Mitt Romney’s speech at VMI on foreign policy has been widely condemned as vague and lacking in substance, sort of like the man who gave it. But the speech is also full of suggestions and criticisms of the Obama administration that are simply not realistic. The speech is Romney’s “Mission Impossible,” only without the cool theme music and also without a prayer of being actually achievable short of launching a series of 5 wars. I’ve decided that my initial assumption that a businessman of Romney’s experience must know something about the world was dead wrong. Apparently it is possible to sit in cushy big offices in companies like Bain, and to remain completely ignorant of foreign affairs. Romney’s speeches are all just a replaying for us of the prejudices of CEOs when they play golf together and complain vaguely about the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and so forth. Or, maybe Romney has gotten so many campaign contributions from arms manufacturers that he can’t help see foreign affairs through the lens of new wars he wants to fight.
1. The First War: Return to Iraq
Romney wants to send US troops back into Iraq and complained again about Obama’s “abrupt” withdrawal from that country. I don’t know how many ways there are of saying this, but it was from the beginning absolutely impossible for US troops to remain in Iraq legally. Romney apparently let Dan Senor, Bremer’s Neocon spokesman who came out to lie to us every day in Baghdad, write the following paragraph:
: “In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al-Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran. And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The President tried—and failed—to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”
Romney’s premise, that the US military in Iraq had some sort of ‘achievement’ that is in danger of being lost now that it is out of the country is ridiculous. The United States launched an illegal war of aggression on Iraq that virtually destroyed the country and kicked off a power vacuum that eventuated in a civil war that still continues at a low level. In 2006 when there were over 150,000 US troops in Iraq, in some months the death toll from political violence was 2500. That doesn’t even count all the armed Iraqis the US military was killing. The United States military never controlled Iraq and could never prevent bombings and attacks. When the US troops stopped patrolling major cities, the death toll promptly fell, because guerrillas were no longer setting improvised explosive devices to hit US convoys– operations that often wounded Iraqi by-standers as well.
In August, 2012, the death toll from political violence in Iraq was 164, half what it had been in July, after a crackdown by Iraqi army and police. So Romney is just wrong that there is some sort of secular trend in Iraq toward the kind of violence that had racked the country half a decade ago, and it is wrong to think that the US military was anyway primarily responsible for the end of the mass killings. What appears to have happened is that in 2006-2007, Iraqis living in mixed neighborhoods having both Sunnis and Shiites ethnically cleansed one another. Once the neighborhoods were mostly only one sect, the killing subsided (you’d have to get in your car and drive a while to find someone of a different persuasion to kill). That wasn’t a US achievement, it was a US failure!
It was the then leader of the Republican Party, George W. Bush, who negotiated the December 31, 2011, deadline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq with the Iraqi parliament. Obama simply implemented the agreement Bush signed. The reason the accord had to be worked out with the Iraqi parliament was that Bush wanted to be sure that US officers and troops could not be prosecuted for military actions they undertook in Iraq. The only way to forestall such prosecutions was a bilateral agreement authorizing US troops to fight in Iraq, and signed by the Iraqi government. Simply negotiating it with the prime minister would not have made it legally solid enough to protect the troops. Their presence had to be authorized by the Iraqi legislature. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was barely able to get the agreement passed, and only succeeded because it seemed to a lot of members of parliament their best bet for ushering US troops out of the country.
For that agreement to be renegotiated so that US combat units remained in Iraq would have required another vote of parliament. The Iraqi parliament is dominated by Shiites, along with Sunnis and a minority of Kurds. The Kurds were the only group that might have voted to keep US troops in the country, and they just don’t have that many seats. The Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party of al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Sadrists or followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, dominate parliament, along with Sunni nationalists. None of them wanted US troops in their country in the first place. They would never, ever have voted for a continued US troop presence in Iraq, and there would have been no way for Romney to make them do so if he had been president. His snide implication that Obama had a shot at this endeavor, and took it and missed, is just inside the beltway wishful thinking.
Guys! The Iraqis don’t like you. They didn’t want you in their country. They didn’t give you candy or put garlands around your neck. They killed over 4,000 of your troops, hundreds more of your contractors, and only failed to kill more because they were poorly armed compared to you.
After 8 years of ‘shaping’ Iraq, you got a Shiite government allied with Iran and Syria, the leader of which is now in Moscow seeking a $5 billion arms deal from Mr. Putin, so as to become more independent of the US. That was your best shot at empire, with hundreds of thousands of troops cycling through and a trillion dollars to play with, and it didn’t work. Because in today’s world it doesn’t work. Political-military empire is over. People are mobilized.
The only way for the US to dominate Iraq any more would be to re-invade the country, which would be Romney’s first war.
“The President has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women, and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months. Violent extremists are flowing into the fight. Our ally Turkey has been attacked. And the conflict threatens stability in the region.”
He goes on to say later in the speech,
“we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity. As one Syrian woman put it, “We will not forget that you forgot about us.” It is time to change course in the Middle East . . . “
“In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.”
So, it seems clear that Romney wants to “lead” in Syria, i.e., get involved in the war there.
But the reason that not only Obama but the entirety of Europe has declined to get involved in Syria is that there is no UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. In its absence, any army that used force except in self defense would be open to being hauled before judges in the Hague or judges in some country where the judiciary claims universal jurisdiction.
If the US went into Syria unilaterally, the same thing would happen to Romney as happened to Bush– the US would bear all the costs and would gradually become isolated and alone in the enterprise. As for fearing that people won’t forget that the US did not come to their aid, you could equally fear all the people who will be upset that the US intervened militarily, or you could fear ingratitude even if we did intervene (there are lots of examples of both).
3. The Third War is with Iran
Romney couldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear enrichment program if he were president, any more than Obama can. That step would require an invasion and occupation of the country. Simply bombing the facilities would only briefly set them back.
“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region—and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.
For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions—not just words—that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated. I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations. I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf. “
But close cooperation with Israel against Iran would ensure that none of our Arab allies would be willing to associate themselves with such a campaign. There is a reason that George H. W. Bush kept PM Yitzhak Shamir out of the Gulf War.
And, Romney can’t tighten sanctions on Iran any further without going all the way to an actual naval blockade of Iranian commerce. The US already has a financial blockade against Iran. Blockades, like ultimatums, cause wars. Countries threatened with strangulation frequently strike out. Even more stringent sanctions and blockades risk pushing Iran into reacting violently for self-preservation.
4. The fourth war is in Afghanistan. Although Romney said he would wind down the war there by 2014, just as Obama has pledged, he intended to ‘remain strong’ and to ‘consult our military,’ i.e. he implicitly is reopening the question of the US withdrawal from that country. He said,
“President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.
I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation. ”
There is no reason for Romney to bring up his political prospects being damaged unless he is considering reneging on Obama’s pledge to get out of Afghanistan. Likewise, that is implied by his reference to ‘evaluating conditions on the ground’ and taking ‘the best advice of our military commanders.’
On Afghanistan, Romney is pulling an anti-Nixon. He appears to have a secret plan not to end the war in Afghanistan.
5. The small wars: Intervention in Yemen, Somalia, perhaps even Libya in a ‘war on terror.’
The US has hit Yemen and Somalia with drone strikes and is occasionally kind of at war in those countries, though it is a desultory, occasional, and limited sort of conflict.
Romney says that drones are not enough. What would you use in such conflicts besides drones? Infantry? The implication of being ‘more forceful’ and dismissing drone strikes is that you would support the insertion of troops into those conflicts.
Romney’s various wars would, if pursued, bankrupt the country and cause more backlash and terrorism against the United States. Romney thinks that US prestige flows from strength, defined as military might.
But in fact what people in the Middle East admire about the US is its values, such as democracy and the rule of law. They hate our military hubris and still have not forgiven us for what we did to Iraq.
The only positive thing about Romney’s speech was his commitment to getting a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Unfortunately, we know from his leaked fundraiser recording of last May that he intends to ‘kick the can down the road’ on the Israel-Palestine issues, and that he does not trust the Palestinians with a state. So that positive language is just lies.
Four or five wars and lots of other conflicts are not a foreign policy vision, they are a nightmare.
On Sunday, the elected Libyan National Congress acted decisively to hold a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur. The same body had put him in power on September 12, but had grown increasingly impatient with his lack of leadership qualities. They complained that he took too long to form a government, that when he did it was full of former regime figures and non-entities, and that he seemed unwilling to engage them and defend his choices. When he presented his second, unsatisfactory slate of ministers to them on Sunday, they simply dumped him, by a vote of 125 to 44. The members of the Congress seem not to view this vote as a crisis, and plan to elect another prime minister shortly, either from outside the body or from among themselves.
There were, al-Safir argues, three main sorts of complaints.
1. One was that the cabinet ministers didn’t seem to have qualifications for their posts and there were fears they would be incompetent.
2. Others complained that the government didn’t look like the country, and that major revolutionary groups like the people of Zintan were not represented.
3. Others complained that the largest political party, Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance, was excluded from posts, while the Muslim fundamentalists, who did poorly in July’s election, were over-represented. (Even Aljazeera concurs on this point.) The National Forces Alliance is a civil party that is nationalist and centrist.
The Libyan electorate is thought to be skittish about Muslim fundamentalists, and especially after radicals attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, may have been uncomfortable with having them be prominent in a cabinet that excluded the nationalists.
Abushagur was perhaps rightly dismissive of the demand that his cabinet be apportioned on a regional quota system. But for him to favor the widely disliked fundamentalists over the popular Jibril group was his major error.
I saw some tweets suggesting that the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood would benefit from Abushagur’s departure. I think that analysis profoundly misreads what happened.
After being ruled by a batty dictator 1969-2011, Libyans now have a democratically elected legislature, and they’ve just gotten rid of their third leader in the space of a year. The vote of no confidence in Abushagur was democratically accomplished and expressed genuine popular buyer’s remorse. It is no more a paralyzing crisis than the Californians’ recall of Gov. Gray Davis was. Unlike what you will read, the country is not politically terribly unstable, and it does have a government, which is the Congress.
Al-Safir doesn’t expect a new government for 3-4 weeks; that is probably too long.
Despite the appearance of instability created by Sunday’s vote, Libyans are proving themselves bold in their new, democratic politics.. The National Congress now needs to move quickly to install a more decisive prime minister, one who can put together a government with popular support and who can rapidly address the country’s security problems.
Yesterday I explored the errors and fantasies in Gov. Mitt Romney’s WSJ op-ed on the Middle East. Here I will briefly go over the mistakes that the Obama administration has made in the region. Unlike the proposed blunders of Romney, I have to say, most of these are errors of omission or of an abundance of caution. I’d give Obama a C on Middle East policy, whereas I’d give Romney’s announced plans an F. Still, the present administration has had significant failures.
1. Obama came into office determined to restart the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He failed in this attempt. In part, he was stymied when Kadima Party leader Tzippi Livni failed to attract enough coalition partners to form a government, in February of 2009, allowing Likud hard liner Binyamin Netanyahu to become Prime Minister. Netanyahu had boasted of derailing the 1990s Oslo peace process, and was the least likely partner for Obama you could imagine. After briefly acquiescing in a settlement freeze for some of the West Bank, which got Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to open negotiations, Netanyahu managed to deflect Washington’s demands that he go back to the bargaining table by vastly increasing the rate of Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. The Palestinians angrily withdrew, not sure why they should try to negotiate over a pie that was being actively gobbled down by the other side. Since his failure, Obama has neglected to speak out on Israeli aggressive colonization measures or even on settler attacks on mosques, churches and individuals. Obama appears, incredibly, not to have realized how hard it would be to accomplish anything on this front, and not to have realized that he would have had to make it a top priority and put his presidency on the line about it, as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David. Sending George Mitchell out as a special envoy was simply too little.
2. Obama accepted the plan of David Petraeus and other Pentagon officers (who, admittedly, boxed him in) for a troop escalation in Afghanistan, combined with an ambitious counter-insurgency program that aimed at pacifying the country ahead of a US withdrawal. The alternative, allegedly championed by Vice President Joe Biden, was a much less ambitious counter-terrorism approach. The latter would not involve big conventional armies but sending light mobile special operations units in to deal with violent cells where they popped up. The operation against Bin Laden had this shape. The big counter-insurgency project and the troop ‘surge’ manifestly failed, as I predicted at the time. Petraeus and others were misled by their Iraq experience, where the US troop escalation in 2007 had some success, but only because it coincided with a Shiite ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis from Shiite neighborhoods, which fatally weakened the Sunni guerrillas, so that the US could polish a lot of those cells off. Afghanistan was not comparable.
3. Obama has used economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to deflect the enormous pressure from Netanyahu and his allies in the American Israel lobbies (which work through Congress) to bomb Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Such a strike would release toxic chemicals and metals and would kill thousands of non-combatants in Isfahan. But the latest round of very severe sanctions on Iran, to the extent of trying to prevent the sale of Iranian petroleum, go beyond a boycott to being a form of blockade. It isn’t a naval blockade. Rather, Obama is preventing Iranian banks from interfacing with their counterparts and making it hard for other countries to pay Iran for the petroleum they buy from it. The US is now also threatening third-party sanctions on countries that buy Iranian petroleum. Blockades, like ultimatums, routinely cause wars. Roosevelt’s cutting off of Japan from US petroleum was part of the reason for Pearl Harbor (the Japanese had a choice of becoming a normal country or trying to keep their empire, and in the latter case the generals believed they had to take the Dutch East Indies for its petroleum, instead, and so had to neutralize the US pacific fleet). Moreover, there is danger of causing so much economic pain and isolation with severe sanctions that children and other non-combatants cannot get access to, e.g., needed medicines. Obama has put the US on a war footing with Iran, and may not have been as clever as he imagined about avoiding the traps Netanyahu set for him.
4. Having joined in the NATO effort to protect Libyans from the murderous regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama seems to have more or less lost interest in that country. It was predictable that when an idiosyncratic, personalized, police state collapsed, the country would limp along without the needed institutions until they were rebuilt. NATO (which is led by the US) should have helped train up a new Libyan army and police. As it is, the militias thrown up by the civil war are still too powerful (and some have become gangs), and the new elected government has too few police and military tools to establish order. In March, a mere 250 troops were graduated from the Tripoli academy. (Though, as I have underlined before, despite occasional incidents, security is better in Libya than we had any right to expect, and it isn’t the basket case it is often depicted in the US press).
The current Neocon critique of Obama over a terror cell’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the US ambassador and 3 others, by the way, makes no sense to me. No president could have done much to prevent such a sudden terrorist attack, and the fog of war would always prevent an exact understanding of the events for a period after such an attack. Why CNN has been bringing Murdoch hacks on, who have no knowledge of the situation on the ground in Benghazi, to make this flimsy case mystifies me.
5. Obama has been peculiarly passive as Syria has descended into mass murder, with over 30,000 dead and widespread displacement, hunger and misery. His hands have been tied by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council, to be sure. Nor would it be a good idea for the US to intervene with boots on the ground or by giving weaponry to the ragtag Free Syrian Army. But had he wanted to act more decisively on Syria, short of going to war, the president surely could have. Even just finding ways to get humanitarian aid in to starving Syrians would make a difference. (The current levels of US humanitarian aid are small and the delivery methods uncertain). They say that Bill Clinton has profound regrets over letting the Rwanda genocide proceed unhindered. Obama’s neglect of Syria, I fear, is likely to haunt him, and to haunt us all.
6. Obama should move the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain to some other port in the Gulf, and should speak out forcefully against the repressiveness of the Sunni monarchy against the Shiite majority in Bahrain. It is shameful for the US to have to depend on a government that is acting like a sordid little police state. It has just actually sentenced physicians to long prison terms for simply treating wounded rebels. That is the act of a petulant tyrant, and the US should dissociate itself from him.
7. Obama’s deployment of drones in northern Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia is deeply problematic. It has no real legal framework. It is classified and often run by CIA civilians, and so cannot be properly debated in an open, democratic way. Obama has claimed the prerogative of assassinating people by drone, and has even killed American citizens. Although some members of Congress are briefed on the program, it is too secretive and too far outside the realm of the rule of law to be compatible with the US constitution. Worse the drone strikes are probably politically counterproductive. Where the US hits again quickly after an initial strike, killing rescue workers, it is probably committing a war crime.
The Obama administration has done a fair job of navigating through the shoals of the Arab Spring. He should have called for Hosni Mubarak to step down much earlier than he did. But that was not a disaster, and neither are US relations with post-revolutionary Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. The US has good relations with the government of Hamadi Jabali in Tunisia. Obama called for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in Yemen from June of 2011. In general, Obama has done no harm, in the face of mass popular movements that changed the face of the region. The withdrawal from Iraq was necessary by the terms of the agreement Bush reached with the Iraqi parliament, and while Iraq will have problems for a long time, at least US troops are not fighting and dying there. There haven’t been big breakthroughs or successes with the possible exception of the nullification of Usamah Bin Laden, but also no major disasters and quagmires (Afghanistan is not a quagmire because Obama has announced he is getting out in 2014 no matter what).
The polemicists of the fringe left and the far right who depict the Baathist regime in Syria as a beleagured victim of Western plotting may have to retool their noise machines. It turns out that the authoritarian government of Bashar joined with France to destroy Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
An intelligence official for the Libyan rebels during the uprising last year against Muammar Qaddafi has alleged to the Telegraph that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad turned over to French intelligence Qaddafi’s satellite telephone number. They were able to use it to pinpoint his location in Sirte, and to arrange for his capture.
Then French president Nicolas Sarkozy had been an early hawk on Syria, proposing humanitarian zones and direct intervention there. Al-Assad extracted a promise from the French government, it is alleged, to back off its interventionist plans in Syria, in return for Qaddafi’s phone number. Sarkozy had entered into the NATO mission in Libya in part as a quest to raise his polling numbers in France, and so he needed a quick victory. Some have also alleged that he wanted to cover up Qaddafi’s illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s political campaign. (Allegations of illegal campaign contributions from African dictators dogged Sarkozy; I don’t know if they have anything to them).
If it is true, the story reflects badly on both Bashar and Sarkozy.
It should be noted that the idea you hear from the fringe left that the Baath in Syria are somehow ‘progressive’ is naive in the extreme. Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976 to esnure that a coalition of Palestinians, Sunnis and Druze did not defeat the Maronite Christians. It then applied ‘divide and rule’ to Lebanon for 20 years.
The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11 was seen by many observers as a sign of Libyan radicalism or instability rather than the work of a small, violent and unrepresentative group.
It is a little hard to understand this point of view, since Libyans had just voted in what observers felt were free and fair, transparent elections, and they had elected moderate, mainstream politicians. Even the Muslim Brotherhood lost in the elections. When I was in Benghazi in late May, I found people enormously proud of their municipal and then-planned national elections, and relieved finally to have escaped the nightmare of Qaddafi rule. The US ambassador killed in the consulate attack, Chris Stevens, was wildly popular among Libyans, and I, as an American, was warmly greeted wherever I went.
On Friday during the day, the people of Benghazi demonstrated in their tens of thousands for peace and against al-Qaeda-style radicalism. Many placards called Chris Stevens “a friend,” though sources on the ground cautioned that the rally was not primarily about foreign affairs. The crowds were angered by continued poor security, and by the affront to the honor of their city, the leading municipality in the revolution against Muammar Qaddafi (Gaddafi) in 2011, committed by radical Muslim groups when they attacked the US consulate. The demonstrations were an affirmation of Free Libya and a signal that the people did not overthrow the mercurial Qaddafi just to be dominated by pro-al-Qaeda thugs.
The rumored connection of the Sahati Brigade, headquartered 15 km outside the city at a farm, to the Ministry of the Interior, suggests that Friday night’s events may in part have been a power struggle within the Libyan government. Regular army troops occupied the militia’s camp in the aftermath of the crowd action. (I.e. did a more secular Ministry of Defense strike at a fundamentalist-leaning Interior Ministry, using the angered Benghazi crowds?)
Earlier, crowds had also driven the Ansar al-Shariah, a hard line fundamentalist group, out of Benghazi. Ansar al-Shariah is alleged to be the group behind the consulate attack, though its leaders deny it.
Four were killed in the clashes, and a dozen wounded.
3. Decline of tourism and of foreign investment implies even higher unemployment in countries already plagued by lack of jobs.
4. In Egypt and Tunisia, the Muslim fundamentalist-dominated governments may well get blamed for failing to maintain public order. In opinion polling, security and fear of crime are major concerns on the part of ordinary Egyptians.
5. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Nahdah in Tunisia, fundamentalist parties that did well in the first post-revolution elections, face new parliamentary elections in the near future. If they are in bad odor with the public for failure to provide public order, and for implicitly helping the Salafi rioters, and for failure to improve the economy, they could be punished at the polls. It would be ironic if the impassioned reaction of fundamentalists to a phantom Islamophobic film so turned off the public as to lead to the Muslim religious parties being turned out of office in the next elections.
7. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others almost certainly spells an end to any American interest in intervening in Syria. The longevity of Bashar al-Assad’s secular Baathist regime, now attempting to crush rebels that include a small number of radical Muslim vigilantes, may have just been lengthened. Meanwhile, the Muslim world will be unembarrassed that they got so upset about a Youtube trailer but didn’t seem to care if hundreds of Syrians were killed, arrested and/or tortured every day.
8. The attack on the embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, by some 4,000 angry protesters, will likely draw the US even more into internal Yemeni disputes, since Washington will want to try to destroy the fundamentalist movements there. US drone strikes on radical Muslim movements of an al-Qaeda sort have become commonplace in Yemen. However, no one in the United States will know that Yemen ever existed or that the embassy was attacked, or that the US is pursuing a policy of drone strikes in that country.
9. Assuming there aren’t any diplomats taken hostage, President Barack Obama will look presidential in dealing with these deaths in Benghazi and his electoral chances may improve.