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Jacob Heilbrunn

The GOP's Neocon Addiction to War

 Why has the GOP become addicted to war? The default response of the party to almost any international conflict has been to argue that America should intervene, or, to use a less polite term, intrude into what amounts, more often than not, to a domestic dispute. Add the political capital that congressional leaders and presidential aspirants believe can be derived from pummeling a Democratic president for passivity, appeasement, and you have a recipe for embroiling America in messy foreign conflicts.

Libya is a case in point. My TNI colleague Paul Pillar demolishes the arguments being made by Iraq last-ditchers that the venture was a blazing success as evidenced currently by the revolts sweeping across the Middle East. He notes that, contrary to Charles Krauthammer, Libya's Gadhafi was not quaking at the prospect of being driven from power, ala Saddam Hussein, but, rather, was interested in having sanctions lifted and that moves to negotiate with him date all the way back to 1999.

But I think one could go even further. The neocons who urged America to invade Iraq are now noisily denouncing President Obama for being a wussbag on Libya. At the same time, Sen. Mitch McConnell said that "arming the insurgents" should be considered. And so on.

But there are sound reasons to resist such a course. The last thing that America needs is to become bogged down in Libya. Yes, all power to the rebels for taking on Gadhafi. But frankly, it's their fight and they have to win it. Inserting America directly into the conflict would simply fan, not create, the perception that an outside imperialist power is once more throwing its not inconsiderable weight around in the Middle East. Maybe a no-fly zone could be established with NATO. But this is not the time for America to come swaggering in by itself. America's military may still be top gun, but this isn't a Top Gun moment.

White House chief of staff William Daley correctly noted "this has to be an international effort" on NBC's Meet the Press. Sen. John Kerrry suggested that Libya's runways could be bombed. But that's as far as it should go, if it even gets to that point.

The Wall Street Journal is denouncing "Obama's Libyan Abdication." It predicts,


The greatest danger now to U.S. interests—and to Mr. Obama's political standing—would be for Gadhafi to regain control. A Libya in part or whole under the Gadhafi clan would be a failed, isolated and dangerous place ruled by a vengeful tyrant and a likely abettor of terrorists.


It likens Obama's alleged passivity to the Bush administration's failure to protect the Shiites in Iraq whom it encouraged to rebel. But there is a distinction. The Obama administration did not encourage Libyans to overthrow the loathsome Gadhafi. Instead, Libyans are doing it themselves. Which is why Obama is right to be wary about inserting himself into a Libyan civil war that Gadhafi is likely to lose, whether or not American forces assists the rebel forces.


A Special Relationship: Neocon Ties to Gaddafi

Correction: We were contacted by Richard Perle, who stated that he was never an adviser to Gaddafi. The National Interest always tries to achieve the highest standards, including in individual blogs, and regrets the inaccuracy.

One of the central tenets of neoconservatism, in its current incarnation, has been to espouse democratization and opposition to tyranny. Richard Perle, for example, co-authored a book called An End To Evil. In it, he laid out what the jacket flap calls a "bold program to defend America--and to win the war on terror."

But as Laura Rozen, among others, has reported in Politico, it seems that none other than Perle has been functioning, in the past several years, as an adviser to Col. Gaddafi. By any measure, Gaddafi is at least as terrible a despot as Saddam Hussein, the man whom neocons said it was essential to depose from power--and the ruler whom Ronald Reagan called the "mad dog" of the Middle East. That was then.

According to Rozen,


One of the more unlikely figures to have advised a firm which has worked to burnish Libya's image and grow its economy is not registered with the Justice Department. Prominent neoconservative Richard Perle, the former Reagan-era Defense Department official and George W. Bush-era chairman of the Defense Policy Board, traveled to Libya twice in 2006 to meet with Qadhafi, and afterward briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on his visits, according to documents released by a Libyan opposition group in 2009.


The firm is based in Boston and called the Monitor Group. It is apparently linked to a number of professors at the Harvard Business School. The idea was to bring prominent academics to Libya to try and polish up the regime's image. According to Rozen, the Monitor Group documents state that thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama and Bernard Lewis were recruited to meet with Gaddafi. The story was first released by members of the Libyan opposition, who have sought to highlight the extent to which the West has colluded with the Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam also visited Harvard University under the auspices of the Monitor Group.

As I've previously written, the efforts of the Bush administration to reach out to Gaddafi made sense. Former Bush national security aide and neocon Elliot Abrams makes a persuasive case that it was necessary to cut a deal with the devil. In an act of realpolitik, the administration secured Gadaffi's nuclear materials, a major success.

But seeking to improve Gaddafi's image is another matter. Perle should explain what, precisely, he was trying to accomplish in Libya. What did he and Gaddafi talk about the two times that they met in Libya? What did Perle tell former vice-president Cheney when he briefed him about visiting Gaddafi?

As it stands, his actions appear dubious in the extreme. America did not need a special relationship with the man who presided over the Lockerbie bombing and numerous other heinous acts. Some reputations are irredeemable, and Gaddafi's, as he tries to send his country up in flames, as an act of personal vanity, before he is finally deposed from power, is one of them.

Image by Strassengalerie

Muckety Mucks

Terrorism in Germany Against the American Military

Terrorism in Germany is not new. During the Weimar Republic, terror was routinely practiced, as mainstream politicians were murdered or beaten. Then, in the 1960s, the Red Army Faction (RAF) arose. Several generations, aided by the East German secret police, or Stasi, devoted themselves to targeting what they saw as western imperialism. The RAF, among other things, detonated a car bomb at Rhein-Main Air Base in 1985. "We are not misty-eyed social workers," the terrorist organization announced.


As the shooting of four members of the American Air Force who had arrived in Frankfurt airport from England reminds us, terrorism continues to flourish in Germany. The new threat, of course, comes from Islamic radicals. Hamburg is where the 9/11 plot was hatched. In March 2010, four converted Islamic radicals who belonged to the group Islamic Jihad Union were convicted of seeking to attack American military facilities. Now a Kosovar Islamic radical, the twenty-one year-old Arid U. who worked for the German post office at the airport, has apparently murdered two Americans and injured another two. The question surrounding his action is whether he is an isolated killer or part of a wider plot.

The Kosovo problem, in other words, may be coming back to haunt America, in ways that it did not anticipate. The danger presented by Islamic radicals in Kosovo has always been apparent. Is there a wider problem emanating from radical Kosovo organizations that are intent on targeting the American military? Did the killer have lethal ties back home? Or is this shooting the work of a loner, who had publicized his intention to go "amok" on radical internet sites. Nevertheless, the attack was carefully planned, as the pilots were dressed in civilian clothes and the shooter was familiar with their time-tables.

As it is, terrorism in Germany has mutated into the work of Islamic radicals, whether homegrown or foreign. Now, as then, American soldiers remain the target of delusional killers who believe that they are battling imperialism by engaging in murder.

United States

Darrell Issa and A Press Scandal

Darrell Issa, the head of the Government Reform committee, has run into his own mini-scandal. He's fired his spokesman, Kurt Bardella, who was apparently feeding New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich e-mails from Politico journalists. Leibovich is writing a book about Washington's culture. Now, as Dana Milbank observes, Leibovich himself is being "sucked into the dysfunctional drama, which resembles nothing so much as a bad reality-TV show in which people put their honesty and judgment second to their quest to be players."

Politico editor John Harris is incensed, or pretending to be incensed, by the sharing of e-mails. But since when have e-mails ever really been private? It's not clear what's in the e-mails. But they could show that Politico journalists were trying to cozy up to Issa. Of course, this is what journalists do. Part of the fuss has to do with the mistaken idea of objectivity and neutrality--American newspapers remain afraid to admit that they have a partisan bias. Only Fox News comes closest to telling the truth about its approach to the news.

But the coziness does present a problem. It's what allowed the Bush administration to pull the collective wool over the eyes of the press during the runup to the Iraq War. The press corps essentially disabled its alarm detectors. The New York Times became a prominent purveyor of bogus information about Saddam Hussein, thanks to the credulous reporting, if that's the right term, of Judith Miller, who recycled Bush propaganda as fact, particularly when it came to weapons of mass destruction.

The press corps ended up destroying a good chunk of its own credibility. Next the media basically rolled over for Barack Obama during his presidential run (and, by and large, failed to hunt down the John Edwards/Rielle Hunter saga). If the press wanted to reexamine its role, it might look back to a pioneering study by Walter Lippmann called Liberty and the News, which studied the propensity of the media to purvey fiction as fact. Today Milbank is right to suggest that a "sense of detachment" is needed between those who are covering the newsmakers and the newsmakers themselves.


Col. Gaddafi's Grand Finale

President Obama is taking a pounding from various quarters for supposedly being too slow to respond to Libya's plight. To read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, he should have sent in the Marines a long time ago. Col. Gaddafi must himself be feeling a little peeved. Is this the kind of loyalty he receives in exchange for handing over his nuclear and chemical weapons programs to the Bush administration?

Now the poor chap is staging his own personal Twlight of the Gods. The bizarre interview with Christiane Amanpour, the huffing and puffing about the love he experiences from the Libyan people--all suggest that he resembles the classic megalomaniac dictator. During World War II, Harvard historian William Langer, who was working for the OSS, accurately predicted that Hitler would commit suicide rather than allow himself to be captured. Hitler figured that he would be stuck in a cage by the Russian and exhibited like a captive bear.

It's hard to see Gadaffi allowing himself to be captured, either. All signs and portents are that he wants the grand finale, the big fireworks, as he exits the global stage. Perhaps he not so secretly enjoys the massive dose of attention he's receiving. Not everyone gets to exit with such fanfare. For decades he has managed to strut about, his oil wealth allowing him to engage in the most bizarre behavior, while the West looked on haplessly. He even got the man behind the Lockerbie bombing extricated because England wanted to tap into his oil.

So John Bolton's complaints about Obama engaging in "buckpassing" by handing over the prosecution of Gadaffi to the International Criminal Court don't really add up. According to Bolton,

a new Libyan government should be responsible for dealing with Gadhafi's atrocities. Every crime he is responsible for, from the terrorist bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, to his current street massacres, has been done in the name of the Libyan people. They are the ones who should judge Gadhafi, as Iraqis did with Saddam Hussein.


Of course, this assumes two things. The first is that Gadaffi will be taken alive, which is doubtful. Summary justice is more likely. The second is that there will be a viable Libyan government. In Iraq, after all, American boots on the ground propped up a shaky Iraqi regime. That's not  likely to be the case in Libya.

The real problem with sending Gadaffi to the ICC is that he could point to the hypocrisy of western regimes, which have only turned on him now that his country is in revolt. Any trial might disclose embarrassing revelations about the eagerness of Europe and America to treat with him. The butcher of Lockerbie, one of the most odious rulers of the past century, flaunted his power with impunity. A trial might reveal more about America and Europe than the Libyan despot.


Rep. Peter King's Dangerous Muslim Hearings

 Is Al Qaeda on the ropes? Do the revolts in the Arab world mean that it has essentially been marginalized? That's the question raised by the New York Times. Paul Pillar is quoted as saying that "so far" the scorecard looks very bad for the organization.

He's right. Which is why it's even odder that Rep. Peter King, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is planning hearings on March 9 to investigate the domestic Muslim threat. It looks as though his hearing would actually increase the threat by demonizing Muslims--at the very moment that the Arab world is embracing, or trying to embrace, democracy.

You know that something is wrong when Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, is cited by the Washington Post as declaring,


"The U.S. government should investigate domestic Islamist radicalization,"Daniel Pipes, the Middle East Forum director who has written extensively on the threat posed by radical Islamists, said in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, Rep. Peter King has proven himself unsuited for this important task, as shown by the gratuitous controversy he has generated over the mere selection of witnesses."


It seems that King has put together a panel whose only non-lawmaker is a controversial medical doctor named Zuhdi Jasser. Jasser has a history of making strident statements about his own faith. Critics worry that he'll be the star of the show. Then there's King himself: he apparently believes that 85 percent of American mosques are run by "radicals" who constitute "an enemy amongst us."

If King's aim is to attract publicity for himself, he's doing a good job. But he isn't combatting the radicalization of Muslims--which, by the way, doesn't seem to be going very well, at least in America. Or does King plan to investigate President Obama's supposed Muslim roots as well? Why rest content with the small fry?

To my eye, these hearings look like a fishing expedition on a par with the noxious statements made by Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy about Suhail Khan, a member of the board the American Conservative Union. There is a bizarre compulsion on a part of the right to act as though Muslim traitors are ubiquitous, subverting American liberties every chance they can get.

The hearings should never take place, but if they do, the real promoter of anti-Americanism at home and abroad will be Rep. King.

United States

Coddling Colonel Khadafi?

Libya is a failed state whose oil wealth has provided its leader, Colonel Khadafi, with a layer of immunity for decades. America and Great Britain both have coddled the Libyan dictator in recent years--almost as much as the Ukrainian nurse that he has apparently been traipsing about with in Libya and elsewhere. The deal that the Bush administration sealed with Khadaffi, much trumpeted as a successful act of promoting nuclear nonproliferation, has some critics wondering whether Washington should have pursued a harsher policy.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Elliot Abrams observes that the Bush administration made the right choice. Had the administration chosen not to cut a deal with Libya, it might now possess nuclear weapons:


Seen from this bloody February of 2011, the agreement with Libya was
still the right policy. Gadhafi in his bunker with control over
missiles, chemical weapons and a rudimentary nuclear program is a
terrifying thought. So is a Libya after regime collapse with those
materials available to the highest bidder.

It could be argued that LIbya would never have developed nuclear weapons. Had America maintained more pressure on LIbya, it might have fallen sooner. But this is dubious. Abrams essentially makes the case that a form of constructive engagement was the best policy.

Elsewhere on this website, Paul Pillar notes that the LIbyan case, if I understand him correctly, shows that it's too simplistic to argue for complete isolation or engagement. He's right.

But the decision to engage is usually the right one. The example of Nazi Germany is one where engagement was futile. But when it came to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact, the detente that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger promoted was an essential ingredient in the ultimate collapse of communism.

There is no cause for shame in the approach that America pursued toward Libya. Now that Libyans have taken matters in their own hands, America and Europe need to offer what assistance they can. But it is up to Libyans themselves to try and construct a new country out of the wasteland left behind by Khadaffi and his clan.



Failed States
United States

James Glassman and Dow 36,000

James Glassman, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, has a column in the Wall Street Journal that comes close to a mea culpa for predicting in his 1999 book of the same title that the Dow would hit 36,000. "I was wrong," Glassman announces. Glassman points to a number of factors that account for why he was offbase.

For one thing, he observes that the "relative economic standing of the U.S. is declining." The country has compiled massive debt. Foreign competitors, China and Brazil and India, are experiencing growth. America's, by contrast, has slowed. The Congressional Budget Office, Glassman observes, believes that growth in America will average about 2 percent a year compared to the past century's 3.5 percent. Glassman calls that drop a "stunning decline."

Then there is the risk problem. As Glassman sees it, a new kind of risk has emerged with globalization. "Discontinuous risks"--a terrorist attack, a tsunami--can cause a flash crash in America.

How persuasive is Glassman's analysis?

On the question of American decline, he correctly notes that it isn't inevitable. The biggest hurdle facing the economy is the national debt. Treasury Secretary Geithner is walking a fine line on the question of cutting entitlement programs. The Obama administration, in a rhetorical feint, is talking about "overhauling" them. If Republicans and Democrats can reach a compromise on cutting the debt, it would be a huge deal. It would signify to the markets that the government isn't stymied when it comes to debt, or going to continue trying to ignore the problem. The amount in interest payments alone on the national debt is set to reach $2,500 per man, woman, and child in America by the end of the decade.

Glassman's second point is about risk. This seems less convincing. Risk has always been a problem. Terrorist attacks and environmental catastrophes are not new. Perhaps it could be argued that their severity has increased, but that's questionable. World War I, after all, was triggered, in its most proximate cause, by the Serbian Black Hand, which murdered Archduke Ferdinand.

But it's also possible that American inventiveness will save the day. Unpredictability cuts both ways. Risk can have positive as well as negative outcomes. Perhaps the Dow will hit 36,000, sooner than anyone, including its original prognosticator, thinks.

United States

William Kristol's Bad Advice for Obama

William Kristol argues in the Washington Post that President Obama is blowing his chance to promote democracy in the Middle East. He invokes his standard phrase--"honor and duty"--to explain why Obama should be doing more, much more, to encourage protesters. According to Kristol,


What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration's response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual.


The problem with his op-ed, apart from the numerous cliches ("inflection point," "business as usual," "challenge these times present") is two-fold. First, what is strikingly lacking in Kristol's admonitions is a practical course of counsel for what, exactly, Obama should do. Though a safe guess would be that he wants Obama to bomb Libya, a move that would doubtless boomerang. The second is that Kristol says that Obama should be helping the "liberals" in the Middle East. Where are they? In Libya?

Obama, like George H.W. Bush during the 1989 revolutions, is probably doing the right thing, which is to try and stay out of the way. This is an Arab revolution, not an American one. No one knows where it will end, though Israel is quaking over the upheaval.

The real loser in these revolutions, at least financially, is probably going to be the industrialized countries. The price of oil is soaring. And it will probably never return to its previous levels. The Middle East is going to be wracked by instability for years. Thomas Friedman is probably right when he says this is "the mother of all wake-up calls."

The good, old days of propping up authoritarian leaders and enjoying fairly cheap oil has come to an end. Welcome to the era of petroleum pain.

The Presidency
United States

Our Man In Lahore

President Obama lied during his press conference last week. He called Raymond A. Davis "our diplomat." He isn't a diplomat, though he was posted to Pakistan under diplomatic cover in January 2010. He's a CIA agent who is being held in a Pakistani jail for killing--Muslim radicals say murdering--two Pakistan men who allegedly tried to rob him.

The case is murky. It's possible that the Pakistan's intelligence services set Davis up. It's also possible that Davis was deliberately pursuing the two men. And it's possible that Davis' explanation is true. They tried to rob him and he responded by blowing them away with his Glock pistol. Meanwhile, an unmarked car belonging to the American embassy that was rushing to Davis' aid ran over an innocent Pakistani riding a bicyle. And one of the widows of the two men has committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.

As the Washington Post reports, Davis, along with five other CIA contractors, has been monitoring "militant groups in large cities, including Lahore." Davis may have also been looking at the ISI's pet terrorist organization Lashkar-i-Taiba. America is claiming diplomatic immunity for Davis. But widespread anger in Pakistan has militants demanding a trial of Davis and his subsequent hanging.

Davis' cover is now blown. But so is America's. Each time a case like Davis' goes public, it feeds conspiracy theories about America, some of which happen to be true. The ISI was surely aware of Davis' true identity, but now that it has been revealed, the regime has to pretend as though it's outraged.

What the Davis epsiode explains, in miniature, is why much of the Muslim world hates America. Washington has been propping up dictatorships across the region. It has invested hundreds of billions in regimes that are collapsing overnight. It's hardly surprising that the local populations despise America for preaching democracy, on the one hand, and maintaining close relations with authoritarian rulers, on the other. The idea that an American diplomat, let alone a CIA agent, can operate with impunity on Pakistani soil, executing whomever he pleases is not exactly calculated to endear America to Pakistanis, either.

Presumably, Davis will, in a few months, be smuggled out of Pakistan. The car driver who was trying to reach Davis is apparently no longer in Pakistan. But the epsiode is further testimony to the acrimonious relations between Islamabad and Washington on the terror front. If Pakistan really wanted to confront terrorism, it would end up confronting a good chunk of its own population.

Image by André Koehne

The Presidency
United States

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April 19, 2014