Trump Critics and Russia Hawks Have Change of Heart

Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and his wife, Kelley, visit Knoxville, Iowa, January 29, 2016
Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and his wife, Kelley, visit Knoxville, Iowa, January 29, 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

Two of Donald Trump’s fiercest Republican critics have suddenly taking a liking to the president — and with it, come around to his views on Russia. Read more

Neoconservatives Belittle Foreign Policy Critique

Republican senator Rand Paul speaks in Louisville, Kentucky, October 30, 2010
Republican senator Rand Paul speaks in Louisville, Kentucky, October 30, 2010 (Gage Skidmore)

Neoconservative Republican lawmakers and news media this week sharply criticized Kentucky senator Rand Paul who filibustered President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency. The exchange reveals a deep divide within the Republican Party about the future of its foreign policy.

Paul, who was elected with more than 55 percent of the votes in Kentucky in 2010, held up Brennan’s nomination out of concern that his CIA could use unmanned aerial vehicles to strike citizens on American soil. Attorney General Eric Holder assured the senator that the administration had “no intention” of using such drone aircraft to target Americans at home. But hypothetically, Holder acknowledged that the president can use lethal force within United States territory to eliminate “enemy combatants,” even if they’re citizens.

The significance that libertarians like Paul attach to that nuance was evidently lost on several of his Republican colleagues who berated him for filibustering Brennan’s nomination. Read more

Libya “Model” for Aiding Syrian Rebels, Senators Say

Two United States senators on Sunday said the Libyan intervention should be the “model” for international action in Syria.

Unlike was the case in Libya, where Britain, France and NATO allies last year rallied the international community to support a military intervention after the North African country’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, had deployed heavy force against anti-government protests, world nations have struggled to come up with a unified response to the onslaught in Syria.

For almost a year, President Bashar al-Assad has suppressed dissent in his country with state violence. What started as demonstrations against his regime has since morphed into a civil war.

Arab countries, Turkey and the United States have expressed support for the Syrian rebels but are hesitant to intervene over the objections of China and Russia which have twice blocked resolutions in the United Nations Security Council that deplored the situation in Syria and called on Assad to step down.

Hawkish Republican lawmakers in the United States, including Arizona senator John McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have urged tougher sanctions on Damascus and suggested that Arab and Western states should arm the Syrian opposition. They were joined by a member of President Barack Obama’s party on Sunday when Democrat Richard Blumenthal, a senator for Connecticut, said, “Libya is a model for how we can aid rebels.”

Blumenthal, who, like Graham, sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Fox News Sunday that there was bipartisan support for attempts to help the Syrian rebels. “That aid can be technical assistance, communications equipments, humanitarian aid, financial support and, if possible, arms that would go indirectly.”

He insisted that such support should be organized internationally and that America would put no troops on the ground.

Appearing alongside Blumenthal on the same program, Graham said that military aid could go through the Arab League. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said last month that arming the Syrian rebels was an “excellent idea” while the emir of Qatar openly called for an intervention in January.

“We need more international pressure,” said Graham. “We need to help the rebels militarily, economically and let Assad know that he is an international outlaw and be held accountable.” He added that the United States should consider enforcing a no-fly zone as NATO did over Libya.

China and Russia are unlikely to endorse military intervention in Syria because, as they see it, Arab states and NATO extended their United Nations mandate to protect civilians in Libya and actively participated in the ouster of Gaddafi.

Neighboring countries of Syria’s on the other hand, including Saudi Arabia, welcome the opportunity to help topple Assad who is an ally of Iran’s. For his regime to fall and be replaced by probably a Sunni dominated leadership would be a huge boost to Saudi Arabia’s standing in the region, especially after its client government in Lebanon was undermined by the militant organization Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, a little more than a year ago.

Regime change would therefore also serve the American interest. It would weaken Iran’s reach across the Middle East and strengthen Western allies.

However, because Syria is far more divided along ethnic and religious lines than Libya was and because the geography is vastly different, an expedition could take longer and involve the United States in what is now a bloody civil war.

For these very reasons, America’s top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, has cautioned against military support for the Syrian rebels. “I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point,” he said in an interview with CNN last month.

Republican Says “Domestic Politics” Motivate War Policy

Republican senator Lindsey Graham voiced concern about the future of American military involvement in Afghanistan a day after his country’s defense secretary, Leon Panetta, had told NATO allies in Brussels that the United States could suspend combat operations as early as 2013, a year before the alliance is scheduled to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans.

Graham, a South Carolina native and Air Force veteran, is a noted national-security hawk who previously questioned the administration’s decision to withdraw 30,000 surge troops from Afghanistan before the end of this year. “This is all domestic politics,” he said on Fox News’ On The Record on Thursday. “There is no military commander suggesting that we pull out in September of this year the surge forces.”

In bringing home tens of thousand of troops this year, President Barack Obama overruled his military advisors who recommended a slower withdrawal. Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last June that the president’s plans were more “more aggressive and incur more risk” than he was originally prepared to accept. Before he resigned in July, defense secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that waning popular support for the grinding military effort was a factor in the government’s decision to draw down forces at a faster pace.

“If we take combat operations off the table in 2013, that’s the second fighting season we’ve lost,” Graham lamented. He worried that General John Allen, the commander of international forces operating in Afghanistan, wouldn’t have the resources necessary to expand his counterinsurgency effort into the eastern tribal regions where the Taliban maintain an active presence.

Defense secretary Panetta insisted that Western troops “will have to be fully combat ready” and will fight “as necessary” even as native forces assume the security lead. However, few NATO countries are still willing to see the war through.

Just two weeks ago, France suspended its combat operations after four servicemen were shot and killed by a local trainee. President Nicolas Sarkozy, facing a war weary electorate as well, could pull out French forces by 2013, a year ahead of the 2014 deadline that was set by NATO two years ago.

These moves communicate a weakness to the insurgents, said Graham. “If you’re trying to win a war and negotiate with the enemy, you want to do so from strength.” Republicans are critical of setting deadlines for troops withdrawals altogether, fearing that the Taliban will bid for time and return to power once Western armies have left the country.

Asked what advice he would give the president, Graham said, “What I think he should do is enter into an agreement with the Afghan government at their request to have military bases in the country, three or four, past 2014, with airpower and Special Forces units that can defeat the Taliban in perpetuity. Then you negotiate with them. Not now.”

There may not be the political will to commit to Afghan security in the long term. Vice President Joe Biden told NBC News in December 2010 that the United States were “gonna be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014.” Other administration officials have been less adamant but far from clear on what, if any, military engagement the president envisions in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline.

Senator Warns Pakistan, “All Options” on the Table

A top Republican lawmaker suggested on Sunday that “all options” should be table to defend American forces in Afghanistan from the schemes of Pakistani intelligence. “They’re killing American soldiers,” Lindsey Graham told Fox News Sunday.

The senator from South Carolina, who is a noted interventionist and foreign policy hawk, criticized Pakistan’s spy agency for its continued support of militant Islamists who are allied with the Taliban.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate on Thursday that the Haqqani network, among the most violent of insurgent groups associated with the Taliban, “has long enjoyed the support and protection of the Pakistani government and is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”

The Haqqani were deemed responsible for staging an attack on the American embassy in Kabul and ISAF headquarters there two weeks ago. At least 36 people died during two days of fighting in the capital.

Graham lamented that the Haqqani operate “with impunity inside of Pakistan” and are assisted “directly and indirectly” by the military’s intelligence agency. He recognized that the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan compels the Pakistanis to maintain their ties with extremists.

They’re betting the Taliban will come back. The Pakistan military lives like kings within Pakistan. A democracy in Afghanistan is a threat to Pakistani military control in their own mind.

Pakistan regards the modern day mujahideen as a wedge against India, to be deployed whenever New Delhi asserts itself too prominently in Afghanistan where India, in turn, has fostered ties with Hamid Karzai’s civilian government to upset Pakistan’s quest for “strategic depth” there.

Yet Pakistan staunchly supported the international War on Terror after 9/11. Years of anti-terrorist operations by a majority Punjabi army in predominantly Pashtun territory has pushed the Muslim nation onto the brink of civil war. The army’s offensives in Pakistan’s western tribal areas displaced nearly half a million people.

Before the Afghan war escalated, the battle was confined to the border region but since 2008, it has spread into Pakistan proper with bombings and assassinations taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

If the United States are preparing for a retreat in 2014, it makes no sense for Pakistan to crack down on insurgents that might prove an asset in the future. Similarly, once the war in Afghanistan draws to a close, America has no clear interest in keeping up its alliance with Pakistan.

According to Graham, “it is now a time of choosing.” The Pakistanis “made a tremendous miscalculation” in supporting terrorist who attacked Americans, he said. “Pakistan is engaging in hostile acts against the United States and our ally Afghanistan. That must cease.”

Republican Hawks Critical of Tea Party Isolationism

Establishment Republican lawmakers worry that their party might pursue a neoisolationist foreign policy if the populist Tea Party movement continues to have an influence in American conservative politics.

National security hawks have also voiced dissatisfaction with the current top tier of Republican presidential candidates, all of whom advocate a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both of whom are perceived as moderate, pro-business candidates, agree that America’s heavy military presence in Afghanistan doesn’t serve its national interest anymore. Romney, who previously tried to secure the Republican nomination in 2008, believes that American troops “shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.” He and Huntsman were also skeptical of the Western intervention in Libya.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who continually raises the specter of militant Islamism, opposed arming the anti-government forces in Libya, warning, during a primary debate in New Hampshire this summer, “We have no idea what percent of the Libyan rebels are in fact Al Qaeda.”

Rick Perry, perhaps the most hawkish among Republican doves, is compared to former president George W. Bush but vows to refrain from the sort of “military adventurism” that characterized the neoconservative policy in the Middle East. During a televised debate with his fellow contenders in Tampa, Florida on Monday, he added that’s “it’s time to bring our young men and women home as soon, and obviously as safely, as we can” from Afghanistan.

“I’m disappointed that some people in our party are not embracing the concept that the outcome in Afghanistan will determine our national-security fate for decades to come,” Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Foreign Policy after the debate. An influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Graham was critical of the president’s plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan when he unveiled them this summer, fearing that it would “undercut a strategy that was working” and lead other NATO countries to retreat “at a faster pace now.”

Along with Arizona senator John McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate against Barack Obama three years ago, Graham also said to be “deeply troubled” by the planned drawdown in Iraq where as few as 3,000 American soldiers could remain to train Iraqi security forces next year.

Graham and McCain both called for a bigger American role in the NATO mission in Libya where the alliance enforced a no-fly zone to protect civilians from repression after the regime there had deployed force against peaceful protesters in February. Few Republicans supported them in that effort.

McCain hasn’t singled out any of his party’s presidential hopefuls for criticism but does warn against the growing isolationism in the Republican ranks which he attributes to tough economic times. Both President Obama and former Utah governor Huntsman favor “nation building at home” rather than spending billions of dollars trying to erect a stable government in Kabul. McCain told ABC News in June that the United States “abandoned Afghanistan once and paid a very heavy price for it in the attacks of 9/11.”

Part of the Republicans’ newfound isolationism also stems from their role as an opposition party. Obama promised to end America’s involvement in Iraq altogether during his first term in office and while he is close to making good on that pledge, he escalated the conflict in Afghanistan with some 30,000 surge troops who will only start coming home during election year. Meanwhile, both wars are deeply unpopular

According to an ABC News/Washington Post opinion poll conducted over the summer, more than half of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting. 73 percent of respondents said that the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from the country this year although the announced deadline for retreat is 2014.

Robert Gates, who resigned as defense secretary two months ago, in June urged skeptics of the war to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure? We’ve invested a huge amount of money here,” he said, along with many hundreds of lives lost. He later told CNN that “failure is a huge challenge for the United States” and could have “costs of its own that will linger with us for a longer time as was the case in Vietnam.”

The parallel with the Vietnam War is appropriate, he told Newsweek. “That is we came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game. President Obama, I think, got the right strategy and the right resources for Afghanistan — but eight years in.”

Besides a narrower, more nationalist foreign policy, the Tea Party champions fiscal austerity above all else and has helped shape the debate about deficit spending in Washington DC. Democrats and Republicans now agree on the need to cut expenditures although the former also want to raise taxes whereas the latter are wary of defense cuts.

If operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were to come to an end, total defense outlays would be reduced by roughly one fifth. The Pentagon would still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on pay and benefits and housing for personnel as well as operations, maintenance and procurement.

Robert Gates identified some $400 billion worth of cuts in defense spending over the next ten years before he left office. He cautioned against “steep and unwise reductions in defense” if they were enacted because of “tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign” but deeper cuts could be ahead unless a bipartisan congressional committee agrees to at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending reductions by November.

As part of August’s agreement to raise the nation’s legal debt limit, members of both major parties must find common ground or $600 billion in defense spending is automatically cut.

The very national-security hawks who have criticized the Tea Party’s isolationist streak are already lined up for a fight over the military budget. “Defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis,” Senator McCain said last month, “and if the Congress and the president act on that flawed assumption, they will create a situation that is truly unaffordable — the hollowing out of American military power and the loss of faith of our military members.”

The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee did agree to freeze defense spending at $630 billion for the next fiscal year which is $26 billion less than was requested by President Obama and nearly $20 billion less than was approved by the conservative majority in the House of Representatives.

Concern About Afghanistan Troop Withdrawals

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama announced to bring back the 30,000 surge troops from Afghanistan by 2012. Some 10,000 soldiers should start coming home this year. “After this initial reduction,” he said Wednesday, “our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support.”

Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource — our people.

According to the president, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” His generals and prominent opposition members aren’t so sure however.

In pulling out tens of thousands of troops, Obama overruled his military leaders who recommended a less hasty withdrawal. Without explicitly criticizing the planned drawdown, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Afghanistan, and General James Mattis, US Central Command chief and overseer of all American military operations in the Middle East, told Congress last week that they would have liked to keep more boots on the ground. Mullen said that the president’s plans were more “more aggressive and incur more risk” than he was originally prepared to accept. Defense secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in an interview with Agence France-Presse that waning support for the grinding counterinsurgency effort at home was an important factor in the president’s decision.

Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who normally caucuses with the Democrats, expressed concern on Fox News that general war weariness might undermine an effective strategy. “I don’t think you ever want to leave a battlefield for reasons of psychology back home if you agree that the cause for which you’re fighting is important to our security and freedom at home,” he said, adding that he would like to see the first troop withdrawals postponed until the end of this year’s fighting season in Afghanistan.

What’s really important to me now is that the commanders on the ground, the military and our troops, be given some leeway by the president to come back to him and say, we really need to slow the pace of this withdrawal down.

Republican legislators were more vocal in their disdain of the announced withdrawal. Arizona Senator John McCain complained that the president had denied his commanders the forces they need to break the Taliban’s momentum, “just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners.”

“We’ve undercut a strategy that was working,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina added. He predicted that next summer’s fighting season would be complicated by the withdrawal of more than 30,000 combat forces by then. “The Afghan security forces are better but not yet able to sustain the fight without out help,” he told CNN. “NATO allies are more likely to leave at a faster pace now.”

Days after the president’s speech, Belgium and France indeed announced additional troop withdrawals. Canada, Germany and Italy previously scheduled retreats. The Netherlands and Poland will shift their focus from combat to training local security forces.

Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, who chairs the House intelligence committee, voiced similar criticism on Sunday. He explained on CNN’s State of the Union that the military is “right in the middle of the first fighting season” at surge level. Commanders on the ground, he said, had asked for at least two fighting seasons with the additional capacity. Announcing a drawdown now could do “more harm to our ability to leave Afghanistan a place that can defend itself.”

Rogers was also skeptical of talking with the Taliban, pointing out that “they have never lived up to an agreement.”

The Pakistanis tried it in ’08. The Russians tried it when they were there. George Bush tried it in ’05. It has never worked. And to think this is going to work now to justify a pullout — I am very concerned about the gains we have made in Afghanistan.

“I think we need to finish the job,” South Carolina’s other senator, Jim DeMint said on the same program. “If the president would follow his generals’ advice, as he has been up to this point, and allow the troops to stay and finish the fight over the next couple of years, we could get them out.” He warned however that America could find itself “back in the fray” if it withdraws from Afghanistan too quickly.