The President’s West Point address on national security last week brought mostly skeptical responses. Typical was the New York Times comment that “after five and a half years and dozens of speeches … the trail of Mr. Obama’s pronouncements has grown muddier.”

The President’s decisions may have been inconsistent at times—surging troops in Afghanistan one year only to remove them a couple years later, preparing to bomb Syria one day and negotiating with the regime the next—but through the twists and turns a number of valuable principles have emerged.

Most important is the President’s opposition to major wars of intervention. He won election in 2008 on a vow to remove U.S. troops from Iraq and fulfilled that pledge in 2011. He has now committed to withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Ending these wars is a major historic achievement. It’s also a policy widely supported by the American people. Opinion surveys show broad bipartisan support for staying out foreign conflicts.

Some analysts criticize this “minimalist foreign policy.”  The President has indeed been cautious about involvement in Syria and other crises. He recognizes, rightly I believe, that military intervention can backfire and have unintended consequences. Unlike some of his critics, he understands the limitations of American power and is more willing to work with allies.

White House aides have distilled the President’s foreign policy to the phrase “don’t do stupid stuff.” It’s not exactly an elegant expression, but it well describes what has been a major challenge of Obama’s presidency: trying to undo the major foreign policy blunders of the Bush administration.

Obama’s theme is similar to the “do no harm” principle that many in the development assistance community have adopted, based on the classic work of Mary Anderson. It’s a wise philosophy, whether applied to development assistance or military intervention. Avoid making matters worse. International assistance too often benefits corrupt elites rather than people in need. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan produced more insurgency and terrorism, not less.

The President has made progress in ending major wars, but he still believes military force is a viable means of countering terrorism. He has fewer boots on the ground but has increased the number of drone strikes, Special Forces raids, CIA operations, and attacks by U.S.-trained local troops. The policy is ‘minimalist’ in the number of U.S. casualties and the scale of force per episode, but the resort to military means is more frequent.

The limited use of force is no more effective against terrorism than large-scale invasions. The military’s own counter-insurgency manual and the statements of top military commanders acknowledge that military means alone are not sufficient to defeat terrorism.

Finding effective solutions to the continuing threat of violent extremism will require a redirection of American foreign policy far more substantial than what Obama has attempted, a process that will take many years. In the meantime, an approach of avoiding ‘stupid stuff’ may be the best we can hope for, and could provide time for building the public understanding and support necessary for a more substantial turn toward peace.

The recent report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is bad news for those who believe in a military solution to the conflict. The report offers further evidence that the U.S.-led counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan has been unable to defeat or weaken the Taliban.

For the year 2013, the United Nations has reported an 11% increase in violent attacks and security incidents during the summer months, and a 14% increase in civilian casualties for the year as a whole. The U.S. military claims lowers numbers, but most analysts consider the UN figures more reliable. Unpublished assessments estimate a 15-to-20% increase in violent attacks for 2013, according to the ICG.

Violence appears to have escalated in the early months of 2014 as well. An Oxfam statement, quoted by ICG, reports “clear signs that armed opposition groups have gained ground in rural areas where security responsibilities have been transferred to the [Afghan security forces]. …  Security has deteriorated in some provinces and areas that were previously considered safe.”

Whatever the exact numbers, the trends show continued and probably increased levels of violent insurgency in Afghanistan. Little or no success has been achieved in suppressing what General David Petraeus described in 2011 as “an industrial strength insurgency.”

This after 13 years of U.S. and allied military effort, including the ‘surge’ of American forces under the Obama administration that brought U.S. troop levels to 100,000. This after the buildup of Afghan security forces to an estimated 345,000 troops by January of this year. This after estimated U.S. expenditures in Afghanistan of $641 billion through fiscal year 2013. This after tens of thousands of soldiers, insurgents and civilians have lost their lives.

After all that cost and effort, the Taliban is stronger than ever, and insecurity reigns through much of Afghanistan. That’s how you define failure.

Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko have written an important piece in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs warning of the dangers to the United States of drone weapons proliferation, and offering sensible proposals for limiting that danger.

Kreps and Zenko emphasize what many others have noted, that the proliferation of weaponized drones in the absence of agreed international rules for controlling their use could have dangerous and destabilizing consequences for U.S. and global security. If other states follow Washington’s approach of launching attacks across borders without authorization or notice, international constraints on the use of force could be weakened.

Other states are likely to be tempted to use these seemingly low-risk weapons beyond recognized war zones in settings where the deployment of ground troops would not be viable, as the United States has done in Yemen and tribal regions of Pakistan,. The availability of drone weaponry lowers the threshold for the use of military force and makes armed conflict more likely.

The United States should act now, before other states have fully developed capabilities, to seek international agreement on limiting the proliferation of armed drones and controlling their use. “Without U.S. leadership,” Kreps and Zenko emphasize, “it will be extremely difficult to get an international coalition to agree on a credible arrangement governing the use of armed drones.”

The authors identify two approaches for preventing the proliferation of drone weapons. The first is for the United States to get its own house in order by establishing fully transparent rules for target selection and permissible uses of these weapons. They recommend the formation of an independent government review panel, perhaps modelled on the Guantanamo Review Task Force and the panel to review the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations.

The proposed review panel could establish policies, as recommended by Human Rights Watch and other legal rights groups last year, disclosing the legal criteria used to identify potential targets, the standards for distinguishing between combatants and civilians, the civilian protection protocols and training given to drone operators, and the standards for post-strike procedures to investigate the legality of strikes and credible reports of civilian harm and where necessary to provide compensation for victims.

Kreps and Zenko also recommend steps to tighten international rules against the export of drone weapons technology. This could be accomplished by expanding and strengthening the restrictions already in place through the Missile Technology Control Regime, or by creating an entirely new proliferation control regime specifically focused on drone systems. This could include the creation of an international regulatory organization tasked with establishing and monitoring global standards for transparency and responsible use of drone systems.

Kudos to Kreps and Zenko for emphasizing the need to establish rules for controlling the use and spread of drone weapons.

In my class this week my students and I discussed the future of Afghanistan. We reviewed a pair of recent remarkable articles in Foreign Affairs about the failure of U.S. policy, written by authors who served as principal architects and managers of that policy, Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Biddle.

Eikenberry was the former U.S. ambassador and senior military commander in Afghanistan. In his article he writes that the assumptions of U.S. policy were “spectacularly incorrect.” The counterinsurgency mission “failed” because of the inability of U.S. and other foreign forces to provide protection for Afghan civilians and because of the absence of any semblance of accountable and effective governance to serve as an alternative to the Taliban and the war lords. Eikenberry confirms what other analysts have argued: in counterinsurgency missions no amount of external military force or financial assistance can compensate for the lack of legitimate governance in the state for which one is supposedly fighting.

Biddle was an advocate of President Obama’s Afghanistan ‘surge’ policy and has been an advisor to U.S. commanders David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. In his essay Biddle assesses the grim prospects for Afghanistan’s future and the limited choices available for U.S. policy. He outlines three options. One is to maintain a limited force in Afghanistan, as currently planned. The result he argues will be a “grinding stalemate” of continued war, paid for by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of at least $20 billion a year. The other options are to withdraw all U.S. forces, facing the inevitable defeat of the U.S. mission now rather than in the future, and to push for a negotiated power sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

When leading military commanders and advisers tell us that our policies have failed, we ought to pay attention. In my view the only viable option in Afghanistan is some combination of Biddle’s alternative options. Withdraw U.S. forces sooner rather than later, and negotiate a power-sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

Most important is the need for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy, away from military interventionism toward greater support for diplomacy, development and good governance as the key to building peace and stability and overcoming violent extremism.

Artists to drone operators: Remember your humanity


I’ve been struggling with what to say about the passing of Jonathan Schell. He was so much more than the incomparable scribe and moral voice of our age. He was a dear friend whose decency and warm touched me deeply. I loved him.

Jonathan was a literary giant whose writings on Vietnam and nuclear weapons are widely regarded as among the most important of our age. But he touched upon so many other subjects, including his powerful “Letter from Ground Zero” series in the wake of 9/11. See the remembrance and selection of some of this work in The Nation.

One of Jonathan’s least known but in my opinion most important books is The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People. I will re-read it again now, my way of clinging to him, not letting him go…

Putin’s pique

In his Kremlin speech last week Vladimir Putin revealed the motivations for his aggressive actions in Crimea. Speaking before hundreds of leaders and dignitaries in a nationally televised address, Putin was cheered wildly as he claimed to be restoring Russia’s glory and righting the wrongs of the past.

Putin is clearly using the seizure of Crimea as means of solidifying his domestic political base, diverting attention from his increased authoritarianism and his government’s inability to resolve the country’s underlying economic and social problems.

The speech also reflected the pent-up frustration and resentment he and other Russian nationalists have felt at their perceived humiliation by the West, and the negative consequences of the U.S. policy of isolating rather than partnering with Russia at the end of the Cold War.

Putin railed against U.S. policies of “exclusivity and exceptionalism,” especially the expansion of NATO and the deployment of missile defenses in eastern Europe. “We were cheated,” he exclaimed. Decisions affecting Russian interests were made without Moscow’s input.

Putin’s complaints do not justify what Russia has done in Crimea, but there is no doubt that the United States unnecessarily antagonized Russia and wasted an historic opportunity at the end of the Cold War to build a more cooperative relationship.

The decisive mistake in my view was to expand NATO without gaining Russia’s partnership. In 1997 I helped organize a delegation visit to Europe to evaluate the proposed expansion of NATO. We found concern among researchers in Brussels, support among government leaders in Warsaw, and alarm among legislators in Moscow. I argued at the time that it would be preferable to re-shape the alliance as a cooperative security structure with Russia included, rather than to expand a Cold War alliance of containment. Better to bring Moscow into the fold than to leave her standing in the cold.

The consequences of that fateful blunder are evident in Moscow’s increasingly truculent policies. As The Nation editorialized,“We are reaping the bitter fruit of a deeply flawed post–Cold War settlement that looks more like Versailles than Bretton Woods.”

Evidence again that our security is better served by attempting to reach out to former adversaries than by reinforcing their isolation.


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