March 12, 2006

Improving Our Foreign Policy (And National Security)

Once again, I venture into territory for which I have no more expertise than your average blogger (and probably most journalists): foreign policy. Nonetheless, it is incumbent that those who believe that our current foreign policy is defective must lay out, in broad terms, what an alternative foreign policy would look like. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to be a foreign policy expert to envision the major components of a strategy that would be preferable to the course that we are now on.

Many might suspect that such a policy shift would appeal mostly to Democrats and others on the Left, but given the growing unease and dissatisfaction with Bush’s foreign policy from those on the Right (after all, invading the Middle East to do nation-building is about as un-conservative as you can get) the appeal is likely to be much broader.

Before I begin, I do want to comment on the lack of new thinking on national security coming from Democrats. I am not entirely convinced that this is a terrible thing at this juncture. The 2006 midterm elections will be partly determined on local issues and the scandals that continue to plague the GOP (yes, these are mostly Republican scandals). Foreign policy essentially comes from the executive branch and 2004 was the time the Democrats most urgently needed to present an alternative vision. They will have another opportunity come 2008.

So here are some general points that I think most reasonable people who don’t believe that our current foreign policy is effective could support:

1. We need to make a distinction between terrorists and terrorism

The “war on terrorism” is a terrible phrase (“war on terror” is even worse) since it essentially means “war on war”, and as many people have pointed out you cannot wage war on a tactic. We may very well be engaged in a global struggle against terrorism, but we are at war with specific groups of terrorists, and the groups, states, and individuals that support them.

Terrorists are those individuals who are actively engaged in targeting U.S. (and other nations’) civilians and military personnel based on their extremist ideology. Terrorism is the larger ideological underpinning employed by extremists to intimidate and threaten states and their citizenry. The reason this distinction is crucial is because, despite all the derision Kerry received for his comments, combating terrorists is most certainly a matter of law enforcement and police powers, even those exercised by the military, as well as sensible defensive policy. While it is stating the obvious, preventing terrorists from carrying out attacks against us is largely a function of intelligence gathering, spy work, intercepting communications, and targeted arrests and assassinations. To assist in these efforts we need more Arabic speaking personnel and boots on the ground in countries where the terrorists are; we don’t need more B-2 bombers and aircraft carriers (more on this point below). In addition, the major benefit of the Dubai Ports scandal has been the light this has shined on how poorly defended are our major ports and much of our critical infrastructure. (We still only have major radioactive detectors at a tiny fraction of our ports and the safety at many of our chemical plants that contain highly toxic materials is weak.)

With respect to terrorism and what breeds it, we must recognize that we cannot bomb the Arab and larger Muslim world into submission. People within these societies must come to reject violence based on their own self-interest and desire for material and societal progress (such as people like this). We must make it known that we are willing to work with and support all Muslim and Arab groups that seek to promote human rights, democracy, trade, and peace between the Muslim world and the West. And no doubt, we must continue to exert pressure on all of the regimes that support terrorist acts against the U.S. (e.g. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia).

The history of communism demonstrates that regimes in which basic freedoms and prosperity are denied to the majority of citizens are doomed from within; the question is always when, not if, they are going to collapse. Arab societies are the youngest in the world, and the age of the Mullahs, kings, and princes will not persist indefinitely given the pressures that demographic changes will create, along with the tremendous pull of globalization that cannot be stopped. In the final analysis, American military intervention will not suffice; the need for jobs and the demand for basic services and education will be the greatest forces for change in this part of the world.

2. The U.S. military budget should reflect the greater need to fight terrorists, not engage in all-out warfare between states

The U.S. military no doubt will remain the most powerful in the world for decades to come. Even so, it is absurd that we are spending much more preparing for a war against another nation as on the essentials for fighting terrorists. Members of both parties are beholden to military special interests who insist on huge weapons systems that bankroll their districts, lobbyists, and make for good photo-ops. If we are serious about defeating terrorists, a shift in priorities in essential.

3. We need to clarify what state actions merit military reprisals

Many applaud Bush’s statement that you are “either with us or against us” and his commitment to use force against any nations that harbor terrorists. The fact is, however, that it is unclear what his policy really means. For example, Pakistan is probably home to most of the top Al Queda targets, and yet Pakistan is a key ally. Our message should be fine-tuned to something like the following: we reserve the right to take military action against any state that actively supports terrorists, and we reserve the right to take action in states that are home to terrorists who are not being actively eradicated by that state. This clarification is necessary because terrorists exist just about everywhere, and we don’t want the whole world to be on alert that U.S. military action might be pending. But we do want to send the message that all states are expected to both disavow terrorism and take concrete efforts to stop it if they don’t want U.S. forces on their soil.

4. We need a massive program to rid the world of WMD materials

First on this agenda are Russia’s nuclear materials, which currently represent the greatest threat to global security. It is a disgrace that more than four years after 9/11 so little has been accomplished on this front. In addition, while many of the precursors to chemical and biological weapons can never be fully eradicated, we should be making monumental efforts to buy and destroy dangerous chemicals, to attract the top scientists in this area from around the world to the U.S., and to create new international protocols for transferring any materials that can be used in WMD production.

5. We should be at the forefront of updating international law to the new global realities that terrorism poses

This week I attended a briefing by some of the top military commanders who oversea the detention of suspected terrorists (specifically in Guantanamo, Cuba). I raised the issue that while the Geneva Convention allows for the detention of prisoners for the duration of a conflict the “war on terrorism” has no identifiable end date and no clear criteria for victory, which leaves open the possibility of permanent detention. The general replied that “we will know the war is over when it’s over”, which was shocking both for its candor and its absurdity. The brigadier general then jumped in and acknowledged that the issue I raised is legitimate, and that we need to create new international norms and definitions in the age of terrorism since the Geneva Convention only deals with traditional warfare between states.

It is dispiriting is that almost five years after 9/11 the U.S. is still spending more energy fighting against international norms than trying to help forge an international consensus on the new norms that we need to address terrorism. Figuring out how to declare victory against Al Queada and its affiliates no doubt poses difficult challenges, but we need to at least start openly discussing how we are going to gauge our progress in this conflict. No one is arguing against detaining enemy combatants picked up near Tora Bora or terrorist training camps during the heat of battle, but what free societies must reject is the notion that the executive branch has the power to hold these people without charge indefinitely.

In summary, while many of these points are relatively straightforward, to my knowledge they have never been articulated in a comprehensive manner on any major news outlets or by any politicians. Supporters of Bush’s foreign policy might point out that these ideas still leave plenty of room for ambiguity, or that they do not fully address the problems presented by global terrorism. They would be right. But where they are wrong is in believing that this somehow makes their ideas superior.

Let us examine the state of affairs after five years of their foreign policy in action. Today, Iran is closer today to acquiring nuclear weapons, North Korea is in all likelihood building new nuclear bombs every few months, the top terrorist figures in the world, including Osama bin Laden, are at large, the Middle East is more dangerous than ever before, including many new terrorist cells in Iraq, Muslim rage has increased manifold, and terrorism around the world is on the rise. Proponents of Bush’s foreign policy make a false charge when they criticize potential alternatives as being imperfect solutions. No one claims that terrorism is going to disappear anytime soon (or ever). The challenge is how to manage it wisely and ultimately neutralize it as a serious threat; it is on this score that there is room for doing a far better job than our current trajectory suggests.

Jason Scorse