Friday, September 16, 2005

We're All Zeppelin Fans

Pejman Yousefzadeh, who now shares his blogospheric space with occasional Belgravia Dispatch guest poster Joseph Britt (Mr. Britt is also intermittently spotted, via an alias, in TIA's comments section), discusses a Robert Kagan Op-Ed in the Washington Post:

Robert Kagan has a very good read-the-whole-thing article pointing out what any student of the most recent history should know; that support for ousting Saddam Hussein was bipartisan and widespread from the 1990's through 2003. Few people point this out nowadays, given the partisan nature of the debate over Iraq. And yet, one would think that it would be the honest and responsible thing to do to go to many of those who now say that getting rid of Saddam was a terrible idea because he was never a threat to us and remind them that once not too long ago, they felt quite differently.
Reading Pejman's post, as well as the Kagan article, reminded me of this very worthwhile essay by Richard Haass appearing in the penultimate edition of Foreign Affairs (more on this below). The shorter version of my objections to Pejman/Kagan's thesis rests along the following lines: First, prior support should not lock someone into support of a policy irrespective of outcomes or real world effects. If people weren't allowed to change course or admit error, our policies would become brittle and self-defeating. I mean, at the turn of the century many people supported using hydrogen to give zeppelins their lift. But after the Hindenburg went up in flames, would it have been wrong for those same engineers and public servants to proclaim loudly that helium, not hydrogen, was the better course of action for future zeppelin construction? Of course, there is a fine line between admitting error and pretending to have been on the right side all along (whatever that may be).

Second, not all forms of regime change are alike, so, it should be noted, different people were actually urging different courses of action even if couched in the similar rhetorical packaging of "regime change." Third, even if someone supported the use of preventitve invasion to cause regime change, such support, once logged as some vague policy proclamation, does not remain constant regardless of the timing, means and the context of the actual proposed implementation of such policy. It is somewhat unfair to hold a pundit, politician or journalist to a certain policy when the extenuating circumstances alter, in some cases dramatically, over time.

In other words, Kagan takes some short cuts by lumping everyone who at one time or another advocated for the ill-defined "regime change" in Iraq with those that still supported the actual invasion in March 2003 to accomplish such goal (with the then current troop levels, international opinion fixed against such action, no UN support, etc.). For those whose support for the invasion never wavered up until March 2003, Kagan's criticism is valid - but even then only to the extent that such pundit, politician or thinker doesn't acknowledge and account for their own personal conversion. Allow me to explain.

Before we begin, let's establish that Saddam Hussein had been a brutal, malevolent and repressive despot for decades prior to his ouster, even when the United States considered him a useful ally to counter the spread of Iran's Islamic Revolution. The fact that there was bi-partisan condemnation and distaste for Saddam should, therefore, come as no surprise. In fact, through much of the 1980s, it was only the Left, and not the Right, that was concerned with Hussein's transgressions. But that doesn't necessarily translate into an endorsement for the timing and means employed by the Bush Administration in its decision to invade Iraq.

Not Always On Time

The issue of timing should be considered when parsing statements made over the course of several years (near a decade in some cases) regarding Saddam's regime and the proper means for dealing with it. Even if one supported regime change in Iraq prior to the invasion, and even if one supported regime change using military means, it is not inconsistent or hypocritical to oppose the timing selected by the Bush Administration to initiate such policy. It is perfectly reasonable (wise actually) to have objected to opening a second front in Iraq while the mission in Afghanistan was still so unsettled and the effort to counter Al Qaeda and similar networks required an ongoing commitment of valuable and limited intelligence, military and monetary assets. It is also a perfectly justifiable position to state that one would favor an invasion to topple Saddam, but only if the United States could muster support from the international community, field hundreds of thousands more troops, secure the cloak of legitimacy provided by the UN (despite its obvious flaws), as well as other factors missing from the picture in March 2003.

Further, it was sage advice to caution against playing into the hands of Osama Bin Laden by invading a second Muslim country in a matter of months and giving his virulent propaganda about US/Anglo/Zionist crusaders a semblance of credence. Not to mention the pictorial aid of images of innocent Muslim civilians (including women and children) dead and dismembered at the hands of a Western military power - the inevitable result of collateral damage. At a time when the United States needed to engage the Muslim world in a battle with Bin Laden for the hearts and minds of moderates, invading yet another Muslim nation, with little perceivable justification, was destined to radicalize and enrage. Even if, in the abstract, deposing Saddam was considered a justifiable and worthy endeavor.

Then there is the strategic aspect. As Mark Danner pointed out in a recent cover story for New York Times Magazine, Bin Laden was trying to provoke us militarily, but things didn't turn out the way he intended or planned. At least initially:
According to a text attributed to Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian Army colonel now generally identified as bin Laden's military chief, "the ultimate objective was to prompt" the United States "to come out of its hole" and take direct military action in an Islamic country. "What we had wished for actually happened. It was crowned by the announcement of Bush Jr. of his crusade against Islam and Muslims everywhere." ("This is a new kind of evil," the president said five days after the attacks, "and we understand. . .this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.")

The 9/11 attacks seem to have been intended at least in part to provoke an overwhelming American response: most likely an invasion of Afghanistan, which would lead the United States, like the Soviet Union before it, into an endless, costly and politically fatal quagmire.[...]

For the jihadists, luring the Americans into Afghanistan would accomplish at least two things: by drawing the United States into a protracted guerrilla war in which the superpower would occupy a Muslim country and kill Muslim civilians - with the world media, including independent Arab networks like Al Jazeera, broadcasting the carnage - it would leave increasingly isolated those autocratic Muslim regimes that depended for their survival on American support. And by forcing the United States to prosecute a long, costly and inconclusive guerrilla war, it would severely test, and ultimately break, American will, leading to a collapse of American prestige and an eventual withdrawal - first, physically, from Afghanistan and then, politically, from the "apostate regimes" in Riyadh, Cairo and elsewhere in the Islamic world.[...]

In Afghanistan, bin Laden would be disappointed. [emphasis added]
But then, with the battlefield in Afghanistan still smoldering, the Bush Administration rushed to give Bin Laden what counter-terrorism expert Michael Scheuer dubbed, "a Christmas gift he never thought he would get" because it provided Bin Laden with everything he hoped Afghanistan would have been, but wasn't. In short, the war in Iraq. So, it is possible to have favored regime change in theory and also to have advocated regime change through invasion, but still objected to the timing and extenuating circumstances surrounding the March 2003 invasion for several well founded reasons without there being glaring inconsistencies or hypocrisies in need of rectifying.

That Depends On What Your Definition Of "Regime Change" Is

When building his case that there was broad bipartisan support for the invasion of Iraq throughout much of the 1990s leading up to March 2003, Kagan points to the Clinton Administration's stance vis a vis Iraq and Saddam:
In his second term Clinton and his top advisers concluded that Hussein's continued rule was dangerous, if not intolerable. Albright called explicitly for his ouster as a precondition for lifting sanctions. And it was in the midst of that big confrontation, in December 1997, that Kristol and I argued what the Clinton administration was already arguing: that containment was no longer an adequate policy for dealing with Saddam Hussein. In January 1998 I joined several others in a letter to the president insisting that "the only acceptable strategy" was one that eliminated "the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction." That meant "a willingness to undertake military action" and eventually "removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power." The signatories included Francis Fukuyama, Richard Armitage and Robert Zoellick.
This paragraph by Kagan highlights the point I am trying to make about regime change being an imprecise term with many strategic offspring. First, it should be pointed out, that despite Kagan's claim that the Clinton Administration had already concluded that containment was no longer adequate, the Clinton Administration chose to pursue just that policy: containment. After all, why, if the Clinton Administration had reached the same conclusion as Kagan and Kristol, was the letter they and their colleagues wrote urging military action necessary? And let's not forget, such military action was never actually undertaken, and the letter failed in its intent. That sort of belies the conclusion that the Clinton Administration was opting for the same policy exemplified by the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. If it had, wouldn't it have implemented its designs?

But this gets to the larger point, made so eloquently by Richard Haass in an essay in Foreign Affairs. Regime change as a goal is not a monolithic being. I will quote him at length:
Regime change allows a state to solve its problems with another state by removing the offensive regime there and replacing it with a less offensive one...

Using regime change as a policy panacea is nothing new. Nor are the challenges posed by repressive countries possessing threatening weaponry; these are certainly not exclusively post-Cold War or post-September 11 phenomena. Indeed, the Cold War itself can be understood as a prolonged confrontation with a state of precisely this sort; the Soviet Union threatened the United States by what it did beyond its borders and offended Americans by what it did within them. So had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan before it.

The Roosevelt administration ultimately chose to deal with Germany and Japan through a policy of regime change, seeking not simply to defeat them on the battlefield and reverse their conquests but to continue war until the regimes in Berlin and Tokyo were ousted and something much better was firmly ensconced. It took years of armed occupation and intrusive involvement in the internal politics of both countries -- what is known today as nation building -- to achieve that latter objective.

The U.S. approach to the Soviet Union, however, was markedly different. After World War II, when Moscow emerged as Washington's principal global rival and threat, "rollback" became something of a popular concept. Yet the potential for a nuclear war in which there would be no winners regardless of who struck first tempered U.S. policy. Seeking regime change, or rollback, was deemed too risky, even reckless, given what could result if a desperate Soviet leadership lashed out with all the force at its disposal.

Simply acquiescing to Soviet behavior at home and abroad, however, was not acceptable to Washington either. The result was a policy of "containment," which George Kennan (then a U.S. diplomat in Moscow) helped formulate in his "long telegram," which ultimately found its way into this magazine in 1947. Containment was never as modest a policy as its critics alleged. Although it prescribed resisting Moscow's attempts to spread communism and expand Soviet influence, it also had a second, less cited dimension.

"It is entirely possible," Kennan wrote, "for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international Communist movement. ... The United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than [the Kremlin] has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power."

In other words, containment's second, subordinate goal was regime change. It eventually achieved this end through incremental means. But this method was so gradual (it took more than 40 years to succeed) that it could better be understood as regime evolution, and it took a back seat to containing Soviet advances. Whereas regime change (as the Bush administration uses the term) tends to be direct and immediate and to involve the use of military force or covert action, as well as attempts to isolate both politically and economically the government in question, regime evolution tends to be indirect and gradual and to involve the use of foreign policy tools other than military force. [...]

In the end, the Soviet regime did change. Historians will continue to debate how much of this was due to internal flaws in the Soviet system and how much resulted from U.S. and Western policy. The easy answer is that both forces were effective. The important thing is that an end did come, and it came peacefully. The third great conflict of the twentieth century, like the first two, ended with the result desired by the United States. Unlike the outcomes of the first two conflicts, however, this one was achieved without total war. [emphasis added]
So from Haass we see that "regime change" as an overarching policy goal can have many different strategic manifestations that are spread along a broad spectrum - and in practice policymakers often pick and choose a combination of the various tools available to achieve the desired ends. Just as some fair-weather Iraq war supporters-cum-detractors are guilty of a little intellectual dishonesty, so too is Kagan exaggerating a bit when he paints all calls for regime change and opposition to the Hussein regime "bi-partisan support" for "removing Saddam Hussein by force" via the March 2003 invasion. Again, though he relies on the Clinton Administration much throughout his article as evidence of such bi-partisan support, Clinton's actual policies were closer to regime evolution than preventitive invasion along Haass's spectrum.

And for good reason I should add. Actual use of a military invasion to achieve regime change ("regime ouster" as Haass terms it, coupled with the subsequent "nation building") is a monumental undertaking, the difficulty of which cannot be overstated. The case for an invasion of Iraq, as George Bush Sr. and James Baker argued, was far from an exception. Haass offers this summary:

The Soviet experience holds important lessons for current U.S. foreign policy. Removing odious leaders -- "regime ouster" -- is no easy thing. The Soviet Union survived for nearly three-quarters of a century. The United States found it difficult to locate and arrest Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989 and impossible to oust Mohamed Farah Aideed in Somalia in 1993. Fidel Castro remains ensconced in Havana today.

Regime replacement, the second step in regime change, is even more difficult, however. In the end, toppling Saddam Hussein was easy compared with putting in place a new Iraqi government that could run a secure, viable country. Although the Iraq venture was made far more expensive and difficult than necessary by Washington's poor planning and questionable decisions, it is possible it would not have gone more smoothly even had Iraq's occupation been approached differently. And occupations elsewhere will not be much easier. The rise of nationalism, together with globalization (and the increased availability of powerful means of resistance), may have doomed prolonged occupations of foreign countries by sharply increasing their human, military, and economic costs.

Indeed, the uncertainties surrounding regime change make it an unreliable approach for dealing with specific problems such as a nuclear weapons program in an unfriendly state. Neither North Korea nor Iran appears to be on the brink of dramatic domestic change. A decade ago, many believed that North Korea was near collapse, yet the regime still stands, and it may persist for years more, notwithstanding North Korea's impoverishment, its cruel and eccentric leadership, and its utter lack of freedom. Iran, too, is unlikely to throw off its current clerical leaders, despite their unpopularity. Even if these assessments ultimately prove incorrect, regime change cannot be counted on to come quickly enough to remove the nuclear threats now posed by these countries.

Unless, that is, the United States is prepared to invade them. But the expense of this approach would be enormous. Pyongyang's conventional military power could inflict great loss of life and physical destruction on South Korea, and its nuclear weapons could obviously increase such costs dramatically. Many U.S. military personnel (including some of the more than 30,000 currently stationed in South Korea, along with reinforcements who would be sent) would lose their lives. The United States could and would win such a war, but only at great cost to itself, the region, and the rest of the world. The same goes for war with Iran. That country is roughly the size of Alaska and has 70 million people, roughly three times as many as Iraq -- more than enough to make any occupation costly, miserable, and futile for the United States.

Using more indirect tools to bring about regime evolution, instead of change, might well work but would take years, if not decades. Achieving regime evolution requires the strategic use of television, radio, and the Internet. Admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) could be offered in return for fundamental economic reforms, ones that are, by their nature, also political. Rhetorical support for change can also help, as can direct assistance to nongovernmental organizations and other elements of civil society. Economic and political incentives should be made available to the target country if it is willing to adopt policies that reduce threats and that create more freedom and space for independent economic and political activity; in the absence of such changes, targeted sanctions should be considered. Trade and personnel exchanges can open a closed society to new ideas. Over the past few decades, there have been dozens of cases of successful regime evolution in the former Soviet bloc, Latin America, and Asia, and there is no reason such patterns could not be repeated elsewhere if the United States makes the investment and takes the necessary time. Odious or dangerous regimes should never be neglected, but the safest and best way to encourage their moderation or implosion is to smother them with policies that force them to open up to and deal with the outside world.
This, I would say, should be one of the primary lessons learned from the Iraq campaign. Such recognition, however, should not be limited to those that opposed the invasion in the first place. Even war proponents should be encouraged to grapple with their earlier positions in order to test their theories and challenge their advocacy in light of history's tutelage. We might all want to fly a fleet of zeppelins, but that doesn't mean we need to stick to using hydrogen as the main buoyant. Hopefully then we can achieve a balance of strategies more akin to the framework advocated by Haass. Not an abandonment of military options mind you, but a realistic reckoning of the costs, benefits and likelihood of success.
Regime change, limited military action, diplomacy, and deterrence can all be considered as alternative policies. They are better understood, however, as components of a single comprehensive approach toward states such as North Korea and Iran. Deterrence is a way to make the best of a bad situation. Military action or, more precisely, the threat of it can buttress diplomatic prospects. But diplomacy should be the heart of U.S. policy toward both countries -- because it could succeed, because it must be shown to have failed before there is any chance of garnering support for other policies, and because all the other options are so unattractive.

As for regime change, it is best viewed as a complement to diplomacy and deterrence. It is essential to appreciate not only the limits of regime change but also its nature. A refusal to engage tyrannies allows them to wrap themselves in nationalism and to maintain control; offering regimes enhanced security and economic and political interaction if they meet specified requirements can deny them their rationale for tight control and their ability to maintain it. A foreign policy that chooses to integrate, not isolate, despotic regimes can be the Trojan horse that moderates their behavior in the short run and their nature in the long run. It is time Washington put this thinking to the test, toward what remains of the axis of evil. Delay is no longer an option, and drift is not a strategy. [emphasis added]
Nor is talk about starting the next war to solve our foreign policy dilemmas while we have our hands filled with two already. Remember the Hindenburg.

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