Tag: war

Foreign Wars and Domestic Politics

When things aren’t going so well for a president, it can be useful to find a scapegoat. Foreign threats are also useful distractions. The movie “Wag the Dog” told us that, as if we hadn’t seen the pattern repeated many times in our political history.

We can see the same phenomenon in a recent Washington Post dispatch from Moscow about the Russian parliamentary elections, which resulted in a big win for political parties aligned with President Vladimir Putin. Andrew Roth interviewed a Moscow pensioner:

“The president’s party, who else would I vote for?” said Nadezhda Osetinskaya, a 67-year-old pensioner and former nurse who lined up before polls opened at 8 a.m. at a school in northwest Moscow.

Osetinskaya had her share of complaints. Prices for food and medicine are increasing, she said, and she required support from her children to live on her $250 monthly pension. She was unhappy with the quality of care at a hospital where she receives treatment for a kidney ailment. The city had carried out years of road work, she said, but the potholes on her neighborhood streets are legion, probably the result of corruption. 

But on broader questions, she enthusiastically supported Putin, lauding the recent annexation of Crimea and blaming Russia’s economic difficulties on a Western conspiracy. Voting for United Russia was a way to support Putin, she reiterated.

So this voter is unhappy with rising prices, poor health care, and government corruption. But she supports the longtime incumbent because he’s fighting a war and blaming Russia’s problems on someone else. (Maybe Snowball!) Blaming America has worked for the dictators of Cuba and Venezuela, not that they’ve ever allowed a real election.

Writers have often seen the true nature of rulers and politics. Henry Adams wrote a century ago, “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

And Shakespeare understood the value of foreign military adventures to rulers long before that, when he wrote in Henry IV, Part 2,

I cut them off and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels…
It still works. 

Syria Is Not Obama’s Worst Mistake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that the failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war represents President Obama’s worst mistake, “casting a shadow over his legacy.” The war has certainly been a monumental tragedy. Almost 500,000 have died and millions now struggle as refugees. The truth, however, is that Obama’s refusal to bow to political pressure stands as a significant accomplishment of his tenure, not a mistake.

Kristof joins a bipartisan choir in accusing Obama of wrongly believing there is nothing the United States can do to make things better in Syria. Among his suggestions: implementing a no-fly zone, creating safe zones for civilians, and grounding the Syrian government’s air force. The immediate goal of such efforts would be to prevent harm to civilians. The longer-term goal is to put pressure on the Assad government to come to the negotiating table and put an end the civil war.

Though Kristof’s heart is in the right place, all of these suggestions – as well as the other, more interventionist recommendations made by many over the past several years – gloss over the obstacles to successful intervention. Obama’s more cautious approach implicitly acknowledges the reality of the situation in Syria as it stands today.

Most fundamentally, the political interests of those engaged in the civil war far outweigh America’s humanitarian interests in Syria. Calling Syria ‘Obama’s mistake’ both misdirects moral responsibility for the conflict and obscures the fact that the combatants are far more motivated than the United States. Both the Assad regime and the rebels have suffered incredible losses; all sides are clearly in it for the long haul.

Against such motivation the United States can certainly bring overwhelming military force. But as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq, military superiority does not always translate to peace and stability. More American intervention in Syria is thus unlikely to change the calculus of those fighting for the future of their country. In the end, Syrians’ stomachs for taking casualties to control their own future will prove stronger than America’s stomach for taking casualties to prevent Syrians from dying.

Kristof also imagines that military humanitarian intervention on such a scale can be precise and limited. It cannot. The effort to exert control over events in Syria would lead inexorably to ownership of the broader conflict. This would lead to a massive and open-ended American commitment to Syria. It would also lead those currently fighting each other in Syria to find it increasingly necessary and useful to fight the United States – witness the attacks already conducted by the Islamic State and its supporters in Europe and the United States in response to Western engagement in Syria and Iraq.

America’s Contradictory Yemen Policies

Reuters has an investigation today of the ways in which the Saudi-led War in Yemen has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s local affiliate. While it’s been relatively obvious to observers for some time that AQAP had benefitted from the conflict, the extent of their newfound control and wealth as detailed in the article is fascinating.

Thanks to the seizure of the city of Mukalla, AQAP now controls Yemen’s third largest port, a position that Reuters estimates has allowed them to earn up to $2 million per day in fees and taxes. Extortion of businesses, including around $1.4 million from the state oil company, has also provided an easy revenue source, as has the far less subtle method of simply robbing the city’s banks.

Perhaps of more interest is AQAP’s approach to providing civic services and stability. While it’s untrue that Al Qaeda has never experimented with state-building before, such a strategy has more typically been associated with ISIS. As the Reuters investigation notes,  in Mukalla, Al Qaeda is trying to present themselves as a less cruel and brutal ruler than ISIS, an approach which seems to be working with some Yemeni citizens who fear a return to instability.

So entrenched is the group that it attempted to set up a formal profit-sharing deal with the national government to split oil revenues. It is even managing taxes for the citizens of Mukalla, cancelling payroll taxes and promoting various populist policies. All of this is a remarkable feat for a group which has been the focus of concerted US drone strikes and counterterrorism activities for more than a decade.

What the President Should Do: End U.S. Support for the War in Yemen

Possibly the strangest foreign policy decision the Obama administration has made was their decision to support the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The White House has made quiet counterterrorism operations a key plank of its foreign policy agenda, and the administration includes a number of officials best known for their work on human rights issues, most notably Samantha Power. As such, the President’s decision to supply logistical, intelligence and targeting support for the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign – a campaign which has been horrifically damaging to human rights inside Yemen, as well as detrimental to U.S. counterterrorism goals – was deeply surprising.

Less surprising was the fact that the conflict has turned into a disastrous quagmire. Yemen was already arguably a failed state when the intervention began in April 2015. The power transition negotiated in the aftermath of the Arab Spring was weak and failing, with Yemen’s perpetual insurgencies worsening the situation. Since the intervention began, the United Nations estimates that over 21 million Yemenis have been deprived of life’s basic necessities. Thousands have been killed. Even more concerning, United Nations monitors reported to the Security Council that they believed the Saudi-led coalition may be guilty of crimes against humanity for its indiscriminate air strikes on civilians.

Strategically, the coalition has made few gains. Despite the terrible loss of life, the coalition has stalled south of the capital, Sanaa. Further advances will be exceedingly difficult. At the same time, Al Qaeda inside Yemen has grown in strength and size, benefitting from the conflict, and even presenting itself as a viable partner for the Saudi coalition. It is hard to see how U.S. strategic interests - counterterrorism, human rights, or even regional stability – are being served by this conflict.

America’s Invisible Wars: Event January 25th

On January 14th, the White House announced that Gen. Joseph Votel - the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command – will take over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a position which will place him in charge of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The symbolism of the appointment could not be clearer. As Foreign Policy noted,

“With 3,000 special operations troops currently hunting down Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and another 200 having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration.”

The growing use of special operations forces has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, an attempt to thread the needle between growing public opposition to large-scale troop deployments and public demands for the United States to ‘do more’ against terrorist threats, all while dancing around the definition of the phrase ‘boots on the ground.’ But the increasing use of such non-traditional forces – particularly since the start of the Global War on Terror – is also reshaping how we think about U.S. military intervention overseas.

Despite the Headlines, Violence Is Trending Downwards

When something as horrific as last Friday’s Paris attacks unfolds on the news, it’s hard not to feel that the world is a very dangerous place. It’s hard to remember that what makes acts of terror, such as the one in Paris last week, so shocking and newsworthy is that violence is becoming rarer. In fact, the vast majority of human interactions are peaceful.

Esteemed journalist and HumanProgress.org advisory board member Matt Ridley put it well when he said, “violence makes the news precisely because it is so rare; routine kindness does not make the news precisely because it is so common.” Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, who is also one of our board members, observed,

We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. […] The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count.

And if we judge how violent the world is by counting, instead of by how gruesome the headlines are, we find something heartening. International wars have almost disappeared. Homicides are becoming rarer. In the United States, violence against women is decreasing, and so is child abuse.

Almost everywhere, we see a trend away from violence. Progress, sadly, is neither linear nor inevitable. Setbacks do occur. Terrorism is one of the few areas where violence is becoming worse, although it remains rare. For example, you are much more likely to die of a disease, in an accident, or from an ordinary homicide. 

To meet the challenge posed by terrorism the rest of the world may need to think outside the box. Even one violent death is too many. Still, we must not lose sight of the fact that though some violent fanatics may stand athwart the trend towards greater peace and tolerance, violence is slowly retreating.

Meditations on Memorial Day

Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Given Franklin’s leadership in the struggle for American independence, we can infer that he did not think that there never was a war that was necessary, or a war that was worth its cost. But he reminds us that even necessary wars have terrible costs.

I thought about Franklin when I read an eloquent column on the meaning of Memorial Day by the novelist Mark Helprin, who is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He lamented:

Though if by and large we ignore the debt we owe to those who fell at Saratoga, Antietam, the Marne, the Pointe du Hoc, and a thousand other places and more, our lives and everything we value are the ledger in which it is indelibly recorded.

It’s a worthy sentiment, one heard frequently in Memorial Day addresses, and we do indeed owe our lives and our pursuit of happiness to the freedom that America’s soldiers have sometimes had to defend.

But I can’t help wondering: Have all of America’s wars have been necessary to American freedom? Helprin mentioned the Second Battle of the Marne, the great turning point of World War I and the first battle in which Americans started experiencing the enormous casualties that Europeans had been facing for nearly four years. The problem is that World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country, the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally, World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. World War I was the worst mistake of the 20th century, the mistake that set in motion all the tragedies of the century. The deaths of those who fell at the Marne are all the more tragic when we reflect that they did not in fact serve to protect our lives and all that we value.

Did the wars in Vietnam and Iraq protect American lives and liberties? Two weeks ago, Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush said that discussing whether the Iraq war was a mistake “does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot.” It’s understandable that an aspiring commander-in-chief would want to spare the feelings of those who lost a loved one in Iraq. But surely it’s more important that a commander-in-chief ask tough questions about when it’s advisable to go to war.

In my book The Libertarian Mind, I wrote about the effects of war: not just death on a large scale but the destruction of families, businesses, and civil society. And thus:

War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible. Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism….We should understand the consequences of war for our entire social order and thus go to war only when absolutely necessary.

On this weekend we should mourn those who went to war, such as my father, who planned and participated in the liberation of Europe, and his brother who was lost off the coast of Normandy, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

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