Tag: Iraq

Kill or Capture?

In the latest issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, I review Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. Although some hawkish critics smear President Obama as weak, bumbling, and easily manipulated by America’s enemies, Klaidman reveals how our “covert commander in chief” has tightened his grip over the secretive program of targeted killings and their expanded use into Somalia and Yemen, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The president has meanwhile claimed the authority to hold terrorism suspects in prolonged detention indefinitely without trial. On this issue in particular, as I conclude in my review:

The reader is naturally drawn to realize the book’s underlying point: America’s lack of a long-term detention policy may be perversely incentivizing kills over captures.

 Check it out.

Democracy Versus Autocracy in Kuwait: Where Is Real Liberty?

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—This small Gulf nation was largely unknown in America before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded more than 20 years ago. The United States intervened to drive Iraqi forces out. Kuwaitis remain grateful to Americans and emphasize their friendship with the United States.

Although a monarchy, Kuwait has an elected parliament and a generally free media. It regularly invites foreign analysts and journalists to observe its elections. I am making my second trip this year.

Tremors from the Arab Spring are being felt here. The parliament elected in 2009 faced charges of corruption and lost popularity, and was dissolved at the beginning of the year. Elections were held in February.

All very democratic.

The new legislature was dominated by anti-government activists and, more important, Islamists. Top of the latter’s agenda was making Sharia the basis of all laws, imposing the death penalty for blasphemy, and closing Christian churches. Not very good for liberty.

The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said no to all three. Liberty was protected only because Kuwait was not a genuine parliamentary system where elections determine the government.

The constitutional court then reinstated the previous parliament on technical grounds—that it had not been properly dissolved. The members were no more popular than before and the body soon was properly dissolved. But the emir unilaterally changed the voting system from four votes to one vote per district—from which ten MPs are chosen. Public protests and a large-scale boycott ensued.

Nonetheless, the election was held on December 1. Turnout fell—to about 40 percent, compared to 60 percent in February—but the conduct of the poll received general praise from outside observers. The vote elevated a number of unknowns to parliament.

The government claimed success, but the opposition, which ranges from liberals to Islamists, organized 15 demonstrations involving thousands on Monday night. The police responded with force and injuries resulted. The opposition promised more protests, including a large rally promised for Saturday. The emir met with members of the royal family. My friend, political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra, told me that Kuwait was at a “political crossroads,” with the public determined to “deepen democratization.”

No one knows there this will end. The main opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak, until this election the longest-serving MP, emphasized the protestors’ commitment to the emir. He told me the situation in Kuwait was different than elsewhere in the Arab Spring: “We want to have an elected government. That does not mean we are against the ruling system.” However, the driving force behind the protests is the youth movement—an incredible 70 percent of the population is under 29. Some of them, at least, seem less than enamored with monarchical rule, with or without a parliament.

As the current political crisis—a word now used by some—plays out, Kuwaitis may find themselves with something closer to a popularly elected government. Unfortunately, however, experience shows that this may not make them freer.

What’s So Great about a Heavy Footprint?

I generally like David Sanger’s reporting. His recent books (The Inheritance and Confront and Conceal) provide an excellent overview of U.S. foreign policy, and his analysis of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s approach to world affairs, filed just before the two men faced off in their third and final debate, was one of the best that I had seen.

But I’m confused by this passage from his story in yesterday’s New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s reluctance to put American forces on the ground during the fight, and his decision to keep America’s diplomatic and C.I.A. presence minimal in post-Qaddafi Libya, may have helped lead the United States to miss signals and get caught unaware in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi.

We have had many tens of thousands of U.S. troops, and a sizable CIA presence, on the ground in Afghanistan for years, and that hasn’t stopped attacks on Americans. Ditto for the massive troop presence in Iraq, when we had one there. We have been caught unaware in other places where we have had a massive and long-standing presence on the ground; meanwhile, some places that boast no U.S. presence at all have been quiescent for decades.

In short, what happened in Benghazi is certainly a tragedy, and possibly an avoidable one, but that one instance hardly proves that a heavy footprint (i.e. sending U.S. ground troops into the middle of distant civil wars) should be the preferred option going forward.

The American people’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a broad, bipartisan desire to avoid future such wars, constrains the president’s options. And that is a good thing. If policymakers understand that they can’t accomplish ambitious goals with small numbers of troops on the ground—or with none at all—that should compel them to focus on more limited objectives, missions that advance U.S. security, and avoid those that do not.

On Veterans Day, Support the Troops by Scrutinizing the Missions

Today is a federal holiday in observance of Veterans Day and we should all pause a moment to reflect on the sacrifices our veterans have made. But today is also an opportunity to reflect on the current state of civil-military relations. In today’s New York Times, Tom Ricks addresses this and notes:

[T]oday, politicians are so fearful of being accused of “criticizing our troops” that they fail to scrutinize the performance of those who lead them.

That is a serious problem.

But it goes beyond scrutiny of a military leader’s execution of a particular strategy, which does occur occasionally. More importantly, scrutiny from politicians and others should include hard questions about a given strategy’s likelihood of success, even if the execution is flawless.

Instead, whenever someone raises a point of clarification about how COIN is supposed to work in a country like Afghanistan, or even whether it worked as well as advertised in Iraq, that person risks being lumped together with reflexive critics of all things military.

An angry blogger will invoke MoveOn.org’s execrable General Betray-us ad, and – voila – the person trying to make a point about the wise deployment of strategic assets (and, yes, whether the particular mission in question is worth risking the lives of American soldiers in the first place) is portrayed as somehow hating the troops.

On the contrary, they value the troops more than those who harbor doubts but remain silent.

When politicians step out and ask serious questions, despite the certain counter-assault and character assassination, they deserve respect. It is, after all, their job. And when they duck that responsibility out of fear that a legion of angry bloggers will call them names, they deserve our scorn.

Has Mitt Romney Ditched His Neoconservative Talking Points?

We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us. - Mitt Romney, Presidential Debate, Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012

With these words, Mitt Romney might have made the final, crucial connection to an American public tired of more than a decade of war, and desperate not to start any new ones.

Obama did his best to remind voters of why they haven’t trusted Republicans on foreign policy since 2005. He uttered the word Iraq 10 times. Romney mentioned it three times, once by accident—referring mistakenly to “the president of Iraq—excuse me, of Iran”— and once to explicitly and categorically deny that he had any intentions of going back down that road by launching another war.

Such sentiments can’t make Romney’s neoconservative advisers happy. They are the ones who sold the war in the first place, they peddled a “surge” in a desperate attempt to create a narrative that resembled victory, and it is they, who, to this day, proudly declare that the war was worth fighting. Their every statement betrays how truly marginalized they are, isolated from a public that can see the facts plainly before it, and concludes something very different: this war was a horrible mistake, and one that we are determined not to repeat. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal all but avoided commenting on the substance of Romney’s statements last night—probably because there wasn’t much substance.

Questions remain, however. First, is Mitt Romney truly committed to avoiding Iraq-style wars in the future? If so, why did he choose to surround himself with so many of the war’s most fervent advocates? Second, why is he opposed to additional reductions in the Army and Marine Corps, forces that grew specifically to fight the war that was supposed to be a “cakewalk” but that turned out to be something very different? If Mitt Romney doesn’t intend to engage in costly, open-ended nation-building missions abroad, why does he need a conventional military geared for that purpose? And, third, what lessons from the Iraq war inform his conduct of foreign policy? Was Iraq a good idea, poorly executed, or was this a bad idea from the get-go?

A recent article explained how Romney wanted to draw distinctions between himself and President George W. Bush, starting with the war in Iraq. “The idea that Romney is following the George W. Bush approach is a caricature the Democrats want to draw,” a senior Romney foreign policy adviser told the Los Angeles Times’s Paul Richter, “We’re not going to help them with that.”

They didn’t last night. We’ll find out soon enough if it worked.

Wall Street Journal: Romney Should Be a Neocon, but Hide It in Debate

Would you buy a foreign policy from this man?

Would you buy a foreign policy from this man?

Imagine a world in which the Iraq War had gone exactly as marketed. The United States invaded in March 2003. The Iraqis, with the help of Ahmed Chalabi, rapidly transitioned to become a stable, liberal democracy allied with the United States against Iran. The marvelous and smooth transformation had ripple effects throughout the region: a handful of Arab states followed suit, and the United States had drawn down to under 30,000 troops in country by September 2003, setting up a basing agreement with the new Iraqi government to stay indefinitely. Few American lives were lost, the swamp of terrorism was drained, and an oil pipeline has just been completed running from Iraq to the Israeli port city of Haifa.

Imagine, at the same time, that opponents of the war, despite having gotten every major judgment about the prudence and consequences of the war comically wrong, had been vaulted to positions of power and prestige in foreign affairs commentary. Meanwhile, the war’s proponents, despite their support for a strategy that yielded huge strategic dividends for the United States at a low cost, were banished to the wilderness, heard from sporadically on a few blogs and at a think tank or two.

It would be strange, wouldn’t it?

And yet that situation is roughly analogous to the one in which we find ourselves today, except in real life the war was an enormous disaster, just as its opponents predicted, and the proponents of the war are the ones in denial about its implications. Foremost among the salespeople for war who have yet to come to grips with the facts are the members of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

But hey, let’s let bygones be bygones: they’ve got some advice for Mitt Romney in his upcoming foreign policy debate.

First, the good news: Even the editorial board of the Journal seems to understand that speaking openly about their plans for more wars would be bad politics. Accordingly, the Journal doesn’t “expect Mr. Romney to offer an explicit defense of the Bush Doctrine” and they worry about the implications of Obama charging Romney with wanting to get the United States into a third (and fourth) Middle East war. This is in keeping with the previous assurance of Bret Stephens (pictured above) that Romney wouldn’t start any new wars. Romney should deny wanting any more wars while doing a number of things that make them inevitable.

Second, the bad news: Instead of suggesting that Romney actually trim the neocon sail a bit, the article suggests Romney continue his strategy of wheeling out a fog machine and saying “leadership” and “strength” instead of discussing details. The American people who tune in Monday night deserve to hear some specifics. Not the level of specifics that would satisfy the people who think about international politics for a living, sure, but some specifics. Instead, while suggesting that Romney “offer[] a serious critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy that doesn’t descend to clichés,” the article suggests clichés but not seriousness.

This blends with the ugly news: like an insular clique of Bourbon royalty, the neocons at the Journal appear to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing about strategy over the last 10 years. To the extent their suggestions do go beyond clichés, they are a reminder that Bush-era neoconservatism still lies at the center of their world view, and the world view of the Republican establishment. A few examples:

  • The war in Iraq, we are informed, had “already been won when Mr. Obama became president.” Mission accomplished? Come again?
  • Obama turned that win into a loss by failing to secure “a viable alliance with Baghdad and a bulwark against Tehran.” When you have allocated yourselves 1,608 words, you may want to show your work about how this could have happened.
  • Another Obama failure is that he allowed Israel to have a partially independent defense strategy. He should have “provide[d] Israel with reassurances that it needn’t consider its own military options” on Iran. If Israelis should just rely on the United States to defend them from the most important threats facing their country, why does Israel have such a powerful military in the first place?
  • Obama’s “policies of premature military withdrawals [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have increased rather than diminished the chances that we will be at war in the Middle East again.” How? In which countries?

One could go on. But more broadly the piece suffers from the flaw that has characterized the whole foreign-policy discussion in the election: the idea that the outside world begins at Algeria and ends at Afghanistan. The sprawling essay says exactly nothing useful when it comes to the most important foreign policy challenges facing the United States: the prospect of a European implosion, the wreckage of our war on drugs in Mexico, and preventing American entanglement in a prospective World War III in Asia.

The essay closes by invoking Robert Gates’s invocation of Ronald Reagan, who said that he had lived through many wars but none of them began because the United States was too strong. Gates and the WSJ’s editorial board probably ought to think a little harder about whether the United States blundered into any costly quagmires as a function of its overweening strength and insulation from the costs of its strategic choices. The answer is obvious.

Thoughts on Little America and Afghanistan

I recently finished reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. The entire book is terrific. I highly recommend it. But one chapter in particular—Chapter 7, “Deadwood”—spoke to some of the things that my colleagues and I have written over the years concerning America’s nation-building problems.

Most Americans have by now moved on from the war in Afghanistan (even though the U.S. military has not) and are focused on, in President Obama’s words, “nation building here at home.” But we still haven’t closed the book on the theories of nation building that arose after 9/11, including the belief that the United States needs to repair failed states, or rescue failing ones, lest terrorists from these states travel thousands of miles to attack Americans. Last month, for example, Mitt Romney’s senior foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson praised Bill Clinton’s nation-building adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo. Williamson told NPR’s Audie Cornish that the U.S. government must “help in reconciliation, reconstruction, helping institutions of law and order, security be built” after authoritarian regimes collapse. From the belief that we must repair failed states flows logically the belief that we can.

These beliefs are, in fact, myths. Cato has published many different papers, articles, and book chapters challenging the claim that fighting terrorism, or preserving U.S. security generally, requires us to engage in nation building abroad. We have been equally emphatic on the point that our efforts are likely to fail, no matter how well intentioned. Little America provides additional evidence to support that argument, although I doubt that was Chandrasekaran’s object.

Take, for example, the case of Summer Coish, the striking and extraordinarily motivated woman who wanted to go to Afghanistan so badly that she appealed directly to Richard Holbrooke. She got her wish—eventually. Despite the fact that the president’s designated point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan had marked her for the fast track, it took 14 months before she was cleared to travel to there.

Once she arrived, Coish’s dream of helping the Afghans emerge from decades of war and desperate poverty crashed against the reality of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. Security regulations made it nearly impossible for Coish and other civilians to regularly interact with Afghans, and few embassy staffers exhibited any desire to do so. “It’s rare that you ever hear someone say they’re here because they want to help the Afghans,” Coish told Chandrasekaran after she had been there a few months. Instead, Chandrasekaran observes, “everyone seemed bent on departure.”

The work itself was painfully dull. Coish concluded that most of it could have been accomplished in Washington, at far less cost to the taxpayers. The reason for the costly in-country presence? The need to count them as part of the vaunted “civilian surge.”

Coish and a handful of other dedicated civilians that Chandrasekaran writes about—including Kael Weston, an experienced political adviser to Marine General Larry Nicholson, and Carter Malkasian, the State Department’s representative in Helmand’s Garmser district—could not make up for the lack of ability (or desire) on the part of many other civilians (i.e. the deadwood). “It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we’re getting the straphangers these days,” Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand province, wrote to the embassy. “Or, as one wag put it, ‘they’re just along for the chow.’ No need to go into details here—let’s just say that there’s enough deadwood here that it’s becoming a fire hazard.”

At times, Chandrasekaran’s assessment of the civilian surge exhibits an oddly optimistic tone. I say “odd” because this is the same person who brilliantly documented the dysfunction of the Bush administration’s nation-building fiasco in Iraq (in Imperial Life in the Emerald City), but who can’t bring himself to say that Obama’s mission in Afghanistan couldn’t possibly succeed. Despite everything that he has seen, Chandrasekaran often reflects a belief that it all could have worked out (or that it still might) were it not for the “lack of initiative and creativity in Washington.”

Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of Obama’s national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options.

Pray-tell, where would the government have found such people? Or, more precisely, how would the government convince those already gainfully employed to set aside their careers, homes, and families to embark upon an Afghan adventure? What additional incentives—or threats—might have sufficed to mobilize the vast army of talented agronomists, lawyers, biologists, teachers, doctors, civil engineers, etc. who were not already motivated (as Coish, Weston and Malkasian were)?

Several years ago, I co-authored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky a paper on the lessons of Iraq. Our research was informed by Chandrasekaran’s narrative from the Iraqi Green Zone, and a number of other books on the Bush administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Here is what we said (the prose in this case is almost certainly Friedman’s; I’m not this clever) about the American people’s disinclination to embark on nation-building missions abroad.

A concerted effort to improve our collective nation-building skills would require “a foreign policy at odds with our national character.”

Reading through the proposals for rapidly deployable bureaucrats to help run failing states, one usually searches in vain for the pages where the author justifies the creation of an empire and a colonial service to run it. Whatever else changed after September 11, [Americans]…are ill-suited for stabilizing disorderly states and achieving success in protracted foreign wars.

The State Department’s budget, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we explained, “is tiny because its aim is to relate to foreign nations, not to run them.”

National security organizations are formed by decades of budgets and decisions. Their organizational politics…reflect…lasting national interests, namely a disinclination to subjugate foreign peoples and lose unnecessary wars….Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense.

To repeat, Little America is a first-class read, and I hope that the book receives the attention it deserves. The anecdotes about Coish, Weston, and Malkasian, as well as countless stories about brave soldiers and Marines trying their best every day to make Afghanistan a better place, are heartwarming. We honor their service, and we should find other avenues for these people to perform their work, chiefly through NGOs, unencumbered by the massive federal bureaucracy.

But good intentions cannot distract us from the bleak reality: building a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan would require hundreds of thousands of equally dedicated civilians, to go along with a massive troop presence to protect them, tens of billions of dollars every year, and a commitment to remain in country for decades.

We aren’t going to do that. We should stop pretending that we will.