Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

America Should Stay Out of Iraq and Stop Trying to Fix the World

KILIS, TURKEY—Syria’s civil war has washed over Turkey’s border, flooding the latter with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Washington’s efforts to solve the crisis so far have yielded few positive results. George W. Bush’s grandest foreign policy “success,” the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is turning into an even more dramatic debacle. 

The region is aflame and U.S. policy bears much of the blame. Washington’s relentless attempt to reorder and reshape complex peoples, distant places, and volatile disputes has backfired spectacularly.

The blame is not limited to Barack Obama. However ineffective his policies, they largely follow those of his predecessors. Moreover, his most vociferous critics were most wrong in the past. Those who crafted the Iraq disaster now claim that keeping U.S. troops in Iraq would have prevented that nation’s current implosion ignores both history and experience.

Rather than acknowledge their own responsibility for that nation’s implosion, they prefer to blame President Obama, who merely followed the withdrawal schedule established by President George W. Bush, who failed to win Baghdad’s agreement for a continuing U.S. force presence before leaving office. Exactly how President Obama could have forced sovereign Iraq to accept a permanent U.S. garrison never has been explained. 

Even less clear is how American troops could have created a liberal, democratic, and stable Iraq. Intervening today would be a cure worse than the disease. Air strikes, no less than ground forces, would simultaneously entangle the United States and increase its stakes in another predictably lengthy conflict.

Washington’s Middle East Policy Reaches New Heights of Incoherence

It’s hard to imagine that U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has helped make a shambles of the region over the past six decades, could get much worse. But developments during the past week demonstrate that it has the potential to do so. Hawks in both parties are shocked (shocked!) that Iraq shows unmistakable signs of coming apart along ethno-religious lines. But critics of the hawkish lobbying for U.S. military intervention in the period leading up to the invasion and occupation in 2003 warned that the move had major destabilizing implications, and that a fractured Iraq was a likely outcome. Early this year, I renewed those warnings, arguing that multiple developments indicated that Iraq was heading toward fragmentation.

As in the earlier case of Yugoslavia, the wonder is not that an artificial country like Iraq (cobbled together by British colonial officials from three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire) is coming apart. The wonder is that it held together for so long.

Rather than accept an outcome contrary to the unrealistic wishes of U.S. policymakers, there is a surge of calls for Washington to “do something” to prevent Sunni militant insurgents from continuing their string of military victories over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government. Although the Obama administration has wisely ruled-out putting large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground, air strikes and a limited deplyment of troops apparently remain an option. That would be an ill-advised move, since it would risk again entangling the United States in Iraq’s bitter, convoluted political and religious rivalries.

When Washington Prefers to Punish Ivory Owners Rather Than Save Elephants

The Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking met last week as the administration prepares to turn millions of Americans into criminals and destroy billions of dollars in property. The policy is driven by ideology and actually would kill more elephants.

Most ivory in America is legal and its sale does not endanger wildlife today. Before the international ban of 1989, millions of objects made of ivory or accented by small amounts of ivory entered the United States.

To fight poaching the government could fight poaching. That is, target those illegally killing elephants and selling illicit ivory.

Instead, the government has decided to penalize those trading in legal older ivory. Alas, doing so won’t protect any elephants. 

In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service took what it described as “our first step to implement a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory trade.”  The agency plans to prohibit the sale of even antique ivory if the owner cannot “demonstrate” the age with “documented evidence.”  Since 17th century carvers did not provide certificates of authenticity, virtually no ivory owner has such documentation, which Washington never before required.

The argument for the rule is that it would make life easier for FWS. But it wouldn’t help stop poaching.