Good News! Obama Centrist, Realist

Get it?

It can be really depressing studying foreign policy and international conflicts. It’s mostly bad news. Especially when, in addition to the death, destruction, terrorism and war reporting on mainstream media, you must also study the conspiracy sites. Blogs like The Ugly Truth, which I found off a link on a great foreign policy roundup of blogs. I signed up for the newsletter and the next day received 10 emails of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda (not necessarily all untrue). Though there are worthwhile alternative media perspectives among the posts, 10 highly subjective posts in a day is both lazy and desperate. And gratuitous: Commenting on the link to a story about how U.S. sanctions are compromising the safety of Iranian airlines, The Ugly Truth editors noted

ed note–which means that if (when) there is some crash of an Iranian airliner, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians, more likely than not it will be due to the American (Israeli) sanctions put in place. 

Just in case we didn’t see what this post had to do with Israel. Thanks for making your bias so blatant, The Ugly Truth. Another Ugly bias example is the tying of Israel to the Syrian opposition. From what I’ve read, Israel is at worst ambivalent about the somewhat one-sided Syrian Civil War. And I read a lot of different sources. For instance with Syria, Aljazeera English’s website is predictably anti-Assad, Russia Today is mildly anti-U.S. so they support Russia’s position even while they criticize the Kremlin and report on protests. The Economist is capitalist, imperialist and interventionist and The New York Times is, well, getting better.

They no longer just trumpet that “Massacre in Syria blamed on Assad, says everyone”, and try to use vague terms when they don’t know something (like “bloody clash”) instead of just repeating what the Syrian opposition claims (like “civilian massacre”). The Times got a bit of a beatdown, and rightly so, for its reporting on Iran’s nuclear program because it kept substituting “weapon” with what should have been “capability.” As in, it’s been proven Iranians want a “weapon” as opposed to just the capability to build one. Foreign correspondent David Sanger wrote the most egregious substitutions.

And this brings me to the good news. David Sanger’s new book about the Obama foreign policy, Conceal and Confront, came out recently. Guess who was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this week. The Times writer was getting his book reviewed in the Times about what he wrote about for the Times. This must be a totally objective review, right? No, of course not. But to tell the truth, I didn’t care. I was just so happy that Sanger’s book was not a hatchet job of the President’s record. There are plenty of complaints to level at Obama from both the left—legit concerns like drone strike legality—and the right—mostly bullshit, like Obama’s no friend of Israel—but, like Sanger, I believe that President Obama, aside from the Af/Pak surge, has a strangely decent, pragmatic and limited so-called doctrine.

First of all, to address the Israel criticism, the main reason there was tension between Washington and Jerusalem, was Obama wanted to avoid dragging us into war with Iran. We definitely don’t want to go to war with Iran, because if there were any case at all for it, Mitt Romney would be howling. Republicans don’t want to go into Syria, even John McCain has shut up about it. Hell, we told Turkey not to go to war with Syria.

No politician in the U.S. can sell any more American war. Republicans shut up about the lack of soldiers left in Iraq, even while Iraq teeters on the edge (you’d think Romney would attack with that). With soldiers in Afghanistan being blown up or murdered by their allies almost weekly, Obama’s strategically ridiculous decision to surge with 30,000 troops and announce a short-ass withdrawal date at the same time has worked to his political advantage pre-election. Accelerating the withdrawal was cynical yet shrewd.

The other Republican criticism, correct if not utterly hypocritical, has Obama running an imperial presidency. Notice how no one in Congress actually bitched about Obama’s decision to help NATO topple Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, just how he didn’t check with Capitol Hill first. Every president gets this “overreach” criticism at some point.

Obama is certainly impenetrable to the charge of softie, ordering countless more drone strikes than W. and virtually assassinating quantities of al-Qaeda and Taliban officers. He refused to apologize for a chopper strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, even though Pakistan is a client-ally we need. He ordered the Afghanistan surge and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He hit Iran with the toughest sanctions yet and unleashed a cyberwar on their nuclear program (detailed in Sanger’s book).

Our defense department’s pivot toward East Asia strategy has led to an arms race with China, the budding superpower. And this all in one term. By the way, we are sending warships to the Persian Gulf right now.

Where Obama’s foreign policy sought restraint was in the Arab Awakening. Bravo! The left attacks him for not acting in some inspirational role with the Egyptian masses and the right attacks for betraying Hosni Mubarak, whom they claim was an ally. He was just another corrupt client and a greedy dictator who started killing his own people. That’s why we “betrayed” him, Monica Crowley. Crowley is a racist fear-monger who preaches that Obama would rather see America destroyed than win a second term and that Sharia law is strangling America.

State and Defense had to walk a tightrope through the Mideast revolts, often following a healthy dose of rhetoric with, well, nothing. It was the sanest thing to do in such a complex situation. Hillary Clinton is meeting with new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, as well as the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The rightist Islamophobia critique again fails because Egypt’s Islamists—a comparatible Third Reich for Republicans and Fox News—are still off-set by the military, whom the U.S. supported to help keep things status quo. Clinton is asking the SCAF to give power to the President Morsi, but only in public. Both cynical and shrewd again.

As a realist who understands how low our country can sink (from Rumsfeld/Cheney’s Iraq and Iran-Contra to Pinochet), I have such confidence in current best practices, with regard to this epoch of unstable nations, religious extremism and runaway deficits, that should Mitt Romney become president, I predict little will change. It can’t get that much worse, can it? Never mind.

As the Times review of Sanger’s book reads: “But in truth [Obama] has positioned himself nicely within a political sweetspot, one where Americans are loathe to see their country relinquish its premier global position but wary of unnecessary wars undertaken on wispy rationales.”

Positive Spin on the U.S. Wars (my cynical id)

The Taliban and their friends in Pakistan safe havens have gotten a rude awakening. It’s about time we took the battle to its true center, North Waziristan and over the Pakistan border in general.

Helicopter attacks and increased drone strikes on insurgents who fire on coalition forces in Afghanistan and then retreat over the border to Pakistan are finally being accepted (with limits) by the Pakistani powers that be. In September alone there were 20 drone bombings and a copter raid killed at least 40 retreating Taliban. The CIA has a network of Pashtun informants and spies that allow these attacks to be accurate. And the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are murdering their own people in numbers over who might be informants.

It’s just about the coolest thing I’ve heard with regard to the Afghanistan(/Pakistan) war since the CIA, with the Northern Alliance, ousted the Taliban back in 2001 (without the U.S. military).

We have to put it to Pakistan or we have to go home. We’ve given them billions so they can play both sides and enough is enough.


Sure we went to war with countries that posed little or no threat to us, compared to Iran and Pakistan. (The Iranian leadership hates America and Israel and is desperate to acquire nukes. Pakistan has nukes and both countries have and support various terrorist/extremist groups that could snag those nukes.) Sure, instead of just toppling oppressive regimes we saw as hostile, we decided we had to stick around and pretend we could make those nations democracies. Sure, we played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to make the world think we’re brutal imperialists and to turn a new generation of potential terrorists against us.

But what have we learned? And more importantly, what have we relearned that has been stripped of ambiguity going forward?

1. There will always be war. The sooner we accept this, the better.

a) Fighting has been humankind’s defining trait since the dawn of time and the century that brought the world the most progress also brought by far the most devastating war and destruction.

b) 9/11 and our response to 9/11 have assured perpetual war. Now not just the hawks and the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about know this, the public knows it. That knowledge has been stripped of all ambiguity.

c) The invasion and occupation  of Iraq and Afghanistan will be seen as U.S. failures. But instead of promoting caution in further overseas adventures, it will only fuel our need to not be perceived as weak. Already prognosticators see no other option but military action if Iran continues to strive for nuclear weapons.

d) But even if the status quo remains with Iran for years, non-state actors will provoke the U.S. to attack other countries at some point. The sooner we accept this, the better.

2. We’ve relearned our allies are our enemies.

a) We can assassinate our enemies from the sky, and this is acceptable in Pakistan, a country we’re not at war with (it’s acceptable to the American people as well!). Pakistan works with the U.S. and against U.S. interests at the same time. We used the threat of a massive terrorist attack in Europe to finally go into Pakistan, where it was said to be planned. This has blowback potential.

b) We once supported Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

3. We’ve learned that politics makes bad military strategy.

a) Bush and Rumsfeld’s light-footprint strategy to limit U.S. casualties was a disaster.

b) Obama should have either pulled out or sent in more troops for the long haul. Instead he split the difference and prolonged our withdrawal for a year, actually doing himself no favors politically and learning nothing from the light-footprint Iraq fiasco. Obama will pull out before the 2012 elections.

c) The U.S. obtained its immediate objectives (removal of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) easily. Did we really believe we could start a stable, democratic government (Bush’s political goal) in Iraq or keep amorphous, splintered groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of power forever (Obama’s stated goal in the campaign)?

4. We learned that the more we fight the better at fighting we get.

a) The military learned a new kind of war: counterinsurgency (COIN) for the 21st century. Our military is much smarter than it was 6 or 7 years ago, and has adapted impressively. (Too bad COIN is the most costly of all war strategies.)

5. We’ve relearned that our adventures and interference in the world can backfire and that, as the most powerful nation, we have serious limits. However, we’ve learned that we can still protect the American public (especially our non-Muslim citizens) by destabilizing other nations. Iraq self-destructed because its citizens lived in sectarian fear and had to join violent extremists to survive a civil war (spurred on by U.S. de-Baathification and the like). They spend so much time and energy killing one another that they do not pose a threat to the U.S. in the near future. Even al-Qaeda spent most of its resources inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 instead of focusing on the U.S.

6. We have relearned that the United States is not concerned with civilian casualties in developing and Muslim countries, or in countries that commit mass sectarian violence within themselves.

The United States of America became (by WWII) and remains the most powerful nation in the world by engaging in often ridiculous and counterproductive wars and coups. History, the present and the foreseeable future all prove there will be war.

Be glad you’re on the winning team (because even the innocent losers are massacred).

The New Republic’s Afghanistan Issue

Karzai in hat

The New Republic dedicated an issue to “what’s next” for the Afghanistan War. This is a summary of the each of the nine essays included, followed by some light ranting.

“Losing Faith” by Leon Wieseltier

America has every right to be in Afghanistan for its national interest: “I remember September 11.” We also have a strong argument to be there for humanitarian reasons because of the “medieval” Taliban. But Wieseltier dismisses counterinsurgency strategy (COIN, according to general David Petraeus’ manual) as irredeemably misplaced in Afghanistan. COIN’s major tenet requires a legitimate host government, which the interventionist forces seek to prop up. Afghanistan is not only provincial, but in many areas tribal, and the potential central power is seen as corrupt. What’s worse, there seems to be no native will to battle the insurgents: “…The Taliban must be fought. But it must be fought by the people whom it aspires to oppress—and those people seem to want us to fight it for them. They complain, rightly, about Bush’s indifference and Obama’s impatience, but they have not yet risen up….” Even when noting a Henry Kissinger theory about COIN operating within, not above, the separate regional interests, the author doesn’t see it faring much better. His assumed prescription? Something that doesn’t include the devoted cooperation of the splintered, self-interested population.


“Keeping Promises” by Peter Bergen

Taking his thesis from an ABC/BBC poll indicating that the Afghans’ biggest concerns are unemployment and poverty and their biggest fear is the Taliban, Bergen says the population wants us there (62 percent!) and we have a responsibility to the Afghan people. Infrastructure reconstruction, woefully lacking since the early resistance of the Bush Administration to nation-building, is a necessity strategically. Some major projects to undertake to increase economic activity: secure the Kabul to Kandahar highway, finish the Kajaki Dam and implement an FDR-style Works Progress Administration. Bergen then refutes the draw-down argument that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are mainly in Pakistan by citing the Pakistan Army’s intensive fighting in South Waziristan: “Let the Pakistani’s continue at their own speed and desist from publicly scolding them” as they have lost more soldiers than all the NATO nations combined. To throw Pakistan a security bone vis a vis India, have the U.N. declare Afghanistan neutral. In any case, we must “fulfill the promise we made to Afghan citizens to put their country on the path to a better future.”

“Get Out Yesterday” by David Rieff

The goals for the war set in June by the Obama administration—to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban and create a stable government in Afghanistan, while persuading Pakistan to assist in the destroying, all by 2011 — are not remotely realistic, even without a draw-down date. Rieff uses variations of the terms unachievable and goals at least three times and gives his priorities: “I’d feel far safer if we were doing less fighting in Helmand and unleashing even more drone strikes in Pakistan, and more spying on mosques in Brooklyn and Minneapolis.” Acknowledging that we could “hold the cities” as the only definition of long-term success conceivable (and that we are not leaving any time soon), Rieff maintains that it’s simply not worth the blood and treasure. Espousing a general philosophy against “expeditionary wars and humanitarian and human-rights-based interventions,” the only hope now is that we will move closer to isolationism, learning lessons from this quagmire.

“Stay Forever” by Josef Joffe

Canada, Poland, Australia, Germany and Britain are anxious to depart. NATO nations have grown frustrated with Afghan civilian casualties, not to mention their own loss of money and soldiers—a collective moral conscience weighs them down. This is, after all, a war of choice. Joffe notes that COIN constitutes the “willingness to stay as long as it takes” but seems to endorse the counterterrorism model without ever mentioning it: While nation-building is costly and futile (“there is no nation in Afghanistan”) and an all-out exit is not the path to victory, “a combination of watchful presence and nimble offensive can be sustained indefinitely.” He emphasizes a police-on-the-beat analogy and using our technological advantages (as well as local intel) to keep our enemy’s costs high and sap their energy and resources. Joffe points to the draw-down date and Karzai/Taliban negotiations as a neon sign that the muslim extremists cannot be defeated, but must be contained. If we can outwit and be perceived to outlast, we gain long-run bargaining power. In his reasons for staying, Al Qaeda and the threat of terrorist attacks are conspicuously absent. Instead, foresight into the 21st century Middle East as a continual battleground for ideologies as well as resources (“Europe in the 20th century”) obligates us to the region—where the Taliban is small potatoes compared to Pakistan and Iran.

“Unshackle the Troops” by Amitai Etzioni

The rules of engagement under COIN—which seek to minimize Afghan casualties by, say, having U.S. soldiers announce they’re going to attack so bystanders can vacate the area—increase the likelihood of coalition casualties. Etzioni offers a couple hypothetical scenarios that illustrate the problem in action. Even before these newer constrictions, the Taliban et al exploited our willingness to heed Geneva war guidelines, using their countrymen as human shields in every way possible. And ironically, it is our play-by-the-rules generals who constantly apologize for the civilian deaths caused by the insurgents as an integral part of their strategy. Much more innocent blood is on the insurgents’ hands. Etzioni makes sure that we know he thinks killing Afghan noncombatants is “deeply regrettable.” In fact, better to go with the Biden counterterrorism model of drones and Special Forces in order to negotiate with the enemy: “Instead of asking our troops to fight this war under rules that increase our losses in the vain hope of gaining popularity, we should offer to withdraw our forces as long as the Taliban agree to stop harboring terrorists who threaten us or our allies.”

“Rescue the North” by Anna Badkhen

Badkhen took a trip through North Afghanistan—largely neglected as virtually anti-Taliban—where a lack of promised aid has allowed the fundamentalists to regain strength, and the poppy industry to flourish. Everywhere she went, she heard the same thing: The best way to win back the region is not with added security forces, set to be arriving this summer, but with schools, clinics, electrical grids, communal wells and paved roads. Millions in the North are improverished and jobs and infrastructure would go a long way toward gaining popularity for the counterinsurgency effort, according to area governors. Right now, the Taliban are filling the void with basic necessities and even foreign Al Qaeda operatives are finding refuge. While Badkhen notes that delivering the aid is a dangerous undertaking, it should be seen as preferable to simply “handing over half the country to the Taliban.”

“Awaken the Pashtuns” by Fouad Ajami

Though Ajami never explains the significance of Pashtun or their relationship to our enemies, one can gather from this mistitled piece that he believes General Petraeus and the prosecutors of the war would do well to foment a Pashtun Awakening (in the manner of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq). The Afghans who share the religious and cultural beliefs of the Taliban should be heavily persuaded to break with them. Ajami hints that Petraeus can use the Iraq War template to salvage some sense of progress by attempting to line up strategic partnerships before we begin our exit. But, for almost two-thirds of the article, the focus lingers on the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the inherited war and the Democrats’ ambivalence, if not hostility, toward it. Quoting the president’s speeches, Ajami invokes the two wars in the eyes of Obama’s 2008 campaign—Iraq, the bad “choice,” Afghanistan, a “necessary” operation—before pointing to what could potentially be seen as Obama’s LBJ Vietnam nightmare.

“Save Whatever We Can” by Ahmed Rashid

The situation in Afghanistan is bleak. We need to cut our losses. Strangely, as if there weren’t a draw-down date set for roughly eight months from now, Rashid calls for Obama to make a “change in strategy—one that takes into account that fact that NATO forces will not be able to stay…much longer.” The first step is mediation with the Taliban, in which the U.S. takes the lead backed up by Karzai—not the other way around. Rashid’s piece is based on accomplishing “comparatively easy objectives” by which he means fight where defeating the insurgents is plausible in a short time. We must clear and hold the roads connecting Afghanistan’s major cities. Next, secure Kabul and the areas where the insurgents have little footing. Finally, “clearing the eastern and northern provinces…which are more pro-government than the Taliban-dominated south.” To emphasize the word comparatively in these goals is key. Once we’ve made headway on the more realistic actions, we bring our enemies to the bargaining table and allow them the Helmand and Kandahar chips.

“Stop Blaming the Afghans” by Steve Coll

Instead of promoting a unity of political forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO have “mostly exacerbated the country’s fragmentation.” A united effort is most important in holding together a diverse Afghan National Army that has any chance of effectively containing the Taliban. Obama’s premature withdrawal date announcement, of course, has undercut all unity goals, and our dedication to an insecure Hamad Karzai has not particularly endeared us to other significant regional groups. That aside, the formation of a broad national commission from all religions, regions, tribes and the military, not solely run from the presidential palace, would be symbolically impressive—without necessarily having to be particularly functional (at first). Afghans “repeatedly rejected Taliban-style ideology” and “produced a unified and mainly peaceful nation for much of the 20th century, until a succession of outside invaders shattered its cohesion.” To dismiss them as corrupt, drug-addled, and lacking will is to shirk the responsibility to finish what we started in the fall of 2001.

Commentary by Michael Quiñones
The basic question: Is this a humanitarian mission in which we are beholden to improve the lives of the Afghans by seeing through a capable, secular government and army? If not, we can withdraw a large chunk of troops and cover most of our national security concerns with the counterterrorism model: drones, Special Forces and a broader war on all Al Qaeda harborers. (In all likelihood, this will be the strategy to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table when we draw down in 2011.) However, if it is our mission to improve lives or spread democracy, then both Presidents Bush and Obama have irredeemably failed, and Obama far worse. Obama could have learned from the futile “light footprint” method in Iraq. He had two choices in Afghanistan: contain the Taliban and Al Qaeda with counterterrorism (the Biden method) or wipe them out and keep them out with COIN, sending at least 100,000 troops to both “clear, hold and build” and provide security for massive aid and reconstruction to win hearts and minds — and institute a ten-year plan. To split the difference was both a bad political move and unfeasible militarily. Iraq taught us that you can’t half-ass COIN, especially without a credible government to take the reins. And the most obvious and egregious disregard for true COIN, the arbitrary draw-down date, sealed the deal. That we didn’t just try and fail but clearly set ourselves up to fail will be the hardest thing (politically and historically) Obama will face from this ordeal. As described above, there are ways to salvage the situation, if not to help the Afghan people then at least to keep our country safer from attack by monitoring the greater region with the structures we have put in place. We will be in Afghanistan in some capacity for at least another decade, hopefully trying to improve relations with all those who feel we betrayed them. But there is no way to salvage the perception of Obama’s war—a political balancing act (likely the result of having many advisors clamoring from all sides) that will prove an epic backfire. His decision is destined to tarnish him and liberal presidents for generations to come in the annals of war.