Vice President Biden was on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos yesterday talking about Israel bombing Iran:
STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?
BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.
The vice president made this point three times.
I suppose it would have been tangential to point out that Biden’s view of sovereignty has not always been so robust. Or that he is effectively renouncing the international laws of war, which dictate what self-defense allows. But Stephanopoulos might have at least acknowledged the irony of this particular exchange. Iran, the country being bombed in his question, is also a sovereign nation. Biden’s needlessly universal principle – U.S. deference in the face of a sovereign nation’s determination that it is in danger – would protect its right to build nuclear weapons.
Biden is being overly broad to obscure the fact that he's granting Israel special rights, of course. But it's still worth pointing out that it's a bad principle, if "not dictating" means never saying "bad idea." When considering war, the opinions of other nations are generally worth knowing. Some of our European friends argued in 2002 that invading Iraq would not enhance our security, after all. Useful advice! Offering our opinions is perfectly consistent with a policy of military restraint.
The problem here goes beyond the principle though. We give Israel all sorts of aid. The F-16s and F-15s carrying out the bulk of the attack would be U.S.-made. They might pass through Iraqi airspace that the U.S. effectively controls. Historical U.S. support for Israel means that people around the world reasonably hold Americans responsible for what Israel does to Iran. Sooner or later, probably sooner, an Israeli attack on Iran would be likely to produce blowback, diplomatic or otherwise, that would damage us. Given that, our position should be that attacks on Iran are unacceptable, and would cost Israel our support.
For analysis on Israel’s ability to disable Iran’s nuclear programs, read Whitney Raas and Austin’s Long's work.
Alliances often are advanced, as with NATO expansion, as a cheap way of keeping the peace. After all, it is said, no one would dare challenge America. But while alliances can deter, deterrence can fail -- with catastrophic consequences. Both World Wars I and II featured failed alliances and security guarantees. Oops!
If deterence fails, the guaranteeing state either has to retreat ignominously or plunge into war, neither of which is likely to be in America's interest. Moreover, promising to defend other nations encourages them to be irresponsible: after all, why not adopt a risky foreign policy if Washington is willing to back you up, nuclear weapons and all? It's a form of moral hazard applied to foreign policy.
That appears to be the case with the country of Georgia. There's a lot of disagreement over the character of Mikhail Saakashvili's government, even among libertarians. But a new European Union panel has amassed evidence that President Saakashvili is a bit of a foreign policy adventurer. Reports Spiegel online:
Unpublished documents produced by the European Union commission that investigated the conflict between Georgia and Moscow assign much of the blame to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. But the Kremlin and Ossetian militias are also partly responsible.
From her office on Avenue de la Paix, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, 58, looks out onto the botanical gardens in peaceful Geneva. The view offers a welcome respite from the stacks of documents on her desk, which deal exclusively with war and war blame. They contain the responses, from the conflicting parties in the Caucasus region -- Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- to a European Union investigative commission conducting a probe of the cause of the five-day war last August. The documents also include reports on the EU commission's trips to Moscow, the Georgian capital Tbilisi and the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, dossiers assembled by experts and the transcripts of interviews of diplomats, military officials and civilian victims of the war.
The Caucasus expert, nicknamed "Madame Courage" by the Zurich-based Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, is considered a specialist on sensitive diplomatic matters. The Caucasus issue is the most difficult challenge she has faced to date. The final report by the commission she heads must be submitted to the EU Council of Ministers by late July. In the report, Tagliavini is expected to explain how, in August 2008, a long-smoldering regional conflict over the breakaway Georgia province of South Ossetia could suddenly have escalated into a war between Georgia and its much more powerful neighbor, Russia. Who is to blame for the most serious confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War?
In addition to having a budget of €1.6 million ($2.2 million) at her disposal, Tagliavini can draw on the expertise of two deputies, 10 specialists, military officials, political scientists, historians and international law experts.
Much hinges on the conclusions her commission will reach. Is Georgia, a former Soviet republic, a serious candidate for membership in NATO, or is the country in the hands of a reckless gambler? Did the Russian leadership simply defend South Ossetia, an ally seeking independence from Georgia, against a Georgian attack? Or did Russia spark a global crisis when its troops occupied parts of Georgia for a short period of time?
The confidential investigative commission documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show that the task of assigning blame for the conflict has been as much of a challenge for the commission members as it has for the international community. However, a majority of members tend to arrive at the assessment that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili started the war by attacking South Ossetia on August 7, 2008. The facts assembled on Tagliavini's desk refute Saakashvili's claim that his country became the innocent victim of "Russian aggression" on that day.
In summarizing the military fiasco, commission member Christopher Langton, a retired British Army colonel, claims: "Georgia's dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that."
Whatever the justification for President Saakashvili's conduct, it certainly isn't the kind of policy to which the U.S. should tie itself. Yet including Georgia in NATO would in effect make President Saakashvili's goals those of the American government and, by extension, the American people.
How many Americans should die to ensure that George gets to rule South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Should we risk Washington for Tbilisi? These are questions the Obama administration should answer before it joins the Bush administration in pushing NATO membership for Georgia. The American people deserve to know exactly what risks the Obama administration plans to take with their lives and homelands before adding yet another fragile client state to Washington's long list of security dependents.
The North Koreans have been busy, testing a nuclear weapon and shooting off missiles. It seems that nothing upsets North Korea more than being ignored.
President Barack Obama expressed the usual outrage:
These actions, while not a surprise given its statements and actions to date, are a matter of grave concern to all nations. North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program, constitute a threat to international peace and security.
However, this really is all old news. Although the nuclear test reinforces the North’s irresponsible reputation, the blast has little practical importance. North Korea has long been known to be a nuclear state and tested a smaller nuclear device a couple years ago. The regime’s missile capabilities also are well-known.
Contrary to the president's excited rhetoric, the North has little ability to project force beyond the Korean peninsula. So Washington should treat the North’s latest offense as an opportunity to reprogram the latter’s negotiating formula.
The U.S. should not reward “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il with a plethora of statements beseeching the regime to cooperate and threatening dire consequences for its bad behavior. Rather, the Obama administration should explain, perhaps through China, that the U.S. is interested in forging a more positive relationship with North, but that no improvement will be possible so long as North Korea acts provocatively. Washington should encourage South Korea and Japan to take a similar stance.
Moreover, the U.S. should step back and suggest that China, Seoul, and Tokyo take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang. North Korea’s activities more threaten its neighbors than America. Even Beijing, the North’s long-time ally, long ago lost patience with Kim’s belligerent behavior and might be willing to support tougher sanctions.
Washington should offer to support this or other efforts to reform North Korean policy. But without Chinese backing there is little else the U.S. can do. War on the peninsula would be disastrous for all, and Washington has few additional sanctions to apply. Beijing has the most leverage on Pyongyang, but whether even that is enough to moderate North Korea's behavior is anyone's guess.
North Korea is a problem likely to be long with us. The U.S. has limited ability to influence the North. Washington should offer the prospect of improved relations as a reward for improved North Korean behavior, but should let the North’s neighbors, most notably China, take the lead in managing this most difficult of states.
There are two parts to securing a country: making the country secure and making the country feel secure.
The head of U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton, failed at the latter when he talked about security in a way that produced the following headline: U.S. General Reserves Right to Use Force, Even Nuclear, in Response to Cyber Attack.
As a theoretical matter, every element of military power should be on the table to respond to attacks. But the chance of responding to any "cyber attack" with military force is vanishingly small. To talk about responding with nuclear weapons simply helps spin our country into a security tizzy.
Politicians and military leaders should stop inflating the risk of cyber attack.
The New York Times writes up the revelation that Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal. Congressmen and Senators, we're told, are worried that US military aid might be diverted to this purpose.
Two points here.
1. Insofar as we are giving money to Pakistan, it probably doesn't matter much if we restrict it to our priorities. Money is fungible -- by funding something Pakistan might have paid for itself, we free its funds for other priorities. Maybe it's the case that the Pakistanis view aid that US gives them for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capability as purely wasteful -- and therefore wouldn't spend a dime if we didn't provide it. But probably they would have bought much of this capability if we didn't, and therefore we are freeing up funds for other purposes like the expansion of the nuclear weapons arsenal. If we don't want to help them do that, we should quit funding them, period.
2. Lots of people point out that Pakistan's big problem is India -- that its preoccupation with its largely indefensible Indian border prevents it from devoting sufficient resources to pacifying its restive Pashtuns and encourages it to employ high-risk strategies like using extremists to tie down Indian forces in Kashmir.
What you don't hear much is that nuclear weapons, and particularly the secure second strike capability that Pakistan is likely pursuing, is a potential solution to this problem. Nuclear weapons are a cheap form of defense. In theory, the security that they provide against Indian attack would allow Pakistan to limit its militarization, stop bankrolling extremists, and focus on securing its own territory as opposed to its border. (Note: I'm not arguing that that's necessarily right, I'm arguing that if you think vulnerability to India is what creates danger for us in Pakistan, you should consider the utility of nuclear weapons in solving this problem).
Pakistan's nuclear weapons are frightening, no question. But the series of wars Pakistan and India have fought since their split should put that fear in perspective. If they can arrest conventional conflict, the nukes are doing great good.
With our president calling for a nuclear-weapons free world, it's worth considering whether abolishing nukes makes sense if you can't abolish war.
Cato foreign policy experts weigh in on President Obama's record in his first 100 days:
Christopher Preble, Director Foreign Policy Studies:
President Obama deserves credit for making a few modest changes in U.S. foreign and defense policy, and he has signaled a desire to make more fundamental shifts in the future. Some of these may prove helpful, while others are likely to encounter problems. In the end, however, so long as the president is unwilling to revisit some of the core assumptions that have guided U.S grand strategy for nearly two decades -- chief among these the conceit that the United States is the world's indispensable nation, and that we must take the lead in resolving all the world's problems -- then he will be unable to effect the broad changes that are truly needed.
Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President Defense & Foreign Policy Studies; Christopher Preble:
On the plus side, Obama moved quickly to fulfill his most important foreign policy promise: ending the war in Iraq. That said, the policy that his administration will implement is consistent with the agreement that the outgoing Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqis. Given that the war has undermined U.S. security interests, and our continuing presence there is costly and counterproductive, Obama should have proposed to remove U.S. troops on a faster timetable.
Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst:
The jury is still out on the other major, ongoing military operation, the war in Afghanistan. That mission is directly related to events in neighboring Pakistan, which is serving -- and has served -- as a safe haven for Taliban supporters for years. President Obama deserves credit for approaching the problem with both countries together, and also in a regional context, which includes Iran, as well as India. Still unknown is the scope and scale of the U.S. commitment. President Obama has approved a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that still more troops are needed, and that these additional troop numbers might prevail for 10-15 years. That would be a mistake. The United States should be looking for ways to increase the capacity of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to confront the extremism in their countries, and should not allow either to grow dependent upon U.S. military and financial support.
Christopher Preble and Ted Galen Carpenter:
On Iran, President Obama made the right decision by agreeing to join the P5 + 1 negotiations, but that is only a first step. The two sides are far apart and President Obama has not signaled his intentions if negotiations fail to produce a definitive breakthrough. Sanctions have had a very uneven track record, and are unlikely to succeed in convincing the Iranians to permanently forego uranium enrichment. If the Iranians are intent upon acquiring nuclear weapons, military action would merely delay Iran ’s program, and would serve in the meantime to rally support for an otherwise unpopular clerical regime, and a manifestly incompetent president.
Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow; Christopher Preble:
A related problem is North Korea's ongoing nuclear program, an area where the president and his team seem to be grasping for answers. President Obama was mistaken if he believed that that the UN Security Council would render a meaningful response to Pyongyang's provocative missile launch. It was naive, at best, for him to believe that even a strong rebuke from the UNSC would have altered Kim Jong Il's behavior. The president must directly engage China, the only country with any significant influence over Kim. The North's reckless and unpredictable behavior does not serve Beijing's interests.
Benjamin Friedman, Research Fellow; Christopher Preble:
Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are correct to apply greater scrutiny to bloated Pentagon spending, and to terminating unnecessary weapon systems, but the budget will actually grow slightly, at a time when we should be looking for ways to trim spending. If President Obama decided to avoid Iraq-style occupations, we could cut our ground forces in half. If we stopped planning for near-term war with China or Russia, the Air Force and Navy could be much smaller. Unless we commit to a grand strategy of restraint, and encourage other countries to provide for their own defense, it will be impossible to make the large-scale cuts in military spending that are needed.
Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies; Benjamin Friedman; Christopher Preble:
Two other quick points. President Obama has moved away from some of the overheated rhetoric surrounding counterterrorism and homeland security, including dropping the phrase ‘War on Terror”. This was the right approach. The language surrounding the fight against terrorism is as important -- if not more important -- than the actual fight itself. Equally useful is his pledge to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and his renunciation of the use of torture and other illegal means in the first against al Qaeda. These steps send an important message to audiences outside of the United States who cooperation is essential.
Ian Vasquez, Director, Center for Global Liberty & Prosperity; Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Project Coordinator for Latin America.
President Obama has signaled a slight change on US-Cuba policy by softening some travel and financial restrictions. It is not as far as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction -- toward greater engagement, as opposed to more isolation, which was the approach adopted by the Bush administration.
For more research, check out Cato's foreign policy and national security page.
Pakistan has nuclear weapons, an active jihadist movement, a weak civilian government, a history of backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a military focused on fighting another American ally, India. Pakistan probably is harder than Iraq to "fix."
Unfortunately, the gulf between the U.S. and Pakistani governments is vast. Starting with the respective assessments of the greatest regional threat, Gen. David Petraeus has given Islamabad some unwanted advice. Reports AP News:
The United States is urging Pakistan's military to focus more on the Taliban and extremists advancing inside their borders instead of the nation's longtime enemy — India.
The top U.S. commander in the region told Congress Friday that extremists already inside Pakistan pose the greatest threat to that nation.
Gen. David Petraeus (pet-TRAY'-uhs) was asking a House Appropriations subcommittee for funding to help the Pakistani military root out and stop insurgents, saying he wants Pakistani leaders to realize they need to learn how to fight internal extremists.
Petraeus called India a "conventional threat" that should no longer be Pakistan's top military focus.
Gen. Petraeus is obviously right, from America's standpoint. But try explaining that to Pakistan, which has fought and lost three wars with India. Indeed, Pakistan was dismembered in one of those conflicts, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
Enlisting Pakistan more fully in combating the Taliban and al Qaeda will require recognizing, not dismissing, Islamabad's other security concerns. Squaring the circle won't be easy. But doing so will require more creative diplomacy and less preemptive demands, more regional cooperation and less military escalation.