Does President Barack Obama bear any responsibility for the erosion of the political-military situation in Iraq? Few topics provoke a more violent knee-jerk reaction among the Bush-hating, Obama-defending crowd than Iraq.
If you point out something good about the current American position in Iraq, that crowd credits Obama. If you point out something bad, that crowd blames Bush. Is the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq good? It is one of Obama's signature foreign-policy achievements. Is it bad? The agreement to remove the troops was negotiated by George W. Bush. If you try to inject any nuance or complexity into that simplistic formula, the trolls come out faster than you can say "Halloween."
If this were just an issue of hypocrisy in Internet debates, it would not be a blogworthy matter. But as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's visit to Washington this week reminds us, this is actually a matter of urgent national security for the United States.
I have never seen a knowledgeable expert systematically rebut the case for assigning Obama some blame for the current situation.
But given how dire the situation is, perhaps it is a mistake for those of us who worry about Iraq to focus on assigning blame.
Perhaps the better question is this: Is the best policy for the United States to pursue in Iraq the one that has guided the Obama administration for the last five years? Or is it time for Obama to shift gears, perhaps even to invest some (admittedly limited and perhaps dwindling) presidential capital in forging a different kind of relationship with Maliki?
Is there someone out there arguing that Obama's approach is working? I would like to see that argument. I think it is a hard case to make, but I could imagine someone making a more limited case: that Obama's approach is the least worst of all the bad alternatives out there. Even so, I am skeptical, and I have not seen the administration make even that more limited case in a convincing way.
Maliki's visit forces the administration to talk about Iraq in a way that it has been reluctant to do for a while. The bad news elsewhere gives the administration an added incentive. Perhaps this week we will see a convincing explanation for why business as usual is the best approach in Iraq. Or perhaps we will see the administration make a change, and make a case for that change.
Photo: MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war. He could not have conveyed any more clearly that irrespective of consequences, the U.S. military was leaving Iraq. His administration put in place an arbitrary "end of combat operations" in August 2009 and announced that all U.S. forces would leave Iraq by December 2011. Negotiations with the Iraqi government over the residual U.S. military presence were explicit that the mission of those forces was only advising and training the Iraqi military. And when the Iraqi government balked at granting blanket immunity to U.S. forces, the Obama administration took no for an answer and withdrew.
The retreat was camouflaged by "the largest U.S. diplomatic operation since the Marshall Plan," a triumph of soft power that was so dangerously beyond the State Department's capabilities and so poorly attuned to Iraqi needs that despite 17,000 people, it was ineffectual. It was quickly reduced to 5,000 (including contractors), and even that will be cut by two-thirds this year. U.S. soft power has had no demonstrable effect on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's choices to use the means of state power to move against political rivals and non-Shiites, allow Iran to ferry weapons through Iraq, support Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and deny the United States political cooperation on virtually every issue in the Middle East. The day Maliki returned from meeting with Obama, he issued an arrest order for his (Sunni) deputy; his (Sunni) finance minister was also raided by security forces. Sectarian violence has escalated horrifically, now killing a thousand Iraqis a month. We enabled a descent into authoritarianism.
Obama's "responsible withdrawal" squandered U.S. success in Iraq, and the administration now looks to be replicating that failure in Afghanistan. The president began his Afghanistan "surge" by announcing its end date, a timeline unencumbered by achieving its objectives. Predictably, the political result negated the military effort, with all affected parties gaming the U.S. exit. The White House established a 2014 end date to combat operations and accelerated withdrawal plans corresponding with no discernible (foreign) political or military objective -- it does, however, align with the president's (domestic) political objective of "the tide of war receding."
The corresponding "civilian surge" that would place diplomatic engagement and development assistance at the forefront of the U.S. effort never materialized; the inspector general reports so little accountability for aid that we're actually funding the enemy. The administration has declined to outline its plans for the U.S. mission on Afghanistan after 2014 despite pleas from military leaders and even the administration's civilian supporters like Michèle Flournoy that it is essential to keeping Afghanistan cooperative in our war efforts.
Afghanistan has repeatedly conveyed its support for a continued U.S. military presence after 2014. In the past two months, the Obama White House has started making petulant statements about losing patience with negotiations on the agreement that would apply to U.S. forces after 2014. The White House has now regaled the Washington Post with the -- presumably classified -- details of a video conference in which "President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014."
The sticking point in the agreement under negotiation is not immunity for U.S. military forces (as it was in Iraq). What Karzai reportedly wants is intelligence sharing and a commitment to defend Afghanistan against external invasion. Presumably intelligence sharing is workable, since if the United States is supporting Afghan military operations that will need to occur -- which leaves the defense question. The Obama White House considers this beyond the pale as it would require Senate ratification. It is a big ask, to be sure, but not an unreasonable one from a country that has been subject to much Pakistani malfeasance. And one that ought to be subject to creative solutions -- the United States is committed to the protection of many countries with which it does not have explicit defense treaties. Karzai is being unduly demanding because we have been unreliable in our dealings with him. He's not wrong to doubt us.
The fundamental error in the Obama Administration's policies toward weak states is that the policies expect the threat of abandonment to produce brave political choices consistent with U.S. interests. Either Obama genuinely doesn't care what happens in Afghanistan after 2014, or he believes that publicly conveying threats to Karzai will produce a positive outcome. It won't.
Iraq's intransigence, rapid descent into violence, and choices that impede American policies show that it won't. Societies emerging out of political violence have very low levels of social trust, weak institutions of governance, and simmering political feuds with deep roots that only sustained, predictable, active involvement can contain and eventually overcome. They expect us to abandon them because that is their experience. Our challenge is conveying a reliable, long-term commitment.
Iraq had many more advantages presaging success than does Afghanistan; correspondingly, we should expect Afghanistan to fragment more quickly, become prey to outside actors -- states and terrorist organizations -- and have fewer means to sustain what positive trends exist. Obama is so clearly conveying his indifference in Afghanistan that Karzai and others would be crazy not to position themselves to benefit from the U.S. withdrawal rather than make the difficult political choices that would enable a continued U.S. presence. That's what Maliki did in Iraq.
Our involvement in Iraq actually went a long way in a short time to foster positive political developments in that country; we have not had corresponding effect in Afghanistan. That should argue for more patience, not less. Because if Iraq could become this devastated in the space of two years after American withdrawal, Afghanistan will fracture even more quickly. Thinking they are a danger only to themselves, content to fight the "near enemy" within Iraq and Afghanistan rather than continue threatening us, is terrifyingly shortsighted, given the way al Qaeda has metastasized. Obama should be doing an awful lot more to ensure that doesn't happen on his watch. He should start by retracting his ultimatum; unless he does, Afghanistan will go the way of Iraq.
Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Costly U.S. military occupations that go poorly can have the unintended side effect of bolstering the al Qaeda threat. That is a lesson of the Iraq war. But we are learning that noninterventions (Syria) and hyper-light-footprint interventions (Libya) can also bolster al Qaeda. And while it is too soon for a final judgment, since all are still works in progress (or perhaps dysfunctions in regress), it may be that on the narrow question of which approach sets back al Qaeda the most, the correct answer would surprise critics of the American military: Al Qaeda may well have been hurt far more by what the United States did in Iraq than by what the United States has not done in Syria, or barely done in Libya.
The devolution of the Iraq war from the rapid overthrow of Saddam Hussein into the long, hard slog of the occupation and counterinsurgency proved to be a temporary bonanza for al Qaeda. The Iraq war became a rallying cry, and would-be terrorists flocked to Iraq in order to kill Americans, just as a generation earlier they had flocked to Afghanistan to kill Soviets. The Iraqi franchise of the terrorist network, al Qaeda in Iraq, benefited from the influx and, for a time, threatened to be the "stronger horse" that Osama bin Laden had hoped al Qaeda would be. Many critics pointed out the tragic irony that a war that George W. Bush's administration launched partly in the hopes of weakening al Qaeda by eliminating one potential source of weapons of mass destruction would actually have the opposite effect. In fact, if the United States could have been driven from Iraq in defeat, the war might actually have had the result of culminating bin Laden's original strategy for 9/11: a spectacular defeat of the United States that would expose it in the eyes of Muslim communities as a "paper tiger," forcing it to retreat from the region in disgrace and thus leaving America's partners at the mercy of the rising al Qaeda "stronger horse."
That arguably was the trajectory the Iraq war was on in 2006 and, but for Bush's surge, might have been the result. One of the ironies of history is that the U.S. critics of the Iraq war might have been able to prove themselves right if they had succeeded in thwarting the surge, as they tried to do in 2007.
However, as we now know, the critics were unable to stop Bush's surge. It was implemented and it reversed the trajectory, and by 2009, al Qaeda in Iraq was strategically spent. Iraq was no longer the rallying cry, and the safe havens were shut down. (To be sure, the al Qaeda network in Iraq has shown signs of reviving in recent years due to bad decisions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the recent erosion in Iraq owes more to U.S. noninterference than it does to interference.)
Which brings us to the examples of Syria and Libya. The situations there are very bleak. U.S. officials now believe Syria has become the global focal point for the war on terror. Would-be terrorists are flocking to Syria as they once flocked to Iraq, and they are finding safe havens for what I call the "weaponization of resentment" -- turning individuals with an ideology of political grievance into militant terrorists. Syria now looks to be facing the same worst-case scenario we faced in Iraq: devolution into distinct enclaves, some of which will be controlled by the most radical elements of the al Qaeda network. We will never know for certain whether another policy would have avoided this -- perhaps more muscular support for moderate rebels earlier, as several of Barack Obama's advisors wanted but the president vetoed. But we do know that this is the fruit of the policy choices we and others have taken.
In Libya, the United States tried something in between the inaction of Syria and the costly occupation of Iraq. There, too, the results look bleak. Ever since the terrorist attack against America's Benghazi compound last year, it has been obvious that the security situation in Libya has deteriorated sharply from the early promising signs of late fall of 2011. This Saturday's raid has drawn attention to this unraveling, leading some to speculate that Libya is on the brink of collapse. The loosely controlled weapons arsenals in Libya are already fueling conflict throughout the region and post-Qaddafi Libya may be a net exporter of instability.
We learned in Iraq that intervention can lead to occupation and many unintended consequences that cost far more than what proponents of the policy expected. But we also learned that seeing that policy through to a successful conclusion may achieve markedly better outcomes vis-à-vis the terrorist network than are otherwise available after the proverbial Rubicon has been crossed.
We are learning in Syria and Libya that policies of nonintervention (refusing to cross the Rubicon) and halfhearted intervention (leading from behind) seem cheaper in the short run but may prove to be quite costly in the long run. Indeed, in the worst case, al Qaeda could regain in Syria and Libya what it lost in Iraq.
Photo: ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images
Something quite extraordinary -- perhaps even historic -- is afoot in Turkey. The country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is engaged in a colossal roll of the political dice, an act of statesmanship, ambition, and hubris largely without parallel on the current world stage. At one and the same time, Erdogan appears set on a course that could result not only in redefining the very nature of the modern Turkish nation-state, but in a radical revision of the Turkish Republic's core national security tenets as well. How the gambit plays out could have momentous implications for the future of Turkey, for sure, but also for the broader Middle East region and even the United States.
At the center of Erdogan's play is an effort to resolve Turkey's "Kurdish problem" -- the chronic, often bloody conflict that has torn at the fabric of the Turkish state since its founding 90 years ago. On one side: the highly exclusive Kemalist conception of Turkish citizenship that all but denied the existence of Kurdish ethnicity (no Kurds here, only "mountain Turks") and effectively banned Kurdish language, history, and culture from the nation's public life. On the other: a fiercely proud and distinct people, the Kurds, whose decades-long struggle for recognition and self-determination has -- not surprisingly -- regularly found expression in demands for independent nationhood, an ever-present separatist dagger pointed at the heart of Turkey's territorial integrity and unity. Since 1984, this clash of competing nationalisms has manifested itself most virulently in the brutal war waged against the Turkish state by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Leninist organization that both the United States and the European Union have officially designated as a terrorist group.
Now, in a bold and risky effort to cut through this Gordian knot, Erdogan has launched a new peace process in which his main partner is none other than Abdullah Ocalan, the infamous PKK leader who has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali since 1999. Revered by many (though by no means all) Kurds, Ocalan is reviled by the majority of ethnic Turks, condemned as a murderous enemy of the republic, a master terrorist whose hands are covered in the blood of innocents.
After months of secret negotiations with Erdogan's intelligence chief, Ocalan issued a dramatic cease-fire declaration from his jail cell on March 21, the Kurdish new year. The statement was presented publicly in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city in southeastern Turkey, where it was read out by Kurdish parliamentarians to a massive crowd waving Kurdish flags and portraits of the PKK leader. According to Ocalan, "A new era is beginning; arms are silencing; politics are gaining momentum. It is time for our [PKK] armed entities to withdraw [from Turkey]." Ocalan condemned as "an inhuman invention" past efforts to form states "on a single ethnicity and nation." Today, he stated, "everybody is responsible for the creation of a free, democratic, and egalitarian country that suits well with the history of Kurdistan and Anatolia."
There are many ways that painful lessons from the Iraq war have been shaping or will come to shape Obama's Syria policy. Here are two I have not seen discussed much yet:
1. The public punishes policy failure even if it supported the policy initially. Bush's Iraq policies were very popular at the outset. Over time, however, the policies looked less and less successful, and by the darkest days of the war, it looked like the American mission might end in a fiasco. The downward policy trajectory contributed directly to a downward trajectory in public opinion. Yes, there were other reasons -- such as the failure to find WMD -- but the negative fortunes of the war were significant. The fact that large majorities of the public approved of the invasion at the outset did not protect the policy when the war turned south.
Obama faces precisely this risk on Syria. His current policy of not intervening decisively is popular enough -- the polls show at best modest support for military intervention if WMD has been used and at worst profound reluctance about shouldering additional burdens in the region. Obama, in his ambivalence, has the comfort of being aligned with the public today. But this is a cold comfort, since his policy is failing, every bit and perhaps more so than Bush's Iraq policy during the war's darkest days. Once the public concludes that Obama has failed in Syria, it will not matter much that they initially supported the policies that yielded this failure.
2. Doing the right thing belatedly can rescue the policy without restoring public support for the policy. President Bush turned around the Iraq War by authorizing the surge in 2007. This came late in the war but not too late to turn Iraq from a trajectory of failure to something much better. The surge not only reversed the situation in Iraq, it also changed the political reality at home. Iraq went from being a seething issue that was dominating the political stage to an issue largely devoid of political sting. By the time President Obama took office, the political pressure had been so drained from the Iraq issue that he had a virtual free hand to conduct Iraq policy as he saw fit, jettisoning campaign promises and rhetoric along the way. However, the surge came too late to change the public's overall estimation of the Iraq war. Today clear majorities deem it a mistake, not worth the cost -- and at best a "stalemate," not a "victory" (albeit it neither a "defeat"). Had the surge and its fruits come earlier in the course of the war when support for the war was higher, perhaps the surge would have been able to do more than simply take the political sting out of the war -- it might even have convinced more of the public to stick with their initial support.
Obama seems to be inching toward intervening more aggressively in Syria. At this point, the prospects for that intervention look bleak. But even if the supporters of this option are right, and it is not too late for American action to decisively shift U.S. Syria policy toward something less than a fiasco, it may be too late for the public to see Syria as a success and to credit President Obama accordingly.
Of course, President Obama, like President Bush before him, should do what is in the best interests of the country regardless of the impact on public opinion. But political White Houses do care about political consequences, and in that regard the lessons from Iraq are bleak.
Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images
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.
SABAH ARAR/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
Here on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I wonder how long it will be before we can discuss the war free from the contamination of myths. It may be sooner than many myth-purveyors expect. Just listen to this lecture by Mel Leffler, one of the leading historians of American diplomacy. He has been a harsh critic of Bush-era diplomacy and his speech does accept some of the conventional critique (specifically about the "hubris" of the Bush administration), but his analysis is far more balanced than the conventional wisdom on the topic. All in all, Leffler's analysis is a promising example of myth-busting.
For my part, the myths that get thrown at me most often have to do with why the war happened in the first place. Here are five of the most pervasive myths:
1. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it thought (or claimed to think) Iraq had been behind the 9/11 attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration did explore the possibility that Hussein might have collaborated with al Qaeda on the attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney (along with some officials in the secretary of defense's office) in particular believed this hypothesis had some merit, and in the early months gave considerable weight to some tantalizing evidence that seemed to support it. However, by the fall of 2002 when the administration was in fact selling the policy of confronting Hussein, the question of a specific link to 9/11 was abandoned and Cheney instead emphasized the larger possibility of collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda. We now know that those fears were reasonable and supported by the evidence captured in Iraq after the invasion. This has been documented extensively through the work of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), which examined the captured files of the Hussein regime. A 2012 International Studies Association panel sponsored by the CRRC on "Saddam and Terrorism" was devoted to this topic and spent quite a bit of time demonstrating how those who insist that there were no links whatsoever simply rely on a poorly worded sentence referencing "no smoking gun" of a "direct connection" in the executive summary of the 2007 "Iraqi Perspectives Project - Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Documents" report and ignore the evidence of links and attempted connections uncovered in the report itself as well as subsequent work by the project.
2. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it wanted to forcibly democratize Iraq. The administration was, in the end, committed to using force to defend the democratization project in Iraq but this myth has the logical sequence out of order. The correct sequence, as Leffler and myriad memoirs and contemporaneous reporting demonstrate, is this: (1) Bush was committed to confronting Iraq because of the changed risk calculus brought about by 9/11, which heightened our sensitivity to the nexus of WMD and terrorism (believing that state sponsors of terrorism who had WMD would be a likely pathway by which terrorist networks like al Qaeda could secure WMD); (2) Bush was also committed not to making the mistake of Desert Storm, namely stopping the war with Hussein still in power and concluded that confronting Hussein must end with either full capitulation by Hussein or regime change through war; (3) given regime change, the best option for the new Iraq was one based on pluralism and representative government rather than a "man on horseback" new dictator to take Hussein's place. To be sure, the Bush administration greatly underestimated the difficulty of the democratization path, but democratization was not the prime motivation -- confronting the WMD threat was. Democratization was the consequence of that prime motivation.
3. The "real" motivation behind the Iraq war was the desire to steal Iraqi oil, or boost Halliburton profits, or divert domestic attention from the Enron scandal, or pay off the Israel lobby, or exact revenge on Hussein for his assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush. These conspiracy theories are ubiquitous on the far left (and right) fringes, and some of them were endorsed by mainstream figures such as President Obama himself. All of them seem impervious to argument, evidence, and reason. The absence of evidence is taken as proof of the strength of the conspiracy. Contrary evidence -- eg., that Israel was more concerned about the threat from Iran than the threat from Iraq -- is dismissed. Mel Leffler's lecture on Iraq is a bracing tonic of reason that rebuts many of these nutty charges, but I suppose true believers will never be convinced.
4. What Frank Harvey calls the "neoconism" myth -- that the Iraq war was forced upon the country by a cabal of neoconservatives, who by virtue of their political skill and ruthless disregard for truth were able to "manipulate the preferences, perceptions and priorities of so many other intelligent people..." who otherwise would never have supported the Iraq war. Frank Harvey painstakingly reconstructs the decision process in 2002 and documents all of the ways that the Bush administration took steps contrary to the "neoconism" thesis -- eg., working through the United Nations and seeking Congressional authorization rather than adopting the unilateralist/executive-only approach many Iraq hawks were urging. (Leffler makes similar points in his lecture). Harvey goes on to make an intriguing case that had Al Gore won the election in 2000, he would have likely authorized the Iraq war just as Bush did. Harvey has not fully convinced me of the latter, but he usefully rebuts much sloppy mythologizing about Gore's foreign policy views, documenting how Gore was, in fact, the most hawkish of officials on Iraq in the Clinton administration. At a minimum, Harvey proves that the Iraq war owed more to the Clinton perspective than it did to then-candidate George W. Bush's worldview as expressed during the 2000 campaign. The neoconism myth serves a politically useful function of fixing all blame on a specific group of Republicans, but, as Harvey shows, the truth is not quite so simplistic.
5. Bush "lied" in making the case for war. I have addressed this myth before. It is a staple of the anti-Iraq/anti-Bush commentary -- and not just of the pseudonymous trolls in blog comment sections. John Mearsheimer, one of the most influential security studies academics, has written a book built around the claim that leaders regularly lie and that Bush in particular lied about Iraq. Mearsheimer claims "four key lies," each one carefully rebutted by Mel Leffler.
When one examines the historical record more fairly, as Leffler does, the "lying" myth collapses. This doesn't absolve the Bush administration of blame, but it does mean that those who allege "lying" are themselves as mistaken as are the targets of their critique.
All of these myths add up to the uber-myth: That the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were all wrong and the arguments made against the Iraq war were all right. Sometimes this is recast as "those who supported the Iraq war were always wrong and those who opposed the Iraq war were always right." Of course, many of the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were wrong. Hussein had not yet made by 2002 the progress in reviving his WMD programs that most intelligence services thought he had made. Many specific claims about specific WMD programs turned out to be not true.
On the other hand, many of the arguments made by those who opposed the Iraq war turned out not to be correct, either. For instance, Steve Walt cites favorably a New York Times advertisement paid for by a group of academics (virtually all of whom I consider to be friends, by the way). Some of their arguments were prescient, more prescient than the contrary claims by war supporters -- the warning about the need to occupy Iraq for many years, for example -- but others not so much. It turns out, for instance, that there is considerable evidence of Iraq-al Qaeda overtures and attempted coordination, precisely what the Bush administration worried about. Likewise, contrary to what the war critics warned, neither Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons nor their skill at urban warfare posed much of an obstacle to the invasion -- of course, insurgency tactics such as urban warfare did pose serious obstacles to the occupation and reconstruction phase of the conflict.
Moreover, Walt and the others he cites favorably almost to a person opposed the surge in 2007, and while some of them now admit that they were wrong about this others still cling to the thoroughly rebutted view that the surge was irrelevant to the change in Iraq's security trajectory. (Ironically, the debate over the surge may be where the grip of mythology lingers the longest. See how Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in an otherwise sensible piece of myth-busting, makes the error of claiming that it is a myth to believe that the surge worked. I have already answered the argument put forward by Chandrasekaran and others and so won't take the time to do it again.)
The point is not that Walt and others were fools or crazy to doubt that the surge would work -- on the contrary, they were squarely within the mainstream of conventional wisdom at the time. Rather, the point is that neither side in the Iraq debate has had a monopoly on wisdom.
I know I haven't had a monopoly on wisdom either and, indeed, my own personal views on Iraq have evolved over time. I opposed putting the Iraq issue on the front-burner in the 2001-2002 time frame and refused to sign a petition arguing for that because I thought the higher priority involved chasing AQ out of ungoverned areas. When the Bush administration did put the Iraq issue on the front-burner over the summer of 2002, I found the arguments of Bush opponents to be over-drawn and unconvincing -- in particular, the anti-Bush position seemed not to take seriously enough the fact that the U.N. inspections regime had collapsed nor that the sanctions regime was in the process of collapsing -- and so I found myself often critiquing the critics. I found the Bush argument that Hussein was gaming the sanctions and poised to redouble his WMD efforts when the sanctions finally collapsed to be a more plausible account of where things were heading absent a confrontation (and as we now know from the interviews with Hussein after his capture that was exactly what he was planning to do).
However, as the march to war accelerated in February 2003, I was one of those who recommended to the administration that the deadline be extended in the hopes of getting yet another UNSC resolution, one that would provide a united international front at the outset of the war. The administration rejected that course, and, in retrospect, I doubt whether what I was calling for was achievable.
Since the war started, I have had my fair share of criticisms for how the war has been handled, but I have always supported the position that having invaded, we now had to succeed. I supported the surge, and I opposed the Obama administration's decision to walk away from the commitment for a small stay-behind force that would be a makeweight in internal and regional balances of power.
I feel more confident about the positions I took on Iraq later in the war than the ones at the outset. But more importantly, I am increasingly confident that the judgment of history will be more nuanced and less simplistic than the judgment of contemporary critics of the war. And, hopefully, less contaminated by myth.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Obama supporters are becoming some of the most interesting critics of Obama foreign policy. There has always been a vibrant Republican critique of the President, and for years there has been a far-left fringe-Democrat bill of particulars as well. But in recent months some of the most trenchant of the critiques have come from center-left Democrats, echoing (usually without acknowledging it) the long-standing arguments made by Republicans.
I have noted this phenomenon before, calling attention to the complaints of otherwise ardent Obama supporters: see David Rothkopf, David Ignatius, Rosa Brooks, or Tom Ricks. Since then there have been more: Rachel Kleinfeld's blunt deconstruction of the President's policies on Syria; Bob Woodward's correction of the record on Obama's attempt to disassociate himself from the sequester; and David Brooks' uncharacteristic lament about Obama's irresponsibility alongside his customary critique of Republican irresponsibility.
To be sure, other loyal Obama supporters have pushed back. Ezra Klein tried and so far failed to beat Woodward back on the sequester issue. Klein had more success in getting David Brooks to recant. (The Klein-Brooks exchange is doubly revealing, since Brooks acknowledged up front that his original column was hyperbolic, but neither he nor Klein expressed any interest in exploring the ways the hyperbole distorted the role of Republicans. They only focused on correcting alleged distortions regarding Obama.)
Yet there does seem to be a turning of the tide, a return to something closer to the even-handed and candid assessment of Obama's strengths and weaknesses that has been missing in the mainstream media. The moment is ripe for a Big Think attempt to stitch the critiques together and, if sneak-previews are a reliable indication of what is to come, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation may win the intellectual sweepstakes. Like the other recent critics, Nasr has been a supporter of President Obama -- he held an advisory position at the State Department in the first term, working for the late Richard Holbrooke. According to early reviews by Richard Cohen and by Roger Cohen, much of the book appears to be score-settling, defending Holbrooke's uneven performance as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and blaming policy failures on backstabbing by White House officials.
However, Nasr goes beyond that to make an overarching claim that President Obama has subordinated foreign policy and national security to domestic partisan politics. Thus, regardless of the issue -- how to win in Afghanistan, how to stop the Syrian civil war, how to manage the post-Qaddafi mess in Libya -- Nasr claims that Obama interprets the American national interest through the parochial lens of Obama's own partisan political interests. The line between foreign policy and domestic politics has been erased.
This is not a new critique. Republicans have leveled it at Obama before. It was a staple of Democratic criticism of President George W. Bush -- including, ironically, then-State Senator Barack Obama in his famous speech against the Iraq war. And it was a staple of criticism of President Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the reported thesis of Nasr's book prompted me to dig through my archives to find one of the more obscure publications of my professional career: "The Domestication of Foreign Policy," published in the American Foreign Policy Interests back in 1998. In that long-forgotten piece, I took as my point of departure Aaron Wildavsky's "two president's thesis" -- the idea that presidents could conduct foreign policy in a way very different from how they conduct domestic policy because of the greater role of domestic political considerations in the latter area -- and argued that President Clinton had presided over the death of the thesis. All the constraints of domestic politics, and thus all of the domestic political approaches and orientations, applied with equal force under Clinton whether the issue was domestic or foreign policy. What foreign policy pundits considered contradictory in Clinton's foreign policy was merely the side-effect of this domestication process.
I attributed this to deep causes -- the absence of an urgent existential threat and the rise of media and public opinion influences -- and also to proximate causes. The deep causes still apply, but what is striking is how much the proximate causes echo between Clinton's first term and Obama's current situation:
Clinton evolved in the second term, with a more forceful and, in some ways, more successful foreign policy in the second term than he was credited with in the first. But it is the first term mark that provides the apples-to-apples comparison with Obama. All of these apply with equal if not greater force to the Obama Administration. Only on one proximate cause of the domestication of foreign policy does Obama differ markedly from Clinton's first term: Clinton engaged promiscuously (compared with Bush 41's caution) but Obama has been even more cautious about global engagement than Bush 41, far more than Bush 43 or Clinton. This is because Obama learned a lesson that eluded Clinton in his first term: Public opinion frowns on engagements that are well-intentioned but fail.
What remains to be seen is whether the public also frowns on non-engagements that are well-meant but fail. Rwanda was that for Clinton, and it looms much larger today in the reckoning than it did as it was unfolding. Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda. The growing voices of once-friendly critics indicate that at least some influential members of his own team think so.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The United States, protected by two oceans and with a global range of allies and interests, has found for a century that it must go abroad to shape and lead a dangerous world. But President Barack Obama seems, in some respects, to prefer to stay home. Whereas George W. Bush's foreign policy was maximalist, Obama's is minimalist. A foreign policy assessment only halfway through his presidency is no doubt unfair -- he may yet vanquish Iran's nuclear weapons program, put an overdue end to Syria's bloody civil war, stand down Chinese aggression in Asian waters, and oversee a historic wave of trade liberalization. But he has not yet. The Obama Doctrine appears less ambitious. Here are its elements to date:
Nation-building at home, not abroad. President Obama took office so determined to "end the war" in Iraq that he failed to negotiate a follow-on force to sustain stability there. In Afghanistan, after a decade of allied sacrifice and real gains, the administration astonishingly is now flirting with the "zero option" of leaving no U.S. forces there after 2014. Obama prefers to focus on "nation-building at home." But will he be able to if Iraq or Afghanistan backslide into civil war, or if Syria's violent spillover engulfs the Middle East? For all the tactical efficacy of drone strikes, the United States cannot possibly defeat terrorism without at the same time working to build free and prosperous societies in countries, like Pakistan, that nurture it.
Resisting transformationalism. Notwithstanding excellent speeches about bridging the gap between America and the Muslim world, President Obama has treaded more gingerly in his policies. He did not support Iran's Green Revolution and has stood back from the opportunities inherent in the Arab Awakening, allowing post-strongman societies in the Middle East to devise new political arrangements for themselves. Obama has a nuanced understanding of the limits of power and the tragedy of international politics from his oft-cited reading of Reinhold Niebuhr. But the greater tragedy may be declining to use America's great power to more actively support Arab and Iranian liberals desperate to build free societies against fierce opposition from Islamist and ancien regime forces.
"Leading from behind." In Libya, Syria, and now Mali, we have seen Washington's European allies push for, or carry out themselves, armed interventions to uphold human rights and regional stability. Americans are used to being the hawks in world affairs, and Europeans the doves -- but those roles have reversed under President Obama. This turns the transatlantic bargain on its head: Europeans now seem more concerned with policing out-of-area crises, with America playing a supporting role. But is such passivity really in Washington's interest? Can Europe really lead in matters of war and peace without America at the front?
Rebalancing American power toward Asia. America's "pivot" has been welcomed in much of Asia and across party lines in Washington. But as Joseph Nye argues, the United States has been pivoting to Asia since the end of the Cold War. It would be more accurate to say that Obama himself pivoted away from seeking a G-2 condominium with China to balancing against it. His administration's support for liberalization in Myanmar has been historic -- but senior U.S. officials say the process is driven by Naypyidaw, not Washington. It is also unclear if the pivot is more than a rhetorical policy; President Obama has already authorized defense budget cuts of nearly $900 million and supports more.
Unsentimentality towards allies. Even amidst the rebalance, Asian allies like Japan and friends like India have felt neglected by this American president. Similarly, Obama's attention to the transatlantic relationship seems inversely proportional to the affection Europeans feel for him. Despite significant defense transfers, the U.S. administration appears as concerned with preventing Israel from attacking Iran as preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Hard-headedness is a virtue in international relations. America's allies, however, expect it to be directed more at U.S. adversaries than at our friends.
A trade policy high in ambition, if not results. President Obama commendably seeks to double U.S. exports as part of an economic recovery program. His administration has sketched out a transformative vision of an Atlantic marketplace and a Trans-Pacific Partnership. But movement on both has been very slow -- at least as slow as the three years it took for Obama to send Congress free trade agreements, with Korea and other countries, negotiated by his predecessor. The potential for an ambitious trade opening is promising -- if Obama can deliver.
President John F. Kennedy said America would pay any price and bear any burden in support of liberty. President Obama has made clear that under his leadership, America will not do quite so much. But strategic minimalism and a focus on the domestic means problems abroad only grow, inevitably pulling America into crises on less favorable terms. The world looks to America for strategic initiative to solve its thorniest problems. At the moment, demand for this leadership is greater than supply.
This article appeared over the weekend in the special Security Times edition prepared for the Munich Conference on Security Policy and published by Germany's Times Media. The paper as it appeared in print is available at www.times-media.de .
John Gurzinski/Getty Images
For the past several years, I have been writing the blogging equivalent of a requiem for the passing of the "war of necessity vs. war of choice" rhetorical device (see here, here, here, here, and here).
This rhetorical device was patented by Richard Haass but wielded to good political effect by Team Obama in the earliest days of their tenure. The device overlaid the familiar but subjective "good war vs. bad war" template with another one that had the appearance of objectivity: the template of necessity. Some wars, it was argued, were so obviously right that they had to be fought. By contrast, other wars were so dubious they were practically frivolous flights of fancy.
The rhetorical device was flawed as a basis for analysis. It turned out "wars of necessity" (like Desert Storm) were hotly debated at the time with people of good will disagreeing as to how necessary they really were. They were, in other words, choices every bit as tough as the wars denounced as wars of choice. But as a political club for beating opponents, the framework served Obama's purposes nicely -- at least in 2009.
Back then, Obama argued that Afghanistan was a war of necessity -- unlike the war of choice (read: frivolous, stupid, pointless) in Iraq. Countries should win wars of necessity and end wars of choice. Ergo: surge in Afghanistan and abandon Iraq. Back then, the war in Afghanistan was popular and the war in Iraq was not, so the framework nicely provided a national interest rationale for doing what seemed politically expedient.
Of course, today both wars are unpopular and as the tide of public support ebbed away, so too did talk about the necessity of fighting and prevailing in Afghanistan. Last weekend's meetings between President Obama and President Karzai dramatically underscored how far the Obama Team has left the "war of necessity" frame in its rear-view mirror, as Kori Schake's excellent analysis shows.
It turns out, President Obama believes we can end a war of necessity much the same way he ended a war of choice: by leaving and letting the locals sort it out for themselves. That has not worked out well in Iraq, and the prospects of it working well in Afghanistan seem even more remote. (For what it is worth, it also hasn't worked too well in the "war of choice" that Obama chose to initiate: Libya.)
But walking away from a "war of necessity" might last for a decent interval, long enough for Obama to ponder the many potential "wars of choice" that darken his horizon, from Mali to Syria to Iran to North Korea.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
It is striking how closely the Obama administration is following the Iraq withdrawal playbook in Afghanistan. There are numerous and important differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but President Obama is making the exact same policy choices to "wind down" the war in Afghanistan that he made in Iraq. And in both cases, it amounts to writing off the war.
The Obama administration hasn't had a strategy in either war, it has had a military strategy. In both cases, that military strategy produced military gains; in both cases those military gains were ephemeral because advances were in no way supported by political or economic lines of operations to consolidate and capitalize on our military success. The State Department's grand plans for the transition to civilian activity in Iraq are in ashes. If there was a "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, it was completely ineffectual.
In both cases President Obama had a political strategy grounded in the belief that leaders in those countries would not make the politically difficult choices needed unless faced with the imminent end of our support. Thus the timeline-driven exit in both cases. In Iraq, it resulted in a mad scramble for political control: the stalemate over Parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Maliki using the apparatus of the state to punish political adversaries. That mad scramble has been underway in Afghanistan and the region since President Obama announced in December 2009 our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and most evident in the hedging choices of the government of Pakistan, without whose collaboration our strategy could not succeed.
In both cases President Obama doubted the efficacy of a surge of troops: on Iraq he insisted the surge couldn't work, on Afghanistan he set a time limit and reportedly told military commanders this was all they were getting. If they couldn't produce a victory in that time, he would wind down our involvement.
In both cases, President Obama publicly declaring our withdrawal created a political dynamic in which leaders had strong incentives to make us look pushed out; otherwise they would look abandoned, weakening them domestically. Thus Maliki's resistance to immunity for American soldiers; thus Karzai's cavalcade of anti-American statements and actions. Their resistance feeds into the president's belief that they are undeserving of our sacrifices, and best left to their own fates instead of coached and set up to be successful. President Karzai said after meeting President Obama that "numbers [of American troops] aren't going to make a difference in Afghanistan." Expect President Obama to give that theory a test.
In both cases, our exit bore no connection to achievement of our objectives. In Iraq the timeline was supposed to allow for a stable political transition. Manipulation by Maliki of the outcome of spring 2010 Parliamentary elections seized up politics in Iraq for a year and a half while our drawdown proceeded apace and Generals Odierno and Austin disavowed any connection between our withdrawal and political fracture. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has trumpeted building security forces that can undertake the crucial work Americans have been doing. The December 2012 Pentagon report on Afghan security forces concluded that only 1 of 23 Afghan brigades can operate without our support. If achieving our objectives mattered to President Obama, that information should prompt a serious review of our timeline -- and extend it. Instead, he has accelerated our disengagement.
In both cases, the military advised more troops, more time, and broader objectives than the president accepted. It is the job of military leaders to provide the president their best military advice -- but warfare is a political undertaking, and the military cannot be expected to decide how much national effort to put toward the wars we are fighting. It is above their pay grade. We elect presidents to do that, and only they truly have the span of authority to make the trade offs between defending our country and other important endeavors. But that means blame for the outcome also belongs with the president and not the military leaders.
In both cases, President Obama instituted an end to military operations more than a year before the withdrawal of our military forces. In Iraq it was the August 2009 "end of combat operations;" on Friday, President Obama announced U.S. forces in Afghanistan would this spring limit themselves to supporting Afghan operations; by 2014 they will be limited to training Afghan forces. This effectively ends the practice of counterinsurgency. We will no longer protect Afghans, be dispersed throughout the country, or operate alongside Afghan military units. We're shrinking back onto a couple of large military bases that will protect us against attack ... and also against having an accurate intelligence picture to fuel those counterterrorist operations.
In both cases, President Obama has carried out the policies in slow motion, allowing months of news coverage about pending changes and options considered, such that when policies are implemented, they don't seem like news. Opponents have a harder time mobilizing support when there isn't an actual policy to counter, and by the time there is a policy, the public feels like they've heard this all before. It's the frog boiling strategy: make it happen slowly enough that we'll hardly notice.
Executing the Iraq playbook in Afghanistan will replicate the squandered Iraq gains in the war President Obama argued needed to be fought because he was "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan" as it was not in Iraq. Does President Obama genuinely expect a different outcome? Does he no longer believe the dire stakes that prompted his Afghanistan surge are at issue? Does he believe achieving our objectives is not worth the price? Does he believe America can buffer itself against a chaotic and dangerous world? Does he believe the wars he has prosecuted as commander in chief are unwinnable? If so, why has he allowed them to exact the terrible toll of lives lost?
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama is set to nominate Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and his team seems to relish the confirmation battle that will ensue. Obama is calculating that he will be able to rally enough wobbly Democrats and skeptical Republicans to overcome the strong opposition to Hagel. In the end, I think he is probably right: there is usually a strong presumption in favor of a president's nominee and Democrats will be loathe to hand the president another personnel defeat so soon after he was forced to back off nominating Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Lower ranking candidates are often stuck in limbo for long periods of time with senatorial holds, but it would be more unusual for one of the top cabinet positions to be blocked that way. Doubtless, Obama is calculating there will be lots of fireworks at the confirmation hearing, but eventually Hagel will get confirmed, albeit without the resounding and enthusiastic support that ushered in Obama's first two SecDef picks (Leon Panetta was confirmed unanimously and Robert Gates, received a 95-2 vote when nominated by President Bush. Quick trivia quiz: Who voted against Gates? Two Republicans, Sen. Jim Bunning and Sen. Rick Santorum, though Senators Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and Elizabeth Dole did not vote).
My bet is Obama will win this fight, which raises the question, what will he have won? Based on the commentary surrounding the Hagel nomination issue, perhaps the answer is that Obama could win another round in the fight to stigmatize support for the Iraq war. I reached this conclusion after reading two thoughtful pieces, one pro-Hagel and one anti-Hagel. Bill Kristol registers a strong critique of Senator Hagel and raises an important question: beyond the evident appeal of rebuking Obama's critics, what is the case for Hagel? And Peter Beinart indirectly offers an intriguing answer: rebuking Obama's critics is sufficient case for Hagel.
The battle over Hagel is a battle over the meaning of Iraq. The pro-Hagel faction has a distinctive interpretation of what happened in Iraq. They believe that invading Iraq was a strategic blunder so egregiously stupid that it could only be foisted on the American public through a coercive and deliberately deceptive propaganda campaign. The wisest people were those who always opposed Iraq (read: Obama), but those who voted for the use of force in Iraq can be forgiven for succumbing to this folly only if they quickly became vocal critics of the war (read: Hagel, Clinton, and Biden). Once the original folly of invading Iraq had been committed, there was only one plausible outcome: rapid strategic defeat for the United States and equally rapid withdrawal. The critics appeared to want this outcome to be cemented during the Bush presidency, perhaps so as to indelibly mark who was to blame for the fiasco, hence they vigorously opposed Bush's surge at the time and argued instead that U.S. troops should withdraw under fire regardless of the consequences in Iraq. The success of the surge in reversing Iraq's strategic trajectory was an awkward complication, but this faction ultimately overcame it by arguing, against all the evidence, that the surge was irrelevant to any possible positive development in Iraq. Importantly, this interpretation absolves the Obama administration of all responsibility for anything bad that happens in Iraq, thus any sins of omission or commission that occurred in Obama's first term are waived away as utterly inconsequential.
Hagel personifies this interpretation of Iraq -- indeed, he went so far as to claim that the surge was "the most dangerous blunder in this country since Vietnam." Note that: not the invasion of Iraq, but the surge in Iraq, the effort to reverse the strategic trajectory.
The anti-Hagel faction, of course, has a different interpretation of what happened in Iraq. Views on the ultimate wisdom of the initial invasion of Iraq vary widely among this group, but they share two common features: that the decision was (1) well-debated (no coercion or deception) and (2) reasonable, meaning that given the limits of what was known and the associated uncertainties, a reasonable policymaker could conclude that resorting to military force was an acceptable option to replace the collapsing (and believed to be failing) sanctions/inspections regime. With hindsight, one could argue that the decision was a mistake, maybe even a blunder, but not in a way that discredited all of the strategic judgments that led up to it. And, importantly, not in a way that dismissed the importance of all of the strategic judgments that came after it. An important part of this interpretation of Iraq is the claim that, once launched, the best strategic course for the United States was to seek success -- to fight until it could leave behind an Iraq that could govern itself democratically, defend itself, and be a U.S. ally in the fight against violent extremists in the region. By 2006 Iraq was not on a trajectory to success, but the surge changed that. Thus, while the surge may not have compensated in some moral or political sense for all mistakes that went before, it was certainly the right and consequential choice given where the country was in 2007. Finally, this faction argues that the last four years have been consequential as well, and that Obama's choices have resulted in an Iraq that is far less conducive to American national security interests than what other choices would have produced.
The debate over the historical meaning of Iraq matters because it has such obvious implications for the analogous challenge with Iran. Many of the pro-Hagel supporters openly acknowledge that they hope Hagel's pick signals that the President is willing to abandon the military option in dealing with Iran, for much the same reasons that they argue the option was disastrous in Iraq. President Obama has not publicly connected those dots, but I expect he will be challenged to explain whether that interpretation makes sense in the days to come.
By the way, the conventional wisdom is that Obama's other national security pick -- John Brennan for CIA director -- will sail through confirmation. I do think he will be readily confirmed, but I would not be surprised if some Senators used the hearings to register growing concern about President Obama's counter-terrorism policies, especially drone strikes. The Obama administration's drone strike program is broadly popular in the United States, but not among the left and libertarian-right flanks. Brennan is the face of that program -- to the extent that anyone is the face of a program operating so much in the shadows -- and so this will be the single best opportunity critics will have to register their concerns. (The program is under much greater pressure abroad, and I expect the President to have to spend considerable political capital abroad if he wants to maintain it at the level he set in the first term.)
Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama appears poised to nominate two senators for his top two national security cabinet posts.
Sen. John Kerry at State is a safe choice, a respite after the controversy swirling around the president's initial pick. He is one of the more experienced Democrats vying for the job and he has already worked well with the Obama administration on earlier diplomatic crises. Kerry will sail through the nomination process and may even generate enthusiasm from the Senate -- at least when compared with the controversy surrounding Obama's initial front-runner, Susan Rice.
Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense is a more difficult pick to judge. He is likely to be easy to confirm -- easier than Rice, anyway -- and some in the media will applaud. But whether he is the best choice for the times, and whether he can deliver on his putative selling point -- working with Congress -- is open to question.
Hagel is one of a handful of Republicans whose prominence in public life owes primarily to their willingness to criticize other Republicans. Given the adulation such figures enjoy from the mainstream media and academics, it is perhaps surprising that more politicians don't follow suit. Of course, every Republican will criticize some aspect or other of current Republican policies or practice, but there is a special category of politician for whom that is the primary stock in trade. You can spot such a politician; he is the one, when asked what he likes about Republicans, who responds with a reference to Eisenhower and quickly follows up with a tirade about current and recent leaders of the party.
Hagel is one of these sorts, especially on national security policy. He is a reliable quote criticizing the Bush administration or Sen. John McCain, or Republican hawks, or what-have-you on a wide range of issues. The problem with this is not that he is wrong or unique. On the contrary, he is rather conventional. He voted for the Iraq war in 2002, but then had doubts about the war. These doubts led him to strongly oppose the surge in 2007, along with most of the national security establishment. By itself, opposing the surge does not disqualify someone for higher national security office, but calling the surge "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam" does rather cast doubt on any claims to deep national security insight.
Perhaps more problematically, he has regularly voted against sanctions on Iran, apparently failing to understand how sanctions are a necessary component of any diplomatic negotiation. His opposition to coercive diplomacy with Iran may even put him to the dovish side of the Obama administration. And, as Bill Kristol points out, Hagel is hardly going to reassure Israel supporters that the Obama administration "has Israel's back," as the president likes to say.
Here's the thing: these views are utterly conventional in certain Democratic circles (academic circles, too). Some of Hagel's neo-isolationism even has distant echoes in the Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party. These views are not "beyond the pale" of reasonable defense discourse and they are fine on the academic talk circuit.
Where Hagel's views don't have much purchase is with Republicans in Congress. Yes, they might vote to confirm him on the grounds of senatorial courtesy, but they are not going to consider him a compelling voice on national security policy.
According to the Washington Post, the appeal of Hagel appears to be his putative ability to make Pentagon budget cuts palatable to a skeptical Congress. Obama's last cross-party secretary of defense, Robert Gates, did have a lot of influence among Republicans. Hagel is no Bob Gates. The only people whom Hagel will persuade are the already converted. (As a thought experiment, Democrats should ask themselves how many Democrats would have been reassured if a President Romney put Joe Lieberman at Defense?)
What does the case for Hagel reduce to? He is a Vietnam vet who has long supported Obama and opposed Republicans on national security. There are quite a few Democrats who fit that bill -- Jack Reed comes to mind. Hagel will likely be as effective a secretary of defense as Reed would be. That may be good enough for Obama. And since elections have consequences, I doubt that Hagel would be denied confirmation if appointed.
But let's not pretend that this is some grand bipartisan gesture that will help Obama's Defense Department work more productively with Congress.
MANNIE GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images
The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."
Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.
All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:
The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.
And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.
Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Greg Gause, an old grad student friend and one of the country's leading Middle East experts, takes a swing at me today over on FP's Middle East channel objecting to a piece I wrote about Biden's statements in the VP debate.
Gause is a good man (who was our only decent low-post threat on our grad basketball team) and is usually a thoughtful commentator, so I found his piece somewhat odd. Perhaps he unwittingly revealed his approach in his opening line: "When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent."
Switch the words incumbent and challenger in that sentence and you have Gause's blogpost in a nutshell, alas.
My original piece made three short claims:
1. Biden was wrong to mock Ryan for saying we would have been better off with a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that allowed for a substantial stay-behind force since that was precisely what Biden was seeking to negotiate. The military was hoping Biden would secure that SOFA and, in mocking Ryan, Biden was antagonizing the military, giving them reason to believe that the Obama team never was serious about negotiations.
2. Biden was wrong to pretend that it was the military rather than the civilian political leadership that decided on the arbitrary withdrawal timeline in Afghanistan.
3. Biden was wrong to pretend that it was the military rather than the civilian political leadership that decided on the deep cuts to the defense budget.
My piece was about the civil-military challenges that arise when political leadership order the military to do things that the military has advised against and then hide behind the military's obedience rather than accept responsibility for their own decisions.
Gause engages none of that. He doesn't rebut me by arguing the military welcomed Biden's comments. He doesn't rebut me by arguing that Biden's claims were actually correct.
Instead of engaging that argument, Gause pretends my piece was a claim that the Iraqis were irrelevant to the negotiations or that it would have been easy for Maliki to deliver on the SoFA. Of course, I do not make either claim. Following in the footsteps of his champion, Gause creates a strawman version of my argument -- "Feaver says it is all about us" -- and in the process of rebutting that, appears to advance an extraordinary claim of his own, namely that the actions of the Obama team were irrelevant to what happened in Iraq.
Gause devotes considerable effort to arguing that once Maliki wrested sole power from Allawi in the 2010 election, the failure of the SOFA negotiations was a foregone conclusion.
Gause may be right about the counterfactual, though it is curious that Gause doesn't mention that Vice President Biden made precisely the opposite boast. According to Michael Gordon: "Mr. Biden also predicted that the Americans could work out a deal with a government led by Mr. Maliki. 'Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise,' Mr. Biden said. 'I'll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA' he added, referring to the Status of Forces Agreement the Obama administration hoped to negotiate."
Gause doesn't mention that because his piece is not about what Obama did or did not do. In Gause's world, only Iraqi actors matter (at least from 2008 on -- one wonders whether Gause would have considered U.S. actions before, say, 20 January 2009, to have consequence and therefore be worth analyzing and perhaps even critiquing.) The closest Gause comes to evaluating Obama's actions is one throwaway sentence: "One might criticize the Obama administration for not being more active in trying to broker an Allawi and Maliki coalition in the first place."
One might indeed, but Gause apparently is not one to do so.
Let me be clear: Gause may be right that once Maliki held on to the top spot in Iraq, there was little to no chance for a SOFA deal. But that doesn't justify Biden's mocking dismissal of the proposal for a stay behind force in Iraq in the VP debate. And it certainly does not excuse the raft of errors the administration made in 2009 and 2010 that perhaps contributed to the political stalemate we confronted in Iraq in 2011.
Over the last four years, I and my Shadow Government colleagues have documented many of these mistakes. I could not possibly list them all here, but a partial list I compiled for a different project would include:
Many of those pertain to the period of time before Maliki renewed his hold on the leadership post and so happened when even Gause appears to believe that the SOFA outcome was not a foregone conclusion.
But Gause does not address any of those (or other critiques) in his piece. Instead, he pretends that identifying any misstep by the Obama administration is tantamount to arguing that what happens in the Middle East is "all about us." Why is that?
Gause is a good man trying to make an impossible case. He seems bent on arguing that Obama has been perfect and has made no foreign policy missteps whatsoever, and anyone who points out an Obama misstep should be dismissed as a partisan hack.
As a friend of mine might say, if this were just the "lacuna in one academic's analysis, it would not be much interest." However, it appears to be a pattern with Obama supporters. Why are they unable to concede the possibility that there might be a situation in the world -- any situation -- that might be worse because of actions Obama took or did not take?
And why are they unwilling to candidly acknowledge the
civil-military challenges that their actions have deepened?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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
A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took office determined to be the "un-Bush." Exhibit A in this paradigm was the Iraq War, and among the lessons that the Obama team took from Iraq were the profound risks and unintended consequences of American interventions in troubled Middle Eastern countries. These negative outcomes included sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Yet here is the problem. Now that a year and a half has elapsed in the war in Syria, and the Obama administration's non-involvement has resulted in ... sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Consider this grim assessment from today's New York Times article by David Sanger (a reporter generally quite sympathetic to the Obama administration). Reporting on how the arms being supplied to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ending up in the hands of the most virulent Islamic extremists, Sanger observes this "casts into doubt whether the White House's strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States."
Jackson Diehl renders an even more caustic verdict in today's Washington Post. President Obama's posture on Syria "exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy -- from his excessive faith in "engaging" troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power. The result is not a painful but isolated setback, but an emerging strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital U.S. allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon."
In other words, the Obama administration's hands-off approach has contributed to the very outcomes that the White House presumably wanted to avoid, and thought it could avoid by "learning from Iraq."
This does not mean that a more assertive American role -- whether directly supplying arms to the rebels, or more active covert support, or enforcing a no-fly zone, or even stronger measures -- would have been cost-free or even successful. Policymaking is inherently uncertain, with risks, trade-offs, and potential downsides for just about any action taken or not taken. We can't know for sure that an American intervention of some sort would have produced a substantially better outcome. But we can (and do) know that the Obama administration's approach has been disastrous.
What are some potential implications of all this? First, learning from history does not mean rigidly applying the template of the past to the present -- in other words, don't assume that just because one previous intervention turned out one way, any future intervention is bound to turn out the same way. Dissimilarities matter as much as similarities. Second, consider the past alternatives. When assessing a historical episode, don't just look at how it played out, but consider also how alternative courses of action might have transpired. In the case of learning the lessons of Iraq, this means not only examining the many mistakes made by the Bush administration, but also examining how if at all the past containment and sanctions regime could have been maintained, or what the consequences of a Saddam Hussein still in power might be. Third, when weighing the costs of any particular action, consider the costs of inaction as well. In the case of Syria, those latter costs are becoming sadly and regrettably clear.
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Fred and Kim Kagan have an important article on Iraq that should be required reading of everyone covering foreign policy in this presidential campaign season. Their bottom line: "Far from being a success, then, American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence."
The Kagans have earned the right to a respectful hearing on Iraq. They were some of the earliest critics of the way the post-conflict stabilization phase of the Iraq war unfolded, and they were some of the most persuasive and early advocates of the surge strategy President Bush shifted to in 2007.
Just as their earlier position on the surge went from iconoclastic to conventional wisdom over the course of several years -- so much so that even the Obama team, which tried very hard to thwart the surge from the outside, ended up acknowledging the surge's success in the end -- I suspect their current position may one day become the conventional wisdom: that Obama failed to lock in the gains of the surge and left Iraq in worse shape than might otherwise have been achievable.
The Kagans' argument reminded me very much of a similar moment during Bush's tenure, when we were trying to figure out whether our strategy was adequate or whether a shift to something new was required. Before we could figure out what changes were needed, we had to figure out that change was needed. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but it is not obvious in the moment when there are multiple indicators and trade-offs. The Bush administration reached that point over the course of 2006, and a key step in the process was identifying each of the assumptions behind the then-prevailing strategy and evaluating them with fresh eyes.
Obama's Iraq strategy may well have reached a similar point, but I wonder if anyone inside is doing that kind of painful self-scrutiny. If not, the Kagans have given them a head start.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Prior to the terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the subsequent anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the Muslim world, the conventional wisdom held that President Obama was unassailable on foreign policy during the election campaign. Yet rather than tout the administration's successes -- which have produced an edge in polls as to who the public trusts on foreign affairs -- the Obama campaign and its allies seem more eager to warn voters that Mitt Romney is planning to bring back George W. Bush's foreign policy than tout the president's "successes." "Of Romney's 24 special advisors on foreign policy, 17 served in the Bush-Cheney administration," wrote Adam Smith, the most senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee -- and that's "a frightening prospect." Similarly, during the Democratic convention, Senator John Kerry said: "[Romney] has all these [neoconservative] advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them." Now, noted foreign policy scholar Maureen Dowd has written not one, but TWO columns decrying "neocon" influence over Romney's foreign policy.
This is an especially odd line of attack given that most of the Obama administration's foreign policy achievements are little more than extensions of Bush administration policies.
President Obama frequently boasts that he fulfilled his promise to "end the war" in Iraq. In reality, he merely adhered to the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement negotiated and signed by the Bush administration in 2008. What's more, as a senator Mr. Obama opposed the 2007 surge of U.S. forces that made this agreement possible. The Obama administration's only policy innovation on Iraq was last year's failure to broker a new strategic framework agreement with Iraq, a deal they had previously insisted was necessary and achievable.
Then there's the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. To be sure, the president deserves credit for launching the raid against the advice of so many of his advisors, including Vice President Joe Biden. But Mr. Obama fails to acknowledge that the intelligence chain that led to the Abbottabad raid began with detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and CIA "black" sites that he vowed to close upon taking office.
What about drones? President Obama deserves credit for the successful "drone war" against al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, but the uptick in U.S. drone attacks there began in July 2008. The Obama administration's continuation of this policy is an acknowledgment -- unspoken, of course -- that the Bush administration was correct to treat the war on terror as an actual war rather than a global law-enforcement campaign.
On Iran, President Obama brags that "Iran is under greater pressure than ever before, "and "few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime." Putting aside the fact that these sanctions were imposed upon the president by a 100-0 Senate vote, and that Obama's State Department has granted exemptions to all 20 of Iran's major oil-trading partners, this triumphalism ignores that the Bush administration worked for years to build multilateral support for sanctions (both at the United Nations and in national capitals). The Obama administration broke from this effort for two years, attempting instead to engage the Iranian leadership. When this outreach predictably failed, the Obama administration claimed that Tehran had proven itself irrevocably committed to its nuclear program -- precisely the conclusion the Bush administration had reached years earlier.
Yes, there's more to the Obama administration's foreign-policy case, but the other "achievements" are muddled ones. Even before the Benghazi attack, post-Qaddafi Libya was so insecure that the State Department issued a travel advisory warning U.S. citizens against "all but essential travel to Libya," and NATO's intervention in Libya raised the inconvenient question of why the administration intervened to alleviate a "medieval siege" on Benghazi but sits silently as tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered in Syria.
In Afghanistan, the surge ordered by President Obama in December 2009 had the operational effect intended. But even in taking this step, the president undermined the policy by rejecting his military commander's request for 40,000 troops, declaring the surge would end according to a fixed timeline rather than conditions on the ground, and announcing the withdrawal of the last 20,000 surge forces before the Afghan fighting season ended (but before the November election). The Bush administration veterans advising Governor Romney surely know more about the importance of seeing a policy through to its fruition.
The Bush administration made many foreign policy mistakes during its eight years in office, most notably the conduct of the Iraq War after the fall of Baghdad. And Governor Romney still needs to provide details demonstrating why he would be a better steward of U.S. national security than President Obama. But the potential devolution of the Arab Spring into anti-U.S. violence demonstrates why both candidates owe the American people a serious discussion about foreign and defense policy. Hopefully in the election campaign's waning weeks the Democrats will offer much more than the ad hominen anti-Bush attacks they have provided to date.
Benjamin Runkle served in the Department of Defense and National Security Council during the Bush administration, and is author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
Has Obama fulfilled his most famous national security campaign commitment from 2008: to end the Iraq war "more responsibly" than he says we began it? According to this excerpt from Michael Gordon's new book on Iraq, the answer may well turn out to be no.
Gordon is considered by many to be the best reporter on the Iraq war and his long-awaited book is likely to shed new light particularly on the last half-decade of U.S. involvement. The excerpt in Sunday's New York Times covers the Obama administration's failed effort to negotiate terms for the long-planned-for stay-behind military force. The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to talk about these efforts much, and nowadays when the president mentions Iraq he makes it sound like he never considered anything other than withdrawing all but a handful of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. However, if that was what the president secretly intended all along, it was not what the administration was officially pursuing for the first several years when it tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement.
The picture is not very pretty. Gordon documents:
Perhaps a more adept president would have also failed to secure a follow-on Status of Forces Agreement. It is true that what the United States wanted from the Iraqis to secure an agreement was a very big ask, one that Prime Minister Maliki proved ultimately unwilling to give: immunity granted by the Iraqi parliament for all U.S. troops. But it is also true that the way Obama approached Iraq made it even harder for Maliki to deliver on his side.
Given the prominent role that the Iraq story played in Obama's approach to the 2008 election, it is ironic that it seems to play no role whatsoever in 2012. If Gordon's book reinforces the assessment that his excerpt provides, the lower profile may benefit Obama. The closer one looks at the facts, the less they seem to support the campaign spin of a "responsible" end to a troubled war.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
I know. Foreign policy has been largely an afterthought in the presidential campaign. Iraq, for all intents and purposes, is off the radar screen entirely -- except as a Democratic talking point, Bush's misbegotten war that Obama allegedly "ended." So a post on the plight of a rather obscure Iraqi politician -- and the merits of the Kurdish region he now calls home -- amounts to so much spitting in the wind, right?
Probably. On the other hand, this week's news -- rampaging anti-American mobs across the Arab world, skyrocketing U.S.-Israeli tensions -- has brought into sharp relief one of the main critiques of the administration's foreign policy. Its sustained efforts to mollify enemies at the expense of longtime friends has fomented a dangerous perception of American weakness, irresolution, and retreat in the Middle East -- the slow-motion breakdown of a U.S.-led order that, unless reversed, will inexorably invite far more destabilizing and costly challenges down the road.
From that perspective, perhaps an appeal for greater solidarity with some true Iraqi friends will not fall totally on deaf ears.
Mithal Alusi is the leader of Iraq's Democratic Nation Party. Since his return to Iraq in late 2003, Mithal has been without question the country's most outspoken and courageous champion of liberal values, unwavering in his defense of free speech, free press, free markets, religious tolerance, and human rights -- especially full equality for women.
Mithal's foreign policy prescriptions have been no less bold. The enemy is clear: Fascists in all their guises -- Islamic or secular, Shiite or Sunni -- that systematically deploy terror, violence, and brutality against innocents at home and abroad in service to their own power, ambition, and ideologically-driven delusions of grandeur. Iran, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Bashar al Assad, and the miscreants that murdered Chris Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi all fit the bill. Clear, too, is Mithal's prescription: an anti-fascist alliance dedicated to defending civilization against its enemies, led by those countries most victimized by totalitarian terror, the United States, Israel, and . . . Iraq.
And Mithal has walked the walk, at great personal sacrifice. In 2004, he attended a counter-terrorism conference in Israel. When he returned to Baghdad, Islamists called for his head. One-time political allies ran for cover, disavowing and abandoning him. In early 2005, Sunni extremists targeted him for assassination, in the process murdering his two sons -- Mithal's only children.
Alusi refused to bow. Instead, he started his own grass-roots political movement dedicated to building an independent, liberal, and unabashedly pro-Western Iraq. If anything, Mithal's denunciations of Saddamists, Al Qaeda, and the Iranian mullahs grew louder. Starved of cash, advertising, and foreign support, facing an electoral system heavily rigged in favor of large Islamist parties, and equipped solely with his own compelling message, Mithal defied overwhelming odds to win a seat in Iraq's December 2005 parliamentary elections.
From his legislative perch, Mithal ignored advice to trim his sails. In 2008, he repeated the heresy of visiting Israel. Again, he called for a U.S.-led alliance to combat terrorism. He mocked the Islamic world's boycott of Israel, asking why the likes of Abu Mazen or Ali Khamenei should be allowed to dictate the foreign policy of an independent Iraq, denying it the chance to serve as a bridge for Middle Eastern peace and benefit from relations with a prosperous and technologically advanced Israel.
Mithal's enemies responded with a vengeance. Islamists in Iraq's Council of Representatives moved to strip Mithal of his parliamentary immunity, demanding his arrest under a Saddam-era law that made travel to Israel a hanging offense. His government-funded security detail was withdrawn -- even as the threats against his life escalated exponentially.
True to form, Mithal didn't run. He fought back. He went on the offensive against his political opponents, branding them tools of Iran. He took his case to Iraq's Supreme Court, arguing that the law forbidding his travel to Israel violated Iraq's constitution. To people's amazement, the court agreed. Mithal returned to parliament, triumphant, but with his enemies more determined than ever to see him gone.
Their chance came in 2010 when Mithal lost his bid for re-election. Beset by all the same obstacles he faced four years earlier and more, Mithal insisted that his vote count had been suppressed through a combination of fraud, intimidation, and dirty tricks. Iraq's electoral authorities denied his claim.
Bereft of any official position, the state-sanctioned squeeze against Mithal intensified. His official security detail was again withdrawn. Then his personal bodyguards, comprised of supporters who often worked for no pay, were denied permits to carry weapons. Pretexts were found to shutter his party's headquarters in Baghdad. When badges expired that authorized Mithal and his wife to enter the heavily fortified Green Zone where their home was located, the Iraqi government refused to renew them. And just last month, on orders from the office of Prime Minister Maliki, Mithal received an eviction notice, informing him that his home -- assigned in the wake of the 2004 terrorist attack that took his sons -- was being re-claimed by the government.
Exposed and vulnerable, under constant threat of assassination by Iranian-backed militias and Al Qaeda terrorists, Mithal was forced to leave Baghdad in 2011. At the invitation of Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Mithal took up residence in northern Iraq, where his party had long maintained an active presence.
It wasn't the first time Barzani had come to Mithal's defense. In the middle of the furor over his 2008 trip to Israel, when Iraq's other political leaders were running for the hills, Barzani offered to dispatch Kurdish security guards to ensure Mithal's protection. Nor was Mithal the first Iraqi to seek internal exile in Kurdistan. Indeed, thousands have found refuge there, seeking to take advantage of the region's greater sense of security, prosperity, and personal freedom.
To my mind, standing up for Mithal Alusi and the Kurds should be an easy call for the United States. In a Middle East caught in transition between an autocratic past and a rising tide of Islamist fanaticism, true friends are hard to find. Mithal and the Kurds are the real deal -- unapologetically pro-American, determined to resist the Iranian threat, and aware that Iraq's fate ultimately depends on its ability to forge a genuinely civil state that fairly reflects the country's diversity and assures the rights of all its citizens.
Alusi, for sure, is but one individual, a solitary politician now deep in the political wilderness. Ignoring him might be the path of least resistance, but it would be a shortsighted calculation. Keeping faith with those in distant lands who -- against all odds and at great personal sacrifice -- have tirelessly stood vigil on behalf of our common values has almost always redounded to America's long-term benefit. Maintaining a sustained strategy toward democratic dissidents is no mere sentimentality, but an essential element of the ground game for building the kind of soft power that can help fell empires -- see Sakharov, Andrei; Sharansky, Natan; Walesa, Lech; or Havel, Vaclav. And the costs of doing so are relatively trivial. U.S. officials that travel to Kurdistan should call on Alusi. Vice President Biden could phone him. And when President Obama next speaks with Prime Minister Maliki, he might mention America's concern for the wellbeing of Alusi and others who have been forced to flee Baghdad on account of their beliefs.
Of course, the strategic case for bolstering relations with the KRG is much more straightforward. Even a casual observer of world affairs might have noticed that there is something of a Kurdish Awakening afoot across the region, one that has real potential over the next several years to transform not just the politics, but in some cases even the geography, of southwest Asia. And the epicenter for this movement is in Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG is now without question an emerging power of substantial influence, whose policy decisions could have far-reaching consequences for the future of not only Iraq, but Syria, Turkey, and Iran as well -- all key regional powers where Kurdish minorities are large and U.S. interests run deep.
What else? The KRG is on the cusp of becoming a major producer of oil and gas, and has recently inked deals to partner with the world's most powerful energy companies, including Exxon, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom. It possesses hardened security and intelligence forces that have worked hand-in-glove with their U.S. counterparts for almost a decade to fight Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, while keeping tabs on the nefarious activities of the Iranian IRGC. The Kurds are building a strategic relationship with our NATO ally, Turkey, grounded in economics, but rapidly expanding to include coordinated efforts to address the crisis in Syria, deal with PKK terrorism, and contain the growing threat that Iran poses, not just to Iraq's independence, but across the broader region.
Building as much U.S. leverage and influence as possible with the KRG, as the centerpiece of what should be a broader strategy toward the overall Kurdish Awakening, seems like a no-brainer -- especially if done in close consultation with Turkey. All the more so since we are pushing on an open door, with the Kurds still hungry to knit as close a relationship with the United States as possible.
Some have argued that we should keep our distance from the KRG for fear of alienating Prime Minister Maliki. Others complain that the KRG itself is too marred by corruption, nepotism, and human rights shortcomings to warrant close relations with the U.S. In this debate, however, I'll take my counsel from Alusi. Mithal takes a back seat to no one in recognizing the need for continued KRG reform. He believes that it must be an essential part of the overall U.S. agenda with Erbil. But he -- perhaps better than most -- also understands the vital distinction between friends and enemies, and the imperative of dealing with the former much differently than you do the latter -- on the basis of trust, respect, appropriate humility, and quiet, but firm, pressure applied over time.
With a strong frame of comparison from his years in Baghad, Mithal puts an enormous premium on what President Barzani, Masrour Barzani (the KRG's intelligence chief and recently-appointed director of national security), and other Kurdish officials have achieved in maintaining a sustained sense of stability and safety in the north. The contrast with the rest of Iraq could not be greater. One remarkable statistic: Since 2003, Iraq on average has experienced more terrorist attacks per day than Kurdistan has suffered in two decades.
That's not an accident. It's not luck. It's a huge accomplishment that no one should take for granted. Terrorists of every stripe, including ones backed by Iran, are hard at work attempting to disrupt the region's tranquility. And they have consistently failed because of the success, competence, and professionalism of Kurdish forces in neutralizing them -- in strong cooperation with the United States.
And that achievement on security, of course, has underwritten every other positive development that the region has experienced: a rapidly growing economy, tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment, expanding interactions with the outside world, and a degree of normalcy and freedom in the personal lives of its inhabitants that is the envy of the rest of Iraq. There clearly remains much to do to address the legitimate political, economic, and social needs of the Kurdish people, but -- as Alusi strongly advises -- that task will be pursued most successfully in a spirit of deepening friendship, not animosity, that fully appreciates and jealously protects the enormous gains that have already been made.
As for Maliki's reaction, Alusi -- a staunch opponent of Kurdish separatism -- is convinced that the stronger the partnership between the U.S. and the KRG, the greater the leverage America will have in Baghdad. "Maliki currently pays no price for ignoring U.S. interests and catering to Iran," Mithal notes. "If he feels the United States can affect his political position by supporting parties in Baghdad that are resisting the most troublesome parts of his agenda, he will finally be forced to take American concerns seriously." Mithal is also certain that the stronger the KRG's position in Baghdad, the stronger the voice will be of all those, like himself, pushing on behalf of a unified, democratic, federal Iraq, with a government constrained by meaningful checks and balances.
As President Obama watches his much-trumpeted Muslim outreach literally crash and burn on streets across the Arab world this week, one hopes he's capable of adjusting an approach that many have long feared will eventually reap a bitter harvest of escalating contempt, instability, and chaos. Just as charity begins at home, diplomacy begins with reliable friends -- making them, keeping them, and standing by them when times get tough. A storm is surely brewing in the Middle East and the U.S. will need to rally all the allies it can get, and fast, to navigate the rough waters ahead. In Iraq, at least, Mithal Al-Alusi and the KRG are standing by, just waiting for America to call.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
A friend with a better memory than mine had an interesting reaction to my post about Secretary Clinton's opposition to an artificial timeline to end the Afghan surge. He said it reminded him of an earlier episode in 2007 involving timelines, the Iraq surge, and then-Senator Clinton.
Back then, Congressional Democrats were vigorously opposed to the Iraq surge, and were mounting a coordinated effort designed to block it, thwart it, or at the very least bring it to an early end. Politico called it a "slow bleed" strategy, because it involved trying to hobble the surge with all sorts of restrictions that might have a superficial appeal but that had knowable secondary effects that would undermine the surge.
One of those restrictions was getting the Bush administration to announce a timeline for ending the surge, which Congress could then use as a device to lock in an Iraqi withdrawal. The Bush administration did not want to establish such a public timeline in 2007, while the surge was still unfolding, and instead promised to unwind the surge at a pace based on conditions on the ground.
This promise was not good enough for Congressional Democrats, and one of them, Senator Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the Department of Defense demanding that it release internal analyses and plans that considered various alternative timelines. Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman wrote back:
"Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia... Such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risks."
Senator Clinton angrily claimed that this response was "impugning the patriotism of any of us who raise serious questions" about the way the administration was running the Iraq war. Clinton's letter was remarkably ad hominem in its attacks on Edelman, alleging he had his "priorities backward" and calling his claim that withdrawal talk would embolden the enemy "outrageous and dangerous."
In the light of this 2007 episode, now-Secretary Clinton's views on the Afghan surge timeline are all the more remarkable and newsworthy. Here, according to David Sanger, are her views today:
"Clinton thought [the deadline to start pulling the surge troops back out] was a mistake and still does; an internal deadline would have been fine, she believed, but a public one simply telegraphed to the Taliban and the Pakistanis when the United States would be leaving. The Taliban read the newspapers too, she pointed out.
In the end her concern -- also voiced by Gates -- seems prescient. The effort to explore the possibility of 'reconciliation' talks with the Taliban sputtered along in low gear for years. It is impossible to know for certain how the pullout plan affected the Taliban's calculations, but interviews with Taliban taken prisoner by NATO suggested that the insurgents knew time was on their side, and they were simply waiting for the Americans to begin a significant withdrawal.
In other words, according to Sanger, Secretary Clinton opposed announcing the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline for the very same reasons that she denounced as "outrageous and dangerous" earlier as a Senator.
Secretary Clinton has been a comparative bright spot in the Obama administration, and so I bring up past performance with some reluctance lest it impugn future success. Comparing these two surge timeline debates probably says more about the quality of politics five years ago than it does about the quality of her contribution to Obama policymaking today.
And I cannot disprove the hypothesis that Clinton's simply views evolved in the interval. Perhaps she sincerely believed in the wisdom of public timelines in 2007 and changed her mind in ensuing years; perhaps she sincerely believed that raising concerns about those timelines was tantamount to questioning one's patriotism in 2007 and has a different view today. (I reject absolutely the notion that in raising doubts about the Afghan surge timeline she was seeking to impugn the patriotism of those in the Obama administration, most notably the president himself, who wanted it.)
Yet I think it is more likely that Senator Clinton was pursuing a partisan agenda in 2007, whereas Secretary Clinton today is motivated more by weightier concerns about the overall success of the Afghan mission.
If so, then wouldn't it be laudable if Secretary Clinton offered an apology to Edelman?
Even if no such gracious gesture is forthcoming, Republicans can benefit if they take to heart the central lesson of this little morality tale: positions that look appealing when one is sitting on the political opposition benches can look appalling when one is sitting in the Oval Office.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
I've just returned from a week of fishing on a remote island in Alaska, happily distant from events in the rest of the world. It brings a welcome sense of perspective when one's biggest concern is where the salmon are running. In this case it was a great week, as both the kings and silvers were feeding in abundance, and the Inboden freezer will be well-stocked with fish for months. Meanwhile I'm now playing catch up on various happenings, and over the next few days will offer thoughts on some recent foreign policy and politics items.
First up is Congressman Adam Smith's recent Foreign Policy article. Smith, a Democrat and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote here at FP.com a few days ago larding praise on the Obama administration while lambasting the Romney campaign for its foreign policy support from former Bush administration officials (hmm, sounds like a lot of us here at Shadow Government including yours truly). On substance, Smith's piece is fundamentally unserious, and certainly will not help elevate his standing as a "wise man on foreign policy." (It is generally expected of a member of Congress who aspires to be seen as a leader on national security policy to write a "big think" piece for a serious outlet like FP -- a well-crafted article can mark a member as an up-and-comer, but a poorly crafted one can do more damage than silence).
On this count Smith's article disappoints. It reads as if it were written by Democratic National Committee staff circa 2005. Like many Democratic critiques from that era, this one lambastes the Iraq war, while conveniently neglecting to mention Smith's own past support for the war. Indeed, Smith, like many Democrats, has not yet figured out how to acknowledge that by their own scoring they were wrong on Iraq twice: wrong to support the war when things were going well, but also wrong to oppose the surge, which substantially helped reverse the trajectory when things were going poorly. They seek to damn all initial supporters of the Iraq war (except themselves) but are unwilling to extend the logic by damning all opponents of the surge.
But beyond its selective history on Iraq, at its core Smith's op-ed has a much bigger problem: the Obama administration has adopted almost wholesale the so-called "discredited doctrines and reckless policies" of the Bush-Cheney administration that Smith decries. This White House's biggest foreign policy successes have almost always come when following Bush administration policies (yes, this point has been made many times before, but it bears repeating as long as tendentious articles like Smith's are being written). Policies and doctrines such as the preemptive use of force, unilateral operations, counter-insurgency warfare, indefinite detention of terrorist suspects, military tribunals, drone strikes, multilateral coalitions to pressure North Korea and Iran on their nuclear programs, strong assertions of executive authority -- all of these were controversial when developed by the Bush administration. And all have been adopted, and in some cases expanded, by the Obama administration, particularly as it continues the war against al Qaeda.
If Smith's article represents the strongest line of attack that the Obama campaign has against Gov. Romney on foreign policy, it is the flimsiest of rubber swords.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Whatever your perspective about counterinsurgency (COIN), there is one position that is clearly wrong: the view that debate about COIN is not important, necessary, or productive, as retired Army colonel Robert Killebrew recently suggested over at the Best Defense. Beyond advancing the peculiar idea that a contentious issue in American foreign policy merits no further discussion, Killebrew has it exactly backwards: The debate over COIN is at an important turning point, and is in many ways just getting started. Scholars and strategic thinkers are increasingly engaging the ideas of counterinsurgency in new and sophisticated ways. This development should hearten supporters of the intellectual enterprise generally ,as well as those who embrace the notion that better thinking can lead to better policy.
Last week the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas (UT) sponsored a workshop, Reassessing Counterinsurgency, together with partners from King's College London and the University of Queensland. The workshop brought together scholars and practitioners to tackle the subject of counterinsurgency in critically new ways. It included COIN's most articulate advocates and critics, policy experts, strategic analysts, historians, and political scientists from the U.S., Britain, and beyond who are doing path-breaking new work on the subject.
At least one thing became clear over a day and a half of refreshingly nuanced discussion. Despite years of attention in the Beltway, the counterinsurgency debate remains remarkably muddled. Terms are still frustratingly ill-defined. Distinctions between tactical advice and strategic direction are lost in the jumble, as larger disagreements over policy in Iraq and Afghanistan are tangled into the discussion about COIN. Scholars bristle at what they see as the intellectual shallowness and lack of theoretical rigor of counterinsurgency ideas, while policy hands and some military officers have no patience for what they perceive as the academy's tendency to suffer from analysis paralysis.
The confused mishmash notwithstanding, the UT workshop surfaced a few recurring themes. As the army is in the midst of revising their counterinsurgency manual, there are at least four key sets of questions that doctrine writers might consider, and that should help shape the scholarly research agenda and the next phase of the debate:
1. Are We Speaking the Same Language?
If the first step in developing good theory is defining terms, then there is much work still to be done in counterinsurgency. There is a growing consensus that the term itself is ambiguous, misused, and has experienced "conceptual stretching." As one workshop participant has written, "in a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for non-kinetic (or limited kinetic) warfare. However it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."
Is "counterinsurgency" merely one type of what scholar Harry Eckstein referred to as "internal war"? If so, how should we understand its features as compared to other manifestations of internal war, such as civil war and revolutions? Taking one step further back, is war divisible into such classifications, or, instead, as Clausewitz would have it, always a chameleon? This most fundamental conceptual question -- how (or whether) to subdivide conflict analytically and how counterinsurgency fits into a broader typology -- has received surprisingly little attention in the debate over COIN.
There are other important, and largely unanswered, questions. What are the differences between "first-party COIN" -- that conducted by a state within its own territory -- and "third-party COIN" conducted by an intervening outside power? Is there a difference between "big COIN," or large-scale state-building, and the more modest ambitions of "little COIN," focused on small-scale assistance? If these different types of COIN are significantly dissimilar propositions, should they be called the same thing? The gaps in the theoretical and scholarly literature are legion, and they can only be filled by continued research, better evidence, thinking, and yes, debate.
2. Is Field Manual 3-24 COIN? Is COIN Field Manual 3-24?
These discussions also raise the important question of how to situate the Army's Field Manual (FM) 3-24, published in December 2006, in the broader literature on COIN. In disputes over counterinsurgency, FM 3-24 and COIN are frequently conflated. Yet their precise relationship remains unclear. Did FM 3-24 represent the state of the art in thinking on counterinsurgency, or was it, as some suggest, merely a military doctrinal manual, a small slice of a larger intellectual pie focused on tactical advice to soldiers and the conflict in Iraq? According to this view, it would be unjust to impugn counterinsurgency more broadly based on perceived deficiencies in the manual, and those who take issue with COIN might best participate in the manual's revision, rather than throw rocks from the sidelines.
Yet if FM 3-24 was just a doctrinal manual, it was also undeniably unique in many ways. It was certainly the first military doctrine to be unveiled with such fanfare, including appearances by the drafting team in various media outlets to herald the manual's arrival. One could be forgiven for seeing a larger enterprise in a University of Chicago edition, which featured an introduction that seems to range far beyond the document's nominal, tactical, remit. FM 3-24 arguably played an important role in the bureaucratic and domestic politics associated with the decision to surge in Iraq, and it seems hard to dispute that various personalities and Washington think tanks linked to the document played a major role in U.S. policy deliberations over both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a truism that military doctrine is not strategy. But what if, in this case, a doctrine became a strategy, as critics have argued?
As FM 3-24 is revised, it seems a good moment to have a larger debate about the interactive effects of doctrine and strategy, real or prospective. Is COIN per se the right manual, or should it be written as part of a broader document that addresses other forms of internal conflict? Does the mere existence of a manual inevitably create a "moral hazard" effect, lulling policymakers into a false confidence about what is possible? Might it provide incentives for policymakers and strategists to "name" a conflict according to the manuals that are available, rather than the facts on the ground? To what extent should a doctrinal manual take account of the risk of its misuse?
3. History and Statecraft
Counterinsurgency also raises critically important questions about the uses of history. The basis of counterinsurgency is a set of particular historical cases, most notably the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, and the U.S. in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the British experience in Northern Ireland and imperial policing operations in the U.K.'s former dominions. These cases raise two different, but related questions: 1. What happened?; and 2. How do we use what happened? Despite the rather blithe use of these historical analogies in many discussions about COIN, both of these questions are highly contested by scholars.
While Malaya is widely considered the perfect case study of counterinsurgency principles (at least as articulated in FM 3-24), a new generation of scholars, such as British historian Karl Hack, has begun to challenge popular understandings of what happened there, including the much discussed "hearts and minds" approach. Scholars are also examining the other case studies of COIN in critical ways and developing new, much more nuanced, understandings of those histories.
But the second part of the question is how we use those cases, and this connects to a larger and long-standing debate about the uses of history for policymaking. At Harvard, the late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt spent decades examining the uses of history and warning against the perils of simplistic historical analogies in developing and/or justifying policy. Francis J. Gavin and James Steinberg recently offered a wise and thoughtful refresher on this subject, reminding us that history's "lessons" can be as often misleading as helpful.
But this question has received surprisingly little attention in the COIN debate. Despite the certainty with which COIN advocates have offered historical models, it is not at all obvious or well demonstrated that the classic case studies of COIN are applicable to modern American warfare. Imagine that we conducted the very simple exercise, suggested by May and Neustadt, to test the applicability of an historical analogy: Divide a sheet of paper in half, and on the left side write down the similarities between Iraq and, say, Malaya. On the right side, write down the differences. Would the left side really be more robust than the right? And even if the relevance of historical cases seems plausible at first blush, surely the evidentiary burden lies with those who argue for the use of the analogy. In the field of counterinsurgency, there has been surprisingly little deep scholarship that would even begin to meet this burden.
4. What Really Happened in Iraq, and Why? What of COIN in Afghanistan?
Inextricably woven into the previous three sets of questions is the U.S. experience in Iraq during and after the Surge, which, for some, offers the most recent, and most potent, case study in successful COIN. According to this view, COIN, as described by FM 3-24, was taken to Iraq in 2007, implemented there, and violence declined. What better evidence of COIN's utility than our own experience but a few years ago?
But there are serious and unresolved questions about what really happened in Iraq, and both sides of the argument have suffered from an absence of evidence. It has been hard to prove that the Surge (and its alleged accompanying COIN techniques) worked, but also hard to demonstrate that it did not, and both sides have plausible, but unproven, explanations for the observed outcomes. In an upcoming article in International Security, Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro use recently declassified data on violence to explore various competing arguments about the Surge. Without spoiling the surprise, their answer is that the story is complicated, and reveals the limits of several sides of the argument.
The Iraq question leads us irretrievably to a discussion about how counterinsurgency ideas featured in later policy -- and results -- in Afghanistan. Here there are also important, unanswered questions that scholars must tackle in coming years. Was the problem that COIN was never fully implemented in Afghanistan, as some argue? Or did the U.S. try, and fail, at counterinsurgency there, as others would have it? Beyond the facts on the ground there is also an important, and insufficiently understood, history of how interpretations of the Iraq experience affected the thinking of military and civilian senior leaders in policy on Afghanistan, for good or for ill.
If indeed COL Killebrew is right that counterinsurgency is here to stay, then so long as we are sending young men and women into danger to undertake such conflicts, it is imperative that we get it right, or as right as we can. We are obligated not to sit back, be quiet, and declare the debate over, but instead work diligently to fill the serious intellectual gaps in this fascinating and critical subject that has had such a profound impact on American policy and real lives on the battlefield.
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.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
There hasn't been a lot of good news on the Iraq front of late. But there is one bit, and I am going to grab it and hope for the best: President Obama has nominated Brett McGurk to be the next Ambassador to Iraq. I worked closely with Brett on Iraq policy back in the day and it is hard to think of someone Obama might have nominated who is more committed to success in Iraq. Brett was one of the earliest and most ardent supporters of the surge in 2006 and he has stayed active on the inside more or less ever since. There are few Americans inside or outside government with his breadth of experience and insider knowledge about Iraqi politics.
Senator McCain has expressed some very understandable frustration with Obama's handling of the Iraq file, but I hope those concerns do not hold up McGurk's confirmation. McCain is right that the prospects for securing American interests in the region would be better if the Obama administration had successfully negotiated a deal to keep the planned-for stay-behind overwatch force in place. And even if U.S. plans in Iraq have had to be scaled back, the embassy will still be extraordinarily large and something of a managerial nightmare; McGurk will need a very strong senior leadership team to manage it all effectively.
But those who still want to preserve as much of what the surge accomplished as can be preserved at this point will not find a more committed partner and advocate than Brett McGurk. I hope his nomination means we can count the president in that number.
ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP/Getty Images
Among the Iraq-related anniversaries to consider, here's one more: Twenty-one years ago this week, millions of Iraqi Kurds set flight for the desolate, snow-capped mountains bordering Turkey and Iran, frantically seeking to escape the advancing armies of Saddam Hussein. Fresh off his humiliating defeat in the first Gulf War, Saddam had quickly trained his guns on wiping out all internal opposition to his tyrannical rule.
Where the Kurds were concerned, his purpose seemed clear. Saddam aimed to eliminate once and for all the persistent challenge this proud, irrepressible minority had long posed to his dictatorship. Genocide was on tap, the completion of a job begun in 1988, when Iraqi forces razed thousands of Kurdish villages, murdered their inhabitants, and rained chemical weapons down on the innocent men, women and children of a town called Halabja.
Now, with their backs literally to the wall, freezing to death on a barren mountainside, facing Saddam's full vengeance, the Kurds' destruction seemed nigh.
Until, that is: America. Said. No. Working with a small group of allies, the United States, quite simply, saved the Kurds. Saddam's army was ordered to stand down or face renewed hostilities. U.S. ground forces deployed to northern Iraq and organized one of history's greatest humanitarian rescues, Operation Provide Comfort. A no-fly zone was established over Kurdistan, which U.S. aircraft patrolled until 2003, when America finally settled its score with Saddam for good, liberating almost 30 million people from his republic of fear, including the long-suffering Kurds.
It's a story of deliverance and American leadership well worth recalling, especially this year. For the first time in a generation, Iraq's Kurds find themselves without direct American protection. President Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq has once again left the Kurds largely alone. While no longer confronting Saddam's terror, the long shadow of their anguished history remains, as do unresolved tensions not only with Iraq's majority Arabs, but with powerful neighbors in Iran, Syria and Turkey struggling with disadvantaged Kurdish minorities of their own.
It's a mix of fear, loathing and foreign meddling that, left untended, could easily lead to conflict and even war -- both inside Iraq and, perhaps, regionally. That, indeed, would be tragic -- for the often-betrayed Kurds, to be sure, but also for the prestige and long-term interests of their main benefactor, the United States.
Say what you will about the American project in Iraq, its application in Kurdistan was well down the path toward success. As happened in Germany, Japan and South Korea after World War II, a few decades of intense American engagement had begun working wonders for the Kurds. Excellent security -- indeed, not a single U.S. combat death in areas under Kurdish control. A booming economy with growing levels of foreign investment. And an emerging democracy that, while far from perfect, has seen real opposition parties emerge, as well as a burgeoning civil society and media. Yes, corruption, lack of accountability, and uneven development remain serious problems. But certainly no worse than, say, South Korea circa the 1970s, at a similar point in that country's experience under America's wing.
Properly nourished, Iraqi Kurdistan has all the makings of a U.S. strategic asset. Iraq's Arabs may have been profoundly ambivalent about a continued role for American troops. But not the Kurds, whose leaders loudly proclaimed their desire for a permanent U.S. presence, and whose population of some 5 million is overwhelmingly pro-American. Sharing borders with Iran and Syria, Kurdistan could play a vital role in U.S. strategy to combat the serious threats now emanating from those anti-American regimes. Kurdish security and intelligence forces are competent and battle-hardened, and after years of cooperation have built up excellent working relations with their U.S. counterparts, including in fighting Al Qaeda. And sitting atop 40-50 billion barrels of oil, Kurdistan is poised to become one of the world's largest petroleum producers, a major contributor to global energy security.
Confident in its U.S. backing, Kurdistan could serve as both engine and anchor for the rest of Iraq's democratic development. But America's precipitous retreat has left behind a dangerous vacuum, a potential breeding ground for destructive acts of self-help that could easily spiral out of control That vacuum urgently needs to be filled by a concerted American strategy to define a new, "special" relationship with Iraq's Kurds. Making clear that Kurdistan's well-being within a truly federal Iraq is a high U.S. priority could serve both to deter potential aggressors while encouraging Kurdish restraint, patience and cooperation in dealing with the turmoil of Baghdad's day-to-day politics.
When Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visits Washington next month, the Obama administration would be well advised to use the opportunity to establish a new Joint Commission on U.S.-Kurdish relations to oversee the bilateral relationship, composed of high-level officials from both sides. America's consulate in Kurdistan should be led by a senior foreign service officer of ambassadorial rank, perhaps seconded by a retired general. Under the rubric of U.S. security assistance for Iraq, programs for equipping and training Kurdish security and intelligence services should be established, including robust channels for information sharing and other cooperative efforts. A joint initiative to expand dramatically American investment in Kurdistan needs to be launched, with a focus on expediting the region's emergence as a reliable energy exporter to Western markets. Technical assistance should be provided to support Kurdish efforts to battle corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and ensure human rights.
More than two decades after saving Iraq's Kurds from annihilation, it's time for America to institutionalize a long-term strategic relationship with them -- one that understands that a secure and prosperous Kurdistan, confident in its ties to the world's sole superpower, can be a boon to U.S. interests, and a force for stability and modernism throughout Iraq and the broader Middle East.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, the administration is reconsidering its commitment to maintain in Iraq the largest civilian mission the U.S. has ever attempted. Drawing down the U.S. mission in Iraq is the right choice. But while the Time's article attempts to cast the policy shift as the result of declining U.S. influence in Iraq, it is really more a story of incapacity by the State Department to scope, plan, and carry out diplomatic missions of the breadth and difficulty posed by circumstances in Iraq. Those circumstances are largely of the Obama administration's making, as they set arbitrary timelines for our military drawdown that exacerbated tensions within Iraq while ignoring Prime Minister's al Maliki's creeping authoritarianism.
The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review championed the mission in glowing terms: "In Iraq, we are in the midst of the largest military-to-civilian transition since the Marshall Plan. Our civilian presence is prepared to take the lead, secure the military's gains, and build the institutions necessary for long-term stability." None of those objectives has been achieved. It was an odd choice by the State Department to make Iraq the flagship of "smart power," given that the White House has consistently conveyed that President Obama just wants Iraq off the agenda. The president never invested in getting from Congress the resources necessary -- even if the State Department had the capacity to carry out its ambitious plans.
Nevertheless, the State Department's plan for maintaining two thousand diplomats -- protected and supported by 15,000 other civilian personnel -- was a terribly cost-ineffective program fraught with potential for disaster. Outside review of the department's plan by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Commission on Wartime Contracting, and every other outside source highlighted the crucial dependence on mobility that was both vulnerable and reliant on civilian contractors (the majority of them non-American) with the authority to use deadly force. Why the government of Iraq would grant immunity from prosecution to civilian contractors when it denied immunity to better trained military personnel was only one among many questionable planning assumptions.
The discouraging truth is that despite the State Department's bold assertions in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review that it will lead through civilian power, its handling of the transition to civilian leadership of our mission in Iraq demonstrates how very far we have yet to go to build a diplomatic corps with the ability to think their way through what is needed in a complex environment like Iraq, design a program of engagement and activity, staff and finance its operations to achieve its objectives. What the State Department fails at is not the high politics of preserving American influence with Iraq's leaders, but the quotidian programmatics that build that influence in the first place.
Our country needs a State Department that is genuinely the peer of our military forces: as intellectually agile, as adaptable, as committed to carrying out the decisions of our elected political leadership. We do not now have such a diplomatic corps, and it badly impedes our ability to shape the international order in ways conducive to American interests. It will take a much greater investiture of political and managerial attention to build that State Department, but it is very much in our interests to continue reforming the State Department so that it could plan and carry out a civilian mission of complexity like that which is now needed in Iraq.
TOBY JORRIN/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration has changed U.S. strategy toward Iran three times. At the administration's inception, President Obama shed the Bush administration's refusal to negotiate with Iran's government, ending support for regime change, sending flowery good wishes at Persian new year and declining to condemn that government for election fraud in 2009. This was a strategy of unconcern for the nature of Iran's government, banking instead on working with it to achieve mutual interests. Let's call that strategy detente.
The administration's second policy shift was to give up hope for progress in government-to-government channels (after remarkably little effort), and instead emphasize multilateral sanctions. In order to gain support of reluctant potential partners, the administration further dialed back U.S. policy in two areas: threat of military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, and condemnation of Iranian domestic policies. Even the Pentagon leadership -- civilian and military -- downplayed what could be achieved by destroying elements of Iran's programs.
The main limiting factor on the effectiveness of a sanctions strategy is our ability to cajole or coerce other countries to comply. The United States has had near complete sanctions against Iran since the 1979 seizure of our Embassy; there is little we can do directly. But to their credit, the Obama administration has done much to persuade Europeans and the countries of the Gulf to enforce sanctions. The EU is seriously considering an embargo of Iranian oil purchases; Gulf countries with close banking and commercial ties to Iran have even for the first time curtailed their activity.
And Congress, to their credit, has done even more, passing legislation to sanction companies that do business with Iran's central bank. Congress took the administration at its word and put in place sanctions that Iran could not circumvent. Ken Pollack, one of the best Middle East hands, estimates the new sanctions could impose a 30 percent penalty on the Iranian economy. That will put enormous pressure on the government of Iran, especially in the run up to Parliamentary elections in March.
The White House objected to the legislation so vehemently that Congress suspects the administration will stint on implementation. But Treasury Secretary Geithner was sent to China and Japan, lesser officials to South Korea and other purchasers of Iranian oil to explain the administration will have only narrow avenues to exempt countries temporarily from exclusion from the dollar zone unless they comply with the legislation.
The administration's third policy shift on Iran was necessitated by two things: the Arab spring, and Iran's provocative behavior. An administration that didn't want to champion democracy was pressed into it by the fact that the so-called Arab Street -- so often depicted as virulently opposed to American values -- actually wants the political liberties we have and is taking responsibility for outcomes in their own countries. But the way the Obama administration navigated our response to the Arab spring managed to infuriate both democrats in the region and authoritarian governments we are allied with.
Here the administration's incapacity to develop a strategy has had deeply detrimental effects. They don't seem to realize their writing off Iraq has fanned sectarian tensions throughout the middle east, how their inactivity on Syria is further destabilizing Iraq (and vice versa), or their approach to the peace process undercut Palestinians working to build a state and further isolated Israel, can't tell the difference between success in Libya and success in Egypt, what fleeting opportunities now exist to contain Iranian activity and influence in the region, how far -- and even just how -- to support the transition to democracy, whom to partner with, or coordinate their rhetoric about priorities (a pivot to Asia?) with in this once in a century set of changes occurring in the middle east.
Our saving grace, at the moment, is that governments in the region see the effects of our strategic incoherence and are taking actions that mostly help them and us. The two crucial changes are in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both precipitated as a reaction to, not an endorsement of, our policies. Many middle easterners see Turkey as a model for their own countries' development as democratic governments in Muslim societies, a position the government of Turkey thirstily wants to retain. Turkey refused to support U.N. sanctions against Iran and gets 30 percent of its oil there, but its policies have evolved and oil refiners are now moving to comply because of Iran's recent bellicosity and continued support of Bashir al Assad's bloody crackdown in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is even turning the screws on Iran, offering to provide additional supplies of oil to countries that refuse contracts with Iran. Iran reacted with predictable threats that Saudi and others will be considered accomplices of the West. That approach used to worry the Saudis, when Iran could plausibly claim the crown of Islamism to delegitimize governments. But Iran's use of religion to justify a fraudulent election, assassination plot involving the Saudi Ambassador, and stoking of sectarian tensions has devalued that currency even more than sanctions have devalued the rial.
This is worse than leading from behind: being handed a propitious set of circumstances, we are failing to set the conditions for a middle east that will be conducive to American security. Syria's chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood actually declined Iranian offers of mediation, saying Iran's support for Assad made them unacceptable as an interlocutor. Allegiances cast in stone for generations are fracturing -- what opportunities the rocking of boats in the Middle East presents! What a pity the Obama administration can't come up with a strategy to capitalize on them.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
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.