In the aftermath of yesterday's terrorist bombing in Boston, I've been surprised to hear many commentators warn against "speculating" who may be responsible. That's nonsense. Of course we should speculate: That's the first step in formulating a hypothesis to guide an investigation that will lead to facts. The facts may disprove our speculation, but we simply can't skip the first step. So here are some initial hypotheses, in descending order of plausibility. Most of these will later be proven wrong.
1. Al Qaeda, or a copycat jihadist group, did it.
2. North Korea did it.
3. Several groups cooperated in the attack.
4. Domestic right-wing terrorists did it.
5. Domestic left-wing terrorists did it.
6. Anarchist/lone nut.
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The quarter-century-old debate about America's grand strategy grinds on. Will and Dan both commented favorably on a report by the Project for a United and Strong America called "Setting Priorities for American Leadership," which styles itself a sort of Shadow National Security Strategy. The report is a restatement of a sort of muscular liberal internationalism, a half-way point between Robert Kagan and G. John Ikenberry. As such, I generally agree with it.
Which makes it a useful case for criticism. If "Setting Priorities" is the most recent attempt to argue for a more coherent internationalist grand strategy -- a worthy endeavor -- then whatever weaknesses it has might throw into relief some broader problems of U.S. foreign policy. So, with great respect for, and in broad agreement with, the authors of that report, here's everything they got wrong:
1. The missing link between ideals and interests. The report rightly claims that American security and global democracy are linked. However, the report simply asserts this claim with little reasoning or evidence and implies the connection is straightforward and obvious. But I sense American voters are wary of sweeping claims about the goodness of democracy because it reminds them of what they feel was the oversell on democracy promotion by the Bush administration. It would be helpful to spell out the logic tying American security to global democracy -- namely, the democratic peace and related ideas. Constitutional, liberal democracies tend not to fight one another, sponsor terrorism, export refugees, or have famines. They do tend to trade together, cooperate in international efforts, work for a rules-based international order, and be sources of innovation and prosperity. America should foster democracy abroad not because we are a missionary nation out to convert the world to our theory of justice, but out of a stone-cold calculation that democracy is the cheapest way to keep the peace. Making this case is crucial to persuading Americans weary of the burdens of international leadership that it is worth the cost.
2. A weak threat analysis. The report rightly claims that we face a "full spectrum of security threats," but its list of threats is almost entirely limited to unconventional threats, like terrorists, drug trafficking, and cyber threats. The missing end of the spectrum is rival great powers and nuclear states, all of whom have been underestimated since the end of the Cold War. The report follows the bad example of much of the field of security studies in overemphasizing the new, trendy, fashionable topics -- partly, I sense, because that is where the research money has gone for two decades. The report mentions the rise of China and North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons not under its threat analysis but as examples of "the rise of Asia," that is "transform[ing] the geopolitical landscape." That's either the triumph of tact over clarity or the result of committee writing gone awry. Later the report says more directly that we need a military to "deter any potential military rival and defeat any potential adversary," but, thanks to the apparent absence of major rivals and adversaries in the threat analysis, the report paradoxically implies that we really don't need much of a military -- at least for conventional purposes -- after all.
3. The self-licking Leadership ice-cream cone. Praising American strength and leadership is something of a mantra -- not to say mania -- for a certain corner of foreign policy wonks. I count about three dozen uses of the words "strong," "strength," or "leadership" in the report (not counting the title, which emphasizes the need for a "Strong America"). Sometimes it seems like we demand that American be a strong leader in order to protect America's role as a strong leader, so that American can go on being strong and exercising leadership in the service of our strength and our leadership...and so on. It's circular reasoning, a self-justifying policy of infinite regress. I fear I may be labeled a heretic for asking what we need to be a leader for? Where are we leading people to? The report says the United States "must play an active, day-to-day role in shaping events" to "shape common action on a global agenda." I agree that global cooperation happens more effectively with American involvement, but the report treats "the global agenda" as an intrinsic good. The only intrinsic good of American foreign policy is American security. I'd like to see "the global agenda" and America's burden of leadership justified by how it contributes to American interests, not vice versa. We lead to secure interests; we don't have interests to secure our leadership. (The British occasionally tried a policy of "masterly inactivity," and they didn't have a bad run of hegemony). I broadly agree with pretty much all the specific examples the report gives of where American leadership is needed; rather, I am taking issue with the principle of the matter more than its application. I'm not arguing that we should "lead from behind" or retrench or anything of the sort. I am pleading that we treat strength and leadership as a means, not an end, of foreign policy.
4. Just a List of Stuff. The report gets most specific in its penultimate section on "Challenges and Opportunities." But because of the lack of prior conceptual clarity, these challenges and opportunities are presented as just a list of things to worry about with little explicit connection to the threats or interests spelled out earlier in the report. That makes the list vulnerable to an easy critique by those who would downplay the threats to American security. I agree with the list of challenges, but it reads like the agenda of a chaotic NSC meeting rather than a strategic tour d'horizon.
5. Not a strategy. Finally, the report-like all "national security strategies" published by every administration since Congress mandated the document in 1987-is less a "strategy" document than a list of aspirations and goals. A strategy would go further and specify the resources, tools, and instruments of national power to be employed to achieve each specific goal. That may be too much to ask of a 20-page report (but then again NSC-68 was only 25,000 words).
Notably, many of these weaknesses are common to almost all attempts at articulating a grand strategy from across the ideological spectrum. There are some other, more specific faults (the section on Pakistan) and some exceptionally good parts (the language on foreign aid and the paragraphs on Afghanistan and India). But lest I be misunderstood, I mean this critique to be a compliment -- the report is good enough to merit close attention. I always scribble more comments on my best students' papers because they have the most potential. The papers with no ink on them are too hopeless to bother with. (Having said that, I still plan to ink up the Obama administration's next national security strategy, no matter how good or bad it is). And I am painfully aware that it is far easier to criticize than to create. My own humble attempt to articulate an American grand strategy for the 21st century came in a pair of articles for Survival last year (here and here). Critiques welcome.
I was in Arizona on 9/11. I was in the Army at the time, doing a summer of training at Fort Huachuca. Someone told us as we milled about after morning class that there was some kind of attack in New York. By the time we got to lunch there were wild rumors about how many bombs had gone off and how many planes were in the air. They cancelled afternoon class and we watched news the rest of the day, forty or fifty soldiers crowded into a small common room. We turned the TV on just in time to see the second tower collapse on live TV. I will never forget the gasps, the anger, and the profanities that filled the room as we watched.
I have no idea if you will like Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The film is too close to home for me to watch like a regular movie. I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath. I have such a deep personal stake in it that when I heard someone was making this movie, I felt, at first, violated.
Watching the movie was all the more personal and unsettling because of one particular violent scene. I am not normally squeamish about movie violence -- I love the Alien franchise -- but it took a few years after serving in Afghanistan before I could watch war movies again. It seemed weird and disrespectful to watch real-life horror as entertainment. That sense was magnified infinitely during one scene in Zero Dark Thirty in which a fictional suicide bomber pretends to blow himself up, we see a special-effects explosion, and we see a half-dozen actors pretend to die.
The scene is based on a true incident -- an attack on a CIA forward operating base in Khowst in December 2009. The incident was so devastating to the CIA that the President released a statement and CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote an oped in The Washington Post.
A friend of mine was there. I attended his funeral and met his widow.
Watching this movie made me both sad and angry. Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures. I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend's death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare. This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.
But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story. I told my wife after seeing Bigelow's previous, Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers' lives in a modern combat zone I'd ever seen. I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.
Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al Qaeda and its murderous allies around the world. It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I've ever seen in a movie -- the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes. There isn't the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here: even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare. If this were pure fiction, no one would see it because it would be too dull. Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching.
Good art tells stories, provides catharsis, shows how individual lives make up a broader story, teaches and educates, holds up a mirror for us and let us decide if we like what we see or not. That requires, of course, that we approach art with a sense of responsibility. We only hear what it is saying if we are listening for it and are willing to think carefully about it. Art demands an active viewer, listener, or reader; and it demands a response. Otherwise it is just images and sound --"sound and fury"-- that we pass before our senses to pass the time. Watching Zero Dark Thirty that way would be disrespectful, and wrong.
The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers. It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes. I was angry most of all at al Qaeda, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend. But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness: Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.
Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.
The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that stuff. Bigelow's decision to include a scene of waterboarding in the movie is an accurate dramatization that the U.S. did stuff like that. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the stuff the United States did after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.
Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.
Is that just? Leaving aside nuance, let's just ask it straight: are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we can certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.
On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12 "‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things -- acts of revenge or humiliation -- that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act -- like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique -- is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.
Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different than the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."
The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence (this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave), showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy -- and a good swath of the American population -- woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment -- even refusing to show bin Laden on camera -- lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis after a decade of frustration.
I recognize how bloodthirsty that sounds. But I don't think bloodlust is the only danger, or even the biggest danger, in relishing the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. Read the Psalms again and note how often David rejoices over his enemies' defeat. We spiritualize too much if we think these Psalms only apply to the "enemy" of temptation, or sin, or the devil. Sometimes we have actual human enemies who want to kill us, and defeating them is good. No man's death is occasion for a party -- the celebrations on the National Mall were unseemly -- but as I told my students the next morning, justice is good, and sobering.
No, a bigger danger, perhaps, is in cheapening the sacrifice, risk, and work of those who were actually, not vicariously, involved in the hunt. Some viewers will enjoy a fleeting and shallow sense of pride and pleasure before moving on with life. It may feel gratifying to watch it happen on screen, but take a moment to recognize that you didn't really do anything to make it happen. Watch and enjoy Zero Dark Thirty -- it is a very good movie -- but don't treat it like a cheap thrill.
In the closing months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation in his Second Inaugural "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Here's an idea for a responsible approach to Zero Dark Thirty. Watch the movie, then donate the equivalent of your movie ticket, if not more, to the CIA Officer's Memorial Foundation. The Foundation provides educational support to the children of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. My friend left behind three of them.
Note: this blog entry was originally posted at Patheos.com.
Jonathan Olley – © 2012 - Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Danielle Pletka writes that Republicans and Democrats are divided on foreign policy most fundamentally by values. Republicans believe in "a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world" which leads them to support the growth of democracy worldwide, implying that Democrats do not. Nonsense. Democratic presidents have been so idealistic and fervent in their pursuit of a moral foreign policy that they gave us a name for it (Wilsonianism), a doctrine (Truman), and a hapless precedent for how not to do it (Carter).
Republicans do a disservice when they try to make promoting democracy a partisan issue. It is much safer to recognize the broad bipartisan consensus that has existed at least since the McKinley administration that American power should tilt the playing field of history towards freedom.
True, some Democrats began to betray their century-old heritage by overreacting to Iraq. Barack Obama sounded some vaguely realpolitik-y notes in his campaign and his first year in office. But Democratic realism died a silent and unmourned death in the sands of Libya. Obama and his advisors couldn't resist the opportunity to cleanse America's image by undertaking a pure humanitarian mission unsullied by the least connection with strategic interests. We are now safely united again in a grand strategy of spreading the democratic peace.
The real split between the parties is in deciding how, when, where, and why to foster democracy abroad, in answer to which the Obama administration has been incoherent and inconsistent. The Republican response -- Pletka's included -- so far, is to call for leadership and money, neither of which constitutes a strategy. Calling for more defense spending doesn't fit the bill unless we explain what that spending is for and what interests will go unsecured if we fail to allocate the money. And calling for more "leadership" is equally void of meaning unless we explain where we are going and why we think America -- and the world -- should follow.
We don't have to have grand philosophical debates. We can pick specific issues that illustrate the parties' differences and hammer on them relentlessly. I know I sound like a broken record, but we could start by tackling head-on the biggest crisis the United States is currently engaged in that top American officials are resolutely ignoring: not Syria, but Afghanistan.
Just because the average voter stopped paying attention years ago, and elected officials followed suit soon after, does not mean the United States no longer has interests there. Democrats performed an astonishing and shameful about-face between 2008, when it unanimously affirmed it as the good war to which we absolutely must devote more resources right now, and 2010, when their president led the way by no longer believing the war was winnable despite clear evidence to the contrary, and announced an intention to withdraw our forces without specifying how we will mitigate the obvious damage to American interests that will result from allowing terrorists to regain safe-haven in a large swathe of South Asia.
Mitt Romney missed a large and obvious opportunity to differentiate himself from the president by going on the attack on Afghanistan. Republicans can and should be out front explaining what our interests are and how we can win. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates was absolutely right when he insisted that the Pentagon focus on the wars we were fighting rather than the hypothetical wars of the future. That is still true. If Republicans want to win back their foreign-policy credentials, they should stop their scripted apoplexy over Syria, Iran, and China and say something intelligent and relevant about the war in which American troops are still dying. That's the least we owe our soldiers.
Paul D. Miller is an assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. The views expressed here are his own.
Will Inboden has kicked off an excellent discussion with his post on how to succeed in a foreign-policy career. I've been asked this question more than once, so I have a scripted answer ready to share. Herewith is my Advice to Aspiring Foreign Policy Wonks:
1. Join the military. The proportion of the U.S. population who are veterans of the armed forces is something near an all-time low in the post-World War II era. If you want to stand out and be truly distinctive, serve your country in uniform for a couple years. You don't have to make it a career; just a two- or four-year stint will broaden your horizons, let you see a bit of the world, sharpen your mission focus and personal discipline, teach you a few of the military's innumerable acronyms, make you more credible when you work alongside active-duty personnel in the future, and get you some fresh air and exercise. If you are young, healthy, and single, I daresay the burden should be on you to explain why you haven't joined up yet.
2. Get a Masters degree. In the 1940s, something like 5 percent of Americans had a four-year Bachelor's Degree. Today, that number is close to 40 percent-but only 5 percent of Americans have a Masters Degree. In other words, the Masters is today what the Bachelor's was two generations ago. I view a Masters as a basic requirement for advancement in a knowledge-oriented career: you absolutely must have one. That said, there really isn't a specific field you have to study. I think Will is right: study what you love. But mostly...
3. Study history and philosophy. Henry Kissinger wrote somewhere that real statesmen don't study politics. They study history and philosophy. They steep themselves in the knowledge of the world and in the realm of ideas. I'd add that philosophy (and theology) is the best intellectual training ground I know. If you can master -- or even competently grapple with -- the toughest ideas and concepts in the entire range of human knowledge, then contemplating grand strategy begins to look easier.
4. Learn a language. Along with studying history and studying specific regions and areas, learn a language. That makes you a serious expert that will distinguish you from those (ahem, like me) "experts" who are really just dilettantes. Speaking a language opens up a whole new world for you, lets you learn a culture with a depth simply unavailable to others, and gives you credibility with foreign interlocutors.
5. Travel and work abroad.
6. Don't get a PhD. A PhD is a professional credential for aspiring professors, in the same way an MD and a JD are credentials for doctors and lawyers. Do you want to be a professor? Get a PhD. Do you want to be the Secretary of State? Don't get a PhD.
7. Care passionately about your work. I once heard an acquaintance half-jokingly celebrate the rise of counter-terrorism careers. He didn't think the massive surge in attention to counter-terrorism was justified, but "I'm going to ride this gravy train all the way until retirement," he said. I couldn't imagine a faster way to lose respect for myself. Believe in the importance of what you're doing, or you'll find yourself burnt out, disillusioned, bored, and bitter. If you find yourself losing interest in what you're doing (not just for a few months, but for a few years), don't do it.
8. Have integrity. Will yammered on about having a pleasant "personality" and being "nice" to "people." I suppose that's a good idea, although I'm not exactly the expert on it. Let me add that, in dealing with people, be truthful, loyal, and decent. There is a myth that to get ahead in DC you have to be manipulative and self-promoting; that once you've laid down your opinion you have to ensure you get your way lest you lose credibility; that brusqueness, a sharp tone, or a short-temper in the service of a bureaucratic fight are acceptable. I disagree. Human decency is more effective, especially when disagreeing with someone.
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I am finally mad about Benghazi.
I've been willing to cut the Obama administration a lot of slack because, as a former CIA analyst and NSC director, I've been in the exact situation they were in on the day of the attacks. Something dramatic happens -- an explosion or an assassination -- the higher-ups expect to know every detail instantaneously, and a mad scramble ensues to find any little scrap of information to satisfy the demand for data. In the madness, the typical standards for vetting information are bypassed. That's how policymakers end up running around for a day or two after a crisis reading -- and repeating -- inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information.
Even if there were a few reports from the intelligence community saying the attack was a terrorist attack, I am sure there were other reports saying it was a mob attack. Policymakers will inevitably choose to believe whatever piece of evidence confirms their preexisting conclusions and prejudices. The Obama administration, eager to continue the narrative that al Qaeda is on the verge of "strategic defeat" and that the "tide of war is receding," would naturally have chosen to believe the mob attack theory, especially if they got a few reports saying so. And once you make a judgment, it becomes extremely difficult to revise it in light of new information. While wrong, that's only human.
But former Director David Petraeus reportedly testified to Congress that the CIA's original talking points explicitly mentioned al Qaeda involvement in the attack but were changed by unknown officials to delete references to al Qaeda. If true, the administration's failure to acknowledge the attack as a terrorist strike is no longer an understandable cognitive failing; it is the blatant politicizing of intelligence. Someone changed Congressional testimony to sound more favorable to the Obama administration's preferred narrative.
To be clear, I think it is more likely that the person responsible is an official in the intelligence community than the White House or policy community. Talking points for an intelligence official briefing Congress would go through intelligence channels, probably through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), not through the White House.
That does not lessen the charge of politicization. The intelligence community, ever sensitive to its precarious relationship to its consumers in the policy community, can sometimes censor itself for fear of offending a policymaker with bad news or with a judgment that policymakers could interpret as a criticism of policy. The fault lies with the intelligence community for caving in and showing no spine, but also with the policymakers for allowing or encouraging a culture of censorship and politicization.
This is exactly the same charge that Democrats launched against the Bush administration for the intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. A later Senate investigation found absolutely no evidence that the White House fabricated intelligence, but that didn't stop Democrats from accusing Bush and Cheney of pressuring the intelligence community and encouraging a culture of sloppy analysis by loudly repeating their preferred narrative.
If the CIA judged al Qaeda affiliates were involved in the Benghazi attack and some other official (probably in the ODNI) deleted the reference, it was likely because the official knew the Obama administration preferred the narrative that al Qaeda was nearing strategic defeat and the tide of war was receding.
The narrative is wrong, and we should allow for the other side to make its own judgments and get them wrong -- we make mistakes too. The troubling thing is that the Obama administration has apparently insisted on their narrative so much, so loudly, and so vociferously that analysts in the intelligence community no longer feel able to state simple facts that contradict the narrative. Apparently the White House is so inflexible about this position that simply stating a fact like "al Qaeda was involved in the Benghazi attack" would be enough for an analyst to feel that he would lose credibility with and access to the president.
Such intellectual inflexibility and dogmatism is dangerous in the White House. Policymakers should be ever watchful lest they fall prey to group think and bias confirmation. The bubble of power is so insular that the president and his advisors need to work consciously to get out of it and seek out dissenting opinions. That is part of how Bush was able to make the decision for the Iraq Surge against the collective advice of the Joint Chiefs, Congressional leaders, and most others. The Obama administration, apparently, hasn't learned this lesson yet.
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Last night Martha Raddatz broke the media's code of silence and revealed to the American people that there is a country called Afghanistan, that American troops are there, and that we are at war. This shocking betrayal of omerta temporarily ruffled the presidential race as it forced Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to acknowledge these heretofore unspoken realities. In the epic two-year race for president, the candidates -- no, their seconds -- were forced to spend an entire ten minutes talking about it. How did they fare?
Ryan gave one of the clearest and most thoughtful comments on Afghanistan that I've heard from any American politician from either party in years (admittedly, that is a low bar). He made clear that the Romney/Ryan ticket is committed to a successful transition to Afghan leadership. It is remarkable for its moderation; for the fact that Ryan thinks and speaks in whole, complete sentences; and for its acknowledgment of the importance of finishing the job. It is worth quoting at length (Politico has a transcript).
We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaida a safe haven. We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition...What we don't want to do is lose the gains we've gotten. Now, we've disagreed from time to time on a few issues. We would have more likely taken into accounts the recommendations from our commanders, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, on troop levels throughout this year's fighting season. We've been skeptical about negotiations with the Taliban, especially while they're shooting at us. But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists.
By contrast, Joe Biden said:
But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.
Biden appeared to go rogue on foreign policy. The position he outlined last night -- a complete withdrawal of all troops by 2014 -- is not the Obama administration's position, at least not its public position. President Obama has committed to an enduring international military presence beyond 2014. At the very least, it will include continued training for the Afghan army and police and an American counterterrorism capability. At the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this year, ISAF's Declaration on Afghanistan promised NATO support to Afghanistan "up to 2014 and beyond," and promised to establish "a new training, advising and assistance mission." In the new U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in May 2012, Afghanistan agreed to "provide U.S. forces continued access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014, and beyond as may be agreed...for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
The post-2014 mission could easily require more than 20,000 - 25,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan. Because media outlets regularly report 2014 as a "withdrawal" deadline instead of a transition deadline, it will take Americans by surprise that this is already U.S. policy. In the absence of any decisions to the contrary, bureaucratic inertia will leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Biden is either unaware of this, or unwilling to acknowledge it. And (hat tip to The Cable), he also misstated the administration's view on the war's basic purpose and goals.
Biden's comments give credence to conservatives' fears that the Obama administration is being disingenuous about its true policy; that it has no real plans to leave a stay-behind force in Afghanistan after 2014 and is only lip-synching the responsible rhetoric to keep things calm while they hasten to withdraw. That's essentially what they did on Iraq. Ryan could have highlighted the botched efforts to get a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and the deteriorating security there as a result, and warned the same thing may happen in Afghanistan if Obama/Biden is left in charge for another four years. He didn't, but the Romney campaign could take up that critique in coming days. If you liked Afghanistan before 2001, or if you think Iraq today is a good model for post-2014 Afghanistan, then you'll love what a second Obama term will bring us.
If Mitt Romney is elected president, he will immediately face several urgent foreign policy crises. (For that matter, President Obama will face the same crises if he is reelected). What's worse is that the crises are the most urgent, but arguably not the most important issues he will face. He and his team will have to decide rather quickly their basic stance on these crises, and then clear the decks so they can focus on the longer-term and more important issues.
1. Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan is not the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States, but with 80,000 U.S. troops in combat, it is still the most urgent, despite the media's criminal neglect of it. Romney would do well to follow in his predecessor's footsteps and order another Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review to reexamine the nature and extent of U.S. involvement there. The review should look closely at where we've made progress, where we are still lacking, when we can afford to transition, and what sort of stay-behind force should take shape after transition.
In my view, the review should affirm the importance of the war, recognize the slow security gains made in recent years, affirm the goal of transitioning to Afghan lead as conditions warrant (with 2014 as an aspirational, flexible deadline), pledge a larger commitment of civilian aid to bolster the Afghan government's capacity, and prepare for a stay-behind force of perhaps 30,000 to 35,000 troops to continue counter-terrorism, training, and village stability operations. It should also lay out a series of steps to increase pressure on Pakistan to compel it to stop supporting militants.
2. Iran. Do we bomb or not? This is one of the hardest questions for foreign policy wonks to answer because it is nearly impossible to know 1) how close Iran is to getting a nuclear weapon, 2) what Iran would do with it, and 3) what Iran would do if we bombed them. Bombing Iran could be a brilliant and low-cost means to stabilizing the Middle East (if we live in a Panglossian universe) or the prelude to general catastrophe.
At the very least, we need public redlines which will trigger a strike (such as enriching a certain amount of weaponized uranium, or assembling a nuclear-capable warhead, or some other step prior to a nuclear test), otherwise our vague threats are not credible. We also need a declared policy for how to respond if Iran successfully builds a nuclear weapon (a nuclear attack anywhere is an attack on the United States; the use by any actor of a weapon traceable to Iranian sources will be treated as originating from the Iranian government, etc.)
3. Syria. Do we intervene or not? Syria's descent into civil war is messy and awful. Less clear is whether the U.S. has any direct interests at stake in Syria's awfulness. The Obama administration has established a strange redline: the president threatened a U.S. military response against Syria if Assad uses chemical weapons against the rebels. Why would that make a difference? The use of chemical weapons might make Assad more awful, but it doesn't mean U.S. interests are more threatened. Are we now establishing a "no-use" taboo for all weapons of mass destruction? Is the U.S. going to enforce a global norm against any and all WMD, everywhere, forever? Because the Obama administration doesn't have a policy towards Syria, the Romney administration will essentially have to start from scratch. I may be in a minority amongst conservative foreign policy types in my hesitance to advocate an intervention in Syria.
4. The European financial crisis. I'm not going to pretend that I understand much about the financial crisis in Europe, other than that it is a Bad Thing, which also means I have little idea what to do about it, other than Something. Unfortunately, I get the sense that my level of expertise is typical for the foreign policy establishment. The United States is not in a position to bail out the EU, but it is not in our interest to stand by and watch our largest trading partner collapse, nor our strongest allies plunge into depression. The Europeans do not often welcome an American role in EU affairs, but is there room for some old-fashioned U.S. shuttle diplomacy between the Greeks and Germans (or the Germans and the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians)? Could the U.S. play the role of a trusted outsider, an impartial third-party? Is it time for the U.S. to call an international summit to reform or replace the world's financial architecture? Doing nothing for four years has accomplished little.
With a policy in place on these three issues -- ideally in NSC meetings held in the first few weeks of the new term -- the Romney administration could then take a moment to breathe before starting more in-depth reviews of bigger challenges: China, Russia and its stance towards Europe, globalization and state failure, the global Islamist insurgency, the environment, the role of democracy in U.S. foreign policy, and lots more -- which I hope to address in a future post.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.