A career intelligence officer and contributor to this journal gives us his take on contemporary foreign policy and the political domestic influences which shape it for good or ill.-The Editor
by Haviland Smith
Fifty years ago, the Democratic and Republican parties were close enough philosophically so that an electoral change from one to the other did not create chaos. Quite the opposite, such a level of political agreement was a blessing for the United States. Inter-party transitions were smooth and relatively uncomplicated.
That was a time when other economically advanced countries, Great Britain, for example, were plagued by political polarization. When Britain voted one party in and the other out, it meant either the nationalization of basic industry, or its denationalization. Taxes went to 95% on unearned income, or were completely removed. There was absolutely no way to predict who would win and what would then happen. That level of political and economic uncertainty meant that businesses couldn’t plan. Economic, political and social progress was difficult to impossible to achieve.
At the same time, American political transitions were fairly pain-free. This led to a climate that favored development in the broadest sense of the word. There was no reason to consider any negative aspects of impending political change when making business or other decisions, simply because they were so unlikely to occur.
Would that that was true today!
Today, America is so politically polarized that we have become a country of single party rule. That is, one of our two parties is always in charge, with the other party marginalized and in total opposition. Over the past few decades, there has been little to no bipartisanship. What used to be called honest negotiation has become heinous compromise. Those in power have shoved their agendas down the throats of the minority while, as we see so clearly today, the party out of power, having no real agenda of its own, simply obstructs anything and everything in every way it can. There is no arena in which this is more evident than in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy.
During the Clinton years, his administration was prone to getting involved in foreign issues that were not necessarily of critical national interest. Bosnia, Haiti, Northern Ireland, North Korea, Somalia, Rwanda, and the Middle East all come to mind, no one of which, with the exception of a Middle East “success” that has since gone no farther, could be counted as critical to the US.
Under George W. Bush, the Neoconservatives wrested control of foreign policy from whatever moderates may have existed in the Bush Administration at the time. Neoconservatives posited that in this unipolar world, America had to take sides between good and evil and stake out the moral high ground. They had total distain for conventional diplomacy, international organizations and pragmatism. Further, they said that military power and our willingness to use it was critical and that our focus had to be on the Middle East and Global Islam as the principal theater for our overseas interests. Ultimately, they re-adopted regime change and nation building, two practices earlier condemned and rejected by the Republican Party.
This led to eight years of preemptive unilateralism during which we did whatever we wished to do militarily around the world without any reference to the advice or needs of any other country or organization. That approach to foreign policy has left us bogged down in Iraq, faced with a true Hobson’s Choice in Afghanistan, poorer by trillions of dollars and thousands of terminated and forever altered lives, most emphatically counting our wounded who will be with us for decades to come. It left us with little leverage abroad, precious few international friends, declining international status, as well as a “war on terror” which has only played into terrorists’ hands and enhanced their future prospects.
And where were the Democrats? Either getting the Republican policies jammed down their throats or spinelessly going along.
Perhaps we are too newly into the Obama years to draw any truths or make any judgments. Certainly, the Obama administration finds itself in a far more difficult position than any administration since FDR. Quite apart from an extensive list of domestic issues, it inherited what are essentially unsolvable problems in Palestine/Israel, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.
These issues are not inherently unsolvable — they are politically unsolvable because of the broad and deep split that has come to America. The Republicans have consolidated their power as far to the right as they can go and a Democratic Party drift to the left has matched this. In fact the right and left fringes of the parties now pretty much dictate the policies they will support, leaving the vast moderate center of our political spectrum out in the cold.
This is particularly true for a centrist Democrat or a liberal Republican, both of which groups are in the crosshairs of the extremists in their own parties.
Given this reality, what happens to foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East where we are in such trouble today? Congressional Democrats, seeing the difficulties created by the Bush era’s neoconservative policies and enjoying a swing in their direction in the general population, recently have keyed their foreign policy plans to those Americans who, after eight years, were weary of war in the Middle East and looking for a way to withdraw.
Obama himself said often that Iraq was a war we needed to leave, but that Afghanistan remained the main stage of our struggle with terrorism and needed to be fought. In saying that, he created a large problem for himself. With a new General of his own choosing in charge, he has been faced with requests for large numbers of additional troops.
But somewhere in the process, Afghanistan lost its terrorists and the real issue there became the Taliban insurgency. Terrorists and insurgents! They bring major differences requiring totally different approaches. Terrorism tends not to last much more than 10 years when left to its own devices because it gets little if any support from local populations. Insurgencies, on the other hand, stem from the population, generally enjoy support, particularly against foreign invaders (read Americans) and therefore seldom get beaten. Consider the Tamil Tigers who, even if they really are beaten today, as is claimed, lasted 33 years against the Sri Lankan government’s military onslaught.
So, instead of representing a terrorist problem, Afghanistan is purely an insurgency issue. We are aware of the historical disinclination of Afghans to submit to foreign dominance. What we hear far too little about is the probability that a successful counterinsurgency will likely take decades. And that assumes that we can be successful at all in a vast and geographically difficult land like Afghanistan!
The favored approach of American proponents of a military solution to the Afghan insurgency is to say that if we diminish our level of military involvement and ultimately don’t “win” (whatever that may mean), the Taliban will invite Al Qaida back in, providing them with a safe haven for further terrorist operations against us. Given the realities of Al Qaida’s severely diminished power, its diffusion around the globe and its lack of command and control over discrete, spontaneous terror groups abroad, they don’t need Afghanistan. On top of that, Al Qaida cost the Taliban its control over Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The Taliban knows that and seems hardly inclined to invite a repeat of what for them was a pure disaster.
And now President Obama has made the decision to augment our military force in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops. Ultimately his decision will prove to have been wrong and he probably knows it. He could have decided to go all out militarily or to withdraw completely. One of those solutions could have been right, but the President clearly opted to go with the middle of the road, hoping to mollify both extremes of our domestic political spectrum, a decision that will most certainly not bring success.
Obama is stuck in the middle of this issue. He got there all by himself. If he had withdrawn or reduced our troop numbers, Republicans and all their like-minded supporters would have crucified him. If he had maintained or augmented troop levels to fight a counterinsurgency, something he has never said he favored, he would have lost support in his Democratic base. Either way, he was faced with making a decision that would have a profound effect on his own chances for reelection. Ultimately, and for political reasons, he was persuaded to pursue a middle of the road strategy. Such an approach is almost certainly doomed to failure, which will certainly diminishing his chances for re-election.
The dirty secret here is that that’s the way foreign policy works. Many of the most important foreign policy decisions made by Republican and Democratic presidents alike, have been made on the basis of their of their Party’s domestic political needs of the moment, rather that on the objective facts in the region or country involved.
Given the severity of the political split in this country, the presidential foreign policy decision-making process becomes almost impossible. Even in better times, without our ongoing political split, the issue of Afghanistan does not lend itself of easy solution. Not only that, but the rhetoric on all sides of this issue has become so shrill that it is difficult if not impossible for the vast majority of Americans to sort out precisely what the real problems are and to then judge what policy or policies are most likely to forward our national interests. The debate is ruled by CNBC and Fox news and their acolytes, none of whom seem taken with the notion of bringing clarity to the discussion.
Any President is faced with the same dilemma at some stage of the game. If, as is so often the case, he opts to let his ambitions for a second term, or the needs of his party, rule the decision making process, he will probably choose a compromise policy designed to placate two totally different constituencies. That is a virtual guarantee that the policy will fail operationally.
President Johnson faced this issue over Viet Nam by announcing that he would not run for reelection, thus freeing himself at least partially from the pressures of considering domestic political imperatives in the conduct of foreign policy.
If the only outcome of this process were to be the denial of a second term to an incumbent, it might be easier to stomach. The problem, however, is infinitely more far-reaching. In making the decision to choose a policy designed to placate such diverse political camps, not only is an incumbent likely to fail politically, he will be undertaking a policy, which almost certainly will fail operationally. On today’s issue of Afghanistan, that scenario brings ramifications for the United States far beyond the re-election of a president. It brings a failed policy that is likely to have harshly negative, downstream ramifications for America for decades to come.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.