The United States and its allies have at least three distinguishable interests with regard to Syria's WMD arsenal, particularly the chemical weapons the Assad regime has apparently used on its own people. Arranged from least to most important, they are:
The signs are now clearly pointing in the direction of some kind of military escalation involving the U.S. military and, probably, some NATO allies. A senior Obama administration official, anonymously but in writing, burned one of President Obama's retreat bridges by confirming to the New York Times there was "very little doubt" within the administration that the Assad regime had blatantly violated Obama's redline. And the conventional wisdom has shifted noticeably, too. Richard Haass, who criticized President Bush for launching a "war of choice" against Iraq's WMD programs, now argues that it is "essential" that the United States choose to launch cruise missile strikes against Syria lest U.S. credibility be lost.
The kinds of military options Obama administration officials floated over the weekend -- limited air or cruise-missile strikes against Syrian military targets -- at best may help with the first of these goals. They are not likely to do much on the second. And they may worsen the third.
A limited strike against Syrian military targets would punish the Assad regime for its defiance of the red line, which might affect Assad's calculations on the margins when contemplating using such weapons again. If there are such strikes, it would send a very clear message to Assad: The international community will not get decisively involved if you keep your battle with the rebels at a conventional level, but if you escalate to chemical weapons in a dramatic way, we will bomb you. Such punitive strikes could "do the trick," in the sense of redirecting Assad back to the conventional level.
It is more debatable whether limited strikes would have much of an effect in bolstering the taboo globally. Other rogue actors would probably see the limited strike as, well, limited and set it against the months of public foot-dragging in response to earlier reports of taboo-breaking. Probably, it reinforces the taboo more than abject non-response does, but not by much.
However, it is hard to see how limited military action would do anything to address the third, and most important, U.S. interest related to Syria's chemical weapons: ensuring that the arsenals do not end up in the hands of terrorists. And it is quite easy to see how they might exacerbate that problem. If the punitive strikes are heavy enough to tilt the balance of power in favor of the rebels, they hasten the day when the crumbling Assad regime loses control over the arsenal. If the punitive strikes are light enough not to hurt the Assad regime, they intensify the incentive of the rebels to gain control of the arsenal so as to inflict more proportional revenge on the regime. Already, the more radical rebel factions have claimed that Assad's use of chemical weapons gives them the right to launch reprisal attacks in kind. Given the makeup of the rebel coalition, the United States probably would prefer that the Assad regime retain control over the arsenal, which is why it is likely any limited strikes would try to punish without crippling Assad.
The leakage problem should not be exaggerated. The portion of the Syrian chemical arsenal that consists of binary weapons -- where the weapon is inert because the chemical agents are stored separately and only combined immediately prior to use -- offers significant protection against unauthorized use. But no U.S. president could trust those technical measures indefinitely, and so a breach in the custody of the Syrian chemical arsenal, particularly one that resulted in the radical Islamist groups gaining custody of the weapons -- whether the AQ-linked rebel groups or the Assad-supporting Hezbollah terrorist group -- would rightly be deemed a grave threat to U.S. national security.
Only the options that the Obama administration has appeared to rule off the table -- massive aerial bombardment of the depots themselves or boots on the ground to secure the depots -- stand much chance of delivering on this third and more important interest.
It would be ironic if the chemical issue catalyzed U.S. intervention in Syria, but at a level that would not address what the United States cares most about concerning the chemical arsenal.
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The elections in Mali this Sunday, July 28, are an important milestone for a country trying to return to democracy after not only a military coup, but also a takeover in its north by Islamist extremists and the influence of al Qaeda. Thanks to quick French action, the Tuareg militants were expelled, and al Qaeda didn't get a foothold. The coup actually created a chaotic situation favorable to the Islamists and al Qaeda, but now there will finally be an opportunity for the north and south to reconcile.
While some are criticizing the French for being too quick to leave, others note that Malians themselves set the date for the elections and their goal was to return to a democratically elected government before the interim government could get too comfortable. In the short (or medium) term, security will become the United Nations' problem; the economy will become the international donors' problem; and governance will become the Malians' problem with, I hope, sufficient help from the United States and others. Pretty much how one would expect given the circumstances, but it is too soon to attempt predictions for Mali's future.
But what of the foreign-policy problem that this crisis was for the United States? What can we learn from hindsight?
Move quickly -- that is what we can learn. In a world that still needs the West to seek out and defeat terrorists, we can look back and say, "Thank God for the French." That's not a phrase regularly used in Washington foreign-policy circles, to be sure, but one quite apt here. Because of Paris's quick intervention, radical Islamists were thwarted. From what were they thwarted? An attempt to turn the north of Mali into another al Qaedastan, complete with radical Islamists controlling all of society and thus the future. Sources both on the ground and among the intelligentsia tell us that speedy action to prevent al Qaeda's money, ideas, and oppressive ways from taking root has kept us from having to face a generation raised on radicalism and unquenchable hate for the West that expresses itself in terrorism.
Mali has a chance not to turn out like Afghanistan did when the Taliban ruled over an al Qaeda protectorate in the 1990s (let's not repeat that mistake, please), or like parts of several other northern African states where al Qaeda and other terrorist groups found safe haven, or like what might be happening right now in parts of Syria. But the second chance is in large part because the French moved so fast and now because the United States and others are trying to support civil society and the fundamentals of democratic life in Mali.
Washington tends to see the problem in Mali as a radical extremism problem and the response as counterinsurgency. The reality is that extremism takes time to settle in. Al Qaeda wasn't in charge long enough to really make extremism stick. Had al Qaeda remained in charge in the north much longer, it would have established a narrative among young, disenfranchised people to radicalize them. The task, therefore, is straightforward: We must empower Muslims to work with other Muslims on the basis of natural rights, which have a venerable tradition in Islam, albeit small and not terribly influential. But no matter, it is the only answer because the problem is not just poverty or lack of access to capital and education. Those are symptoms of a deeper problem: a culture and the institutions it spawns that keep men and women in political, social, and economic chains. As in most of the developing world, this is not easy, and it takes at least a generation to see lasting progress. The "easy" cases of Eastern Europe and Latin America, comparatively speaking, are not likely to be repeated.
If we get this right, we might not only succeed in helping Mali stay whole and get back on the path to democracy from which it has strayed, but we might also prevent further erosion in the entire Sahel, preventing slides in Mauritania and northern Nigeria.
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President Barack Obama has made an important point: The U.S. war against al Qaeda, "like all wars, must end." I have written previously about my concern that the United States' global counterterrorism campaign had become a never-ending war. But the president's speech last week did not tell us how and when this war can end, so it is best seen as a milestone, not an endpoint.
While unending war is clearly bad for a republic and dangerous to U.S. security, the trickier task is defining the conditions that, when met, tell us that the war against al Qaeda is over. The United States does not have the privilege of deciding unilaterally when it ends: The enemy gets a vote too. And some of the U.S. policy choices in the Middle East and South Asia could make ending it harder.
Consider Iraq, which is increasingly split by sectarian strife, under attack from a resurgent al Qaeda in Iraq, and struggling with a difficult transition following the U.S. withdrawal. Or Afghanistan, where the Taliban understand that they can wait the United States out because of the administration's public announcement of its intention to withdraw U.S. troops in 2014. Or Libya, which has been fraught with unrest and radicalization after Muammar al-Qaddafi's ouster. In all three cases, the United States seems to have simply decided at a certain point that it had invested enough blood and treasure in the conflict.
Yet the president's speech offered some of the most forceful and persuasive discussions of this war's nature that he has given during his tenure. Obama administration officials often speak of "violent extremism" rather than Islamist radicalism. But Obama was blunt and accurate in his speech: "Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology -- a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause."
Still, there seemed to be a mismatch between the president's rhetoric and his policies. He said America "must finish the work of defeating al Qaeda and its associated forces" and then, two sentences later, added that "our troops will come home" from Afghanistan. There appear to be similar disconnects between other elements of the administration's Afghanistan strategy over the last three years -- a publicized withdrawal deadline detached from realities on the ground, inconsistent attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and carte blanche to Pakistan even as it supports the Taliban -- and the president's articulated goal of completing the defeat of al Qaeda and its Afghan allies.
The same mismatch may arise when it comes to soft power. "Force alone cannot make us safe," the president said. "We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root." If so, this administration should seek to invest more in soft-power tools. The State Department's new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations remains underfunded, for example, and the Civilian Response Corps has not yet lived up to its initial promise.
The president made a particular point of defending foreign aid, which he called "fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism," yet U.S. worldwide economic assistance fell almost $7 billion from 2010 to 2011, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development's "green book" of overseas loans and grants. The relative lack of governance and reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan has long been the weak pillar of U.S. strategy there. Obama also called for "patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya," but the United States has done too little to help post-conflict Libya after helping overthrow the Qaddafi regime.
A final point of the speech that bears scrutiny is the implication that invading countries is never a viable option: "Invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies, unleash a torrent of unintended consequences, are difficult to contain, and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict." The result of putting more boots on the ground, Obama continued, "would be more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars."
Not all interventions end in the downing of a Black Hawk or a shootout in a Third World slum. I call this the "Somalia fallacy," the unjustified belief that the botched 1992-1993 intervention in Somalia is a blueprint that accurately predicts how all interventions in failed states will play out. In fact, almost none do. There now seems to be a similar Iraq fallacy -- the belief that interventions will necessarily be badly mismanaged and provoke an insurgency, when, again, very few actually do.
That aside, the president appears to be refuting an argument that no one makes: No one is saying that invasion to topple a regime is the only option for dealing with terrorist safe havens. Invasion may be necessary in some circumstances -- as it was in Afghanistan -- but not in others. War is never preferable, but it may sometimes be necessary and, sadly, the most effective option.
Obama's statements jibe with a popular, if misguided, strain of security studies: that the fundamental nature of war has changed because of technology and globalization, which might explain his preference for drones. Yet strategically, war is and always has been lethal statecraft -- nothing more and nothing less. Tactically, it is and always has been the attempt to make men kill each other in an organized fashion. In the face of such harsh truths, it is premature to declare the end of a war that terrorists may choose to continue to wage against the United States for a long time yet.
Paul Miller is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp. He is a former CIA analyst and served from 2007 to 2009 as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the White House's National Security Staff.
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The president's speech at the National Defense University was most unsatisfying for anyone hoping that at long last Obama would articulate what his purpose is in being commander-in-chief while terrorists continue their efforts to kill and maim Americans and our allies.
Both Peter Feaver (here) and Tom Mahnken (here) have offered incisive comments and I don't intend to belabor their excellent points other than to note that I think this speech is a defining moment in a way for which the administration was not hoping. Rather than turn a page and finally say what he believes and what he will pursue about the greatest challenge we face today, the president muddied the waters so much that clarity in his final term now seems impossible. The speech -- long-planned and expected by supporters and critics alike -- demonstrates that the administration's policy is incoherent because it sends two different messages.
On the one hand, after largely keeping in place the Bush policies designed to prosecute a global war on terror, Obama now says we cannot pursue terrorists everywhere in an unlimited fashion -- implying that that is what George W. Bush did -- and so he is also implying that the global war on terror is over because it was never a realistic approach. But on the other hand, he acknowledges that terrorists are still hatching their plots and working their will all over the world, and so we must combat them and he will do so. He can't have it both ways. If terrorists still operate, and they do, and he said so (even if he suggests inaccurately that al Qaeda is on the wane), and if they still operate all over the world and here at home, and they do, and he said so, then we are in a global war on terror. He should say so. To say otherwise is absurd.
Adding to the confusion is the president's announcement at NDU of policy changes he will seek: reducing the incidence of drone strikes and closing Guantanamo. It is hard to believe that suddenly the drone strikes are no longer useful when they have essentially been this administration's signature policy in fighting terror. And it is hard to believe that trying to close a secure prison that allows for interrogations when you still have no detailed plan that can pass muster with Congress is a serious policy. But maybe these new policies are motivated more by a desire to improve on his and the U.S. popularity ratings around the world that are currently lower than in the Bush era.
I do not say the administration is incompetent; I have worked with a number of them over the years in government, and so have we all at Shadow Government. But being smart and well-credentialed does not necessarily mean one will produce rational and coherent foreign policy. To do that, the head policymaker must eschew politics and have clear and precise goals; he must have a well-thought-out vision and mission of what is to be achieved. And he must formulate and articulate a strategy that puts money and other resources into the effort. The president has never done these things seriously and much less as a package. He's only made it worse with a speech that sends a confused message: The global war on terror is over but we will keep fighting terrorists who are active all over the globe.
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Now, I'm no Medea Benjamin, but I had several strong reactions to President Obama's speech at the National Defense University Thursday.
First, as expected, Obama used the platform to criticize the Bush administration. Quite frankly, however, I've gotten so used to that trope that I almost don't pay attention to it anymore. But in criticizing America's conduct of its conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliates, the president was also critiquing his own performance over the last four plus years. Listening to Obama's speech, one cannot help but ask, "What were you doing over the past four years? Wasn't it you who greatly expanded the scope and intensity of drone strikes during your first term?" Obama has hardly been a passive bystander as this drama has unfolded. The drone strike program was inaugurated by the Bush administration, but it has reached its zenith under Obama.
Which leads to my second observation: Obama's speech was almost entirely about tactics. Indeed, Obama has presided over what my late friend and colleague Michael Handel termed the "tacticization of strategy." Obama and his team have used a tactic -- strikes on terrorists launched from unmanned air vehicles -- as a substitute for the development and implementation of a comprehensive strategy. The same is true of the administration's attitude toward interrogation and detention.
Third, in seeking to define the conflict more tightly, he actually muddied the waters. Obama's call for limiting the use of force to al Qaeda and its affiliates is sensible. Indeed, I don't know of anyone from the previous administration who would argue with that notion. The difficulty has always involved determining the criteria for affiliation with al Qaeda. Is it individuals or groups who have sworn an oath of fealty of al Qaeda central? Is it groups that share al Qaeda's vision of violent jihad? Is it individuals who are inspired by al Qaeda's preaching?
Obama appears to have difficulty with this himself. Consider the following paragraph from his speech:
And finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States. Whether it's a shooter at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a plane flying into a building in Texas, or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, America has confronted many forms of violent extremism in our history. Deranged or alienated individuals -- often U.S. citizens or legal residents -- can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. And that pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
So Timothy McVeigh was a "violent extremist", whereas violent extremism "appears to have led to" Major Nidal Hassan's murderous rampage? The use of the passive voice in the latter case is telling.
We can -- and should -- debate how strong and how centralized al Qaeda is. Such a debate is crucial to understanding the nature of our adversary and the kind of war upon which we are embarked and thus to developing an effective strategy. Furthermore, scholars would be aided in this debate if they had access to more of the documents seized from Osama bin Laden's house in Pakistan. Only seventeen have so far been released, and the president quoted from another yesterday. Would the thousands of documents that remain classified corroborate the president's view of how we are doing? One wonders.
Fourth, and most importantly, just as President Bush was criticized for declaring a premature end to the 2003 Iraq War, Obama may very well be criticized for declaring an end to the war on terror.
It takes two to end a war. Indeed, it is the defeated party that determines when a war is over, because he holds the power to continue it. In the present instance, it is less than clear that al Qaeda's leadership believes that it is defeated. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are if anything gaining new footholds in North Africa, West Africa, and Syria.
Obama's NDU speech may thus prove to be his own "mission accomplished" moment. I hope that I am wrong but fear that I am right.
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This Saturday, Iraqis head to the polls to vote for provincial councils -- the country's first elections since U.S. troops withdrew sixteen months ago. The balloting comes at a time of growing peril for Iraq. Violence is escalating, as are tensions pitting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities -- all exacerbated by the raging civil war in neighboring Syria. While posing a stern test to the viability of Iraq's democratic system, the elections will also serve as an important indicator of the relative strength of Iraq's competing coalitions -- especially Maliki's -- in advance of national elections scheduled for 2014.
At stake are nearly 450 seats on local governing bodies. More than 8100 candidates from some 265 political entities are competing. The elections cover 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government will vote later this year, while elections in oil-rich and ethnically disputed Kirkuk have (by tacit agreement among the competing communities) not been held since 2005.
But in a highly controversial move, Maliki's cabinet decreed in March that balloting would be delayed by up to six months in Iraq's two most influential Sunni-majority provinces, Anbar and Nineveh -- both of which border Syria and have for months been the locus of large-scale (but mostly peaceful) anti-Maliki protests. Maliki claimed -- not entirely without justification, especially in Anbar -- that he was simply responding to the petition of local leaders worried that voters could not be adequately protected from growing collaboration between al Qaeda affiliates on either sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
His opponents charge that the prime minister's real agenda is avoiding a massive anti-Maliki turnout that would further escalate opposition to his government. They correctly note that previous elections were conducted under far more threatening conditions. Both the U.S. and U.N. urged Maliki to reverse course, worried about the appearance of disenfranchising millions of Sunnis already agitated by claims that Maliki has been systematically moving to marginalize their community in the interests of establishing an Iranian-backed Shiite dictatorship. Maliki turned aside these criticisms, while suggesting the delayed elections might occur as early as May.
The reality is that violence threatens voting throughout Iraq. A series of more than 20 terror attacks on Monday hit targets across the country, including prospective polling places, killing Sunnis and Shiites alike. These were but the latest in a string of al Qaeda-linked assaults that have occurred at increasingly regular intervals. The campaign has also been marred by at least 15 candidate assassinations, all of them Sunnis and many believed to have been killed not by Al Qaeda but by political rivals within their own community.
Whether Iraqi security forces can successfully protect the elections without the support previously provided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops is a major question mark. The fact that close to 700,000 army and police officers went to the polls in early voting last Saturday without incident was encouraging. Also of concern, however, is the possibility that the mere threat of violence could significantly depress turnout, stoking doubts about the legitimacy and future of Iraq's shaky democracy. An especially important indicator could be the participation of Sunnis -- a potential barometer of that disgruntled community's continued commitment to the post-2003 political order or, alternatively, a troubling sign that, perhaps inspired by co-religionists in neighboring Syria, they are looking to more confrontational methods to redress their grievances.
Beyond violence, ensuring the integrity of the electoral process has to be a real worry. There is no doubt that America's heavy involvement during past elections helped deter fraud to a minimum. Absence that involvement, the risk of widespread wrongdoing -- or simply the perception of wrongdoing -- increases dramatically, even with the presence of a few hundred international observers and several thousand domestic monitors. The danger that significant swaths of the public may simply reject the legitimacy of the results cannot be discounted.
Assuming a relatively free and fair vote, the outcome of Saturday's elections is hard to predict. No reliable polling is publicly available. Maliki has confidently claimed that his coalition will win big. In recent weeks, he has shrewdly sought to divide his Sunni opposition (including through a surprising set of proposals to ease de-Baathifcation laws), successfully co-opting stalwart nationalists like Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq. The Iraqiya bloc of his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi (a secular Shiite), has splintered, with the current speaker of parliament, Osama Nujaifi, and the former finance minister, Rafi Issawi, forming their own Sunni-based coalition.
Nevertheless, surprises remain possible. In local elections, a voter's familiarity with a hometown candidate can often trump allegiance to a national party. In provincial balloting four years ago, Iraqis voted to punish incumbents -- an inclination that if repeated on Saturday could well work against Maliki and to the benefit of his major Shiite rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council and Sadrist camp -- both of which are fielding their own candidates. For all his troubles, Allawi's bloc is the only one competing in all Iraq's provinces, both Sunni and Shiite, a nationalist vocation that could well accrue to his benefit. And even if Maliki's State of Law emerges as the top vote getter, post-election coalitions among his opponents could emerge that deny him the degree of local domination that he seeks.
Should Maliki nevertheless secure an overwhelming victory, it will likely fuel fears that his most worrisome authoritarian tendencies will be emboldened: more consolidation of control over key state institutions, particularly the means of coercion and the courts; more targeting and exclusion of political opponents; an intensified effort to resolve disputes with Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni minorities through confrontation; and increased dependence on Iran. Maliki's chances of winning next year's national elections, another four years in office, and increasingly unconstrained powers would increase significantly. Should such fears be realized, the results for Iraqi stability and unity could be dire indeed -- especially in a regional context of dramatically heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions, perhaps leading to all-out state collapse in next-door Syria.
From that standpoint, Iraq's future may be best served if Saturday's elections see not only minimal violence, maximum participation, and limited irregularities, but also no clear winners and losers -- a triumph not only of the democratic process, but a therapeutic re-balancing of Iraq's political landscape that reminds all parties of the continued imperative of negotiation, compromise, and political partnership.
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One of the many caricatures that has arisen in the years since 9/11 is the charge that President Bush's primary exhortation to the American people in the aftermath of the tragedy was simply to "go shopping." I have heard this charge countless times, usually offered as a laugh line, in the manner of a snarky late-night comedian's monologue about "how dumb can someone be to think that shopping is a response to terrorism?"
In some of his early remarks after 9/11, President Bush did urge not to be afraid to "go shopping for their families," as part of a general appeal not to be intimidated from an ordinary daily routine. And he even encouraged Americans to "go to Disneyworld," as part of broader appeal to renew confidence in the safety of air travel.
Of course, he also made it clear that the struggle against terrorists would involve many other sacrifices and, over the years, much more was asked of the American people. But President Bush also made it clear that the terrorists would like to intimidate us out of normal living and that if we give into that fear we can compound the damage inflicted by the terrorists. So part of a comprehensive response that mobilized all elements of national power -- military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, economic, and psychological -- would involve ordinary Americans refusing to surrender to fear of terrorists.
I am reminded of this when I hear President Obama praise the way Bostonians have refused to be cowed or when I see Thomas Friedman suggest that a rational response to the Boston terror attack is to "schedule another Boston Marathon as soon as possible." Friedman is not alone in responding this way, and some even argue that embracing resilience in the face of terror is as important as trying to prevent or avenge the terror.
I think resilience -- including the psychological resilience with which a society refuses to give into terrorist intimidation -- is indeed an important response. For most Americans it may be their most tangible and practical way to connect their own daily lives to the broader societal challenge.
I do wonder, however, whether the current reasonable response will get caricatured as did Bush's reasonable response.
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In the aftermath of yesterday's terrorist bombing in Boston, I've been surprised to hear many commentators warn against "speculating" who may be responsible. That's nonsense. Of course we should speculate: That's the first step in formulating a hypothesis to guide an investigation that will lead to facts. The facts may disprove our speculation, but we simply can't skip the first step. So here are some initial hypotheses, in descending order of plausibility. Most of these will later be proven wrong.
1. Al Qaeda, or a copycat jihadist group, did it.
2. North Korea did it.
3. Several groups cooperated in the attack.
4. Domestic right-wing terrorists did it.
5. Domestic left-wing terrorists did it.
6. Anarchist/lone nut.
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As of now, what is publicly known about the Boston Marathon terror attack could fit a wide range of scenarios: an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack, an Al Qaeda-inspired attack, a domestic anti-government terrorist, a lone-wolf "crazy," and many other variations. As is typical in these situations, early reports are full of doubtful information, some of which are contradicted and then later confirmed, others of which are confirmed and later contradicted.
The first responders and local law enforcement officials have responded quickly and, so far as can be determined by those of us on the outside, effectively. A decade's worth of investments in the global war on terror have greatly improved the capacity of our institutions to respond to these kinds of crises and the taxpayers can take some comfort as that capacity was on display last night.
The Obama White House has also responded quickly and, so far, reasonably, notwithstanding some struggles on messaging. As was the case in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi raid, there were some mixed signals coming out of the White House. The President's formal remarks pointedly avoided calling the bomb blasts an "act of terror," but around the same time the president was speaking a SAO (an unnamed Senior Administration Official) from the White House did use precisely that label with reporters. But the president did compensate with unambiguous language about holding the perpetrators accountable.
The president may have been skittish about calling it an act of terror in part because of uncertainties about who was responsible and perhaps also because of the unfortunate timing of the attack, which coincided with a rise in speculation, some of it fueled by still more SAO's, about a belief that AQ has been strategically defeated. Ironically, I learned about the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks while I was reading a spirited debate among academic security specialists over the putative "end of AQ."
Of course, if the Boston Marathon attack does turn out to be the work of domestic anti-government terrorists, then the coincidence with the debate about AQ will seem prophetic. If, on the other hand, yesterday's attack gets traced back to an AQ-inspired or AQ-linked source, then the debate takes on a somewhat different cast.
Regardless of source, the attack fit the profile of a certain kind of threat that those of us in the business have worried about for over a decade. From the beginning of the global war on terror, it was recognized that some attacks held the potential for greater political impact than others.
In the coming days and weeks, we may play out this third scenario and, in so doing, learn a lot more about the threats we face and about the strength of our society.
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Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
Since I posted about the myths promulgated by critics of the Iraq war, it is only fair that I follow-up and demonstrate that I do know that (a) war supporters did not have a monopoly on truth either and (b) there are plenty of worthy debates about Iraq that could inform current policy challenges.
My "top five" mistakes that the Bush administration made in the handling of the war (setting aside the obvious ones related to the intelligence failures of overestimating the extent to which Saddam had reconstituted his WMD programs):
1. Prewar: Not having a formal NSC-level meeting where the pros and cons of war were debated before the President after which a clear NSC vote and presidential decision was made. There was, of course, a policy process reviewing options in Iraq and that process identified many problems, some of which were avoided and some of which never arose. Still other problems that did arise were raised as possibilities but not given the attention they deserved. The entire process, however, was kept compartmentalized and somewhat truncated to avoid leaks and thus interfere with the diplomatic track. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I think had there been a more formal process with more extensive consideration of the pros and cons and what-ifs the Bush administration still might have roughly followed the path they took, but I believe some of the later struggles might have been less of a surprise, allowing the administration to adjust more quickly.
2. Prewar: Not thoroughly debating what we would do if the Iraqi state security apparatus collapsed, thus invalidating the war-plan's assumptions that we could count on around 150 thousand Iraqi troops to handle stability operations and that we could just hand over Iraq to a hastily assembled Iraqi governing structure. General Franks' war plan expected many Iraqi forces to surrender en masse as happened in Desert Storm and called for the coalition to use those Iraqi units for basic security and law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of Hussein's toppling. However, rather than maintaining intact, the Iraqi units collapsed, leaving a huge manpower hole for the post-invasion phase of the plan. In other words, the problem with the war plan was not that there were inadequate troops for security and stabilization under Plan A. The problem was that inadequate attention had been given to considering Plan B, should Plan A turn out to be unrealistic, as happened.
3. Post-invasion: Not continuing to pay the Iraqi army even though it dissolved and deciding instead to start totally fresh. That decision was reversed a few weeks later, but by that time the damage was done and the seeds of the insurgency were sown. I think it would have been better to continue to pay the old Iraqi army from the outset while trying to rebuild the army.
4. Post-invasion: Allowing General Franks to walk away and hand over the Iraq mission to General Sanchez. General Franks deserves credit for crafting a remarkably successful invasion plan -- one that defied the critics, many of whom argued that the invasion would be far more difficult and bloody than it was. But he should have been obliged to stay until Iraq was on a more secure trajectory. Transitioning to a new command at such a delicate time would have been difficult even if Franks' successor had been supremely capable. By most accounts, General Sanchez was not capable of handling the mission, and so the transition was doubly disruptive.
And since all of those mistakes took place before I officially joined the Bush Administration NSC in 2005, I should add one that took place on my watch:
5. Post-2005: Failure to engage critics on false claims about the war -- the reluctance to "relitigate the past" -- which allowed the myths to get entrenched. The Bush team acted as if the successful 2004 election settled all historical debates about Iraq and largely ignored the relentless partisan critique that continued without interruption. But the partisan attacks took their toll, and by 2007 or even 2006, President Bush's bully pulpit was all but exhausted.
Of course, I could easily come up with five or ten more errors (just as I could easily come up with five or ten more popular-but-flawed critiques of the Iraq war). And I am not saying that if all of these mistakes had been corrected that the Iraq mission would have gone swimmingly.
I do think, however, that it might have gone better and I am confident that absent those (and other errors) the country would be in a better place to debate the really important issues that remain rather than get stuck on secondary ones.
Which brings me to my second list of five: five debates that still matter. In the vigorous debate over Iraq before the invasion (and another one of the myths is that there was no such public debate), there were many legitimate arguments raised. The arduous course of the war has raised still other valid concerns. Many of these are quite relevant to the new challenges we face. Here are ones I find particularly compelling:
1. How should presidents decide under conditions of intelligence uncertainty? This was the nub of the pre-war policy debate. To my knowledge, there was no major voice in the U.S. policymaking process that correctly guessed the truth about Iraq's WMD program: that Saddam was bluffing that he had kept his WMD stockpile (and may have believed that he was better positioned to restart his programs than he really was because some of his subordinates may have been deceiving him) so as to deter the Iranians. But he was also hoping to persuade enough of the international community that he had fulfilled the UNSC resolution requirements so that the international community would lift the sanctions/inspections, at which point he would quickly reconstitute the forbidden programs. No one posited that as the situation we faced. There were, however, many who argued that we did not know for sure just how extensive Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were and so we should not act until we had greater certainty. The counterargument was that we would never gain such certainty until it was too late. Both sides in that debate had a reasonable case to make and both are directly relevant to the current conundrum with Iran. What should we do about Iran when there are irreducible uncertainties about Iran's progress and intentions toward a nuclear weapon?
2. Could we have lived with an Iraqi WMD capability by simply containing him as we contained the Soviet Union or are currently trying to contain North Korea? Even more war opponents were willing to stipulate that Hussein had a formidable WMD arsenal but argued that this did not require war because we could use classical deterrence and containment tools to manage the threat. The counterarguments were that Hussein was less deterrable than the Soviet Union and that the secondary security concerns raised by a growing Iraqi arsenal would destabilize the region -- and leave us vulnerable to a terrorist WMD threat, which would not be so deterrable. This is precisely the issue in dispute today regarding Iran, with many of the old Iraq critics making the same arguments. Interestingly, President Bush's role in making the case that containment is not an acceptable option is now being fulfilled by President Obama. There is an eerie echo between Obama's Iran rhetoric and Bush's Iraq rhetoric.
3. Is chaos caused by action harder to manage than chaos caused by inaction? One important aspect of the neoconservative argument regarding Iraq was the claim that it would be easier to influence events in Iraq if we took decisive action than if we delayed while threats gathered. It turned out that Iraq was far more difficult to manage than war-supporters believed it would be. However, we now are conducting something of a test-case of the opposite side of the proposition. The Obama Administration has studiously avoided decisive action on Syria and the result is a downward security trajectory in Syria that looks very much like the problems that arose in Iraq. There is a bloody sectarian civil war, radical AQ-sympathizers are growing in power, Iran has increased its influence, the stability of the region is threatened, and the United States has lost much credibility in the eyes of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention inspiring resentment among the Syrian people. The United States may not bear as much moral responsibility in Syria since it did not invade and topple Assad, but will it avoid political responsibility for managing the consequences if Syria explodes/implodes, as seems likely? And if we face that worst-case scenario, will the chaos produced by post-collapse Syria be any easier to manage than the chaos produced by post-invasion Iraq?
4. Can we do regime change and walk away? The original Bush administration plan for managing Iraq was to topple Hussein, rapidly create some new governing authority (made up principally of exiles), and then hand over the security apparatus of the Iraqi state to them to let them build the new Iraq. This plan collapsed when the Iraqi security apparatus collapsed. But President Obama has tried something similar with the lead-from-behind approach in Libya. Despite the knock-on effects in Mali and Benghazi, which have taken the bloom off the rose of lead-from-behind, it is probable that the Obama administration still feels like they made the right bet. Would such a plan work in Syria? What about North Korea? Or Iran?
5. Do we encourage the behavior we desire from recalcitrant partners by assuring them of our continued support or by assuring them that we are leaving them? Despite campaigning on a slash-and-burn critique of Bush's Iraq policy, President Obama ended up mostly following the strategy on Iraq that he inherited but for two key differences: (i) the Obama team mishandled negotiations with Prime Minister Maliki over a new Status of Forces Agreement; and (ii) where Bush tried to cajole better behavior by reassuring the Iraqis that they could count on long-term U.S. support, Obama tried to cajole better behavior by threatening Iraqis with U.S. withdrawal/abandonment. Obama's approach in Iraq failed, and as a result today many of the gains of the surge have eroded. It may be too late to win those gains back in Iraq, and, in any case, the focus of the policy debate has shifted to Afghanistan. Here the Obama administration seems on track to following the same script. Will it work better in Afghanistan than it worked in Iraq?
The bottom line of this post is the same as the bottom line of my earlier one: There are reasonable critiques and reasonable debates to have on Iraq and as a country we would be better served to focus on them rather than on the caricatures that dominate the conventional wisdom.
LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images
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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We have a problem in Mali: an al Qaeda franchise has taken over most of the country. President Obama only two days ago recommitted the United States to "combat[ing] the scourge of terrorism in the region." An American ally has been working tirelessly to bring the United Nations forward, provide a political solution, organize countries in the region to provide troops, and take the lead in operations. It would seem a perfect illustration of the Obama Doctrine: U.N. mandate, regional buy-in, leadership by an American ally, the United States one contributor among many.
And oh, by the way, the military coup that overthrew a democratic government in Mali, setting off the instability that enabled al Qaeda to prey on the country? That coup was the work of military officers and units trained by the United States. The fighters mowing across the country in conjunction with al Qaeda are veterans of the war in Libya, armed with weapons looted there. They are part of the widespread insecurity that Libya's transition has spawned and U.S. policy has done nothing to attenuate. So we bear some culpability for the terror engulfing Mali. And it is in our security interest -- and in the interest of the administration's vision for the new international order -- to stamp it out.
And yet our ambassador to the United Nations publicly described the French plan as "crap," and delayed U.N. action for weeks. When France commenced military operations to prevent the al Qaeda franchise from overrunning Mali's capital, the Obama administration demanded payment for any military support provided. Ten days into the operation. U.S. officials haven't even decided whether to make requested air-to-air refueling sorties available for French planes. "This is a deliberate effort to consult with the French to assess how best we can support them in the context of support provided by other countries," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
That's not leading, even from behind. That's undercutting your allies.
It's also incredibly damaging to the United States, even on the terms the Obama administration itself espouses. The White House wants our country to step back from unilateral actions, to have a share but not the lion's share of the work. That requires others to be both willing and able to step forward.
Our European allies have twice in the past couple of years shown themselves willing to lead military operations when we would not. In neither Libya nor Mali has the Obama administration denied that we have an interest in achieving the objectives for which our allies fought, and are fighting. So we agree it needs doing, we just don't want to do it.
Europe has several of the world's most capable militaries; not just Britain and France, but also Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and others have all acquitted themselves admirably. But even those militaries lack outright or run short of some of the things that Americans take for granted in our operations: persistent surveillance of battlefields, reliable communications, rapid identification and targeting, the ability to strike promptly, transportation to deploy troops and equipment, precision-guided munitions to minimize unintended casualties, air-to-air refueling to enable strikes from great distances and repeated passes at targets.
That Europeans don't have these "enablers" in sufficient supply is their own fault. They chose to spend their money differently, predictably reducing military prowess and increasing the risk of failure. They mostly ignored decades of American pleading and NATO initiatives to boost defense spending, from the percentage rules of the Carter administration to the current incarnation of "smart defense." And they often spoke of their cultural superiority in spending money on social programs rather than militarism, even while they depended on our militarism. There is in some quarters a smug satisfaction about the Europeans finally realizing what we've been trying to tell them for so long.
But indulging that schadenfreude is unworthy of us. We want a world in which countries that share our values act to protect and promote those values; otherwise, the hard work all accrues to us. We want allies that see the right and take responsibility for acting to advance it.
Why not expect the Europeans to pay for what they need, especially when the United States borrows 30 cents of every dollar that our own government spends? The Obama administration isn't wrong to try and shift the burden-sharing toward Europeans. But there is a time for negotiating the terms of support to allies. That time is not when they are undertaking a military operation with goals that we support -- nor even when they are undertaking a military operation we don't think is a good idea.
Denying support in extremis leaves scars -- as Americans well know (Turkey denying us search-and-rescue operations from their territory during the Iraq war, France denying us their airspace during the El Dorado Canyon attacks on Libya, Belgium threatening to close its ports to us in 2003). Our own experience as an ally often in need of support even when governments oppose our policies ought to make us more, not less, willing to help when it counts most.
The French defense establishment had the grace to be embarrassed by their government's choices in 2003. The Obama Pentagon has not expressed similar embarrassment, either with regard to Mali or generally. It is from the Pentagon that the demand for reimbursement emanated. Nor is the fault confined to political civilians. Gen. Martin Dempsey has said the United States did not want to be complicit in any Israeli strike on Iran. If I were in Tehran, I would interpret that to mean we would deny Israel assistance. Denying France assistance now will reinforce the perception -- both among allies and enemies -- that U.S. allies are on their own.
The Obama Doctrine depends critically on others stepping forward and undertaking the work we are stepping back from. There will be fewer allies willing to do that if we continue to be stingy with our help and generous with our criticism
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
I was in Arizona on 9/11. I was in the Army at the time, doing a summer of training at Fort Huachuca. Someone told us as we milled about after morning class that there was some kind of attack in New York. By the time we got to lunch there were wild rumors about how many bombs had gone off and how many planes were in the air. They cancelled afternoon class and we watched news the rest of the day, forty or fifty soldiers crowded into a small common room. We turned the TV on just in time to see the second tower collapse on live TV. I will never forget the gasps, the anger, and the profanities that filled the room as we watched.
I have no idea if you will like Zero Dark Thirty (2012). The film is too close to home for me to watch like a regular movie. I served in Afghanistan with the Army in 2002. I served in the CIA as an analyst in the Office of South Asian Analysis from 2003 to 2007. I worked in the White House as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. My entire career has been defined by 9/11 and the aftermath. I have such a deep personal stake in it that when I heard someone was making this movie, I felt, at first, violated.
Watching the movie was all the more personal and unsettling because of one particular violent scene. I am not normally squeamish about movie violence -- I love the Alien franchise -- but it took a few years after serving in Afghanistan before I could watch war movies again. It seemed weird and disrespectful to watch real-life horror as entertainment. That sense was magnified infinitely during one scene in Zero Dark Thirty in which a fictional suicide bomber pretends to blow himself up, we see a special-effects explosion, and we see a half-dozen actors pretend to die.
The scene is based on a true incident -- an attack on a CIA forward operating base in Khowst in December 2009. The incident was so devastating to the CIA that the President released a statement and CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote an oped in The Washington Post.
A friend of mine was there. I attended his funeral and met his widow.
Watching this movie made me both sad and angry. Not angry at Kathryn Bigelow or Columbia Pictures. I would have been if she had made a cheap and splashy film that exploited 9/11, my friend's death, and the bin Laden raid as blockbuster fare. This movie, if made by Michael Bay, would have been disgusting.
But Bigelow has made a sensitive and respectful film, one that honors the people who lived its story. I told my wife after seeing Bigelow's previous, Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (2009), that it was the most faithful depiction of soldiers' lives in a modern combat zone I'd ever seen. I felt honored that someone took the time to tell our story, the story of a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell it right.
Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty tells the stories of the countless soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, CIA officers, intelligence professionals, and special forces who have spent a decade hunting not just bin Laden, but all of al Qaeda and its murderous allies around the world. It is the most accurate depiction of intelligence work I've ever seen in a movie -- the painstaking detective work, the frustration, the dead-ends, the bureaucracy, the uncertainty, and the sudden life-or-death stakes. There isn't the slightest hint of James Bond or Jason Bourne here: even the SEAL Team Six raid is done slowly, methodically, with more professionalism than flare. If this were pure fiction, no one would see it because it would be too dull. Bigelow resists the urge to sensationalize, and in so doing she elevates the material and demands that we pay attention to, and think carefully about, what we are watching.
Good art tells stories, provides catharsis, shows how individual lives make up a broader story, teaches and educates, holds up a mirror for us and let us decide if we like what we see or not. That requires, of course, that we approach art with a sense of responsibility. We only hear what it is saying if we are listening for it and are willing to think carefully about it. Art demands an active viewer, listener, or reader; and it demands a response. Otherwise it is just images and sound --"sound and fury"-- that we pass before our senses to pass the time. Watching Zero Dark Thirty that way would be disrespectful, and wrong.
The right response to this film is not anger at the filmmakers. It is, first, anger about 9/11, the wars, the death, and, for me, the casual ignorance among the vast majority of the population about the sacrifices borne by a tiny handful of heroes. I was angry most of all at al Qaeda, at Osama bin Laden and his hateful jihad, at Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi for murdering my friend. But the anger is muted by a pervading sadness: Zero Dark Thirty is a profoundly melancholy, grim film.
Another response is to think carefully about the nature of war. Some critics claim Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture for showing American personnel getting valuable information from detainees after waterboarding them and treating them roughly. Another, more experienced ex-CIA officer has criticized the movie for its inaccurate portrayal of the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Several United States Senators weighed in to say the movie is inaccurate, which is a compliment of sorts. They hadn't bothered to comment on the accuracy of depicting Congress as full of stupid, slavery-loving crooks in Lincoln, after all.
The critics and the Senate are missing the point of historical dramatization. In the ten-year hunt for bin Laden, the United States did stuff, hard stuff, controversial stuff that was maybe on (or over) the line between right and wrong. Waterboarding, for better or worse, has become the most recognizable symbol of all that stuff. Bigelow's decision to include a scene of waterboarding in the movie is an accurate dramatization that the U.S. did stuff like that. If waterboarding itself did not literally provide the crucial link in the hunt for bin Laden, I am absolutely certain that some of the stuff the United States did after 9/11 has been instrumental in preventing another 9/11 and keeping al-Qaida on the run.
Let me say that again. With all the weight of ten years of work in the Army, the CIA, and the White House, I am absolutely certain that there would have been at least one, if not more, successful, large-scale terrorist attacks on the United States without the "gloves-off" measures used in the last decade.
Is that just? Leaving aside nuance, let's just ask it straight: are torture and assassination permissible tools of self-defense? Ultimately, the movie does not provide an answer, and I won't presume to offer a definitive solution in a movie review. On the one hand, the moral foundation of government is to defend its citizens and uphold order. A government that fails in its first duty is not worthy of the name. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the ruler "does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." If the death penalty is justified, and I believe it is, then so is hunting down and executing a war criminal. And if we can kill some, then we can certainly rough up others in the pursuit of good information about them.
On the other hand, Paul writes in Romans 12 "‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." And we know that every human being has inherent dignity and worth in the sight of God as a creature made in his image. Maybe there are some things -- acts of revenge or humiliation -- that governments should not do under any circumstances. Perhaps the very same act -- like using an "enhanced interrogation" technique -- is an obligatory act of self-defense and a damnable act of revenge at the same time for different people, depending on the state of their hearts. I confess after more than ten years I am less sure about these issues than ever.
Bigelow's film, by refusing to editorialize or tell its audience what to think about these questions, compels us to ask and answer them ourselves. In this sense it is fundamentally different than the other great post-9/11 film about terrorism, Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), which ends on a preachy note with one character telling another that "there is no peace at the end of this."
The bulk of Zero Dark Thirty is a very good spy thriller. It ends, as we all know, as a war movie. The final sequence (this is not a spoiler unless you've been living in a cave), showing SEAL Team Six's assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, called to my mind the St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V:
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here, / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and spy -- and a good swath of the American population -- woke up on May 2, 2011, heard the news, and wished they had been there in Abbottabad. Zero Dark Thirty gives us the vicarious experience of having been there. Bigelow wisely underplays the climactic moment -- even refusing to show bin Laden on camera -- lest it degenerate into a Tarantino revenge fantasy. Even so, I confess it was gratifying. The finale offers a national catharsis after a decade of frustration.
I recognize how bloodthirsty that sounds. But I don't think bloodlust is the only danger, or even the biggest danger, in relishing the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. Read the Psalms again and note how often David rejoices over his enemies' defeat. We spiritualize too much if we think these Psalms only apply to the "enemy" of temptation, or sin, or the devil. Sometimes we have actual human enemies who want to kill us, and defeating them is good. No man's death is occasion for a party -- the celebrations on the National Mall were unseemly -- but as I told my students the next morning, justice is good, and sobering.
No, a bigger danger, perhaps, is in cheapening the sacrifice, risk, and work of those who were actually, not vicariously, involved in the hunt. Some viewers will enjoy a fleeting and shallow sense of pride and pleasure before moving on with life. It may feel gratifying to watch it happen on screen, but take a moment to recognize that you didn't really do anything to make it happen. Watch and enjoy Zero Dark Thirty -- it is a very good movie -- but don't treat it like a cheap thrill.
In the closing months of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called on the nation in his Second Inaugural "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Here's an idea for a responsible approach to Zero Dark Thirty. Watch the movie, then donate the equivalent of your movie ticket, if not more, to the CIA Officer's Memorial Foundation. The Foundation provides educational support to the children of CIA officers killed in the line of duty. My friend left behind three of them.
Note: this blog entry was originally posted at Patheos.com.
Jonathan Olley – © 2012 - Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Amid the furor over the attack on our U.S. consulate and the death of four Americans serving in Libya, Secretary Hillary Clinton convened an internal State Department review -- and that Accountability Review Board has just released its report. Clinton has cannily already said she will adopt all of the recommendations in the report. Unfortunately, even doing so will not solve the problems that occurred in Benghazi.
The New York Times describes the report as sharply critical, but it is not. While acknowledging that "there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity," and "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels," the report concludes that the solution lies in more money with fewer congressional strings attached. Yet when Congress has given State money and allowed it latitude to program those resources, this has not resulted in an adequate supply of expert diplomats to high-risk postings or adequate security for our diplomats operating in those postings.
The report contains all the well-known State Department refrains: The world is newly complicated, diplomacy is underfunded, Congress must change its approach. Here's the medley of greatest hits, in language from the report itself:
"the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is being stretched to the limit as never before ... for many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work ... it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained -- particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security ... [any] solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs ... the United States cannot retreat in the face of such challenges."
What the State Department does not acknowledge -- but what is at the core of its institutional failures -- is that it sets priorities, and that those priorities have not adequately changed with the changing needs of American diplomacy or the changing demands of security for our diplomats. Since 9/11, funding for the State Department and USAID has increased by 155 percent and the size of the Foreign Service has doubled, yet State has chosen to channel its increased resources to the functions the institution values more than diplomatic security. There is not even a mandatory training program for diplomats being assigned to high-risk posts.
Prior to the Benghazi attacks, State's advocates complained that post-9/11 funding increases had been predominantly in consular and diplomatic security rather than in new staff for multilateral organizations, international law, economics, science and technology, public/private partnerships, and international organizations. By which they meant that the terrorist attacks on the United States should have resulted in more involvement in activities to which State is already optimized, rather than in increasing security for embassies and screening people applying for visas even though those are critical vulnerabilities highlighted by attacks on American embassies in the past 15 years. The report just released uses this opportunity to argue for more language training; it offers insight into the institutional culture of an organization that begrudges security at the expense of additional staff to do what the department is already doing.
The report's top recommendation is that "the Department should urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risk and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas." The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review called for the same thing; yet in the two years since the QDDR was released, State has not developed such a risk model nor expended institutional effort in building consensus with the executive and with Congress. Having our diplomats actively engaged in dangerous circumstances -- as Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya and Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria have been -- is essential. If our diplomats remain bastioned inside our embassies, they could just as well perform their functions from Ohio as from Libya. But State has not made solving this problem a priority.
The report's second recommendation is to applaud State for having already created "a new Diplomatic Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for High Threat Posts." Its third is more personnel for assistant secretaries in Washington. This is deeply discouraging, because it reinforces State's tendency to believe that more money and more high-level positions are the solution, rather than clarifying accountability. The report states that "among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations." Yet, with its advocacy of external threat evaluators, increased staffing in Washington, and "multi-bureau support cells," it does not make recommendations for resolving that irresponsibility.
In one crucial way, the system worked in Libya: the ambassador-in-country determined whether the mission justified the risks. Ambassador Stevens undertook an extraordinary set of risks traveling to Benghazi, given the problems the report explains with local security forces. State allowed Benghazi to become "a floating TDY platform with successive principal officers often confined to the SMC due to threats and inadequate resources, and RSOs resorting to field-expedient solutions to correct security shortfalls." The report acknowledges similar security problems and proposed solutions have been extant since 1999. The tragedy of Benghazi is that, once again, State has proven itself incapable of arraying the institution to support the terrific individuals serving on the front lines of American diplomacy.
The problems identified in the report are systemic problems, and fixing them is almost wholly within State's existing authorities. As Congress explores the Benghazi debacle, it ought to force State to look clearly at the deficiencies of its institutional culture, and align incentives to correct them. The questions State should be pressed to answer are: Why have you not fixed these problems before now? How can you make us confident you will fix them going forward?
While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Lost in the fallout of last week's presidential debate was an astonishing preview of Mark Bowden's forthcoming book, The Finish, an excerpt of which will appear in the November Vanity Fair. Bowden's account contradicts the image of a bold Obama who decided on the Abbottabad raid in the face of a split among his advisors. According to Bowden's research, nearly every one of the president's advisors favored the raid. "The only major dissenters were Biden and Gates, and before the raid was launched, Gates would change his mind."
According to Bowden, in the event that Osama bin Laden had been captured alive at his Abbottabad hideout, Obama's plan was to put him on trial in a federal court, resurrecting the idea that Attorney General Eric Holder had put forward in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that proved to be a fiasco for the administration. As Obama explained to Bowden:
"I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr."
It is an astonishing admission on two counts. First, it shows just how much Obama backed Holder's idea of putting KSM and other terrorists on trial in the United States. Holder took the fall when the plan collapsed, but it appears that Obama was fully supportive of the idea, and remained committed to it even after it collapsed in the face of Congressional and public opposition.
Second, Obama's statement brings into focus just how much he benefited politically from a tactical decision by SEALs on the ground to kill bin Laden. Just think: If things had gone differently, Joe Biden's tag line at this summer's Democratic National Convention would have been: "General Motors is still alive...and so is Osama bin Laden!"
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
The murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on September 11 has created a growing political backlash in the United States, but there are three other reasons that this attack is significant. First, an al Qaeda unit successfully assaulted American soil for the first time since 9/11. Second, we were -- once again -- caught by surprise, and third, the attacks show that al Qaeda is not just alive and kicking (as I mentioned in my previous post), but that our current strategy for dealing with the group is failing.
While various plots have been attempted by al Qaeda and individuals or cells associated with the group, the sacking of the Benghazi consulate was the first successful attack that can be definitively tied to the organization. Excellent work by Thomas Joscelyn suggests that the attack on the consulate was just one of four separate assaults on embassies carried out by al Qaeda that day. This simultaneity is, by the way, one reason that I immediately suspected -- and wrote about - al Qaeda involvement in the raids, since this is as much a hallmark of al Qaeda operations as, for instance, the use of suicide bombers in Muslim-majority countries and the targeting of international organizations.
Just as worrisome for future events is the fact that the United States was caught off-guard, yet again, by this massive and sophisticated operation. I would argue that there are four reasons for this failure: a widely accepted narrative, a false view, the successes of the targeted attrition program, and assumptions about the war in Libya. For the past 18 months there has been a building narrative among both the expert community and this administration that, with the death of Bin Ladin, al Qaeda is nearly finished and that there is nothing left but a small group of "dead-enders," known as the "core," that need to be dealt with. Al Qaeda, in the narrative, is so weakened that it can barely stay alive, let alone carry out successful and complex attacks like that in Benghazi.
This narrative is based on a false view of al Qaeda: that the "core" is a small terrorist group whose main objective is attacking the United States, that the affiliates have primarily local concerns, that there is little command and control between the "core" and the affiliates, and that, therefore, the United States must only kill off the central leadership to be safe. I responded to this view of al Qaeda in several earlier posts, arguing that the core and affiliates are intimately connected, that the main objective of al Qaeda is taking over the Muslim-majority world, and that the organization is, in fact, attempting to create and lead a global insurgency. If this is all true, then al Qaeda is nowhere near defeat, and is, in fact, doing far better today than at any time in its existence.
The successes of counterterrorism czar John Brennan's targeting program played into both the narrative and the current accepted view of al Qaeda by giving the impression of progress in the war with al Qaeda. As each member of the leadership was killed -- most especially Bin Laden, but many others as well -- experts and administration officials proclaimed that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The belief that the United States was making progress against al Qaeda (along with the notion that the affiliates have mainly local concerns) created a false sense of security in many places, including Libya.
Finally, and most controversially, I believe that this administration's incorrect reading of the war in Libya worked with the narrative and analytical issues to create the preconditions for the United States to be caught by surprise in Benghazi. Unlike the war in Iraq, the United States managed to topple the Libyan dictator without putting American lives in danger and without exacerbating local tensions through the presence of our troops. The result should have been less violence, no insurgency, and no organized al Qaeda group in Libya. The continued, and even strengthening, violence in places like Benghazi -- along with a strong al Qaeda presence -- was unexpected and therefore unplanned for, again adding to the shock of September 11.
The third significance of Benghazi is that it underlines the failure of our current strategy to deal with al Qaeda. For several years, the main strategies for combating al Qaeda have been to take them on through our ground troops (in Iraq and Afghanistan), to empower partners to fight them (many places in the Middle East), or to use attrition to whittle down the group's leadership. With the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the slow shifting of some partners away from aiding us (see Egypt and Pakistan, for example), we are more and more dependent on attrition as the means for taking out the group. The spread of al Qaeda to many new places, including the Sinai, Mali, Syria, and of course Libya, points to the failure of this strategy to achieve our goals.
The metaphorical derecho of the Supreme Court's controversial decision on health care followed by the physical derecho that knocked out power in D.C. combined to drive another story out of the headlines. But as things slowly return to normal, that story is worth returning to, because it helps clarify what "normal" has been. The story is the mushrooming revelations about the Obama administration's suboptimal national security policy-making process.
The most shocking charges have come in a series of excerpts from Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book. The book makes a string of damning charges: that the Obama team sought to suppress intelligence that ran counter to its policies; that the president was actually disengaged from the policy process and not the forceful decider his spinners were claiming; that the team let petty personal feuds trump wise policy; and so on. This comes on the heels of other deeply sourced accounts that reported that the White House political office was in the room when the national security team was deciding on targets for drone strikes, and the extent to which someone leaked details about covert operations that made Obama look strong on national security.
I agree with Paul Miller that the excerpts from the Chandrasekaran's book have a tabloid feel to them, and may indeed contain as much distortionary spin as any White House press spokesman's daily briefing. It is not too hard to cherry-pick vignettes that ring false. For instance, this brief account strikes me as misleading:
But in more than two hours of discussion, the 14-member war cabinet -- which included Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- never asked McChrystal why he wanted so many more marines in Helmand. The civilians didn't know enough about Afghanistan to focus on that issue. They were also concerned about micromanaging the war, of looking like President Lyndon B. Johnson picking bombing targets in North Vietnam.
From his seat along the wall, Obama's top adviser on the Afghan war, Douglas E. Lute, believed that those around the table were missing a crucial point. Instead of arguing about counterinsurgency strategy -- whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai would improve and whether the Pakistanis would crack down on Taliban sanctuaries -- they should have focused more on how the forces would be employed. That would have revealed how the military had misused the first wave of troops Obama authorized.
Lute may or may not have felt that way, but the book makes it sound like that was the end of the matter. But Lute was uniquely positioned to address this problem by virtue of his privileged access to the president and to Jones and his control over the paperflow for the review. So I think it is more likely that the account describes a problem that provoked Lute into taking some remedial action. Only reporting the problem without reporting the remedial action paints a distorted picture.
Yet, even after discounting for such likely distortions, the picture that remains is disturbing. It would seem to put to rest the myth that this administration has been vastly superior to historical norms in terms of bureaucratic process. And it makes some of the gushing words of the myth-purveyors almost cringe-worthy when reconsidered in context.
Take, for example, our own FP's David Rothkopf:
To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook ... not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.
Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals' meetings, deputies' meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.
But even a proven structure won't work if the president and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the president enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the vice president and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result -- even in the eyes of top Bush officials -- was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.
Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process.
Or David Ignatius:
The foreign policy challenges of the past two months were also the first test of the new national security adviser, Tom Donilon. True to his reputation as a political "Mr. Fix-It," he was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility -- and he'll need to present a stronger public face to succeed in that job. But he ran a smooth and seamless policy process, without the competing voices that have sometimes been heard over the past two years.
Donilon's advantage, it appears, is that he is master of the house at the National Security Council. His predecessor, Gen. Jim Jones, also tried to run an orderly process, but he had to look over his shoulder at Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who operated in a sort of prime ministerial role. Emanuel often used Donilon (who was Jones's deputy) as his personal foreign policy operative, which confused lines of responsibility.
"What we have now is a tightly aligned, single process for foreign policy," a senior White House official said when asked what difference the departures of Emanuel and Jones had made.
Or Edward Luce:
‘The truth is that President Obama is his own Henry Kissinger -- no one else plays that role,' says a senior official. 'Every administration reflects the personality of the president. This president wants all the trains routed through the Oval Office.'... 'By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions.'... At the end of each meeting, the president summarizes what everyone has said and the arguments each has made with a real lawyer's clarity," says a participant to the NSC principals meeting, which includes Mr Gates and Mrs Clinton. 'When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment.'
It didn't take a lot of insider knowledge at the time to recognize that those puffed-up descriptions probably exaggerated the quality of the national security policy process. Now, thanks to a wave of books drawing on extensive insider leaks, it is possible to see just how unduly flattering the early praise was.
When the pundits return to national security issues -- as surely they must at some point in the coming months -- perhaps they will return with a bit more realistic awareness of the process problems that have plagued this administration, just as they plagued previous ones.
Update: A friend sent me a note suggesting that I was guilty of distortion myself when I cherry-picked the Chandrasekaran piece, particularly when I ended the quote where I did. He points out that the very next paragraph would seem to rebut my claim. It reads:
After the meeting, Lute and his staff assembled a list of follow-up questions for McChrystal. Lute, a three-star general, asked McChrystal to provide more explanation of the location of the bubbles. At the war cabinet's next meeting, McChrystal talked briefly about the need to "demonstrate momentum" in Helmand. To Lute, the answer seemed unsatisfactory, but nobody around the table pressed McChrystal any further.
My friend is right that I should have included that extra paragraph, but I think my basic point still stands regardless: Surely Lute was perfectly positioned to follow up further and press the matter again with McChrystal? Yet the (entire) excerpt makes it seem like he did not, like his unsatisfactory initial exchange was the end of the matter. Now, giving Chandrasekaran the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did investigate further and found no evidence of any follow-up. If that is the case, given the extensive reporting in the piece, it is a pretty damning incident, indeed. For my money, I suspect that Lute and others took some remedial action that is not covered in the reporting.
Either way, my overall thesis seems on solid ground: The Obama national security process has been no where near as idyllic as the boosters have claimed.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Read more about the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership here.
Critics of the civilian-nuclear deal between the United States and India -- proposed in 2005 and ratified in 2008 -- have more recently charged that its supporters oversold the broader benefits of Indo-U.S. strategic partnership. Their critique has been given unearned momentum by the Indian parliament, which passed nuclear liability legislation that does not meet international standards, effectively making it impossible for U.S. companies to build civilian-nuclear plants in India. Critics have also been emboldened by a certain drift in U.S.-India relations since 2009 -- for which both sides bear responsibility -- and by India's own lackluster economic performance, which diminishes its attractiveness as the pivotal U.S. partner in 21st century Asia. But these developments do not mean the relationship was oversold. The more accurate charge is that it has not yet been fully consummated.
The Obama administration sent decidedly mixed messages to New Delhi upon taking office in 2009. Bush administration officials had argued convincingly that a shared appreciation for managing the balance of power in Asia was at the core of the U.S.-India entente -- music to the ears of leaders in a country that has still not recovered from the psychological scars of a war with China in 1962. However, early in their tenure, senior Obama administration officials reportedly told Indian counterparts that the United States was no longer "doing balance of power in Asia," while senior U.S. officials, including the president and secretary of state, gave credence for a time to the notion of a Sino-American "G-2" condominium in Asian and global affairs.
This unnerved Indian officials who believed Washington had chosen New Delhi -- not Beijing -- as its privileged partner in rising Asia. Spurned Indian officials fell back on old non-alignment instincts and began speaking of "triangulating" between the United States and China. But events happily changed the discourse: China's militant assertiveness in 2010-11 reminded officials in Washington and across Asia of the growing danger posed by budding Chinese power. President Obama's self-declared "pivot" to Asia in 2011 moved the United States much closer to the Indian position of sustaining a regional equilibrium not tilted in China's direction -- a project of such immensity that India cannot achieve it absent close alignment, if not alliance, with the United States. Nonetheless, the early damage to a U.S.-India relationship whose central logic is rooted in the balance of power caused mistrust that still lingers.
More recently, Indians have been disappointed that the United States, after reassuring them for a decade that U.S. forces would finish the job they started in Afghanistan, will withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan through 2014. Beyond its intrinsic importance, Afghanistan was in fact a key test of the proposition that the United States, as a new strategic partner, could help India solve its toughest security challenge: the propensity of its neighbors to export terrorism into India, with state support. The Taliban's eventual return to control in at least parts of Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan's virulently anti-Indian security services as NATO forces draw down, will undermine Indian security in tangible ways. For many Indians, the United States' lack of staying power reconfirms old suspicions about American unreliability. It reinforces the conviction that India may have more to gain from collaborating with Russia and Iran to support Afghan groups committed to the Taliban's defeat than from relying on (and working with) the United States to do the job.
Americans, in turn, have been disappointed by India's apparent willingness, for a time, to risk its U.S. relationship over energy trade with Iran. The good news is that India has moved to reduce oil and gas imports from Iran, earning New Delhi a waiver from U.S. third-party sanctions set to take effect next month. This is particularly significant in light of India's energy-import dependence and its previous reliance on Iran as a top supplier. But American officials have spent precious time and energy over the course of several years urging India to cut back on its Iran trade -- time and energy that would have been better spent forging ahead on a wider agenda for Indo-U.S. cooperation, were it not for Indian reluctance to take American appeals to heart. New Delhi would have benefited more from early movement on this issue, rather than making a show of standing up to the United States even as India, out of concern for its own interests, systematically reduced its dependence on Iranian energy supplies.
Americans excited about the rise to great-power status of the world's largest democracy have also questioned how India's passivity toward the Arab uprisings has served Indian interests, much less prospects for partnership with both Washington and reformist Arab regimes. While India's election commission did assist in organizing Egypt's first democratic elections, New Delhi has been seriously behind the curve in Libya, Egypt, and Syria (though it has not blocked U.N. Security Council actions on the latter). It is Indian interests that suffer from such passivity, in the form of cool relations with post-revolutionary countries strategically positioned on its western doorstep. Such passivity has undermined the case, not just in Washington but internationally, that India is ready to provide global public goods and assume genuine responsibilities beyond its borders as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Nonetheless, over the past three years India and the United States have made quiet progress in consolidating their new relationship. India is the world's largest arms importer, and the United States is at the top of its list of defense suppliers -- notwithstanding American disappointment that India did not choose a U.S. fifth-generation fighter jet as part of its ongoing military modernization. Indian armed forces exercise more with U.S. counterparts than those from any other country -- a remarkable development for two countries that were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide. Intelligence-sharing is at historic highs; Washington and New Delhi cooperate more actively on counter-terrorism than ever before. The two countries are also more closely aligned on Pakistan as a result of the degeneration of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance over the previous three years. Perhaps most importantly, India and post-pivot America see eye-to-eye on the immense strategic challenge posed by China's ascendance; the Indo-American dialogue on East Asian security has been richly rewarding for both sides.
The hard truth is that Indo-U.S. relations would be better were India and the United States each doing better. India was a most attractive partner when it was growing at near-double digit rates annually, putting it on track to emerge as the world's largest economy before 2050. For many Americans today, India is a less attractive partner as economic growth slumps, the government stalls on key reforms necessary to unlock the economy's vast potential, populism trumps effective policymaking, and politicians seem unable to break partisan gridlock to govern effectively. Funnily enough, Indians could say exactly the same thing about America under President Obama.
President Obama's surprise speech in Kabul was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.
The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is the American promise to designate Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. The designation communicates a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration's various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission.
The agreement, however, has weaknesses. Click for my full analysis over at the AfPak Channel.
Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images
The disruption of a new underwear bomber plot, once again attributable to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- one of the most active branches of al Qaeda -- is a welcome and yet worrisome development. On the one hand, kudos to our counter-terrorism establishment which, through good intelligence and police work, stopped the bomber before he could carry out his attack. On the other hand, AQAP has shown that it -- and al Qaeda in general -- are alive and well, despite our best efforts to disrupt and destroy them. After years of deadly strikes against the group (see Bill Roggio's excellent work on this here), AQAP has been able to regenerate and continue to plot and plan destructive terrorist attacks against the homeland.
Even more worrisome, however, is that AQAP managed to organize this attack while its fighting cadres are winning battle after battle against the Yemeni government, seizing territory and imposing al Qaeda's version of sharia on the populace. I'll have more to say on this issue soon, when the first part of my reaction to the recently released Osama bin Ladin documents will be posted. For this piece, I will just say that it is a false dichotomy to categorize al Qaeda's strategy as one that is meant solely to take territory OR solely to carry out attacks on the U.S. As the actions of AQAP make quite clear, the group desires both and, more importantly, has the capabilities to do both simultaneously.
The U.S. is on high alert to watch for any further bombs that might be on the loose; I wonder if we have a similarly well-thought out plan in place to deal with the deteriorating situation in the country that allowed these plots to be hatched.
ABC News via Getty Images
In an earlier post I noted that there have been strong protests to my thesis that al Qaeda has not been fatally damaged by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and in fact is stronger now than ever before. In the earlier post I listed five specific objections that I have heard from administration officials and from al Qaeda and terrorism experts (like Will McCants). Since then Seth Jones has published a piece that also argues al Qaeda is not dead, although he takes on different points of contention than I do.
At the center of the first three objections that I list -- and that lead directly to the fourth -- is a profound disagreement over what exactly al Qaeda is, how able "core" al Qaeda is to command and control its affiliates, and what the group can therefore hope to achieve (despite its boasts to far greater things). The objections also reflect a difference in opinion about the public statements made by al Qaeda's leaders, seen by many as expressing aspirational -- but unachievable -- goals, or as rhetoric designed to inspire terror attacks, but by me and others as official statements of the group's policy vision.
I've already discussed thoroughly the differing views of "what al Qaeda is" in this post, but would stress that I take al Qaeda's leadership at their word, and agree that the "core" is the high command of a global organization that includes many branches (as al Qaeda calls the affiliates) and that these branches are an integral part of al Qaeda. Their relationship is somewhat like that between the Pentagon and the Combatant Commanders, although more decentralized and with latitude for splintering and serious disagreement-as in any insurgency. The oath of obedience that binds leadership and forces in the field -- called "baya" -- is one piece of evidence that both "core" and branches are precisely the same thing and that there is a command and control function built into their relationship. In theory, baya operates in much the same way as a feudal oath of fealty. When joining al Qaeda, only the overall affiliate military commander -- and the head of shadow governance, if one exists -- swear loyalty to the al Qaeda high command, subordinate commanders swear loyalty to these leaders, and the ordinary foot soldiers swear loyalty to the subordinates. Just as with feudal oaths where the meanest peasant could not argue that he did not have to obey the ruler because he had not personally sworn an oath to him, so the local forces of al Qaeda -- through their oaths to their unit commander -- are bound to obey as well the orders of everyone above them in the chain of command. One recent example of this theoretical hierarchy in practice is the baya sworn by Shaykh Atom to the Amir of the Shabab in Somalia, an oath that made him -- and his men -- as much a part of al Qaeda as the Shabab.
But these oaths, while suggestive, do not prove that the "core" is really able to command and control the affiliates. Again, there is evidence that tells us they are, but in the same way that all insurgencies are under the command and control (C2) of often distant superiors. In regular militaries and regular wars, C2 is a rigidly defined issue, with strict rules about who obeys whom, daily reporting by subordinates to officers, constant oversight to make certain that orders are obeyed, and set penalties for insubordination or direct disobedience. Irregular wars -- such as insurgencies -- are very different, however, as a recent publication by the Department of Defense on the insurgency in Afghanistan makes clear. As in other insurgencies, the Taliban leadership in Pakistan provides broad strategic guidance and resources as needed, but not specific daily orders with daily reportage back up the chain of command. Instead, tighter C2 is handled through the local shadow government and commanders on the ground, who report back to their distant superiors on a regular basis. This, in miniature, is how al Qaeda is controlling their forces in places like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel. Captured documents from Iraq show in action both the strengths and limitations of this sort of guidance. Zarqawi was directly ordered by his superiors to stop cutting off heads in public, to refrain from ever attacking neighboring countries again, to create the foundations for an Islamic state in Iraq, and to try harder to win over Sunnis to his cause. All these orders he obeyed. He was also ordered to stop killing Shia and Sunnis in large numbers, but events seem to show that he ignored this demand. From their distant headquarters, al Qaeda could not do much about this insubordination, although his subsequent demotion to a lesser position within al Qaeda in Iraq is suggestive, and I'm sure they did not mourn his passing a few weeks later.
Another example of this sort of C2 should give pause to those who argue that the "core" does not really control the affiliates. In the summer of 2009, the official view of the U.S. was that the affiliates were focused solely on local concerns (i.e. overthrowing the rulers of their own countries). That June, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the General Manager of al Qaeda, gave an interview in which he stated that the branches were an integral part of al Qaeda and that the leadership was ordering them to carry out attacks on the U.S. Six months later, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-assessed by the U.S. government as having purely local objectives-carried out an unsuccessful attack on the homeland. A few months later, Tehrik-i-Taliban, a Pakistani group tied to al Qaeda that was also viewed as having purely local concerns, attempted to blow up Times Square. Our failure to take seriously the "rhetoric" of al Qaeda leaders led to two near catastrophes.
This discussion also matters because the U.S. policy proposals that flow from these viewpoints are substantially different. If al Qaeda can be divided into a core leadership that has as its primary objective attacking the U.S. and affiliates that are not an integral part of that core (or at least not under real command and control), then it is possible to carry out a successful counter-terrorism (CT) strategy against the "core" and perhaps the leadership of the affiliates, while allowing regional partners to handle the local insurgencies of the affiliates themselves. If, however, al Qaeda is both core and affiliate, that is both high command and ground forces, and the leadership is able to exert real command and control functions, then CT methodologies -- and its foundation of attrition -- will not destroy al Qaeda or prevent its spread. The only method that we have for dealing with this sort of warfare is counterinsurgency.
In my next post, I'll expand on this assertion and give my take on how the Arab Spring and the death of Bin Ladin have affected al Qaeda.
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A growing chorus in Washington seems convinced that those of us who served in the George W. Bush administration oversold the benefits of the U.S.-India strategic partnership forged from 2005 to 2008. The centerpiece of that partnership was the bilateral defense agreement of 2005 and a civilian-nuclear agreement ratified by both countries' parliaments and blessed by the international community in 2008. Many critics are drawn from the non-proliferation community that largely opposed the civ-nuke deal because of India's original sin of developing nuclear weapons outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- to which India is not a signatory -- and even though it has a clean proliferation record. Their case has legs today less because they were right about the civ-nuke deal -- they were not -- than because the Obama administration has presided over a period of drift in Indo-U.S. relations that has been matched by drift in Delhi on India's reform agenda. The result has been a benign sense of disappointment in each country, despite the compelling structural and ideational logic that continues to push the relationship forward.
Several of us recently debated the question of whether U.S.-India relations were "oversold" at the American Enterprise Institute. Today's Financial Times charges that U.S.-India relations are "wilting" in light of various policy spats between the two countries that belie the mutual optimism of 2008. These claims need to be put in perspective. This is the first of several posts that will try to take the long view by highlighting how extraordinary the transformation of U.S.-India relations actually has been in light of their complicated history -- and why the U.S. strategic bet on India, and India's on America, remains smart policy for the long term, despite short-term disappointments.
Recall the context in which U.S. and Indian officials, nearly 15 years ago, sought to forge a new relationship. For half a century, the American and Indian governments were alienated by India's refusal to sign on as one of Washington's Cold War allies; by the U.S. military alliance with Indian rival Pakistan, forged in 1954; and later by America's tacit alliance with Indian rival China, countered by India's tacit alliance with Moscow. Following wars with both Pakistan and China, India launched a covert nuclear weapons program, leading the United States to muster its allies to impose sweeping sanctions on technology trade with India -- further stifling its development after state socialism had already undercut India's growth potential. Even after the Cold War, Washington and New Delhi spent the 1990s feuding over proliferation, culminating in the imposition of even more U.S. sanctions following India's1998 nuclear weapons test.
It was Indian, not American, leaders who then suggested that India and the United States should break from a half-century of discord to transform their relations for a new era. According to its leaders, India had tested nuclear weapons in response to existential threats from China and the ally it had helped to develop nuclear weapons, Pakistan. India was the world's largest democracy, and its people had friendly views towards the United States. Converging threat perceptions and common values meant that India and the United States were in fact "natural allies," according to then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. They should forge a partnership to manage the dangers of the 21st century and to amplify the strengths of the world's biggest open and pluralistic societies. President Clinton's unprecedented support for India over Pakistan in their near-war of 1999, followed by his 2000 trip to India in which he echoed Vajpayee's call for an alliance of interests and values, made possible the breakthroughs that came later.
India's change of administrations in 2004 did not change New Delhi's support for developing a new partnership with the United States. Nonetheless, Bush administration officials who worked with both Indian governments faced a stark challenge. Not only did the Indian and U.S. bureaucracies have no tradition of working together, but the international sanctions regime the United States had put in place following India's 1974 "peaceful" nuclear explosion remained in place. Then-State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow called this legacy the "Gordian knot" which statesmen in Washington and New Delhi somehow had to untie in order to forge an enduring foundation for a transformed partnership.
The answer was the 2005 U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. Under its terms, India would separate its civilian and its military nuclear reactors, submit the former to international monitoring, make a series of binding commitments not to proliferate nuclear materials or technologies, and in return secure the support of the U.S.-led international cartel governing trade in civilian nuclear components for India's access to these materials on the international market. The judgment of not just the Bush administration but of the United States Congress, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group was that the nuclear non-proliferation regime would be stronger if India were a part of it on these terms -- rather than remaining excluded and untethered as a nuclear weapons state not bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For all the attention garnered by the civilian-nuclear agreement, the first long-term partnership agreement between Washington and New Delhi was actually a 10-year defense cooperation agreement signed in June 2005. Most countries without a long history of partnership begin their engagement with trade and diplomatic agreements and only after building trust move on to military cooperation. The opposite held true between the United States and India, in part because of the compelling security threats -- from China, Pakistan, and terrorism -- that drew them together. The defense agreement was a particularly radical step for India to take -- having allied with the United States' primary competitor during the Cold War and condemned America's military primacy in the international system throughout the 1990s, Indian leaders decided by the mid-2000s that the United States was the partner of choice in helping to modernize the Indian military and supply the needs of the world' biggest arms importer.
The success of U.S. and Indian policy from 1998-2008 lay in creating a transformed basis for relations between the world's largest democracies for the new century. The United States would secure not an ally but an independent partner that could help anchor an Asian balance of power otherwise at risk from growing Chinese strength. Washington would be able to point to India's model of democratic development as an alternative to the "Beijing consensus" of authoritarian development that otherwise might appeal to swathes of the developing world. The complementarities between America's hi-tech economy and India's rich human capital would spur growth in both countries. India would secure as a sponsor for its rise and development the international system's predominant power. This seemed like a good bargain from the vantage point of 2008. It remains one today, despite the fact that both India and America have disappointed each other on several key issues over the past three years. These will be the subject of my next post.
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In truth much as I searched, I have found that the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics actually has no analogue in foreign policy. Regardless, it is a good way to describe Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Call it the Uncertainty Doctrine.
Businesspeople and economists make a good case that the uncertainty of Obama's domestic policies has slowed the economic recovery. The private sector does not know when and for what they will next be taxed or regulated, what the new health care law visited upon them means for the economy. The anxiety causes a freeze in economic growth.
So too with Obama's uncertainty foreign policy doctrine. Allies and adversaries have no idea what we will do next and are acting accordingly.
Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan and then immediately a pull out date. Should our allies stick with us as we take out just enough bad guys to make the Taliban more vengeful when they return? Or instead should Kabul just make deals with the Taliban? An Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable but so is Israel removing one from the hands of Iran. Assad must go, but we will not do anything to make that happen. On the other hand maybe its best if he just stayed -- easier to work with than the alternative.
China was a partner in global action problems -- perhaps even a G2 was in the offing! Together we would work on climate change, nonproliferation, who knows what else? Now the United States needs to pivot to Asia to keep China in check.
Here is another part of the uncertainty doctrine that must leave Europeans and Middle Easterners scratching their heads: The United States is pivoting to Asia (under fiscal constraint) but not abandoning its allies in Europe or the Middle East.
The pivot, we tell the Chinese, is not about them. But then Manila and Tokyo ask: "What do you mean the pivot isn't about China. The Chinese are unwelcome visitors into our waters at least once a week!"
Oh, and we have new battle plan called "Air Sea Battle" that again is not about China. However, it is meant to operate in "anti-access" environments -- those in which enemies have many missiles, submarines, and cyber warfare capabilities. Sounds like China. We will be able to operate again in those environments once the plan is executed, but we will not execute it because we are cutting the defense budget, so China should worry a bit but not too much. Our allies should have just a little dose of reassurance to go along with their fears.
India is a strategic partner whom we would like to join us in checking (or not checking?) China but we are going to leave Afghanistan for India to fight over with its archrival Pakistan.
I think the point is made. Just as uncertainty in economic policy can make an economy sputter, so too has Obama's uncertainty doctrine made the world a more dangerous place. With no one else to do the chores, the United States must lead with certainty. The rest of the world may complain about our arrogance, but that is better than complaining about utter chaos.
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My last four posts, and particularly the concluding paragraph of the final post (here), have received some critical attention. The claim that al Qaeda is in far better condition now than on 9-11 seems especially egregious to some experts, so I'd like to take this post to state fairly the top five objections to my thesis. In follow-up posts, I'll answer each of these.
1) The al-Qaeda core does not command and control the affiliates, who are still primarily concerned with local matters.
Al Qaeda consists of the "core," a group of a few hundred men located somewhere in South Asia. Of course the core claims to control the affiliates -- groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- however, a close look at the development of the affiliates suggests that this is nothing but propaganda, used to make al Qaeda look bigger and more successful than it actual is. All the affiliates evolved out of local conditions, have overwhelmingly local memberships, and have local objectives. Many of them were failed terrorist groups, who seized on a relationship with al Qaeda to give them a new lease on life, and do not have any real commitment to al Qaeda's global objectives. The dispersion of al Qaeda core members out to these affiliates shows just how effective our war against them has been and demonstrates the fundamental weakness of the group.
Another line of argument judges that AQAP and others who have sworn fealty to the al Qaeda core are indeed part of al Qaeda, but argues that only in Somalia has al Qaeda -- through the section of the Shabaab that has sworn fealty -- been able to hold ground. In Yemen and other places they do not have any real base and even in Somalia, the Shabaab are now on the defensive from the regional forces that have boots on the ground. This line of argument would also agree with the other described above about command and control: It is impossible for the "core" to effectively control the actions of these distant affiliates.
2) The main objective of the al Qaeda core is to attack the U.S. All the other expressed objectives are mere propaganda by al Qaeda, used to radicalize Muslims and to inspire attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
The argument here is that no one should take seriously the outrageous propaganda spouted by al Qaeda's spokesmen. They naturally want to make themselves out to be more than they are, and claim all sorts of "achievements" and capabilities that they do not in fact possess. In addition, the larger objectives that they say they are aiming for are clearly fantasies (world domination -- really?) and unachievable. The actions of the affiliates, meanwhile, are judged to be either really aimed at local issues, or to be so ineffective that they can be safely left to capable partners.
3) The means that al Qaeda core has used to carry out its main objective are either cells trained in South Asia or adherents ("lone wolves"), who are radicalized through the internet or extremist preachers.
The U.S. has successfully prevented al Qaeda from operationalizing any large cells designed to attack U.S. persons since 2001. Because of these successes, al Qaeda was forced to rely on the far less effective "lone wolves," showing just how weak the group has become.
4) Based on these three points, the correct strategy for dealing with al Qaeda is counter-terrorism plus countering violent extremism.
Al Qaeda is little more than a small group of frightened men in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and thus to use the military against them is to over-react to a limited problem. It is also extremely expensive to involve the military and leads to the unnecessary loss of American lives. Instead, the U.S. should depend on a counter-terrorism strategy to defeat the group. This would entail law enforcement means and methods to take out the criminals, with the main aim of attrition (i.e. killing or capturing al Qaeda members), until the group is so weak that local law enforcement can handle them on their own (as they are doing in places like Indonesia and Turkey). We also need to stop the radicalization of individual Muslims (like Major Hasan) by countering the propaganda of al Qaeda and killing off its most charismatic leaders (see the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaqi and Bin Ladin himself).
For the affiliates, it is enough to involve regional and capable partners, who can be our surrogate "boots on the ground" in places like Somalia.
5) Without its charismatic founder, chief propagandist, main radicalizer and inspiration -- Osama Bin Ladin -- al Qaeda is doomed. In addition, the Arab Spring shows just how irrelevant al Qaeda has become for the life of the Muslim community.
The death of Bin Ladin and the Arab Spring were game-changers. Without its chief radicalizer, al Qaeda core will not be able to replace losses and will not be able to inspire young Muslims to carry out attacks against the U.S. This shows that the U.S. has nearly won the war on al Qaeda. The revolutionary events that we call the Arab Spring also demonstrate that al Qaeda -- once seen as so influential in the Muslim community -- has become largely irrelevant. Al Qaeda neither began nor influenced the course of the uprisings, and was ignored by those who participated in them. We can also see that (in general) the outcomes of the Spring have not favored al Qaeda's resurgence in these areas, and have in fact opened the path for a far more optimistic future for the Muslim world.
Now that I've convinced you that my last four posts are completely and egregiously wrong, you will need to come back over the next few days to see how I'll answer each of these objections.
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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.
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Terrorism, as the United States has learned at a high cost in recent years, comes in many forms and from unexpected sources. The government of Ecuador has once again crossed the line between irresponsible policies and ideologically driven actions that have created a serious security problem not only for its citizens but also for the entire Western Hemisphere. The disarray created in Ecuador's immigration policy has permitted transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups -- possibly including al Qaeda -- to potentially use the country as a base of operations with the ultimate objective of harming the United States.
In June of 2008, the Ecuadorian government opened its borders to foreigners and ended visa requirements to enter its territory. This opened the floodgates to nationals from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (e.g., Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, Cuba, Pakistan, and Somalia). For example, according to statistics of its own National Immigration Office, in 2006 (before the policy change) there were 92 entries of Pakistani citizens, by 2008 were already 178 and in 2010, 518. This is an increase of 550 percent in 4 years. More significantly, just between 2008 and 2010 an estimated 60,000 Cubans entered Ecuador, according to intelligence sources.
Records shows that large numbers of these immigrants enter to obtain Ecuadorian nationality by naturalization and thus be able to travel freely throughout Latin America and eventually to the United States without arousing suspicion because of their original nationalities. The routes by which they enter the Americas generally include a first stop in Cuba or Venezuela, countries with highly subjective immigration controls. Two routes that are used repeatedly are Pakistan/Afghanistan-Iran-Venezuela-Ecuador, and Somalia-Dubai-Russia-Cuba-Ecuador.
According to U.S. diplomatic cables, Ecuadorian authorities were alerted in 2009 by various international intelligence agencies about this deception. However, it was not until mid-2010 when they began to again administer their immigration policies. Thereafter, the Ecuadorian government somewhat modified its visa policy for nationals of certain countries that were considered the riskiest.
Nevertheless, some reports suggest that despite this change, these immigrant groups have developed a criminal infrastructure of sufficient magnitude to keep functioning independently. To bypass the stricter immigration controls, criminal gangs have specialized in forging travel documents, visas, birth certificates, and fake residency permits that ultimately lead to illegally obtaining an Ecuadorian passport. Documents are not difficult to obtain because the Mafiosi suborn government administrators including civil registry officials, judges, and other government officials.
Of particular concern to U.S. security is the case of nationals of third countries who enter Ecuador with passports issued by Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, countries for which Ecuador still does not require visas.
It is noteworthy that by Executive Order No. 1065 signed by President Correa on February 16, 2012, Ecuador has substantially eased the process of naturalization of foreign citizens. This resolution orders the granting of letters of naturalization to people who had provided "relevant services" to Ecuador and have resided for more than two years in the country, opening the door for virtually anyone to become a naturalized Ecuadorian and obtain a passport.
The danger these criminal networks pose is illustrated by two examples, among many: In 2011 an investigation was conducted by the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) attaché in Quito, Ecuador, the HIS office in Atlanta, the Miami division of the FBI and the Ecuadorian National Police. The operation led to the arrest of Irfan Ul Haq, a Pakistani citizen who according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) was conducting a "human smuggling operation in Quito, Ecuador, that attempted to smuggle an individual they believed to be a member of the TTP from Pakistan (Tehrik-e Taliban) into the United States." The TTP was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department on Sept. 1, 2010.
A second case, which resulted in the arrest of Yaee Dawit, alias Jack Flora, probably the most important human trafficker in Africa and linked to different cells of al-Qaeda in East Africa, illustrates the good work of international cooperation, but also the importance that Ecuadorian cities have acquired as "hubs" for terrorists and transnational criminals.
These cases not only illuminate the crime of human trafficking, but they also show how they continuously finance other terrorist and criminal activities. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, of the Criminal Division, describes these criminals as follows: "For financial profit, they [were] willing to jeopardize the safety and security of the American people. Human smuggling operations pose a serious risk to our national security, and we will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners at home and abroad to combat this dangerous threat."
While there is no evidence to show that the Correa government established the policy of "open borders" in an effort to attract criminal organizations, that has been the result. On the other hand, there is no evidence of Correa wanting to stem the flow. These examples show how Rafael Correa's Ecuador is becoming a failed state, hosting all sorts of dangerous actors. They also help to understand the context in which various financial, commercial, and energy agreements are being developed by Ecuador with the governments of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. While many of the agreements are not yet completed, they serve as "government-authorized illicit tunnels" through which anything and anyone can pass, from terrorists and drugs to money and arms. The time has come to close these tunnels.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
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In my last post, I sketched out the strategic case for significantly deepening U.S.-Kurdish ties. While such a paradigm shift may take some time, a good start can be made simply by clearing out the underbrush of counter-productive policies that needlessly hinder our relations with the Kurds. During this week's visit to Washington by President Masoud Barzani, head of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, the Obama administration would be well-served by focusing on several practical deliverables:
Stop Treating the Kurds as Terrorists. Incredibly, under existing immigration law, members of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties -- Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- are classified as terrorists when seeking visas to enter the United States. As modified after 9/11, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) uses a definition of terrorism so broad that virtually any resistance group that in the past engaged in armed conflict against its government is considered a so-called "Tier III" terrorist organization. Membership in such a group is automatic grounds for denial of admission to the U.S., treatment that extends to the member's family as well.
That's right: The KDP and PUK for years worked hand-in-glove with the United States to bring down the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, they served as America's most faithful allies in efforts to stabilize Iraq. And for all their trouble fighting alongside U.S. forces they got . . . well, they got labeled as terrorists, of course. As Mr. Bumble famously says in Oliver Twist, "If the law supposes that . . . [then] the law is an ass -- an idiot."
In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano exercised their discretionary authority to exempt members of the KDP and PUK from the INA's terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds on a case-by-case basis -- provided they were able to satisfy officials at State and DHS that they met six criteria meant to show they were not in fact terrorists and posed no danger to U.S. security. Needless to say, the process of qualifying for the exemption is frequently long, cumbersome and -- let's be frank -- humiliating for people who threw their lot in completely with America, and often risked life and limb to help it succeed. And even with the exemption possibility, the slanderous classification of the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations remains, an undeserving and gratuitous insult to a proud people that have gone out of their way to align themselves openly with Washington -- an all-too-rare occurrence in a Middle East where anti-Americanism is, sad to say, always in fashion.
Small consolation for the Kurds, perhaps, that the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were also once ensnared by the INA's overly-broad sweep. Thankfully, Congress acted in 2008 to pass a law that explicitly removed the ANC from treatment as a terrorist organization under the INA. Similar legislative relief has been provided to other groups who fought repressive regimes. Now, no less should be done for the Kurds. As has so often been the case when it comes to doing the right thing in matters of national security, Senator Joseph Lieberman is leading the way, crafting a possible fix to the Kurds' outrageous dilemma. The Obama administration is signaling that it will support Lieberman's effort and it should do so, wholeheartedly. A statement to that effect by President Obama when he meets Barzani would go a long way. Even better if the president in the meantime issued a directive to State and DHS instructing them to cease considering the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations for purposes of issuing visas.
Allow Visas to be Issued From Erbil. A related problem is that the U.S. Consulate in Kurdistan is not yet issuing visas. Instead, Kurds wishing to visit the United States must either take their chances by going to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (by all accounts, a nightmarish experience due to security precautions), or travel abroad to an American post in the Gulf or Turkey. On top of the hurdles already posed by the INA's restrictions, the additional time, expense, and hassle this process adds can quickly become prohibitive. The Obama administration should act soon to correct the situation, and fast-track a presidential decision to issue visas from Erbil.
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In my last post, I argued that evaluating progress in our war with al Qaeda is possible, but that we must first answer a series of questions, beginning with "What is al Qaeda?" In this post, I'll look at the second issue -- the problem of al Qaeda's objectives in their war. Only by understanding what the group aspires to achieve can we determine if they have succeeded in attaining their goals or not. As with the issue of defining al Qaeda, there are a variety of opinions within the expert community and the government about the group's strategic vision, a term that includes both objectives and plans for achieving them. Consistently, however, the U.S. government -- including both the Bush and Obama administrations -- has concluded that carrying out terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies is the key objective for "core" al Qaeda, while the affiliates are focused on local agendas (although they now also desire to carry out attacks on the U.S.).
There are, however, hints in official U.S. statements of quite a different set of objectives for the group. The declassified part of an April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), for instance, asserts that al Qaeda's political goal is an "ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world." In 2010, an official statement for the record of then-DNI Dennis Blair, listed the objectives for al Qaeda, besides attacking the U.S. and its allies, as "driving Western influence from Islamic lands" and "facilitating the establishment of sharia law in South Asia." A speech by John Brennan in 2011 gives a detailed look at how the U.S. defines al Qaeda's goals, proposing four separate objectives: first, to terrorize the U.S. into retreating from the world stage; second, to use long wars to financially bleed the U.S. while inflaming anti-American sentiment; third, to defend the rights of Muslims; and finally, claims al Qaeda has "a feckless delusion" and "grandiose vision" for global domination through a "violent Islamic caliphate."
A look at the public and private statements of al Qaeda's leaders supports the view that the group seeks to achieve far more than simply attacking the U.S. and its allies. In multiple statements, leaders like Zawahiri have consistently presented a series of objectives that al Qaeda is actively pursuing: liberating all "Muslim lands" from occupation by both non-Muslims and "apostate" rulers; imposing their version of sharia (Islamic law) on Muslims and non-Muslims alike in these lands; erecting then a state that they call the "caliphate;" and eventually making God's word the highest. This phrase, which means many things to Muslims, signifies just one thing for the extremists: that the entire world is ruled by their version of sharia.
It is significant that al Qaeda's lists of objectives do not mention attacking the United States or its allies. Rather, attacking the U.S. is presented as a way to achieve these goals, suggesting that U.S. evaluations of al Qaeda's effectiveness have a serious error at their very foundation: a confusion of our enemy's means and ends. The importance of this mistake cannot be understated. If al Qaeda's main goal is to attack the U.S. and our current counter-terrorism (CT) efforts have prevented the group from doing so, then we have succeeded not only in saving lives, but also have found how to stop the terrorists entirely. If, on the other hand, killing Americans was just one of the methods that al Qaeda has been employing on its way to other, larger goals, then our CT work might have only partially thwarted the group and there might be other areas where they have been more successful in reaching their goals.
In my next post, I'll take a look at the objectives that al Qaeda has said that it is pursuing, and attempt to bring some clarity to the question of how well the group has been doing in achieving them.
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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.