The Skeptics

Reagan Doctrine Redux?

The Skeptics

The Reagan Doctrine appears to be alive and well—at least in the White House. Just as Reagan looked for every opportunity to fund, arm and support opposition groups in communist-dominated countries in the 1980s, Obama and his foreign-policy team are ideologically committed to helping opposition movements working to overthrow authoritarian governments in the Middle East. And like Reagan, Obama faces the same three obstacles that made effective implementation of the Reagan Doctrine impossible.

First, Reagan faced an obstructive Congress, one that remained uninterested in letting the president engage U.S. troops in civil wars waged by groups that viewed the U.S. as a necessary evil (at best) and where the most likely outcome was a changing of the guard rather than a solution to violence and unrest. The result was that Congressional opposition stopped Reagan from doing all that he would have done if given the chance. True, Obama has had some Republican support on the question of arming Syrian rebels, but he faced the same sort of opposition with the Libyan situation that Reagan did with Central America, and he is guaranteed to encourage more Congressional opposition if he starts serious discussions about helping establish a humanitarian corridor in Syria. What is unclear is whether the current opposition stems from the realization that the United States has a terrible track record of success in such cases or because members of Congress are worried that the American people do not have the stomach for long-term conflicts for what they consider low stakes.

The public, indeed, represents the second obstacle. As I wrote in my last post, the American people have opposed most of the post–Cold War efforts to protect vulnerable populations when those efforts crossed what is often referred to as the “Mogadishu Line.” When humanitarian aid mutates into taking sides in ugly civil wars and internecine political battles, Americans start getting unhappy. The potential costs to the White House rise considerably at that point, making success less likely as public opinion-induced caution discourages the president from considering the full range of policy options.

Third, as several commentators on this blog and elsewhere have noted, Obama faces the sad truth about the state of the opposition in Syria as in most of these situations: it’s a hot mess. Ironically, a key element of the Reagan Doctrine was that the existence of a well-organized opposition movement was a precondition for considering U.S. support. In reality, however, calling almost any opposition movement well organized is a fantasy. No one knows what supporting any one of the many opposition groups in Syria would mean for Syria’s future, any more than the U.S. has been able to manage tribal politics in Afghanistan or the complex domestic politics in Iraq. In the end, support for Syria’s rebels, like Reagan’s support for the contras in Nicaragua or the mujahideen in Afghanistan, will assuredly have consequences that no one can predict. Many, if not most of them, will be negative.

The fact that the Reagan Doctrine is alive and well seems inarguable. The judgment that it will be just as difficult to implement also seems difficult to escape. The question that remains is: How do we feel about this?

Many look back at the Reagan Doctrine as an inspirational strategy for a dangerous time. Instead of passively accepting the world as handed to him or letting the Soviet Union take the initiative, Reagan looked for opportunities to further the American cause of freedom and self-governance where he had at least some chance of success. Intentions, not outcomes, seem more important for many on this issue. In the future, some may look back similarly and praise Obama who, as president at a time of massive global upheaval and change, decided to roll the dice and side with those fighting for freedom from oppression. Of course, many are likely to look back at Obama and conclude that, like Reagan, he tried to do too much with American power and wound up not only expending U.S. lives and U.S. treasure but also causing new problems and loss of lives overseas. Time will have to tell us which group is bigger in the end.

TopicsCongressGrand StrategyThe PresidencyHumanitarian InterventionSecurity RegionsLibyaSyriaMiddle East

Syria: Be Careful What You Wish For

The Skeptics

Calls are growing among both conservatives and liberals for a U.S.-led intervention—including possible military force—in Syria. As in the case of the 2011 Libya intervention, some advocates insist that the goal is to protect Syrian civilians from the onslaught of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.

Others, though, are more candid and admit that the real objective would be to overthrow Assad’s regime. An open letter that fifty-six prominent conservative political and foreign-policy activists—including William Kristol, Max Boot, Elizabeth Cheney and other intellectual architects of the disastrous Iraq war—sent to President Obama in mid-February was a prime example. Although that letter cited humanitarian goals, the signers had a much broader objective, arguing that the Assad government “poses a grave threat to national security interests of the United States.” (Assad’s principal offense appeared to be his links to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.) The letter added that “immediate actions” should be taken to “hasten an end to the Assad regime.” Specific measures include establishing “safe zones,” from which Syrian security forces would be barred, and providing a “full range of direct assistance,” including “self- defense aid” (i.e. weapons) to rebel forces. Proponents also emphasized that the option of direct U.S. military action must not be taken off the table.

As the Libya episode demonstrated, the differing rationales are probably a distinction without a difference. Once the UN Security Council passed its resolution authorizing the use of force, the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya quickly turned into a campaign for forcible regime change. One would expect that an intervention in Syria—even one ostensibly for the protection of innocent civilians—would soon evolve in the same fashion.

There is no doubt that the Assad regime is brutal and repulsive. But before we embark on yet another regime-change crusade, it would be wise to pause and consider possible outcomes that might not be to our liking. Previous interventions in such places as Iraq and Libya have been notorious for undesirable, unintended consequences. Skepticism is warranted regarding calls for military involvement in Syria.

Western accounts of the bloodshed there are largely simplistic melodramas, with villainous Assad forces slaughtering innocent advocates of democracy. We’ve seen such grotesque oversimplifications of complex conflicts before, most notably during the 1990s in the Balkans. The actual situation in Syria is murky, with an armed insurgency directed against the Assad government. Given the complex ethno-religious makeup of Syria, we need to be extremely wary about viewing the violence there as a Manichean struggle between good and evil.

Syria’s population is divided among Sunni Arabs (a little over half the population), Christians (about 10-12 percent), Alawites, a Shiite offshoot (also about 10-12 percent), Druze (about six percent), and various, mostly Sunni, ethnic minorities, primarily Kurds and Armenians. The Alawite Assad family has based its power for more than four decades on the solid loyalty of its religious bloc in a loose alliance with Christians, Druze and, sometimes, with one or more of the other, smaller ethnic groups. What we see today may be largely a Sunni Arab bid to overthrow that minority regime—fueled in part because many devout Muslims consider Alawites to be heretics.

What is especially troubling is that while the Assad coalition is primarily secular, the ideological composition of the opposition is far more opaque. There certainly seem to be Islamist elements, although the extent of their strength is uncertain. The suicide bombings in the city of Aleppo in early February and other incidents also suggest a possible al-Qaeda link.

At a minimum, such uncertainty ought to cause would-be U.S. and other Western crusaders to hesitate. Advocates of the Iraq intervention insisted that Iraqis would greet U.S. and coalition forces as liberators and strew their paths with rose petals. More than 4,400 dead Americans, more than 100,000 dead Iraqis, and some $850 billion U.S. tax dollars later, it is painfully evident that such predictions were naive. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that even the basic goal of bringing democracy to Iraq is slipping away. The regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki grows more authoritarian by the day.

Likewise, the aftermath of helping Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qadaffi looks more and more troubling. One of the first actions of the new National Transitional Council was to begin implementing sharia law. Fighting has erupted in several places between rival tribes, and reports of corruption and brutality by the interim government are on the rise.

Helping to oust Bashar Assad might be morally appealing, but we need to beware of unintended consequences. If the aftermath is a turbulent, unstable Syria with a new government heavily influenced by radical Islamist elements, we are not going to like the outcome. And unfortunately, as in the case of Iraq and Libya, the intellectual architects of such a policy fiasco will avoid taking any responsibility for their handiwork.

Image: Day of Rage

TopicsDemocracyUNHuman RightsInternational InstitutionsInternational LawMuckety MucksGrand StrategyHumanitarian InterventionRogue StatesSecurity RegionsSyria

It’s Time to Cut Our Losses in Afghanistan

The Skeptics

The mayhem unleashed after the burning of Korans at a U.S. base outside of Kabul—intentional or not—has likely irreparably damaged the U.S. training mission in Afghanistan. Peace talks with the Taliban—a major policy shift for the insurgent movement—could be off the table, too. This is just the latest incident in the downward spiral of U.S.-Afghan relations. Washington’s policy must now shift dramatically toward an expedited withdrawal. The “hearts-and-minds” campaign was never likely to succeed in a country that views the United States as a guest who has overstayed his welcome.

Some political leaders and military commanders will argue that cooler heads must prevail and that a long-term strategy demands America’s indefinite presence in Afghanistan. They will argue that any drawdown must be based on conditions on the ground. But conditions on the ground do not warrant staying the course, only narrowing our mission and avoiding further tragedies.

Retired four-star general Jack Keane, who has traveled to Afghanistan four times within the past eighteen months, says of the outrage and rioting that America in fact has a good relationship with the Afghan people. “We’ve forged an unusually strong relationship with those people. We’ve done it based on the values of the American people and our sensitivities to their culture. That’s what is so frustrating about this.” With all due respect, General Keane and other like-minded observers are wrong. The mission is a waste of money, effort and, most importantly, lives.

Former heads of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal (retired) and General David Petraeus both emphasized the importance of winning hearts and minds of Afghans by treating them and their culture with respect. They believed the most helpful indicator of progress on the ground and the integration of political and military strategy is the protection of Afghan civilians.

But according to a recent report by U.N. mission in Afghanistan, 2011 was the fifth straight year in which civilian casualties rose. Of course, last year insurgents were responsible for 77 percent of Afghan civilian deaths. Despite this fact, after tripling the number of U.S. troops in that country—far fewer than the Pentagon asked for—President Obama made it America’s mission to protect the Afghan people.

A decade into the conflict, the Afghan government still remains incredibly weak, widely distrusted and underrepresented in poorly secured areas of the country. The roughly 180,000-strong Afghan army, whose performance and effectiveness remains questionable, has an officer corps teaming with ethnic fissures and competing subnational interests. Meanwhile, the Afghan police force has developed a reputation for desertion, illiteracy and rapaciousness. On top of limited and potentially unsustainable security improvements, the spiraling violence does not instill confidence in our victory.

Too many U.S. government planners forget that for Afghans we are their guests, and it is their country. We forget that back in 2010, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai imposed a crackdown on alcohol consumption and closed a number of expat bars around Kabul because they were deemed offensive to Islam. The Afghan general who carried out the alcohol raids told the Los Angeles Times it was done for “Allah’s sake.” After that, violent demonstrations and intercultural hostility increased after Florida pastor Terry Jones promised to “stand up” to Islam and burn a Koran. The recent incident of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses was yet another provocative episode in the erosion of American-Afghan relations.

As I argued months ago, “Recent events in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call to how our ten-year occupation is actually being perceived. Rather than winning ‘hearts and minds,’ America’s civilizing mission has become increasingly associated with a Western cultural invasion.”

Many Afghans see outsiders constantly changing their mayors, their governors and their customs. They are told how to dress their women, what is culturally acceptable and what is culturally repugnant. Americans are infuriated when their politicians redistribute their taxes, yet they ignore how intrusive their own military and civilian planners have become to foreign peoples.

It’s no surprise that a report published last May by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit concluded that negative sentiments about democracy emerge from “the stated distaste among respondents for ‘Western culture’ and the potential threat it poses to ‘Afghan culture,’ traditional norms or values, and an Islamic identity.”

None of this should imply that the Quran burning or the grisly violence meted out against innocent people was justified. But the fact remains that America is widely scorned throughout the region—in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to a poll from last summer by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans want a withdrawal from Afghanistan immediately—not two years from now, not six months from now. Immediately. Americans may finally be realizing what George Mason University’s Christopher Coyne has argued, which is that the historical record indicates “that attempts to spread liberal democracy via military occupation will fail more often than they will work.”

More money, more time and more resources will not change these underlying realities. To continue to train and assist the Afghan national army and police when distrust remains this high risks more violent incidents like this and this and this. Rather than become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch, Washington must cut its losses. The war is fiscally irresponsible and wasteful of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Most importantly, no more American or Afghan lives should be lost in pursuit of a strategy that is not in America’s national interest.

Image: Carlos Latuff

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyFailed StatesTerrorismSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

The Skeptics

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above five thousand and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the Internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that were the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria's resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but it is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first looking to Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq and fears that al-Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, thus strengthening rather than weakening his support .

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al-Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into, Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely and can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledging to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Image: freedomania

TopicsUNHuman RightsHumanitarian InterventionSecurity RegionsSyria

Would Haass and Levi Accept Their Own Proposed Deal?

The Skeptics

One of the more exasperating phenomena surrounding the question of “diplomacy” with Iran is that many of the people proposing diplomatic offers have outlandish suggestions for the contours of a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. The latest offering comes in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, courtesy of Richard Haass and Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Before the criticism, though, a bit of praise: Haass and Levi concede at the outset that

Iran will not do away with its nuclear program, which is simply too extensive and enjoys too much political support among Iranians. No Iranian government could forfeit the “right to enrich” and survive.

This is a refreshing and welcome reality check for the foreign-policy fantasists in the United States Senate, whom Paul Pillar has rightly criticized in these pages.

Setting that aside, however, the Haass/Levi proposal is almost certain to fail. The essential dilemma of U.S.-Iran diplomacy is that anything our domestic politics permits will fail and anything that might not fail is impossible because of our domestic politics. (If pressed, I am enough of a realist to guess that, even in a perfectly permissive domestic political environment, any deal we could offer would not be accepted and adhered to by Iran, for the simple reason that they have little reason to trust us.) Robert Wright has a useful rundown on some of the domestic political constraints at the Atlantic.

But despite not demanding outlandish things like foregoing any enrichment or ending any ballistic-missile programs, for all Haass and Levi’s recognition that either another Middle East war or a nuclear Iran would be a mess, they don’t propose a particularly irresistible set of enticements to Tehran. To wit:

the world should offer to dial back the most recent sanctions (including those not yet fully implemented) that target the Iranian oil and financial sectors. But no existing sanctions should be eased (or new sanctions delayed) as a reward for Iran's agreeing to talk, lest negotiations prove to be nothing more than a tactic. And sanctions aimed at firms and individuals involved in illicit nuclear activities—particularly those associated with military efforts—would need to stay. So, too, would other sanctions prompted by Iranian violations of human rights, support for terrorism, and threats to regional security beyond its nuclear program.

It is definitely sensible to insist that sanctions on illicit nuclear activities should remain in place, but the rest of this seems certain to produce little more than a yawn and a backhanded wave from Tehran. The paragraph is a bit confusing, but it seems like the ultimate payoff here is that the recent financial and oil sanctions would be lifted if the diplomatic process produced fruit. The phasing-in question is important here—maybe the most important piece. And what Haass and Levi suggest the the United States, with a much stronger negotiating position than Iran, should offer up front isn’t clear. Given the constant threats against Iran, if I were sitting in Tehran, I wouldn’t view this as a deal worth taking. There’s reason to believe that Ehud Barak wouldn’t take it, either.

So perhaps it bears asking of Haass and Levi, as well as all advocates of diplomacy with Iran: If the situation were reversed, would you take the deal you’re suggesting the United States should offer?

Image: Marcello Casal Jr\ABr 

TopicsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

A Responsibility to Protect?

The Skeptics

Intervention in Syria is either a dangerous idea, an opportunity to further the cause of democracy promotion or nothing less than the moral duty of the international community. The Obama administration continues to act cagey about the prospects of a successful intervention and the potential for geopolitical fallout from Russia, China and Iran. But given European pressure and the recent Libyan precedent, it seems more than possible that the United States will come to embrace some sort of military intervention in Syria as the love child of regime-changing neoconservatives and genocide-preventing idealists. The real question then will be: Can Obama sell a Syrian intervention to the public? And if so, how?

The likeliest pitch for Obama to use is some form of the responsibility-to-protect (R2P) ethic. Articulated after the international community’s tepid response to the Bosnian meltdown, R2P has become the liberal interventionist’s best friend, offering a justification for violating national sovereignty and taking foreign governments to task for failing to protect their people from violence. Obama used this line with Libya, arguing that:

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. . . . Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

And indeed, the loudest voices so far urging intervention in Syria belong to the R2P crowd (Washington Post editorial here, for example), thanks in part to confidence engendered by what they viewed as success in Libya. But the question remains: Will the public buy this argument?

Certainly, such “responsible rhetoric” resonates—at least on the surface—with the public. Though precise poll data are scanty, a couple of polls from the Pew Research Center illustrate that the public generally agrees that the United States has a responsibility to prevent genocide.  


Unfortunately for Obama, the American public was underwhelmed despite the rhetoric and the relative ease of the Libyan intervention. The latest poll shows that more Americans think that the United States should not have intervened in Libya (49 percent) than think the United States did the right thing by getting involved (37 percent).

Nor does the forecast for R2P look brighter when it comes to Syria, where despite the violence the word genocide won’t come in to play. A CNN/ORC poll reveals that 73 percent of Americans do not believe that the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting between the government and antigovernment forces.

More broadly, this disconnect between liberal presidents (Clinton and Obama) and the public is not new. Since the end of the Cold War, foreign-policy makers have searched for a new lodestone to guide decisions about intervention and war. The tendency to invoke the responsibility to protect—in Haiti, in Kosovo, in Sudan, in Libya, in Syria and so on—has by now become a predictable feature of liberal foreign-policy debate. This inclination, moreover, has not slowed or been greatly altered by 9/11 and its aftermath. Similarly, the gap between liberal foreign-policy elites and the public on R2P has also become a predictable feature of American foreign-policy debate. Obama can keep selling R2P, but unless he has another argument up his sleeve, the public is unlikely to evince more than lukewarm support for intervention in Syria.

Image: Tontinho

TopicsDomestic PoliticsGrand StrategyPublic OpinionThe PresidencyHumanitarian InterventionPoliticsSecurity RegionsLibyaSyria

Two Neglected Issues in the "Bomb Iran" Debate

The Skeptics

With only a few exceptions, there was little developed critical discussion in the run-up to the antiproliferation war against Iraq. By contrast, due in considerable part to the subsequent disastrous experience in that enterprise, a fairly healthy debate is now taking place about the wisdom and consequences of launching a Pearl Harbor-like military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Even at that, there are at least two areas that should be more fully considered in this discussion.

One has been deftly put forward in an essay on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website by Jacques Hymans. It is developed from his terrific new book, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians and Proliferation, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

The book and the essay examine a central conundrum: Why have so many determined countries had so much difficulty producing a nuclear weapon, and why have generations of prognosticators consequently been so wrong about the likely pace of proliferation? One example of error among a very great many: it is now nearly two years since Doyle McManus informed us in the Los Angeles Times that "most experts now estimate that Iran needs about 18 months to complete a nuclear device and a missile to carry it."

McManus stressed that Iran needed to overcome “technical bottlenecks, the exposure of secret facilities and equipment breakdowns.” Hymans, unlike the “experts” McManus consulted, goes much deeper, stressing the administrative difficulties of developing a bomb. These require “the full-hearted cooperation of thousands of scientific and technical workers for many years.” The task is “enormous,” and

the key driver of an efficient nuclear weapons project has not been a country's funding levels, political will, or access to hardware. Rather, the key has been managerial competence. Nuclear weapons projects require a hands-off, facilitative management approach, one that permits scientific and technical professionals to exercise their vocation. But states such as Iran tend to feature a highly invasive, authoritarian management approach that smothers scientific and technical professionalism. Thus, it is very likely that Iran's political leadership—with its strong tendency toward invasive, authoritarian mismanagement—has been its own worst enemy in its quest for the bomb.

The other consideration comes from my own work as developed in my book Atomic Obsession and as summarized for the Iran case in a recent post on the Guardian website.

The argument in its very basic form is that it really doesn’t bloody well matter whether Iran gets the bomb or not.

Although we have now suffered through two-thirds of a century during which there has been a near-infinite amount of hysteria about the disasters inherent in nuclear proliferation, the substantive consequences of proliferation have been minimal. Although the weapons have certainly affected military spending, diplomatic posturing and ingenious theorizing, they have had little substantial impact on history since 1945.

Those few countries that have taken the plunge have failed to find a plausible military use for the expensive trinkets. And even the deterrence value of the weapons has been questionable—the major Cold War participants, for example, scarcely needed visions of mushroom clouds to conclude that any replication of World War II, with or without nuclear weapons, was a decidedly bad idea.

For the most part, the few countries that have acquired the weapons have found them a notable waste of time, money, effort and scientific talent. They have quietly kept them in storage and haven’t even found much benefit in rattling them from time to time.

This was the experience even with the ultimate rogue state, communist China in the 1960s. John Kennedy reportedly considered a Chinese nuclear test “likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s.” Actually, that designation should probably go instead to Kennedy’s decision to send American troops in substantial numbers to Vietnam largely to confront the Chinese “threat” that lurked there.

The Obama administration is notable for the apparent absence of anybody in a high foreign-policy office who clearly and publicly opposed the war on Iraq before George W. Bush launched his invasion. Maybe things are less heated on the Iran issue, but the bottom line hasn’t changed, certainly not at the top.

It was in the campaign of 2008, for example, that candidate Barack Obama repeatedly announced that he would “do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—everything,” even as candidate Hillary Clinton insisted that Iran must be kept from getting the bomb “at all costs.”

Neither bothered to tally what “everything” might entail and what the costs might be, and both continue to make the same kind of pronouncements. But since the antiproliferation military effort in Iraq has led to the deaths of more people than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, perhaps it is time to consider the wisdom of polices carried out under the obsessive sway of worst-case scenario fantasies.


TopicsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

Trying to Do Everything, Doing Nothing Well

The Skeptics

One of the perennial laments about American strategy offered by people like me is that Washington seems incapable of setting out clear priorities in its foreign policy. Everything is urgently important. The business section of today’s New York Times highlights the unfortunate results of this orientation.

You may have heard by now that the United States and other allied countries are currently trying to strangle the Iranian economy to the point where the regime in Tehran feels enough pain—or, more accurately, fears for its survival enough—that it is forced to comply with the preconditions for negotiations and come to the table. This is deemed a Very Important Objective by the Washington foreign-policy elite.

But what you may have forgotten is that the United States is currently undertaking a “pivot” away from the Near East and toward the region where Washington believes the future of international politics lies: the Asia-Pacific. In pursuit of that objective, the United States is currently trying to pull together a coalition of junior partners to help diplomatically and militarily surround China so as to hem it in, should it have any ambition to take charge of the security environment in its region. This, too, is a Very Important Objective.

And before you get ahead of yourself, don’t forget about Poor Little Georgia, which got a chunk of its territory annexed after it lost a war to Russia in 2008. As President Bush pointed out, America’s vital interests and its deepest beliefs are now one. And surely our deepest beliefs don’t involve leaving a flawed-but-promising democratic nation to the tender mercies of a predatory and authoritarian Moscow regime, do they? So let’s agree that keeping Georgia safe is a vital interest.

The problem with this approach is that it’s very hard to pursue these difficult objectives at once. As the Times piece points out, the sanctions coalition against Iran conflicts with a number of these other objectives:

new threats to Iranian oil flow could have at least one beneficiary: Russia….

For Russian oil companies like Rosneft and Lukoil and the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP, the international tensions that began over Iran’s nuclear development program last autumn have meant a windfall. Analysts estimate that Iran jitters have added $5 to $15 a barrel to the global price of oil, which means an extra $35 million to $105 million a day for the Russian industry. And the taxes the Russian government has received from those sales have been a political windfall for Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he campaigns to return as Russia’s president. The extra money has helped further subsidize domestic energy consumption, tamping down inflation.

“It’s good for Putin,” Mr. Mercer said. “In the United States, when oil prices go up, the president’s ratings go down. In Russia, it’s the opposite.”

So our Iran policy helps Russia and Putin, and that’s bad. But wait:

at least one exemption [to the Iran sanctions] under discussion is meant specifically to limit the strategic benefits for Russia, which has been an outspoken critic of American and European strictures against Iran.

The United States and European Union are negotiating an exemption that would continue to provide the former Soviet state of Georgia — a nation that is now a Western ally — an alternative to Russian natural gas. The workaround allows payments to an Iranian company, Naftiran Intertrade, that has a share of the Shah Deniz natural gas field in the Caspian Sea.

The field, managed by the Western petroleum giant BP, is a supplier to Georgia. It is also a potential source for the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would be managed by a consortium based in Vienna and backed by some Western European governments to create European competition with Gazprom. But the pipeline, seen as a maneuver to weaken Russia’s hand in European energy politics, has been stalled in the planning phase for years.

So we’re carving out an escape hatch for Iranian natural gas to get to Georgia, because we have friends in Tbilisi. Oh, and what about that pivot to Asia? Any trouble on that front?

China, meanwhile, is expected to circumvent the Iranian sanctions with tacit American approval by settling its oil purchases with Iran through banks that have no dealings in the United States. India, for its part, has negotiated to barter wheat for oil, or pay Iran directly in rupees.

Hmm. Oh, and what about our war in Afghanistan, which has already cost hundreds of billions of dollars, with the meter currently running somewhere between $8 and $10 billion per month? What’s going on over there? Maybe the Post has something on that:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — At one end of the flower-festooned table sat the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, perhaps the world’s most relentless America basher.

At the other end sat Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader, who owes his nation’s survival to the United States.

And in the middle was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, whose country’s complex relationship with Washington swings from pole to pole.

If there existed any conflict among the chief executives of the three neighboring Islamic nations, they certainly weren’t showing it Friday at the close of a trilateral summit in Pakistan’s capital. At a news conference Zardari hosted in his splendid official residence, the theme was fraternal unity as the trio pledged to work for peace and prosperity in a region raging with war and terrorism.

It’s almost as if there are tradeoffs among our objectives.

TopicsGrand StrategySecurity RegionsChinaNortheast AsiaRussiaIranGeorgia

Xi Jinping’s Reconnaissance Visit

The Skeptics

Chinese vice president Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States last week was primarily a “get-acquainted” session for both sides. U.S. leaders wanted to assess first hand China’s heir apparent as president—a leadership transition that is anticipated later this year. Xi’s overall policy orientation has been the subject of more than a little speculation. His own mistreatment during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the fact that close family members reside in democratic countries and his emphasis on pragmatic solutions to problems all suggest that a Xi administration is likely to be moderate at home and reasonably cooperative with the outside world. However, his extremely close ties with the People’s Liberation Army and some rather angry verbal outbursts at the West lead to concerns that his leadership might turn out to be more hard-line than that of current president Hu Jintao or Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Xi’s meetings in the United States provided at least some potential for policy makers to gain a better impression of the man and his policy orientation. But it can be only a sketchy, preliminary impression.

The Chinese media and policy elites also seem to regard Xi’s visit as primarily a get-acquainted session but one that could modestly soothe diplomatic tensions between China and the United States. A few days before his departure, China Daily stated that the vice president’s goal was to address the “trust deficit” with the United States that had developed in the past year or so. That is not surprising. Beijing is showing increasing concern about the Obama administration’s confrontational rhetoric on a growing number of issues. U.S. irritation involves matters ranging from the value of China’s currency and the protection of American intellectual-property rights to Beijing’s stance on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs and the violence in Syria. Perhaps more important, Xi had an incentive to attempt to ascertain in his conversations whether the much ballyhooed U.S. foreign-policy “pivot” toward Asia is merely a new patina on a long-standing policy or a code term for a new military containment policy directed against China.

The fact that both sides seem to have treated the visit primarily as a reconnaissance mission has annoyed some prominent American political and policy figures who want more substantive, candid discussions. And by candid, they typically mean brusque demands for China to change its policies on the issues mentioned above as well as clean up its act on domestic human rights. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mitt Romney derided President Obama’s meeting with Xi as “empty pomp” and accused the Obama administration of being “a near supplicant” in its relations with Beijing.

But expectations for more substantive discussions during Xi’s visit were unrealistic and premature. At this point Hu, not Xi, is still the primary decision maker in China’s government. Moreover, although Xi is the heir apparent, his elevation to the presidency is not guaranteed. Some Taiwanese press outlets contend that he has significant opposition—supposedly from hard-line elements in the Communist Party who worry that he may be too reformist domestically and too accommodating to the West on foreign-policy issues. The accuracy of such analyses is open to question, but given the lack of transparency in China’s political system, it is a scenario that can’t be dismissed out of hand.

In any event, Xi has multiple incentives to protect his political flanks at home by confining his visit to polite, get-acquainted diplomacy. That is what he has done, and both Obama administration officials and the Chinese media have portrayed the trip as a success. Given its constraints and limited objectives on both sides, that appears to be the case.

Image: nznationalparty

TopicsCurrencyTradeRising PowersSecurity RegionsChina

Hawks, Doves, and Logical Double Standards

The Skeptics

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the air force or the Department of Defense.

Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver suggests that those arguing so strenuously against a war with Iran are afflicted with an “Iraq syndrome” that leads them to stack the deck against the military option. While it is logically possible that all the relevant considerations point in the same direction, with the costs of attacking Iran high and the costs of not attacking low, it is not likely, which is why policy makers charged with dealing with the Iran issue rarely see it in such stark, and easily solvable, terms. Military force may have a number of downsides, after all, but if there is no other way to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and containment is unlikely to be a viable fallback, then the military option should not be taken off the table.

My Skeptics colleague Justin Logan has already penned a response to Feaver, insisting that he has mischaracterized the Iran debate. As it turns out, those opposed to war and advocating for containment and deterrence do understand that the problem is a hard one and that no option is without drawbacks. Nor, I would add, has the “pro-war faction” been able to resist the temptation to oversell (a point which Feaver concedes). As I noted in a previous post, “too often hawks traffic in worst-casing when discussing the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran while switching to best-casing when discussing the consequences of military action by the United States or its allies.”

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that Feaver is right, and that the “anti-war faction” tends to overstate its case, as often happens when the goal is advocacy. The question becomes: Is this nearly as objectionable as when the “pro-war faction” engages in the same kind of logical double standards? I would argue that the answer is no, for two reasons. First, the burden of proof should always be on those advocating for war, not on those advocating against it. This is one of the takeaways from just-war theory, which sets a high bar for the use of force. Unless a compelling case can be made that war is necessary for self-defense and can be brought to a successful conclusion at acceptable cost, we should be reluctant to sanction it. In other words, there should be a presumption against war, all else equal. It is exactly this asymmetry that makes full-throated anti-war agitation less problematic than its opposite.

Second, more often than not the pro-war faction enjoys propaganda advantages that the anti-war faction does not, especially when top decision makers are in on the game. They can make reference to alarming intelligence supposedly showing that the threat is dire, appeal for national unity so as to maximize pressure on the adversary and stir up mass nationalism. Only under relatively unfavorable conditions, for example when the public has recently gotten a taste of protracted warfare, are these propaganda advantages likely to be nullified. The privileged political position that the pro-war faction tends to occupy is another reason why we should be less forgiving when it makes claims that are “clearer than the truth.”

None of this is to suggest that doves should throw all restraint to the wind and engage in wanton mythmaking. At the end of the day, those engaged in the marketplace of ideas should be held to account for the quality and integrity of their contributions to the discussion. At the same time, it is my belief that hawks should be held to a higher standard when they advocate for war. Unfortunately, the opposite too often seems to be the case.

TopicsMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran