From a policy perspective, there will never be just one legacy for the September 11th terrorist attacks. As that day's 14th anniversary came and went this past Friday, it was hard not to see how the fissures of its aftermath continue to color our political discourse.
To the neoconservatives in power at the time, the attacks necessitated a massive expansion of domestic surveillance powers, the adoption of "enhanced" interrogation techniques for intelligence gathering, and a policy of regime change for noncooperative states with links to violent Islamic extremism. Tax cuts, a massive expansion of government (notably the mess that is the Department of Homeland Security), and our country's two longest wars were, in their view, justified by the magnitude of the tragedy.
Until sectarian violence started to choke the dream of a small footprint in Iraq, the Democrats played the role of quiet passengers along for the ride. After awakening to the looming economic and political calamity, their narrative has been that Republicans ignored the necessary war (Afghanistan) while bungling a needless one (Iraq); all the while overstepping their constitutional bounds in Guantanamo and in CIA detention centers around the world—all of which Democratic leaders had been thoroughly supportive of, or at least unquestioning of, while it seemed to be working.
Summer is for baseball… and Bernie Sanders. Like baseball, Bernie Sanders relies on the sweltering malaise (baseball and Bernie are both slow news cycle summer games), lack of competition (there are no other sports—or Democratic campaigns—on TV), and an illusory yearning for an older and simpler time (America’s past-time is fading like a middle class supported by manufacturing). While Bernie Sanders will, like baseball, never compete with the true titans of the fall, as Hillary bides her time to intervene, he is opening the pathway for a qualified compromise candidate to knock her off the mantel.
Hillary Clinton has no shortage of vulnerabilities, despite having been in campaign mode for much of the past 25 years. But when it comes to her time as Secretary of State, her opponents continue to be distracted by details and not the underlying strategic failures (Benghazi and private servers are—largely irrelevant—details, Libyan intervention and the Arab Spring are—at least optically—blunders). While it is important to remember that foreign policy, at least since the Nixon Administration, has been increasingly conducted from the White House rather than the State Department, Hillary Clinton will remain accountable in the public eye for the international initiatives undertaken at President Obama's behest. Of the international conflagrations of Obama’s time in office, none should more worry Hillary than the, now infamous, “reset” with Russia.
What needed to be reset?
President Bush’s relationship with Russia—and its imperial despot, Vladimir Putin—began with great promise. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia undertook a rocky transition to democracy: gangsters fought in the streets for the remnants of denationalized industries, former satellites exploded into civil war, and the country defaulted on its debts in 1998. Following the bombing of an apartment complex in 1999 (an act that many conspiracy theorists, and scholars, believe to have been covertly orchestrated by the state), Putin acted decisively to punish the Chechen separatists assumed responsible and brought relative stability and security back to Russia.
For President Bush, there was reason to believe that Putin was a competent leader with a moral compass—sage counsel advised Putin to emphasize his Christian roots in conversations with President Bush, leading Bush to declare that:
"I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul"
However, despite the warmth of initial dialogue, the interests of the US and Russia diverged, and a spike in the price of oil (which accounts for ~52% of the Russian state’s revenues) emboldened Putin’s global ambitions.
In response to an increasingly assertive Russia, President Bush pressed forward with plans to build a NATO antiballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe—specifically, a radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. While purportedly to counter Iran, and positively unable to intercept the barrage of nuclear warheads Russia could hurl at Western Europe, the NATO stations were important as the preface to extending the NATO response force to the boundaries of the alliance (rather than in Italy, Germany, and the UK where they are rather useless in propelling an initial ground attack, stationing US military personnel in the Czech Republic and Poland would raise the ante for Russia to conduct an initial incursion—the US can far more credibly commit to retaliate when its soldiers are killed).
In August of 2008, Russia invaded Georgia—although the European Union later found that it had been initially provoked by Georgia—and US-Russia relations reached their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union. The push for a missile shield seemed as prescient as ever and Republican nominee John McCain declared, "Today we are all Georgians" (below)—it seems to have rang on dead ears.
The Obama Administration, and by association Hillary Clinton, had grand ambitions for the hope and goodwill Obama inspired during the election. Whether it be removing troops from Iraq, nonproliferation, or pressuring regimes in North Korea and Iran, President Obama believed that a partner, or at least not an opponent, in Moscow would be necessary. But how could they reach an understanding?
Obama and Clinton may have believed that by making concessions to Russian President Medvedev—Putin in 2008 had acquiesced to the Russian constitution and temporarily taken over as Prime Minister--and politically empowering him, the US could detach the puppet (Medvedev) from the master (Putin). They may have also discounted the risk of future Russian aggression after say, another rise in oil prices, in the belief that political turnover could change international dynamics and kick-start cascading disarmament and cooperation.
Either way, Obama and his chief diplomat Hillary Clinton decided to “reset” relations with Russia and to open negotiations for a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals. The policy shift showed signs of failure from the—pun intended—start.
The reset fails
In a hasty attempt at symbolism, Hillary Clinton delivered a red reset button to the Russian Foreign Minister. Unfortunately, and as a ringing endorsement of American language abilities, instead of writing ‘reset’ on the button they wrote ‘overcharged’—the Russian words peregruzka and perezagruka are notably similar. Overcoming the initial gaffe, Clinton set out to negotiate the START treaty and generally renew ties.
As the signed-START treaty was being pressed through the U.S. Senate, the Obama administration decided to scrap plans for the antiballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe in favor of a naval destroyer-based system stationed in the Mediterranean. While we may never know for certain, the optics and timing of the missile realignment make it look likely that the move was in part inspired as a quid pro quo for Russian cooperation on Iran and other international issues.
So, what has come of Russian cooperation? START passed, but while cutting the number of deployed nuclear warheads is a step in the right reduction, it does not change any strategic calculations; both Russia and the US will still have more than 3,000 deployed nuclear warheads—more than enough to destroy the planet.
The Russians cooperated in Afghanistan, permitting US supply chains to run through its airspace and sphere of influence—thus allowing Obama's troop surge and expansion of the war. This one is a real doozy: the US spent much of the 1980s financing an effort to bleed out Moscow in Afghanistan, just to turn around and pay for Moscow for the right to waste our money there. Like Iraq, Afghanistan will collapse shortly after our exit, as it has done throughout history, and revert to its natural state as a collection of warring fiefdoms. It is likely that we would have been better off without Russian cooperation on this one.
In contrast, the Russians have reasonably cooperated on Iranian nuclear sanctions. This may have been genuinely beneficial to the US, as the collective financial pressure likely pushed Iran to the negotiating table. But was it really a concession? The Russians likely calculated that reducing their trade with Iran in the short-term would be well compensated by a corresponding rise in energy prices (as Iranian oil is sanctioned from the market). More recently, they have preempted the enactment of the Iranian disarmament treaty to renew their own trade with Iran—including the sale of sophisticated air-defense missiles. This is not to mention their shared bankrolling of the Syrian regime—although given the alternative, the West may now ultimately decide against pushing Assad out the door.
Still worse, the Russian annexation of Crimea and ongoing proxy war in Eastern Ukraine have made the US commitment to Eastern Europe appear ever more hollow. Would NATO bases in Poland and the Czech Republic have altered Russian decision-making? You can never draw a straight line across history, nor will there ever be a sufficient counterfactual. However, there is without a doubt a growing consensus that a NATO military presence on Europe's Eastern periphery would be a highly valued deterrent--General Wesley Clark (a Democrat and former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe) and Radek Sikorsi (a former Polish Foreign Minister) have both called for one.
Back to Hillary
All of the US actions I have written about, rightly or wrongly, will be easily attributable to the tenure of Hillary Clinton as chief diplomat--asked recently, she sticks by the reset policy. It is interesting that Hillary has been hawkish on Iraq (which still haunts her), Libya (which should haunt her), and Afghanistan (which will haunter her), but initially dovish with a country, Russia, long known for its taste for realpolitik. These topics will certainly be broached should Hillary make it to the general election, but will they appear in the Democratic primary?
Bernie Sanders will certainly skewer Hillary on the Iraq invasion—he voted against the war authorization as a congressman. However, it is less clear if he has any incentive to attack foreign policy decisions that are also linked closely to President Obama. Nor is it likely that the next presumptive challenger, Vice President Biden, will be able to attack these decisions due to his own association with them (Biden supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but actually had the foresight to suggest outright partition of the country rather than the bloody and prolonged partition we are getting).
Hillary’s diplomatic career may just be more writing on the wall for the same Democratic coalition that coalesced around Obama eight years ago. What should be an asset, her fluency in international relations, may be pinned up as yet another problem area where a practitioner's record is worse than a novice’s blank slate.
Watching a recent episode of Fareed Zakaria GPS— by eons the most substantive cable news program—I was horrified, but ultimately not surprised to hear the following:
"Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have all been involved in the campaign against ISIS in Syria but look at their contributions. The United States has carried out over 2,000 air strikes against ISIS in Syria, the military says. Meanwhile, the Arab allies have flown just over 100 strikes combined. Airwars.org estimates that Denmark, which has conducted missions against ISIS in Iraq, has flown as many air strikes as those Arab allies have flown in Syria combined. The Netherlands has conducted almost twice as many strikes against ISIS as the combined total of Arab strikes in Syria."
That the Danes (FY15 military budget of ~$4.4 billion) and Dutch (FY15 military budget of ~$8.8 billion), are exerting greater direct military pressure to contain ISIS than the entirety of the Arab coalition (Saudi Arabia alone spent $80.8 billion in FY14) raises serious questions about the long-term effectiveness of the coalition. Fareed Zakaria suggests that the discrepancy in contributions, despite the supposed danger resulting from proximity to the caliphate, is the result of the free rider problem. The free rider problem states that those who benefit from an expenditure are not those who are paying for them (accounting for differences in ability to pay)— this problem can be solved, in theory, by restructuring incentives or by creating new mandates. Unfortunately, Zakaria doesn't include details on how we can alter the incentives to contribute militarily in this example.
The Defense Department has an awesome website!
I plan to explore the respective national contributions to Operation Inherent Resolve—the coalition mission to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS—and offer an alternative political explanation to Arab reluctance to confront ISIS, but was delayed in doing so after stumbling upon the Defense Department's "Targeted Operations Against ISIL Terrorists" website (the US Govt. prefers to call ISIS, ISIL). Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, it provides a remarkable amount of data on target destruction, costs, and bombings per day, as well as including 'photo essays', videos, and stories.
The website includes an interactive map where you can learn about ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria, updated daily. For example, on August 5th, coalition military forces conducted 7 airstrikes in Syria and 22 airstrikes in Iraq. This information is further broken down by individual bombing. You can learn that near Fallujah in Iraq, 1 airstrike destroyed an ISIS excavator, or that near Mosul, 5 airstrikes destroyed six bunkers!
While I am a fervent proponent of government transparency, I am not sure how to feel about the website. Rather than solely providing the data for the public to parse, the website has a clear narrative which is documenting the mission's positive progress—without seeming to provide the necessary strategic context to what are obviously tactical strikes. Of course, if the website were a bleak and unattractive data dump of excel files, I would be far less likely to have explored them (thus my ambivalence).
Escaping ISIS, the new documentary from PBS’s Frontline, is gut-wrenching in its images of slavery and sexual violence in the ISIS-occupied territories of Syria and Iraq. The story pieced together by British producer and director Edward Watts, focuses on the plight of the dwindling and oft-misunderstood Yazidi minority. Emerging into the public eye last summer during their exodus from ISIS fighters on Mount Sinjar in a remote part of Northern Iraq, the appearance of US and UK Special Forces to shepherd the Yazidi refugees to Kurdish territory marked the first salvo of Western confrontation with the Islamic State and the beginning of a new struggle for Yazidi survival. Click here for a link to the video from PBS.
Who are the Yazidis?
Yazidi faith intertwines elements of the Abrahamic religions with Persian mysticism and local tradition. With uncertain origins- although commonly thought to have begun in Kurdistan in the 12th century- and introverted communal practices, the Yazidis have long drawn undesirable attention from outsiders that have viewed them as devil worshippers and polytheists. Neither of these accusations are true. The Yazidis share a beautiful oral tradition that incorporates Christian and Muslim practices with the belief of transmigration and the indirect worship of one supreme god and his angels. Their faith is a mosaic of the ancient traditions of the region, that doesn’t proselytize, and seeks gradual enlightenment and purification through peaceful worship. Practicing as a minority in a chaotic region, there are estimated to be anywhere between 70,000 and 500,000 adherents remaining in the world.
The documentary picks up some months after Western and Kurdish operations on Mount Sinjar in August 2014. It is the aftermath of the ISIS onslaught and some refugees have been saved, many slaughtered, and many women sold into slavery to act as concubines to ISIS fighters. ISIS does nothing to hide the fate of those who challenge their perverted ideology and Escaping ISIS pulls no punches in showing or detailing the gruesomeness- mass execution, stoning, and sexual violence are common. Escaping ISIS, as its name implies, tells the stories of those who have escaped ISIS captivity and of one Yazidi lawyer, Khalil al-Dakhi’s network to rescue others.
Armed with cellphones, a database of the thousands missing and believed captured, and crude Google maps, al-Dakhi and his underground network are nothing short of heroic in their forays into ISIS territory. While Escaping ISIS shocks the soul of any viewer with its depiction of violence, it strikes a resilient tone that resonates with a slither of hope.
Where is the United States?
As an American watching Escaping ISIS, there is no escaping a sinking sense of culpability for the bedlam- regardless of how you apportion the blame across administrations. The cavernous wound torn into the Middle East with the deposing of Saddam Hussein fundamentally shifted the balance of power in a region that was fragile from its Sykes-Picot origins. The great author and former-Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks studiously documented the Fiasco that was the administration of post-Baathist Iraq and famously warned that the real war for Iraq had yet to be fought. Sadly, he was right and the U.S., justifiably or not, will likely play a marginal role.
Ignoring domestic political considerations, two key historical lessons color Obama administration policy against ISIS: (1) the arms supplied to un-vetted rebel groups in Afghanistan in the 1980s were used to kill Americans in the 2000s and (2) Western ground troops in the Middle East (Lebanon 1983, Iraq 2003) can’t pacify a population they don’t understand and can’t communicate with- to say nothing of the cost in lives and dollars. The Obama administration, with the best intentions, was prepared to strike a fresh path of soft power and diplomacy rather than directly manage the fallout of the Arab spring and the rebuilding of Iraq. Unfortunately, what has manifested, rather than the likely worst-case scenario of local sectarian war, is a regional and apocalyptic menace seeking to lay national foundations for international terror.
Belated attempts by the Obama administration to organize and arm a rebel force for Syria have resulted in comically bad early performance- with less than 100 of the 5000 desired fighters trained. While airstrikes have stemmed advance in some areas and eliminated some influential leaders, ISIS continues to advance in Syria and Iraq and acquire ‘emirates’ in Africa and the Caucasus.
This year, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff published a manifesto advocating negotiation with terrorists. While I admittedly haven’t read it, and it is a better strategy for the Taliban than for ISIS (the latter with whom I wouldn't advocate it now), I applaud any outside the box thinking on a path forward. In the mean time, I can only pray that U.S. intelligence services are providing financial and strategic resources to the likes of Khalil al-Dhaki and others that are willing to confront ISIS, not as proxies, but as pillars of reason and peace.
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