Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Reasonable People

Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver defends the cost of the Iraq War. His “sanctions were falling apart; we had to do something” argument has always struck me as a bit odd – had we invested a tenth of the diplomatic capital we spent on badgering the U.N. and assembling a coalition of the willing on containing Saddam, I imagine we could have done something to shore up the sanctions regime –  but I’m more interested in discussing his broader decision-making calculus:

I believe reasonable people can look at that ledger (or a more complete version of it) and conclude that the Iraq war was not worth it. I also believe reasonable people can look at that ledger and conclude that the Iraq war was a defensible gamble or even the right decision. However, I do not think that reasonable people can seriously look at that ledger and conclude, as so much of the angry-shout part of the commentariat does, that all of the evidence stacks up on only one side of the balance sheet.

Even if you accept Feaver’s (highly-skewed) framework, it’s worth remembering that many war-making decisions involving the weighing of complicated costs and benefits – Iraq included – are discretionary. I admit I have a hard time comparing the abstract risks of regional instability and proliferation to the very real human cost of the invasion, but I suppose Feaver has a point insofar as the Middle East may have been more conflict-prone had Saddam remained in power. At the end of the day, however, this analysis includes untold numbers of independent variables, which makes it difficult for anyone other than an omniscient deity to accurately assess the war’s costs and benefits, which is precisely why “reasonable people” disagree vehemently over these issues.

So, given what should be an overwhelming presumption against war, death, violence and destruction and the difficulty inherent in any comparison that involves tenuous hypothetical scenarios and abstract considerations like stability and proliferation, shouldn’t our first instinct be to stear clear of these arguments altogether? Threats against the United States demand a response, obviously, but Feaver’s argument rests on assessing other, less tangible concepts like “regional stability.” If reasonable people can disagree over the merits of a proposed military expedition that bears no direct relationship to national security, I think it’s best to avoid that debate altogether and mind our own business.


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Cause and Effect

Jeffrey Goldberg has been going after Chas Freeman, Obama’s pick to run the National Intelligence Council, for his alleged foreign policy biases. Although I enthusiastically endorse the idea of appointing more people named “Chas” to influential positions within the Administration, I don’t know much about Freeman’s politics. I did find this criticism peculiar, however (emphasis mine):

In this dialogue, Freeman also stated that “I accept that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden almost certainly perpetrated the September 11 attacks,” but never mind this off-putting hesitancy; what’s particularly interesting is his desire to see an exploration of 9/11 cause and effect. Let’s posit as true that al Qaeda acted against America out of specific grievances (I think it’s also true that al Qaeda acted out of Muslim supremacist ideology, but let’s put that aside as well). What was the principal political grievance of al Qaeda before 9/11? The stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at the request of the Saudi government, in order to  protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein.

Now, is it really odd for a political analyst to examine the causal factors behind the 9/11 attacks? Goldberg is a smart guy and a good writer,  so I’m fairly confident he understands the distinction between justifying something and analytically exploring a specific chain of events. Arguing that the punitive nature of the Versailles Treaty helped bring Hitler to power, for example, wouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement of Nazi foreign policy. Certain historians might question your methodology, but no one is going around academic conferences hurling epithets like “appeasement.” And yet when it comes to September 11, exploring “cause and effect” is still seen as akin to giving aid and comfort to Al Qaeda.

UPDATE: Scott McConnell has more on Freeman’s credentials.

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Memo to National Review: Returning a bust of Churchill does not signal the end of the “Special Relationship.” I found this line particularly laughable:

The President has never even mentioned the Anglo-American alliance in a major policy speech, and has little affinity for Britain.

Of the two major candidates, Obama was the only one to demonstrate any awareness whatsoever of our unique connection to Great Britain. Roll tape:

But, the former constitutional law professor argued, “What I have also said is this: that when you suspend habeas corpus — which has been a principle, dating before even our country, it’s the foundation of Anglo-American law — which says, very simply, if the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ and say, ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong person.’

“The reason you have that safeguard,” he said, “is because we don’t always have the right person. We don’t always catch the right person. We may think this is Mohammed the terrorist, it might be Mohammed the cab driver. You may think it’s Barack the bomb thrower, but it might be Barack the guy running for president.

But of course that doesn’t count.

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Against Guesswork

Johnathan Chait and Alan Wolfe are back to arguing about Saddam Hussein’s state of mind before the Iraq War. Now, I have no special insight into the thought processes of a deceased Arab dictator, but I’m pretty sure Wolfe and Chait are in the same boat. Much like the debate preceding the invasion over Saddam’s intentions, we’re left to argue about the mind of an inscrutable autocrat with little in the way of actual facts. And yet decisions about war and peace frequently hinge on what amounts to amateur psychology.

One of the reasons I’m sympathetic to the realist paradigm is that it takes the guesswork out of international politics. Many observers assumed that Saddam’s peculiar personality rendered traditional realist predictions unusable.  But now that the invasion’s over, we know his actions fit quite comfortably within the realist paradigm: Saddam chose not to restart a WMD program because his capabilities were limited and because he feared US retaliation. In other words, a straightforward weighing of interests would have saved us a great deal of trouble.

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Circle the Wagons

This quote, from Thomas PM Barnett, caught my eye:

This is all about frontier integration. Globalization is like America’s rapid and aggressive push Westward across the 19th century: a lot of the same bad actors and a lot of the same tools applied. So don’t be surprised when the Pinkertons show up, or when the covered wagons are attacked, or when the Injuns head to the Badlands for sanctuary. Thus, the goals of our frontline players are fairly straightforward: create the baseline security to allow the connectivity to grow. Focus on social trust and institutions as much as possible, but co-opt existing structures whenever and wherever you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it sure as hell doesn’t have to measure up to America’s mature standards. This is a frontier setting within globalization-treat it as such.

It’s an odd passage, probably because it says something about our collective inability grasp what “frontier integration” actually entails. We’re not talking about the Homestead Acts or the California Gold Rush here – I’m thinking more along the lines of the Trail of Tears. So what does frontier integration in the context of globalization mean? More colonial misadventures? More Iraq-like fiascoes? More US troops sent abroad, indefinitely deployed in countries whose names we can’t even pronounce? Will historians euphemistically refer to Barnett’s era of global integration as a way to explain why we’re invading Klendathu centuries into the future? These people understand that clinical terms like “frontier integration” actually mean something, right? Something messy and bloody and frequently disastrous?


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The Limits of Missile Defense

I liked Bacevich’s  new book, though I’m less enamored with his analysis of American hegemony than I am with his razor sharp description of the perverse political incentives plaguing our national security establishment. This breathless post from Kim Holmes on the danger of an imminent nuclear attack (complete with goofy think tank video), however, could be a case study for his next piece. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Limits:

Yet embedded in Reagan’s remarks were two decidedly radical propositions: first, that the minimum requirements of U.S. security now required the United States to achieve a status akin to invulnerability; and second, that modern technology was bringing this seemingly utopian goal within reach. Star Wars, in short, introduced into mainstream politics the proposition that Americans could be truly safe only if the the United States enjoyed something akin to permanent global military supremacy. Here was Reagan’s preferred response to the crisis that Jimmy Carter had identified in July 1979. Here , too, can be found the strategic underpinnings of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 global war on terror. SDI prefigured the GWOT; both resting on the assumption that miliary power offered an antidote to the uncertainties and anxieties of living in a world not run entirely in accordance with American preferences.

And here’s Holmes (emphasis mine):

We can’t negotiate the threat away. We’ve tried. Bad actors like Iran want these weapons to hold the U.S. and other nations hostage. They don’t want us to deploy missile defenses because that would make their weapons useless.

It’s unconscionable that we do not have adequate missile defenses to deal with the threats they pose. Washington is morally obligated to provide what we need, because as [Lt. General] Obering soberly concludes, “When all else fails—when all the negotiations have broken down, when there is a missile in the air—you have to have the ability to destroy it, because the only other ability that you would have would be to apologize to those that have died.”

This is an inconvenient truth for those who think talking to our enemies from a position of vulnerability trumps military strength. Obama’s team needs to hear from us, just as it is from people in Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. We want protection from ballistic missiles. Anything less is abrogating their oath to uphold the Constitution and “provide for the common defense.”

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We’re Number One

Walter Russell Mead surveys America’s great power competitors and finds them wanting.

Cataloguing the early losses from the financial crisis, it’s hard not to conclude that the central capitalist nations will weather the storm far better than those not so central. Emerging markets have been hit harder by the financial crisis than developed ones as investors around the world seek the safe haven provided by U.S. Treasury bills, and commodity-producing economies have suffered extraordinary shocks as commodity prices crashed from their record, boom-time highs. Countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Iran, which hoped to use oil revenue to mount a serious political challenge to American power and the existing world order, face serious new constraints. Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must now spend less time planning big international moves and think a little bit harder about domestic stability. Far from being the last nail in America’s coffin, the financial crisis may actually resuscitate U.S. power relative to its rivals.

While I think his analysis is basically correct, it’s important to distinguish between criticisms of US hegemony that emphasize our unsustainable position vis-à-vis rising peer competitors and criticisms of US hegemony that emphasize the fundamental limitation of US power. After our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’d venture that most critics of the status quo fall into the latter category. It’s quite possible that US hegemony persists well into the latter half of the 21st century. The question then becomes whether this unipolar arrangement is actually desirable.

UPDATE: Some people are more concerned with rising peer competitors than others. Shadow Government’s Dan Twining, for example, casually reminds us that “China [is] preparing for war.” By way of rejoinder, I’ll direct you to this convenient pie chart from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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