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February 27, 2010

"Inherently Good" Briefly Revisited
Posted by Michael Cohen

So when I first started blogging here at DA I got in quite a dust-up over a statement I made describing the United States as "inherently good." It was a rather bruising introduction to the world of blogging and one that I'm hesitant to relive. But for some reason David Rieff won't let it go.

You see it's not enough that David used this experience to slather me in the page of World Affairs in 2008 as some epitome of the ugly American exceptionalist . . . he's now comparing me to Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck:

The formulations of a Bachmann or a Beck may be case studies in chauvinistic self-regard, but they certainly are no cruder than the claims of many so-called Progressives. The liberal policy pundit Michael A. Cohen, for example, claimed in 2007 that America was “inherently good.” This, to the extent his simulacrum of a rationale was intelligible, was because the U.S. had a good constitution and Bill of Rights that somehow reflected the underlying commitment to freedom and opportunity that "underpin" the nation and ensure American democracy’s self-correcting nature. If only Cohen’s views were rare in think-tank Washington; instead, qualified a bit, and usually put somewhat less baldly, they are commonplace. That no nation is inherently good and that no nation gets to choose its own destiny should be self-evident to any adult not absolutely crippled by narcissism.

I am usually a bit loathe to use this forum to defend myself against such attacks, but Rieff's words are so ridiculous that an exception (forgive the pun) must be made.  For starters I will let others judge whether my rationale was "intelligible" in reading this debate I had with Eric Martin. Second, I am uncomfortable with the use of the word "inherent" - and I acknowledge that in retrospect I never should have defended that terminology since it tended to obscure, rather than enlighten the debate. 

Thirdly and quite obviously one can believe in America's inherent goodness and adhere to a non-interventionist foreign policy. I don't know the man, but I imagine that that construct might ably describe Pat Buchanan's worldview - and the worldview of near every major American isolationist who ever lived. It might also describe Max Boot or Richard Perle and certainly describes George Bush. And I'm not exactly on the same page with any of these folks. The idea that somehow believing America is "inherently good" thus provides some verifiable insight into their particular foreign policy orientation is just silly and lazy. 

To this point the very notion that somehow I am the shining example of think-tank Washington's slavish adherence to American exceptionalism is utterly ludicrous - as would be clear to any regular reader of this blog. It's almost as if Rieff is holding on to this trope because he would prefer constructing a strawman narrative that appeals to his "current" world view rather than actual reality. (Crickets, crickets . . )

But on this this issue of exceptionalism, I have been wondering a great deal recently whether it is possible to believe that the US is an exceptional nation . . . but not fall into the trap of the muscular and even deluded American foreign policy that all too often emanates from that world view? Damon Linker had a very smart piece on this a few weeks ago in the New Republic with Niebuhrian overtones. It's worth quoting at length here:

The point is not that patriots and politicians should abandon their faith that American power can play a positive role in the world. It is that they should act with caution in applying that power. Above all, they need to take the lessons of humility closely to heart and resist the temptation to view themselves as God’s agents in history. To do otherwise—to view their policies as having been personally authored or approved by the divine—is foolishness that will tend to distort their judgment, inspiring the distinctly American over-confidence that Niebuhr warned against so powerfully.

The ever-astute Judah Grunstein made a similar point a few days ago. 

The problem of course is how to make that vision of restrained American leadership a reality.  If early indications of the Obama presidency are any roadmap . . . it's not working out so great. (Although I would argue it's less American exceptionalism and more American can-do-ism run horribly amok that is pushing us into a flawed military escalation in Afghanistan. Of course, that might be a distinction without a difference.)  But certainly one gets the sense that Obama shares Linker's sentiments - and that he is a Niebuhr acolyte at heart. Crikey, even Rieff agrees about this.

The problem here is less Obama and more the forces pushing him in the wrong direction. Case in point: this depressing 5,000 word essay from Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru that attacks Obama for failing to tell the rest of the world we're the greatest. Apparently stating that he believes in American exceptionalism; but noting that Brits and Greeks might feel the same way about their country. . . is un-American, as opposed to self-evident. This is the basic distillation of the Republican critique of Obama's foreign policy - we're not exceptional enough and we need to remind the world of this salient fact. Moreover, any critique of America and its foreign policy would, conservatives seem to believe, have the effect of weakening America in the eyes of the world.  It's practically a cult of infallibility.

These views are of course shared by a good number of Democrats. From a national mythology standpoint (although I haven't seen any recent polling) it's a view likely shared by a significant number of Americans. And with the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Obama, one could argue that there might even be some Europeans who are sympathetic to this idea (ish). 

In short, as Rieff points out the assumptions about American greatness that link many Republicans and some Democrats together contribute to a toxic and often counter-productive foreign policy approach that does more harm than good. Here we clearly agree as I made this argument last summer.

Herein lies Obama's greatest challenge - breaking the cycle of our overly exceptionalist foreign policy thinking. To do so would necessitate laying out an exceptional, but unexceptional vision for a 21st century US foreign policy. What that means is that clearly no American president can do away with the particular mythology of America "goodness. The challenge for Obama will come in explaining to the American people that our power and influence has become far more constrained and that we must approach the world with modesty and restraint and in a manner that fosters cooperation and not rivalry. But for political salience sakes, that idea must be grounded in basic American mythology. Since that basically reflects my worldview it doesn't seem that difficult - the problem of course is that I'm just a guy with a laptop and not the most scrutinized politician in the world.

Clearly it's easier said than done; particularly when you have a political opposition that interprets any realistic description of American power as a sign of defeatism - and you have a institutionalized foreign policy apparatus that sees little value in America "doing less" around the world. But then anyone who thought that changing the mindset of American foreign policy - while fixing the host of messes left on Obama's desk by George W. Bush - was going to be simple was kidding themselves.

As I've been thinking for a while on what that restrained foreign policy agenda might look like - and not just in words, but policy prescriptions (as perhaps reflected by this admittedly fuzzy post). . . comments are particularly welcome and encouraged.

February 26, 2010

Stripping away emotions, agendas and politics from the DADT debate
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Yesterday Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway expressed his views on ending the ban on gays in the military through a rhetorical question:
“My personal opinion is that unless we can strip away the emotion, the agendas and the politics and ask, at least in my case, ‘do we somehow enhance the war-fighting capabilities of the United States Marine Corps by allowing homosexuals to openly serve?’, we haven't addressed [the debate on lifting DADT] from the correct perspective.”
He went on to say that, in his opinion, the policy should stay in place. This is a line of reasoning consistently touted by the GOP, that allowing qualified homosexual servicemembers to do their jobs would somehow hurt our military’s effectiveness.

The question Conway poses is the right one, but the conclusion doesn’t follow. Everyone from the independent Government Accountability Office to the Palm Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara has found that the ban on gays in the military hurts America’s war-fighting capabilities. The numbers are staggering. As this Center for American Progress article points out, since 1994 more 13,000 military personnel across the services have been discharged, “including approximately 800 with skills deemed ‘mission critical,’ such as pilots, combat engineers, and linguists.” These are all specialties in which the military faces shortages.

Continue reading "Stripping away emotions, agendas and politics from the DADT debate" »

Who is 2025's Jalaluddin Haqqani?
Posted by Patrick Barry

At yesterday’s New America event on Al Qaeda Central, Anne Stenersen, an AQ analyst from the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment’s terrorism studies group, gave a fascinating overview focused heavily on the relationship between Al Qaeda and militant groups operating in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

According to Stenersen, at a leadership level, the relationship between Al Qaeda and Taliban is largely superficial.  There is some amount of communication and politically expedient gestures of common cause, but no significant coordination on strategic planning.  At lower, operational levels, it’s a different story.  There, Stenersen finds evidence of strong, if highly localized collaboration in both Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan.  Lest war supporters seize on this as evidence of a convergence between AQ affiliated foreign fighters and Pashtun militants that threaten the U.S., Stenersen’s research indicates that at the moment, these actors are drawn together to fight the western occupation of Afghanistan, not to engage in international terrorism. 

To me, the most interesting factor behind the operational dynamic discussed by Stenersen was historical.  She explained that the interplay between foreign and indigenous fighters is what it is today, in part because of relationships and networks that date back to the Afghan – Soviet War.  For instance, Jalaluddin Haqqani has been plugged in with the Arabs ever since the 1980s, and it is suspected that he continues to draw support from them to this day.  Stenersen also cited instances in which foreign fighters have ‘settled,’ in the region by taking up residence, or by marrying local women, etc.

The endurance of these connections long after the Soviet withdrawal raises questions regarding the long-term impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on extremist activity.  For instance, what will these older networks look like in 10, 15 or 20 years time? Will they evolve? Or will they dissipate?  What new bonds will foreign jihadis have made with one another, in addition to those formed with indigenous militants? Will fighters traveling to Afghanistan remain there, fomenting conflict with whatever government emerges following the U.S. withdrawal?  Perhaps those fighters will not take part in internal conflict at all, and instead rely on local protection while they turn their attention to regional, or even international objectives? Or will these networks become decentralized, as extremists once concentrated in Iraq or Afghanistan return to their home countries?

I’m not sure of the answers to these questions, but the experience covered in Stenersen’s work suggests policymakers will be grappling with the consequences of today’s wars long after our role in the fighting winds down.
 

February 25, 2010

Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) on Securing Afghanistan
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Today, Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA), senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and Chairperson of the Afghanistan Task Force of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, delivered a speech on Afghanistan before a briefing discussion on social and humanitarian issues organized by the National Security Network and hosted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Here it is, presented in its entirety:

Thank you everyone for attending today’s panel discussion on Afghanistan.  Let me offer a special thanks to the National Security Network for organizing the panel. 

As Chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Afghanistan Taskforce, I am keenly interested in hearing insights from these panelists, all of whom come with specific expertise grounded in the realities of the country. 

Before I turn over the panel to Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network, who will introduce the panelists and moderate the discussion, let me offer some brief introductory remarks.

Continue reading "Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) on Securing Afghanistan" »

Sino-American Economic Power: A Mexican Standoff
Posted by Jacob Stokes

2003-9-27-china_money1Former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson over at Baseline Scenario has an important post that squashes the notion, which has become conventional wisdom, that China’s reserves of US debt take away American leverage in US-China relations.

“There is a perception that China’s large dollar holdings confer upon that country some economic or political power vis-à-vis the United States and, in particular, that Chinese reserves prevent us from putting pressure on that country’s authorities to revalue (i.e., appreciate) the renminbi. This view is incorrect and completely misunderstands the situation.”

Johnson goes on to explain how the US-China debt relationship—much pointed at as an example of waning US poweris a two-way street. In other words, while America needs anxious buyers like China to purchase its debt in order to do things like fund the war in Afghanistan, China needs debt to buy. That’s because China must stock up on assets in foreign currencies to keep its currency value low so that its export-driven economy can thrive. This purposeful manipulation is of course bad for the American economy, particularly the ailing US manufacturing sector.

But what options or leverage do we have? America needs to the money. 

Well yes, but China also has an export-driven economy that requires a cheap currency to thrive. In other words, in order to maintain its low currency value China needs us to issue debt as much as we need them to buy it. Even if China decides to change its mind and invest somewhere else, any option other than buying US debt, from purchasing US stock to buying foreign currencies, would help stimulate the US economy in other ways. Which would be a good thing. (Johnson explains this in more detail.) 

And if China decides to start plowing money into its domestic economy, it will force China to push up the value of its currency or have its economy overheat. This will make American exports relatively cheaper and more competitive. Johnson says in fact that this is the policy we should be aiming for.

The bottom line on this rather wonky subject is that the Sino-American relationship is not one where China is holding a debt gun to America’s head, forcing an emasculated America to do China’s bidding. It’s more like a Mexican standoff: only by slowing lowering our gunsor, in this case, rebalancing our trade and monetary postures—can we both resolve the situation in a way that benefits both parties.

In order to do this, America should do all it can to put pressure on China to slowly but steadily let its currency appreciate so that American exports can be more competitive. It should also reduce it foreign currency reserves and push its citizens to consume more. The renewed vigor in the US economy created by this rebalancing would help erase the need to sell our debt in the first placemaking a measured, incremental rebalancing good for everyone.

February 24, 2010

Pay Any Price . . . Bear Any Burden
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've been fighting the urge to write a rather long blog post taking down John Nagl's recent article in the National Interest on why the the war in Afghanistan is the right war for America. To be honest, the prospect simply exhausts me (plus Paul Pillar does a nice job in the back and forth with Nagl and Bernard Finel does some heavy lifting as well).

Of the many problems with Nagl's argument is that like many pro-escalation voices he seems stuck in 2001. He chooses, for whatever reason, to ignore the many pieces of evidence that suggest the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda has become far more fractured. For example, before taking pen to paper he should have taken the time to read this article by Vahid Brown that sheds some light on this issue - as well as this blog post from Jihadica

He wrongly conflates that Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. As Josh Foust points out on Twitter Nagl engages in some serious tautology. He dramatically over inflates the importance of a safe haven in Afghanistan and Paskistan and al Qaeda capabilities in general. He glosses over the fact that al Qaeda is a hollow organization with a few hundred key operatives and is under constant pressure from US drone attacks. He has an outlandish proposal that the US army should be increased by 100,000 troops (I mean really) . . . and America can pay for it with a national-security tax on gasoline (aided by American flags on gas pumps). This is just a crazy idea - and even if you could pass such a tax one might think it might make more sense to put the money toward developing alternative energy sources rather than plunging even more money into our already bloated defense budget. 

And then he makes this bizarre claim, "it is well within American means to fight a troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan . . . while simultaneously pursuing a less costly form of counterinsurgency in Yemen and waging an information and education campaign against al-Qaeda in Europe and the United States." I just can't, for the life of me, possibly begin to understand why John Nagl believes this is true . . . or why it's even necessary. I'm not even convinced we can do one of these things effectively - no less all three at the same time. 

But here's the thing; that's not the part of this essay that left me the most frustrated. It's this:
There is no safe haven that al-Qaeda covets more than the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which present a unique opportunity for our enemies and a threat to us. Situated in rugged terrain hundreds of miles from any coastline, with weak of nonexistent governance and security services, this region provides both a home to al-Qaeda and possible access to nuclear weapons.
Which of these statements doesn't quite fit (don't worry I've bolded it for you)? You want to talk about a flight of fancy? We go from al-Qaeda having "a home" . . . to possibly having access to nuclear weapons. John Nagl must know that the chances of al Qaeda getting access to a nuclear weapon are about equal to me becoming the starting center for the Detroit Red Wings (I can't even ice skate).  

This is alarmism plain and simple; a throwaway line in an essay that is intended to infer the specter of nuclear armageddon even though the chances of al Qaeda getting a nuke, keeping it hidden and then using it against the United States are so infinitesimally small.  And folks wonder why we can't have a real debate in this country about US national interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan - or the war in terrorism in general - when folks are willy-nilly throwing around the specter of nuclear attack to distort the conversation.  What's also striking is that little consideration is given to the idea that there might be other, less intrusive ways to lessen the potential of nuclear instability in Pakistan rather than the overwhelming application of US military force.

But perhaps the most disturbing part is that it's entirely possible that for Nagl and others the minuscule possibility of al Qaeda getting a nuclear bomb is reason enough to send 100,000 troops on an open-ended mission to Afghanistan; or spend hundreds of billions of dollars in bringing 100,000 more troops into the military. All in the pursuit of security . . .

Perhaps Pillar puts it best:
NAGL IS to be commended for acknowledging that the cost of the war will be “high,” and his reference to five years for building a viable Afghan government and army is more realistic than the Obama administration’s timetable. The next appropriate step would be to acknowledge that the high cost in lives, limbs and money would do little or nothing to protect Americans from terrorism.

Good luck with that Paul.

Iraq and its Region
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

I had a piece at World Politics Review yesterday that looked at where things stand on Iraq’s reintegration back into the region. The regional context is often cited in pro forma fashion, and I think this issue is often overlooked when thinking about Iraq’s long-term future and also how Iraq fits into the United States’ broader regional strategy following the upcoming withdrawal (and yes, I think the withdrawal as outlined in the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement is a good thing and a binding obligation- more on that later).

Normalized and productive ties with its neighbors and near-neighbors will go a long way to boosting Iraq’s feeble economy and limiting the prospects for unwanted meddling from outsiders following the impending U.S. withdrawal. Using Turkey’s pragmatic policy of engagement with Iraq as a starting point, I then go on to discuss Iraq’s relations with its region:

In many ways, Turkey's rise as a major diplomatic player on the Iraqi stage serves as a counterpoint to Iran's magnified role, with both pro-actively promoting their interests by attempting to reintegrate Iraq into the region on their own terms. That stands in stark contrast to Iraq's Arab neighbors, who have utterly failed to seriously prepare for the United States' impending withdrawal.

Iran has natural affinities with Iraq’s Shi’a-led government, although overstated at times, but Turkey and Iran have adapted to the changed geopolitical environment based on their understanding of their own national interests. The Arabs — not so much. There are legitimate Arab concerns about the government in Baghdad, but their approach has only intensified Iraqi reliance on Iran and to a lesser extent, Turkey:

Yet despite these formidable hurdles, Turkey's example should be instructive. Ankara shifted toward a pragmatic strategy of engagement to frame its bilateral affairs and magnify its influence. While Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and other Arab states have re-established diplomatic relations, their efforts to deepen relations with Iraq have not extended far beyond the bare minimum of diplomatic protocol.

The issue of regional reintegration is obviously important for Iraq but also for the United States, particularly if containment becomes the animating principle behind America’s policy on Iran (and this is where things are likely headed as long as sanity prevails). It is also relevant that those states that have not been forthcoming in their relations with post-war Iraq, Saudi Arabia chief among them, are key U.S. allies:

For the United States, the reintegration of Iraq into the Arab world should be a key plank of any post-withdrawal regional strategy seeking to establish the basis for long-term stability and limit the extent of Iran's influence in the region. Certainly, Turkey will be a significant player in this process and may serve as an important and discreet channel for mediation as the United States' role in Iraq shifts to a less obtrusive and more diplomatic one.

But regional reintegration will be lopsided without active Arab participation. While U.S. influence within Iraq has decreased, its ability to prod its Arab allies and its willingness to prioritize Arab outreach to Iraq within its bilateral relations with these countries remains an important tool to secure Iraqi goodwill and shape regional security dynamics. With the impending drawdown of U.S. troops, the Arab states' worst fears regarding an expanding Iranian sphere of influence will only be exacerbated by their own lethargy. Without a perceptible shift in approach, the Arab world will be party to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With an obvious transition point on the horizon, the United States needs to begin sketching out how Iraq fits into our strategy for the region, cognizant of the mutually-reinforcing (or defeating) linkages that exist between our policies throughout the Middle East.

Go read the whole thing here.

February 23, 2010

A Defense of Lara Dadkhah . . . Kind of, Sort of, But Not Really
Posted by Michael Cohen

Last week Lara Dadkhah published a rather provocative op-ed in the New York Times that got . . how shall we say, some bad press. "Monstrous" said Glenn Greenwald. Why? Dadkhah argues that the US is losing the war in Afghanistan because it's eschewed the use of airpower out of fear that it will cause civilian casualties. Her remedy to this situation is to, in effect, weaken those rules . . . and thus kill more civilians.

So I'm about to do something kind of stupid - I'm going to try and defend Dadkhah, because I think there's an important point here that deserves greater illumination. This graf questioning General McChrystal's directive to avoid civilian casualties at all costs is the crux of Dadkhah's argument, 

General McChrystal’s directive was well intentioned, but the lofty ideal at its heart is a lie, and an immoral one at that, because it pretends that war can be fair or humane.

Wars are always ugly, and always monstrous, and best avoided. Once begun, however, the goal of even a "long war" should be victory in as short a time as possible, using every advantage you have.

As Sherman perennially reminds us, war is cruelty; you cannot refine it - and before he burned the city of Atlanta to the ground he basically made the same argument that Lara Dadkhah is making here. As Dadkhah notes if the US believes the war in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" (which President Obama has said) and that this conflict is essential to protecting the national interest then we should do everything in our power to win it as quickly as possible. And if that means weakening the restrictions on the use of power and increasing the potential for civilian casualties then so be it.

And of course such actions in US history are hardly unprecedented. Certainly, one could argue that in the US-Japanese war it was only the willingness of the United States to engage in total war - and openly target civilians in terrorizing air raids -- that ensured victory.

The purpose of the more restrictive rules of engagement is to cut down on accidental deaths inflicted on Afghan civilians, precisely because such actions make the U.S./NATO presence less popular, diminish support for our Afghan allies, and make it easier for the Taliban to recruit new soldiers. Killing more civilians also undermines troop moral and support for the war back home. Taking the gloves back off, as she suggests, might actually undermine our long-term prospects. Thus, whatever you may think about the wisdom of our engagement there, the new rules of engagement make sense.

Well not necessarily. What if these restrictive rules make it more difficult for the US to defeat the Taliban militarily? What if in 18 months when American troops are supposed to begin withdrawal for Afghanistan, the lack of an enemy-centric approach has left Afghanistan more unstable and just as liable to be taken over by the Taliban?

What's more, one is hard pressed to think of a single successful counter-insurgency effort that did not involve widespread coercion and violence against civilians (no matter what FM 3-24 says). There's an argument to be made that population centric counter-insurgency, with its obsessive focus on protecting civilians, is fundamentally ahistorical and there is little historical precedent for believing that it will work. (And before someone says "Iraq surge," I'll just remind folks that US airstrikes killed four times as many Iraqis after the surge, than before; detainment of Iraqis jumped by 50% and the surge was proceeded by widespread ethnic cleansing and civilian refugee flows). 

As for the notion that killing civilians will weaken support back home . . . wouldn't an increase in US civilian casualties (that is a result of restrictive rules of engagement) or a prolonged military occupation also weaken domestic support? Finally, there is no question that civilian casualties hurt NATO's efforts, but as Dadkhah points out while casualties caused by the US declined . . .

 . . . The overall number of civilian deaths in the country increased by 14 percent, to 2,412, and the number killed by Taliban troops and other insurgents rose by 41 percent. For Afghan civilians who are dying in greater numbers, the fact that fewer deaths are caused by pro-government forces is cold comfort.

So it's not as if civilians aren't being harmed in the war - and practically every day there are more stories of civilians being killed by American forces. (And this blog provides compelling and graphic evidence of the toll that the war in Afghanistan is taking on civilians).

Let's do a hypothetical here. Let's say the exact same number of civilians were being killed, but at the same time relaxed rules of engagement, particularly when it comes to airstrikes, allowed the US to make substantial progress in the war (even if the number of civilian deaths by US hands went up). Isn't that a better situation over the long-term for the Afghan people since it will make it less likely that they will have to live under the Taliban's tyrannical rule?

And from a narrow US perspective our ultimate goal is not Afghan security - or even protecting the Afghan people. As I've argued before, if it was the latter, we wouldn't be in Helmand in the first place. Our goal is defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda - that is after all why we are in Afghanistan. So a less civilian-friendly mission would have the added benefit of furthering US national interests.

Now before things get out of control - and people start writing blog posts calling me an apologist for war crimes - not for a second am I endorsing this argument. To support Dadkhah's underlying point is to back the idea that killing Afghan civilians is a morally appropriate thing to do in order to further US security. It's not and ultimately that's the problem. Dadkhah's remedy for the failures of US policy is to ramp up the number of civilian casualties in order to meet our goals. My suggestion would be that if that's the price that must be paid to meet out goals in Afghanistan . . . then our ultimate goals aren't worth the price it would take to achieve them. 

Going to war is an awesome and morally fraught decision. It's one that should not be taken lightly, but all too often is. And anyone who tells you that you can go to war without harming civilians is selling you a pack of lies. I don't think that General Petraeus or General McChrystal or even President Obama have tried to do that. But maintaining the fiction that we can go to war and make protecting civilians our number one priority is snake oil. Either we go to war and accept that civilians will die or we don't. As Dadkhah sagely notes pretending that war can be fair or humane is not only deeply misleading, it's immoral. (And after all, by making the decision to go to war in the first place in Afghanistan, we are making the implicit decision that protecting American lives and American interests is intrinsically more important than Afghan lives. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a calculation that all countries make when they act militarily - but let's at least be honest about it).

If our leaders decide that we must wage total war in Afghanistan in order to protect US interests - and save American lives - then Lara Dadkhah's argument has merit. In fact, it's actually quite defensible. But they haven't and they shouldn't because not much in Afghanistan, as far as American interests, is worth the moral price of killing Afghan civilians. On some level this is a point of agreement between myself and virtually all supporters of escalation in Afghanistan. Civilians should not be dying in this war. 

See How Far the Law Goes
Posted by Patrick Barry

The point has been made in the context of the Underpants bomber's cooperation, that under the legal regime preferred by elements of the GOP, Abdulmutallab’s family members never would have worked with FBI interrogators to encourage further cooperation from him.  Not only does this example vindicate the use of the established legal framework for interrogating (and prosecuting) terrorists, but it casts that framework in a virtuous light.  Or so goes the argument.

What revelations about Najibullah Zazi’s case shows is that there is also a shrewd, almost cynical calculus favoring the use of the instruments granted by our criminal justice system: the law is incredibly coercive.  As the Washington Post details, Zazi’s cooperation began “after authorities charged his Afghan-born father with crimes and threatened to charge his mother with immigration offenses -- options that are not available in the military justice system.” 

Conservatives enjoy drawing a dichotomy that casts military commissions as strong and traditional legal methods as weak. But that view isn’t really borne out by reality.  The law extends far. Very far.  If interrogators or prosecutors decide, there are all kinds of options that they can deploy to reach deep into the life of a suspect, options which will sometimes invite, but more often compel cooperation. 

Military commissions or indefinite detention, as the Post points out, are a different story.  They create a legal vacuum where these options simply aren’t available for the most part.  That's important to remember for when conservatives attempt to justify the use of these methods on the basis of interrogation and intelligence gathering.  In significant respects, the decision to work within the established criminal justice system makes FBI and Justice Department officials less, not more constrained in terms of the methods they use to gain cooperation from terrorists.

Carter Reconsidered
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over the years Jimmy Carter has become something of a punchline to jokes about weak and ineffectual presidents, particularly on foreign policy. And to be honest, not knowing the extent of Carter's success (only focusing on his failure vis-a-vis Iran) i've tended to agree. But over at Foreign Policy, Carter himself and his former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski - in response to a somewhat interesting article last month from Walter Russell Mead - make a pretty compelling case on behalf Carter's foreign policy legacy. Here's Brzezinski's take on Carter:

  • He reconnected the United States with the quest for human rights in both the communist states and those under right-wing dictatorships, in sharp contrast to his predecessor.
  • Confronting an initially hostile Congress, he pushed through the treaties that resolved the Panama Canal issue, which was threatening to poison U.S. relations with Latin America.
  • He tackled the Middle Eastern conundrum, personally achieving the first peace treaty ever between Israel and an Arab neighbor.
  • He not only managed to normalize relations with China, but in the process fashioned a quiet partnership against the Soviet Union.
  • He actively supported the Solidarity movement in Poland and secretly assisted the national aspirations of the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union.
  • He promoted the modernization of U.S. strategic forces and approved the deployment of the MX missile and the development of the Rapid Deployment Force.
  • He initiated a command and a support structure for a U.S. military capability in the Persian Gulf.
  • Through prolonged but determined negotiations, he reached the SALT II agreement with the Soviet Union (subsequently not submitted for congressional ratification because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).
  • Following that invasion, under his leadership the United States took the initiative in organizing a cooperative effort of a number of leading European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian states in providing military aid to the Afghan resistance, and that resistance contributed to the internal crisis that eventually broke up the Soviet Union.
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