Triage, not retreat
I spent yesterday morning at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) annual shindig on the Middle East, “Allies, Adversaries and Enemies.” It began with a big-think panel on American foreign policy since 9/11: Robert Kagan, Walter Russell Mead and Leon Wieseltier. FDD President Cliff May moderated. The luminaries skipped any serious discussion of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Nor did they mention the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen. The consensus was plainly and vigorously anti-Obama: he is shy of using force and leading an American retreat from the world that will get us into deeper trouble in the future. Congressman McKeon (R-CA) makes a similar argument in today’s Washington Post.
This is not my natural habitat, so I’ll try to give an account of the local fauna before launching into a tirade against them.
The panel hit President Obama hard and fast. Wieseltier criticized him for portraying all the alternatives to his policies everywhere as war. Spooked by Iraq, he trumps up phony dichotomies. The truth is he is looking for ways to pull the US out of overseas engagements, especially in the Middle East. As a result, all our friends need reassurance. His policy is one of introversion and absence. The President doesn’t see US power as a good thing and doesn’t recognize that even multilateralism requires US leadership. He wants no more land wars and is trying to ensure that with cuts at the Pentagon, an idea he admittedly inherited from Donald Rumsfeld.
Dissenting sardonically from the view that Obama is a Kenyan socialist, Mead offered a slightly more generous appraisal: Obama believes that as the US withdraws a balance of power will emerge, one that costs the US less than at present. This is a 1930s-style policy close to what most Americans want. But it won’t work, even if the limits of public opinion are real. We’ll get clobbered somehow. The president should harness pro-engagement sentiment and lead more forcefully. Only a balance of power under US hegemony can be stable and reliable.
Kagan concurred, remarking that Americans (unfortunately) have a high tolerance for a collapsing world. But the issue really is military power and America’s willingness to use force. We are on a slippery slope. The Obama doctrine is simply to avoid using force, which is undermining the world’s confidence in our ability and willingness to defend the liberal world order. That is the key objective for American foreign policy. We lost Iraq when Obama withdrew the American troops. The same thing could happen in Afghanistan. Nuclear Iran will be a big problem, but not a threat to the liberal world order, which is more threatened by the waxing military dictatorship in Egypt and the rebellion it will trigger in the future.
Doutbts about whether the US would attack Iran, or let Israel do it, wafted through the room. General Michael Hayden in the next session threw cold water on the idea that Israel either could or should undertake a military strike on its own. No one bothered to consider what would happen in the aftermath of a massive US strike on Iran. Would that stop or accelerate their nuclear program?
The only part of the panel presentations I would happily agree with is the well-established reluctance of the American public to be overly engaged abroad. It was notable that the panel offered not one example of something they thought Obama should do now to respond to the crises in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Egypt or lots of other places. They were full of examples of what he should have done in the past, and absolutely certain he would not do the right things in the future, including decisive military action against the Iranian nuclear program.
Time and energy don’t allow me to respond to all of the points above. Let me comment on three countries I know well: Iraq, Ukraine and Syria.
The notion that it was President Obama who decided to withdraw troops from Iraq is simply wrong. Here is a first-person account from Bob Loftis, who led the failed negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA):
[The decision to withdraw US troops] happened in mid-2008 [during the Bush Administration]. My team and I were instructed to work on an agreement that would allow a long term US military presence. At no time did the issue of withdrawal arise, even when the term “SOFA” became politically toxic in Baghdad. SOFA talks were suspended in May 2008, with the focus placed on negotiating the Strategic Framework Agreement (which would have some vague references to “pre-existing arrangements” (i.e. certain parts of CPA17). I then heard in September 2008 that…there were new SOFA talks which were about withdrawal. The “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq” was signed on 17 November 2008 by Ryan Crocker: Article 24 (1) states “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”
People will tell you that President Bush thought the agreement would be revised in the succeeding administration to allow the Americans to stay in some limited number. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was Bush, not Obama, who decided on US withdrawal. Once in office, Obama did try to negotiate permission for the Americans to stay. Prime Minister Maliki didn’t want to give up jurisdiction over crimes committed by US troops. Hard for me to fault the President for not yielding on that point, especially in light of the arbitrary arrests and detentions Maliki has indulged in since. Nor do I think US troops in the mess that is today’s Iraq would be either safe or useful.
Ukraine loomed large over this discussion. No one on the panel had a specific suggestion for what to do there, except that Kagan demurred from the President’s assertion that we have no military option. Of course we do, he said. We have absolute air superiority over Ukraine if we want it. That may be true. But it would require the use of US bases in Europe and Turkey. How long does Kagan think US leadership and the liberal world order would last after war between the US and Russia?
On Syria, I dissent from the President’s policy as much as any of the panelists. But I have specific suggestions for what he should at least consider doing: recognize the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) as the legitimate government of Syria, overtly arm its affiliated fighters and destroy as much of the Syrian air force and missile inventories as possible. I suppose big thinkers like Wieseltier, Kagan and Mead don’t trade in such small beer, but those of us who treasure concreteness think they should.
It seems to me what the President is up to is not retreat but triage: he is focusing on Iran’s nuclear weapons and the Asia Pacific because he thinks the issues there threaten vital US interests. Syria for him falls below the line. For me it is above: the threat to neighboring states in the Levant and the growth of extremism put it there. But that simple and entirely understandable distinction would not inspire the kind of disdain that the panelists indulged in and the audience applauded at yesterday’s event.
PS, May 6: For the skeptical masochists among you, here is video of the event, which arrived today: