One of the trendy things on the right these days seems to be the proclamation of World War III, based (most recently) on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, and before that 9/11. Newt Gingirch seems most determined to trumpet this theory, echoed by astute observers like Bill O’Reilly (and expertly mocked by Stephen Colbert).
This talk of World War III is wrong, and dangerous. First, the nexus of botched terrorist plots, a terrorist attack in India, North Korean missile tests, Iraq, and the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah certainly adds up to a messy and dangerous international environment. But World War? Protracted, fully-mobilized warfare between nation-states and empires claiming the lives of tens of millions of civilians and combatants and remaking the map of the world – that’s a World War. It’s wholly inaccurate – and, frankly, more than a bit disrespectful to those who suffered through those conflicts – to cobble together the worst headlines of the last few months and call it a World War
Second, it plays into the hands of terrorists. The only people alive today who really want a conflict the size of a World War are al Qaeda (even Hezbollah’s aims seem at least regional). By eagerly declaring the commencement of World War III, we’re rhetorically embracing exactly the kind of conflict that the most nihilistic and megalomaniacal terrorists crave. And, consequently, helping them frame their jihad against the U.S. and the West in the grandiose terms that they want to use in appealing to the Islamic world.
One of the strange things about war, terrorism, and terrible news from abroad, is the strange twinge of anticipation that it sparks in the voyeur. To live in interesting times. To be engaged in a heroic endeavor. These are understandable impulses.
No doubt 9/11 was an act of war, and the conflict that the United States is engaged in against jihadists is more than a law enforcement operation. No doubt a country like Iran is a grave threat, the situation in Iraq presents monumental challenges, and the conflict in Lebanon could escalate. But let’s keep matters in perspective. In groping for historical analogies, we can do better than simply wrapping our arms around the worst-case scenarios (artfully debunked by John Keegan). There is such a thing as war – and ideological conflict – that is not World War. We spent the Cold War avoiding World War III. Why are we starting the 21st century by trying to talk ourselves into it?
[Julie Fischer of the Henry L. Stimson Center is guest blogging for Victoria Holt, who is currently on vacation.]
The current conflagration in the Middle East has understandably diverted attention from less conspicuous security issues. In quieter times, the re-emergence of a truly stateless enemy of civilized nations – potentially pandemic influenza – in Southeast Asia might have attracted a headline or two. Less than a year ago, President Bush identified pandemic influenza as a serious threat to national security demanding billions of dollars and real international collaboration. Avian influenza joined HIV as the second disease to acquire its own U.S. ambassador.
After the H5N1 strain of avian influenza moved from Southeast Asia into Europe in late 2005 without the catastrophic plague presaged in 24-hour non-news coverage, experts deployed by the U.S. and the World Health Organization to avian influenza hotspots settled down to a Herculean task: building capacity to detect and contain emerging disease threats in regions hobbled by desperately uneven resources. Their relative anonymity brings respite from the political pressures that shape U.S. efforts to confront the 20th century’s great failure of disease surveillance, the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the realistic fear that their fledgling disease-fighting programs will starve if an outbreak stubbornly refuses to hew to election-driven deadlines. (more…)
Seth Green, in his post on Senators Schumer and Boxer boycotting the recent speech of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, beat me to the punch. This was going to be my first point on how the ongoing Israeli-Hezbollahwar in Lebanon is bad for the U.S.
So let me just say this to the Democratic leadership. When Sen. Harry Reid, the minority leader says, “I will lose a lot of confidence in Maliki if he doesn’t denounce what Hezbollah has done,” he is being stupid, as in S T U P I D.
In case the senator had not noticed, Al-Maliki is facing the challenge of a lifetime trying to prevent Iraq from a full throated, utterly barbaric civil war, as opposed to the horrific, low level one it is now experiencing. Expecting him to act like a talking parrot, repeating the establishment line that everything Israel does is just dandy, is counterproductive, to say the least. The senator should remember that to date thousands of Americans have died, at least according to the last known Bush administration justification, to allow Iraq to become a democracy. That means the people there get to enjoy free speech. (more…)
I was disappointed to learn that a group of Democrats, including Senators Schumer and Boxer, boycotted the recent speech of the Iraqi Prime Minister. One of the most important points that Democrats have made about Iraq is that we need to understand precisely what our mission there is and when we have achieved victory. President Bush has been unfortunately vague about these objectives and so the war continues with no clear metrics still for what we hope to achieve. One objective which is very clear though is that we need to support democracy there and we need to do it out of the principle of democracy not out of the belief that a democratic Iraq will agree with the U.S. on every foreign policy issue.
While I strongly disagree with the Prime Minister’s comments on Israel and Hezbollah, I recognize that currently this is the overwhelming viewpoint in the Middle East. Yes, America must do everything it can to encourage the Prime Minister and his people to rethink this viewpoint. But, no America should not turn our backs (i.e. boycott) on those who merely express that viewpoint — that is, after all, democracy in action. And one point that the Bush administration has been admirably committed to is giving Iraq a true democracy and allowing people there to express their sentiments democratically. President Bush is right that democracy should be our end goal in Iraq and Schumer, Boxer, and several other Democrats were wrong to boycott this speech. We cannot expect Iraqis to believe that we are truly there to promote democracy if we seek to override any perspectives where we disagree with the Iraqi Prime Minister. This is a tense time in Iraq and symbols matter. The absence of two leading Democratic Senators at the speech of the Iraqi Prime Minister strikes me as sending the wrong signal at the wrong time.
In his blog yesterday on this site, former Senator Gary Hart called on President Bush “to explain to the American people what our policy is, why that policy is in our best interest, how that policy conforms with our traditional ideals and principles, and how we intend to pursue it.” That is a reasonable request, and Senator Hart is right that discussion of American interests has generally been drowned out recently. However, the Senator only posed the question — a challenge to President Bush, really.
Last week, though, Madalene O’Donnell blogged about the answer. Her post started from the premise that the President has, in fact, answered exactly those questions with the National Security Strategy document. But she still criticizes the administration. She takes the President to task for failing to implement the NSS: the NSS talks about failed states as a serious threat to the U.S., but, she argues, the U.S. has not invested much to fix the failed state in Somalia. The NSS talks about the importance of democracy, but the U.S. seemed surprised when Palestinians elected Hamas, voting against the corrupt Fatah government.O’Donnell would have preferred a more aggressive American anti-corruption campaign before the election. Presumably, she has the same view on Lebanon: stronger U.S. nation-building effort might have allowed the Lebanese government to suppress Hezbollah or to convince Hezbollah to disarm and join the democratic government. Overall, O’Donnell traces the failure of American foreign policy to insufficient nation-building. She thinks that the American national interest calls for an expensive plan to create well-functioning institutions all over the world — for example, using American aid in some (unspecified) way to fight corruption.
I disagree with both Hart and O’Donnell. (more…)
In the cacaphony of comment on the current hornets’ nest in the Middle East, two factors stand out. One is the relative silence of Congress. In past international crises, groups of Members of Congress, Senate and House, have sought to take constructive positions, either criticizing the incumbent administration’s management of the conflict or crisis or offering supportive recommendations. Many individual Senate and House members have issued their own statements on the Middle East, most cautious and conditioned by partisanship. But the absence of strong voices, particularly in contrast with great Senate statesmen of the past, is remarkable. “Support the president,” “support the troops,” and “stay the course” pass for statemanship these days. Cliche has become a substitute for thought, reason, experience, and depth. Republicans are cautious about separating themselves from the White House, largely out of fear of political reprisal. Democrats, as usual these days, are all over the map. It would not hurt, however, for a collection of Senate Democratic leaders, in their position as the loyal opposition, to put forward a statement demanding a sense of urgency from president and secretary of state, calling on Israel to reduce attacks on civilian targets, insisting that regional Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, pressure Hezbollah, and seeking support from Europe to close down Syrian and Iranian weapons supplies.
The other factor in the “debate” is how few Americans discuss what is in the U.S.’s national interest. Voices are heard defending Israel or condemning Israel, criticizing or praising Arab leaders, discussing what is best for Lebanon, and so forth. This vacuum in national definition would normally be filled by a president willing or able to explain to the American people what our policy is, why that policy is in our best interest, how that policy conforms with our traditional ideals and principles, and how we intend to pursue it. Perhaps that is asking too much these days.
The current crisis in the Middle East represents many things: a history of violence, failed peace negotiations, lost opportunities, and mistrust among the parties. But what it also represents, unmistakably, is a failure of U.S. foreign policy. The widening Sunni-Shia divide and the new empowerment of Iran simply could not have taken place without America’s missteps. These include not only our poorly thought-out and faltering effort in Iraq, but also our complete failure to make any meaningful headway towards making the US economy less reliant upon oil. Without the Iraq crisis and the current price of oil, the current situation would look far different, and far better. It’s too easy place the blame on one party for this situation, even though the foreign policy of the current administration has been nothing short of disastrous for US interests. Certainly all parties could and should have done far more to enhance our energy security starting long ago. Whatever the roots of the problem, only strong bipartisan action can help the United States steer towards a more effective foreign policy.
As the human tragedy unfolds in Lebanon — by at least one estimate, one out of every eight Lebanese has been displaced by the fighting — Americans are struggling with our role. Should we attempt to broker a ceasefire? Should we join a UN peacekeeping mission in the region? Should we expand the war to Syria or Iran? Should we do nothing at all?
That last option appears to be the Bush administration’s policy. The president and his advisers have repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. They have discouraged talk of a ceasefire, and they seem equally skeptical of an expanded role for a UN peacekeeping force that has been in southern Lebanon since 1978. They have yet to publicly embrace a war with Syria or Iran, perhaps recognizing that the U.S. military has its hands full in Iraq right now.
For many Americans, choosing not to do something implies that the U.S. government doesn’t care about what is happening. But that isn’t accurate. Our government has a responsibility to the U.S. citizens there, and is actively involved in helping to extricate any who wish to leave. Other countries are doing the same for their citizens in the region. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I also believe it is in the U.S. interest to avoid further military involvement, and I am particularly skeptical of calls to widen the war to Syria or Iran. (more…)
Remember stateless terrorism? Those individual actors and shadowy networks that represented the gravest danger of the 21st century? Those 19 hijackers armed only with knives and boxcutters (and probably mace and pepper spray)?
One of the interesting things about our post-9/11 world is how reflexively states – especially the U.S. – have combatted terrorism by attacking states. Of course, the prime example of this is our attack on Iraq, a state whose only connection to 9/11 was, well, that Saddam Hussein was a really bad guy who (along with a lot of other really bad guys) was “destabilizing” the Middle East.
But what of Israel’s conflict with Hizbollah, and its attacks on Lebanon (a state recently heralded for its supposedly tight embrace of democracy)? I have heard Hizbollah referred to as the terrorism A team, a state within a state, a transnational Shia resistance group, and a pawn of Iran and (Sunni) Syria. I have heard that Hizbollah overreached and invited its own destruction, Hizbollah has rallied the Lebanese people to its side, or that Syria and Iran are skillfully spawning more regional chaos.
Surely there is some overlap between these seemeing contradictions, but they also represent an incomplete understanding – five years after 9/11 – about just what a terrorist group is, who should be held responsible for acts of terrorism, and above all how we should respond. After 9/11, we heard a lot about how we would be facing a new kind of war. Instead, we seem to be slipping into the oldest kinds of war in the Middle East.
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[Madalene O'Donnell is guest blogging for Victoria Holt who is currently on vacation]
The 2006 US National Security Strategy argues that “[t]he goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.” Who could disagree? The post-9/11 strategy made a similar point. “The events of September 11, 2001,” it argued, “taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.”
But a quick look at current crises in the Middle East and Africa today suggest that we haven’t really learned this lesson at all. Both through errors of omission and commission, we are missing opportunities to help in the emergence of well-governed states that can make us and local populations more secure.
Take Somalia as a case in point. As the Economist argued this week, the US has itself partly to blame for the current crisis in which the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC) swept aside US-financed warlords, gaining control of Mogadishu and surrounding towns. While the US pursued a policy of distributing guns to warlords to help track down individual al-Qaeda fugitives, the alarmed local population threw in its lot with the CIC. As the Economist argued, “exhausted people are finding mullah-rule better than anarchy and extortion.” US interests are best served by helping, rather than frustrating, local aspirations for better governance which, in turn, will help to reduce “ungoverned spaces” that US military strategists frequently link to terrorist havens. (more…)
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.