Tag: war

Afghanistan: Do We Stay or Do We Go Now?

In the last three years, the United States has tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, increased the number of drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden—the highest of high-value targets. President Obama has more than enough victories under his belt to stick to his timeline and substantially draw down the number of troops from Afghanistan.

Still, the pace of America’s withdrawal and the size of its residual combat presence, even after his decision Wednesday, will depend on two things: negotiations with the Taliban and political pressure to stay the course. These two factors will feature prominently in the months ahead, as the administration reconfigures the strategy and objectives for winding down the 10-year campaign.

First, although many Afghans endorse engagement with the Taliban, in Washington, even broaching the subject of talks is divisive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that efforts were under way to negotiate with the Taliban; meanwhile, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he believes the Taliban will not engage in serious talks until they are under extreme military pressure. In a way, both are right: a power-sharing arrangement would provide the best hope for sustainable peace, but no treaty, agreement, or contract is self-reinforcing and thus requires some leverage. Either way, constructive, face-to-face talks with senior Taliban leaders will be an intensive process, and one that diplomats and military officials must be prepared to defend publicly. America is not there yet.

The second force that will temper America’s eagerness to withdraw is the power of domestic political pressure. Defense Secretary Gates, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), and a sizeable contingent of Afghanistan hawks in the media decry anything less than a troop-intensive campaign. They endorse slow-paced, graduated troop cuts subject to conditions on the ground, a policy focused on entities other than those that threaten the United States. Dismantling al Qaeda, an outfit already in disarray, calls for counterterrorism, not state-building. This can be done relatively cheaply and with far fewer troops. Moreover, as seen in Yemen and Somalia, the United States can collect actionable intelligence without a large-scale conventional force on the ground.

Whether it is talking with the Taliban on the one hand, or staying the course on the other, the president has political goals, for which there is no clear strategy, and security progress, for which there is no definitive “victory.” Looking back, however, Obama has achieved some of the goals he set out. “Blueprint for Change,” his 2008 presidential campaign literature, states (pdf):

Obama will fight terrorism and protect America with a comprehensive strategy that finishes the fight in Afghanistan, cracks down on the al Qaeda safe-haven in Pakistan, develops new capabilities and international partnerships, engages the world to dry up support for extremism, and reaffirms American values.

To a certain degree, even these goals are ambitious. Instead, he should focus not on what is politically desirable, but what is within America’s ability to accomplish. In this respect, Obama would do well to revisit his December 2009 speech on the war in Afghanistan, when he said:

We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

He also said:

Indeed, some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests…America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

As U.S. forces eventually take a back seat in Afghanistan, Obama should strongly resist any calls that he has not done enough. Arguably, he has gone above and beyond what would have been a more prudent strategy. Now, it is time to come home.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Harold Koh and the Temptations of Power

So for three months now, we’ve been at war in a country that the president’s own secretary of defense admits is “not a vital interest for the United States.” Turns out, it’s also a war that the president’s own attorney general believes to be illegal.

That’s what I get from Charlie Savage’s recent reporting on how the White House “forum-shopped” its way to its current position on the War Powers Resolution, to wit, you’re not engaged in “hostilities” if you’re hitting someone but they can’t hit you back.

As the WPR’s 60-day deadline approached, the Pentagon’s general counsel and, more importantly, the head of the president’s Office of Legal Counsel, Caroline D. Krass, advised Obama that bombing Tripoli—even if done remotely, with little risk of immediate retaliation—counted as engaging in “hostilities” under the WPR, which meant that the president would have to terminate U.S. involvement or radically scale it back after the 60-day limit. As Savage reports, “Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. supported Ms. Krass’s view, officials said”—in other words, that if the president continued bombing Libya, he’d be violating the WPR.

Ordinarily OLC’s opinion would have the greatest weight here, but President Obama went with the advice given by White House Counsel Robert Bauer and State Department Legal adviser Harold Koh—who told him what he wanted to hear.

My Washington Examiner column today focuses on Harold Koh as an object lesson in the corrupting potential of power:

Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith notes that “for a quarter century before heading up State-Legal, Koh was the leading and most vocal academic critic of presidential unilateralism in war.” On the strength of that reputation, Koh rose to the deanship of Yale Law School in 2004.

And Koh seemed to take the War Powers Resolution pretty seriously. In 1994, for example, he wrote to the Clinton Justice Department to protest the planned deployment to Haiti, which was carried out without a single shot being fired:

“Nothing in the War Powers Resolution authorizes the President to commit armed forces overseas into actual or imminent hostilities in a situation where he could have gotten advance authorization.”

Who could have predicted that his legacy at State would be reading the WPR practically out of existence?

On Thursday, Koh took point at a press conference selling the administration line. The next day, he went before the American Constitution Society, the progressive alternative to the Federalist Society, to give a strikingly self-congratulatory speech about maintaining one’s integrity in “public service.” The relevant part starts at around 33:00 in. Highlights: “I’ve lived the life I wanted to live; I’ve said the things I wanted to say”…”I still believe in my principles”…”I never say anything I don’t believe”…”if you hear me say something, you can be absolutely sure that I believe it [including “the administration’s position on war powers in Libya”]”…”if I say it, I believe it, and I intend to stand by it”…”For what is a man?/what has he got? If not himself/then he has not…” (OK, not the last bit).

As I note in the column:

John Dean, who served prison time for his role in the Watergate cover-up as a young White House counsel to Richard Nixon, once said that young people should be kept away from top executive posts.

They lacked the life experience and independence needed to resist falling under the spell of presidents who want them to bend or break the law.

Koh was in his mid-50s when he joined the administration, coming off a distinguished career built on opposition to the Imperial Presidency. Yet the lure of being “in the room” when the big decisions are made seems to have turned him into the Gollum of Foggy Bottom.

Oh, and by the way, Charlie Savage reports today that piloted strikes continued past the 60-day time limit, so even if Koh’s legal rationalization could pass the laugh test, it wouldn’t fit the facts we have.

Huntsman Right to Rethink Afghanistan

Jon Huntsman’s recent comments about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the need to reduce our military footprint have drawn a good amount of media coverage this week. Huntsman, who will announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination next week, is the latest among the field to call for rethinking our strategy in Afghanistan. Huntsman is advocating a reduced presence in the country, in the area of 10 to 15,000 troops, to fight a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission. Coincidentally, a just-released Cato paper makes a similar recommendation.

Today, ForeignPolicy.com examines Huntsman’s comments and the “Drawdown Debate” in a round table of opinion pieces. My contribution: “Huntsman’s Right: Bring ‘em Home:

Jon Huntsman is on the right track with his call for a much smaller U.S. military presence and a more focused mission in Afghanistan. His suggestion makes sense for at least three reasons. First, the current nation-building mission is far too costly relative to realistic alternatives, particularly at a time when Americans are looking for ways to shrink the size of government. Second, nation-building in Afghanistan is unnecessary. We can advance our national security interests without crafting a functioning nation-state in the Hindu Kush. And third, the current mission is deeply unconservative, succumbing to the same errors that trip up other ambitious government-run projects that conservatives routinely reject here at home.

Alas, although many rank and file Republicans agree with Huntsman, many GOP leaders do not. Perhaps that will change when they realize that, at least in this instance, good policy and good politics go hand in hand. We should bring most of our troops home, and focus the attention of the few thousand who remain on hunting al Qaeda. The United States does not need to transform a deeply divided, poverty-stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive, and stable electoral democracy, and we should stop pretending that we can.

Read the full piece here.

Congress Debates the Libya War

Better late than never.

The House of Representatives today debated two different resolutions purportedly aimed at forcing the Obama administration to comply with its statutory and constitutional obligations to secure formal authorization for the ongoing military campaign in Libya.

I say “purportedly” because it seems quite clear that the real intent of House Speaker John Boehner’s resolution was to lure away a sufficient number of Republicans who otherwise would have been inclined to vote for Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) measure. Whereas the Kucinich resolution would have compelled the Obama administration to withdraw from all military operations in Libya within the next 15 days, Boehner’s resolution bars the administration from deploying ground troops, but allows current operations to continue.  The resolution stipulates that the administration must explain what the U.S. military is actually doing, and calls on the president to justify his decision to launch the campaign without first obtaining congressional approval.  Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern suggested that a strongly worded press release would have the same effect. Others noted that similar language has already been written into the defense authorization passed late last week.

Boehner’s gambit worked, for now. His resolution carried, with overwhelming GOP support. The House failed to adopt the Kucinich measure, although more Republicans than Democrats voted for the bill.  The detailed vote totals for both measures signal a growing willingness on the part of even many Republicans to question the country’s many wars.

Indeed, many were prepared to go beyond merely voting for the measure; about a dozen House Republicans (including resolution co-sponsor Dan Burton of Indiana) spoke out in favor of the Kucinich resolution. Many of these House members seemed quite eager to reassert their authority and to defend the principle of legislative control over the war power, even if that meant allying with one of the most liberal members of Congress.

At one level, it shouldn’t surprise that a number of Republicans voted for the Kucinich resolution. The war is unpopular with the American people, and their elected representatives are reflecting that sentiment. A number of speakers this morning made this point explicitly. But leaving public opinion aside, and conceding that the constitutional question has been practically rendered moot by the parade of presidents and Congresses who have summarily ignored its clear intent, there are ample opportunities for questioning the Libya war on strategic grounds, and not many solid arguments that prove the war to be serving a vital national interest.

The least compelling argument in support of the Libya intervention, in my mind, is the one offered up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this week, and repeated several times  in the floor debate this morning: we need to stay in Libya, not because it is in our national interest to do so (it isn’t), and not because the Libyan civil war poses a clear and present danger to U.S. security (it doesn’t); rather, we are waging a war in Libya because our allies want us to. To leave them holding the bag, as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) explained this morning, would betray a sacred trust. Boehner echoed those sentiments, warning against a vote for the Kucinich resolution because our NATO allies have stood by us in Afghanistan, and we owe it to them to do the same in Libya.

I discussed why this rationale is particularly flimsy over at TNI’s The Skeptics earlier today, and it is featured in a just-released Cato video. As the ever-quotable Ben Friedman explains, “we should have allies for war, not wars for allies.” Meanwhile, Justin Logan notes the absurdity of U.S. taxpayers borrowing money from China to buy precision-guided munitions for Europeans to drop on Libya. If that sounds like a Rube Goldberg foreign policy, it is.

Cyberphobia

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon will soon release a policy document explaining what cyberattacks it will consider acts of war meriting military response. Christoper Preble and I warn against this policy in an op-ed up at Reuters.com:

The policy threatens to repeat the overreaction and needless conflict that plagued American foreign policy in the past decade. It builds on national hysteria about threats to cybersecurity, the latest bogeyman to justify our bloated national security state. A wiser approach would put the threat in context to calm public fears and avoid threats that diminish future flexibility.

Reuters headlined our piece: “A military response to cyberattacks is preposterous.” Actually, our claim is not that we should never use military means to respond to cyberattacks. Our point instead is that the vast majority of events given that name have nothing to do with national security. Most “cyberattackers” are criminals: thieves looking to steal credit card numbers or corporate data, extortionists threatening denial of service attacks, or vandals altering websites to grind personal or political axes. These acts require police, not aircraft carriers.

Even the cyberattacks that have affected our national security do not justify war, we argue. There is little evidence that online spying has ever done grievous harm to national security, thinly sourced reports to the contrary notwithstanding. In any case, we do not threaten war in response to traditional espionage and should not do so merely because it occurs online.

Moreover, despite panicked reports claiming that hackers are poised to sabotage our “critical infrastructure” — downing planes, flooding dams, crippling Wall Street — hackers have accomplished nothing of the sort. We prevent these nightmares by decoupling the infrastructure management system from the public internet. But even these higher-end cyberattacks are only likely to damage commerce, not kill, so threatening to bomb in response to them seems belligerent.

The Stuxnet worm shows that cyberattacks may indeed do considerable harm, perhaps someday killing on a scale akin to small arms. Attacks like that might indeed merit military response. But they remain hypothetical here.

Vague terms like “cyberattack” and the alarmist rhetoric that surrounds them confuse common nuisance attacks with theoretical tragic ones. The danger is militarized responses to criminal acts, foolish regulation, wasteful spending, or even needless war.

To learn about the exaggeration of cyberthreats, read these two articles from the Mercatus Center. For a good discussion of the policy options for dealing with the various cyberharms, see this 2009 congressional testimony from Jim Harper.

Presidents Should Obey the Law

In Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, when Chancellor Palpatine transforms the republic into an empire, Senator Amidala remarks:

So this is how liberty dies … with thunderous applause.

But it can also happen in silent acquiescence. For decades now, successive Congresses have evaded their responsibility to make decisions about the deployment of U.S. armed forces abroad. I write about the latest instance of this, in Libya, in today’s Britannica column:

Presidents have an obligation to obey the Constitution and the law. But one of the ways that separation of powers works is that each branch of government is supposed to jealously guard its prerogatives from usurpation by the other branches. Too often Congress ducks that responsibility, preferring to let presidents make decisions, make law, and make war without the involvement of Congress. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., explained in his book The Imperial Presidency, the expansion of presidential war-making power has been “as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.”

The president is derelict in his duty to obey the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution. And Congress is derelict in its duty to assert its constitutional authority. And I’m still wondering what’s happened to the antiwar movement, which ought to be loudly protesting not just the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but the newborn war in Libya.

As George Will said last week, “even if you think the War Powers Resolution is an unwise law—it is a law.” And a former law professor who is now the president of the United States should obey the law. Will expanded on that point in his Sunday column, titled “Obama’s Illegal War,” in the old-fashioned print edition of the Washington Post.

Full Britannica column here.

Will Obama Comply with the War Powers Resolution?

Six Republican senators are challenging President Obama’s authority to conduct an open-ended war in Libya without congressional authorization. The six conservative lawmakers (Rand Paul (R-KY), Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and John Cornyn (R-TX)) sent a letter to the president on May 18th asking if he intends to comply with the War Powers Resolution. The full text of the letter can be found here.

The law stipulates that the president must terminate military operations within 60 days, unless Congress explicitly authorizes the action, or grants an extension. The clock on the Libya operation started ticking on March 21, 2011. Congress has neither formally approved of the mission, nor has it granted an extension. Therefore, the 60-day limit expires tomorrow, May 20th.

Last week at The Skeptics, I noted Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he suggested that the administration wanted to comply, but was consulting with Congress about how to do so. The New York Times presented some of the creative ideas that the administration was considering in order to adhere to circumvent the law. But the senators can read the Times, too. In their letter to the president, they write:

Last week some in your Administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely, while others said you would act in a manner consistent with the War Powers Resolution. Therefore, we are writing to ask whether you intend to comply with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. We await your response.

Let me be clear about one thing: I’m not a huge fan of the War Powers Resolution, per se. To me, it is silly, sort of like a law that affirmed the Congress’s authority to levy taxes, borrow and coin money, and establish Post Offices. In the same section where these powers are delegated, the Constitution clearly stipulates that Congress shall have the power to declare war. So why does there also need to be legislation?

Most presidents have complied with the spirit of the War Powers Resolution, but more out of deference to the notion that Congress has some role in whether the United States goes to war, not out of genuine conviction that Congress does/should have the most important role in deciding such things. By all appearances, President Obama is bypassing the charade.

I anxiously await his response to the senators’ letter, and am likewise curious to see if other senators raise questions about the administration’s intentions.