Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why Pseudo-Conservatives Can't Do Foreign Policy

In a widely read article in Washington Monthly (July/August 2006) political scientist Alan Wolfe tried to explain “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern”. Wolfe wrote: “Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government” and cutting taxes. Ideologically, this is clearly true, even if their actions aren’t always consistent with their beliefs. Wolfe went on, claiming that “like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions—indeed, whose very existence—they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding…. Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”

This is an idea worth consideration. Perhaps pseudo-conservatives frequently govern badly because they do not really believe in many of the basic tools of modern government. Although Wolf’s best arguments were applied to domestic issues--like FEMA/Katrina mismanagement and prescription benefits for seniors that frequently seemed more attuned to benefits for drug companies--he tried to apply them to the mismanagement of the Iraq war as well. Here he placed emphasis upon Rumsfeld’s trying to prosecute war while “low-balling… troop estimates”; or, “relying on government but refusing to pay for it.” While Wolfe’s points about the Iraq war are interesting perhaps there are deeper reasons pseudo-conservatives frequently don’t “do” foreign policy well either; and these reasons run quite parallel with Wolfe’s analysis of domestic policy.

This "blook" (blog preparatory to a book) attempts to make the case that pseudo-conservatives don’t conduct foreign policy well because they don’t believe in most of it either; that is, they do not believe in the usefulness of most of the basic tools of foreign policy. Instead, pseudo-conservatives reduce foreign policy primarily to military policy; they support a big defense budget and buildup of military forces but they don’t trust most of the other crucial aspects of foreign policy. In the post-cold war world the US seems to be taking on ever greater world responsibilities. These responsibilities involve all of the crucial aspects of foreign policy: negotiation, engagement, nation-building, monitoring and verification to ensure negotiated agreements are being complied with, etc. (For an excellent discussion of what is necessary, and from a military leader rather than a civilian leader, see The Battle for Peace by General Anthony Zinni. Although Zinni supported Bush/Cheney in 2000 he became very disenchanted with them over their approach to Iraq [Ricks, 2006].)

The Case of the Iraq War

Since pseudo-conservatives “militarize” foreign policy, it becomes more understandable that they placed almost sole emphasis upon planning the military aspects of the Iraq war. Woodward (2004) describes in immense detail how Bush, Rumsfeld, and Franks spent about 15 months planning and re-planning for the military portion of their Iraq invasion. Rumsfeld obsessively went through iteration after iteration of the war plan, honing it, sharpening it, examining all of its assumptions, planning for every contingency—except one, what was the plan for after Saddam was gone? General Zinni, who was Tommy Franks’ predecessor as Commander-in-Chief of CENTCOM from 1997-2000, wrote (2006, p. 26), “I had been called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [on February 11, 2003] to give my views on the coming [Iraq] war. As I waited…I listened to the testimony from… planners from the State and Defense Departments. ‘Planners?’ I thought with horror as I listened to them. ‘The planners have no plan. They’re not thinking about what comes after we’ve invaded Iraq and taken Baghdad.’”

While the Bush II administration had a well worked out plan for making war and toppling Saddam (the easier military portion of the war in Iraq given our immense military superiority), after they took Baghdad and Saddam fled it became clear they had no viable plan to assume power in the political vacuum they had created. They seemed to just stand around and wait for something good to happen. Thomas Ricks, in his careful study of the Iraq war, Fiasco, wrote the following (p. 136):

"During this period [of looting in Baghdad], the U.S. military was perceptibly losing its recent gains; it gave the sense that it really didn’t know what to do next and was waiting to pass the mission to someone else. ‘A finite supply of goodwill toward the Americans evaporated with the passing of each anarchic day,’ Lt. Nathaniel Flick, an elite force recon Marine officer, wrote of being in Baghdad during this time."

"‘There wasn’t any plan,’ recalled a Special Operations officer who was in Baghdad at the time. ‘Everyone was just kind of waiting around. Everybody thought they’d be going home soon.’ Looking back on the period, he recalled it as a slow loss of momentum. ‘It wasn’t like all hell broke loose. It was more like the situation eroded.’"

"Rumsfeld’s fundamental misunderstanding of the looting of Iraq, and the casual manner in which he expressed it [‘Stuff happens’], not only set back U.S. forces tactically, but also damaged the strategic standing of the United States, commented Fred Ikle…. ‘America lost most of its prestige and respect in that episode. To pacify a conquered country, the victor’s prestige and dignity is absolutely crucial.’ This criticism was leveled by a man who not only had impeccable credentials in conservative national security circles, but actually had brought Wolfowitz to Washington…."

The reason for lack of post-war planning was certainly not because responsibility for it was too widely dispersed. Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon, strongly supported by Vice President Cheney’s office, had successfully “marginalized” Colin Powell’s State Department and had centralized virtually all war power in its own hands (Woodward, 2004, pp. 79, 149). Even post-war planning was made the Pentagon’s responsibility on January 20, 2003 (Woodward, 2004, p. 283), even though the State Department had been planning for the post-war for some time (David L. Phillips, Losing Iraq, 2005 and Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory, 2005). But a measure of the relative importance of war and post-war can be seen by comparing the dates when each formally began; planning for war began on November 21, 2001 (Woodward, 2004, pp. 1-5), while effective planning for post-war did not begin until two months before the war on January 20, 2003 (Ibid. pp. 280-4). Effective planning for post-war did not start until January 2003 because the Pentagon ignored previous State Department planning (many accounts agree on this but just one is Phillips, 2005, p. 126) and even refused to work with most State Department personnel (Woodward, 2004, pp. 283-4).

Thomas Ricks (2006, p.184-5) tried to explain the failure to plan for post-war in Iraq as due to the Bush II administration’s lack of appreciation for the importance of strategy:

"Strategy was seen as something vague and intellectual, at best a secondary issue, when in fact it was the core of the task they faced. It was the same sort of limited thinking that had led the Bush team first to focus in 2002 and early 2003 almost exclusively on its plan of attack for Iraq, rather than on the more difficult but crucial consolidation of that victory, and that also led it to make wildly unrealistic assumptions about postinvasion Iraq, and then fail to develop operational plans as a fallback if its assumptions proved incorrect."

While Ricks is undoubtedly correct that these leaders failed in strategic thinking, he begs the question of why they failed to think about their ultimate strategic goal: what would they do once Saddam was gone? It’s worthwhile considering the possibility that the reason they failed to do so was because this is precisely the area where they are weakest. Foreign policy to pseudo-conservatives primarily consists of building up the military and using military power. They “don’t do engagement” (James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, p. 280); they commonly condemn “negotiation” as “talking for the sake of talking” or as “appeasement”; they are so suspicious and mistrustful of adversaries that they are often found saying our adversaries won’t “negotiate in good faith” (Kristol, 2006, It’s Our War); they tend to denigrate “nation-building”. Recall that “nation-building” was something Bush pointedly campaigned against in the 2000 debates with Gore. If they in fact reduce foreign policy to the use of military power is it any wonder that the Bush II administration focused “in 2002 and early 2003 almost exclusively on its plan of attack for Iraq”, made “wildly unrealistic assumptions about postinvasion Iraq”, and failed “to develop operational plans as a fallback if its assumptions proved incorrect” (Ricks)? For pseudocons to focus almost entirely upon the military invasion but be unrealistic about complicated post-invasion nation-building is just what we should have expected. Pseudo-conservatives can’t do foreign policy for a similar reason that they can’t govern: they don’t believe in most of the primary tools of foreign policy.

What are the basic “tools” of foreign policy?

There are certainly some basic tools that any country uses to pursue its foreign policy goals. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list but these are among the obvious tools of foreign policy.

A. Negotiating with opponents, whether one chooses to call this “talking”, “having dialogue”, “engagement”, or any other such term. Through such dialogue we are trying to assess and understand how our opponents see the world, as well as come to agreements, treaties, etc. (“Know thine enemy” is a maxim as important as “Know thyself”.)
B. Making public statements to inform our friends and opponents of our policy. (“Speak softly and carry a big stick” or engage in name-calling and public bluster.)
C. Collecting and analyzing intelligence to be used as the basis of U.S. foreign policy.
D. Providing aid to foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to support activities we see as constructive. “Nation-building” would be included here.
E. Planning and cooperating with international institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, NATO and the International Court of Justice.
F. Monitoring, inspecting and verifying to ensure that others are behaving as they have agreed to behave.
G. Planning and collaborating with allies (and potential allies) for joint cooperative actions.
H. Maintaining embassies and other foreign policy institutions overseas.
I. Cooperation with other countries in legal actions against international lawbreakers such as terrorists.
J. Building up our military power and keeping it effectively modernized; this power can then be used to either threaten military action or to actually use military force.

What do pseudo-conservatives think of such basic instruments of foreign policy? Later posts will address this question.

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