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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Trying to understand the foreign policy debate

At least seven times in Friday night's debate, Senator John McCain accused Senator Barack Obama of failing to understand an important dimension of national security policy. Let's review:

First, Iraq:
Senator Obama doesn't understand [1] the difference between a tactic and a strategy...There is social, economic progress, and a strategy, a strategy of going into an area, clearing and holding, and the people of the country then become allied with you. They inform on the bad guys. And peace comes to the country, and prosperity. That's what's happening in Iraq, and it wasn't a tactic.

...if we adopted Senator Obama's set date for withdrawal, then that will have a calamitous effect in Afghanistan and American national security interests in the region. Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand [2] there is a connected (sic) between the two...

Senator Obama still doesn't quite understand [3] -- or doesn't get it -- that if we fail in Iraq, it encourages al Qaeda. They would establish a base in Iraq...
What to make of all this?

Obviously, "the surge" is part of America's counterinsurgency approach in Iraq. Obama has long argued for a new US grand strategy; focusing on tactics within Iraq is not a sufficient way to discuss the national security problems of the US:
Senator McCain wants to talk of our tactics in Iraq; I want to focus on a new strategy for Iraq and the wider world.
If you read the July 15 speech I just linked, Obama clearly sees a relationship between Iraq and Afghanistan. In the debate, Obama noted that "al Qaeda and the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan." Furthermore, "we took our eye off Afghanistan, we took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11...we are having enormous problems in Afghanistan because of that decision" [to attack Iraq].

Obama should have directly dismissed the notion that al Qaeda would establish a base in Iraq if the US pulled out. Why would Sunni or Shia tolerate that? How would it be more threatening than the current safe haven in Pakistan? Previously, Obama has discussed a withdrawal strategy for Iraq that would retain capabilities for attacking the "remnants" of al Qaeda.

Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn't understand, [4] it's got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq.
Obama, as noted, is calling for a new strategic prioritization of Afghanistan over Iraq. The July 15 speech:
"[T]he second goal of my new strategy will be taking the fight to al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
That address outlined a lot of specific measures to change US tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan; "the surge" would not obviously be inconsistent with them.

What Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand [5] that if without precondition you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a "stinking corpse," and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments.
Obama pretty clearly explained what he meant by meeting without preconditions.
Now, understand what this means "without preconditions." It doesn't mean that you invite them over for tea one day. What it means is that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say, "Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contacts with you."

There's a difference between preconditions and preparation. Of course we've got to do preparations, starting with low-level diplomatic talks, and it may not work, because Iran is a rogue regime.
Negotiation experts frequently point out that preconditions threaten to preclude negotiation -- and often fail the test of reciprocity. Moreover, the preconditions set by parties are often the precise goals of the diplomacy.

Imagine if Iran said that it wouldn't meet with the US unless America renounced the threat to use force. That precondition actually makes a lot of sense to many, but the current administration persistently says that "all options are on the table." It likely thinks that the threat to use force is part of its leverage in negotiations -- even if it would violate Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Wouldn't Iran legitimize US illegality by meeting with the US without preconditions?

Next, Russia:
He doesn't understand [6] that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government.
From the August 9, Obama statement:
"Over the last two days, Russia has escalated the crisis in Georgia through it's clear and continued violation of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. On Friday, August 8, Russian military forces invaded Georgia. I condemn Russia's aggressive actions and reiterate my call for an immediate ceasefire. Russia must stop its bombing campaign, cease flights of Russian aircraft in Georgian airspace, and withdraw its ground forces from Georgia."
As for Putin's petro-dollar state, Obama used this as an opportunity to contrast his plan for energy independence -- built primarily on the promotion of alternative energy -- with McCain's many votes against alternative energy and his long-time support for oil interests. Over at the Duck of Minerva, Dan Nexon points out that Russia is now calling for a return to cooperative relations with the US and the international community!

Finally, Pakistan:
I don't think that Senator Obama understands [7] that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state.
These sentences immediately followed Obama's blistering attack of the status quo:
the problem, John, with the strategy that's been pursued was that, for 10 years, we coddled Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, "Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he's our dictator."

And as a consequence, we lost legitimacy in Pakistan. We spent $10 billion. And in the meantime, they weren't going after al Qaeda
The State Department's Richard Armitage caused a bit of a hullabaloo in early 2001 when he told Indian reporters that Pakistan might be viewed as a "rogue state." There's a great deal of difference between a rogue state and a failed state. Given its 1998 nuclear tests and its position on Kashmire, Pakistan was closer to a rogue than a failure when Musharraf's military coup toppled a democratically elected government in October 1999.

The State Failure Task Force phase 3 report from 2000 did not include Pakistan on its list of "Near-Total Failures of State Authority, 1955-1998" (the complete list is on p. 79). The report found times in Pakistan's past (1983 and before) when it was in serious trouble, but Pakistan was categorized as a "partial democracy" in the report.

If anything, the evidence suggests that Musharraf presided over Pakistan as it was moving toward failure.

As I said on Friday, I think it is pretty clear that Obama understands foreign policy. McCain perhaps fails to understand what foreign policy analysts mean by "grand strategy" and "failed state."

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