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:

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11 thoughts on “Triage, not retreat”

  1. Interesting that the only member of the Armed Forces you mentioned as a participant was the only one who didn’t see the use of force as a kind of magic remedy for the complaint of the day. Establish air superiority in Ukraine – ok, and then what? It’s not bombing runs that the “separatists” and “demonstrators” are using but people power(coupled with propaganda and not-so-subtle threats). Sending riot police out with orders not to hurt anybody has proved a waste of time and energy, but would AWACS overhead have made the slightest difference? Even in Kosovo, which went reasonably well, it wasn’t the bombing of all those dummy tanks in Kosovo as much as the threat of invasion of Serbia proper that convinced Milosevic it was time to declare victory over Nato and sign the papers. In Ukraine, there aren’t even any dummy tanks to go after. Better to let the Ukrainians stumble around till they figure out how to deal with the minority in the East while keeping Putin out of it with the threat of bringing his economy down in flames (as opposed to slowly letting the air out of it) if he sends more than the present nuisance-scale forces across the border.

    The LA Times, BTW, has a good article debunking Russian “historical” claims to Ukraine. The description of how it was settled reminded me of our our own West and the melting-pot approach to peopling a vast new territory:,0,1564808.story#axzz30XjOJE35.

  2. What planet are these guys living on? If it’s a place where the United States has the money and technical capacity to fight a war with Iran, Syria, Russia, Iraq, and Afghanistan at the same time while remaining reasonably prepared for the middle-to-long term threat that China poses, I want to live there. It sounds like that America is much stronger and more prosperous than the one I live in.

    1. And maybe the population of that place is interested in facing every new challenge, bearing every new burden?

  3. Once one realizes that the claim that it is somehow especially the responsibility of Americans to defend “the liberal world order” has never had any argument in its favor that makes sense, all these worries vanish like the ghosts that they are. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the two ideological empires based in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were historical anomalies, seeing as they were both remarkable short-lasting as empires go. So the idea that the liberal world order even needs defending in the first place is pretty suspicious.

    1. So, World War II was a waste of time and energy? Everything would have worked out for the best in any case? Preventing Stalin from using the techniques that worked so well in Eastern Europe from employing them in Western Europe was also a foolish distraction from hot dogs, baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet? Pollyana-ism at its finest.

  4. I never said that. I said such things were unlikely to happen again, and there’s certainly no evidence that anything like them are going to happen in the near future, so acting like there is some big threat is really dumb. Also, do you really think the Soviets and Great Britain wouldn’t have been able to take care of Hitler in the long run? Obviously we had to fight Japan since they actually attacked us. Is Assad going to attack anybody? No. Are the Iranians going to attack anybody? Well, they haven’t for like 150 years. Is Putin going to attack Western Europe? No.

    Pretending that the world is some terribly dangerous place right now like Obama and the even-more-ridiculous Republicans has got to be born from either total ignorance or some kind of weird cynicism to get more and more power.

  5. Hitler got carried away by all the excitement of the attack on Pearl Harbor and declared war on the U.S. What were we supposed to do, ignore it?

    Hoping that conditions will continue to move in the direction of a freer, more liberal world simply because it seems to have been doing so for the past few decades didn’t work before, after all. This was the common assumption right up until WWI broke out – progress had gone too far to allow any major wars, countries were too intertwined by trade to make it economically possible, people had become too civilized. And so on.

    Things don’t normally work out for the better if they’re allowed to go their own way. Remember the bit about entropy working against order? It’s uphill, all the way. If we want to live, or have the chance that our grandkids will live, in a better – or even, not a much worse, world, work has to be applied, and that means – as the country that probably gains the most from living in a well-ordered world – our taking the major share of the responsibility.

    It does seem unlikely that Putin is about to attack “Western Europe” – but what about the Baltics, that have finally got free of Russian rule? They don’t really count? Or Poland, if he’s sure nobody’s going to put up a fuss? Appetite grows by what it feeds on – better not to let him treat the parts of Ukraine he has his eye on as hors d’oeuvres.

  6. Seeing as Poland and the Baltics are part of NATO, Putin is no doubt sure that there is going to be a lot more than a “fuss” that he will have to worry about if he were to attack them. So far Putin has done nothing militarilly except take over places with large Russian minorities or majorities. Of course, Hitler started out this way, but there is no evidence that Putin has some huge expansionist ideology like Hitler. Also, Russia is not anywhere near being in as bad a shape as Germany before National Socialism took power. So, even though Putin is a tyrant, he is much more constrained by public opinion than Hitler was.
    The idea that Putin is really like Hitler seems like wild paranoia to me. Even if it were true, it ought to be the responsibility of France and Germany to worry about that, not people living many thousands of miles away on the other side of big oceans. There were perfectly good reasons to shoulder these kinds of responsibilities in the Cold War, but now there really is no global unified threat like the Soviet Union, so doing so seems silly and wasteful.
    Things do often work out for the better if they are allowed to go their own way. Things more or less did so before WW1 and the Depression; if it looks like the horrors of the 20th century are really going to come back, then we can change our policy to a more aggressive one, but right now it is hard to see any big threats like that arising.

    1. Pointing out that NATO membership will probably keep the Baltics safe disproves what you seem to believe about the wisdom of waiting until the threat is on the doorstep before taking precautionary measures. I was in Prague at the time when the country voted on joining NATO, and then the EU. The NATO vote was almost automatic – “Russia may be weak now,” people would say, “but it won’t always be.” (Joining the EU, which reminded too many people of the the old COMECON, was another matter. I think the deciding argument for a lot of people was that without membership, the EU would be deciding “o nas, bez nas” – about us, without us.) Countries that have been under foreign occupation tend to look ahead.

      Do you remember how long it took the U.S. to gear up for World War II, after waiting to be attacked? Roosevelt had barely managed to keep the draft from being repealed, we didn’t actually have an army or navy capable of going to war on Dec 7. It was pure luck that the Japanese didn’t make another run at Pearl Harbor and destroy the ships they’d sunk – many could be hauled up and put back in service within months. But that’s the kind of luck you can’t count on again. And that was before intercontinental missiles – a couple of oceans don’t buy you the time they used to. We’ve always said, “God looks out for small children, drunks, and the United States of America,” and if this continues to hold, your assuming that everything will work out for the best will be justified. But I think it would be presumptuous to treat His/Her/Its/Their favor as guaranteed for all time. Look at any reader-comment section on line – a good part of the world is convinced we don’t deserve it.

      History is a series of disasters, interrupted by periods of varying duration of peace and prosperity that are always at risk of being abruptly terminated by something nobody foresaw accurately enough to prevent. With climate change putting additional stresses on a system that is breaking down anyway, prepare for a rocky next century. Putin is unlikely to be the biggest problem we face. “Everything will be all right” is something we tell children, it shouldn’t form the basis of public policy.

  7. You’re right about the NATO comment. I was dumb to bring that up. Really we just disagree on the extent to which history is a sequence of disasters, and in particular, about how anomalous the two world wars and the Cold War were. It seems to me that these events were out of all proportion to previous ones mainly as a kind of growing pains as the industrialized nations got used to living together. I do realize that this sounds suspiciously like what people thought before WW1, but the underlying basis seems more solid now. So, naturally, a lot of what hawks are saying seems really alarmist. I mean you actually hear politicians and pundits saying that this is the most dangerous time ever globally, as if they never heard of the invasion of Poland or things like the Berlin blockade and the Cuban missile crisis. Things have objectively cooled off. If all owe have to worry about is some lunatics hiding out in caves in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Putin throwing his weight around by taking advantage of local tensions right at his borders, then we don’t need to shoulder some global responsibility to keep order. These are relatively small problems that regional powers need to worry about. I can see your point, and I certainly agree that one needs to be cautious, but this pendulum has really swung too far the other way at this point.

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