Archive for John McCain

Happy Holidays from Baghdad!

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Depressingly, it has not taken long for things to begin to show signs of unravelling in Iraq. Less than a week after the last American combat vehicle passed the frontier into Kuwait, the first crisis has emerged. It is no surprise that things are coming undone, of course; this blog has been part of a chorus for some time arguing that things would turn bad in that country after the United States and regardless of when the United States leaves. The only surprise is how fast the fissures have reopened; one would have hoped the partisans would at least have waited until after the eggnog was drunk and the presents under the tree opened. But that clearly was not meant to be.

The source of the fissure has been the newest dispute between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regime and the highest elected Sunni in the country,Tariq al-Hashemi, head of the al-Iraqiya party. The focus of the dispute is Shiite accusations that Hashemi and his associates engineered the murders of numerous Shiites, a charge that Hashemi says are both false and politically motivated, arguing that in making these accusations Maliki “pushes things in the direction of no return.” Not trusting the police and courts in Baghdad, Hashemi has taken refuge in Kurdistan, which has offered him effective asylum and which he uses as a platform from which to excoriate the Maliki government. His basic argument is that the charges are politically motivated, untrue, and that he could not receive a fair trial in Baghdad with its pro-Shiite, pro-Maliki courts that do not, in his words, offer adequate “transparency.”

This dispute highlights two of the most basic sources of division in Iraq that many of us have argued since before the 2003 invasion provided more than adequate reason not to invade in the first place. The heart of the disagreement is an entirely predictable confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites, the basic religious divide in Islam. The net effect of 8 1/2 years of American involvement in Iraq has been to shift power from a tyrannical Sunni dictator to what is increasingly looking like a Shiite dictator–an absolutely predictable outcome of our insistence on one-man,one-vote “democracy” is a country that is over 60 percent Shiite. Now that whatever restraint our presence had on the competition has been removed, the Sunnis and Shiites are fighting again. What a surprise!

The other dimension is territorial, the division between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq along ethnic and territorial lines. Although supporters of the war were always loath to admit it, Iraqi Kurdistan has been a de facto independent states for several years now, with very little Baghdad jurisdiction over what goes on there. The fact that Hashemi would seek refuge in Kurdistan and that the government would feel the need to negotiate about the Kurds turning him over rather than simply arresting him in what is, after all, officially part of Iraq tells you everything you need to know about the territorial integrity of the country. Until some agreement is reached on the division of oil revenues in the country, this status quo will continue. It is probably true that the only reason Kurdistan has not declared formal independence is strong opposition from surrounding countries with contiguous Kurdish minorities who would probably move to join such a state. Turkey, with the area’s largest and most formidable armed forces heads the lists of opponents which could, unlike the government in Baghdad, establish its sway over the Kurdish region if adequately incited to do so.

All this is playing out without great notice in the United States. The crisis emerging over the holiday season probably explains part of this–as most of us are more concerned about old Saint Nick than we are about Iraq. Indeed, the Obama administration may have made sure all the troops were out before Christmas because it knew things would blow up and wanted that to occur when we were not paying attention.

The only American politician who seems to have noticed is John McCain, whose response has been entirely predictable, arguing that the fault lies with the Obama administration for removing all the troops when it did. His argument, which he seems to apply most everywhere, is that if we kept a military presence in Iraq, it would not be blowing up today. The same argument was used in Vietnam, but misses the point that regardless of how long we stay, the divisions are going to remain and will boil over whenever our departure occurs. The Iraqis, on the other hand, realize that now that we are gone, we are not coming back, so they can revert to form.

Anyone who can make a straight line projection of the current dust up to the final outcome in Iraq has either been drinking too much eggnog or eggnog spiked with illegal substances. The current brouhaha is, more likely, simply the opening chorus of a much longer and more traumatic outcome, the exact nature of which is impossible to predict. What is safe to suggest is that it will not work out the way that George Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al. predicted back in the early summer of 2003.

Merry Baghdad to all, and to all a good night!


Goldilocks and Afghanistan: How Big a Withdrawal?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama’s stated promise to begin the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by July 2011, a commitment he made when he committed 30,000 additional troops to the war early in his presidency, is coming near. The major question is how large a withdrawal he will order, and what the consequences of whatever size drawdown he chooses, will be. He is, of course, suffering from no shortage of advice on what his decision should be, much of it tinged liberally with partisan political and iedological/strategic underpinnings. When one thinks about the prospects, an analogy between the situation and Goldilocks assessment of the three bears’ porridge may not be inappropriate.

What to do about Afghanistan has, unsurprisingly in this era of foreign policy hyper-partisanship, become a political fight that divides those who support continuing the war and those who do not (the latter being the preference of the majority of Americans in polling results). The arguments against the war–and thus for a large withdrawal that is the first step toward a total pullout (at least of ground combat forces)–tend to come from liberal Democrats, although parts of their arguments appeal more broadly. Supporters of the war and thus opponents of any substantial troop withdrawal tend to be conservative Republicans who believe either that the mission is too vital to be abandoned or compromised or who believe there has been adequate progress that a successful conclusion may be within reach. 

The two positions deserve at least some elaboration. The opponents, whose chief spokesman increasingly is Massachusetts senator John Kerry (chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic nominee for president in 2004), make at least three separate arguments for pulling back. The first is that the United States cannot afford to continue to drop $10 billion a month into Afghanistan given current economic conditions at home. The expenses are particularly odious because they are inflated by the costs of “nation-building” associated with the Petraeus strategy of counterinsurgency, a cost that could be reduced with a smaller commitment with smaller troop numbers. Second, they argue the situation can be handled with a more concentrated effort aimed at the remnants of Al Qaeda, which requires neither large numbers of “muddy boots” on the ground nor the levels of financial resources currently being expended. Third, the scaling back is further justified by the successful elimination of Usama bin Laden (and subsequently his heir apparent), leaving the terrorist organization is some level of disarray. Not so openly discussed are the further assumptions that the war is probably unwinnable under any circumstances and that the Karzai government does not really warrant continuing American support (part of the reason the war is unwinnable).

Supporters, of course, disagree with this assessment. Their arguments are most sharply made by active participants in the war itself, notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Petraeus. Both of these officials have argued that progress has been made but that it is, in a phrase first used by Petraeus but adopted by Gates, “fragile and reversible.” The heart of the argument is that real progress is being made and that a precipitous drawdown would endanger what has been accomplished. In Gates’ own words, “Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away kust as the enemy is on its back foot.” In an interview with 60 Minutes, Gates drew a football analogy, warning against abandoning the field when the U.S. was on the enemy’s “two-yard line.” Critics, of course, find these descriptions of progress to be overblown.

It may be instructive that neither Gates nor Petraeus will be in their positions as the decision, whatever it may be, is being implemented. Leon Panetta, the current Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), has already been nominated to replace Gates as Secretary of Defense, and when questioned by senators (notably John McCain) about whether he agreed with the Gates assessment in confirmation hearings, he was noticeably circumspect in his answers. Petraeus has been tapped to replace Panetta to head an agency that has historically had a more jaundiced view of the Afghan adventure; his appointment also takes the general off the hook as the commander of what may be a sinking ship.

So what will the president decide? As usual in the hyper-partisan atmosphere that dominates Washington, it is a “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” set of choices. He cannot avoid withdrawals altogether, because to do so would be politically too injurious, reneging on a public promise and alienating his natural constituent base on the left. He cannot order a massive withdrawal, because doing do runs the risk of the entire enterprise going south before the 2012 election, and certainly inflaming the core of the GOP right. That leaves him with options inside the extremes, ranging from a token to a moderate to a sizable reduction. So what will the President choose to do?

The pressures are both strategic and political. Strategically, it boils down to a dichotomy that favors the extremes. If the war is important, progress is being made, and a favorable outcome is within reach (essentially the Gates argument), then it makes sense to continue and thus order only a token reduction (say 10,000 of the 30,000 added previously by Obama). If who governs Afghanistan is not important to the U.S., progress is not really being made, and the prospects are endlessly indecisive, then it makes equal sense to cut our losses and get out as fast as possible. Thus, a maximum withdrawal is the answer. The problem is that there is not great agreement on any of the conditions (importance, progress, end state), making a decisive strategic decision difficult to make.

The political pressures all point to the 2012 election. What decision will most help/least hurt the president’s reelection prospects? Since almost no one publicly argues the war will be over (especially favorably) between now and then, the question is what action today will have the least injurious effects on the election then? Since we cannot ramp up an instant victory, that means adopting an approach that will result in the smallest possible losses and, most critically, that insures the situation will not have visibly deteriorated between now and election day 2012. That suggests a moderate withdrawal–enough not to look entirely like a token, but not enough to throw the situation into peril. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a porridge that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. How does a reduction of 15-20,000 sound?

The “Three Amigos” Doctrine on Libya

Posted in Egypt, Libya, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on May 1, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Just when you thought the 2008 election was over, the “three amigos” from the losing side of the campaign–Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) have reappeared, this time astride the issue of assistance to the Libyan resistance. McCain, who got most of the publicity in 2008 as the GOP standard bearer, was out front this time as well, trooping through the streets of Banghazi, the informal capital of the rebellion,to the cheers and waving U.S. flags by the grateful population.

The message that the three friends and allies articulated was straightforward: the United States should do more to help the anti-Gadhafi forces overthrow the government and establish a new, anti-Gadhafi regime. All three stopped short of, and even renounced, the insertion of American ground forces into the fray, but they also clearly indicated that they believed the United States should assert itself decisively in the cause to overthrow the Gadhafi regime after 42 years in power.

Is this good advice? Do the three senators really have a valid point, and is it the kind of expression of US foreign policy that could guide future actions? Neither question is easy to answer, but one when tries, the wisdom of the suggestion becomes less and less obvious.

At one level, the MGL (McCain-Graham-Lieberman) advocacy is nothing more than the update of the Nixon Doctrine, which was basically an explanation of how and why the United States would treat communist attempts to break out of the containment line in the wake of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. In essence, it said the United States supported countries resisting communism and would come to their aid with things like material support and training, but that the insertion of American forces was off the table unless overwhelming American interests were involved (e.g. an action in Western Europe). We would, in other words, send money and equipment and even train indigenous personnel how to use it, but no American blood. The MGL formulation is similar, if one substitutes anti-dictatorial for anti-communist in the equation and adds the US Air Force (at least remotely controlled drones) to the list of tools the US might send to help the rebels. But is this such a good idea?

There is, of course, no shortage of anti-democratic thug regimes in the world, some of whom the United States has traditionally nurtured and supported and, in some instances, continues to help prop up (which may be part of the problem the MGL “solution” seeks to address). How does the United States choose among those it will help and those it will not? The existence of vital American interests that are damaged by the anti-democrats winning/retaining power would be such a criterion, but unequivocally vital US interests are hardly ever involved in these situations. Are they in Libya, whose major contribution to the world is sweet il necessary for Europe but not the US? Is it the openly friendly, pro-democratic (and hence praiseworthy) nature of the insurgents? Who exactly are the Libyan rebels? What do they want? Do they really like us? Nobody, including the MGL team, seems to hasve ready answers to these questions.

What seems more likely, and is certainly hinted at in interviews by the MGL team, is that these actions are necessary to relieve and reverse the inhumane actions of the Libyan government toward its people, a fate that has been made abundantly clear by official and samizdat reportage on the government’s use of force to crush the rebellion. The evidence is pretty clear that the Libyan government is using brutal force to crush its opponents, and seems ready to exact retribution against those who rose against it. Is this a good reason for the United States to involve itself in a decisive way that will obviate that result? Maybe, but….

The rejoinder is almost too simple and obvious to state. Civil uprisings, and especially those that seek to overthrow an existing government and throw out its leaders, are never looked upon or treated benignly by those attacked. Counter-insurgencies seek to crush insurgencies, just as insurgents seek to crush governments. These affairs always have and always will be very emotional, furtive, and thus violent. When one side is overwhelmingly more powerful than the other (e.g. the Syrian government and the protesters), the violence may be swift and one-sided. When the government is internally rotten and about ready to fall anyway (e.g. Egypt), neither side may need to resort to violence, making things neater.

But Libya is not like either of those examples. While the lethal balance clearly resides with the firepower-superior government (a balance MGL’s suggested actions are intended to alter in favor of the insrugents), there is considerable support for the rebels, and neither side has been able to overwhelm the other (although it is not clear how well the rebels would have fared had NATO not intervened from the air). In this case, the rebels have attacked government strongholds and the government has retaliated. Some otherwise innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire and the government has retaliated against civilians it believes has supported its enemies.

The point is that there is nothing terribly unusual here. Regrettable perhaps, but not unusual. Civil wars, unless they are resolved very quickly one way or the other, are typically very bloody affairs with very high stakes for all involved. The Gadhafi government has without doubt violated the human rights of his population and engaged in crimes against humanity for which he should be held accountable. The problem is that such violations are by no means unusual in civil wars–they are, if anything, the norm and not the exception. If there is evidence that the Libyan government has acted in ways that are particularly and outrageously hideous (making Libya and exception), that evidence is not clear. To repeat, violent, atrocious action by one or both sides is not unusual in civil war.

If this is true, the MGL advocacy of tipping the balance in Libya away from the government amounts to a new policy criterion for the use of American military force–let’s call it the “Three Amigos Doctrine” (TAD). The core of that doctrine is that the United States disapproves of any civil war that breaks out anywhere in the world and should be prepared to come to the decisive aid of whoever is losing. How many TAD-ites are there among us?

Democracy, Islamism, the U.S., Egypt, and Israel

Posted in Egypt, Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Although the Libyan civil war is the current focus of most of the world’s (and certainly John McCain’s) attention, that blooldletting is a sideshow on the greater stage of the revolutionary movement that has swept across parts of the Middle East since January and which may spread even further in the upcoming months or years. The central stage of this drama is a two-act drama. The key element in that drama is the shape that post-uprising political systems in the region will take, and it is a contest widely portrayed in terms of democracy versus religious extremism (Islamism). The outcome of that contest may reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East region, and especially the critical triangular relationship between the United States, Egypt, and Israel that is a linchpin of American foreign policy in the region.

The common denominator of the Middle East revolutions has been popular uprisings against repressive, authoritarian regimes by suppressed peoples. These movements were virtually unanticipated in the West, which saw regimes like that of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak as pillars of stability in the region. That they were anti-democratic conflicted with the on-again-off-again U.S. policy of democracy promotion in the region, but that policy impulse (and it is hard to think of it as much more than that) always had as its alter ego the comfort of dealing with predictable regimes who cooperated with American policy emphases such as moderating anti-Israeli sentiments among Arab populations and participating in the American war on terrorism.

American policy toward Egypt demonstrated the American ambivalence on the subject particularly clearly. Everyone knew that Mubarak’s regime was nothing to be proud of in human rights or economic matters, but he was enduring (it lasted over 30 years, after all), and Mubarak was a staunch supporter of peace with Israel and a champion of anti-terrorist activities. But there was always an irony involved: the same prisons where he jailed and even tortured his political opponents were also available for the “rendition” (i.e. torture) of suspected terrorists captured by the United States and from whom the Americans wanted to extract information that it would be embarassing for us to obtain otherwise. Good old Hosni would take care of them for us. Gee, some of us may actually miss him.

Ambivalence about what is happening is, of course, rarely put this way. Rather, the great fear is that democratic movements in the countries undergoing upheavals may somehow be highjacked by radical Islamists, who will transform their societies into Iran-like clones and even, at worst, as havens for fanatical terrorists. This is a fear that beleaguered tyrants like Muammar Gadhafi have raised with particular vehemence (his charge that westerners and Al Qaeda–strange bedfellows–are responsible for Libya’s travail), and it raises a prospect that many others, but especially Israel, feels with particularly personal urgency.

But is this fear justified? It is too early to say with absolute certainty, but the early indications are that as democratic processes emerge, the Islamic extremists will not fare especially well. Egypt, which is the largest, most populous, and most strategically located of all the countries undergoing change, is the case in point. It is, of course, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, offshoots of which are active in virtually every other Arab country in the region, but all indications are that the Brotherhood will neither be the preeminent influence in a post-Mubarak political order nor will its influence be particularly radical. One can and should never say never about these prospects, but unless things change, the prospects seem manageable.

There are, however, two other possible, even probable, outcomes that are more troublesome for the West, and the United States and Israel in particular. One is that all of these movements are likely to contain fairly strong anti-American elements. In one way this is strange, since it is western inventiveness that has energized the movements (e.g. the Internet) and since the political freedom to which they aspire is distinctly western. At the same time, the peoples involved know that that west, and notably the United States, has been the primary supporter of discredited leaders like Mubarak–the source of the misery to which they have reacted. This dichotomy mainly reflects the schizophrenia of American policy that valued “stability” over our own democratic values in these places, and that it is coming home to roost is probably something we will have to endure and try to make the best of. But one thing is pretty clear, and that it that the United States will have less influence over whoever ascends to power in places like Egypt than it had before.

This recognition brings us to the other outcome, which is a more anti-Israeli stance from post-revolutionary governments. For better or worse reasons, public opinion in places like Egypt is much more pro-Palestinian and thus thus anti-Israeli than the policies of fallen leaders like Mubarak have reflected. In open and democratic settings, it will be impossible for successor governments not to reflect this opposition, and the trick for the United States will be to try to keep this sentiment from boiling over into the destruction of the Middle East peace process which, ironically, has been one of the triumphs of the American policy of supporting regional tyrants.

The Israelis, of course, are well aware of and consequently with this likely outcome of democratization. The process, however, also leaves Israel in something of a bind in terms of how to respond. One of the signal bases of Israeli appeal in the region has been that it is the only legitimate political democracy in the Middle East, and as such, it can hardly oppose the spread of democracy to its neighbors. At the same time, it is also aware of the anti-Israeli tone of democratic politics there, a sentiment largely born of Israel’s obdurate clinging to the West Bank and opposition to completing an agreement creating an independent state of Palestine. These contradictions are part of a lively political debate within Israel, but the Israelis have been very quiet internationally about how they feel. Privately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently strongly advocated muscular American actions to prop up Mubarak (coming out on the stability end of the stability-democracy argument), but that train has left the station, and the Israelis are hunkering down.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the great question that remains is what will become of the strategically triangular relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Under Mubarak, the three were united to keep the lid on the volatile region by maintaining at least the fiction of a lively peace process leading to some kind of solution acceptable to the Palestinians, but democratic expressions in places like Egypt could undercut that fiction. It is not clear how diminished American influence will be in this situation, but it will certainly be decreased somewhat. The result will be uncomfortable for Israel, because its current policy of expanding the status quo will come under increasingly withering criticism from unconstrained democratizing places like Egypt. How Israel responds to this change will go a long way toward defining the geopolitics of the democratizing Middle East.

Using American Force in the Middle East

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Egypt, Iraq War, Libya, US Domestic Politics, Yemen with tags , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As the uprisings of 2011 continue to roll across the Middle East, one inevitable question seems to center on whether, or in what cases, the United States should contemplate the use of American forces to intervene in the situation(s). Eqaully inevitably, there is widespread disagreement about answers along fairly predictable ideological lines.

Because so many of the country’s land forces either are tied down in or have been exhausted by a decade of fighting two wars in the region in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody of note has openly advocated putting American “muddy boots” on the ground in any of these conflicts. This admirable show of restraint is not because the civil uprisings are much less important to the United States or the world (it is not difficult to argue that most of the countries experiencing violence are as important to the United States as Iraq in particular), but because either the force is not available or the calculation is that even the American public would support such action. Still, on one side exemplified by John McCain (who could, one is reminded with a shudder, could be president of the United States) hectoring General Carter Ham, the Pentagon’s front man in this situation, about whether imposing (with American air forces) a no-fly zone in Libya might have brought about a different result (a Qadhafi overthrow) than the current impasse. General Ham, who is a bright guy, to his credit refused to rise to the bait on this one, sardonically telling the Senator such determinations were not military and thus not part of his portfolio. (Personal note: General Ham was a student of mine at the US Air War College in  1996-97, and was then a very perceptive student of the utilities and limits of military power.) The political left equally predictably decries any use of force in the current situation, arguing either that these are civil wars (they are) where our interests are not clear (which they are not) and that it is not clear whether our intervention might help under any circumstances (equally true).

Even the suggestion that the United States might use force to affect the outcomes of these various uprisings is curious. For one thing, they are all internal, civil affairs, with autocratic governments under varying degrees of siege from suppressed populations who want the old leader out, replaced by some alternative they we (and they) cannot define. These are, in international legal terms, strictly speaking none of our business, and although we may oppose dictatorial rule in principle, it is not clear we support an as-yet undefiined alternative. Who, for instance, is the alternative in Egypt? Moreover, our past catches up with us: if dictatorial leaders either professed anti-communism, ant-terrorism or both, we have probably supported them, making changing horses embarassing. We did pull the plug on Mubarak,but can we do so with Saleh in Yemen, where we clearly have no clue about the dynamics or other consequences of various outcomes (other than fearing Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula–AQAP–might benefit). Thus, the question “force for what?” has to be asked.

Stephen Walt, in a posting in Foreign Policy (online) dates April 4, 2011, offers some insight into why these questions even arise. In the article, he lays out five reasons the United States employs force so much, and he comes up with five answers that help frame the application of force to the Middle East. First, Walt argues, we use force “because we can.” The U.S. has lots of sophisticated military capability (most of which no one else has), and it is pretty easily available. Second, “the U.S. has no serious enemies,” which has two implications. One is that we don’t need our forces to deter non-existent enemies, and the other is that there is nobody who can–or wants to–oppose us when we do. The third reason is the existence of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Its existence largely removes the restraint of public displeasure, since nobody is involuntarily forced to implement force decisions. The fourth, “It’s the Establishment, Stupid!” argues that our political establishment has become in essence “force-happy,” seeing military solutions as the answer to all our problems (the neo-conservatives are singled out as the leading evangels of this phenomenon). Fifth and finally, “Congress has checked out,” meaning the Congress no longer asserts its constitutional perogatives to approve or disapprove applications of force. Taken in combination, Walt argues, the result is a green light for the U.S. government to view almost everything as a military problem with military solutions. Why should the current situation in the Middle East be any different?

Well, there are three differences. One is that there is some evidence the American public is becoming war weary enough that appeals to force do not resonate so well today. I have not, for instance, seen any groundswell behind the McCain position on no-fly zones (admittedly, I never listen to or watch Fox “News”). Second, it is indeed not at all clear what American interests are in this situation or how U.S. military action would positively achieve achieving whatever goals we might have in the area. 

The third reason may be the most defining: the budget crisis. Any U.S. application of force in the current uprisings is going to be expensive at a time when there is great pressure to bring down government spending. The Tea Partiers exclude (hpyocritically, in my view) defense spending in budget cuts to bring down deficits, but any serious advocacy of added defense spending to support military adventurism in the Middle East at a time when other budget oxen are being gored is probably politically unsupportable. Moreover, as Papa and Baby Paul would quickly point out in their libertarian way, overseas military activities are not exactly how one shrinks government. It thus may be that an unlikely coalition of the right and left, starting from opposite motivations, may come together to torpedo any dreams/nightmares that are entertained about inserting American force into the uprisings of 2011.

“What Is America Waiting For?” in Libya

Posted in Libya, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The question cited in the title is a quote from today’s (3/13/11) Washington Post attributed to a civilian in one of the Libyan cities now anticipating an attack by the forces of Col. Qadhafi. It is a plaintive plea for help in a situation that may be starting to unravel, as forces loyal to (or bought by) the Libyan strongman seem to have slowed or stopped the momentum of the populist uprising against it and may be starting to reverse that momentum.

The situation could become bleak indeed if there is no outside assistance to the rebels, a point they seem to understand. They want, even need, assistance if they are to have any chance to continue to contend for power; right now, the preponderance of brute force is not on their side. The Libyan government has the country’s armed forces on its side, and unlike Egypt, their support has not wavered nor have they shown any reluctance to use force to put down the rebellion. The armed, essentially disorganized youth who make up the resistance seem to understand this and vow to fight on to the death. That determination reflects their idealism and hatred for the Qadhafi tyranny, but it probably also a realistic assessment that they will be treated harshly if the government wins; rebels are rarely treated with equanimity when they lose, and Qadhafi is likely to be particularly brutal if given the chance.

By now, it should be clear that Libya will not turn out like Egypt (however, in the long run, that turns out). That being the case, simply standing on the sidelines and yelling encouragement is not enough for the United States and Europe, if we are truly convinced, as President Obama has said, that Qadhafi must go. But what can we, or should we, do?

The intervention option is being touted increasingly from predictable quarters: neo-conservatives like Paul D. Wolfowitz, reflexive hawks like John McCain, so-called “liberal interventionists” like John Kerry, for instance. All want the United States to lead the international imposition of a no-fly zone, the semi-response of choice. The argument is that it is a low-cost, high-yield solution; it is also wrong. As already noted in this space, such a commitment is open-ended in an environment wherein the U.S. hardly needs additional military commitments. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also calmly pointed out that such an action means effectively declaring war on the Libyans, since establishing the zone would require first attacking and destroying Libyan air defenses–an act of war. Could the United States really sustain what could become another long, convoluted military commitment in that part of the world?

Any proposed response must answer three questions. The first is to whom assistance is to be rendered. As far as I can tell, no one has an answer to that more specific than to “the people.” Sorry, that is not enough, and it is unclear that there is anything coherent enough about the resistance to Qadhafi to form a force with which one could coordinate a military effort. We know who we might fight AGAINST; it is not clear we know who we would fight FOR.

The second question is what outcome we would be fighting for. That question also goes back to the nature and objectives (if any beyond overthrowing Qadhafi) that the insurgents hold. They say they are fighting for freedom, and the Arab League has endorsed them as the “legitimate” government of Libya, a move that could prove awkward if Qadhafi prevails.But what will freedom look like? Will it be a fully democratic regime? An Islamist religious state (e.g. Iran)? A new Arab dictatorship? Chaos? Since the movement lacks any coherent leadership, it could be any of the above, and that makes American assistance an effective act of Russian roulette. That may be enough for Joe Lieberman, but is it enough for the rest of us?

The third question, assuming the first two can be answered positively, is what kind of aid would we provide? The United States can provide naval and air support from the U.S. fleet in the Mediterranean, but much more would require European participation–even leadership–that the European members of NATO would have to put up. To this point, they have shown little enthusiasm for the endeavor; it may be that it will take the first boatloads of refugees washing on shore in Sicily after their 170-mile voyage to convince the Italians that maybe they really should think this through. Taking charge of Libyan air space (the no-fly zone) is certainly part of that, but is it enough in the face of the imbalance between Libya’s organized armed forces and a motley crew of rebels? If it isn’t, what is the West prepared to do?

There is another concern that must be faced if the uprising falls apart, as is at least possible. What if Col. Qadhafi turns the rout of the rebels into a recriminatory bloodbath the results of which inevitably leak into Western public attention (which they almost certainly would)? The pressure at that point to “do something” would be very difficult to resist, but would it be too late?  The precedent of Kosovo in the late 1990s comes to mind, and it is cautionary. The United States took essentially unilateral action and stopped the slaughter, but Kosovo has hardly been anybody’s idea of a big success since.

There is a short answer to the plaintive plea, “What is America waiting for?” It is that we are trying to figure out what we can and what we should do. What we ideally should do is turn the whole thing over to Europe, as argued here last week. That answer is certainly defensible, but it runs into the objective that Europe’s answer is essentially to do nothing. Maybe that is the right answer, but it certainly leaves the Libyan rebels at the potential mercy of Qadhafi, who is unlikely to show much compassion to those who would have him deposed.

That leaves a quandary. We can intervene (the U.S., the U.S. and Europe, or Europe alone), help overturn Qadhafi, and hope his successor regime is a creation of which we can be proud–or at least tolerant. Lots of uncertainties there. Or, we can all stand on the sidelines and hope for the best. At worst, the result is a humanitarian disaster; at best, it is a successful revolution whose victors are less than grateful to us for we did not do. Neither is a very attractive alternative. Is there another solution somewhere in between?

July 4, 2010 and 2011

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , on July 4, 2010 by whatafteriraq

General David Petraeus accepted formal command of the nominally allied forces (International Security Assistance Forces or ISAF) today, July 4, 2010, replacing the departed and scarcely lamented General Stanley McChrystal, whose Paris night on the town brought new meaning to the old saw that “loose lips sink ships.” For Petraeus, the move was technically a demotion, since McChrystal reported to him as commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), and it placed him in an odd position. McChrystal was not replaced for pursuing a faulty strategy, but for insubordination, in effect. Instead, Petraeus is now charged with making successful a strategy that he helped craft and which McChrystal was apparently pursuing as well as it ould be pursued.

The problem, of course, was that the strategy was not working, and there is no particularly good reason to think a change at the top (particularly since it will not be accompanied by any strategic change of direction or emphasis) will make it work. It is arguable the strategy never has had any realistic prospects of success, because the mission it seeks to accomplish cannot be accomplished. A good strategy cannot accomplish an impossible task, and this seems to be the primary problem the Americans and our allies (including the Afghans themselves) seems to face.

Consider a remark by Petraeus in assuming command (reported by Dexter Filkins in the Washington Post on July 4, 2010 as “Petraeus Takes Command of Afghan Mission”). He is quoted as saying, “We must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and ISAF forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win.” Whoa!

Consider two elements of that quote that, in my mind, define the quixotic nature of the American quest in Afghanistan. First, it admits that the Afghans do not consider our presence liberating in any of the ways we have advertised as our intent, and that after eight and a half years, we still need to “demonstrate” that is what we are doing. If we have failed in convincing them we are the good guys for that long, the Afghans must have a pretty firm idea that we are in fact not that liberators, but something else (as in conquerors?). Second, this problem obviously extends to the Afghan government and Afghan forces as well, a rather blatant admission that we may be backing a congenital loser. These things being the cases,convincing the Afghans “that we are in this to win” rather obviously begs the question, “win what?”

Fast forward to July 4, 2011. At that point, American forces will, according to the Obama plan that Petraeus has very publicly supported, be beginning to come home. The question that must be asked is how, or whether, things will be any different then than they are now. Some, like John McCain, argue that telegraphing our departure date defeats the mission because it tells the enemy how long they have to lay low before we are gone and they can go on the offensive again. Implicit in this argument is that if we stay there in an open-ended commitment, the strategy will work. But where is the evidence for that?

The other position is that things will not change, because the whole Afghan enterprise is a mission impossible. No one has or can argue that the United States is making progress in the fight there: when was the last time one heard any encouraging words from Marjah, the centerpiece of the spring offensive, or about Kandahar, which has been delayed repeatedly as we try to convince the inhabitants that they want to be liberated? Is it too difficult to imagine that the Afghans simplydo not want us there and that they will fight and resist until we are gone (like countless invaders before us)? Is it also possible, as I suggested in an earlier post, that our presence is simply making matters worse FOR US, because our actions are simply creating Afghan jihadi intent on paying us back for what we are doing to their country by attacking ours in terrorist attacks? The latter–retribution–is, after all, why we went to Afghanistan in the first place: is turnabout only fair play?

Finally, what if the result of another year is simply to leave the situation essentially unchanged except for more American casualties? How will we treat those who simply allowed our young men and women in uniform to fight and die for an impossible cause ring at 2011 Independence Day celebrations a year from now?