Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Turkey Attacks Anti-ISIS Forces in Syria

Obama administration officials were outraged when Russian and Syrian government planes recently attacked rebel positions in and near the city of Aleppo.  Such raids were a humanitarian atrocity, President Obama charged, when they struck civilian targets.  But Washington had little patience even for assaults directed against military targets.  Those attacks, U.S. officials contended, played into the hands of ISIS by damaging insurgent elements opposed to that extremist group and even creating incentives for moderates to make common cause with ISIS.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies responded with the assertion that they were not targeting moderates, but were in fact attacking either ISIS units or other “terrorists.

Whatever the merit of Washington’s criticism in that case, it has been severely undermined by the latest action of America’s “loose-cannon” NATO ally, Turkey.  The Turkish military just launched attacks against forces of the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, in positions north of Aleppo.  According to Turkish authorities, the raids killed some 200 Kurdish fighters.  Ankara insists that the YPG is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a violent separatist movement in Turkey itself.  YPG leaders deny such a connection, and Washington continues to regard Kurdish forces as a crucial component of the anti-ISIS coalition.

This latest incident underscores three points.  First, Turkey is an increasingly unreliable ally that pursues its own narrow agenda regardless of Washington’s wishes.  Second, regardless of Ankara’s probable motive, which apparently was to stem growing Kurdish power in both Syria and Turkey, the attack objectively strengthened ISIS by damaging one of its most effective military adversaries.  Third, the Syrian civil war is incredibly complex.  It is not a simple melodrama featuring the evil Assad regime versus noble, freedom-seeking rebels.  The insurgents themselves are extensively fragmented, with agendas ranging from genuine Western-style democracy to Saudi-style Islamic fundamentalism.  Outside parties, especially Russia, Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, all back certain Syrian factions to advance their own geopolitical objectives. 

To its credit, the Obama administration has refrained from full-scale involvement—a “big footprint” military intervention–in Syria’s civil war.  But U.S. efforts to encourage Assad’s ouster helped create the ongoing tragedy, and even Obama’s “light footprint” strategy has entangled the United States far too deeply in a murky and ultimately unwinnable struggle.   One hopes that the next president will have the wisdom to extricate the United States from this beckoning quagmire and let the Turks, Russians, Saudis, and others deal with the headache of the Syrian civil war.  

The Reuse of Two Military Bases in the Atlanta Area

ATLANTA - Support may be building in Congress for another round of military base consolidation. Some believe that leaders will reach agreement with the incoming administration early next year. It’s overdue. The Pentagon says it will have 22 percent excess capacity by 2019. But, of course, for many communities, base closure is a frightening prospect.

Some communities in and around former bases have begun the process of repurposing these properties. At the Association of Defense Communities’ Installation Reuse meeting here in Atlanta, attendees had a chance to visit two such examples: former Army bases Fort Gillem and Fort McPherson. Both have a pathway toward a successful transition to non-defense use since winding up on the 2005 BRAC commission’s cut list, but they have opted for quite different approaches.

Fort Gillem, an Army logistics hub opened in 1941, is now Gillem Logistics Center. It is already home to a 1-million square foot distribution center for Kroger, the popular food retailer. Proximity to a major highway, Interstate 285, proved a key selling point, and enabled Kroger to consolidate operations from five buildings into one. The new facility includes freezers and cold storage for everything from ice cream to fresh cut flowers, and employs about 1000 people. Kroger invested $243 million in the project, part of a 30-year commitment to the property, and they have room to expand.

The Real Danger of Mosul

With support from American air strikes and special operations, Iraqi forces have launched the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). The fighting promises to be difficult. Though the Iraqis estimate that there are no more than about 5,000 ISIS fighters in the city, ISIS has had more than two years to dig after taking the city of in June 2014. American and Iraqi officials have warned it could take weeks or even months to liberate Mosul. The real danger for the United States, however, is what happens after Mosul.

Even in the best-case scenario – a quick defeat of ISIS and the destruction of its self-proclaimed caliphate – Iraq will face the monumental task of consolidating its hold on its territory, rebuilding its cities and critical infrastructure, and charting a course toward a healthier national politics, all while dealing with terrorism, sectarianism, and external intervention from both the United States and Iran.

The situation after Mosul will be like the situation after the Iraq war on steroids. Instead of looking ahead to the promise of democracy, Iraq will be grappling with more than a decade of political failure. Instead of tens of thousands of American forces to provide at least some semblance of stability, Iraq must look to its own troubled security forces. Instead of confronting an Al Qaeda in nascent form, Iraq must deal with an Islamic State that no one believes will wither with defeat in Mosul. In short, Iraq is a mess and unlikely to fix itself soon.

And therein lies the danger of Mosul for the United States. If the United States believed it was necessary to help rebuild Iraq after the 2003 war, how much more powerful will the temptation be to stick around this time given the situation? It is difficult to see President Trump or President Clinton making the decision to pull back once the primary fight against ISIS is won. Instead, the United States is likely to expand its presence in and support to Iraq in the years to come in the name of counterterrorism.

The past fifteen years, however, have made clear that long-term nation building projects like Afghanistan and Iraq are extremely costly and uncertain projects. In Afghanistan, after fifteen years and hundreds of billions spent in development and military aid, the country remains in shambles, terrorism and conflict are rampant, and only the continued presence of coalition military forces prevents the Taliban from retaking the country. In Iraq, of course, regime change provided the opportunity for ISIS to emerge, despite the presence of thousands of American troops and billions of dollars in assistance. And these failures occurred despite the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq were in many ways best-case scenarios given the level of influence and control the Untied States exerted in both places. So why, exactly, should the United States expect things to go better in Iraq after Mosul when the fundamentals on the ground are now so much worse than they were after the Iraq war?

Foreign Policy Schizophrenia

In last night’s presidential debate, policy issues were barely discussed among the conspiracy theories and scandal-mongering. But even the limited discussion of foreign policy highlighted a pretty strange fact: the Republican ticket effectively has two distinct foreign policy approaches. And though it’s hardly unusual for running mates to differ to some extent on issues – indeed, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine differ on some key foreign policy points – Trump’s statements last night, publicly repudiating his running mate’s proposals for Syria, were bizarre.

Despite his choice of vice presidential candidate, Trump and Pence have been largely at odds on foreign policy since day one.  Trump’s approach to foreign policy is highly inconsistent but has certainly been unconventional. The GOP nominee advocates a militaristic, ‘America First’ foreign policy, but differs from GOP orthodoxy on key topics like Russia, the Iraq War, U.S. alliances, and trade. In contrast, Pence is a hawk’s hawk, supporting the war in Iraq, increases in defense spending, and further Middle East intervention. In 2005, then-Representative Pence even introduced a House Resolution which would have declared that President Bush should not set an ‘arbitrary’ date for the removal of troops from Iraq until nation-building was complete.

The result has been a curious dichotomy in the Republican ticket’s foreign policy proposals. At last week’s vice presidential debate, Pence ignored Trump’s prior foreign policy statements, advocating for intervention against the Assad regime, the creation of safe zones in Syria, and a substantially harder line against Russia. Yet last night, when moderators pushed Trump on these differences, the Republican presidential candidate bluntly rejected Pence’s stance, noting that “he and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”  Trump then further contradicted his running mate, arguing for better relations with Russia, even refusing to attribute recent hacking incidents to Russia despite substantial evidence from the intelligence community on the issue.

Concerning Trump’s Proposed “Extreme Vetting” of Immigrants

An exchange in last night’s debate revealed the deep divide in this country over who should be allowed in the country. Audience member Gorbah Hamed posed a question to Donald Trump:

There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and I’m one of them. You’ve mentioned working with Muslim nations, but with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?

Trump responded:

Well, you’re right about Islamophobia, and that’s a shame. But one thing we have to do is we have to make sure that — because there is a problem. I mean, whether we like it or not, and we could be very politically correct, but whether we like it or not, there is a problem. And we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it.

[…]

And [Clinton] won’t even mention [radical Islamic terrorists] and nor will President Obama. He won’t use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name. She won’t say the name and President Obama won’t say the name. But the name is there. It’s radical Islamic terror. And before you solve it, you have to say the name.

Moderator Martha Raddatz asked Clinton to respond, and she launched into a predictable critique of the “divisive, dark things said about Muslims” during the campaign and concluding “we’re not at war with Islam.”

Raddatz then turned to Trump and asked him to explain whether his pledge in December to ban all Muslims from coming to the United States was still in effect. “Your running mate [Indiana Governor Mike Pence] said this week that the Muslim ban is no longer your position. Is that correct? And if it is, was it a mistake to have a religious test?”

Refugees, Immigrants, and the Polarization of American Foreign Policy

If I asked you whether Americans were more likely to name immigrants and refugees a critical threat to the United States in 1998 or in 2016, which year would you guess? Most people, I think, would quickly choose 2016. Most people, however, would be wrong.

According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in 1998 53% of Americans did so, compared to 43% in 2016. The error would be understandable, of course, given the homegrown terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. over the past year, Trump’s tough talk about Muslim immigrants, and the vigorous debate about Syrian refugees. Indeed, at first glance the numbers are puzzling.

When we break down the responses by political affiliation, however, we get our first clue about what is going on. As it turns out, in 1998 Republicans and Democrats were closely aligned in their assessments – 56% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats saw refugees and immigrants as a critical threat, a difference smaller than the margin of error in the survey. But by 2016 67% of Republicans did so compared to just 27% of Democrats.

Bucking the Protectionist Trend

In September, the UK government gave the green light for the construction of the Hinkley Point power plant through a French-Chinese consortium. The project—which has received wide international attention after being very nearly relegated to the protectionist dustbin—has been agreed to after much hemming and hawing. It has been mired in controversy mainly over security concerns related to foreign ownership, viewed by some as smacking of protectionism.

It is no secret that there has been a worrying trend toward protectionism in the global markets. The appetite for international trade agreements and foreign investment has been consistently listless. In the United States, and globally, some politicians have been banking on this by flaunting protectionist rhetoric in an effort to garner support. But while protectionism may win votes in the short-term, domestic economic growth will lose out in the long-term. Ultimately, politicizing the global economic rut will only make matters worse.