Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The State of Play in the Bomb-Iran Debate

Via Philip Weiss, I see that last week Karim Sadjadpour and Martin Indyk debated Elliott “Get Down Out of Those Trees and Be Democrats” Abrams and Joshua Muravchik on the proposition: “America cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and must go to any lengths to prevent it.”  It’s a topic that’s been of interest to me for some time now.

Indyk and Sadjadpour acquitted themselves rather well, but it made me chuckle to see Abrams and Muravchik throwing some very familiar-smelling handfuls of argument into the discussion.  I thought it might be worth passing a few of them along.

Muravchik responds to the argument that bombing would merely delay an Iranian nuclear capability by a period of years by saying that we’ll just keep bombing them, then:

muravchikif we bomb and do wholesale damage to its nuclear weapons program, then the clock starts running on the next round.

And I donʹt see any reason to assume that, technologically, Iran is going to beat us in the next round. That is, they will be trying to find new ways to fortify and hide and whathave‐you, their rebuilt nuclear weapons program, if, in fact, they do attempt to rebuild it.

And we, in turn, will move forward with developing better bunker‐busting bombs or whatever else we need, and with additional intelligence, to find out where those things are and to have the capability to hit them …

Note in that last paragraph that we’re supposed to accept, arguendo, perfect intelligence and military technology endowed with borderline-magical powers.  This is a variant of the “I don’t know, the military will have to figure that stuff out” argument.

Elliott Abrams, freshly minted as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons and is poised to cause trouble in the Middle East, it’s possible that the countries in that region will lay down and decline to defend themselves:

if the Arab states look at Iran growing in power and see that what the United States has done, to prevent it from going nuclear, is nothing or something that failed, itʹs not at all clear that they will then further side with the United States against Iran, they may appease Iran.

Abrams then reaches for a 2003-vintage “greet us as liberators” selection, proposing that the Iranians might thank us for bombing their country by overthrowing their government for us:

abrams-cheneywe are not talking about the Americans killing civilians, bombing cities, destroying mosques, hospitals, schools. No, no, no – weʹre talking about nuclear facilities which most Iranians know very little about, have not seen, will not see, some quite well hidden.

So they wake up in the morning and find out that the United States if attacking those facilities and, presumably with some good messaging about why weʹre doing it and why we are not against the people of Iran.

Itʹs not clear to me that the reaction letʹs go to war with the Americans, but rather, perhaps, how did we get into this mess? Why did those guys, the very unpopular ayatollahs in a country 70 percent of whose population is under the age of 30, why did those old guys get us into this mess.

When Indyk protests that this reasoning didn’t pan out terribly well for the Israelis in Gaza recently, Abrams shrugs that he’s “not persuaded” that Gazans blame Israel for the IDF killing between a thousand and two thousand Palestinians during their incursion.

Then Muravchik reaches for the trump card: “our talks with North Korea have completely failed but if we bomb Iran they may well succeed the next day.”

It goes on and on like this.  If you’re interested in these type of arguments, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of Jack Snyder’s Myths of Empire.  These sorts of arguments are literally straight from the pages of Myths, a book where Snyder attempts to generalize the “myths” that empires endorse as they overexpand.

Translation: “No”

On Fox News Sunday this week, Chris Wallace asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the capability of Al Qaeda to mount attacks on the United States:

The President said that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks against the U.S. homeland. Does Al Qaeda still have that kind of operational capability to plan and pull off those kinds of attacks?

Gates: They certainly have the capability to plan … .

Gates went on to discuss how Al Qaeda has arguably “metastasized,” with elements appearing elsewhere in the world, uncontrolled by Al Qaeda in Western Pakistan, but trained and inspired from there. He told Wallace that he thought Al Qaeda is “a very serious threat.”

But, the “capability to plan”? Who in the world doesn’t have the “capability to plan”? The better answer to Wallace’s question would have been “No.”

What Gates described is an Al Qaeda very different from the one that attacked the United States on 9/11. It’s more an idea than an organization, an idea that America-haters the world over are drawn to when American leaders tout Al Qaeda as a top threat. Anyone around the world can declare themselves a part of “Al Qaeda” and most of our media and political leaders will believe it, becoming needlessly fearful just because of the label.

With the focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan this week, President Obama and Secretary Gates had to discuss Al Qaeda. But they could have done more to show world audiences that Al Qaeda is weakened, and that terrorism is a weaker tool against the United States and the West than it was.

While maintaining the vigilance necessary to prevent any attack, issuing these more moderate kinds of communications would reduce the attractiveness of terrorism to potential terrorists. Smarter, more subdued communications is as important a part of strategic counterterrorism as directly fighting today’s terrorists.

Later in the interview, Gates smartly deflected Wallace’s questions about how the new administration eschews “war on terror” rhetoric. Nicely done.

Friday Podcast: ‘Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy’

President Obama has unveiled his plan for the war in Afghanistan, taking a more regional approach than the U.S. has in the past.

In Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast, foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent says it’s a critical step in the right direction, but stabilizing Afghanistan and fighting an insurgency can’t be accomplished while killing the livelihoods of so many Afghan farmers by destroying opium poppy.

In the future we should take Afghanistan as it is, rather than what we want it to be. So not only does that mean having a decreased reliance on a central state government from Kabul, but also understanding that many of the farms from these rural areas rely on the opium poppy crop for their own livelihood. So we should focus our efforts to targeting those who are in cahoots with   insurgent groups and not simply those who are depending on it for their livelihood.

Her forthcoming paper, “Pakistan and the Future of U.S. Policy” will be released next month.

Trying Harder in Afghanistan

President Obama today gave a statement about his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first thing to say here is that, according to those who attended a White House briefing, the strategy is not complete: the goals are not defined.

Second, there seems to be a gap between rhetoric and reality. On the one hand, the White House is rhetorically embracing the idea that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned,  the problem is insufficient U.S. effort. That is consistent with what Obama has said all along: that we are failing in Afghanistan because U.S. efforts there are starved of resources that went to Iraq.

So we need more trainers for the Afghan army (a brigade from the 82nd Airborne gets that job), more combat troops (although only the 17,000 already committed), more U.S. government civilians to aid local development, and more drug eradication (on the folly of this, read Ted Carpenter and David Rittgers). As an enthusiastic Robert Kagan points out, this seems to be a stronger embrace of the nation-building strategy. The partial departure is the willingness to try to buy off elements of the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the trainers being sent were requested long ago, and the troop increase is not new. The other shifts are minor. So, in terms of action, little has changed. There seems be a compromise here between the so-called minimalists and maximalists, which caused essentially a stalemate.

If you agree that the trouble in Afghanistan is that we weren’t trying hard enough, you should wonder why we aren’t trying even harder — doubling down on troops and effort, not just saying so. If you think, as I do, that we need a new strategy of radically reduced objectives, you have the opposite concern.

Nothing particularly new is happening with Pakistan, either, which matters more. We are continuing airstrikes and increasing aid. The White House recognition that the trouble with Pakistan is its vulnerabilty to India, which causes it to avoid policing its west and to embrace militants, is useful, even though it’s hard to see what we can do about it.

One particulary troubling observation that the president made today is this:

The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act — not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it. And what’s at stake at this time is not just our own security — it’s the very idea that free nations can come together on behalf of our common security. That was the founding cause of NATO six decades ago, and that must be our common purpose today.

There are two problems here. First, we can pay the price of an Afghanistan in chaos if we figure out ways to prevent terrorist havens. That is possible at considerably less cost than we spend on that project today. The question is whether we can afford to resurrect Afghanistan from chaos. The president fully buys into the idea that Afghanistan would quickly revert to its 1990s state, with Al Qaeda sanctuaries, absent the U.S. military. That’s a claim in need of interrogation.

Second, it is silly to cast the war as a test of multilateralism.  Free nations consistently ally when their security obviously requires it. Europeans sensibly wonder if that is still the case in Afghanistan.  What we’re testing is how willing nations are to unify to fight wars where their security is not obviously at stake.

National ID Promoted by Anti-Immigrant Group — Sorta

If it was ever in doubt that REAL ID and the push for national ID systems are a project of anti-immigrant groups, this should dispel it.

The Center for Immigration Studies has a page up on its website in which REAL ID lobbyist Janice Kephart trots out videos of Bush administration Department of Homeland Security officials sort of making the case for REAL ID. Or at least for all the different ID programs they had. Or something.

Frankly, it’s not clear what this piece is getting at. The material is rather meandering, and neither the videos nor the text provide a coherent argument for a national ID, much less defeat the arguments against one. (The featured former officials are former, and not involved with the current administration, because voters rejected the fear-mongering of the former DHS and administration in the most recent election.)

What the text does say is that the Obama administration is cool on a national ID because it “gained many votes from those who support mass, illegal and unchecked immigration into the US.” This is inaccurate in many respects. Nobody supports illegal immigration, but many people do recognize that balanced and generous immigration rules would reduce it. This country has a long history of being immigrant friendly and of favoring liberty over things like national ID systems. If those kinds of policies win votes, so be it! It’s nice to see a group like CIS admit that their agenda is politically unpopular.

Whatever the case, if you had any doubt about what motivates national ID advocacy in the country, it’s anti-immigrant groups. Their amateurish interest in terrorism and national security is motivated by their fixation on preventing free movement of people. The great irony is that the Center for Immigration Studies would put native-born American citizens into a national ID system to try to get at their anti-immigrant goals.

Thursday Podcast: ‘A Failed Drug War in Mexico’

Since 2008, more than 7,000 people have been killed  in violence associated with the drug war in Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to the region this week, and said Wednesday that the United States shares the blame for the violence.

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Cato scholar Doug Bandow offers analysis on how the U.S. should respond to the crisis on our southern border.

‘We’re Failing. Let’s Keep Trying’

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diagnosis of the war on drugs:

“Neither interdiction [of drugs] nor reducing demand have been successful.”

“We have been pursuing these strategies for 30 years.”

“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s prescription for the war on drugs:

“We’ve got to take a hard look at what we can do to stop the bad guys”.

My prognosis:

“I think [trying harder to stop the bad guys] is going to fail.”