Shadow Government

Moving on from Iraq too soon

I attended the same academic conference that fellow bloggers Dan Drezner  and Steve Walt mentioned in their blogs. As I tell my students, several thousand International Relations professors in the same hotel for several days is not as much fun as it sounds, but with hundreds of panels on every conceivable topic, it can be exceptionally stimulating.

My biggest takeaway this year was the extraordinarily low profile given to Iraq, at least current-day Iraq. There were many panels and papers dealing with the invasion of Iraq, almost as many dealing with the mistakes made in the conduct of the war, a small handful of papers dealing with the tough calls that turned out better than expected (eg., the surge), but very few indeed dealing with the current situation and none that I saw with concrete, practical guidance on what to do going forward. Ironically, in this respect the academy was simply following the foreign policy pundit world, which has likewise let Iraq drop from the agenda. To be sure, Tom Ricks faithfully flags adverse developments in his "Iraq: the Unraveling" series but the only time the war emerged recently as a matter of much discussion among the commentariat  was when Vice President Biden awkwardly tried to claim Iraq as one of the great foreign policy successes of the Obama Administration.

Most commentators zinged Biden for claiming credit for the surge policy he and President Obama tried to thwart as senators back in 2007, but what struck me about Biden's boasting was how premature it was -- almost as if he were claiming "mission accomplished" while there was plenty of hard work still to do. However, as Jackson Diehl argues, Biden may be the only political leader in Washington who is paying much attention to the Iraq situation.

Senior figures in the Defense Department and U.S. military leaders on the ground in Iraq have signaled that they are watching closely to determine whether conditions on the ground will permit sticking with the withdrawal timetable negotiated by President Bush in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. Apparently, they still estimate that conditions will allow a responsible withdrawal, but the mere fact that they are signaling concern should be, well, concerning for our political leaders. 

The desire of the political community to put Iraq in the rear-view mirror is understandable, but misguided. The national security challenges that are receiving front-burner attention -- especially Afghanistan and Iran -- are integrally linked to the policy trajectory in Iraq. Since the fateful surge decision, the Iraq policy trajectory has been far more positive than anyone, academics or practitioners, thought likely. But the progress remains reversible and if Iraq unravels, then all of the other national security problems will get that much more difficult to address. 

The theme of the academic conference was bridging the gap between academics and practitioners. In taking the collective eye off the ball on Iraq, it seems academics and practitioners may be unfortunately all-too-much in synch. 


Shadow Government

Facing nuclear reality

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden clearly articulated the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Obama administration's nuclear weapons policy in an address to the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, President Obama has advocated nuclear disarmament; on the other, his administration has just requested $7 billion to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal and modernize the U.S. nuclear infrastructure. In Biden's words, "We will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons, while retaining a safe, secure, and effective arsenal as long as we still need it." 

The United States has greatly reduced its reliance on nuclear weapons in recent years, and it has drastically cut the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal: Today's nuclear force is roughly one-quarter the size it was at the end of the Cold War. Precision-guided conventional munitions are today able to perform many of the missions that in years past would have required nuclear weapons. Moreover, ballistic missile defenses today offer options to enhance deterrence without threatening nuclear retaliation.

Although the utility of nuclear weapons has decreased for the United States, their value for potential adversaries, and those of our allies and friends, has grown. The U.S. nuclear arsenal remains the ultimate guarantee of U.S. security against a nuclear attack. Similarly, U.S. nuclear commitments have dissuaded allies such as Japan from acquiring their own nuclear arsenals. Nuclear weapons have served as a brake on war; eliminating them would once again make the world safe for large-scale conventional war.

Given the enduring importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security, the administration's request for additional funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure is a welcome development. Unfortunately, the Bush administration's efforts to fund the nuclear complex offer a cautionary tale. Under Bush, Congressional Democrats cut a Senate-approved funding increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration and cut or eliminated a number of Bush administration nuclear programs and initiatives. One hopes that the Obama administration will fare better.

In the end, however, the administration's budget request is but a partial solution. The United States is the only nuclear power that is not modernizing its arsenal, and neither the administration nor Congress shows any inclination to change that fact. The newest weapons on the U.S. arsenal were designed decades ago, and the expertise to design new ones represents a critical shortfall. Absent modernization, the United States will eventually face the prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

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