21 February 2008

Why I Can't Vote for Obama II: Foreign Policy

Yesterday I wrote part I of why I can't vote for Obama. Here's part II. Tomorrow I'll write about why I might vote for Obama anyway.

In the spring of 2003, my friend Muqtedar Kahn organized a panel at Adrian College to discuss the then-looming invasion of Iraq. I staunchly opposed it, on the grounds that it was unnecessary and that we would be stuck in Iraq for a very long time.

Flash forward 5 years, and I'm seriously considering voting for John McCain, who said we could be in Iraq for a hundred years." What's happened to change my mind?

Actually, nothing. All along I have taken a contrary position--that we should not go in, but that if we did, we'd have a duty to stay as long as necessary. Because once we've gone in and destabilized the country, it's our duty to restabilize it, no matter how difficult. (This is no defense of Saddam: he was purely evil, but that in itself doesn't justify invasion, nor would it justify quitting early, while the country is still the f***ed up mess we created.)

And I said from the beginning that we would be there for decades, if for no other reason than to use it as a forward based for the military--e.g., the same reasons we're still in Japan and Germany more than 60 years after WWII. And does anyone expect we'll be out of those countries entirely by the hundreth anniversary of VJ and VE days?

Leaving Iraq too early would result in a full blown civil war that could ensnare neighboring countries, particularly Syria and Iran. It was a foolish foreign policy move to invade, but it would be just as, or even more, foolish to leave too soon.

Barack Obama claims to have been opposed to the invasion of Iraq, and reportedly gave a speech opposing it (text is reproduced here and here. Since the Senate voted to authorize use of force in October, 2002, and he wasn't elected to the Senate until 2004, it's impossible to say how he would really have voted had he already been a senator. But I'll take him at his word that he opposed the war. So did I, and so he and I are in agreement on that point.

But here's what his website says about what he thinks we ought to do now.
Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.
And here's what he's said on the campaign trail.
"It is time to bring our troops home because it has made us less safe.
Yes, the invasion of Iraq has made us less safe, and we have Bush to thank for that. But notice the purely self-interested tone of Obama's statement: it has made us less safe. There's no concern for Iraqis, no concern for stability in the Middle East, no concern for the moral duty we now have towards Iraq, and no concern for the strategic implications for US foreign policy (American strength is a huge problem, but American weakness would be even worse--no other country in the world has the US's ability to intervene to prevent genocides and invasions, although we rarely use that power well.)

We already have a history, of which Obama seems wholly unaware, of undependability in the Middle East. We supported Iran, until the citizens overthrew our dictator there, then we swithched our support to Iraq, until that dictator did something we didn't like. Early in the war, we'd lay seige to a city until we drove out both insurgents and inhabitants, then we'd leave, and the insurgents would return and retaliate against anyone who had helped US troops (the "surge" in Iraq has really been a shift in strategy, so that we now stick around a place after driving out the bad guys). So how would leaving by by May of 2010 reverberate around the Middle East? Once again, you just can't depend on Americans.

Obama is making the classic mistake of comparing a real-world state of affairs to an ideal state of affairs. His belief that US withdrawal will put pressure on Iraq's leaders to reconcile is woefully naive (does he think the Serbs and Kosovars would reconcile nicely if the UN and NATO withdrew?), and smacks of Rodney King's plaintant "Can't we all just get along?"

Colin Powell was right:
'You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,' he told the president. 'You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all.' (Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack)
We own that responsibility, and Obama's engaging in wishful thinking about how to fulfill it.


James K said...

For my sins I supported the war in Iraq, largely because I didn't realise the US didn't have the troops needed to do the job properly. If 500,000 troops had been used as recommended, rather than the 250,00 some they actually used I think Iraq would not hav espun out of control.

Having said that, I'm not sure what staying will accomplish. Ultimately Iraq is an artificial nation, carved from the bones of the Ottoman Empire. I'm not sure it can be stabilised now it has lost coherence, and one cannot have a moral obligation to do the impossible.

James Hanley said...

James K,

Your last paragraph captures the fundamental issue succinctly. I'm in agreement with how you've defined the problems. I do, however, think it's not impossible to stabilize somehow, whether that means helping Iraq break up peacefully or helping them learn how to live together.

My colleague has been doing some great research on the Austro-Hungarian empire that strongly supports the idea that multi-ethnic states can be viable. So I still have some hope (emphasis on some.

James K said...

Well that's encouraging. Perhaps stability is possible, though I suspect it would require a large additonal commitment of troops. Short of getting the UN to send peacekeepers in (fat chance) I don't see where those troops are going to come from.

James Hanley said...

The troop levels do remain an issue. But the change in tactics associated with the surge, to proven counter-insurgency tactics, does seem to be having some success.

If, perhaps, Rumsfeld had prepared for the aftermath of the invasion and started using counterinsurgency tactics 5 years ago, we might be closer to success today.

Re: your comment that one cannot have the moral obligation to do the impossible. I agree, but am inclined to think that one has the moral obligation to suffer a whole lot before quitting on a problem one has created.

But then, these are young men's lives we're talking about, which makes that kind of talk a bit flippant.

James K said...

Personally I think there is no virtue in suffering per se, if your suffering doesn't help, why bother?

However, I do believe that an earnest effort should be made to determine whether staying is really futile before a decision to withdraw is made.

But then ultimately whether you do leave Iraq or not will depend on domestic political concerns rather than any kind of sober analysis of policy objectives or the interests of the Iraqis.