Thursday, October 21, 2004

A Contrast In Strategies, Part III

In Part I of this series, I attempted to provide a frame work for discussing the terrorist threat we face by describing the identity, motivations, goals and nature of our enemies - specifically al-Qaeda and other like-minded organizations. In the second Part, I outlined the major components of the theory of democracy promotion as a means of combating the spread and appeal of anti-American jihadist thinking - and how the Bush administration has put this theory into action through the controversial means of pre-emptive invasion in Iraq.

In this Part, I want to discuss the differing strategies for combating the terrorist threat put forward by each presidential candidate, as well as analyze the impact of Bush's policies over the past three years, and further explore alternative strategies for encouraging the promotion of democracy that do not involve the relatively ineffective means of militaristic intervention.

The motivation for this three part series was to address some questions and attitudes that have been expressed in the comments section at this site, elsewhere in the blogosphere, and in the mainstream media. The ideas in question pertain to an agnosticism regarding John Kerry's grasp of the terrorist threat, and whether or not the policies he employs to confront such a threat will be sufficiently muscular in size and scope.

Spencer Ackerman, in an article in
The New Republic, describes the dilemma that John Kerry and his supporters are grappling with:

Not even clear, declarative sentences--"I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are"--have saved John Kerry from the perception that he is too weak to fight the war on terrorism. An Annenberg poll released last week found that, by a 14-point margin, respondents trusted President Bush more than the Massachusetts senator to protect the nation from Al Qaeda. And it's not just Kerry's strength that is in question--it's his judgment.
In discussing the increasing likelihood that he will cast a vote in favor of John Kerry this November, right-leaning blogger Daniel Drezner echoes these concerns:

[H]ow can I trust that John Kerry gets the post-9/11 world? How can I be sure that Kerry's policymaking process will be sufficiently good so as to overwhelm Kerry's instinctual miscues?
I admit to being a bit perplexed by statements like these. First of all, why assume that John Kerry or any other politician in Washington, DC doesn't "get the post-9/11 world" - whatever that nebulous statement is supposed to mean anyway. Rest assured Mr. Drezner, and all other skeptics, John Kerry has the wit and intellect to fully grasp the dangers we face, and he has an impressive plan to deal with this unique threat, which I will discuss below. What is even more puzzling, though, is that while Drezner acknowledges the confounding lack of policymaking process in the Bush White House, one that turns empiricism on its head by assuming the conclusion and then seeking evidence to support it, Drezner admits to preferring Bush's foreign policy "instincts" over Kerry's. Publius at Legal Fiction expresses my issue with such arguments from intelligent minds such as Drezner's:

I mean, good Lord. Foreign policy instincts?! Trustworthiness in the war on terror?! These are reasons to consider voting for Bush? George W. Bush? The same Bush who spearheaded the biggest strategic military blunder in American history? The same Bush who presided over the most incompetently run post-war operation in American history? The same Bush who pissed away the goodwill of the entire world - and brags about doing so? I, for one, consider the invasion itself to show (1) a fundamental misunderstanding of the post-9/11 world; and (2) a woeful ignorance of the most basic history of Iraq and the Middle East. But people can disagree about the wisdom of the invasion in good faith. They cannot do the same with respect to the occupation. It's been a disaster - just a disaster. The KnightRidder article summed the whole thing perfectly with the image of an empty slide that read "To be provided." Foreign policy instincts - give me a friggin' break.

Bush's Record

I am familiar with the old adage that people prefer the devil they know over the one they don't, but in the present context the devil we know has been so staggeringly incompetent in all aspects of his foreign policy that it is hard to imagine John Kerry, or any other Republican or Democrat for that matter, being any worse. It is a testament to the campaign management of Karl Rove that so many Americans are so quick to parrot their mistrust of Kerry's ability to secure the nation when the evidence of Bush's failure is so overwhelming. The constant repetition of an idea serves to solidify that notion as perceived truth in the mind of the public without any further analysis required. James Fallows describes the magnitude of the fiasco - which, judging by the polls, is the best kept secret in the Beltway:

Over the past two years I have been talking with a group of people at the working level of America's anti-terrorism efforts. Most are in the military, the intelligence agencies, and the diplomatic service; some are in think tanks and nongovernmental agencies. I have come to trust them, because most of them have no partisan ax to grind with the Administration (in the nature of things, soldiers and spies are mainly Republicans), and because they have so far been proved right. In the year before combat started in Iraq, they warned that occupying the country would be far harder than conquering it. As the occupation began, they pointed out the existence of plans and warnings the Administration seemed determined to ignore.

As a political matter, whether the United States is now safer or more vulnerable is of course ferociously controversial. That the war was necessary - and beneficial - is the Bush Administration's central claim. That it was not is the central claim of its critics. But among national-security professionals there is surprisingly little controversy. Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the Administration's record, they tend to see America's response to 9/11 as a catastrophe. I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history - or only the worst since Vietnam. Some of these people argue that the United States had no choice but to fight, given a pre-war consensus among its intelligence agencies that Iraq actually had WMD supplies. Many say that things in Iraq will eventually look much better than they do now. But about the conduct and effect of the war in Iraq one view prevails: it has increased the threats America faces, and has reduced the military, financial, and diplomatic tools with which we can respond.

"Let me tell you my gut feeling," a senior figure at one of America's military-sponsored think tanks told me recently, after we had talked for twenty minutes about details of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. "If I can be blunt, the Administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy's political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder." [emphasis added]
It is becoming increasingly difficult to refute Fallows' sources. The epicenter of Bush's failures in the war against the spread of anti-American jihadism is his decision to invade Iraq, and the flawed execution of such an audacious objective. In this sense, the failures in Iraq can be broken down into two categories: practical application and theoretical strategy.

On the practical side, there is little more that can be said on the dearth of postwar planning than what James Fallows described in his seminal piece entitled
Blind Into Baghdad. In a display of counter-intuitive arrogance, and plain old bad instincts, the Bush team disregarded years of planning and expert input from the State Department, CIA, Army War College, and others as well as the counsel of the Pentagon's top military personnel, in favor of the predictions of con-man extraordinaire Ahmed Chalabi. This last minute scuttling of the Future of Iraq Project and its annexes left the Pentagon with relatively no time to come up with their own plan, which meant we were going in "blind" to Baghdad. The Knight Ridder article captures the moment well:

In March 2003, days before the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, American war planners and intelligence officials met at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to review the Bush administration's plans to oust Saddam Hussein and implant democracy in Iraq.

Near the end of his presentation, an Army lieutenant colonel who was giving a briefing showed a slide describing the Pentagon's plans for rebuilding Iraq after the war, known in the planners' parlance as Phase 4-C. He was uncomfortable with his material - and for good reason.

The slide said: "To Be Provided." [emphasis added]
Add to the decision to forego the planning of the experts in favor of the assurances of the "trustworthy" Chalabi, Bush's "instincts" led him to the wrong conclusions on just about every major decision in Iraq: insufficient troop levels designated for post-invasion support, disbanding the Iraqi Army, widespread de-Ba'athification, appointing novices with no experience to the CPA because of their ideological credentials, attempting to implement an experiment in extreme free-market/supply side economics instead of giving the local economy room to grow (which I posted about here), etc. To this volatile mixture of flawed reasoning and instincts gone awry, the Bush administration began to explore the legality of suspending the Geneva conventions on the use of torture in interrogation methods that led, in part, to the devastating Abu Ghraib torture scandal - which according to Army documents involved multiple murders, rapes, sodomies, and severe beatings - even for children detainees. To the horror of the world, after so singular a breakdown in policy, not one person of consequence was held accountable.

The results have been disastrous, and the future of Iraq remains cloudy at best, as insurgencies and ethnic tensions continue to simmer below the surface, poised to erupt into full blown conflict. Just look at the conclusions in three reports released recently from various well respected and non-partisan foreign policy think tanks: the
Center for Strategic and International Studies (the group that Bremer and Rumsfeld used for studies on the progress of Iraq last July), the International Crisis Group and the Chatham House (part of the Royal Institute of International Affairs), which I summarized here. These are not liberal media organizations. They are in the business of realism - not pessimism or partisanship - and they are not interested in campaign slogans. The picture they paint is grim.

From a strategic point of view, Iraq has been an even larger debacle. First and foremost, as Fallows noted, which I pointed out in Part II of this series, the nation building and democracy promotion efforts in Afghanistan have been left to wither on the vine as resources, personnel, intelligence, and attention have been sucked into the vortex of Baghdad. The elections held during the past couple of weeks were an encouraging sign, but in reality, the prospects for a democratic Afghanistan remain dubious as well armed warlords continue to rule their fiefdoms, the central government remains ineffectually weak, opium production is surging, and hostile forces regroup in the southeast of the country.

Second, while many Bush supporters have cited the invasion of Iraq as a means by which we have shown our strength to other regimes and provided a deterrent for their future cooperations with terrorists, the Bush administration has in fact squandered the perceived military deterrent that the invasion of Afghanistan provided them. Before the invasion of Afghanistan, there were dire warnings about the fate of the Soviets, the hostility of the Afghan people, and the quagmire that would ensue. Instead, the US military was able to use superior air power and technology to bring about a lightning fast military victory, routing the Taliban and sending them fleeing to the hills. At that moment, the world trembled at the might of the United States military that could accomplish so daunting a task with minimal manpower and time. Iraq has changed all that. James Fallows notes:

Before America went to war in Iraq, its military power seemed limitless. There was less need to actually apply it when all adversaries knew that any time we did so we would win. Now the limits on our military's manpower and sustainability are all too obvious.
Although the military victory in Iraq was equally impressive, we have exposed our weaknesses and limitations to the entire world. We appear increasingly incapable of pacifying the insurgency, large portions of the country are unsafe for journalists and aid workers, not to mention military convoys, and there is no end in site. Our forces are bogged down and overstretched. Contrary to a deterrent, other nations such as Iran realize that our capacity to launch additional military forays has been severely compromised. Iran, strengthened by the United States' toppling of two longtime adversaries (Saddam and the Taliban), has been fearlessly advancing toward acquiring a nuclear weapon, safe in the belief that the United States could not begin a two front war, especially considering the likely reaction of the Shiite majority in Iraq should we invade its Shiite neighbor, Iran. North Korea is similarly aware of our hamstrung military. At a time when we are most in need of our military stick to wield in negotiations with these two regimes, it is sorely missing. Fallows describes the situation thusly:

President Bush began 2002 with a warning that North Korea and Iran, not just Iraq, threatened the world because of the nuclear weapons they were developing. With the United States preoccupied by Iraq, these other two countries surged ahead. They have been playing a game of chess, or nerves, against America - and if they have not exactly won, they have advanced by several moves. Because it lost time and squandered resources, the United States now has no good options for dealing with either country. It has fewer deployable soldiers and weapons; it has less international leverage through the "soft power" of its alliances and treaties; it even has worse intelligence, because so many resources are directed toward Iraq.
Grasping at straws, the Bush administration has been quick to point to Libya's agreement to renounce its WMD programs as a victory stemming from the military action in Iraq. In fact ( I posted about here), Libya's move was the result of over a decade of painstaking negotiation that Libya was pursuing in order to get out from under the onerous demands of the sanctions they were facing. Te progress with Libya was an example of the success of sanctions not pre-emptive warfare.

There are a host of other strategic setbacks that have been caused or exacerbated by the invasion of Iraq: our alliances have been strained, homeland security has been perilously underfunded, the economy is struggling due to war-born deficits, broader strategies for addressing the problem of terrorism, such as focusing on the Arab/Israeli peace process have been ignored, etc. But the most grievous result from the invasion of Iraq might be the losses we have suffered in the ideological battle with al-Qaeda. Ackerman notes:

Bush insists he understands that winning the war on terrorism involves, as he told Time in August, "a long-lasting ideological struggle" to mute Al Qaeda's allure. Yet the president's chief contribution to the ideological struggle has been the occupation of Iraq, which has horrified the very Muslims it was supposed to draw to America's side.
As I pointed out in Parts I and II of this series, winning the war of ideas with al-Qaeda is the only way to truly defeat our foes. Far from gaining an edge in this conflict, the invasion of Iraq has been the best case scenario for Bin Laden: expanding his recruitment efforts, giving rise to copycat groups, validating his propaganda, spreading his ideology like a virus, and causing his popularity and esteem to surge as America's plummets. While democracy promotion is an effective tool to make gains in the ideological war, Iraq was the wrong setting at the wrong time and, above all, military invasion was the wrong tactic. According to Fallows:

Regime change in Iraq, [Bush] said, would have a sweeping symbolic effect on worldwide sources of terror. That seems to have been true - but in the opposite way from what the President intended. It is hard to find a counterterrorism specialist who thinks that the Iraq War has reduced rather than increased the threat to the United States.
Unfortunately, Bush characteristically remains stubborn in his resolve that actions in Iraq, and other foreign policy decisions, do not inspire more terrorism or the appeal of that ideology:
Bush, of course, rejects this assessment. After Kerry gave an interview in August warning that Bush's policies were "actually encouraging the recruitment of terrorists," Bush fumed that Kerry's "logic is upside down...We don't create terrorists by fighting back. We defeat the terrorists by fighting back."
The evidence belies Bush's simplistic assessment. So do the off-the-cuff remarks of members of his own administration:

Last October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wondered aloud in an internal Pentagon memo: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?... How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?"
Bush's efforts at democracy promotion outside of his one-dimensional approach have been anemic at best - except for the creation of a few media assets that are largely disregarded as American propaganda by the target audience. Ackerman describes the situation thusly:

Beyond Iraq, the president has done little to promote Middle Eastern democracy beyond giving speeches to domestic audiences. In its final report, issued this July, the 9/11 Commission practically begged the Bush administration to "engage the struggle of ideas" in order to "prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism." Little wonder, then, that the perpetrators of the Madrid train bombings, the Abu Hafs Al Masri Brigades, proclaimed themselves "very keen that Bush does not lose the upcoming elections" in a March statement to an Arabic newspaper.
Despite the wishful thinking of some of his supporters, exasperated at the approach he has doggedly clung to over the past three years, there is no indication that Bush will "change the course" in terms of his overall strategy and the tactics he has used to achieve those ends. Undaunted by the realities in Iraq, and with his neoconservative advisors close to him and the vice president, there is no telling what the next target for pre-emptive invasion and regime change would be. But we know what to expect in terms of policy.

Kerry's Approach

Although some have questioned his past national security record, it is important to parse fact from campaign fiction. John Kerry does not have the atrocious voting record on weapons systems and intelligence funding that the Bush/Cheney campaign would have you believe. John McCain even came out and stated that they were distorting Kerry's record and that he was, in fact, strong on defense. To put it in context, Kerry's votes came during a period in which Congress and the Republican presidency at the time were cutting defense spending across the board - taking advantage of the peace dividend. It is also worth noting that, according to his favorite fact-checking site,, Vice President Cheney himself, in his role as Secretary of Defense to the first President Bush, was in favor of cutting all the weapons programs Kerry voted to cut, and Cheney's proscribed budget would have reduced even more from the Pentagon's coffers than Kerry's votes.

Regarding Kerry's campaign rhetoric on the virtues of diplomacy and multilateral actions, this position has been greatly exaggerated. Far from requiring world approval for using force, Kerry is simply highlighting the Bush administration's deliberate failure to involve enough of our allies in as meaningful a role as was necessary to succeed in Iraq. This should come as no surprise though. Most of the President's closest advisors have very strong beliefs that multilateral approaches should be avoided and that international organizations, such as the UN, should be shunned. Is it any wonder that's the stance Bush took? In reality, the US military is capable of winning any military campaign on its own (more or less).

The international organizations and mutilateral involvement assist in the peacekeeping efforts. The robust, not symbolic, military involvement of other nations can reduce troop burdens on the US in the aftermath, and the expertise of NGO's and humanitarian groups from international organizations and foreign countries are invaluable to stabilizing the population. Not to mention the often underappreciated impression of legitimacy that the imprimatur of the UN provides. This matters when trying to win over hearts and minds.

Kerry has certainly been on the wrong side of some national security votes. He voted against Gulf War I, and against US involvement in the Balkans. While these are relevant, I caution against making too much out of them. More recently, he voted in favor of using force in Afghanistan and in authorizing the president to use force in Iraq. He is not a knee-jerk dove as some would have you believe. He understands the need to use military force, or at least have that option as a diplomatic tool, and is not hesitant to use it. His recent voting record indicates that he understands the stakes post-9/11.

More importantly, he has a better approach for actually winning the war against the spread and appeal of anti-American jihadism. He believes in the promotion of democracy as a means to that ends, but he believes that there are more efficient and successful ways to achieve the objectives other than pre-emptive military invasion.
Kerry would take the exact opposite tack. Far from imposing democracy from the top down, Kerry told a Los Angeles audience in February, "We must support human rights groups, independent media, and labor unions dedicated to building a democratic culture from the grassroots up." In this, Kerry has increasingly echoed Senator Joseph Biden, a leading candidate to be Kerry's secretary of state. Biden says he will tell regimes whose repression has indirectly bred terrorism, "I want to see you at least squint toward democracy.... John Kerry would have been funding openly, and supporting any way he could, democratic movements in these countries."

As Biden argues, "Kerry has a much broader notion of national security" than either his caricature or his opponent--a notion that recognizes that only an ideological campaign against Al Qaeda can protect the United States in the long run.
Kerry understands that the United States must be respected, admired and perceived as a moral force in order to inspire the people of these Muslim nations that our way is the best way - or at the very least that we are not seeking to annihilate them in some neo-crusade. He knows that we must undo the toxicity of America's image that has so undermined the work of pro-democracy reformers in the region in order to pave the way for organic change - which is a healthier transition that instantaneous upheaval. The Bush administration, on the other hand, seems oblivious as to the effects that its policies are having on the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims. Instead they have taken to targeting sensible voices like Professor Tariq Ramadan who was denied a visa by the Department of Homeland Security despite the University of Notre Dame's offer for him to teach at their institution. This is counterproductive to say the least.

In terms of overall appraisal of the threat, I think that John Kerry's instincts are a lot closer to reality than Bush's. For example, John Kerry grasps the fact that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are small, transnational, loosely affiliated organizations that get their funding and support largely from the private sector or from failed states that they can hijack or bleed for resources. Bush is stuck in the pre-9/11 Cold War paradigm of nation states:

Ever since his September 20, 2001, address to Congress, and especially in his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush has emphasized the need to attack state sponsors of terrorism at least as much as actual terrorists. "One of the principal strategic thoughts underlying our strategy in the war on terrorism is the importance of the connection between terrorist organizations and their state sponsors," Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith explained to Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker shortly before the invasion of Iraq. "Terrorist organizations cannot be effective in sustaining themselves over long periods of time to do large-scale operations if they don't have support from states. They need a base of operations. They need other types of assets that they get from their connection with their state sponsors--whether it's funding, or headquarters, or, in some cases, the use of diplomatic pouches and other types of facilities."

Simply put, this does not remotely describe Al Qaeda. When bin Laden lived in Sudan and Afghanistan from the mid-'90s until 2001, Al Qaeda effectively propped up the ruling regimes rather than the other way around. Nor did Al Qaeda's jihadists require sympathetic governments to support them as they planned and executed attacks: The September 11 hijackers proved murderously productive during their stays in Germany and the United States. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are believed to be in the lawless Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, but the presence of a hostile regime in Islamabad hasn't prevented them from inspiring attacks in places like Bali, Riyadh, Istanbul, and Madrid. Even if the United States overthrew every regime that so much as batted an eyelash at bin Laden, Al Qaeda's lethality in the three years after losing its Afghanistan sanctuary proves that a policy focused on ending "state sponsorship" will never destroy the network.

Kerry, by contrast, understands that the threat from Al Qaeda is not state-centric. Asked where the "center" of the war on terrorism is, Beers immediately replies, "There isn't one." He explains, "What Al Qaeda did during its Afghan period was to create a jihadist movement on a global basis. While Al Qaeda certainly has the financial wherewithal, the organizational skills, the tactical wherewithal to conduct significant operations à la the dual embassy bombing in Africa in 1998 or the World Trade Center-Pentagon attack in 2001, the fact that the major events since then have been conducted by organizations which were able to operate at a distance from and, to at least some degree, independent of central direction from Osama bin Laden is an indication. I wouldn't say that it's Al Qaeda 2.0, I'd say it's Global Terrorism 2.0. That means we're going to have to have a much broader and a much more comprehensive campaign that goes beyond the decapitation strategy that seems to excite George Bush."
In terms of specifics, Kerry also has a better more focused plan. He has measures to ease the strain on the military, he has plans to create a more effective fighting force, he considers homeland security to be a regime worthy of full attention and funding, he knows that the peace process in Israel must be restarted and urged on with our full diplomatic resolve, and he understands that repairing alliances and improving our image and standing in the world is necessary for success. Here are just a few examples:

Kerry and his advisers intend to refocus the nation's military and intelligence efforts on eliminating Al Qaeda directly. To achieve that, Kerry has endorsed the 9/11 Commission's plans for intelligence reform and has proposed enlarging the regular Army by 40,000 soldiers and doubling the Army's Special Forces capacity. Presently, Army Special Forces units--which include agile and innovative forces best trained and equipped to operate deep behind enemy lines and in nontraditional combat situations--total about 26,000 active and reserve personnel, or only 2 percent of the entire Army. Expanding Special Forces would expand the range of military options available when confronting jihadists in nations where large or conspicuous U.S. incursions are politically impossible--i.e., most of the approximately 60 countries where Al Qaeda operates. (Though Rumsfeld has increased U.S. Special Operations Command responsibility for counterterrorism operations, he plans to expand the Army's Special Forces by fewer than 800 soldiers by 2008.)
In closing, I urge the reader to look beyond the campaign spin and distortion, to what is the true nature of the ideas and programs that each candidate has put forward. With President Bush, we have a known quantity - but what exactly is "known" about it? There is a lengthy record of incompetence, poor judgment, and counterproductive actions that, according to most non-partisan observers, have made us less safe and cost us valuable ground in the ideological showdown for the soul of the Muslim world. His "instincts" have been proven wrong at every turn. Kerry on the other hand, has embraced the counsel of experts and specialists who have been observing these threats for years, with no ulterior ideological agenda to forward. While he might not have any magic bullets to solve the Iraqi situation, because the situation itself is a labyrinth of Catch-22s, at least we can be assured that he will use empiricism to make his decisions, and rely on expertise over loyalty or ideological homogeneity. It was Kerry, after all, who was urging for the course of action that President Bush has reluctantly, and with much delay, begun charting in Iraq. Maybe if he had listened to Kerry earlier, the situation would be better. There is no doubt in my mind that Kerry's presidency will be strong, pragmatic, balanced, reality-based, empirical, and effective. He will right the ship of state that has been listing for the past three years, seduced by the utopian siren's song of think tank veterans and confidence men. Simply put, there is nothing to fear in President Kerry.

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