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IA-Forum Interview: Dr. Christopher Preble
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Dr. Christopher Preble , director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, discusses Iraq, Russia, and U.S. foreign policy issues. International Affairs Forum: Today it was announced that U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have reached agreement on a proposal calling for a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011. What is your initial reaction to it? Dr. Christopher Preble: I haven’t seen the agreement but from what I’ve seen, it still doesn’t get us to zero troops in Iraq so the Bush administration and Iraqi government are still contemplating at least some U.S. military presence in Iraq for an indefinite future. The fact that they have yet to settle on rights for US troops in Iraq is significant. Most status of forces agreements resolve that in one way or another. The fact that this remains an open point is perhaps problematic. I presume they’ll be able to resolve that but it’s still up in the air right now right now. At the end of the day, it reveals that the Maliki government – or any Iraqi politician – would be in a very difficult situation concluding a long term agreement with the United States that appears to legitimize the permanent U.S. presence in the country. That would be extremely unpopular politically. So I think the fact that negotiations have been so protracted points to the kind of ambivalence and sometimes hostility they have to the notion of a U.S. military presence. IA-Forum: What lessons should be learned from the U.S. experience in the Iraq War? Dr. Preble: In Washington, in particular, there are a lot of people who either supported the war at its outset and changed their mind and regret supporting it or a group of people who supported the war all along and have never wavered from that position. The majority of Americans are in the first group – there’s been a pretty dramatic shift in opinion from Americans who were in favor of invading and removing Saddam Hussein from power and who over the course of the last five years have become progressively less supportive of the mission. The question then becomes why is it people turned against the war and what lessons can be learned from it. In Washington, the common belief is that the Bush Administration was particularly incompetent in the conduct of the occupation and the implication being if a different administration was in power or another type of administration will be in power, that administration wouldn’t make the same kinds of mistakes. Therefore, the rationale behind the war was not flawed but rather that the Bush administration’s execution of it was. My concern is very different. I was opposed to the war at the very outset as were my colleagues here in the Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Department at Cato. There’s a recognition that, even if things had gone well, even if the Bush administration had conducted a so-called effective occupation, many of the problems we’re facing in Iraq today we would still be dealing with. The United States is not capable of forcing a political settlement on the people of Iraq. This is not unique to Iraq, it is the case in most conflicts in which we might find ourselves around the world. If a President or Congress chooses to going to war – and most American wars are wars of choice – they need to be very clear minded about what the likely costs are going to be. It’s not enough to go into a country and simply remove a government from power unless you are absolutely confident that the new government will be a dramatic improvement over what came before it or that the new government will be capable to stand up on its own quickly. Those kinds of assumptions – which were the assumptions governing the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq - are rarely the case. It’s almost never the case that you can simply decapitate a regime and assume that a favorable, effective, and competent government will immediately come to power. IA-Forum: What the best policy to deal with a ‘failed state’? Dr. Preble: There has been a tendency to conflate state failure with threats to U.S. national security. Most people point to Afghanistan as being a case in 2001 where a failed state served as a safe haven for Al Qaeda. The problem is that many failed states do not host terrorist organizations and therefore are not directly complicit in threats against the United States. It wasn’t just that the Taliban was a failed state, they had made common cause with Al Qaeda, knowingly welcomed them into Afghanistan and understood quite clearly what they had on their hands. This is revealed in recent information that suggests Mohammed Omar was very troubled by what Bin Laden was doing but ultimately decided not to drive him out of his country. So ascribing threats to state failure a lot of times alleviates the burden of responsibility on the governments in question. Secondly, many threats to U.S. national security, particularly terrorist threats, have emanated not from failed states but perfectly healthy states. The most dramatic example of that is that the 9/11 hijackers were based in Hamburg, Germany for a while then trained in the United States. So there is not a strong correlation -- much less a causal link -- between threats of terrorism to state failure. We should not have a blanket policy or core U.S. objective to fix failed states because it is not directly related to protecting U.S. national security, which is the first obligation of U.S. foreign policy. If we make fixing failed states a core object of U.S. foreign policy, we would be on the hook for an extraordinarily costly and protracted series of missions in a host of places. It’s extremely difficult to differentiate in that sense. To declare a blanket policy of fixing failed states what criteria should be used to judge failed states? There are a whole host of different indices to be considered to determine what states are failed and how much they are failed. The bottom line is most nation-building missions fail. Even organizations like the RAND Corporation, which is generally supportive of U.S. nation-building operations, admits that a majority of nation-building missions fail. For those that succeed, the success factors are largely beyond the control of the occupying power. David Edelstein, professor at Georgetown University, recently wrote a book on occupations and nation building (Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation, Cornell University Press) showing that, in a post-conflict occupation, most occupations fail, and in the few that have succeeded, moreover, what is attributed as successes are not directly related to what the occupying powers do. It has become a mantra in Washington that we have to fix failed states, we have to fix failed states because they are a threat, and we can get good at fixing failed states. I think all three of those things are simply false. IA-Forum: The U.S. Presidential candidates have divergent views on future U.S. military presence in Iraq. How would you critique their stances? Dr. Preble: They both have very different challenges. On one hand, John McCain has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the war from the outset. He strongly advocated military action against Saddam Hussein well before the invasion. While he has made a big deal out of his criticisms of the conduct of the operations by the Bush administration, he’s never wavered in his belief that it was the right thing to do. The challenge is, because U.S. public opinion has shifted so dramatically against the war, he goes into the election campaign assuming that the majority of Americans who disagree with him will give him a pass on this kind of major policy disagreement – that most Americans will support him for some other reason, not for his support of the war. Because he’s been unable politically to back away from his strong commitment to the war, he is hopeful that the situation there continues to improve, and ultimately that will serve as a rationale for justifying the presence of U.S. troops. Although he has very strong support of the war, he is reluctant to do anything that would threaten the very fragile gains that have been achieved over the last eighteen months or so. That puts him in a very difficult box, both politically and in terms of policy. I also worry about the lessons John McCain draws from the War in Iraq because if he is of the good idea/poorly executed camp, he would enter office with the firm conviction that he will effectively conduct U.S. regime change and nation-building operations in the future, and that he will not fall victim to the same kinds of problems George Bush encountered. That’s a very dangerous position to take. Barack Obama has a different problem. As one of the few people to oppose the war in 2002, he is in a much stronger position regarding Iraq. But he does not want to be held responsible if Iraq descends into chaos following U.S. withdrawal. While he would like to see U.S. troops drawn down, it is as much dependent upon the conditions on the ground as the Bush administration has been. In fact, President Bush has said that, conditions permitting, he would withdraw troops. I think a very different calculation should be at play here, which is that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq does not measurably contribute to U.S. national security and it’s actually harmful to it. Therefore the U.S. policy should be to withdraw troops from Iraq in an expeditious fashion, within a year. We should also say to the Iraqi government and Iraq’s neighbors that while there is a risk of further violence following U.S. military withdrawal, Iraq and its neighbors have a vested interest in not seeing that take place and therefore should endeavor to prevent that from taking place. The United States should be out of the role of primary guarantor of security in Iraq, which we can’t even be. It’s disingenuous for us to say that the 140,000 troops in Iraq, let alone half that many if we move in that direction next year, are what is preventing Iraq from descending into chaos. That’s not accurate. IA-Forum: What effects do you see the war having on the U.S. military and its effectiveness? Dr. Preble: In the very short term, we have to restore the force to its fighting effectiveness to pre-Iraq levels including recapitalizing equipment, something the Army has used to push for a greatly expanded budget. The more difficult intermediate- to long-term problem is we have relaxed some of our standards for recruitment and retention to sustain the force. Those kinds of decisions, while perhaps needed in the short term, may have long term effects. The goal should be to restore the quality of the force and reaffirm the very high standards we had prior to 9/11. If that means that an even smaller force, as long as it is still exceptionally capable, we should move in that direction. Of course, we’re moving in the opposite direction in the sense that we have plans to grow the Army and Marine Corps another twelve percent larger than they were pre-9/11. I think that moves us in the wrong direction. IA-Forum: And you’ve advocated a smaller budget for DoD… Dr. Preble: Yes, but only on the assumption that U.S. foreign policy would change. If we cut the military, as we did after the end of the Cold War by twenty-five percent, but do not change our foreign policy and become even more active militarily, as we have since the end of the Cold War, it would be worse than doing nothing at all. It puts increased burdens on our troops and also, over time, erodes their fighting effectiveness; it risks creating a hollow force that is superficially strong but internally has some deep weaknesses that can be exploited when they’re actually called to fight. IA-Forum: The current crisis between Georgia and Russia has put increased strain on relations between Russia and the West. There is increased talk in the media about the possibility of a new Cold War. Do you think that condition could be imminent? Dr. Preble: I don’t think it’s imminent. There are a lot of factors that would cause the United States and Russia to step back from a full-on confrontation like we had after World War II. But, on the other hand, there are very powerful impulses on both sides. For Russians it’s a kind of pride, desire to reassert their global standing; also their ability to exploit some of their new wealth from the high price of oil and natural gas. On the American side, there’s a real problem in not learning some of the lessons following the end of the Cold War that did not create space for Russia to become more fully integrated into the West. I think NATO expansion was extraordinarily shortsighted and ultimately, harmful to U.S-Russian relations. While I don’t think a new Cold War is inevitable, if it does occur, we may look back on the NATO expansion that occurred in the 1990s - that happened without a lot of debate in the United States – as being one of the factors that drove Russia away from greater integration and more toward a confrontational position against the United States. Christopher A. Preble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Before joining Cato in February 2003, he taught history at St. Cloud State University and Temple University. Preble was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy and is a veteran of the Gulf War, having served onboard USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) from 1990 to 1993. He is the author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda , which examines U.S. strategic interests in Iraq, and John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap, a book discussing the political and economic roots of national security strategy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Preble's work has been published in major publications including USA Today, the Financial Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orange County Register, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Washington Times, the New Republic, Reason, Political Science Quarterly, the National Interest, and the Harvard International Review. He has also appeared on many television and radio news networks including CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News Channel, NPR, Voice of America, and the BBC. Preble holds a Ph.D. in history from Temple University..

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