Friday, August 18, 2006

An Unusual Diagnosis

I've heard a good number of diagnoses about the (purported?) failure of American foreign policy in the last few years. Most have centered around an image of President Bush as (a) a do-it-alone gun-slingin' cowboy, (b) a "God tells me what to do and I do it" arrogant exclusivist, or (c) an idiot who can't always tell his right shoe from his left, and probably is just a puppet of corporate entites pulling the strings. One or more of those themes is generally central in the critiques I've seen of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

But, this one's different.

According to Gerard Baker, writing in the London Times, the problems with the Bush administration's foreign policy have come from a lack of "resolute leadership". Bush has waffled too much, caved in to pressure too much, been too inconsistent.

What do you think? Is Baker on to something?

As one of his supporting points, Baker suggests that one of the main results of our Middle East policy of the last few years has been the elevation of Iran's importance. "The despised regime in Tehran has emerged as the true hegemonic power in the region, leeching on the battered bodies politic of Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, elevating its brand of Shia fundamentalism into position as the dominant force in the Islamic world and continuing on its path towards nuclear status." If that is true, that would certainly be the opposite of the direction we wanted to go. Our aim must be the marginalization and weakening of Iran. Have we made Iran more influential in the Middle East? If so, what could we have done differently to prevent that from happening?



Kevin said...

There did seem to be some waffling or lack of commitment in the conclusion of the Israel-Hezbollah war, considering the US's initial position and its general position regarding terrorist organizations. Despite the UN resolution's calling for Lebanon to take control of its territories, their military and the UN's forces have stated that they do not intend to disarm Hezbollah. It even appears that the UN forces will include countries which do not recognize Israel's right to exist. Thus I fear that these attempts to cease war may actually be extending and exacerbating the conflict.

What caused this shift in policy? Perhaps it was born out of a need to compromise with the international community, but I'm not sure what the practical pressures or constraints were. Was foreign opinion the primary concern? The effectiveness of pro-Hezbollah and anti-war propaganda? If so, would their opinion of the US or Israel really be much worse if the war continued? I can only assume that there is more occurring behind the scenes than I have read about.

Many mistakes were made with Iraq, not the least of which was the lack and failure of intelligence that initiated the war, but I'm not sure it is accurate to chalk it all up to waffling leadership. Baker makes some decent, albeit broad, points from hindsight, and perhaps he's right that if we risked more, we might achieve more. Of course, we could also lose more. And what if The People do not want to risk more? We can look at the results and say that we should have done better, but the question that begs a specific and detailed answer is, how can we do better now? Most criticisms seem light on practical solutions.

Iran has come to the forefront as a hegemonic terror sponsoring state in the region, though I imagine that if Saddam still controlled Iraq, it would likewise be a great concern, since we still might not know for certain the state of WMD, various terrorists would still be harbored and sponsored by the state, Oil for Food corruption would still exist, etc. Furthermore, it seems inevitable that Iran would promote insurgence and terrorism against Israel and the US, regardless of the state of Iraq.

I don't really buy into the analysis that the US is creating more terrorists by fighting them. There is a culture that churns their population to create terrorists that is at fault, and not our confrontation of those terrorists. Unfortunately, I don't yet see a feasible solution for deteriorating that culture without riling it, and it seems we've merely entered the opening pages of this conflict.

Sometimes I wonder if many critics have a simplistic view of war; a simplistic view of massive endeavors, of casualties and collateral damage, of war crimes, of compromise, of peace. Often this seems to arise from the anti-war crowd, but my first impression is that Baker's argument similarly elides some complexities.


Douglas_Coombs said...

It takes alot of money to wage a war. The US can't afford to singlehandedly fulfill the ambitions of the folks who want to take out the entire "axis of evil" militarily. Going mushy with Iran and NK were pretty much our only options, other than giving Israel the green light to bomb the weapons sites. But where would that leave Israel?

If we didn't take enough troops into Iraq, is that more a case of waffling and caving in or misunderstanding the situation? The answer isn't clear, at least to me.

My guess is that not invading Iraq would likely have resulted in a less influential Iran, but I'm not sure the world would be all that much safer. Iran would still be pursuing WMDs. They just wouldn't have the as much of the focus on them they have now. Iraq would still be flaunting/ignoring the UN weapons inspectors every chance they got... and they would be guaranteed lots of chances.

What do you think our chances are of avoiding a war in which nuclear weapons are used over the next 50 years? I'd say 90-95%, but that 5-10% scares the @%#@$ out of me.

The world is too concerned with their need for oil to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Starting a war with NK would result in the leveling of Seol. The options are just too painful for the worlds leaders to do anything serious about these problems.


Douglas_Coombs said...

oops, I misspelled Seoul.

steviepinhead said...

Kevin's most recent comment is powerfully written, particularly the final paragraph.

Yet, with regard to massive endeavors, we are now five full years into the "War on Terror" and somewhere past three years into the campaign in Iraq. The U.S. involvement in WWII (setting aside a little Lend-Lease prestidigitation on FDR's part before Pearl Harbor) ran from December 1941 to August 1945.

It was arguably a different kind of war--although parts of it were fought very much in "guerilla," "partisan," or what we would now call "terrorist" style. Prisoners were tortured by some belligerents. Noncombatants were targeted, to varying degrees, by all participants (and genocide certainly perpetrated by some). "Weapons of mass destruction" (buzz bombs, katushas, aerial bombing campaings, atomic weapons) were pursued or used by most of the combatants. One can even argue that the U.S. made similar "compromises" of individual liberties (the Japanese internment being only the most blatant). In short, war wasn't conducted all that differently.

Yet in the less than four years that the U.S. was fully involved--and with only one comparable invasion of our territory as justification (Pearl Harbor, resulting in a comparable loss of life--the incursions in the Aleutians and some shelling of the California coast were peripheral and much less dramatic), the U.S. government mobilized popular sentiment, conjured up a mighty military-industrial machine from almost nothing, entered into thorny but successful alliances (some with very unlikely allies), fought through to victory on several widely-separated fronts, pursued the Manhattan Project to its well-known conclusion, and ushered in a fifty-year period of relative world peace.

The current government had a mighty war machine in place, but has so far--over a comparable time period, but against a much weaker (yes, and arguably much more elusive, difficult-to-identify) opponent--NOT managed to mobilize popular sentiment, NOT managed to enter into critical alliances, NOT managed to conceive and bring into being a dramatic new kind of weapon, and NOT managed to pursue the conflict to either a military or political success.

While we have so far avoided any further dramatic attack on our own territory, the same cannot be said of several of the countries that were drawn into our anemic "alliance." Homeland Security, and most of the invasive and arguably-irrelevant security procedures that we now put up with, are standing jokes, not to mention collossal wastes of resources.

The "mission" of increasing America's actual security--much less the equally-touted (and, I would tend to agree, equally-important) longer-term missions of spreading democracy and winning the "hearts and minds" of the populaces from whom our opponents draw personnel and support--remains far from accomplished.

Without necessarily buying into any of the easy stereotyping of our current leadership--thumbnailed by Mark in the intro to this post--I find it difficult not to compare the differing prosecution of these two "massive endeavors" in a manner that is not very favorable to our current leadership.

That doesn't mean that this isn't a genuinely-massive endeavor, as Kevin eloquently argues, or that it doesn't have its unique difficulties, that might have proved daunting to any group of leaders, past or present.

Nor does it mean that I have any magic solutions (or that the Democrats, for example, have advanced any that satisfy all the conflicting demands upon us).

But the first step toward a solution is to recognize the nature and extent of the problem. Our WWII leaders fought through to victories on multiple fronts simultaneously. I don't think we should meekly accept the notion that we are simply unwilling or incapable of engaging Iran and Iraq and North Korea and Darfur and Afghanistan-Pakistan (and a host of besetting environmental challenges, some of which ultimately underlie some of the political-military-social challenges).

Rather we have to reframe these challenges in a manner that will permit us to usefully address them, instead of confining ourselves to playing "whack-a-mole" in Baghdad and environs.

Mark Congdon said...


Powerfully stated!

I'm all for it. I know that you were careful to clarify that you weren't advocating any simplistic partisan divide... but I would love to know if there is any plan that has been articulated or leadership model (or leader) that has been offered that you think would provide solutions to the serious issues you have raised.

I agree (and I think most of us in this country agree) that we want to find ways to build strong coalitions even across ideological divides... that we want military success... and that even more we want to succeed in spreading basic messages of human rights and liberty as widely as possible. We want to be unified and mobilized as a country toward a great goal, and we want to be respected and followed by other countries. I think most of us agree on those goals.

How can we make them happen?


steviepinhead said...

Well, as I think I said above, I don't see anyone out there articulating the vision that I think you (correctly) conclude that many of us share. And I certainly haven't come up with my own "plan."

To be fair, Bush and some of the other prime neo-cons have "articulated" at least some elements of this vision, but the implementation has largely been (IMHO) mediocre to poor to non-existent, even in those areas where the chief executive has considerable sway--and where Bush has had every advantage of a friendly Congress and initially-biddable public.

The Democrats, of course, are between a rock and a hard place on Iraq. An immediate, or announced-in-advance, withdrawal creates any number of headaches and would almost certainly lead to (even-worse) strife and chaos, pretty much obliterating whatever little good our intervention initially accomplished.

Staying on and on in the morass, however, is diverting attention, military power, and treasury from other, argubly more-serious situations (Iran and NK are busily and blatantly developing WMDs and their delivery systems--and Iran is consolidating its corrosive influence in the Middle East at large, as the Lebanon situation unfortunately illustrates--while we remain bogged down in WMD-less Iraq, apparently impotent to deal with the greater threats). While I have not utterly lost hope that the Iraqi government may eventually be able to "stand up," even if it does--miraculously--prove capable of transitioning into a stable and peaceful regime, it is already closely aligned, ideologically, with the Iranian leadership.

Bush is increasingly in a lame-duck posture, since--regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections--even the Republicans have largely lost confidence in his ability to manage all the problems on his plate, whether internal or external.

The result is that even the administration's occasionally sensible proposals--such as its moderate posture on immigration policy that we have mulled here--are now DOA.

And, even on its best days--and even without invoking corporate conspiracy theories--this administration has been hostile to environmental protection, to any kind of longer range problem solving, and to scientific findings or recommendations in just about every area of concern.

Which kind of leaves the rest of us between a rock and a hard place, too.

Like Mark, I earnestly invite those with proposed "solutions"--or awareness of progressive-moderate candidates (I throw in the adjectives in an effort to focus on those who might have sufficient centrist appeal to be electable) who hold out any viable promise of leading us forward--to chime in. I'm drastically open to any opportunity to address our multitude of looming problems, and see my participation here as one way of keeping my ear to the rail.

Kevin said...


While I agree that there are instructive similarities between WW2 and the "War on Terror" (WoT), some of your comparisons seem like a bit of a stretch to me. Of course, the depth of my knowledge regarding WW2 may be lacking relative to yours, so, as always, I'm open to correction.

You compare the lengths of the wars, but one major difference is that WW2 was more clearly a war between sovereign states than WoT has been. Or should we measure the Iraq War (IW) by the sovereign states involved rather than by the distinct insurgence and proxy battles that continues? In some respects, WoT might even be better compared to the Cold War, due to the battle of ideology and the use of proxies.

Pre-WW2, the US was not the dominant power, nor the initial target, and non-interventionism placed the US in the position of underdog, reluctant fighter, and savior when it entered WW2. Already suffering Germany's aggression, I imagine that world-wide Allied popular sentiment was long mobilized in favor of US action. Thus, it seems to me that the US didn't need to strive for "critical alliances"; indeed, quite the opposite: the US was itself the critical alliance strove after by the Allies.

Nevertheless, the peace movement and isolationist sentiments were strong enough to keep the US out of WW2. Of course, Pearl Harbor obliterated the argument for isolationism and overwhelmingly won the "hearts and minds" domestically. But propaganda and culture helped to create and maintain support for the war, despite losses, which I expect had a defining impact on perceptions of military and political successes. From wikipedia: "The media voluntarily cooperated with the federal government in presenting the official view of the war. All movie scripts had to be pre-approved, but there was no direct censorship of radio, newspapers or magazines."

I think you also imply that countries have been targeted because the US drew them into its anemic "alliance". To some extent that may be true, but then what do we make of terrorist attempts outside of that alliance or after withdrawal from that alliance? Do you think there would be fewer terrorists but for that anemic alliance?

I'm also curious about what you see as the "nature and extent of the problem" that should be recognized? I certainly agree that we should engage as many problematic fronts as feasible. Of course, e.g., some similar dilemmas exist with Iran as with Iraq, since I don't think we yet have solid evidence that they are even developing fission bombs. Do you have any thoughts in particular on which fronts are not being engaged or how these challenges should be reframed?

From my perspective, the primary dilemma lies in public opinion. The sentiments of the public and free press regarding WoT are nowhere near where they were surrounding WW2, and considering that the US is the primary dominant power, it seems unlikely to approach that mode in the near future. Regardless of the morality of Bush's preemption policy, it is unsustainable without public support.

While I doubt that even honest propaganda from the Bush administration would be well received, something must change, lest we relegate ourselves to solving problems after they become catastrophes. I think that Israel has a similar dilemma, considering the widespread questioning of their success in the recent conflict.


steviepinhead said...

Well, one could certainly argue that there are more or less apt "comparables" for our current Massive Enterprise, whether we restrict that to Iraq, include the MidEast Conflict as a whole, or the entire, amorphous WoT.

But, if we've correctly identified at least some of the factors or ingredients that might better augur success, including strong popular support, broader alliances, better intelligence, and more realistic employment of intelligence and other critical data by the leadership, then what's the way forward from here?

I'm not, at this point, interested in (further?) retrospective Bush-bashing. ANY administration might now have difficulty conjuring up these favorable factors out of the current situation. Any ideas? Any takers?

Kevin said...


Sadly, I don't think there are any answers to improving the goals you state of strengthening popular support and attaining broader alliances that do not require significant sacrifice.

Consider, for example, the increasing belief in conspiracies regarding 9/11, which bears a frightening resemblance to the views of certain other groups. I fear that it will take far more serious, persistent, and undeniable attacks to awaken us. It seems that words are not enough; the truth must smack people in their faces. Of course, this seems unlikely, given the US government's power and hypersensitivity which ostensively mirrors The People's attitude.

Short of that, I'm curious to see if the Democrats will be able to shift perceptions when they gain power or if the domestic problem is more systemic than partisan. Interestingly, the two parties apparently agree on some basics in waging WoT.

Domestically, I think we need more transparency. I'm glad to see attempts in that vein. I think that much better use could be made of the internet to aid voters and to organize honest propaganda. Bush can be elusive and secrecy fosters distrust. Granted, secrecy may be necessary, particularly during times of war, but I don't think most people feel like they are at war; at least not a foreign war.

Broader alliances will only come when they are mutually beneficial, not as a result of charm or charisma. Already, I think there are international alliances for combating internal domestic terrorism within respective countries. What is lacking is alliances for combating the foreign sources of the common Islamic terrorism.

Perhaps the US should return to a more non-interventionist stance, withdrawing much foreign aid and using it to consolidate our self-sufficiency, including researching alternative sources of energy and tapping our own oil reserves, etc. Ideally, this might lead the world to reevaluate their view of the US. Then again, perhaps they'd just view the US as selfish.

The downside is that this may very well create a situation closer to WW2, leading to a popular, but catastrophic future war, unlike the unpopular, seething nature of the current war. This may also be at odds with globalization. However, Bolton did apparently suggest withholding dues from the UN if they don't reform, which may be a first step.

Regarding intelligence, I would hope that the US is investing in better human ground intelligence that, IIRC, had been largely dismantled prior to 9/11. Better, effective networks and data mining is also very important. Spies and subterfuge seem like the way to go, given the unsustainability of public support for pre-emptive or preventative war and the inevitable guerrilla nature of this conflict.