Tag: national security

Was the Rise of ISIS Inevitable?

In the latest issue of Survival, Hal Brands and Peter Feaver address an important debate in American foreign policy circles. Was the rise of ISIS inevitable, or was it the result of misguided U.S. policies? Most agree it is the latter, but the dispute gets fraught on the question of whether it was U.S. military interventionism or inaction that deserves the blame. Some say it was the invasion of Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS. Others insist it was Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Brands and Feaver use counterfactual analysis to assess whether different U.S. policy decisions at four “inflection points” could have nipped the rise of ISIS in the bud. The first of these points was the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The other three occurred during the Obama administration and include the decision not to press Iraq to allow the United States to leave behind a significant number of U.S. troops, the decision not to intervene aggressively early on in the Syrian civil war, and the decision not to intervene more forcefully to help the government of Iraq defeat ISIS before it took the city of Mosul.

The authors take a middle road, arguing that, “the rise of ISIS was indeed an avertable tragedy,” but that both restraint and activism share the blame. Had U.S. policymakers not invaded Iraq in 2003, or been more aggressive in Iraq and Syria from 2011-2014, they argue, “ISIS might not have emerged at all.”

With suitable analytic humility, however, the authors warn against overconfidence that any of the alternatives would have made a decisive difference to the eventual outcome:

We find, for instance, that limited intervention in Syria in 2011-13 might have had benefits, but it probably would not have shifted the course of the conflict so fundamentally as to head of ISIS’s rise. Likewise, not invading Iraq in 2003 would have left the United States saddled with the costs of continuing to contain that country, whereas striking ISIS militarily in late 2013 or early 2014 might have weakened that organization militarily while exacerbating the political conditions that were fueling its rise. Intervening more heavily in Iraqi politics in 2010 in order to bring about a less sectarian government than that which ultimately emerged, and leaving a stay-behind force in Iraq after 2011, represent a fairly compelling counterfactual in the sense that such policies could have had numerous constructive effects. But even here, choosing a different path from the one actually taken would have meant courting non-trivial costs, liabilities, uncertainties and limitations (p. 10).

We applaud Brands and Feaver, who served in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, respectively, for their attempt to “move away from polemical and polarized assessments focused on assigning blame, and toward more granular, balanced analysis based on a fairer-minded view of what went wrong (p. 10).” At the same time, there is plenty of room for disagreement over their interpretation of the “what ifs” of such a complex historical question.

Refugees, Immigration, and the Trolley Problem

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump’s son, Eric Trump, tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles candies along with the caption: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

Trump’s tweet generated backlash from many corners but the general logic of this vivid metaphor continues to resonate for many, despite research that demonstrates that the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack carried out by refugees and immigrants in the United States is astonishingly low. For many Americans, the prospect of just one bad skittle overwhelms a more rational calculation embracing both immigration’s costs and benefits.

But perhaps a different vivid mental picture can help people see the immigration question in a new light.

The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem (quoted here from Wikipedia) is this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the sidetrack. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the sidetrack where it will kill one person.

This is a tough scenario for sure. Do you believe that pulling the lever is the best option? What is your justification for that choice?

Surveys have shown that around 90% would make the difficult decision to pull the lever to save the five people. The justification for most people is straightforward: saving five lives is better than saving one life. But studies also show that it matters a great deal who that one person is. For example, if the person happens to be the respondent’s relative or loved one, a respondent is far less likely to indicate he or she would pull the lever.

Early Returns on President Trump

During Trump’s surprising presidential campaign, pundits became fond of pointing out that Trump’s supporters took his often-shocking rhetoric seriously, but not literally, whereas his opponents took his rhetoric literally, but not seriously. Today, however, it is obvious that one should take Trump’s words both seriously and literally. In his first month Trump has been busy matching actions to words, temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and ordering sanctuary cities to detain illegal immigrants, launching work on the U.S.-Mexican border wall, and preparing to lift the ban on the CIA black sites where the United States carried out “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

For those who voted for Trump this first month must surely be a heady viewing experience. For much of the country, however, Trump’s efforts are taking things in the wrong direction, as even his most extreme campaign proposals become reality. From the perspective of the polls, Trump’s first month has met decidedly mixed reviews.

On immigration, for example, Trump signed a short-lived executive order threatening to halt federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that offer protection to illegal immigrants if they do not detain illegal immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities. And before signing two executive orders directing the construction of the U.S.-Mexican border wall, Trump argued that the United States is “in the middle of a crisis border” and that “A nation without borders is not a nation.”

Most Americans see things differently. When asked about illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, a CBS News Poll this month found that 74% of the public thinks they should be allowed to stay, while just 22% thinks they should be required to leave. 61% believe illegal immigrants should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship. The same poll found that 59% oppose Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, with 37% favoring it.

America’s Foreign Policy Tribes

Even if one had the stomach for more prognostication after last night, when it comes to Trump foreign policy looking ahead seems like a fool’s errand (see my last op-ed if you don’t believe me). As Max Fisher notes in the New York Times today, Donald Trump has been so inconsistent on foreign policy specifics that no one feels confident in making bold predictions. Uncertainty, at home and abroad, rules the day.

However, even though the election can’t tell us much about what might happen in the future, Trump’s victory does reveal a great deal about how Americans think about politics in general and foreign policy in particular.

One thing we have learned is that the divide in Americans’ foreign policy views now mirrors the broader political fault lines in the nation. As I wrote after the final presidential debate, in the absence of a compelling external threat, Americans have become more polarized as the “national interest” has devolved into an array of competing interests. The foreign policy debate is no longer about how to keep America safe; it’s a clash over competing conceptions of America and its role in the world.

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Switzerland Test

Has the United States reached peak incoherence in foreign policy?

President Obama spent seven years expanding the war on terror and intervening inconsistently and incoherently in the Middle East, only to acknowledge in recent interviews that Libya was his greatest mistake. The frontrunners in the presidential campaign are no better. Hillary Clinton supported the Iraq War before she later opposed it, and promoted the TTP and TTIP while Secretary of State but now says they’re a bad idea. Donald Trump’s foreign policy views have doubled back on themselves so often it’s hard to tell where he stands.

Observers on both the right and the left agree that the United States has lost its vision of how to succeed in the international arena. This makes it impossible to craft sound strategy or to build any sort of public consensus around it. What the United States needs is a new paradigm to help cut through the many conundrums that currently have the United States flummoxed. This new vision must clarify the primary goals of American foreign policy and identify the appropriate means for achieving those goals.

Crafting consensus around such a vision will be challenging, however, and in the meantime we need strategies to save us from our worst tendencies towards threat inflation, overspending, and excessive military intervention around the world.

Today I would like to propose a mechanism for doing just that. I call it the Switzerland Test. Applying the test is simple. When assessing threats, making decisions about defense budgets, or thinking about whether to intervene in another civil war, our political leaders should just ask: What would Switzerland do?

Switzerland provides a compelling vision for American foreign policy for several reasons. First, the Swiss assess security threats rationally. The Swiss are lucky, surrounded by mountains as they are, which has allowed them to fend off would-be invaders and occupiers for most of their history. Even Hitler didn’t bother. And today, the Swiss share borders with friendly neighbors. As a result, the Swiss waste little time or money on unnecessary national security initiatives. The most heated security debate in Switzerland recently has been whether or not even to have an army.

The United States will surely keep its army, but notice the parallels here. The United States, like Switzerland, is surrounded by imposing natural obstacles and friendly, militarily weak allies. Beyond this the United States also enjoys the safety of a secure nuclear deterrent. Unlike Switzerland, unfortunately, the United States sees threats everywhere and thus the legacy military-industrial complex from the Cold War continues to rumble along, sucking up trillions of dollars that the private sector economy could put to far better use.

The American Public Is Not Very Hawkish on China

China’s economic rise over the past decades has been meteoric, during which time the volume of rhetoric about the “China threat” has also grown at historic rates. In the early 1990s the Pentagon needed a new superpower rival to justify Cold War-sized defense budgets. But displays of American military power in the first Gulf War and the 1995-96 crisis in the Taiwan Strait also prompted China to develop a military strategy designed to keep American forces out of its neighborhood. Now, with counterterrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan down from their peak and China’s military posture maturing significantly, the U.S. military has been devoting more time and resources to figuring out ways to counter China’s new strategy.

Beyond the military, political hawks have been quick to draw attention to the China threat. During last weekend’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that China has a choice between peaceful cooperation and engaging in a “zero-sum game for regional power and influence.” Even academics have gotten in on the game, with many arguing that China’s rise will not be peaceful.

Though China’s saber rattling in East Asia and the South China Sea hasn’t made a big splash in the 2016 presidential campaign so far, the question of how the United States should respond to China’s rising military and economic power is one of the most important foreign policy challenges the next president will face.

Both candidates have staked out aggressive positions on China. Trump has promised to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports, suggested that South Korea and Japan should acquire nuclear weapons, and has called for a strong military presence in Asia to discourage “Chinese adventurism.” Clinton, for her part, was a lead architect of the “pivot to Asia” as Secretary of State, redirecting U.S. military and diplomatic efforts from the Middle East to Asia to confront China’s rise.

A close look at public opinion, however, reveals that although complex, the American public’s attitudes towards China are more sanguine than those of its fearful leaders.

Trump Versus the World

In 2015 we witnessed an astonishing sight: by the end of the year news coverage of Donald Trump in major U.S. newspapers eclipsed coverage of every major world hotspot and the dreaded Islamic State.

 

At the most basic level, this reflects the American tendency to focus on domestic politics during presidential campaigns. Foreign affairs often fade from view as the presidential campaign season heats up and economic and social issues take the fore. But this year foreign policy has in fact been a major focus of the campaign, making this a less powerful effect than in most years.

More importantly, the news flow is a function of Trump’s uncanny ability to set the news agenda. This ability stems only in part from the fact that he holds a commanding lead in the polls. More critical is his tendency to make outrageous statements, tapping into anger and frustration in the electorate, which has not only stimulated outrage and concern on left and right but also discussion about what the Trump phenomenon means beyond the election itself. In December Trump appeared in twice as many stories as both Ted Cruz, his closest competitor in both the polls and coverage, and President Obama. Simply put, Trump is incredibly newsworthy given the way in which American news outlets define news and given the news Americans appear to want.

But less obviously, this pattern also reflects the long-term shrinking of the international news hole in the United States. Since the late 1980s the share of American news devoted to international affairs has shrunk by as much as half in major U.S. newspapers and broadcast television news. With occasional and temporary reversals, this trend has persisted despite increasing globalization, despite constant U.S. military intervention abroad since the early 1990s, and despite 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

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