A Dr. Strangelove for the 21st Century
Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Rise to Prominence
Anne-Marie Slaughter had a successful academic career at elite institutions. After receiving degrees from Princeton, Harvard Law, and Oxford, she taught law at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. She was the first woman Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. Slaughter is currently President of the New America Foundation, a centrist DC think tank (Google’s Eric Schmidt is chairman of the board of directors which includes Fareed Zakaria, Steven Rattner, Jonathan Soros, Francis Fukuyama, and James Fallows). Foreign Policy named her to its annual list of the Top100 Global Thinkers in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Slaughter lectures widely, is a member of the Trilateral Commission, and pens a monthly column for Project Syndicate.
Slaughter, an international law and international relations specialist, is best known to the public for her essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic, a discussion-stimulating piece (“by far the most popular article ever published in that magazine” according to Wikipedia) that she later turned into a TED talk. The essay sprang from her stint as the first woman Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (2009-2011), a job once held by George Kennan. It was, according to Slaughter, her “foreign policy dream job,” which she left for work-life balance reasons (she was mother to an unruly teenager) and because Princeton, like most universities, limits professional development leave to two years.
She did something courageous early in her career: as a student, Slaughter was part of the team headed by her mentor Abram Chayes that helped the Sandinistas ‘successfully’ sue the US in the World Court for supporting the Contras and mining the country’s harbors. The Court ruled in 1986 against Washington on all sixteen counts, but the Reagan administration refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction. US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick dismissed the Court as a “semi-legal, semi-juridical, semi-political body, which nations sometimes accept and sometimes don’t.” Numerous attempts by Nicaragua to have the UN Security Council enforce the ruling were vetoed by Kirkpatrick. This instance of righteous action is a rare occurrence in Slaughter’s career.
By 2003 she was splitting hairs in a New York Times op-ed over whether the invasion of Iraq was “illegal” or “illegitimate.” The piece was a stomach-turning attempt to justify the invasion while appearing to uphold respect for multilateralism and international law. “Overall,” Slaughter concluded, “everyone involved is still playing by the rules. But depending on what we find in Iraq, the rules may have to evolve, so that what is legitimate is also legal.” This after admitting earlier in the essay that Bush initiated Shock and Awe by his lonesome, without allies or UN approval, which she—the renowned international lawyer—fails to rightly describe as a crime against humanity and a war crime.
Five Years After
The occasion of the fifth anniversary of the invasion found Slaughter whining about how Tom Hayden and others had misinterpreted some overly nuanced position of hers about preemption. Her real lament was that “gotcha politics on Iraq” outside the Beltway overshadowed what any fair-minded establishment observer should see as an Excusable Foreign Policy Error.
Hayden’s post and many other commentaries surrounding the fifth anniversary of the invasion are a microcosm of the problem with our Iraq policy as a whole. The debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion and far too little about how, in Obama’s formulation, to be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. That does not mean that those of us who were wrong about Iraq — with whatever nuances, explanations, and justifications we might care to offer — do not have a great deal to answer for. We do. But it does mean that until we can fix the mess we are in, everyone who cares about what happens both to our troops and to the Iraqi people should force themselves to face up to the hard issues on the ground rather than indulging in the easy game of gotcha.
I’ll start by offering a metric for how to assess any candidate — and any expert’s — plan for Iraq. The test for the best policy should be the one that is most likely to bring the most troops home in the shortest time (to stop American casualties, begin repairing our military, and be able to redeploy badly needed military assets to Afghanistan), while also achieving the most progress on the goals that the administration stated publicly as a justification for invading in the first place: 1) ensuring that the Iraqi government could not develop nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction (done); 2) weaken terrorist groups seeking to attack us (this goal was based on false premises then, but is highly relevant now); 3) improve the human rights of the Iraqi people; and 4) establish a government in Iraq that could help stabilize and liberalize the Middle East. No policy can possibly achieve all of those goals. But the policy that offers the best chance on all five measures is the policy we should follow, in my view. And applying those measures to concrete policy proposals is the debate we should be having.
For Slaughter, the “problem with our Iraq policy as a whole” was not the sum of the ongoing and disproportionate application of historically destructive military force, Petraeus’s lethal counterinsurgency doctrine, house raids, daily instances of “Collateral Murder,” Abu Ghraib, porcine contractors snorkeling up ill-gotten gains while wreaking havoc, untold corruption both public and private, conspicuous incompetence, or a hundred other glaring and irreparable flaws. It was that critics of the war needed to “face up to the hard issues on the ground.”
Slaughter has the audacity to lecture her critics through a set of goals the achievement of which she fails to see is made impossible by the continuation of the war. It’s stunning, and telling, that her metric relies on the disingenuous post hoc war aims of the Bush administration. She counsels renewed destruction of Afghanistan (which foreshadows Obama’s two surges, and which she surely recommended while in office). She does not see that to “fix the mess we’re in” is an invitation to endless occupation. She fails to understand, as a large number of us who opposed the war in the first place did years earlier, that immediate withdrawal was the only sane Iraq exit strategy.
Libya as Strategic Interest
Slaughter was back in 2011 with several essays defending NATO’s air campaign against Gaddafi, and the US role in it (several months after she quit Hillary Clinton’s State Department to return to the academy). One of them celebrated the toughness of liberal interventionists like her who pushed the bombardment of Gaddafi’s forces not just “for moral reasons” but also for reasons of “strategic interest.” She defines strategic interest in this case as support for “democracy and human rights.” “This value-based argument,” claims Slaughter, “was inextricable from the interest-based argument. So enough with the accusations of bleeding heart liberals seeking to intervene for strictly moral reasons.” It’s bold to argue via omission that the invasion of Iraq—or the overthrow of Gaddafi—was not about oil (a word that does not appear in the essay). The interventions Slaughter supports tend to leave other peoples’ hearts bleeding.
She’s giddy about the early progress of the successor regime (much better than the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, she thinks): “The National Transitional Council has a draft constitutional charter that is impressive in scope, aspirations and detail – including 37 articles on rights, freedoms and governance arrangements.” Her incaution and enthusiasm for military action (on behalf of both values and interests) doesn’t merely stand out now, it was notable then too. Slaughter then blasts those of us who complained that NATO’s bombing onslaught exceeded the pertinent UN Security Council mandate (consequently souring the Russians and Chinese on any armed United Nations-backed intervention in the Syrian civil war), and that the Obama administration ought to have abided by the loose strictures of the War Powers Resolution.
The sceptics’ response to all this, of course, is that it is too early to tell. In a year, or a decade, Libya could disintegrate into tribal conflict or Islamist insurgency, or split apart or lurch from one strongman to another. But the question for those who opposed the intervention is whether any of those things is worse than Col Gaddafi staying on by increasingly brutal means for many more years. Instability and worse would follow when he died, even had he orchestrated a transition.
The sceptics must now admit that the real choice in Libya was between temporary stability and the illusion of control, or fluidity and the ability to influence events driven by much larger forces. Welcome to the tough choices of foreign policy in the 21st century. Libya proves the west can make those choices wisely after all.
It’s not “too early to tell:” Libya has indeed disintegrated into the chaos of tribal militias, armed Islamist groups and criminal gangs. It’s not possible in this essay to assess whether Libya is better off without Gaddafi than with him. It’s clear however that “instability and worse” has followed since his downfall made possible by NATO aerial intervention. That was evident virtually immediately, we do not need to wait a decade.
On a deeper level, the ‘better off’ question is not the right one, especially for international lawyers. Her flippant attitude—‘regardless of illegitimacy or illegality, let’s wait till the dust settles and the blood dries before passing judgment’—is a common theme in Slaughter’s popular foreign policy analyses. It betrays an unprincipled ruthlessness prized in Washington that explains her rise to and continued prominence. Transparently imperial US international policy, whether in Iraq, Libya or Ukraine, requires dressing up. Slaughter is a leading member of a class of professional apologists: the imperial costumers.
The “real choice” in Libya was between letting Libyans solve their own problems and great power intervention on behalf of domestic elites soon overrun by forces NATO could not control. There was no “illusion of control:” it’s precisely because the West could not control Gaddafi that he had to go (recall Reagan’s bombing of the despot’s desert tents in 1986), Tripoli’s rendition of the Arab Spring provided the opportunity and excuse. Note the absence of similar interventions in Egypt, Bahrain or Tunisia. NATO’s “ability to influence events driven by much larger forces” is today close to zero.
Re-Roll the Film
On the tenth anniversary of the George W. Bush’s aggression against Iraq, Slaughter was party to one of several loathsome public displays of ersatz contrition (or worse) by pundits and policymakers.
Looking back, it is hard to remember just how convinced many of us were that weapons of mass destruction would be found. . . . I now see the decision to invade Iraq as cynical, tragic, immoral, and irresponsible to the point of folly. I do not think that the thousands of U.S. and allied lives lost were lost in vain: Only time can tell what Iraq will become; how the Iraqi people will look back on the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing ten years of violence; and what role Iraq will play in the larger Middle East. It is very difficult to imagine any transition from Saddam to post-Saddam without some violence and political upheaval in a nation as fractured religiously and ethnically as Iraq. But in hindsight, the U.S. decision to spend tens of billions of U.S. dollars; to ignore all knowledge, planning, and expertise about Iraq with regard to what should happen when the bullets stopped flying; and to ignore the opposition of many of our closest allies in deciding when and how to take action is virtually indefensible. And I could not in good conscience look an Iraqi widow, parent, or child in the eye and tell them that the tens of thousands of Iraqi lives lost served a larger purpose, which is a burden that every American who did not actively demonstrate against the war must carry.
In the end, Iraq served as my political coming of age in the way that the Vietnam War was a coming of age for the generation ten to fifteen years ahead of me. Never again will I trust a single government’s interpretation of data when lives are at stake, perhaps especially my own government. And I will not support the international use of force in a war of choice rather than necessity without the approval of some multilateral body, one that includes countries that are directly affected by both the circumstances in the target country and by the planned intervention. If the situation on the ground in a country is not bad enough to mobilize at least some of its neighbors to action, then it should not mobilize far away military powers.
Iraq remains a country in pain. The United States will be paying its financial and human debts from the Iraq war for decades to come. If I could re-roll the film, I would stop the invasion. Instead we should mark a sober anniversary by reflecting on all that the U.S., its allies, and the Iraqis have lost. We can only hope we have gained a lesson in humility.
There’s nothing “hard to remember” about how easily academics and pundits fell for the distortions, exaggerations and inventions of Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and Judith Miller. It remains a wonderment eleven years later. Had Slaughter been paying attention, she’d have seen it before in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic in the sixties, Cambodia and Iran in the seventies, El Salvador and Guatemala in the eighties, and Iraq and Panama in the nineties, Afghanistan and Iraq (again) in the aughts. And she’d be seeing it once more in Ukraine today. The song remains the same, only the singers have changed.
In her defense of NATO’s action in Libya, and again here, Slaughter falls back on the ‘there would’ve been violence anyway’ claim regarding regime change in both countries. What this rationalization obscures is the significant difference in moral, political, and yes, strategic terms of indigenous vs. external regime change. The same goes for revolutionary vs. expeditionary violence. The legitimacy of a government brought to power by the intervention of foreign powers is inferior to that which took office through its own agency. Violence to topple a leader considered unfriendly by leading powers is not the same violence of domestic actors forcefully overthrowing an autocrat.
W’s Iraq adventure was the “political coming of age” for someone—with advanced degrees in international relations—forty-four years old at the time of the invasion? This self-characterization unintentionally doubles as admission of extreme egotism, civic somnambulism, and/or ideological blindness that helps explain why Slaughter, despite her promises, repeats her mistakes.
Smart of Slaughter to take the long-view as to whether dead US soldiers and Marines died in vain. She’ll lionize American war dead but not Iraqi war dead? Reversing Slaughter’s valence, she could “in good conscience look an [American] widow, parent, or child in the eye and tell them that the . . . thousands of [American] lives lost served a larger purpose”? Slaughter fails to understand—perhaps because her political coming of age is so recent—that those of us who did actively demonstrate against the war (before the invasion and after) also carry the “burden” as the calamity took place in our names, under our flag, using our tax dollars, and with the lives of our fellow citizens.
Stopping Russia Starts in Syria
Slaughter’s most recent column for Project Syndicate revolves around the devilishly clever idea of punishing Putin for his actions in Ukraine by pummeling Assad’s forces in Syria. This course of action has myriad benefits, not least of which is that it would permit “Barack Obama to demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations.” Presidents are not real presidents unless they send in the 82nd Airborne. Slaughter desperately misses the transparent application of American military violence (Afghanistan doesn’t attract the press coverage it once did). The opaque, deniable, off camera variety won’t cut it. War in the shadows disappoints.
Parsing Putin’s motives for annexing Crimea, Slaughter rejects the neoconservative claim that Obama’s reticence to use direct US armed force in Syria emboldened Russia to grab the peninsula. She thinks it more likely that Putin wanted to redirect his public’s attention away from the “country’s failing economy.” (Wasn’t that what the Sochi Olympics were about?). She does not imagine that NATO expansion and US meddling in Ukrainian politics may have been factors. Unfortunately, Putin now has the upper hand, and “Western use of force, other than to send arms to a fairly hapless Ukrainian army, is not part of the equation.”
That is a problem. In the case of Syria, the US, the world’s largest and most flexible military power, has chosen to negotiate with its hands tied behind its back for more than three years. This is no less of a mistake in the case of Russia, with a leader like Putin who measures himself and his fellow leaders in terms of crude machismo.
It does not matter that American public opinion was solidly opposed to missile strikes against Assad or that Obama was unlikely to receive the congressional approval he sought. The ends justify the means for Slaughter.
A US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic. It would either force the regime back to the negotiating table with a genuine intention of reaching a settlement, or at least make it clear that Assad will not have a free hand in re-establishing his rule.
Direct US military action in Syria would not have, cannot, and would not resolve the conflict; its effects would be far worse than “crude machismo.” Even the indirect sort—supplying currently preferred rebels with anti-armor and anti-aircraft missiles—will only prolong the suffering. Eliminating “Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft” as Slaughter calls for would make Assad no more likely to negotiate with the al-Qaeda affiliates that make up the vast bulk of the armed Syrian opposition. She likely believes that downing Assad’s air force can be done ‘surgically;’ she appears not to understand that even such an ‘easy mission’ would result in dead babies, collateral damage killed by errant missiles, crashing planes and misplaced smart bombs. Nor does she estimate the human cost of restricting Assad’s “free hand” in the middle of a heartrending humanitarian disaster.
There’s the small matter that a US strike on Syria without the backing of the United Nations Security Council would violate international law. Good lawyer that she is, Slaughter believes she’s found a workaround.
[E]ven Russia agreed in February to Resolution 2139, designed to compel the Syrian government to increase flows of humanitarian aid to starving and wounded civilians. Among other things, Resolution 2139 requires that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs….”
Too bad for Slaughter that Resolution 2139 does not include an enforcement clause; there’s no ‘by all means necessary’ in the document. The Chinese and Russians would not permit that provision given their distrust of Obama following NATO’s liberal reading of a similar Resolution concerning Libya. Slaughter conveniently never draws the connection (it would make demonizing Putin more difficult), yet proffers the same advice today. No matter, the US, and perhaps a European or NATO ally or two, could commence hostilities, get the job done, and only then evince concern for international law: “After the strike, the US, France, and Britain should ask for the Security Council’s approval of the action taken, as they did after NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.” Such approval seems less forthcoming this time around.
“In Ukraine,” thinks Slaughter, “Putin would be happy to turn a peaceful opposition’s ouster of a corrupt government into a civil war.” Apart from her problematic description of the opposition, this assessment conceals that Ukraine is a major Russian trading partner, and the main country through which Russia ships natural gas to Europe. Given the centrality of those gas sales to the Russian economy, and the near certainty a civil war would destroy pipelines and other infrastructure, it’s fair to say Putin would not be “happy” with a Ukrainian civil war.
Putin may believe, as Western powers have repeatedly told their own citizens, that NATO forces will never risk the possibility of nuclear war by deploying in Ukraine. Perhaps not. But the Russian forces destabilizing eastern Ukraine wear no insignia. Mystery soldiers can fight on both sides.
Slaughter is unsure about whether NATO should risk nuclear war by deploying military forces to Ukraine? Is she calling for the deployment of NATO special operations forces as “mystery soldiers”? Heads of state should probably avoid soliciting parliamentary approval for such deployments as that would spoil the mystery. Would she have NATO mystery soldiers shoot it out with Putin’s mystery soldiers?
Obama took office with the aim of ending wars, not starting them. But if the US meets bullets with words, tyrants will draw their own conclusions. So will allies; Japan, for example, is now wondering how the US will respond should China manufacture a crisis over the disputed Senkaku Islands.
To lead effectively, in both the national and the global interest, the US must demonstrate its readiness to shoulder the full responsibilities of power. Striking Syria might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.
Slaughter provides no guidelines for when the US should meet bullets with bullets, but it appears to be everywhere all the time lest it appear to appease tyrants. Obama was recently in Japan to reassure Abe, in a clear message to China, that he had Japan’s back in disputes over the small rocky uninhabited islands. With her call for the US “to shoulder the full responsibilities of power” it’s as if Slaughter were auditioning for the title role in a twenty-first century remake of Dr. Strangelove.
Despite the pious hope expressed in her mea culpa on the tenth anniversary of the invasion, Slaughter did not “learn a lesson in humility” from Iraq. She is not to be believed when she cries “never again.”
Never again will I trust a single government’s interpretation of data when lives are at stake, perhaps especially my own government. And I will not support the international use of force in a war of choice rather than necessity without the approval of some multilateral body, one that includes countries that are directly affected by both the circumstances in the target country and by the planned intervention. If the situation on the ground in a country is not bad enough to mobilize at least some of its neighbors to action, then it should not mobilize far away military powers.
Yet we have her advice about how to punish both Syria and Russia for Putin’s behavior in Ukraine, a crisis replete with misrepresentations, misinterpretations, and misstatements emanating from Washington. And a crisis thus far lacking armed intervention approved by a multilateral body or neighbors mobilized to military action. Rather than an illegal attack on Syria or covert action in Ukraine, Slaughter should counsel her favorite “far away military power” to stand down.
Might Americans (and the rest of the world) sleep more soundly now that Anne-Marie Slaughter no longer sits around the tables of power in Washington? Maybe. There’s also the prospect that she’s become even more dangerous to world peace. Obama’s foreign policy is made almost completely within the White House (the State and Defense Departments implement but do not make much policy in this administration). Obama’s White House and Clinton-Kerry’s State Department are highly attuned to criticism from Capitol Hill, and work feverishly to anticipate and head it off it through policies amenable to John McCain and the Lindsay Graham. A high public profile was not possible during Slaughter’s government service. Her frequent lectures, TV appearances and op-eds since returning to the private sector may propel her voice further and farther today than ever before. Her post at the New America Foundation provides the largest public audience of her career. The “About” section of the Foundation’s website includes this statement: “Abroad, the United States has yet to fashion sustainable foreign and defense policies that will protect its citizens and interests in a rapidly integrating world.” Should we listen to Anne-Marie Slaughter, it never will.
Steve Breyman was 2011-12 William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Euro-Atlantic Security Affairs Office of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance at the US Department of State, where he worked fruitlessly on reforming nuclear weapons policy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org