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April 29, 2011

The Trouble with Petraeus Pt. 2
Posted by Michael Cohen

So I hadn't quite realized how unpopular David Petraeus was in Pakistan until I read this piece in the New York Times today:

The appointment of Gen. David H. Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency puts him more squarely than ever in conflict with Pakistan, whose military leadership does not regard him as a friend and where he will now have direct control over the armed drone campaign that the Pakistani military says it wants stopped.

Pakistani and American officials said that General Petraeus’s selection could further inflame relations between the two nations, which are already at one of their lowest points, with recriminations over myriad issues aired publicly like never before.

The usually secretive leader of the Pakistani Army, Gen.Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has made little secret of his distaste for General Petraeus, calling him a political general.

Now it almost goes without saying that the CIA's relationship with Pakistan is the most important US agency relationship to any other country in the world. And on a good day, that relationship stinks (a situation only further inflamed by the Davis incident and Pakistan's general disinclination to do anything helpful for the United States in regard to the war Afghanistan and fighting al Qaeda). But it does beg the question, will the Petraeus selection make that relationship better or worse?

Now in a sense perhaps we shouldn't dwell on the issue. After all, the US relationship with Pakistan is in terrible shape and I genuinely don't think there is a good way to improve upon it unless we dramatically shift US strategy in Afghanistan. But if Petraeus is being picked in part because of his knowledge of the operational arts; if those operational arts are most relevant when it comes to the US relationship with Pakistan and in particular the fight against al Qaeda; and if Petraeus is mistrusted by the Pakistanis . . . well then what exactly is the value added of putting Petraeus in the DCI job? I'm not asking the question in jest; behind some fuzzy notion of "leadership" I'm at a loss in understanding why Petraeus is the best person for the job, especially since there seem to be a number of indicators that would point to him being the wrong man (not to mention the fact that it's impossible to believe that anyone at the White House actually trusts him).

Aha, but perhaps I've missed David Petraeus's most obvious attribute - over to you Mr. President:

I'm also very pleased that Leon's work at the CIA will be carried on by one of our leading strategic thinkers and one of the finest military officers of our time, General David Petraeus. 

Petraeus is one of our leading strategic thinkers? Interesting. Now clearly generals occasionally show some level of strategic enlightenment. Eisenhower comes to mind; so to does George Marshall, even Colin Powell for a brief moment - but field commanders? Isn't Petraeus's greatest skill on the tactical level? Where has he shown great strategic thinking? As a person who thought (among others) that the US not only could, but should conduct armed social work and nation building in Afghanistan, well I'm not sure that "great strategic thinker" is the description that comes to mind.

So aside from the obvious political advantage of keeping Petraeus inside the tent I'm just having hard time seeing why Petraues got picked . . . unless of course the political advantage is the reason why. But who would ever accuse the Obama Administration of putting the politics of foreign policy ahead of actual foreign policy decision-making?

April 28, 2011

The Trouble With Petraeus
Posted by Michael Cohen

So I'm still having a hard time getting my head around the fact that President Obama has chosen David Petraeus to be his new director of central intelligence. Was Joe Lieberman busy? Here's someone who became a public advocate, rather than advisor, during presidential deliberations on Afghanistan policy; someone who misled the President about the ability of the military to turn things over to the Afghan security forces by the summer 2011 and someone who repeatedly used media leaks and public media appearances to advocate for a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan that by all accounts is failing spectacularly. 

I mean I understand the concept of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, but this is sort of ridiculous.

This issue, notwithstanding, my concern about this move is two-fold: one is that it continues the further militarization of our intelligence agencies, away from intel gathering to covert operations; and second I fear for the impact on Afghanistan policy.

On the first point, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti have a smart article on how these moves continue the process of basically turning the agency into a militarized, operational arm of the Pentagon. So not only do you have someone at Langley who seems to be a big advocate of special operations; but you put someone at DoD (Leon Panetta) who built up the covert action capability at the CIA. Hard to imagine that either will suddenly slow down the cooperation between the two agencies on this front. And if one of the goals of the Obama Administration was to shift attention away from terrorism as the focus of US foreign policy I'm not sure how giving top national security jobs to the guy who built up the CIA's clandestine service over the past two years and the guy who managed the last two American wars achieves that goal. If anything it ensures that two of the Administration's top strategic thinkers (and I use those words guardedly) will have an intimate and perhaps overweening focus on terrorism as the focal point point of US national security policy.

Also it's worth remembering here that the CIA is primarily a civilian, espionage agency - not a hornet's nest of covert ops (no matter what Hollywood movies might tell you). How is Petraeus going to fare in that part of the job; managing the CIA's intel gathering mandate?  Maybe this is the direction that the Administration wants to take the agency, but it does raise the very serious question of whether the Petraeus's likely focus on military operations and cooperation with DoD will have a deleterious impact on the intel-gathering part of the CIA's mandate. Does Petraeus have any track record of being able to effectively manage this fairly significant aspect of what the CIA does? Might be a question worth exploring at this confirmation hearings.

On Afghanistan, there is another more serious concern. While I am glad to see Petraeus out of day-to-day management of the war (if only because it would theoretically allow the White House to establish more control over the mission) I do wonder about the impact on the future of that policy.

Today there is something of a divide in the Obama Administration between those who think the time has come to being political reconciliation with the Taliban - and a more influential group that believes military pressure against the Taliban must be maintained and that the time is not right for negotiations. It appears, from the outside, that Petraeus comes down on the latter camp; believing that continued pressure will wring eventual concessions out of the Taliban.

It's worth asking what effect this will have on analysis about Afghanistan with the agency. Knowing that Petraeus is an advocate for a very specific policy choice in Afghanistan could have a potentially chilling effect on analysts in the agency. After all, there is some evidence that Petraeus has weighed in heavily on these matters in the past (the White House's December Af/Pak review comes to mind). How this affects the tenor and tone of intelligence analysis that gets passed up the chain of command to the White House and elsewhere is not an insignificant issue. It seems for the sake of Afghanistan policy that it might be better if the person in charge at Langley didn't have his thumb on the scale.

In the end, the White House seems to be adopting the view that it's better to have Petraues inside the tent pissing out, then pissing in. But there is a cost for doing so - and I'm not sure that the White House fully appreciates it.

Our Wonderful Af/Pak Allies
Posted by Michael Cohen

So while political Washington has completely lost its mind over the President’s birth certificate  . . . there’s actually a war going on in Afghanistan. It’s being fought by real flesh and blood American soldiers.  And it’s not going well.

Yesterday, nine Americans (8 soldiers and 1 civilian) were murdered at Kabul airport by a disgruntled Afghan Air Force officer. Now having spent several hours at the Kabul airport I would have to say this is one of the more secure locations in Afghanistan with more security than you can shake a large stick at. That even here American servicemen are not safe from violence is troubling indeed. That these soldiers were killed by an individual nominally fighting on the same side as the US against Taliban is even more upsetting. That this attack is the seventh time this year that Afghans in police or military garb have killed NATO or Afghan forces (24 of them) . . . well you get the idea.

But as long as we’re on the subject of terrible American allies, how about that Pakistani government? According to the Wall Street Journal the Pakistani foreign minister recently met with President Karzai and advised him to go tell the US to fly a kite:

Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan's president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan—and its Chinese ally—for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the economy, Afghan officials say.

The pitch was made at an April 16 meeting in Kabul by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who bluntly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the Americans had failed them both, according to Afghans familiar with the meeting. Mr. Karzai should forget about allowing a long-term U.S. military presence in his country, Mr. Gilani said, according to the Afghans. 

It should be noted here that the official telling President Karzai to break with the Americans is not a member of the Pakistani military or the ISI. It's the country's foreign minister (a member of the civilian government), who is trying to convince Karzai that he would be better off abandoning the country that provides Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year in assistance. 

And here's my favorite part:

Pakistani officials say they no longer have an incentive to follow the American lead in their own backyard. "Pakistan is sole guarantor of its own interest," said a senior Pakistani official. "We're not looking for anyone else to protect us, especially the U.S. If they're leaving, they're leaving and they should go."

"No longer" have any incentive! Ha! Remind me again when that incentive to follow the American lead actually did exist.  

And yet it seems some American officials are still holding out hope that this represents a good development for US-Pakistani relations. In a follow-up piece in the Washington Post, Josh Paltrow quotes an American official:

“The good news,” the official said, “is that I think that there’s some prospect that Afghanistan will become the common ground on which the U.S. and Pakistan” can solidify their relationship.

I'm not really sure how this latest incident leads to that conclusion. In fact, what this does show is how decidedly the US and Pakistan don't see eye to eye on the future of Afghanistan. But of course that has been obvious for a decade no matter what US officials try to convince themselves of.

Apparently all this political wrangling has left our other great ally Hamid Karzai not sure of what to do - although this also could just be a move on his part to wring more concessions out of Washington in upcoming talks about a long-term strategic partnership between the US and Afghanistan. I guess those American soldiers being maimed and killed (in part by bombs built in Pakistan) is not enough to sway Karzai toward the US side.

So to sum up, we have American soldiers being killed by the same Afghan security forces that we are spending billions of dollars to train and fight the Taliban; we have the President of Afghanistan discussing with the Pakistani foreign minister abandoning the United States; and we have the Pakistani foreign minister actively working to undermine US interests in Afghanistan. 

Other than all that the war seems to be going great.

April 27, 2011

From Where Should We Lead?
Posted by David Shorr

46893992 Oh, how the right wing blogosphere is crowing over Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece on Obama foreign policy. All their charges of fecklessness fully confrmed -- confessed even! But before we get too excited, let's take a breath and look at what all the shouting is about. As I see it, the question on the table is the following: how can the United States get others to go along with what we want?

From my reading of the commentary this week, the right wing's better idea is the same idea they're always pushing. US policy needs to be firmer, more resolute, uncompromising, unwavering, resolute, and insistent. More like we really mean it.

I certainly understand that standing pat on American power and righteousness is a more gratifying stance. America is powerful and mainly in the right (though when we get it wrong, we really get it wrong). But that's beside the point. I don't make foreign policy judgments on the basis of how good it makes me feel about America. My basic belief in the country is plenty solid and doesn't need to be buttressed by beating our chest internationally.

For all their crowing, the hard liners are arguing a flimsy if not delusional premise: that the United States can bend others to our will just by being resolute. Exactly how will that work? How many places will we engage militarily? How many sets of sanctions will we impose? Will we need international support? Will any resistance be stirred up, if we cast humility aside in favor of pigheadedness? Do these questions ring any bells?

I note that Les Gelb is even more exasperated this week than I am. Gelb's Daily Beast column lambastes Republican critics as well as the media for a constant flow of knee-jerk diatribe that isn't being challeged to present plausible alternatives. He even draws a parallel with birtherism. I don't think we can lump these foreign policy critiques into that reprehensible category, but looking at Donald Trump's role in the debate is instructive. It's safe to say that most of the conservative commentators have devoted much more thought to foreign policy than Trump. Even so, Trump's statements about putting an end to OPEC's "fun" with high oil prices or getting a better deal from the Chinese seem to be just a cruder version of far-right foreign policy -- their approach in pure-Id form. You be the judge, more similar or dissimilar?

On one side of this debate is the idea that American leadership is a matter of ignoring the concerns and misgivings of others. For the US to accommodate concerns or step back and let other nations take the lead is a show of weakness. Mistrust toward the United States must be denied rather than defused, and international goodwill is a luxury.

Ultimately that will be a losing argument. Despite what the right wing says, suspicions about America's intentions and leadership are not a matter of self-doubt but of international political reality. It's something to be recognized and softened, rather than bulldozed through. Most Americans understand the need to convert international resistance into support. They realize the importance of getting the world's help, rather than sitting on a high horse of our own self-satisfaction. As it's often said, there's no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit. Besides, for Republicans to win this argument, they have to airbrush the history of Bush-Cheney foreign policy into a glowing success. Think they can do that?

April 26, 2011

No One is Pretending Peace Talks are Easy
Posted by Jacob Stokes

High Peace CouncilSunday’s Washington Post featured a Jackson Diehl column entitled “The mirage of an Afghanistan exit.” The column has many problems, the biggest being that it fundamentally misrepresents arguments made by proponents of pursuing political solution. Having set up those strawman, he sets about knocking them down.

One of the main problems with the column is that Diehl says proponents of broad talks that would engage the various players in Afghan society, along with regional players, are looking for a “quick political fix,” a “mirage” he calls “seductive.” He’d be right if anyone was saying talks would be quick or easy. But nobody is claiming that.

The influential Century Foundation report that energized this debate around Washington in the last month says, “As it is, a process leading to negotiations and finally a peace settlement is likely to be a prolonged and very uncertain affair. The gulf between the Taliban insurgency and the constituencies of the Afghan republic is wide; and the concerns of the international stakeholders vary and occasionally clash.” 

Steve Coll’s New Yorker article, which first reported talks back in February, argued “even under the best of circumstances, an Afghan peace process would most likely mirror the present character of the war: a slow, complicated, and deathly grind, atomized and menaced by interference from neighboring governments.” If those are Pollyannaish, I’d hate to hear pessimistic.

Next on the list is Diehl’s problematic argument that talks would undermine democracy. He writes, quoting former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, that “a conclusion is being made that in Afghanistan democracy is not needed.” Again, nobody is arguing that.

Continue reading "No One is Pretending Peace Talks are Easy" »

The Courage of Obama's Convictions
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over the past two years, I have been generally supportive of the Obama Administration's foreign policy, with the notable exception of Afghanistan policy. But I think Spencer Ackerman has a very smart post that makes one of the most coherent and stinging criticisms of how President Obama approach to foreign policy and national security over the past two years:

In both cases [closing Guantamao and the war in Libya], the Obama team dedicates what it considers a calibrated amount of effort to achieve a goal that it publicly states is vital. Why the calibration? To avert arousing political headwinds that can thwart the goal; and undo other aspects of its agenda . . .

The undercurrent running through both - at least somewhat - is fear. Obamaaccommodates himself to the politics of fear instead of confronting them.

I think this is spot-on, but actually it doesn't go far enough. Spencer has picked up on a pattern of White House behavior, particularly in regard to contentious and politically potent issues. Indeed, if there is one disturbing characteristic of President Obama's foreign policy to date it is, quite simply, that the President is far too easily diverted from his stated goals and foreign policy convictions because of political opposition. 

On multiple issues, from Afghanistan and Gitmo to Libya and the Middle East peace process, Obama has laid out a policy, either publicly or privately, and then steadily backed away from it in the face of opposition, either from foreign governments, domestic political constituencies or his own military. He has far too often pursued the policies of least political resistance. While this criticism has been levied at Obama's conduct of domestic policy, I actually think this is a charge that misses the mark - the political constraints are simply far greater on domestic policy. But on foreign policy and national security the President has far greater autonomy, authority and control of the public narrative, via the bully pulpit - and yet repeatedly Obama has backed away from asserting that authority and staking out policy territory with the potential for causing him political pain. 

Take Afghanistan for starters. To read Bob Woodward's "Obama's War" is to read about a President that appears to have serious misgivings about escalation in Afghanistan and deep-seated concern that he was being manipulated by the military to approve increased troop levels. Yet he was seemingly incapable of publicly standing up to his own generals and demanding a more restrained policy for the war. Part of this, I imagine, was a fear of getting in a public food fight with the military (having not served in the armed forces and being a Democratic President, and all) - and part of it, no doubt, was a fear that if there was another terrorist attack on US soil Republicans would repugnantly pounce on "retreat" from Afghanistan as the reason why. 

Instead of changing the narrative away from the "war on terrorism," as John Brennan had hinted at in a memorable speech at CSIS from the summer of 2009 or explaining to the American people that the threat from al Qaeda has diminished and cannot justify a 100,000 troop presence in Afghanistan . . . Obama embraced this false narrative - playing up the threat of terrorism from al Qaeda to justify an escalation of troop levels about which he appeared to have serious doubts. As a result ten years after 9/1 terrorism remains the dominant foreign policy narrative of American foreign policy.

Continue reading "The Courage of Obama's Convictions" »

April 22, 2011

If the War in Libya is to Protect Civilians, Why Aren't We Protecting Civilians?
Posted by Michael Cohen

In his last Twitter communication before he was tragically killed in the Libyan town of Misrata, Tim Hetherington wrote, "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO." 

It seems odd that there was no sign of NATO air power in Misrata, which has been under siege for several weeks now and has been subject to flagrant attacks against civilians by Gaddafi forces. After all it was just under a month ago that President Obama declared, “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Of course these words were spoken about the potential for a civilian bloodbath in Benghazi, but it seems, increasingly, that if Misrata were to fall we could be dealing with a similar situation. Surely there is the risk of significant civilian casualties, even massacres. If the US and NATO is engaged military in Libya to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe why are they not acting more pro-actively to protect civilians in Misrata?

The answer to this conundrum is, of course, not overly complicated. Both the US and NATO have pledged not to put troops on the ground in Libya so they will go only so far to protect Libyans as can be accomplished via air power. In a very real sense this exposes the farcical nature of our intervention in Libya. We are there nominally to protect civilians, but that goal is a constricted one; and is subservient to the larger imperative of the White House to limit military and, in turn, political exposure to the conflict.  In short, we are willing to protect civilians, but only so long as we don’t actually put American or European troops in harm’s way.

At the Huffington Post, David Wood captures the essence of this dilemma and the problems it is causing in bureaucratic Washington:

Washington took the bold step of committing military force, but not enough to win. The administration waited to apply very limited military force until it was almost too late, and now, it has painted the U.S. "into a corner." In the resulting stalemate, Libyan rebels and civilians are being ruthlessly pursued and killed while the United States, in effect, stands helplessly by.

The White House wanted the Pentagon to come up with a low-cost regime-change plan for Libya. Ideally, this strategy would have toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi without bogging the U.S. down in another inconclusive foreign adventure. And by no means could the plan have included young American infantrymen advancing under fire across the sand.

The military kept insisting that no such option existed. A real regime-change operation, some officers argued, requires "boots on the ground." That was a cost the White House, given rising domestic pressure to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, was unwilling to consider.

The White House thought the Pentagon was disrespecting the president by refusing to propose a politically acceptable action plan, while the Pentagon became furious that White House officials didn't "seem to understand what military force can and cannot do,'' the official said.

In the past I have been critical of the US military for not only disrespecting the President but for openly manipulating him on Afghanistan policy. But in this situation, it is the military that is being played.  The White House by refusing to consider putting troops on the ground has given the military an impossible mission – protect civilians without ground forces or even the ability to effectively conduct close air support. What’s worse, unless the White House wants to more fully escalate the conflict they’ve made it practically impossible to fully protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s wrath - a contradiction of why we went to war in the first place.  

So now the choice is to maintain a status quo that Tony Cordesman rightly points out could lead to more civilian suffering or escalate the conflict, put boots on the ground and ensure that Qaddafi is toppled. Neither option is terribly palatable, but both provide compelling evidence about the dangers of embarking on a military intervention in both a half-cocked and half-assed manner.  

I'm sympathetic to Cordesman's argument that we now must consider putting troops on the ground to salvage our policy in Libya and end a war that we have helped to escalate, but it's a terrible choice we face. One can argue at great length about whether it was right to go to war in Libya in the first place . . . but what seems incontestable is that trying to fight a limited war on the cheap that doesn't meet our military objectives, but furthers some rather fuzzy political ones is no way to fight a war.

April 21, 2011

Running Things...It Ain't All Gravy
Posted by Eric Martin

This Frederic Wehrey piece in Foreign Affairs explores some of the cleavages and divisions in Libya's population/power structures that could come to the fore if and when the Qaddafi regime is toppled - as well as some of the challenges in rebuilding (or building anew) a society left dilapidated by years of inept dictatorial rule:

After Libyans, and much of the civilized world, rejoice in the seemingly inevitable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country will face the difficult task of repairing a society long traumatized by the Middle East's most Orwellian regime. Libya lacks both legitimate formal institutions and a functioning civil society. The new, post-Qaddafi era, therefore, is likely to be marked by the emergence of long-suppressed domestic groups jostling for supremacy in what is sure to be a chaotic political scene. 

In the near future, even with Qaddafi gone, the country may face a continued contest between the forces of a free Libya and the regime's die-hard elements. In particular, Qaddafi's sons -- Saif al-Islam, Khamis, Al-Saadi, and Mutassim -- and their affiliated militias may not go quietly into the night; the struggle to root them out may be violent and protracted...

Lined up against these Qaddafi holdouts are the members of the Libyan military and officer corps who have joined the opposition. [...]

Libya's tribes will also be critical for governance and reconciliation. Qaddafi's 1969 coup overturned the traditional dominance of the eastern coastal tribes in Cyrenaica in favor of those drawn from the west and the country's interior. Although the Qaddafi regime was, at least in theory, opposed to tribal identity, its longevity depended in large measure on a shaky coalition among three principal tribes: the al-Qaddadfa, al-Magariha, and al-Warfalla. [...]  

In the post-Qaddafi era, the recently defected tribal bulwarks of the ancien régime -- the al-Magariha and the al-Warfalla -- will play a critical role in lending legitimacy and unity to a new government. That said, the weakness and fragmentation of the military and the tempting availability of oil resources highlight the very real threat of tribal warlordism.

In a prior post, I raised the all-too-possible specter that the aftermath of Qaddafi's ouster could give rise to (or perpetuate) internecine conflict that would require policing by international forces and/or a prolonged nation building effort in order to avoid a massive conflagration.  Wehrey's piece highlights some of the fault lines along which such conflicts could erupt. 

While it is possible that Libya could undergo a smooth, relatively violence-free transition to stable governance, we cannot afford to plan based on best-case-scenario assumptions. Though this is no great insight, it remains true: wars, revolutions and lesser armed conflicts are notoriously unpredictable. 

Considering the enormously expensive, long-term, resource-intensive nation building/policing efforts that the United States is currently undertaking in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be beyond imprudent to risk getting embroiled in yet another such enterprise at this juncture. Which is why my reaction to the possibilities discussed in this piece in the Small Wars Journal was more of hopeful relief than concern:  

Let’s make something clear, the civil war in Libya will not end in a stalemate. The French will likely intervene with ground forces and topple the Gaddafi regime, and they will probably do it within a month. It is quite possible that they will do so with Italian help. President Obama has fervently wished for America to be just one of the boys; in the end, this may be a case of wishing for something so much that you get it. America has abrogated the role of global marshal that it assumed after World War II. Every posse needs a Marshal to lead it. The French will likely pick up the tin star they found lying in the street of the global village. [...]

None of this is to say that the French may not be walking into a situation similar to that we faced in 2004-6 in Iraq when Iraqi factions fought over the remains of their country and the more radical factions turned on their would-be Coalition Force liberators. Libya will likely be a mess for years to come. However, I am suggesting that the U.S. will not be calling the shots if the French intervene decisively, and we should think about if that is what we really want. [emphasis added]

A situation in which France, rather than the United States, takes the lead in managing a potentially chaotic, conflict riddled, post-regime-change environment in a foreign country (that we remain largely ignorant of on a granular level) sounds like something that we should not only "want," but strongly encourage.  While ceding the lead role does have its drawbacks in terms of prerogatives and priorities, we quite simply do not have the resources to lead the "posse" in every global conflict that we choose to intervene in - especially at a time when we are already leading the pack in two other theaters.

April 20, 2011

The Latest Take-Down of Liberal Interventionists
Posted by David Shorr

Clooney prendergast power Here is the most ironic passage in Jacob Heilbrunn's National Interest article on Samantha Power as the embodiment of a foreign policy paradigm shift:

Power has a penchant for dramatizing history through people rather than considering broader forces. She states in the acknowledgments to “A Problem From Hell” that a friend from Hollywood advised her to create a drama by telling the story through characters. And that is what she did.

Why ironic? Because he's written an article on Samantha Power as the embodiment of a foreign policy paradigm shift. Actually, I don't want to be too harsh about the Heilbrunn piece, especially since it compares quite favorably to the meandering paranoid screed that Stanley Kurtz gave us on the same subject. In keeping with Heilbrunn's earlier critique of such hyperpartisan intemperance on the far right, he offers a sober examination of the interventionist approach.

That said, though, I have to take issue with two of Heilbrunn's main indictments against interventionism. The first concernts the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Heilbrunn recounts his own exchange with Power at a conference the following year. He pressed her on the seeming contradiction of decrying inaction in the face of tyrannic butchery, yet laying off Saddam:

Her response? The Bush administration was not acting multilaterally and Saddam’s actions, at that point, didn’t meet the definition of genocide even if they had in the past. It is an answer that I never found fully satisfactory, at least for someone who was otherwise championing the cause of stopping mad and bad dictators around the world.

While Heilbrunn may be unpersuaded, the distinction between what Saddam was doing in the early-2000s versus his merciless crackdowns in the late-1980s and early-1990s is hardly a fine point. Every so often when this question resurfaces, I feel compelled to dust off Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth's authoritative essay on the issue, "War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention."  In a nutshell, the point of intervention is not to stop the dictators, but to stop what they're doing or are about to do. As Roth put it, resort to force "should be taken only to stop current or imminent slaughter, not to punish past abuse." In other words, what Heilbrunn tags as hypocrisy is actually a pretty stringent criterion for military action.

Which brings me to my second objection. Since Heilbrunn elides the crucial point above, this leads to his further misreading of foreign policy liberals' views on democracy promotion. Portraying liberal interventionism as the orthodoxy of a new elite, here's how he summarizes our dogma:

This elite is united by a shared belief that American foreign policy must be fundamentally transformed from an obsession with national interests into a broader agenda that seeks justice for women and minorities, and promotes democracy whenever and wherever it can—at the point of a cruise missile if necessary.

As to our supposedly itchy cruise missile trigger finger, well op. cit. Ken Roth. But let me sketch a larger picture and resist the idea, speaking at least for one liberal, that the worldview focuses on social justice at the expense of other concerns.

It's fair to say that many emerging liberal foreign policy leading lights are firmly internationalist -- with the aim of helping spread peace and economic and political empowerment as widely as possible. For some of us (especially yours truly) the main idea is to strengthen the rules-based international order, and in that light, the fight with Qaddafi is about reinforcing a norm against leaders making war on their own people. Yet we're hardly blind to the trade-offs among the goals of national security, economic growth, and the spread democracy. While the United States has important concerns about repression in China, the most urgent agenda is clearly balanced economic growth. Lest anyone think that geostrategic competition has been shunted aside, I'd only mention the Obama Administration's backing of Southeast Asian fears over China's maritime claims. And for all the criticism of President Obama's low-key response to the 2009 people-power protests in Iran, the reason was precisely due to worries about undercutting our efforts on Iran's nuclear program.

By applying limited force on behalf of limited interests, interventionists have no doubt taken a substantial risk. We indeed make some of these calculations based on a broader concept of enlightened self-interest and global leadership. But we are calculating nonetheless -- not, as some might believe, treating the other nations of the world as a social engineering project.

April 18, 2011

Welfare: Bad For America, Good For Europe?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Andrew Exum makes a wry observation about European security.

Here's the way this read in today's Washington Post“The Americans have the numbers of planes, and the Americans have the right equipment,” said Francois Heisbourg, a military specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

Here's the way this should have read in today's Washington Post“The Americans have the numbers of planes [because the European states neglected to buy them], and the Americans have the right equipment [because the Americans actually designed and then manufactured the right equipment],” said Francois Heisbourg, a military specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

Andrew goes on to note that Europe should "either stop talking so tough regarding military interventions or to re-invest in truly independent military capabilities."

But why should they? After all, European governments know they can rely on US military might and taxpayer dollars to subsidize their security needs and prevent them from actually investing in a more robust security apparatus. And when European leaders like Sarkozy decide to talk tough they can count on America to provide the military muscle to back up their words - as has been the case with Libya.

The bottom line is that as long as the United States continues to feel that it has an obligation to underwrite European security needs . . . it will continue to underwrite European security needs. And European countries will continue to free ride off of US security guarantees and not develop the "right equipment" and strategy to protect and further their own interests. In the world's most most stable and prosperous region we have created a bizarre situation where US resources and arms are underpinning a security structure that could quite easily be taken over by the inhabitants of that region!

As my good friend Sean Kay notes, "The most fundamental missions of NATO are achieved - Europe is integrated, whole, and free. The challenge now is to ensure that this is sustained via the European Union. By jealously hanging onto an irrelevant dominance over European security policy, the United States hinders effective EU security integration and ironically damages America's own interests. If the United States can't hand over lead authority in Europe where can it?"

Precisely. The Libya engagement provides many lessons for policymakers (few of them good) but this is one that is likely receiving less attention than it should. So long as the United States insists on subsidizing European security we're going to be the ones upholding European security interests - and well past the point when that makes any sense at all.

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