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The Republican Foreign-Policy Meltdown

March 10th, 2013 - 8:33 pm

Over at the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin vents frustration at the Republicans’ inability to advance and defend a coherent foreign-policy alternative to the Obama administration’s:

The reaction of some hawks on the right to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster suggests a refusal to recognize why Paul was so successful in garnering praise. They are seemingly unable to recognize the deeply held perception of many, if not most, of the American people that Iraq and Afghanistan were unsuccessful and that enthusiasm for the Arab Spring is misplaced. They have lost credibility with the American people and they need to both acknowledge that and strive to get it back.

Good for Ms. Rubin. But the retooling of Republican policy, if ever it occurs, will be painful, because our errors have deep and stubborn roots. Mitt Romney read the popular mood well enough to keep his mouth shut through the whole of the disastrous second debate on foreign policy, and to keep George W. Bush under wraps through the whole of the campaign. Apart from a general commitment to maintain American military strength, though, Romney advanced not a single new idea in foreign policy.

The problem is about to get much, much worse. Syria’s civil war has already spread to Iraq, as Al-Monitor reported March 10:

On March 5, Syrian militants reportedly affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked a convoy of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers near the Rabia border crossing in western Iraq. Forty-eight Syrians, mostly military, and nine Iraqi soldiers were killed. The Syrians had earlier received medical treatment in Iraq.

As Mushreq Abbas reported for Al-Monitor, the ambush at the border should not just be considered a  “military confrontation in the strictest sense of the word, but rather was an extension of the national turmoil on both sides of the border.”

The forces of Iraq’s Sunni Awakening, funded and armed by Gen. David Petraeus during the 2007-2008 surge, will be drawn into a regional Sunni-Shi’ite war that began in Syria but will extend to Iraq as well as Lebanon. I wrote in 2010 that “Petraeus’ ‘surge’ of 2007-2008 drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq by absorbing most of the available Sunni fighters into an American-financed militia, the ‘Sons of Iraq,’ or Sunni Awakening…Petraeus created a balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites by reconstructing the former’s fighting capacity, while persuading pro-Iranian militants to bide their time. To achieve this balance of power, though, he built up Sunni military power to the point that – for the first time in Iraq’s history – Sunnis and Shi’ites are capable of fighting a full-dress civil war with professional armed forces.”

The Sunni power incubated under Gen. Petraeus’ watch now sees in the Syrian civil war an opportunity to redraw national boundaries in the region. Again, from Al-Monitor:

The Syrian unrest in 2011 was enough to stimulate new ideas including changing the border. For the first time, religious calls emerged in support of redrawing the border to unify Sunni regions on both sides. In the meantime, fears increased among the Shiite authorities in Baghdad and southern Iraq, who were worried that Sunni areas in Iraq would transform into a stronghold for Syrian revolutionaries, or that Syria would transform into a stronghold for Iraqi Sunnis who oppose the Baghdad regime.

A trillion dollars and tens of thousands of casualties have turned Iraq into a sectarian powder-keg, with an Iran-allied central government supported by its Shi’ite majority confronting a well-organized and well-armed Sunni minority. No-one expected the spark to come from Syria. The Republican leadership, meanwhile, has nothing to say about that conflict. We do not want to let the heinous Assad regime continue to murder its own citizens, nor do we want to put advanced weapons in the hands of Sunni extremists who dominate the Syrian opposition, despite the best efforts of the West to foster a moderate government in exile.

Petraeus allowed the Republicans to claim a certain degree of success for the unpopular Iraq war. American conservatives idolized him. In 2010 he was speaker at the annual dinners of the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, and Commentary magazine. Petraeus is gone, but the bill for his brilliance is just coming due.

Turkey has turned into a regional trouble-maker. As Halil Karaveli of Johns Hopkins SAIS warned in the New York Times on February 27th:

President Obama has relied heavily on Turkey in seeking to oust Mr. Assad and Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit the Turkish capital, Ankara, later this week. But Turkey is part of the problem. It is exacerbating Syria’s sectarian strife, rather than contributing to a peaceful and pluralistic solution….Turkey has provided a crucial sanctuary for the Sunni rebels fighting Mr. Assad and has helped to arm and train them.  Even more ominously, Turkey is turning a blind eye to the presence of jihadists on its territory, and has even used them to suppress the aspirations of Kurds in Syria.

Washington’s embrace of Erdogan, though, began in the Bush administration. It was Bush who first invited Turkey’s Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erodogan to the White House, undermining Turkey’s secular parties. As Omer Taspinar of the Brookings Institution wrote at the time:

America’s advocacy of “moderate Islam” against the “radical Islam” in the Middle East worries Turkey the most. Turkey being portrayed as a model within the moderate Islam project has been conceived as a support for the moderate Islam in Turkey, thereby led to a clash between America’s approach and Turkey’s laic and Kemalist identity. Already alarmed over the landslide victory of Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republic’s laic reflexes have become overwhelmingly concerned with the “model” expression of the US, which allegedly promoted Turkey’s moderate Muslim identity. In the aftermath of his victory, Washington’s [December 2002] invitation to the AKP Chairman Tayyip Erdogan, who was not confirmed as a prime minister then, was perceived [by the Turkish intellectuals] as the weakening of the secular foundations of Ataturk’s republic by the United States.

The Bush administration and the mainstream Republican leadership went all in on the gamble that moderate Islam would bring democracy and stability to the Middle East, and turned the devious, erratic Turkish leader into its poster boy, with disastrous consequences. But the Republicans’ ideological commitment is so rigid that they have difficulty freeing themselves from the grip of what Charles Krauthammer inappropriately dubbed “democratic realism.” (In opposition to this, I proposed an Augustinian realism as the basis for U.S. foreign policy).

We Republicans now find ourselves painted into a corner. The public doesn’t trust us with guns. That’s why Rand Paul has gotten his fifteen minutes of fame (and if it turns out to be more than fifteen minutes, we are in trouble). It’s satisfying at one level to watch Rand Paul beat up Obama’s nominee for CIA director, but he represents a nasty brand of isolationism.

We nonetheless have to state the obvious: The only way to prevent Syria’s living hell from spreading to Iraq and Lebanon is to neutralize the main source of instability: Iran. Republicans should rally behind Gen. James Mattis, whom Obama fired as head of Central Command. Gen. Mattis told a Senate committee March 6 that sanctions aren’t working, and that Tehran ”enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose.” The United States should not only remove Iran’s nuclear program, but also destroy Revolutionary Guards bases and other conventional capability that the Tehran regime employs to destabilize its neighbors. And the U.S. should throw its full weight behind regime change. With Iran out of the picture, the local conflicts–horrific as they are–will remain local. I do not believe that either Egypt or Syria can be stabilized, but it is possible to limit the spread of their instability. The prospect of a prolonged Sunni-Shi’ite war in the region will be horrific past the imagining of most Americans. Secondary conflicts will erupt around it, including long-frustrated minorities like the Kurds, who have created a functioning de facto state in northern Iraq.

We Republicans have to cure ourselves of the illusion that we can engineer the happiness of other cultures with an inherent antipathy to Western-style democracy. Where the Muslim world is concerned, optimism is cowardice. And we have to persuade the American people that selective, limited military action against Iran will not draw the United States into a new land war.

If we fail, the world will change to our lasting disadvantage. For example: if Iran gets a deliverable nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia will ask Pakistan to deploy nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia as a deterrent. China has had a covert role in Pakistan’s nuclear program from the outset; if the United States fails to stop Iran’s nuclear program, China will have an urgent interest in a military presence in the Persian Gulf, and the means to accomplish it through nuclear proliferation. It is a nightmare scenario, but it is not improbable. We might as well tell the truth. To do that, we need to face up to it ourselves.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image.)

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Top Rated Comments   
>>..but he [Rand Paul] represents a nasty brand of isolationism.<<

And your evidence of that is? Other than who Rand's father is? Yeah, I thought so. Nice of you to throw in a completely unsupported slur, though. That's becoming a PJM tradition.

Right now, a muscular brand of isolationism is looking pretty damn good compared to the Bush/McCain strategy of intervening anywhere anytime for almost any reason with no plan for finishing what you start. Enough of that crap, even if we could still afford to do it, and we can't.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
On the contrary, we don't trust neo-cons with guns; and, as a former supporter of neo-cons with guns, I would say with excellent reason.

This column, full of Monday-morning quarterbacking, uses the exact same playbook and proceeds to tell us to get further involved in the region, while convincing the American people that limited strikes in Iran won't get us involved in a land war.

Good luck.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There will never be democracy in the Mid-East. Never has been.The "Arab Spring" is the inevitable rising of the masses, albeit with incompetent mingling from the current administration, which supports the "Brotherhood".
It is unlikely that there will be western style reforms or redistribution of wealth to quell the masses. In the west "Bread and Circus" is a bribe to keep the peace. It took the Roman occupation of Egypt and the subsequent implementation of "Bread and Circus" to quell the unrest of the impoverished peasants of Egypt. The descendants of Ishmael, predicted in the Bible to be "wild as asses" have very little history of economic or social reform.
Arabs have been ruled by monarchs and dictators for time eternal.
The meddling by foreign powers, mostly for petroleum and other strategic
reasons has only exacerbated the problems. Foreign powers have invariably
backed the dictators and monarchs.
At present, the Mideast is a game of stratego, being played by the west against Iran, the Chicoms, and Russia. Once again the Arab tribes will be pitted in alliances with the foreign powers and against each other.
Can Armageddon be around the bend? All the players listed in the Bible, are in place. Good article David.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (39)
All Comments   (39)
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I think of myself as a 'recovering liberal' but like a lot of such people I found myself backing the neo-conservative policies of the Bush years. Just as I questioned the liberal orthodoxy, experience has compelled me to reconsider the Bush interventions. And notice that despite different methods the unintended consequences of Obama's Libyan intervention are similar to those in Iraq. I have been noticing for example that while WW2 was a great success for liberal interventionism, the Korean war was only a half success and that we haven't had a lot of luck since in actual hot wars. The cold war is still a largely unacknowledged success for the left who continue their 'march through the institutions' who would have people believe that the ideology of North Korea is superior to that of South Korea. They just don't mention North Korea much in that regard any more. I agree that we need a new foreign policy and with the Democrats engaged in an experiment in post colonialism it is up to the Republicans to come up with a new approach.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Let's see some attribution Mr. Spengler!

It was Oswald Spengler who came up with "optimism is cowardice."

I think you enjoy blaming Bush too much. My take is that Iraq was at least balanced between Shia and Sunni by the end of 2008. The major shooting and bombing had stopped and a quasi-democratic and legitimate government was in place. Our protective garrisons were in place to act as both a trip wire for Iranian adventures and to allow social and political evolution amongst the Iraqis. AQ lost many, many fighters too.

Obama changed all that with his pullout in 2009. This action destabilized the region and lead to the current mess.

Afghanistan was "ice boxed" by Bush. It continued its backward ways but we maintained a forward base to block backsliding and maintain a position along the Silk Road between Russia and India and China and Pakistan/Iran. Again, Obama wasted our military to no good end and still plans on a complete pullout.

I judge the Bush results as of 2008 as a major success. The problem, of course, is democracy - in the US - that brought Obama to power to reverse our hard-won foreign gains.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Jennifer Rubin is a ranting fruitcake who makes "nasty isolationism" look like a good idea.
Intervention of any kind in Syria needs to pass the "national interest" test. What American national interest does it serve to intervene in that place? What compelling reason do we have to meddle in their affairs? So far as can be told, Jennifer Rubin and company have a big fat nothing on that one. By contrast, the intervention in Iraq had a number of selling points; and we all know how well that turned out. I'm not fond of the proxy war in Syria being funded by the Saudis and Emirates (not Turkey, who appears to only be looking after their own interests viz the Kurdish question), but it doesn't seem real useful getting involved in that tribal mess. It goes without saying that blowing up Iran isn't a real helpful idea either.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
On Iran, Mr. Goldman is both right and wrong at the same time.

He is right that stopping Iran's nuke program can be done without dragging the U.S. into a land war. Israel stopped both Syrian (2007) and Iraqi (1981) programs - at least setting back the latter ten years - without any kind of land war. And, what we did in 1991 to finish off Iraq's program was also done from the air; the land war we fought then was to liberate Kuwait, not stop Iraq's nuke program. All hype aside, even the 2003 war was not about nukes; it was about other WMDs (mostly chemical), and even more than that, penalizing Saddam for flouting the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement and thus restoring U.S. regional credibility. One can argue whether this latter effort was worth the trouble; my point here is that even this war was not really about stopping anybody's nuke program.

Stopping Iran's at this point would require more resources than past efforts of this type, but we have these. Even Israel can do this, though with much greater exertion than was required in the two actions of this type she took previously (and Israel is in fact stronger now in many ways than years ago). None of this will lead to a land war.

Remember, one of the most important reasons Iran wants nukes - even apart from their nutcase religion-based doomsday scenario that their action is supposed to initiate - is that their conventional military has very little credibility. Their air force is a joke, and their navy is no better. They have a large army, but they don't have the logistica/economic wherewithal to project it anywhere; it is only good for defensive purposes. If we don't invade, we don't have to fight them, and we certailnly don't have to invade them to cripple their nuke program. The only instrument of power projection Iran has is terrorism, and they are using that pretty much to the extent they can even now. I doubt that they will hate the "Great Satan" any more than they already do, or try any harder than they already are (they can't), to undermine U.S. interests via regional subversion, terrorism, etc. And don't even start about Iran's threats to "close the Strait of Hormuz"; we can clear them out of there inside of a week, and make them pay very dearly besides at very little cost to ourselves.

Now, where Mr. Goldman is wrong:

It is useless at this point in time to discuss how the GOP is supposed to persuade America that Iran should be stopped from having nukes, that this is feasible, and that we should do it (or help/let Israel do it). They lost the last election. In effect, they no longer have a say. This discussion would be relevant if Romney had won, and if Romney still seemed to be wavering on this issue and seemed to need some "help" from his party on this.

But Obama won. He holds pretty much all the cards as to what the U.S. is going to do or not do concerning Iran. And I don't care what reassurances he is giving Israel; that is worth bopkess. His actions speak louder than his words. He appointed the likes of Kerry, Hagel, and Brennan to the top foreign policy/national defense relevant posts. He is now removing naval assets from the Persian Gulf for "budgetary" reasons.

Anyone who really believes that Obama has any intention of stopping Iran from having nukes by military means is truly living in la la land.

By the time the GOP is at the foreign policy controls again, circa January 2017 (MAYBE), it will be a moot point. Either Israel will have stopped them (in SPITE OF Obama), the regime will have collapsed and the new regime will give up the program (a nice daydream), or Iran will have the bomb.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We built a billion dollar titanium castle in the middle of Baghdad. Like a hostile occupying force. We did this because our 'hearts and minds' campaign worked?

Progressive Republicans don't seem to care how many casualties our patriotic troops incur. Progressive ideology trumps all. They, like Stalin, think that patriotic youth are like insignificant eggs that need to be broken in order to make a delicious communist omelette.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
That trillion dollars wasted in Iraq should have been spent drilling for oil and building refineries in the US. Very soon we are going to pay a high price for not doing so when the Middle East blows up and oil supplies are cut off.

I warned people back in the day that we could never make a go of Iraq because the hatreds there go back centuries, back to Old Testament times if you count past Islam. There is no way invading a country and fighting in its streets for a decade while giving them a vote without a true understanding of Democracy is going to erase all of that. We just took out a somewhat stable strongman and left an open powderkeg.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The bottom line is America would rather not be involved in all this messy nonsense, if at all possible. If we are, we should go in whole hog.
All of this half ass crap since korea has passified the population to any outside incursions because we know our government will do it half assed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Many of us out here in the hinterland, did not agree with Rummy or Bush. That needs to be stated up front because "they" blew it! Shinseki was right, not Rummy. We should have gone in with 500,000 troops and completely passfied Iraq. So we are where we are. I, as a TP member take no responsibility for the GOP screw up. They should have to answer. So drag Rove and Geo up into an intellectual setting and make them explain themselves. I have nothing to apologize for.
Iraq was an exerciase in taking a big christian (for lack of a better adjective) DUMP in the middle of mesopetamia - and Bush blew it.
Iraq should not be islamic right now, just as Japan is no longer Shinto. Both extreme ideologies. We should have reconfigured the entire country wether they liked it or not. We should have a massive air base with 30,000 troops for the duration.
Yeah! Bush and Cheney blew it! The rest of us republicans did not - and we have nothing to apologize for.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The really weird thing is that, if Iran gets nukes, they will probably attack the US. Where will they attack...likely a center of progressivism (i.e., a major US city). Boom!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If China were interested in nuclear proliferation they would have helped the North Koreans. Russia would not stand idly by, either what with their Muslim
problem. China isn't going to do squat. Nice try, though.
Let's be honest, this is about spreading the globalist view of economics and not an altuistic venture for democracy or peace.
Bad mouthing Rand Paul when your own efforts have increased our long term dangers is ripe.
Limited wars feed the military-industrial complex. Let's do this. Somebody dirty bombs us, we vaporize Asia from the Med to Malaysia. Leave no bone unturned. I doubt it will happen twice.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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