The Longest War: What is Our Mission?

Last Sunday, the New York Times described the campaign of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis to expose systematic embellishment by top military leaders of the status of mission in Afghanistan.  In Davis’ Afghanistan, in which he traveled and interviewed extensively, Afghan police have made secret pacts with the Taliban, U.S. forces barely control territory outside their own bases, and trust between American and Afghan soldiers is deservedly weak.

Yesterday, the newspaper ran a first-person piece by two special forces officers, an American and an Afghan, published (but not written) to contrast with the Davis story.  In their Afghanistan, the Afghan Army is disciplined, patriotic, scrappy, and eager for American tutelage.  They offer some criticisms, too; we need to better value and train military advisors, emphasize personal American-Afghan relationships, and recognize less measurable but more important metrics as indicators of success.  But the message is clear: we should not give up yet.

Ten years, four months, and one week

It is possible that both of these accounts are correct; Afghanistan is a big place, and events on the ground change quickly.  But Lt. Col. Davis’ main rhetorical question “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?” confronts President Obama with a stark reminder of the consequences of prolonging the longest war in American history until 2014.

The answer depends on whether or not our mission in Afghanistan is vital, which in turn raises the question of what our mission is.  If the mission is to defeat the Taliban, and it is vital, then the answer must be: “As many men must die as it takes to defeat the Taliban, whether that mission is succeeding right now or not.”  But defeating the Taliban appears no longer to be our mission.  If it were, Mitt Romney would be right to charge that setting a date for withdrawal is foolish.

Instead, the Pentagon is focused on training the Afghan Army and national police to wield legitimate, monopolized force on behalf of a legitimate, effective central government.  Policy analysts and academics have proposed several compromise strategies, including decentralized as opposed to centralized governance and containment as opposed to eradication of the Taliban.  Total victory is no longer spoken of; the best the President could do in his State of the Union–“The Taliban’s momentum has been broken”–  was widely dismissed as wishful.  (Having campaigned on a platform of refocusing on the good war in Afghanistan rather than the bad war in Iraq, the President is heavily invested in an honorable drawdown that looks something like a victory.)

Defeating the Taliban is also arguably no longer vital.  America attacked the Taliban because it was providing safe harbor to al-Qaeda, which is now already in retreat in much of the world and is certainly no longer based primarily in Afghanistan (most of its leadership is in Pakistan, with other franchises emerging elsewhere).  Even if a strong, secular, friendly federal state emerged in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would continue to exist.  One might argue that al-Qaeda is sure to flood back into Afghanistan when American forces depart, and that may be true.  But it’s difficult to see how prolonging our presence will permanently change that reality, especially now that the Afghans and al-Qaeda know our departure date.

Our soldiers are dying.  This war is long.  Neither of these things alone mean that we should end it.  But what are we trying to accomplish?

Five Bad Arguments Against Humanitarian Intervention

The question of humanitarian intervention is complicated even if we pretend it is not.

NATO bombs a Serbian ammunition depot in Bosnia, 1995

A U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Syria remains unlikely, even as sanctions intensify and the Free Syrian Army’s struggle against the al-Assad regime increasingly resembles a civil war.  China and Russia recently vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution against the regime, true to Russia’s word.  The veto, along with ongoing carnage in Homs, has refocused the world’s attention on the savagery in Syria.

America’s military will likely remain on the sidelines this time.  Despite what its March intervention in Libya might suggest, America remains averse to armed conflict.  Many favorable circumstances surrounded the Libya foray; these are absent in Syria. So emerges the difficult question: do we intervene?

Robert Pape’s nuanced New York Times op-ed establishes a potentially useful rule, or at least a significant independent variable, for determining the viability of humanitarian intervention: control by opposition forces of a large region of the country.  This condition was met in Libya, he writes; in Syria, the extent of the Free Syrian Army’s foothold remains unclear for now.

That Pape opposes humanitarian intervention in Syria (for now) does not make him unusual: see my earlier post on this matter.  What makes him unusual is that he does so intelligently.

Below are five much less intelligent but much more common ways to oppose humanitarian intervention.

1.      Recalling That the United States Has Done Bad Things Before

“What about the Native Americans?  What about Vietnam and Cambodia?  What about slavery?  What about Abu Ghraib?”

Good questions.  What about them?  Would you have opposed moving to stop those atrocities or not?  If so, then you’re categorically opposed to humanitarian intervention.  If not, then you support it sometimes and need to explain why you oppose it in this case, as Pape does.  If you’re just bringing these episodes up in order to question America’s right to impose humanitarian intervention elsewhere, then remember that many of America’s past crimes are crimes of passivity.  What about Rwanda?  What about Darfur?  If you believe these outrages should have been prevented (and know of a country without sin that can cast the first Tomahawk in America’s stead), speak up now.

2.      Pointing Out That the United States Does Not Intervene Every Time Bad Things Happen

“What about North Korea?  What about Zimbabwe?  What about Saudi Arabia?”

Pointing out that we do not consistently invade or not invade every unhappy place on earth does not, on its own, constitute an argument against humanitarian intervention.  The question, then, is why these other cases are being raised.  If they are being raised to argue that the United States should never intervene abroad, period, then so be it: Rwanda and Cambodia are our success stories.  If the point is that the United States always should, then more interventions are being argued for, not less.  If neither of the above points is being made, as is usually the case, then no point is being made at all.

3.      Grumbling That the United States Has Ulterior Motives

OK, I take that back.  Someone might also bring up other unsavory regimes to make a different point: that the United States is hypocritical for seeking to bring down one evil regime while it protects, arms, and funds others.  This is a sound argument for some purposes, but not for opposing a given instance of humanitarian intervention.  No country needs impeccable moral credentials in order to do the right thing today, and no country will ever have them.

Alternatively, it might be argued that while the intervention is the right thing to do, we are doing it for the wrong reasons (often “oil” or “imperialism”).  This also does not delegitimize the intervention itself.

4.      Warning That Things Will Go Wrong

As Pape shows, this argument can be made well.  Having researched the role of air power in the past, he writes that it “alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.”  It is true that, unlike Qaddafi’s vulnerable and isolated attack force, al-Assad’s forces are difficult to bomb.

To be credible, though, this argument must come with an acknowledgement that nothing about the future is certain, and that inaction has its own consequences.  Syria is no exception to this rule: civilians will die with or without an intervention, and the international community is responsible both for what it does and for what it does not do.

5.      Eye-rolling

This is an easy one, and you don’t need to know anything to do it.  Most opposition to humanitarian intervention takes this form.

Catch-2012: Big-Spending Socialist, or Troop-Hating One?

The U.S. Navy plans to re-fit a decommissioned amphibious transport dock, called the U.S.S. Ponce, as a “mothership” for special operations forces, helicopters, and small high-speed boats.  The Ponce is to serve as a new offshore staging ground for small-scale operations in the Middle East.

The arrival of the Ponce in the Red Sea will coincide with a shift toward a leaner, better-trained military; the Pentagon has planned nearly half a trillion dollars in spending cuts over the next decade.  Overall troop strength will decline by nearly 100,000, returning to levels slightly higher than in 2000.  Our troop presence in Europe will be cut in half.  Ships will be retired and orders of the new F-35 fighter reduced.

The "Mothership" U.S.S. Ponce

No sane Republican presidential candidate will fail to leap upon the Pentagon budget cuts as evidence of President Obama’s insouciance/incompetence/malevolence (the diagnosis varies: is he a socialist menace? A golf-addicted dilettante?  An underqualified community organizer?).   They have ample incentive to do so.  Much of Obama’s remaining job approval lies in the foreign policy bucket, ready to be siphoned.  Apparently inverted is the conventional wisdom that Democratic presidents are soft on foreign policy (with only both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya, and a few other adventures to their credit) and strong on economic issues.

Yet even after a year of doctrinaire only-cuts-will-do politics from Republicans, the argument will be made with a straight face: By allowing the Pentagon to cut its budget, Obama is retreating from the world.  He’s appeasing China.  He’s letting Iran run amok.

This presumes a link between budget reduction and foreign policy passivity.  Programs can’t be effective without big budgets: there’s a conservative idea.

Voters have at least some sense of what philosophy (if not what policies) they will be supporting where economic issues are concerned.  Regarding our actions overseas, however, they cannot be so confident.  Ridiculing Obama’s supposed softness toward terror suspects will not get far with the general electorate, for whom the phrase “drone strike” has become a banality and the bin Laden raid a Call-of-Duty fantasy.  On this score it is Obama’s base, not those who would unseat him, to whom he must explain himself.

Obama has been tough on Iran, and prioritized the Pacific as the naval theatre of the future.  Attacking his handling of the Arab Spring remains risky; with the jury still out, that complex and still-unfolding episode is treacherous territory for criticism, which ranged from the tentative to the incoherent early in the campaign and has since petered out. Indeed, candidates now seem to have opted not to challenge the President’s non-Iran Middle East policies directly but instead to issue bizarre proncouncements that might earn them a few extra votes from the far right (“Palestinians are an invented people”/“Turkey is ruled by Islamic terrorists”).

The dispatch of the refitted Ponce to the Middle East represents a more efficient, modern military for a post-Soviet, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-profligacy era.  The rhetoric of the president’s challengers—insipid, tired, unimaginative—likewise needs retooling.

Marwa Daoudy: A Weak Case Against Military Intervention in Syria

Don't feed the rhetoric: Bashar al-Assad

Last Thursday on, Marwa Daoudy argued against what virtually no one is arguing for: U.S. military intervention in Syria.

In her opening paragraph, Daoudy sets the mostly imagined controversy up as one unfolding between enlightened voices like hers and those of “neo-Orientalists,” who, she notes, “once characterized” the Arab world as “politically and economically stagnant.”  Confession: I have once or twice applied the same characterization.  Please forgive my neo-Orientalism.

The Warmongers

Prompting Daoudy’s call for restraint are articles recently released by Washington-based think tanks (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) advocating a more aggressive foreign policy toward the Assad regime.  Instead of addressing the neoconservative think tanks’ arguments, and despite their stopping short of calling for regime change, Daoudy reminds us of their “history of pro-war advocacy” and links to the second Bush administration.  The think tanks, it seems, are on the march.

It gets worse.  The National Security Council itself has, apparently, investigated options for an intervention.  These options include establishing safe zones and humanitarian corridors.  The Syrian National Council, which represents the opposition, has also called for a no-fly zone to be established by the West (ah, so the neocons are not alone after all).

“The long term goal,” in Daoudy’s estimation, “is clearly strategic: to tame Syria as a key regional player” and “shape the country’s geopolitical links.”  Regime change, war, or tactical bombing would indeed serve those aims, but how would the humanitarian measures being proposed tame Syria as a regional player?  And this theory does not account for timing; it is Syria’s domestic murderousness, not its uncooperative foriegn policy, that is new here.  The options into which the NSC has looked seem more suited to the preservation of human life than the advancement of a geopolitical master plan; sorry if that sounds terribly naïve.

We Shall Overcome

Eventually, Daoudy meanders away from intonations about “pro-war” think tanks—who, to reiterate, do not advocate regime change or even all-out combat against Syrian forces—and toward an actual argument against military intervention (presumably by the U.S., since she addresses no other state’s foreign policy).  In doing this, she both selects the wrong target and aims poorly.

If a foreign military intervention happens in Syria, it will be Turkish, not American.  In fact, a Turkish intervention might already be said to have begun: Turkey has trained and harbored defectors of the Free Syrian Army, and Haaretz reports that Turkish officials today confiscated four Iranian truckloads of Syria-bound weapons.  His “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine apparently a victim of history, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already called on Bashar al-Assad to step down and approved sanctions against Syria.  Despite this, Daoudy mentions Turkey twice, both times in passing.

But let us suppose that America were indeed dusting off the 2003 war drums.  Why not bomb Damascus?  First, Daoudy invokes the reviled Iraq War and the less-reviled Libya intervention, attempting to establish a pattern of interventions gone awry.  She asserts that these interventions “appalled” Syrians, to whom she ascribes no ability to distinguish between the two episodes, or between either episode and the current one.

Daoudy then acknowledges that Syrian suffering has reached an “unbearable” level, before arguing, in so many words, that Syrians should go on bearing it.  She describes worsening living conditions, rising violence perpetrated by military defectors and frustrated civilians, and the state-sponsored orgy of torture, murder, and intimidation that has only accelerated since the departure of Arab League monitors.  She then calls not only for foreign powers to mind their own business, but for Syrian rebels to lay down their weapons and emulate Gandhi.

Don’t Feed the Rhetoric

Armed resistance, writes Daoudy, “could feed into official rhetorics on foreign-led insurgency.”   First of all, the official rhetoric of Syria is clear to Syrians; it is made of bullets, shells, and mutilated children.  Also, note what is implied here: that anything on which an adversary’s rhetoric can feed should be avoided.  That doctrine gives our adversaries practically limitless control over our actions; if they want us not to do something, they need only harangue their subjects about our nefarious plans to do it.

Daoudy also cautions that unarmed resistance has drawn “momentum and power” by being peaceful.  How she knows this is a mystery.  To claim that the Syrian uprising has been gaining momentum at all is a stretch; to identify nonviolence as the sole source of that momentum requires powers of divination I do not possess.

Daoudy claims without qualification that any foreign intervention—again, we are talking here about no-fly zones or safe havens—would push all hitherto undecided Syrians into the arms of the regime.    No historical precedent comes to mind that justifies this causal assumption (the case of Libya appears to weaken it); please leave a comment if you think of one.

Eventually, Daoudy prescribes two measures for the international community—human rights fact-finding missions and, “with time,” targeted sanctions which spare the general population.  She urges restraint and nonviolence from Syrians.  Whether or not nonviolence is the best course, it seems presumptuous both to tell us how Syrians would react to foreign intervention and to tell Syrians how they should react to being massacred by their own state.

We Have the Wolf by the Ear: Cut Egypt’s Military Aid

Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi

In 1820, the year the Missouri Compromise cleaved Maine from Massachusetts to maintain the Congressional balance between free and slave states, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the peculiar institution: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

Until 2011, U.S. administrations were more or less content to hold close their Arab wolves (Mubarak, ben Ali, and the semi-tamed Qaddafi).  And in 2011, once the issue was forced, the wolves were rather easily let go.  But as Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces showed late last week when it raided the offices of NGOs dedicated to nourishing Egypt’s abused civil society, Hosni Mubarak was not the only wolf in Cairo.  The remaining wolves (Tantawi, Mohammed, Anan) present U.S. policymakers with a trickier problem than the old strongman.

Holding these wolves—which in concrete terms means continuing annual military aid payments of $1.3 billion, second only to Israel’s—will, to say the least, compromise the Obama administration’s attempt to demonstrate its solidarity with demonstrators.  On the other hand, some fear that letting them go will benefit the Islamic extremists they once held at bay.  This seemingly dichotomous choice results precisely from the ruthless trampling of centrist political movements over decades of military rule.

Indeed, as I heard John P. Entelis emphatically aver at a panel discussion at the Elliott School this fall, stage new elections anywhere in the Arab world and Islamists will win, in the first contest and probably in the second, too.  But, as he went on to say, this is not because of the immutable, violent Islamism warned against by Middle Eastern regimes; it is because of the very conditions those regimes deliberately created.  Where secular political opposition was too dangerous to brook, Islamism was useful as a bogeyman with which to scare the West—“it’s us or them.”  Thus did Islamist opposition groups accrue the advantages we see today.

We will never be certain that Arab democracy will produce friendly, docile allies.  In fact, in the short term we should assume that it will not.  The lesson of 2011, however, is that no moral alternative to democracy existed ever, and no practical alternative exists anymore, for America.  Our choice is not between democracy and theocracy, or between chaos and order.  Those choices are for Egyptians.  Our $1.3 billion choice is simple: do we hold the wolf or let it go?

Iran and America: 2012 Predictions

The withdrawal from Iraq in the dying days of 2011 does not, it seems, signal the end of America’s Middle East expedition.  This year gave us little cause to think it would: both Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence and the political crisis wracking Iraq’s government portend prolonged Western engagement, and perhaps a recommitment of troops.  Revolutionary fragility in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen present further causes for concern.  And yesterday, Iran issued its first challenge to America’s post-war role by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of seaborne oil passes daily (including much of Iran’s).

All of this sets the stage for 2012, which will likely witness an Iranian-American contest for influence in an amorphous, volatile Arab world.  Both states will calibrate their aggression: The United States will aim to prod Iraqi politics in favorable directions, while Iran will continue to promote its own interests there and to press against the West in hopes of provoking a response against which to rally the people.

Iran’s attempt to seize the initiative makes sense.  In military terms, its threat against oil shipments is unenforceable, particularly against America’s Fifth Fleet (indeed, Iran’s threats barely shook oil prices).  But anything which might bring American military adventurism back into global headlines, distract from controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, and signal Iran’s potency—Syria’s implosion notwithstanding—is worth pursuing.

What is America to do?  Iran’s leadership likely calculates that in an election year, the Great Satan’s incumbent executive lacks heart for sustained conflict, especially because fighting may involve the reversal of what American officials have striven to portray as a dignified withdrawal.  Further constraining American action is President Obama’s vulnerability to accusations that, while he focuses excessively on expensive foreign matters, his own citizens struggle to get by.  Iran is probably more or less right about this.  In 2012, barring certain catastrophic eventualities, American action in the Persian Gulf will be heavily circumscribed.

These pressures, however, will drive American policy in the right direction.  Iran’s leadership would welcome few American initiatives more than those which emanate from the Pentagon.  In 2011, it will be remembered, the great global political thaw brought down an entire ice sheet of Middle Eastern dictatorship.  The Iranian chunk has outlasted some others, but its time will come; the quickest way to defeat it is simply to let it melt.

This hands-off approach has its limits, however.  Iran may either miscalculate or choose to risk challenging the United States; if the regime determines that a warlike posture increases its chances of survival, expect it to assume one.  And if such aggression takes place on a sufficiently intolerable scale, America will retaliate (election year be damned).  Avoiding war in the event of a large-scale Iranian attack on Israel, an embargo of Persian Gulf oil, or a nuclear detonation is as politically untenable as launching war in the absence of one.