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Archive for the ‘foreign policy’ Category

That is Aaron Blake’s advice for the White House (Washington Post): “For the first time since January, President Obama is polling a 50 percent approval rating on an issue: his handling of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

The newest WaPo-ABC poll shows 50 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the Islamic State, as compared to 44 percent who disapprove. That’s an improvement from August, when the question referenced only Iraq and not Syria, and 42 percent of Americans gave Obama a vote of confidence.

I might be alone in this, but I was more attracted to the “degrade ISIL to a manageable problem” version of Obama.

Let us grant that ISIL is comprised of some rather evil creatures and they have been quite proud to reveal their propensity to torture and kill innocent people, often in large numbers and on video. One still must make the argument that ISIL constitutes a genuine threat to our national interest that is so significant as to justify the recent (and ongoing escalation). I have yet to hear anyone make that argument to my satisfaction.

Political scientist Stephen Walt (PBS Newshour) seems to have it right:

we have to recognize this is not the Third Reich. This is not an incredibly powerful movement. It has maybe 20,000 fighters, no air force, no navy, basically lightly armed infantry that has been able to expand in stateless area, areas that are stateless in part because we destroyed the states that were governing there.

The advice:

There are lots of groups around the world who would like to be able to go after the United States. Most of them fail. And, in fact, the way to deal with it is primarily with intelligence and counterterrorism here at home.

Gary Brecher (War Nerd) arrives at a similar conclusion, albeit with a bit more swag, when he describes ISIL as “the most overrated, over-hyped bunch of hams this side of WWE… a mid-size Sunni militia with a knack for child-rape and no skills against anyone who doesn’t fall for their death-metal hype.”

If Walt is correct, why is ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State generating such a muscular response? Perhaps because

  1. It feeds into the “Obama’s failed foreign policy” meme. Remember, he is the guy who called them “JV,” before skipping out on his daily briefings to hit the links;
  2. It comes with some striking visuals that took the media by storm in the months usually reserved for shark attacks;
  3. It provides a window of opportunity for the neocons to return from exile and relitigate the Global War on Terror;
  4. Our elected officials are incapable of engaging in serious, sober, well-reasoned debates under normal circumstances, and never when an election is a few months away.

Now that our expanded attack on ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State is delivering the goods in the public opinion polls, one suspects that the current course will be sustained at least until November or the Champaign runs out and Americans rediscover that war produces casualties.

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Number 7

Glenn Greenwald notes that the bombing targets in Syria marks something of a new record:

Syria becomes the 7th predominantly Muslim country bombed by the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate – after Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Iraq.

The utter lack of interest in what possible legal authority Obama has to bomb Syria is telling indeed: empires bomb who they want, when they want, for whatever reason (indeed, recall that Obama bombed Libya even after Congress explicitly voted against authorization to use force, and very few people seemed to mind that abject act of lawlessness; constitutional constraints are not for warriors and emperors).

President Obama gave a stirring speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He proclaimed:

I believe that all nations—strong and weak alike—must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.  I—like any head of state—reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.

And

America—in fact, no nation—can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.  For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.

For those who do not recall President Obama’s remarks at the acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, you can read them in their entirety here.

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Barack Obama announced his new strategy for ISIL on 9/10:

“So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultation with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.” –

The coalition partners are important because our efforts

“will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. The counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL, wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners on the ground. This strategy…is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

Leaving aside the reference to Yemen and Somalia, let’s consider the coalition of our “partners on the ground.” On September 11, a number of Arab nations joined to sign an agreement to assist in the campaign against ISIL, that included providing humanitarian aid and “as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign.” The “as appropriate” clause might give one pause. As the New York Times explains:

While Arab nations allied with the United States vowed on Thursday to “do their share” to fight ISIS and issued a joint communiqué supporting a broad strategy, the underlying tone was one of reluctance. The government perhaps most eager to join a coalition against ISIS was that of Syria, which Mr. Obama had already ruled out as a partner for what he described as terrorizing its citizens.

(more…)

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President Obama’s comments at a press conference in Estonia has attracted quite a bit of heat. The President stated:

“we know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

As one talking head proclaimed:

“The president needs to have the same type of resolve that I think we as individuals have when we see and read the truth about what the Islamic State desires, which is a world way beyond Iraq and Syria, and it must be destroyed, each and every one of them needs to be killed and stopped.”

The critique, predictably, has a certain Manichaean feel: ISIL is evil and evil must be destroyed. And with that, the drums of war beat once again.

I have little doubt that ISIL is evil (and yes, I believe in evil) and that some (perhaps all) members of ISIL would be pleased to kill US citizens (the recent beheading videos leave little doubt). But when something is cast as evil and we commit to doing whatever is necessary to destroy it, we run into some obvious problems. Even if evil can be personified in “Jihadi John,” (the nickname given to the ISIL executioner, veiled in black, with a British accent), it cannot be reduced to a single person or a collection of people who can be killed (“each and every one”). Here, I think Hannah Arendt was closer to the truth when she used a different metaphor: “Evil …can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.” Given the pervasiveness of evil, a war on evil could prove open ended (kind of like a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror…). Such wars are used repeatedly to expand the role of the state, justify assaults on liberty, and turn a blind eye to the substantial collateral damage.

In this context, the prudent person needs to evaluate the magnitude of the threat and then conduct something of a cost-benefit analysis. What is the most cost-effective means of reducing the capacity of those intent on evil from constituting a serious threat? How can we transform a given threat into “a manageable problem”? Perhaps this analysis will reveal that we don’t need to “follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” as Vice President Biden declared Wednesday in New Hampshire?

There are a lot of evil people in the world. Some we kill. Some we incarcerate. Some we incapacitate. Some we rehabilitate. Some we bribe. Some we ignore. Often we pragmatically try a combination of strategies and the combination evolves over time as our understanding grows or circumstances change. Unfortunately, this is an analysis that is particularly difficult to conduct two months before the midterm elections, when a lot of unserious people and neocons are competing for face time in the media.

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A few weeks ago I posted on the distribution of war surplus to state and local law enforcement agencies under the DOD’s Excess Property Program. This is all part of a larger trend detailed in the ACLU’s new report, War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. From the executive summary:

This investigation gave us data to corroborate a trend we have been noticing nationwide: American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.Using these federal funds, state and local law enforcement agencies have amassed military arsenals purportedly to wage the failed War on Drugs, the battlegrounds of which have disproportionately been in communities of color. But these arsenals are by no means free of cost for communities. Instead, the use of hyper- aggressive tools and tactics results in tragedy for civilians and police officers, escalates the risk of needless violence, destroys property, and undermines individual liberties.

The Guardian has a useful overview of the report, and notes:

The findings set up a striking and troubling paradox. The Obama administration is completing its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the US is on the verge of being free from war for the first time in more than a decade; yet at the same time the hardware and tactics of the war zone are quietly proliferating at home.

This does not seem to be much of a paradox, given the focus on federal, state and local policy since 9/11, the heavy investment in “homeland security,” and the federal government’s practice of providing the surplus tools of war to “first responders,” often times for free. In some ways, this was all too predictable.

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At The American Conservative, Daniel Larison has written a long, comprehensive description and defense of a principled non-interventionist foreign policy that manages to avoid the extremes of isolationism while retaining its coherence. How well does it succeed?

First, a general principle:

When a conflict or dispute erupts somewhere, unless it directly threatens the security of America or our treaty allies, the assumption should be that it is not the business of the U.S. government to take a leading role in resolving it. If a government requests aid in the event of a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis (e.g., famine, disease), as Haiti did following its devastating earthquake in 2010, the U.S. can and should lend assistance—but as a general rule the U.S. should not seek to interfere in other nations’ domestic circumstances.

That sounds right. The rub is how broadly we construe “directly threatens the security of American or our treaty allies.” “Domestic circumstances” could threaten U.S. security interests if, for instance, a foreign government is sponsoring terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens. So let’s look at the details.

Larison argues that the U.S. should remain diplomatically engaged, for instance in arbitrating or mediating disputes at the request of the parties involved, but that this engagement requires taking an even-handed approach to international disputes. True enough, but this example is hardly one of the most important fields of U.S. diplomatic activity. Governments like Norway and Sweden have already established something of a specialty in conflict mediation around the world, and it is difficult to see the U.S. government often stepping into that role, given its strong orientation in favor of the international status quo.

Foreign economic policy plays no role in Larison’s essay, but trade and investment agreements provide one way for the U.S. government to engage constructively with the world. On the other hand, some noninterventionists lazily argue that the U.S. should use “diplomacy” to resolve human rights problems abroad. With what tools? Some of my undergrads who hate war hold forth “sanctions” as an all-purpose alternative to war. But sanctions can impose significant costs on the U.S. economy and inflame anti-U.S. opinion just like war. In some cases they are a prelude to war. Using “carrots” rather than sticks may not be in U.S. interests either. Incorporating human rights instruments into trade agreements is frequently just disguised protectionism. Noninterventionists must bite the bullet and concede that in some cases humanitarian crises require no response at all from the U.S. government. The closest Larison comes to acknowledging this point comes in this passage:

The U.S. would refrain from destabilizing foreign governments or aiding in their overthrow, and it would not make a habit of siding with whichever protest movement happened to be in the streets of a foreign capital. Likewise, it would refrain from propping up and subsidizing abusive and dictatorial regimes and would condition U.S. aid on how a government treats its people.

The last sentence, however, shows how Larison’s noninterventionism differs from realism. It may imply, for instance, that Nixon should not have gone to China. What if a brutal but externally nonthreatening dictator is fighting al-Qaeda? I do not see any reason the U.S. government should rule out sending military assistance to such a government. The condition for the assistance should be successful suppression of the transnational terrorist threat, not greater human rights.

Larison also implies that the U.S. would not abolish all foreign aid, which puts a little space between him and Rand Paul. Here I agree with Larison. If foreign aid can help serve a legitimate U.S. foreign policy interest, and is the cheapest of all the available options, then the U.S. should use it.

On these points, moreover, I am in full agreement with Larison: (more…)

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President Obama’s announcement about further troop drawdowns and a time-certain exit from Afghanistan has drawn some sharp responses. As the Washington Post editorial board writes:

“YOU CAN’T fault President Obama for inconsistency. After winning election in 2008, he reduced the U.S. military presence in Iraq to zero. After helping to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, he made sure no U.S. forces would remain. He has steadfastly stayed aloof, except rhetorically, from the conflict in Syria. And on Tuesday he promised to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

The Afghan decision would be understandable had Mr. Obama’s previous choices proved out. But what’s remarkable is that the results also have been consistent — consistently bad.”

While the Washington Post is skeptical about the withdrawal, the New York Times editorial board seems disappointed that the timetable has been extended.

“Mr. Obama reaffirmed that he would meet his commitment to remove the last 32,000 combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year, a pace that was too slow from the start. But don’t think this is the end of the American military involvement in the Afghan quagmire…

It is reasonable to ask how two more years of a sizable American troop presence — which one official said could cost $20 billion in 2015 — will advance a stable Afghanistan in a way that 13 years of war and the 100,000 troops deployed there at the peak were unable to guarantee.”

In the end, the nation’s longest war will end (of this we can be confident). The real question as Nick Gillespie (Reason) notes, is a fundamental one: “The decision to attack Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks was both understandable and defensible. But what is the mission in Afghanistan now? Or more precisely, what was it the minute the Taliban was deposed and the trail for bin Laden went cold? Was it nation-building? Was it creating one more spot on the planet where goodwill toward America could dissolve into the sand once again?”

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