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Tag: "foreign policy"

The JFK Vietnam Myth

[ 67 ] July 17, 2011 |

Worst president of the 20th century, I dunno, but the idea that Vietnam should be laid primarily at LBJ’s feet is ridiculous. I think Oliver Stone’s fervent belief that JFK’s assassination was inevitable because of his left-wing radicalism on foreign policy and civil rights makes JFK one of the funniest movies ever made…


War is Peace

[ 12 ] June 22, 2011 |

Military Industrial Complex

Report: 10,000 Troops Leaving Afghanistan This Year

Kerry and McCain United Behind the Mysteriously Urgent Libya Mission

Iraq Violence Intensifies as Talks Continue on U.S. Troop Presence

In principle it would be quite simple to waste the surplus labour of the world by building temples and pyramids, by digging holes and filling them up again, or even by producing vast quantities of goods and then setting fire to them. But this would provide only the economic and not the emotional basis for a hierarchical society. What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.

Libya and the WPA

[ 36 ] June 18, 2011 |

I’ve essentially become resigned to executive branch domination of foreign policy — the only thing that can stop it is for Congress to actually assert its prerogatives, and there’s no reason to believe it will do so.    Still, the DOJ lawyers were right: the idea that the attacks on Libya don’t require congressional authorization is not serious, and it represents a further erosion of checks within the executive branch.

An Effective Repudiation of the Bush Approach

[ 71 ] May 2, 2011 |

Jennifer Rubin provides the inevitable spin, arguing that the killing of OBL vindicates the Bush approach of using military force — including an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and posed no significant security threat to the United States:

Third, this is why we went into Afghanistan and why George W. Bush decided that the United States would go on offense in the war against Islamic terrorism. We cannot sit home, play defense and hope for the best. It was President George W. Bush’s insight that we would need to take the fight to the jihadists. Without doing so, we could not have obtained the intelligence needed to kill the man behind Sept. 11.

A nice trick — putting things at this level of abstraction (“go on offense”) justifies any possible military reaction without requiring any actual argument. But the reality is rather different:

Yet it was not our sheer military or technological strength that finally finished off Osama Bin Laden on Sunday; it was human intelligence, careful preparation, and patience. We don’t know the whole story yet, and we might not hear it for some time. But according to first reports, an intelligence tip-off led U.S. analysts to Bin Laden’s trusted courier; observation of the courier then led special forces to Bin Laden’s compound, which has now been under surveillance for many months.

In other words, the killing of Osama Bin Laden did not take place in a hail of bombs and bullets, or after a shoot-out involving hundreds of troops. It was the result of careful preparation, followed by the competent execution of a plan.

Precisely why it was necessary to invade Iraq in order to obtain this information remains…unclear.

The Intervention Paradox

[ 0 ] April 25, 2011 |

In text form.

In cartoon form.

On Exceptionalism

[ 62 ] April 6, 2011 |

My WPR column this week is on American Exceptionalism:

Does the United States have a special responsibility to manage international affairs? This question has come to inform much of the debate about the role that the U.S. is currently playing in military operations over Libya. Glenn Greenwald of Salon has argued that the idea that the United States has the right to intervene in the internal politics of other countries has its source in a widespread acceptance of American Exceptionalism, the notion that the United States is different, special and privileged compared to other nations. Writing from a realist perspective, Stephen Walt echoed this claim, arguing that both neoconservatives and liberal interventionists hold exceptionalist views of the U.S. role in the world.

Both Greenwald and Walt suggest that the idea of American Exceptionalism has a destructive effect both on world politics and on U.S. domestic politics, with Greenwald phrasing the question in this way: “Does the U.S. indeed occupy a special place in the world, entitling and even obligating us to undertake actions that no other country is entitled or obligated to undertake? And, if so, what is the source of these entitlements and obligations? Is it merely our superior military power, or is there something else that has vested us with this perch of exceptionalism?”

Four points worthy of slightly longer discussion:

  • American Exceptionalism is, as a phenomenon, wholly unexceptional.  Almost every state or nation has an ideologically charged vision of its own relevance.  More powerful states tend to have the most expansive of such visions.  The French understanding of civilizing mission is an example of this, but there are obviously also Exceptionalist understandings of German, British, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, and Chinese global responsibilities.
  • Anyone who rises to the leadership of a major world power is extremely likely to have internalized some sort of Exceptionalist vision.  Anyone who rises to such a position without having internalized the Exceptionalist vision is  extremely likely to act as if they have internalized such a vision.
  • On the whole, these Exceptionalist understandings of foreign policy roles are probably unhelpful from several angles.  On the one hand, they detract from the rational, realist calculus of foreign policy means and interest that someone like Stephen Walt might prefer.  On the other hand, they tend to grant the presumptive, hypocritical “right of interference” in the affairs of others that so irritates Glenn Greenwald.
  • The case for “aspirational exceptionalism” is complicated, but I think there’s something there.  As I suggested, not all visions of American Exceptionalism are the same, and some (although not the strain most recently dominant) are actually anti-interventionist.  Consequently, I think that it can be worthwhile to try to fight the fight on the ground that Exceptionalists choose, although much care must be taken.  For example, I think that How Would a Patriot Act is most definitely a book that would fit comfortably in the “aspirational exceptionalist” milieu.

The Congressional Abdication

[ 9 ] April 5, 2011 |

I generally agree with Mark Tushnet that Robert Jackson is overrated. But I also agree that he did have a talent for good lines, and this bit from his famous-if-overrated Steel Seizures concurrence was prescient indeed:

But I have no illusion that any decision by this Court can keep power in the hands of Congress if it is not wise and timely in meeting its problems. A crisis that challenges the President equally, or perhaps primarily, challenges Congress. If not good law, there was worldly wisdom in the maxim attributed to Napoleon that “The tools belong to the man who can use them.” We may say that power to legislate for emergencies belongs in the hands of Congress, but only Congress itself can prevent power from slipping through its fingers.

I have a new article up at the Prospect on this general theme. While I agree with Paul and Bruce Ackerman that it’s hard to square the current presidential dominance over military and security policy with the constitutional framework established by the framework, on some level the argument becomes like debating the fine points of constitutional grand theory: presidential dominance is the de facto constitutional order. I draw the line at suggestions that the president can just ignore congressional statutes, but if accepted practice means anything (and I’m not going to selectively pretend to be an originalist) the president’s ability to initiate military force with congressional delegation or acquiescence is part of our constitutional order, and certainly Obama isn’t breaking any new ground. The only thing that can change things is for Congress to assert the formal powers it still possesses, but there’s little reason to believe it will do so.

Whether the current balance of power is constitutional a different question from whether it’s desirable, and on the latter question I remain highly dubious:

But it’s also true that recent American foreign-policy blunders would suggest it’s not entirely desirable for the president to have so much power. As Stephen Holmes argued at length in his brilliant 2006 book, The Matador’s Cape, an executive branch unconstrained in its military power is dangerous. “It turns out,” Holmes says, “that an executive branch that never has to give reasons for its actions soon stops having plausible reasons for its actions.” The Vietnam and second Iraq wars, in particular, suggest that there was real wisdom in the power-sharing over military policy Madison envisioned. Both wars provide classic examples of the pathologies one would expect from unilateral executive power: wars fought under largely false pretenses, with increasingly blurry aims and essentially no cost-benefit analysis. And the theories of unilateral executive power advanced by John Yoo and others in the executive branch under George W. Bush also led to arbitrary torture and other appalling civil-liberties abuses.

At any rate, my combination of outrage and fatalism is expressed in full at TAP. I’ll have more on Posner and Vermeule later today…

Cole’s Case For Intervention In Libya

[ 105 ] March 27, 2011 |

Juan Cole has another argument in favor of Allied intervention into Libya. As an open-to-persuasion skeptic, I would like to raise a couple points. First, I’m suspicious of this characterization of the opposing arguments:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)
2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).
3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.

We can quibble over whether this is a litany of strawmen — I suppose there are people who fall into these categories — but they certainly don’t represent counter-arguments in their strongest form. Let’s make clear up front that there are no absolutes, that there are cases in which military attacks by world powers can be justified on humanitarian grounds. It’s still neither here not there in terms of whether any particular intervention is justified. I agree that every potential intervention needs to be evaluated on its own merits. So how strong is the case here? Well, here’s the key point for me:

Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding.

This may well be right. But, er, that’s a hell of an assumption, isn’t it? What happens if 90 days of bombing doesn’t succeed in removing Qaddafi? What happens if a more successful revolution leads to anarchy or civil war or a regime that key officials in the United States government don’t like? Obviously, if you assume that the intervention will be short and effective it’s easy to make the case, but I don’t think that it’s prudent to make that assumption. I think we need to consider what happens in non-best-case scenarios, and certainly Cole doesn’t have good answers to these questions. So I hope that he’s right that the strikes on Libya will be short-term and efficacious, but I remain skeptical.

Blind Squirrel Hunting

[ 3 ] March 14, 2011 |

It’s rather disconcerting that of the two Libya op-eds in the Times this morning Ross Douthat’s is easily the more sensible and persuasive. In particular, I think Slaughter lacks a good answer to the question of what happens if the no-fly zones don’t work.

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I’ve Said it Before…

[ 8 ] February 28, 2011 |

I really like this Peter Beinart much more than the guy with the same name who used to edit The New Republic.

Sources of Foreign Policy

[ 15 ] February 10, 2011 |


People generally understand that the domestic politics of a large liberal democracy reflect a contending set of interests in which the controlling coalition need have no relationship to the true interests of the nation. America’s agriculture policy, for example, reflects the interests of ranchers, corn, soybean, and cotton farmers rather than vegetable growers or food consumers. But this same thing happens in foreign policy…

This kind of thinking can sometimes reflect an accurate assessment of what’s good for the country. But it’s also redolent with interest group capture. When the USA assembles a large coalition of allies that is, among other things, a large coalition of customers for American defense contractors. What’s more, the allies then often need defending, both in terms of military bases and general expeditionary capabilities. So we have a controlling domestic political coalition that’s defined our “interests” in the Middle East as consisting of collecting a large and diversified portfolio of local allied regimes who we then directly and indirectly subsidize. But the proposition that this reflects the real interests of the American population is contestable. The connection to real interests is that the price of gasoline is very important to the welfare of the average American household, and that Middle Eastern politics are important to the price of gasoline.

What Yglesias is suggesting is that there’s no such thing as the “national interest”; rather, different groups within society have different foreign policy interests. There may be broad swaths of agreement on certain interests, but even in these cases distributional preferences may differ. That this point is incredibly obvious and cannot be whispered by anyone with a serious interest in working for the United States government is unfortunate, but not particularly contradictory. I tend to find explanation of US government policy that center on “the Village” and other similar constructs sloppy and prone to over-explanation, but surely the uncontested idea that there IS a national interest that can be pursued without reference to interest group politics stands as pillar of elite domination of foreign policy debate.

The LCS, Apple Pie, and What Not

[ 73 ] January 4, 2011 |

First off, let me recommend some reading on a couple of defense issues. Galrahn has an excellent post (really, the latest of a long, long series of excellent posts) on the dual Littoral Combat Ship buy. See also UltimaRatioReg who, with typically purple prose, raises legitimate questions about the point of the LCS. Then, see this old Bill Sweetman article on the Tu-22 Backfire bomber. It’s a masterpiece of military writing. It includes close technical analysis based on available intelligence, an elaboration of the political and strategic consequences of tactical development, and an evaluation of the causes and consequences of misunderstandings about the capabilities of the Tu-22.

These pieces share the project of working through the political implications of choices about military hardware and doctrine. I’m recommending them here because I continue to believe that progressives consistently underestimate the importance of discussions about military doctrine and technology. More importantly, I think that progressives can and should commit themselves to making more of a contribution on these debates. I believe that, right now, progressives have evacuated the field on questions of military doctrine and technology (with a couple of important exceptions, as noted below), leaving the conversation to conservatives and “centrists”. Effectively, this means that the “left” side of the US debate on the composition (rather than the size) of the defense budget is represented by people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, or (at very best) by the folks at the Center for American Progress. Finally, I think that we are approaching a political reality in which real cuts to defense spending will become possible, and that staking out genuinely progressive positions on issues of military doctrine and technology actually have a chance of affecting the composition of US military forces.

I think that progressives agree on two broad lines of thought about US defense.  The first is that the United States should refrain from fighting stupid, random wars, while the second is that the US defense budget is far, far too high.  A corollary to both of these is that the United States ought to stop acting in an “imperial” manner, regularly interfering in the politics of foreign countries and so forth.  These broad concepts are far more radical than they should be in American political discourse; a substantial portion of the institutional Democratic Party disagrees with one or both, the Beltway establishment (to the extent it is legitimate to attribute direct political views to it) isn’t on board with either, and of the major foreign policy think tanks there’s not wide agreement on either concept (I think that CAP is on board with a weak version of both arguments, and perhaps CATO for different reasons).  Of course, there are more radical critiques of US defense policy (US only needs a Coast Guard, US defense budget should be zeroed out, etc.) but while these critiques influence the mainstream of progressive thought, I wouldn’t say that they’re representative of progressives as a whole.

These two broad points of agreement are fine as far as they go; in the context of the modern American defense debate, they remain depressingly radical and marginalized.  I can understand why there’s a general reluctance to go beyond these two arguments into the details of defense procurement and military doctrine.  To the extent that progressives think very much about either of these, the two major themes discussed about dominate discussion; we discuss COIN in terms of its implications for remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we think about cutting the F-22 in terms of budgetary impact.  This is to say that thinking about optimal US defense posture, or more broadly thinking about the role that the US military ought to play in the world, takes a backseat to the two main points of progressive thought on military policy.

There’s no question that these lines of inquiry have been productive.  In my view, progressive critics of COIN have done a much better, more nuanced job than right wing critics, even if we’ve gotten some big things (the tactical successes of the Surge, for example) wrong.  I often find progressive thought on COIN somewhat frustrating, since much of the body of work seems to assume that COIN was invented in 2006 as a way to keep the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the best progressive critiques of operational and tactical issues are very, very good.  Moreover, I think that progressives have done some good work on identifying systematic problems in defense budgeting and procurement.

But here is the problem: If the United States withdrew from Iraq, and Afghanistan, ceased drone incursions into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and reduced defense expenditure to the Japanese level (1.3%, which is below the European norm), the United States would still have the world’s largest military budget, and would probably field the world’s most capable military forces.  At some point China would pass the US in overall expenditure, but the US would still lead in many metrics of training, technology, and effectiveness.  While I’m not sure that it would be correct to call the US the “indispensable nation” in military affairs in such a situation, the United States would obviously remain a very important piece of the global military picture.

In this context, I think it’s important for progressives to ask ourselves two related questions.  The first is “What role should the United States military play in the world?”, and the second is “What should US force structure and military doctrine look like?”  Obviously, the first needs to inform the second, and is probably the more complicated of the two.   Nevertheless, the second is important; US decisions on how many Littoral Combat Ships, amphibious warships, F-35s, in-flight tankers, and deployable soldiers to purchase and train have deep implications for the ability of the United States military to undertake successful operations. Most importantly, a working knowledge of US doctrine and technology is useful for both questions. If you envision the ideal US military as performing a “hegemony light” role, including disaster relief, anti-smuggling and anti-piracy, certain forms of counter-terrorism, and similar missions, then the Littoral Combat Ship is a very interesting and potential useful piece of equipment. If you envision the role of the US military as primarily about territorial defense (potentially extended to certain allies) this has different implications for a platform like the LCS.

Moreover, answers to the second question can affect the first. Although strategy can dictate capabilities, capabilities also limit strategy. A military with minimal expeditionary capabilities obviously will have difficulty fighting expeditionary wars. Small land forces make large scale overseas deployments difficult. The absence of counter-insurgency capabilities may reduce the ability of the military to wage long term anti-guerrilla campaigns, although it may not. To the extent that progressives are interested in arguing for a particular vision of US foreign policy, they can use military doctrine and technology as tools in that fight; conservatives do so all the time.

So what I’m asking for is this: Progressives should start making arguments framed around the question of whether or not the F-35 (or the LCS, or whatever you feel like) is the kind of weapon that could underpin a progressive vision of US foreign policy.  I don’t ask for any particular foreign policy vision, or any particular view of the specific weapons in question (I’m feel rather ambiguous about both, and my own preferred “vision” would be something along the lines of “hegemony light”), but rather for arguments that attempt to interpret the characteristics of weapon systems and of doctrinal choices in the light of progressive political preferences.  This means taking some time to learn about weapons and doctrine, and making some effort to put forth progressive views on these subjects.  Deriving the position of AEI or Heritage on a given weapon isn’t particularly difficult, even beyond the “buy more” baseline; apart from its budget impact, I have not the faintest what CAP thinks of the F-35 or the LCS.  This is a problem.

I do understand the temptation to wall ourselves off from these arguments; since key progressive goals on both the budget and on foreign policy are not likely to be met in the near or medium term, it can seem like a waste to put arguments on them together.  Moreover, participation in the discussion runs the risk of legitimating outcomes that we don’t approve of.  My answer is twofold.  First, the US defense budget (and broader US foreign policy) is more malleable than we often think.  We’re only twenty years removed from a very substantial downsizing of the American military establishment, and we may well be entering political conditions that will allow similar reductions.  Second, the people who currently make defense policy don’t give a damn about whether they’re legitimated or not.  Being the “left” voice on defense policy is good for Michael O’Hanlon, and represents a great situation for the Heritage Foundation.  Strategic boycott only makes sense if those boycotted care about being delegitimized, and in this case they don’t.  Analysts, institutions, and politicians tend to respond to the arguments they see, rather than those that they don’t.  Progressives have been excluded from even informal discussions of most questions of military doctrine and technology, but have also made themselves absent from those discussions .

As I suggested above, we are approaching a political and economic situation in which real reductions (depending, I suppose, on how we characterize “real”) to defense spending can become possible.  Consequently, I think it’s very important that progressives start thinking through the details of defense issues now.  Non-partisan blogs like Information Dissemination and the USNI blog have commenter communities that are both well informed about defense issues and lean strongly right; there is no good reason for this situation to persist.  Institutions like CAP should continue to contribute on Afghanistan and Iraq, but should also give greater attention to what US military doctrine should look like in five years, and to how progressives can and should shape overall US military capabilities.  Robust, consequential progressive work on technology and doctrine will be good for progressives, and good for debates on US military capabilities.

/end pious lecture on why people should think the stuff I do is really important

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