Archive for the 'Foreign Affairs' Category

Rapid-fire 3: Andrew Bacevich is worth listening to.

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Last week I listened to this Bill Moyers interview with former Army colonel and current Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, who has scathing things to say about America’s leaders — of both parties, in both the executive and legislative branches — and their treatment of the foreign policy of the United States.

See the interview (or read a transcript) here.

I’m looking forward to reading Bacevich’s just-released book, The Limits of Power. I expect to grind my teeth at our leaders’ stupidity and caprice when I read it, but that’s not a bad thing.

What I hope the next President will bring us: A sober foreign policy.

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

The great investor Warren Buffett loves to play bridge. Since he’s an avid fan of the game — and, no doubt, since he’s Warren Buffett — he’s gotten to play with some of the luminaries of the bridge world. He has talked about how the very best bridge players virtually never make a mistake: they may lose a hand because of the cards they are dealt, but they don’t lose by making bad plays trick by trick.

With hopes of setting aside all partisan differences, I would note that the United States has undergone a period of intensely ideology-driven foreign policy during this decade. As it happens, the ideology in question has been (more or less) neo-conservative, and it has centered on Iraq and the “War on Terror.” In earlier generations, ideologically driven foreign policy has sometimes come from the Democrats rather than the Republicans (for example in the cases of Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter), and it has centered on other themes and other areas of the world.

There’s no need for a long essay belaboring this point, but what the United States needs in foreign policy, probably for a good twenty years to come, is a notable lack of ideology. Sure, we’ll always stump for democracy and free markets in general, and well we should. We ought to speak up likewise in favor of human rights. But we can’t afford — not even us, not even with our great resources — to fight ideological wars abroad, or cultural wars at home, if we are to retain our influence on the world, or if we are to regain the international standing that we have lost in recent years.

Saber-rattling won’t get us where we need to go. Wilfully simplistic misreadings of the world’s politics, ditto. In some cases, we may have to hold our noses as we make the smart play.

But for a couple of decades at least, we need a bipartisan commitment to making the smart play — like a master bridge player, like Warren Buffett choosing his investments — rather than the play that makes us feel vindicated in the moment, or that scratches an ideological itch.


A fascinating report from Fallujah.

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

While it would have been better if the U.S. military had been allowed to pursue its current tactics sooner, it’s good to know that things are so much better in the city that became a byword for violence in Iraq. Michael Totten’s long report — words and pictures — from Fallujah is free of political talk, and full of his cogent first-person observations of what’s going on there. It’s a great example of what my friend Ethan Casey calls “the sniff on the ground” — up-close reporting that really gives you a new view into a part of the world you’ll never see.

A Plan to Kill Everyone

. . . “Marines are more focused than soldiers,” Sergeant Balley told me. “If we get in a fire fight, you will see.”

But I could see it, a little, even though we weren’t being shot at. They do seem to make themselves a little bit harder to injure or kill than Army soldiers. The differences aren’t huge, but they are there. One of the reasons I felt relaxed in Fallujah was that they seemed so over-prepared for everything. . . .

Check it out.

(Tip of the hat to Nancy Rommelmann for the link.)

James Thomson on Vietnam, 1968.

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

Several weeks ago I printed out this 1968 Atlantic Monthly article, but I only now got around to reading it.

How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy

I found the link to the article on James Fallows’s blog. Fallows writes this about it:

James C. Thomson Jr.’s “How Could Vietnam Happen?” might seem somewhat obvious in its analysis now. But when it came out — weeks after the Tet offensive in 1968, days before Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election — it was electrifying in its originality and insight. Thomson, who had been raised in China by missionary parents, was then in his mid-30s and had recently left the government in opposition to the war policy. He was a a brand-new and very popular college professor when I met him, as a student, around this time. In a sense all journalistic and even historical attempts to explain foreign policy failures flow from the approach he took in this article.

Thomson’s article makes for compelling reading. In it, he focuses on the ways that institutional agendas and inertia served to paint the United States into a corner vis-a-vis Vietnam. And Fallows is quite right about how influential Thomson’s take has been; reading the article, it was hard to remember that it was written in medias res in 1968, rather than at some safe, scholarly remove of decades.

You can draw your own conclusions about how well or how poorly the situation Thomson describes parallels what has happened with the current Administration’s Iraq policy. It certainly offers much food for thought.

Fox News on the Iran NIE.

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

I don’t read much from Fox News, but my ears perk up when Fox takes a clear hard line against the Administration:

Bush Administration Credibility Suffers After Iran NIE Report

Thursday, December 06, 2007
By Greg Simmons

WASHINGTON — The new National Intelligence Estimate — which says Iran had a nuclear weapons development program, but halted it in 2003 — made President Bush’s week play out like a sad country song.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was smiling and called the report a victory. Rush Limbaugh blasted the report as a product of administration sabotage. And Democrats were accusing the president of being a flip-flopper.

The NIE drew fire from nearly all sides, including anti-war Democrats in Congress, foreign leaders the administration needs to hold the line against Iran, and conservatives usually supportive of the administration.

The root issue for many critics comes down to credibility: Credibility of the estimate, credibility of the intelligence community that developed it and the credibility of the administration for whom those agencies work. Bridging that credibility gap might prove difficult for an administration heading into its final months.

My impression has always been that the Administration makes a practice of manipulating intelligence findings for its own political ends. They certainly aren’t the first to do so, and they won’t be the last. But they’ve done it pretty egregiously, and they’ve done it far too often. Whatever you think of their policies as a whole, this aspect of the Administration’s politicking goes too far.

No torture.

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Very simple concept: the United States shouldn’t torture people. Fight the good fight, please — but not with torture.


Again, very simple concept, and no need to mince words about it: the United States should not torture anyone, and should not conspire to have anyone tortured. Finito.

We must not attack Iran.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

Simple idea — common sense, really — but Mike Boyer brings the goods:

Does the Bomb Iran! crowd have any credibility left?

It now appears that the Bomb Iran! crowd is just making it up as they go along. . . .

Even though the United States could attack Iraq, we can’t afford to. We can’t afford it in the sense of our long-term standing in the world; we can’t afford it in the sense of opening up another gaping hole in the Middle East; we can’t afford what it would do to the world’s oil supply.

Posturing won’t solve our issues with Iran — and especially the posturings of the “Bomb Iran!” club.

Let’s get past this so we can move on to something productive, already.

The Secretary might also have benefited from watching “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

This Michael Hirsh piece from Newsweek discusses Secretary Rice’s recent comments that the U.S. might have paid more attention earlier on to the balance between local, provincial, and central administration in Iraq.

You think?

Here’s the key bit conveying Secretary Rice’s comments:

“I’m sure there are lots of things we might have done better,” she said. “I’ll give you one with Iraq. If I had to do it all over again, we would have had the balance between center, local and provincial better. But that’s the kind of thing you learn over time.”

Rice has admitted on occasion that the U.S. government made “tactical” mistakes in Iraq, but rarely has she gone into specifics. Reminded that Mideast scholars had long advised that controlling Iraq would require winning over local, provincial and tribal authorities, Rice said, “I would like to go back and find out who gave that [advice] … Arab states can be very centralized. This is actually a fairly new model of local and provincial responsibility. I don’t think it was self-evident that this was the case.”

Before reading any further in the article, I repeated this part to my wife, who was sitting in the room with me. It’s no insult to my wife to say that she typically takes little interest in history or foreign affairs. (We joke about how different we are in this regard.) But she responded immediately that anyone who had ever watched Lawrence of Arabia would understand at least the basics of historical strife among groups within the Arab world. Even a fictional depiction like that conveys this basic message.

Not only is my wife right about this, her comments are borne out by area experts later in the Newsweek article:

Both [Larry] Diamond [of the Hoover Institution] and another Iraq scholar, Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University (NDU), say that just about every expert in the region, going back to the British occupation after World War I, has known how crucial it was to build relations with the provinces and tribal leaders in Iraq. Prewar reports by both the Future of Iraq Project, run out of the State Department, and NDU had emphasized this at a time when Rice was national security adviser, Yaphe says. “If you look at Saddam’s rule, he knew very well how important local and tribal leaders were,” says Yaphe. She also says that Rice’s idea that this was a “fairly new model” is wrong. “It seems to me anybody in that area understands that full well. That’s how that system has operated there for a long time.”

Setting aside any comment on the Bush Administration’s overarching Iraq policy — i.e. the basic decision to go in — this is an area where it has flatly failed until recently. Not sort of, not only when looked at in a certain light. It’s been failure, plain and simple, to deal with sectarian issues that were easy to predict — and which were predicted by Iraq experts — before U.S. forces ever set foot in the country.

I’m glad we’re dealing with it now.  We should have been dealing with it much earlier.

I won’t be voting for Giuliani.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

My gentle advice: You shouldn’t vote for Giuliani, either.

It’s easy to say that a candidate will be bad for the economy, bad for the environment, bad for business interests, or whatever else. It’s something else to say that a candidate’s own words and actions suggest pretty clearly that he will be a threat to the Republic. But reasonable people are concluding exactly that about Giuliani, who seems to take the worst elements of the Bush Administration’s foreign policies and then amplify them.

Fear of terrorism is a far-from-adequate reason to entrust someone of Giuliani’s outlook with the Presidency.

Reliving Vietnam.

Friday, August 24th, 2007

This will be brief, since many many others have weighed in on President Bush’s analogy comparing a potential U.S. pullout from Iraq to the disastrous conclusion of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Bush’s argument suffers in several ways:

  1. He himself is introducing the dreaded comparison of Iraq to Vietnam — the very comparison that has been so strongly rejected by supporters of his Iraq policy. The comparison carries big political risks, not only because it explicitly links Iraq to Vietnam, but more specifically because it removes the ability of Bush’s supporters to claim that there is no apt comparison between them.
  2. In historical terms, the comparison is probably specious. For all of its immense political and ideological complexities, the Vietnam of the 1960s and 1970s was largely homogenous in terms of race, language, and religion. It was also not the crossroads of fighting between partisans of two powerful neighboring countries. The contrast between that setting and Iraq’s today hardly needs belaboring.
  3. Bush is essentially trying to play the role of Nixon here, acting the part of the savvy foreign-policy maker trying to make the best of a bad hand dealt to him by others. But when comparing Iraq to Vietnam, Mr. Bush has played the roles of JFK, LBJ, and Nixon: he got us in, he escalated the thing, and then he protracted the thing. Whether you do now or ever did support the policy, it remains incontrovertible that this is Bush’s baby, through and through. So if we’ve come to the pass where a U.S. withdrawal opens the door on disaster for Iraqis . . . whose fault is that?
  4. Separately from all of this, Mr. Bush’s assertion that a “free Iraq” is within reach does not comport with the realities on the ground in Iraq as generally understood.

I’m surprised that Bush would make the comparison with Vietnam. It may be apt, but the comparison doesn’t do him any favors.


Addendum:  Jim Macdonald of Making Light has more links and analysis on why Bush’s analogy is bogus.