The 2019 Arms Sales Risk Index, designed to help policy makers assess the potential negative consequences of international arms sales, is now online at Cato here. It represents an expanded and improved version of the original risk index published in Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy, published in 2018 by A. Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey.
The United States has long been the world’s leading arms exporter. In 2018 the Trump administration notified Congress of $78 billion in major conventional weapons sales, giving the United States 31% of the global arms market. Between 2002 and 2018 the United States notified Congress of over $560 billion in sales of major conventional weapons to 167 different nations.
Though arms sales can play an important role in American foreign policy, the risks involved with sending billions of dollars of deadly weapons to all sorts of places are significant. The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 requires the executive branch to produce a risk assessment to ensure that the risks do not outweigh the potential benefits of selling major conventional weapons. Unfortunately, however, recent history strongly suggests that the risk assessment process is broken.
Over the past decade American weapons have wound up in the hands of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, on the black market in Yemen and elsewhere, have been used by oppressive governments to kill their own people, and have enabled nations to engage in bloody military conflicts. More broadly American arm sales have helped prop up authoritarian regimes, have encouraged military adventurism, spurred arms races, and amplified existing conflicts. The reality is that the United States will sell weapons to almost any nation seeking them regardless of the potential risks involved.
Concerns about these negative consequences have risen of late. In April 2019, the Senate joined the House in passing a war powers resolution requiring the United States to stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Though the United States has no troops in Yemen, it has enabled and fueled the war through billions of dollars in arms sales to the Saudis over decades. In the wake of Trump’s predictable veto of that resolution,a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Enhancing Human Rights in Arms Sales Act, designed to ensure that “U.S. manufactured weapons are not used in the commission of heinous war crimes, the repression of human rights, or by terrorists who seek to do harm to Americans and innocent civilians abroad.”
To help improve decision making around arms sales we created the Arms Sales Risk Index. In 2018 Cato published our policy analysis, Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy, in which we introduced the first version of the index. By identifying the factors linked to negative outcomes like dispersion, diversion, and the misuse of weapons by recipients, the index provides a way to measure the risk involved with arms sales to every nation. Though by no means an exact science, the index can help policy makers incorporate the potential risks of arms sales and make better decisions about which nations should receive American weapons.
We invite scholars and policy makers to read the report and to download the data for further analysis.
It has been nearly 14 years since the Pentagon trimmed its excess base capacity through a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. Despite repeated requests by various Secretaries of Defense, Congress has blocked the military services from reallocating resources away from unnecessary overhead and toward more urgent priorities.
Much of Congress’s reluctance comes from the perception that base closures are devastating for nearby town and municipalities. In the immediate term, job losses follow whenever a base closes, and the cost of transferring and redeveloping property can be daunting. In most instances, however, elected officials, civic leaders, and interested businesses and non-profits join forces to convert former defense facilities into something else. The best cases deliver benefits throughout the community, including renters and homeowners, students, recreational users -- and, of course, businesses and their employees.
A just-published book, Salvaging Community: How American Cities Rebuild Closed Military Bases (Cornell University Press, 2019), explores why some communities have been more successful than others. We hosted one of the authors, Michael Touchton, for a discussion here at Cato last week. Touchton, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, along with his co-author, Boise State University’s Amanda J. Ashley, explore a range of different measures of a given community’s financial health, before, during and after a nearby base closes, and assess the factors that contribute to either expeditious conversion -- or frustrating and costly delays. Several organizations, including the Association of Defense Communities and DoD’s Office of Economic Adjustment, exist to help with such transitions. Nevertheless, communities are often unprepared. Touchton and Ashley’s work could bridge that gap.
It begins with a unique and proprietary data set with information on 122 bases closed under BRAC. That alone was a signature achievement, requiring the authors to draw information from a wide range of sources including “public records from the DoD, the Census Bureau, other federal agencies, community redevelopment master plans, publicly available documentation of redevelopment outcomes on city, state, and local government website, and extensive e-mail and phone inquiries to supplement public records.” The metrics compiled include observed outcomes (dependent variables) such as job creation, revenue generation, municipal bond rating, and “equitable conversion benefits” – an indexed assessment of the various uses of former military land. Factors deemed relevant to success or failure include the diversity of funding sources, the number of public, private, and nonprofit partners, surrounding economic conditions at the time of closure, and the costs of environmental remediation.
But, Touchton and Ashley explain, “the quantitative data reveal only general relationships surrounding redevelopment rather than the causal mechanisms driving redevelopment performance.” Accordingly, Salvaging Community also includes an in-depth review of three California cases -- the Naval Training Center in San Diego, now Liberty Station; the former Fort Ord in Monterey County; and Naval Air Station Alameda, a short distance across the bay from San Francisco’s financial district. I have visited all three of these sites, and previously written about San Diego, here at the Cato blog, and Fort Ord at this year’s International Studies Association meeting (PDF), but I learned additional details in this fine book.
Touchton and Ashley identify effective governance as a major factor in successful redevelopment. The different entities that take ownership of the land must be incorporated within a decision-making structure that mitigates jurisdictional infighting. Local non-profits and private businesses should also be involved in both the planning and execution of base conversion. Taking the process step by step, and ensuring maximum buy-in among all stakeholders, can ensure a steady stream of revenue to fund environmental remediation, removal of structures unsuitable for preservation and reuse, and construction of new infrastructure.
Base closures are never going to be easy or without consequence. Communities near shuttered bases do experience job losses, and a decline in tax revenue, but, on the whole, a typical community will see a return to pre-closure employment and revenue levels within 5-10 years. And the resulting redevelopment nearly always benefits many within the community -- not merely those working for or with the U.S. military and the federal government.
Explains the Heritage Foundation’s Frederico Bartels, “A new round of BRAC would allow the [defense] department to free time, money, and manpower in installations for other uses.” But that is unlikely so long as fear of the short-term economic repercussions of these closures, and an inability to see the opportunities when former military bases are opened up to new civilian uses, persists. Those looking for new information that might break the political log-jam in Congress should definitely check out Touchton and Ashley’s Salvaging Community.
Thanks to research associate James Knupp for help organizing the event and with this blog post.
President Trump and his advisers are beating the drums again about the need for greater burden-sharing by U.S. allies. In early August, Trump demanded that South Koreans pay “substantially more” than the current $990 million a year for defraying the costs of U.S. troops defending their country from North Korea. Just days later, Richard Grenell, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany blasted that country’s reluctance to spend more on defense and its continued reliance on U.S. troops for protection. "It is offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayers continue to pay for more than 50,000 Americans in Germany but the Germans get to spend their (budget) surplus on domestic programs," Grenell told a German news agency
Complaints about allied “free riding” did not begin with the Trump administration. Earlier generations of frustrated U.S. policymakers voiced similar sentiments. As I discuss in a recent article in the American Conservative, though, the obsession with financial burden-sharing misses a far more fundamental issue. The tendency of U.S. allies to skimp on their own defense spending and instead free ride on the bloated U.S. military budget certainly is annoying and unhealthy for America. But the more serious problem is that Washington’s array of promiscuous defense commitments to allies and security dependents is increasingly imprudent and illogical.
Not only are such obligations a waste of tax dollars, they needlessly put American lives at risk, and given the rising danger of nuclear war in some cases, put America’s existence as a functioning society in jeopardy. American military personnel should not be mercenaries defending the interests of allies and security clients when America’s own vital interests are not at stake. Even if allies offset more of the costs, as Trump and Grenell demand, we should not want our military to be modern-day Hessians. U.S. leaders need to move beyond calls for financial burden-sharing and engage in burden shedding—eliminating security commitments that now entail more risks than benefits.
The world has changed greatly since the end of the Cold War, and Washington’s security policy should reflect those new conditions. Germany and the other members of the prosperous European Union are now fully capable of providing for Europe’s defense. Indeed, European governments ought to take responsibility not only for the continent’s security, but for addressing developments on Europe’s perimeter relevant to that security. It makes little sense for the United States to retain, much less add, obligations to defend small, strategically insignificant countries on Russia’s border. The risks of such a provocative stance clearly outweigh any potential benefits.
Likewise, the risk-benefit calculation of continuing to provide a security shield for South Korea has changed dramatically since the days of the Cold War. Not only is South Korea a much stronger country economically, one that can build whatever forces are needed for its defense, but North Korea is now capable of inflicting grave damage on U.S. forces stationed in East Asia and will soon be able to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear warheads. Similarly, Washington’s implicit defense commitment to Taiwan has become far riskier than it was in previous decades, given China’s surging military power and Beijing’s increasing determination to compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland.
Greater financial burden-sharing by Washington’s allies will not improve the much more important risk-benefit calculation; it merely will make the U.S. government a better compensated provider of de facto mercenaries. American forces—and the American population as a whole—still will incur greater and greater risks. If the Trump administration is serious about an “America First” foreign policy, it must address that problem.
The Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition, "a group of military base experts from across the political spectrum," is calling on Congress to mandate a reporting requirement on overseas bases. In a letter to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, the group of experts says the information that the Department of Defense currently provides on the cost and location of overseas bases is very "limited" and the "data is frequently incomplete." This lack of transparency, they write, has allowed the Pentagon to erroneously claim America's empire of overseas military bases - some 800 installations in 70 or 80 countries around the world - only costs taxpayers $20 billion per year, even while more inclusive independent estimates go as high as $150 billion per year. Below is an excerpt of the letter:
Research has long shown that overseas bases are particularly difficult to close once established. Often, bases abroad remain open due to bureaucratic inertia alone. Military officials and others frequently assume that if an overseas base exists, it must be beneficial; Congress rarely forces the military to analyze or demonstrate the national security benefits of bases abroad.
The Navy’s “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal, which resulted in tens of millions of dollars in overcharges and widespread corruption among high-ranking naval officers, is one of many examples of the lack of proper civilian oversight overseas. The military’s growing presence in Africa is another: When four soldiers died in combat in Niger in 2017, most members of Congress were shocked to learn that there were approximately 1,000 military personnel in that country. Although the Pentagon has long claimed it has only one base in Africa—in Djibouti— research shows that there are now around 40 installations of varying sizes (one military official acknowledged 46 installations in 2017). You are likely among a relatively small group in Congress who know that U.S. troops have been involved in combat in at least 22 countries since 2001, with frequently disastrous results.
Current oversight mechanisms are inadequate for the Congress and the public to exercise proper civilian control over the military’s installations and activities overseas. The Pentagon’s annual “Base Structure Report” provides some information about the number and size of base sites overseas, however, it fails to report on dozens of well-known installations in countries worldwide and frequently provides incomplete or inaccurate data. Many suspect the Pentagon does not know the true number of installations abroad.
A proposed provision in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) called “Report on Financial Costs of Overseas United States Military Posture and Operations,” could, "if implemented rigorously," the letter writers say, "increase transparency and enable better oversight over Pentagon spending, contribute to critical efforts to eliminate wasteful military expenditures, and enhance military readiness and national security."
For background on this issue, see my Cato Policy Analysis from 2017 entitled, "Withdrawing from Overseas Bases: Why a Forward-Deployed Military Posture Is Unnecessary, Outdated, and Dangerous."
Here are the signatories of this letter:
Christine Ahn, Women Cross DMZ
Andrew J. Bacevich, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Medea Benjamin, Codirector, Codepink
Phyllis Bennis, Director, New Internationalism Project, Institute for Policy Studies
Leah Bolger, CDR, US Navy (ret), President World BEYOND War
Noam Chomsky, Laureate Professor of Linguistics, Agnese Nelms Haury Chair, University of Arizona/Professor Emeritus Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cynthia Enloe, Research Professor, Clark University
Foreign Policy Alliance, Inc.
Joseph Gerson, President, Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security
David C. Hendrickson, Colorado College
Matthew Hoh, Senior Fellow, Center for International Policy
Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice
Kyle Kajihiro, Hawaiʻi Peace and Justice
Gwyn Kirk, Women for Genuine Security
MG Dennis Laich, US Army, Retired
John Lindsay-Poland, Stop US Arms to Mexico Project Coordinator, Global Exchange; author, Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama
Catherine Lutz, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Family Professor of Anthropology and International Studies, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and Department of Anthropology, Brown University
Khury Petersen-Smith, Institute for Policy Studies
Del Spurlock, Former General Counsel and Assistant Secretary of the US Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs
David Swanson, Executive Director, World BEYOND War
David Vine, Professor, Department of Anthropology, American University
Stephen Wertheim, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University
Colonel Ann Wright, US Army retired and former US diplomat
On the campaign trail a few years back, Hillary Clinton declaimed: “We need a president who is ready on Day 1 to be commander in chief of our economy.” We got a good laugh out of that here at Cato—what a megalomaniacal misconception of the job! When President Trump embraced the role last Friday, it somehow seemed less amusing. “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China,” he brayed, sending the markets into a Twitter-driven tailspin.
Where does Trump derive the authority for that “order”? On Saturday, he followed up with a statutory citation for the haters: “try looking at the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977. Case closed!”
True, President Trump makes a lot of crazy threats he never carries out: from revoking birthright citizenship, to closing the border, to using the same 1977 Act to hammer Mexico with across-the-board tariffs, as Trump threatened to do in May. There’s a pattern here: the president sounds his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, but before long, backs it down to an ineffectual grumble. In this case, the cycle took all of two days: “I have the right to, if I want,” Trump insisted Sunday, but “I have no plan right now. Actually, we’re getting along very well with China.” OK, then: never mind!
But we’d be fools to shrug this episode off as another unsettling, but ultimately meaningless Trumpian brainspasm, like nuking hurricanes or buying Greenland. For decades now, Congress has defined national emergencies downwards, investing the executive branch with dangerous new powers the president can trigger by saying the magic words. Trump has only begun to explore the possibilities, and there may be more competent would-be authoritarians waiting in the wings.
The statute Trump specified, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 (IEEPA), gives the president an imposing array of unilateral powers to deploy against “any unusual and extraordinary threat, which has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States” if he “declares a national emergency with respect to such threat.” Granted, Trump’s definition of “emergency” may differ from yours, mine, and the dictionary’s. “For many years, this has been going on,” he explained Sunday, “in many ways, that’s an emergency.” But if history is any guide, federal judges will be extremely reluctant to second-guess “the wisdom of the President's judgment concerning the nature and extent of [the] threat.”
So, “case closed”? Could Trump order U.S. companies to pack up and come home? Not quite; but he could make it extremely difficult for them to do business in and with China. The IEEPA gives the president staggeringly broad powers to block transactions and freeze assets in which any foreign government or foreign national has an interest. And Trump’s not wrong to think he might get away with using the law as a trade-war bludgeon. A Congressional Research Service report published two months before Trump first started threatening to use IEEPA to hike tariffs, opined that such a use was unlikely, but probably permissible.
The National Emergencies Act of 1976, the framework statute that was supposed to rein in presidential emergency powers, won’t be much help either. It originally allowed Congress to terminate presidential emergencies by majority vote, but thanks to a 1983 Supreme Court decision, the law now requires termination via joint resolution, subject to the president’s veto. Under the current emergency-powers regime, then, the president gets to do what he wants unless a congressional supermajority can be assembled to stop him.
The good news is that Trump’s norm-busting on emergency powers has spurred a bipartisan reform effort in Congress. On July 24, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee moved an important emergency-powers reform bill forward by an 11-2 majority. That bill, Senator Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) ARTICLE ONE Act, would amend the National Emergencies Act to void new emergency declarations within 30 days unless Congress affirmatively approves them. Once approved, new emergency declarations require annual reapproval by Congress. The A-1 Act thus changes the current default setting—the president proposes, and the president disposes—to one in which any emergency edicts he issues rapidly expire without legislative sanction.
The A-1 Act also addresses IEEPA abuse: thanks to an amendment offered by Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) and approved by voice vote, it would restrict the president’s ability to use the 1977 law to hike tariffs. The IEEPA, it clarifies, “does not include the authority to impose duties or tariff-rate quotas or… other quotas on articles entering the United States.”
That’s an important change, but it comes with a pretty significant exception: even under the Carper amendment, the president can use the IEEPA for blanket bans of “all articles, or all of a certain type of article, imported from a country from entering the United States.” Nor would authorities claimed under the IEEPA sunset 30 days after the declared emergency. The A-1 Act exempts IEEPA emergencies from the new framework; they remain renewable at-will by the president unless affirmatively repealed by Congress over the president’s veto.
All but three of the 34 currently active national “emergencies” rest on the 1977 law. The case for an IEEPA carve-out is that the bulk of those 31 are fairly uncontroversial, and requiring yearly congressional reapprovals would be cumbersome. That case was far more compelling before President Trump started threatening to weaponize IEEPA against major trading partners and the American consumer.
Even so, the ARTICLE ONE Act would constitute a major improvement over the current emergency powers regime, and a possible foundation for future reforms. The courts are unlikely by themselves to impose the necessary restraints. It’s Congress that got us into this mess, and it’s going to be up to Congress to get us out.
For months now, the Trump administration has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign that—by accident or by design—has brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. The branch of government with the constitutional power to declare war ought to have the final word here. Lately, however, Trump officials have hinted that Congress has already had its say—nearly 18 years ago, when it authorized war with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed three days after the September 11 attacks, targets the perpetrators of 9/11 and those who “harbored” or “aided” them. In the intervening years, the 2001 AUMF has been stretched far beyond its original purposes—but the Trump team apparently believes it can be stretched further still. In June we learned that, in a closed session, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave House members “a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran.” Two weeks ago, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, administration officials left the door open to that interpretation with an ominous qualifier: “the administration has not to date interpreted [the 2001 AUMF] as authorizing military force against Iran.” Why the caveat? Five different senators pressed for answers, but the State Department legal adviser refused to address “hypotheticals”: “we can't predict future events.”
Last Wednesday, the Charles Koch Institute hosted a panel discussion, “Unauthorized? The 2001 AUMF and Iran,” featuring Steve Vladeck, Heather Brandon-Smith, and myself. No question mark necessary, we argued: no good-faith reading of the AUMF could conclude it covers war with Iran in 2019.
I’d like to amplify a point I made there: this is a line of argument that proved too brazen even for the Bush-Cheney administration, back when the AUMF was young. That should tell us something about how spurious the Trump administration’s position is, nearly two decades later.
In the summer of 2002, when President George W. Bush was hell bent on taking out Saddam Hussein, anonymous White House lawyers floated the idea that the president already had all the power he needed to go to war without Congress. “Bush Aides Say Iraq War Needs No Hill Vote,” a Washington Post headline blared on August 26, 2002. The president’s legal team had three arguments for that proposition: first was the John Yoo theory that Article II gives the president the “right to start wars.” Second was the equally fantastic claim that the 1991 Gulf War resolution, authorizing George H.W. Bush to liberate Kuwait, still had enough life left in it to authorize his son to take Baghdad over a decade later. The 2001 AUMF came in as an afterthought: the Bush 43 lawyers argued that it “bolstered” their position, though, as the Post noted, “That argument would depend on linking Iraq and al Qaeda.”
At the time, Bush officials were working hard to establish that link in the public mind. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague five months before the attacks. President Bush insisted that links between Iraq and Al Qaeda were so tight that “on any given day,” Saddam might give WMD to the group for a second 9/11. None of this turned out to be true, but you push for war with the disinformation you have.
Even so, as the Post story suggests, the Bush legal team rated the 2001 AUMF as their third-best argument, behind the maximalist interpretation of Article II powers and the claim that the Gulf War AUMF authorized regime change in Iraq 11 years after Desert Storm. That's also reflected in the October 2002 Bush Office of Legal Counsel opinion on authority for the Iraq War. The 2001 AUMF argument gets one paragraph in the 48-page OLC opinion, analysis limited to a conclusory sentence: “Were the President to determine that Iraq provided assistance to the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks, this authorization would apply to the use of military force against Iraq.”
The Bush-Cheney team was hardly shy about aggressive legal interpretations of the post-9/11 AUMF: they invoked it to justify secret surveillance programs; military imprisonment, without charges, of American citizens on American soil; and other enormities. But, in the end, they decided the 2001 AUMF couldn’t carry the weight of a new war with a country that had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks. While refusing to concede that separate authorization was legally necessary, the administration opted to secure a new AUMF for the Iraq War.
Nearly 18 years after the 2001 AUMF’s passage, the case that it covers war with Iran is weaker still. The 9/11 Commission Report found “no evidence” that Iran “was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.” The Trump administration has no such evidence now, which is probably why Secretary Pompeo keeps pounding the table about an alleged “connection” between Iran and Al Qaeda. It’s a bait and switch tactic designed to reframe the AUMF debate around a standard that’s easier to meet, even if it’s nowhere to be found in the law.
At the recent SFRC hearing, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) walked the Trump State Department’s legal adviser through the language of the 2001 AUMF: Did Iran plan, authorize, commit, or aid the 9/11 attack? Did they harbor those who did? Answer: “Not that I’m aware of, Senator.” “Five standards. You just said none of them were met,” Senator Merkley summed up, “And yet you persist in arguing in interpretation of an AUMF that Congress didn't intend and is not there in the language.”
The lesson we should draw from all this is that it’s profoundly dangerous to leave old war authorizations on the books. Indeed, as my copanelist Heather Brandon-Smith points out, the Trump administration claims the 2002 Iraq AUMF “authorizes force to address both ‘threats to’ and ‘stemming from Iraq,’” covering military operations in “Syria or elsewhere.” The old saw that “a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth” could just as easily apply to unrepealed AUMFs. Even if those that look dormant are a potential source of mischief for any president who decides to reanimate them. It’s past time for the two Iraq authorizations and, especially, the 2001 AUMF to go the way of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
Even in these divisive times, political leaders in Washington are beginning to converge on at least one issue: it’s time to end the longest war in American history and withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. President Trump said in the Oval Office last month that “it’s ridiculous” that we’re still there after almost two decades of stalemate and he reportedly wants to pull out by the 2020 election. His challengers on the Democratic side seem to agree.
Although in 2017 Trump authorized a small surge of troops and left the military strategy essentially unchanged, his special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has made significant progress in direct negotiations with the Taliban. Daunting obstacles remain, but a political settlement that could include a U.S. withdrawal is at least within reach.
This has advocates of the “forever war” unsettled. Gen. David Petraeus, who once commanded forces in Afghanistan, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, with the Center for a New American Security’s Vance Serchuk, arguing that “under no circumstances should the Trump administration repeat the mistake its predecessor made in Iraq and agree to a total withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.” Notwithstanding the Taliban’s stated promise not to host al Qaeda or other foreign terrorist groups, Petraeus and Serchuk insist that “common sense dictates the U.S. must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and U.S. allies.”
In making their case for indefinitely extending America’s 18-year quagmire in Afghanistan, they commit three analytical errors. The first is to fault Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq for the rise of ISIS. The second is to assume that a withdrawal from Afghanistan will, as in Iraq, result in the emergence of a rapacious terrorist army prone to spectacular atrocities and harboring vast territorial ambitions. Their third mistake is buying into the safe haven myth – that is, the claim that the presence of terrorists in Afghanistan represents a major security threat to the United States. In a new Cato Policy Analysis, my colleague John Mueller and I address all of these (and more).
First, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq didn’t trigger the rise of ISIS; the invasion of Iraq did. As we point out in the paper, ISIS is an outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which emerged from the Sunni insurgency that rose up to fight occupying U.S. forces. Its leadership consisted of veteran AQI insurgents and former Baathists in the Saddam Hussein regime. It never could have filled the vacuum left by the United States’ withdrawal without the initial spark provided by the invasion. In any case, the Obama administration merely complied with the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the Bush administration in 2008, which permitted U.S. forces to stay until the end of 2011. Baghdad refused to grant U.S. forces legal immunity beyond that date. Even if the White House had pressured Iraq more, the small contingent of U.S. counter-terrorism forces it was considering leaving behind would never have been enough to prevent the rise of ISIS.
Second, Petraeus and Serchuk fall into a cognitive bias that political scientists call “failure salience.” According to Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, failure salience refers to the “tendency to remember and learn more from perceived negative outcomes than from perceived positive outcomes.” Negative experiences have a profound impact on the psyche. Citing the rise of ISIS may be a psychologically potent way to scare policymakers away from ending the war in Afghanistan, but it is an argument based on a misunderstanding of a separate case with entirely different actors, dynamics, and context.
Third, the safe haven argument is based on the ill-founded assumption that the presence of al-Qaeda leaders in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the lead up to 9/11 was essential for the success of the attacks. In fact, it seems to have had little, if any, operational utility (beyond luring the United States into the graveyard of empires). Al-Qaeda operatives planned and coordinated the 9/11 attacks not just in Afghanistan, but in Germany, Malaysia, and inside the United States. Technological innovation and increasingly widespread access to the Internet has only made instant communication across borders, oceans, and time-zones easier in the ensuing years. A territorial haven in remote, land-locked Afghanistan isn’t much help to jihadists plotting to attack the west. In short, “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” is a clever slogan, but it isn’t based on the facts.
Anyone predicting Afghanistan will be all hunky dory after a U.S. withdrawal isn’t properly assessing the risks inherent in a society that has endured 40 years of war and whose leadership is still bitterly (and violently) contested. But the question for Americans is whether we are really made safer by stubbornly clinging to the same failed strategy in Afghanistan. We aren’t.
For further scrutiny of these and related questions about the war in Afghanistan, check out our new Policy Analysis here.