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Archive for October, 2008

Next Object Lesson: Afghanistan

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald.]

America needs to reassess its current policy of exporting democracy to the rest of the world.  It is not working in Iraq and it is even less likely to work in Afghanistan.  The only hope we have for change there is to seek stability and that means understanding and supporting the wishes of the local populations.   We will not be successful in that part of the world, particularly if our policy is based on militarily imposing democracy.

The Bush administration has made it abundantly clear to the rest of the world, particularly the Islamic world, that it sees the democratization of Islam as the answer to radical Islamic terrorism. That is a major mistake that will plague future generations in America and the West.  Our next object lesson in this arena may come in Afghanistan where increased attempts to install democracy will only make the problem worse.

This administration, under the debilitating influence of the Neoconservatives, whose basic philosophical point of departure is to see world events through a purely moral, right vs. wrong filter, has decided to spread democracy. They have decided, under that same Neocon influence, that the only correct answer to the terrorist issue, or, for that matter, any other foreign policy issue, is a military response.

It is this conflation of two distinctly different issues, selling democracy and combating terrorism, into one problem and the concurrent conviction that they only can be addressed with one policy – military action – that has caused us most of our current foreign policy problems.

This is what got us into Iraq, what lost us so many allies.  Remember all the energy expended by the Bush Administration to establish a direct connection between the terrorist bombings on 9/11 and the government of Saddam Hussein?  Well, that was the beginning.  We say we are fighting terrorism in Iraq, but we are really trying to suppress an insurgency in order to impose democracy on them because we think that will create a better world for us and our friends.

It now appears that we will move our military attention from Iraq to Afghanistan.  Both Senators McCain and Obama have stressed their resolve to “save” Afghanistan by transferring more troops there.  Unfortunately, the Afghanis will not be eager for us to impose a democracy, or much of anything else, on their country. There is nothing in their culture, their history, their geography or their reality that would make this likely.

We need to continue to be concerned about terrorism in Afghanistan, not about insurgency.  Al Qaida is, and will remain a threat to us, particularly if we continue our failed policies in the region.  It would be foolhardy to walk away and permit them to reestablish their base of operations there.  However, we should not be concerned with democratizing that country. Afghan stability and denying Al Qaida an operational base should be our dominant goals.

What we need to do is allow Afghanistan to stabilize itself.  That means identifying what political arrangement will be acceptable to the Afghanis and then figuring out how to accomplish that in the face of pressures that will seek both to destabilize Afghanistan and to recreate it as a home for Al Qaida.

That means no major jump in our troop levels, no attempt to control that large country or its borders, no attempt to bring them democracy and no attempt to militarily crush the indigenous insurgency – the Taliban – for if we pursue those paths, we are guaranteeing a repeat of Iraq, or worse.  It would literally take hundreds of thousands of troops to succeed using an Iraq-like “surge” in Afghanistan.  Any serious attempt at military “victory” in Afghanistan will make Iraq look like a walk in the park.

About the only things we should hope to accomplish are Afghan stability and the denial of Afghanistan to Al Qaida. We can do that only if we support governance that is acceptable to the majority of Afghanis.  That means some sort of Islamic government, hopefully, but not necessarily moderate, which, in recognizing the dangers of fundamentalist terrorism, would be willing to have us remain involved in the denial of their land to terrorist groups like Al Qaida.  Right now, the Taliban is the best candidate.  They are not universally violent, they once stabilized Afghanistan and ended poppy cultivation and they contain elements with which we certainly could cooperate toward those goals.  They are far from all bad.

To accomplish those goals, we need to move on from our basic, long held premise of American exceptionalism – the thought that only America has found the Holy Grail when it comes to governance. Instead, we need to understand that the world is full of people who, perhaps because they do not share our history, have no understanding of democracy or the rule of law, are not that displeased with their own lives, and have little interest in adopting democracy.

That most emphatically includes the broadest spectrum of Muslims who have their devoutly held religious and cultural beliefs and who believe that those beliefs, not ours, are the key to their own happiness.

Until we reach that level of sophistication and understanding of how the world really works, we will certainly be seduced by our own notion of exceptionalism into more and more disastrous democracy-driven forays into the rest of the world.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

Back in the years following the Second World War, many European countries were seriously politically divided between the right and the left. In many respects, that was the result of the essentially favorable view of the Soviet Union held by the left in those years.

Even though the Stalinist purges had already taken the lives of tens of millions Soviet citizens, that fact was not widely known or admitted in European leftist circles. Because most of the left wing, or Socialist, parties had their philosophical roots in Marxism, the Soviet Union represented for them a branch of Marxism with which they could identify, a little bit of their heaven on earth, as it were, even though there was little in reality that connected the two.

It would take decades for the Socialist left in Europe to understand and then admit that Marxism-Leninism was nothing more than a crude and repressive perversion of their beloved socialism. Ultimately, that came about as a result of heavy-handed methods used by the Soviets to keep their empire together.

East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were the obvious manifestations of Soviet imperialism that helped the political left in Europe to change its view of Marxism-Leninism.

During that changeover in Western Europe, a mild political anarchy prevailed, which led directly to economic uncertainty. In England, for example, the Labor (Marxist, socialist) Party would win a national election. They would then spend their entire time in office nationalizing as much of basic industry as possible. When the Conservative (capitalist, free enterprise) Party subsequently came to power it would undertake the denationalization of as much of the newly nationalized economy as was possible in the time allotted them.

If you were a businessman in England at the time, what were you to do? The parties were so radicalized and the voting public so polarized that there was no way to know what would work economically. There was no stability in the economy or markets, and that did not create an economy that was conducive to national economic growth.

At the same time, the United States was the polar opposite. Republicans and Democrats were not that far apart in either their political or economic philosophies. As a result, there was a level of predictably in this country that created the perfect environment for economic growth, and we had that in spades.

That harmony began to come unstuck with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which led to a realignment of our political landscape. Where the Republican Party previously had been socially liberal and fiscally conservative, the Act, so strongly supported by the Democrats, almost forced southern Democrats to look for another party. They tried the Independent approach for a while, but in the end, the Dixiecrats (Southern Democrats), who had never been socially liberal, moved into the Republican Party and turned it, as we now see, into a socially conservative, some would say intolerant, but economically spendthrift party. In 40 short years, we have seen total role reversal.

The real importance of this change in our political landscape has been the marginalization of the political center. Before 1964, the center, whether Republican or Democrat, had run the country. Today, however, America—to its detriment— is in the hands, or at the mercy of, the right or the left, not the center.

We see the result in the sub-prime meltdown. It followed 12 years of Republican domination of the Congress, featuring a fiercely partisan laissez-faire approach to economic regulation, an approach which speeded up the required conditions for our economic problems. Now we see the Democrats beginning to assert their ideological positions in reaction to the proposed Republican solution, as proffered by Secretary Paulson.

During the deliberations on the financial rescue legislation, both parties trotted out much of their ideological hardware. Democrats insisted on reforming pay for top executives, gaining equity in bailed-out companies and permitting judges to rewrite mortgages. Republicans have called for the suspension of the capital gains tax and an additional, permanent tax cut as a way to create capital.

That has led to a “compromise” bill that, while carrying out the $700-billion intent of the Bush administration, contains pork from all political persuasions. That is not to say that this fat does not represent valid political issues. They are, however, not mainly economic issues. This shows clearly, at a time when speed may be the only thing that can save us from further disaster, that the old ideological political imperatives persevere even at a time when bipartisanship should be mandatory.

Forty years ago, that would have come to us naturally. Today, after forty years of political warfare and the virtual destruction of the political center, we seem not to know how to do it.

Given the often petty bickering of both Republicans and Democrats, it may well be time to seriously consider a third party, if for no other reason than, for the sake of the nation, we need to move our political structure back toward the center.

Haviland Smith is a former long-time resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Since World War II, perhaps as a reaction to European appeasement of Nazi Germany, the United States has become more and more interested in and committed to military responses to international problems.

In recent decades, the Republican Party has consistently advocated a foreign policy that features the projection of U.S. power abroad. During the past eight years, that position has been further amplified through the extraordinary influence of the neoconservatives on Bush administration foreign policy.

The neoconservatives believe that foreign policy should be based strictly on issues of good and evil (choose sides and take the moral high ground); that the prime tool in foreign policy is military power and our willingness to use it pre-emptively in a new unipolar world; that we should avoid conventional diplomacy including international organizations, particularly the United Nations; and that our focus should be on the Middle East and global Islam as the principal theaters for U.S. overseas interests.

It is impossible to argue logically that these neocon principles have not been the backbone of Bush administration foreign policies. So, the issue is not the nature of our foreign policy; it is whether that policy is serving our national interests.

We have had seven years of a pre-emptive, unilateral foreign policy. It has lost us whatever hopes we initially had for Afghanistan. It has brought us a political, ethnic/secular stalemate inside Iraq with little progress by those factions toward stable governance. It has cost us trillions of dollars, mortgaging our country to foreign investors. It has lost us just about all our traditional allies and turned neutral nations against us. It has stretched our military establishment to, or if you believe the Pentagon, perhaps beyond the breaking point. It has helped fundamentalist Muslim terrorist recruiting, training (the Iraq experience) and fundraising. Our uneven approach to democracy in the Middle East, as embodied in pushing it in Iraq and ignoring it in Palestine, has alienated Arabs and the greater Muslim world.

At the same time, we have accomplished nothing to promote a solution for the critical Palestine issue. Further, we have had no effect on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We continue to occupy Iraq and to station our troops in Muslim countries to the displeasure of their peoples. And we give political and material support to the most repressive regimes in the region to the detriment of their people.

As a result, America has little credibility in the world in general and the Middle East in particular. No one likes us, no one respects us and no one fears us. Now that we have overextended ourselves politically, economically and militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have become fair game for other world powers that do not share our goals or views. Let’s face it, the only weapons we have in sufficient numbers are nuclear and that is neither a flexible or useable tool.

The Russians are ignoring us and our threats in Georgia because they know there is little we can do other than complain. The Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs have simply gone about discussing their issues without us. Pakistan ignores us while most of Afghanistan unites against us. Iran and North Korea do what they please in connection with their nuclear programs. The rest of the world treats terrorism as a criminal matter while we continue our “war,” with all its negative implications. In short, the world is going about our business without involving us and they are doing so because of their strong disagreement with our motives, goals and tactics.

Our woes in the world are the result of seven years of a go-it-alone, my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy. It is a simple fact that as long as our standard answer to foreign policy problems is a unilateral military response, we will continue to have major troubles internationally.

It is time to ask whether continuing these policies is in our interest. If it is, then we should elect John McCain who has been clear in his support of the “long war” in the region. On the other hand, Republicans have always painted Democrats as unwilling or unable to project American power abroad. Under that formulation, if you think we are on the wrong track, Barack Obama might appear to represent an alternative.

The fact is, however, that Democrats are ambivalent about the use of force. Even though he wants us out of Iraq, Obama wants to use additional force in Afghanistan. About the best we can hope for out of that adventure is political and military frustration, the further loss of American treasure, deeper troubles with Pakistan and continued collateral damage with its unintended consequences. Success, however it’s defined, will be extremely elusive. Although Obama’s position is probably driven by a perceived need to rebut ongoing Republican attacks on him for his “naiveté and inexperience,” the fact is that the military option remains high up in both candidates’ lists despite its many drawbacks.

We can’t have it both ways. If we continue our unilateral, pre-emptive military policies, we will need masses of money we don’t have and an infinitely larger military establishment to handle the predictable, coming threats that we are encouraging with our current policies.

Given the results we already have had from those policies, we need to look at alternatives. The “military option” is valid only if we are feared. Given our economic and military problems and the world’s current opinion of us, the only policy that makes much sense is a combination of diplomacy, alliances and negotiation, a policy that has served us so well in the past.

Unfortunately, neither candidate is wedded to that approach. Although Obama appears to support that policy on matters other than Afghanistan, McCain is openly opposed and dismissive, preferring to pursue the concept of the “long war.”

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston.

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