U.S. defense policy

2009 03 04
Recently read: Descent Into Chaos

Ahmed Rashid. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

At roughly 500 densely packed and depressing pages, this not an easy book to read. But it added immeasurably to my appreciation of the current position of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Central Asia and of how that position came to be so desperate. Ahmed Rashid is an famously well-connected veteran Pakistani journalist. His book takes us from the weeks before September 11, 2001 right up to 2008, pausing from time to time to provide some historical perspective to his main narrative. It’s a valuable book to have on hand as we watch policymakers struggle to discover a way out of their—and for a substantial subset of this site’s readers, our—current predicament in Afghanistan.

Rashid gets his book off to a poor start with a long and unremarkable introduction that reads like just another litany of Bush’s misdeeds. It’s all true, of course, but you can find this sort of thing in any number of places, if you still care to, which I don’t. As soon as the book proper is underway, however, Rashid starts to unpack his case in copious detail and to draw on an almost uniquely broad range of sources and experiences. (When I’m interested in a subject I have an insatiable appetite for detail about it, but it did occur to me that readers who take a less Aspergerish approach to a subject might wish that Rashid’s editor had succeeded in forcing more of these details into the footnotes.)

The main thing I took away from Rashid’s book is how reliably most actors in the region have made a bad situation worse whenever they’ve been given a choice about how to proceed. Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked, and long-troubled country, but it’s been made much, much worse than it ever needed to be by the cascading effects of a series of poor decisions by just about everyone involved.

In the late 70s, the CIA weighed stability in the country against the chance to goad the USSR into a debacle, and chose the latter. On December 24, 1978, Brezhnev took the bait, and the Soviet army blundered into the country, against the advice of his top generals.* Seeing the chance to trap the USSR into a painful “Vietnam” of its own making, the US then poured money into resistance fighters in the region. That decision reflected another ranking of priorities: the prospect of stability and the development of democracy in Pakistan was trumped decisively by the goal of encouraging resistance to the USSR in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US channeled money and arms through Pakistan, entrenching and legitimizing the military’s intrusions into the country’s political life, and encouraging the slow-spreading poison of radicalism, militarism, criminality and drug-trading in the entire region.

After the withdrawal of the USSR, there followed several years of horrific fighting between rival warlords. The success of the Taliban movement owes something to popular disgust at the instability and corruption sown by these warlords. It also owes something to money and logistical support from the ISI, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, which sought to cultivate ties in Afghanistan in order to train and encourage Kashmiri militants and provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a full out conflict with India.

As it happens, after September 11, 2001, it was Pakistan which ended up providing strategic depth to the Taliban, after Taliban forces were routed by US air power and US proxies on the ground. It was there, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (which are, in fact, anything but Federally Administered), that the Taliban and Al Qaeda found refuge, in some cases with the support of the ISI, which continued to play a dangerous double game of privately supporting and publicly (sometimes) condemning militant groups, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban and other militants was a sore point for US-Pakistan relations, but the Bush administration continued to believe, against all evidence, that Musharif was their man, and refused to push Pakistan too hard on the issue.

The US went into Afghanistan without a clear policy on the issue of “nation building.” Bush had trouble walking back from his earlier campaign pledge to avoid such activities, and Rumsfeld remained, to the end, deeply hostile to the notion and employed all his considerable bureaucratic savvy to thwart the efforts of others in the US administration who wanted a more substantial engagement with the country. After much dithering, there was briefly talk from Bush himself of a Marshall Plan for the country, but the idea quickly slipped away as if forgotten as other priorities loomed into view.

The main other priority looming into view was a new war on a different front. At precisely the moment that the US faced the daunting prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan, it turned its attention to Iraq. I have long seen it written that the war in Iraq provided a distraction from Afghanistan that seriously jeopardized that mission. But until Rashid’s book I had not grasped the details, or understood how much evidence there really is for the proposition. Efforts to establish Karzai’s new government in Kabul were undermined by a policy Rashid calls “warlordism,” that is, providing financial and political support to warlords who then worked to undermine the government in Kabul. With resources diverted to the coming war in Iraq, Washington had clearly determined that nation building in Afghanistan would have to be done on the cheap, and warlordism seemed to offer a shortcut to the difficult and resource-intensive process of establishing and extending Kabul’s legitimacy and reach.

Stand back for a moment and marvel at the various trade offs involved here: The US pursues the Iraq War at the expense of the larger mission in Afghanistan, and loses both. The Bush administration’s uncritical support of Musharif helps set the conditions for the ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban. This in turn vastly complicates the hope of achieving even minimal security in Afghanistan, and plays a role in allowing Al Qaeda figures to escape and plan more attacks (the more recent London and Madrid bombings were almost certainly plotted from within the FATA). Having sacrificed security in Afghanistan to the goal of maintaining solid relations with Pakistan, US policymakers were then forced to watch conditions in Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, further diminishing their leverage with the country.

There’s much more like this in Rashid’s book, if you can stomach it, buttressed by a wealth of supporting facts and argument. Since the book’s publication conditions on the ground have further deteriorated. As the new administration tries to salvage the mess handed down to it from its predecessors, I hope Rashid’s book gets the attention it deserves.

* I’m simplifying to make a point, at the risk of giving the CIA far too much credit. The decision to invade might well have been made without any CIA involvement, as Brezhnev was intervening in a complicated conflict involving the USSR’s communist allies in Afghanistan and their enemies.

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2008 09 03
Recently read: “Heads in the Sand”

Matthew Yglesias. Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats

I enjoy reading Matthew Yglesias’s blog, so it’s hardly surprising that I also found Heads in the Sand such a pleasant read. Because I usually stick to his blog posts, I’ve tended to think of him as a master of the short form post, typically a clear, succinct line of attack against a single idea. But it turns out that he’s also got a knack for holding my attention over the length of a book. If you like reading about American foreign policy, this well-written and intelligent book is well worth your time.

Heads in the Sand reviews the Bush administration’s policies since 2001 and compares them unfavourably to Yglesias’s preferred alternative, liberal internationalism. This is the view that conflicts between states can, and should, be handled by international institutions, rather than raw zero-sum power politics. Moreover, although powerful actors within such an international system may sometimes seem better off if they ignore the shackles and restraints imposed by such a system, in fact adherence to rules agreed upon by all can in fact be very beneficial even to the powerful. The Bush administration, needless to say, has tended to take the superficial view, regarding international laws, norms, and institutions as irrelevant annoyances. The result has been, in my opinion, far less freedom of movement than it might otherwise have enjoyed. (Or perhaps, far less freedom of the kind of movement that the U.S. ought to desire. Had the Bush administration respected international norms and institutions, it would not have had the freedom to invade Iraq. But this freedom was hardly beneficial.)

Yglesias is very hard, and rightly so, on the political and substantive merits of the strategies pursued by the Democratic party’s politicians and strategists in response to the Bush administration, especially since 2001. Perpetually stuck in a “defensive crouch”, they end up conceding keys elements of Bush’s outlook, and tend to quibble about tactics (like troop numbers in Iraq, for example), rather than attempting to reconsider the wisdom of the Bush administration’s overall strategy. The result is that Democrats look weak, uncertain, and incoherent. Electorally, they were punished for this in 2002 and 2004. 2006 was much better, but Yglesias warns that the failure to be clear-headed and honest in offering a genuine alternative to Bush means that the gains are easily reversed. This seems to me absolutely correct, and I frequently found myself hoping that Yglesias’s book was making the rounds within the Obama campaign.

One criticism I’ve heard of Yglesias’s writing is that he rarely engages with positions to his left. Perhaps part of the reason for this tendency is an extremely well-justified frustration on Yglesias’s part (which I share) at the habit of some left and centrist thinkers of training an inordinate amount of attention at very left-wing positions, as though these were actually held by people in positions of power. Because attention (and column space) is finite, the attention qualified as inordinate precisely because it so often left unchallenged toxic, popular, and deeply hawkish views held by people actually in positions in power. Michael Walzer serves as an exemplar of this sort of thinking in the book, but Yglesias has some other fine examples too.

Fair enough, I say. But Walzer-style finger-wagging is hardly the only way to engage with positions to one’s left. Indeed, one might consider . . . engaging them to see if they’re actually worth adopting, or to explain why they’re not to intelligent people of good faith who hold them. In particular, I would have appreciated much more engagement with principled scepticism about the justifiability of certain uses of American power that Yglesias regards as consistent with liberal internationalism. (Yglesias’s preface thanks the wise and venerable Jim Henley for reading a complete draft of the book. And Henley must have given Yglesias shit about this too.) Yglesias, for example, seems to embrace the consensus that the first Gulf War – “a swift and lost-cost victory” – was a fine affair:

The first Bush administration, acting within the internationalist tradition, chose to seize the opportunity [to use the UN to prevent aggressive warfare]. By waging war on Iraq through the mechanism of the UN, and by fighting for the limited objectives of expelling Iraq from Kuwait and forcing it to abandon the research and development of illegal weapons, the Bush administration did more than preserve Kuwait’s independent. It established a new, long-dreamed-of-norm — the principle that aggressive war, long notionally banned by various treaties, would actually be repulsed by concerted international action. This achievement was—and is—fairly remarkable and, though it’s seldom commented on, has held up shockingly well in the intervening years.

It’s here, for example, that I think Yglesias could learn a thing or two from sterner critics of U.S. foreign policy. It’s very true that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait presented an enormous challenge to a world looking to put aggressive war behind it. And the quality of Iraq’s brief stay in Kuwait left little doubt about what lay in store for Kuwait had Iraq not been forced out. When legitimate concerns about Iraq’s weapons programs are added to the mix, the case for this war deserves a respectful hearing, even if not acceptance.

But in retrospect the case against the first Gulf War looks stronger and stronger to me. First, when Yglesias points to “a swift and lost-cost victory,” of course he means it was a swift and lost-cost victory for the U.S. and its allies. For Iraqis it was anything but. Obviously Yglesias, who tends to be fairly sensitive to these issues, doesn’t mean to imply otherwise, but I often wonder how seriously people weigh this cost when they consider the competing considerations involved in assessing the justice of the first Gulf War. The U.S. systematically destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, resulting in massive and widespread suffering and death among its civilian population. This was deliberate policy. Because, contra Yglesias, U.S. goals went beyond forcing Iraq out of Kuwait and dismantling Iraqi weapons capacity. It was quite clear throughout both the elder Bush and Clinton administrations that the sanctions imposed would not be lifted so long as Saddam Hussein remained in power, and that the purpose of the original destruction was to discredit him as thoroughly as possible in order to facilitate his overthrow. (And while Iraq was obviously seriously dysfunctional by the time of the first Gulf War, the decade of sanctions, isolation, and suffering have surely contributed to the difficulties Iraqis now face as they struggle to rebuild their country. They are recovering from far more than Saddam Hussein.)

All of this encourages the thought that the case for the war is less obvious than is often assumed. At the very least it serves as a warning that even a war responding to a serious threat to international security is likely to be waged by people with a pathological indifference to human suffering, who are willing to use techniques over an extended period of time that are vindictive, cruel, uncivilized. Yglesias’s book is not about the first Gulf War, and so I don’t want to ding him for failing to go into length about it. But if I’m right that the first Gulf War is seriously morally problematic, then I do think it’s a problem for someone who takes it as naturally flowing from the liberal internationalism that he champions.

Kosovo provides another example of this. Yglesias takes Kosovo as a difficult case for liberal internationalism, but the war at least arguably squeaks by on his telling. But I think Kosovo is problematic for all kinds of reasons. In addition to the wholesale bombing of yet another country’s civilian infrastructure, here’s one: The air war was so damn easy for Americans that it really did play a role in fostering a mentality among many influential Americans that made the Iraq War possible. I’m sorry but that is a serious cost of that war.

Now, just because these wars, which strike me as problematic, are consistent with liberal internationalism as Yglesias understands it, doesn’t necessarily mean that liberal internationalism isn’t an outlook worth adopting. It might simply be the case that liberal internationalism needs supplementing with additional principles about the uncertainty and unpredictability of war and a good helping of scepticism about the people likely to wage it.

Soon enough, with a bit of luck, we may see a return to the American tradition of liberal internationalism. That tradition makes the Bush years look very bad in comparison. But then again, what doesn’t? If we see a return to this tradition, we’re really only getting started in thinking about the proper uses of American power and influence in the world.

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2008 08 09
Recently read: “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

After the scandal of Abu Grieb, the Bush administration insisted that the torture and abuse of detainees had been the work of a few bad apples. But of course the abuse was only a manifestation of a much deeper rot, for which top officials bore primary responsibility. I’ve sometimes had the impression of similar excuse-making in the attitudes of even some of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration, in the claim that the Bush administration represents a radical and unprecedented break with the past. It strikes me as naive to depict the Bush administration as a few bad apples, in an otherwise upright tradition legal and ethical conduct. On the contrary, the Bush administration seems to me part of a larger moral and legal rot that is systemic, and has unfortunately deep roots in American political culture (alongside much more admirable tendencies and traditions).

Jane Meyer’s new book The Dark Side has helped me to reflect on, and to a certain extent, modify, these assumptions. Mayer is familiar with the Church Committee, and with past American abuses of power. She doesn’t base her argument for a significant break with the past on what the Bush administration has done so much as on the legal arguments that the administration has advanced, most often in secrecy, to defend and support its policies. Much of this is new, and its long-term consequences are likely to be wretched.

A great deal of the action in Mayer’s book is, for this reason, legal. The new legal doctrines advanced by David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel for the period covered by the book, and John Yoo, among others, were fiercely resisted by other lawyers in the administration. Meyer meticulously details the legal arguments and maneuvers used by various parties to this debate against the background of events in the so-called War on Terror.

Mayer book is, as far as I can tell, balanced, careful, and accurate, while rarely engaging in the pointless he-said/she-said style of reporting that so many journalists use to avoid the implications of their reporting. When an official lies, she points it out, clearly and unequivocally. A book like this is difficult to ignore, if you care at all about moral and legal issues surrounding torture and the Bush administration’s policies. If even a quarter of the book is accurate, the United States would only need to be a country serious about following its own laws for hundreds of people, from the President on down, to be put on trial for torture and other serious crimes.

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2008 06 26
Obama on missile defense (Still Confused Edition)

Back in January, I was wondering what the candidates thought about missile defense. Set aside that old guy for a minute. I’m more interested in Obama. A little googling tells me that a video surfaced after I wrote my post in which Obama seemed to suggest he would end it. Two problems with this. First, it doesn’t seem to have been a video put out officially by the campaign. Second, I notice that the key line is “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.” That could mean either, a) “I will cut investments in missile defense systems, which are unproven and so don’t deserve investment”; or b) “I will cut investments in those missile defense systems which have been unproven, leaving untouched all those which are proven.”

As of this writing, searching Obama’s site brings up only his commitment to working with Israel on the Arrow program.

It’s not surprising at all that Obama wouldn’t want to make a commitment on this issue. Coming out against missile defense would only piss off a well-funded and deeply entrenched interest group, and would do practically nothing to peel away McCain supporters or sway independents. Coming out in support of missile defense would piss off a number of his supporters, who would be inclined to see it as a cowardly and expensive concession to the sort of conventional wisdom Obama is supposed to be transcending blah, blah, blah.

What ought to be a bit more surprising is that journalists covering the race haven’t been more curious about the issue. After all, it’s a sizable chunk of federal money. And it’s also an interesting test for Obama, since putting the question about missile defense to him forces him to choose between presenting himself as a bold reformer or just more of the same. Aren’t journalists supposed to relish that sort of question?

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2008 01 16
The candidates on Missile Defense

Here’s something I’d like to know more about: What do the various U.S. presidential candidates – both Democratic and Republican – have to say about strategic missile defense?  It has long struck me as odd that there’s so little discussion of this initiative, since a) it’s absolutely asinine; and b) it’s incredibly expensive.  After 9/11/2001, I thought that perhaps American politicians would attempt to do the only rational thing, which is scrap the entire program.  But of course when there’s this much money invested in something, it’s apparently too much to ask for people to make sense.  (The only thing you ever needed to know about Rumsfeld’s military transformation project is that it left this program intact.)  Sadly, 9/11/2001 changed nothing.

It seems to me that this issue isn’t a bad test for candidates, since it’s an issue on which there’s an obvious answer (scrap the program), and an obvious downside to giving the obviously correct answer (you piss off everyone with a vested interest in the program).  It would be disappointing, though not surprising, to end up with a U.S. president either too stupid or too timid to give the obviously correct answer on this issue.

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2006 04 11
Bush on private military contractors

Here’s a video of an exchange between President Bush and a student asking him a question about private military contractors in Iraq. It’s a decent question, and she asks it well, and awfully politely. She explains that she had managed to ask Rumsfeld a few months prior to the exchange with Bush what law governs private military contractors in Iraq, given that the U.S. military’s own code doesn’t. According to her, Rumsfeld’s answer was that “presumably” – I love that “presumably”; it’s just so Rummy that she must be quoting directly – Iraq’s own laws governed military contractors. The questioner was concerned that this was obviously inadequate, since Iraq lacks the means to enforce those laws. The result has been a lot of heavily armed men operating without any effective legal restraints in an extraordinarily stressful environment. This has proven problematic (e.g.).

So anyone who follows the news in Iraq knows that that is a damn good question. Shootings by contractors (many who have been killed working under incredibly dangerous conditions) seem to be a real grievance Iraqis have with the occupation. The worries about military contractors in Iraq are also connected to the issue of the current American military transformation. The position you take on these worries – whether you think they’re tractable or not – is bound to influence your views about the prudence of some of Rumsfeld’s controversial ideas about the modernization of the American military (though, of course, the use of military contractors pre-dates Rumsfeld). Part of the transformation of the military has involved precisely this shift to an increasing reliance on military contractors to perform a wide range of duties that would formerly have been taken up by the military.

There are two ways of reading what follows the student’s question. The optimistic reading is just that Bush is incredibly comfortable lying in public, and that he was doing so on this occasion. Of course he knows that there’s a serious issue about the legal status of private military contractors, since there’s been quite a debate about this subject, and at some point Biden, or Rice or Powell before he left said something to make him aware that this was an issue. So when Bush acts surprised by the question and completely stumped by it – when he really looks as if he’s never heard anything about this issue – it’s just an act.

The pessimistic reading is that this really is the first that Bush has heard of the issue. On this more terrifying reading Bush is actually unaware of an issue that is at once a) a significant source of resentment among Iraqis, poisoning good will essential to his project even further; b) a serious moral and legal issue arising from the occupation; and c) a necessary piece of information for judging the future direction of the American military.

Bush manages to splutter something about delegation, and then moves on to the next question. I think his response nicely captures the basic problem with the “The President is a Moron but he Delegates Well” theory of Presidential Aptitude, a theory my father was always fond of applying to Reagan back in the day. On the pessimistic reading, which I lean towards, Bush is so out of touch that he is both unable to delegate properly and unable to assess the results of his delegation.

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2005 06 21
How Much Does the US Spend on Defense?

Posted by in: U.S. defense policy

More than we’re told.

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2005 04 27
Bunker busters


A nuclear weapon that is exploded underground can destroy a deeply buried bunker efficiently and requires significantly less power to do so than a nuclear weapon detonated on the surface would, says a new report from the National Academies’ National Research Council. However, such “earth-penetrating” nuclear weapons cannot go deep enough to avoid massive casualties at ground level, and they could still kill up to a million people or more if used in heavily populated areas, said the committee that wrote the report.

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2005 02 15
Missile Defence, again

Even if missile defence worked, or were likely to work some time in the foreseeable future, it would still probably be a foolish misuse of resources. But it doesn’t work. And that makes it worse than foolish.

I can’t believe these people are supposed to be keeping me safe.

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2005 01 14
Missile Defense Update

Posted by in: U.S. defense policy

USA Today:

The Bush administration’s goal was to have the system ready by the end of 2004. �We have a nascent operational capability,� said Larry Di Rita, spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. �It’s not what everybody wishes it may be, perhaps. But some capability exists, while you continue to improve upon the capability of that system.

�We haven’t made a declaration that we are now hereby operational,� he said. �I don’t know that such a declaration will ever be made.� Di Rita didn’t explain why the Pentagon might never publicly declare the system fully ready.

That, of course, is bad news for us, and pretty damn good news for Boeing.

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2004 10 03
Former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Command, General Eugene Habiger (ret.) is shrill

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