Misleading from South Carolina

November 14, 2011

As Republican candidates for president debated foreign policy in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) laid down lines of attack in the conservative National Review. Many of his attacks were echoed on Saturday by the candidates, who used the piece as a sort of playbook to fill in for a lack of experience and ideas in the field. Missing, in the debate and the article, was strategic thinking – China, for example, is mentioned only once in the piece, in relation to sanctions on Iran – as well as an understanding of the connection between the foundations of our strength at home and our power abroad. Also missing was awareness of how extreme conservative views clash with the advice of military leaders and nonpartisan national security experts. When Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), for example, was asked about her support for torture techniques that our military opposes, she said: “I’m on the same side as Vice President Cheney on this issue” and against Colin Powell and John McCain. Below, NSN explores how the topics covered in Graham’s article stack up against expert advice. Graham’s words are in italics.

“Iran: They’re Going Nuclear”

Reality: Pentagon chiefs continue to warn against the consequences of a military response, say an attack would delay Iran’s program at best. Reuters reported last week: “Military action against Iran could have ‘unintended consequences’ in the region, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday, hours after Tehran warned that an attack against its nuclear sites would be met by ‘iron fists.’ Panetta, who took over the Pentagon’s top job in July, said he agreed with an assessment of his predecessor, Robert Gates, that a strike on Iran would only delay its nuclear program, which the West believes is aimed at making an atomic bomb. Gates also warned it could unite the country and deepen its resolve toward pursuing nuclear weapons. ‘You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,’ Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon, when asked about his concerns about a military strike. He acknowledged military action might fail to deter Iran ‘from what they want to do.’ ‘But more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region,’ he said. ‘And I think all of those things, you know, need to be carefully considered.’” [Reuters, 11/10/11]

“Iraq: Fumbled in the Red Zone”

Reality: The president is rebalancing America’s role in the world and fulfilling a Bush-era security agreement. As George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch explained when the decision was announced, “President Barack Obama’s announcement today of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 should be cause for real celebration. This is the right decision, at the right time. It may have been forced upon the administration by Iraqi political realities. But the end result will be a mutually agreed upon and orderly American withdrawal from Iraq on the timetable which both Bush and Obama promised but which few believed would ever really happen… Iraq still faces many difficult challenges and won’t be fully secure or politically stable for a long time. But the U.S. military presence is now largely irrelevant to those problems. Nor would the remaining troops have greatly troubled Iran. Iraqi politics and security institutions have long since adapted to the reduced American role and its impending departure. Disaster did not follow when U.S. troops stopped patrolling, or when 100,000 troops left over the course of a year. Instead, Iraqi Security Forces took over the lead role in internal security under the new conditions, and adapted effectively enough.  Even if an agreement had been reached to keep some U.S. troops after 2011, they would have been almost exclusively involved in training and support. The ongoing terrorist attacks and unresolved instability along the Arab-Kurdish border pose real challenges, but the U.S. troops which might conceivably have stayed behind in 2012 weren’t going to be dealing with them.” [Marc Lynch, 10/21/11]

“Israel: Naïve Policies Strain Relationships”

Reality: The U.S. alliance with Israel is fundamental; security ties are closer than they have ever been. Since 2009, President Obama has met with Prime Minister Netanyahu more than any other world leader, and the U.S. and Israel held their largest-ever joint military exercise. Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, also notes “an unprecedented increase in U.S. security assistance, stepped up security consultations, support for Israel’s new Iron Dome Defensive System, and other initiatives.” Following a raid on the Israeli embassy in Egypt, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognized the strong leadership of the United States, saying, “I would like to express my gratitude to the President of the United States, Barack Obama. I asked for his help. This was a decisive and fateful moment. He said, ‘I will do everything I can.’ And so he did. He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special measure of gratitude. This attests to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States. This alliance between Israel and the United States is especially important in these times of political storms and upheavals in the Middle East.” [Andrew Shapiro, 7/16/10. Benjamin Netanyahu, 9/10/11]

“Afghanistan: Undercutting Commanders”

Reality: Right-sizing our presence matches our commitment with our interests, encourages Afghans to take the lead. As the Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle writes, the main goal of the Afghan war has been achieved, and it’s time to right-size our presence to match our commitment with our interests. “Ten years later, Osama bin Laden is dead and his organization is reeling. The prospects of mass casualty attacks on the 9/11 scale are receding as al-Qaeda central weakens, and it may be increasingly possible to contain bin Laden’s successors with low-key espionage and standoff attacks by drones or commandos.” By insisting that President Obama consider only the most resource-intensive option given to him by his commanders, Sen. Graham misunderstands the role of commander-in-chief, which requires balancing competing priorities to achieve the national interest. As General David Petraeus said last summer when the redeployment was announced, “There are broader considerations beyond those just of a military commander… The commander in chief has decided, and it is then the responsibility, needless to say, of those in uniform to salute smartly and to do everything humanly possible to execute it.” [Stephen Biddle, 8/26/11. David Petraeus via the NYT, 6/23/11]

“Guantanamo Bay: We are a Nation Without a Jail”

Reality: U.S. prisons have safely held terrorists for years. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained his experience imprisoning terrorists from his CIA days in the Reagan administration: “This started 20 years ago when I was at CIA, and we captured a Hezbollah terrorist who had been involved in killing an American sailor on an aircraft that had been taken hostage in Beirut. We brought him to the United States, put him on trial and put him in prison.” In fact, our prison system has held some of the most notorious terrorists for decades, including, the East Africa Embassy bombing perpetrators; Ramzi Yousef, for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber; Najibullah Zazi, who plotted the attack on the New York City subway; Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, before his execution; and most recently Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber.”  [Robert Gates, 5/22/09]

“Interrogation Policies: Making us Less Safe”

Reality: Traditional interrogation practices have been more effective, without damaging America’s credibility. In his article, Senator Graham complains that, “Our well-trained, professional CIA interrogators are now virtually out of the interrogation business. We now rely on the Army Field Manual, which is online for our enemies to review, as the exclusive resource for interrogation.” In fact, senior terrorism suspects are interrogated by the High-value Interrogation Group (HIG) which is made up of intelligence professionals from the CIA, the FBI and the Pentagon, and is run by the National Security Council. But more importantly, as Matthew Alexander, the Air Force interrogator who led the team that found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, through the use of traditional interrogation techniques, recently explained, transparency is on our side: “The Army Field Manual on interrogations should be made public for several reasons. It dispels any rumors that we are using torture. Transparency is our friend in this regard-it prevents our enemies from spinning ‘secretive’ techniques and reassures our allies that we are not using torture.” [Matthew Alexander, 2/4/11]

“9/11: An Act of War, Not a Crime”

Reality: Civilian courts are more effective than military commissions at delivering justice. In his article, Graham advocates for the use of military commissions to prosecute the 9/11 perpetrators, arguing that they are tougher on terrorists. However, Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell in the George W. Bush administration explains, the “purported reason for funneling more suspects into the military system is, of course, to be tougher on terrorism. Terrorist attacks are acts of war, the thinking goes, and therefore should be handled solely by the U.S. military. But the respective records of federal courts and military tribunals undermine this rationale. Through domestic law enforcement, most notably the FBI and Department of Justice, the U.S. has successfully prosecuted more than 400 terrorism cases. Military tribunals have convicted only six people in 10 years.” Graham specifically cites Ahmed Ghailani to prove his point because Ghailani was acquitted of all but one charge in the East Africa Embassy Bombings. Yet Ghailani, who was prosecuted in a civilian court, is currently serving out a life sentence. [Lawrence Wilkerson, 10/2/11]

What We’re Reading

The Afghan Taliban say they have acquired security plans for a forthcoming national meeting, a claim the government has dismissed as a ploy to intimidate participants.

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership, accusing the government of President al-Assad of defying an agreement to stop the violent repression of demonstrators, and it threatened economic and political sanctions if he did not comply.

Israelis are taking a keen interest in the deadly explosion at a weapons facility in Iran that killed 17 people, including a high-ranking Revolutionary Guard official who worked on Iran’s advanced ballistic missiles.

Two rival militias fought a sporadic but deadly gun battle just west of Tripoli over the weekend, blocking traffic on the vital coastal road between the Libyan capital and the Tunisian border.

Egyptian political groups gave the ruling generals until mid-week to withdraw a constitutional proposal that shields the army from oversight in parliament, saying they would otherwise hold an anti-military protest.

An alleged Iranian-linked terror cell was in contact with the Tehran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard and planned attacks against high profile sites, including Saudi Embassy and a Gulf causeway linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, authorities in Bahrain claimed Sunday.

Algerian intelligence reports show coordination between the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram and the Algerian-based North African branch of al Qaeda.

Three major political parties are campaigning in the Mexican president’s home state, but it’s the groups that aren’t on Sunday’s ballot that have everyone worried: the drug cartels.

President Barack Obama announced that the United States and eight other Pacific nations have reached the broad outlines of an agreement to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership to liberalize trade.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Europe could be living through its toughest hour since World War II as new leaders in Italy and Greece rushed to form governments and limit the damage from the euro zone debt crisis.

Commentary of the Day

Richard Clarke examines the GOP push to for military trials and why they are creating a problem rather than solving one.

Robert Fisk examines the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria and the influence of Qatar.

Michael O’Hanlon proposes a set of ideas for how the U.S. Navy can sustain key requirements while downsizing the fleet.

Gavin du Venage explains why China’s influence in Africa may be unraveling.

Bookmark and Share