• In Search of Biden’s Foreign Policy

    September 29, 2021 // 4 Comments »


     

    Since Biden was elected in part as the answer to Trump’s perceived foreign policy blunders, it seems reasonable nine months in to go searching for the Biden Doctrine, to assess his initial foreign policy moves, to see what paths he has sketched out for the next three years.

    (Sound of tumbleweeds.)

    So what of the Biden foreign policy? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a handful of incidents.

    Afghanistan of course has been Biden’s only significant foreign policy action. Ending the Afghan War almost happened under Trump, the last steps derailed by false reporting the Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban for dead Americans (which made no sense; why would the Taliban do anything that might slow the inevitable American withdrawal? They had already won) and a ridiculous media tsunami claiming Trump disrespected the troops. Biden won the election in November and took office in January. There was ample time for replanning and renegotiating anything left behind by Trump, especially since most of the Biden team had muddled in Afghanistan for years previously during the Obama era and knew well the mess they’d help create. The rush for the last plane out of Kabul was a fully expected unexpected event. The Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February, nor did it negotiate ahead of time the third country landing rights it knew would be needed. The lessons learned in Iraq and Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, though Biden did not kick start processing of the SIV visas until literally the last flights were scheduled out of Afghanistan.

    Biden instead chose to place his first foreign policy act’s fate in the hands of negotiations with the Taliban, depending on them to uphold agreements, provide security, vet Americans enroute to the airport, and generally play nice with whatever America needed to do to save face as the door hit us in the ass on the way out. The National Security Council spokeswoman even called the Taliban “businesslike and professional.” If this was naïve, then a new word meaning “more than naïve” needs to be created. Even assuming good intentions (!) the Taliban are loosely organized, with plenty of local warlords, ISIS spinoffs, and rogue elements to ensure things would go wrong, for example, the terror bombing which killed 13 Americans and basically ended the evacuation. Biden’s follow-up? Lie about the success of a revenge drone strike to make sure America’s final official act in the war was to kill civilians. This all added up to the most amateurish foreign policy execution seen in a long time. Mistakes? How  about assuming your enemies share your goals, negotiating after you have lost and hold no cards, failing to plan for anticipatable events, and fibbing about it all and blaming your predecessor. For a foreign diplomat sitting in London, Tokyo, Beijing, or Paris, the question had to have been “who if anyone is in charge in Washington?”

     

    Biden’s other foreign policy gesture, the nuclear submarine agreement with Australia which alienated the French, again begs the question of who is in charge.

    Perhaps the most significant foreign policy problem America faces is no one is in charge . If one understands diplomacy as “America’s interactions with foreigners” then the extended answer is more like there are too many people in charge of parts of the whole. You get celebrity policy, like Trump with Kim, John Kerry jetting around the world solving climate change, or the endless strings of special envoys (Biden has 14, which overlay the existing diplomatic structure with a new layer of bureaucracy. Tillerson had done away with 35 special envoys, Pompeo added back 5.) It seems if the issue is important enough, it is too important for regular diplomats. Next level down are the host of other organizations playing at policy. For the large and growing swatch of the world controlled by warlords, militias, and criminals organizations, policy is made by the intelligence agencies, for example. They have people on ground too muddy for diplomats and too complicated for the White House to focus on. They make policy with payoffs and bribes, if not with targeted kills.

    But the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. Biden just learned how that works. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibilities, budget, and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Generals outlast administrations. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats or even presidents. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear—or to pry open its purse?

    Any criticism of the deal with Australia begins with the question of what idiot could so completely screw up a deal involving a NATO-ally and a partner like Australia? On the face that’s the kind of lunk-headed stuff Trump was often accused of. You’ve left with the bad jokes about not being able to find a girlfriend in a bawdy house.

    What actually happened was Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines under a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies with one another. The genesis of all this of course is the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings now both the British and the Australians into the South China Sea in force, with an arms salesman in the Pentagon finding a way to sideline the French at the same time. Calling America’s (by default, Biden’s) actions Trumpian, France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France had never before withdrawn its ambassador to the U.S., dating back to the initial alliance in 1778, two years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. France assumes the EU presidency next year and promises revenge, never mind the likelihood that Biden will never recruit them into any coalition against Chinese power. So much for Candidate Biden’s promises to repair the U.S.’s alliances post-Trump. He has of course been radio silent on the Aussie deal, and likely learned about it mostly from the media. Arms sales, titularly approved by State, are one of the military’s primary foreign policy carrots.

     

    Joe Biden certainly has his hands full of domestic problems — Covid the virus which has killed thousands of Americans, Covid the public policy disaster which is killing the rest of us, unemployment, inflation, immigration, abortion rights — it’s a long list. So it’s easy to forget Biden was elected in part for his foreign policy expertise. During the campaign Trump was presented as a foreign policy disaster, skirting just short of tragedy thanks to pseudo-coups by patriots like Alexander Vindman and Mark Milley. There were his homoerotic ties to Putin, fights with the French and British, near sell out to North Korea, the brink of war with Iran, and his failure to blunt the rise of China. At least that’s what we were told, because of course none of those things actually happened.

    But first the strawmen. Every president except George Washington inherited his predecessor’s wins and losses and works in progress, and has had at some point needed to take ownership. “But Trump!” worked as a campaign strategy well enough for Biden, but nine months is long enough to have worn it out as a foreign policy (and of course as a domestic excuse.) Trump did not decimate the State Department. Over the decades the most damage done to State has been by various Congresses slashing the budget for diplomacy. The answer to that is for the new president to get some more money into the game, and no signs Biden is working on that.

    One final point about all that rhetoric about Trump gutting the State Department. Decades before Trump, the State Department slide into being an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, it was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals at all beyond some verbiage about structural reform that never saw daylight. State played a concierge role while Trump tried personal diplomacy with North Korea. Pompeo had little to say other than to support his boss ending the Obama nuclear deal with Iran. And of course no one complained much when State was hiring below attrition during the Obama years. As Trump took office, two thirds of new hires at State came from “fellowship” programs created not to bolster core diplomatic skills sets but in response to various diversity lawsuits. Or take a longer view. In 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052, as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. So enough with the excuses.

     

    Nine months in Biden has shown no grace or skill at foreign policy. He has handed execution over to naïve and incompetent people, and watched his military sketch out America’s broader strategy toward China. Biden has otherwise done little of what he promised; there are no signs of him paying any attention to nuclear threats Iran and North Korea. No options have come forth for follow-on in Afghanistan. No significant engagement with NATO or Russia. None at all with China (Trump’s tariffs remain in place.) Not a peep on policy toward Africa or South America. Biden can’t even claim he’s providing stability by staying the course because that means overtly supporting Trump’s policies. Foreign Policy, a reliable Democratic acolyte, struggles to define Biden as a foreign policy success, resorting to listing his accomplishment as “rejoining multilateral organizations, reinvigorating alliances [and] donating vaccines.” Obama got a Noble Peace Prize for doing even less of course, but that must be little solace for poor Joe.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq

    Rearming Iraq: The New Arms Race

    May 21, 2015 // 14 Comments »

    Arab arms4


    The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of weapons.


    The Middle East and North Africa are among America’s most lucrative arms markets, and U.S. defense companies and contractors have opened local offices as the demand shows no sign of abating.

    I sat down with VICE News to discuss the (lack of) controls on U.S. arms exports. The focus is on how arms sales were built into our war efforts in Iraq, and how the “controls” on selling weapons to regimes that violate human rights are bypassed via a compliant State Department.

    One highlight of this documentary is VICE News traveling to the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, to examine the competition between arms manufacturers vying for a greater portion of the lucrative market.

    iframe src=”//embeds.vice.com/?playerId=NDJmMDczNzNhNGViNGYwNzI3MjkwOGRk&aid=news.vice.com/middle-east&vid=Vxd2Y2dToHok6ARzqnPdEUQE8l18Zu7Q&embedCode=Vxd2Y2dToHok6ARzqnPdEUQE8l18Zu7Q&cust_params=&ad_rule=0&description_url=//news.vice.com/video/rearming-iraq-the-new-arms-race&share_url=//news.vice.com/video/rearming-iraq-the-new-arms-race&autoplay=1″ width=”640px” height=”480px” frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen>




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq

    The Case Against U.S.-Arms Sales (and Iraq)

    July 2, 2014 // 10 Comments »




    Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne (whose excellent book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails was reviewed on this blog) and Abigail R. Hall, a second year Mercatus PhD Fellow, have come up with original research that shows the dangers of America’s unfettered global arms sales:

    — Policymakers cannot know the outcome of supplying new arms in an attempt to influence foreign affairs in one manner or another because there are a series of unpredictable consequences that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.

    — It is nearly impossible for the U.S. government to monitor how arms it has sold for a particular purpose are latery used or transferred. These weapons may ultimately be used to achieve ends which may be at odds with the original goal.

    — An expansion in the global arms market creates new profit opportunities funded by international political entities leading domestic arms producers to direct additional resources to lobbying both domestic and foreign governments. An increase in the size and scope of the global arms market for domestic producers increases this lobbying and the associated deadweight loss brought about by rent seeking.

    — It is unclear if the U.S. government were to scale back its control of the global arms market, the result would be more total global arms. This is because a decrease in U.S. subsidies of weapons to other countries would increase the price of weapons and decrease the quantity demanded by foreign governments; a sharp decrease in the supply of arms would drive the price of weapons upward; many foreign governments face diseconomies of scale leading to a lower overall volume of arms.


    U.S. Dramatically Leads in Global Arms Sales

    Coyne and Hall explain just how big a player the U.S. is in the world arms market: Between 1970 and 1979 the U.S. arranged more than $74 billion in weapons sales. Between 1980 and 1989 the U.S. would agree to sell over $97 billion in arms to nations abroad. This number would rise again between 1990 and 1999 to $128 billion. Between 2000 and 2010 the U.S. arranged to send more than $192 billion in arms to countries all over the globe.

    That makes America responsible for at least 68.4 percent of all global arms trade today. The next highest countries, Russia and Italy, account for only nine percent each. U.S. share in the arms market to developing nations is even higher, 78 percent. Russia, number two, accounts for just under six percent.

    Do Arms Sales Facilitate Diplomacy and Secure National Security Objectives?

    The most prominent U.S. government argument in favor of all these arms sales is that they facilitate diplomacy and secure national security objectives. For example, the line goes, countries that receive U.S. weapons want better all-around ties with the U.S. As for national security objectives, the idea is supposedly, as in Iraq at present, weapons sold allow some other country to fight for what the U.S. supports. But is any of that actually true?

    Well, no, not really, according to Coyne and Hall. Successes in foreign policy bought with weapons sales assumes U.S. policymakers can determine the correct mix of weapons and recipients needed to achieve these goals. But the real world is messy; send arms to the Mujahedin in Afghanistan to kill occupying Russians in the 1980s and inadvertently help create al Qaeda in the 1990s, that kind of thing. Influence one thug leader somewhere with shiny weapons, and then hope like hell he stays within U.S. boundaries, does not transfer the weapons for his own purposes (illicit small-arms sales are a big business for some governments, constituting more than an estimated $1 billion in annual revenues), and does not lose control of the weapons entirely in some future coup, revolt or invasion. In short, as the report puts it, “system-type thinking matters because it implies that attempts to influence foreign affairs through arms sales can never simply do one thing, even if this is the intention, because there are a series of unpredictable consequences over time and space that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.”

    And Then There’s Iraq

    Professor Coyne, in an interview with me, brought the whole academic point down to the very practical in applying his and Ms. Hall’s work to the current situation in Iraq:

    “The situation in Iraq provides an excellent, albeit sad, illustration of some of our main points. The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the ISIS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware (Humvees, trucks, rifles, ammunition.) ISIS promptly picked up this equipment and are now using it as part of their broader offensive effort. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.

    “Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?”



    Comment

    There are many more well-argued such examples in a report that should cause U.S. policymakers to rethink their global arm sales policies, but likely won’t. The U.S. remains committed to a chess-board based view of foreign policy in general, and arms sales in particular. We make a move that we think affects only one square on the board, or maybe one piece or at the most one opponent. That opponent then makes a counter move. The U.S. plays multiple boards at once– Iraq, China, Venezuela– under the illusion that the games are not fully interconnected. Coyne’s and Hall’s work shows, in the specific case of global arms sales, how very wrong such a thought process is.

    The world is complex. Countries’ interests intertwine, alliances are multi-dimensional, and you can’t assume a move on one board won’t affect another, or all of the others. That is why in lay terms, as Coyne and Hall demonstrate academically, in anything but the shortest term thinking U.S. global arms sales are doomed to neither facilitate diplomacy nor secure national security objectives.

    The whole report is worth your time. Download a copy here.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq