Holbrooke vs. Gingrich

A useful debate is taking place in the WaPo, between Richard Holbrooke and Newt Gingrich about best approaches to managing the global struggle with Islamic jihadism, and I'm curious to hear reactions from readers of this site to these issues.

Do readers here believe, or disbelieve, the assertion that the struggle with jihadism is the clearly dominant foreign policy issue of this era, the equivalent of the struggles against Nazism and communism from earlier eras? If so, what policies should Democrats propose for winning this struggle? Is "winning" a serious, sensible goal?

To be more specific, is this threat so severe and so impending that, for instance, the U.S. should seriously consider military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? Would a nuclear-armed Iran pose a "real and present danger" requiring a military response? If not, how should such an Iran be handled?

Whatever happens in Iraq, should the U.S. re-invest military assets into Afghanistan, to prevent what looks like a serious slide back into Taliban & al Quaeda influence? Should the U.S. engage militarily to prevent Somalia from also becoming such a terrorist base?

Should the U.S. place significant pressures on Saudi Arabia to end its support for radical Islamist movements, regardless of other considerations?

My questions are narrowly focused here. I certainly don't reject diplomacy, "soft power" approaches, etc. But Democrats have been depicted as too unwilling to use military force, even when faced with real--as opposed to ginned-up--threats. Are Democrats so blinded by anti-Bush hatred that they have not addressed adequately the real threats that loom? Do Democrats accurately comprehend the nature of the threats?

Democratic candidates who are only anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war, but who have no concrete plans for dealing with the larger global threats posed by terrorists willing to engage in suicide bombings, cannot get elected to the White House, IMO. And perhaps should not be elected....


I'm acknowledging your post

and doing my best to avoid a snarky comeback. I will post later on this, but first simply have to ask why these same questions weren't asked about Bush? He didn't acknowledge the threat of Osama Bin Laden even after it was completely set before him. You simply assume that because someone has an R by their name that they are competent when it comes to foreign policy? Iraq provided a buffer between Iran and other volatile areas of the Middle East. All we've done in pursuing oil (it was never Saddam) is effectively remove that buffer. As egregious as Saddam was, his regime served a purpous in the Middle East.

I'll try to address some of your other questions, but my kneejerk reaction is that these are more appropriately asked of the Republicans. They've screwed up almost every military action we've taken. Why keep trusting them?

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Yes, please resist a snarky

Yes, please resist a snarky response to serious questions!

1) why these same questions weren't asked about Bush?

I'm a Democrat, didn't support Bush, and don't support his foreign policy directions. Thus, I think this question is off target. It's too late to ask this of him or of the Republicans. But it's not too late to ask it of Democrats, especially when many voters find the Democrats wanting in the specific areas of national security.

2) You simply assume that because someone has an R by their name that they are competent when it comes to foreign policy?

How do you jump from my questions to asserting that I think that Republicans are inherently trustworthy in international affairs? That's a wholly inappropriate leap.

3) I'd welcome a detailed discussion of what we can or should do about Iraq post-Saddam, but my questions were not directed at that specific problem, but at the larger problems of finding a coherent Democratic recognition of the threats posed by Islamic jihadism, and detailing a Democratic response to those threats. Do you think that the threat is real and pressing? If not, why not? If so, what would you do to resist it?

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick...not making light of your questions

but the tone of the piece and the questions being posed only to or about Democrats comes across as something a Republican would do to prove that we are weak on national defense. We do have Republicans who are registered at the site, so I can't assume that I'm reading something written by a Democrat.

I would love to respond and just did...realized right now I'm still too angry to do much more than write a screed against the administration and as good as it feels to vent, it isn't very constructive. So, I erased it. More intelligible and intelligent comments will simply have to wait. Thanks for the questions, though.

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Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

A couple of big differences between jihadism and nazism

Two differences that should impact the way that we address today's threat:

  1. We have a lot of choices about how to go about dealing with the various middle eastern threats that might reasonably be lumped under the term "jihadism." Iran, for example, won't have a nuclear weapon for at least six years by even the most panicked estimates from our intelligence community (or that's what I hear, anyway). That gives us a lot of room to use diplomatic means to deal with the issue. We shouldn't let the current administration's complete failure on the diplomatic front convince us (or anyone else) that diplomacy can't work. And even if we opt for military action, the fact that we have years—the fact that Iran is not currently marching across Europe, exterminating Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and gays—means that we have some flexibility in determining the when and how of our attack.
  2. The other big difference that springs to mind is a problem that stems from the fog created by the current administration's constant use of terms like "terrorism" to describe an ideology and "the enemy" to describe... who? (Is "the enemy" an Islamic fundamentalist? A Shiite militia? Financially-motivated kidnappers?) Terrorism is not an ideology, but a methodology employed by forces too small to face their opposition head on and too desperate to play fair. I'm not sure that jihadism has a much more useful definition. If we don't take a more granular view of who our enemies are, then the War on Terror is doomed to be no more effective than the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty. Nazism, on the other hand, was essentially a state government run from the top. If you're wanting to fight Nazis, look for the armband, the salute, and the funny walk. If the most that you know about your enemy is that he's a terrorist or a jihadi, well you'll see one global conflict where there are in fact a number of disparate conflicts.

There are probably other reasons why, but there's no good comparison between Nazis and jihadis, at least not when it comes to the practical question of how we fight them.

1) My understanding of

1) My understanding of jihadism leads me to think that there may not be so many options for us to consider as you seem to think. I'd be initerested in hearing a more finely-grained analysis of jidhadism from you, sorting out the options you see available for each.

2) I don't find five years very comforting at all concerning an Iranian nuclear device. And I'd like to hear, in detail, what kind of diplomatic resolution you think might be available with Iran, given Ahmadinejad's comments. Even discounting for domestic consumption, he's quite frightening. I think we need to take very seriously the prospect that, should he obtain a nuclear device, he would use it. Or do you think some kind of MAD might work w/Iran. The EU has been trying to negotiate with him for some time now, with no appreciable success. At what point do we conclude that they have no desire to reach an agreement, and are using "diplomacy" to cover their enrichment activities? Should we accept that their nuclear trajectory can no longer be altered, and prepare for a world with a radical Islamist nuclear weapon?

2) Yes, I agree that the idea of a "war on terrorism" makes as much sense as a "war on artillery" -- terrorism is a technique. We need to address the ideology (ideologies?) behind the technique; otherwise, the "war on terrorism" will literally have no end, and there will be a coninuous and irresistable erosion of civil liberties here at home. What's your take on who the enemy is? Are there substantive differences among jihadist groups, differences that would counsel different strategies? Are Middle Eastern jihadists different than European jihadists (the recent airline plot disrupted in England apparently involves second-generation British citizens, not external cells penetrating English society)?

3) The point about Nazism wasn't about specific National Socialist ideology (although many people speak of "Islamo-fascism"), but about how the struggle against Nazism served to provide a coherent framework for our national security policy. Should the struggle against jihadism serve the same role today?

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett

I don't get paid for

I don't get paid for intelligence of diplomatic work. I don't really get paid to do anything, but my next job will be in corporate law, so take this for what it's worth.

1) I think your point in #1 is backwards. That is, the burden of proof ought to be on those who claim that jihadism is a cohesive enough thing around which to build a single US policy response. What do you mean by jihadism except "religious movements that exhort adherents to use violence and which also happen to involve Islam"? Why should anyone think that the best way to deal with these movements is under the rubric of a single "-ism."

2 (the first)) If I keep eating McDonalds, I'll be dead in 10 years. Should I go ahead and get in the casket? There's quite a bit of room between "things are headed for X" and "we're at X." In that space there are options. Our current administration seems to favor just one of these options, but I'd like to see qualified and skilled folks in government considering what the other options may be. I'm not saying that military action should be ruled out, but it ought to be reserved for an imminent threat. 6-8 years from now is not imminent.

I didn't mean to put you,

I didn't mean to put you, particularly, on the spot with all the detailed questions--I don't know the answers either. But I believe that Democrats need to have a clear and coherent vision about national security, and that such a vision must be based on the realities on the ground.

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett

Is "winning" a serious, sensible goal?

Not in my opinion.

Unless and until the world community reaches consensus to engage in deep cooperation around intelligence related to terrorism, there is no way out of the problems we're facing.

The idea that we can bomb our way to safety - I use that as a metaphor for sustained military force - is ludicrous on the face of it, with no evidence I'm aware of to suggest that it is a workable approach. It's a worldwide game of Whack-a-Mole that cannot be 'won' in any meaning of the word.

This is not about being weak on defense. This is about being rationale and sane. The proper response to the challenges we're facing are not generally military responses. It is intelligence that's called for ... and that requires a level of collaboration with governments worldwide that a president representing the Republican party simply does not have the credibility to execute.

What I said

Here's some commentary that makes the case at the next level of detail.

Actually, I think that

Actually, I think that "winning" might have some real content, though nothing final or definitive. I think--along with Friedman--that a, say, $2 federal tax on gasoline (with the income devoted to developing the next generation of automobile engines) would go a long way to weakening our vulnerable engagement with Middle Eastern oil. So, too, getting some kind of stable "arrangement" ("settlement" might be asking too much of history) to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Both of these could then lead to reduced dependence upon proped-up Middle Eastern tyrannies (i.e., Saudi Arabia, Egypt), and make room for some desperately needed modernization and reform. And I think that these kinds of moves should be front and center of a Democratic vision of national security.

That said, however, we still face the prospect of dire developments in the region, developments that need to be addressed well before these longer-range steps can be put in place. So, I put it again: (Setting Iraq aside for the moment) Should we shift our attention to "nation building"--via military assistance, among others, in Afghanistan and Somalia, to prevent their further cooptation by jihadists? Can we allow a nuclear Iran to emerge?

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett

struggle with struggle

The term Jihad is frequently misused by non-muslims especially in MSM.

It is an Arabic word the root of which is Jahada, which means to strive for a better way of life. The nouns are Juhd, Mujahid, Jihad, and Ijtihad. The other meanings are: endeavor, strain, exertion, effort, diligence, fighting to defend one's life, land, and religion.

In Afghanistan the Mujahideen fought for freedom against the Russians with US help before morphing into the Taliban. The biggest threat in Afghanistan right now is the poppy plant which cannot be harnessed or eradicated by military action.

Military action alone will not solve problems. Eliminating radicals serves to radicalize moderates, of any persuasion. Political, economic and physical security are essential to stability and do not necessarily require military action though they often require the threat of it.

The US simply does not have enough military force (absent the use of nuclear weapons) to engage and defeat all enemies militarily. There is no military force in the world that can defeat the US military yet no army cannot destroy the resistance of a people.

Consider the multiple ironies in the following article: Iraq: Lessons of an Old Guerrilla Fighter

Overwhelming force has a purpose but also has consequences.

Of course, you're right that

Of course, you're right that military action alone cannot solve all problems, and that a multifaceted strategy must be employed. My original question--which noted the value of diplomacy, "soft power," etc.--was to see if, in the last analysis, Democrats would be willing to "pull the trigger"--I'm afraid that too many people think that we would not. Yes, the threat of force must be present, but are we actually willing to fulfill that threat?

Does this group believe, for instance, that having given diplomacy plenty of room to operate, and seeing nothing but a stubborn insistance upon developing nuclear weapons on Iran's part, that some sort of Israeli-style pre-emptive strike would be not merely the better choice, but the only choice? Where do we draw the line?

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick, I don't mean to be rude

Patrick, I don't mean to be rude, but it seems to me that to suggest that a group that seeks power in a representative democracy wouldn't be willing to "pull the trigger" in order to protect its constituents from an imminent threat is to call that group a bunch of cowards. To set your mind at ease: I don't think that anyone who is in any position to speak for the Democratic party is opposed to the use of military force to defend America. There's nothing controversial about that.

Also—and just for the sake of clarity—it doesn't make much sense to talk about what "this group" believes. There's a lot of overlap in opinion here, but there's a lot of disagreement as well. BlueNC is just a place for people to chat.

No insult intended -- just

No insult intended -- just stirring the pot...

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett

Trigger happy

I'm not so sure that diplomacy has been given plenty of room to operate and by that I mean that I don't see that Iran has been effectively engaged. The last person to have any real engagement with Iran was Oliver North, not that I'd recommend him as a negotiator. We will always see seeing "nothing but a stubborn insistance upon developing nuclear weapons on Iran's part".

There are a lot of weapons from China and Russia in Lebanon that got there via Iran. Iraq's Scuds came from North Korea. The "Axis of Evil" was a construct that provided cover for invasion of Iraq. Maybe we should have invaded or pulled the trigger on Iran or North Korea. We never had that debate.

Of course "Democrats would be willing to "pull the trigger"". The question is rhetorical. Pulling the trigger is easy. Pressuring and compromising with allies and enemies is not, nor is dealing with the consequences of attacking Iran.

A wounded Iran may be less powerful but may also be more dangerous. The alienated and disaffected are most likely to wreak vengeance for injuries real or imagined. Pearl Harbor wasn't struck by Nazis or Communists.

This is not the equivalent of fighting Nazi fascism.

In World War II the German government attacked most of Europe with the oft-stated goal of controlling that continent and beyond and setting in place a master race. They were a government. They had borders, they had factories and troops and they were supported by those among the populis that were not slaughtered.

Osama bin Laden has no country. He has no government. He has no borders. He attacked us with his troops. Osama was trained by us in Afghanistan, was equipped by us in Afghanistan, and remained in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban and the warlords. The fascist equivalent would have been our attacking Afghanistan with as many soldiers as it took to secure the entire nation and to cut off his escape. Then, we could have denazified Afghanistan, put Osama on trial or in a grave, and ended the al Qaeda threat.

There will always be people who hate us, but what the Republican policies have done is give them a fresh excuse and a training grounds on which to perfect their techniques. If you don't think this has made a difference, then look at how Hezbollah has backed down Israel. You can bet money that Hezbollah has been training people in Iraq and now they are a stronger organization because of it.

People turn to hate when they have no hope. The poverty in these nations is crushing, the lack of hope even more crushing. They have nothing to live for except their religion, which is twisted by madmen bent on fame and power into a struggle against the West - represented by our leader standing in front of a flag saying "Bring 'em On" and calling the entire religion fascists.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

You're right that fighting

You're right that fighting non-state enemies is different--perhaps harder, but certainly different--from fighting states. One of my goals here is to see if we Democrats have a coherent strategy for doing just that, and if we can find ways to convey that effectively to the voting public. It won't matter--just as it hasn't mattered for the past two elections--that we have better ideas about health care, taxes, energy, education, etc. We MUST have better ideas about national security, if we're going to get the public to trust us again.

My mention of the Nazies was not because of some similarities between National Socialism and jihadism (as I noted in an earlier post), but to ask if Osama bin Laden (and his children, his franchisees, etc.) are a sufficiently grave threat to serve as the same sort of organizing pivot point for a Democratic foreign policy that earlier struggles against other ideological enemies did in the past.

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett

Apropos this discussion...

I steal liberally from today's Andrew Sullivan blog:

One facet of the foiled London bombing is that the Brits succeeded. They succeeded through good intelligence - not dumb torture or invading countries. And this raises a broader question that deserves wider debate. A reader writes:

"I generally agree with your post regarding the lack of a clear Democratic proposal to reform the Middle East. To take a step back, though, is it not a valid question to ask whether such reform is possible, at least in a broad sense and in a matter of years rather than decades? Your framing of the issue implies that any foreign policy agenda that does not include an ambitious reform effort is inherently defeatist – here you seem to follow the RNC line – and it is unclear, to me at least, what proportion of such an agenda you believe should rely on military force. Your comment emphasizes the need to use American soft power, but is the willingness to apply military force also a necessary ingredient?

"Would you be satisfied by a Democratic agenda, or a Democratic candidate in 2008, supporting political and economic reform and extensive counter-terrorism measures but recognizing that the use of military force in the conventional sense is likely to have limited value and much more downside than up? Iran is a difficult issue here, to be sure, but even the Bush administration seems to recognize that the military options is an invitation to apocalypse. Such a policy would of course model Baker/Scowcroft ‘mainstream’ Republican thought pre-9/11, with a heightened sense of the need to support measures counteracting radical Islamic fundamentalism and jihadist groups. Is such a policy squishy and weak, or is it simply realistic?"

My own view has adjusted over the last few years, though not changed dramatically. The Iraq fiasco has shown the enormous difficulty of using blunt force to create an organic democratic change in a few years. But the future is not written yet - and the Scowcroftian policies of propping up fast-failing dictatorships (a policy that gave us the first Islamist government in Iran) was clearly insufficient after 9/11. So call me a chastened neocon, if you must: appalled by the execution, humbled by the unintended consequences, but still unable to surrender the belief that more democracy and liberal institutions in the Middle East is the only long-term solution.

What does this mean in practice? Redeployment within Iraq to regions where we truly can encourage democracy and prosperity, like Kurdistan. More "soft" support for democratic movements in the Muslim world - the kind of backing we gave Eastern European dissidents in the Cold War - is essential, if done subtly enough not to prompt backlash. Encouraging the entrepreneurial Gulf states to grow in wealth and influence cannot hurt; a serious non-carbon energy policy at home is part of the mix as well. The credible threat of military force is also vital - especially as far as Iran's regime is concerned. And a much more credible homeland defense policy. If the Democrats could present a multi-faceted, hard-nosed approach to winning the war, a lot of us in the middle would give them a second look. But so far, not so good. I'm waiting for a leading Democratic nominee to pill a Sistah Souljah on the anti-war left, to call them on their irresponsibility and narcissism. Gore could do it. The question is: when will he start talking like a future war-president rather than an angry dissident?
All-in-all, that doesn't sound too bad to me (and I continue to be an ardent Gore supporter).

Patrick W. Hamlett

Patrick W. Hamlett