The GOP Candidates and Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Diplomacy, Getting out of Iraq, Iran and Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , on October 23, 2011 by whatafteriraq

If ignorance is indeed bliss, the GOP candidates for president in 2012 demonstrated that they must be the most contented lot in the world after their pronouncements about President Obama’s announcement this past week that the United States would end all military operations in Iraq by the end of the year. The stupendous ignorance of the facts demonstrated by the GOP field regarding how and why this ending will occur is breathtaking; it is also a sobering reminder of what foreign policy might look like should one of them somehow become commander-in-chief. Of that latter prospect, only the most ardent neo-conservative could possibly take take solace in the prospect.

What was the collective accusation? It was that somehow Obama had acted in a way that somehow would cause the United States to quit the field in Iraq, thereby submitting the United States and the region and world to great potential peril, since we will no longer be able to maintain some semblance of control there when all our troops (other than the Marines guarding the embassy) are gone–in time for the holidays, according to the administration.

That statement, which is of course a composite, has four distinct parts, two of which are clearly false or misleading, and two of which are arguable. Let’s look at each.

1. It was an action by Obama that has caused this situation. This assertion is, of course, necessary to blame the White House for something–which of course is the partisan putpose anyway–and it is patently false. The reason the U.S. will leave Iraq at the end of the year is because the Iraqis want us out. This is hardly a revelation, and it has been enshrined in an agreement signed by President Bush with the Iraqi government in December 2008 that called for withdrawal by the end of this year. The al-Malaki government views this requirement as a bedrock of their mandate, and it has been a condition and date that has existed–and been publicly known–for over three years.

The only way that treaty obligation could have been modified or moderated was through the negotiation of a new agreement with the Iraqis to allow some number of Americans to stay after the end of the year. The U.S. has indeed been trying to do so to allow a token force to stay behind, but those negotiations foundered on a critical provision of the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) that would have been necessary to extend the American presence: a provision that American forces be exempted from prosecution of alleged offenses under Iraqi law (a standard item of SOFAs the U.S. has with foreign governments). THE IRAQIS REFUSED TO ACCEPT THIS STIPULATION, and this is why the U.S. is leaving. There were probably two reasons for the Iraqi position: 1) they wanted us to leave, and knew this would force us out, and 2) given the track record of some Americans on the scene, they did not trust us enough to make the concession (think Abu Ghraib). We are leaving because we could not conclude a successful SOFA, and there is no SOFA because the Iraqis refused to negotiated one. Period. End of story.

If one wants to blame the president for this, all one can argue (much too subtle for the current GOP field) is that the Obama administration, which also wants out of Iraq, did not try as hard as they might have to force the Iraqis to relent. That is at least arguable, although to be accepted, two additional elements are needed: proof the Obama people dragged their feet and evidence that a more assertive advocacy would have made a difference. The first is possible; the latter fantasy.

2. The U.S. action will leave American interests at peril. Specifically, the argument goes that an Iraq without an American presence will be subject to pressure from Iran and will be driven into the arms of Iran. This outcome is at least arguable on a number of grounds, and one can accept the notion that the postwar environment will leave Iran the clear winner in the American war against Iraq. What is very misleading about this assertion, however, is the idea that the U.S. decision to honor its treaty promises is the cause of this outcome. Iranian increased influence was probably the inevitable outcome of overthrowing Iran’s greatest single obstacles in the region, Saddam Hussein, and was cemented by by our eight year occupation. Iran is equally likely to benefit regardless of when the U.S. leaves; to blame it on honoring Bush’s commitment is pure demagogery.

3.  A continuing American presence would help stabilize the situation in Iraq, and their removal reduces the U.S. ability to influence the situation. Exactly how the retention of 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is supposed to stabilize anything is not clear,except in the symbolism of their presence and the implied threat (a very hollow one) that they could be reinforced if need be by sending more back. It is true that American influence will wane somewhat with all our presence there, but it is pretty hard to contend that we have much influence there anymore anyway. For a sliver of evidence, how successful were we in keeping al-Maliki from endorsing the continuing rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria?

4. If we are gone, who will protect the American contractors and aid workers left behind? This is a serious question, because the answer is the Iraqis will have to do so. If they want whatever goodies we are dispensing, they will do so; if getting rid of all the Americans is what they really want, they will not. One can only hope all the remaining Americans in the country are keeping packed bags under their beds. Having said that, 5,000 Americans in garrison are probably not much better equipped to protect and extract those Americans from danger than Marines or special forces on duty on ships in the Persian Gulf.

One need not be a particular supporter on Obama foreign policy to see that the withering criticism of his Iraq announcement was uncalled for, unfair, and displayed considerable ignorance on the part of those who made it. Up until now, the GOP  field has been remarkably quiet on foreign policy matters, and one can certainly see why in this cacophony of ignorance. If there is a bottom line to this sorry episode, it is a question: would anyone really like turning over America’s relations with the world to any of these bozos?  



The Pakistani Traitor and the CIA: A Strange Parable

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, International Terrorism, Pakistan, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The government of Pakistan is currently holding in custody Dr. Shakeel Afridi, a physician accused of treason, and is threatening to try and execute him. The action for which the treason is alleged is the assistance that Dr. Afridi provided to the CIA in its successful efforts to locate, target, and assassinate Usama bin Laden, who was hiding, more or less openly, in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.

The pretext on which Dr. Afridi was operating was what the Los Angeles Times, among other sources, labeled a “phony vaccination campaign” that had the apparent purpose of innoculating Pakistanis against various diseases but which was more focused on obtaining a DNA sample of bin Laden to confirm his identity. Dr. Afridi was the physician who was conducting these vaccinations as a ruse and was instrumental in pinpointing the location of bin Laden. As such, he was clearly acting as the agent of a foreign intelligence agency (the CIA), which constitutes espionage but not necessarily treason, particularly as alleged by the government of Pakistan. Definitions of treason–and more specifically high treason–which the Pakistani government specifies against Dr. Afridi, normally includes “betrayal” of one’s own country and consciously working with the government’s enemies to harm or overthrow the government. Working for the CIA could be considered betrayal of the country if one assumes that the United States is the enemy of Pakistan; it is hard to understand how this allegation can be leveled against someone working for an ally of Pakistan, which the United States presumably is supposed to be. Moreover, it is hard to make the intellectual leap to this collusion and some action intended to harm or overthrow the government of Pakistan, unless bin Laden is somehow an important part of that government, which he was not. Something, as the old saying goes, is rotten in Denmark.

The case of the vaccimation doctor is, in fact, a parable, and yes, a strange one, of U.S.-Pakistani relations generally. The United States and Pakistan are allegedly partners, have even been formal allies, and are supposedly united in the common quest to act in unison against terrorists and those who would destabilize and overthrow Afghanisan’s regime. Yet the Pakistani government treats the United States virtually as an enemy when it comes to the execution of actions designed to carry out their joint mission, such as assassinating bin Laden.

There are, of course, good reasons for the apparent anomaly represented by this situation that act as a parable for the future of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. One can accept the idea that Dr. Afridi did in fact violate Pakistani laws in working for the CIA and that Pakistan has a right to try and punish transgressors. It is also true that the harshness of the charges and possible consequences of a trial for treason are harsh, arguably excessive, and that they will further alienate a U.S. government that has been less than delighted with Pakistani attitudes about the bin Laden operation all along. Try to find someone in the U.S. government, for instance, who believes nobody in the Pak government knew absolutely anything about where bin Laden was hiding “in plain sight” in the home of Pakistan’s military service academy. You won’t find many takers.

Presumably, Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Servcie Intelligence (ISI) is up to its neck in all this. ISI acts as a lone ranger in carrying out what it believes to be Pakistan’s best interests, and these often conflict with those of the United States. ISI created the Taliban, after all, and is not going to abandon them, since it believes they are a counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan. ISI is also up to its ears in terrorism, including the training and dispatch of Kashmiri “freedome fighters” and others in the badlands provinces of Pakistan (NW Province, FATA, etc.) along the Afghan border. Their self-perceived interests and hose of the United States could scarcely be farther apart, and that is not a condition likely to change anytime soon.

The upshot is that the United States and Pakistan are at effective odds on a range of mutual interests that their papered over comity cannot hide. Pakistanis complain consistently about US intrusion in their country through missions against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by American drones and the like. The Pakistanis complain these are violations of Pakistani sovereignty, which they are, but mostly it is posturing for the purpose of impressing anti-American sentiment against Americans. Americans, for their part, wonder why the United States continues to funnel assistance to a regime and people who not only do not like us much, but who also oppose our objectives in the region. There are no simple and compelling answers to that dilemma.

The parable becomes more and more relevant as the United States moves inexorably toward disengagement in Afghanistan. What the United States and Pakistan see as the future of a post-American Afghanistan are not, to put it mildly, identical. Pakistan wants a weak, pro-Pakistani government in Kabul, one that will pose no threat to Islamabad, and this means a government that is also anti-Indian. The Indians, unsurprisingly, want and are working toward the opposite outcome: a pro-Indian, anti-Pakistani Afghanistan that will help in the encirclement of Pakistan. The Paks thus want a postwar Afghanistan where the Pashtuns–and especially those with some affiliation with the Taliban–are well placed, whereas the Indians prefer that power effectively reside with non-Pashtuns. The United States wants a stable postwar Afghanistan that is resistant to terrorist reimposition, thereby reinforcing the notion the U.S. has actually accomplished something positive in the country. What the Afghans want is largely beside the point.

As the American involvement starts to wind down in Afghanistan and the players begin to jostle for position, the contradictions in what the outsiders want in Afghanistan will become more apparent, and one prominent aspect of that posturing that will be a victim is the fiction that the United States and Pakistan see eye-to-eye on these matters. Just ask Dr. Afridi, if you can find the prison cell in which he is apparently being held largely incognito by our allies.

The Rebirth of President Putin

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Diplomacy, Russia, Russian-American relations, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that he will trade places with current president Dmitry Medvedev next year, running for the presidency while Medvedev settles for the number two spot of prime minister. Under revisions to the Russian constitution, the presidency has been lengthened from a four-year to a six-year term, and presidents can run for re-election once. Twelve more years!

The announcement was hardly a surprise, of course. Despite appearances and titles, Putin has largely been running the show in Moscow even since Medvedev formally became the country’s chief executive in 2008, and virtually no one is surprised that Putin will seek to regain his formal status as president next year or that he will, in all likelihood, be elected overwhelmingly by the Russian electorate in reasonably free and open voting. Unless he either becomes ill or Russia experiences a great downturn during his first six years, he will dutifully be reelected in 2018. If all goes according to plan, Putin will remain in power until he is 72. Speculation about anything past 2024 is not worth making.

While exhibiting the beauty and inevitability of a mud slide (an analogy I crib without permission from an old University of Alabama dean), this is not particularly good news for the United States or the region, at least in term of promoting greater democratization and independence for the countries and peoples there. Russians apparently do not care terribly about such matters; what they care about is what Putin delivers.

Putin is attractive to the Russian (and especially ethnic Russian) majority in the federation. A robust and charismatic figure, Putin has three obvious sources of attraction. First, he is a dynamic and forceful leader who, particularly in the minds of Russians, projects an image of strength and importance of their country in the world. Just as we are entreated not to “mess with Texas,” the image of Vladimir Putin is that you had better not mess with Russia either.

Second, Putin is committed to restoring Russia’s place as a major power in the region and the world. This determination, which is related to the first source of his attraction, rings very much true to the Russian electorate. One of Russian history’s major themes is the quest for status as a world power. While most Russians do not look back at the old Soviet days with much poignancy, they do remember favorably the fact that the Soviet Union was an acknowledged, even feared, superpower which held sway within its region and was, for many purposes, the major peer of the United States. Russians want to return to that status; Putin, by word and deed, offers them what they believe is the best chance to do so. This perception stands in stark contrast with the image of the affable Medvedev, who appears much too bland and compliant for Russian tastes. Think Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Third, Putin is a consummate politician. His rise to power happened to coincide with Russia’s emergence as the world’s second largest exporter of oil and largest exporter of natural gas (especially to Europe, which is highyl dependent on Russian supplies), and he turned this windfall into two advantages for himself and his country. Internally, Putin has skillfullyused energy revenues essentially to “buy off” the voting public with the largesse of government disbursements that have improved the material conditions of many Russians. He became, during the 2000s wshen he was formally in the presidency, one of the two particular experts in what Thomas L. Friedman calls “petrolist” politics, using oil revenues to bolster support and, not entirely coincidentally, to erode democracy. It is a Faustian bargain of sorts, but one the Russian people have accepted as a necessary tradeoff for their own prosperity and sense of national resurgence.

Internationally, energy exports give Russia leverage they have lacked since the end of the Cold War. While Russia retains a nuclear force roughly equivalent to that of the United States, that is not enough to insure Russian prestige and acceptance as a”super” power: to many, it is still a “Third World country with nuclear weapons.” Oil and natural gas change that, since the world is hungry for energy, and especially for energy that does not come from the unstable Middle East: Russia may still be a Third World country, but energy makes them more consequential, and Putin both knows this and how to exploit it.

Will Putin return to his old ways when he returns to office? There is no reason to think he won’t. What will this mean for the United States? The answer somewhat depends on how the US government decides to treat a new Russian regime, but it will detainly dampen American enthusiasm for Russian movement toward “normal” status in the region and world and dim any hope that Russia will soon evolve into a full-scale western democracy. It will also mean a more assertive Russian stance toward the “internal abroad” (those ethnically non-Russian parts of Russia that seek autonomy or independence–think Chechnya and Dagestan) or the “near abroad” (the former Soviet republics on itrs periphery–think Georgia). Russia will almost certainly act in ways of which the United States disapproves, and the results will almost certainly return greater strain to those relations.

Russia still has its problems, which Putin cannot wish away. Russian demographics are still horrible, and population decline will continue and hamper Russia’s return to major status. The rate of exploitation of Russia’s oil reserves cannot be sustained long before they begin to become depleted. Russia needs to be looking toward new bases of influence beyond energy, and buying off the population only serves short-term, not long-term goals. These are Russian realities that face any Russian leader.

As yesterday’s indicates, Valdimir Putin is back. He never really went away, but in March, the Russian public will put him back in the driver’s seat, while his understudy, Dmitry Medvedev, will be consigned to the rumble seat. It is not particularly good news, but there is not a whole lot that can be done about it.

The Arab Spring: Libya and Syria

Posted in Egypt, International Terrorism, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Libya and Syria have become the poster children for the varied impacts that the so-called Arab Spring have had on the Islamic Middle East. They are not the most important countries to have undergone changes (Egypt, the outcome of whose upheaval remains a work in progress, can claim that distinction), but they do represent the most polar outcomes that the popular uprisings have produced to date. In Libya, the rebels–with the generous and probably critical assistance of Western militaries–have succeeded in dislodging long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, whose whereabouts remain a mystery of the Carmen San Diego variety at this point. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains in power in the face of worldwide condemnation but little effective action, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseaable future.

The countries and their situations are a study in similarities and contrasts. Both are, of course, majority Sunni countries (as are most Muslim states), both have a diverse population that is tied together by common religion, both have long-standing traditions since achieving statehood of authoritarian rule in which the military has played a prominent role, and both have ties (admittedly of different varieties) to international terrorism. On the face of it, Syria is in many ways the more important country by virtue of size (71,500 square miles of territory to Libya’s 43,000 square miles), population (22 million to 6.5 million) and strategic location: Syria has long borders with Iraq and Turkey and less lengthy borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, whereas Libya borders six North African countries, the only one of which that has strategic significance being Egypt.

There is, of course, one very significant difference between the two which explains the highly differential way the international community has reacted to demands for political change in the two countries. That difference, of course, is that Libya has a large amount of very desirable petroleum, and Syria does not. The contrast is enormous. Using CIA World Factbook figures, Libya exports approximately 1.5 million barrels a day (15th largest in the world), while Syria exports 155,000 barrels a day, about one-tenth of the Libyan figure and 56th in the world. Known Libyan reserves stand at 47 billion barrels, comparecto 2.5 billion for the Syrians. Moreover, Libyan oil is relatively cheap to extract and is particularly “sweet” (low-sulfur content), a particularly important factor for Europeans who have geared their refineries to processing sweet crude and can only deal with other oil with considerably more difficulty and expense.

Oil production has driven the economies of the two countries in opposite directions. Libyan GDP per capita, for instance, is about $14,800 (84th in the world), and while it is distributed in an unequitable manner of which the Tea Party would be proud and Ayn Rand disciples envious, it is considerably higher than in Syria, with a per capita GDP of $4,800, 151st the in the world. Prior to the revolution, Libya was a classic “petrolist” state (to borrow Thomas L. Friedman’s term), where huge oil revenues (95 percent of export earnings, 80 percent of government revenues) were used to buy off the population and blunt its democratic urges. Petrolist success took a hit with the success of the revolution in Libya.

Libya has succeeded in throwing off its shackles for the moment, and Syria has not. The outcome in Libya is far from ordained, and could vary from a total democracy to the rise of a new dictator: prudence suggests somewhere in between, whatever that may mean. The al-Assads cling to power, and despite universal pleas for them to cease their repression and to step down, Bashar al-Assad shows no indication he will do either. Nobody wants to talk about his success in holding power, but it is not unlikely, at least in the short run.

The key element in Libyan success and Syrian failure is outside pressure. Put simply, it is highly unlikely that the Libyan rebels would have succeeded without the covering air power of NATO to suppress government forces (attacking them directly, preventing their forays against rebel units in the field intent on their destruction). These rebels, it must be remembered, were a pretty woebegone, rag-tag coalition when they began, and the early prognosis for them was not good until NATO airpower shifted the balance of power. There has, to put it mildly, been nothing like that in support of Syrian dissidents who are, as best one can piece together from media reports, been treated much more harshly than the Libyan government treated its citizenry. Why the difference?

The answers, of course, are pretty obvious. The first and overwhelmingly most important is that Libya has something the outside world wants (oil), and Syria does not. This makes Syria, despite its geography and demographics, much less important to the world–and specifically to the countries that can militarily interfere–than Libya. The fact that Libya is a short and undefended flight across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya and that effective assistance did not include putting boots on the ground (sand?) and thus creating the possibility of many casualties, added to the ease of making the decision to help Libya but not Syria. Any actions against Syria are likely to have to come from neighbors, who show neither the interest nor capability to tangle with the regime in Damascus. Human rights violations alone are simply not enough.

The other element has been that the coercive capacity of the Syrian government has proven more capable and resilient than that of Libya. On the face of it, the Libyans has the wherewithal to expunge the rebels but could not. Part of the reason was geographic (target cities were fairly far away), and traversing the terrain meant crossing open territory and being left vulnerable to NATO air power. Partly, however, the Libyans seemed less capable (ruthless, blood thirsty)than Syrian forces). For the time being, Syrian brutality has succeeded; it may not in the longer run, but for the moment, the Syrians have held the line.

None of this suggests how the revolutions in either country or the region will come out. There are simply too many variables, someforeseeable and others not, that could influence the ultimate outcomes. Roughly nine months after the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and spread through the region, however, the experiences in Libya and Syria do suggest the range of possible outcomes.

Congress and the Cutter’s Blade

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, U.S. defense budget, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , on August 28, 2011 by whatafteriraq

After a month’s respite, in which the major political events have been the emergence of Cowboy Rick Perry in the GOP race and some sniping at President Obama for spending a week at Martha’s Vineyard, Congress will return to Washington in a week or so. Like everyone else, I can hardly wait. Neither can your friends and neighbors at the Pentagon, where the power point presentations must be gathering furiously.

The “highlight” (lowlight?) of the resumed session will be the fight over the budget. Most of the activity will concentrate on 2012 election year posturing, of course, but the Congress has set itself up by including the provision for draconian cuts to be triggered automatically after Thanksgiving unless the Supercommitte does the unexpected and comes up with a viable compromise solution to bringing the deficit under control. Given the constituency of the committee, one should not hold one’s breath on that one, especially given that all six GOP members have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge and that virtually every responsible adult in the United States understands that the process cannot possibly achieve anything like balance without additional revenues. The only chance is that the committee can come up with some convincing euphemism by which new taxes and are called something else, but even the ideological fanatics of the right will probably see through that. The prospects for the system working this out are, in other words, not very good.

Enter the Pentagon. If the automatic trigger goes into effect, the Department of Defense takes it in the knickers, as, of course, does everyone else. Defense planners have already stated that the additional cuts the automatic reductions would impose, about $.5 trillion over a decade or roughly $50 billion a year, will seriously compromise the national defense and thus must be avoided. The power point writers have undoubtedly been fervently at work building the case for the Apocalypse should this occur, and they can be counted upon to share their concerns with anyone who will listen.

In the past, DOD has been very successful in dodging budget bullets. Their key weapon, however, has been the existence of a reasonably clear and present threat that needed blunting. The Russian bear (or the Chinese dragon, or both) could always be dragged out of the closet to frighten the public and assure that Congress would not apply the blade to the DOD budget during the Cold War, and Osama bin Laden has provided the same kind of valuable service for the past decade. But the Russian bear is mostly a Mafiosi now, the dragon stocks our local Wal Mart, and bin Laden is dead. It is not clear who can play Freddie Kreuger and scare the bejusus out of us now to defend high levels of defense spending. The threats may be there, but they are more subtle, less convincing and, quite frankly, less compelling.

If one is defending the defense budget, this leaves one with four arguably Devil’s Choices. One can defend no taxes, high defense budgets, and thus really deep cuts in social services–a position that has traction with the GOP right that has been an historic ally of defense. The problem is that this solution attacks the large constituency who receives social benefits that get pared back radically under these solutions. This constituency is only beginning to become aware of the consequences of this strategy for them, and Democrats will help them fill in the details. When they figure out what Paul Rand-Ryan(Rand as in Ayn Rand) really has in mind for them, they are not going to be happy. And, by the way, they vote in higher proportions than just about any other voting group.

Second, they can play good soldiers, and accept the sacrifices of being full participants in deficit reduction without additional tax revenues. At the abstract level, this has some appeal. It seems patriotic, but it leaves the military with less than they truly believe they need, and playing their traditional guardian role requires resources: patriotism thus cuts both ways. Most military/defense intellectuals consider themselves conservative and thus lean Republican, but other than contractors, they are not among the uber wealthy who benefit the most from this solution.

Third, they can join the chorus that argues that some sacrifice is necessary, but deep cuts are unacceptable, and that the only solution is increasing taxes, some of the revenue from which will defray additional cuts in defense. From a strict calculation od self-interest, this is probably the optimal solution, but it is a tough one to swallow if one believes, as many defense types do, in very limited government that does  nothing opulently except for funding national defense. The problem is that no one is really pushing this position: it is essentially libertarian, but Ron Paul, the darling of the libertarians, is also an ardent isolationist (he of course does not call himself that) who essentially wants to withdraw to the shorelines, which can be defended at considerably smaller costs than now being incurred (which is one reason he favors that posture).

The fourth option, of course, is to continue things as they are: large budget deficits. While a short term case can be made for this solution, one thing the Tea Party right has successfully done is to take this option off the table. 

The net result of all this is to leave the defense establishment in a pickle of sorts. They believe in fiscal responsibility but generous resource allocation for defense. They generally oppose additional taxes, but they also oppose running what many of them join other conservatives in decrying as ruinous deficits. The problem is they cannot have it both ways. Anybody who believes that the outcome of this whole process is going to be the gutting of entitlement programs to defend an opulent defense budget must suffer from a dangerous belief in the Tooth Fairy: despite the wildest dreams of the Tea Party (which is almost certain to fade rapidly as the social consequences of  its advocacies are fully understood), this simply is not going to happen. Defense can only be resilient and funded at levels with which it is comfortable by raising taxes. It is really as simple as that, and anyone who tells you different is either a chronic liar or a delusional fool. While I understand this describes a large number of the current membership in Congress, it is nonetheless true.

Welcome back to Washington, Congress! Citizens, on the other hand, beware!

U.S. Humanitarian Activism: Libya and Syria

Posted in Middle East and US Election, Middle East Conflict, Obama foreign policy, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The remaining hot spots from the Arab Spring are in Libya and Syria. In both cases, popular uprisings erupted against tyrannical governments inspired at least patrially by the Arab Spring events that began in Tunisia and moved quickly to Egypt and elsewhere. Distinguishing characteristics of these two cases, however, have been the continuing brutality of the regime against its dissidents and the dogged organized resistance to the regime’s actions by those seeking change. This level of resistance and the need for continued bloody suppression distinguishes Libya and Syria from places like Bahrain and Yemen, where dissidence was fairly quickly suppressed and things returned to fairly quickly to whatever passes for normalcy.

Libya and Syria are different from one another and from the others. Their duration sets them aside from other Arab Spring events. Libya has produced a full-scale revolutionary movement that, with the considerable assistance of NATO air forces, may be closing in on the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime; the effort in Syria has been less organized and militarized, but worldwide publicity has resulted in a steady drum beat of international demands for the resignation of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad that are increasingly difficult for him to resist.

The level of violence, even savagery, of government oppression of resisters in both countries has raised both to the level of international humanitarian disasters or crises–situations where there is widespread atrocity against or abuse of a country’s citizens by its government. One response to such a situation is humanitarian activism, which I define as intervention (including military force as its most dramatic manifestation) in humanitarian crises by other countries to end the conditions defining the disaster. The United States has a long, if uneven, record of action or inaction in such situations; in both Libya and Syria, however, the United States has adopted a fairly passive form of opposition to the disasters, preferring to defer leadership to others. Why?

It seems to me that to understand when the United States does and does not become personally invested in these kinds of situations requires looking at three variables. The first is American mood at the time. Is the United States feeling especially optimistic about its internal situation and place in the world, in which case it is likely to become internally activist, seeking to spread its own message and gospel to others? Or is the United States feeling insecure and recessive, turning inward and evincing a sense of isolation from world events that is part of the U.S. historical DNA?

Second is the nature of the international environment in which any proposed action might occur. Partly, this assessment reflects Americans’ self-assessment and confidence in themselves, their ability to shape the world, and their confidence in their world role. At the same time, this assessment includes the competing demands on American national security resources elsewhere in the world: can the United States afford to divert scarce resources (especially military) to humanitarian missions that can or might be needed elsewhere?

The third variable is geopolitics, and it also has at least two facets. One is the American relationship with the country in which the disaster is occurring. There were, for instance, no shortage of what now are called humanitarian crises in countries with which the United States was allied dring the Cold War (Central Africa and Central America offer fine examples) where the Unied States did not condemn the harsh treatment of populations by “friendly” rulers; given the dangers of Cold War escalation, however, all we did with similar events in the communist world (e.g. Cambodia) was condemn them. Context may be everything. At the same time, the attitude and willingness of friends and allies is also a geopolitical factor: the United States almost certainly would not have dispatched and kept force in the Balkans in the 1990s and beyond were it not for the insistence of NATO allies.

Different periods of recent history can be gauged in these terms. During the Cold War, there was basically no such thing as humanitarian activism, because geopolitical, Cold War considerations precluded it. The term entered the lexicon after the Cold War ended, and there was a spate of such activism by the United States in the 1990s, when all the variables aligned favorably: the American mood was confident and expansive, the rest of the environment was fairly placid and undemanding, and there were few geopolitical inhibitions to preclude identifying and stomping on the bad guys who abused and denied the rights of their citizens.

And then there is now. The United States has not acted decisively in either the Libyan and Syrian cases. In Libya, we play a very limited supporting role (that has had opposition anyway), and beyond leading the verbal condemnation of Assad, have done very little in Syria. Admittedly, these are two countries where the U.S. has few interests and even fewer levers of influence it can apply, but it has clearly not been an instance of any kind of humanitarian activism by any measure.

The three variable help explain this. Two of them are negative. In the current economic climate, the United States is not feeling good and positive about itself, and were the Obama administration to propose any more than what it is doing, it would be accused of taking its “eye off the ball” of our real priorities, of trying to divert attention away from its internal problems, or both (most likely both). At the same time, the United States is still heavily invested in military adventures elsewhere in the region that strain resources; the American people would hardly embrace a new Middle Eastern military adventure. The only positive variable is international support for activism. Europe, after all, is devoting resources to Libya (which it arguably cannot afford), and even other Middle Eastern countries have condemned the Syrians. In a sense, this willingness of others to take the lead relieves the United States of any pressure it might otherwise feel to get out front on either crisis.

Libya and Syria may or may not represent the long-term future of American humanitarian activism, but they are likely to be models for the next few years, until American prosperity and self-confidence reappears and we are looking at the world differently than we are today. If one is against such interventions anyway, then “let the bad times roll,” since they are keeping us from doing what we have no business doing anyway, as Ron Paul would argue. If the United States is the shining city on the hill (Reagan’s typification) and should be ready and willing to help transform the world, wait for a better day.

GOP Candidates and National Security

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on August 14, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Probably because it has been a generally slow week in the area of national security (other than the spike in Afghanistan deaths largely the result of the Chinook helicopter crash), my mind drifted to the 2012 election (a depressing topic, admittedly), and given the general focus of this blog, the national security implications of electing one of the GOP candidates in the race. The prospects are pretty dismal.

My method was, in the case of the major candidates, to go to their campaign web sites and see what they have to say. It is not a very fruitful exercise. The most organized site is Mitt Romney’s, which it should be, since he has been running for president continuously since at least early 2008. Aside from the discouraging reality that all the time and money he has spent cannot get him past the one-quarter proportion of support among members of the GOP, his site is curiously short on the subject. In fact, in the section on issues on the web site, the choices one has to hear Romney on individual issues (including national defense) is cleverly covered by a shirt-sleeved picture of the candidate, and all one can glean is a general statement that he loves a strong America (now there’s a surprise). On the real and hard issues, apparently Nada!

The same is true for most of the pretenders. It is difficult to figure out what any of them is for, other than the opposite of whatever President Obama is for on any given issue. It is hardly a distinguished or distinguishable array. With Tim Pawlenty (the classic “who dat?”) out of the race, most of the rest has about the same likelihood of becoming president as I do (although that does not mean they cannot compete for the nomination), and the fact that they have no discernible credentials in this area is probably innocuous. Within that field of feckless wannabes (Santorum, Paul, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Bachman), the only one who has any track record in the foreign policy/national security area is former Utah Governor John Huntsman, but he is too bland and not crazy enough on social issues to get run the nomination gauntlet successfully, and he is way too Mormon at that. If he were to move to Massachusetts and declare himself a Democrat, he might have a future. Being a Democrat in Utah is like being one in South Carolina (where I live); Utah, Mormon and Democrat do not fit together into any sentences that do not contain a negative somewhere. The only other candidate with any real chops on policy in any area is Newt Gingrich, but the former speaker has so much extraneous baggage from his personal life that the day he is inaugurated, a spontaneous snowball fight will break out in hell. Some may take umbrage over my consignment of Michelle Bachman to the dust heap, but I just don’t think she will hold up long, especially with Sarah Palin peering coylyover her shoulder; I could, of course, be wrong here.

That leaves Cowboy Rick Perry, the newest entry into the pack. Perry does not trumpet his foreign or defense policy expertise; his campaign web site limits itself to saying he is for a “secure border” (a pretty bold statement for the Governor of Texas) and that he “has not taken a firm stand on on foreign policy/national defense as of yet.” I personally can hardly wait. Instead, he is concentrating on demonstrating his social conservative chops (go to church, oppose gay rights, execute lots of criminals) and on job creation, for which he holds up Texas (low unemployment, high job attraction) as an example of his prowess. Presumably, his major advice to the rest of us is to find oil under our soil or, if applicable, under our continental shelf, and then to hop in bed with the oil industry.

 If none of the candidates has any real background and/or interest in national security beyond a desire to wrap themselves tightly in the flag and form the basis to call themselves patriots (the basic position of the Tea Party), then what can one expect? The current field contains sufficient cats and dogs that a Dwight Eisenhower-like figure (David Petraeus would seem the likely candidate) who has both the popular potential and foreign/national security credentials to make a distinctive contribution might yet emerge. If, however, the nomination goes to one of the current crop of national security neophytes, what could one expect?

Since presidential campaigns do not offer the peace and serenity for candidates to become experts themselves, they are going to have to accept the advice of outsiders. For Republicans, that means former members of the Bush administration and experts in the very conservative, heavily neo-conservative Washington think tanks. That is essentially what George W. Bush did, and I cannot see any candidate from the current crop doing much else. They simply lack the expertise and, based on what they have done so far, the interest to do something different. Among the also-rans, Ron Paul, the libertarian who wants to get the government out of almost everything, is the partial exception: he does favor ending the military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. What he is for beyond that is a bit murkier.

As Governor Perry’s name has been bandied about, one of the rejoinders has been whether the United States is ready to accept another Texas GOP governor as commander-in-chief: can Perry get out from under George W. Bush’s shadow? His people will certainly try to prove he is “not Bush,” which will create some interesting moments of its own. But there is another GWB shadow that may hang over the nominee, Perry, Romney or otherwise. That shadow is a likelihood of a return to the Bush national security strategy. Many Americans do not remember that experience so happily as to make it a plus. We will see.