Tag: council on foreign relations

Max Boot Grades Own Work, Gives Self ‘A’

Max Boot photo via UPI

Max Boot photo via UPI

Sunday’s Washington Post ran a piece about 9/11 called the “pundit scorecard,” and gave Max Boot the “wishful thinking award” for his “Case for American Empire” piece. As the Post article described:

Not since the bombing of Pearl Harbor destroyed American isolationism has a school of foreign policy thought been so discredited as neoconservatism was by the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in the first months after the 9/11 attacks, neoconservative plans to redesign the Middle East found a sympathetic hearing in the White House and among the commentariat. Probably the most romantic neocon was military analyst Max Boot, who believed that the world was desperate for American domination.

“Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,” Boot wrote in the Weekly Standard on Oct. 15, 2001. Just as the U.S. war in Afghanistan was beginning, Boot was planning other campaigns. “Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul. With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.”

Suffice it to say that Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, isn’t happy. In fact, he looks back at the piece and feels pretty good about it. He points out that he had called on Washington to “feed the hungry, tend the sick, and impose the rule of law” in those benighted foreign locales, to at least “allow the people to get back on their feet until a responsible, humane, preferably democratic, government takes over.”

But let’s also recall that in May of 2003 Boot was still pooh-poohing Gen. Eric Shinseki’s admonition that “several hundred thousand” troops would be needed for such an endeavor. Instead, Boot thought that our to-do list in Iraq should include “purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government,” and that

This probably will not require the 200,000 troops suggested by Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, but it will require a long-term commitment of at least 60,000 to 75,000 soldiers, the number estimated by Joint Staff planners.

Just think about that for a second. In 2003, Max Boot was arguing that 60-75,000 U.S. troops could provide security all across Iraq, while simultaneously “purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government.”

Grade inflation seems to have gotten out of hand at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Richard Haass on U.S. Foreign Policy

Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has just published an article in Time magazine (also available here) that challenges many of the comfortable nostrums guiding U.S. foreign policy for at least the last twenty years. He scores a 9 out of 10 in his analysis of what is wrong: we have an inordinate fear of things that shouldn’t be that frightening; we have a misplaced faith in our ability to fix nettlesome problems in distant lands; and we repeatedly stumble into costly and counterproductive wars that we should generally avoid.

Haass then proposes a new doctrine to “help establish priorities and steer the allocation of resources” and “that fits the U.S.’s circumstances.”

 It is one that judges the world to be relatively nonthreatening and makes the most of this situation. The goal would be to rebalance the resources devoted to domestic challenges, as opposed to international ones, in favor of the former. Doing so would not only address critical domestic needs but also rebuild the foundation of this country’s strength so it would be in a better position to stave off potential strategic challengers or be better prepared should they emerge all the same.

So far, so good. The problem, however, is not what Haass proposes to do – refocus America’s attention and resources at home, what he calls “restoration” – but rather how he proposes to do it. For all his wisdom in defying the Washington foreign policy consensus, he betrays a typical Washington-centric approach by suggesting that the federal government must take the lead “in restoring this country’s strength and replenishing its resources — economic, human and physical government.”

Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power.


Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.’s human and physical future and competitiveness.

In other words, the money we save by not waging foolish wars abroad would be redirected to other government projects. Thus, he calls for more federal spending for higher education, despite the fact that such spending has exploded over the past three decades, and has coincided with an equally dramatic rise in tuition – often three to four times the rate of inflation. (H/T N.M.) Haass likewise calls for more money to public transportation, despite the fact that federal support for Amtrak, for example, amounts to a massive subsidy paid from non-riders to the often relatively well-to-do. Similar facts prevail in other government-subsidized transit systems.
Haass is also wrong to perpetuate the myth that we are dependent on Middle East oil. We’re not. The Middle Easterners are dependent upon selling it. We have alternatives to buying their oil, and we don’t need government to force us to exercise them.

Here’s a different approach to restoring America’s strength at home: we should stop asking our brave men and women in uniform to be the world’s policemen; refocus a smaller, less expensive military on a few core missions that are vital to U.S. security; and give every American family a tax cut. If we spent what the average British or French citizen devotes to national security, that could amount to more than $6,000 a year for the average family of four. The savings would be even greater if we matched what Germans and Japanese spend. Every American family could then choose how to spend or invest their money (e.g. Save for college. Pay for bus/train fare. Buy a more fuel-efficient car, etc). 
There is already considerable support for cutting the Pentagon’s budget, and I think there would be even more if people believed that these savings would not merely be diverted elsewhere within the federal government. Richard Haass has made an important and timely contribution to the debate over the future of U.S. foreign policy, and I generally concur with his assessment. But he and others should demonstrate the tangible benefits that would flow to the average American from a more prudent, restrained foreign policy. I think that fewer dumb wars and more money in our pockets is a pretty compelling case.

More Stephen Biddle on Afghanistan

In June I pointed to what I thought was an interesting article co-authored by CFR’s Stephen Biddle that took a rather dim view of the prospects of fighting a counterinsurgency war on Hamid Karzai’s behalf in Afghanistan.

CFR has posted a transcript of a media call from earlier today with Biddle, who’s just returned from Afghanistan, hosted by Gideon Rose, the new editor of Foreign Affairs.  There are some interesting tidbits in there.  Try this, where Biddle has been working to try to push out well into the future any prospective date by which we can judge progress or a lack thereof in the fight:

ROSE: So what I hear you saying is that you have a Potter-Stewart version of a definition of success, but not a Potter-Stewart definition of failure.

In other words, at some point if it’s working, you’ll see the levels of violence come down; you’ll see things start to stabilize and then you’ll know things are going well. But if that hasn’t happened yet, it’s hard to distinguish between “It may happen down the road”; and “It’s not going to happen.”

BIDDLE: Yeah. And eventually, there’s kind of a statute of limitations on this. I mean, you can’t reasonable expect after five or six years to keep saying, well, it’ll happen eventually.

So five or six more years would be too long.  (I should note that Biddle also suggests later in the interview that we need somehow to extend the U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline in the existing Status of Forces Agreement in that country to prevent a meltdown from happening there.)  Next Biddle restates his argument that al Qaeda “safe havens” isn’t a particularly good argument for continuing the war, but the prospect, which he admits is very unlikely, of a Pakistani collapse and al Qaeda somehow acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapon is.  Rose pushes back:

ROSE: See, that actually scares me more than if you had given the reverse answer, because however sort of relatively minor the Afghan danger would seem to be, the idea of fighting a nasty, ongoing, unsatisfying war simply for a domino theory aspect of what might happen in a neighboring state if the war doesn’t go well, strikes me as so tenuous a connection that it really is going to be hard to justify. And I think over time, you might get into a political dynamic in which the – if the war doesn’t get – the prospects don’t seem to get any better, that the public might not find that convincing. Do you worry about that?

BIDDLE: Well, I mean, people use domino theory as pejorative wording when they oppose a war. The idea that states worry about the stability of their neighbors because they worry about the stability of their own country is ubiquitous in international politics. One of the central reasons why the United States got involved in the Balkans back in the 1990s was the fear that chaos in the Balkans could spread to our NATO neighbors and trading partners. You know, the United – the Soviet Union was continuously worried about instability on its borders. This is a normal concern in international affairs. It’s not like an imaginary ghost dreamed up by people who want to do Vietnam War revisionism.

ROSE: Understood entirely, although –

BIDDLE: I don’t think that this is an absolute transcendent be-all and end-all threat to U.S. national security that we should be willing to pay any price and bear any burden in order to deal with. I’ve argued in the past – and I continue to believe – that Afghanistan is close call on the merits because the stakes, while important, are indirect and are not unlimited. And obviously the cost of waging this war is, you know, clearly high.

So what it boils down to, I think, is neither a slam dunk in favor of waging the war in which any reasonable person must surely think this is worth it, nor a slam dunk in which this war is obviously crazy and any reasonable person should think that we should get out tomorrow morning. I think what you end up with is a situation where the costs and the benefits are pretty close on the analytics and it boils down to a value judgment that reasonable people will make differently about how much cost should you be willing to bear to reduce how much of a threat.

Now, the threat here if the worst case scenario unfolds, is pretty serious. I mean, you may or may not have worried about nuclear weapons in Soviet hands during the Cold War. Bin Laden would probably use the things if he got them. And an American decision by a presidential administration that could reasonably have waged this war with some respectable prospect of success, but decided instead to withdraw – if that scenario played itself out and Pakistan collapsed, bin Laden got a nuclear weapon and used it in the United States – that would be regarded by generations of historians as the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the nation.

Now, a variety of bad things have to happen in sequence for that worst case to play itself out. That’s why I think this is a close call, rather than an obvious “do it” or an obvious “don’t”. But I think especially with respect to the guy in the Oval Office who has to bear the responsibility for this that I suspect that worst case looms fairly large, but I think all indications are that the president is pretty ambivalent about this, in part because I suspect he sees the costs and benefits as being closer on the margin than one would in some ways like.

But what really struck me about the interview was the fog-machine answer Biddle gave to a question from James Kitfield involving Karzai.  See if you do better with it than I did:

QUESTIONER: Hi, Stephen. You haven’t talked about Karzai and his government. The most recent reports were that he’s now pushing back against these anti-corruption task forces, raising the question once again of what kind of a partner he is. I’m just curious what kind of feedback you got while you were in the field about how cooperative his government was being, whether they were doing the things necessary to give people hope that they would fulfill their part of the bargain in counterinsurgency.

BIDDLE: Well – and, of course, it’s a mixed bag. His stated policy is strongly anti-corruption oriented. Lots of his actual behaviors are much less so. I think there’s a tendency in the U.S. debate, though, to want to set the relationship with Karzai up as either he’s a good guy and an adequate partner or he is hopeless and he’s an inadequate partner. We just can’t succeed unless this guy is changed or has some moment of transformation.

And that’s not normally the way counterinsurgencies go. I mean, you always have an inadequate partner in counterinsurgency. That’s why there’s an insurgency to counter. (Scattered laughter.) If the host government were good at this, we wouldn’t have to be involved in the first place. So you inevitably at least start with a partner that, by definition, has serious legitimacy problems often involving corruption.

If you’re going to succeed, that means changing the behavior of the host government and changing behaviors that the host government doesn’t want to change. I mean, normally the legitimacy problem that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place was some sort of unrepresentative distribution of power or wealth or resources in the country benefitting one subgroup to the exclusion of others who then turned to insurgents for succor and hope.

The people who are benefitting from this normally want to keep benefitting from this and they resist and they push back when the outside counterinsurgent tries to get them to reform because that reform means less benefits for their subgroup. So you normally get pushback, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing and it’s exactly what we should expect.

And if we’re going to succeed, the right metaphor for this, it seems to me, is a tug of war. We can expect Karzai to pull back on the other side of the rope all the time because he believes that his political self-interest requires him to rely on groups that are benefitting from corruption and abuse of power to keep himself in office.

When we tell him to get rid of these people and clean all this up, he thinks it’s a threat to his own tenure in office and he’ll resist. We have to pull him in the other direction.

And in principle, we have plenty of resources with which to do that. We do thousands of things in Afghanistan every day. The Karzai government’s survival is utterly dependent on this, and we can turn them on or turn them off singly or in combination as necessary to generate leverage to gradually win the tug of war. But we’re not going to win it all of a sudden one morning.

I mean, every day, we’re going to roll out of bed and we’re going to have to pull Karzai a little further in our direction and he’s going to pull back again. And so there are going to be periodic episodes where he tries to shut down some anti-corruption agency that we think is doing a great job, and we have to pull him back in the direction of being more forceful in reforming his government than he otherwise wants to be.

I think, in principle, we have the resources to do that effectively, given the enormous expenditure of resources we do in this country. But we have to be very careful with how we do it. We’ve tended to be on this kind of pendulum oscillation between extremes with Karzai.

The Bush administration was much too cozy with the guy. They tended to be something close to a policy of all carrots and no sticks because they thought Karzai was a hero and an ally and shouldn’t be coerced. The Obama administration came into office believing that that was a mistake and crashed down on him with lots and lots of sticks and not much in the way of carrots, and the sticks were delivered publicly in ways that were domestically humiliating to Karzai. That didn’t work so well, and so the administration has changed course again.

What I think we need is a tack toward the center and an avoidance of these extremes, where we don’t give up on sticks. We have to use leverage or we’re not going to succeed in this. If we do not get reform of the host government, this campaign will fail and that’s not going to happen without the use, of course, of sticks, but the sticks have to be private rather than public and they have to be done in a sequence that makes sense.

I mean, for example, let’s take the corruption problem. To fix – to get the corruption problem under control, let’s say, rather than fixed, because I don’t want to imply that the right level of corruption in Afghanistan is zero, but to get the corruption problem under control, eventually it’s going to require some big asks of Hamid Karzai. He’s going to have to accept the removal or prosecution of some senior people in the country, in all likelihood. That’s not the best way to start the process.

A lot of the money that flows into corrupt activity in Afghanistan comes from us. It comes from our own contracting, which goes to fuel malign actor networks in the country that at the end of the day are substantially hurting our prospects by making people in Afghanistan turn to the Taliban for protection. The right way to start the process is by reducing our own contribution to the problem, by reforming the way we do contracting, for example, in a way that causes us to provide less fuel and ammunition to the malign actor networks that are undermining our counter-insurgency prospects to the degree that we are.

As we do that, we in turn weaken the political power of malign actors within the country because we deny them funds. I mean, you can think of money as the hydraulic fluid that enables the political machines that are these malign actor networks in the country to do work. A lot of that money and hydraulic fluid is coming from us. If we shut off the flow into the system, we reduce the hydraulic pressure within the machine and we reduce its ability to do political work. And that in turn makes the eventual ask of Karzai easier.

So I – doing things in the right sequence, and doing things privately and not publicly are both important, it seems to me. And last but not least, doing things in ways that support Karzai’s political future in the country rather than damaging it is helpful. Part of that’s a matter of trying not to criticize him publicly by U.S. government officials, wherever it can be avoided. Part of it is a matter of supporting his own better instincts wherever we can.

Again, Karzai is on public record repeatedly as supporting anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan. Now, obviously, in a variety of ways, the Afghan government’s behavior has been inconsistent on this, but wherever possible, it seems to me, we ought to help Karzai carry out his own stated policies, which are substantially anti-corruption in nature.

Does that do it for you?

Kilcullen Joins the ‘To Hell with Karzai’ Faction?

“No, really—tell him that. ‘Hanging from a lamppost!’”

Three weeks ago I observed that Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar who previously had emphasized the centrality of Hamid Karzai to the prospects for success in Afghanistan, had coauthored an article in Foreign Affairs on Afghanistan that hardly mentioned Karzai.

Now one of the archbishops of counterinsurgency and close Petraeus confidante David Kilcullen appears to have joined the “To Hell with Karzai” caucus as well.  First, in an interview with Doyle McManus of the LA Times, Kilcullen lamented that Karzai “has been treating us as if he’s got us over a barrel,” and suggested that we might want to remind the Afghan president that “he’s a guy who will be hanging from a lamppost a month after we leave if we don’t protect him.”  Tough stuff!

Today Kilcullen piles on some more in a NPR interview, advising a strategy of bypassing the central government and “empowering” local constituencies to fight the Taliban themselves.  Kilcullen says that the Afghan National Police have been “raping people’s children” at checkpoints and “shaking people down.”  By contrast, Kilcullen says, the Afghan National Army is better but is far too small to take the reins from the Americans any time soon.

The most vexing thing about all this is Kilcullen’s caveat that there must be “safeguards in place so that it doesn’t lead to the creation of alternative power structures that suck the oxygen away from a legitimate government.”  But how is that supposed to work?  It seems like “empowering” local forces to police their own territory and fight the Taliban is a zero-sum diffusion of power away from the central government and into the provinces.  In the LA Times interview, Kilcullen said that “the absolutely critical thing we haven’t done very well is come up with a political strategy to take an illegitimate government and turn it into a legitimate one.”  But it’s hard to see how doing an end-run around Karzai by training (and arming?) local constituencies to fight the Taliban helps achieve this “absolutely critical thing.”  Presumably this is why Karzai reportedly hates the idea.  It seems to me that this reflects an important strategic confusion: Is our strategy to build a viable national state in Afghanistan, or to embrace the diffuse and non-national existing power structures in Afghanistan at the expense of the central government?  If it’s the latter, why do we need a counterinsurgency campaign?  If it’s to do both, I think we’ve got problems.

Alternatively, is this all a big bluff to get Karzai to believe that America may leave if he doesn’t start doing what we tell him?  If so, Karzai should probably call the bluff.  American government officials have made Afghanistan out to be a vital national interest and would have a hard time turning a 180 on that judgment.  Meanwhile, Republican sharks have already begun circling Obama, and a searing and humiliating meltdown in Afghanistan probably isn’t on David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel’s agenda right now.

Now, I’m no counterinsurgency guru, but I don’t see how you square this center-versus-periphery circle.  Maybe one of my COIN guru pals like Spencer Ackerman or Andrew Exum could help me out here.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed on Trial

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Simon makes a difficult case, and he makes it well, regarding the Justice Department’s decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court in New York City. I agree with his bottom line:

no trial can provide closure for the traumas of that day. But a judgment in New York, where the greatest suffering was inflicted, will remind us both of the narrow viciousness of the terrorists’ cause and of the enduring strength of our own values.

I say again, this is not an easy case to make, and not just because of the emotions involved. Most people have already made up their mind that 1) KSM is undeserving of such treatment (the same could be said of most mass murderers); 2) that the risks posed to national security by a public trial (including the possibility of an acquittal and the potential disclosure of sensitive information) are not outweighed by the benefits; and 3) that AG Eric Holder made this decision in a haphazard manner, and for all the wrong reasons.

But I think that Simon renders a great service in making Holder’s argument, and, indeed, in making it better than the AG did.

My objectivity can be called into question: Steven has spoken at Cato a few times, and he was and is a participant in our ambitious counterterrorism project. I have enormous respect for his expertise on such matters.  

But I submit that anyone who reads Simon’s op-ed with an open mind must concede at least some of his points, and therefore further conclude that some of the criticisms of the decision are unfair. That does not mean that Simon will ultimately change a lot of minds. One might still conclude that, on balance, the DoJ’s decision was unwise, and that KSM should have been tried by a military tribunal, or merely detained forever. In truth, I was leaning in that direction before I read the piece.

But, on reflection, my confidence in our system of government and in the rule of law leads me to believe that Simon has it right. To the extent that KSM is given a forum for propagandizing on behalf of al Qaeda, the net effect of his rantings will be to remind the entire world that AQ is nothing more than a bunch of self-important, murderous SOBs who kill innocent people.

Nothing more, nothing less.