Opinion

The Great Debate

Why ‘peace’ was catchphrase in presidential debate

Foreign policy attempted to take center stage at the presidential debate Monday evening but failed resoundingly. For the candidates agreed to agree on a number of key issues — the timeline for ending America’s longest war, support for Israel, and the importance of diplomacy and sanctions in Iran. Nation-building at home trumped nation-building abroad, and small business won as many mentions from the nominees as the death of Osama bin Laden. It was no accident that the contenders talked about teachers more than Libya.

What both President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney made clear to a nation exhausted by one decade of two bloody wars: The era of big military interventions is over. Romney, who earlier in the campaign sounded poised to embrace a more activist foreign policy, embraced a loudly centrist worldview that eschewed saber-rattling in favor of promoting entrepreneurship and civil society.

“Peaceful” was the night’s catchphrase for Romney, who told the president, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” This key word is likely to resonate with the women voters his campaign now sees as both critical to victory and open to his more centrist message.

“Let me step back and talk about what I think our mission has to be in the Middle East and even more broadly, because our purpose is to make sure the world is more — is peaceful,” Romney said in answer to a question about Egypt. “We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war.”

Even when talking about the country where Americans still fight and die each day, it sounded as if the war in Afghanistan were already over. Neither candidate budged an inch when moderator Bob Schieffer asked what they would do if “the deadline arrives and it is obvious the Afghans are unable to handle their security? Do we still leave?”

Can Romney put foreign policy in play?

This piece was updated after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s major foreign policy address on Monday. It reflects Romney’s remarks.

In the first foreign policy speech following his momentum-gaining debate against President Barack Obama, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney expanded on his vision of an “American century,” a view he tied to the legacy of leaders like General George Marshall as he outlined a muscular, moral U.S. foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its core.

Romney aimed to distinguish his world view from the president’s, as he has in far-lower-profile foreign policy speeches, promising to “change course” in the Middle East by helping to provide arms to Syrian rebels and talking and acting even tougher on Iran.

Are we deluding ourselves about Afghanistan?

Over the past month, a veritable who’s who of American opinion makers have been on the major television networks and in the most prestigious print media strongly reinforcing the notion that America’s mission in Afghanistan is “on track.” To be sure, they admit, there are “challenges” and “rough patches,” but the overall trajectory of the war is going according to the timelines laid out in the 2010 Lisbon Agreement. With so much star power locked virtually arm in arm, there are few who would publicly contend with such a group; most accept their stance without challenge.

But regardless of the titles, positions and resumes they cumulatively possess, if the evidence on the ground does not support their theory, it must be challenged. I contend the evidence overwhelmingly argues that our Afghan strategy has failed, continues to fail, and, absent a major course correction, will end in failure.

When the fundamentals of this war are examined, it doesn’t take long for common sense to kick in. With it comes the recognition that absent major change, we are very likely to suffer a strategic defeat by the end of 2014. Here are a few pertinent facts and hard questions:

Who’s to blame when an injured soldier kills civilians?

“It would probably be best for the military if they could execute Bales right now and send his pieces to Afghanistan.” That’s what National Veterans Foundation founder Floyd Meshad told me this week while we were talking about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales and the insanity or diminished-capacity defense Bales’s attorney apparently intends to use. Bales was formally charged today with slaughtering 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month in Kandahar.

With the politics, with the foreign relations involved, with the exceptionally high bar for proving lack of mental responsibility in military courts, it’s likely Bales is going to end up taking sole responsibility for his actions in the upcoming trial. Which is too bad. Does this case involve war crimes of the highest and most horrific order? Absolutely. But was it all Bales’s fault? Probably not so much. Not given the chain of command that put him in a position to suffer such extreme levels of post-traumatic stress.

There’s something of a frenzy of PTSD-research stories in the media this week. Did Bales have PTSD? Can PTSD make you act “insane”? What is the link between PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI)? How strong is the link between PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and violence? Is it strong enough?

Obama’s first foreign policy blunder

This is an excerpt from The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, published recently by Penguin Press.

The defining mistake of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was his decision to escalate American military operations in Afghanistan. There were 35,000 American troops in Afghanistan when Obama was inaugurated. By the summer of 2011 there were roughly 100,000. The main national security rationale for their presence was to prevent the Taliban from regaining sufficient strength to invite Al Qaeda back to the Afghan training camps and sanctuaries they had operated from before 9/11. But since early 2002, seven years before Obama became president, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself — until he was tracked down and killed by U.S. commandos in May 2011 — had been based in Pakistan, under the protection of a Pakistani army that continues to receive billions of dollars in American military aid.

Long before his presidential bid, Obama had called for an increased American military effort in Afghanistan. He repeated that position frequently during the 2008 campaign. Obama’s strong opposition to the Iraq War led many supporters to imagine that he rejected the idea of defending America against terrorism by waging conventional military conflicts in distant Islamic lands. Some of the more philosophical passages in Obama’s autobiographical books, writings, and speeches elaborating on his opposition to the Iraq War fed that misimpression.

Awlaki and the Arab autumn

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

The death of Anwar al-Awlaki this morning is welcome news, but Washington policymakers should not delude themselves into thinking the drone that killed him is a supernatural antidote to militancy. Yes, drone strikes should continue, but the real playing field continues to be the aftermath of the Arab spring; namely vital elections scheduled for October in Tunisia and November in Egypt.

A series of outstanding stories by reporters from Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, have aptly laid out the stakes. Islamists are on the rise in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but an extraordinary battle is unfolding over the nature of Islam itself.

“At the center of the debates is a new breed of politician who has risen from an Islamist milieu but accepts an essentially secular state,” Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick wrote in today’s New York Times. Common values, in other words, are emerging between the West and the Islamic world. These “post-Islamist” politicians argue that individual rights, democracy and economic prosperity are elements of an “Islamic state.”

Don’t overestimate Afghanistan pessimism

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.” David Rohde’s response can be read here and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s response can be read here.

By James Dobbins
The views expressed are his own.

Rory Stewart maintains that it is “not simply difficult, but impossible” to build an Afghan state. Presumably, this is meant hyperbolically, since Afghanistan has been recognized as an independent state far longer than any of its northern or southern neighbors.

It is true that the Afghan state had almost no capacity a decade ago, after twenty years of civil war, and that it still struggles to deliver basic public services. Nevertheless, nothing in Stewart’s pessimistic assessment would lead one to realize that since 2001 Afghanistan’s licit GDP has risen by 300 percent, that tax collection as a percentage of GDP now exceeds that of Pakistan, that school attendance has risen eightfold, that the country’s literacy rate will triple in 10 years if these children are permitted to stay in school, that 80 percent of the population has access to basic health care faculties (albeit often distant and intermittent), that child mortality has dropped by one third as a result, and that despite the ongoing conflict longevity is increasing. Yet another striking statistic is that today almost half of Afghan households have telephones.

Where the Afghanistan effort broke down

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.” David Rohde’s response can be read here.

By Anne-Marie Slaughter
The views expressed are her own.

This fall I am teaching a big introductory course to the first-year Masters of Public Affairs students at the Woodrow Wilson School called Politics and Public Policy. The focus of the first lecture, delivered by one of my colleagues, as the necessary intersection of good policy, good politics, and good practice. In other words, the best policy in the world doesn’t make any difference if it is not politically feasible; conversely, what is politically feasible may not be worth doing if it is not at least better policy than the status quo. And even where good policy is politically feasible, it must also be implementable – not just in theory, but in practice.

The intersection of these three circles came to mind as I read Rory Stewart’s achingly honest and thoughtful account of his experience in Afghanistan. For a long time I was convinced that the NATO intervention in Afghanistan could be successful at building a functioning Afghan government that would provide basic services to its citizens. My views were largely shaped by my regular conversations with my long-time friend Sarah Chayes, who lived in Kandahar for much of past decade running first a dairy cooperative and then a soap and fragrance business with Afghans. We were failing, in her view, because of the high NATO tolerance for the cancerous corruption that was sucking the life out of the country, starting at the top. Her book Punishment of Virtue tells the tale, describing how Afghans genuinely committed to rebuilding their country have been systematically driven out or killed by their compatriots who are profiting from the enormous in-flux of money and opportunity that inevitably accompanies large-scale Western intervention in a poor country. She thought, and I agreed, that the U.S. had had an opportunity to help rebuild a very different Afghanistan immediately after the invasion, and that it was still possible to empower the good guys if we were really willing to take on the bad guys profiting at the local, regional, and national level.

Creating a “light, long term footprint” in Afghanistan

By David Rohde
The views expressed are his own.

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt, “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.”

The most important phrase in Stewart’s essay is his statement that a “light, long-term footprint” should be adopted in Afghanistan. I agree but he paints a dark picture of all Western efforts in the country.

While Stewart is correct in many of his arguments, he presents a seductively simplistic picture of abject failure. Unquestionably, Washington has focused too much on the military effort. And Stewart is right to argue against a policy of simply pouring in more foreign troops. Yet his portrait of foreigners achieving nothing in a decade stokes a dangerous isolationism gaining credence in both liberal and conservative circles in the West.

My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention

By Rory Stewart
The views expressed are his own.

I returned to Afghanistan (after spending a short time at Harvard) in 2005. And when I heard that the British government was about to send three thousand soldiers into Helmand, I was confident that there would soon be a widespread insurgency. I also predicted that the military would demand more troops, and would get dragged ever deeper.

It wasn’t that I had any particular skill in predicting the future. I failed to predict that Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak would fall. I was wrong about Iraq. And my prediction for Helmand wasn’t based on any knowledge of Helmand. It was simply that I recognized the mindset and the actions of the NATO governments from Iraq. And I wasn’t alone in warning against the deployment. Many others predicted the same thing in Helmand. A military friend of mine had returned from a reconnaissance trip saying, “There isn’t an insurgency, but you can have one if you want one.” The Helmand surge continued regardless. The British government seemed to have a momentum, quite distinct from any individual politician or policy-maker. Troops were increased from two hundred U.S. Special Forces in 2005 to three thousand British soldiers in 2006.

At the time, senior officials reassured me that they understood the danger of being dragged in too deep. Two offered to sign a document saying that if the three thousand troops didn’t “establish governance, economic development, and security” within six months, they would admit the policy was a mistake, rather than claim that the problem had simply been strategy and resources. But I did not force them to sign. And when six months passed and the situation had worsened, the same officials supported the call to increase the number of troops to five thousand, and a few months later to seven thousand. I began writing and speaking publicly against the policy. I argued that what was needed was not a surge but a reduction to a light long-term footprint.

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