Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Obama Administration Should Keep U.S. Out Of Iraq’s Revived Killfest

The uber-hawks and neocons who led America into the disastrous invasion of Iraq are campaigning for a repeat.  If only the U.S. will go to war along the Euphrates a second time, they promise, everything will turn out well.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Americans should ignore these Sirens of Death.  Attempting to forcibly transform Iraq never was Washington’s responsibility.  Having botched the job once, U.S. policymakers should not try again.” 

Refusal to Set Military Priorities Creates Strategic Bankruptcy

The U.S. government is financially bankrupt and can ill afford to police the world.  Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers refuse to reconsider even the most antiquated security promise.  The result is strategic bankruptcy as well.

In the aftermath of World War II the U.S. effectively took over the defense of much of Asia and Europe, fought or supported combatants in several Third World proxy wars, engaged in nation-building, and otherwise routinely intervened around the globe.

Despite a changed world, the U.S. continues to defend now wealthy Asian and European client states.  American military personnel continue to die fighting in Third World conflicts, only in different nations.  Washington continues to attempt to micromanage the globe.

How Political Repression Breeds Islamic Radicalism

Following the decision upholding numerous death penalties for Muslim Brotherhood members accused of a 2013 attack on a police station, Egypt has recently seen the conclusion of another sham trial, resulting in harsh sentences for three al-Jazeera journalists, accused of aiding terrorists.

While it is obvious that trials like these move Egypt further away from freedom, could they also be inadvertently helping Islamic radicals? My new development bulletin argues that political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt creates incentives for Islamists to use violence in order to attain their goals.

Iraq, where ISIS is making continual progress fighting the government of Nouri al-Maliki, is an extreme example of where things can end when political elites exclude a significant part of the population from democratic politics. Al-Maliki’s premiership has been marked by a strengthening of his own hold to power, progressively alienating the country’s Sunni population.

My paper argues that the electoral successes of Islamists in Arab Spring countries have relatively little to do with religion but rather with the organizational characteristics of Islamic political groups, which were typically active in the provision of local public goods and social services. Instead of seeing the rise of Islamic political organizations as a pathology that needs to be countered – possibly through repressive means – we should note that,

[I]n transitional environments, the electoral success of Islamists is a natural result of the political environment, which can be mitigated only by an increase in the credibility of alternative political groups. The electoral advantage enjoyed by Islamic parties can be expected to dissipate over time as competing political groups establish channels of communication, promise verification for their voters, and build reputation over time.

Furthermore,

There is no denying that religion and politics do not always mix well. However, the appropriate answer to the ugly side of religious politics is not political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt but rather open, competitive democratic politics.

NATO - What Is It Good For?

With continuing instability in Ukraine, and Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski allegedly using vulgar and racist language to disparage the US-Poland alliance, now’s as good a time as any to evaluate what NATO does for Americans.

Not much, I argue in Foreign Policy (online). As I conclude:

NATO has produced some benefits, but the costs to the United States – tens of billions per year, validating Russian nationalist narratives about the West, and infantilizing its European partners – are often ignored. Washington should cut the Europeans loose, and encourage them to cooperate with each other on European security matters. With a combined GDP larger than the United States and a benign threat environment, Europeans are capable of defending themselves, but won’t until Washington makes them.

Please give it a read.

U.S. Should End Aid to Egypt’s New But Not Improved Mubarak

Much about the President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been an embarrassment.  In Egypt the Obama administration incompetently followed in the footsteps of its predecessors.

Three years ago Hosni al-Mubarak’s dictatorship ingloriously collapsed.  The Obama administration constantly followed events, first embracing Mubarak, then calling for a negotiated transition, and finally endorsing his overthrow. 

The Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral success upset the military’s plans to retain power, but the “deep state” persisted.  Mohamed al-Morsi was elected president, but he controlled little of substance—not the military, police, courts, or bureaucracy.

Nearly a year ago Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ended any possibility of the government slipping outside of military control by staging a coup.  Since then thousands have been killed, hundreds sentenced to death, and tens of thousands detained. 

Through it all the Obama administration took the least principled position possible.  Although U.S. law required a cut-off of financial aid, the president simply refused to characterize the coup as a coup, as if not saying the name made it something else. 

Officials worried about lost leverage, even though Egyptian officials always ignored Washington’s political advice in the past.  Washington eventually held back a portion of planned U.S. assistance, apparently to demonstrate a little, but not too much, disapproval.  Particularly grotesque regime abuses earned complaints from the Obama administration, but then Secretary Kerry would suggest that democracy still was moving forward. 

In April the administration said it would allow distribution of some military aid and deliver ten Apache helicopters to Egypt’s military.  When I visited Egypt a couple months ago I found that virtually everyone believed America was on the wrong side, a notable if not particularly worthy achievement by the administration.

Now Congress can set things right.  Last year Cairo was slated to collect $1.3 billion in military and $250 million in economic assistance.  Although the military money was conceived of as an incentive to convince Cairo to keep the peace with Israel, the Egyptian military, which has not fought a war in more than four decades, has the most to lose from any hostilities. 

The economic payments do little to promote growth.  Instead, government-to-government payments usually underwrite autocracy and statism, and discourage reform by masking the pain of failure. 

House Republicans, apparently enthused with President Sisi’s promise to smite Islamists—along with everyone else who has the temerity to criticize him ever so slightly—proposed a nominal $50 million cut in economic assistance.  That’s barely enough for Cairo to notice, especially since the military would continue collecting its usual payments for use to purchase high-tech weapons which are more for show than use. 

In contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed to reduce military aid to $1 billion and economic assistance to $150 million.  That’s a $400 million cut.  U.S. aid still violates the law, but at least the reduction is noticeable.

However, even the Senate doesn’t go far enough.  Congress should end all aid.  The administration should shut up about democracy.  The Pentagon should be left to cooperate with the Egyptian military on essential tasks, including access to the Suez Canal—after all, Egypt’s generals will want to continue purchasing newer and better toys, as well as acquiring spare parts for existing weapons.

There is no good answer to Egypt.  No one knows how a Morsi presidency would have turned out, but skepticism of the Brotherhood in power is understandable, given the abuses of Islamists elsewhere. 

Alas, as I point out in my new article on American Spectator online, “we do know how a Sisi presidency is likely to turn out:  a rerun of Mubarak’s authoritarian and corrupt reign.”  Repressive rule isn’t even likely to deliver stability, since the Egyptian people will eventually tire of yet another government which delivers arbitrary arrests, brutal torture, and summary punishment rather than economic growth.

The best Washington can do is stay out. Subsidize no one, endorse no one. Work privately to advance important interests.  Leave Egyptians to settle their fate. 

Don’t Overestimate ISIS Gains in Iraq

ISIS’s territorial gains in Syria and Iraq are impressive. However, the group has its work cut out for it.

First, ISIS may face internal tensions. The nature of the relationship between the group and Iraqi Baathists has been variously reported. While the two have an obvious operational incentive to collaborate, if the former Baathist elements retain their original ideological platform, it is likely incompatible with ISIS’s radical preferences. Should ISIS determine it is content with its territorial holdings, any partnership could face tensions in the absence of a common enemy in Maliki’s sectarian rule.

Second, the Kurds. ISIS appears to have largely avoided direct confrontation with Kurdish forces. But the Kurds appear far from assuming ISIS is an ally, or that the group does not have designs on territory the Kurds themselves claim. If and when ISIS and Kurdish ambitions clash, the peshmerga are likely to put up a fight.

Third, ISIS may be able to take territory, but it now faces the challenge of ruling it. The group has a track record over the last year of ruling in Syrian cities like Raqqa. In Syria, ISIS rebels provided public services, and tried to moderate their implementation of sharia law so as to avoid civilian resistance. But gradually the group reverted to its own ideological platform—an Islamic interpretation not in line with that of the Syrian civilians under their rule. In order to tamp down public dissent and quell resistance, the rebels have become notoriously brutal—showcasing their brutality publicly and electronically. In Iraq, at least some civilians have welcomed ISIS’s arrival and the Iraqi military’s departure. But preferring ISIS to Maliki isn’t necessarily saying a lot.

The US also sought to control areas ISIS now claims in Iraq, and America’s limited success was hard-won. ISIS’s acceptability as a ruler remains to be seen (the group has just published its first set of rules for those newly under its control). As time wears on, any distance between ISIS’s political and ideological platform and those of its new residents will become clearer. If, as in Syria, this gap proves to be wide, we may expect similarly brutal rule by ISIS in Iraq.

If so, the international community will need to weigh the suffering of those under ISIS control against the likely costs and success of intervening to improve the situation.

Unless they moderate their platform, there are few ways to encourage ISIS to adopt less coercive rule. Interdicting support from abroad can strain the group in a variety of ways, but access to oil wealth (and now, cash) will dampen the effects of any interdiction, and even a weakened ISIS is likely to abuse civilians.

But beyond the first blush of victory, governance is a difficult and costly undertaking. Reports note ISIS’s extensive and coercive reach into civilians’ lives in Syrian cities it has controlled since last year. But this apparatus eats up resources. Even if ISIS uses public brutality to quash resistance and retain control, it will have to task personnel to do this—personnel that cannot then be used to pursue additional territory, or protect themselves against government troops or other rival factions.

Unfortunately for those who live under it, brutality can be a sustainable means of retaining control—for rebels like ISIS, as well as for states. ISIS may manage to keep the territory it has captured, but it will have to work for it—as Ghengis Khan noted “Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

Mission Accomplished, He Said

Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering — all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place.  It has many challenges ahead.  But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.

Yes, that was President Obama at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on December 14, 2011.

For another perspective, former vice president Dick Cheney in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday:

Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many. 

In case there’s any doubt – he means President Obama, not the president who launched the war that cost 4,487 American soldiers’ lives, 32,000 Americans wounded, some 100,000 to 500,000 Iraqi deaths, and as much as $6 trillion.

Maybe they should have listened to the Cato Institute back in 2001 and 2002.