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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Getting In and Getting Out

Despite several leaks of "final decisions" regarding troop levels in Afghanistan, people all over the political spectrum seem frustrated by the delays in the communication of a new strategy by the Obama administration. Those on the left worry about delays in stemming the loss of troops in a war with few (if any) tangible, quantifiable milestones for success. Those on the right worry of communicating doubt or uncertainty to "the enemy" that will improve their ability to tailor their end-game for our departure.

We have no way of knowing if it will be the final answer but the next answer is due from President Obama by the end of November 2009. We know quite a bit about some of the opinions being presented for consideration but not much about the framework Obama is using to make his decision. When you remove all the cynical realpolitik mumbo jumbo and poll-tested catch phrases meant for domestic consumption by die-hards on the extremes, the problems the United States faces in selecting a strategy for Afghanistan really arise from our failure to truthfully answer these two questions about our foreign policy initiatives:

Why are we getting in?

How are we getting out?


Getting In

Several books published in the past five years such as COBRA II and Fiasco provide details on the clarity of thought (or lack thereof) that went into the United States' decision to launch the war in Iraq, the planning of the actual invasion and the problems in the war directly arising from those deeply flawed, incoherent plans. It might be easier to accept the situation and propose an new direction if one could conclude the current situation is solely due to catastrophic mistakes made by one Presidential administration after a shocking terrorist attack and the failure of the American voters to recognize the damage within three years to vote a change of direction in 2004 when the failure of the Bush approach was already becoming apparent.

It might be easier, but it wouldn't be the truth. Reporter and writer Mark Danner's recent book Stripping Bare the Body makes a convincing argument that the problem we face in choosing a direction for Afghanistan and Iraq is a sign of a much deeper problem in our policymaking framework for the past fifty years. The book itself is a collection of Danner's writing and reporting from 1986 to the present on events ranging from the elections in Haiti after the flight of "Baby Doc" Duvalier to genocides in the territories of the former Yugoslavia to American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book title comes from a comment made by Leslie Manigat, who managed to serve as President of Haiti for a whopping four months in 1987 who stated:

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Political violence strips bare the social body, the better to place the stethoscope and track the life beneath the skin.
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That comment stuck with Danner for the next twenty years and, in Danner's mind, came to symbolize the disconnect between our public perceptions of crucial foreign policy issues and America's official stated interests in engaging in those situations and the reality on the ground, the latter having very little to do with the former. Per Danner, the quote reflects how America has repeatedly been distracted by the faces of the public villians associated with violence seen around the world. Fixating on the violence and the villain without understanding the history and organization of the society that produced both the violence and the villain virtually assures us of entering into situations we have little chance of improving, much less solving.

As a literary work, the content and organization of Stripping Bare the Body do not exactly make it an enjoyable read. The content itself is quite detailed and frankly grim as Danner writes first hand about mass murders, ethnic cleansing and International Red Cross findings regarding American use of torture. As chapters progress from events in Haiti to events seemingly unrelated in Yugoslavia to events in Afghanistan and Iraq, the lack of a larger obvious "plot line" is a bit tiring. However, Danner includes a few crucial points of analysis amid the chapters that DO make clear a larger pattern to American policymaking that continues to produce these no-win situations.

Boiled down to a nutshell, Danner makes the point that for the past fifty years, America has had no earthly clue about the local history in which it has immersed itself as it goes about intervening in the world in the name of fighting tyranny and threats to our ideals, whether those threats come in the form of communism or now terrorism. Our adversaries seem to understand much more about us, however:

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The United States gazes out upon the world with a self-satisfied confidence in the superfluity of its power, the mistakes flowing from its ignorance it can and does survive, for the costs are borne by the objects of its gaze. They, for their part, look back at us clear-eyed, with calculation and cunning; they know us much better than we know them. They have no choice. (page xix in the introduction).
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Examples abound in the book:

* The looting and destruction of public infrastructure after the toppling of Saddam was not mere "untidiness" as characterized by Donald Rumsfeld, but the result of a key strategy communicated by Saddam well before the beginning of the war, planned with the knowledge that the resulting chaos would destroy the political authority of any government arising from the ashes. Saddam was thinking two years ahead of his neo-con adversaries even before the war began.

* Besides killing thousands and embarrassing the United States by the attacks on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden's true goal behind the attacks was to entice America into an invasion of Afghanistan where it could suffer the same slow, expensive loss by attrition suffered by the Soviet Union twenty years before. Bin Laden was thorough in his planning. Knowing the Americans would soon be on their way, he further destabilized the country by eliminating the head of the Afghan Northern Alliance via two suicide bombers posing as reporters two days prior to 9/11.

* Slobodan Milosevic correctly interpreted four years of side channel communications from both the Bush and Clinton administrations as political paralysis both within the American government and within the NATO alliance that would allow Milosevic to preserve territory captured via years of ethnic cleansing while distracting the West with the details of the Dayton "peace accord" as he planned the final onslaught on Kosovo. To hear the United States describe it, we "won" the war in Kosovo. We dropped over 23,000 bombs and didn't lose a single soldier. Yet Milosevic created over 85,000 refugees and used the turmoil to essentially complete the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Serbs from Kosovo.

Late in the book, Danner concisely summarizes the larger problem in the context of our failed attempt and understanding our position in Iraq as follows:

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Increasingly during the past year the newspaper reader and especially the television viewer has been looking at the great complicated tableau of occupied Iraq through a highly constricted lens, as if trying to examine an enormous history painting by squinting through a straw. (page 424).
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Whose Doctrine Dominates?

Doctrine. What a great word. It sounds so... substantial. A "doctrine." A clear statement to guide decisions about present and future issues based upon a set of well-analyzed, coherent principles. For most of the past two decades, political debate in the United States has frequently revolved around the so-called Powell Doctrine, which basically states the US should avoid any conflict unless a series of questions can be answered in the affirmative, among them being:

* is a clear security interest at stake?
* have all non-military means to solving the problem been exhausted?
* does the initiative have the support of the American people?
* have objective criteria for defining success and "the end" been identified?
* does the action provide for a clear exit strategy upon success or upon failure of achieving success criteria?

In his book, Danner uses the events leading up to the waves of violence in the former Yugoslavia to effectively illustrate the logical and moral straightjacket that incorporation of the Powell Doctrine has imposed upon American policymaking. Danner coins his own term for the result -- "self-deterrence" -- while explaining its role in the violence that took place in the former Yugoslavia as the world watched on TV and did very little to stop it -- for years.

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Since in the case of any given forceful action, one cannot be sure the Serbs will be deterred, and since, if one takes an action and they are not deterred, one must take another action to see that they are (for not to do so would destroy America's credibility) -- any given action, if one can't be absolutely certain of its success, holds within it the clear risk of unlimited and uncontrolled involvement. It is as if, having taken a single small step, the United States will inevitably lose all control of its policy. (page 140)
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Danner then quotes another author, Wayne Bert, who summarized it even more concisely:

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Eagleburger seemingly had no misgivings about the value of American credibility unless some overt threat was made for which there was no follow-through. Complete inaction, in his view, did not compromise U.S. credibility. (page 140)
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In other words, instead of creating a coherent foreign policy based upon support of a small but critical set of principles regarding justice, freedom, peace and prosperity, American foreign policy has been abandoned to a feckless, futile effort at "saving face" and preserving American prestige which can only be lost by acting with less than 100% involvement. Doing NOTHING is OK, cuz if we don't get involved, we can't lose prestige.

It might be tempting to blame this feckless, futile strategy for fashioning foreign policy solely upon the current generation of politicians. Danner stepped back and reviewed American strategy over a longer arc and found much of the problem rooted in a much older "doctrine" -- the Truman Doctrine. The key line of the Truman Doctrine, taken from his speech to a joint session of Congress in 1947 was this:

I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

But that's not how the line originally read. The content of the doctrine came from a brief prepared for Truman by Clarke Clifford in response to Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech the prior year. The Clifford brief stated the Soviets were "on a course of aggrandizement designed to lead to eventual world domination by the U.S.S.R" and that the United States "should support and assist all democratic countries which are in any way menaced and endangered by the U.S.S.R." In modern parlance, the "victim list" was broadened from democratic countries to free peoples and the "enemies list" was broadened from the Soviets to "outside pressures."

Mission creep, anyone?

What led to the change in language? The new national security apparatus being assembled felt the American public wouldn't support such a sweeping policy couched solely in negative terms as thwarting a single enemy but would support those goals if included as part of a positive campaign to support American ideals -- making the world safe for democracy. Apparently, they were correct. We fell for it hook, line and sinker.



Getting Out

So can reviewing fifty years of flawed rationals for action (and inaction) do anything to inform a decision on what to do to next in Iraq and Afghanistan? For starters, it might provide a broader perspective about whose goals -- ours or those of our enemies -- are served by continuing current strategies. One theme that seems to appear frequently in news reports filed from Iraq and Afghanistan involves the measure of success used by those doing the fighting. Inevitably, the first measure of success cited is simply "bring everyone back to base in one piece." I certainly can't fault those doing the fighting for listing that as Job #1 but

1) get in a big HUMVEE
2) drive around all day
3) avoid getting shot or bombed by IEDs
4) get back to base

as a strategy does nothing to create any stability, create any confidence in the local government or kill any bad guys. In short, it does nothing to create an environment that would allow us to leave under conditions that look like a win.

That's the core problem facing President Obama right now. Sadly, it's very familiar territory for the United States. We faced nearly the same situation in 1965 as President Johnson reviewed the advice of his staff regarding the trajectory of the Vietnam War. The November 20, 2009 edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS included extended excerpts from numerous conversations between LBJ and various advisors about the calculus of adding troops to the conflict. In a June 8, 1965 conversation with Senate Majority leader Mike Mansfield, Mansfield posed the question: As you said earlier, it's 75,000, then it's 150,000, then it's 300,000. Where do you stop? Johnson's reply: You don't. To me, it's shaping up like this, Mike -- you either get out or you get in… We've tried all the neutral things. And we think they are winning. Now if we think they're winning, you can imagine what they think.

Despite public pronouncements at the time to the contrary, many key advisors had stated blunt concerns about the wisdom of escalating or continuing any involvement and the President himself intellectually knew the war could not be won. Yet the President never left the trap of circular logic resulting from a misguided attempt to "save face" and "prevent more dominos from falling" to review the logic behind the original "getting in" decision to realize 'getting out" was the only viable strategy. As of June 1965, approximately 2200 American lives had been lost. More than 56,000 more Americans would die over the next ten years and the end result was a lost war, a Communist Vietnam and a nearly complete loss of trust in the American government by its citizens.

As was the case with Johnson in Vietnam in 1965, there are no easy answers for American's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are no good answers. But when you cannot define a mission and you cannot directly associate your strategy with specific goals and finite timeframes, there ARE right answers.