Archive for category War

Gandhi and Libya

Last night we watched the film Gandhi, the 1982 classic starring Ben Kingsley.  I haven’t seen the film since it came out almost thirty years ago, but shortly into it I recall how inspiring the person and message of Gandhi was to me when I first saw it, and then subsequently read more about the great spiritual teacher.

His message was clear:  love is truth, and truth ultimately is more powerful than hate, fear and anger, which are untruths.   When confronted with “untruth” it is best to respond with truth.   That is not passive resistance but active non-violent resistance.  Violence and anger only increases the scope and depth of the violence, and ultimately reinforces the problems one is trying to confront.

Gandhi also had real respect for all faiths.  He was close friends with Muslims, Christians and of course fellow Hindus.   He saw truth in the core teachings of each, even if the humans professing those faiths often veered from them.    He was fond of quoting the New Testament and when asked about Christianity at one point he said he only wished Christians were more like their Christ.

I’ve always believed that life is at base spiritual.   What matters is the spirit, the flesh is simply a vehicle which we are using in this limited existence to learn lessons and have some fun.    All of that requires cooperation — we learn with help from others, we help others learn.   We enjoy life and have fun with others.   That is a view that helps me stay grounded, especially if material and daily concerns get intense.  Ultimately the “stuff” of the world doesn’t matter, the spirit does.  I’ve internalized that view and believe that right or wrong it helps me live with a bit less stress, an easier time forgiving others (and myself) and perspective about the world in which I find myself.

Which brings me to Libya.  I’ve always found Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance to be powerful, and his argument that violence begets violence persuasive.   I’ve not supported US foreign policy, especially military actions, for as long as I can remember.   Whether Clinton in Bosnia or Kosovo or Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed to me that violence did more harm than good.

I don’t believe in coincidence (that comes from my spiritual world view).   The fact that I’ve generally supported intervening in Libya coincides with the unexpected arrival of Gandhi from netflix.   That leads me to rethink my view on the conflict.

Ambiguity about the use of military action for humanitarian purposes has been something I’ve always grappled with.   As former German foreign minister Joshka Fischer said, “no more war, but no more Auschwitz.”    President Obama cited Bosnia, but to me Rwanda is the strongest case for intervention.  Ever since teaching about the details of that genocide, with students reading Romeo Dallaire’s book and myself obsessed for awhile with gathering the details and arguments around that event, it seemed to me that the international community simply let the Hutus slaughter 800,000 Tutsis when a well equipped international force could have ended the violence.

Following the news of the non-violent revolt in Egypt, and then hearing about protests growing in Libya, my reaction to the news that Gaddafi was using mercenaries to brutally terrorize citizens and then taking heavy military equipment to bombard them and promise that his attack on Benghazi would show “no pity and no mercy” was emotional.  My anger at a dictator who for over 40 years stole the oil wealth of his country to sponsor terrorism, train mercenaries, engage in foreign policy adventurism in Africa and brutally repress his people turned into contempt.  When someone of such obvious evil clings to wealth and power by threatening massive death and destruction, how can the world stand by?   When now Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire called for intervention, comparing the case directly to Rwanda, that intensified my emotional desire to see NATO hit back.   When the UN Security Council approved military intervention, making it a legal action driven by humanitarian concerns, it seemed to me the right thing to do.

In terms of national interest it also seems to make sense; the region is changing, this will help get the US on the right side of change and undercut the ability of al qaeda or extremists to guide the future of the Arab world.  Moreover, it is a true multi-lateral action, while Iraq was clearly a US-UK action with small states going along in exchange for favors.  This might put the US on the side of cooperative efforts to secure the peace rather than what appears to be neo-imperial efforts to control world affairs.  It takes President Bush’s idealistic but likely accurate belief that democratic change and modernism is needed in that region and supports those in the region who want to make it happen.

Yet, thinking about Gandhi, I realize that as strong as those emotion beliefs are, they carry with them a veil of abstraction.  Military action is easy to talk about, but it kills people, including innocents — there has never been a clean intervention.   Moreover, if Gaddafi had subdued the rebels, perhaps a lot less life would be lost overall, and the international community could still do things like boycott Libyan oil, freeze assets, and essentially deny the Libyan leader the right to act effectively on the world economic stage, pushing him to choose to leave on his own — he is in his eighties after all.

Though my world view is essentially spiritual, I don’t think the material world is useless.   Even Augustine distinguished between what he called the “city of man” and the “city of God,” and the definition of violence is arbitrary.   Structural violence is as real in its impact as is actual use of force; to focus on only one as wrong is arbitrary whim.   Yet in this case I come to the conclusion that the emotional desire to strike led me to be too willing to rationalize military force, and that it would have been better to let Gaddafi take back the country and then use other means to try to bring about change.    The post-Ottoman world is still scared by 600 years of military dictatorship followed by corruption and ruthless leaders.   Adding more death and destruction may well do more harm than good.


The Obama Doctrine

President Obama’s speech on March 28, 2011 may go down as one of the historic Presidential speeches as he not only explained and defended a controversial foreign policy decision, but clearly enunciated a foreign policy doctrine.   It also was a forceful, unambiguous speech, resisting efforts to use vague slogans and unclear rhetoric to cover up tough issues.  For the first time in his Presidency Obama has had to show true foreign policy leadership and he has come through.

Rather than look again at Libya, I’m intrigued more by what the Obama doctrine indicates.  He rejects the notion of “Captain America” as world cop, intervening to stop all repression and violence.   Realistically, that’s not possible.  There will be cases where repressive dictators will act against their people, and despite our outrage, it would be contrary to our core interests to act.   In that, he certainly is correct.  US power and wealth are limited and recently under strain.  Interventions that would be costly and without a likelihood of success would do us clear harm.

However, that doesn’t mean we should never act.   The weakest argument against action is to point to other repressive regimes and say “why not intervene there?”   To be sure, that argument was often made against President Bush’s choice to go to war with Iraq.  But while President Bush did not fully answer that, President Obama gave guidelines on when US military power is to be used.

First, the US must have a coalition that supports military action.   The coalition must be broad based and willing to share the burden.  Interestingly he did not say UN Security Council approval was absolutely necessary, leaving open the possibility that at some point the US might act even if China or Russia threatens a veto.   Second, US action should be focused on a clear global interest – shared by us and others – ranging from protecting commerce (presumably including oil flows) to stopping genocide.   Finally, the US will have a limited role, using the unique power and capacity of the American military to support interventions aimed at specific goals (e.g., stopping Gaddafi’s assault on civilians) not for broader goals like regime change.

This backs down considerably from the kind of idealist (or ‘neo-conservative’) approach of spreading democracy that President Bush embraced, but borrows the core elements of Bush’s ideology.  Interestingly, Bush’s thoughts about the need to spread democracy and aid the rising youth in the Mideast are embraced by Obama.   Obama differs on the means to use.   We must not do anything that undercuts our own interests, or lead us down a path of ever growing costs and national trauma.

He also was clear to point out the effort to strictly limit military action, noting that regime change even by air power alone would require bombing that would lead to unacceptable civilian casualties.   At the same time Obama distanced himself form the pacifist wing of his party.   He rejected the idea that US military power was useless, immoral or only to be used in national defense.   Instead he argued that in an interdependent and linked world it would be against our interest not to use our power to try to maintain international stability and human rights.

Obama’s core principles differ little from those of Republicans like Reagan or Bush, or Democrats like Carter or Clinton.  In that sense he is clearly an establishment President, not breaking with long held values on how to use American military power.  Yet unlike other Presidents, he refines the conditions in which it will be used, rejecting the kind of unilateralism that has so often defined US foreign policy in the past.

In part this is a pragmatic reaction to historical circumstance.  Just as President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger had to adopt detente in response to the cost of the Vietnam war and the rise of the USSR to nuclear parity (not to mention Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik), President Obama is dealing with a US rocked by the great recession, divided by partisan bickering, and still wounded from long and not yet complete wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Simply, the bipolar world of the Cold War and the unipolar world of the early post-Cold periods are gone.   The President has to adjust US policy to reflect US capacity.

In doing so he stresses the need for American leadership (weakened though the US may be, no other country has the same military capacity), but leadership of the sort that doesn’t say “do it our way or no way” but builds coalitions and requires international legitimacy.   In that he reflects the ideals of President Bush the Elder, who undertook a similar strategy in Iraq in 1991.  Yet unlike the elder Bush, President Obama situates US policy within a global framework in which the US voice is a leading, but not dominate one.

To some, that may seem weak.   To me it seems prudent.  The US cannot dominate, the Iraq experience shows us what the cost can be if we try.  But leadership can be exercised within the framework of international cooperation and burden sharing within the larger global community.

Time will tell what historical reputation the Obama Doctrine will earn (I’ve not read other reactions to the speech, so I’ll be interested if others will see this as proclaiming a doctrine), nor does this quell the arguments of the hawks and doves, between which Obama has crafted a well defined middle ground.   It has a typically American mix of idealism and realism, with a pragmatic recognition of our limits.  I have to say I’m impressed with both the speech and the policy.   A United States working in concert with allies to promote our interests and principles in a pragmatic and realistic manner may be the best way to navigate these uncertain times.


Libyan End in Site?

As rebel forces take town after town originally held by forces loyal to Gaddafi, a strange dilemma faces the international forces aligned against the dictator: if the rebels threaten Sirte, Gaddafi’s strong hold, would it not be the rebels rather than the Libyan army threatening civilians?   To be sure, Gaddafi’s forces have a track record of violence against civilians while the rebels arguably have had public opinion on their side and opposed the military.   There have been no complaints of rebels targeting civilians as they retook Ajdabiya, Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf.  Still, in Sirte these differences become problematic, and any video of civilian casualties threaten to undermine the international mission.

So far, those videos and pictures have been scarce to non-existent.  Tours arranged for international media in Tripoli to see civilian damage end up either coming back with nothing (“we couldn’t find the address”) or showing a site where any damage is ambiguous — perhaps it was caused by NATO, but perhaps not.  And with Gaddafi snipers and mercenaries in operation, it’s hard to pin any civilian deaths on the coalition at this point.

That means that right now the UN backed mission in Libya still holds the moral high ground, at least in relative terms.   All that could change if the rebels, not under clear control nor guided by one over-arching ideology or aim, start taking revenge on pro-Gaddafi civilians or turning on each other.

This means that it is imperative that the UN and NATO plan and execute an end game as soon as possible, perhaps in time to be announced Monday night when President Obama addresses the nation.    The end game must include: a) a cease fire on all sides; b) a way for Gaddafi to go into exile with a credible chance at avoiding persecution for war crimes; c) a peace keeping mission including and perhaps dominated by the Arab League and African Union; and d) a clear plan for moving to democratic elections.

If the UN can pull this off, the message to other dictators is clear: the international community will no longer allow an abstract  claim of sovereignty to protect their grip on power.   Even if Libya is sovereign, Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily get to claim the right to sovereignty just because he has power.   That notion of sovereignty is at odds with the principle of the UN charter.

The US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed dictators to breath easy.  The US certainly won’t get involved in another conflict after those have weakened the country and divided the public!  With the American economy still wobbly and still in danger of further decline, the US seems certain to become more isolationist.   Gaddafi certainly was thinking that way when he launched his counter offensive.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates were thinking that way early on too — it’s a rational position, one mirrored by the military establishment.   But French President Sarkozy and ultimately Secretary of State Clinton realized that if a truly international coalition — one without the US as the leader and motivator — were to be able to succeed rather easily, that would have the opposite effect: dictators would realize it’s risky to use force to stay in power.  Decisions like Mubarak’s to leave freely would seem more rational than those like Gaddafi’s to fight for power.   That’s why it was so important that Obama remain relatively on the sidelines and not highlight the US role (even if in practical terms US firepower dominated the response).

This also means that should Gaddafi finally be compelled to leave — and the pressure on him is mounting — a new Libya can be constructed on Libyan terms, without it seeming like the US or the West is imposing a government on the country just to control its oil or engage in neo-colonialism.  If that works it could have a chilling effect on other Arab dictatorships, especially in Syria where the government has already unleashed a crackdown.

The calculation is simple: the US wouldn’t be stupid enough to get involved in anything like Iraq again since once the bombing starts, you have to see it through.    The failures of the US in Iraq cause Syria’s Assad to believe he’s invulnerable as long as he can crack down on his population.   But if Libya proves that the international community can mount an effective low cost counter to dictatorial crackdowns, then the calculation changes.  In a best case scenario, dictators decide early on to leave freely in exchange for a relatively comfortable retirement.

Gaddafi, of course, could still fight to the end, meaning that the intervention becomes costlier and this model of countering dictators fails.   And who knows what kind of government might emerge in Libya after the fighting.  But whatever problems may come, it’s important now that NATO and the UN push for an end game so that this does not drag out.   There is reason to believe the end may be in sight.


Confusion on Libya

The pundit class in the US is all over the place on the Libyan intervention.   Some bemoan the fact that there is no exit plan and predict a bloody stalemate that will harm US interests and bring more problems to the region.  Others argue that this is the perfect strategy – a multinational attack to weaken Gaddafi’s forces so that rebels on the ground in Libya have a real chance to overthrow a tyrant.  Still others suggest we are taking sides in a civil war that will be deadlier and longer than if we had simply let Gaddafi do his dirty work.  Violence begets violence.

So who is right?

First, let’s define what this war is all about.   This is a United Nations operation, passed by the Security Council 10-0 (Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil abstaining).   Gaddafi’s rhetoric that “there will be no mercy and no pity” on the residents of Benghazi no doubt helped sway nations to either support or at least not oppose intervention.   The Security Council clearly feared that Gaddafi would perpetrate a blood bath.   Moreover, the US is a reluctant participant.   Although Secretary of State Clinton seemed closer to the hawkish views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Department of Defense (including Defense Secretary Gates, who also served under President Bush) and President Obama worried about adding another military commitment to the US plate.

The plan seems to be one designed to inspire the Libyans to finish off Gaddafi’s regime.   Once mid-level Libyan elites see that the world community means business, and that even if they survive they’ll never be legitimate, never be able to act in the global economy in a profitable manner and sooner or later will fall victim to the rebels’ wrath, they’ll decide it’s better to switch than fight.   In that scenario Gaddafi loses support until either some kind of internal coup overthrows his regime or, recognizing the futility of his situation, he strikes a deal to go into exile.

Plans that rely on the success of others are always risky.  Gaddafi has been in power for 32 years; you don’t stay that long if you haven’t learned how to protect your back.   Moreover many Libyans around him are implicated in everything from terrorism to torture, and may see no alternative but to stick with the regime.  Finally the rebels themselves are an unknown quantity.  Despite his tyranny, Gaddafi was opposed to al qaeda and helped limit African migration to Europe.  What will the next regime be like?

On the other hand, those who fear the rise of Islamic extremism have to acknowledge that Islamicist voices have been mostly vacant from the rhetoric and face of the rebellion.  No one is holding up al qaeda signs or yelling “death to America.”   A knee jerk fear of the unknown is no more rational than a knee jerk idealist belief that after Gaddafi democracy will flourish.

Moreover, the US does see change sweeping the region.   Yemen is teetering on the brink at this moment, and the revolutions I speculated about back in January seem all too real today.   Both the Europeans and Americans want to be on the ‘right side’ of history, and have an impact on the changes taking place.   They also recall the price of doing nothing.   Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, who was commander of the UN Rwanda mission, early on called for the UN to use force to stop Gaddafi from slaughtering his own people.

The United States has also remained purposefully in the political background, even though military capabilities necessitate it being in the foreground of action taken.   President Obama has not been the leading voice calling for intervention, and embraced a limit to military activity.   This stands in marked contrast to the past roles played by Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush the Elder, when the US President was front and center in trying to build international support for military action.   While some criticize this as “disengaged lack of leadership,” it is definitely done with purpose.   The US military is overstretched, we cannot afford another engagement that sucks us in deeper and deeper until there seems no way out.   Yet despite the subdued rhetoric, the US is wielding a big stick, hitting Libya hard in the early strikes.

More importantly, the US is signaling acceptance of the new multipolarity, something President Bush worked hard to avoid (and many Republicans and Democrats still refuse to acknowledge).    If military power is to be used to try to enforce human rights and protect civilians then others have to share the burden and be responsible to lead.   In some ways Obama’s policy harkens back to what President Bush the Elder hoped for with his “new world order.”   Even the US has to play by the rules now.

If Gaddafi falls in short order, the policy will be seen as a success and Obama vindicated.  If it turns into a stalemate dragging on and pulling the US in deeper, Obama may be looking for a new residence in two years.   If I had to bet, I’d say a middle ground result is likely, more like Kosovo than Iraq.   After a stalemate is reached, a peace accord between Gaddafi and the rebels will be hammered out, effectively splitting the country.   The rebels would be forced to sign this because if not NATO would withdraw its air cover and military support.    Gaddafi will realize this is the only way to stop the bombs and missiles.   After that support will shift away from Gaddafi, much like Milosevic found his authority in Serbia decline after the Kosovo war.   Either Gaddafi will weaken and ultimately be overthrown or he will die in office (either by natural or unnatural causes) with his son unable to assert authority.   At that point a new national unity government could be proclaimed.

Still, there is confusion.   This is new ground for the US and the international community.  If this is successful, it will demonstrate that the 21st century is more difficult terrain for brutal corrupt dictators.  If it fails, dictators will be emboldened and the West humiliated.   Was this policy a wise move?  I don’t know, I guess I’d say it’s an interesting move.  As a political scientist I find this whole process fascinating to observe.


Hypocrisy no Longer Feasible?

I’ve been watching events unfold in Libya with a mix of fascination and horror at the violence and the complexities of the situation.   It also makes clear a fundamental hypocrisy of the foreign policy of western states: We claim to promote freedom and democracy, when we really support and encourage dictatorship and repression.   If that hypocrisy is no longer feasible thanks to new media and globalization, foreign policy may become much more difficult — but perhaps also more principled.

In Libya it appeared clear the rebels had the upper hand early on — Generals were defecting to the other side, the international community was almost unanimous in condemning the Libyan leader, and Gaddafi’s rambling speeches seemed out of touch with reality.    His efforts to stoke western fears by blaming al qaeda or threatening Europe with a massive influx of African immigrants appeared pathetic and desperate.

However, whenever a state decides to fight back against a rebellion (rather than give in as Mubarak did), the state has considerable power and resources at its disposal.   Sovereignty grants the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, meaning that it can amass a large array of weapons and information to combat a rebellion.   It isn’t easy to overthrow an entrenched dictator, and enough people are implicated in Gaddafi’s regime and its crimes that he has many allies willing to risk it all to try to save the government.   They know that even if Gaddafi ends up in control of a “rump” Libya, they are protected from prosecution and retribution.   And if Gaddafi can create the impression he’s going to win, fence sitters will refuse to join the revolt, fearing a brutal retribution Gaddafi has proven he has no qualms about delivering.

For all the condemnations from the West, the fact is that a choice to engage in a “no fly zone,” targeted air strikes, or some kind of military assistance to the rebels could lead to an increasingly complex and difficult military operation.   At a time when Afghanistan seems to be as far as ever from stability, NATO and the US do not want to find themselves fighting a war in Libya, potentially supporting rebel groups that could ultimately have an anti-western agenda.   Libyan oil and investments are also considerable in the EU, especially for its former colonial ruler, Italy.   Even if the Saudis can keep oil flows stable (thereby demonstrating to the West the importance of Saudi Arabia avoiding strife — something most people prefer not to think about, despite the fact the Saudi regime is more oppressive than any other in the world save North Korea), short term ramifications could be painful, especially if the fighting goes on.

Yet it will be impossible to backdown from the condemnations of Gaddafi, the call for democratic change in Libya and a desire to make sure that war crimes do not go unpunished.

The essential dilemma is that during much of the 20th Century western calls for democracy and markets to spread have been rhetorical ploys, not truly embraced by its leaders.    The West has had no problem being cozy with dictators, as long as the dictators didn’t create international instability or engage in embarrassing human rights failures.   France even stuck with the Rwandan government well into a genocide witnessed by UN peace keepers on the ground!   The US overthrew democratic governments in Guatamala and Iran early in the Cold War, replacing them with brutal dictatorships.   We used repression and lack of freedom as a rationale to overthrow Saddam, even while maintaining our embrace of the Saudi royal family, whose rule was no less repressive.

For a long time we could maintain this bit of hypocrisy.   Most people in the US don’t really know much about the rest of the world, and the media has shown little interest in reporting about despotism and abuse elsewhere.    Every once in awhile a case will become a cause celebre, such as the Darfur region of Sudan, but most of the time third world wars and abuses get ignored.   The longest and most brutal war since World War II has taken place in the Congo, but how much coverage has that generated (and how many people even know about it)?    When we need an excuse to try to get rid of someone a problem for the national interest, such as Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega, then our leaders trot out the rhetoric for freedom, democracy and human rights.   The American people, appalled at the abuses of power by those dictators tend to support action to “help the people over there,” believing that we’re engaged in a virtuous and even selfless act of trying to promote our values.

The hypocrisy in that policy is glaringly obvious (and noticed outside the US), but tends not to make it into the consciousness of most Americans.    The fact is most leaders don’t believe third world countries are ready for democracy, and secretly accept and even support repression by leaders if it prevents instability.   Instability may lead to a growth for extremist groups rather than promoters of democracy after all.

But with al jazeera live streaming video and keeping blogs and constant reports from hot spots in the Arab world, and NGOs increasingly able to penetrate where once only governmental agencies could tread, western leaders may have to make an overt choice:  do we simply accept repression elsewhere and say it’s none of our business as long as our interests aren’t harmed, or do we put principle first?

And if we put principle first, what does that mean?   Does that require military action, or perhaps simply refusing to do things that help dictators?   And what about a case like Saudi Arabia, where we need their oil?   This is the dilemma President Bush was trying to solve when he went to war with Iraq, hoping US power could push the region to democratize, thereby serving both the national interest and principle.    The lesson from that war is humbling.   Even when we spend half the world’s military budget and are the dominant superpower, the ability to use that to shape politics on the ground is severely limited.   That lesson has to be considered when we think about Libya.  It sounds easy to say “impose a no fly zone, strike Gaddafi’s strong points” but defeating Saddam’s military was easy too.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to achieve the desired ends.

If hypocrisy is no longer feasible, that’s bad news for leaders and diplomats who embrace a realist approach that emphasizes stability over all else.    It may, however, force us to confront the actual dilemmas of engaging a world where democracy is a process difficult to achieve and maintain, even as it seems the best way to try to hold power accountable and protect human rights.    Ultimately if dictatorship is to give way to democracy, then at some point the West has to stop enabling the dictators.    It may not work to use military power to force change, but perhaps acting a bit more on principle by refusing to deal with or help those who abuse power and repress/abuse their citizens a step can be made towards positive change.   That will bring its own dilemmas and difficulties, but I’d rather approach those openly than fear standing up for what we believe in.

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Afghanistan: Mission Impossible II

Back in October 2009 I put up  a post “Afghanistan: Mission Impossible.”  In it, I noted that President Obama, in trying to figure out the best strategy in Afghanistan, may be undertaking an impossible task.   Afghanistan may not be winnable — at least not at anywhere near a cost we’re willing to pay.

Today as General Stanley McChrystal is called to the White House to answer for remarks he made in an interview to Rolling Stone magazine (I expect him to quit), the drama appears to be a General vs. the White House.   The General thinks the White House is not doing enough to win; the White House has long had doubts about McChrystal’s ability to do the job and follow orders.   Who is right?   Well…neither…or both…

The thing about undertaking impossible tasks is that there will always be someone who thinks that it is someone else’s fault.  Thus when things are getting tough, fingers get pointed.   It takes awhile for people to have the perspective to say that perhaps the task undertaken was simply not feasible given the conditions and costs — that now is the consensus on the war in Vietnam, or the idea that Iraq would be a model state to transform  the Mideast.

The problem is that planners, both civilian and military, can always dream up a plan that on paper looks like it might work.   It’s akin to a football coach putting together a plan for a play that should be able to score a winning touch down.   If executed right, if the defense plays as we expect, and if there are no other difficulties encountered, then we should score.

But while football is a game with strict rules and constrained inputs and variables, reality in a place like Afghanistan is full of different players, possibilities, conditions and interests.   Plans dreamed up that work “on paper” are necessarily vast simplifications of what needs to be done, and built on assumptions that don’t take into account the complexity of the situation and are usually optimistic.   That’s why plans put forth by the White House or the Generals usually are vague — details and implementation is where the complexity comes in, and each step of that path is steeped with uncertainty.

Planners understand this, and thus often say the right words when putting forth their ideas:  “Things have to go right…corruption and local politics might get in the way…there is a strong chance this could fail…”  Deep down, however, there is a sense that all problems can be solved, and the right strategy can work if the best people are on it, and can react to events in a rational manner.

But the complexity of Afghan local politics, the embedded culture of corruption (made worse by the fact now people expect the resources of the state to be worth trillions), external interference, and difficulties in implementation of any strategy make it unlikely that the US will succeed in Afghanistan.   At this point, it’s best to say “we gave them a chance, but now they have to make their future.”

That doesn’t mean get out as quickly as possible, nor does it mean to stop humanitarian assistance and some level of military aid.  Instead it means to negotiate with all parties, including the Taliban, with some kind of exit so that Afghan politics reflects Afghan interests.   We can draw a set of clear boundaries — no support for al qaeda and terrorism in exchange for a hands off Afghanistan policy.   We can remind them that if there is another 9-11 the American public, now in an isolationist mood, might suddenly want even more severe action.   We can also make arrangements for some level of covert involvement.

Simply, this is not a war the US can “win” if victory is defined in terms of creating the kind of political and social outcome that suits American sensibilities.  It would be nice if we could, but reality doesn’t work that way.  Cultures and countries develop on their own timetables and in their own manner; trying to force the issue or push them often makes things worse rather than better.   The outcome we desire becomes associated not with freedom and prosperity but the whims of an outside power willing to slaughter innocents and bribe elites in pursuit of its interests.

So from a wider perspective the fight between McChrystal and the White House is symbolic of the US trying to win a war it can’t win (again, not at the cost the public would be willing to pay) and solve a problem that defies solution.   The only thing to do is redefine the goals downward and find a way to exit sooner rather than later.   We face massive long term economic problems and a need for complete reform at home.   Right now, we can’t reshape a country which has defied outside interference for millennia.    So call McChrystal back, radically change the strategy, put someone new in charge to oversee the change, and have 98% of US troops out by 2012.

UPDATE: As predicted, McChrystal resigned, and now has been replaced by his boss, Gen. David Petraeus.  Although I doubt they’ll follow my “get out quickly” advice, I do think the move is smart.  Petraeus is a politically adept, PR savvy General who understands the region and the nature of counter-insurgent operations.   He is also a pragmatist who hopefully will recognize if the situation is so bleak that it’s more rational to leave than stay.   Even then, of course, how we leave is key.   It’s probably good that McChrystal was let go and Petraeus put in charge, though I’m sure all sides would have preferred it to be less messy.

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Guess Which War?

The President goes into a war, expecting a quick victory, telling the American people that we are fighting a tyrant and dictator who could disrupt the region and sow instability.  Moreover, the war is to spread democracy and enhance human rights.

Not long after the war began, it started to become clear that real victory in terms of setting up a stable regional order or stopping the slaughter of innocents would be far more difficult than planned.   While the President urged the country to “stay the course,” the White House was condemned for poor planning and having no exit strategy.  One pundit wrote “the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but muddled planning.”   Ethnic violence seemed immune to the super power technology being used to try to bring stability.

Moreover, the Powell doctrine, which required massive power and complete public support, was being ignored.   The President did not have the opposition party behind him, and soon was getting tremendous criticism for waging an unnecessary ‘war of choice.’    A long time government foreign policy elite who rose to become Vice President dismissed the Powell doctrine as a “paralysis doctrine.”   Senator John McCain criticized those who didn’t want to go all in, saying that “the costs of failure are infinitely greater than the price of victory.”   McCain believed that more troops should be sent, surging existing efforts in order to create the prospect of a real victory.   Nonetheless, as the White House and its allies strove to find an exit strategy, the human cost of the war rose, with most of the deaths being civilian, caused by ethnic conflict rather than American bombs.

A hawk in the Administration pushed for the use of US power.  In one conversation this hawk admonished Colin Powell about being afraid to use power: “what’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.”   After leaving the administration Powell would later admit that upon hearing those words “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”   But the Administration clearly believed it was important to show that the US not only had power, but would be bold in using it in order to shape the 21st century into being one in accord with US values.  The war caused dissent within NATO, and severely harmed relations with Russia and China.    The low point came when the US, apparently through error, bombed the Chinese embassy.

Yes, I’m describing the 1999 Kosovo war.   The quote about the Powell doctrine being a paralysis doctrine came from Joe Biden, then speaking in his role on the Senate foreign relations committee.   President Clinton was quoted in Time magazine as urging Americans “to stay the course.”   And the hawkish administration official who almost gave Powell an aneurysm was Secretary of State Madeline Albright (though the conversation quoted took place in 1993, long before Kosovo, when Albright was still US Ambassador to the UN).

The differences between the wars are also significant.  The Kosovo war dragged out 80 days, not over seven years, and not one American or NATO soldier was killed.   It was purely an air war, as NATO politics prevented a ground invasion.  And though the conflict created divisions within NATO, it was a NATO effort, led by the US.   After the war the government admitted that it had overestimated the power of technology and the ability of to stop ethnic violence.   In Time magazine on June 14, 1999 reporting on what top Pentagon brass took from the war, reported “in the next conflict, they fret, a really smart foe won’t fight the US int he skies or on the ground — places where victory is very unlikely.  Instead it will be smart and strike far away from the war zone — in the heart of a US city, perhaps — with biological or chemical weapons.”   Just over two years later that prediction proved accurate, though hijacked airlines were the weapon the ‘smart foe’ chose to use.

Still, despite the very different natures of the two wars, the similarities are striking.   The Clinton Administration had a lot in common with the Bush Administration of a few years later.   They believed the war would be much easier than it was, they under estimated the situation on the ground in terms of the power of ethnic tension, they had no exit plan, didn’t really consider what to do if the air strikes didn’t work as anticipated, and going to war created domestic divisions.   They also believed that it was important that the US use its military power to spread democracy and human rights, and did not doubt that it was legitimate.   The US wanted to force a deal between the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army, which not much earlier had been deemed a terrorist organization by the State Department) and Serbia over the fate of the province of Kosovo in southwest Serbia.

The impetus had been a massacre of 44 people in Recak, Kosovo, in January.  When Serbia wouldn’t go along with a deal they felt was a breach of sovereignty in their struggle against terrorism, the US bombed.   After the bombing started massive human rights violations against the Kosovar Albanians began, including a mass exodus, rape, and mass murder.   The same question haunts the Clinton Administration in Kosovo as does the Bush Administration in Iraq: would the human cost been less if war had not been chosen?   In each case they point to Milosevic or Hussein, and note that the dictators had been brutal.   But would such atrocities as were later seen have happened without war?   Would a different path of pressure been better and more effective in human terms?

Kosovo’s lessons were not learned by the Bush Administration as it planned to invade Iraq.   Kosovo was, thankfully, over relatively quickly.   The White House and NATO declared it a success, forgot those agonizing months where things were going wrong, and in the public mind the war had been about all those refugees fleeing Kosovo, forgetting that that was a consequence of the decision to bomb.   Charles Krauthammer, the neo-conservative who would be important in arguing publicly for war in Iraq dismissed Kosovo’s woes as due to a “reluctant, uncertain” President.   A serious President would have gone all in to win decisively, Krauthammer insisted.

Still, the similarities are enough to lead me to three propositions: 1) the Democrats and Republicans were not as different at least within elite circles as it appears to the public.   Albright’s rhetoric sounds almost neo-conservative, the belief that power should be used and assumption of success dogged both Clinton and Bush; 2) just as the lessons weren’t learned after Kosovo, it’s very likely that despite the trauma caused by Iraq, many lessons here will be ignored too.   Perhaps most likely is that people will again make tactical criticisms, without addressing the real question of what the US role should really be in this post-Cold War and post-9-11 world, and how effective military operations are; and 3) politicians these days seem much more hawkish than the military leaders.   Powell reflected general Pentagon opinions for both Kosovo and Iraq; the military was far less keen on these wars than those in the White House.   The drumbeat of war was pushed in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations by people with no or very limited military experience.

Moreover, the Pentagon “warning” in the June 14, 1999 issue of Time is still valid — if we take the fight elsewhere, it very likely will be brought back to us here.   That’s a lesson the Russians learned today.  We now understand the dangers, but are we really ready?   Have we learned the lessons of Kosovo and Iraq?   And what about Afghanistan and al qaeda?   No time today to reflect further, but the similarities between Kosovo and Iraq suggest that our problem is not just that President Bush made some ‘bad choices,’ but is deeper within the US foreign policy/military policy mindset.

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