Yes, It Matters That Bowe Bergdahl Deserted

bad deal indy
Does it matter whether Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was a deserter, or worse, a traitor? In evaluating President Obama’s decision to trade five high-ranking Taliban terrorists for Bergdahl, it absolutely does.
Given the public-relations fiasco around the Bergdahl deal, liberal commentators are circling the wagons. Their latest argument, designed to compartmentalize the pieces of the controversy so they can’t be considered as a whole, is that the President’s calculation of what it was worth giving up to get Bergdahl back should not have taken consideration of the facts of Bergdahl’s conduct and disappearance, specifically his abandonment of his comrades and mission under circumstances suggesting a deeper betrayal than simple desertion. This argument (which is summarized here by Brian Beutler at the New Republic, although it’s been coming from people all over the left side of the commentariat the past two days), goes more or less like this:
1) Either you believe the military should have an ethos of “leave no man behind,” or you do not.
2) Either you believe deserters should be court-martialed, or you do not.
3) You can’t have a court martial until you’ve brought Bergdahl back.
4) If you believe in 1) and 2), you should want Bergdahl back first before deciding if he deserted, which is a matter for the court martial system, and he is presumed innocent until then.
As Beutler put it on Twitter, “this standard of rendering verdicts against POWs while they’re in captivity and using them to oppose rescue is disgusting.”
There are two related problems with this syllogism that illustrate its dependence on simple-minded sloganeering in lieu of sober judgments of reality. First, it confuses purely military decisions with major national security decisions. For soldiers, “leave no man behind” is more than a slogan – it’s part of the deep ethos of military service, the knowledge that your comrades have your back even if you get lost or wounded or just screw up. It’s the second-highest value the military has, and it’s why commanders won’t think twice about rescue missions that may put the lives of more soldiers at risk than those that are being rescued. Of course, there’s a fair amount of bitterness at Bergdahl’s desertion – his decision to leave everyone behind – among his former Army comrades and especially those who lost loved ones trying to get him back. But nobody really argues the point that the military should make efforts like that to get guys like him back.
But an exchange of high-value detainees is not a purely military decision. It’s a national-security decision of precisely the type that has always been reserved, not to military men according to their military code, but to the elected civilian political leadership that makes the really big decisions with an eye beyond today’s battlefields to the greater interests of the nation. After all, the military’s highest value, even higher than its commitment to the lives of its men and women in uniform, is the mission itself – and it’s the civilian leadership that sets the mission and chooses what sacrifices we ask of them. There are serious downsides to making ransom deals with terrorists, including setting dangerous men free and setting bad precedents and incentives for the future. Even President Obama had to admit that we could live to regret this deal in terrible ways:

“Is there a possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” Obama told a news conference in Warsaw.
“That’s been true of all the prisoners that were released from Guantanamo. There’s a certain recidivism rate that takes place.”

The existence of downsides, even grave ones, may not convince us to adopt an absolute rule against deals with terrorists; national security decisions often involve a choice among lesser evils, and if your foreign policy can be summarized on a bumper sticker, you will probably get in a lot of accidents. But they illustrate why the pros and cons and competing values need to be weighed carefully, rather than letting one motto (“leave no man behind”) or another (“we don’t negotiate with terrorists”) do our thinking for us. Our principles, as always, must remain a compass, not a straitjacket. And once you concede that the decision involved weighing competing values rather than blindly following a single overriding rule, you have to take consideration of the fact that – while of course we all wanted Bergdahl back – retrieving him was not as compelling a value as retrieving a soldier who did his duty as best he could and unquestionably remained loyal to his country.
Which brings me to the second problem with the syllogism being proposed: that it asks the President of the United States to make vital national security decisions while wearing lawyer-imposed blinders as to the facts. Yes, as a legal matter under U.S. criminal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Sergeant Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty of desertion or any graver misconduct. But every day of the week, every hour of the day, Presidents make decisions on matters large and small, in the national security area and other areas, affecting the lives of many people, based on facts that have not been litigated in court. The idea that the facts of Bergdahl’s disappearance could simply be wished away or pretended not to exist, simply because no court-martial had been convened, is ridiculous and juvenile. It’s not as if we could get the five Taliban back if we tried Bergdahl and found him guilty, after all. Presidents make decisions based on the best information they have. Sometimes, that information doesn’t come from sources that conform to the legal rules of evidence, or from sources that could ever be disclosed in a courtroom. And sometimes, facts come out later that show that the President was misinformed – but those facts arrive too late for a decision to be made. These are the adult realities of the Presidency, and only an appallingly misguided legalism can lead President Obama’s own supporters, in the sixth year of his presidency, to remain blind to it.
The military owed Bowe Bergdahl its promise to try to rescue him, even if he walked away. The nation did not owe him an agreement to compromise national security by surrendering five high-value prisoners without asking what we were getting in return.

Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan and the Cold War

The death of Nelson Mandela has unleashed a flood of commentary on a man who now belongs to the ages. Unfortunately, too much of that commentary ignores the extent to which Mandela – and his winning battle against apartheid – was a part and product of his times.
Specifically, much of the punditry by American liberals has recast Mandela’s story as a simple morality play in which a great man was kept down by his oppressors with the help (or at least the indifference) of American and British conservatives, foremost among them Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In this telling, Reagan and Thatcher are portrayed as having no good or defensible reason for their actions. Instead, the narrative holds that external pressure on South Africa by liberal entertainers and politicians – including economic sanctions imposed over President Reagan’s veto in 1986 – freed Mandela, who went on to prove his conservative critics wrong and earn the admiration of the world.
Not every element of this narrative is factually wrong, but it is missing so much critical context as to be grossly misleading. Reagan was wrong about Mandela but right about the world, and in judging Reagan, that was what really mattered; Mandela was wrong about the world but right about South Africa, and in judging Mandela, that was what really mattered.
To understand Mandela’s flaws, why he was greeted with skepticism on the Right, and why he deserves to be lionized for rising above that skepticism, you must first consider both the global context of the Cold War and its regional impact on Southern Africa. And contrary to the liberal narrative, it was the end of the Cold War and the end of the regional agony of southwest Africa that made Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid possible.
Southern Africa and the Cold War
It is easy to forget now, but as recently as the late 1970s, international Communism was on the upsurge in the aftermath of America’s humiliating withdrawal from Southeast Asia – and many observers at the time felt the Communists had the stronger hand than the West. As an ideology of class struggle, Communism most naturally appealed to the Third World, where the poor are often desperately so and tend to vastly outnumber the middle class. In Southeast Asia, following the North’s conquest of South Vietnam in April 1975, Pathet Lao took control of Laos in December 1975 and the Cambodian domino fell in 1976, leading to one of the worst genocides in world history over the next four years. In Central America, the Communists gained their first foothold on the American mainland when the Sandanistas overthrew the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in July 1979. In Central Asia, the Soviet Union itself invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.
But no region offered more opportunities for the expansion of Communist tyranny in the late 1970s and early 1980s than sub-Saharan Africa, in particular the southern quarter of the continent, which was beset with an alphabet soup of left-wing guerilla movements. South Africa’s immediate neighbor to the northeast, Mozambique, became independent from Portugal in 1975 after nearly a decade-long war of independence. Its new ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), declared Mozambique a Marxist-Leninist state in 1977, and set itself on a course of persecuting the churches and triggering a massive humanitarian crisis by shuttering the country’s many religiously-run hospitals. In response, a Rhodesian-backed resistance movement, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), launched a civil war that would eventually claim the lives of nearly a million Mozambicans and created some 5 million refugees, about a third of Mozambique’s population.. FRELIMO received Soviet support; while much of the West refused to support RENAMO due to its own savagery, the South African regime eventually became its primary source of support after the demise of Rhodesia and its replacement by Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe.
Inland from Mozambique, and also bordering South Africa, lay Rhodesia, independent from Britain since 1965 and ruled by Ian Smith’s white-minority government. Rhodesia had declared its independence unilaterally, which was resisted by Great Britain (Rhodesia was never diplomatically recognized by South Africa, although its government ended up being effectively propped up by South Africa). Its white ruling regime faced a two-headed insurgency from the black majority population: the rural, Chinese-backed Maoist group ZANU, headed at the time by Robert Mugabe and Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, and Joshua Nkomo’s Soviet-backed ZAPU. In early 1978, under international pressure from – among others – the U.S. and South Africa, Smith agreed to a power-sharing agreement with moderate black Bishop Abel Muzorewa, an accord designed to ease Rhodesia into participation and ultimately majority control by the black majority, while explicitly preserving a political power base for the white minority (including guaranteed legislative seats) and empowering the moderate factions within the black majority. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe’s people, Mugabe and Nkomo rejected the agreement and refused to make peace, and Muzorewa wasn’t a strong enough leader to bring them to heel. By February 1980, the accord had been torn up and Mugabe elected President, where he remains today, with increasingly tragic consequences.
In the 1980s, Mugabe was not yet the full horror he would later become, but he was already a cautionary tale. In 1982, Mugabe sent troops into Mozambique on the side of FRELIMO, and would remain embroiled in its civil war until 1992. Also in 1982, Mugabe ejected Nkomo from his unity government, and Zimbabwe’s North Korean trained and officered Fifth Brigade, engaged in massacres of the Ndebele people, who were on the losing side of the ensuing ZANU-ZAPU feud that would last until 1987. Mugabe was also engaged in a long-running campaign to demonize white farmers (they would eventually face formal confiscation of their land beginning in 2000).
To the northwest of modern South Africa lies what was then the South African province of South-West Africa, now the independent state of Namibia. North of that lies Angola, which like Mozambique had won its independence from Portugal in 1975 (in other words, both Angola and Mozambique had also only emerged from white rule of their black populations in the mid-1970s). Independence was, there as well, followed by a vicious civil war between the Soviet and Cuban backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the South African-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi. At the peak of the fighting in the late 70s and early 80s, Fidel Castro maintained anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 Cuban troops in Angola, a major proportion of the fighting strength on the MPLA side. The CIA had sent covert aid to UNITA under the Ford Administration until the 1976 passage of the Clark Amendment, which banned aid to the combatants in Angola; eventually, in 1985, the Reagan Administration was able to obtain the repeal of the Clark Amendment and provide open support to UNITA.
Meanwhile, South African rule in South-West Africa had been challenged since 1966 by a war of independence launched by the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). By the early 1980s, South-West Africa was in the crosshairs of both the regional and global power struggles between South Africa and the various Soviet-aligned forces in Angola; SWAPO aligned itself with MPLA and its Soviet and Cuban allies. Billions in Soviet aid flowed into SWAPO’s war against both the South Africans and UNITA. The wars in Angola and South-West Africa often spilled over each other’s borders and effectively merged into a single, wider war.
Moreover, given the history of Cold War conflicts from Korea to Vietnam to Hungary to Afghanistan, there were real reasons to worry that this situation would escalate, especially if things went badly for the Cubans. In 1981, the Soviet Union admitted it had military advisers in Angola, after two of them were killed in clashes with South African troops. That threat was one of the drivers of South Africa’s nuclear ambitions; its already-covert nuclear program, under Defence Minister P.W. Botha, went to ground in the late 1970s due to international pressure from both the U.S. and Soviet blocs, although South Africa would retain the warheads until the end of the 1980s.
The region’s various warring factions also had a destabilizing effect on Zambia, which sits to the north of Zimbabwe, as a result of the tendency of whichever faction was out of power in Rhodesia, Angola, South-West Africa or South Africa to decamp across the border into Zambia. And north of Zambia lay Tanzania, under the rule of Julius Nyerere; Nyerere went to war with Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda (to his north) in 1979, the Soviets backing Amin (who was aided by troops from Qaddafi’s Libya and Arafat’s PLO) while the Chinese backed Tanzania.
To put this in American terms, imagine that you were trying to rally support against Jim Crow in Florida, but the end of segregation in the rest of the region had resulted in oppression of whites and attempted genocide in South Carolina, a Marxist regime in Georgia, a civil war in Mississippi stoked by an army from Louisiana, and Alabama invading the panhandle arm-in-arm with an expeditionary force of Cuban Communists.
This was the world in which Botha became Prime Minister in 1978, and in which Nelson Mandela – held in a South African prison since 1962 and sentenced to life in 1964 for conspiring to overthrow the South African government – would increasingly become an international cause célèbre as the 1980s wore on. It was a region beset by one variety or other of Marxist movements (even UNITA had its own communistic leanings) and treated as a playground for foreign interference by a variety of players in the Cold War scene, first and foremost the Soviet Union and its allies. It was a region short on clean hands (as the roster of atrocities committed by virtually all the combatant forces in the various wars could attest) and long on corrupt and brutal governments (in Zimbabwe’s case, a government bent on racial revenge). South Africa was by no means regarded in Washington or London as a virtuous ally, but what it represented was the region’s strongest military and economic power and one that implacably opposed the region’s Marxist tilt.
Mandela The Communist Fellow-Traveler
In Reagan’s search for allies against Communist domination of southern Africa, it’s easy to see why Nelson Mandela would not have seemed a promising prospect. Because, for all his later merits, Mandela gave every impression of being cut from the same ideological and political cloth as Mugabe and the region’s other Communists and fellow-travelers.
The true extent to which Mandela was a believing and active Communist in the early 1960s, or during his imprisonment, remains a matter of some debate to this day. After his death, the modern South African Communist Party claimed “Comrade Mandela” as having once been an active leader of the Party, but then its self-serving motives in wanting as large a piece of his legacy as it could grasp are fairly obvious. But as Greg Myre at NPR observes, “Comrade Mandela” wasn’t that far from the truth:

Mandela’s…African National Congress has been closely aligned for decades with the South African Communist Party. Members of both organizations studied and received military training in the Soviet Union. And while Mandela and other ANC leaders called for a multiracial democracy, many members of his group viewed communist countries as more sympathetic to their cause than Western nations.
British historian Stephen Ellis published a 2011 paper citing documents from the South African Communist Party that state Mandela was one of the group’s leaders.
Whatever Mandela’s role may have been, his open alliance with the Communist Party was often cited by South Africa’s government and some conservatives in the United States as reason to be suspicious of him and the ANC’s intentions.
For years, the U.S. labeled the ANC a terrorist group because it carried out attacks against civilian targets in South Africa. And it was Mandela himself who established the ANC’s armed wing in the early 1960s before he was imprisoned.

Bill Keller at the New York Times elaborates:

Although Mandela’s African National Congress and the Communist Party were openly allied against apartheid, Mandela and the A.N.C. have always denied that the hero of South Africa’s liberation was himself a party member. But Ellis, drawing on testimony of former party members and newly available archives, made a convincing case that Mandela joined the party around 1960, several years before he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government.
…“Today, the A.N.C. officially claims still to be at the first stage … of a two-phase revolution,” Ellis told me in an email exchange. “This is a theory obtained directly from Soviet thinking.”
Indeed, the remnants of Communist protocol and jargon — “comrades” and “counterrevolutionaries” — live on in the platform and demeanor of South Africa’s ruling party.

Ellis’ work also shines light on the ANC:

His book also provides fresh detail on how the ANC’s military wing had bomb-making lessons from the IRA, and intelligence training from the East German Stasi, which it used to carry out brutal interrogations of suspected “spies” at secret prison camps.
…Its campaign of “sabotage” and bombings over the subsequent three decades claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, and led to the organisation being classed as a terrorist group by the US.
In his book, Professor Ellis, who also authored a publication on the Liberian civil war, elaborates on other murky aspects of the ANC’s past. One is that bomb-making experts from the IRA trained the ANC at a secret base in Angola in the late 1970s, a link disclosed last year in the posthumous memoirs of Kader Asmal, a South African politician of Indian extraction who was exiled in Ireland. He was a member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, which, Prof Mr Ellis says, in turn had close links to the British and South African Communist parties.
The IRA tutoring, which was allegedly brokered partly through Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, led to the ANC fighters improving their bombing skills considerably, thanks to the expertise of what Mr Ellis describes as “the world’s most sophisticated urban guerrilla force”.
Angola was also the base for “Quatro”, a notorious ANC detention centre, where dozens of the movement’s own supporters were tortured and sometimes killed as suspected spies by agents from their internal security service, some of whom were “barely teenagers”. East German trainers taught the internal security agents that anyone who challenged official ANC dogma should be viewed as a potential spy or traitor.

One of the more notorious episodes was the 1983 Church Street car bombing, which killed 19 people and wounded 217 at a South African Air Force facility. The bombing was pinned on the ANC by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found it was authorized by ANC president Oliver Tambo. Tambo at the time stated that Church Street was a legitimate target. Botha offered Mandela release in 1985 if he would renounce violence; Mandela refused:

Mandela’s reply was read out by his daughter Zindzi, at a huge stadium in Soweto: “Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organization, the African National Congress. . . . I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.”

This was a courageous stance, but it was also one that had to concern American policymakers who feared yet another civil war in the region. Peter Beinart argues that Mandela’s immersion in Communist ideology had the unusual effect of encouraging him to move beyond thinking along racial lines, a habit that would stand him in good stead when he sought national reconciliation. But even if this is so, exposure to Marxist thinking had no such effect on Mugabe or other African leftists, and there was no good reason to expect it of Mandela in 1985.
Mandela never really stopped being an America-bashing leftist even after his release; Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed collects some quotes from his later years illustrating that point, as does Tim Graham at Newsbusters. Myre:

Mandela was at odds with U.S. foreign policy on multiple occasions.
He remained loyal to those who provided moral and financial support to his group during the years when the ANC had few friends in the West. This led Mandela to meet and praise leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
The year after he was freed, Mandela called Castro “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”
Mandela also spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took issue with the U.S. campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.

Michael Moynihan notes Mandela’s lifelong callousness towards the human-rights victims of anti-American dictators, with specific recent examples from Iran.
Mandela would attain world renown as a “political prisoner,” and Reagan himself would demand Mandela’s release in his 1986 veto message:

[L]et me outline what we believe are necessary components of progress toward political peace.
First, a timetable for elimination of apartheid laws should be set.
Second, all political prisoners should be released.
Third, Nelson Mandela should be released to participate in the country’s political process.
Fourth, black political movements should be unbanned.
Fifth, both the Government and its opponents should begin a dialogue about constructing a political system that rests on the consent of the governed, where the rights of majorities and minorities and individuals are protected by law. And the dialogue should be initiated by those with power and authority, the South African Government itself.

But Mandela’s sentence to life imprisonment was unjust only because the system he sought to overthrow was unjust. He was not jailed for peaceable civil disobedience, which he had tried and seen crushed in the 1950s, but for conspiring to violent overthrow of the South African government – and he admitted at trial that he was guilty of precisely that:

“I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.”

As Mandela justified himself at the time:

“We had either to accept inferiority or fight against it by violence. We chose the latter.” [Mandela and a co-defendant] strongly denied they were Communists. The charges against Mandela, former leader of the banned African National Congress, and the other accused include sabotage involving nearly two hundred incidents.
…Mandela spoke for nearly five hours. He said: “I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not do this in a spirit of recklessness. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment.”…
He concluded in June, 1961, that violence was inevitable and that it would be unrealistic for African leaders to continue a non-violent policy when the Government “met our demands with violence.”
He said: “This decision was not easily made. The decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle. I felt morally obliged to do what I did.”

Thus, Mandela’s release nearly three decades later was not an admission by the government of his innocence or wrongful conviction, but a deliberate step towards reconciliation in spite of his guilt and in recognition of the ultimate justice of his grievances – a gesture that Mandela would reciprocate with a remarkable lack of bitterness despite those grievances.
Should Mandela be condemned for being an anti-American Communist sympathizer? Back in the 80s, Newt Gingrich was one of a group of young conservatives pressing Reagan for a harder anti-apartheid line. Newt, as he often does, frames his defense of Mandela today in the context of America’s own Founding Fathers:

[L]et me say to those conservatives who don’t want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?
Mandela was faced with a vicious apartheid regime that eliminated all rights for blacks and gave them no hope for the future. This was a regime which used secret police, prisons and military force to crush all efforts at seeking freedom by blacks.
What would you have done faced with that crushing government?
What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression?
Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.
After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.
As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.
Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?
Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.
Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.
I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny?
Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.

Keller takes a similar line:

The early collaboration of the A.N.C. with the Communists was a marriage of convenience for a movement that had few friends. The South African Communist Party and its patrons in Russia and China were a source of money and weapons for the largely feckless armed struggle, and for many, it meant solidarity with a cause larger than South Africa. Communist ideology undoubtedly seeped into the A.N.C., where it became part of a uniquely South African cocktail with African nationalism, Black Consciousness, religious liberalism and other, inchoate angers and resentments and yearnings.

The view of Gingrich and Keller view is the charitable one: that the Communist component of Mandela’s ANC was basically a marriage of necessity, like the Spanish and Chinese anti-Fascist alliances of 1937, or the Western alliance with Stalin a few years later. This is an important point – but the irony is that Newt’s defense of Mandela’s Communist ties is also the conservative defense of not taking a harder line against South Africa in the final decade of the Cold War, while Marxism and Soviet influence menaced the southern part of Africa. It is the sober realization that the long-term and wider cause of freedom may require short-term alliances of convenience with enemies of freedom. Liberals may reject the concept of alliances driven by interest rather than principle, but conservatives, long accepting of this reality and recognizing that the difference between a nation’s allies and its enemies is always a meaningful, should grant Mandela the same understanding as Reagan, FDR, and Washington in this respect: he made the allies he needed to advance a just cause.

Continue reading Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan and the Cold War

New At The Federalist

On Wednesday, I had my debut column at The Federalist, on the “neocon” grand strategy from 2001 to today. The Federalist is an excellent and exciting new web publication featuring some great writers, and I’m thrilled to be doing a semi-regular column there (I’ll be cross-posting content to here periodically, I still have to post this one here). I’m not abandoning this blog or leaving RedState, but it’s another outlet.

Neocon Middle East Part II

Set The Greater Middle East Ablaze
The Bush Administration was fond of touting the milestones of democracy and freedom (the two things are not the same), and in the early years they came in waves. At the same time, the forces of chaos threatened to overwhelm the progress. But as the years have passed, chaos has more often engulfed the enemies of democracy than its friends. Step back and consider the timeline of major events – not every battle or controversy, but the large-scale shifts between democracy, tyranny and extremism:
October-November 2001: U.S. invades Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government.
December 2001: Conference of Afghan leaders in Bonn appoints Hamid Karzai as interim president.
March-April 2003: U.S. invades Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein’s government.
July 2003: Iraqi Governing Council established as an interim government. Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay killed in a firefight with U.S. troops.
December 2003: Saddam Hussein captured. Also, Libya announces that it is surrendering its nuclear and other WMD program, which would be turned over to international inspectors.
December 2003-January 2004: Afghanistan loya jirga assembly adopts a new constitution.
March 2004: Iraq adopts an interim constitution.
June 2004: U.S. transfers sovereign power to the interim Iraqi government, headed by Ayad Allawi.
September 2004: UN Security Council passes a USNC Resolution 1559, demanding Syrian withdrawal from its occupation of Lebanon. Also, Don Rumsfeld airs the Bush Administration’s mounting concerns over Iran supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
October 2004: First Afghan election, won by Hamid Karzai, featuring high voter turnout and the participation of women. Karzai would be re-elected in August 2009, an election surrounded by disputes over various types of irregularities, and at present is scheduled by term limits to leave office following the next elections in April 2014.
December 2004: U.S. officials begin to raise public concerns about Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq.
January 2005: Iraqis throng to polling places for the first parliamentary elections. Ibrahim al-Jaafari succeeds Allawi as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, elections in the Palestinian Authority (boycotted by Hamas) select Mahmoud Abbas as President and successor to the recently-deceased Yasser Arafat.
February 2005: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassinated by car bombing in Beirut, generally believed to have been orchestrated by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
April 2005: Following the popular protests of the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon and diplomatic pressure from the Bush Administration and the French government of Jacques Chirac to enforce UNSC Resolution 1559, Syria withdraws from Lebanon. The Lebanese protests take inspiration from similar movements in Ukraine and Georgia over preceding months.
May-June 2005: Free elections held in Lebanon without Syrian interference for the first time in 30 years, won by the party led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri. The younger Hariri would serve as Prime Minister until 2011, when he would be succeeded by Najib Mikati.
May 2005: Kuwait grants women the right to vote and run for office.
September 2005: First Afghan parliamentary elections.
October 2005: Iraq adopts a permanent constitution via popular referendum.
December 2005: Second Iraqi parliamentary elections, featuring nearly 80% voter turnout. In May 2006, the new government would make Nouri al-Maliki the Prime Minister, succeeding al-Jaafari.
January 2006: Parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, won by Hamas.
February 2006: Bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari “Golden Mosque” in Iraq, triggering widespread sectarian violence.
April 2006: Taliban launch a major spring offensive in Afghanistan. The offensive is unsuccessful, but the first of several such offensives, usually in the spring, that have protracted the war while the Taliban remains ensconced in northern Pakistan and parts of southern Afghanistan.
June 2006: A U.S. airstrike kills Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
July-August 2006: Israel goes to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
November-December 2006: Saddam Hussein convicted and executed.
December 2006-January 2007: U.S. launches the “surge” in Iraq.
February 2007: President Bush denounces the Iranian role in arming the insurgency in Iraq.
March 2007: Iran seizes 15 British Navy sailors in the Persian Gulf; they are released after brief captivity.
April 2007: Coalition forces seize Iranian-made weapons from insurgents in Iraq.
May 2008: Lebanese factions reach the Doha Agreement, an accord that resolved a lengthy political crisis involving fighting with Hezbollah, and appeared to set the government on a more stable footing for future elections and management and sharing of power.
September 2008: Elections held in Pakistan after General Pervez Musharraf resigned in August.
October 2008: U.S. Special Forces stage a raid into Syrian territory to kill militants operating across the border into Iraq.
June 2009: New elections in Lebanon, won again by Saad Hariri. Also, Iranian protests over the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – supporters of his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, contended that the election had been rigged even above and beyond the usual constraints imposed by the mullahs on Iran’s tightly limited “democracy” – become a mass movement, the “Green Revolution.” But under a government crackdown, the protests die down by the early months of 2010.
September 2009: President Obama announces a modest version of the “surge” in Afghanistan, albeit without any plan to pursue military victory over the Taliban.
March 2010: Third Iraqi parliamentary election. This time, it would take nine months of wrangling to establish a new government.
December 2010-January 2011: The “Arab Spring” begins with a protest movement in Tunisia that leads to the resignation of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
January-February 2011: Egyptian mass street protest movement culminates in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and collapse of his government.
February 2011: Protests lead to civil war in Libya. The rebels capture the eastern coastal city of Benghazi, but the military consolidates control over the other major coastal cities. Also, protests erupt in Bahrain, leading to a crackdown by the monarchy.
March 2011: The U.S. joins a multinational force to enforce a U.N. no-fly zone in Libya, ultimately escalating to a bombing campaign against the regime. Also, a constitutional referendum is held in Egypt.
March-April 2011: Civil war breaks out in Syria; it remains ongoing, with the Assad regime facing off against a loose coalition of opposition groups, including a significant presence of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
May 2011: U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan kills Osama bin Laden.
August-October 2011: The Qaddafi government collapses with the fall of Tripoli to the rebels in August, and Qaddafi himself is captured and killed in October.
October 2011: Elections in Tunisia, won by new Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who would resign in February 2013. The next elections are scheduled for December 2013. Tunisia has been seen as one of the Arab Spring’s relative successes, but remains threatened by car bombings and unrest.
November 2011: Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office since 1978, agrees to step down following 10 months of protests. An election would be held in February 2012, but with only one candidate.
December 2011: U.S. troops depart Iraq.
January 2012: Military coup in Mali, triggering a crackdown on the growing militant Islamist movement in the country.
May 2012: Egyptian elections, won by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first elected Islamist head of state in an Arab country.
June 2012: Mubarak convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
September 2012: Attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and demonstrations surrounding the U.S. embassy in Cairo the same day.
January 2013: France sends troops to Mali to quash the Islamist separatist movement in the Saharan north of the country. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack kills dozens at a natural gas plant in Algeria, near the Libyan border.
May 2013: Lebanon’s Parliament, citing the Syrian civil war and ongoing disputes over the settlement of the Doha Agreement, votes to delay the June 2013 elections for 17 months.
June-August 2013: Elections in Mali following a June truce. As of September 2013, there has been some recent fighting, raising questions about the truce’s durability.
July 2013: Egypt’s military responds to popular mass protests against Morsi by staging a coup and placing Morsi under house arrest. The coup is followed by more protests, by Morsi’s supporters. In August 2013, an Egyptian court would set Mubarak free.
August 2013: Chemical weapons are used in Syria, apparently by the Syrian government but possibly also by the rebels. Efforts by President Obama and French President Sarkozy to organize a military response are ongoing, but appear stymied by the lack of support in Congress, the British Parliament, the UN Security Council and NATO and the active opposition of Russia.
Along the way, especially in 2011, we’ve seen more modest protests and reforms or crackdowns in places like Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Compare all of that to the face of the region in September 2001 – dominated by a few theocratic regimes (Iran and Taliban Afghanistan), a handful of Gulf monarchies, and a long row of strongmen – and you can see how far the project of remaking the face of the region has progressed. By no means is the news all good, but it’s all news compared to the statis that characterized the internal politics of most of the region before 9/11.
The Iraq War dominated U.S. political discussion for the greater part of five and a half years from mid-2002 to late 2007, and Americans have a tendency to focus on how the war affected our politics and foreign opinion of us. But it also gripped the attention of the Greater Middle East, dominating al Jazeera’s regional programming. For would-be democratic reformers, the scenes of voters lining up at the polls and even of squabbling parliamentarians in Iraq and Afghanistan presented an inevitable contrast to their own regimes. And, for that matter, for would-be Islamist revolutionaries, Iraq not only provided a place to prove themselves in battle, but also showed them how to run an insurgency in their own backyards. If U.S. intervention in the region wounded the pride of Arabs and Muslims, it also awakened them to the fact that maybe they could do it themselves – which was the idea of the neocon theory all along, that the process, once started, could develop a momentum of its own without requiring ceaseless American war. We would go to war in Iraq so we wouldn’t have to go to war everywhere else. The Bush Administration’s aggressive pressure also contributed to the distators’ walkbacks – Qaddafi abandoning his WMD program, Assad leaving Lebanon. Where Saddam had shown a face of defiance, the Arab peoples now saw that even a bloodied, quagmired U.S. could bring the region’s strongmen to heel.
Iraq alone wasn’t the sole cause of the turning; al Jazeera, which had arrived in 1996 and really took off after 9/11, itself had a role in changing the way the region’s people saw their societies. As Rany Jazayerli put it:

Al Jazeera was, from its first day on the air, something the Arab world had never seen before: a television channel in Arabic, available to almost everyone in the Arab world, that provided a frank and reasonably unbiased source of news. It provided the unvarnished truth, and that made it extremely dangerous. If there was corruption going on in Jordan, it was reported. If there was a government crackdown in Egypt, it was reported. If a Saudi dissident living in exile in England had some scandalous information about the Saudi royal family, it was reported. All you need to know about Al Jazeera is that its greatest critics are the Arab governments, who have applied all kinds of pressure on Qatar – where Al Jazeera is based – to tone down the rhetoric.
…For the last 15 years, then, the Arab world has had the access that was denied them for so long. They’ve seen the truth about how oppressive and hypocritical their own governments are, and they’ve seen the truth about how messy and imperfect and yet ultimately how ennobling and empowering Western democracies are…And having already opened the barn door to letting the masses own satellite dishes, the governments of the region were mostly helpless to do anything about it.

Satellite TV would not be the only technological advance to grease the skids; the internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter were also altering the playing field. But tools of communications can be a two-way street for propaganda and surveillance, as well; what makes them work is when they have something to talk about.
While the tide of Arab and Muslim revolution was surging in the Greater Middle East, it was waning in the West. Directly provoking the “Arab street” raised concerns about retaliation by the extremists, but the opposite has been true since the region really began boiling in 2005. We’ve seen three really large-scale terror attacks – the kind that require coordination and planning – far from the Greater Middle East since 9/11: the October 2002 Bali bombing, the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and the July 2005 bus and train bombings in London. India, still locked in a front-line struggle with Pakistani extremists, has not been so fortunate, being hit by terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 (the work of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani Muslim terror group) and again in July 2011. The same is true of Chechen terror attacks in Moscow in 2002 and 2010. (And, of course, Islamists within Europe have been busy with their own forms of homegrown mischief.) The decline in large-scale terror operations is partly due to good fortune, good law enforcement and domestic surveillance; certainly there have been a number of attempted terror attacks against the U.S. that got pretty far, such as the December 2001 “shoe bomber,” the December 2009 “underwear bomber” and a May 2010 truck bomb in Times Square. And smaller independent attacks, some of them with major death tolls, have continued: the July 2002 LAX shooter, the Fall 2002 Beltway snipers, the November 2009 Fort Hood shooter, the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. But any accounting of major terrorist attacks since the invasion of Iraq shows a distinct shift towards attacks within the region itself.
This, too, was – as Marshall acknowledged at the time – an inherent, if usually unstated, assumption of the neocon grand strategy. People who are busy killing each other won’t have time to kill anyone else. A region that is pulling itself apart will not be able to project force outward. A region engaged in a mad scramble for power internally will dedicate its arms, its money and its excitable underemployed young men to winning that struggle rather than staging complex covert operations in another hemisphere.
Sowing dissension among one’s enemies has a long history; perhaps the most successful example was Imperial Germany’s success in taking Russia out of World War I by shipping Lenin into Russia in the spring of 1917. In this case, it’s a logical extension of the “flypaper theory” of the Iraq War. The idea that the region’s Islamic extremists should be enticed into Iraq to fight U.S. troops was sometimes referred to as a “flypaper” strategy – that they’d be drawn in and trapped where we wanted them, and thus that a bloody insurgency was actually good news. Flypaper may sound like a callous attitude towards the safety of American troops, but the thinking is actually the ancient motivation of men at war: confront and kill the enemy on the battlefield so he cannot disturb your homeland. It is perhaps a more cynical approach to the security of the local population – but then, it’s not unreasonable to want the problems of Iraq and other nations in the region to be played out on their soil rather than ours.
That was never the original war plan, of course; the insurgency may not have been adequately planned for by the Bush team, but it did not result from any provocation by the United States – it was wholly the independent decision of those who rejected a democratic political process in which the Iraqi people would be sovereign. Nevertheless, it was implicit in the broader idea of creating a contest for supremacy in the heart of the region.
And in that regard, even though American troops have left Iraq and are nearing their departure from Afghanistan, the flypaper theory writ large is alive and well. Civil war in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, coup in Egypt, revolution in Tunisia…these are all conflicts that entice the jihadists to test their mettle and influence closer to home rather than travel to the West, and give them enemies other than the U.S., Europe and Israel against whom to vent their frustrations. In that regard, the current landscape may represent the fruits of the neocon project, but it’s also in line with old-fashioned cynical realpolitik (division to my enemies!) as well as embodying the kind of Jacksonian attitude towards one’s enemies that Harry Truman voiced in 1941 when he expressed the view that “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”
All of these attitudes are wholly foreign to President Obama and his national security team, but they have been neither willing nor able to put the genie back in the bottle, as the momentum and internal logic of the whirlwind have swept away one effort after another to re-impose order.
Where We Go From Here
The grand strategy of the neocons has long since passed out of their control, as few still have any influence with the Obama Administration or even in Congress. But the regional revolution they set ablaze is still with us, and they must trust that the path will be clear enough that even those skeptical of the project will make the proper choices. That is a dicey proposition, because few on either side of the political spectrum understand or accept the grand strategic proposition of turning the region’s angst inward to the battle for its own future.
On the Left, there remains no coherent grand strategy or even petit strategy. None of what is laid out above should excuse the Obama Administration from the choices it has made, its inability at times to face the new realities of the region for the challenges and opportunities they present, or its general preference (abroad as at home) for negotiating with elites rather than accepting the messy dynamism of popular sovereignty. In 2009, Obama spoke in Mubarak’s Egypt as if the region had been oppressed by President Bush rather than by its tyrants. Since then, as he has grudgingly let go of that illusion, he he failed when he had the chance to encourage moderate forces to rebel against the old order in Iran and Syria, was flat-footed in Egypt and constantly behind the curve in Libya. He has seemed, at times, more interested in weapons than people, and completely oblivious to the efforts of Iran and its ally Russia to gain regional hegemony. He has managed neither a strong hand controlling events nor to wash his hands of responsibility for them. He has acted less like the world’s policeman than the world’s meter maid, handing out tickets to scofflaws.
On the Right, Jacksonian critics of the neocon project have tended to focus on Islam as an insoluble obstacle to reforming the region, a critique that I’ve written about before as presenting a collision between two longstanding conservative paradigms: the view of human nature as universal and the view of culture as overriding in its importance. But the facts on the ground have mooted that objection, as nobody has a practical solution if the problem is something inherent in the faith of a billion Muslims; we have no choice but to appeal over the heads of culture to the basic human desire for a better life on this earth. Despairing of a solution is no solution at all.
The way forward must focus on seeking to encourage and influence popular movements to proceed in a democratic, pro-freedom, pro-American direction rather than trying to put the Humpty Dumpty of strongmen – nominally respectful of Westphalian borders and disciplined by international sanctions regimes – back together again. The revolution has come; we should do what we can to see to it that the Islamists are not left alone to ride the wave, as they did in Iran in 1979, Afghanistan in 1996 and Egypt in 2011. And there is a role again for realpolitik as well; we should see the proxy battles between Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as an opportunity to play balance-of-power politics in the region and prevent one side from gaining the upper hand.
After the fire of September 11, the neocon plan for the Greater Middle East brought not peace, but a sword. America doesn’t need to wield that sword in every conflict – this is a fight that affects us and one we can influence, but in the end it is not our fight to win because it is not our people who must make the final choice. But our ability to affect the course of events begins by recognizing that it’s still the neocons’ world, there is no way out of the fire but forward.

It’s a Neocon Middle East, And We Still Live In It

Twelve years after the September 11 attacks, threats of American involvement in Syria’s civil war have refocused attention on the region at the heart of our foreign policy: the Greater Middle East. By “Greater Middle East” I mean not only the Arab-Muslim heartland of the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, but the broader region stretching from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east, from Turkey in the north to Yemen in the south (with the exception, of course, of Israel). Many of the countries in the region are not Arab – Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan – but all are predominantly Muslim, and all are infected to one extent or another with the ideology of Islamism, built around the view that Muslims constitute a pan-national political entity and not merely a religious confession.
For the past five years, U.S. foreign policy has been made by senior elected officials and political appointees who, in the words of the Boston Globe, “built careers on [an] anti-war posture.” And yet, our policy in the Greater Middle East remains impervious to new strategic initiatives that seek to fundamentally alter the “neoconservative” course set by the Bush Administration. And while that much-used term is often abused or misunderstood, the policy it describes has taken on a life of its own. It’s still the neocons’ world, and everyone else is living in it. And the jury is still out on how it will end.
But this much is already clear: the old status quo is gone and cannot be reconstructed. The biggest loser in the post-September 11 world has been established order of a region previously dominated by Muslim and Arab strongmen who (while they might be seen as religious zealots by Western standards) sought to ground their rule on secular concepts like nationalism, who ran stable, tightly controlled police states and engaged in traditional power politics, and who successfully projected the internal tensions of their repressed societies outwards. The forces of popular change have come to the region, and for good or ill, they will not be denied. The harder question is what replaces the old order.
Digging To The Roots
Writ small, the September 11 attacks were a conspiracy by Al Qaeda – a terrorist group based in Afghanistan, Germany, and to a lesser extent Egypt and Pakistan, and consisting largely of Saudi Wahabbist Muslim fanatics – to attack civilian targets in the United States. Some observers argued from the beginning that we should focus on the conspirators and their organization, and forego broader ambitions.
The Bush Administration never treated the attacks simply as a criminal conspiracy to be isolated and punished, instead preferring to treat Al Qaeda as a symptom of a wider problem, and to seek out a solution that required digging deeper into the region’s pathologies in the effort to root out the entire problem once and for all. That approach recognized the reality that the organization of jihadist extremist groups was fungible; Al Qaeda was simply one manifestation of a larger movement. Al Qaeda’s own recent behavior illustrates this reality: holding a coordinated conference call with other extremist and terrorist groups that one intelligence professional described as akin to the “Legion of Doom”; current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calling publicly for more locally organized terror attacks like the Boston Marathon Bombing; radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki giving Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan the ideological encouragement to conduct a lone jihadist attack on an American military base.
The nearly unanimous decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made without real discussion of what our broader goals were, but the war in Iraq nearly a year and a half later forced the question into the open. Even with the publication of memoirs by most of the major players, we have never really had a full, candid accounting of the grand-strategic thinking of President Bush and his team between September 2001 and March 2003. Bush, in his own memoir, summarized his principles in four points:

First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them – and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us here at home again. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

That fourth point was the source of the high-flying rhetoric about liberty and democracy and its connection to security in his Second Inaugural Address in 2005:

We have seen our vulnerability – and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
…So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen…

What was missing from all this was an explanation of how we planned to get to that end – precisely who the enemy was and is, and what our strategic philosophy would be in deciding when to use force, when to declare the mission accomplished, when to coexist with dictators who cooperated against the jihadists, and when to support insurrections that were aligned with them. Both Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, in their memoirs, stressed the importance of stepping back and doing strategic thinking even in the bustle of war, but despite their respect for Bush, both memoirs have a little edge of regret that more such thinking wasn’t done from the top in a public way that would have given clearer direction to the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But just because the strategy wasn’t explicitly stated as such doesn’t mean a course wasn’t set. When the Bush Administration’s actions are considered in light of the thinking of conservative commentators and the justifications offered then and now, it seems clear that the Administration came, rather early, to the conclusion that the problem was the fundamental structure of the Greater Middle East (at a minimum its political structure). Because the solution to such a problem is not merely to launch missiles or drop bombs, but to change the governments of the region – a much more ambitious goal – it inherently required kick-starting the process by choosing a country to make an example. The obvious choice, for a variety of reasons, was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with which we already had continuous hostilities dating back a decade; the U.S. Congress had already, in 1998, declared a change in Iraq’s regime to be official U.S. policy. Regardless of the specific arguments made for the invasion of Iraq at the time, the ultimate historic judgment of the Iraq War must be bound up with the eventual success or failure of the grand strategy it represented, just as the ultimate worth of the sacrifices made in Korea and Vietnam are now subsumed in the larger context of the success of the Cold War.
The Nail Beckons The Hammer
President Bush’s “freedom agenda” came to be identified with the neoconservatives, an anti-communist movement dating back to the 1960s, in large part because when the planes hit the towers, the prominent ‘neocon’ thinkers in and out of government were the ones most ready with an off-the-shelf explanation for how you deal with such a problem, and their template resembled what ended up being put in practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. An accurate history of neoconservatism is too broad a subject for this essay, but it was merely one of several strands of thought on the Right that came to similar conclusions about the Cold War by the time of the Reagan era: that the struggle with Soviet Communism was an ideological one, an important component of which was demonstrating to its captive peoples and those on the fence that our system was superior in delivering a good way of life; that they should be encouraged to undermine and ultimately reject their home governments; and that we would not abandon them no matter how long that struggle took. This broad-based view that the Cold War could be won by rooting out the origins of the conflict had won out over the narrower model of containment that focused on dealing with specific provocations as they arose.
The virtue of the neoconservative model was that it had been proven as part of a long-term ideological struggle that succeeded beyond our wildest dreams by the early 1990s; we had won the Cold War without fighting a full-scale war with the Soviets, ushering in a massive global expansion of democracy and trade. Even Putin’s Russia, troublesome as it is, looks more or less like a success story compared to the Brezhnev era – and it looked better in 2002 than it does today. But the parallels were not perfect or entirely encouraging: the Cold War had taken 45 years to win, it had involved a huge, costly military and economic strategy that could not easily be adapted to an adversary that consisted of a loose confederation of non-state-actors and states allied only by convenience, and – perhaps most alarmingly of all – a key ally in the Cold War was the religious faith of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim subjects oppressed by the atheistic Soviet empire, whereas the battle against Islamism would require convincing millions of Muslims to re-evaluate political doctrines that many of them believed were taught by their faith.
Moreover, the history of the neoconservative model in and before the Cold War offers its own cautions. Ideological competition presupposes populations that have sufficient freedom of action to do something about their governments, or (in the case of Japan between 1850 and 1900) a government that itself sees the benefits of change. Churchill dedicated extensive resources to fomenting rebellion against the Nazis during World War II – he famously directed the Special Operations Executive to “set Europe ablaze” – but the resistance movements in places like Poland and Greece were brutally suppressed; as historian John Keegan concluded from a review of the SOE’s operations, most had little impact on the stability of the Nazi occupation. Only external Allied military force was able to crush Hitler. Only the Union Army, rather than slave rebellions, defeated the Confederacy. The French Revolutionaries were rarely able to subvert their monarchical adversaries and had to meet them on a conventional field of battle. Since the dawn of the West, the history of civilizational clashes is long on the use of military force to defend and expand Western Civilization and short on the peaceable conversion of its enemies. Even in the Cold War, the U.S. was compelled to take to the battlefield to protect the populations of South Korea and South Vietnam from conquest.
The neoconservative approach to post-9/11 strategy was not the only one on offer on the Right. On the one hand was the “realist” approach, redolent of containment, that counseled working with the existing regimes in the region to ally against the non-state-actors and bring the bad-actor states in line. The realist school on the Right, preaching power politics, is in this sense often allied with the school on the Left that preaches the maintenance of order by international institutions (an approach that has regained its footing with the passage of time, but which was plainly inadequate to the task of organizing a response in the aftermath of an event like September 11). On the other was the “Jacksonian” approach. Put bluntly, the Jacksonian impulse is to avoid meddling in the world until provoked, and then respond with as much brute force as necessary to convince everyone, innocent or guilty of the attacks, not to get us that angry again. Jacksonians were thus in favor of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in favor of sticking around long-term to clean up the mess.
Bush’s foreign policy team was by no means ideologically monolithic (just as Reagan’s was not); Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all hailed more or less from the realpolitik school of thought that prevailed under George H.W. Bush (although many of Cheney’s old aides, back in government, were identified with neoconservatism), and if you ever described Don Rumsfeld as a “neo” anything, you deserve to have your pundit card revoked. But then, in many ways the decision to seek a more structural, long-term solution was as much a product of Bush’s personality and temperament as any ideology. Bush had come into office believing in decisiveness and the use of political capital for large goals and distasteful of half-measures and short-term “kick the can down the road” solutions, and when possible, he naturally gravitated towards bold strokes. Setting the United States the ambitious task of igniting a regional revolution in the Greater Middle East would put all of these impulses into action.
Two Blog Perspectives
To understand the logic of the neoconservative project, it is worth looking back at two essays written at the time from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one on a right-leaning blog, the other for a left-leaning magazine.
Probably the most influential blog essay of the War on Terror was the “Strategic Overview” written in July 2003 by Steven Den Beste. It is interesting and telling, looking back, how much of Den Beste’s analysis and that of others on the Right at the time rested more on Arab culture than Islam, although its logic extends to the wider region. Den Beste’s essential argument was that we were dealing with a body of people that was (1) stuck in a constellation of failed states and a failed culture, (2) deeply ashamed by that fact, and (3) lacking either the will to face that fact or a political outlet in which to do something about it, and therefore were (4) encouraged to vent their rage and frustrations at those outside the Muslim and Arab worlds. Den Beste’s prescription was to break down the political order of the Arab/Muslim world and replace it with something more responsive to popular needs, demands and aspirations. An ambitious project, but one in line with the longstanding conservative view that men can change governments more easily than governments can change men. As Den Beste explained:

The large solution is to reform the Arab/Muslim world. This is the path we have chosen.
The true root cause of the war is their failure and their resentment and frustration and shame caused by that failure.
They fail because they are crippled by political, cultural and religious chains which their extremists refuse to give up. The real causes of their failure is well described by Ralph Peters. Most of the Arab nations suffer from all seven of his critical handicaps, and the goal of reform is to correct all seven, as far as possible.
If their governments can be reformed, and their people freed of the chains which bind them and cripple them, they will begin to achieve, and to become proud of their accomplishments. This will reduce and eventually eliminate their resentment.
Their governments would then cease needing scapegoats.
Their extremists would no longer have fertile ground for recruitment.
This is a huge undertaking; it will require decades because it won’t really be complete until there’s a generational turnover. But ultimately it is the only way to really eliminate the danger to us without using the “foot-and-mouth” solution (which is to say, nuclear genocide).
The primary purpose of reform is to liberate individual Arabs. This is a humanist reform, but it isn’t a Christian reform. There will be no attempt to eradicate Islam as a religion. Rather, Islamism as a political movement, and as a body of law, and as a form of government must be eliminated, leaving Islam as a religion largely untouched except to the extent that it will be forced to be tolerant. The conceptual model for this is what we did in Japan after WWII, where only those cultural elements which were dangerous to us were eliminated, leaving behind a nation which was less aggressive, but still Japanese. No attempt was made to make Japan a clone of the US, and no such attempt will be made with the Arabs.

In Den Beste’s view, it was essential that “we had to conquer one of the big antagonistic Arab nations and take control of it” for the following purposes:

To place us in a physical and logistical position to be able to apply substantial pressure on the rest of the major governments of the region.
To force them to stop protecting and supporting terrorist groups
To force them to begin implementing political and social reforms
To convince the governments and other leaders of the region that it was no longer fashionable to blame us for their failure, so that they would stop using us as scapegoats.
To make clear to everyone in the world that reform is coming, whether they like it or not, and that the old policy of stability-for-the-sake-of-stability is dead. To make clear to local leaders that they may only choose between reforming voluntarily or having reform forced on them.
To make a significant long term change in the psychology of the “Arab Street”
To prove to the “Arab Street” that we were willing to fight, and that our reputation for cowardice was undeserved.
To prove that we are extraordinarily dangerous when we do fight, and that it is extremely unwise to provoke us.
To defeat the spirit of the “Arab Street”. To force them to face their own failure, so that they would become willing to consider the idea that reform could lead them to success. No one can solve a problem until they acknowledge that they have a problem, and until now the “Arab Street” has been hiding from theirs, in part aided by government propaganda eager to blame others elsewhere (especially the Jews).
To “nation build”. After making the “Arab Street” truly face its own failure, to show the “Arab Street” a better way by creating a secularized, liberated, cosmopolitan society in a core Arab nation. To create a place where Arabs were free, safe, unafraid, happy and successful. To show that this could be done without dictators or monarchs. (I’ve been referring to this as being the pilot project for “Arab Civilization 2.0”.)
…Neither Afghanistan nor Iran would serve the political goals. The conquered nation had to be one generally thought of as being Arab.
The human and cultural material we needed for reform did not exist in Afghanistan.
The “Arab Street” would not have been impressed by successful reform in Afghanistan or in Persian Iran.

In addition to Iraq’s strategic location and the various casi belli already in existence (also beyond the scope of this essay, but worth revisiting at another time with the distance of a decade), he also noted the important symbolic reasons why Iraq was well-suited to this project:

Saddam had become a hero to the “Arab Street”. He was thought of as a strong Arab leader who was standing up to the West. Though Iraq’s military had been decisively defeated in 1991, Saddam survived politically and this actually enhanced his reputation. He hadn’t won against us, but at least he’d tried, which was better than anyone else seemed to be doing. The “Arab Street” was proud of him for making the attempt. (This involved a lot of revisionism, such as ignoring Saddam’s earlier invasion of Kuwait, or the participation of large Arab military forces in the coalition army which fought against Iraq.)
Iraq’s military had the reputation of being the largest, best armed and most dangerous of any in the region. If it could be decisively crushed it would be psychologically devastating.
Baghdad historically was one of the great capitals of classic Arab civilization. Having it fall to outsiders would be symbolically important.

I would add that Iraq’s religious and ethnic diversity (the very thing that caused Joe Biden to argue for it being partitioned into three separate states) also presented both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge, because of the sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia that would break into something resembling a full-blown civil war in 2006, but also an opportunity, because Iraq could not be unified along monosectarian lines; it needed, and continues to need, some tolerance of pluralism within Islam to function as a single state, some mechanism for enabling tolerance and co-existence.
From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Josh Marshall, writing in April 2003, concluded essentially the same thing about the Bush Administration’s strategy, a strategy he found deeply troubling. He described his nightmare for the aftermath of toppling Saddam:

The United Nations and NATO are in disarray, so America is pretty much on its own. Hemmed in by budget deficits at home and limited financial assistance from allies, the Bush administration is talking again about tapping Iraq’s oil reserves to offset some of the costs of the American presence–talk that is further inflaming the region. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence has discovered fresh evidence that, prior to the war, Saddam moved quantities of biological and chemical weapons to Syria. When Syria denies having such weapons, the administration starts massing troops on the Syrian border. But as they begin to move, there is an explosion: Hezbollah terrorists from southern Lebanon blow themselves up in a Baghdad restaurant, killing dozens of Western aid workers and journalists. Knowing that Hezbollah has cells in America, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge puts the nation back on Orange Alert. FBI agents start sweeping through mosques, with a new round of arrests of Saudis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Yemenis.
To most Americans, this would sound like a frightening state of affairs, the kind that would lead them to wonder how and why we had got ourselves into this mess in the first place. But to the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn’t the nightmare scenario. It’s everything going as anticipated.

Marshall concluded that, in the view of hawks within the Administration,

[I]nvasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East….
[T]he administration is trying to roll the table–to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. So events that may seem negative–Hezbollah for the first time targeting American civilians; U.S. soldiers preparing for war with Syria–while unfortunate in themselves, are actually part of the hawks’ broader agenda.

Eight years later, events have long since taken on a life of their own, and while they have followed neither the precise outline of Den Beste’s positive or Marshall’s negative view, the essential trajectory has been the one projected: disruption of the long-ossified status quo and the ushering in of a revolutionary era that has replaced one longstanding tryanny after another with something different and (in the short run) more responsive to popular movements.

Obama, Syria and Iraq: Any End But Victory

The plans being floated by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for a wildly unpopular military intervention in Syria are incoherent on any number of levels. Rather than identify an enemy and seek the enemy’s defeat, the essential requirement for using military force, the Administration is unwilling to declare the toppling of the Assad regime as a goal – despite Obama’s own proclamation two years ago this month that “[f]or the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Instead, according to one unnamed “U.S. official” quoted by the LA Times, the Administration wants a military strike “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” Churchillian, this is not.
That Was Then, This Is Now
Nor is it in line with what Obama, Biden and Kerry used to claim to believe. Once upon a time, Obama’s expressed willingness to meet with leaders like Assad made him popular in Syria. Then-Senator Obama argued in the 2008 campaign that “[t]he President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation” (Senator Biden agreed); now, as in Libya, Obama has no interest in asking for Congressional approval. Obama and Kerry once venerated the need to get UN and international approval for the use of force; now, Kerry’s spokesman says of the UN Security Council, where both Russia and China are expected to oppose military strikes, “[w]e cannot be held up in responding by Russia’s intransigence.” Obama is apparently gunshy of even explaining himself: one of his reliable proxies at Politico asks, “[i]s POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passe tactic.”
(UPDATE: Here’s more from Obama in 2007 sounding a very different note on Syria, and John Kerry cozying up to Assad as recently as 2011-2012).
From Bad To Worse
There are many good reasons to wish to be rid of the brutal Assad regime, long an Iranian proxy, sponsor of Hezbollah, supporter of the insurgency against the U.S. in Iraq, shelterer (and maybe backer) of culprits in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines, oppressor of Lebanon and assassin of its prime minister, enemy of Israel and perpetrator of serial massacres against its own people. But it seems increasingly likely that the alternatives to Assad would be even worse, ranging from domination of Syria by Al Qaeda and its Sunni extremist allies to splintering into an anarchic failed state. As it stands, the Syrian civil war is a proxy battle between Assad’s backers (Iran and Russia) and the backers of the rebel resistance (Saudi Arabia and Turkey). It doesn’t need more combatants who intend to show up, lob in a bunch of missiles and leave without resolving anything, and for the U.S. to control the post-Assad situation to our advantage would require a huge and for many reasons infeasible commitment of ground troops. We did that in Iraq in part so we would not have to do it again every time there was an opportunity to topple a dictator in the Greater Middle East – we can leave the locals to resolve these things themselves. Recent experiences in Egypt and Libya show that the public in the region hungers for change and a greater voice in how their countries are governed, but hardly inspire confidence that the results will be less anti-American or more respectful of individual liberty. The fact that Syria affects the interests of the U.S. and its allies does not mean that we currently have any options on the table that would advance those interests.
The sole peg on which Obama’s Administration and its apologists rest the defensibility of a halfway military strike is the idea that Assad should be punished for using chemical weapons against his own people – just as Saddam Hussein once did. In my view, this is misguided as a sole casus belli: the problem of rogue regimes is the regimes, not their choice of weaponry. That was true in Iraq and it’s true now, and in particular it’s a ridiculous argument coming from the same people who told us that this was no justification for the Iraq War. It’s consistent with the idea that the problem of gun crime is guns, not criminals – another of this Administration’s pet delusions. In fact, it does not even appear that the Administration can assure that its planned strikes would disarm Assad of the weapons in question. We apparently plan to shoot at the king but carefully avoid killing him.
The Actual Obama Record on Iraq
Of course, say Obama’s defenders, the reason to oppose the Iraq War was that Iraq was not a threat because it had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD). That’s an easy enough argument (if not entirely accurate) to make in retrospect, but contrary to his myth-making, it’s not even what Obama himself argued at the time. Given that these parallels will be hashed out repeatedly in the coming Syria debate, and given that the case for intervention in Syria rests heavily on the credibility of the president and the Secretary of State, it’s worth recalling what Obama actually said when the Iraq War debates were happening.
Obama’s record on the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 basically consists of one 2002 speech criticizing the war and a 2003 interview with The Nation in which he framed the issue in purely domestic political terms:

“Blacks are not willing to feel obliged to support the president’s agenda,” explains Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama. “They are much more likely to feel that (Bush) is engaging in disruptive policies at home and using the war as a means of shielding himself from criticism on his domestic agenda.”

There’s no recorded instance of Obama in 2002 or 2003 arguing that Saddam did not have WMD; rather, Obama’s 2002 speech contended that the Iraqi dictator did still have the weapons he had already used against his own people a decade before, but that this was no justification for war:

Now let me be clear – I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.
He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.
…You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.

This was wrong for a number of reasons, but apply the reasoning to Assad today: his regime is barely clinging to power. In 2004, running for the Senate, Obama would no longer even say that he would have voted against the Iraq war, noting that he had not had access to the classified intelligence that convinced nearly everyone who examined it of Saddam’s WMD programs:

[I]n interviews around [mid-2004], Obama refused to say flatly that he would have voted against the 2002 congressional war resolution. “I’m not privy to Senate intelligence reports,” Obama told The New York Times on July 26. “What would I have done? I don’t know. What I know is that, from my vantage point, the case was not made.” In other interviews that week, Obama said, “[T]here is room for disagreement” over initiating the war, and that “I didn’t have the information that was available to senators.”
Obama later justified these comments as an effort to avoid a split with his party’s presidential ticket: Both John Kerry and John Edwards had voted for the war, after all. Yet this explanation was undermined when Obama repeated the point more than two years later. “I’m always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought [the war] was such a bad idea was that I didn’t have the benefit of U.S. intelligence,” he told The New Yorker’s David Remnick in October 2006. “And, for those that did, it might have led to a different set of choices.”

(Kerry, of course, is now the man Obama put front and center in leading his Syria policy). In 2004, speaking of Iraq, Obama told the Chicago Tribune, “[t]here’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage,” and Obama denied at the time that he had ever called for withdrawal from Iraq.
Eventually, of course, Obama would oppose the “surge” and call for a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by March 31, 2008, a policy that would have been catastrophic. (Similarly, since taking office, Obama has resisted the pursuit of victory in Afghanistan – Obama seems not so much to be anti-war as anti-victory). That was a shrewd bit of positioning for the 2008 Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom had voted for the Iraq War, and it came only after the 2006 elections had proven the vote-drawing appeal of attacking the Iraq War.
It’s OK When I Do It
The lesson of both Obama’s and Kerry’s history of criticism of the Iraq War (Kerry, you will recall, voted for the war after voting against the original Persian Gulf War on the theory that the first President Bush hadn’t assembled a large enough coalition) is that it was primarily driven by partisan opposition to George W. Bush, rather than any particular principled view of how to run American foreign policy. In that light, it is perhaps unsurprising that the arguments made against Bush have been discarded and forgotten, just as all but a tiny minority of the anti-war movement has been silent on Obama’s Libyan and Syrian adventures (and the internet chorus that branded Bush and Cheney as “chickenhawks” has been silent on Obama’s and Biden’s lack of military service). But being in charge requires more than just blind partisanship, and five years into his presidency, Obama seems lost in formulating an approach to the use of military force that makes any sort of coherent sense.

A Timeline of Islamic Expansion In The Dark Ages

Let me put down here some facts that are worth returning to from time to time, as arguments over the history of Islam and Islamism are back in the news with today’s beheading in London. In debates over the history of tension between Muslims and Christians, the Crusades are often cited, out of their historical context, as the original cause of such clashes, as if both sides were peaceably minding their own business before imperialist Westerners decided to go launch a religious war in Muslim lands.
This is not what actually happened, and indeed it is ahistorical to treat the fragmented feudal states of the West in the Eleventh Century as capable of any such thing as imperialism or colonialism (although, as Victor Davis Hanson has noted, even in the centuries after the fall of Rome, Western civilization retained a superior logistical ability to project force overseas due to the scientific, economic and military legacies of ancient Greece and Rome). Moreover, when Islam first arose, much of what we think of today as Islamic ‘territory’ in Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa was Christian until conquered by the heirs of Muhammad, such that speaking of one side’s incursions into the other’s territory requires you to ignore how that territory was seized in the first place. That entire region had been part of the Roman and later Byzantine empires, and was culturally part of the West until it was conquered by Muslim arms – Rome is closer geographically to Tripoli than to London, Madrid is closer to Casablanca than to Berlin, Athens is closer to Damascus than to Paris.
All that said, it’s worth remembering that the Crusades arose in the late Eleventh Century only after four centuries of relentless Islamic efforts to conquer Europe, and the Christians of the Crusading era cannot be evaluated without that crucial context.

Continue reading A Timeline of Islamic Expansion In The Dark Ages

Calling The Thing By Its Name

Three hours after yesterday’s Boston Marathon Bombings, President Obama gave a short statement in which he pointedly declined to use the word “terrorism.” Shortly after his appearance, an unnamed White House official issued a written statement “Any event with multiple explosive devices — as this appears to be — is clearly an act of terror, and will be approached as an act of terror.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel echoed that this morning, calling the bombings a “cruel act of terror.” This morning, Obama followed suit, specifically using the term “terrorism.”
Presidents must choose their words carefully in these situations, and I do not fault Obama for moving with caution* just hours after the attack, when he undoubtedly had not had the time to gather the full input of all the relevant agencies or separate fact from rumor.** But he is right to call this what it is; as as we move forward, we must all have the courage and clarity to call this terrorism.

Continue reading Calling The Thing By Its Name

Reflections on the American Revolution (Part I of III)

I’ve recently been reading a fair amount on the American Revolution, especially David McCullough’s 1776 (which should be required reading for every American).* The more you read of the Revolutionary War, the more there is to learn, especially about the vital question of how the colonists pulled off their victory over the vastly wealthier and more powerful Great Britain. The standard narrative of the American Revolution taught in schools and retained in our popular imagination today overlooks a lot of lessons worth remembering about where our country came from.

The Population Bomb: In assessing the combatants and indeed the causes of the war, it’s useful – as always – to start with demographics. There was no colonial-wide census, but this 1975 historical study by the US Census Bureau, drawing on the censuses of individual colonies and other sources, breaks out the growth of the colonial population from 1630 to 1780, and the picture it paints is one of explosive population growth in the period from 1740 to 1780:

The black population was principally slaves and thus – while economically and historically important – less relevant to the political and military strength of the colonies. But as you can see above, the main driver of population growth was the free white population rather than the slave trade.

Authoritative sources for the British population during this period are harder to come by (the first British census was more than a decade after the first U.S. Census in 1790); most sources seem to estimate the population of England proper between 6 and 6.5 million in 1776 compared to 2.5 million for the colonies. Going off this website’s rough estimated figures for the combined population of England and Wales (Scotland had in the neighborhood of another 1.5 million people by 1776), the colonies went from 5% of the British population in 1700 to 20% in 1750, 26% in 1760, 33% in 1770, and 40% in 1780:

It was perhaps inevitable that this shift in the balance of population between the colonies and the mother country would produce friction, and of course such a fast-growing population means lots of young men ready to bear arms. Men like Franklin and Washington were already, by 1755, envisioning the colonies stretching across the continent for the further glory of the then-nascent British Empire; 20 years later, both were buying Western land hand over fist and picturing that continental vision as a thing unto itself.

The distribution of population among the individual colonies was somewhat different from today. Virginia (encompassing present-day West Virginia) was by far the largest colony and, along with the Carolinas, the fastest-growing, while Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut were much larger – and New York much smaller – relative to the rest of the colonies than today:

This is one reason why Maryland gained a reputation as the “Old Line State”: it had the manpower to supply a lot of the Continental Army’s best troops. Connecticut was, in fact, seen as a crucial economic engine of the war, the most industrialized of the colonies at the time and mostly undisturbed by combat. That said, when you look solely at the white population, the southern states loom less large, and the crucial role of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts comes into focus:

The smaller colonies present a similar picture:

Note that Rhode Island, alone, lost population during the war, due to the 1778-1780 British occupation of Newport. That occupation had lasting effects. According to a 1774 census, Newport’s population before the war was more than twice that of Providence (more than 9,000 to less than 4,000) and it was a booming seaport; the city’s population dropped by more than half to 4,000, and it never really recovered its status as a port, losing business permanently to New York and Boston. Another lasting side effect: Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams as a haven of religious tolerance and welcoming even to Jews and Quakers, forbade Catholics from living in the colony, but after the British abandoned Newport in 1780 and the French garrison took up residence, the grateful Rhode Islanders permitted the French troops to celebrate the first Mass in Rhode Island; today, it is the most heavily Catholic state in the union.

Britain’s population would surge in the 1790s, and by about 1800 there were a million people in London alone, the first city in world history confirmed to exceed that threshold. But that remained in the future; at the time, France’s population of 25 million and Spain’s of some 10 million would easily exceed that of George III’s domain. Moreover, like its colonies, England had a longstanding aversion to standing armies; while the Napoleonic Wars would ultimately compel the British Army (including foreign and colonial troops) to swell to a quarter of a million men by 1813, a 1925 analysis found that “[a]t the outbreak of the Revolution, the total land forces of Great Britain exclusive of militia numbered on paper 48,647 men, of which 39,294 were infantry; 6,869 cavalry; and 2,484 artillery,” with 8,580 men in America. And those forces were always stretched; according to this analysis of Colonial & War Office figures, the British never had much more than 15,202 redcoats in the American theater (including the Floridas, where they fought Spain), and never exceeded 30,000 troops in total, counting “Hessians” (companies of professional soldiers hired from the Hesse-Hanau, Hesse-Kassel, Brunswick and other German principalities) and American Loyalists (a/k/a “Tories”):

The Close Call: More modern American wars like the Civil War and World War II eventually developed a momentum that made victory effectively inevitable, as America’s crushing material advantages came to bear on the enemy. By contrast, the Revolutionary War was, from beginning to end, a near-run thing (to borrow Wellington’s famous description of Waterloo). At every stage and in every campaign of the war, you can find both British and American victories, as well as a good many battles that were fought to a draw or were Pyrrhic victories for one side. The length of the 7-year war in North America was a burden for the increasingly war-weary British, for a variety of reasons, but a long war was also a great risk for the Americans: the longer the war ran on, the harder it was in terms of both finances and morale to keep the all-volunteer Continental Army in the field. Whole units dissolved en masse at the end of their enlistments throughout the war, and there were mutinies in the spring of 1780 and again in January 1781. As late as 1780, Benedict Arnold’s treason and debacles at Charleston and Camden, South Carolina put the American cause in jeopardy of being rolled up by the British, causing America’s European allies to strike a separate peace. At one point or another in the war, the then-principal cities of most of the colonies – Massachusetts (Boston), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), New York (New York), Virginia (Richmond and Charlottesville), Rhode Island (Newport), South Carolina (Charleston), Georgia (Savannah), Delaware (Wilmington) and New Jersey (Trenton, Princeton, Perth Amboy, New Brunswick) were captured and occupied by the British. Only Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina and New Hampshire remained unconquered, as well as the independent Vermont Republic (Maine, then governed by Massachusetts, was also under British control for much of the war; the failed Penobscot Expedition was aimed at its recapture, and ended with a disastrous naval defeat). In the spring of 1781, Thomas Jefferson – then the Governor of Virginia – escaped capture by Cornwallis’ men by a matter of minutes, fleeing on horseback as the government of the largest colony was dispersed. It was only the complex series of events leading to Yorktown in the fall of 1781 – Cornwallis retreating to Virginia after being unable to put away Nathanael Greene’s Continentals and the North Carolina militia, Washington escaping New Jersey before the British noticed where he was going, Admiral de Grasse bottling up Cornwallis’ escape route in the Chesapeake by sea, Henry Clinton failing to come to Cornwallis’ aid in time – that created the conditions for a decisive victory and finally forced the British to throw in the towel.

Moreover, a great many individual battles and campaigns throughout the war turned on fortuitous events ranging from fateful decisions to apparently providential weather. It is no wonder that many of the Founding generation (like many observers since) attributed their victory to the hand of God.

Weather and Suffering: Both the Continental Army and its British and Hessian adversaries endured conditions that no armies before or since would put up with, including a staggering menu of extreme weather ranging from blizzards to colossal thunderstorms to blazing summer heat. Ancient and medieval armies would not campaign in freezing cold and snow; modern armies (like the combatants at Leningrad and the Marines in the retreat from Chosin Resovoir) would at least face them with something closer to proper clothing and shelter. But both sides in the war suffered chronic shortages: the British from lack of food for their men and forage for their animals, the Americans from lack of clothing (especially shoes), shelter and ammunition. The British lost more sailors to scurvy in the war than soldiers to combat, and during the long siege of Boston they had recurring problems with their sentries freezing to death at night. Smallpox, malaria and other diseases were endemic and especially hard on European troops with no prior exposure (one of Washington’s great strokes of good judgment was having his army inoculated against smallpox, a disease he himself had survived and which left him pock-marked and probably sterile**). The British were rarely able to make use of their cavalry due to a lack of forage, and their infantry had other equipment problems:

[T]he flints used by the British soldier during the war were notoriously poor. Colonel Lindsay of the 46th lamented that the valor of his men was so often “rendered vain by the badness of the pebble stone.” He exclaimed indignantly against the authorities for failing to supply every musket with the black flint which every country gentleman in England carried in his fowling piece. In this respect the rebels were acknowledged to be far better off than the king’s troops. A good American flint could be used to fire sixty rounds without resharpening, which was just ten times the amount of service that could be expected from those used by the British forces. Among the rank and file of the redcoats, the saying ran that a “Yankee flint was as good as a glass of grog.”

The war was conducted during the Little Ice Age, a period of low global temperatures (it’s a myth that “climate change” is a new phenomenon or must be caused by human activity), and the winters of the period (especially 1779-80) were especially brutal. American soldiers and militia forded waist-deep icy rivers to reach the Battle of Millstone, marched miles without boots in snowstorms on Christmas Night after crossing the icy Delaware to reach the Battle of Trenton, and even tried (insanely) to lay siege to the fortified Quebec City in a driving snow on New Year’s Eve. These were only a few of the examples of Americans marching great distances in weather conditions that would defeat the hardiest souls. The British performed their own acts of endurance and valor; drive over the George Washington Bridge some time and look at the cliffs of the Palisades, and picture Cornwallis’ men scaling them at night to attack Fort Lee. Other battles were fought in heavy wool uniforms in the broiling heat, from Bunker Hill to much of the southern campaign, or in rains that left gunpowder useless, or – on the eve of the Battle of Brooklyn – colossal lightning strikes that killed groups of American soldiers in Manhattan. In the 1776 siege of Sullivan’s Island, the British were shocked to discover that their cannonballs wouldn’t splinter the soft palmetto wood from which the American fort was constructed, leaving the British ships to take a pounding from American artillery.

Except for Quebec, the weather – however hostile – nearly always managed to favor the American cause, rescuing the Americans when the hand of fate was needed most. McCullough recounts the especially significant shifts in the wind and fog that allowed Washington’s army to escape in the night, undetected, across the East River after the catastrophic Battle of Brooklyn, while the blizzard at the Americans’ backs was key to their surprise at Trenton.

The Allies: Most educated Americans still recall that France came to the aid of the fledgling nation after the victory at Saratoga, and played a significant role in tipping the scales in the war. In World War I, Pershing’s refrain of “Lafayette, we are here” was still a popular invocation of that collective memory. Besides French money and supplies and French land and naval combat at Yorktown, the French also stretched the British defenses with extensive campaigns in the Caribbean and with a threatened invasion of England. But as important as the French alliance was, the emphasis on France understates the role that other of America’s allies and Britian’s enemies played in the Revolution.

First and foremost, at least as history is taught here in the Northeastern U.S., the Spanish role in the Revolutionary War is scandalously underplayed. There are reasons for this: Spain was a less impressive international power in the late 18th Century than France and would become drastically less so by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and unlike the French, the Spanish rarely fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans or within the Thirteen Colonies. But Spain performed three vital roles in the war. First, under Bernardo de Galvez (namesake of Galveston, Texas, among other places), the Spanish Governor of the Louisiana Territory, the Spanish shipped significant war materiel up the Mississippi River through the American agent Oliver Pollock, supplementing the French aid that kept the American cause afloat. Second, after Spain’s 1779 declaration of war against Britain, Galvez opened a significant second front against the British-held Floridas (which then included, in the territory of West Florida, much of what is now the Gulf Coast of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi). Galvez was arguably the most successful commander of the war in North America, his multi-national, multi-racial force sweeping through the British defenses, preempting any British move on New Orleans and culminating the capture of Pensacola (then the capital of East Florida) in the spring of 1781. This campaign resulted in the Floridas being transferred from Britain to Spain in the resulting peace treaty; the absence of a British foothold on the southern border of the U.S. would have lasting consequences, and the Floridas would end up being sold by Spain to the United States in 1819. And third, the Spanish played a pivotal role in the Yorktown campaign, not only raising more funds in Cuba for the campaign but also providing naval cover in the Caribbean that allowed Admiral de Grasse to sail north and close off the Chesapeake just in the nick of time. (Spain also conducted a long, costly siege of Gibraltar that ended unsuccessfully and a successful assault on Minorca, both of which spread British manpower thin between 1778 and 1783).

The other main fighting allies of the American colonists were two of the Iriquois Six Nations in upstate New York, the Oneida and Tuscarora (the other four fought with the British), as well as a few other tribes on the western frontier. But other sovereigns caused the British additional problems. The Kingdom of Mysore, a French ally in Southern India, went to war with Britain (the Second Anglo-Mysore War) in 1780, inflicting thousands of casualties with innovative rocket artillery at the September 1780 Battle of Pollilur. The Dutch, who frustrated John Adams’ efforts to arrange financial assistance and an alliance until after Yorktown, nonetheless ended up dragged into the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War beginning in December 1780. (Some things never change: Adams was accused of unilateral “militia diplomacy” for ignoring diplomatic protocols and negotiating with the Dutch without consulting the French, but crowed after inking the deal in 1782 that “I have long since learned that a man may give offense and yet succeed.”). The Russians, then moving towards an alliance with Great Britain against the French, nonetheless pointedly refused to get involved; Catherine the Great refused a 1775 request in writing from George III that she send 20,000 Cossacks to America (necessitating the hiring of Hessians instead) and eventually joined the League of Armed Neutrality with the Dutch and others to resist British naval embargoes (the step that brought the British and Dutch to blows). Catherine II thought the British were fools for provoking the conflict and predicted from the outset that the Americans would win. All in all, the international situation by the end of 1780 left the British increasingly isolated and drove the strategic imperative to seek out a decisive battle in Virginia – an imperative that led Cornwallis directly into a trap of his own devising but which the American, French and Spanish forces sprung with great skill and coordination.

In Part II: Washington and the other American and British generals. In Part III: the role of the militia.

Continue reading Reflections on the American Revolution (Part I of III)

Human Nature, Culture and the Arab Spring’s Fall

2011’s Arab Spring, like its predecessor in 2005, presented a sight that always elicits natural sympathy among Americans: a popular revolt against tyrannical dictators. But beneath the immediate euphoria, harder questions lurked: who would these crowds follow? Would American interests, and the interests of our democratic allies, be better served if the dictators won? The Obama Administration has never offered any kind of coherent answer to this question, and the Romney campaign does not seem eager to engage the question. In fact, the answers rest on a major fault line in conservative thought not only about foreign policy but about human nature itself.
Here’s the dilemma. On the one hand, you have the venerable view, with deep roots in conservative thought, that human nature is universal and unchanging: “human nature has no history,” and is the same in all nations and all epochs of history. This is customarily presented as a pessimistic view, an argument against the progressive view of history as one of unfolding enlightenment and the socialist-utopian view that governments can remake man himself. In this context, however, the permanence and universality of human nature has an optimistic character as well. Those who stress the universality of human nature argue that democracy is a universal good because people everywhere share the same basic longings for liberty, peace and security for themselves and their families, just as they also share the same basic urges to violence and oppression towards others. In this view, the virtue of democracy is that it remains the best system for providing people with the ability to promote the former while channeling the latter into lesser forms of conflict resolution. The champions of democracy thus argue that while governments may not change men, men may change governments. Moreover, this is a well-tested method of improving the lot of the individual that has more or less adapted itself to do so in many different times and cultures the world over.
The Federalist Papers, which drew on observed experience with governments around Europe and America, are full of this sort of sentiment. As James Madison famously wrote, in Federalist No. 51:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition…It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

And in Federalist No. 10:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction…
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed….
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.
…It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

Set against this view is another one with equally deep roots in conservative thinking: the primacy of culture. The story of human history is most emphatically not one in which all societies have provided equal blessings of freedom and progress to their people, and neither the structure of governments nor the variation in climates and natural resources alone can explain these variations. Rather, some cultures – especially the cultures of Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition – have provided a superior platform on which to build stable democratic regimes, respect for individual rights and the rule of law, economic development and scientific progress. The proponents of culture argue that transplanting the fruits of Western culture and civilization into the soil of very different cultures will always be a fool’s errand, or at any rate that the specific political and legal doctrines promoted by Islam (especially when combined with Arab culture) are inherently irreconcilable with democracy and other Western values.
One need not look far among the Founding Fathers to see the sentiment expressed that democracy itself was only as viable as the morals and, yes, faith of the people. Ben Franklin famously remarked at the close of the Constitutional Convention 225 years ago today that the Constitution had given Americans “[a] Republic, if you can keep it,” and in his prepared message to his fellow delegates, warned that “I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” George Washington thought that the religious morals of the people were indispensable to a functioning democracy:

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

John Adams took a similar view:

[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other…

Islamic societies, of course, face no shortage of religious strictures, but the proponents of the primacy of culture stress that those strictures are different, and less congenial to the maintenance of self-government and respect for the individual. Alexis de Tocqueville, who viewed American culture, and specifically American civil society outside of government, as crucial to democracy in America, wrote:

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditionary faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live….
Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy…

Arguments over the dependence of democratic government on the morals and faith of the citizenry are, of course, familiar in our domestic policy debates as well. It should be no surprise that these tensions have played out in the foreign policy debates of the Bush era and its aftermath. George W. Bush was never the Wilsonian advocate of nation-building for its own sake that some of his loftier rhetoric inspired his critics to charge – our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq each started with a traditional casus belli and, as in the aftermath of World War II, turned attention to nation-building only in the aftermath of the defeat and deposition of the opposing regimes and conquest of their territory. But Bush did increasingly, over the course of his years in office, embrace the “neocon” view that replacing dictators with popular sovereignty should be a keystone of our approach to reforming the Muslim and Arab worlds in order to address the root causes of terrorism. At the risk of oversimplifying, the neocon view is more or less that that root cause is the dysfunction of Muslim and Arab societies and the need of tyrants to direct popular rage at that dysfunction outward. In this view, democratic systems of government are a safety valve that allow internal tensions to instead be channeled inward in a more productive and less violent manner.
One of the main critiques of Bush on the Right was always that he was unduly optimistic about the Muslim world and specifically whether the Muslim ‘street’ actually preferred regimes that promoted genocidal war against Israel and terrorism against the United States and Europe. Volumes have been written on the intractability of Islamic political doctrines and their connection to the ideology of the suicide bomber, the impossibility of peaceable coexistence with Israel, and Islam’s irreconcilability with religious pluralism or any form of secular law. This critique has only accelerated without Bush at the helm. Many on the Right have given up on Afghanistan as incurably backward and treacherous (examples there and elsewhere – including last week in Libya – show Americans on the ground being betrayed by their own allies). I’m glossing here over some of the deeper debates about internal doctrinal debates within Islam as well as the role of Arab and other ethnic cultures in addition to the religious element.
In the case of North Africa, Mubarak was – as FDR would say – an SOB, but our SOB; Qaddafi had been deterred and contained effectively since surrendering his nuclear program after seeing what happened to Saddam. The regimes that replaced them are not of the most stable character, and in Egypt in particular, even President Obama has now blanched at calling the Muslim Brotherhood-run government an ally. There are substantial arguments made for the idea that winning hearts and minds is an inherently futile task.
As both a student of the Federalist Papers and a child of the Reagan era, I’m naturally optimistic about the attractiveness of the American-style system of government to the universal aspirations of all peoples, and the adaptability of such systems to improve the lives of all peoples even when imperfectly applied. The correct answer, however, likely lies in between – the fact that democracy is preferable in all places in the long run is not necessarily proof that it is the best answer in every place in the short run, not when balanced against the protection of American interests. But a vigorous national debate on the question seems, in this campaign season, a long way away.
On some foreign policy issues, the two candidates present a clear enough contrast. Romney, ever the Eisenhower-era Republican, prefers a stronger military and a more unapologetic defense of American interests and rights abroad than Obama. Obama has tended to put too much faith in his own personality cult and too much emphasis on having America wear the hair shirt, from arguing in 2007 that “I truly believe that the day I’m inaugurated, not only does the country look at itself differently, but the world looks at America differently” to his much-lauded speech to the Muslim world in Mubarak’s Cairo back when he viewed Egypt as an ally. But six years after they announced their first presidential campaigns, neither candidate has really laid out a vision of how properly to balance the roles of human nature and culture in evaluating the merits of democratizing the region going forward. That will have to wait for another day.

Barack Obama’s Passivity in Crisis

If there is one common theme about Barack Obama’s leadership style in a crisis that runs throughout his time on the national stage and is evident yet again in his response to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, it is passivity. Obama has shown, time and again, that he prefers to sit back, keep his distance and see what other people do first before he says or does anything. This is not an entirely bad trait – smoking out what everyone else at the table is thinking is an effective way to play poker, and there are times when doing nothing or being a follower is the wiser course. It has certainly paid him political dividends in situations where his opponents overextended themselves. But what it also clearly demonstrates is that vigorous public leadership – getting out in front and rallying the public to take some action that was not already widely supported – is above his pay grade.

Continue reading Barack Obama’s Passivity in Crisis

No, President Obama Didn’t Find Osama Bin Laden

RS: No, President Obama Didn’t Find Osama bin Laden
With few other unquestionably popular accomplishments for this president to crow about, we should expect to hear a lot at the Democratic Convention the next two days about how President Obama authorized a Navy SEAL team to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Vice President Biden, who opposed the mission, has made it a favorite stump speech line: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
But signing off on killing bin Laden was a no-brainer; as anyone who remembers the past decade knows, the hard part was finding him. The Abbottabad raid was the culmination of many years of intelligence-gathering. And for all the chest-thumping by Obama and Biden, virtually none of that intelligence-gathering resulted from policy decisions that originated with the Obama Administration. To the contrary, several were harshly criticized by Obama and his allies, and some have been discontinued by Obama.

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Barack Obama Will Not Defeat The Taliban

We have reached an endpoint of sorts in the decade-long Afghanistan War. President Obama will not keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and force them to accept terms of any kind. Have we lost the war? Should we have left years ago, or never gone in? That depends on your view of what we were fighting for and about in the first place.

I. Lowering The Bar

The New York Times summarizes the lowered expectations Obama is pushing to be able to declare a successful withdrawal:

Gone is the much greater expectation that NATO will leave behind a cohesive central government with real influence beyond Kabul and a handful of other population centers. Gone is the assumption that Helmand Province, Kandahar and the rest of the heavily contested south – where the bulk of the 2010 influx of troops was sent – will remain entirely in the control of the central government once that area is transferred to Afghanistan’s fledgling national security forces.
…President Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, described a hoped-for outcome in Afghanistan that was far less ambitious than what American officials once envisioned.
“The goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like Al Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded, which could threaten the region and threaten U.S. and other interests in the world,” Mr. Donilon said.

Nowhere on this list is the defeat of the Taliban, which – seeing this coming – gave up on peace talks months ago:

While Kandahar and other population centers in the south have seen a decrease in Taliban attacks since the surge forces arrived, insurgent attacks have increased in less populated southern areas, military officials report. The heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” program two weeks ago, and reporting on a recent trip to Afghanistan, said the Taliban were gaining ground, something that is bound to accelerate once the NATO troops give way to Afghan-led forces.
“I think we’d both say that what we found is that the Taliban is stronger,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said, seated next to Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan.

As Dan Spencer noted yesterday, this is a distinct change of tune from 2008, when then-candidate Obama described Afghanistan as “a war that we have to win” and 2009, when President Obama declared:

This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaida would plot to kill more Americans.
So this is not only a war worth fighting; this is a – this is fundamental to the defense of our people.

But despite the President’s bold words, the Administration never did set a clear definition of victory in Afghanistan. Specifically, while the State Department designated the Pakistani Taliban a terrorist group, it resisted requests by even Democratic Senators to designate the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist group, apparently – at the time – due to an unwillingness to foreclose a negotiated resolution that would bring the Taliban back into the political process. This was not a new problem (the State Department had likewise refused to designate the Taliban as a terrorist group during the Bush Administration even in 2001) but at a time when the nation was ramping up its military commitment to the war in Afghanistan, the broader refusal to define an enemy to be defeated (the essential element of any military action) left the war effort directionless and increasingly difficult to justify to a war-weary public. And now, by withdrawing unilaterally without using the leverage of our arms to force a negotiated resolution on favorable terms, we are essentially washing our hands of the fight against the Taliban.

Continue reading Barack Obama Will Not Defeat The Taliban

With The Death of Osama bin Laden, We’re All Hawks Now

One year ago today, a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the culmination of many years of intelligence-gathering. The operation was personally authorized by President Obama, over the objections of Vice President Joe Biden. While national security leaders had, properly, publicly downplayed the importance of getting bin Laden – it was more important to focus on dismantling the operational network of Al Qaeda and similar groups, and overemphasis on one man hiding in isolation would give the fugitive bin Laden an unnecessary propaganda victory – it was nonetheless a significant longstanding priority of three Administrations to get him, and a great day for America when he was killed. The Obama campaign, recognizing that there is broad bipartisan agreement on this point among voters, has done everything possible to capitalize politically on the President’s role.
There are three real lessons to be drawn a year later:
1. In the big picture, we’re all national security hawks now.
2. As a matter of policy specifics, the hawks won and the anti-war movement lost every round.
3. As a matter of partisan politics, the side that loses the debate over the death of bin Laden will be the side that overplays its hand the worst.

Continue reading With The Death of Osama bin Laden, We’re All Hawks Now

Links 2/9/12

I should do roundups like this more often of the stuff I do on Twitter.
Jose Reyes’ hair sells for $10,200 in charity auction. The hair will play SS for the Mets.
-I largely agree with Victoria and with John McCain about Syria; the US has much stronger case for taking sides in Syria than it did in Libya.
Looking back at the sad death of Ron Luciano.
-The one thing that’s really booming in this economy – despite the best efforts of liberal activists and the Obama Administration to the contrary – is domestic oil and gas production. Frack, baby, frack!
-Science fail: an Oklahoma state Senator is apparently unaware that baby-making requires both a sperm & an egg.
Yeah, sure, and being against Nazis is just what Elie Wiesel does to feel young & virile again. It is true that older people overestimate recurrence of the troubles of their youth. Ascribing this to “testosterone” is juvenile.
-Yet another “better Romney argument than Romney is making” column, this one with good ideas from Jim Pethokoukis. Call it a Prospectus for America.
Dan Abrams debunks some of the myths around Citizens United.
Then: “core symbol of right-wing radicalism” Now: Democratic mainstream. We always knew a lot of the anti-war stuff was just partisanship. Of course, unlike Greenwald, I regard this as a good thing for the country.
Elvis Andrus focused on getting better. This seems like a unique goal to have.
It’s not even remotely inconsistent for Mitt Romney to profit from something while saying it should not be compulsory.
John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign is still spending money, even though it’s in debt to taxpayers.
The media’s blind spot on religious liberty.
Vin Scully on not retiring.
-I’d forgotten that, for idiosyncratic reasons, Reagan actually won the popular vote in the GOP primaries in 1968.
The Wilpons try to get the Supreme Court interested in reversing a decision in the Madoff litigation.

Iran 1953

Amir Taheri brings some perspective to the myths surrounding the CIA’s involvement in Iran in 1953, one of the talking points most cherished by Communists, Islamists and Chomskyites these past several decades (all of whom use basically the same propaganda script), and most recently Ron Paul and his acolytes. One of the key points is the extent to which Mohammed Mossadeq precipitated the crisis – much like the crisis a few years back in Honduras – by taking a variety of extralegal steps that presented a grave threat to the existing legitimate government of Iran.

Escalation in Syria

CBS News has the details – the State Department is now urging all Americans to leave Syria while they can, following the US Ambassador being pulled over concerns for his safety. I’ll get back to this in more detail when I have more time to write (I should reach the other end of a particularly intense hearing after next Tuesday), but while it may not be the largest threat to the US (those would be Iran and, in its own ways, Pakistan), the Assad regime in Syria is now atop the list of threats we should be dealing with in the short term; the regime cannot be moderated in its current form, and can be brought down with the application of sufficient pressure. Even the current Administration seems to be coming to accept that the decades-old status quo in Syria is no longer sustainable.
The Assads are a nasty piece of work; the old man was vicious, and his son is too cowardly to stray from his father’s path. I’ve recently been reading Don Rumsfeld’s autobiography, and he actually starts the book not with either of his stormy tenures as Defense Sectretary, nor his time as a Congressman or White House Chief of Staff, but with his experience as Middle East envoy for President Reagan during the Lebanon crisis of 1983-84. Rumsfeld notes rather ruefully that when the US was leaning towards its ultimate decision to withdraw from Lebanon, he had to sit through having Saddam Hussein tell him that this would only encourage Syrian aggression, and that it was – as Rumsfeld puts it – quite an experience to be lectured by Saddam Hussein, much less when Saddam was probably right. A quarter century after Syrian aggression drew us into Lebanon at the cost of more than 200 US Marines, our business with the Assad regime remains unfinished. It’s time to close that chapter.