On a train from Rome to Venice, I just tucked into Samantha Power’s review essay on the future of War on Terror in this Sunday’s Times. Again, she shows why she a leading driver of an emerging liberal foreign policy position that deviates at once from the utopian militarism of neoconservationism, the isolationism of realism, and the dangerous reliance on Bush-bashing that dominates much of the left. Dare I say, she is working and thinking towards an emerging progressive foreign policy agenda.
The piece begins with a framing that is not always recognized. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Bush defined the War on Terror in srikingly broad terms. He did not confine the war to defeating Al Qaeda, but that it would begin with Al Qaeda, and “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
The greater paradigmatic change, and the object of Power’s ire, however, was not in this definition of the enemy, but rather in a redefinition of the mechanisms that should be used to defeat it. This redefinition, ostensibly designed to adapt to a new security environment, had four parts: the criminal justice approach to counterterrorism was being replaced by a military one; States were either with the US or against them; international institutions were seen as constraining factors that needed to be circumvented; and that the executive, in such a time of emergency, should be given the balance of power over the congressional and legislative branches of government.
So how has this worked out? By Power’s assessment, rather poorly. Using Rumsfeld’s metric for sucess (“Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”), her conclusion is damning:
Leaked intelligence reports have shown that the answer is negative. The administration’s tactical and strategic blunders have crippled American military readiness; exposed vulnerabilities in training, equipment and force structure; and accelerated terrorist recruitment. In short, although the United States has not been directly hit since 9/11, we are less safe as a result of the Bush administration’s rhetoric, conduct and strategy.
But in her words, “criticizing the calamities of the last six years of American foreign policy has become all too easy. And it does not itself improve our approach to combating terrorist threats that do in fact loom large — larger, in fact, because of Bush’s mistakes.”
I couldn’t agree more, and therefore welcome what lies at the core of this piece – a broad stroke review of three texts that each in their own way help us begin to define this new toolbox:
We must urgently set about reversing the harm done to the nation’s standing and security by simultaneously reasserting the moral difference between the United States and Islamic terrorists and by developing a 21st-century toolbox to minimize actual terrorist threats. Several new books take up this
challenge, each addressing a different piece of the national security predicament. Together, they allow one to begin to define a new approach to counterterrorism.
The first book is the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, notably heavily influenced by David Patraeus. The manual is a response to the near complete lack of counterinsurgency capability in the US military following 9/11. What the manual suggests, is nothing short of revolutionary, and if implemented, I have no doubt would dramatically change the prospects for sucess certainly in Afghanistan, and possibly in Iraq. Powers aptly describes just why this manual is so dramatic:
The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral
damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.” It suggests that force size be calculated in relation not to the enemy, but to inhabitants (a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents). It emphasizes the necessity of coordination with beefed-up civilian agencies, which are needed to take on reconstruction and development tasks.
The most counterintuitive, as well as the most politically difficult, premise of the manual is that the American military must assume greater risk in order to gather much-needed intelligence and, in the end, achieve greater safety. The emphasis of the 1990s on force protection is overturned by the assertion of several breathtaking paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.”
Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (and a close colleague of mine), has contributed an introduction that should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand the huge demands effective counterinsurgency will place on the military and the voting public. “Those who fail to see the manual as radical probably don’t understand it,” she writes, “or at least what it’s up against.”…
Military actions that cause civilian deaths, she argues, are not simply morally questionable; they are self-defeating.
The second book reviewed is Ian Shapiro’s ‘Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror’, which urges for for a return to legitimacy as a central tenant of US foreign policy. Where as Patreaus sees local legitimacy as critical to mission success in counterinsurgency warfare, Shapiro sees international legitimacy as a required tool of the War on Terror. Both argue that sucess is nearly impossible without it.
While Powers is sympathetic to his position on the diffuse, as opposed to unified nature of the threat, (which he sees as a good thing), she is quick to highlight the gulf between the ability to actualize a new containment doctrine, and the aggressive position of the Bush Administration:
For containment to work, Washington needs to be able to deliver credible threats. The irony of Bush’s flawed approach is that it has exposed the limits of American enforcement tools, stretching military and financial resources beyond recognition. This has a doubly negative effect: it emboldens those who need to be contained, and it deters those we once might have counted on for help in doing the containing.
She also seems concerned that he is far too quick to dismiss, or at least minimise the threat of nuclear proliferation: “In fact, after six years of dishonesty and alarmism, it seems especially important — if challenging — to retain a capacity for grave, calibrated concern about the proliferation of nuclear aspirant states and their proud ties to terrorist networks.”
If the new counterinsurgency doctrine strikes at the core of the identity, tactics and purpose of the US military, the third book reviewed, Talal Asad’s ‘On Suicide Bombing’ challenges the core belief that there is a difference between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ cleanly delineated in Bush’s post-9/11 world view.
Here Powers seems sympathetic to the call for greater cultural awareness, but falls short of endorsing Asad’s moral equivalency. While she notes that “if you continue to believe (as I do) that there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective, you will indeed find “On Suicide Bombing” disturbing, if not always in the way he in
tends.” Here, however, I don’t think that recognizing the moral distinction oneself, and seeing that others do not, are mutually exclusive. The very fact that people who’s families are killed by cluster bombs see no difference between them and suicide attacks, is highly relevant to the discussion of our counterterrorism tactics, whether we agree with it or not.
Finally, Powers looks to the US disaster preparedness status post 9/11 through a review of Stephen Flynn’s ‘The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation’. Here, she has little critique and seems as horrified as Flynn that so little has been done on this front:
By defining American security objectives in military terms, the Bush administration has failed to set achievable goals that could vastly decrease the human and financial damage from a large-scale attack at
home. While the United States military has done its best to adjust to the inadequacies recent conflicts have exposed, almost no meaningful midcourse corrections have been made on the homefront…not in educating the public, training emergency responders, fortifying “soft targets,” securing hazardous materials or strengthening critical infrastructure.
In Powers’ somewhat schizophrenic assessment of these three works lies an encapsulation of the challenge facing liberals. She endorses the radical new counterinsurgency doctrine, but worries that it is simply too difficult to implement on the fly as it requires a complete institutional overhaul (it is one thing for Patreas to tell his commanders to take far greater risks, it is quite another for them and their soldiers to do so given the decentralized command structure.) She is sympathetic to Shapiro’s breakdown of the terrorist threat, but seems to worry that a containment strategy marks a return to an isolationism she is loath to endorse. While she sees the relevance, and indeed necessity, of better cultural understanding, she is concerned with the end result of cultural relativism. In short, she lies in the middle on most of these debates. Her position is nuanced.
In these reviews, she is clearly articulating, if not explicitly, a moderate, and I would argue, progressive stance on US foreign policy.
Where she is undoubtedly correct, is that liberals and progressives cannot sit on the sidelines of these debates. Out of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism record, a relatively large bulls-eye, MUST come a new strategy – both for Iraq and for the war on terror. I for one, think she is right.