Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on

The One Percent Doctrine

December 10, 2009

In an op-ed piece published yesterday in the New York Times, Tom Friedman argues that the US should adopt former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” when it comes to climate change.  Mr. Cheney’s doctrine applied to national security threats, and he advocated taking preemptive military action against potential aggressors, such as Saddam Hussein’s regime, if there was a one percent chance that hostile elements would attack the US or American interests abroad.  Mr. Friedman says that America should implement measures to combat climate change even if there is only a slight possibility that greenhouse gas emissions will have disastrous effects if unchecked (it should be noted that Mr. Friedman believes that the odds of CO2 threatening the planet are much higher than one percent).

There is a consensus among the scientific community that global warming is real and man-made, and that the international community needs to take major steps to cut emissions in order to avoid serious climate problems; therefore the US and other countries, including developed and developing nations, should implement policies that will mitigate pollution even if it slows economic growth for a while.  But the world should only take such drastic actions because the likelihood of global warming being severely problematic is much higher than one percent.  The one percent doctrine should not be embraced as a guide to policymaking, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.  Doing so would create unnecessary conflicts and bankrupt America.  There might be a one percent chance that China will attack Taiwan; does that mean the US should preemptively attack Chinese naval and air forces?  There is probably more than a one percent probability that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons; does that mean the US should bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?  If there is a one percent chance that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not well secured should the US invade Pakistan and try to seize control of its nuclear facilities?  All of those actions would be very destabilizing and costly, and would almost certainly prove counterproductive.  The world is a dangerous place and all nations will have to live with a certain amount of risk, including the US.  The question policymakers have to ask is how much risk is acceptable; a reasonable conclusion would be that one percent is tolerable.

An Election Law Agreement in Iraq

December 7, 2009

Last night, Iraqi leaders reached an agreement on an election law governing the upcoming national elections, and the law was passed by Iraq’s parliament.  The passage of the law had been delayed for months, largely due to concerns about voter registration in Kirkuk, an oil-rich region populated by three different ethnic groups (Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens) that want control over the area’s resources; another sticking point was that Sunni Muslims wanted more representation for Iraqis living abroad, most of whom are Sunni.  An earlier agreement made in early Nov. was vetoed by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni who has the constitutional power to veto legislation along with Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; the three offices were given veto authority in an effort to prevent any one ethnic or sectarian group from feeling politically marginalized.

Had an agreement not been reached it would have severely disrupted the planned withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.  The US is scheduled to reduce its troop presence to 50,000 by August, but a major drawdown will not begin until after the elections are held in order to preserve relative stability during the voting process.  The election, which was supposed to be held in the middle of January, will take place in late February at the earliest because Iraqi officials need time to prepare for it; the delay may make it difficult for the US to meet the August withdrawal date, but the postponement could have been much longer if Iraqi leaders had been unable to secure a deal.  The American pullout will reduce the strain on the nation’s military and make it easier for the US to sustain an upcoming troop surge in Afghanistan.

Iraq has recently been overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan in terms of media focus.  But the situation there remains precarious as a political agreement over the sharing of oil revenues remains elusive and fears of a renewal of sectarian conflict persist.  Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki warned that the delay over the election law could lead to an increase in violence from disaffected groups. 

It is unclear how the Obama administration would respond if widespread fighting broke out again in Iraq and the country was on the brink of descending into chaos.  President Obama promised to end the American troop presence in Iraq, and he is preoccupied with Afghanistan and domestic issues, but an unstable Iraq would be detrimental to US interests in the region and the administration might feel compelled to intervene to prevent a state of anarchy from developing.

Stephen Walt’s Opinion About Counterinsurgency

November 17, 2009

In a blog published yesterday on (, Stephen Walt dismisses the need to better prepare the US military for future counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.  He says that the COIN efforts in Iraq and Afghanstan resulted from two mistakes (the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders at Tora Bora, and the decision to invade Iraq), and argues that military planning should not be based on past strategic blunders.  Mr. Walt embraces the view that the US should focus on maintaining air and naval dominance, and prepare to fight “great power” wars.

US strategists will almost certainly continue to give primacy to conventional threats when it comes to force planning if history is any guide, and Mr. Walt’s concern about a “radical” shift towards COIN is excessive.  However, COIN may continue to receive more attention than it did between the end of the Vietnam War and 9/11, a period when the military essentially ignored COIN and prepared for conventional battles like Gulf War One.  This development is prudent, because there is a significant probability that the US will have to fight more “small wars” in the coming decades.  Just because the COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted from what could reasonably be considered “mistakes” does not mean that America should not make a major effort to prepare for similar conflicts.  American leaders have been, and will continue to be, capable of making mistakes, and the military should be prepared for unconventional warfare, whether it is the result of blunders or not.

Conventional Ops vs. Counterinsurgency

November 16, 2009

Today, the New York Times published a piece by Army Capt. Tim Hsia on its At War blog (  Capt. Hsia notes that the Army has shifted its training focus from conventional operations to counterinsurgency since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, and he wonders if the military will  reorient itself towards preparing for conventional wars after the current conflicts end.  He specifically mentions China as a potential threat for which the Army and the rest of the Armed Forces might need to prepare.

While it is true that ground troops are now being trained to deal with conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and “counterinsurgency” is the hot topic among many strategists and analysts, it is misleading to suggest that the military is myopically focused on fighting so-called “small wars.”  The Navy and Air Force are naturally still geared for conventional warfare, and a large contingent of Army officers continue to argue that the US should be preparing for conventional fights similar to Gulf War One (fighting “small wars” has long been a task that the Marines have engaged in, and they will undoubtedly continue to prepare for them after the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are over).

In terms of defense spending, conventional weapons platforms still take up the vast majority of non-personnel funds.  Capt. Hsia cites Predator drones as an example of counterinsurgency weapons siphoning money from other projects, but the Predator is actually the first generation of unmanned planes that the Air Force and Navy will use for both conventional and special warfare.  In a few decades, most bombers and strike fighters used in traditional battles will probably be pilotless. 

If history is any guide, conventional warfare will have primacy in Army doctrine after the current “small wars” end, and counterinsurgency will be a secondary consideration.  As China’s military power continues grow, the US military will seek to counter it, although it is highly unlikely that the Army would ever engage in ground combat with the People’s Liberation Army in the foreseeable future; the Navy and Air Force would almost certainly be the only participants in a future conflict over Taiwan or another point of contention between the US and China.