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Prudence or Principle? A Critique of Carpenter

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Tags Media and CultureWar and Foreign Policy

09/16/2008David Gordon

[Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America. By Ted Galen Carpenter. Cato Institute, 2008. Xi + 258 pages.]


Ted Galen Carpenter has given us, on the whole, an excellent and very useful book; but it contains a crucial flaw. The book, which collects essays and columns that Carpenter has written since 2002, offers a devastating criticism of the Bush administration's foreign policy. As Carpenter ably shows, Bush's foreign policy has failed dismally at protecting America's vital interests. Quite the contrary, Bush's meddling in matters that do not properly concern us, the bloody and costly Iraq war foremost among them, has weakened rather than enhanced our security position.

Unfortunately, Carpenter does not always follow the principles he expounds. He supports an interventionist scheme of his own: he not only supports Bush's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan but wishes to expand the struggle against al Qaeda to Pakistan.

Carpenter distinguishes sharply between vital interests and conditional or secondary interests, on the one hand, and peripheral interests and irrelevant matters on the other.

[V]ital interests are matters that have a direct, immediate, and substantial connection to America's physical survival, political independence, or domestic liberty. Thwarting threats to those interests warrants using whatever level of military force may be necessary if other efforts prove insufficient… Just below the level of vital interests lie conditional or secondary interests. In that category are geostrategic assets that are pertinent but not indispensable to preserving America's territorial integrity, independence, and domestic liberty… The lowest category of security concerns consists of peripheral interests. Such interests consist of geostrategic assets that marginally enhance America's security and well being, but whose loss would constitute more of an annoyance than a serious setback… It is important to emphasize that most developments in the world do not even reach the threshold of peripheral interests. They belong in the fourth category of irrelevant matters. (p. 5, emphasis omitted)

The Iraq war perfectly illustrates what happens when peripheral interests are confused with matters of vital importance. Saddam Hussein posed no threat to any major American interest, but this did not prevent the Bush administration from embarking on a costly and futile war. Carpenter quickly disposes of the argument that the danger that Saddam might acquire WMD justified preventive action against him. Bush's claims that Saddam had such weapons proved mistaken, and one strongly suspects, were deliberate falsehoods; but suppose that Saddam did have these weapons. In what way would this pose a threat to America's security interests?

Carpenter calls attention to an elementary point that enables us to view this alleged threat in a proper perspective. Any regime that launched a nuclear or biological attack on America would face immediate annihilation. The knowledge that this would transpire suffices to deter those with these weapons from attacking us. Deterrence stood as a fundamental principle of American strategy during the Cold War. If it worked then, against a Soviet regime massively stronger than Saddam's Iraq, why would it fail against him? Writing in February 2003, just before Bush started to make Iraq safe for democracy, Carpenter explained the key issue:

The United States successfully deterred the likes of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — two brutal and erratic dictators. And these dictators possessed nuclear, not just chemical and biological, weapons, whereas there is no credible evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program. The pro-war faction has never explained why the United States cannot deter a garden-variety thug like Saddam Hussein. Saddam and the other members of the Iraqi political elite know that threatening, much less attacking, the United States would be an act of suicide. Young, useful idiots like the Sept. 11 terrorists may be suicidal, but rulers of countries almost never are. (p. 20)

Warmongers such as Dick Cheney, not content with the Iraq disaster, now endeavor to promote hostilities with Iran. That nation, these alarmists claim, is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Once gained, these weapons would be used against Israel, for the Iranian regime the hated Zionist enemy.

Against the deterrence argument just sketched, the nonagenarian Bernard Lewis, an undoubted authority on budgets of the Ottoman Empire, contends that "Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government 'clearly believe' that 'the cosmic struggle at the end of time … ending in the final victory of the forces of good over evil' has begun" (p. 115). Ahmadinejad is a suicidal fanatic who cannot be deterred. Must we not interdict the threat of a nuclear Iran by a strike at the sites where these weapons might be built?

Carpenter, in an article written with Josh Logan, expertly locates the fallacies in this flimsy justification for war. The famed historian Lewis ignores recent history. The Iranian religious regime, despite its fervent rhetoric, showed itself fully capable of strategic calculation at the close of the 1980s war with Iraq. Faced with poor military prospects, the Iranians accepted a peace settlement.

That the clerical leadership saw this reality and decided to end the conflict suggests that for all its religious bombast, it was making rational strategic calculations. In hindsight, even extreme radicals like Khomeini — who were viewed at the time as irrational — did not meet the description (p. 116).

Do not similar considerations apply to the current manufactured crisis?

The evidence indicates that Iran's leadership remains rational today. Though it would certainly terrify the Israeli population, Iran has never passed chemical or biological weapons to Hezbollah or other client organizations. Why? Most likely because they fear Israeli reprisals. And if the Iranians fear Israel's response to a chemical or biological attack, they are certainly aware how much more severely Israel would respond to a nuclear assault, whether by proxy or directly launched from Iran. Never in history have leaders made a decision that was absolutely certain to destroy their own country in a matter of hours. (p. 116)

Carpenter's analysis is excellent, and he displays similar wide knowledge and careful judgment on a wide range of other issues, including relations with Taiwan and China, the expansion of NATO, and the drug war. But he fails in a crucial case, the battle against al Qaeda, to apply the foreign policy framework he has throughout the book defended.

His failure is surprising. He rightly points out that terrorists do not pose a major threat to America's security.

True to their label, the Islamic terrorists are terrifying, and they can sometimes inflict nasty damage… But terrorism has always been the strategy of weak parties, not strong ones, and radical Islamic terrorism is no exception… U.S. intelligence agencies estimate [in 2006] that there are no more than a few thousand al Qaeda operatives — many of whom are hunkered down in the wilds of Afghanistan and Pakistan… Absurd proclamations that America's conflict with al Qaeda and its radical Islamist allies constitutes the next world war are becoming a growth industry. (p. 92–93)

The terrorist threat, as Carpenter says, can be readily managed, all the more so if the United States refrains from provocative policies in the Middle East that provoke Arab animosity. Nevertheless, Carpenter supported a measure that appears entirely unnecessary and disproportionate to this threat. "I [Carpenter] was an early and vocal advocate not only of rooting al Qaeda out of its sanctuary in Afghanistan, but also of overthrowing the Taliban regime that had aided and abetted the terrorist organization" (p. 67).

But once an attack on al Qaeda had been launched, in what way did the Taliban regime threaten America's security? The overthrow of the regime produced no benefit to us and stands condemned by Carpenter's own demarcation between vital and peripheral interests. No doubt America would have preferred another regime to the continued existence of the Taliban, but this hardly provides adequate grounds for an invasion.

Perhaps the argument is supposed to be that overthrowing the Taliban will demonstrate to other nations the dire consequences for harboring terrorists hostile to the United States; but this too does not suffice to justify the policy that Carpenter defends. Granted the malign intentions of the terrorists, how does harboring them worsen their threat to us? So long as their location within the country is known, are they not more vulnerable to attack?

Further, suppose that terrorists do gain in strength if a nation offers them sanctuary. Why does the slight addition to deterrence that at best is gained by the overthrow of the Taliban outweigh the costs and risks of an upheaval? Surely the gain in deterrence is minimal, because nations will already realize that an attack on America carried out by a terrorist group on their soil will likely be met by an assault on that group, with potentially destabilizing effects on the regime. Does this not suffice for adequate deterrence? 1

Carpenter goes further. He proposes to extend the battle against al Qaeda to Pakistan.

The reality is that al Qaeda will never be destroyed as long as it can enjoy a de facto sanctuary in Pakistan… Washington should inform [Pakistani military dictator] Musharraf that we intend to wipe out the al Qaeda sanctuaries in the northwest frontier province, with or without Islamabad's permission … the United States should not shrink from confronting al Qaeda in its Pakistani lair. (pp. 68–9)

Here again one must ask, is the increase in security gained through the attack on these sanctuaries worth the effects on the Pakistani regime of this move?

If the Pakistani government were to fall, might not the volatile relations between Pakistan and India take a turn for the worse? What if a successor regime proved hostile to America? Elsewhere Carpenter is keen to emphasize regional balances of power; but here his urge for total destruction takes primacy. Even with these sanctuaries, al Qaeda has not been able to inflict substantial damage on us since the September 11 attacks.

Carpenter's reckless suggestion embodies substantial dangers and offers little prospect of gain.

However much one may value Carpenter's book, then, it does not reflect a consistent noninterventionist stance.

  • 1. Before ordering an attack on al Qaeda, would it not have been worthwhile to see whether the Taliban could have been induced through negotiations to dislodge the group? The Taliban offered to negotiate over the surrender of bin Laden, but the United States insisted on immediate compliance with its ultimatum. See on this the valuable discussion in John Quigley, The Ruses for War (Prometheus, 2007) and my review in The Mises Review Summer 2007.
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