Oct 28

(Based on the urgings of my father and co-blogger, my next few posts will deal with the most contentious foreign policy issue under debate today: should America escalate in Afghanistan or return to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy? I am hesitant to address this issue because so many excellent opinion makers have already covered it so well. We started this site to take a different approach to foreign policy, though, and we feel we must discuss Afghanistan. Over the next few weeks I will provide my thoughts.)

The biggest national security problem facing America is still Al Qaeda. The Taliban government was an awful government, but their only crime against the US was harboring Al Qaeda. Thus, every opinion about Afghanistan--be it from an academic, political, media or military sphere--must deal with these Islamic extremists who use terrorism to further their aims.

However, it is a mistake that America focuses exclusively on Pakistan and Afghanistan in this debate. The problem is not that Afghanistan or Pakistan did, does and could harbor Islamic extremists in the future; the problem is that failed states--like Afghanistan following the civil war that ended in 1994--harbor Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda.

Like the mythical hydra, Al Qaeda will always replace every member we kill. Fortunately, we know that Al Qaeda lives in the swamp of failed states. Instead of metaphorically cutting off their replaceable heads, we must drain the global swamp. We must deny them sanctuary in failed states.

Ergo, if the US only uses a counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, we risk allowing them to fail once again.

I have struggled before with how to define a failed states. Thankfully, think tanks have done the research for me. Whether one uses Foreign Policy working with the Fund for Peace, the Center for International Development and Conflict Management’s Peace and Conflict 2010 or USAID and the World Bank’s State Fragility Index, we can identify confidently the states at greatest risk of failing. By comparing issues like civil violence, political control, economic prosperity and human rights, we can predict the future survival of states.

Since the initial communist takeover in the late seventies, Afghanistan has toyed with failed state status. Incredibly violent, politically uncontrollable, and economically stagnant--the instability led to a perfect training ground for Al Qaeda. Even after the Taliban emerged victorious from a long civil war, their repressive government kept human rights, economic progress and social justice from taking root, the perfect safe haven for Al Qaeda.

While Afghanistan occupies our current national attention, it is not the only failed state that could harbor terrorists. Yemen is in the beginnings throes of an insurgency, Al Qaeda continues to make inroads in the anarchic Somalia, and though Iraq appears to have emerged from their civil war, the situation with the Kurds in Mosul remains tense. Finally, sub-Saharan African states continues to populate lists of failing states, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Guinea, and Chad.

Every failed state, a state without political control or economic progress, could harbor Al Qaeda. A precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, even to a smaller counter-terrorism strategy, risks letting it return to civil war and failed state status. As others have said, we can wage counter-terrorism forever. The terrorists will simply replace their fallen. Does anyone really think we can kill our way out of this problem?

Removing failed states, as a true long term strategy, will prevent the causes that allow terrorism to exist. The issue is not terrorism, or even Al Qaeda. The issue is failed states.

Sep 09

When President Obama appointed Secretary of State Clinton and re-appointed Secretary of Defense Gates, he dubbed them members of his “national security” team. I find it troubling that we have moved towards “national security” and away from international relations or foreign policy. Specifically, when the Secretary of State’s position is included on the “national security” team, it implies her only function is in preventing attacks on American soil. It’s not.

National security only focuses on threats. Foreign policy describes all our policies related to the global community including threats but also opportunities for our nation to exploit. Obama should label his team as such.

Words matter and labels dictate how a person or department will act. If the Secretary of State runs the foreign policy team, then she can influence our policies for the entire world--all of our relations with foreign entities. If, as was the case with the last administration, the Secretary of State gets lumped in with the national security team, she will only focus on crisis and threats against our nation. This drastically limits her possibilities and effectiveness in improving the world as a whole, and America specifically. So, for example, when Secretary Clinton visits Africa she is not stopping specific threats to our homeland, she is improving our relations in the world and helping to build a more successful and vibrant Africa. Is this national security? No, it is foreign affairs.
Intelligence agencies should call themselves agents of foreign policy as well. Gathering intelligence is one part of the job, the rest is analysis. Only looking for specific threats on our homeland is not just missing the forest for the trees, it is missing the trees while looking for wolverines. If they analyze economic and cultural developments, identify patterns of change and predict future hot spots and trouble areas, then they are improving the entire foreign policy apparatus. Thus, our leaders can make improved decisions at the legislative and executive levels.
The foreign policy label should not apply to everyone. Clearly the National Security Adviser deserves to be a member of the national security team and the Secretary of Defense belongs as well. We will always need agencies focused on protecting Americans; just not everyone who deals with the people, places and things outside of our borders. But for the Secretary of State, who manages embassies, US AID, and our national policy, her focus is on building good will, and improving America’s relationship with the entire world, not just combating possible enemies and threats.

We should also move away from international relations and towards foreign policy as well. This is simply for the implications of “national” in the international. This change simply acknowledges the power of both supra-national and sub-national organizations. In some ways, the superpowers wield more power now than the Empires of old, and at the same time, single individuals, companies and NGOs can change the course of world events. We live in a flat world.
Perhaps, this whole debate is mere semantics, or political correctness. Those arguments have some merits, but let's be realistic. If you call an executive the Chief Financial Officer, he won’t deal with sales on a day to day basis. The offensive coordinator doesn’t plan kickoffs. If we say that Obama assembled a national security team, he assembled a team to guard from threats. If he assembles a foreign policy team, he is making a team of experts who will improve our relations with everyone outside of our borders.

Names matter.

(A final note on using the terms foreign affairs, foreign policy, global affairs and international relations. Besides little differences--such as international relations referring to states relations specifically and affairs encompassing more than policy--they all generally refer to a broader set of policy guidelines. National security on the other hand, only refers to threats against our homeland. It is a small but important distinction.)

Aug 12

Flipping through the Foreign Affairs for March/April 2009, I couldn’t help noticing that the articles, on the whole, reflect the globalization/interconnectedness of our modern world. In addition to the standard articles on the military, diplomacy and politics, there were articles on climatology, religion and culture, and technology.

Two trends have combined to create this new study of foreign affairs. First, academia has expanded its approach to cover more topics using a more sophisticated analysis. The rise of computers have given researchers access to more numbers, statistics and data than ever before, and the increase in computing power and technology allows researchers to manipulate this data in new, unexpected ways. Take this (possibly inaccurate) example of data analysis of casualties form the Iraq war.

This computing power enables researchers to look beyond the traditional position papers, memoirs, and memorandum that defined foreign affairs in the past but the rise of the internet has also expanded researchers access to these materials, thousands of files and papers available at your finger tips. Just look at the recent Twitter revolutions.

Complimenting the digital revolution of accademia was the social revolution in academia in the 1960s, which changed the focus off the single individual (White Men) to societal issues. By the eighties, they looked at the identity, or the group (Black studies, chicano studies or women’s studies). Now we have holistic approaches, (Environmental studies or global studies). As universities have expanded their scope foreign affairs and political science academics and theoreticians have more resources and fellow disciplines with whom to share ideas, finding new solutions to new problems.

Globalization, like it or lump it, is no longer a theory but a reality. The changes in technology, intermeshing of financial markets, and movement of people and goods now influence the policies of every nation. American or Chinese car emissions effect the Island nations of the pacific, East African hackers scam American seniors. This new academic focus is the only way to address these changes.

The only thing left to conclude is whether or not I see this change as good or bad. As far as globalization goes, I haven’t made a decision. As for a more expansive study of foreign affairs, I am clearly a huge fan; it moved from studying the Great White Men to the cultural and social forces affecting humanity. If we are to understand the forces affecting change in our world, contemporary students of foreign affairs must study the interrelated fields of economics, military affairs, globalization, social science and culture.

Jul 29

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the “9/11 Blame Game” and how both Democrats and Republicans blame the other side for 9/11; and last week Eric continued this topic by describing how Republicans, mainly Dick Cheney and other pundits, have already begun blaming Obama for the next attack. As I wrote the “9/11 Blame Game,” I wondered if conservatives would start blaming President Obama for losing, if we do, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sure enough, only six months in to his Presidency, they have.

Victory is far from assured in either war. Despite the success of the surge in Iraq, the war is far from over; in Afghanistan, the situation grows more tenuous every month. While conservatives could make a case--and probably will in 2012-- that President Obama is responsible for the outcomes of each conflict as President, from a historical perspective this is unsupportable.

I feel that the best historical analogy for Barack Obama is Richard Nixon’s inheritance of the Vietnam war. Few blame Nixon for the fall of south Vietnam. He did what he could to pull out of Vietnam, and still it took years to do so. When historians, politicians and journalists analyze Vietnam, the blame falls on President Lyndon Johnson and the recently deceased Robert McNamara--the men who increased US involvement passed the point of no return.

Further, if by pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan violence spikes in either country, Barack Obama will not be to blame.Whenever the US pulls out of a nation our removal portends better things in the long run. As Bennet Ramberg writes in the March/April Foreign Affairs, in the article called “Precedents for Withdrawal,” violence usually increases directly after the US pull out of a nation (Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Somalia) but then levels out. When, President Obama finally pulls all troops out of Iraq, the country will likely surge in violence again. In the years after, though, the country will stabilize.

Beyond historical analogies, blaming Obama for Iraq ignores the situation he inherited. President Bush never clarified our country’s intention before or after the invasion. Whether building democracy, toppling Saddam, fighting terrorists or finding weapons of mass destruction, we either never specified the goals; or we didn’t leave when they were accomplished. As for the successes of the recent surge, Thomas Ricks describes in this post how the tactical gains of the surge never actually fostered political reconciliation. Even if violence surges in Iraq after the surge that should not be held against President Obama.

Yet, the biggest target for Obama is not Iraq but Afghanistan. After appointing Lt. General Bill McChrystal to ground commander in Afghanistan, the current war narrative now describes this as Barack Obama’s war. This description ignores the length of our stay in that country and it is premature to call it his war. We have occupied Afghanistan for going on eight years, and the country still looks like it belongs in the fourteenth century. The Taliban own the countryside; and have for the last eight years. The war started poorly, and continued worse for eight years. Whatever Barack Obama does accomplish--even if the US pulls out and the Taliban take over--cannot be held against him. It’d be like replacing a football coach in the fourth quarter down sixty points and expecting him to win.
If the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq end poorly, some will blame them on President Obama and the Democrats. Unfortunately, no situation will ever be that simple. A situation as complex as two counter-insurgency wars fought in the larger context of a war against Islamic extremism will never boil down to blame between one President or the next. Unfortunately, the entire national security, military, and Congressional branches all share blame. Right now, instead of assigning blame, we can only work towards winning our current conflicts.

Jul 15

(This continues the topic of the 9/11 Blame Game we discussed earlier.)

Since leaving office, Dick Cheney has become Barack Obama’s harshest critic on national security. He accused President Obama of making our country less safe when Obama eliminated enhanced interrogation (torture) and moved to close Guantanamo. Cheney has essentially blamed, or at least heavily insinuated, that America’s next terrorist attack will be Barack Obama’s fault. And many republicans agree with him.

The Republicans may have good polling on national security, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they--specifically the Bush administration--will be blamed for the next attack. Why? Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2003 all terrorist roads lead through Iraq. An example is Younis Tsouli. A March/April Foreign Policy article describes Younis as, “one of the world’s most influential propagandists in Jihadi chat rooms.” He served as Abu Zarqawi’s “public relations mouthpiece on the web.” How did this unlikely English college student become a terrorist? Constant viewing of the “the online images of the war in Iraq” motivated him to become a terrorist. Repeated studies show the US-led invasion as horrendously unpopular in the Middle East and Muslim-world as a whole.

More important than inspiration, Iraq trains future jihadists. Just as Osama Bin Ladin’s generation trained in Afghanistan in the eighties, the next generation of jihadists will have trained in Iraq. Already, Arab fighters from Iraq move into Afghanistan to teach Afghanis the techniques of modern terrorism.

While Iraq motivated and trained future jihadists, Bush’s failure to stabilize Afghanistan will most likely go down as the largest strategic blunder of the Global War on Terror. Afghanistan was already a safe haven for terrorists before 9/11; nothing has changed since. After failing to capture Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration has failed to pacify the region.

If any terrorists strike America, these failures--not closing Guantanamo or restricting torture of terrorist suspects--will be to blame. But another attack is inevitable. Like earthquakes or other natural disasters, the question is not if but when (Although, we sincerely hope America and its allies are safe from terrorism, we are not naive enough to believe that is possible). Even if Bush had executed a perfect foreign policy agenda, American would still be at risk in the future.

America’s politicians and journalists should resist blaming either party for the attack. Terrorism should not be exploited by either political party.

Jun 10

With the economy reeling, a broken health care system and a widening budget deficit, President Obama inherited domestic challenges rare for any modern American president. On top of this, political commentators and pundits noted he also faced unprecedented foreign policy challenges. Entire books -- like David Sanger’s The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power -- have been written on the subject.

Challenging? Yes. Unprecedented? No. Compared to the majority of American history, our international position is quite unremarkable and relatively tame.

At the dawn of our nation, the question confronting America was whether or not it could survive. The old nations of Europe still wielded massive armies and territorial ambitions. We went to war with Britain a few short years after ratifying our constitution--and our capital burnt to the ground for the first and last time. America was wilderness, the vast majority of our continent had not been explored, much less tamed.

Sixty years later, our position had hardly improved. An unpopular President, Abraham Lincoln, confronted the gravest crisis in our nation’s history. Arguably a domestic issue, the Civil War was primarily a military engagement. When he took office, the country was already splitting at the seams and war was unavoidable. In less than five years, over 600,000 Americans would die, 300 times the amount of people who died on 9/11.

During the first half of the twentieth century, America faced consecutive World Wars, a Global Depression and the creation of nuclear weapons. Included in this time was one of the few attacks on American soil by a foreign power, to say nothing of the millions of military dead.

Since World War II, the succeeding presidents dealt with a situation far more dangerous than any previous international situation: nuclear extinction. When Richard Nixon took over in 1968, the country fought in the midst of a war that would kill 60,000 American young and threaten the stability of Indochina. At the same time, thousands of missiles with the capacity to destroy the entire world sat in bunkers armed ready to destroy the entire world at the press of a button. The world literally stood on a precipice until the fall of the Soviet Union.

We stood through those times and survived to now.

If America believes in one thing, it is in its own exceptionalism, a feeling that our time, national character or era is somehow special. Post 9/11, we justified extraordinary methods and actions because of our perilous national security situation. In a long view of our nation's history our current times do not seem so perilous.

May 13

In the aftermath of 9/11, the most important questions confronting America -- who was responsible and how do we bring them to justice -- were quickly answered. Al Queda and Osama Bin Laden were responsible and we would capture, kill or destroy them both.

Soon, partisanship replaced unity and one question replaced the others: who could we blame? Of all the candidates offered up by journalists, political pundits, and documentarians, two stood out: Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

How you answer the question of blame usually depends on your political leanings. For Republicans, Clinton did not combat the terrorist threat during his administration. They point to the multiple attacks launched against America in the 1990s including the first World Trade Center bombing, the attacks on US embassies and the bombing of the USS Cole, and decry his failure to respond to these attacks. They point to Clinton’s failure to kill Bin Laden or cripple Al Queda when he had the chance.

For Democrats, they say it didn’t occur on their watch and that Bush was not focused on protecting the country. The smoking gun is the infamous memo titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” from August 2001. They also blame Bush’s pre-9/11 focus on a missile defense shield and a national security cabinet filled with Cold Warriors.

The debate becomes a back and forth of blame. Republicans can claim Clinton did not go far enough in combating terrorism but then neither did the Republican controlled Congress. The nation did not care about terrorism until 9/11; the date of the first World Trade Center bombing is a footnote in history. Democrats can fault Bush, but he took the reigns of power only nine months prior to 9/11. Can he be blamed for not predicting the attacks no one else predicted?

I bring up this old topic because we again have a new president. As the Bush administration left office, they pointed to one accomplishment more then any other: since 9/11, no foreign groups conducted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Trying to place blame for a tragedy is tricky business, as is trying to take credit for avoiding one. A close look at Bush’s success puts his assertion on shaky ground. Foreign groups attacked our Allies’ in Madrid and London and still unknown American(s) conducted deadly terrorist attacks on US soil by mailing anthrax shortly after 9/11.

And Clinton can make the same claim as Bush. After the first World Trade Center bombing, there were no foreign led terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The caveat is, of course, that the bombing of the USS Cole occurred on Clinton’s watch, but do Republicans want to include Middle East bombings of military targets for President Bush?

These points all beg the question: when does the next terrorist attack become President Obama’s fault? Will conservatives give Obama nine months and then after that say he is responsible for the security situation? Will liberals give him longer? Will conservatives blame the next attack, as Cheney has, on Obama’s decision to end Guantanamo?

The best answer is to move past the 9/11 Blame Game. As a country, let’s focus on solving our problems, and less on assigning blame.