Hillary Clinton's Afghanistan Problem

The Buzz

Over the past year, and in the past month in particular, there have been a number of pieces evaluating Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and contrasting her performance with that of her successor, John Kerry. (See, for example, Michael Hirsh in Foreign Affairs, David Rohde in the Atlantic and Susan Glasser at POLITICO Magazine.) There is a general consensus among these authors that goes roughly as follows: Clinton was a good, but not great, diplomat. She was a competent manager of the State Department, but took few risks and made little effort to solve major international problems. As Aaron David Miller, quoted in Glasser’s article, says, “She was a fine [secretary of state] but not consequential.” Conversely, Kerry has been much more of a risk-taker, throwing himself aggressively into efforts to negotiate a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, bring about a truce in the Syrian civil war, and resolve the dispute between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear activities.

There is a fair bit of truth to this portrait. But two points are worth adding to the discussion. First, some of the risks Kerry has taken have been largely the result of changes in the international environment. The best example of this is in Iran, where Hassan Rouhani was elected president to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Paul Pillar wrote shortly after Rouhani’s election, his victory brought “to Iran’s presidency the candidate who was least associated with attributes of the Iranian regime that the West finds most offensive.” Pillar also noted that the election result was “a vote in favor of flexibility and going the extra mile to reach agreement in the nuclear negotiations.” This analysis was borne out by the process of negotiations that led to last month’s interim agreement. It’s hard to imagine that this deal could have been reached under Ahmadinejad or a successor with a similarly hard-line worldview. The fact that the two countries reached the deal says more about Iran than it does about any real differences between Clinton and Kerry.

Second, and more importantly, is that there is one major subject that gets short shrift in all of these assessments of Clinton: Afghanistan. Glasser only mentions the country once, in passing. Rohde and Hirsh both mention her support for the thirty-thousand-troop “surge” that President Obama ordered in his first year in office, but neither goes into much detail on the matter. None of them suggest that this decision ought to factor in significantly in our overall evaluation of Clinton’s time as secretary of state.

This is a real oversight. The 2009 decision to send thousands of additional troops and commit billions more dollars to Afghanistan was one of the most consequential foreign-policy decisions of President Obama’s first term in office. It also might have been his biggest foreign-policy mistake. The administration never had a plausible theory for how its eighteen-month surge would realistically lead to a meaningfully better long-term outcome for the country. The problems that plagued Afghanistan prior to the surge—among them an ineffectual government, endemic corruption, and safe havens across the border in Pakistan—were not ones that the United States had the means to remedy, short of engaging in a decades-long military occupation of the country. The result, as Stephen Walt wrote in 2012, is “that the extra effort isn’t going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted.”

Along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the uniformed military command, Clinton was one of the biggest supporters within the administration’s national-security team for escalating in Afghanistan. As Bob Woodward recounted in Obama’s Wars, as Obama conducted his Afghan review leading up to his decision, Clinton repeatedly and forcefully advocated for General Stanley McChrystal’s request for an additional forty thousand soldiers. She said in one Situation Room meeting of McChrystal’s plan, “I wholeheartedly endorse the approach, and think it can make a difference.”

The Afghan war doesn’t get much attention these days, and the reasons why are fairly straightforward. The administration would like to remove its troops from the country as quickly as possible, but also wants to avoid a worst-case outcome such as the complete collapse of the Afghan state. Some hawkish Republicans continue to criticize Obama for “abandoning” Afghanistan, but given how little public support there is for the war, there’s not much political incentive for the GOP to make this a major line of attack.

But we shouldn’t forget the war, and we shouldn’t forget the surge. The escalation that President Obama ordered was one of the most important decisions of his five years in office, and it led to the greatest new commitment of lives and resources the United States has made overseas during that time. In the years since, the costs of this choice have been high and the gains have been minimal. As we assess Obama’s foreign-policy legacy as president and Clinton’s as secretary of state, this fact deserves to be front and center, not glossed over or ignored.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsPolitics RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

Harper, RGIII, and NSA

Paul Pillar

The advisory panel that the White House appointed to review operations of the National Security Agency amid the leak-stained controversies about those operations appears to be coming up with some sound ideas. According to David Sanger in the New York Times, the panel probably will recommend that the White House get more directly involved in weighing the benefits, costs, and risks of such intelligence collection operations, rather like it does now with covert actions assigned to the CIA. Such involvement is necessary and proper, given that the decisions to be made include essentially political judgments about the relative importance of competing national values and interests.

Sanger also, however, points to a continued tendency to expect the NSA itself to make most of these judgments. The article states that officials who have examined the agency's programs “say they have been surprised at how infrequently the agency has been challenged to weigh the intelligence benefits of its foreign collection operations against the damage that could be done if the programs were exposed.” Think about that statement for a moment. It implies there should be times when this intelligence agency should, on its own, forgo “intelligence benefits” out of fear of the damage that a future leaker might cause.

Such an expectation not only would be another act of surrender to leakers and to whatever is on their personal agendas; it also would be yet another example of the inconsistency over time of the expectations that the American public places on U.S. intelligence agencies. It really wasn't very many years ago that one of the pieces of conventional wisdom about these agencies, repeated endlessly by commentators and commissions, was that they were risk averse and that their unwillingness to take chances in collecting information was a major cause of intelligence failure. Google the combination of “intelligence agencies” and “risk averse” and you get more than 93,000 hits. But now, it seems, these same agencies are expected instead to be more, not less, averse to risk, with respect not only to something like a human agent being endangered but also to the damage that some future Edward Snowden might cause.

At both ends of this swing of this pendulum the public perceptions have been exaggerated. The intelligence agencies always were more willing to accept risk than they were perceived to be several years ago, and they are more conscious of the risks of unauthorized disclosures than they are perceived to be now. In any event, to expect an intelligence agency such as NSA to be the primary weigher of the competing values and objectives that its operations entail is a mistake for two reasons.

One is that these agencies are not well equipped to do such weighing and balancing. They have legions of lawyers to ensure that what they do stays within bounds of the law and the rules, but the considerations to be weighed go well beyond legality and conformity with rules. Those considerations include shifting political moods in America and the reconciliation of competing social values. People in the intelligence agencies are not trained and organized to make judgments about such things. We, the public, ought to be uncomfortable if agencies that are supposed to be restricted to foreign intelligence start getting that close to matters of domestic politics. Moreover, to the extent that officials in these agencies do participate in the weighing, their perspectives naturally will tend to be shaped disproportionately by their being heavily involved in intelligence collection. I would sooner rely on political types in the White House to make a well-rounded judgment as to what the American people would consider a balanced approach.

The other reason is that if the intelligence agencies start worrying more about these broader considerations they are apt to do a less focused, less effective job of carrying out their assigned mission of collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence. Here is where the old criticisms about risk aversion might have some relevance, although the problem is more one of distraction, preoccupation, and back-of-the-mind hesitation than it is about unwillingness to take risks.

People in Washington could make a comparison here with a couple of young stars on the local professional sports teams. One is Bryce Harper, an exciting player with the Nationals baseball team whose go-for-broke style has gotten him injured more than once as he smashed into outfield fences while chasing down batted balls. The other is Robert Griffin III, whose running game is much of what made him appear to be a franchise-rescuing quarterback for the Washington football team but also has contributed to debilitating knee injuries.

Although everyone realizes that the more such players are sidelined with injury the less useful they are to their teams, the smart money in pro sports seems to say that it would be a mistake to make such players tame their aggressiveness, which is an inseparable part of what makes them stars. The preoccupation about injury that has surrounded Griffin (including having him sit out all the preseason games) has probably been at least as much of a factor as injury itself in making his sophomore season a big disappointment after the promise of his rookie year. Harper's new manager, Matt Williams, says it would be a mistake to rein in his young outfielder, and he has no intention of doing so. “I love the way he plays the game,” says Williams, which is “the way it should be played...all-out, every day, all the time, every game,” even though Harper has “paid for it by getting injured and running into walls.”

Hesitation-producing preoccupation with potential damage from either injuries or leaks is part of what makes the difference between middling performers and excellent ones, whether the performers are professional athletes or intelligence agencies. The tendency toward mediocrity becomes all the worse when the performer is relied on to do most of the risk-weighing rather than being allowed to focus sharply on the assigned job while leaving it to a coach, manager, White House, or Congress to do most of the weighing and balancing of broader considerations.

Leaning on the National Security Agency to assume most of that broader task itself, besides being another example of inconsistent public expectations being placed on intelligence agencies, also is another example of expecting those agencies to perform functions that should be performed by political leaders or the public itself. Just as after the Iraq War went sour the intelligence community was expected somehow to have saved the country from the folly of its own elected leaders, now NSA is expected to rescue the American public from inattention to how much the public's own standards and values regarding security and privacy have changed over the past decade.

Image: Flickr/Ben Stanfield. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCongressPublic OpinionThe PresidencyIntelligence RegionsUnited States

A Response to the Naval Diplomat

The Buzz

In the latest edition of “Aircraft Carrier Wars” my friend Dr. James Holmes takes issue with my riposte to Tom Ricks’ Washington Post commentary last week. Jim is a crack mind on matters naval, as his regular columns and articles attests. He and I tend to agree on most things, which make our disagreements that much more fun. And I would like to say that we disagree here, but that would imply that we were talking about the same thing. As I read his piece in The Diplomat, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that he read something other than my work, or perhaps read it so quickly that it confirmed existing biases. In the interest of full disclosure, the gist of his argument has been repeated elsewhere, by others I respect greatly, and so perhaps my original work may not have been as clear as I thought it was.

Holmes focuses first on my having taken issue with Ricks’ assertion that somehow the carrier’s obsolescence was at least in part, because it looks like its ancestors did. He then walks us through a valuable discussion of radar basics. What he does not do is address my argument, which was that there are plenty of examples of platforms and capabilities in our arsenal that look much as their predecessors did decades ago, yet we still value their contributions. In the case of the land-based airfield, I submit that the threats to it have moved much faster and have been far more manifest than those that have faced the carrier. No one suggests doing away with land based air. While I agree with the Professor that the carrier is not exactly a stealthy platform, it never has been. It has relied on other attributes, namely speed, endurance, and a screen of ships for its protection. Oh, that’s right, this theory has never been tested. And this is where Dr. Holmes must have been reading something other than my work.

In my piece, I never suggested, hinted, intimated, whispered or postulated that the US Navy had either A) taken on the Soviets in combat or B) prevailed in such a contest. No jigs were danced, no huzzah’s were shouted. My entire (perhaps unclear—you be the judge) position was that the US Navy had responded to threats to the carrier through a number of counters, rather than just packing it in and agreeing that the carrier was obsolete, as some (not Professor Holmes) would have us believe (then, and now). That decision (pursuing counters, building more carriers)—in light of there having been no combat against the Soviets—resulted in decades of options for Presidents to deter, assure, punish, pre-empt, and aid in countless situations. “But did the U.S. Navy really beat the Soviet maritime threat, as Bryan and kindred navalists opine? How would we know?” Not only did Bryan not opine this, he didn’t think it. He doesn’t think it. Nor does he “…assume that whoever won must’ve gotten the tactics and hardware right.” I think nothing of the sort. What Bryan thinks and opines is that the business of finding and targeting carriers is more difficult than Ricks asserts, and that we remain capable of developing counters to emerging threats that will render the carrier of continuing utility for decades to come—just as we did decades ago in the face of those threats. If war comes, those counters and the risks they are designed to mitigate, will be put to the test. In the interim, we will reap the benefit of those platforms and the real service they provide.

Bryan McGrath is the Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, and is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consultancy.


The Wise Non-Attack on Syria

Paul Pillar

Passage of even just a few months adds valuable perspective to debates about prospective uses of military force—debates in which some positions were expressed with passion and conviction. Such has been happening regarding the civil war in Syria. Not very long ago the United States and some other Western states seemed on the verge of launching their own military strikes in Syria, in addition to providing assistance to opposition elements. Since then all the reasons then already becoming visible why a forceful intervention on the rebel side of this war would be a mistake have become even clearer. Disarray prevails among the opposition elements that would be helped, with only loose connections between politicians on the outside of Syria and people with guns on the inside. Purported moderates have been weak and ineffective. The strongest opposition groups—in both intra-opposition fighting and combat against the regime—include many extremists having little or nothing in common with any Western objectives. The latest turn in this story has been a suspension of any U.S. non-lethal aid to the opposition after a coalition of Islamist fighters called the Islamic Front broke into a warehouse and took control of equipment the United States had provided to someone else.

The character of some of the most influential opposition forces has become clear enough for more voices in the West to be saying that the opposition is worse than the Assad regime. Former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker says we ought “to start talking to the Assad regime again...As bad as he is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.” Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, comments that a policy of arming Syrian rebels “blew up in our face,” and that “someone has got to bite the bullet and say Assad stays.” What goes for assisting rebels would go even more for direct external military intervention.

If the Western attack that almost took place earlier this year had in fact been carried out, it would have dragged the United States deeply into a conflict that seems nowhere close to ending. To the extent it would have tipped a balance, it would have done so in favor of a side that, as Crocker notes, is worse than the Syrian regime. The alternative—the events that have actually played out in the intervening months—is still not pretty to watch, and the politics and diplomacy that led to an attack being called off were essentially an improvised broken play. But the result has been decidedly less bad than immersion in this civil war. There even has been a positive development on behalf of arms control with the deal regarding destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.

There still will be those who—our of inertia, cognitive dissonance, or true belief in the unlimited efficacy of U.S. military power—will argue that things would be coming out better if we had only been quicker to act, not only directly but in assisting “moderates” in the opposition. That position overlooks what it has always overlooked, including the difficulty of distinguishing in this circumstance moderates from extremists, the impossibility of keeping aid only in the hands of the former, and the other realities of the Syrian conflict that have led extremists to gain the prominence they have among the opposition.

Comparing what we know now to what was argued several months ago is useful not only for understanding what is the path of wisdom in dealing with the Syrian problem. It also is useful in evaluating other, possibly broader debates about the use of military force. Most of our after-the-fact evaluation is based on instances in which we do use force. We can draw lessons, for example, from the Iraq War—and appropriately so, given the huge cost that misguided expedition inflicted on the United States. But drawing lessons only from such episodes involves a methodological problem that social scientists would call selecting on the dependent variable. Our data base is more complete if we consider lessons from every instance in which use of force became a major issue, whether or not the eventual policy decision was to use it.

Three types of assessment are assisted by such lessons. One is the general question of when military intervention is or is not apt to be advisable. A second concerns the performance of the policymakers. In the case of the Obama administration's handling of Syria, there was initially a misdirected use of the chemical weapons issue and later reliance on luck and help from the Russians in getting out of a hole, but the final and fundamental decision on the use of force was in the right direction.

A third type of assessment concerns the credibility and wisdom, or lack thereof, of those who engage in these debates. Arguing for what would be a mistaken use of force may not harm the republic if policymakers do not accept the argument, but it still reflects just as badly on those making the argument.

TopicsArms ControlHumanitarian Intervention RegionsUnited StatesSyria

Gay Rights in Russia: Wrong Ways to Protect Them

The Buzz

I am grateful to Jamie Kirchick for his lengthy response to my comments about gay rights in Russia, and about how the United States government should respond to Russia’s new antigay law. Kirchick argues that the U.S. should use the Magnitsky Act to sanction Russian individuals and legislators who have carried out or endorsed harsh persecution of gays. Unfortunately, his arguments remain unpersuasive.

Much of Kirchick’s case hinges on the utility of sanctions in advancing human-rights goals. “If history is any guide,” he states, “imposing a cost for human rights abuses will, in the long run, weaken Russia’s authoritarian regime.” Kirchick thus invokes the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which blocked full trade relations with the Soviet Union over its restrictions on emigration by its Jewish citizens. Jackson-Vanik, he says, “is today widely acknowledged as having played a significant role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.” This is too sweeping. Communism was the real author of the Soviet collapse. A planned economy was never going to last, no matter how many dissidents were imprisoned in mental hospitals or the Gulag.

If Jackson-Vanik did not bring down the Soviet Union, what did it accomplish? Alas, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union actually fell when Jackson-Vanik was passed, and Jackson-Vanik did not prevent that emigration from slowing to a trickle in the 1980s. Whether it had any positive impact at all remains a subject of some controversy. Kirchick, in responding to my warning that American legal pressure under the Magnitsky Act might provoke further antigay violence by extremists and stiffer antigay laws from the government (the latter with precedent, since the Russian Duma responded to other uses of the Magnitsky Act with restrictions on Russian orphans), announces, “What we do know is that the steps the West has taken thus far – righteous denunciations, pouring Stolichnaya down sewer drains – have done nothing to arrest the ever-darkening situation in Russia.”

Yet the ineffectiveness of prior measures doesn’t mean we should take different measures, willy-nilly. The actions Kirchick proposes may be emotionally satisfying, but they may accomplish less than those righteous denunciations. They will also likely provoke a reaction from the Duma. They will likely strengthen Putin, who, having just announced he’s divorcing his wife, has decided to present himself as a guardian of traditional Russian morality. The cold, hard truth is that the Russian public broadly agrees with Putin’s view of gay rights—one of few issues on which he enjoys such support—and it is hard to see why minor foreign sanctions would convince them otherwise. And Putin would score easy points by pointing out that large swaths of the world treat gays far worse, yet face no similar sanctions.

I have nothing but admiration for Kirchick’s audacious move during an appearance on Moscow-funded agitprop network RT, where he wore a gaudy pair of rainbow suspenders and denounced the new laws. Stunts, though, are not an appropriate or effective tool of statecraft. Quite the contrary. Kirchick’s proposed course of action with Russia would have little impact—and what impact it did would be negative, both for U.S.-Russian relations and for LGBT rights in Russia.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Gray. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsHuman RightsGlobal Governance RegionsRussia