Foreign Policy and National Security

September 20, 2019 4:59PM

Interventionists Evade Responsibility for Their Policy Disasters

As I point out in a new National Interest Online article, a multi-sided struggle for power in Libya continues to fester more than eight years after the United States led an air war to help rebels oust longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Libya joins Iraq and Syria as a classic example of the failed U.S. regime-change strategy.

Fighting between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) and the even more misnamed Government of National Accord (GNA) has intensified in and around the capital, Tripoli. The LNA boasted on September 11 that its forces had routed troops of the Sarraj militia, a GNA ally, killing some 200 of them. That claim may be exaggerated, but there is no doubt that the situation has become increasingly violent and chaotic in Tripoli and other portions of Libya, with innocent civilians bearing the brunt of the suffering. Throughout the years of chaos, more than a million Libyans have become refugees, many of them trying to flee across the Mediterranean in fragile, overcrowded boats and perishing in the process.

The country has become the plaything not only of rival domestic factions but major Middle East powers, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Those regimes are waging a ruthless geopolitical competition, providing arms and in some cases even launching airstrikes on behalf of their respective clients.

Given the appalling aftermath of the original U.S.-led intervention, one might hope that advocates of an activist policy would be chastened, but that is not the case. The latest confirmation of continuing arrogance can be found in the new book by Samantha Power, an influential NSC staffer in 2011 and later U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Power’s response to the Libya horror the Obama administration created is shocking flippant. “We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own,” she contends. American Conservative analyst Daniel Larison excoriates her argument. “If Libyan culture was so opaque and hard for the Obama administration to understand,” Larison responds, it “should never have taken sides in an internal conflict there.”

Moreover, prudent foreign policy experts warned Power and her colleagues about the probable consequences of intervening in a volatile, fragile country like Libya. Indeed, Robert M. Gates, Obama’s secretary of defense, confirms in his memoir that the administration itself was divided about the advisability of intervention. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice President Joe Biden, and Gates were opposed. Among the most outspoken proponents of action, though, were Power and her mentor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The existence of a sharp internal division is sufficient evidence in itself that Power’s attempt to absolve herself and other humanitarian crusaders of responsibility for the subsequent tragedy is without merit. They were warned of the probable outcome yet chose to plunge forward.

The stance of Power and other interventionists seems to be that armed global crusaders never have to say they’re sorry, no matter how disastrous the results of their policies. The American people need to reject that attitude and hold the architects of catastrophe accountable for their blunders. Such a standard should apply equally to the neocons who brought us the Iraq debacle and the progressives who created the Libyan and Syrian fiascos.

September 20, 2019 10:05AM

R.I.P. Earl Ravenal (1931−2019)

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Earl Ravenal, a one-time member of Cato's board of directors, long-time senior fellow and distinguished senior fellow, and an important voice in the development of the case against global interventionism in the 1970s and 1980s.

He taught international affairs for many years at Georgetown University, and was the author of several books and monographs, as well as countless papers and articles, including Never Again: Learning From America's Foreign Policy Failures (Temple University Press, 1978), and this gem, from way back in the Cato archives, "Reagan's 1983 Defense Budget: An Analysis and an Alternative" (Policy Analysis no. 10).

In his sweeping history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism, Brian Doherty describes Ravenal as "a foreign policy intellectual of real-world heft." He was active in Libertarian Party politics, and was responsible for writing LP presidential candidate Ed Clark's campaign statement on foreign and defense policies in 1980.

Ted Galen Carpenter, who preceded me as Cato's vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, recalls "Earl was nearly unique in the 1970s and 1980s in being regarded as a serious scholar by much of the foreign policy establishment, despite his unorthodox views. That status made him a true trailblazer for those of us who reinforced the case for realism and restraint. Without his pioneering work, our task would have been far more difficult."

Another Cato colleague remembers Earl's dogged effort to assess the share of the Pentagon's budget that was geared toward defending Europe and Asia during the waning days of the Cold War. This was a daunting task, given that such spending is fungible, and the things that it buys mobile. A ship in Norfolk can be deployed to the Mediterranean, but also to the Persian Gulf, or even the Pacific Ocean (it just takes longer). Planes fly. Even troops can be relocated -- though their bases less easily. In the face of such complexity, most people simply shrugged their shoulders: "Who knows?" Ravenal improved public understanding of America's military posture in the early 1980s by forcing a discussion of these costs into the debate.

As a young Cato fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I encountered many of Ravenal's books and articles on foreign and defense policy. The most influential was arguably Designing Defense for a New World Order, published in 1991. I (somehow) managed to locate it on my bookshelf, and discovered countless highlighted passages, and earnest comments and questions in the margins.

Earl's family reports that he passed away on August 31, 2019. He was 88 years old. I extend to them my sincere condolences.

A memorial service will be held in his honor next month at the Cosmos Club on Sunday, October 27 at 2 pm. The public is welcome.

September 19, 2019 11:12AM

It Is Time to Relinquish America’s Global Interventionist Foreign Policy

We have an article published in the latest edition of Survival critiquing America’s foreign policy of global interventionism and making the case for a grand strategy of restraint. Here are some excerpts:

The United States should reject the myths of primacy and the hyperactive foreign policy it has promoted. The United States is not the indispensable nation. Nor is it insecure. Nor is it capable of micromanaging the world’s affairs efficiently and effectively from Washington. In this light, the United States should pursue a more modest foreign-policy agenda that facilitates global trade and focuses more narrowly on the physical security of the homeland, while worrying less about trying to police the world.

…[A]lthough the American foreign-policy establishment sees US power as the linchpin of the global order and the United States as an indispensable nation, the truth is that many of the trends contributing to stability and economic growth are emergent phenomena, occasionally helped and occasionally hurt by US foreign policy, but driven by factors largely exogenous to US designs. Fortunately, many countries benefit from the relative peace and prosperity that prevails today and are therefore motivated to help preserve it. At this pivotal moment in history, America’s leaders should seek to lock in those attitudes and build a more resilient global order that is not overly dependent on a single dominant state.

…One thing Trump’s presidency proves is that even a commander-in-chief averse to the imperial responsibilities of primacy will not readily shirk them. Power does not check itself, either in the international domain or the domestic…Donald Trump’s ascendance to the highest office in the nation nearly three years ago was perhaps the most compelling illustration of the hazards of vesting the presidency with so much unbridled power. We share many of the concerns voiced by the foreign-policy establishment about what Trump has done, and might yet do, to US foreign policy, and how detrimental it could be to the stability of the international system. But any world order that depends for its survival on the whims of a single person in a single branch of government in a single country is simply untenable. Trump seems to have come along at the tail end of America’s ‘unipolar moment’, and the relative decline in US power is yet another reason to revise American grand strategy to accommodate changing conditions in an increasingly multipolar world.

We also lay out some guidelines for how to implement a more modest set of foreign policy objectives and for how to reconceptualize what qualifies as vital national interests under restraint. Do read the whole thing.

The piece is adapted from the conclusion of our forthcoming book, Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse (And How We Can Recover), to be published next month.

September 18, 2019 10:50AM

Statement on President Trump’s Decision to Impose Additional Sanctions on Iran

This morning, President Trump announced via Twitter that he had directed Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to "substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!"

I issued the following statement in response:

The problem with the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign isn’t the pressure. No one doubts that U.S. policy is imposing considerable pain on the Iranian people. Additional U.S. sanctions will likely increase this suffering, as my Cato colleague John Glaser predicted here.

But to no good end. The Iranians will never give in to U.S. demands; to do so would amount to utter capitulation, the complete surrender of Iranian sovereignty, and the de facto end of the Iranian government. This has been a fervent hope among certain hawks for decades, but hope is not a strategy. Additional pressure and pain cannot resolve the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Trump administration’s strategy toward Tehran.

More broadly, if President Trump is serious about resetting U.S. foreign policy, he must revisit his expectations – and his administration’s policies. He may claim to want to end our endless wars, but his actions are leading in the opposite direction. A combination of bluster, threats, and intransigence will not produce a diplomatic breakthrough. On the contrary, it is likely only to exacerbate the many ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and increase the chances that Americans are drawn more deeply into them.

September 16, 2019 1:06PM

Striking Iran In Response to Abqaiq Attack Would Be a Mistake

The smoke hasn’t yet cleared from the attack on Saudi Aramco’s facility, but U.S. officials were quick to pin blame on Iran, with some even going so far as to suggest that military strikes could be – and should be – in the offing.

Such a move should upset constitutional purists; Congress hasn’t authorized military action against Iran for these purposes. The case that the Trump administration might present to Congress in an attempt to build support for strikes is unlikely to be compelling. Indeed, the story of the attack and what U.S. military strikes in retaliation would achieve is a lot more complicated than the war hawks would have you believe.

First, everyone should keep the likely economic impact in perspective. The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that production losses from the shutdown at the Abqaiq facility would amount to “about 5.7 million barrels a day,” or “roughly 5% of the world’s daily production of crude oil.” But such supply shocks are rarely long-lasting, and facilities like the one at Abqaiq are often quickly repaired. Saudi Aramco is no different from any other company in that it wants to increase production as quickly as possible, and so is highly motivated to make speedy repairs. (Boston University’s Josh Shifrinson makes a related point here.)

Second, the energy market in general is far more resilient than people give it credit for. In addition to the strategic petroleum reserve, which President Trump has hinted he might tap, other energy producers will want to replace the lost Saudi supplies. If President Trump were truly concerned about the possible impact on gasoline prices for consumers, he might also reconsider his decision to try to keep Iranian oil off the market.

That is unlikely, however, because too many in his administration –and the DC policy community, generally – seem genuinely excited to use this latest incident as a justification for a widening of the conflict with Iran.

Last week, for example, before the attack, the State Department’s Brian Hook suggested that Iran is primarily responsible for fueling the war in Yemen, and claimed that greater U.S. involvement in the conflict was essential to preserving American security. The facts suggest otherwise.

Mr. Hook and others exaggerate the extent to which Iran controls the Houthis. The latter are a distinct group largely driven by narrow, local goalsnot a proxy group doing Iran's regional bidding. They don't take orders from Tehran. Aiding the Houthis hasn't brought Iran greater regional control. What it has done is frustrate the Saudi coalition's objectives, sticking them in a quagmire that has earned them much of the world's ire.

While some in Congress want Americans to become even more deeply embroiled in the Saudi-Iran dispute, we might instead take this occasion to reconsider our reflexive support for the House of Saud. The United States is, after all, already heavily involved in the proxy war that the two countries are waging in Yemen, mostly through intelligence sharing and arms sales. A report earlier this year concluded that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “used the US-manufactured weapons as a form of currency to buy the loyalties of militias or tribes” in Yemen, including some who are affiliated with Al Qaeda. Other arms reportedly flowed to Iranian-backed militias. The Senate voted in June to block further sales, with seven Republicans joining the Democrats to rebuke the White House. This rare case of bipartisanship is unsurprising given that numerous polls show that the American people are anxious to avoid getting sucked into yet more conflicts in the region. Americans also strongly disapprove of continued U.S. support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most illiberal and repressive regimes on the planet.

Congress should seriously consider the implications of military action in response to the attack on Abqaiq. Military strikes against Iran would only exacerbate tensions and increase the likelihood of a larger military conflict. The Trump administration’s bid to embroil the United States even more deeply in a brutal civil war undermines Americans' security and erodes American values.

September 16, 2019 11:41AM

Today’s Hyper‐​Partisanship Would Have Torpedoed Nixon’s China Initiative

My new article in the September-October issue of the American Conservative ponders whether President Richard Nixon could have pursued his diplomatic initiative to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) if today’s extreme partisanship in foreign policy had existed then. The shrill partisan criticism directed against President Trump’s attempt to establish a less confrontational relationship with North Korea suggests that that the answer is “no.”

Nixon’s 1972 trip to China marked the abandonment of the U.S. campaign to isolate and demonize the PRC. His conciliatory effort did generate some domestic controversy, but most members of Congress were reasonably supportive. The New York Times noted that Nixon was winning the “broad approval of Congress” for his new China policy. Perhaps most crucial, the support was firmly bipartisan. The majority of the major news outlets also generally praised the president’s initiative.

Raw partisanship was little in evidence. Indeed, most of the criticism that did emerge came from conservative Republicans who complained that the embryonic rapprochement undercut America’s longtime ally, Taiwan. Leading congressional Democrats, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, praised the president for easing tensions with China. Liberal columnist James Reston stated that it was Nixon’s finest hour.

Trump’s experience has been strikingly different. His critics, mostly congressional Democrats and their media allies, along with a small contingent of neoconservative hawks, launched a barrage of criticism about his outreach to Kim Jong-un from the onset. Some of them denounced the president’s willingness even to meet with the North Korean leader, contending that according Kim such an honor implicitly “legitimized” his brutal dictatorship. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin epitomized that view, fuming: “The spectacle of the murderous dictator Kim Jong Un on equal footing with the president of the United States . . . was enough to turn democracy lovers’ stomachs.” President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo,” intoned House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) later exuded outrage in a tweet that Trump insisted on continuing a dialogue with such a monstrous leader. “Kim Jong Un is a homicidal tyrant who deliberately starves his people and murders those who displease him. This is who he is and who he has always been. It’s simply heartbreaking to know tonight that his biggest global cheerleader is the President of the United States of America.”

Yet Nixon initiated a dialogue with Mao Zedong, one of the worst mass murderers in human history, without much criticism from prominent Democrats. They understood that effective diplomacy often requires interaction with deplorable regimes and individuals to reduce tensions and the potential catastrophe of war.

If done purely for cheap partisan advantage, objecting to Trump’s pursuit of a rapprochement with North Korea is irresponsible. If, on the other hand, his opponents are sincere, they are being disturbingly naïve. Indeed, earlier critics would have had a better case to accuse Nixon of “appeasement” and conferring “legitimacy” on a totalitarian regime. Nixon was not only willing to open a dialogue with Mao and Zhou Enlai, he traveled to China to start the process. The latter feature gave the PRC a major prestige coup. Conversely, Trump insisted on holding the first two summits in neutral locations and the third at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

If myopic partisan critics had strangled Nixon’s China policy in its cradle, America’s relationship with Beijing today likely would be more dangerous—perhaps far more dangerous--for all concerned. President Trump’s difficult North Korea initiative deserves similar support and encouragement instead of ridicule and knee-jerk hostility. Prominent Democrats in the 1970s behaved in a responsible, constructive manner, despite having to back a political adversary. So, too, did most liberal media outlets. The petty conduct of their successors in response to Trump’s outreach to North Korea stands in depressing contrast to such statesmanship.

September 11, 2019 5:12PM

The 2019 Arms Sales Risk Index

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 Policypublished 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.