.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Washington’s policy is absolving nearby states of their responsibility to destroy ISIL. These countries will not act if the United States bails them out.

Afghanistan as Narco-State: End The International Drug War

The U.S. government has failed to stop the drug trade at home. Washington also has not created a competent, effective, and honest central government in Afghanistan. How effective will Kabul be in limiting opium production when American troops go home?

Not much.

A new report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports that opium production last year was the highest ever, 209,000 hectares, up 36 percent from 2012.

Alas, the sky is the limit. SIGAR warned:  “With deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014.”

Last year the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that opium exports accounted for 14 percent of the country’s GDP. Unfortunately, explained SIGAR:  “the narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks, and providing significant financial support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”

The Afghan public is understandably cynical. When I visited the country Afghans called large homes behind high walls lining Kabul streets “poppy palaces.” 

Drug production exploded despite $7.6 billion spent by Washington alone to stop cultivation and distribution. Noted SIGAR, “the recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts.”

The State Department’s response to SIGAR was a marvel of delusion. Production “is only one indicator of counternarcotics progress.”  And “we are making good progress in building the capability of our Afghan partners,” even as cultivation surges.

This is the best case for years of expensive efforts? Even UNODC admitted that the Afghan State is beset by “fragmentation, conflict, patronage, corruption and impunity.” The Pentagon stated that “the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort.” 

Nevertheless, State said it looked “forward to the new Afghan government assuming a leadership role in this regard.”

Eradication was difficult enough when backed by a strong allied military presence. Wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, early programs were “manipulated by local Afghan strongmen to eliminate drug competition and ethnic/tribal rivals.”

Moreover, the eradication campaign, turned poppy farmers into Taliban supporters.  Eradication efforts also inflated Taliban revenues. As economist Jeffrey Clemens pointed out, the counter-narcotics campaign both redirected opium production to Taliban-controlled areas and raised poppy prices.

Operating on their own, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police will be hard-pressed to fulfill their most important responsibility to sustain the Kabul government against the Taliban. Drug interdiction inevitably will be a secondary objective for security forces which already suffer from corruption.

But no strategy likely would succeed even in the best circumstances. As noted earlier, attempting to suppress drugs could lose the geopolitical war without winning the fight against poppies. Even with greater development few legal opportunities would be better than poppy production.

Another approach is to reduce demand for drugs in Western societies to discourage production in Afghanistan. However, only the most draconian enforcement has much effect on drug use.

The West must set priorities in Afghanistan. Attempting to eradicate poppy production is almost guaranteed to lose the battle for hearts and minds.

Instead, allied policymakers should consider strategies to drain money and profit from the drug trade. Western governments should scale back the drug war.

Afghanistan could be allowed to produce opium for the legal morphine market. Ultimately the entire market should be legalized or at least decriminalized for adults.

Indeed, frustration with years of militarized eradication efforts, some in the midst of insurgencies akin to that in Afghanistan, has caused several Latin American governments to deemphasize enforcement.

As I noted in Forbes online:  “Afghanistan is merely one front in a global drug war. There are no good solutions. But Afghanistan and its Western-backers should recognize reality and abandon the futile and counterproductive campaign against the opium trade.”

The Neocon Moment: Showing Why Foreign Intervention Fails

With President Barack Obama further tarnishing his Nobel Peace Prize by starting yet another Middle Eastern war, exuberant Neoconservatives claim their moment has arrived. And it has: Neocon claims that war-mongering and nation-building serve America’s interests have become obviously ever more absurd.

In 2001 President George W. Bush initiated what was supposed to be The Neocon Moment, projecting a swaggering global presence in which the U.S. would bomb, invade, occupy, and otherwise intervene whenever and for whatever reason it chose. As I wrote for Forbes online:  “Autocrats would flee, candies would be tossed, enemies would be defeated, flowers would bloom, allies would comply, cakewalks would be held, democrats would flourish, and the lion would lie down with the lamb.”

Alas, administration policy wrecked Iraq. Although President Bush never repudiated what he’d done, he appeared to lose his taste for war.

Candidate Obama ran against the Bush presidency, but little changed U.S. foreign policy. No one could mistake the latter as a peacenik libertarian.

Except, apparently, for the Neocons. They now proclaim The Neocon Moment. Explained Matthew Continetti, “monsters [have been] brought forth by American retreat,” and “the threat of those monsters requires unilateral deadly force wherever necessary to kill our enemies and deter our foes.”

Retreat?

In fact, “The Neocon Moment” is distinguished by its failure. As evidence of the need for a return to swaggering interventionism Continetti offers a parade of horrors either created by Washington or well beyond its control.

There’s the Islamic State, which exists only because of the misguided Bush invasion of Iraq. There’s Ukraine, a testament to what happens when one encourages one’s allies to be helpless dependents while facing an adversary with a far greater interest in the outcome of any confrontation.

There are al-Qaeda affiliates in several countries, which arose in response to promiscuous U.S. meddling abroad and persisted in the midst of multiple wars. There’s Iran, in which Islamists overthrew a U.S.-supported dictator who took power in a U.S.-supported coup. There’s the Taliban, which survived more than a dozen years of Washington’s efforts at nation-building.

Neocons have no answer to any of these. They imagine a world of immaculate intervention, in which foreigners welcome being killed and never strike back. Alas, the more Washington attempts to micro-manage the globe, the more likely it is to be attacked.

Neocons also imagine a world in which America automatically deters and only America deters. No one would dare challenge Washington if the president exercised “leadership.”

In fact, countries with the most at stake will risk and spend more than their adversaries, as the U.S. demonstrated during the Cold War in Latin America. Does the U.S. have anything at stake in Ukraine and the Senkakus which warrants the risk of war? The answer is no.

One doesn’t have to look far to see the wreckage left by today’s interventionist consensus. Washington has attempted to fix the Middle East and Central Asia for decades. The result? War, instability, autocracy, brutality, collapse. U.S. officials consistently have demonstrated the reverse Midas touch.

The Balkans has turned out little better, with nationalist divisions still evident two decades after Washington imposed an artificial political settlement. Europe represents the globe’s greatest aggregation of economic power, but is not inclined to defend itself, preferring instead to rely on the U.S.

Only now is Japan finally emerging from hiding behind the “peace constitution” to consider a more active military role. South Korea continues to subsidize the North even as U.S. troops guarantee the former’s security.

It’s true: Americans are not living in the Libertarian Moment. Rather, we are living in The Neocon Moment, a testament to the foolishness and arrogance of those who believe themselves to be engineers of peoples, societies, and nations. Only when the American people insist that politicians make peace, not war, will The Libertarian Moment finally arrive.

Presidents, Precedents, and Perpetual War

Good news: after nearly three months of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the branding’s finally caught up to the bombing. Our latest war in the Middle East finally has a name: “Operation Inherent Resolve” is what we’re calling it, the Pentagon recently announced. DoD planners had initially rejected that name as uninspiring and “just kind of bleh,” but after several weeks of fruitless searching, they’ve decided it’s the best we can do.

Get Excited! (Photo Credit: Dept. of Defense)Here’s Defense.gov’s banner graphic for “Operation Inherent Resolve”: simple, spare, sort of Sisyphean. 

Actually, with its air of uninspired resignation, “Inherent Resolve” suits well enough, even if something like “Operation Eternal Recurrence” might have fit better. But it surely says something that, as with hurricanes, we’re running out of cool names for the wars presidents launch.

Now that we know what to call it, what should we make of Obama’s latest military intervention and how it fits into the president’s emerging legacy on constitutional war powers? Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Waxman have an important piece on that subject in the New Republic, arguing that “it is Obama, not Bush, who has proven the master of unilateral war.” “The war powers precedents Obama has established,” they explain, “will constitute a remarkable legacy of expanded presidential power to use military force.”

It’s a remarkable legacy, all right, though I might put somewhat less emphasis on “precedent” as such. Taken individually, as Goldsmith and Waxman acknowledge, very few of Obama’s actions are wholly unprecedented. But taken as a whole, the president’s approach to war powers begins to look like something new under the sun. As I argued recently at The Federalist, Obama will “go down in history as a ‘transformational’ president, having completed America’s transformation into a country where continual warfare is the post-constitutional norm.”

The Costs of Ebola: Guinea and Sierra Leone

For a clear snapshot of a country’s economic performance, a look at my misery index is particularly edifying. The misery index is simply the sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. 

The epicenter of the Ebola crisis is Liberia. My October 15, 2014 blog reported on the level of misery in and prospects for Liberia.

This blog contains the 2012 misery indexes for Guinea and Sierra Leone, two other countries in the grip of Ebola. Yes, 2012; that was the last year in which all the data required to calculate a misery indexes were available. This inability to collect and report basic economic data in a timely manner is bad news. It simply reflects the governments’ lack of capacity to produce. If governments can’t produce economic data, we can only imagine their capacity to produce public health services.

With Ebola wreaking havoc on Guinea and Sierra Leone, the level of misery is, unfortunately, very elevated and set to soar.

Preliminary Results in Ukraine

Update: The results are finally in. With 98.5% of votes counted, Western-leaning parties (and independents) have done even better than expected, taking 311 seats. Pro-Russian parties took 112 seats, while 27 seats (mostly Crimean districts) remain unfilled.  In other good news, the populists, though represented in the parliament, did relatively poorly: Lyashko’s Radical Party took only 22 seats. Far right parties did even worse, with Svoboda obtaining only 6 seats, and Right Sector 2 seats. These results mark a major change for the Rada, which has typically had parliaments split almost 50/50 between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian parties, and will certainly presage a turn to the West for Ukraine. Unfortunately, Russia has also committed to recognize the results of the Nov 2nd rebel elections in Luhansk and Donetsk. The Rada election results are a major victory for pro-Western democracy, but the crisis in Ukraine is not over. 

Original Post: Yesterday, Ukrainian voters went to the polls to elect a new parliament, replacing the deputies elected prior to the Euromaidan protests of early 2014. In a piece at Al-Jazeera America published on Sunday, I highlighted a few ways in which the election results could impact Ukraine’s future relations with Europe, Russia, and the resolution of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine. Prior to the vote, a high level of uncertainty about the likely makeup of the Rada - especially the election of far right (ie, Svoboda or Right Sector) or populist parties (ie, Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party) – was a major concern, as was the uncertainty over whether they might be represented in government. A new governing coalition will be instrumental in the resolution of the conflict, shaping how aggressively Ukraine pursues the rebels in the Donbas region.

Fortunately, initial exit polls today indicate reasonably positive results. The three mainstream pro-Western parties did well, with the Poroshenko bloc polling around 22.2%, the Popular Front at 21.8%, and surprise contender Samopomich, a Lviv-based moderate party, polling at 14%. These results are excellent news, as a governing coalition with no far right or populist elements should be possible. The far right party Svoboda will be represented in parliament, as will the populist Radical Party, but the latter did worse than expected, taking home only around 6% of the vote. Rounding out the major parties, Yulia Timoshenko’s Fatherland party also did worse than expected, taking just over 5% of the vote. The main surprise is the success of the Opposition Bloc, a successor to Yanokovich’s Party of Regions, which was not expected to obtain seats, but instead took around 7% of the vote.

These results are extremely preliminary, and as with pre-election polling, only give a broad national figure for how people voted. Thus, they predict the 225 seats which are allotted by proportional representation from them, but the remaining 225 seats are elected in each individual district, for which we have no exit polling data. The parties associated with Petro Poroshenko are expected to do well, but these are also likely to yield high numbers of independent candidates.  Full results are expected by Thursday morning.

Until we know the final makeup of the new Rada, as well as which parties ultimately will form the coalition government, it’s difficult to assess how the results will impact the ongoing crisis. Many citizens in Crimea and the Donbas were indeed unable to vote, disenfranchising as much as 19% of the population. The overwhelmingly pro-Western nature of the parties elected may be a double-edged sword: it will be popular with Western politicians, but it is in part a reflection of the disenfranchisement of Eastern Ukraine, and will not be truly representative. Despite this, Russian leaders appear to have accepted the results, signaling, hopefully, a willingness to work with Kiev in the future. Whether any government will be able to tackle Ukraine’s myriad problems is unclear. But while full electoral results will give us a better idea of what to expect from a new Ukrainian government, for now, the indications are reasonably positive.