Restraint in US foreign policy is having a moment. That’s a good thing. But I worry it’s unclear whether restraint is a means or an end, and what that end would be. Without resolving this–preferably in favor of re-imagining a continued US leadership role in the world–current calls for restraint may do more harm than good.
The popularity of restraint in US foreign policy should be making me happy. I went to college in the Bush years, and marched against the Iraq war. After graduating, I joined a group in DC trying to formulate a smart, progressive foreign policy vision. A few years later I resigned in frustration that they accepted the troubling aspects of Obama’s foreign policy–like his expanded drone strikes–and focused mainly on helping Democrats sound tough on foreign policy. I cheered the pushback on US support for the Saudis in Yemen, beginning under Obama and continuing under Trump.
Progressives and liberals were quick to praise President George H.W. Bush when he passed away. Some of this was basic human decency. Some of this was honest admiration for a masterful foreign policy practitioner and a decent man. But some of it felt strategic, a way to point out all of Trump’s failings. Highlighting Bush’s virtues emphasized the issues with Trump and his Presidency. The fact that Bush was a Republican seemed to make this more effective; “look,” Trump critics could say, “here are things Republicans used to value.” It seemed an effective tactic.
And then Trump nominated William Barr to be Attorney General. Barr has been skeptical about the probe into Trump’s Russia ties and thinks the “Uranium One” deal is a major scandal that implicates Hillary Clinton. He has also called on the government to promote socially conservative values. So we can expect some potent attacks on him by progressives…except that he was also Attorney General in the George H.W. Bush Administration. It’s going to be hard to accuse him of being unqualified and dangerous without questioning the wisdom of the man so many recently praised.
This highlights the danger of trying to steal Republican talking points. Progressives frequently do this: “Republicans claim to care about X, but they’re not actually doing much on it.” There are many examples:
When President Obama was calling for nuclear disarmament, he referenced a similar call by Ronald Reagan. He made similar appeals to Reagan when announcing the New START treaty with Russia. And I know, at the urging of a progressive foreign policy group I was then part, I made a similar argument but I haven’t found the article yet (I’ll update this if I do). This provided useful historical context to Obama’s policies, but it was also an attempt to undercut Republican objections.
When Democrats retook the House in 2006, part of their platform was controlling the deficit that had expanded under George W. Bush. This was also one of Obama’s attack lines in the run-up to his Presidential campaign. Again, this represents fiscal prudence, which is good. But it’s also an attempt to “steal” fiscal prudence from Republicans.
Another Bush-era attack line had to do with US Special Operations Forces (SOFs). Democrats didn’t just argue against the Iraq War, they argued that it–and the broader war on terrorism-were being mismanaged and that they could do better. One of their proposals was to “double the size of [US] Special Forces.” This was meant to highlight the fact that Democrats could be tough on national security too, taking away an additional GOP talking point.
Most of these worked at the time. But they later backfired. Obama’s praise for Reagan makes it harder to criticize problematic aspects of his legacy, and was countered by conservatives, limiting its impact. Democratic criticism of Bush’s deficits opened Obama up to GOP attacks on his economic policies–some of which require expanding the deficit–and Democrats are running into this problem again. Democrats’ call for more Special Forces was criticized for definitional issues (Special Forces refers just to Army personnel) and infeasibility. It also makes it harder to criticize Trump’s use of SOFs in counterterrorism operations that haven’t been debated or approved by Congress.
And I’m not even going to go into poorly-thought-through but convenient attack lines. Remember when Obama mocked Romney for being stuck in the 80s after he expressed concern about Russia, with a lame “the 80’s called” joke. Progressives at the time (including me) thought it was great, but it’s made current Russia concerns seem opportunistic.
As Democrats get ready for 2020, there are a lot of potential attacks on Trump. Candidates and their campaigns will be tempted to attack him as not being a good enough Republican. If those attacks come from a centrist trying to present a Bill Clinton-esque “third way” that may be ok. And if it is praise for an earlier, more cooperative era of politics, that’s fine too. But more often than not they’ll come from progressive candidates who are just trying to score an easy point. This very well may work, but it will continue to muddle Democratic messaging. Resist the temptation.
It seems that everyone (at least on the political right) is in a tizzy about the “revelations” in David Samuels’ New York Times Magazinestory on Ben Rhodes. For example, Lee Smith, at the Weekly Standard, headlines “Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru Boasts of How the Administration Lied to Sell the Iran Deal.” As I’ll explain below, that’s, at best, massive hyperbole. But what we really learned is that Ben Rhodes has a massive ego—Thomas Ricks is less kind in his assessment. We also learned that Samuels—like any reporter—wants to break big stories. Put the two together, and you come away less, not better, informed.
Let’s start with one of the passages from the story that’s receiving a lot of attention—and that Smith partially blockquotes:
As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.
This is, more or less, a description of what every single White House does when seeking to pass a major, and controversial, initiative. They connect with allies, they disseminate talking points, they coordinate with like-minded policy and industry groups, and they feed those groups information. Administrations create multiple information channels to the press, the public, and elected officials.The Obama Administration did this for the Affordable Care Act. The Bush Administration did this for its massive tax cuts, for the Iraq War, and, unsuccessfully, in its efforts to privatize Social Security. Continue reading
This, of course, has produced a reaction or two, given that President Karzai might have a lot of gall to be asking of this given that more than three thousand outsiders (Americans, Danes, Canadians, etc) gave their lives to help the Afghan government. On the other hand, Obama just apologized for Obamacare’s rollout which has yet to produce any real collateral damage, unlike the American and ISAF efforts in Afghanistan.
So, should Obama admit the US made mistakes in Afghanistan? Well, did the US make mistakes in Afghanistan? Here are some that might come up?
To the best of my knowledge, no prominent peer-reviewed article in political science has reported a difference in the frequency with which the United States enters into conflict under Democratic presidents relative to Republican presidents. That’s not because no one has looked for such a difference (I know I have). It’s because, to date, no one has found one. This is the file drawer problem in action.
Now, we want to be careful not to over-interpret that. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There could be lots of reasons why we might fail to observe such a difference even if it was true that one party was significantly more hawkish than the other. But when we look at other democracies, we DO find clear evidence that left-leaning governments involve their nations in conflict less often than do right-leaning governments.
As we head into the third presidential debate, it’s worth keeping this in mind. I am reluctant to say that there’s not much difference between what US foreign policy would look like under a second Obama administration and what it would look like under a Romney administration. I can’t know that for a certainty. But the past provides relatively little clear evidence that those who believe it will can point to.
But wait, you say. What about Bush? How can I believe that a Gore administration would have taken the US to war in Iraq?
There are two important points here. First, what candidates say they will do in terms of foreign policy is not exactly a perfect predictor of what they’ll actually do in office, any more than opposition to policies enacted by someone else after the fact proves that one would not have pursued the same policy. Note that Obama’s primary victory over Clinton may well have been driven by the perception of him as an anti-war candidate. Granted, those who were surprised when he escalated US involvement in Afghanistan clearly didn’t pay close enough attention to what he actually said on the campaign trail. But neither did he position himself as the type of person who would conduct more drone strikes than Bush (by a considerable margin), nor was it clear that Obama would keep Gitmo open, declare it legal to kill US citizens without first trying and convicting them of crimes, and so forth.
Second, note that Romney’s foreign policy platform to date can be summarized as “I’ll do what Obama would do, but I’ll do it with more swagger.” Even setting aside concerns about how well campaign rhetoric predicts policy choices made in office (has anyone looked at this systematically?), there’s relatively little difference between the policies these two candidates are currently telling us that they would pursue.
There may not even be much of a puzzle here. Studies that have found systematic differences in the frequency with which democratic states enter into conflict under left-leaning governments relative to right-leaning governments, such as the one I linked to above, largely focus on minor powers who are allied with the US. In such countries, foreign policy is largely a luxury good. By that, I mean that these states look to the US to address their greatest security threats. A left-leaning government in such a state can refrain from responding to minor incidents in a hostile manner without much affecting their security. Similarly, a right-leaning government can behave a bit more aggressively when dealing with minor incidents, content in the knowledge that their actions will have little impact on the nation’s security. Put differently, when you outsource large part of your security policy to a superpower, you can afford to treat the areas you retain control over as a venue for symbolic politics. The smaller you are, the more you can afford to cater to your base without compromising your security. Superpowers might be playing by different rules though.
Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that we know for a certainty that there’s no difference between US foreign policy under Democratic and Republican presidents. What I’m saying is that we have some theoretical reason to expect that there might not be much difference, and an absence of persuasive evidence that there is much of a difference. There’s always the possibility that existing attempts to establish a difference between the parties have overlooked something important, or that this time will be different. And I haven’t said a word about the impact of the party of the president on domestic policy (nor shall I, since that’s a subject that’s well outside my area of expertise). But it’s at least plausible that the difference between how Democratic and Republican presidents behave in office, with respect to foreign policy, is far smaller than many realize.
The NY Times’ recent article on Obama’s “kill list” of American citizens and others suspected–not convicted–of terrorism includes much disturbing information on what our government is doing in our names. The entire “kill list” process and Obama’s central role in it has seldom been presented in such detail in a mainstream publication. It is necessary if ugly reading, even if it is written in something approaching a triumphalist tone.
The “kill list” involves U.S. targeting of Americans and others for drone death worldwide. This is being done without “due process of law.” Previously, due process of law has meant that an impartial decision maker hears evidence presented by the executive branch, before an American is convicted of — let alone executed for— a crime. For the “kill list,” due process of law does not exist. If the Executive branch, the CIA, or other “intelligence” agencies, suspect you or another American of being a terrorist, your right to due process of law evaporates. All you receive is review by officials of the same agencies who fingered you in the first place and will okay your killing, ultimately Obama himself.
Right to defend yourself? Forget about it. Right to trial? No way? Worry about blowback? Not a care, for instance, about reaction to the Yemeni family of 8 obliterated by drone days ago.
To me, one of the most unsettling points in the article was the “explanation” for why drone attacks are asserted, by government officials, to kill so few civilians. It’s simple really: just redefine the word “combatant.” Thanks to the Obama administration, it has now been defined down to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
And of course, Obama is now personally authorizing the assassination of individuals, whether Americans or foreigners, based merely on their behavior—and without their identities being known. So-called “signature” strikes, make the situation even worse than it first appears.
All of this reminded me of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. Serb military forces under Ratko Mladic rounded up “all military-age males” in the town, accusing them of support for or participation in attacks on the Serbs. They then systematically slaughtered about 6,000, with no process of law. Srebrenica, of course, was roundly and rightly condemned by the world community, not least Obama’s “atrocities czar” and one-time human rights champion, Samantha Power.
With Obama’s drone warfare, we appear to be doing the same thing, albeit over longer periods of time, in smaller batches of butchery, and using remote control weaponry. As imperial hegemon, it seems, the U.S. is “permitted” to do this, even by those who profess to believe in human rights.
Two years ago, Der Spiegel published an audio recording of secret negotiations involving many of the world’s most important leaders meeting together on Friday, December 18, 2009, during the Copenhagen climate summit:
The world’s most powerful politicians were gathered in the “Arne Jacobsen” conference room in Copenhagen’s Bella Center, negotiating ways to protect the world’s climate. US President Barack Obama was perched on the edge of a wooden chair with blue upholstery, talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The blue turban of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was bobbing over the tops of a few hastily assembled potted plants. The meeting was soon dubbed the “mini-summit of the 25.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was there, representing the African continent, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon was standing nearby. Only one important world leader was missing, an absence that came to symbolize the failure of the climate summit: Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao…
Now, for the first time, SPIEGEL is in a position to reconstruct the decisive hour-and-a-half meeting on that fateful Friday. Audio recordings of historical significance, in the form of two sound files that total 1.2 gigabytes in size and that were created by accident, serve as the basis for the analysis. The Copenhagen protocol shows how the meeting Gordon Brown called “the most important conference since the Second World War” ended in a diplomatic zero.
The video posted above includes many of the most important sound snippets, accompanied by photos of the speakers and some important contextual information.
Der Spiegel‘s online version of the article includes key quotations from the meeting. Essentially, European leaders like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown were urging their colleagues to come to an agreement about both near-term and long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Asian negotiators, including top Chinese diplomat He Yafei, argued against the sizable emissions reductions target under discussion (50%), even though “Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that it was the Indians who had proposed the inclusion of concrete emissions reductions for the industrialized nations in the treaty.”
European leaders and China’s negotiator Yafei had a surprisingly tense back-and-forth exchange that nicely summarizes some of the most important international politics undergirding the climate change debate. The western leaders accused the Chinese of seeking double standards, wanting to free ride on environmental commitments made by the affluent states:
The words suddenly burst out of French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “I say this with all due respect and in all friendship.” Everyone in the room, which included two dozen heads of state, knew that he meant precisely the opposite of what he was saying. “With all due respect to China,” the French president continued, speaking in French.
The West, Sarkozy said, had pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. “And in return, China, which will soon be the biggest economic power in the world, says to the world: Commitments apply to you, but not to us.”
Sarkozy, gaining momentum, then said: “This is utterly unacceptable!” And then the French president stoked the diplomatic conflict even further when he said: “This is about the essentials, and one has to react to this hypocrisy!”
Angela Merkel also joined the fray, by referencing the scientific evidence necessitating that China join a binding agreement for significant emissions reductions:
Merkel took one last stab. The reduction of greenhouse gases by 50 percent, that is, limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, was a reference to what is written in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Then she directed a dramatic appeal at the countries seeking to block the treaty: “Let us suppose 100 percent reduction, that is, no CO2 in the developed countries anymore. Even then, with the (target of) two degrees, you have to reduce carbon emissions in the developing countries. That is the truth.”
China’s negotiator, He Yafei was unmoved, and placed the blame for climate change — as well as the responsibility to act — squarely on the shoulders of affluent states:
The Chinese negotiator… took on the French president’s gaffe, and said: “I heard President Sarkozy talk about hypocrisy. I think I’m trying to avoid such words myself. I am trying to go into the arguments and debate about historical responsibility.”
He Yafei decided to give the group a lesson in history: “People tend to forget where it is from. In the past 200 years of industrialization developed countries contributed more than 80 percent of emissions. Whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing.”
Seeking to break the impasse, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke pragmatically about the need for action from both the advanced economies and the large developing states (India and China).
“From the perspective of the developed countries, in order for us to be able to mobilize the political will within each of our countries to not only engage in substantial mitigation efforts ourselves, which are very difficult, but to also then channel some of the resources from our countries into developing countries, is a very heavy lift,” Obama said. Then, speaking directly to China, he added: “If there is no sense of mutuality in this process, it is going to be difficult for us to ever move forward in a significant way.”
However, Obama also suggested in his remarks that the problem need not be addressed in the current meeting since “We will try to give some opportunities for its resolution outside of this multilateral setting.”
Indeed, not long after this meeting, the US, China, India and other players cut a deal involving near-term (2020) emissions reduction targets that countries would set for themselves. This was described by climate activist Bryony Worthington as a “voluntary ‘pledge and review later’ type agreement with minimum enforcement.” Worthington and many other observers thus considered the summit “a spectacular failure on many levels.”
The final deal was made, as Der Spiegel notes, without direct input from the Europeans. In other words, the key decisions were not made at the meeting documented in the audio recording. In fact, the high-level mini-summit adjourned at the request of the Chinese negotiator, and the major developing states met separately:
The Indians had reserved a room one floor down, where Prime Minister Singh met with his counterparts, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and South Africa President Jacob Zuma. Wen Jiabao was also there.
Shortly before 7 p.m., US President Obama burst into the cozy little meeting of rising economic powers.
At that meeting, everything that was important to the Europeans was removed from the draft agreement, particularly the concrete emissions reduction targets. Later on, the Europeans — like the other diplomats from all the other powerless countries, who had been left to wait in the plenary chamber — had no choice but to rubberstamp the meager result.
IR scholars rarely have access to this kind of (nearly) real-time “insider” data, though it is telling that virtually all of the world leaders make claims that we would have expected. In that way, this audio recording is like the Wikileaks documents. The evidence reveals what we think we already know about how the sausage is made.
Note: Thanks to Miranda Schreurs (posting on a mailing list) for pointing me to the audio recording.
This is cross-posted from the University of Texas website.
As the March 6 Super Tuesday Republican primary looms, foreign policy issues understandably are likely to play a marginal role in the decisions of most voters. Since the middle of 2008, Gallup pollshave found that more than 60 percent of voters identified economic issues as the most important problem facing the country. In their February 2012 poll, for example, less than a half a percent of Americans identified either terrorism or conflict/war in the Middle East as their top concern.
Does that mean that foreign policy concerns are unimportant in the primary and the general election?Not exactly. With Osama Bin Laden and a number of other top-level terrorists dead, Democrats are hopeful that President Barack Obama has made foreign policy a non-issue. However, both the nature of the GOP primary and events may yet bring both foreign policy issues and a variety of “intermestic” (part international/part domestic) issues like gasoline prices to the fore.
GOP Primary Dynamics and Foreign Policy All the Republican hopefuls are saying things about foreign policy on the campaign trail to try to appeal to the 8-10 percent of the party faithful that have turned out in the primaries thus far (even less in caucus states like Maine where less than 1 percent of the electorate turned out). It doesn’t appear that these primary-goers are any more concerned about foreign policy than the rest of the public (the economy dominates the exit and entrance polls as the top concern), but they certainly tend to be conservative on average. In South Carolina, 68 percent of the voters self identified as very (36 percent) or somewhat conservative (32 percent). In Iowa, that combined percentage was fully 84 percent.
With a conservative leaning electorate and foreign policy concerns only weakly salient, the default position for most of the Republican candidates appears to be the old stand-by of being strong on defense. In practice, this means opposing any cuts to defense spending, supporting continued military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and potentially backing a new military conflict with Iran.
Front-runner Mitt Romney has used the charged language of “appeasement” in describing the Obama administration. Governor Romney’s language seems to be emblematic of the wider GOP field’s effort to use harsh rhetoric in describing President Obama. Perhaps the candidates feel compelled to make up for the enthusiasm gapthat has emerged as Republicans survey the candidates they have before them.
Ultimately, I think this hyperbole on foreign policy will ultimately fall flat in the general election. For the first time in recent memory, the GOP enjoys a semi-serious anti-war candidate in Congressman Ron Paul. At a time when even Republican primary voters overwhelmingly are concerned about the state of the U.S. economy, it’s unclear whether pledges by the leading candidates to ratchet up defense spending and sustain expensive military engagements are popular with the party base.
Events: A Week is A Long Time in Politics
Even if foreign policy seemingly is a secondary concern in the upcoming election, events on the world stage may change that calculation. Among the issues, the situation in Iran in particular threatens to bring foreign policy front and center.
For example, the sanctions bill that passed the Senate in late 2011 was intended to force the president to cut off any public or private institution from access to the United States if it does business with Iran’s central bank. The president was to decide by the end of February whether to impose these rules, subject to some discretion about the volume of oil in the market and whether states have reduced their oil transactions with Iran. Just last week, the administration deferred actionpending further investigation.
With Europe to begin an embargo on Iran’s oil by July 1 and Iran saber rattling about cutting off oil supplies to other European countries, oil prices may spike. As the U.S. economy has shown signs of recovery, the Republican candidates have pivoted to talk about rising gas prices as one of their key issues. Soaring gas prices may pose both a threat to the recovery and the president’s re-election. Newt Gingrich, in an effort to energize his faltering campaign, has pledged to restore $2.50 a gallon gas.
So, even as domestic issues loom large, the nature of the Republican primary and world events over the summer may make foreign policy a more pressing concern come fall. We’ll have to see how it all plays out.
This analysis finds that The Union Leader’s endorsement has been highly statistically significant in helping to explain the voting results. Consistent with the simpler averaging method that we used before, it pegs the endorsement as having roughly an 11-percentage-point impact.
Academic readers of this blog may well know that Gingrich, as one scholar described him, is “a card-carrying member of the overeducated elite….Gingrich holds the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Modern European History from Tulane University in New Orleans.” He had a tenure-track job at West Georgia College in the 1970s, though he was denied tenure and took up politics full-time.
Today, someone put Gingrich’s dissertation on the internet. Feel free to bookmark and read later the former House Speaker’s lengthy take on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960.” Since I don’t have time in the near-term to read this tome myself, I’m dependent upon the prior work of Laura Seay, a young scholar now at Morehouse College, who actually reviewed this work in 2009:
I finally sucked it up and headed to the basement microfilm room in the library to read Gingrich’s dissertation. (When I say “read” here, I mean, of course, that I skimmed through until I found something interesting.)
Seay reports quite a bit of detail about Gingrich’s dissertation on her blog post. I won’t spoil too much of her review (read it yourself), but the take home point is relatively important:
The whole thing is kind of a glorified white man’s burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970’s.
“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”
Now that we know about Gingrich’s early work as an historian, I ask the following questions:
What if Gingrich is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Belgian, pro-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? What if that is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior?
This is a guest blog by Jarrod Hayes, who is is an assistant professor of International Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research broadly focuses on the social construction of foreign and security policy.
The New York Times is reporting that President Obama plans on moving Leon Panetta to the position of Secretary of Defense and David Petraeus to the position of CIA director. While the Panetta move is interesting in its own right (i.e., will Panetta have the force of will necessary to manage the DoD?), what I find far more interesting is the move of General David Petraeus to the CIA, a man whose credentials for leading the CIA at best require some creative argumentation. I find the move puzzling (hence the title) and would like to forward a possible explanation for the move as well a negative repercussion that could result. First, the explanation. In June 2010, when Obama fired then U.S. commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal after insubordinate remarks by officers under McChrystal’s command came to light, the President was left with a problem. Seven months earlier, Obama had announced a large troop increase to Afghanistan as part of an effort to prevail in a conflict claimed to be vital to US national interest. What appointment could Obama make in replacing McChrystal that would be in line with the President’s contention that success in Afghanistan was of critical importance? The obvious answer was hero-of-Iraq-and-counterinsurgency-demigod Petraeus, and so the President demoted (lateral move?) Petraeus from Central Command Commander to head up the Afghan mission. However, the appointment presented its own problems. At the same time Obama announced the Afghan ‘surge,’ he promised to begin bringing home US troops after 18 months (~midyear 2011). Would Petraeus, a man now vested with an immense amount of military and security legitimacy, resist when Obama decided to pull the plug? If he did, the President’s political capital could take serious damage at a time when the campaign for re-election would be at a critical stage.
Obama appears to have found a solution by promoting Petraeus to CIA director. Petraeus now has less reason to oppose a drawdown in a conflict that is going less than swimmingly (see Steve Saideman’s excellent post on the subject here) because his personal credibility and legacy are no longer on the line. Moving Petraeus to the CIA also shifts his institutional context, and if Graham Allison was right about where you stand depends on where you sit, being at the CIA ties Petraeus hands for two reasons: 1) CIA has global concerns (less dog in the Afghan fight) and 2) CIA has a firm institutional emphasis on not making policy. So the promotion is a win-win all around. Petraeus gets out of a fight that may be impossible to win and Obama removes (or at least lessens) a potential political landmine. The only downside is the poor guy who will get tagged with whatever comes in Afghanistan after the US leaves.
There is, however, a dark side to promoting Petraeus to the CIA. Since September 11, 2001, the CIA’s mission has increasingly focused on the US military mission. Military commanders have pressed progressively greater demands for timely battlefield intelligence and policy shifts that accompanied the Bush administration’s GWOT put the CIA on the front lines. These changes are not cost free. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (and Andrew Bacevich regarding foreign policy broadly) among others has argued that the CIA since September 11 has become increasingly militarized at the expense of its traditional role as a collector and analyzer of political intelligence. It used to be the CIA’s primary job to know the kinds of things that might have led us to be less surprised by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The shift to a more militarized CIA means that the Agency no longer focuses on that kind of information (perhaps encouraging technological workarounds?), hence the surprise at the ‘Arab Spring.’ Since September 11, I think there is a good case to be made that we ask the CIA to do too much, and the increasing focus on militarily useful intelligence comes at the expense of the political intelligence that forms the basis of sound foreign policy-making. The appointment of Petraeus creates the real possibility that this pattern will not only continue but also be cemented and accelerated. If that is the case, Americans and their policy-makers will be increasingly in the dark about the world and what happens in it.
Nobody has come close to explaining how strategic narratives work in international relations, despite the term being banded about. Monroe Price wrote a great article in the Huffington Post yesterday that moves the debate forward. As I have already written, strategic narratives are state-led projections of a sequence of events and identities, a tool through which political leaders try to give meaning to past, present and future in a way that justifies what they want to do. Getting others at home or abroad to accept or align with your narrative is a way to influence their behaviour. But like soft power, we have not yet demonstrated how strategic narratives work. We are documenting how great powers project narratives about the direction of the international system and their identities within that. We see the investments in public diplomacy and norm-promotion. We have not yet demonstrated that these projections have altered the behaviour of other states or publics. Does the Arab Spring show these narratives at work? Many leaders in the West and protestors taking part in the Arab Spring promoted a narrative about the spread of freedom, often conflating this with the hope and vigour of youth and emancipatory potential of social media. Of course this narrative may be bogus, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno argues in yesterday’s New York Times. However, the key point Price makes is that narratives set expectations, regardless of their veracity. Narratives defined what NOME leaders were expected to do: step aside! We can see the power of narratives by seeing what happens to those who defy them. Mubarak and Saif Gaddafi both gave speeches where they were expected to align with the narrative. The narrative set the context and expectation for how they should behave. But they did the opposite of what was expected. Price writes:
From a perspective of “strategic narratives,” Mubarak and young Gaddafi were speaking as players in an episode, set by key actors, international and domestic, who had the expectation that their wishes as to the playing out of the drama would be fulfilled. Their speeches did not match the sufficiently accepted script, in the case of Mubarak, or the incomplete outlines of one, as in the case of young Gaddafi.
Who has successfully promoted an overarching narrative? Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy? Where did the ‘Arab Spring’ narrative come from? How does an overarching narrative play out in each country? What room does it leave for individual governments and public to create their own destinies? In the next year, building up to a debate at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in San Diego in April, we will be exploring this.
There’s been some really interesting posts here on R2P in the last few days. At the risk of kicking a dead horse – although I hardly think this horse is dead – I’d like to raise a few points. (I’ve actually been writing this post over the past few days, and was going to post it later in the week, but Obama’s speech tonight made me want to post it earlier. You know, because hasty blogging is always a good thing.)
Most of my thinking has been on the issue of consistency/inconsistency with regards to R2P. I think I agree with Charli, there is no consistency requirement when it comes to R2P. For better and for worse, the case presently being made for R2P in Libya is that the international community is acting where it can when it can. The better part of this is that it’s relatively easy to protect civilians from conventional military forces (tanks, planes, etc) and this is why I think we see the action in Libya. Boots on the ground are not required, and if they were, it’s clear that they’re probably not coming. As Obama said tonight, boots on the ground would entail a situation where the “dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.”
The worse part of this, as implied by Obama’s speech, is that it is still very hard to end civil wars/ethnic strife (such as that of Rwanda – which provoked so much soul-searching about humanitarian intervention in the first place). And this is why we aren’t really seeing any intervention in Côte d’Ivoire – because everyone knows it would be a hot mess.
This is unfortunate. As the International Crisis Group has indicated in a letter to the UN Security Council today specifying that things are going very badly, very quickly in Côte d’Ivoire.
The security and humanitarian situation in Côte d’Ivoire is rapidly deteriorating. Civil war in the country has been reignited; we are no longer warning of the risk of war, but urging swift action to halt the fighting and prevent ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocity crimes. … the Security Council should immediately authorise military action to ensure the protection of the population by UNOCI or other authorised forces and to support President Alassane Ouattara and his government in exercising authority over the armed forces and ensuring the territorial integrity of the state…. According to the UN, 440 people have been killed and 500,000 have been forced to flee their homes. This toll is still growing. There are reports of sexual violence, summary execution and individuals being burnt alive. Gbagbo’s militias continue to perpetrate violence and organise road blocks controlled by armed men, and elements in the Ouattara camp have also been implicated in targeting civilians.
I think this situation answers the question that Jon raises in his post as to whether a threshold to act has been crossed. (Incidentally, I also agree with his conclusions on Libya, that it was likely a mass-atrocity by Gaddafi forces was about to be raised.)
So how can we morally defend the inconsistency of intervening in Libya and not Côte d’Ivoire? Is Obama’s pragmatism really a sufficient answer?
Well, as suggested above, Libya and Côte d’Ivoire are very different conflicts. Libya has been determined to be a conflict that can be solved from 10,000 feet. This is something that Western militaries are far more comfortable with because it clearly is much less of a risk to them AND they can avoid the very bad and messy pictures of boots on the ground which lend themselves to critiques of imperialism – if not just more images of western troops in another Middle Eastern country.
But I wonder if this means that R2P only lends itself to this kind of conflict? That we’re good to go for interventions where western forces can effectively bomb a conventional army into oblivion, but conflicts that require more direct and inherently risky intervention become an entirely different proposition. I think this is an obvious point – but it does point to the fact that anyone who seeks to make R2P a consistent norm is basically out of luck? That our inclination to “prevent, respond, rebuild” is going to be determined by the nature of the conflict rather than the need on the ground?
Certainly this is a concern that Obama alluded to and sought to answer in his speech:
In fact, much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya. On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all – even in limited ways – in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing concerns here at home. It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground…
The question is whether or not this then jeopardizes the morality of the norm. Obama’s pragmatism suggests that we have a responsibility to protect, but only where it’s convenient. Only where (American) lives are not at stake. What kind of norm is that? As one commenter argues:
If the “responsibility to protect” is a sacred principle, shouldn’t it be applied everywhere? What about those peaceful demonstrators who are being shot at by the Syrian army? What about the civilians threatened by the fighting between partisans of Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader who was elected president of Ivory Coast in November, and those of Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the election but refuses to leave? What about the Shia majority in Bahrain whose aspirations to social equality are brutally repressed by a Sunni dynasty with the help of Saudi Arabia?
In this sense, I think many of our (their) hesitations about R2P are about consistency. We worry about consistency because we like check-boxes. We like certainty. Perhaps it offers predictability. Or, as guest-Duck blogger Chris Brown has written (in his collection of essays) “one of the reasons why so many people look to developing rules that will constrain action is precisely because they do not trust the judgment of those who hold the great offices of state in the Western democracies” (adding that after Iraq, there are understandable reasons for this mistrust.)
Worries about inconsistency suggest that we’re actually really worried about something different – than rather than circumstances, R2P occurs because of different motivations. Libya has oil and Côte d’Ivoire has cocoa. It’s not surprising that there are accusations of something fishy going on here.
I’m not sure what to say – is this a sorry comfort kind of post? We can only intervene where we can be responsible; only where it’s pragmatic. Sub-Saharan Africa, you’re probably out of luck. Fans of Obama and R2P are going to have to work out the very difficult morality of that.
Ultimately, for me, just because no one is likely to do anything in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean Libya is illegitimate. However, the fact that another bloody and brutal war is clearly getting underway in another poor African country is also reminder of the very real limits of R2P, which neither compels states to act nor solves many of the central problems of HOW, WHEN and WHY we carry out humanitarian intervention. And that such interventions are never going to be consistent.
Women are supposed to be those innocent of war, protected by chivalric warriors. The Trojan War was made over Helen. G. W. Bush justified the invasion of Iraq with the platitude that “violence against women is always and everywhere wrong.” Yet Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times Op-Ed Section, notes that the story of the Libyan no-fly zone is one of “a group of strong women swooping down to shake the president out of his delicate sensibilities and show him the way to war.” A number of others have been framing this in terms of gender as well.
Dowd notes that “we have come a long way from the feminist international relations theory two decades ago that indulged in stereotypes about aggression being ‘male’ and conciliation being ‘female.’” This is a misreading of feminist international relations theory, and the misreading leads to a misinterpretation of the events surrounding the decision to go to war in Libya.
Rather than indulging in gender stereotypes, feminist international relations theory has always pushed back against gender essentialism. The argument that Dowd misreads is actually that aggression is often associated with masculinity (and thus expected of men) and conciliation is often associated with femininity (and thus expected of women), despite neither sex holding those characteristics naturally or essentially. It is the expectation of masculinity (rather than the presence of men, or their inherent manliness) that shapes (especially security) politics.
In fact, feminist international relations theorists have written extensively about women who “break the mold” of gender stereotypes – women leaders, women soldiers, and women terrorists – and how socially held gender stereotypes create double standards for, push back against, and punish them. They have argued that, so long as masculinity remains a standard in politics, both men and women will be constrained by that standard.
So what does this mean for Dowd (and others) who tell the story of women pressuring the President to “man up” and make the war in Libya? That is really a story of masculinity being required not only of Barack Obama but also of his (male and female) advisors. Masculinity (strength, decisiveness, aggression, dominance) is something we assume men possess when they enter the public sphere – but a characteristic women must prove. Women leaders are actually often overrepresented in “masculine” parts of government – defense, intelligence, and war – not because women are more aggressive than men, but because women must prove their masculinity while men’s is assumed.
But men’s masculinity is only assumed until it is questioned – and Barack Obama’s was questioned over an initially “soft” reaction to the situation in Libya. Proponents of intervention (including but not limited to Obama’s senior women aides) realized that they could challenge Obama’s masculinity as a way to get him to “man up” and “harden” his stance on Libya. The missiles flying over Libya were a victory for masculinity as a standard in U. S. political leadership as much as they were for the “Valkyries” that pressured the President into doing it. Any success will likely be credited to that masculinity, though any failure will likely be credited to women’s emotional and/or impulsive whims.
Instead of telling stories about “the men” and “the women” in politics, feminist international relations theorists have spent the last twenty years telling stories about the power of gender-based expectations on political interactions, from the interpersonal to the interstate. These stories remain relevant (and perhaps become more so) as Barack Obama defends his masculinity (and perhaps innocent, feminized Libyan civilians) in Libya in the coming months.
A couple of thoughts on Dana Priest and William Arkin’s series that began in the Washington Post yesterday. First, this is the type of story that is all but non-existent in our non-stop 24-hour news cycles — a two-year investigative report that pulls together thousands of bits and pieces of information and carefully assembles them to tell the bigger story of where we have traveled in the past decade. (I see that the story actually bumped CNN’s coverage of Sara Palin’s last tweet…) (Update: My bad — the Post actually featured Palin’s last tweet above the Top Secret America in the streaming news banner… oh well..)
Second, on the substance, the sheer size of this new intelligence and security system is staggering:
Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
I’m guessing when others take a closer look — we’ll find that Priest and Arkin are either double counting some things or tallying things that are only peripheral to the overall system.
Nonetheless, it is clear the United States is a garrison state. We are a society that lives in fear and we have a set of institutions designed specifically to hide the costs and consequences of our security. Since 9/11, the United States has hovered around 50% of global expenditures on defense, i.e., as much as the rest of the world combined. If we add the amount of spending on domestic security and all of the related state and municipal security and intelligence spending as part of overall security expenditures, that percentage no doubt sky rockets (this doesn’t even begin to consider the qualitative advantage of these capabilities — the US spends somewhere near two-thirds of the global R&D on security technology). Furthermore, the magnitude of the effort across multiple lead departments and agencies makes accountability almost impossible. Think about it: Where can sufficient oversight come from? What kind of institutional structure would be needed to control this system?
Priest and Arkin argue that we need to have a candid discussion about these institutions and whether or not they are worth it. Of course, scholars such as Andrew Bacevich and John Mueller have been making similar arguments — from different perspectives — for several years. But here’s the problem: there are powerful structural forces that entrench and perpetuate this system: private security firms and commercial defense industries with powerful economic motives are coupled with epistemic communities that provide the ideological justifications for the system; personnel systems that encourage/allow tight relationships and/or revolving doors between government agencies and private firms; and, massive bureaucracies that expand and adapt to new roles and missions, etc…. In addition, once the system grows as big as it is, there is a diffusion effect. For example, stimulus money is being used to construct not only new security facilities, but also to construct the infrastructure (roads, communications lines, and other municipal services) to support those facilities. This isn’t just about security, its also about jobs.
Aaron Friedberg argued that the United States was able to avoid becoming a garrison state after World War II largely because of the objections of the anti-statists in the American public –= principally Midwest Conservative Republicans. But where are the domestic constituencies capable of checking the garrison state today? The Eisenhower anti-statists within the Republican party of the 1950s died with the Reagan revolution. Today’s “anti-statists” aren’t really anti-statist — for example, they are farmers who oppose Obama”s “socialism” but demand agricultural subsidies or they are seniors concerned about ObamaCare because of how it might affect Medicare or their Veteran health benefits, etc… No one in the Tea Party movement that loathes the rising deficit is calling for a reduction of American defense or security expenditures.
The left is equally unwilling or incapable of stemming the flow. Progressives mobilized to elect Barak Obama. But, Obama entered office as the most constrained president since Harry Truman — two wars and a global financial meltdown — and much of this security infrastructure was already in place. Obama’s problem-solving pragmatism has ignored the progressive agenda and there don’t appear to be any articulate or strong voices challenging this “Top Secret America” system from within the Democratic Party leadership.
I agree that we need a rational discussion on risks and threat and we need more transparency regarding the institutions that are being designed. I’m just skeptical that we will have one….
Washington and its “partner” in Kabul are simultaneously pursuing different strategies to try to bring the war in Afghanistan to a conclusion. While the US has opted to pursue a “whack-a-mole” military strategy across Southern Afghanistan that drives the Taliban from one district only to have them pop up in the next one, the Karzai regime is moving forward with its reconciliation strategy. In essence, the Americans have foregrounded a military strategy while the Karzai regime (with some support from the UN) is promoting a political strategy.
The US has sidelined the “grand reconciliation” approach because they think it is simply not viable — particularly since the leadership of the parties with which a reconciliation deal would need to be made are considered war criminals and terrorists. The US prefers instead to pay lip service to a rather anemic economic “reintegration” package for ordinary fighters, which has not worked well and is unlikely to sway the majority of Taliban fighters. Contrary to US propaganda, the majority of Taliban appear to be ideologically rather than economically motivated. The current US military surge does not have much of a political strategy beside attempting to clear an area of the Taliban and transfer authority to a pre-fabricated local government. Although the US claims to be building up governance capacity in the state bureaucracy and security forces there is very little reason to believe that the US is doing much more than expediting an exit strategy. Political science is simply not sufficiently advanced as a discipline to teach the Americans how to build a strong state in Afghanistan by 2011.
The US-led military surge in Afghanistan is based, at least in part, on a mistaken understanding of the surge in Iraq. In the run up to the 2008 US presidential elections, it was candidate Obama who properly understood that the “Anbar Awakening” began several months before the announcement of a troop surge by President Bush. (The role of Muqtada al-Sadr in reigning in his “Mahdi Army” was also critical.) It was candidate McCain who falsely asserted that the surge created a safe space for the Anbar Awakening (see New York Times, 24 July 2008). When McCain was called out for his mistaken chronology, he argued that he meant it was the overall counterinsurgency strategy that created space for the Anbar Awakening by providing protection for tribal leaders. Of course, the surge was unable to prevent “Al Qaeda in Iraq” from assassinating Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who led the Anbar Salvation Council. The sheikh died only ten days after he met with President Bush, General Petraeus, Secretary Gates and Ambassador Crocker. While the troop surge in Iraq may have provided a measure of additional security, it did not create the conditions for a political solution.
Nevertheless, it is McCain’s mistaken history which has been adopted (de facto) by President Obama, even though candidate Obama had argued in 2008 that he still would not have supported the surge in Iraq even if had the foresight to see how it would play out. Since outlining a new strategy in December 2009, President Obama seems to believe that a military surge will create space for a political solution to emerge. If a political solution does not emerge, the US will still attempt to hand over “responsibility” to the Karzai regime as soon as possible. If the Karzai regime falters, which it undoubtedly will once foreign forces retreat, the US will blame the regime for not having sufficiently tackled corruption. (The idea that corruption could be substantially improved in one of the most impoverished and war ravaged societies in the world — where one’s personal security and livelihood is still contingent to a large degree on social networks — is utterly absurd.)
Meanwhile, the Karzai regime has announced plans for a National Peace Jirga [Assembly] in April and he has hinted at a grand reconciliation bargain. Of course, Karzai has been desperately offering vague reconciliation packages to the Taliban since December 2001. So in a sense, none of this is new — although there has been a renewed vigor to these efforts since the January 2010 donor conference in London. What is new is the willingness of a significant (albeit increasingly weak) militant group to enter into negotiations (reports of negotiations with other resistance leaders is disputed by the core Taliban organization).
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami offered the following peace plan to the Karzai regime last week (Summary based on the report by Tolo TV, 31 March 2010):
Withdraw US/ISAF from Afghanistan beginning in July 2010 and complete by January 2011;
Transfer security to the ANA and ANP. Foreign forces may not take part in any military and search operations; or have any prison in Afghanistan;
Form an interim government after six months; the current government and parliament should be dissolved after six months;
Hold presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections simultaneously in the spring of 2012;
Form a seven-member national security council with the authority to make final decisions on important national issues;
An electoral council should have authority to consider the constitution, which is proposed by the three judicial, legislative and executive powers and make the final decision about it;
Persons tainted by charges of embezzlement, drug trafficking, seizure of national properties and war criminals should be handed over to a Shari’ah court;
All hostilities should be halted and all political detainees should be released;
The rights of women should be guaranteed;
Talks should begin with all other parties fighting against the government.
The proposal did not make much headway with the Karzai regime, particularly since it calls for the complete dissolution of his regime and the removal of the foreign forces that are propping up that regime.
There are a few points about Hekmatyar’s proposal which should be noted. First, Hizb-e-Islami has slightly shifted from the standard Taliban party line which states that there will be no negotiations until foreign forces quit Afghanistan. Instead of a complete withdrawal, Hekmatyar is willing to accept a six month time table. Second, as pointed out in Hasht-e-Sobh newspaper (30 March 2010), Hekmatyar supports holding elections. This is a major difference between Hizb-e-Islami and the core Taliban organization which rejects elections.
Despite the failure of Hekmatyar’s proposal, Karzai has a strong interest to continue to seek a political solution since he can clearly see that the US will likely depart in the near future, leaving his regime very vulnerable. Karzai would also like to limit any intermediary role in future peace negotiations by the Government of Pakistan and the only way to do this is to take the initiative.
There seems to be support among Afghans for some sort of political compromise solution with the resistance forces, but the devil is in the details. For example, a member of the Wolasi Jirga (Lower House), Mohammad Daud Soltanzai, stated on the state owned National Afghanistan TV (30 March 2010): “We want reconciliation which should not be against the constitution, democracy and the basic structure.”
Some Afghan newspapers are more critical of reconciliation efforts. For example, Daily Afghanistan (29 March 2010) quoted one Kabul resident as saying, “They say the government is negotiating with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar these days. We have known for a long time that Hekmatyar sides with the party that ensures his interests. Although our people want peace in their country, the person who has tortured our people should not be allowed to come back so easily and be imposed on our people.”
The official US position on Karzai’s negotiations is that this strategy is premature (as stated by Secretary Gates), but that the US supports efforts as long as the reconciled groups accept the constitution, renounce violence and Al Qaeda. The US would prefer to have the Karzai regime bargain from a position of strength once it breaks the momentum of the insurgency. Ultimately, however, US policy is based on the narrow pursuit of America’s national interest which is increasingly defined as exiting the war in Afghanistan as soon as possible regardless of the viability of the client regime.
The difference in strategy is leading to ever harsher rhetoric from Kabul, since the US military strategy clearly undermines Karzai’s political strategy. As an editorial in Hewad (a state owned newspaper, published in Dari out of Kabul) noted on 31 March 2010:
“Afghanistan does not need military operations, it needs peace efforts. Under instructions from president Hamed Karzai, preparations are under way for National Peace Jirga which is scheduled to take place one month later in Kabul. Accelerating military operations ahead of this Jirga definitely undermines peace efforts and hurts the trust and hopes of the people about this Jirga. If everyone supports the reconciliation process and accelerates peace efforts, then we are sure that there will be no need for military operations anywhere in the country and war will be ended through negotiations.”
It is not at all surprising in this context that President Karzai has begun publicly denouncing American envoys. On the other hand, the idea that Karzai might pardon some of the most notorious leaders of the resistance, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, alarms the US. Instead of lecturing and denouncing one another, the “partners” need to re-engage in a dialog about how to end the war.
My previous remarks about the relative lack of attention to climate change in Obama’s speech were written after having read the text of Obama’s speech. I stand by those comments – he spent 160 words on nuclear proliferation, 663 on human rights, and 128 on poverty reduction; but only 79 on climate change, which was folded into “freedom from want” rather than separated out into its own section.
However, having now listened to the whole thing, I am considerably more blown away about the speech as a whole. For IR scholars and human security specialists, this speech will probably be one of those that define his Presidency.
I am completing focus groups with practitioners who work in the “human security” network today. We’ve recruited individuals working for NGOs, international organizations, UN specialized agencies, think-tanks, and ministries and donor agencies of governments whose diplomatic efforts are prominent in the areas of human rights, development, humanitarian affairs, conflict prevention and environmental security. While NGOs and UN officials have been eager to join us for these discussions, I’ve been interested to see what a difficult time we’ve had recruiting government officials to participate.
Possibly, it’s the term “human security” that is troublesome to people. Canada has long since abandoned this jargon. The US avoids it, while participating in the promotion of human security in many different ways abroad. I wonder if Obama’s speech, which ties together the elements of a broad human security agenda – peace with justice, just war, promotion of human rights, freedom from want, and environmental security – will reinvigorate our understanding of human security as a master paradigm for global governance in the new century.
Namely, with the Copenhagen summit at hand, I’d have liked to see more than just a passing reference to the relationship between the environment and war, and the fact that mitigating the impacts of climate change will be one of our most urgent security problems in the next century. How do readers interpret the relative marginalization of climate issues in the speech?
“No blank checks… hold people accountable for results…” Or what? We’re not going to give them billions of dollars in aid?
As I wrote at Current Intelligence, what I liked about the speech is that President Obama began by using just war theory to draw a clear distinction between the war in Iraq (illegal, unjust, and one he opposed) and the war in Afghanistan (legal, justified and one he did and continues to support). The two conflicts have been so muddled under the rubric of the “global war on terror” and so much of Iraq’s bad PR has rubbed off on Afghanistan that this point needed to be made. He was drawing on and reconstituting the UN Charter regime when he reminded us that the initial 2001 war was authorized by Congress, legitimized by the Security Council and involved a broad coalition, and took place only in response to the Taliban’s refusal to apprehend or extradite individuals suspected of a crime against humanity under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.
But I have some critical reactions too. On Democracy Now this morning Congressman Kucinich was blasting the speeech as well as the strategy. I thought many of his remarks missed the point, but he was correct in saying that the speech badly conflates the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It’s the Taliban the troops would be facing in Afghanistan – as Gen. McChrystal reported in September and Senator McGovern reiterated on NPR today, only perhaps 100 members of al-Qaeda remain in the country – yet it is the spectre of al-Qaeda that Obama is using as a justification for the troop increase. I like Presidents to clarify rather than confuse, so this troubled me, but I do see this as rhetoric not as a conceptual error in the strategy itself. Obama knows full well this is a counter-insurgency, not a counter-terror operation, and his new rules of engagement reflect that understanding. But I’d have liked to see him try to sell the US public on nation-building per se as in our vital national interest rather than fall back on tired old Bush Admin rhetoric about new attacks and threats to our own borders.
I was also troubled that Obama didn’t weed out the term “cancer” from the speech before he presented it. He used this term twice to describe insurgent and anti-American currents in South Asia and transnationally. Equating those who think, believe or act differently from us as pathogens (or anything sub-human) should be beneath this President and is not necessary to make his case.