Foreign Policy Myths Debunked | The Nation


Foreign Policy Myths Debunked

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The Iraq War is a testament to the great damage a foreign policy based on myths, lies and distortions can do to our nation's security and well-being. As the election draws near, a new set of myths and fallacies as misleading as those that led the Senate to support George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq have become embedded in our foreign policy discourse. Many of them are being perpetuated by the very same political forces that peddled the myth of mushroom clouds coming from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Others are the product of muddled thinking on the part of both Republicans and Democrats. If left unchallenged, these myths and fallacies could influence the outcome of the election and shape policy in the next administration. In this special feature, put together by Nation editors with Sherle Schwenninger, a frequent Nation contributor and director of the Global Economic Policy Program at the New America Foundation, we dissect ten of them and offer what we believe is a more accurate depiction of what is at stake for the United States and the world.

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Myth 1. It's a dangerous world. We face an array of serious national security threats that require an experienced Commander in Chief.

John McCain's supporters have repeated this refrain over and over, replete with 3 am imagery, to call attention to his presumed national security credentials and to cast doubt on Barack Obama's readiness to be Commander in Chief. Obama has on occasion challenged the politics of fear, but many of his supporters have too readily conceded that it is a dangerous world.

The world is more dangerous than it would have been had the Bush administration not invaded Iraq, spurned Iran's diplomatic overtures in 2003 and unnecessarily antagonized Russia by expanding NATO and withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But the world is far less dangerous than it has been in previous election years--certainly less dangerous than in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, or in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was voted into office. Seven years after the 9/11 attacks, it is evident that Al Qaeda lacks the capacity to pose a systemic threat to America. Since 9/11 there have been no major terrorist attacks against US targets outside the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for "great power" conflict, China, India, Brazil and Russia are all stakeholders in the current international system and would prefer to work with the United States rather than challenge it militarily. Iran is too weak economically and militarily to pose a threat to the United States or to US allies in the Middle East and is years away from obtaining nuclear weapons. The stability of nuclear Pakistan and oil-rich Saudi Arabia remains a concern, but both countries have proved to be more resilient--and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, more capable of reform--than their critics have allowed.

This is not to say that the United States does not face major international challenges. These challenges relate to the economic rise of China and India, the transfer of huge amounts of our wealth to petrodollar states, the vulnerabilities that come with the complex interdependence of industrial production and financial systems created by globalization, and the incipient struggle over resources, particularly oil and water. But the skills and resources needed to meet these challenges are not the warrior instincts highlighted in McCain's Commander in Chief ads. When the phone rings at 3 am, it will more likely be a call warning that an international deal to rescue an American bank that is "too big to fail" has collapsed, and that the Treasury and Fed will have to step in, than a call about a terrorist attack on American soil or missiles being fired on an American ship. The nerves and judgment of a good crisis-management team may indeed be in high demand in the next administration, but not those that the catchphrase "It's a dangerous world" brings to mind.

Myth 2. The surge has worked. To withdraw from Iraq now would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and embolden Islamic extremists.

This is McCain's main talking point on Iraq, and his supporters have used the "success" of the surge to cast doubt on Obama's judgment. Civilian and military casualties in Iraq have indeed declined since the deployment of additional US forces. But to say the surge worked is misleading in three ways. First, it confuses the temporary surge of US forces in 2007-08 with a number of other factors that reduced violence. As US officials in Iraq have admitted, the decision by Sunni groups to rein in Al Qaeda-oriented extremists, along with the US military's decision to pay former Sunni insurgents who joined the Awakening Councils--both of which began well before the surge--deserves much of the credit for the decline in violence. So does the decision by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr to order his militia to stand down during this period.

Second, the surge has had an ugly flip side. To reduce the violence, the US military built concrete walls to separate Sunnis and Shiites, which facilitated ethnic cleansing by both sides but especially by Shiite militias against Sunni residents of Baghdad. The drop-off in violence reflects the fact that ethnic cleansing led to the internal partition of Iraqi cities and regions, reducing the opportunity for sectarian killing.

Third, the surge has not created the conditions for political reconciliation or a stable Iraq, which, after all, was its main purpose. The "success" of the surge was based on Sunni repression of jihadi extremists, ethnic cleansing and separation walls, not compromise. The Shiite-led government seems no more willing to compromise on key issues than it was before the surge. Indeed, the Maliki administration is now targeting Sunni leaders of the Awakening movement, threatening to undo the fragile progress that has been made. Thus the surge has emboldened the government to consolidate its sectarian gains and buck the wishes of its American supporters, even to the point of demanding a timetable for the end of the occupation.

Myth 3. We cannot allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists. We therefore must redouble our military efforts there or face another terrorist attack.

Since Barack Obama and John McCain both support sending more troops to Afghanistan, the election may create a bipartisan consensus for increasing the US military commitment to "winning" the "right" war. But such a consensus would be based on several mistaken notions.

First, the United States and its NATO allies are losing the war in Afghanistan not because we have had too few military forces but because our military presence, along with the corruption of the Hamid Karzai government, has gradually turned the Afghan population against us, swelling the ranks of Taliban recruits. American airstrikes have repeatedly killed innocent civilians. Sending thousands of additional troops will not secure a democratic and stable Afghanistan, because the country is not only deeply divided but also fiercely resistant to outside forces. Indeed, more troops may only engender more anti-American resistance and cause groups in neighboring Pakistan to step up their support for the Taliban in order to stop what they see as a US effort to advance US and Indian interests in the region. As the British and the Soviets discovered before us, Afghanistan can easily become a trap for any great power seeking to establish control of the country.

Second, securing Afghanistan is not necessary to US security and may actually undermine our goal of defeating Al Qaeda. It makes no sense to commit more troops and money to a war in Afghanistan that cannot be won when Al Qaeda can operate relatively freely in parts of Pakistan. The key to the defeat of Al Qaeda and its protectors lies with the Pakistani government and its ability to establish control over its remote territory. Major groups within Pakistan's military and intelligence services are reluctant to take action against the extremists for fear it would help the United States and India consolidate control over Afghanistan. Expanding the war in Afghanistan may only further destabilize Pakistan by deepening divisions within that country, especially if Washington persists with its new policy of extending American military operations into Pakistan. The best way to get Pakistan to take action against Al Qaeda is for the United States to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, encourage the Karzai government to negotiate with the Taliban to end the civil war and redirect US military efforts toward economic assistance, which would strengthen the popular appeal of the Pakistani and Afghan governments.

Third, even if remnants of Al Qaeda's leadership are still there, the value of Afghanistan and Pakistan as an Al Qaeda safe haven is greatly exaggerated. Pakistan's tribal areas are of limited use in training extremists to blend into US society or learn how to fly airplanes or make explosives (most of the planning for the 9/11 attacks took place in Hamburg and Florida, not Afghanistan). Nor is this remote and isolated area the best location from which to direct an effective terror campaign or recruit new members. That is why Al Qaeda is a decentralized network whose leaders in Pakistan can offer at most moral support and encouragement. American safety thus depends not on eliminating faraway safe havens for Al Qaeda but on common-sense counterterrorist and national security measures--extensive intelligence cooperation, expert police work, effective border control and the occasional surgical use of special forces.

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