There are many ways that painful lessons from the Iraq war have been shaping or will come to shape Obama's Syria policy. Here are two I have not seen discussed much yet:
1. The public punishes policy failure even if it supported the policy initially. Bush's Iraq policies were very popular at the outset. Over time, however, the policies looked less and less successful, and by the darkest days of the war, it looked like the American mission might end in a fiasco. The downward policy trajectory contributed directly to a downward trajectory in public opinion. Yes, there were other reasons -- such as the failure to find WMD -- but the negative fortunes of the war were significant. The fact that large majorities of the public approved of the invasion at the outset did not protect the policy when the war turned south.
Obama faces precisely this risk on Syria. His current policy of not intervening decisively is popular enough -- the polls show at best modest support for military intervention if WMD has been used and at worst profound reluctance about shouldering additional burdens in the region. Obama, in his ambivalence, has the comfort of being aligned with the public today. But this is a cold comfort, since his policy is failing, every bit and perhaps more so than Bush's Iraq policy during the war's darkest days. Once the public concludes that Obama has failed in Syria, it will not matter much that they initially supported the policies that yielded this failure.
2. Doing the right thing belatedly can rescue the policy without restoring public support for the policy. President Bush turned around the Iraq War by authorizing the surge in 2007. This came late in the war but not too late to turn Iraq from a trajectory of failure to something much better. The surge not only reversed the situation in Iraq, it also changed the political reality at home. Iraq went from being a seething issue that was dominating the political stage to an issue largely devoid of political sting. By the time President Obama took office, the political pressure had been so drained from the Iraq issue that he had a virtual free hand to conduct Iraq policy as he saw fit, jettisoning campaign promises and rhetoric along the way. However, the surge came too late to change the public's overall estimation of the Iraq war. Today clear majorities deem it a mistake, not worth the cost -- and at best a "stalemate," not a "victory" (albeit it neither a "defeat"). Had the surge and its fruits come earlier in the course of the war when support for the war was higher, perhaps the surge would have been able to do more than simply take the political sting out of the war -- it might even have convinced more of the public to stick with their initial support.
Obama seems to be inching toward intervening more aggressively in Syria. At this point, the prospects for that intervention look bleak. But even if the supporters of this option are right, and it is not too late for American action to decisively shift U.S. Syria policy toward something less than a fiasco, it may be too late for the public to see Syria as a success and to credit President Obama accordingly.
Of course, President Obama, like President Bush before him, should do what is in the best interests of the country regardless of the impact on public opinion. But political White Houses do care about political consequences, and in that regard the lessons from Iraq are bleak.
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This week, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated. It will be a fun reunion of people who served in the Bush administration -- those who helped advise, make, and implement the president's policies in a time of great consequence for American history.
The opening of the presidential library has coincided with dramatic events at home and abroad that have eerie echoes to the Bush-era -- a Boston terror attack that reminds people of the post-9/11 jitters, ricin-laced letters to politicians that remind people of similar anthrax attacks, and an unraveling sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East, complete with intelligence reports of WMD use, that reminds people of the bitter experience in Iraq.
All of these have occasioned a great deal of talk about the Bush era and renewed debate about the Bush legacy. The talk and debate is welcome, but sometimes it takes a curious turn.
Let me begin by emphasizing that I have a lot of respect for Mead. I assign some of his books to my students, I find his blog posts to be usually thoughtful, and I appreciate that he is not a predictable Johnny-one-note on foreign policy.
Yet, on balance, his contribution to the current wave of commentary on the Bush legacy seems to be more an example of what not to do than of what to do. He opened with a provocative post entitled "The GOP Needs to Talk About Bush: Part One," in which he claimed that Republicans need to, well, talk about Bush "openly and honestly."
Mead's rebuttal to Wehner consisted of two pillars:
First: claiming (falsely) that Wehner's argument was premised on the belief that Bush had done nothing wrong and that all bad things that happened on Bush's watch should be entirely blamed on others. But Wehner explicitly acknowledged important mistakes and he explicitly called for shared responsibility. Apparently, Mead saw no middle ground -- no via media, if you will -- between a claim on the one hand that all critiques of the Bush presidency are true and a reductio ad absurdum claim on the other that the Bush presidency was a "triumph, a sterling example of greatness, of competent benevolence mixed with wisdom almost divine..." Instead of productively exploring the middle ground, Mead derisively dismisses a caricatured version of Wehner, one entirely of Mead's fabrication.
Second: passionately arguing that any attempt to answer critiques of the Bush era plays into the hands of the Bush-haters and is backward-looking. Never mind that this Pillar directly and obviously contradicts Mead's first post, which, as you will recall, encouraged everyone to talk "openly and honestly" about the Bush era (i.e. to look backward with clear eyes so as to move forward). The only possible way to reconcile them is to believe that what Mead meant in his first post is something like this: "Republicans should embrace every criticism of Bush, no matter how wrong or illogical because to answer such criticisms is to play in the hands of the Bush-haters." Why would accepting bogus critiques of the past prepare us well to face the future?
What is curiously missing in Mead's response is any factual or logical engagement of Wehner's (or Inboden's, for that matter) actual argument. Perhaps Wehner or Inboden have over-claimed or misread the history. If so, I would like to see the facts and logic that make up that case.
I wonder if there are two Walter Russell Meads (that would explain why the Via Media refers to itself with the first person plural). There is the Mead who has written important books that are must-reads for any student of American foreign policy and who has offered thoughtful commentary on an impressively wide range of topics. That same Mead, in his "Part One," acknowledged that many Bush-haters distort the past in their critique. And then there is a second Mead, the one who trashed Wehner for engaging in the historical conversation Mead #1 claimed to want. If so, I hope Mead #1 will start debating Mead #2.
Of course, the problem is not really Mead, who, I would argue, will eventually be part of the solution. Compared to other pundits back in the day, he had something of a balanced view of the Bush administration as it unfolded. In fact, I would turn the frame upside down: if reasoned, fact-based discussions of the Bush Legacy cannot produce balanced and nuanced assessments from generally fair-minded observers like Mead, then I would despair of ever seeing it at all.
Happily, the truth is that, over time, we can see such appraisals emerging. Some scholars not blinkered by ideological opposition do produce more balanced assessments than what the conventional wisdom of the day, which is still overly shaped by the instant partisan commentary, would predict. Thus, Mel Leffler has a balanced account of the origins of the Iraq war, Stephen Biddle and his co-authors have a sophisticated analysis of the contributions of the Iraq surge, and Robert Jervis has a careful review of the intersection of intelligence failure and policy choice in Iraq.
None of these scholars can be dismissed as court sycophants. All would, on balance, come down more negatively on the Bush legacy as a whole than the typical Shadow Government contributor. Yet, like the typical Shadow Government contributor, each seems committed to letting the facts lead where they may, even if those facts will disrupt the settled caricatures of the conventional wisdom.
Some journalists are coming around, too. Ron Fournier has a thoughtful commentary that humanizes former President Bush. And maybe even the public is showing an openness to reconsidering previous opinions.
Therefore, I think Republicans should be willing to talk openly and honestly about the Bush era. That will involve accepting some critiques but rejecting others. That will require conceding some mistakes and explaining why the conventional wisdom is wrong in other respects. I do not think that should be the sole or principal preoccupation of Republicans, nor do I think we are in any danger of Republicans falling into that trap.
A worthy contribution of the new Bush center to the ongoing political dialogue in the country would be if it used its convening powers to conduct careful and detailed explorations of key decisions and policies from the Bush era. With the benefit of hindsight, such explorations may conclude that some decisions and policies were mistaken and, if so, the center can be candid in acknowledging that.
Yet I am confident that such a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds. And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is.
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I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
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My colleague Roger Noriega has an excellent post over at the American Enterprise Institute blog on the contentious relationship between Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, and his country's last two presidents, the husband and wife team of (the late) Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, two populists well known for their authoritarian, bullying behavior.
For my part, I am struck by the ferocity of the attacks against Pope Francis I regarding his allegedly passive behavior towards the military junta that ruled Argentina 1976-1983. (Those generals without a doubt waged as brutal a war against the violent Left as the latter waged against Argentine society.)
This line of attack was represented best in Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's high-handed, guilty-until-proven-innocent jeremiad that ran under the print headline, "Does Francis have a confession to make?" (The Post followed with a front-page story here.)
The Vatican, meanwhile, attributed the attacks to "anti-clerical left-wing elements" as "part of a campaign that's often slanderous and defamatory."
Now, of course, examining what Cardinal Bergoglio did or didn't do during that difficult period in Argentina's history is fair game. Yet, I couldn't help but think back to a mini-furor that erupted during Pope Benedict's May 2012 trip to Cuba, when an official from the U.S. government-run Radio Martí delivered an on-air commentary in which he took Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega to task for his passive behavior towards the Castro dictatorship.
According to the editorial, delivered by the station's director Carlos Garcia-Perez, "this attitude of Ortega just goes to show his political collusion with the government and his willingness to follow the official line. This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God."It ended: "Cardinal Ortega, please be faithful to the gospel you preach."
Tough words to be sure, but in light of the standard set by Mr. Robinson, one would think that Mr. Garcia-Perez would have been congratulated for calling out Cardinal Ortega for not doing enough to stand up to the abuses committed against the Cuban people by that despotic regime. But, of course, one would be wrong, because in Cardinal Bergoglio's case, it involved a right-wing dictatorship and in Cardinal Ortega's case, well...you know.
Those offended by the temerity of Mr. Garcia-Perez piled on (here, here and here). His comments were denounced as "beyond belief," "name-calling," and most fretfully, "equivalent to a U.S. government statement."
The whole affair only demonstrates how little attitudes have progressed since the late Jeane Kirkpatrick's seminal 1979 Commentary essay, in which she in part lambasted the double standard of those who directed their righteous fury towards right-wing dictatorships but suddenly became quiescent when it came to those of the left-wing variety.
In any case, the bottom line is that judging the actions of clerics operating under extremely difficult conditions -- especially from abroad -- is no subject to take on flippantly. Who can really know what is in an individual's heart and the calculations and compromises he makes in the silence of his conscience to carry out what he sees as his mission? Yet if one is determined to enter that minefield, then let's apply a single standard on which to judge that behavior. What is expected or demanded under one type of dictatorship cannot be apologized for under another.
Elliott Abrams' new book, Tested by Zion, recounts the Bush administration's efforts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contains two things any such insider's account must. First, a well-researched narrative that answers the "who, what, where, and when" questions. It does that very well. But if it is to be useful to policymakers, students and the well-informed reader, it should do something else -- it should explain the "why." The book does this very well because it does not shy away from describing the actors' motives and actions in terms of their own statements and the commentaries of close observers. If readers want to know why the "peace process" has failed repeatedly, this book goes a long way toward explaining its sad outcome. I will let the book speak for itself, but for my part, it confirms much of what I have seen and experienced over the years: The fault lies largely with the Palestinian Arab leadership and the ill-advised attachment of some in the U.S. State Department to diplomacy for diplomacy's sake.
Abrams does not portray President George W. Bush as perfect, nor for that matter does he portray himself, Condoleezza Rice, or Steve Hadley as above the human tendency to make mistakes or to misunderstand facts or context. And while he sympathizes with Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders, he does not consider them perfect. Their flaws and mistakes are revealed here as well. Neither does he count all Palestinian leaders as hopelessly wicked or weak. In my view, Arafat counts as the former and Mahmoud Abbas as the latter, and Abrams' work makes it hard to escape these conclusions. Abrams shows that the majority of the blame for failure to get to peace lies squarely on the shoulders of those Arabs who continually fail to show 1) a sufficient combination of humanitarian impulse toward "the other" and 2) courage to risk their own positions and comfort. Ariel Sharon was willing, but Mahmoud Abbas and those around him were either unwilling or unable to do it and to this day will not or cannot. It doesn't help that other Arab leaders have refused to do their part. It is revealing and depressing to see leaders given the chance to improve the lives of millions who have lived under oppression and been used as pawns squander that chance because they either hate too much or lack the courage to risk their own well-being.
Abrams' treatment of the State Department will cause a lot of bureaucrats and foreign service officers to scowl and complain. He relays in detail the problem the White House faced at the beginning of the Bush administration -- and continuing through the Rice years when she moved to State -- with an agency that wanted to continue to encourage endless dialog between the parties and various other countries when that had never worked before -- unless there were two parties at the negotiating table truly seeking peace. We have as examples only Sadat and Begin regarding Egypt, and Hussein and Rabin regarding Jordan. This endless dialog approach was taken by the Clinton administration with Arafat leading the Palestinian side. It is the most recent failure not because of lack of will on the part of Israel or the United States, but because Arafat had no interest in peace and did nothing to prepare his countrymen for responsible self-government. Just ask President Clinton, or Arafat's widow. So the burden is on State to explain how their preferred modus operandi of talks for the sake of talks would have made any sense in the Bush administration. Instead, the administration pursued a bold plan when it called for a two state solution founded upon the twin goals of an end to terrorism and the building of democracy. Further into the process, when Sharon tried to restart progress on everyone's agreed to plan, the road map, these same diplomats and bureaucrats -- as well as many Israelis, Arabs and Europeans -- decried the "unilateralism" of Israel voluntarily and unilaterally leaving territory in Gaza and the West Bank, territory Sharon understood it could not hold indefinitely as a practical or moral matter.
What did Sharon want in exchange? Nothing but respect and a reciprocation of good will and support. But rather than praise and support a decision that jump-started the peace process that had hit a roadblock in Arafat, many found it Machiavellian. What a shame that in this bizarre world of the Middle East "peace process" an Israeli general turned politician, who actively seeks to improve the lives of Palestinians, is criticized for doing the very thing that can produce momentum. Certainly the tug of war that seems to always ensue between State and the White House over major foreign policy issues played a role in this dissonance, but it was more than that. It was the perennial refusal of modern diplomats' to understand that diplomacy for diplomacy's sake produces little good. Diplomacy is supposed to be the servant of policy goals and requires the good faith efforts of all parties who are earnestly seeking an agreement. Israel has yet to have a willing or able partner in achieving an agreement, and all diplomats would do well to understand that.
In the end, Bush and Sharon failed to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but not for lack of trying. They failed because Arab leaders failed to "love their children more than they hate [Jews]," to borrow from Golda Meir. That, and much more, comes through in Abrams' very good recounting.
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Many policy disputes are at their core disputes about history. This is certainly the case with Senator Rand Paul's much-noticed foreign policy speech last week. The speech represents Paul's entry into the ongoing "whither GOP foreign policy" debate, which he will likely continue in his Tea Party response to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, alongside Senator Marco Rubio's official Republican response.
At the outset of his remarks Senator Paul oddly claims the mantle of being a "realist." This seems to have triggered some affection from other professing realists, which is curious since one looks in vain through Paul's speech for much realist content. "Realism" is of course given to multiple meanings -- among others, there exists realist theory as an analysis of the international system based on states as actors competing for power. Then there is policy realism as a pragmatic tactic for unconditional discussions with regimes such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea, along with the belief that achieving an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement is the strategy key to stabilizing the Middle East. And there is also the odd "realism" of Chuck Hagel which seems to be an ideological aversion to any type of diplomatic or economic sanctions.
Yet none of these realisms is evident in Paul's speech. The realism that concerns itself with great power relations? Great powers like China, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom are not even mentioned. The realism that supports tactical outreach to rogue regimes? Paul offers no specific initiatives beyond hinting that he does not support attacking Iran.
To be sure, the speech has some strong and welcome points, especially its calls for broad debate on foreign policy, for Congressional responsibility, and for restoring America's fiscal health. But when it comes to foreign policy specifics, the speech reads like an odd combination of a crude "clash of civilizations" analysis and "Come Home, America" policy prescriptions.
Paul makes much of following the historical model of George Kennan and the doctrine of containment in the Cold War, now to be applied to "radical Islam." But while this might sound nice in a speech, it is not persuasive on substance. Kennan developed containment as a response to Soviet communism, which was an ideological system embedded in a nation-state with defined geographic borders, established political leadership, and a self-contained economic system. In short, there were clear boundaries to containment and a clear goal of preventing the geographic expansion of Soviet communism while increasing pressure on its internal contradictions until the eventual collapse of the Soviet state. Whereas "radical Islam" in Paul's speech has none of those characteristics -- it extends beyond any single nation-state, is borderless and global, does not have a discrete political leadership, and does not have an identifiable economic system. As a strategic matter, what does it mean to "contain" something like that? Paul's speech does not give a good answer - perhaps because there is no good answer. (Fred Kagan points out several other problems with Paul's use of Kennan here.)
Here Paul's prescription for what to do in response to radical Islam veers between platitudes and incoherence. He implies that American interventions abroad create more jihadists. But he glosses over the fact that in Syria, where the United States has maintained a posture of passivity and restraint, thousands of new jihadists are being radicalized. He characterizes radical Islam as a global ideological threat. Yet he offers no analysis of what its means and ends are, and no coherent strategy to respond to that threat. And he glosses over the contradiction of claiming that radical Islam has been around for several hundred years but that it can be defeated through containment.
Senator Paul credits his reading of John Gaddis's magisterial biography of George Kennan with inspiring the ideas in his speech. Gaddis (who in full disclosure was my dissertation advisor) has also written the classic history of containment as a strategic doctrine, and in the conclusion he addresses whether containment can be applied to different conflicts today: "Containment cannot be expected to succeed, therefore, in circumstances that differ significantly from those that gave rise to it, sustained it, and within which it eventually prevailed."
Politically, Paul seeks to wrap himself in the mantle of President Reagan, but the Reagan he invokes is a figure more of his own imagining rather than the Reagan of history. (The other half of the Brothers Kagan, Bob, provides ample evidence on this point here). I would add that much of Reagan's foreign policy career was defined against the realists of the day, whether Reagan's early opposition to détente, his escalated ideological campaign against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s that disrupted the international equilibrium, or his dual push for SDI and nuclear abolition which also disrupted the stable balance of power. Not to mention that unlike Senator Paul, Reagan was all too willing to push forcefully for human rights and democracy in unfree countries, especially communist ones, as part of his comprehensive strategy to bring down the Soviet Union.
Paul's facile reading of history curiously ignores the obvious forbear he should have appealed to -- Senator Robert Taft of Ohio. The onetime Senate majority leader and three-time candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Taft articulately represented the non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party at mid-century. He vocally opposed American aid to Britain and involvement in either the European or Pacific theaters of World War II, right up to the Pearl Harbor attack. Then, in the early Cold War years, although a fierce anticommunist, Taft feared that in its Cold War mobilization the United States risked becoming a garrison state. He vehemently opposed the creation of NATO, was ambivalent about American intervention in the Korean War, and only grudgingly voted for the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.
Taft lost the GOP nomination battle to Eisenhower in 1952, and with it Taft's foreign policy camp waned as the Republican Party predominantly embraced hawkish internationalism. Personally, I hold Taft's character, intellect, and patriotism in great esteem. In hindsight, his warnings about the unsustainability of the domestic welfare state and its corrosive effects on free enterprise are principled and prescient. But in the light of that same hindsight, his foreign policy prescriptions, particularly in response to the threats of fascism and communism, appear more wrong than right. This is a history that Paul might want to consider before trying to take the Republican Party and the United States down a similar foreign policy path.
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In the latest installment of a continuing research project on partisan commitments and foreign policy views, some colleagues and I have just published some of our latest findings with that, er, other journal. Following up on last summer's survey of executive branch policymakers from both parties, we have now surveyed a broad group of Congressional staff members to explore the question: just how divided is Congress on foreign policy?
As Josh Busby, Jon Monten, Jordan Tama, and I describe here, the results may be somewhat surprising, especially given the prevailing headlines about Congressional acrimony and gridlock. Our survey instead found unanticipated levels of bipartisan agreement among Congressional staff of both chambers and both parties on issues such as the importance of the U.S. commitment to multilateral institutions like NATO, the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, and to allies such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. The survey also found high levels of agreement on broader principles such as preserving U.S. sovereignty, yet also affirming the importance of multilateral cooperation on national security priorities.
Of course some pronounced differences emerge as well on certain issues. For example, Democratic staff really like the International Atomic Energy Association (over 75 percent view it favorably); Republican staff really don't (only 21 percent view it favorably). Republican staff are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel; Democratic staff comparably less so.
The two surveys reveal some interesting intra-party differences between the two branches. Republicans in the executive branch had a more favorable view than congressional Republicans of global economic institutions, such as the World Bank, the WTO, and the IMF, and were more likely to support the principle that abiding by unfavorable WTO rulings was in our long-term interest. Executive branch Republicans also had more favorable views of the U.S. relationships with Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, both groups of Republicans strongly supported the idea that trade, non-proliferation, and terrorism were important issues that could be addressed multilaterally.
Among Democrats, a significantly greater percentage of executive branch officials considered climate change to be a very important issue, but most Democrats in both branches said multilateral cooperation on climate change and every other issue that we asked about was important, and Democrats in Congress and the executive branch shared favorable views of most international institutions.
Full results of the comparison can be found here.
The topic of partisan divisions in foreign policy is also a fitting occasion to honor Ambassador Max Kampelman, who died on Friday at the age of 92, and whose career bears witness to the possibility of patriotic service to both parties. Will Tobey's eloquent tribute below sketches the arc of Kampelman's remarkable life. From pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II to staunch anticommunist and Cold Warrior, from committed Democrat and aide to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale to senior Reagan administration official (while still a committed Democrat), and from prominent human rights advocate to nuclear weapons negotiator, Kampelman's life embodied the twentieth century itself. Notably, he was equally committed to and adept at human rights advocacy as he was at nuclear diplomacy. Such a policy combination might sound unusual amidst contemporary bureaucratic stovepipes, but in his mind both issues formed a comprehensive strategic vision for the confrontation with the Soviet Union.
I had the privilege of meeting Ambassador Kampelman only once, about a decade ago when I was on a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute. I had convened a panel discussion on religion and foreign policy; Ambassador Kampelman attended and offered some customarily thoughtful remarks. Later that week he wrote me a very gracious letter with his appreciation for the conference, and included some fascinating reflections on the connection between the theological origins of monotheism and universal human rights.
For an introduction to Kampelman's distinguished statesmanship and inimitable style, I commend to our readers his own reminiscences on working for President Reagan in this 2003 article in the Weekly Standard. His anecdotes on how Reagan combined human rights commitments with nuclear arms negotiations, and on Reagan's colorful relationship with Tip O'Neill are especially memorable.
A closing thought: Kampelman's bipartisanship was borne of principle. Because he shared common values with President Reagan on foreign policy, he was able to serve in the Reagan administration, even while holding to his own Democratic roots and no doubt maintaining numerous disagreements with Reagan on other areas of domestic and economic policy. In other words, bipartisanship should not be reduced to policy mush or personal opportunism. We have two parties for a reason, and partisan disagreements can just as often be a source of accountability and vitality in a democracy as they can be a cause of malaise. In that context, bipartisanship represents members of both parties finding common policy ground based on common principles, and a shared commitment to our nation.
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Last week, Ambassador Max M. Kampelman died in Washington. He was 92. In a city that honors bipartisanship but rarely achieves it, Ambassador Kampelman lived it. He was also able to bridge superficially contradictory ideas: pacifism and fighting the Nazis; labor rights and anti-communism; a willingness to negotiate with Moscow and a clear-eyed view of the Soviet threat. He happily worked for both Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan. Most importantly, he did so while stubbornly adhering to important principles.
Amb. Kampelman served as the chief negotiator for the Nuclear and Space Talks with the Soviet Union, from 1985 to 1989, but his public service began during World War II. A pacifist, he registered for the draft as a conscientious objector and undertook "work of national importance under civilian control." In his case, this meant volunteering to participate in experiments using controlled starvation to understand how best to help released prisoners of war and concentration camp victims to recuperate from their ordeals. During the six month experiment, he went from about 160 pounds to slightly more than 100 pounds.
After World War II, Amb. Kampelman, who had already earned a law degree and worked as a labor lawyer, completed a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. He wrote his dissertation on "The Communist Party and the CIO: A Study in Power Politics." With equal strength, he advocated labor rights and opposed the attempted Communist take-over of American unions.
In Washington, after serving on Senator Humphrey's staff, Amb. Kampelman practiced law privately for over two decades. In 1980, Vice President Walter Mondale, an old friend, called and asked him to lead the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. President Reagan, who knew Amb. Kampelman from their membership in the Committee on Present Danger, asked him to stay after the 1980 election. In closing the successful Madrid talks, Amb. Kampelman issued a wary statement, highlighting the importance of Soviet compliance, rather than the mere achievement of a paper agreement.
In 1985, President Reagan called Amb. Kampelman and asked him to serve as the chief negotiator at renewed negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms and missile defenses. Amb. Kampelman personally oversaw the latter, in which the Soviets sought to smother and the United States sought to protect President Reagan's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). He succeeded in protecting SDI, while creating the space necessary to complete the 1987 INF Treaty, which banned all U.S. and Soviet missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers, a signal achievement.
Max M. Kampelman served Republicans and Democrats. By peaceful means, he fought the monstrous evils of his age -- Nazism and Communism. He advanced the causes of freedom and peace. He stuck to his principles through trying times. His career is worth remembering and admiring.
Late last week key officials within the Obama administration announced a potential new limit for troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 (when the vast majority of the current 40,000 will have been removed). That number-- 2,500-6,000 total -- is far less than the 30,000 that the administration stated just two years ago was the minimum necessary to carry out counter-terrorism tasks in the country.
What has happened to justify this radical shift in policy? I would argue that three key conclusions about Afghanistan have coalesced in the thinking of policy makers since 2010 and have pushed the administration to reconsider its vision for the war.
1. Afghanistan as Vietnam
Perhaps most importantly, administration officials have concluded that Afghanistan is Vietnam: an eternal, unwinnable war that will only drag them and the country down with it if they continue to invest in the conflict.
There are, however, significant differences between the two wars. First and foremost, unlike in Vietnam, there is a clear military and political way forward in Afghanistan. From its success in Iraq, the U.S. military learned how to fight and win these sorts of irregular conflicts. This comes as no surprise to historians, who know that the U.S. military has won every irregular war that it was fought except for Vietnam. This includes three guerrilla wars in the Philippines and a series of irregular fights in Latin America. Politically, the U.S. learned from President Kennedy's disastrous support for the overthrow of Diem and has supported (however reluctantly) a leader who is recognized as legitimate by most Afghans. And unlike Vietnam, Afghans generally do not want a strong, centralized government that will provide a multitude of services, but rather prefer one that provides general security and leaves local issues to local leaders. This makes a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan far more likely than it ever could be in Vietnam after 1963.
The second way that these wars differ radically is the stakes, which are far higher in Afghanistan than in Vietnam. Kennedy and Johnson, unlike Eisenhower, were convinced that Vietnam was an existential issue that had to be fought and won for the safety and security of the free world. Subsequent events would show that Vietnamese leaders were just as much nationalists as they were communists, and that they had no intention of working to undermine the free world. The war in Afghanistan, however, began with a devastating attack on the American homeland and the group that carried out this strike will return to their safe-haven to plot and plan further attacks as soon as we leave. Winning the war in Afghanistan is precisely about our own safety and preventing the death of Americans.
Two historians of Vietnam have aided and abetted in this dangerous analogy-building: Gordon Goldstein and Robert Caro. Goldstein's writing has pushed the President to conclude that LBJ's mistake in Vietnam was not withdrawing early -- regardless of the consequences in SE Asia and around the Cold War world -- and Robert Caro's work argues that LBJ's involvement in the war destroyed his domestic achievements. Both of these analogies have been accepted by at least some within this administration as object lessons for the current situation that can be, apparently, applied without critical thought about the dangers of analogies for decision making at the highest policy levels.
2. The Military Is Untrustworthy
Perhaps due to a seminal event in 2009 -- the leaking of McChrystal's strategy for fighting the war -- administration officials have concluded that, as with the army in Vietnam, today's military cannot be trusted. To save face in an unwinnable war, the military will always request more troops and more money. Beginning with the "surge" that year, every request for troops by the commanders who know the most about the situation in Afghanistan has been treated with skepticism and cut considerably by this administration. This was done without taking into consideration conditions on the ground, but perhaps it seemed necessary to demonstrate to the military that civilian control had to be respected.
The result, however, has been disastrous for Afghanistan, where the lack of sufficient troops prevented a full counter-insurgency from being implemented and the withdrawal of forces will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to return unimpeded to the East and South of the country. Without more troops, the U.S. will not even be able to carry out the minimal strategy that this administration has itself argued is necessary to prevent another attack on the U.S.
3. A Shift in Objectives
Some part of this disregard for the advice of the military is due to vast changes in strategy. When President Obama was campaigning for office in 2008, he argued that the U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq and focus on winning the war in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. faced a real threat from al Qaeda. Once in office, he held two policy reviews to elaborate the right strategy for confronting al Qaeda and achieving success in Afghanistan. The path forward that he chose was a counterinsurgency that would defeat the Taliban and secure the population of the South and East of the country.
Not long afterward, a change in objectives for the war was announced: rather than defeating the Taliban, the administration supported a negotiated settlement with the group through a process called "reconciliation." In addition, the military objective later shifted from a full COIN to something called "CT Plus," which would focus solely on killing al Qaeda members and disrupting the ability of the group to plot and plan. CT Plus would require far fewer forces than a COIN (around 30,000 was seen as the minimum to stay after 2014).
What then has justified the proposed change from 30,000 to perhaps 2,500? Once again objectives have changed -- in this case from CT Plus to something even less: just holding one or two bases in the country. With so few troops, the U.S. will not be able to carry out CT missions, and if just two bases are held, much of the East and South will be out of reach for strikes on Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership. This change in objectives in fact guarantees that Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for AQ and a base for the group to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the U.S.
Perhaps there is a Vietnam analogy that suits this situation, but one provided by the French and not the U.S. experience: Dien Bien Phu. Trapped in a mindset that believed only attrition could defeat the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French chose to move several thousand troops to an isolated garrison with poor lines of communications at a place called Dien Bien Phu. The troops could not be easily reinforced or resupplied, and came under heavy artillery fire from the Viet Minh forces. Eventually the entire garrison was forced to surrender under humiliating circumstances and France withdrew from all of SE Asia.
Any force less than 15,000 risks precisely this outcome in the isolated battlefield of Afghanistan, which might explain why the administration has been talking about withdrawing completely and ceding the entire country -- as it has Syria, Mali, and Libya -- to al Qaeda.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
In December 1939, as World War II began to convulse Europe and the public debate accelerated in the United States over whether America would enter the war, the new Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall gave an address to the American Historical Association. Reflecting on the role of history in national security, Marshall observed that "it is to the historian ... that we must turn for the most essential service in determining the public policy relating to national defense." Lest this sound like Marshall was merely flattering his audience of history professors -- we academics are notoriously susceptible to hearing about our own importance, after all -- Marshall then excoriated the assembled historians for writing books that were unduly celebratory of American history, and thus had offered little genuine insight. Specifically, he charged historians with abdication of duty by telling only of America's previous victories in wars, while ignoring the many past mistakes that had unduly prolonged past wars, or left the United States vulnerable and susceptible to defeat. As his nation once again faced the prospect of war unprepared, Marshall worried that "if we are to have a sound organization for war we must first have better school histories and a better technique for teaching history."
Many policymakers today would share Marshall's concern that too few academic historians are producing history that is useful for national security policy. Although to oversimplify the problem, it is now nearly the opposite from Marshall's time. Very little of academic history today focuses on matters of war and diplomacy, and for academic historians a contemporary cardinal sin is to write "celebratory" history (or its related iniquities of "triumphalist" or "Whiggish" history). If anything, many historians are perhaps now gratuitously critical of the American past.
History at its best should of course avoid the twin distortions of either cheerleading or sneering at the past, and instead should work to ascertain the truth about the past in all of its complexities, vanities, and virtues. And while not all fields of history should aspire to the potential seductions of "policy relevance," the responsibilities of citizenship and the realities of the past suggest that history holds rich insights for foreign policy today. General Marshall was not the only one to think so; a pantheon of other Cold War policymakers, such as Kennan, Kissinger, Acheson, Truman, and Eisenhower looked to history as well, as have many of their contemporary successors.
Inspired by the spirit of Marshall's admonition, yesterday the University of Texas-Austin announced the creation of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft. The Clements Center (which in full disclosure I will direct) will be designed to support teaching and research in diplomatic, military, and international history and its relevance for national security policy. In the coming months we will be announcing a number of programs and initiatives; aspiring graduate students and post-docs especially might want to keep us in mind.
The life and career of the Center's namesake, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Clements, exemplifies an appreciation for history's bearing on statecraft. An avid reader of history, Clements served at the Pentagon from 1973-77 under presidents Nixon and Ford, and he stewarded American defense policy during a perilous period when the U.S. was a diminishing power. Yet mindful of the "long view" that history cultivates, during these years of managing decline, Clements oversaw the development of new weapons platforms such as the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, M-1 Abrams tank, Aegis cruiser, and Tomahawk cruise missile, that would form much of the backbone of American force projection for the next four decades. He also worked with Kissinger and others to recalibrate America's strategic posture in regions such as the Middle East. In our current era of debate over the defense budget and American decline, this is a history that merits attention.
It is not the best of times for Republicans on foreign policy. Having just lost another presidential election and being the minority party in the Senate (the congressional branch with the most involvement on foreign policy), the GOP finds its center of gravity relegated to the House of Representatives and state governors' mansions, where foreign policy ranges from a secondary (the House) to non-existent (governorships) issue. Exit polls from the 2012 election show that the GOP has lost its historic advantage on national security to Democrats in the minds of the American people. It is an appropriate time for Republicans to take stock of where we stand on foreign policy, and Danielle Pletka's article is a welcome spur to this effort.
A meaningful debate within the party is the logical next step. Here I would remind my fellow Republicans that our more partisan critics in places like the media and the Democratic Party have favored attack lines they will employ no matter what path we pursue. If the GOP unites around a particular national security platform, we will be derided for "squelching dissent" and "being hijacked by ideological extremists." Whereas if the GOP has a substantive internal debate on foreign policy and multiple camps emerge, we can expect stories about "the GOP in disarray" and "internal feuding and incoherence." The lesson in this? Have the debate because it is a constructive and needful thing to do; just don't enlist persistent critics of the GOP as referees.
So what should a GOP foreign policy look like? An unappreciated but essential part of foreign policy is accurately reading the state of the world and the tides of history. Past Republican successes have come in part from enduring principles and competent implementation, but also from a proper appreciation for the state of the international system and America's capabilities at that particular historical moment. Thus Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century accurately saw the opportunity for the United States to look beyond its continental preoccupations and assert itself as an emerging global power. Dwight Eisenhower at mid-century realized the need for America as a global superpower to build a Cold War strategy based on balancing domestic economic growth and national security needs with a prudential but still assertive international posture. Richard Nixon, taking office during a time of overextension and strategic vulnerability, perceived the imperative to reconfigure the global chessboard in ways more favorable to America's diminished hand. Ronald Reagan, who won election amidst national decline and global diminishment, abandoned the conventional wisdom in pursuing a strategy of renewal at home simultaneously with a more assertive posture abroad. George H.W. Bush inherited a strong nation and presided over the end of the Cold War and restructuring of the international order while avoiding overreach. George W. Bush realized that the Sept. 11th attacks demanded a new counterterrorism paradigm, of both tools and doctrines. The twin facts that the United States has not been attacked since and that the Obama administration has maintained this paradigm testify to the success of this strategy.
Mindful of this history, the question for the future of Republican foreign policy should begin not with where we think the Democrats may be wrong, but with what we think the state of the international system is today and how it can be shaped in ways favorable to U.S. interests and consonant with American values. Like many other Republicans, I share Pletka's reverence for Reagan's presidency and agree that his values offer a good starting point for foreign policy today. But updating the Reagan legacy for the 21st century means appreciating how Reagan's day differed from our own even as his principles endure.
This does not mean abandoning our critique of where the other party gets things wrong. Judging from recent trends, I suspect the Obama administration's second term might present some particular opportunities for the GOP to offer a compelling alternative, especially leading up to 2016. As Peter Feaver and I have pointed out before, the Obama administration's successes in the first term largely came when following the Bush playbook, such as preserving the policy and legal framework for the war against jihadist terrorism or a dual-track strategic posture in Asia of both balancing and engaging with China. The Obama administration's failures in the first term, however, were generally sui generis, reflecting either poor judgment or deferred action on hard issues, and sometimes both.
Unfortunately, those hard issues are only getting harder. To take just one example, the White House should realize it has a serious problem with its Syria policy when senior French officials disparage its posture as "waiting from behind." Nor do other places look good: Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea are all situations where the Obama administration's current policy lines and assumptions are not promising. Republicans have a chance to say how we think these things could be handled better.
William Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He previously served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at ForeignPolicy.com.
If words were weapons, the Obama administration would have already brought down the Assad regime and probably started a conflict with Russia and China. Last week, Jay Carney responded to Russia and China's veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Syria by saying that the two countries were on "the wrong side of history," describing the vetoes as "very regrettable," "deplorable," and "highly unfortunate." UN Ambassador Susan Rice added "reprehensible and immoral" to the mix in an appearance on CNN, before saying: "The reality is that Russia and China are isolated outliers, [have] put all their chips on a sinking Assad vessel, and [are] making a big miscalculation over the long term, in terms of their interest and in terms of how history will judge them. History will judge them as having stood by a brutal dictator at the expense of his own people, and at the expense of the will of the international community and countries in the region."
But unfortunately, the tyrants of the world do not fear words, at least coming from this president. So how will history judge the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian crisis even if Assad falls in the coming weeks or months? Despite the self-righteous indignation of administration officials, Syria still burns. Secretary of Defense Panetta noted on Wednesday that the situation was "rapidly spinning out of control" and State Department officials have described a growing humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees flee to Syria's neighbors to escape the violence.
This all comes as elements of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are reportedly on the move, raising the real possibility that the regime might use such weapons against civilians in embattled areas in a last ditch, desperate attempt to survive or that these deadly weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups.
Even if chemical weapons are not used and the Assad regime collapses quickly, there is a real concern that violence between elements of the opposition or various sectarian groups could break out as state institutions collapse or fade away
Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. The Obama administration is completely unprepared and possibly unwilling to shape Syria's future. What is also clear is that in recent months and even this week, the United States has sent a horrible message to tyrants elsewhere about the (non-existent) costs of mass killings of innocents.
On July 16th, Secretary of State Clinton told Margaret Brennan of CBS News that the key to resolving the conflict was all about the "will that we're trying to engender between both the government and the opposition to ease the violence and work toward a transition that leads to a democratic future." That followed this exchange:
BRENNAN: "How is the U.S. supplying the rebels at this point?"
SEC. CLINTON: "With non-lethal assistance. Which is what we said we would."
BRENNAN: "What would make you change the type of support?"
SEC. CLINTON: "At this point, nothing. We are focused on doing what we think is appropriate for us to do. We don't want to further militarize the conflict. We don't want to support either directly or indirectly the arming of people who could perhaps not use those weapons in a way
we would prefer."
Remember, this is more than 17,000 deaths into the crisis and even as chemical weapons were being pulled out of storage. The equivalence between the regime and the opposition is absolutely stunning, as is the statement that "nothing" would cause the administration to think about more aggressive actions. So much for a "responsibility to protect" or for the much publicized Obama administration's track record of faster, more nimble, less messy interventions than its predecessors.
Despite the ham-handed way in which the Libya intervention was explained to the American people and to Congress, it did save thousands of lives and has given Libyans an opportunity to make something of their country. But in Syria, there is a fifteen month record of "leading from behind" and empty rhetoric, but no real willingness to save Syrian lives or to protect and advance American interests. Even as U.S. allies in the region jumped in to fill the void, pursuing their own, more narrow interests, we stood largely on the sidelines, giving us little leverage now with Syria's future leaders.
So, even before the fall of Assad, which now in and of itself, may bring further chaos and bloodshed absent significant outside intervention, the Obama record is clear. Secretary Clinton and her colleagues will now join the pantheon of American officials who have stood idly by while thousands died. Move over James Baker -- although at least Baker was honest with his view that America had no reason to get involved in Bosnia, just as the Russians and Chinese are honest about their interests in propping up Assad.
So what would help to resuscitate this Obama record littered by the bodies of innocent Syrian men, women and children and the very real repercussions of an imploding Syrian state? At this point, short of a miraculous change in behavior, nothing.
The death of Chuck Colson over the weekend marked the loss of an American original. As many news stories attest, Colson embodied a quintessentially American life, from his rise to prominence in the Nixon White House, to his disgrace and imprisonment for Watergate-related crimes, to his conversion to Christianity and rebirth as the head of a worldwide prison reform ministry and leading evangelical social thinker. Colson's experience was also deeply human, a moving account of grace and redemption that resonated with millions of those across the globe influenced by his work and thought.
Yet most of the obituaries neglect Colson's notable influence on American foreign policy. Colson emerged in the 1980s as a leading thinker on Christian participation in politics and policy. His 1989 book Kingdoms in Conflict sought to recover the Augustinian tradition and make it accessible to American evangelicals, who continued to be susceptible to erratic swings between pietistic withdrawal from the world and triumphalist political crusades. Instead Colson argued for a thoughtful participation in politics that sought to achieve proximate goods, while respecting pluralism and not conflating the earthly realm with the eternal realm.
Based on this theological foundation, in the 1990s Colson helped lead a broad movement of American evangelicals into activism on an array of foreign-policy issues, including religious persecution, human trafficking, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, genocide in Sudan, and human rights atrocities in North Korea. Colson also equipped evangelical Protestants to engage in co-belligerency on specific issues with people of different faiths but similar goals, including Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Bahais, and secular human rights activists.
I inadvertently experienced a sense of Colson's power to mobilize in 1996 when I worked as a staff member for Sen. Sam Nunn. One day Colson dedicated his daily radio broadcast to a human rights issue in Kuwait and urged his many listeners to phone the State Department switchboard and ask the secretary of state to take action on this case. Unfortunately, Colson erroneously read out to his listeners my direct office line rather than the State Department phone number, and I spent the rest of the day explaining to befuddled callers that I was not Warren Christopher.
Mixed-up phone numbers notwithstanding, Colson and like-minded leaders formed a coalition that achieved some notable policy and legislative successes. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the State Department offices of International Religious Freedom, Trafficking in Persons, Global Aids Coordinator, Special Envoy for Sudan, and North Korea Human Rights would not exist today without Colson's work in generating support for their creation. In the process, Colson and his cohort helped raise the awareness of American evangelicals about a broader set of global issues beyond their traditional domestic social concerns.
In his political thought and engagement, Colson took as his role model the early 19th-century British parliamentarian, abolitionist, and social reformer William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, as Colson often noted, spent as much time thinking carefully about how he participated in the political process as worrying about the outcomes. In Wilberforce's case -- which Colson attempted to emulate -- this meant principled disagreement with his opponents while holding them in charitable regard, and marshaling persuasive evidence and appeals to conscience rather than indulging in deceptions and demagoguery. The challenge now for the next generation of American evangelicals, who first developed their foreign-policy awareness under Colson's influence, is to deepen their political and theological reflection and engagement on complex global issues that do not lend themselves to simple humanitarian appeals, such as great-power relations, international economics, and war and peace.
For all his decades of post-prison work to make a better world, Colson never lost sight of his faith in the world to come. With his passing he has crossed the proverbial river, and I pray he now knows the peace of eternal rest.
STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images
BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has distinguished himself once again, this time claiming that the Obama administration's refusal to send the 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea shows that President Obama is tougher than President Bush. It's amazing the White House is reduced to juvenile boasts of this sort in an effort to burnish their foreign policy achievements; even more amazing is that the deputy national security advisor seems innocent of awareness that the policy he extols is both (a) a repeat of the Bush administration; and (b) a departure from candidate Obama's promises of a brighter American foreign policy.
The article sounds like an Onion parody, but is worth reading to get a full sense of just how contorted is the logic associated with President Obama's claims.
Rhodes says "what this administration has done is broken the cycle of rewarding provocative actions by the North Koreans that we've seen in the past." Wrong. What this administration has done is to exactly repeat the cycle of hoping to lure the North Korean government into cooperative behavior and then withholding our promised assistance when the North Korean regime proceeds with its nuclear and missile programs. The North Koreans claim bad faith, just as they did when the Bush administration withheld fuel oil after an earlier test.
President Obama came to office promising a new era of American foreign policy, an era of hope and change, in which we would reach out to our enemies, practice a new kind of positive engagement to attenuate the image of America as arrogant and overpowering. But the deputy national security advisor now celebrates the Obama administration withholding humanitarian assistance to badly malnourished people because of the provocative actions of an authoritarian regime. "Under our administration we have not provided any assistance to North Korea," he said, as though it were a major foreign policy achievement.
He also criticized the Bush administration for having removed North Korea from the terrorism list, and for continuing to negotiate with the North Korean government to try and walk back its nuclear program. But note that the Obama administration has not taken any action to return North Korea to the terrorism list, nor has it broken off negotiations with North Korea. Last time I checked, the Obama administration favored negotiations and had limiting nuclear proliferation as a major foreign policy objective.
Not only has the administration returned to the policy of its predecessor, it has done so while claiming that policy was unduly lenient. Savor that for a minute: the same Obama who held an outstretched hand to the evil and erratic leader of North Korea is now claiming special foreign policy prowess for adopting the policy he condemns in his predecessor.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
In a recent FP article, Francis Gavin and James Steinberg observed that historical analogies can prove an unreliable guide to present-day policy decisions, specifically with regard to the momentous decision facing the United States and its allies regarding whether to strike Iran. As if to prove Gavin and Steinberg's point, Fareed Zakaria seeks in a Washington Post column to marshal two historical analogies in defense of his view that Israel should not attack Iran, but rather should seek to "contain" a nuclear-armed Iran if necessary. In doing so, Zakaria provides little insight into the difficult decisions facing Israeli or American leaders, but instead provides an instructive example of the fallacies that Gavin and Steinberg warn against.
Zakaria's first error is to cherry-pick historical analogies which fit what is presumably a preconceived conclusion -- that attacking Iran would be a strategic error. To support his view, he cites Germany's ill-fated decision to invade France in 1914, and the United States' decision not to attack the USSR in the late 1940s.
There are two problems with this sort of cherry-picking. First, Zakaria chooses only those historical cases which support the case for non-intervention, and ignores other possible analogies which might undermine his view. Just as critics of a strike like Zakaria could point to the cases he mentions or others to demonstrate how an attack could fail or non-intervention could succeed, advocates of a strike can cite the failure to confront mounting German militarism in the 1930s to highlight the risks of passivity, or cases of successful military interventions to illustrate the benefits of action.
Second, as with most broad historical analogies, both of the events cited by Zakaria are problematic as comparisons to the current tensions between Israel and Iran. Indeed, they must be shoe-horned into service to Zakaria's thesis. For example, Zakaria focuses on one factor which contributed to the outbreak of World War I -- German concerns about Russian armaments and mobilization capacity -- and excludes the many other circumstances which precipitated that conflict. And in citing the success of the decision to maintain a policy of "containment" (which was adopted prior to Moscow's development of nuclear weapons) toward the USSR rather than go to war, he fails to mention that this success came at considerable cost -- the domination of Eastern Europe for decades by the Soviets, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and several major and countless minor wars.
Zakaria's second error is to commit, as many who employ analogies do, the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- that is, to assume that because an outcome followed a decision, it was caused by that decision. It is difficult to know even in retrospect whether the course of events depended on a particular decision or were in fact independent of it. Historians may wonder whether any decision by the major powers in the summer of 1914 could have averted a war in Europe, just as present-day policymakers are concerned that the Middle East will be more conflict-prone in the future regardless of Israel's decision regarding Iran.
Also problematic is the question of counterfactuals -- that is, whether different decisions would have produced outcomes better or worse than those which actually occurred. Historians argue vehemently over such issues, whereas partisan policy analysts have the cynical tendency to argue that anything that went well did so because of decisions their party or leader made, and that things that went poorly were either fated to do so or were someone else's fault. In reality, policymaking is a world of maddening ambiguity, in which not only outcomes but even facts tend to be uncertain.
Policymakers can -- indeed, must -- learn from history, but not by employing facile analogies in the service of preordained conclusions. History can help us understand problems and put them in their proper context; it can offer up novel solutions or shed new light on a dilemma; and it can warn us of the pitfalls that attend any decision and perhaps teach us how to avoid them. Learning from history is a tricky business -- in studying history, a policymaker must take lessons from one context and determine how and whether they apply to a different situation and a different era. Not only do different historical cases frequently suggest contradictory conclusions, but even individual cases -- for example U.S. arming of Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s or the U.S. rapprochement with Muammar Qaddafi in the 2000s -- can offer multiple lessons which pull one in different directions.
As Gavin and Steinberg assert, in the end history cannot tell us what to do. Resolving thorny policy problems requires not just historical analysis, but also regional and strategic expertise, personal experience, and sound judgment. But above all, it requires the courage and conviction to choose, amid great uncertainty, among risky options. This is the essence of policymaking.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
As I posted earlier, I have been in Singapore for a series of lectures and meetings with strategic studies specialists inside and outside of government, courtesy of the wonderful people at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This was not my first visit to Southeast Asia, but it was my first (and hopefully not last) visit to Singapore.
I usually gain more from these exchanges than I give out, and that was the case this time. For folks who like to talk strategy -- and who like to sample extraordinary cuisines while doing so -- there is no place better than Singapore. Singapore is a tiny country, essentially a city-state, that punches well above its weight in international affairs both because of its record of economic success and because it takes seriously the need to think and act strategically. And, Singaporeans love to dine.
American visitors like myself get asked lots of tough questions and, since my visit coincided with the gruesome spectacle of the debt crisis, my answers often left me (and perhaps my audiences) second-guessing American power and purpose.
Still I had some takeaways:
Geostrategic tragedies happen when leaders hesitate to act and cling to beliefs in the face of all evidence. Prior to World War II, the British were confident that Singapore was an impregnable fortress, a "Gilbratar of the East." If the Japanese were foolhardy enough to attack it, the big guns on Singapore's hills would destroy the naval armada before it could reach the shore. And so they might have, if the Japanese had attacked from the sea. Instead, the Japanese launched an attack on the northern part of the Malaya peninsula and fought a bloody advance through the jungle in order to attack Singapore from Johore to the north, not, as the British expected, from the sea to the south. This strategic disaster unfolded over two months, so there was plenty of time for the British to adjust their defensive plans. But they didn't. Of course, the British also missed an opportunity perhaps to block the Japanese attack from the outset, if only the Brits had executed their planned preemptive raids to seize more advantageous terrain. But they didn't. And slowly, inexorably, the Japanese advanced until they trapped a very sizable British force in a tiny perimeter with limited water supplies. I kept asking myself as I visited those sites: are U.S. strategists clinging to mistaken beliefs that will come back to haunt us? Have we, through hesitation and uncertainty, ceded the initiative to forces that are not as complacent as we are?
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images
UPDATE: The Libya debate just took a very serious turn. After weeks of equivocation, the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" dramatically alters the situation. The vote was not exactly a ringing endorsement of military action -- two veto-wielding permanent members abstained, Russia and China, as did one of our closest NATO allies, Germany. On the other hand, it passed and the resolution seems to open up a wider range of military action than the minimal "no-fly zone" that was the focus of international debate last week.
The resolution permits action, but of course it takes a coalition of the willing to actually enforce the resolution. According to reports, France and Britain are preparing to act, perhaps with some Arab partners. Will the United States join the posse?
If so, Obama has his work cut out for him. He will have to explain to the American public what the objectives are, what he plans to do, what he plans not to do, and why we should do it. Many people have been making this case in public in the last few weeks. None of them, however, were in the administration. On the contrary, the administration has pretty steadily resisted pressure for military action and talked down the very options that now, at the eleventh hour (and then some), seem imminent. If the administration has joined the hawks, Team Obama will have to answer all of the objections they themselves raised. And while they are doing so, they may also need to explain why they haven't been preparing the American public for this forceful action. They will also discover that the other relevant branch of government, Congress, may wish to have a say. Remarkably, for all the focus on the international diplomacy, there has been rather little reporting on administration consultations with Congress, the sort that would lead to a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force.
The president is off to Rio de Janeiro for a vacation on the margins of an important summit meeting with a major hemispheric partner. The summit is poorly timed but understandable; the vacation even more poorly timed, and harder to explain if we are about to do what Obama's own secretary of defense described as "an attack on Libya." Until now, the president has been somewhat removed from the center of action on Libya. If U.S. forces are supporting an attack on Libya, he won't be able to stay removed -- he will be in the very center of it, even from the beaches of Rio.
EARLIER: My earlier call for more rigor in the Libya debate has provoked a response that perplexes me. Ross Douthat has a curious post, in which he calls my point of view "deeply mistaken." But when he sketches out his own view it sounds fully consonant with what I was arguing. Either we are deeply mistaken together, or one of us is misunderstanding the other. Either way, it is worth a response; not simply because Douthat is a thoughtful observer who has earned the right to be taken seriously but because the issues at stake go to the heart of much of the current debate over whether or not to intervene militarily in Libya (or elsewhere).
Here is where the matter began. I argued that the debate over intervention was sloppy because critics of the military option: (1) used bogus arguments about alleged "unilateralism" in the way the United States confronted Iraq; (2) asked "what if" questions of interventionists and ignored the obvious "what if" questions of their own preferred policy; and (3) used a moral calculus that focused entirely on the costs of action and ignored the costs of inaction.
Douthat was bestirred by my third point, specifically this quote:
Military action makes us morally responsible but military inaction allows us to avoid moral responsibility. Many defenders of military inaction reach their point of view by way of a skewed cost-benefit calculation that assumes the worst about military action and assumes the best about inaction. Every untoward development that happens or is speculated to happen after military intervention is blamed on the intervener, but every untoward development that happens in the absence of military intervention is left out of the calculus entirely. Thus ideologues who bemoan American "militarism" count up all of the casualties in wars the U.S. intervened in and utterly disregard all of the casualties in conflicts the U.S. let fester without acting.
My point was and is that we need a complete calculus (or as complete as we could get it when dealing with uncertainties) in which the likely costs and benefits of action were compared to the likely costs and benefits of inaction.
I do not say that the calculus demands a one-to-one equivalence in which the body count of action is stacked up against the body count of inaction, death for death. I do not propose a ratio at all, leaving open the possibility that some might count "our" dead more precious than "their" dead, or weigh the dead caused by action more heavily than the dead caused by inaction. All I claimed was that it should not be left out of the equation entirely.
I do not say that we are as responsible for the deaths that result from our inaction as we are for the deaths that result from our action. All I claim is that inaction that leads to predictable results -- say inaction that is followed by 800,000 Rwandan dead or inaction that is followed by 6 million Congolese war victims -- warrant some consideration in the cost-benefit equation and moral calculus.
Here is Douthat's assessment:
Does anyone seriously think that the United States bears just as much responsibility for the horrors of the Congolese civil war (which we "let fester," in Feaver's phrase) as it does for the post-invasion violence in Iraq? As much responsibility for the casualties in, say, the various India-Pakistan wars as for the casualties in our own war in Vietnam? As much responsibility for the deaths in Europe from 1914 to 1917 as for the deaths in the Philippines during our occupation of those islands? We may bear a share of responsibility for casualties that result from our inaction rather than our actions, but the two ledgers aren't comparable.
I did not say they were comparable, but I would say they are compare-able (that is, one can weigh them against each other in a comprehensive cost-benefit calculus). Perhaps we should weight the costs that arise after our action more heavily than the costs that arise after our inaction, as Douthat calls for, but we shouldn't ignore the latter altogether. That was my point and Douthat seems to agree because he concedes that we should assess those costs, only discount them a bit.
I can live with a discount factor. Indeed, I would propose an additional refinement to what Douthat suggested: We should deeply discount costs that arise after U.S. inaction when U.S. options for action were so implausible and so unlikely to affect the outcome one way or the other that inaction was almost irrelevant. To pick a relatively easy illustration from the distant past, the United States was masterfully inactive during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870; I don't think it makes much sense to attribute the death and destruction that resulted (let alone the deep cause of World War I, German unification and the "German Problem") as the "costs of U.S. inaction." By contrast, U.S. inaction does seem especially relevant in the current Libyan case and so the discount rate should be different (and rather less favorable to the advocates of inaction than in the historical hypothetical of the Franco-Prussian War). There is no serious military analyst who would say that the United States lacks plausible options for action or is incapable of affecting the outcome. At most they can say that the options are not worth the cost. Fine, let's count all of the costs.
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International Relations theorist Charles Glaser has joined a growing chorus calling for the abandonment of Taiwan. His take on why we should abandon the island is tucked into his "nuanced version of realism" argued on the pages of Foreign Affairs. As do most "abandon Taiwan" arguments, he begins with a "realist" argument for why war between the United States and China is unlikely. Why? Because besides Taiwan, Sino-U.S. interests are compatible.
Parting company with other "pessimistic" realists who believe that "power transitions" -- the historic condition of a rising power challenging the existing hegemon -- more often than not lead to war, Glaser believes that this time it is different. The security dilemma (in pursuing our security we take steps which decrease their security which leads them to take steps which decrease our security, a process that can end in conflict) in the Sino-U.S. case. The task for Beijing and Washington (but mostly Washington) is to trust that each country just wants security, not domination.
For example, the United States should not fear China's nuclear build-up because of Beijing's limited ability to strike the U.S. homeland. According to this logic, the United States should forego temptations to increase its own nuclear arsenal in response to China's own increases. All China is doing is increasing its security with a second strike capability. In turn, China should not fear U.S. conventional capabilities because most are resident across the Pacific.
But ultimately, the argument goes, it is up to the United States and not China, to make adjustments to its security posture and not exaggerate threats that China poses. The United States is safe because China will never have the means to destroy its deterrent.
Glaser concedes that this theory overlooks the fact that U.S. security alliances could seem threatening to China. Here we get to the nub of his argument. The United States must ask itself how important its security alliances are. Unlike "Neo-isolationists," Glaser, an advocate of "selective engagement," believes that the alliances with South Korea and Japan are important. And the United States could defend those alliances without creating a debilitating arms race if it provides just enough conventional deterrence, plus the threat of nuclear retaliation should those countries come under attack.
To Glaser, Taiwan is different. China's belief that Taiwan is part of it is non-negotiable, and Beijing and Washington have very different views of what constitutes the status quo across the Strait. The Taiwan dispute has no diplomatic solution and the risks of nuclear war are getting too high, particularly with China's advancing second strike capability. His answer is for the United States to make the necessary "adjustments" and abandon Taiwan.
He acknowledges potential critics who may say appeasement usually whets the appetite of the appeased. But, says Glaser, not all adversaries are Hitler, and China has limited territorial goals. Even if China has more expansive territorial claims, the United States can remediate any military imbalance through a greater conventional presence.
In the end, the real danger is a self-fulfilling prophesy, a failure by the United States to realize that its basic goals are compatible with China's. Glaser fears that this is already happening -- the United States is taking a much more competitive military stance because its ability to operate along China's periphery is in danger. According to Glaser, this dilemma has two solutions. The first is for Washington to realize that U.S. interests are changing -- Taiwan is not really vital. And second, the United States should forego the kind of nuclear superiority that could counter China's second strike capability. Problem solved.
This is a fairly conventional international theory argument about the relative stability of Sino-American relations. Glaser is essentially taking a side in an old debate. His innovation is the abandonment of Taiwan, a necessary step to decrease the security dilemma and reveal China's truly limited aims.
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Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today's press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to say about Libya and was determined not to say it.
I am not expecting the White House spokesman to make policy from the podium, but I did expect the White House to be further ahead of the curve today than they were yesterday or the day before, thus giving Carney more material to work with. I can think of only two plausible explanations for the weak White House response thus far:
Either explanation is plausible or perhaps both are in play. If the first explanation is the correct one, I think the White House's stance is understandable but exceedingly risky. Making concessions to virtual hostage-takers only makes sense as a temporary tactic in a larger strategy that quickly turns to a more forceful intervention. (By the way, if the hostage scenario is correct, the issue of U.N. authorization before military force is moot. It still may not make sense to escalate immediately to military action, but President Obama would have a substantially freer hand in terms of what options would be legitimate). If the second explanation is correct, this is an important test of the president's mettle. He needs to decide the matter and establish a clear policy ... and soon.
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It is not fair to criticize the Obama administration too harshly for its failure to come up with a single, robust policy regarding the spreading street unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has been playing catch-up and has often been a step or two behind, but I think that is inevitable when one is confronting revolutionary cascades. Moreover, the region is dotted with very different governments, ranging from friendly autocrats who have been liberalizing (albeit too slowly) to thuggish despots who used almost every tool at their disposal to oppress their people and frustrate U.S. interests in the region. The popular movements rising in the region may share some features in common, but the regimes they are threatening are very different. It would be very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy that would endure given these conditions.
So I have some sympathy for the way the Obama administration has handled, for instance, the situation in Bahrain. The regime there has supported key U.S. policies over the years, and securing long-term access to the home port of the 5th Fleet is an important U.S. national interest. The ethnic mix in Bahrain is volatile, and the Sunni rulers have good reason to fear Iranian adventurism -- long a staple in the region. For precisely those reasons, however, the administration is right to use its influence to pressure the regime into avoiding bloodshed and accommodating legitimate political grievances of the protesters. Calibrating the pressure and the message is hard, but the core U.S. interests involved are fairly straightforward.
I have less sympathy for the same equivocation with regard to Libya. The Qaddafi regime is no friend of the United States. While Qaddafi did make a major concession on WMD in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is likely that that deal would be honored (or an even better one secured) by any regime installed after its ouster. Moreover, the level of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon the street protesters goes well beyond what the other regional autocrats have done. Full-throated condemnation would seem an easy call for the administration. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes in a tough column today, the U.S. message has not been all that full-throated, not yet anyway.
The Obama administration needs to do more, but I would not go as far as some who advocate having U.S. forces impose a no-fly zone. I share their outrage at the way Qaddafi had his Air Force strafe defenseless citizens, but involving the U.S. military in this way would constitute a major escalation and it would be hard to walk back if the situation further unraveled. What if Qaddafi shifted to tanks? Would we then be obligated to have our planes destroy the tanks? And without U.N. authorization, the United States would be entirely on its own. Not even our European allies, who otherwise would join in condemning the Qaddafi regime, would approve of U.S. military action without U.N. authorization.
The United States has acted without U.N. authorization before and rightly so, most famously in the Kosovo war of 1999, although there we were joined by all of our NATO allies. (Academics also debate whether the 16 prior UNSC resolutions on Iraq provided adequate legal cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq or whether the Bush administration needed a 17th.) But in these cases, the action came after considerable diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other avenues of pressure were tried and found wanting, and only then was a resort to extraordinary force taken.
As Wolfowitz and others note, there is much the United States can do and pressure other states into doing short of unilateral military actions. The Obama administration should take those steps, and quickly.
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When drama fills the headlines, reason deserts the pundits. Here are just a few thoughts:
1. Egypt says nothing about Obama. The United States had no control over events in Egypt. It is silly to proclaim that events in Egypt proved Obama either feckless or brilliant in his foreign policy. All he could do is watch, make carefully-moderated public statements, and place a few private phone calls. Making that a test of his foreign policy acumen is like judging the Super Bowl by the coin toss. Obama's foreign policy mettle is tested on issues in which he actually has a role to play, like the war in Afghanistan.
2. If Obama gets any credit, so does Bush. Obama rightly sided (albeit cautiously) with the protesters. His pro-democracy rhetoric would have been stupendously hypocritical and opportunistic if George W. Bush hadn't given Obama legs to stand on. Bush reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by publicly criticizing Egypt and Saudi Arabia for their political oppression. Obama sounded more plausible as a result when he threw Mubarak under the bus and reached out a hand to the protesters.
3. Despite the basic goodness of people rallying against autocracy and corruption, their movement won't seamlessly usher in a golden age of good governance. Recent pro-democracy movements across the developing world are largely discouraging about the long-term effects of such popular outbursts.
4. Be careful what you ask for. Every day I expected The Onion to run the headline, "Egyptians Demand Military Rule," because that, for now, is exactly what they have got. Democracy is possible, contrary to cultural determinists who think Arabs are barred by the laws of history from self-government -- but neither is it inevitable, or even particularly easy. The eventual emergence of good government and democratic elections would be a better test of Obama's handling of Egypt than parsing his utterances of the last month.
5. No one knows how the Muslim Brotherhood will react, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Elections have a track record of blunting the hard edge of some revolutionary, illiberal movements (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), and empowering others (the Nazis). The Brotherhood's greater freedom of action in the post-Mubarak Egypt is something to watch closely. The Brotherhood's choices in the coming months and years will be more important to Egypt and the Middle East than the toppling of one autocrat. They may be a bellwether for political Islamist movements across the world.
6. James Clapper should resign.
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Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas -- one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding -- the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Yet it was not democracy that led a young Tunisian to immolate himself and, apart from English-speaking educated intellectuals, it does not appear that democracy is what most people have been demonstrating about. Instead, what they are seeking, first and foremost, is economic opportunity unfettered by corruption and favoritism. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because he was prevented from earning a modest living. Three Egyptians have burned themselves because of lack of job opportunities.
Secondly, Tunisians and Egyptian appear to be seeking responsive government, which is quite different from Western notions of democracy. In fact, it is arguable that they and other demonstrators in the Arab world would be quite comfortable living under a Chinese-style system, where there is a high and consistent level of economic growth and standards of living continue to rise. Would Tunisia have overthrown Ben Ali if its economy grew, as it had in the 1990s, and if the President's family curbed their greed? Would Mubarak be in the trouble he is now if he had a far greater percentage of the population benefitting from Egypt's economic growth?
It is noteworthy that for all the talk of upheavals in the Arab world, there has so far been little unrest in the traditional Gulf emirates or in Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the smaller Gulf States have long made it their policy to distribute wealth widely among their citizens. (Non-citizens don't count, of course. And if they made any trouble they would be deported.) Despite predictions of their imminent demise over the past two decades, the Saudis likewise have so far remained quiet. The al-Saud family recognized some ten years ago that it needed to spread more wealth to ensure the support of its increasingly younger population; so far so good.
Even Bahrain, which might have been expected to be the scene of riots, given the secondary status of the majority Sh'ia population, has not witnessed any major demonstrations. Again, most of the Bahraini Sh'ia appear to recognize that a stable Bahrain means more wealth for them too -- even if they do not achieve economic parity with the dominant Sunnis. They also know that Saudi tanks are not far from the causeway that links their state to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, and that those tanks would be quick to cross into the island kingdom if the ruling family came under siege.
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On Jan. 17, 1991, a broad based coalition, led by the United States, launched Operation DESERT STORM to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. We know much more of the story now, twenty years later, than we did then, even if we do not yet know how it will turn out. In particular, we know much more about the Iraqi side of the conflict, thanks to the millions of pages of Iraqi government documents captured during the 2003 Iraq war. We also have twenty years of subsequent experience to influence our judgment.
In retrospect, the U.S. conduct of the 1991 Gulf War was a success, though one marred by a fundamental failure to compel our adversary -- the most basic object of strategy.
On the positive side, the war was a clear demonstration of the battlefield prowess of the U.S. armed forces. It is hard for many today to remember, but the run-up to the Gulf War saw many predictions that Iraq would inflict massive casualties on the United States, and even that Iraq would defeat the U.S. military. Many analysts predicted that a war would be protracted and costly to the United States. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski forecast 20,000 casualties, while Patrick Buchanan predicted 30,000. Senator Ted Kennedy estimated that there would be some 3,000 U.S. casualties per week, while former Secretary of the Navy (and current Senator) James Webb warned that the U.S. Army would be "bled dry" in three weeks. On the eve of the Gulf War, a group of analysts operating under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College wrote "We should ask ourselves whether we are prepared for [war with Iraq] -- in our view we are not."
Instead, the lopsided battles in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq and the seemingly effortless domination of the Iraqi air force indicated to many that warfare had indeed changed. The contrast between prewar expectations of a bloody fight and the wartime reality of Iraqi collapse struck many observers as an indicator of fundamental change. In particular, the war witnessed the emergence of stealth and precision-guided munitions (PGMs) as important instruments of war, even though the more than 17,000 PGMs expended during the war comprised only eight percent of the bombs dropped. What was novel was the intensity of the campaign: In six weeks, the coalition dropped more than double the number of laser-guided bombs released over North Vietnam in nine months.
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Although Britain and France have closely aligned interests, they have long found it difficult to cooperate. As Shakespeare once described the relationship: "France and England, whose very shores look pale with envy of each other's happiness." While NATO allies France vetoed Britain's application for the European Economic Community -- not just once but twice. But yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a treaty that will bind their defense establishments tightly together for the coming fifty years.
The treaty commits the countries to cooperation in nuclear stockpile stewardship, development of a 10,000 troop expeditionary force, and sharing of aircraft carriers. The agreement will see Britain's second carrier capable of landing French (as well as American) fighters, and swapping crews. They will jointly purchase transport aircraft and develop UAVs and future attack submarines.
Cameron was at pains to emphasize the agreement's strengths in terms of Britain's ability to fight unilaterally, saying it will "increase not just our joint capacity, but crucially we increase our own individual sovereign capacity." Sarkozy reassured that France would not balk at participating in Britain's wars -- a crucial argument after the Falklands and Iraq wars.
France and Britain have fought mostly on the same side in their wars of the past century, they've been committed to the others defense through NATO since 1949, as well as have Europe's only nuclear arsenals and its most powerful conventional militaries. They also have political cultures in which the use of military force is still generally accepted as a central element of statecraft.
It has long made sense for Britain and France to cooperate more closely on defense issues. The Blair government took a major step forward with the St Malo agreements in the late 1990s; but France remaining outside the NATO integrated military command since 1967 created both practical difficulties and suspicion in the United States about European cooperation.
France has been warming to NATO for nearly a decade, acknowledging advances other militaries were making as the result of close cooperation with U.S. military transformation. France returned to NATO military staffs last year, removing major obstacles to the kind of relationship Britain has been seeking.
Both countries showed unexpected compromise. Britain has accepted in defense the "two speed Europe" it fought so stridently against in EU councils. France was ambitious for an EU defense in ways that have not materialized; the agreement with Britain can be seen as both countries conceding the EU is incapable of providing the basis for closer practical cooperation. The United States should understand it also as a vote of no confidence that NATO can provide that basis (although the Cameron government would surely deny that, given how much rhetoric about NATO the defense review contains).
The Cameron government managed this all very shrewdly, rolling out their national security strategy, then their defense review, then their budget, and only then signing the U.K.-France treaty. Different sequencing would have increased the outcry in Britain that the budget cuts were damaging to Britain's security. Setting the context as they did, the optics are good European politics (a novelty for a Tory government), good transatlantic politics, and innovative ways to keep costs down.
When Great Britain and France were melding their militaries together to fight The Great War (as World War I was called before there was World War II), the Allied Supreme Commander, French Marshal Foch, worriedly asked his British counterpart, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, how many casualties it would take before Britain were fully committed to winning the war. Haig imperiously answered "it would take but the death of a single British soldier," to which Foch irritatedly replied, "then assign him to my staff and I'll shoot him myself the first day of the war." With the new Cameron-Sarkozy agreements, the French may finally have their casualty.
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I worked in the Obama administration as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan through September 2009, covering much of the timeframe of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars. I was one of several holdovers who helped provide continuity from the previous administration. This is the first in a series of posts responding to the book and to the administration's Afghanistan policy. I did not personally witness most of the discussions that Woodward describes, but I typically received detailed readouts from those who did. I also left just prior to the fall 2009 strategy review, and I do maintain relationships with some of the people mentioned herein. With those disclaimers, I think the book is quite accurate in tone and substance.
The most damning insight of the book is not the inter-office gossip -- e.g., who is a "waterbug" or who thinks Holbrooke is "arrogant." That stuff happens in every administration, every professional workplace, and, frankly, every gathering of human beings. More damning is the poor quality of discussion at the principals' level. The president himself said as much himself at one point, according to Woodward, expressing displeasure with the strategy review. The principals' discussion wandered back and forth, re-trod the same ground again and again without fresh insights, failed to resolve basic questions, and ultimately settled on a policy that reflected compromise, large assumptions, and the search for a least-common-denominator consensus.
I want to focus on just one example today. According to Woodward, Vice President Joe Biden and, separately, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg were concerned that Afghanistan was becoming "another Vietnam." Such concerns led them and others to argue against troop increases and in favor of limiting U.S. goals and commitments in the region.
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The presidential candidate campaigned on a variety of
themes: change, a persona that rose above partisan politics, and a
commitment to restore a country exhausted by crises at home and abroad. Even
though the predecessor was not on the ballot, he was so unpopular by the time
of the election that his shadow seemed to dominate the campaign. The
winner won in part because he was seen as his predecessor's antithesis.
In foreign policy, the contrast was sharp. The country was mired in a bloody stalemate, the result, apparently, of initial intelligence errors compounded by gross mismanagement and toxic civil-military discord. Of greater concern, this war seemed a side-show from the larger conflict, which the challenger also claimed had been mismanaged so severely that the United States was now generally thought to be falling further behind, far less secure even than when the conflict began. The winning candidate promised to end the stalemate in the "side-show" quickly, and refocus on the larger conflict, putting the United States back on the offensive and rolling back the gains of the enemy with a bold new strategy that would restore American credibility throughout the world.
Once elected, the new president went about his business methodically. He commissioned a major review and devoted an extraordinary amount of his time and his senior staff's time to considering a range of apparently sharply drawn options. Prominent in the review was the budgetary concern: the United States simply could not afford to continue to spend money on national security at the rate it had been without piling up a crushing debt. However, as the review unfolded, the various clear-cut alternatives got blurred, and in the end the president chose a compromise option even though his staff argued, not unpersuasively, that the president was blending mutually exclusive alternatives in an incoherent strategy. There was also an embarrassing inconvenient truth: while there were enough new features to be able to spin it as a new look, in fact the new strategy resembled more the strategy of the predecessor than anything touted during the campaign.
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The 9/11 anniversary is a traditional time for taking stock of the war on terror, and the conventional wisdom has issued its verdict: the United States "over-reacted." The evidence the pundits offer includes the following: (a) the United States spent a great deal of money; (b) thousands of U.S. soldiers lost their lives; (c) the anti-terror bureaucracy is much larger than it was before; (d) policy favored the national security end of the long-standing continuum running from unfettered civil-liberties to absolute national security; and (e) al Qaeda has not launched another successful 9/11 sized attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden is on the run and has become a marginalized figure.
The conventional wisdom would be more persuasive if the pundits engaged systematically and critically with the hypothesis that (a) plus (b) plus (c) plus (d) contributed to (e). As far as I can tell, they simply ignore that possibility.
However, the conventional wisdom does get one thing right: With a national security challenge of the magnitude posed by the 9/11 attacks, it is likely that U.S. strategists got some things wrong (and some things right... that part seems to have eluded the pundits). Strategy has an unavoidable trial-and-error element to it, and anniversaries are good moments for stock-taking.
I won't pretend to offer a complete list, but here are two I would flag in each column.
Two things we got wrong in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
Two things we got right in the weeks immediately following 9/11:
In sum, the record is mixed, but hardly as negative as the conventional wisdom paints.
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Subtle shifts in the balance of power are difficult to detect yet of foremost importance to peace and stability. And even if detected in a timely fashion, policymakers can be slow to react. But maintaining a balance of power favorable to one's interests is one of a president's key tasks. On that score, our leaders have been negligent for over a decade.
Occasionally, presidents detect shifts in the military balance when it is too late and then compound the problem by responding with questionable policy choices. For example, President Eisenhower's policy of massive retaliation was, in part, a response to what seemed to be a loss of the U.S nuclear monopoly and Soviet conventional supremacy in continental Europe. (Eisenhower also wanted to maintain U.S superiority on the cheap -- by cutting Truman's conventional defense build-up).
A policy of responding with a nuclear attack to Soviet aggression anywhere did not seem very prudent to many at the time, but at least the president took the perceived shift in the balance of power seriously. Some of President Nixon and Carter's questionable arms control ideas were a response to a shift in the strategic balance in favor of the Soviets. Unfortunately, most of the time, policymakers do not react to an adversary's growing capabilities until met with disaster (e.g. Pearl Harbor, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 9/11).
Today the balance of power in Asia is shifting. Since the end of World War II, Washington has kept the peace in Asia through its forward presence of military forces and its uncontested ability to project force into the region. Take an example from just 14 years ago. Realizing how destabilizing were China's missile tests conducted in the waters around Taiwan, President Clinton sent carrier battle groups near the Taiwan Strait. The missile tests stopped, Taiwan held its elections, and conflict was avoided.
Today, any president would think twice about doing the same. Why? China has arguably gained conventional supremacy around its periphery. Without remediation this could become a hard fact. China's growing short-range missile arsenal (maybe up to 1,500) and fleet of modern aircraft could not only be used to destroy much of Taiwan, but could also be used to strike devastating blows against U.S. forces in Japan. Together with its fast-growing submarine fleet, the Chinese missile force will, within the next decade, be able to cause serious harm to U.S. carriers steaming into the region.
Beijing has been focused like a laser beam on how to coerce and intimidate Taiwan while deterring U.S. and Japanese intervention. Washington has not given the same attention to defense. Our shipbuilding program has atrophied, our ability to protect the bases from which our aircraft fly is non-existent, and there is nothing in the current navy or air force programs of record that demonstrate our attentiveness to this problem.
As a country, we have become so accustomed to projecting air and sea power with impunity anywhere in the world that the idea that our aircraft could be shot down or surface ships sunk seems like science fiction. But China has been studying how to undermine the way we do battle for decades, and its efforts are bearing fruit.
A president choosing to respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan would now face a host of bad options, most of which are dangerously escalatory. If U.S. forces or those of an ally were attacked, Washington could eventually bring its superior power to bear from other theaters of conflict, but it would take time, and, as shown both in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment's AirSea Battle and in RAND's A Question of Balance, would probably require hitting military targets in China itself. Considering China's growing conventional superiority, a president's response to a devastating blow by the Chinese against U.S., Japanese, and Taiwanese assets may, by necessity, be highly escalatory.
The good news is that it is not too late to restore some stability to the equation. The United States is a far richer and more stable nation than China. With marginal adjustments in how we spend our finite tax-payer dollars, we can restore a favorable conventional balance in the Pacific that would lessen Chinese temptations to use force and provide us with more strategically stable defensive options should Beijing succumb to those temptations. We seek a cooperative relationship with China, which makes it difficult to think about the unthinkable -- a conflict with China. But a conflict with the United States is just about all the PLA thinks about, and for the sake of peace we must take them seriously.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's participation in the 10th anniversary meeting of the Community of Democracies in Krakow, Poland, serves as a needed reminder of the parlous environment for democratic governance across the globe. Tom Melia of Freedom House says we are in the midst of "a global political recession." Secretary Clinton invoked Winston Churchill and said, "We must be wary of the steel vise in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit."
This is in stark contrast to the heady days when the democratic wave that began in Asia, swept through the captive nations of the former Soviet Union, culminating in the Americas with the 2001 signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter which committed all countries in our hemisphere (save Cuba) to not only democratic governance, but protecting it wherever it was threatened in the region.
But, as we've seen, autocrats are an enterprising lot. They never went away; they either laid in wait or adapted. Especially in our own hemisphere, we have seen how autocrats like Hugo Chavez have used the mechanics of democracy to get elected and then run roughshod over democratic institutions that separate powers or protect the rights of the minority. They pervert the concept of democracy further, claiming that their victories at the ballot box (real or manipulated) somehow entitle them to rule as they see fit, as arbitrary and capricious as that might be.
But if Secretary Clinton wants to employ Churchillian rhetoric, then the Obama administration needs to commit to significant action in support of those words. Her announcement of $2 million to support the work of embattled civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations around the world today is a start, but it is simply not enough.
It is imperative that the administration apply the full measure of its political support to U.S. democracy assistance programs, which range from everything to electoral support and monitoring, to party building, to good governance programs that emphasize transparency and accountability. These programs are not without controversy in certain precincts and are attacked vociferously, mostly by the autocrats themselves, but also by critics who want to equate them with "interfering" in other countries' affairs. Yet most democrats in dire situations abroad are desperate for the support.
Still, the career bureaucracy's default mode is to avoid conflict and that is why the implementing agencies of U.S. democracy assistance programs -- USAID and the State Department's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor -- need to know how important they are to the administration (increased budgets would also be a nice indicator) and that they are expected to get this support to those who need it most and without bureaucratic delay.
Of course there are risks, as last December's arrest of American Alan Gross in Cuba attests, but the stakes are not insignificant. We support democracy abroad because it has proven to be the best system to maximize human prosperity and happiness, but also because it is in the interest of our own security. Freedom and opportunity tends to channel people's energies to productive pursuits, not flying airplanes into skyscrapers.
It is therefore incumbent upon the United States to carry the democratic banner forward in this hostile world. Because if not us, then who?
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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.