The Skeptics

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

Mischaracterizing the Iran Debate

The Skeptics

Peter Feaver asks a question:

Why do people who say military action to destroy the Iranian nuclear program is too hard also insist that it will be easy to contain Iran? Why can't they acknowledge that it would be quite a daunting challenge to contain Iran? This would not preclude them from making the tough call in favor of containment over preventive strikes, though it might undermine the dogmatism of the argument.

Feaver goes on to engage in some pop psychology attempting to explain this curious tendency among advocates of containment and deterrence.

A couple things are interesting here. First is that the opening sentence of Feaver’s post reads: “It is almost banal to observe that the Iranian nuclear challenge is a hard policy problem.” One of the reasons it is almost banal to observe this is because everyone who opposes war with Iran admits that their preferred solution is itself suboptimal and leaves tough problems on the table.

Secondly, the only item on containing and deterring a nuclear Iran Feaver cites is an AEI report that tries to throw cold water on the idea. That report is probably not the best place to look if one wants to see how people who oppose war with Iran characterize the prospects of containment and deterrence.

For that, one might want to read one of the many articles that advocate containment and deterrence. A few, off the top of my head, include Barry Posen’s article, which helpfully deals with Feaver’s supposedly unanswered question right up front in the title: “A Nuclear-Armed Iran: A Difficult but Not Impossible Policy Problem.” Posen goes into considerable detail in the report describing the problems with constraining a nuclear-armed Iran.

There is my own offering on the subject, which includes this paragraph, and a broader discussion:

Although the preventive war option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is remarkably unappealing, the prospect of deterrence raises a host of undesirable consequences as well. A nuclear-armed Iran would likely be bolder in advancing its regional political goals, many of which are currently opposed by the United States. It could press for dominance in the Persian Gulf region, which could trigger further proliferation. It would likely attempt to cast itself as the font of anti-Israel sentiment in the Muslim world, and could ratchet up its anti-Israel activities.

Last month at the National Interest, Austin Long and Bridge Colby took on the subject, noting that “containing a nuclear Iran would be costly and risky.”

I could go on, but I’ll stop here. I’m not sure whether to believe that Feaver just doesn’t read very widely on the subject or whether he’s decided to purposively mischaracterize these scholars’ work. Nor am I sure which is more discouraging.

TopicsMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesSecurity RegionsIran

The Pentagon’s Sequester Gamble

The Skeptics

The 2013 Pentagon budget reflects the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to embrace strategic change that would allow far larger cuts. And by failing to propose such cuts, the Pentagon is refusing to avoid sequestration, the across-the-board cut of roughly ten percent from its accounts required under the Budget Control Act (BCA).

In proposing a military budget about six billion dollars lower than last year’s, the Obama Administration has for the first time proposed a real cut in the non-war military budget, but much of that cut likely shifted to the war budget. The administration has also said that the Pentagon should spend less over the decade than previously planned, which would cause an eight percent cut to non-war spending—in the unlikely event that the plan holds. If we include war costs, the military budget has been falling since 2010 when war costs peaked. But keep in mind that the defense budget grew by over seventy percent in real terms since 1999, with the non-war portion roughly doubling.

As I wrote two weeks ago when the Pentagon released its budget guidance, even this minor spending restraint has heightened competition among defense programs, causing several sensible program cancellations that prior plans would have avoided. But it has triggered little strategic reevaluation, beyond a belated realization that the national disinclination to occupy more restive countries allows a partial reversal of the growth in the ground forces begun in 2007. The supposedly new strategy that the administration recently released is a muddled defense of the status quo. Rather than reconsider our military’s potential missions and the alliances that drive many of them, the administration appears to be shopping for other people’s conflicts that will keep our forces occupied. More cuts will produce more sensible choices.

The BCA requires a $54 billion cut to Pentagon spending in January 2013, applied across spending accounts, with the possible exception of personnel costs, which the president can elect to shield. That sequestration is a consequence of the super committee’s failure to produce a deficit reduction plan. After sequestration, Pentagon spending (leaving out the wars and other defense-related costs outside DoD but counted in the national defense budget function) would be $478 billion, about what it was in 2007 in real terms.

The text of the BCA suggests that sequestration occurs regardless of the size of the budget Congress passes. That would mean that the Pentagon cannot distribute the 2013 cuts according to a strategy and thus avoid sequestration. In the remaining eight years the law covers, by contrast, the Act imposes a Pentagon spending cap and sequesters appropriations above that level.

The BCA says, however, that the White House shall calculate and order sequestration under the procedures set forth in section 253f of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act (the law the BCA amends). That section says that where Congress passes an appropriation act with an amount below the baseline (the prior year’s budget), you subtract the difference from the sequester. That appears to mean that a $478 billion budget would indeed avoid sequestration.

Even if the Office of Management and Budget, which the BCA makes the arbiter of these matters, reads the law differently, a legislative fix could accomplish the same thing. Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has proposed that the Pentagon design an alternative $478 billion budget that makes choices across accounts and then pads each by ten percent to sacrifice to sequestration. Congress might also change the BCA’s language to say clearly that appropriated savings commensurate with sequestration will prevent it. Or Congress could change the law to allow the Pentagon to avoid sequestration if the cuts are implemented gradually, rather than dropping suddenly in a year. Even large budget cuts usually take years to pay off. These options would achieve the deficit reduction that the BCA seeks while allowing the Pentagon to shape the cuts.

Presumably the Pentagon is aware that it can avoid sequestration but is unwilling to admit it. They believe that by presenting sequestration as the only way to get more savings, they can avoid any cuts. Thus, Pentagon leaders insist that they are not planning on sequestration and expect Congress to change the law.

That change would presumably come as part of a budget deal where the Congress agrees to let the Pentagon off the hook. The White House is using the threat of Pentagon cuts to get Republicans to let some of the Bush tax cuts expire. We probably won’t know if that bargaining tact works until late this year, with the presidential election decided and sequestration and the expiration of the tax cuts looming. The administration could possibly offer additional defense cuts as part that deal.

As the year goes on, Pentagon leaders will increasingly complain about what the Secretary of Defense calls the “goofy meat axe approach” of sequestration, which supposedly prevents them from making intelligent choices. Those hearing the complaints should be aware that while the BCA makes the size of the cuts inevitable, their manner is not fixed. The Pentagon could have smart cuts, but it prefers to push for none by pretending dumb cuts are the only alternative.

TopicsBureaucracyCongressDefensePolitical EconomyState of the MilitaryPoliticsSecurity

The Truth Is Out There

The Skeptics

Adam Berinsky from M.I.T. reports over at YouGov that less than a year after President Obama released his long form birth certificate, the number of Americans who believe that Obama is an American citizen has dropped back to same level as before the certificate was made public. The percentage of Republicans who believe Obama is an American has dropped even lower than before. Rumors, Berinsky argues, die hard, and thanks to the Internet, they spread faster and further than ever before.

Rumors may seem a bit far afield for this blog. But in fact, rumors are close cousins of lies, misinformation and propaganda, standard tools of foreign policy in democratic nations and dictatorships alike. Rumors, like their cousins, are designed to alter judgments about people and policies by shifting the basis on which citizens consider them. For example, recent rumors about Obama’s “death panels” can be understood as an effort to shape judgments about Obama’s health care plan by focusing attention on a specific element of that plan (end of life decisions) through the strategic use of misinformation (i.e., that there would be such things as panels determining who would live and die). In this sense, the death-panel rumor differs very little from the Bush administration’s claims about Iraqi WMD in the run up to the 2003 war.

Sadly, Berinsky’s findings are not surprising. As John Stuart Mill argued 150 years ago in On Liberty:

It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error, of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error…

Indeed, one of the most depressing things about Berinsky’s findings and those of others who have studied misinformation is how closely connected misinformation is to people’s desire to believe the worst about their partisan opponents, other social groups, etc. Partisans these days, it seems, are zealous to learn and quick to believe the worst about their opponents.

Worse yet, there seems to be little that can be done to correct misinformation once it takes root. In their recent piece in Political Behavior, for example, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conduct experiments aimed at discovering whether or not news stories were capable of correcting misinformation about Iraqi WMD by including corrective statements in articles also containing misleading information. Not only do they find that the corrections were generally ineffective, they find several instances of a backfire effect, in which the correction effort actually increased the rate at which the most partisan subgroups believed the misinformation.

Beyond the partisan bias issue, Nyhan and Reifler’s findings also point out that the news media’s approach to covering rumor and misinformation is not helping. Handcuffed by the commitment to “objectivity,” the mainstream news media will continue to repeat bogus claims even as journalists seek to debunk them, with the unintended effect of actually strengthening rumors and increasing misinformation (Studies have shown that “adwatch” news stories have a similar effect for political advertising claims). Those who can still recall Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth will note that these findings jibe closely with Gore’s argument about news coverage of climate change. Despite near universal agreement among scientists about the human origins of climate change, Gore complained, news media accounts have continued to provide equal time to climate change skeptics in order to provide “objective” coverage, thus encouraging climate change doubters to hold fast onto their beliefs.

John Stuart Mill believed that men were "corrigible," that with sufficient discussion, opinions would improve over time and the truth would lead toward consensus. He also believed that the truth has one special advantage over falsehood: it is true! As a result, though it may not be recognized at any given time, it will always be there to be rediscovered. Given recent research, however, it appears that Mill’s confidence was misplaced, and that there in fact is no assurance that politically motivated people are interested in the truth. And sadly, it may be that American politics of the past generation reveals the implications of a world in which the truth has no special hold over the American public.

TopicsCivil SocietyDemocracyDomestic PoliticsMediaPublic OpinionPoliticsSociety

Occupy Afghanistan

The Skeptics

In an essay for Armed Forces Journal, Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis writes that after traveling across Afghanistan and speaking with more than 250 soldiers in the field, “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.” Further down he continues, “I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.”

It’s hard to disagree.

Davis’s essay comes weeks after the top-secret 2011 National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan finds that security gains in the Afghan war are unsustainable and that pervasive corruption, government incompetence and militant safe havens in Pakistan have undercut progress.

I’m reminded of a comment made recently by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee:

There have been gains in security . . . but the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with. They still occupy considerable land in the country.

“Occupy” is the operative word in that sentence. That gains in Afghanistan are “fragile and reversible” is the oft-repeated mantra of defiant optimists who invoke our inability to achieve key objectives—improve local governance, eradicate corruption, convince Pakistan to shut down safe havens, etc.—as reason to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Mind you, the opposite is also true: if such objectives are somehow reached, then we can never leave, since leaving would risk jeopardizing the gains we’ve won.

The intractable cross-border insurgency, of course, will outlive the presence of international troops. After all, a local district mullah who moonlights as a Taliban operative has nowhere else to go. Indeed, as the last ten years have shown, insurgents can outlast coalition troops by merely reemerging after we’ve left—that’s an endurable occupation.

In separate dissents appended to the report mentioned above—a report that reaches similar conclusions about the war made in the 2010 N.I.E.—the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, agreed in the judgment that the Taliban have shown no readiness to abandon their political goals. And, according to Col. Brian Mennes, who commands 3,300 troopers of the 4th Brigade: “The Taliban are going to have a role in post-war Afghanistan. . . . They are Afghans. They are there—it’s just physics!’”

Coalition night raids and drone strikes have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders and weapons facilitators; however, as the 2011 N.I.E. was quoted as saying, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.” And “many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

From war fighters and trigger pullers to desk-bound spooks and armchair analysts, the conclusion reached is that after a decade of war, we still haven’t won. The reason? All politics is local.

Remember that a key component of the Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan was winning over local people and luring them away from the Taliban. But the always-perceptive Captain Cat, who has worked on Afghan peace building, offers insight into what went wrong:

As we talk and sip tea, the younger man’s brother arrives, wrapped in a patu. He keeps his hair long, jihadi style, and it pokes out of his pakool. He was a more senior commander than his younger brother, and only reconciled a few months ago.

I ask the commander what he does with his days. “The government doesn’t trust anyone who is reconciled, so no one will hire us. My other brother does small jobs, he owns a cart in town and he sometimes does delivery work. He gets calls from Miram Shah from the Taliban and they tell him “look at your life now, pushing carts. What kind of a man are you?”

“I really regret reintegrating with the government, I wish I hadn’t—but if I go back now, the Taliban will kill me”.

We shake hands and I leave them. Miserable, bored and ashamed, they will while away their days wondering how to feed their families, when the Taliban will come for them and why they put their trust in the government. It’s hard not to wonder the same thing.

Tragically, the vast majority of Afghans were initially happy with the foreign-troop presence. They took a “wait-and-see” approach. But that spirit has largely deteriorated. Conversely, the Taliban are reviled, but the general view among many Afghans toward the movement is either ambivalence or that the Afghan government is worse. Perhaps more importantly, as the Afghan government’s head of Rural Rehabilitation and Development insisted to me at his office in Kabul awhile back: “Taliban is part of our culture.”

The coalition’s deus ex machina is reconciliation with the Taliban. While such an outcome to the war is hardly a victory worth celebrating, it’s difficult to imagine a lasting solution that does not involve the war’s other occupying force, the Taliban.

Image: isafmedia

TopicsCounterinsurgencyFailed StatesPost-ConflictSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

Libya Begets Syria?

The Skeptics

A little over a year ago, as members of the Obama administration were pondering military intervention in Libya, skeptics (including The Skeptics) pressed them to explain how that situation differed from other comparable cases elsewhere in the world. If Libya, why not Yemen? Why not Bahrain? Why not Syria? We may soon learn the answer to that last question. And their too-permissive—or merely haphazard—approach a year ago might pave the way for an intervention in Syria that would be ill-advised, if not disastrous.

At the time of the Libya debate (to the extent that there was one), the president and his foreign-policy advisers dismissed concerns that the intervention in Libya would set a precedent. "It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs," President Obama said in a televised speech to the nation on March 28, 2011. But, he continued:

that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. . . . 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.

At other times, the administration alluded to a loose set of guidelines to explain why it might choose to use force, guidelines which the Libya case met but other cases supposedly did not. These included the likelihood that a large-scale loss of life was imminent; the belief that prompt military action would prevent this violence; and the support of the international community, ideally a formal sanction in the UNSC (absent that, the approval of a regional body, such as the Arab League, might suffice).

Notably absent was sufficient consideration of whether our vital strategic interests were at stake. They were not in Libya, and they are not in Syria.

We should strive to avoid foreign intervention in all but very rare cases. Because getting in is always much easier than getting out, the burden of proof must always be on those making the case for war, not those advising against.

Beyond that, we must know what mission the U.S. military has been tasked with performing. We must have a reasonable estimate of the likelihood that it will achieve its mission. And we must have some sense of the likely costs in blood and treasure. Finally, we are a nation of laws, not of men—and decidedly not of one man. The president has very little authority to send troops into harm’s way, and he has none when U.S. security is not at stake (a criteria that Barack Obama endorsed as a senator but abandoned when he assumed a higher office). If the Obama administration is considering military action to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, it should obtain formal congressional authorization for such action. And it should do that before going to the United Nations.

No other country is afforded such choices. No other country is able to project power over great distances and on very short notice. No other country has a track record of frequent foreign intervention, even when such operations have no direct connection to advancing our own security. This pattern of behavior constitutes our unique power problem. It is precisely because the United States has used force on numerous occasions over the past two decades that we need a particularly stringent set of criteria governing our future interventions. There is an almost endless parade of aggrieved parties calling on Uncle Sam to save them from harm. And when Washington refuses, or merely drags its heels, they will say: You fought to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, why do you then refuse to aid Muslims in Northern Africa or the Levant? The United States must have a ready answer.

But the Obama administration, cheered on or goaded by liberal and neoconservative hawks, does not have one. Yet. And its halting signals are likely to embolden those calling for yet another war.

Image: Alain Bachellier

TopicsCounterinsurgencyHumanitarian InterventionMilitary StrategyRogue States RegionsSyria

Washington's UN Temper Tantrum

The Skeptics

Dmitri Medvedev with Hu Jintao ( Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice huffed that her country was “disgusted” by Russia and China’s decision to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling for an immediate end to that bloodshed. Their actions, she added, were “shameful” and “unforgivable.” Not only could Ambassador Rice apparently use a refresher course in diplomatic language, Washington’s response also betrays a troubling arrogance on two levels.

First, U.S. officials seem to believe that even such major powers as Russia and China should simply kowtow to the United States and adopt whatever measure Washington and its allies want on any subject, even when such a measure might be contrary to the interests of Moscow and Beijing. That is an offensive attitude that is provoking more and more irritation and resentment not just in those capitals but in such places as Ankara, Brasilia and New Delhi as well. Someone needs to convey a message to Rice and other Obama-administration officials—and much of the U.S. foreign policy community—that America’s “unipolar moment” is over and that other powers in the international system are increasingly unwilling to take dictation from Washington.

Second, U.S. leaders apparently assume that their Russian and Chinese counterparts have severe cases of amnesia and, therefore, do not recall how the United States and its NATO allies repeatedly exploited and perverted previous UN Security Council resolutions regarding other situations. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, clearly had suspicions about the prospect that even a seemingly mild resolution on the violence in Syria could be twisted for more ambitious policy goals. Although he condemned the bloodshed in Syria, Churkin cited Russian concerns about “regime change” intentions by “influential members of the international community.”

Given the track record of the United States and its NATO partners, Churkin was hardly being paranoid. He very likely recalled the 1999 UN Security Council resolution on Kosovo, which Moscow and Beijing reluctantly accepted following NATO’s unauthorized air war against Serbia, and how Washington and the European powers later ignored the provision that explicitly considered Kosovo still to be Serbian territory, albeit under international occupation. In blatant violation of that provision, the United States and key NATO countries bypassed the UN Security Council and recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008. Moscow and Beijing both complained vehemently that the action of the Western powers was not only illegal, it set a terrible international precedent that could cause problems for numerous countries, including Russia and China.

And Churkin likely recalled the more recent episode in which Moscow and Beijing foolishly accepted a UN Security Council resolution authorizing limited air strikes in Libya, supposedly for the purpose of protecting civilian populations. The ink was barely dry on that resolution before the United States, Britain and France used extensive air strikes to assist rebel forces opposing the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. In other words, an ostensibly humanitarian mission became a cynical fig leaf for a regime-change strategy that NATO was pursuing.

Having been burned on those and other occasions when they went along with UN initiatives favored by the United States and its allies, it is hardly surprising that Moscow and Beijing would be suspicious and hypercautious about even a seemingly innocuous resolution on Syria’s violence. Susan Rice’s temper tantrum in response to their vetoes will certainly not allay suspicions about U.S. motives. Indeed, that reaction will likely intensify Russian and Chinese wariness.

TopicsUNHumanitarian InterventionRogue States RegionsChinaRussiaSyria

Unanswered Questions on Afghanistan

The Skeptics

Secretary Panetta’s announcement that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will end as early as mid-2013 is a positive development. But it is long overdue and still leaves too many questions unanswered. After more than ten years of war in Afghanistan, the administration should follow through on its commitment to end combat operations and withdraw all troops by 2014. Continuing to narrow our objectives will make this war winnable.

Politically, this makes perfect sense for the Obama administration. It is a shot across the bow of his political opponents and those wishing for an indefinite combat mission in Afghanistan. Secretary Panetta’s announcement allows the administration to get on the side of voters who want to draw down in Afghanistan. By opposing any drawdown, his critics side with the much smaller segment of the American people who still support the nation-building mission.

President Obama is in a position similar to the debate over Iraq in his 2008 presidential campaign. He argued in 2008 that he would end a grinding war he inherited. The president can claim victory (and vindication) in Iraq and argue that if you liked the first act, you’ll love the second. He will end another grinding war he inherited—and conveniently gloss over the fact that he sent more troops to Afghanistan than President Bush ever did.

Of course, these developments are neither new nor a sure thing. Despite the media attention given to this announcement, it was somewhat predictable. Panetta acknowledged that this was always part of the plan behind the scenes. Buried in the coverage of Panetta’s statement are multiple qualifiers. He admitted that no decision has been made on the number of troops that will leave in 2013. The secretary offered no details on what this transition from combat operations would look like. Indeed, the line between an “advise-and-assist” mission and combat operations is a sketchy one. A spokesman clarified that U.S. forces could still be involved in combat operations in 2014. In the end, our policy has not changed. It is still unclear how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at the end of 2013.

But to the extent that Panetta’s recent statement reaffirms the administration will adhere to the timeline of withdrawal, it is an encouraging sign. It signals to the Afghans that they must take responsibility for their own security, and it provides an incentive for them to continue to put themselves in harm's way and take the initiative.

Let’s hope that this is indeed a confirmation of the administration’s commitment to a withdrawal. The United States should have scaled down to a limited, targeted counterterrorism mission many years ago. A large-scale, nation-building mission has never been necessary to protect the vital interests of the United States and hunt down the few remaining terrorists in Afghanistan that aim to strike the homeland.

The strategic misconceptions that guide our current mission in the country are overwrought, lack evidence and are based on worst-case scenarios. We should continue to transition to a counterterrorism mission that utilizes intelligence, special operations forces and our considerable technological advantages, such as UAV’s. And we must continue to encourage the Afghan people to take responsibility for their security and their nation.

Image: Secretary of Defense

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsFailed StatesThe PresidencyMilitary StrategyTerrorismPoliticsSecurity RegionsAfghanistan