December 05, 2013| News | John Glaser
As the U.S. wrestles with the Karzai government to finalize a security agreement that would govern thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another decade, virtually everyone across every spectrum agrees that pulling out completely – the so-called ‘zero option’ – would be reckless and dangerous for America.
The U.S.-backed regime in Afghanistan is too weak to sustain itself without continued U.S. presence and aid, say supporters of keeping troops there. The Taliban is still alive and well and could provide al-Qaeda with a safe haven to attack the U.S., they add, so we’ve got to stay!
First of all, if ten years of nation-building hasn’t established a self-sustaining government in Afghanistan, another ten won’t either. Second, the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is heavily exaggerated these days. The Taliban have shown zero interest in attacking any Western targets outside the borders of Afghanistan, and their alliance with al-Qaeda has cost them too much over the past decade to eagerly welcome them back in a September 10, 2001 style arrangement. Even if al-Qaeda did set up shop there, it’s hardly an essential ingredient in launching terrorist attacks on America to have a “safe haven” in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan did nothing to enable the 9/11 attacks, which is why the attacks were planned and carried out in Europe and the U.S. mostly.
Steven Metz at World Politics Review is one of the few in the mainstream to embrace the benefits of the “zero option.” He says the real question is whether the costs of continuing the occupation for another decade at least is worth the reasonably expected benefits (which are few).
But ultimately the question for the United States is not simply whether the Taliban and al-Qaida have a relationship, but whether the security benefits gained from a military presence in Afghanistan and billions of dollars in aid sustained for an indeterminate period justify the costs.
Such a commitment would be worthwhile only if it turned out that, one, the Taliban have not learned anything from the past 12 years—that is, if, once freed from direct American military pressure, they would again allow al-Qaida to use Afghan territory to launch attacks on the United States; and two, keeping roughly 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and sending billions of dollars in assistance would actually make a difference in preventing an al-Qaida attack on the United States or other American targets. Clearly a U.S. counterterrorism program with a major presence in Afghanistan would be more effective than no U.S. presence. But the issue is whether the increased effectiveness is worth not only the direct costs of the aid and U.S. troops, but also the opportunity costs, since that money and those troops could be doing something else that directly augments American security or prosperity.
Ultimately, it is hard to make a persuasive case that the benefits of sustaining a direct role in Afghanistan justify the costs.
Large majorities of Americans want to pull out of Afghanistan, and that’s with virtually nobody on TV or in the newspapers actually making the argument for the zero option. Even under the most favorable assumptions, the costs of continuing “the mission” in Afghanistan outweigh the benefits, if one could conceive of any.
China’s recent attempt to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over disputed territory in the East China Sea was met with shock and horror from the U.S. and its Asian allies. But the shock and horror, as always with American foreign policy, is cynically selective.
First, China’s strategic maneuvers on the disputed land and maritime territories are always “escalatory” and “destabilizing” whereas similar actions by the U.S. or its allies are exactly the opposite. Secondly, U.S. opposition to China’s growing naval presence and expanding influence in the Asia-Pacific is based on disingenuous pro-America bias.
So, yes, China’s declaration of an ADIZ over disputed territory was something of an escalation in the international rivalry over the East China Sea. But if China’s action was an “escalation” which attempted to “alter the status quo,” as U.S. officials keep saying, then surely Japan’s decision in 2012 to purchase and then nationalize the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (claimed by both Japan and China) was an escalatory attempt to change the status quo too.
And if China’s call for incoming aircraft to identify themselves to Chinese authorities was a “destabilizing” action, then surely it was equally destabilizing for the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to fly B-52 bombers and other military aircraft through the zone in defiance, without telling China. These actions could have easily “increase[d] the risk of miscalculation and misunderstandings” as Chuck Hagel warned about China’s ADIZ declaration.
The second point is perhaps more fundamental to this clash in the Asia Pacific. The primary argument from U.S. officials and pundits for why China can’t be allowed to make further naval gains in its own backyard is that America’s navy patrols the seas to ensure “freedom of navigation,” and China can’t be relied upon to do that.
First of all, as the International Crisis Group notes, “China’s domestic law…recognizes that, ‘All states, subject to international laws and the laws and regulations of the People’s Republic of China, enjoy the freedoms of navigation and over-flight in its exclusive economic zone…’” (EEZs extend 200 nautical miles off the coast of a country).
This argument that if the U.S. didn’t patrol the Earth with its navy, nobody would be able to enjoy freedom of navigation is absurd. In fact, a large part of the reason behind a worldwide naval presence is so the U.S. can choke off oil or trade to potential belligerents. That’s why we have fleets of navy warships patrolling the Persian Gulf every day. That’s why the U.S. navy makes the rounds in the East and South China seas, also high traffic for trade. So when people scream about China not respecting freedom of navigation, what they really mean is that they don’t want China to have the kind of naval control that the U.S. has.
Policing the world is strictly an American prerogative, don’t you know!?
The Obama administration’s fumbling policy on Syria turned out better than it might have this past fall when unprecedented public and international opposition to a punitive U.S. strike against the Assad regime staved off another reckless U.S. war in the Middle East. The Obama administration was embarrassed and one-upped by Russia’s diplomatic solution, and that’s much better than war.
But if that weren’t proof enough of how clueless and capricious the U.S. approach to Syria is, the New York Times now reports that the Obama administration could end up fumbling on Syria in the other direction. “Some analysts and American officials,” the Times reports, are arguing for U.S. military action against the al-Qaeda militants in the Syrian opposition, despite the fact that it “would pose formidable political, military and legal obstacles.”
The concerns are based in part on messages relayed this year by Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s overall leader, indicating that he views Syria — where the number of jihadist rebels and foreign fighters is steadily rising — as a promising staging ground.
Some analysts and American officials say the chaos there could force the Obama administration to take a more active role to stave off potential threats among the opposition groups fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But striking at jihadist groups in Syria would pose formidable political, military and legal obstacles, and could come at the cost of some kind of accommodation — even if only temporary or tactical — with Mr. Assad’s brutal but secular government, analysts say.
“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”
Emphasis added. I tend to agree with Ryan Crocker there, but not if it means Washington is going to start cooperating with the Assad regime to quell Islamic militants in Syria. Short-sighted interventionism in Syria on the part of the U.S. and its allies helped lead to the situation we have now, so it is folly to think U.S. meddling in the other direction is going to have desirable effects.
We don’t want a U.S. war in Syria to topple the Assad regime. But we also don’t want another extended war – overt or covert – in yet another Muslim country that tries to bomb al-Qaeda out of existence. Lessons from Pakistan and Yemen demonstrate how poorly that can work.
For almost 50-years, the Pew Research Center has been polling on the question of whether Americans think the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally,” but only now, for the very first time, have a majority of Americans answered in the affirmative.
I’m often wary to cite public opinion approvingly, mostly because it changes all the time. These results are a byproduct of a particular place and time, more than a decade of near constant war and excessive interventionism with nothing much to show for it.
There was an uptick in this sentiment following the Vietnam War too, and it slowly receded. Nevertheless, the results are significant.
Foreign policy, once a relative strength for President Obama, has become a target of substantial criticism. By a 56% to 34% margin more disapprove than approve of his handling of foreign policy. The public also disapproves of his handling of Syria, Iran, China and Afghanistan by wide margins. On terrorism, however, more approve than disapprove of Obama’s job performance (by 51% to 44%).
The public’s skepticism about U.S. international engagement – evident in America’s Place in the World surveys four and eight years ago – has increased. Currently, 52% say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38% disagree with the statement. This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. “minding its own business” in the nearly 50-year history of the measure.
Interestingly, most Americans (77%) think increased trade and business ties with the rest of the world is a good thing, while only 18% think its negative. So, quite explicitly, Americans don’t like greater involvement in the world by the U.S. government and they do like greater economic involvement in general.
A senior European Union official today discussed the possibility of the EU causing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority if the current round of peace talks fail, with an eye toward pressing Israel to make some serious moves toward Palestinian statehood.
The official, who was not named, noted that the funding was supposed to be to prepare the PA for the establishment of statehood, and said there was no point to keeping the spigot flowing if the Palestinians weren’t going to get a state anyhow.
The end of EU bankrolling of the PA would virtually assure its collapse, and would force Israel to take offer practical responsibility for the occupied West Bank, instead of just letting the EU subsidized PA muddle through.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas raised a similar prospect in 2010, suggesting that the PA be dissolved if there was no progress toward statehood. The idea then is that without the PA, Israel has no one to hold phony negotiations with, and no pretense that they’re going to allow statehood at some far-flung future date, meaning they’d struggle to defend their treatment of the Palestinains as “non-citizens” going forward.