In last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, PSA Advisory Board member and former Reagan National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane published an op-ed heralding a joint declaration by Sunni and Shia religious leaders. The declaration called on all Iraqis to “end terrorist violence, and to disband militia activity in order to build a civilized country and work within the framework of law.” According to McFarlane, the latest agreement grew out of a series of meetings involving the most senior Iraqi Sunni and Shia clerics, including Sheikh Ahmed al Kubaisi, “acknowledged by all Iraqis as the senior Sunni religious authority” and Ayatollah Sayyid Ammar Abu Ragheef, chief of staff for Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. The statement reads:
Another weekend gone and the pundits continue to bloviate about Iraq. However, it seems only fair, since President Bush raised the subject in his now infamous comparison of Iraq to Vietnam, as a reason for staying the course. Nevertheless, there were some moments of value. Let’s start with ABC’s This Week:
MORAN: Senator Webb, you’re a Vietnam veteran, won the Navy Cross there, and have made no secret over the years that you feel that America betrayed the Vietnamese people and abandoned them to a cruel fate. Isn’t that what the president is saying here will happen to the Iraqis if we withdraw?
SEN. JIM WEBB (D-VA): Well, I think that I may be one of the — the few people in government who still, on the one hand, strongly believe in what we attempted to do in Vietnam and, on the other hand, from the beginning, have strongly warned against the strategic blunder of going into Iraq. They simply are not comparable.
If you look at even the opinions of the American people, despite the way that the Vietnam war ended eight years after the Gulf of Tonkin in 1972, the American people, by a margin of 74 (percent) to 11 percent still believed that it was important that South Vietnam not fall to Communism. The overall strategic objective was strong. The implementation became flawed.
In Iraq, we’re having a reverse situation. We have an overall strategic objective that was not directly related to what we are attempting to do in the war against international terrorism. We have good people implementing a bad strategy.
But the response by the Republican guest, Sen. John Cornyn was also noteworthy He said, “Well, I think there are some — there is — it is an appropriate analogy as far as the president attempted to use it in his speech.” It makes me wonder, what makes the analogy appropriate; the fact that the analogy was uttered by President Bush? (more…)
Talk about flip flopping! Comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam are wrong, until, one day, when needed for a pro-war talking point, they are permissible.
In an April 2004 news conference President George Bush said, “I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy.”
In the summer of 2006 he was asked the following questions at a press conference. “Do you see, as some of your critics do, a parallel between what’s going on in Iraq now and Vietnam?” The president, predictably, said “No.” “Because there’s a duly-elected government; 12 million people voted,” he said. “Obviously, there is sectarian violence, but this is, in many ways, religious in nature, and I don’t see the parallels.”
A bit over a year later President Bush, in the safe and secure environment of a Veterans of Foreign War convention, said in a speech:
Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.
As Bush speeches go this is far more interesting than most; if for no other reason than for his either inadvertent or deliberate distortion of history. For example, before he gets to Vietnam, he says this:
It seems right that this blog, organized by a group that wants to promote bipartisanship in American foreign policy, should take some notice of Karl Rove’s resignation as deputy White House chief of staff (for basic coverage of the resignation, see this New York Times story). While Rove steered away from foreign policy topics in his resignation announcement, plenty of people around the world apparently think that he had a major role in all policy discussions, foreign and domestic. I have no inside knowledge of whether that is true. I don’t even really know if Rove deserves his reputation for always recommending brass-knuckle politics, always rejecting proposals to cooperate with the other party or opposing interest groups, and always looking for political angles rather than seeking the “best policy for the nation” (as if there were some sort of objective definition of “best” in the context of complex policies that serve multiple, often conflicting goals that all Americans would like; life is full of lousy trade-offs). But Rove sure had that reputation as a hard-core partisan, and it deserves some comment on a blog devoted to promoting civility in foreign policy debates if not occasional compromise, cooperation, or even consensus.
Karl Rove would presumably say that he chose to advocate the policies that he did because he felt they were in the best interest of the United States. One can honestly have the view that compromise is weak tea, that it leads to bad policy because half-measures often don’t work. The situation gets a bit more sticky if you knowingly enable a policy that you think will fail, because you think the failure will discredit your opposition; in that case, you are just “doing the right thing” in the long run, even if it’s painful in the short term. In this line of thinking, why compromise? The policy community will come around to the right answer.
Actually, few people seem to pursue this “let your opponents hang themselves” strategy in American politics. One might have imagined the Congressional Democrats supporting the surge on those grounds: we hope you’re right, President Bush, that this will work out, and even if we are skeptical, we will give you everything you ask for so that when / if the policy fails, you cannot say “it would have worked if only the Democrats had not undercut it with their complaints and equivocating.” But the Democrats did not do that. They resisted giving the administration the rope, so if the policy hangs, die-hard Republicans will be able to blame the Democrats.
If Rove could have pulled off a political strategy like that, then he is, indeed, unusual — both in his strategic thinking and his tactical skills. Maybe that’s why even just his name generates so much hostility and fear, because he is, indeed, reputed to be highly strategic and highly skilled.
On Monday Foreign Policy Magazine and the Center for American Progress released their third bipartisan survey of national security experts’ opinions on the state of America’s foreign policy. Not surprisingly the outlook of these Democrats and Republicans, most of whom have served in previous administrations, was not optimistic.
When looking to the future, some say that a glass is half full. Some say it is half empty. These experts seem so dismayed that they have a hard time seeing a glass at all. My view is that their pessimism is certainly warranted. The following are a few of the more interesting findings.
Regarding the troop surge in Iraq:
“More than half say the surge is having a negative impact on U.S. national security, up 22 percentage points from just six months ago. This sentiment was shared across party lines, with 64 percent of conservative experts saying the surge is having either a negative impact or no impact at all.”
Some critics may say ask how these “foreign policy experts” sitting in comfortable offices in the US can really make such an evaluation about what is working and what isn’t without being there on the ground. Aren’t these people just naysayers who were dead set against the surge from the start? Well, actually, no. In fact, if you look at the historical record, just the opposite was true. In the January 16th poll, 31% identified the surge as negative. In the most recent poll, 61% felt that the surge was overall a negative. It is quite clear that even in January of this year the group was willing to give the surge a chance. Even if these experts are not in the combat zone, there are sufficient reports from those who have spent time there to make an informed assessment. What’s more, even those who do spend time in Iraq can have very different conclusions – case in point are the recent conflicting accounts written by Ken Pollack, Michael O’Hanlon and Anthony Cordesman who were all on the same assessment trip. (more…)
Without wading into the fight between Obama and Clinton over Pakistan, I do want to note one aspect of Sen. Clinton’s comments at the recent MSNBC/AFL-CIO debate that troubled me a bit. In one of her responses Clinton noted:
“Well, I do not believe people running for president should engage in hypotheticals and it may well be that the strategy we have to pursue on the basis of actionable intelligence — but remember we’ve had some real difficult experience with actionable intelligence… But I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against Islamic extremists, who are in bed with al-Qaeda and Taliban. And remember, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The last thing we want is to have al-Qaeda like followers in charge of Pakistan and having access to nuclear weapons. So, you can think big, but remember, you shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president because it can have consequences across the world, and we don’t need that right now.”
The piece of this that worries me is the equation of “Support for Musharraf is the way to combat Islamic Fundamentalists.” In reality the support of military dictators in Pakistan always seems to lead to a spike in fundamentalism. There is no question that since the US backed Musharraf has been in power, he has blocked out the democratic parties and allowed the fundamentalists to grow in strength. That he is now “fighting back” says more about his instincts for self preservation. He still shows little sign of either giving up power or letting democratic elections go forward – something which would likely lead to the fundamentalists to be beaten at the ballot box.
Sen. Clinton’s understanding of Pakistan makes me a little worried….
In my last post, on the subject of the now famous or infamous, depending on your viewpoint, NYT op-ed by Brookings Institution scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack on the U.S. military surge in Iraq I noted that they had been accompanied on their trip by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and Military Studies and that if he had shared their optimism about the prospects for success in Iraq he would have signed the op-ed along with Pollack and O’Hanlon. I wrote, “The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes.”
Since then Cordesman has spoken many more volumes worth, by issuing his own analysis of what he saw and thought. In a trip report released August 6. Give him credit for not mincing words. His very first words are:
Everyone sees Iraq differently, and my perceptions of a recent trip to Iraq are different from that of two of my traveling companions and those of several other think tank travelers to the country. From my perspective, the US does not have good options in Iraq and cannot dictate its future, only influence it. It is Iraqis that will shape Iraq’s ability or inability to rise above its current sectarian and ethnic conflicts, to redefine Iraq’s politics and methods of governance, establish some level of stability and security, and move towards a path of economic recovery and development.
Cordesman makes an important point which I think has been largely lost in the continuing debate over Iraq. Bush administration supporters frame the question of U.S. involvement in Iraq primarily in military terms, i.e., if you support the idea of a sovereign, stable Iraq then you must support keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Of course, since the very presence of U.S. troops in Iraq causes numerous problems in and of itself there is a sound strategic argument for withdrawing troops. But that does not mean that the U.S. gets to wash its hands of Iraq. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule does apply. We broke Iraq and we do have to try and fix it. As Cordesman notes, “Like it or not, the US is rightly seen as having gone to war for the wrong reasons, as having consistently mismanaged the “peace” that followed and been largely responsible for the suffering of some 27 million Iraqis. Strategically, ideologically, and morally, the US cannot avoid being linked to the future of Iraq, regardless of whether it maintains a military presence.” But that does not mean keeping current or even pre-surge levels of troops there. (more…)
Chris Preble highlighted yesterday an op-ed by Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan that appeared in Monday’s Washington Post. I actually had somewhat of a different reaction to the piece. Chris wrote that Kagan and Daalder, “celebrate the broad bipartisan consensus among the Washington policy elites and the major party candidates in favor of military intervention.” When I read the piece I felt that the focus of the article was more on the importance of “international legitimacy” whenever the U.S. considers military action. For many years polls have shown that Americans are much more comfortable with the use of force if it has broad international support, often in the form of UN Security Council resolutions. The Bush administration recognized this and, even after UN rejection, hailed its “Coalition of the Willing” that had been, in many cases (with the exceptions Australia and Britain), basically strong armed and bribed into token participation.
I agree with Daalder and Kagan that the US will undoubtedly find itself in situations in the future of deciding whether to use force. I feel that if we can create a bipartisan consensus around the need for international legitimacy for military action, then indeed that is a good thing and a far cry from where we have been for the past 7 years. Remember, even John Kerry defended himself against Republican attacks in the 2004 presidential elections, saying that he wouldn’t need a “UN permission slip” to act against threats. If our leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, can actually admit publicly that international support matters and not portray this as a weakness, then we are headed in the right direction, I believe.
Now for the issue of the “Concert of Democracies”. I wrote on this back in September when the Princeton Project on National Security released its report, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law, US National Security in the 21st Century. Like Daalder and Kagan the report proposed the formation of a “Concert of Democracies” that would play a legitimizing (or delegitimizing) role when the US or other democracies proposed using force. Although I feel that the Concert of Democracies idea has merit, I felt that in this most recent op-ed, that Daalder and Kagan too quickly dismissed the UN. They write, “The traditional answer, the U.N. Security Council, no longer suffices, if it ever did.” Although it certainly has been difficult to get the P-5 to agee to take action, it has happened. In the first Gulf War, for example, the Security Council did conclude the force should be used to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Although, many would argue that it was the very fragility of the international consensus that prevented us from finishing the job, it seems that, considering our current debacle, limitations on the intervention certainly were warranted. (more…)
David Isenberg stole my thunder with respect to the Pollack-O’Hanlon op ed in the NYT that generated so much attention last week. Many others weighed in, but I think that Glenn Greenwald at Salon nailed the essential points.
Commenting on the broader problem of the bipartisan disaster that is our foreign policy, Matt Yglesias was incisive, as always. My colleague Justin Logan made the case for accountability, an idea that is long overdue in this town.
There is no shortage of opinion on what do to in Iraq, how we got into the mess, and how we avoid similar messes in the future. The following articles caught my attention in the past week.
- Phillip Carter put the whole O’Hanlon-Pollack dust-up into perspective, noting that our battlefield victories — such as they are — are meaningless if the political process doesn’t move forward. This was true in Vietnam, and it is true in Iraq.
- Gian P. Gentile notes the obvious — it is a civil war. His insights are particularly relevant given that he saw this all first-hand as a Lt. Col. with the 4th Infantry Division in Amiriyah, a Sunni district in Baghdad.
- Finally, Chris Hedges’ pessimism is palpable — and justified.
I was expecting more comment on the blogosphere in response to Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder’s piece in Monday’s Washington Post, in which the two men celebrate the broad bipartisan consensus among the Washington policy elites and the major party candidates in favor of military intervention. They note that this shouldn’t surprise us, and I agree with them on that point, if nothing else. Daalder and other Democrats were happy to accept the support of Kagan and the editors of the Weekly Standard when Bill Clinton launched the bombing campaign over Yugoslavia in 1999.
I will have more to say on this subject over at the Cato blog, so I don’t want to steal my own thunder here. In the meantime, I appreciated Matt Yglesias’ imagined view from Beijing.
UPDATE: My full response to the Kagan-Daalder op ed, co-authored with David Rieff, was published online by The National Interest, and the title speaks for itself “A Troubling Interventionist Consensus.”
Troubling, indeed. Bipartisanship cannot rescue us from future Iraq-style debacles so long as there is bipartisan support — among policy elites, at least — for military interventions that have little or nothing to do with preserving U.S. vital national interests.
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Judging by his appearance on the talk shows it appears that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates must have a twin brother, or perhaps a clone. And evidently they are not talking to each other.
Consider what Gates said on Meet The Press:
GATES: Well, there’s no question that it’s disappointing that the Sunnis have left the government. Some of the ministers, such as the minister of defense, who is a Sunni, have remained in place. But their inability to reconcile among themselves at this national level and to get some of this legislation passed, clearly, is disappointing, and therefore makes some of the positive developments outside of Baghdad or outside of the national political arena more interesting.
But nevertheless he left open the possibility that some troops could be withdrawn before the year is out:
RUSSERT: Is there a possibility we could draw down troops by the end of this year?
GATES: It’s a possibility.
RUSSERT: A good possibility.
GATES: There is a possibility. (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.