Monday, December 29, 2008

You're an Idea Man Not a Yes Man

I make a habit of turning to Daniel Levy for his balanced and well-informed take on all matters related to Israel-Palestine. He is, quite simply, one of the brightest minds in the foreign policy intelligentsia and he brings a refreshingly thoughtful analysis to a fraught topic that is hardly conducive to such discourse. So I lean heavily on Levy and the points he makes regarding Israel's recent attacks on Gaza. Levy on some of the more salient causes of the violence:

(1) Never forget the basics - the core issue is still an unresolved conflict about ending an occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state - everything has to start from here to be serious (this is true also for Hamas who continue to heavily hint that they will accept the 1967 borders).

(2) The immediate backdrop begins with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza of summer 2005, ostensibly a good move, except one that left more issues open than it resolved. It was a unilateral initiative, so there was no coordinating the 'what happens next' with the Palestinians. Gaza was closed off to the world, the West Bank remained under occupation and what had the potential to be a constructive move towards peace became a source of new tensions - something many of us pointed out at the time (supporting withdrawal from Gaza, opposing how it was done).

(3) U.S., Israeli and international policy towards Hamas has greatly exacerbated the situation. Hamas participated in and won democratic elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. Rather than test the Hamas capacity to govern responsibly and nurture Hamas further into the political arena and away from armed struggle, the U.S.-led international response was to hermetically seal-off Hamas, besiege Gaza, work to undemocratically overthrow the Hamas government and thereby allow Hamas to credibly claim that a hypocritical standard was being applied to the American democracy agenda.

American, Israeli and Quartet policy towards Hamas has been a litany of largely unforced errors and missed opportunities. Hamas poses a serious policy challenge and direct early U.S. or Israeli engagement let alone financial support was certainly not the way forward, but in testing Hamas, a division of labor within the Quartet would have made sense (European and U.N. engagement, for instance, should have been encouraged, not the opposite).

Every wrong turn was taken - Hamas were seen through the GWOT prism not as a liberation struggle, when the Saudi's delivered a Palestinian National Unity Government in March 2007 the U.S. worked to unravel it, Palestinian reconciliation is still vetoed which encourages the least credible trends within Fatah, and unbelievably Egypt is given an exclusive mediation role with Hamas (Egypt naturally sees the Hamas issue first through its own domestic prism of concern at the growth of the Muslim Brothers, progress is often held hostage to ongoing Hamas-Egypt squabbles).

(4) Failure to build on the ceasefire. Israel is of course duty bound to defend and protect its citizens, so as the intensity of rocket fire in 2007-8 increased, Israel stepped up its actions against Gaza. But there was never much Israeli military or government enthusiasm for a full-scale conflict or ground invasion and eventually a practical working solution was found when both sides agreed to a six-month ceasefire on June 19th 2008. Neither side loved it. Both drew just enough benefit to keep going. That equation though was always delicately balanced.

For the communities of southern Israel which bore the brunt of the rocket attacks, notably Sderot, the ceasefire led to a dramatic improvement in daily life, and there were no Israeli fatalities during the entire period (only today, following the IDF strikes did a rocket hit the town of Netivot and kill one Israeli). Israel was though concerned about a Hamas arms build up and the entrenching of Hamas rule (which its policies have actually encouraged). For Gaza the calm meant less of an ongoing military threat but supplies of basic necessities into Gaza were kept to a minimum - just above starvation and humanitarian crisis levels - an ongoing provocation to Hamas and collective punishment for Gazans. The ceasefire needed to be solidified, nurtured, taken to the next level. None of this was done - the Quartet was busy with the deeply flawed Annapolis effort.

(5) A disaster was waiting to happen, and no-one was doing much about it. There was of course a date for the end of the ceasefire - December 19th. As that date approached both sides sought to improve their relative positions, to test some new rules of the game. Israel conducted a military operation on November 4th (yes, you had other things on your mind that day), apparently to destroy a tunnel from which an attack on Israel could be launched, Hamas responded with rocket-fire on southern Israeli towns.

That initiated a period of intense Israeli-Hamas dialogue, albeit an untraditional one, largely conducted via mutual military jabs, occasional public messaging and back-channels. Again though the main reliance was on Egypt - by now in an intense struggle of its own with Hamas. When Hamas pushed the envelop with over 60 rockets on a single day (December 24th), albeit causing no serious injuries and mostly landing in open fields (probably by design), Israel decided that it was time for an escalation. That happened today - on a massive scale - with an unprecedented death toll.

Levy has some useful suggestions as well. First and foremost, we must engage the situation and the actors, and not make the same mistakes in terms of green-lighting further Israeli escalation as we did with Israel's 2006 Lebanon incursion:

Useful lessons can be drawn from some very recent, and ugly, Middle East history - though it seems that to its dying day the Bush Administration is refusing to learn (today the White House called on Israel only to avoid civilian casualties as it attacks Hamas - not to cease the strikes, Secretary Rice was more measured).

In the summer of 2006 an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah led to a Lebanon war whose echoes still reverberate around the region. There were well over one thousand civilian casualties (1,035 Lebanese according to AP, 43 Israelis), thousands more injured, and other fatalities including the Israeli government which never recovered its poise, what little American credibility remained in the region (Secretary Rice was literally forced to return to Foggy Bottom as allied Arab capitals were too embarrassed to receive her) and much Lebanese infrastructure. That time it took 33 days for diplomacy to move and for a U.N. Security Council Resolution (1701) to deliver an end to fighting. The U.S. actively blocked diplomacy, Rice famously called this conflict "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" - it was no such thing, and the Middle East itself did not know whether to laugh or cry (the latter prevailed).

Just as in 2006, Israel needs the international community to be its exit strategy - and there is no time to waste. Even what appears as a short-term Israeli success is likely to prove self-defeating over a longer time horizon and that effect will intensify as the fighting continues. Over time, immense pressure will also grow on the PA in Ramallah, on Jordan, Egypt and others to act and their governments will be increasingly uneasy.

Neglect is not an option:

But there is a bigger picture - and it is staring at the incoming Obama administration. Today's events should be 'exhibit A' in why the next U.S. Government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to 'manage' it - as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda.

That can happen on terms dictated to the U.S. by the region (bad) or the U.S. can seek to set its own terms (far preferable). The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts. A consensus of sorts is emerging in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that this conflict needs to be resolved - evidenced in the findings of a recent Brookings/Council of Foreign Relations Report or the powerful statements coming from elder statesmen like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, themselves building on the findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.

Speaking of the Brookings/CFR Report, Levy had some thoughts on the content of that piece a few weeks back that are also worth checking out. Levy was writing in the wake of the anti-Palestinian pogrom committed by settlers in the West Bank. First, a recap since it received little to no coverage in US media:

...journalists have described how their presence saved Palestinian residents of a home near Kiryat Arba from a lynching, and IDF sources described how the right wing activists "want to spark a religious war that would inflame the entire region." [...]

...On the walls of home and in mosques in the West Bank villages of Yatma, Sanjil, Turmus Ayya, and Isawiyya, graffiti has been scrawled reading "Mohammed the pig" and "Death to the Arabs", elsewhere cemeteries have been desecrated, Palestinian homes set on fire, olive trees uprooted, tires punctured, and yesterday two Palestinians were shot and seriously wounded by settler fire. Israeli security forces overseeing the evacuation of the Hebron house and sometimes trying to bring order were stoned and assaulted by settlers, along with the customary hurling of choice abuse, notably the word "Nazi". According to the Israeli Yedioth Ahronot newspaper, Ethiopian IDF soldiers "enjoyed" their own variation on the abuse theme, being told "niggers don't expel Jews".

The solution:

This week, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Saban Center at Brookings released a report in the form of a book, entitled "Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President", including a chapter addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of its five key recommendations was for the U.S. to "press Israel to freeze settlement construction" (they also recommended bringing Hamas into the fold, but that's another story). The Report went on to suggest how this might be done: "Both public criticism of Israeli settlement policy as well as conditioning portions of aid to a settlement freeze can be effective in eliciting Israeli compliance." So that's Brookings and CFR--and it doesn't get much more establishment than them--linking U.S. aid to Israel to a settlement freeze. Interesting, methinks.

Indeed. That would be progress.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Season's Greetings!

"Happy Hollidays" is all well and good for the foot soldiers in the War on Christmas - the canon fodder if you will. But the Special Forces types, us Atheist Seals, we opt for "Season's Greetings." "Why?" asks you, the expendable grunt wasting away in the trenches on the front line. Because, private, while Happy Holidays may in fact serve to sap the resources and manpower of Christmas, it does so by encouraging respect for other faiths and through a spirit of inclusiveness in terms of other religious holidays.

Hence the victory is incomplete. Season's Greetings, on the other hand, is pure as snow in its secular simplicity. Like saying "Stupendous Summer" or "Fanciful Fall." In short, it can effectively be drained of any and all religious connotation.

So it is my friends that while Bill O'Reilly and his Christmas Counterinsurgents are taking aim at the Happy Holidays Horde pushing against them in a frontal assault, we truly perfidious liberals will sneak behind enemy lines with a secret weapon so insidious, so potent as to ensure the final and total victory of...oh, who am I kidding.

Happy Holidays, Season's Greetings and Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

[PS: Voting is now open for the Golden Winger Awards over at The Toot]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Absolution Dodge

Matthew Kaminski stubs his toe on a tautology and cries out Eureka! His purported epiphany is that Barack Obama will not, by virtue of his election and tenure as President, eradicate anti-Americanism. Kaminski's penetrating insight also uncovers the little known fact that anti-Americanism existed before President Bush, and will persist after President Obama. Remarkable.

The banality of this thesis has not limited its frequent use across a number of subject areas by the usual Bush administration apologists. Anne Applebaum offered one such example, and a similarly constructed argument has been used to describe the persistence of terrorism and extremism. While the basic premises underlying each of these painfully obvious observations (that Bush did not create these problems, nor can Obama eradicate them) doesn't really warrant mention, there is a method to this intellectual drabness.

The pundits that use this simplistic formulation are usually doing so in order to shield unwise and flawed foreign policy choices from criticism. The recognition of the durability of some level of anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism quickly morphs into a fatalistic call to inaction. "Why change our foreign policy when nothing is going to completely extinguish anti-Americanism, extremism or terrorism everywhere?" As if complete eradication is the only viable goal, and as if the intensity of the anti-Americanism that exists in the world - and whether or not it leads to radicalization or cooperation with radicals - is irrelevant.

Many purveyors of this faux-wisdom go even further than bemoaning the lack of total solutions by attempting to altogether de-link the anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism from any past, present or future actions on our part. Instead, these the source of these phenomena is attributed to some vague combination of jealousy, envy and the inevitable hostility directed at the lone superpower.

While there undoubtedly is, and always will be, some of this baseless animosity toward America, attributing the lion's share of anti-Americanism to these caprices is wrongheaded - though it has its uses when seeking to dismiss legitimate concerns of blowback from present or future foreign policy endeavors (such as, say, military confrontation with Iran). If they hate us for our freedoms, what does it matter if we bomb another Muslim country? Kaminski put it this way:

[O]ur earnest assertion of our superior ontological uniqueness--not to mention its reality in and of itself--is exactly what always grated on the unfriendlies grouped together under the banner of anti-Americanism.

Anne Applebaum describes it this way:

[H]atred for what [America] was believed to stand for – capitalism, globalisation, militarism, Zionism, Hollywood or McDonald’s, depending on your point of view...

While she at least alludes to the interplay of foreign policy decisions and anti-American sentiment ("militarism, Zionism"), these elements are dismissed as illusory or, at least, inconsequential grievances. This highly sanitized and romanticized view of America's history (and present policies) is a pernicious myth that deprives its adherents of the perspective necessary to appreciate some (not all!) of the sources of hostility. It's this type of myopia that confounds the many pundits that argue that, rather than hurl insults (and shoes) at President Bush, the ungrateful Iraqi people should thank him. For some useful history, why not peruse the CIA's Greatest Assassinations Coups Dirty Wars Hits, or review American imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. For starters.

At the risk of stating my own tautology, this "all or nothing/blameless" view is not conducive to crafting good policy. While some level of anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism will exist no matter what policies US Presidents (past, present and future) adopt, that does not mean that our policies cannot have a positive impact on the degrees of each and that we should not consider this outcome in our decision making process. Even small adjustments in the intensity and pervasiveness of anti-Americanism/extremism can be meaningful.

While counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is all the rage in military circles these days, its broader lessons are mostly ignored by the crowd that counsels against paying attention to foreign hearts and minds. Francis Fukuyama, to his credit, pointed out the obvious back in 2004:

But the [al-Qaeda] radicals swim in a much larger sea of Muslims-1.2 billion of them, more or less-who are not yet implacable enemies of the United States. If one has any doubts about this, one has only to look at the first of the United Nations Development Program's two Arab Human Development reports, which contained a poll asking whether respondents would like to emigrate to the United States if they had the opportunity. In virtually every Arab country, a majority of respondents said yes. On the other hand, recent Pew surveys of global public opinion show that positive feelings about the United States in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and other supposedly friendly Muslim countries has sunk to disastrously low levels. What these data taken as a whole suggest is that for the broad mass of public opinion in Muslim countries, we are disliked or hated not for what we are, but rather for what we do. What they do not like is a familiar list of complaints about our foreign policy that we somehow continue to fail to take seriously: our lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinians, our hypocritical support for dictators in Muslim countries, and now our occupation of Iraq.

The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards.

Jonathan Rauch:

The Iraq adventure fueled a precipitous decline in America’s image abroad, and Bush’s pugnacious style during his first term and his tin ear for foreign opinion made a bad situation worse. This is more than just a public-relations problem. National prestige is diplomatic capital; the more unpopular America becomes, the higher the price of foreign support. Mark Malloch Brown, the UN’s deputy secretary-general, recently said that suspicion of the United States has grown to the point where “many otherwise quite moderate countries” are inclined to oppose anything we favor.

As James Fallows notes, Osama bin Laden is certainly paying attention to the impact our policies have on anti-Americanism and relations with allies and neutral states:

The final destructive response helping al-Qaeda has been America’s estrangement from its allies and diminution of its traditionally vast "soft power" [ed: or "influence" as the kool kids are calling it these days] "America’s cause is doomed unless it regains the moral high ground," Sir Richard Dearlove, the former director of Britain’s secret intelligence agency, MI-6, told me. He pointed out that by the end of the Cold War there was no dispute worldwide about which side held the moral high ground—and that this made his work as a spymaster far easier. "Potential recruits would come to us because they believed in the cause," he said. A senior army officer from a country whose forces are fighting alongside America's in Iraq similarly told me that America "simply has to recapture its moral authority."

As referenced above, it is a widely documented fact that anti-Americanism has surged worldwide under the tenure of George Bush (from Europe and South American to the Middle East and Asia), as have the number of terrorist incidents. Bush's policies are not the sole impetus for those spikes, but they are a major contributing factor. Such heightened levels of anti-Americanism hinder our ability to achieve a wide range of objectives, and reduce our security at home and abroad.

While undoing the damage done under Bush is a worthy goal, merely rolling back anti-Americanism/extremism/terrorism to the levels that existed the day that Bush entered office is not sufficient. There is room for progress beyond merely repairing the legacy of Bush (pushing for meaningful progress in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for example). Beyond that, we need to rethink our role in the world, and the privileges of power that we have oft abused.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

History Repeats the Old Conceits

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting series of posts on the wider implications of the bi-partisan Senate report which found that the Bush administration - including the President himself - authorized the use of torture on detainees in Guantanamo, Iraq and numerous other locations. In fact, a direct link is established between Bush's authorization of torture techniques and the particular methods used at Abu Ghraib - those would be the methods that so horrified the world when photographs recounting the torture surfaced. The report concludes:

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

Dan Froomkin contrasts the sordid reality of Bush administration officials authorizing torture, with Bush's dubious claims of moral outrage when confronted with the fruits of his regime:

Bush, on May 24, 2004, described what happened at Abu Ghraib as "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."

On June 1, 2004, he told a reporter: "Obviously, it was a shameful moment when we saw on our TV screens that soldiers took it upon themselves to humiliate Iraqi prisoners -- because it doesn't reflect the nature of the American people, or the nature of the men and women in our uniform. And what the world will see is that we will handle this matter in a very transparent way, that there will be rule of law -- which is an important part of any democracy. And there will be transparency, which is a second important part of a democracy. And people who have done wrong will be held to account for the world to see.

"That will stand -- this process will stand in stark contrast to what would happen under a tyrant. You would never know about the abuses in the first place. And if you did know about the abuses, you certainly wouldn't see any process to correct them."

Sullivan goes further, though, and highlights some of the fervent indignation claimed by leading conservative voices. Glenn Reynolds:

Of course, it's not the same as Saddam's torture -- which was a matter of top-down policy, not the result of a**holes who deserve jail or execution, and will probably get one or both. As with other reported misbehavior, it should be dealt with very, very harshly. But those who would -- as Senator Kerry did after Vietnam -- make such behavior emblematic of our effort, instead of recognizing it as an abandonment of our principles -- are mere opportunists.

Even better, look at some of the commentary from the links that Reynolds compiled at the time. One commenter likened these actions to "treason." Vodkapundit had this to say:

What's the difference between what this small group US guys did in Iraq and what Saddam (and every other Arab state) has been doing for years?

In our case, the people who did this will spend most, if not the rest of their lives in Kansas making small rocks out of big rocks.

In every other case, they'd be promoted.

End of comparison.

Not quite.

Sullivan also catches Jonah Goldberg in a hand wringing pose worthy of the ages:

Even if all of these pictures were staged this would be an outrage. The fact that they are real makes this staggeringly awful. The awfulness is twofold. First, there's the illegal, morally corrupt -- and corrupting -- evil of torturing people for the pleasure of it (and taking pictures of it!). Second, there's the counter-productive stupidity of it. Even if these guys were the worst henchmen of Saddam's torture chambers, the damage this does to the image of America is huge. How do we look when we denounce Saddam's torture chambers now? How many more American soldiers will be shot because of the ill will and outrage this generates? How do we claim to be champions of the rule of law?

Well, there is one way. This needs to be investigated and prosecuted. If there's more to the story -- whatever that could conceivably be -- let's find out. But if the story is as it appears, there has to be accountability, punishment and disclosure. Indeed, even if this turned out to be a prank, too much damage has already been done and someone needs to be punished.

Under Saddam torturers were rewarded and promoted. In America they must be held to account.

Unsurprisingly, none of these commentators are calling for "accountability, punishment and disclosure" now that the Bush administration's role in implementing this program has been revealed. Muted amongst the black and white, good vs. evil bastions of moral clarity are the charges of "treason." No, instead, we are treated to apologias for torture and tut-tutting about quixotic sentimentalities that interfere with the prudent employ of toture on any manner of detainee. Where the GOP is concerned, when it comes to torture, gray is the new black and white.

Since I ommitted it, allow me to add the degradation of torture to the list of reasons for the anger felt by the shoe thrower, Muntazer al-Zaidi, and his fellow ungrateful Iraqis. Allow me also to state unequivocally and without reserve that if President Obama does not entirely repeal the policy authorizing the use of torture, and the use of rendition to achieve the same repugnant ends, then he deserves to be described the same way that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are rightly labeled: war criminal.

For me, at least, partisanship and support for a political party or politician will not trump the moral implications of torture. My outrage is not so contingent or fickle.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Unsavory and Shifty Ingrates

In response to the recent shoe-throwing incident in Iraq, many Iraq war supporters - and the President himself - will attempt to dismiss the thrower, Muntazer al-Zaidi, as an outlier, an exception, an "attention" seeker (to paraphrase Bush), with the rule being a generally grateful Iraqi populace. Jonah Goldberg called al-Zaidi, an "unsavory Muslim or Arab."

Kathryn Jean Lopez quotes Michael Totten, who sought to set the record straight: "I have briefly met many Iraqi journalists in Baghdad. They seem like decent people, for the most part, and are not as shifty as many other civilians I encounter." What effusive praise. Iraq journalists: not as shifty as most Iraqi civilians. With the exception of Zaidi, of course.

However, as news reports confirm that al-Zaidi has become a cause celebre in Iraq - and the wider Muslim world - by virtue of his defiance of Bush, it will be harder and harder to paint him as some lone slinger. At that point, the mood in Iraq war/Bush booster circles will most likely shift to Andy McCarthy-type outrage at the lack of appreciation for all that Bush has done to help the Iraqi people. Already, there is a popular meme cropping up that al-Zaidi only enjoyed the freedom to hurl his shoe by virtue of America's invasion, and that under Saddam al-Zaidi would have been executed for this act.

This bit of gloss on America's neo-imperial endeavor is little more than a thinly applied sheen on an otherwise grotesque affair. The sentimentalists insisting that US policy in Iraq has been guided by some altruistic democratization impulses should cease the self-delusion or, if they be more cynical, the attempt to delude others about the driving forces of our foreign policy. Rather, it is essential to the crafting of future policy that we make an honest, full reckoning of our past policies vis-a-vis Iraq. In this way, we can begin to appreciate the sentiment behind al-Zaidi's act, his act's popularity and the continuing resentment of all those "ingrates" in Iraq. And elsewhere. And how to begin the long process of attempting to repair the damage.

First, we must appreciate why it is we are in Iraq, and what led us there. Alan Greenspan summed it up rather succinctly in a rare moment of honesty, stating "the Iraq War is largely about oil." Oil and, importantly, the ability to establish a large and "enduring" (not permanent!) American military presence in the middle of the largest oil producing region in the world (and the relocation of certain military assets outside of Saudi Arabia). Ted Koppel appealed to a brand of common sense that conflicts with romanticized notions of American excetionalism:

Keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz has been bedrock American foreign policy for more than a half-century. [...]

If those considerations did not enter into the Bush administration's calculations when the president ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it would have been the first time in more than 50 years that the uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil was not a central element of American foreign policy.

For some, also, there was the need to show the world after 9/11 that we were still a force to be reckoned with. Jonah Goldberg termed it the "Ledeen Doctrine":

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.

Or as Thomas Friedman put it, the need to attack some Muslim country (Iraq mostly because it was easiest) in order to tell the Muslim world to "Suck. On. This." For others still, removing Saddam was seen as an important step in ensuring Israel's security for decades to come (a long held goal for the PNAC crowd that only morphed into concern about WMD and al-Qaeda after 9/11).

While there was a conscious decision to use the vague term "WMD" (backed up with blatant "mushroom cloud" and al-Qaeda links duplicity), as the means to sell the war to the public, the record shows that the Bush administration showed far less interest in gauging Iraq's actual WMD capacity or ties to al-Qaeda as it did in hyping what little evidence there was. The decision to invade was made early on, regardless of the potential findings of inspectors on the ground in Iraq. Upon finding no WMD in Iraq despite following every lead provided by the US government, those inspectors were removed from the theater to clear the way for shock and awe.

Those that supported the Iraq war for democratization purposes were certainly the minority in the Bush administration, and even many of the supposed proponents conceived of democracy very narrowly: government by US viceroy for many years, followed by - or in conjunction with - the installation of US friendly clients such as Ahmad Chalabi. Even to this day, declarations by the democratically elected, and ostensibly "sovereign" Iraqi government, are dismissed cavaliarly by many in the democratization set.

Whether or not the flypaper theory was part of the calculus before the invasion, or just a convenient ex post facto rationalization, war supporters from the President and Vice President down have repeated the argument that by virtue of the invasion, and maintenance of troops in Iraq, we can attract al-Qaeda and other extremists to Iraq and "fight them there so we don't have to fight them here." Just today Bush reiterated this point:

Bush: There have been no attacks since I have been president, since 9/11. One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq. This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand. This is where al Qaeda was hoping to take ...

Raddatz: But not until after the U.S. invaded.

Bush: Yeah, that's right. So what?

So what? Really? I imagine some Iraqis might, you know, care that their country was turned into bait to lure combatants. Maybe anger at this was part of what led al-Zaidi to make his protext, the same way such anger led this Iraqi to vent at one of Bush's earlier recitations of this rationle:

There was one sentence in what [Bush] said that really provoked me and made me feel disgusted. I was about to throw the ash tray at the TV when he said "to win the war on terror we must take the fight to the enemy." how dare he say that? He brought these enemies to our country and now he wants to fight them there? to keep Americans safe?!! Is it on the expense of innocent people?! Is it on the expense of destroying and dividing an entire country to make Americans safe?! I consider every American supporting him in that is selfish and mean and blood thirsty. Think of the bread you are eating and compare it to the blood-mixed bread Iraqis are eating. Think of the children crying when they hear an explosion. Think of the pregnant who lost their babies because they were unable to reach the hospital. Think of those deprived from their education. All of this is happening because his majesty believes in "taking the fight to the enemy" so that you become safe and we become the bait in which he could catch "terrorists" with.

Ah, but he wouldn't have been able to write about such callousness in Saddam's Iraq!

Which of these rationales does the reader suppose most Iraqis put stock in? Are there not valid reasons for Iraqis to doubt the selflessness of our motives?

Regardless of the motivation for our invasion of Iraq, the fact remains that we have either wrought, or set in motion a series of events that have led to, immense destruction and loss of life. Aside from the loss/disruption of vital services, enormous psychological trauma, 2 million internal and 2 million external refugees created and countless injuries, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have lost their lives as a result of the invasion.

In large part due to dearth of images of Iraqi dead appearing in our media, the number of dead retreats to the realm of sterile abstraction for many Americans. It is hard to grasp just what that body count entails. But if we do not confront the full breadth of the carnage, we will not understand the anger represented by al-Zaidi's acts. A story about body parts to help those incapable of empathy:

At the morgue.

We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. [...]

When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. “We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don’t know what he looks like.”

Now begins a horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned. We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and EVERYWHERE body parts.

We were asked what we were looking for, “upper half” replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. “Over there.” We looked for our boy’s broken body between tens of other boys’ remains’; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

We found him millennia later, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.

For those that still insist that Iraqis are insufficiently greatful for our magnanimity, I would suggest a brief perusal of this miniscule sampling of images of dead and injured Iraqi children. Now multiply that by the thousands. Perhaps those images of children in various states of violence will help to inform those that think that al-Zaidi should just be thankful that he lives in a country in which he can throw a shoe at the leader that unleashed such unthinkable bloodshed on his country in the name of narrow US interests.

Even if Bush's intentions were entirely noble (for the sake of a tenuous argument), it should be easy to understand why al-Zaidi would want to assail the bricklayer that paved the road to hell.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Other Road to Serfdom

The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.

That quote is attributed to the late Austrian analyst Willi Schlamm, and its underlying truth is particularly relevant given the current economic crisis and the familiar path that has led us to it. Mr. Schlamm's argument comes down to the premise that the inherent weakness in capitalism is not the system, per se, but rather the greed of the actual capitalists operating within it.

In this context, greed itself is often a short-sighted, impulsive and obsessive animal and rarely, if ever, does it consider posterity or even the next fiscal year. In other words, greed tends to create a system in which short term gain is valued over substantive, balanced and sustained growth. But since you cannot separate the capitalists from the system of capitalism, it becomes necessary to corral the inevitable greed, set parameters on its excesses and channel its incentivizing capacity into productive directions. As capitalist champion Milton Friedman said:

What kind of society isn't structured on greed? The problem of social organization is how to set up an arrangement under which greed will do the least harm...

Unfortunately, those that most loudly proclaim their faith in capitalism fail to appreciate its basic nature, and are most dedicated to removing the structural regulations and oversight necessary to keep capitalism from bringing about its own demise. Such aversion to regulation has risen to take its place beside the cult of tax cuts and faith in free market solutions as one of the Modern GOP's three sacrosanct economic principles (call it the "Strong Hayek" troika). In each case, the faith based, categorical, oversimplified outlook has replaced empiricism, pragmatism and a nuanced appreciation of capitalism's strenghts and weaknesses.

According to Grover Norquist's GOP, all tax cuts are good and all tax increases are bad - regardless of the context, underlying fiscal realities and other variables. The free market is always more efficient than the public sector - regardless of the relative inefficiency and negative health outcomes resulting from a system of private health insurance (for example). Similarly, all regulations are an evil impediment to free market dynamism - a market that, if left to its own devices, would self-regulate its way to optimal efficiency.

This isn't just magical thinking, nor is it simply absolutist. It is an outlook based on a lack of appreciation for human nature that has led to repeated real-world calamities. Matt Yglesias flags an article that discusses one of the most recent examples of how greed - unencumbered by regulations and unchecked by public sector involvement - undermines a well-functioning capitalist system:

Since the subprime mortgage troubles exploded into a full-blown financial crisis last year, the three top credit-rating agencies — Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings — have faced a firestorm of criticism about whether their rosy ratings of mortgage securities generated billions of dollars in losses to investors who relied on them.

The agencies are supposed to help investors evaluate the risk of what they are buying. But some former employees and many investors say the agencies, which were paid far more to rate complicated mortgage-related securities than to assess more traditional debt, either underestimated the risk of mortgage debt or simply overlooked its danger so they could rake in large profits during the housing boom.

[For the self-regulation] scheme to work the rating agencies need to place a higher value on the long-term viability of their brand than on short-term profit opportunities. But of course we know that people are often short-sighted, and often heavily discount the future relative to the present. Relatedly, for the scheme to work we need the firms to be primarily concern with the long-term interests of the firms rather than the interests of the managers. But even if Moody’s, qua company, winds up taking a giant hit over this, it’s still not clear that Moody’s top executives won’t have come out ahead. [...]

[I]t would make a lot of sense to try to develop a public agency that rates credit instruments. [This] wouldn’t stop anyone from relying on private sector ratings if they wanted to. Nor would it guarantee that the public agency would always get things right. But it would provide a check on some of the distortions that the current system produces.

This is a very similar dynamic to the investment banking lapses during the age of the Internet bubble, which I will attempt to explain in general terms (restated, in part, from a prior post). Within the major investment banks, there are various divisions. One such division handles the underwriting duties, and another conducts market research on various companies on a sector by sector basis. A quick and dirty definition of underwriting: In an IPO, or any subsequent offering of stock, companies usually seek out an investment bank to underwrite the offering (for a fee) pursuant to which the bank secures buyers for the stock (often times purchasing the stock itself for resale), distributes the stock through the markets and provides rekated services - in essence managing the process for the company looking to sell the shares.

In theory, and in practice for some time, the research and underwriting branches were separated by an internal firewall in order to prevent the imperatives of the underwriting side from contaminating the objective analysis of the research side. This is important to the health and attractiveness of our financial markets. It is in the interest of investors, the markets, the companies themselves and our economy in general that there is a knowledgeable investor class that can rely on objective research and corporate transparency mandated by disclosures in filings made with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Faith in that transparency spurs investment from Americans and abroad.

Thus, it is in the interest of the banks to maintain the firewall in order to preserve confidence in the US markets, and thus ensure the continued inflow of investment dollars. But with the burgeoning number of stock offerings being undertaken during the expansion of the Internet bubble, the firewall began to crack. The underwriting divisions began pressuring the research divisions to issue inflated "buy" ratings on stocks and author favorable reports on the economic health of underwriting clients in order to acquire or maintain the banking business of those companies. The goal of maintaining the long term viability of the markets was jettisoned in favor of the lure of short term profits.

In many cases, the researchers were privately deriding stocks that they were praising to the unsuspecting public. If you recall, this was the era of the celebri-analysts who began popping up on the cable TV outlets, the most notorious of which was probably Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodgett who infamously called a stock he was publicly recommending a "piece of sh*t" in a private email. Unfortunately, many Americans trusted these "objective" analysts, and continued to pour money into companies that the analysts and I-Bankers themselves knew were hollow shells and lost causes. In the end, countless Americans were financially wiped out, or set back considerably, while the bankers and executives absconded with windfall profits.

Yet despite the parameters of these financial scandals, and their potential impact on the integrity and attractiveness of American financial markets, the Securities and Exchange Commission (populated by industry insiders as is the Modern GOP's modus operandi) was lax in maintaining oversight and uninterested in pursuing charges against any of the wrongdoers, or changes to the system. It took then Attorney General of New York Elliot Spitzer's own pursuit of state remedies to shame the SEC into taking action on a federal level.

Just as business will be served by a healthy environment, functioning infrastructure, quality public schools, single-payer health insurance and a whole host of programs that "capitalists" take a hostile stance toward, so too does business thrive when there are umpires on the field to make sure the rules are being adhered to. Despite what ostensible free market aficionados might claim when bemoaning the dreaded bugaboo of regulation and oversight, it is, in fact, in the best interest of capitalism, and America's brand of it, to maintain open and transparent markets with a free flow of reliable information to potential investors. The only way to achieve this is to require it through regulation. You cannot trust industry to monitor itself - whether that industry be investment bankers, or ratings agencies. Greed does not provide those incentives. Quite the opposite.

The best features of capitalism lie in its creation of conditions conducive to rewarding the worthy, efficient and innovative. Of course, that depends on the market's ability to recognize and reward those products/services. Greed can either help or hinder that process. It's up to us to provide sensible regulations to make greed work for us, not against us. Reducing the conflict of interest inherent in the decision making process of the managers in charge of the ratings agencies would be a good place to start.

Friday, December 05, 2008

This is How I End Up Getting Sucked In

Anand Gopal has an informative piece on the make-up of the "Taliban" movement in Afghanistan. The piece reinforces a few concepts that should inform our future policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan: First, the Karzai government lacks a popular mandate and, in general, it is unrealistic to believe that the United States can establish a strong central government capable of enforcing its prerogatives on Afghanistan's traditionally decentralized society. Our support for the Karzai government drains it of legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghanis, not to mention taints the US with the corruption and criminality rampant within Karzai's coalition. Our presence is unsustainable (not to mention costly), and is itself helping to fuel the conflict by giving opposition groups a unified cause and interminable supply of motivated recruits.

Second, while we cannot prevail militarily, there may be openings to pursue negotiated arrangements with certain factions within a Taliban movement that is far from monolithic or uniform in its composition, objectives and worldview. Third, any realistic framework for stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan will require engagement with Afghanistan's neighbors who have the ability to play spoiler should their interests not be taken into account (but not necessarily made paramount to the interests of Afghanis).

Here is Gopal on the diversity within the ranks of the Taliban, and on the general unifying principle:

Who exactly are the Afghan insurgents? Every suicide attack and kidnapping is usually attributed to "the Taliban." In reality, however, the insurgency is far from monolithic. There are the shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, poor, illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main factions. The factions themselves are made up of competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners. [...]

Meanwhile, a more pragmatic leadership started taking the reins. U.S. intelligence officers believe that day-to-day leadership of the movement is now actually in the hands of the politically savvy Mullah Brehadar, while Mullah Omar retains a largely figurehead position. Brehadar may be behind the push to moderate the movement's message in order to win greater support.

Even at the local level, some provincial Taliban officials are tempering older-style Taliban policies in order to win local hearts and minds. Three months ago in a district in Ghazni province, for instance, the insurgents ordered all schools closed. When tribal elders appealed to the Taliban's ruling religious council in the area, the religious judges reversed the decision and reopened the schools.

However, not all field commanders follow the injunctions against banning music and parties. In many Taliban-controlled districts such amusements are still outlawed, which points to the movement's decentralized nature. Local commanders often set their own policies and initiate attacks without direct orders from the Taliban leadership.

The result is a slippery movement that morphs from district to district. In some Taliban-controlled districts of Ghazni province, an Afghan caught working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) would meet certain death. In parts of neighboring Wardak province, however, where the insurgents are said to be more educated and understand the need for development, local NGOs can function with the guerrillas' permission.

While there are legitimate concerns about human rights abuses and brutality committed by Taliban elements, government forces have not been above reproach by any measure. Further, from a national security perspective, the dangers of negotiating a peace with willing Taliban elements might be containable.

Despite such foreign connections, the Afghan rebellion remains mostly a homegrown affair. Foreign fighters -- especially al-Qaeda -- have little ideological influence on most of the insurgency, and most Afghans keep their distance from such outsiders. "Sometimes groups of foreigners speaking different languages walk past," Ghazni resident Fazel Wali recalls. "We never talk to them and they don't talk to us."

Regardless, reality has its say. Even if there is some admirable imagined idea of liberal democracy enforced from Kabul outward, the facts on the ground suggest that basing our policy on the expectations of reaching such outcomes is folly. Gopal's piece discusses some of the actions of the Karzai government, and his coalition's inherent structural flaws. While, ostensibly, aspiring to be a centralized, national political power, the Karzai government is riven by the same factionalism that it seeks to broach, and is rife with the same lawlessness it aims to eradicate:

When U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in November 2001, Afghans celebrated the downfall of a reviled and discredited regime. "We felt like dancing in the streets," one Kabuli told me...

Meanwhile, the country was being carved up by warlords and criminals. On the brand-new highway connecting Kabul to Kandahar and Herat, built with millions of Washington's dollars, well-organized groups of bandits would regularly terrorize travelers. "[Once], thirty, maybe fifty criminals, some in police uniforms, stopped our bus and shot [out] our windows," Muhammadullah, the owner of a bus company that regularly uses the route, told me. "They searched our vehicle and stole everything from everyone." Criminal syndicates, often with government connections, organized kidnapping sprees in urban centers like the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar city. Often, those few who were caught would simply be released after the right palms were greased.

Onto this landscape of violence and criminality rode the Taliban again, promising law and order...The guerrillas implemented a harsh version of Sharia law, cutting off the hands of thieves and shooting adulterers. They were brutal, but they were also incorruptible. Justice no longer went to the highest bidder. "There's no crime any more, unlike before," said Abdul Halim, who lives in a district under Taliban control.

As an aside, the following discussion of the United States' role in funding and arming some of the extremist groups is relevant in terms of providing perspective with respect to some of the charges being hurled at the Pakistani government for its coddling of extremist groups in light of the Mumbai attacks. While the Pakistani government deserves its fair share of the blame for having nurtured such radical agents, they are not the only government that has pursued such strategies in the region, nor the only government forced to reckon with the blowback. The US is by no means guiltless. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar:

For years Hizb-i-Islami fighters have had a reputation for being more educated and worldly than their Taliban counterparts, who are often illiterate farmers. Their leader, Hekmatyar, studied engineering at Kabul University in the 1970s, where he made a name of a sort for himself by hurling acid in the faces of unveiled women.

He established Hizb-i-Islami to counter growing Soviet influence in the country and, in the 1980s, his organization became one of the most extreme fundamentalist parties as well as the leading group fighting the Soviet occupation. Ruthless, powerful, and anti-communist, Hekmatyar proved a capable ally for Washington, which funneled millions of dollars and tons of weapons through the Pakistani ISI to his forces. [...]

Today, the group is one of the fastest growing insurgent outfits in the country, according to Antonio Giustozzi, Afghan insurgency expert at the London School of Economics. Hizb-i-Islami maintains a strong presence in the provinces near Kabul and Pashtun pockets in the country's north and northeast. It assisted in a complex assassination attempt on President Karzai last spring and was behind a high-profile ambush that killed ten NATO soldiers this summer. Its guerrillas fight under the Taliban banner, although independently and with a separate command structure. Like the Taliban, its leaders see their task as restoring Afghan sovereignty as well as establishing an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Naqibullah explained, "The U.S. installed a puppet regime here. It was an affront to Islam, an injustice that all Afghans should rise up against."

Jalaluddin Haqqani:

Blowback abounds in Afghanistan. Erstwhile CIA hand Jalaluddin Haqqani heads yet a third insurgent network, this one based in Afghanistan's eastern border regions. During the anti-Soviet war, the U.S. gave Haqqani, now considered by many to be Washington's most redoubtable foe, millions of dollars, anti-aircraft missiles, and even tanks. Officials in Washington were so enamored with him that former congressman Charlie Wilson once called him "goodness personified."

Haqqani was an early advocate of the "Afghan Arabs," who, in the 1980s, flocked to Pakistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union. He ran training camps for them and later developed close ties to al-Qaeda, which developed out of Afghan-Arab networks towards the end of the anti-Soviet war. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. tried desperately to bring him over to its side. However, Haqqani claimed that he couldn't countenance a foreign presence on Afghan soil and once again took up arms, aided by his longtime benefactors in Pakistan's ISI. He is said to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, a tactic unheard of there before 2001. Western intelligence officials pin the blame for most of the spectacular attacks in recent memory -- a massive car bomb that ripped apart the Indian embassy in July, for example -- on the Haqqani network, not the Taliban.

The Haqqanis command the lion's share of foreign fighters operating in the country and tend to be even more extreme than their Taliban counterparts. Unlike most of the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, elements of the Haqqani network work closely with al-Qaeda. The network's leadership is most likely based in Waziristan, in the Pakistani tribal areas, where it enjoys ISI protection.

The Obama administration needs to seriously reconsider the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan, and what it hopes and expects to gain by such a dedication of manpower and resources. Foreign policy, too, is the art of the possible. Continuing the Bush administration approach in Afghanistan, even with an increase in the number of troops and some tinkering around the edges, is what George Kennan called "the stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

No Soup for You! (Please)

As alluded to in my prior post in what is now a three part series focusing on defense spending, this post will examine the topic of Pentagon spending priorities - and the larger strategic implications that stem from such allocations. In that previous post, I excerpted the following passage from Travis Sharp's piece:

The United States could take some current funding away from expensive high-tech weaponry, which may be useless in future Iraq-style conflicts, and redirect it toward enhanced intelligence, diplomacy, counterinsurgency training, language competency, humanitarian assistance, and nuclear nonproliferation programs.

A recent article by David Sanger (which Hilzoy and Publius touched on) suggests that just such a redirection could be in the works, as indicated by those selected by Obama to fill out his national security team:

[A]ll three of [Obama's] choices -- Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the rival turned secretary of state; Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander, as national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, the current and future defense secretary -- were selected in large part because they have embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena.

The shift, which would come partly out of the military's huge budget, would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.

For now, I'll echo publius' cautious optimism that Obama does, in fact, mean to follow through on such plans and that, in order to facilitate those efforts, he has surrounded himself with people whose centrist bona fides will provide some political cover. But a lot depends on just where the redirected resources flow to, and to what extent the overall expenditures can be reduced and not just diverted.

There are, unfortunately, a couple of Obama campaign pledges that should temper the already timid hope that Obama intends to meaningfully alter the national security landscape. First, Obama has suggested that he plans to continue the expansion of the size of the active duty military. From the campaign website:

Obama and Biden will complete the effort to increase our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines. They will also invest in 21st century missions like counterinsurgency by building up our special operations forces, civil affairs, information operations, foreign language training and other units and capabilities that remain in chronic short supply.

Second, and relatedly, Obama has promised to increase the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan.

These policies, if pursued in earnest, could undermine any effort to significantly reduce the prodigious size of the Pentagon budget and could render the redirection of resources a meaningless reshuffling of the deck chairs on a slowly sinking ship. Allow me to explain.

Increasing the size of the our ground forces won't be cheap, and even if Obama can succeed in trimming the Pentagon's budget with respect to high ticket items, those savings could quickly be devoured by the considerable costs of maintaining an expanded force. Further, while there are also potential savings to be realized by reducing our presence in Iraq, shifting those freed-up military resources to Afghanistan would reduce that fiscal advantage. And with little discernible benefit to be had in terms of the effort in Afghanistan.

Put bluntly, the situation in Afghanistan does not lend itself to military solutions. Even the optimists - the can-do counterinsurgency practitioners - acknowledge that Afghanistan presents a considerably more difficult set of problems than Iraq (and wasn't Iraq easy!) and will take many years to get right (if at all, and that's a big "if"). Trying to impose a centralized, Western-oriented system of governance on a country with little meaningful history of centralized rule and a dislike of foreign interference in general is a fool's errand, and one that ignores the lessons obvious from the Soviets' failed effort to remake Afghanistan with a vastly larger troop presence.

Rather, a negotiated settlement that engages the various regional powers whose interests and concerns must be addressed is the far more prudent course. Although not an easy or guaranteed fix itself, it has the advantage of not requiring enormous military commitments for the next decade or so.

The hope is that Obama recognizes the complexity of the conflict and the inadequacy of military tools to address it, and means to pursue the negotiated course rather than a troop buildup coupled with the implementation of optimized counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. The fear is that the Obama administration will be seduced by the putative efficacy of COIN doctrine and that, as a result, it will do more to realign Pentagon spending than reduce it and increase the costs of doing business in Afghanistan to such a point as to erase the savings to be had from withdrawing Iraq. The expansion of ground forces can also be seen in this light, as that is seen as a necessary prerequisite to implementing COIN best practices.

While COIN can serve a purpose in limited settings, the fundamental lesson to be derived from COIN doctrine is political: to avoid, at all costs, situations in which you would need to apply it. When some of its leading practitioners and scholars liken COIN to "eating soup with a knife" the proper take away is to order something else from the menu. Put simply, throughout post-WW II history, examples of truly successful COIN operations are few to none, and the prospects going forward aren't any brighter.

"But what about the necessary counterinsurgency operations that we must engage in?" one might ask. To which, I would hand the mic to Jim Henley:

Insurgency can’t pose an existential threat to the country. Is there a single instance of insurgency warfare conquering foreign territory? Even if you consider South Vietnam and North Vietnam to have really been separate countries, it was, as certain hawks never tire of pointing out, Hanoi’s regular Army that conquered the South. The FLN could kick France out of Algeria, but it could never rule France. Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon in the 1990s using guerrilla warfare. It couldn’t use the same tactics to drive Israel out of Galilee. Insurgencies can prevent foreign or local governments from consolidating control over the insurgents’ “own” territory. Guerrilla movements that get big enough have been able to take power in their own countries.

But they can’t conquer. Insurgency is fundamentally reactive and, if not always merely “defensive” . . . parochial. A guerrilla army swims in the sea of the people, like the man said, and foreigners make a lousy sea. Even if all “the terrorists” wanted to follow us home after we “cut and run” from Iraq, they could never have remotely the effect here that they manage in Iraq. Here they lack a sea.

By and large, a country like the United States only needs to commit to an ongoing posture of counterinsurgency if it is also committed to serial military domination of foreign populations. In fact, the United States is currently so committed, on a bipartisan basis. But that’s an unwise and immoral posture that will lead to national ruin in the medium to long term. The Iraq defeat offers one of those rare moments for real national reappraisal, an openness to genuine reform. Rather than work at getting better at executing an unwise and immoral grand strategy, let’s choose a different one.

That being said, I agree with Andrew Exum when he argues that COIN is not inherently imperialistic, but rather is typical of most military doctrines in that it is normatively neutral and the outcomes of its application are dependent on how and why politicians choose to use it. To use Exum's example:

Operational doctrine is just that -- operational. You could apply [COIN scholar] Galula to a UN-sanctioned peace-keeping mission in Haiti, and there wouldn't be anything dirty or imperialist about that. (Well, not much anyway.)

However, the "non-imperialistic" applications of COIN (stabilization operations mostly) will tend to be smaller, shorter in duration and multilateral in force composition - or, at least, we should be exceedingly wary of any operations that have the potential to deviate from those criteria. Thus, expanding our capacity to handle COIN in those limited ways, in limited settings, should not require massive new expenditures on increased troop levels and the creation of a new military and quasi-military agencies to assist the effort.

Some spending on non-military tools, and redirection away from military approaches would be welcomed. But simply changing the nature of the military spending, and continuing hopeless military adventurism, wouldn't be much of a change, believe me.

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