Monday, November 22, 2010

Politics and National Security

I am usually amused when politicians of all stripes react in horror to the notion--in the words of the "Casablanca" police chief, they are "shocked, shocked"--that someone may be "playing politics" with matters of foreign affairs, even of national security. As I am with most hypocrisy. Military policy, like diplomatic policy or trade policy, is subject to the winds of political fortune, and it is naive or infantile to pretend otherwise. Similarly, the idea that private citizens may never carry their disputes with official policy in these matters beyond our borders is self-deceiving or excessively innocent.

The idea of these pretenders is that there is something which may objectively be called "the national interest", and that it is the role of the Henry Kissingers and think-tankers of Washington to determine what that is; after which we should all salute it and fall in line. The danger, they will point out, is that by making these matters partisan, they will be held hostage to parochial interests and, inevitably, gridlock. As we will see later, that is exactly what Republican Congressional leaders are trying to do with a couple of current national security issues.

The answer to politicization of such topics is to point out such things as the results--both the intended and likely unintended ones--of proposed policies; to identify the interests that stand to gain, or lose, from them; and to consider such larger issues as how policies will be viewed by the world and how they may affect or modify our country's mission in the world. These are political arguments, though ones that are honestly presented, and I would not pretend otherwise.

Case Study: Iraq

If we look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1993 and events leading up to that, there are three separate events in which I would point to very clear politicization of military policy by the Bush Administration.

The first is the timing of the authorization votes in Congress which President Bush ultimately used to demonstrate legal justification for the invasion: October, 2002. Why did Bush & Co. wait a year or more after 9/11 to request it, if it follows logically? The answer is not that they are slow thinkers, or that something additional happened in the meantime which changed our policy's direction, or even that it took that long to rally the political support for the vote, which was ultimately, arguably "bipartisan" (in that many in Congress from both parties supported it). The vote was taken at that time to put the maximum pressure on Democratic Senators and Congressmen (and on any Republicans who may have been wavering) to support the resolution. The argument was clear: It was their patriotic duty to give the President what he needed, and the Sword of Democracy, in the form of likely revenge from the bamboozled public, dangled over them should they dare to challenge the official wisdom.

The second was the timing of the invasion itself; we heard lots of stuff at the time about how it was so important to invade at that exact time because of weather conditions (which turned out to be awful for the actual invasion), and Bush himself asked the question, "How long were we to wait on the borders once the invasion force was assembled? For what?" This argument ignores the fact that there were supposed to be inspections of possible WMD sites that were interrupted because of the imminent attack, or even the longshot possibility that those inspections might have made the invasion (seem) unnecessary, something that was unthinkable to consider once the invasion force was in place. The real reason for the timing had been calculated long in advance: April 2003 was the optimum timing, more or less, to get the invasion and occupation over with and gain the maximum political advantage from Iraq's new democracy for the re-election in 2004. That it didn't turn out that way this time, that Bush had to deal with the blowback in 2004 (but still somehow got elected) does not change that fact.

The third was the infamous "outing" of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson occurring soon after the invasion, and the coverup which followed that disclosure. Because her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had the temerity to call the allegation that Saddam had sought uranium in Niger a lie (which he knew because he had been asked to investigate it), certain key people in the Bush Administration decided to take steps to discredit Wilson, including telling columnist Bob Novak and other journalists that Wilson's investigation had been pushed by his CIA agent wife. Because she was a covert agent, and it is a crime to disclose intentionally the identity of a covert agent, it then became critical to protect the administration from the danger that this political conspiracy gone awry could pose--it could have been the Watergate-type event which brought down the administration, or brought its political defeat in the 2004 election. (I'm looking forward to seeing the dramatization of this history in the new movie, "Fair Game", which I will make a point to review when it comes to our town.) Unfortunately, some cover-ups succeed, and though V.P. Cheney's assistant Scooter Libby took the fall for the conspirators, the lid stayed on until 2006, when it just became more rubble in the massive collapse of W's second-term administration.

The point of reviewing these is just to show the degree to which political calculations routinely enter into these decisions; their actions are contemptible because of the underhanded (or possibly, in the case of the Deputy Secretary of State Armitage's disclosure of Plame Wilson's covert identity, clumsy and inadvertent) tactics, and because of the dishonesty before the public and the world.

The Matters at Hand
The announcement by Republican Senator Jon Kyl--the person designated to be the point man for his party in the consideration of the START2 nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia signed by President Obama and under consideration for ratification--that he does not believe there is time to address his concerns in the lame-duck session is pure politics, that is certain. The substantive concerns raised by the Republicans in committee hearings have been addressed directly by the Administration:
First, the concern raised that our nuclear weapon capabilities needed to be revamped has been answered clearly by the Administration's generous commitments of funding for that purpose;
second, there was a concern that Russia's distaste for American missile defense programs had not been satisfied in the treaty's provision--that has now been fully addressed by the agreement of the NATO nations, with Russia's acceptance, to deploy revised missile defense systems for Europe (and for Israel). *


Kyl's reluctance to deal with the issue now does not reflect new reservations about the treaty, but just a desire to stall for time until the new Congress comes in, one in which the Republicans will be in a better position to demand additional concessions from the Administration to pass the treaty. Worse, they may seek then to hold it up indefinitely in order to discredit the Administration before the rest of the world and the American voters. The political calculation would be that, while Russia is no longer the Cold War-era Communist threat to our way of life, it's still safe to treat them as our mortal enemy.

This post is already too long, but the key points about the treaty are these: no one claims that the mutual reduction in arms would endanger our security, the treaty is necessary to resume verification inspections in Russia (critical for the effort to ensure the security of nuclear weapons materials from the danger of falling into the hands of terrorist organizations), Russia's continued cooperation in our efforts to restrain Iran and North Korea may depend on this important confidence-building treaty, and we are required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to take steps to reduce our nuclear arsenals. All these considerations seem to be secondary to the Senate Republican leadership's political calculations (and poorly calculated, to boot).

Then there is the question of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" from our military policy, which has been proposed for inclusion in the military authorization bill under consideration. As proposed, the change would be implemented by the military services according to their leaders' judgment of the best manner to put it in place. Republican Senators seem intent on digging in the heels to block the provision, even though it is supported by Secretary of Defense Gates (a Republican) and the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As with the START treaty and Russia, the Republicans seem to have made the political calculation that they can gain by blocking this change: they will discredit the Administration and its authority over the military, they can appeal to the homophobic who would not want to admit there may be gay people in our armed forces, and they calculate that they will only offend gay people, who would have to be nearly insane to support the Republicans anyway (though some do).

It's just politics as usual, but it's bad politics. The only remedy is good politics.


*Missile defense still suffers from one fundamental problem--it doesn't work--but at least Obama has changed the program to a less costly form, one that is not designed to be a thumb in the eye to Russia nor an embarrassment to Turkey.

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