Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

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.

“Strategy” vs. Strategy in the Pentagon

The Boston Globe kindly published a piece I wrote about the lack of strategy guiding Pentagon spending, but gave it the somewhat misleading title and subtitle:  “The Pentagon’s Bloat: Accounting tricks and self-interested politicians ensure that US military spending will remain immune from any real ‘hard choices.’”*

The article doesn’t really bemoan bloat, in the standard sense of wasteful or inefficient pursuit of objectives. It complains about excessive objectives—our overly capacious definition of security—and explains the cause.

My argument is that it would be terrific if Ashton Carter, the new Secretary of Defense, and the military service chiefs were correct in their contention that they cannot execute the U.S. security strategy without exceeding the $499 billion cap that law imposes on 2016 Pentagon spending. They made that claim in requesting a budget that requires raising the cap by $34 billion or eliminating it, another $51 billion for war and relief from future years’ caps.

Our current “strategy” isn’t really one. Strategy, by definition, requires prioritization among competing threats and methods of defending against them. Our government uses that word to rationalize the avoidance of those choices. The primacy theory that best describes our approach to security is really a justification for a log-roll of disparate military interests and goals, most only vaguely related to our safety. A poorer state facing more pressing threats would have to choose among those objectives, which is what strategy does. Poverty demands choices that wealth avoids. And as realists explain, big threats unify preferences, lowering obstacles to strategy formation.

The United States has long been rich and safe enough to minimize choices among defenses and avoid strategy. So we get the phony, listicle sort: recitations of nice things that we hope U.S. military power might accomplish, justified as security objectives. That has the effect of conflating safety with values, and promoting a sense of insecurity.

American People Must Tell Politicians No More War

American foreign policy is a bipartisan failure. The U.S. must intervene everywhere all the time, irrespective of consequences?

No matter how disastrous the outcome, promiscuous interventionists insist that the idea was sound. Any problems obviously result from execution, a matter of doing too little:  too few troops engaged, too few foreigners killed, too few nations bombed, too few societies transformed, too few countries occupied, too few years involved, too few dollars spent.

As new conflicts rage across the Middle East, the interventionist caucus’ dismal record has become increasingly embarrassing. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a cheerleader for war in Libya, recently defended her actions after being chided on Twitter for being a war-monger. She had authored a celebratory Financial Times article entitled “Why Libya skeptics were proved badly wrong.” Alas, Slaughter’s Mediterranean adventure looks increasingly foolish.

Slightly more abashed is Samantha Power, one of the Obama administration’s chief Sirens of War. She recently pleaded with the public not to let constant failure get in the way of future wars:  “I think there is too much of, ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’ … one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons.” Just because the policy of constant war had been a constant bust, people shouldn’t be more skeptical about a military “solution” for future international problems.

President Barack Obama also appears to be a bit embarrassed by his behavior. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been as active militarily as his much-maligned predecessor.

Yet in 2013 he admitted that “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself when he added:  “I’ve spent the last four and a half years doing everything I can to reduce our reliance on military power.”

The two parties usually attempt to one-up each other when it comes to reckless overseas intervention. Yet Uncle Sam has demonstrated that he possesses the reverse Midas Touch. Whatever he touches turns to mayhem.

In the Balkans the U.S. replaced ethnic cleansing with ethnic cleansing and set a precedent for Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine. In Afghanistan the U.S. rightly defenestrated the Taliban but then spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to remake that tribal nation.

Invading Iraq to destroy nonexistent WMDs cost the lives of 4500 Americans and 200,000 Iraqis, wrecked Iraqi society, loosed radical furies now embodied in the Islamic State, and empowered Iran. Bombing Libya prolonged a low-tech civil war killing thousands, released weapons throughout the region, triggered a prolonged power struggle, and offered another home for ISIL killers.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Not only has virtually every bombing, invasion, occupation, and other interference made problems worse. Almost every new intervention is an attempt to redress problems created by previous U.S. actions. And every new military step is likely, indeed, almost guaranteed, to create even bigger new problems.”

Yet virtually never do foreign policy practitioners admit that things hadn’t gone well. Most of official Washington simply takes the Samantha Power position:  “What, me worry?”

There may have been a mistake or two, but one certainly wouldn’t want to “overdraw” a lesson from these multiple and constant failures. No responsible policymaker would want to admit that even one foreign problem was not America’s responsibility.

Washington’s elite might disagree about details, but believes with absolute certainty that Americans should do everything:  Fight every war, remake every society, enter every conflict, pay every debt, defeat every adversary, solve every problem, and ignore every criticism. Unfortunately, over the last two decades this approach has proved to be an abysmal disaster.

There’s an equally simple alternative. Indeed, the president came up with it:  “don’t do stupid” stuff.  Too bad he failed to practice his own professed policy.

Washington should stop doing stupid things. But only the American people can make that happen. They must start electing leaders committed to not doing “stupid” stuff.