Monthly Archives: June 2011

Is America at War in Libya?

A U.S. warship launches a missile in support of NATO operations in Libya.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday issued a harsh rebuke of the Obama administration by refusing to authorize the Libya intervention (by a vote of 295-123), but it also voted down a resolution that would have cut off funding for military operations in Libya.  Interestingly, a closer analysis of this vote shows that a majority of House members favor cutting off funds, but many anti-war members (particularly Democrats) voted against the defunding resolution because it didn’t go far enough, and would have allowed support activities such as surveillance and refueling.

As discussed previously in this blog, many members of Congress charge that Obama has flouted the 1973 War Powers Act by launching military operations in Libya without receiving Congressional authorization.  The Obama administration’s response it that its limited support functions in Libya do not constitute the type of hostilities that would require Congressional authorization.  These legal arguments are detailed here.  Many members of Congress and other critics aren’t buying this logic; they say we are obviously at war and Obama’s lawyers are purposely evading the truth to escape accountability.  In a blog post titled “Obama, we’re at war. Stop insulting us,” Stephen Walt compares America’s actions to the dictionary definition of war, and concludes:

“By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn’t being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.”

This dispute highlights the ways in which democratic leaders must deal with checks and balances on their war-making powers, as democratic peace theory contends, albeit in the context of a presidential system that frequently gives the U.S. president greater decision-making authority than prime ministers enjoy in parliamentary systems.  The Libya case also illustrates how factors at multiple levels of analysis can influence policymaking.  Although realists (particularly neorealists) emphasize constraints and opportunities at the international system level and downplay variables that differentiate states and individuals, the Libya intervention shows that individuals and domestic political institutions matter.  Not only was the initial intervention driven by the beliefs of Obama and his top advisers, but a recent story by Josh Rogin suggests that the administration’s failure to handle the politics of Congressional authorization with anything approaching deftness can be attributed to the physical exhaustion of top officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  The fact that Congress has the power to cut off funds for the Libya mission (and, according to some observers, could finally do so through an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill after the Fourth of July) demonstrates that the structure of domestic political institutions can have a powerful impact on countries’ foreign policy behavior.

Did Obama “Flinch” on Afghanistan?

President Obama announces a timeline for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan in an address to the nation on June 22, 2011.

In President Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday night, he announced that he would be withdrawing 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and an additional 23,000 by summer 2012.  This would leave the U.S. with 68,000 troops by next summer, and the administration has pledged to withdraw all forces by the end of 2014.  As noted by David Rothkopf, this withdrawal plan is too slow for some critics (most of whom are on the political left), and too fast for others (generally on the political right).

Most of the criticism is coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum, and it highlights some crucial strategic dilemmas associated with counterinsurgency–the type of war the U.S. has increasingly found itself engaged in since 9/11.  Counterinsurgency warfare focuses on providing security for the civilian population and winning the “hearts and minds” of the people so they support the government rather than the insurgents.  Many critics of Obama’s withdrawal plan have suggested that by adhering to arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal–based on domestic political pressure rather than conditions on the ground in Afghanistan–Obama risks undoing all the progress that has been made at enormous cost, in blood and treasure, over the past decade (including Obama’s own “surge” of forces in late 2009).  An oft-repeated concern is that by setting clear timetables for withdrawal America signals the enemy that they can just “wait us out” and signals Afghan civilians that we won’t be there to protect them from these militants, so they had better start hedging their bets.

Michael Waltz, a former special forces officer with multiple tours in Afghanistan, raises these concerns in an ominous piece in Foreign Policy:

“What this administration doesn’t fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren’t listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday’s announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.”

Similarly, the editors of the conservative publication National Review take issue with Obama’s strategy in a piece entitled “Obama Flinches”:

“There’s a reason Gen. David Petraeus opposed this kind of drawdown and that, apparently, no general supported it…It’s Obama’s prerogative as commander-in-chief to make whatever strategic judgment he deems appropriate, but the lack of military support for this decision highlights its essentially political nature…[the Afghan] government is a mess and — to one extent or another — always will be.  Afghanistan is a poor, tribal society.  We should have no great expectations for it.  The question is whether it is fated to be ruled by (or at least provide safe haven to) the Taliban and other extremists.  President Obama just made it more likely the answer to that question will be ‘yes.'”

The counterarguments provided by Obama and Congressional Democrats include (a) we are winning and we will keep the pressure on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan (e.g., through drone strikes), as we withdraw our ground forces, and (b) setting clear deadlines for withdrawal forces Afghanistan’s government to step up, “grow up,” and take on the roles of providing security and providing basic services instead of remaining dependent on American assistance.

Who do you think is right?  Is Obama’s withdrawal schedule too fast, too slow, or just right?  Does it ignore the realities of counterinsurgency warfare, the commitment of our adversaries, and the politics of the region, or is it a sensible policy for ending this costly war and beginning, as Obama declared in his speech, to “focus on nation building here at home”?

Pakistan–Friend or Foe?

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's Army Chief

Two troubling pieces of news today highlight America’s frayed relationship with Pakistan and add to the growing questions about whether Pakistan can truly be viewed as America’s ally in the Global War on Terror.

News item #1: a Pew Research Center poll was released showing how the Pakistani public views America, President Obama, and Osama bin Laden, among other issues.  Some of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective):

* only 10% of Pakistanis approve of the U.S. raid that killed Bin Laden

* only 12% have a favorable view of America

* a mere 8% have confidence in President Obama

* 79% say the military is having a good influence on the country

* only 14% believe President Asif Ali Zardari is having a good influence

If there is any good news from the American perspective from this poll, it is that only 12% of the public has a favorable view of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  The fact that the military is the most popular institution in Pakistan highlights the powerful role played by the military in Pakistani politics (recall that it was only in 2008 that General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, relinquished control to civilian authorities).  In a democracy, which Pakistan aspires to be, elected civilian officials must control the military, but Pakistan has little tradition of civilian control.  You can view the full poll here.

News item #2: a senior Pakistani army officer was detained on suspicion of ties to militant groups.  Brigadier Ali Khan was reportedly linked to Hizb-ul-Tahrir, a radical Islamist group which distributed pamphlets in military encampments after the raid on Bin Laden’s compound calling for officers to establish an Islamic caliphate.  “A copy of the pamphlet, posted on Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s Web site in English, claims that the United States is behind attacks blamed on Islamist militants in Pakistan, and calls on the ‘military leadership to mobilize to protect the Muslims from further harm at the hands of the Americans.'”

This news comes on the heels of a string of troubling reports, from Pakistan’s arrest of five informants who helped the CIA locate Bin Laden, to a rumor that Pakistan has “lost the the paperwork that would explain how a compound was bought and built in Abbotabad to house Osama Bin Laden for over five years,” to the apparent “tipping off” of Pakistani militants that U.S. raids were coming.  The latter disclosure “prompted senior members of Congress on Sunday to accuse Pakistan of playing a double game by aiding the United States on some counterterrorism operations while also maintaining ties to violent, extremist organizations operating from its territory.”  As a result of this “double game,” the most serious (though often unstated) concern of many U.S. officials is the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

What do you think?  Can Pakistan legitimately be called an ally or partner of the U.S. in the War on Terror?  Should the U.S. stop giving $2 billion in aid annually to a government that doesn’t have our best interests at heart, or is this fragile “partnership” actually much better than the alternative, as many experts believe?

The Troubled Road to Democracy

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, 2003 was an iconic image but only the beginning of a difficult transition to democracy.

With the historic changes of the Arab Spring many observers have concluded that “people power” has finally begun to triumph over autocratic regimes in a region that had seemed strangely resistant to the waves of democratization that swept over other parts of the world in previous decades. And while there are indeed many hopeful signs throughout the region for those who value democracy, it is worth noting that the road to democracy is often fraught with setbacks and challenges that the pictures of falling statues, cheering crowds, and jubilant voters don’t communicate.

Scholars such as Fareed Zakaria have distinguished between electoral democracy and liberalism (the presence of civil liberties that limit the government’s reach). While liberal democracies enjoy both free elections and broad civil liberties, illiberal democracies combine (at least nominally) democratic institutional structures with serious deficiencies in the area of civil liberties.  Countries undergoing transitions to democracy sometimes get “stuck” in this halfway zone and find it hard to progress the rest of the way toward full liberal democracy.  Consider Russia, a country that began its transition with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991.  It holds regular elections (although the degree to which they are free and fair has come into serious doubt), but as noted in this Freedom House report, individual liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion are lacking. 

America’s recent “democracy projects” in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced nominally democratic regimes that have a very long way to go before they can be called mature democracies.  Not only do serious questions persist about the freedom and fairness of elections (particularly in Afghanistan) but basic democratic norms such as respect for minority rights and nonviolent resolution of disputes have not yet permeated these societies. 

Despite the stagnation and setbacks associated with so many democratic transitions, Daniel Drezner’s recent thought-provoking blog post on trends in global democracy and autocracy suggests that the future for democracy remains bright.  Drezner cites the analysis of Jay Ulfelder, who explains the deepening authoritarianism of certain nondemocratic regimes as increasingly desperate attempts to contain democratic aspirations that will ultimately prevail: “[It is] evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.”

Are Drezner and Ulfelder simply putting a rosy spin on some very harsh realities, or is there reason to be optimistic that freedom will ultimately prevail in countries such as Russia, Iran, and China? What signs are there that the newest revolutions, in Egypt and Tunisia, will result in democracy? What signs are there that these embryonic transitions have already stalled?

Is the UN Impotent to Act on Syria?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is believed to be responsible for the deaths of over 1,300 civilians since anti-regime protests began in March.

The news from Syria is growing more ominous by the day, with reports of continued bloody crackdowns on protesters, troops marching north for a major offensive, refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey, and the apparent use of Palestinians as cannon fodder against Israel as a diversionary tactic. 

Meanwhile, the United Nations appears unable to take even modest steps to address the situation.  Since Russia is a strong ally of Syria and is one of five countries (along with the U.S., Britain, France, and China) to possess veto power on the UN Security Council, it is widely believed that Russia would veto any resolution calling for economic sanctions or military force against Syria.  Russia, China, and other Security Council members also believe that the U.S., France, and Britain have  moved well beyond the UN mandate to protect civilians in Libya and are now seeking regime change.  They oppose any condemnation of Syria that might open the door to another Libya-type intervention.  Thus, French and British UN representatives have carefully worded their draft resolution on Syria to remove any potentially objectionable mention of sanctions or threats of intervention.  In short, the resolution condemns Syria’s crackdown but contains no “teeth.”  It is therefore unlikely to have any effect on the ground in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, is determined to crush any opposition that threatens his grip on power. 

Is the UN Security Council, with its veto powers bestowed on the “Big 5” victors from World War II, a relic of a bygone era that needs to be ditched or dramatically reformed?  After all, we’ve seen this deadlock all too frequently before, with Russia and China blocking action on Kosovo and Darfur, and the U.S. vetoing any resolution that condemns Israel’s behavior.  Will the UN stand by as a massacre unfolds in Syria?  Does any global organization whose structure prevents it from acting against such atrocities deserve to call itself a protector of international peace and security?  Does it even deserve to exist?

Does Obama Need Congress’ Permission to Continue the Libya War?

President Obama is facing mounting criticism for failing to secure Congressional approval for the war being waged in Libya.  These critics, including many members of Congress, argue that the Constitution gives Congress the power to decide when America goes to war, and the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires Congressional authorization for any military operation lasting longer than 60 days (a time limit that expired on May 20).  They note that even President Bush, who was vilified for waging unpopular wars, received Congressional authorization for his use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Obama administration has argued that it doesn’t need Congress’ permission to continue the operation.  So who is right?

The Constitution contains some ambiguity about war powers; it divides these powers between the president and Congress by declaring the former the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and giving the latter the power to declare war.  Many scholars interpret this to mean that Congress has the authority to decide when to launch hostilities and the president is more of a strategic and tactical commander.  To clarify these roles, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto.  This law states that the president may only use force under three scenarios: (1) Congress has declared war, (2) Congress has provided explicit statutory authorization for the use of force, or (3) an emergency situation arises in which the president must act quickly to protect U.S. interests.  America’s military intervention in Libya has so far met none of these conditions: Congress has not declared war or voted to authorize the mission and even the war’s supporters acknowledge that no imminent threat to U.S. territory, citizens, or other interests prompted intervention–rather, the main goal was to protect civilians, as stated in the UN resolution that authorized the mission.

So Obama’s war is illegal, right?  Well, it isn’t quite that simple.  Every president since Nixon has argued that the War Powers Act is an unconstitutional power grab by Congress that restricts the president’s legitimate prerogatives as Commander-in-Chief.  The Supreme Court has refused to rule on the act’s constitutionality, calling the controversy a political dispute between the executive and legislative branches that they should settle amongst themselves.  Presidents have typically finessed this by seeking Congressional authorization for wars and reporting to Congress as required by the War Powers Act while being careful not to admit that they are bound by the law. 

So what can Congress do?  Congress has the indisputable power to cut off funding for operations it doesn’t approve of, but it has rarely even threatened to do this given the political costs of appearing not to support troops in harm’s way.  While some in Congress have suggested it cut off funds for the Libya operation if it remains unauthorized, Republican House Speaker John Boehner has argued that by terminating U.S. involvement we would be turning our backs on NATO.  Boehner appears to want clarification on the mission’s scope, justification, and exit strategy–to place some constraints on the operation rather than end it by Congressional fiat.  Thus continues a long tradition of Congressional deference to the president in the arena of war powers.  (The most recent example before Libya: Democrats promised to end the Iraq War upon taking over Congress in 2006 and they failed to achieve anything substantive despite ample campaign talk about cutting off funding, etc.). 

What do you think?  Should President Obama abide by the War Powers Resolution even though presidents have disputed its constitutionality?  Should Congress consider cutting off funds for the operation if Obama refuses to provide a clear timetable, mission, and exit strategy?  Or should Congress stay out and let the president conduct American foreign policy as only the president can?  After all, as Senators Lindsey Graham (R) and Jim Webb (D) have both acknowledged, “you can’t have 535 commanders-in-chief.”