Friday, November 2, 2007
Barak Obama is not exactly known for concreteness – or perhaps we in the media simply haven’t figured out the policy implications of “the audacity of hope.” In his satire of the last Democratic debate, David Brooks perfectly captures the essence of Barackian rhetoric: ”[T]he goal of my campaign is to make this county as noble as I am."
Well, on the same day that this little ditty appeared, Barack actually did get specific in an hour-long interview with the New York Times– and not just on the geo-strategic necessity of reaching out to Kenya but the prickly issues of Iraq and Iran.
The headline for the article – as it was on the Drudge Report – was “I'D TALK DIRECTLY WITH IRAN...”
Needless to say, Obama's willingness to actually conduct diplomacy would be a marked improvement over the current administration’s thinking that talking with your enemies only means that you’re giving in. Although Obama’s way of diplomacy might get tiresome fast: he claims he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy.” Obama’s “personal” diplomacy strikes me as the diplomacy of the photo op, the diplomacy of publicly hugging cute-looking third-world types.
Reading through the Times story, a few other concerns come to the fore:
Overall Obama tried to play Mr. Realist, claiming “There are no good options in Iraq.” This is certainly better than “let us spread democracy,” but is he so much more in touch with reality?
In terms of exit strategy, Obama think that, “based on conversations we’ve had internally as well as external reports,” only two brigades can be pulled out per month. Thus, he envisions as 16 month withdrawal period – that is to say, with Obama in the White House, we’d be out of there by April 2010 at the earliest. With the war costing 8 billion per month, Obama would only throw another 128 billion into the sand pit -- not bad!
I’ve never understood why withdrawing in an extended, domino-like fashion is any more difficult than ordering everyone out all at once. As Gregory Cochran has argued, the notion that we need to take home everything that we hauled over there – the hundreds of thousands of porto-potties and church pews included – seems completely perverse. Obama’s claim that his 16 month figure derives from his numerous “internal” conversation seems to be an obvious case of simply passing the buck -- "well, this is what the generals said."
I'm sure there are others in the arms industry, with lots of exorbitant government contracts, who would warn Obama of the perils of ending the occupation early, if he'd only ask.
But if the invasion was a mistake, and if “there are no good options,” then why on earth does Obama want to prolong the agony!?!
My guess is that, like Edwards, Obama wants to stop the war but keep the empire. That is, he wants to halt major operations but then leave significant forces in the region ostensibly to “stop genocide.” He can thus be both the peace candidate for the move-on/dailykos liberals, but then continue ot expand America’s presence abroad to please the globalists.
This desire to seem like a figure of “change” – an Obama mantra – but then basically keep all the Bush-era policies also runs throughout Obama’s description of his “personal” diplomacy with Iran. In wooing Tehran, Obama says he’s willing to promises that “we won’t seek regime change.” As opposed to seeing intervention around the globe as an inherently unwise course of action, Obama wants to use it as a bargaining chip.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
First, three very big names in the coalition – Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail guru and “funding father” of the conservative movement, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and talk-radio host James Dobson of Focus on the Family – warned that they might start up a third party if Rudy Giuliani got the Republican nomination. Their concern is centrally the candidate’s claim that it’d be “OK” if the Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade and his support of taxpayer-funded abortion while as mayor of New York. So far, talk of a social-con third party has remained only talk.
Ironically, the candidate many think best suited to keep social-cons voting Republican, Mike Huckabee, has sparked a second rebellion. While the former Baptist minister took second place in the straw poll at the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter” conference, fiscal conservatives and the hard right wing of the GOP coalition are none too pleased with him. Rand Milton, of Phyllis Schlafly's national Eagle Forum, called governor Huck "a pro-life, pro-gun liberal." That is, he’s good on right to life issues but completely unprincipled on taxing and spending—even worse on immigration. Put simply, Huckabee’s a “compassionate conservative.”
The Club for Growth has piled on, creating an anti-Huckabee website, www.taxhikemike.com and making it clear that they find the man from Hope completely unacceptable.
The social-cons, the pro-growthers, and the hard Right should be applauded – they have clear objectives and principle, they know when they’re willing to bend and when they’re not, and they take their stand.
It is, however, rather depressing to see how rebellions have sprung up around these issues and not American foreign policy, how serious dissent within the movement is possible on abortion and spending but on the Iraq debacle, it’s strictly verboten.
And yet politically this doesn’t make much sense.
On the issue that Dobson, Perkins et al. most care about—right to life—the American public is famously wishy-washy. In 2002, 57% of Americans generally thought that abortion should be legal in most cases, though few supported partial birth abortion or the termination of a pregnancy after six months. Whether one wants to call this moral incoherence or nuance, the fact is that a third party based on the abortion issue could never command a broad majority; pro-lifers’ ability to wield power within the GOP has its limited.
With regard to the issue fiscal conservatives most care about – limited government – the American public is even more difficult to understand. The words “taxes,” “big government,” “welfare programs,” and like usually inspire fear and loathing, but Americans are remarkably unprincipled on these areas. A majority supports “universal” health care, and the recent debate over the SCHIP program, and countless ones over failing public schools in the inner cities, sadly remind us that politicians need only say “we must help the children!” for Americans’ hearts to collectively bleed.
Support for limited government should be at the heart of the conservative intellectual movement, but sadly it’s hard to make this the basis of a populist platform.
And then there’s the war.
With large majorities disapproving of Bush and his handling of the war and want all troops out within two years. If one wants to form a third-party band of rebels – or create a third force that would make the GOP come to heel – then there’s simply no better issue than the war.
Indeed, one would think that even pragmatist who foresee a terminal decline of the party would support such a rebellion. And yet, even those willing to make compromises on a host of issues, won’t even contemplate the notion that the GOP should be made to change its positions on foreign policy.
Certainly, those most supportive of the war have done their job – the flagship publications remain staunch and a host of new websites, like that of the pressure group Freedom’s Watch, have arisen replete with lots of flags and menacing bald eagles. But beyond this, we who oppose the Iraq war and are on the Right must admit that we’ve failed. Groups like the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy has not been able to apply sufficient pressure (the group's website does not appear to have been updated since mid-September(!?!)). Publications like The National Interest and The American Conservative have produced some excellent writing, but they've hardly made the Republican Party alter its course.
But change the GOP must – whether its current crop of favored intellectuals like it or not. Sadly, this change might only occur after a Götzendämmerung of an ’08 election.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
”[W]e are great because we are good, and if we ever lose our fundamental goodness, we will surely lose our greatness
It’s of course easy to dismiss this line as a hokey, forgettable platitude from a man with erstwhile presidential pretensions. When I was a high-school teacher, a colleague of mine loved to tell of how in the 1948 election, Thomas Dewey’s staff was so confident of victory that they simply wanted to coast and forbid the candidate to say anything that might possibly be controversial. He thus made policy statements such as, “Before me, I see America” and, “In the coming years, we’ll be living in the future.” Brownback’s “We are great because we are good” might be thought of similarly meaningless sunshine.
But I find Brownback’s comment to be highly significant in that it succinctly, almost perfectly, encapsulated the kind of thinking that has led so many evangelical Christian—who in other areas have good, conservative instincts—to support the foreign policy of George W. Bush
The first thing we can ask is if it’s true that America is really “good” in the sense that Brownback means, that is, is it a nation that acts in accordance with universal love and absolute morality.
Well, the last time I checked, America expanded her borders by brutally expelling, isolating, sometimes murdering the native population and absorbing large swaths of land from defeated neighboring states; she turned the western hemisphere into her sphere of influence through overt imperialism and warning other Great Powers “hands off – or else!”; she defeated a monstrous tyrant in Berlin by aligning herself with an equally if not more monstrous tyrant in Moscow; since then, she’s ensured world order through a doctrine of mutual destruction with her chief rival and intervened in other countries at will.
I don’t necessarily approve of all of the deeds mentioned above, but then I would never say that America is uniquely wicked. In seeking to ensure security and status, America acted no differently than other Great Powers of the past.
To be sure, in establishing a republican government and guaranteeing its citizens rights, America does have claim to being a uniquely ethical enterprise. But any notion of inherent goodness only go so far. Without a doubt, America did not achieve “greatness” – that is power and influence well beyond her borders – by dint of any ethical achievement.
Brownback’s comments emerge from a rather sentimental imagination populated by images of smiling families in the Kansas suburbs, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech,” and Church youth choirs singing “kumbyyah.” All of these things are wonderful, and Brownback is right to adore them. But to believe that these are the sources of America’s world standing is to be beyond naïve.
Brownback actually made his “America is great because she is good” formulation just after speaking of the success faith-based organizations have had in bringing down the recidivism of convicted criminals – “Working and engaging the heart and the soul of the individual.” Implicit in Brownback’s comments is his notion that we can treat the rest of the world – particularly those states and groups that threaten us – just like we treat those down-and-out criminals with hearts of gold. Our foreign policy will be therapeutic – once our enemies recognize that we’re good and that we’re here to help, they’ll shape up, become our friend, and happily be integrated into our benign world order. An intervention in Iraq is in the same category sending out foodstuffs to sunami victims and working to save lives in Darfur. In Brownback’s world, American Christians should feel “good” about helping out Iraq.
Brownback is completely blind to the notion that America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, stationing of troops around the world, claims to right to intervene anywhere anytime might have anything to do with power. I’m reminded of a recent debate on democratiziation in The National Interest. Andrew Bacevich argues that America actually does want to help others countries – expand democracy and freedom and all that. But Washington wants other countries to democratic in the way that Canada is democratic – “genuinely free and reliable acquiescent.” Even in action that might seem munificent, power is never entirely absent. (“No disrespect to Canada” of course.)
An ethical, responsible foreign policy is a rare but feasible achievement. But a foreign policy that adheres to absolute morality or “makes the world a better place” is simply too much to be desired. It’s about time we start being honest about this fact and dropping any Brownbackian illusions of "greatness."
The Senator from Kansas offers not a rethinking of American strategy but merely a sentimental, corny way of talking about it. We lose nothing with his exodus from the presidential campaign.
Friday, October 5, 2007
In my last Exit-Strategies post, I focused on the history of the interwar period, particularly Wilsonian “national determination” and the Paris Peace Conference’s creation of new nation-states, and statelettes, as all part of the bad history of ethno-nation-building form above. Ignatius’s analogy is Vietnam; or to be more precise, he sees a certain sentiment among U.S. policy-makers of the Vietnam era – the gist being, "It was necessary to destroy the town in order to save it" – resurfacing in today’s Washington.
It is a thoughtful, if not particularly original, critique: American war-managers and “laptop bombardiers” love to dream up that one big solution, that grand social-engineering project, that will solve all our problems – while consistently underestimating, or outright ignoring, the costs in human life. Carving up a county in order to save is in this terrible tradition. And one need not strain to dream up some “Iraq immemorial” – a Romantic vision of the nation of Iraq – as Ignatius does at the end of his piece, to oppose partition.
The endgame in Iraq may, indeed, be bloody – entailing either Shia hegemony from Baghdad, the rule of a ruthless strongman like al-Sadyr, or a resurgent Sunni class based in al-Anbar. Someone will become sovereign. But this is a battle in which America should not take a side by either arming and making deals with Sunnis in Anbar or supporting unconditionally the Iraqi parliament.
Indeed, as William Lind has observed, the U.S. has a reverse Midas Touch – anything we touch essentially turns to sh-t – it loses sovereignty and is perceived as “collaboration” or “treason” or a “puppet” of Uncle Sam. So too would any neat little ethno-partitions drawn up in Washington. A stable state will emerge in Iraq only when we get out of this mess.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
"Here's a guy nobody is paying attention to and he's raising real money," Fabrizio told a USA Today reporter, who described the GOP strategist as stunned. "The strongest pro-war candidate and the strongest anti-war candidate raised the same amount of money." David Boaz of the Cato Institute told the Politico, "“Everything that was wrong with the Republicans in 2006, Ron Paul is an answer to."
NRO's Stephen Spruiell downplays Paul's fundraising, noting that it hasn't yet translated into a substantial bump in the polls (though Paul has seen his numbers rise from asterik levels earlier this year to a consistent 2 to 4 percent; in national polls he is frequently tied with media darling Mike Huckabee and occasionally within the margin of error against Mitt Romney). It could also be noted that Paul's fundraising base is augmented by libertarians (of both the small and big L variety) and disaffected antiwar liberals, in addition to more traditional conservative Republicans. These voters won't necessarily crowd the GOP primaries next year, although New Hampshire and several other key states will be open to them.
It is easy to overreact to Paul's fundraising success, which is still a fraction of the money being raised by candidates like Romney (who is his own largest donor) and Rudy Giuliani. But anytime Paul exceeds expectations, it highlights the existence of antiwar sentiment on the Right and influences the political debate over Iraq.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
It's working, it's almost perfect -- now stop!: Andrew Bacevich on Petraeus's strange tactical logic
Nevertheless! – we would be remiss in not discussing Andrew J. Bacevich’s recent analysis of the Petraeus report to Congress, “Sycophant Savior.”
So far, the provocative title has garnered most of the attention and, as discussed below, has issued some maladroit comparisons to moveon.org’s sophomoric “General Betray-Us” ad in the New York Times.
Far from resorting to name-calling, Bacevich demonstrates exactly how Petraeus was all too willing to cozy up to DC:
"Petraeus demonstrated that he is a political general of the worst kind—one who indulges in the politics of accommodation that is Washington’s bread and butter but has thereby deferred a far more urgent political imperative, namely, bringing our military policies into harmony with our political purposes."
This was hardly a partisan matter as Petraeus gave Dems something to take home as well:
“A modest drawdown comes as good news to Democrats... Accused with considerable justification of having done nothing to end the war since taking control of the Congress in January, they can now point to the drawdown as evidence that they are making headway. As Newsweek’s Michael Hirsch observed, Petraeus ‘delivered an early Christmas present’ to congressional Democrats.”
In the second half of his piece, Bacevich moves beyond politics and offers one of the most pointed critiques of America’s military tactics in Iraq I’ve come across.
Petraeus’s central message was clear – “the surge is working” – but this makes his central recommendation – “it’s time to draw down troops” – deeply puzzling:
“What then should [Petraeus] have recommended to the Congress and the president? […] A single word suffices to answer that question: more. More time. More money. And above all, more troops.
“It is one of the oldest principles of generalship: when you find an opportunity, exploit it. Where you gain success, reinforce it. When you have your opponent at a disadvantage, pile on. In a letter to the soldiers serving under his command, released just prior to the congressional hearings, Petraeus asserted that coalition forces had “achieved tactical momentum and wrestled the initiative from our enemies.” Does that reflect his actual view of the situation? If so, then surely the imperative of the moment is to redouble the current level of effort so as to preserve that initiative and to deny the enemy the slightest chance to adjust, adapt, or reconstitute.
“Yet Petraeus has chosen to do just the opposite. Based on two or three months of (ostensibly) positive indicators, he has advised the president to ease the pressure, withdrawing the increment of troops that had (purportedly) enabled the coalition to seize the initiative in the first place.
“This defies logic. It’s as if two weeks into the Wilderness Campaign, Grant had counseled Lincoln to reduce the size of the Army of the Potomac. Or as if once Allied forces had established the beachhead at Normandy, Eisenhower had started rotating divisions back stateside to ease the strain on the U.S. Army.”
Nowhere else is the utter incoherence of late-Bushian Washington better expressed: “Our new tactic is working!, and therefore we’re finally able to stop doing it!”
If the government and the people we’re actually willing to do what it takes to achieve total, absolute victory in Iraq, we’d draft every man under 30 and ship them Babylon. We aren’t; we won’t. The public would rather go shopping; the government would rather use news of our great success as an excuse to do what it must do out of necessity – draw down the troops due to obvious strain.
* * *
So far, the response to the piece on the web has not been enlightening, and, interestingly, the pro-war Right has not forcefully responded.
Much of the moveon-dailykos-Left types have been fixated on the idea that the great monolithic right-wing conspiracy wouldn’t dare attack one of its own. The Pensito Review writes, “We’ll be waiting (but not holding our breath) to see if anyone drafts a similar measure [as the anti-moveon.org legislation] condemning The American Conservative magazine.” (Identical sentiments can be found here, here, and here).
These bloggers seem to have forgotten this lovely little 2003 front-page article in NR in which David Frum insinuated that those who opposed the invasion of Iraq did so out of evil anti-Semitic, America-hating motives.
When they were riding high, the pro-war Right savaged antiwar conservatives with distain and glee, now that they’re slowly being mugged by reality, silence towards serious critics on the Right is the new MO.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Perhaps of greater interest is how Ogonowski, a 28-year Air Force veteran whose brother was murdered by terrorists in the 9/11 attacks, has positioned himself on Iraq. Ogonowski does not merely criticize the administration for "mishandling" the war, although he does make those criticisms. He says he disagrees with the decision to invade Iraq in the first place, describing it as "wrong." He emphasizes how his plans will bring the troops home and says his Democratic opponent Niki Tsongas (widow of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas) would actually keep U.S. forces in harm's way longer.
Yet he's no antiwar Republican either, despite criticism from some hawks in this comments thread who say he's too soft on Iraq. Ogonowski says we still must win in Iraq. He supports the basic surge framework and maintains that General Petraeus should be allowed to continue to make progress is reducing the violence. While he attacks Tsongas for keeping residual forces in Iraq for too long, he also criticizes her for withdrawing combat troops too precipitiously.
Ogonowski is nevertheless as critical of Republican hawks as Democratic doves, taking shots at House Minority Leader John Boehner when the Ohio Republican used the phrase "small price" to describe the cost of the war. While he predictably talks about getting tough with Iran and Syria, most of Ogonowski's concrete proposals in that area focus on diplomatic engagement. Ogonowski always emphasizes the eventual drawdown of troops and the need for the Iraqi government to be held accountable. Ogonowski's position can be best described by the Clinton-era word "triangulation."
Mitt Romney, who Ogonowski supports for the Republican presidential nomination, has positioned himself similarly. He refuses to say whether he would have invaded Iraq knowing what he knows now (though he has refrained from saying he would not, as Ogonowski has). He always emphasizes troop drawdowns without abandoning the overall surge framework. He keeps his options open even on the surge, refusing to say unequivocally that it is working -- much to John McCain's consternation.
Whether this is the beginning of a slow Republican reappraisal of the Iraq war and Bush foreign policy more generally, or whether it simply represents a potentially more appealing way to dress up the same familiar hawkish position, only time will tell. A lot will be decided by how well candidates like Massachusetts Republicans Ogonowski and Romney do with the voters -- and how willing they'd be to deviate from the status quo if elected.
Monday, October 1, 2007
Justin Raimondo has responded adequately here. Chronicles executive editor Scott Richert has here. Daniel Larison made short work of Hawkins here. It's probably to the antiwar right's credit. Many conservatives I respect continue support the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. Far fewer who I respect substitute "unpatriotic conservative" smears or their like for genuine debate on the most pressing foreign policy issue of our time.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Well, the Dems have now“done something”, they’ve passed bill that challenges the White House’s official policy, and they actually got 20 Republicans to join them.
The vote was non-binding, but on Wed., Sept. 21, by a count of 75-23, Congress expressed its opinion that Iraq should be divided into separate Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, with a weak federal government established for oil-revenue sharing. The bill runs strongly against Bush’s plans for Iraqi national unity.
The bill was officially sponsored by fledgling presidential candidate – and secretary-of-state in-waiting – Joe Biden. Among Democrats, all but Russ Feingold voted for it. At the MSNBC debate at Dartmouth just after the vote, the bill was generally warmly received. The Republicans were generally split, and, as far as I can tell, no pattern emerges among the bill supporters and detractors – the nays included administration cheerleaders like Lindsey Graham but also the dovish Chuck Hagel and the second-thoughter Lamar Alexander. Joe Liberman—whom Bush can usually be rely on—voted with his former party for partition.
Congressional independence from Bush is a good thing; however, the bill passed on Wed. was exceptionally unwise. A non-binding resolution like this one serves, in many ways, as a kind of congressional policy paper – a way to get an idea out there. In this case, partition is an exceptionally bad idea, and given that it has clearly gained currency in Congress, it is necessary to explain exactly why.
At first glance, partition is attractive for some obvious reasons.
1) A segregated Iraq is quickly becoming a reality whether Congress approves of it or not. The Iraqi civil war, unleashed after the fall of Saddam, has entailed an ethnic cleansing of various regions. The Kurds have been most successful in carving out for themselves a semi-autonomous province, and have built up a stable government – if not a particularly democratic one – where the Iraqi flag rarely flies.
2) As many in America are simply confused and fed up with sectarian violence, it’s all to easy to blissfully hope that if we’d only just divide up the warring parties and send them to their respective camps, they’d stop fighting and Iraq would be at peace.
3) A national Iraq might seem to have little rationale in the first place. The nation-state of Iraq was more or less invented in the wake of the First World War by British imperial magistrates – among them the feminist of the desert, Gertrude Bell – in way that ignored ethnic and religious divides. With no real historical raison d’être, would anyone really miss the old Iraq after we split it up?
4) Partition dictated from Washington is hardly a new idea – indeed, this has been a common strategy for stabilizing regions for the past century. Woodrow Wilson’s notion of “national determination” is not too different from Richard Holbrooke’s plans for dividing up the Balkans.
Partition is certainly attractive, but examined closely from an historical and strategic perspective, the perils of such a policy come to the fore.
1) Partition won’t stop a civil war – to the contrary.
Much of the progress that was made in the ballyhooed al-Anbar province is the result of its being an ethnically homogenous Sunni region. It’s thus useful to look at this region in imagining what rigid separatism might forebode for Iraq. The Anbar Sunnis might have rejected al-Qaeda and moved towards stability, but this does not mean that they’re anywhere closer to being able to work with the Shia-dominated parliament in Baghdad. In many ways, our arming of our new-found friends may ultimately amount to taking sides in an even broader and more violent Sunni-Shia conflict on the horizon.
The Sunnis are the Prussian of the Middle East – a small minority who think of themselves as the ruling class. Simply giving them a region might very well amount to giving them time to prepare for a violent bid for a “re-nationalization” of all of Iraq under their leadership.
2) Throughout history partition has intensified ethnic cleansing. With the defeat of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the Great War, Wilson, Llyod George, Clemenceau & Co. decided to divide up the former continental empires into nationalized statelettes – a few had some historical basis, Poland for instance, others were basically invented out of thin air, such as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
With “national determination,” it’s often difficult to determine who’s really “national.” Before the partition, many in Central Europe identified with the empires, with their religion, or else with a nation other than the newly minted one in which they are residing. – “Am I Polish, a Catholic, a German, an imperial subject?”
In all of these cases, it proved impossible to gerrymand the borders around homogeneity. Setting borders and then waiting for the right people to re-locate to the right regions is simply a euphemism for ethnic cleansing and forced-migration. With these European examples, the nations were still determining themselves for close to 30 years, ending only with the brutal expulsion of ethnic Germans, qua “Nazis,” from the former regions of Prussia in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The more recent Balkan examples yield more of the same. After the 1995 Dayton Accords, Kosovo was left under Serbian rule; however, quickly thereafter, the prospect of Washington doing some more nation-building inspired the Kosovo Liberation Army to attempt secession. The “liberation” of Kosovo – with Washington’s and NATO’s full support of course – entailed the destruction of Serbian Churches and bullying, forced-exile, and even mass-murder of ethnic Serbs whose families had lived in the region region for centuries.
If we decide to divide up Iraq into ethno-regions or statelettes, should we expect a different outcome?
3) Three new countries means three new dependents for Washington to protect.
If Washington decided to will into to being three new autonomous regions or sovereign states, it will have given itself the responsibility of guaranteeing their independence. If history is a guide, we would need to intervene again and again.
The prospect, mentioned above, of a resurgent Sunni class deciding to take back the country they feel they should rule would put Washington in a truly bizarre predicament for which no clear solution exists. Scenarios such as Iran attempting to increase its influence in a Shia region – or even attempting to subsume it outright – only become more likely after a partition.
With the European examples, the new statelettes became tid-bits to be gobbled up by the Third Reich or the Soviet Union. The Second World War itself was triggered by, on the one hand, Hitler’s grasping for the Central European nations and, on the other, Britain’s and France’s guarantees of the sovereignty of the newly-minted Poland.
* * *
There is simply no reason to believe that multiplying the political dynamics at play in Iraq will serve America’s national interest.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
I remember attending a lecture a few years ago at Washington University in which Gelb said that the only people who get what they want out of the Cuban embargo are the exiles and Castro, who benefits tremendously from playing off the United States and keeping his country relatively isolated from the world's financial and cultural superpower. Gelb made it quite clear that he does not support the embargo and does not consider it in the U.S. national interest. (I've Googled around and checked Nexis for other examples of Gelb saying this. The Emerging Markets Debt Report of January 16, 1996 summarizes some of Gelb's reactions after returning from a trip to Cuba:"Pressured by anti Castro Cubans in the United States, President Clinton is highly unlikely to soften the U.S. stance toward Cuba in the runup to the Nov. 1996 U.S. presidential elections, Gelb points out. But, for reasons of its own, the Castro administration isn't particularly eager to see sanctions lifted now, either. ... Gelb advocates gradually lifting the embargo, to avoid shocking the Cuban economy, and calls for increased diplomacy via U.S. Cuban military contacts and a strengthening of the trend to encourage U.S. NGOs to operate in Cuba.")
Does anyone think we would have still have an embargo on Cuba in the year 2007 were it not for the politically powerful Cuban lobby? We trade with nominally Communist China and with our old foes in Vietnam, after all. And the Europeans certainly seem to reap benefits from their trade with Cuba, benefits that we could be reaping as well. (To be sure, the Cuban exile community is not the only factor: the sugar and citrus industries also have reasons for wanting to restrict trade with Cuba. But sugar and citrus would also like to restrict trade with other Latin American countries, and we don't have outright embargoes against any of them.)
Other points in Gelb's review similarly prove the opposite of what he's trying to argue. He writes, for example,"The main source of anti-Americanism and anti-American terrorism is America’s deep ties with highly unpopular regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention the war in Iraq," which I happen to believe is true. But why do we have those "deep ties"? In large part, as Gelb himself writes, we have them because of influential foreign lobbies: he criticizes Mearsheimer and Walt for "minimiz[ing] the lobbying influence of the Saudis and the oil companies, the other major forces on Middle East policy" and writes, "if Mearsheimer and Walt had asked policy participants over the years, they would have been told that the Saudis are the single most potent regional voice in American policy toward the gulf." All true. But it doesn't follow that if the Saudis have tremendous, and probably detrimental, influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East, the Israelis must not have similar influence. The Saudi and Israeli lobbies disagree on much--though certainly not everything--but the one does not negate the other. As Gelb concedes, "Most unbiased students of the matter would probably agree that the lobby is the single most influential force on American policy toward Israel."
Gelb also brings up the Cold War-era China Lobby, which again is an example--particularly, one would think, to someone coming from Gelb's point of view--of a foreign lobby that influenced U.S. policy for the worse. I am sure Gelb would not say that Nixon made a mistake by going to China. The Israeli lobby is not unexampled in terms of its policy influence and political clout; but the examples Gelb cites of other, similarly influential lobbies all tend to support the case Mearsheimer and Walt have been making. Yes, the Israel lobby is only doing what foreign-interest lobbies always do. But is what they do congruent with America's national interests? Gelb hardly tries to answer that question. For him, the cause is primarily moral: "As it happens, America’s commitment to Israel rests far more on moral and historical grounds than on strict strategic ones."
Gelb cites Clifford Clark's argument that "The United States and the world had a moral obligation to support a Jewish state because everyone had stood by and done nothing during the Holocaust." Allowing for the historical uniqueness of the Shoa, one would still be compelled by the logic of that argument to say that by the same token we should support the cause of Armenia, perhaps even in the future the cause of Darfur, since there too a great moral evil is taking place and America and the world are doing very little. Yet we have no national interest in Darfur and precious little in Armenia. A moral case can be made for intervention anywhere and everywhere; indeed, the neocons have predicated so much of their case for war against Iraq and intervention in the greater Middle East on such moral grounds: the plight of the Kurds, for example, and now the prospect of ethno-religious cleansing of the Sunnis once we leave Iraq. And as the Iraq episode illustrates, moralistic interventions that are not in the national interest turn out to be counterproductive for the very people they're meant to save, and they do nothing to enhance America's security--quite the opposite.
In saying all of this, I don't want to give the impression that I have no empathy for the Cubans who were expropriated and persecuted by Castro; for the nationalist Chinese who, whatever their faults, at least were anti-Communists; or for the Israelis, who have every right to defend their country and their lives. All of these groups have sound reasons for attempting to influence American policies. And of these three, Israel is the most capable of succeeding in its objectives with or without American subvention and military support: Israel has won every war she has fought and possesses a nuclear arsenal. It would be a false statement to claim that Israel would be destroyed, that there would be a second Holocaust, without American support. Israel's survival is not dependent on the success of the Israel lobby. If it were, the moral issue might trump questions of narrow national interest.
Instead, as Mearsheimer and Walt argue, the Israel lobby and the more-Likudnik-than-Netanyahu neocons here in the United States have been pushing policies that are ultimately detrimental to Israel and that run counter to America's interests. Leslie Gelb seems to be aware of this--he certainly presents evidence to that effect--but he can't bring himself to say it.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Leon Hadar has given us one of the aptest metaphors of the year: The Iraq war is to foreign policy what "Snakes on the Plane" is to cinema – a really bad idea that "bombed"… so to speak.
Unfortunately for us, Hollywood is much better than the U.S. government at handling disasters. With a real stinker on their hands, execs first cut their loses – i.e. release it quickly on DVD. Then, they go back to the studio and change the script. Even if Hollywood is often too eager to repeat lucrative formulas – how many indistinguishable teen horror flicks and cuddly romances with Jennifer Aniston can mankind really endure? – few would deny that the studios are highly skillful at not repeating obvious mistakes – "Snakes on a Plane," "Waterworld," and "Ishtar" have thankfully remained sui generis.
Not so with the U.S. government. Uncle Sam seems bent on reviving and remaking the most unsuccessful scripts – or at least one that simply cannot work in the contemporary world. For Hadar, this script is the British imperial project of the last two and half centuries. As with that grand institution on which the sun never set, the production costs of "America’s empire" far exceed the box-office returns.
While The Brits and the French set their empire to an Händelian tune of a "civilizing mission," Pax Americana has a "Wilsonian" soundtrack. The melody sings out that America will "make the world safe for democracy," or perhaps even install democracy by force. Underneath, there are less forthright, harmonizing lines that promise that global democracy will equal American hegemony, or at least will be "good for America."
Hadar retorts that the post-9/11 Pax Americana has not made the world safe for democracy but safe for the revival and intensification of tribal, religious, and ethno-nationalist identities. Furthermore, America’s imperial interventions have created little "Pax" and mostly succeeded in inspiring terrorism and violent resentment.
(One could certainly quibble here that in his hard-nosed "realist" framework, Hadar loses sight of the power of ideology and underestimates radical Islam – particularly as it has been defined by writers like Robert Spencer – as something more than a mere reaction to America’s meddling in Arab lands.)
While it’s now a clichéd to call America an empire – usually accompanied with much head-shaking and finger-waging – Hadar takes this comparison very seriously and integrates it into that most Hadarian of concepts, the "global paradigm."
Since 1945, the U.S. incrementally replaced Britain and France as the main imperial power – just as the U.S. subsidized and then succeeded France in South East Asia, it moved into the former Ottoman territory that had been carved up by the British.
For Hadar, whatever rationale Pax Americana had during the Cold War, it has little today, and will continue to unravel as the world transitions from a bipolar to a multi-polar global paradigm – the unipolar world dreamed up by Charles Krauthammer is a mirage, or at most, a "moment" that has past.
Even if Pax Americana is costly and unsustainable, this does not stop the U.S. from pursuing what amounts to imperial projects. Of these, Hadar focused on the U.S.’s designs for controlling the oil in the Middle East by having a large military presence throughout the region. This is not done so much to line the pockets of the oil companies (although this motive should not be dismissed out of hand) but to control the source of energy for America’s future competitive rivals.
When many talk of "energy independence," they seem to assume that the U.S. is supinely reliant on a collection of shifty-eyed Saudi Princes and/or Ba’athist dictators for those SUVs to keep running. The fact is, the U.S., for intents and purposes, already has energy independence from the Middle East. Only 12 percent of the U.S. energy comes from the Middle East and of this, only three percent from Iraq and Kuwait. Contra Greenspan, "controlling the oil" in the Middle East is entirely unnecessary.
It’s a different story for the established European powers, Japan – and, most importantly, the rising powers of China and India. From Hadar’s Realpolitik perspective, he speculates that the U.S. seeks to control the rising powers’ source of oil – being that China’s energy needs are mushrooming, the very prospect of perfidious Uncle Sam doing such a thing will not exactly please Bejing.
Putting aside any moral questions of occupying the Middle East to get at China, Hadar argues that the U.S. drive for oil hegemony is misguided. Given that the various dynamics and conflicts in the Middle East will make the region highly unstable for the foreseeable future, America’s empire amounts to the U.S. military being forced to deal with problems that have little to do with America’s national interest. Given that China, India, Europe, and Japan all have much more at stake in the region, America’s empire amounts to Washington’s sending American soldiers to die for causes that have much more to do with the energy needs of foreign powers than American security.
After the conference, Hadar mentioned to me that he thought that France’s Sarkozy and Kouchner are eager to talk of "confronting Iran" not because they’re closet neocons – as yours truly has speculated – but because they want to keep Uncle Sam’s eyes on Iran, to keep the notion that Iran is a threat to the world swirling within Americans’ heads, so that Wahsington – and not Paris – will be the one to do something if a problem arises. France can thus continue to outsource its foreign policy – and spend the dividend on guaranteed six-week vacations and public laser-light shows. I personally think Hadar goes too far here, but this speculation is helpful in crystallizing his fundamental point.
How can Washington change course? Firstly, it must form concrete political objectives. Hadar’s focus in this regard was the prospect of opening up talks with Syria, in building a "diplomatic road to Damascus." If Washington can cease worrying about the fact that Syria is not exactly democratic and drop the whole "Islamofascism" nonsense, Washington can wake up to the fact Syria desires a stable, viable Lebanon – which was the very reason for its thirty-year occupation of the country – that it could work as a Sunni counterweight to Iran, and that it would be willing to help stabilize Iraq.
Interestingly, Hadar does not see the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group as offering much of a real alternative – even if he agrees with many of its recommendations. For Hadar, ISG amounts to a fantasy of returning to the cost-free Pax Americana of the 90s: "if we just leave Iraq, then everyone will love us again and we can rule the region." But those Dances with Wolves-The English Patient days are over, and it would be impossible to film a sequel whether we exit Iraq now or not. The global paradigm has changed, and this means that we need to work hard at writing a new script.
Friday, September 21, 2007
The Financial Times has a brief discussion of (among other things) the nexus of class and foreign policy in an interview with Louis Auchincloss this weekend. It's worth a quote:
“I used to say to my father,” he says, “ ‘If my class at Yale ran this country, we would have no problems.’ And the irony of my life is that they did.” He pauses before invoking a 20th-century American foreign-policy who’s who: “There was Cy Vance, Bill Scranton, Ted Beale, both Bundys, Bill and McGeorge – they all got behind that war in Vietnam and they pushed it as far as they could. And we lost a quarter of a million men. They were all idealistic, good, virtuous,” says Auchincloss, “the finest men you could find. It was the most disillusioning thing that happened in my life.”
Auchincloss has struggled to understand just how their shared patrician background could have produced this disconnect. And the answer would appear to be that wars are lost, if not always made, on the playing fields of New England. “Bill Bundy and I shared a study at Groton, and one day he came in from a football game, and I said: ‘Who won?’ and he said: ‘We lost,’ and then he burst into tears. You cannot lose. Groton cannot lose. That’s what they believed in, no matter what,” explains Auchincloss. “They all would have all been willing to die, if they hadn’t already been in high positions. They believed America cannot lose. We stand for every virtue and right that’s in the world.”
I'm reminded that George Kennan, a Milwaukee boy, always felt like an outsider in such company. But I wouldn't say that the hubris Auchincloss describes is peculiar to the old East Coast elite. Bush's own pedigree aside, the present administration is no WASP preserve, yet a parallel belief in American invincibility and innocence, albeit in cruder form, has long prevailed among the president's popular conservative base. The WASPs came out of the Vietnam era disillusioned not just with the war and America's role in the world but with their own identities. Will something similar happen to conservatives--or ex-conservatives, as may then be the case?
Each talk deserves a full report, and in the next two days, I’ll do my best to convey some of the more interesting moments.
More to come…
While many liberal hawks and neoconservatives remain on its masthead, the New Republic has recently been rethinking some of its foreign policy positions. This editorial endorsing soft partition as a way out of Iraq is part of that process. It expresses skepticism about the prospects for Iraqi "reconciliation" in any politically feasible timeframe. It treats the Bush administration's war aims as essentially unachievable. And it acknowledges that at some point in the not too distant future, the political pressure for leaving Iraq will become difficult to ignore.
So TNR advises that we let the major ethnoreligious factions in Iraq go their own way. That means adopting a plan to "radically devolve power to Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regional governments with a central government securing the borders and parceling out oil revenues." As the editors note, this idea has broad bipartisan support. Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, both candidates for their parties' respective presidential nomination, each have plans along these lines. Partition has advocates among pundits across the ideological spectrum.
I'd like to favor a soft partition myself. The idea dispenses with the polite fiction that there is in fact a large number of Iraqis committed to a common cause or country. It is a "third way" approach aimed at mitigating the consequences of our invasion and eventual withdrawal, both for U.S. national prestige and for the Iraqis who might otherwise become victims in a humanitarian disaster. It has become more realistic as sectarian violence has made previously mixed cities more homogeneous. And even some surge supporters are willing, in effect, to go along.
Yet I'm skeptical. TNR acknowledges the pitfalls: "Aside from the Kurds and one Shia party (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), none of the main Iraqi players have any interest in carving up the country. The status of Baghdad would pose a Jerusalem-like obstacle to any federal agreement, to say nothing of the details of oil-sharing and shared security. If the plan failed to thread any of these needles, it could inflame sectarian tensions rather than calm them." If those are the obstacles in Iraq, the fact that soft partition could create a bipartisan consensus in Washington sounds rather less reassuring.
Such a plan would also require us to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq for several more years, potentially increasing the risks that the conflict will spread to Iran and putting more American lives in danger. Certainly for it to be deemed preferable to withdrawal we would need a better indication that a soft partition can work -- and can be facilitated by the United States -- than the fact that we can get both Democrats and Republicans to support it.
UPDATE: AmSpec's John Tabin responds here.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Evidence is mounting that last May France inadvertently elected a neocon as president of the republic! (Well, not quite but we should be worried.)
Most recently, Nicolas Sarkozy’s new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, announced in an interview that with regard to Iran and their nuclear ambitions, We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war."
His mention that "We must negotiate right to the end…" doesn’t strike me as particularly reassuring.
Such rhetoric isn’t too different from Bush’s in 2002, when he was claiming that we’d have to invade Iraq as a last resort:
"If we allow [Saddam to go nuclear], a terrible line would be crossed. […] He would be in a position to threaten America.
"Understanding the threats of our time, knowing the designs and deceptions of the Iraqi regime, we have every reason to assume the worst, and we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring. […] I hope this will not require military action, but it may."
(Later this rhetoric would shift to the glories of democratization, but this was the original pitch.)
Drawing lines in the sand is entirely necessary in foreign-policy making; however, both Bush and Kouchner drew only those lines that they fully expected their adversaries to cross. Bush already had all that great intelligence about Saddam’s WMD (that we’re still searching for); Kouchner should expect Iran to pursue a nuclear device as countermeasure to the very saber-rattling he’s been indulging in.
Kouchner’s mention that "We must negotiate right to the end…" is almost a Freudian slip—clearly, he presumes that there will be an end to the negotiations.
Kouchner’s hawkishness should not come as any surprise. The founder of Doctors Without Borders, Kouchner is known as a man of the Left; however, in his short tenure, he’s been more than willing to team up with the Bush administration in Iraq and has even gestured toward the possibility of France’s rejoining NATO’s military command.
(This later gesture is particularly surprising as not only is NATO one of the favorite bête noirs of the Euro-Left, but a reversal on this matter would seem an affront to French pride. In 1966 Charles de Gaulle removed France from NATO command because he felt that no French soldier should ever be under the authority of a foreign officer—particularly one of les Anglo-Saxons.)
Kouchner’s coziness with Bush should not come as any surprise. Kouchner supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Paul Berman—another pro-war Lefty—praised Kouchner to the sky in his recent book Power and the Idealists as an heroic dissonant and scolds the rest of his fellow Leftists for not marching in step with the latest advance in secular humanism that was the Iraq war.
(As an aside, the fact that Richard Holbrooke—the secretary of state in waiting for a Clinton or Obama presidency—wrote the forward to Power and the Idealistsis more than enough evidence that even in the Dems take office, more interventionism will be in store. Those who support the Democrats out of isolationist or realist sympathies should beware.)
When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in May, his choice of Kouchner appeared to be a sign of his willingness to reach out to the French Left and form a truly national government. It’s beginning to look more like Sarko wanted to reach out to the neocons—or the interventionist neoliberals who are their Doppelgänger on most issues.
I was quite excited by Sarko’s election, and I’m still willing to give him a chance. But so far, many of his foreign-policy moves strike me as ominous.
From there, Norquist notes how media polarization has affected this trend and the role that lobbies have played: national ethnic lobbies advancing their own interests, military contracting lobbies out for themselves, etc. No lobby exists, and perhaps no interest group can possibly exist, that concerns itself strictly with a realistic foreign policy.
While there were reasons to believe that America might benefit from rethinking its policy vis-à-vis Iraq, all such debate within the Republican Party was shut down for the bulk of 2006 in order to avoid advantaging the Democrats in the November elections. Partisan loyalty has created a stickiness in moving to—or even suggesting—different strategies. On the Democratic side, there is more attention paid to how to damage Bush and the Republicans than to what the United States should and should not be doing in Mesopotamia and its environs.
The blind partisan loyalty of the bases of both political parties is not conducive to creating a serious foreign policy.
(Norquist also makes the claim that there is "no national lobby for a strong military," because contractors' lobbies put individual companies above the military's need for "new planes, ships, and tanks." This is a curious statement, since obviously there are companies whose interest is precisely in the building of new planes, ships, and tanks, often new planes, ships, and tanks that the military itself does not want. Norquist has fallen into slogan-think here: the cause of military "strength," as conventionally understood, is not underserved by lobbyists; rather, the cause of military prudence is friendless. More tanks, planes, and ships do not necessarily amount to a sounder foreign policy--on the contrary, an abundance of such things encourages the Madeleine Albright mentality which asks "Why have a military if we're not going to use it?")
Although Norquist ends on a hopeful note, looking forward to the day when think tanks are once again concerned with the public interest and not with partisan politics, his penultimate paragraph suggests what might have to happen before we get a serious foreign-policy discussion in this country:
The present partisan stalemate is unlikely to change until one party breaks through and becomes dominant, as the FDR coalition did after 1934. This will free the majority party to create a position devoid of the extreme fringes currently needed to compete in the evenly matched partisan fight. The party out of power will have the time and focus to think not only about foreign policy in the abstract but also to confront and challenge the ruling party’s approach to the world.
Unfortunately, that majority party will probably be the Democrats, the way things are going now. And I don't share Norquist's confidence that even with both parties secure in majority and minority status we would get a realistic reconsideration of our warmaking and diplomacy. But one can always hope.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
"And tonight, our moral and strategic imperatives are one: We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours."
For a long time now, a certain "grand unification" trope has marked the rhetoric of George W. Bush. In Thursday night's address to the nation, it was in full force. For the president, two things that may in fact have little in common—say, strategic imperatives and abstract morality—are the same—indeed, unified!
What? You think protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks and engaging in regime-change and a long-term occupation of a foreign power don’t seem to be compatible? It all makes sense once you understand that our cold, Machiavellian calculus leads us to what we always knew was true in our heart!
Much of grand unification can be accomplished by simply defining national interest and "strategic imperatives" in the fuzziest and hokiest manner possible. The United States, as nanny to the world, must support all those "young democracies" among which Iraq is the one we really care about. This feels good, but it says nothing about the consequences of invading and upturning a country, even less about the kind of policies a country will pursue once its demos is given the vote.
More Bushian logic: we need a "free" Iraq because this will inherently be "good for America." What, you say that a free Iraq might decide that its interests are not the same—perhaps even opposed—to America’s? --Basta with the pessimism! Don’t you understand that democracy and American interests are one!
That such rhetoric and logic dominated Bush’s speech is evidence of a certain Gersonian legacy amongst current White House speech-writers. Michael Gerson was the mind behind Bush’s Second Inaugural and coined (or really likes to claim to have coined) much that is quintessentially Bushian—"compassionate conservatism," "tyranny of low expectation," and some more one-liners so maudlin I can’t bear to reproduce them here.
Saint Michael might have left the White House in 2006; however, his rhetorical tropes have remained. Indeed, Gersonian rhetoric seems indestructible: no matter how bad Iraq gets, no matter how little support Bush musters among the public, few in the White House seem capable of thinking outside the Gersonian box of grand unification. The man who wrote "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," and "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands" could have penned Thursday night’s speech. The same cadences, the same sentimentality as a substitute for logic, it’s all still there.
For all the talk of a new strategy, the same two or three half-formed ideas are still swirling around inside George Bush’s head.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Hagel's decision not to run again may actually put the Nebraska Senate seat in play if Bob Kerrey decides to run as the Democratic candidate. Jon Bruning would have a hard time beating Kerrey, though Agriculture Secretary -- and former Governor -- Mike Johanns could make it a dogfight. Kerrey is arguably more hawkish on Iraq than Hagel, which raises a second question: Since the Democrats have had success running pro-war and antiwar candidates depending on the local political climate, why can't the Republicans do something similar?
There are probably a lot of reasons for this. For one, hawks now play a bigger role in the GOP coalition than they did in the 1990s, when noninterventionist conservatives were somewhat more influential. Secondly, Republicans place a high premium on party loyalty, making them more likely to support policies -- especially wars -- pursued by GOP presidents. But I think a major reason is simple politics.
The reality is that a majority of Republicans still favors staying the course in Iraq, whatever that actually means. This view is even more pronounced among self-described conservatives. GOP politicians who deviate from the pro-war position are going against the grain of the party's base. Meanwhile, Democrats and antiwar independents seem to have decided that an individual politician's position on the war is less important than whether they belong to the pro- or antiwar party (leaving aside for the moment whether the Democrats can really be described as an antiwar party). So Republicans who break ranks on the war face problems with the base but don't seem to win many friends among swing voters.
Admittedly, the sample size is very small but it isn't obvious that being an antiwar Republican is yet an electoral asset. Lincoln Chafee was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the war and was the chamber's most liberal GOP member. But when Rhode Island voters wanted to punish someone for the war and other Bush policies, they turned Chafee out of office anyway. U.S. Reps. Jim Leach of Iowa and John Hostettler of Indiana both went down to defeat in 2006 despite voting against the war -- Hostettler even ran an ad touting his antiwar vote and lost to a pro-war Democratic challenger (though he did win reelection twice since voting against the war.)
Most of the Republicans turning against the war in the Senate hail from the moderate to liberal wing of the party. They rely more heavily on Democrats and swing voters for their support, and thus feel pressured to take an "independent" stand. But possible primary troubles keep them from getting too independent. Of the GOP Iraq critics in the Senate, only Hagel, Oregon's Gordon Smith, and recently Olympia Snowe will actually vote for antiwar legislation. So far Richard Lugar, John Warner, and Susan Collins won't.
In the House, the antiwar Republicans are about evenly divided between dissident conservatives and Rockefellerite liberals. But only four -- Jones, Ron Paul, John Duncan, and Wayne Gilchrest -- consistently vote for antiwar legislation. And even they divide. Paul and Duncan are willing to vote to defund the war, but they don't favor congressional timelines for withdrawal. Jones and Gilchrest support timelines but won't vote to defund the war. (Duncan, by the way, seems to be an exception to the rule that antiwar Republicans get into political trouble.)
That doesn't necessarily mean that there are no real divisions among Republicans on Iraq. While David Freddoso may be overstating the case to call Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich "war doubters, " he is nevertheless on to something. In the current field, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are unambiguously committed to the current Iraq strategy while Fred Thompson certainly seems to be leaning in that direction. But Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownback, to name three, are keeping their options open without breaking openly with the president. Even Tom Tancredo, who has made casual comments about bombing Mecca, has expressed doubts about the surge and an open-ended occupation.
None of these quibbles from the non-Paul candidates goes very far, and it is worth noting that only one of the top-tier candidates seems less than sold on the present strategy. But it does suggest that public opinion could eventually play a bigger role in creative GOP candidates' thinking about the war.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
...what if there is no such thing as a “responsible exit” from Iraq? This is the view of Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who spent the spring in Iraq, as part of a strategic-assessment team of military and civilian experts. He said, “When you look at the spectrum of policy approaches in Iraq right now, the extremes”—maintaining the largest force possible or pulling out immediately—“make more sense than the middle.” The “middle-ground policies,” he argued, “tend to dramatically reduce our ability to control the environment militarily, because they all involve withdrawing about half of the troops. It’s our combat activity that’s currently capping violence around the country, and almost everybody would cut that out—which means the violence is only going to increase. And yet they leave tens of thousands of Americans in the country, to act as targets. Continued U.S. casualties, continued deterioration of the situation all around them: within two or three years, that’s going to generate powerful pressure to go all the way to the zero option. Why not do it sooner, and save the seven to eight hundred lives you’re going to lose to walk through this drill in the meantime?”The middle-of-the-road strategy, of course, is just what we're most likely to get. I can well see that a botched gradual draw down of our troops will lead to a prolonged deteriorating security situation, stretching well into the next administration, and leading ultimately to a Vietnam-style evacuation. Biddle is right: we're a lot better off if we leave quickly.
Monday, September 10, 2007
There’s a new Bush biography on the market, Dead Certain by Roger Draper. From all accounts, it looks to be of the "sympathetic portrayal of a flawed but decent man" variety—a less ideological bio than David Frum’s and Fred Barnes’s; less gushing than Midge Dector’s "personal portrait" of Rumsfeld, less vacuous than Paul Kengor’s exegesis of Bushian spirituality.
Overall, Draper makes the duh-we-already-knew-that argument that Dubya is really, really certain about lots of stuff and that this can be good and bad—often really, really bad.
This is not a volume I think I could bear reading all the way through, but it looks to be useful in that it offers a few controversial nuggets of insider gossip that will get discussed for a news cycle or two.
The two tidbits that have attracted the most attention have been Bush’s plans for his post-White House years—he wants to hang out in Big D and "replinsh the ol’ coffers" giving inane speeches—and the revelation—incredible in my view—that John Roberts was the mind behind the Harriet Meirs nomination.
Most relevant to EXIT-STRATEGIES is the very revealing spat the book has occasioned between Bush and L. Paul Bremer, the former director of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. The two have been arguing in the media over who exactly ordered de-Ba’athification and the dismantling of the Iraqi army.
This is hardly an academic question, as it is now generally recognized that both of these were disastrous and completely unnecessary decisions. (Thomas Ricks’s devastating analysis in Fiasco has had the most to do with building up this consensus.)
To Draper, Bush claimed, "The policy had been to keep the army intact; didn’t happen." When Draper asked Bush what he thought about Bremer’s policies, Bush replied, "Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, "This is the policy, what happened?’"
Bremer responded by showing the Times letters that strongly suggest that Bush and the administration were well aware of the de-Ba’ath plans and, indeed, supported them.
[More recently, he’s penned an op-ed essentially arguing that he had no choice in dismantling the Iraqi army.]
In a spat over the question of whether one or all were incompetent, something very important has been lost.
Not mentioned by Bush or Bremer is that just after the fall of Saddam in May of 2003, Gen. Jay Garner (now retired), who was then commanding the occupation, recommended withdrawing American troops and allowing the Iraqis themselves to sort out their affairs. This plan might have led to some bloodshed; it most certainly would have involved a major power struggle. But then it also would have bestowed responsibility on the remaining members of the Iraqi civil service and been strong incentive for them to stabilize their own country.
But it seems that neither Bremer, the administration, the State Department, nor the Pentagon were able to think about Iraq outside that heady paradigm of nation-building. Garner rightly intuited that a stable state and viable civil society will only arise in Iraq once Uncle Sam gets out.
"The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has recommended that decisions on the contentious issue of reducing the main body of the American troops in Iraq be put off for six months, American officials said Sunday."
If the Times report is to be believed, it seems that the Bushies have won a limited victory. (Perhaps the Dems sensed this, as they have been noticeably talking-down the report over the weekend.)
For months the administration has been telling us, “Just a wait a few months until the Petraeus Report, and in the mean time, support the troops!" – (read, don’t question the rationale of U.S. foreign policy.)
Now it seems that Petraeus will open up more space for the administration to say, “just a wait a few months until some other is report is presented in March, and in the mean time, support the troops!"
The Times claims that Petraeus will speak of his plans for a small drawdown by December of this year, but then serious discussion of a clear exit-strategy does not seem to be in the cards.
"The general has also said that it is too soon to present recommendations on reducing American forces below that level because the situation in Iraq is in flux." [emphasis added]
“The situation is in flux" would be a good talking point for the Bushies, a good way to further avoid any kind of serious debate about war aims, what constitutes a victory, and how in the hell we’re going to get out of this mess.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
First, a little recent history.
Allawi’s original stint in the prime minister’s chair came to an end with the election of 2005—that brief, shining moment for Bush’s dream of democratizing the Middle East—as he handed off the PM post to Nouri al-Maliki. At the time some perceptive commentators grasped that the 2005 election was not so much a victory for "the people" as one for the Iraqi Shia who constitute a broad majority and thus naturally have much to gain from any kind of democratic system. Al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, which won the day, is explicitly Shi’ite in its organization and philosophy just as Saddam’s Ba’ath Party was the party for the Sunni).
In turn, the 2005 Shia victory meant increased influence for Iran where Shia Islam is firmly in the saddle. It should have thus come as no surprise that Tehran—the staunchest of enemies of the Untied States—nonetheless diplomatically recognized the Quisling government in Baghdad. Tehran did this not out of some deep admiration for democracy but simply because it grasped that it had much to gain with the Shia in charge.
Instead of choosing to work with Iran—a government which clearly also wants a stable state to emerge in Iraq—Washington has instead made Tehran numero uno on its hit-list.
In turn, the Bushies in the media have made a concerted effort to de-emphasize the dysfunctional democracy in Baghdad and sing the praises of progress being made in Sunni regions, most especially Anbar province where Bush recently made a presidential visit. (Lindsey Graham has been particularly assiduous in stressing this point in his Sunday morning appearances).
In this line, the usual suspects have emphasized that Sunnis who were formerly part of the insurgency have been essentially switching sides and backing U.S. forces.
While this is sounds like good news, it would disastrous if Washington decides to integrate this Sunni rapprochement into some kind of "redirection" strategy against Shia Iran.
How Allawi might function within all this is far from clear. Allawi himself is a Shia muslim—albeit a secular nationalist and one who was once a prominent member of the almost entirely Sunni Ba’ath Party. At the very least, he seems more than willing to work with Washington, and this can make him very useful if the powers that be decied to get rid of al-Maliki.
If Bush, Cheney & Co. really want to take the neocons’ advice and bomb Iran before the end of the term, then in installing Allawi, they might not just be searching for someone to end petty sectarian squabbling in the capital but someone to fortify Iraq as they open up a new front.
One of the charges that has already been made against Petraeus is that he's a politicized general, a salesman for the administration's Iraq policy. As Lawrence Korb writes in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, "Petraeus continues to be used by the administration--willingly or unwillingly--for partisan political purposes. When many Democrats and some Republicans criticize the president's latest strategy in Iraq, Bush and his political allies argue that the strategy is not theirs but that of General Petraeus--and that by confirming him, the Senate essentially endorsed the current approach, obligating it to give 'Petraeus' strategy' a chance to succeed."
Given that criticism, is it really wise to send Petraeus onto the cable news network that is widely perceived as sympathetic to the administration? It's as if the administration is already conceding that the Petraeus report is only going to be believed by the hard core of Republican supporters of the war. If that's the case, the point of this public relations exercise seems to be to rally the base, rather than build broad support for the surge or (least of all) get an accurate, factual assessment of what's happening on the ground. Polls show the general public certainly doesn't put much credence in the report.
For more on Petraeus, see Andrew Bacevich's recent piece in the New Republic. As for his report, the Washington Post and other outlets have cited the GAO's skepticism about its accounting methods. The report--which has been written by the White House, not Petraeus's own staff--is a whitewash from start to finish. What's mildly surprising, though, is the very modest ambitions the White House seems to have for this effort: to string along the base for a few months more, without giving anyone else even pause for thought. Even the p.r. war is lost, yet the ground war won't end until either the White House faces reality or Congress decides to pull the plug--yet there's no political will for either of those actions. Both parties want to evade the responsibility for "losing" the war, but each knows that there is no prospect of "winning" it, either. So the quagmire continues...
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Ponnuru has two common-sense suggestions for how, having got us into the desert in the first place, the Republicans could at least have put themselves in a better position: they could have put Ahmad Chalabi in charge from the get-go, to make it less obviously an occupation; and Bush should have fired Rumsfeld in 2006 and begun the surge a year earlier.
These are, from a strategic and political perspective, fair points, but they don't go nearly far enough. The first suggestion is so obvious--it's the very thing that I, and many others, expected Bush to do at the conclusion of the invasion--that it actually raises a more important question than it answers: why Bush didn't take this route of installing a Saddam-lite dictator is precisely what pro-war conservatives need to address. But the answer to that question would hit too close to home for many in the conservative movement: Bush, like many neoconservatives and "neo-Reaganite" conservative intellectuals, seemingly does at some level believe in democracy, as well as in a nigh-infallible American know-how that would allow us to occupy a country for months and years and, in so doing, actually advance it along a course to freedom. It's a mindset that emerges when Fukuyama's "end of history" meets Madeline Albright's "indispensable nation."
Conservatives who favored the war from the outset might have been able to minimize its political (and, more importantly, strategic and human) damage had they been willing to reject this blatantly ideological construct. But they didn't. I can see three reasons for that: first, it would have entailed friction with the neoconservatives (and even, by implication, an acknowledgment that paleoconservative criticisms of "nation building" were right all along -- a concession that might open questions about the validity of the war in the first place); second, it would have created friction with the Hitchens / Berman pro-war Left, breaking the grand ideological coalition in support of the war; and, third, it might have prompted the American public to consider more seriously the less-than-idealistic intentions of the U.S., which again could have led to dissension and loss of support for the invasion, as well as for the Republicans. In short, this practical criticism, so sensible in light of four years' hindsight, would have been "off message" in 2003.
Even from a hawkish perspective, all that idealistic talk of democracy and human rights, which admittedly was not the primary reason the war's advocates originally offered for the invasion, was detrimental. Such language is not, of course, the traditional vocabulary of the Right -- though actually, it is: it was Reagan's vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, Goldwater's too. Neither of those men would have actually gone through with an attempt to foster democracy like this, but it's time to step back and admit that the rights-based, democratic rhetoric so beloved of the Right and the Left creates a psychological pressure to live up such lofty ideals. The consequence is what we see in Iraq, as well as the political blowback here at home.
A necessary question, then, is what action would Ponnuru propose now in order to prevent this situation from happening again? Is he prepared to launch into a very hard critique of the democratist Right? I suspect not: but if not, his suggestion that Bush should have opted for a strong man is idle.
There is, of course, the further point that a strong man--especially Chalabi, a crook with ties to Iran, distrusted by just about everyone--would have entailed a different set of problems for Iraq and for America. If he were as brutal and effective at keeping the country together as Saddam had been, there would be quite a lot of buzz back here in the U.S. about the hypocrisy of trading one dictator for another: again, conservatives would have had to fall back to national-interest rhetoric, and that may not have helped the Republicans so much in 2004. Things may have gone even worse: suppose Chalabi had been ruthless but ineffective. Would Bush have removed him, leading to the same outcome we now have (only somewhat worse all around), or would Bush and the Republicans have gone into 2004 as having set up a dictator in Iraq who couldn't be trusted by us and who was leading Iraq into a civil war? I don't think that scenario would have played out very well for the GOP in 2004. Just look at how much the resounding, but unresolved, success of the 1991 Gulf War helped George H.W. Bush in 1992.
For Ponnuru's first piece of advice to have worked, hawks inside and out of the administration would have had to have been more pragmatic and less idealistic, and things would have had to have gone just swimmingly well in Iraq to make the issue a boon for the GOP. Neither of those outcomes would have had much prospect.
As for the second suggestion, yes, there was a point in 2006 at which Bush, with the support of the conservative movement and Republican base, could have sacked Rumsfeld and announced he was sending more troops. to Iraq. But I can't see that either action would have markedly improved the GOP's chances that November. Both measures would have testified that even Bush knew that he had botched the war, a concession that would not exactly have hurt the Democrats. More importantly, however, it might well have made 2006 a referendum on whether to escalate this mismanaged war by supporting the GOP and sending more troops to Iraq or to de-escalate the war by supporting the Democrats. I think we know how Democrats would have responded to that question, and I strongly suspect that independents would have answered it the same way. Firing Rummy and throwing more troops into the fray would not have redeemed the war in the eyes of the American public.
Having made all of these criticisms, let me say that I do appreciate Ponnuru asking these questions and considering the counterfactuals--this is something that all conservatives, indeed all informed Americans, ought to be doing, whether they are pro-war or antiwar. But it's not enough to provide pat, common-sense answers: we have to look more deeply at why the war developed, politically and militarily, as it did, and whether such minor variations to the theme as those that Ponnuru suggests would have significantly improved matters. Turning the country over to Chalabi and drawing down the American presence--better yet, getting out--would have been far better for our own country, if for no other reason than that we would have had fewer of our men and women killed over the past four years. But, without saying that the way things happened was banusic and inevitable, I do think the ideological tendencies of the conservative movement and the American government made the outcome we actually got the most likely of them all. That's why a reconsideration has to be much more thoroughgoing -- and must ask whether this war was really worth fighting in the first place.