Webb’s Parting Shots

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Articles

To get elected to the Senate, you have to meet certain requirements. You have to be at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for nine years, and a resident of the state you represent. Based on Jim Webb’s recent performance, I would like to propose a fourth requirement: you have to be a novelist. If we had 100 novelists in the Senate, the body might finally be able, like Webb, to distinguish fact from fiction.

Webb, a Virginia Democrat who has published six novels, announced in February that he wouldn’t run for a second term in the Senate. Never a reticent fellow, he has spent the last few months being even more outspoken than usual. On Afghanistan, East Asian security policy, and Libya, Webb has challenged the fictions of the Obama administration. It’s refreshing to hear a critical voice in a body characterized these days by compliant Democrats and posturing Republicans.

Consider Webb’s views on the use of military force. Last week, he teamed up with Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee to introduce a resolution calling on the president to justify its military actions in Libya. The administration, according to the War Powers Act, must report to Congress 60 days after initiating a military conflict. More than 80 days have passed since the initial attacks in Libya.

The president has argued that he has abided by the War Powers Act by consulting with Congress. In a stinging speech last week, Webb firmly disagreed: “The president followed no clear historical standard when he unilaterally decided to use force in Libya. Once this action continued beyond his definition of ‘days, not weeks’ he did not seek the approval of Congress. And while he has discussed this matter with some members of Congress, he clearly has not formally conferred with the legislative branch.”

Webb is not just concerned about Libya. He takes issue with the administration’s overall approach to the use of force. “You can’t have 535 commanders in chief,” Webb told Politico. “But at the same time, we have become — over the past 10 or 11 years — very blasé about the use of military force around the world. I never thought we would be so blasé as a nation in terms of where we’re going in and dropping bombs and doing these sorts of things.”

Equally contrarian has been Webb’s position on U.S. force structure in Asia. In mid-May, he teamed up with Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) to issue a statement offering an alternative to the current U.S. plan to build another military base in Okinawa and expand the existing facilities on Guam. The Obama administration has been so hell-bent on creating another U.S. base on Okinawa, over the objections of the vast majority of the citizens of the Japanese island, that it went so far as to precipitate the resignation of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama when he had the temerity to balk at the economic and political costs.

At a time when the administration has asked the Pentagon to contribute to overall budget cutting, the price tag for the reorganization of U.S. force structure in the Pacific is both enormous (over $27 billion) and, according to a recent GAO report, consistently underestimated. Webb’s alternative – moving capabilities from the aging Futenma Marine air base to the nearby Kadena Air Force base – is not ideal, but it’s at least a starting point for discussion. But the Obama administration, which has prided itself on its ability to listen, has closed its ears both to Okinawans and the Webb-Levin-McCain initiative.

Then there’s Afghanistan. Webb is no pacifist. He did his tour of duty in Vietnam and subsequently supported U.S. involvement in various conflicts. But he centered his campaign for the Senate on opposition to the war in Iraq and famously butted heads with George W. Bush over his son’s deployment in that war. Webb’s relatively cautious statements about the war in Afghanistan drew ire from his anti-war supporters as recently as three months ago.

Webb is still cautious, essentially backing the administration’s timeline. But in his recent questioning at Ryan Crocker’s confirmation hearing to be the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Webb wondered aloud whether the “clear and secure” strategy the United States is using in Afghanistan has any real effect on an adversary that can pick up and move quickly to another part of the country (or cross a border into another country). And he received a good amount of press for pointing out that “if there is any nation in the world that needs nation-building right now, it is the United States.”

(If you agree with Webb, send a message to your elected representative by taking this poll on budget priorities sponsored by the New Priorities Network.)

Next month, the administration will announce the size of its initial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s likely to be modest. But congressional opposition to the war is increasing alongside public opposition. Webb, who will be a free agent after this year, can and should take the lead in the Senate in pushing for a faster withdrawal from the country.

As Webb finishes out his term, he is up against another public official who’s taking his leave: Robert Gates. The Pentagon chief, who has taken some bold positions in the past in opposing certain expensive weapons systems, is spending his final days in office fighting a rearguard battle. He has dismissed the idea of a substantial withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has chided European allies for cutting their military budgets. And he has warned of the dangers of the United States making its own deep reductions in Pentagon spending.

While Gates is spreading his soothing fictions, Webb is raising some uncomfortable facts. The Senate will be the poorer for his absence. If Obama manages to eke out a second term, perhaps Webb could return as the head of the Pentagon to preside over the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a true dismantling of the military-industrial complex.

Blackwater and Beyond

The United Arab Emirates, a cluster of seven small Gulf sheikhdoms, has not been immune from the Arab Spring. A group of intellectuals and activists there has called on the government to hold direct elections. Foreign laborers have protested living conditions and poor wages. The government has responded by cutting food prices. And by bringing in Blackwater/XE to build a mercenary army in case of more widespread unrest.

But as Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Hannah Gurman points out, Blackwater is only part of the UAE’s military strategy. “Purchasing ever larger amounts of the best high-tech weaponry is perhaps an even more important part,” she writes in Arming the UAE. “In 2009, the UAE was the biggest foreign purchaser of U.S. arms. In October 2010, it invited 50 U.S.-based defense companies to visit and see the opportunities for growth first-hand.”

The United States has poured money into the UAE and elsewhere in the region in order to establish a counterweight to Iran, which has some influence with Shia in the Gulf region. “This fear of Iran explains why President Obama refrained in his recent address on the Middle East from even mentioning Saudi Arabia, let alone criticizing it for its military intervention in Bahrain, and why he only gave soft criticism of Bahrain’s crackdown on its pro-democracy movement,” explains FPIF contributor Abolghasem Bayyenat in Bahrain: Beyond the U.S.-Iran Rivalry. “This posture, and the perceived double standard it brings, has further undermined the image of the United States in the eyes of Middle Eastern publics. It is likely to work to the detriment of U.S. strategic interests in the region in the long run.”

Meanwhile, over in Syria, the Obama administration has watched helplessly as the government of Bashar al-Assad continues to crack down on protests. Over the weekend, government forces shelled the northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour, sending thousands of Syrians over the border into Turkey. Dozens of civilians were reportedly killed in this latest set of attacks.

“It is clearly too late for the United States to influence the course of events in Syria; strong words and weak sanctions will play a marginal role at best,” writes FPIF contributor Samer Araabi in Syria: Washington Just Watches. “Even so, a lesson can be learned for future foreign policy decisions. Though Washington should certainly be wary of fostering strong relations with dictatorial regimes, it is imperative to maintain broad channels of communication and information, and to never hold a people accountable for the crimes of its unelected leaders.”

Heading the IMF

The frontrunner in the race to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the head of the International Monetary Fund is French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. She recently picked up the backing of Egypt and several key African countries. But the problem is, as FPIF contributor Daniel Bradlow explains in Europeans Must Pay to Head IMF, the organization gave an informal pledge that DSK would be its last automatic European managing director. So, in exchange for breaking its pledge, the IMF should have to pay.

“Already, Christine Lagarde has offered to include more citizens from developing countries in her senior IMF management team,” Bradlow writes. “This is merely her opening bid for electoral support. We should insist on a higher price that includes both IMF governance reforms and support for innovative financing for development.”

There’s some good news on the global affairs front: progress in the fight against AIDS. “In the last decade the number of people treated for AIDS in low- and middle-income countries has risen from a little over 300,000 to approximately 6.6 million,” writes FPIF contributor William Minter in Game Changers in Global AIDS Fight. “Globally, the annual rate of new infections dropped by nearly 25 percent between 2001 and 2009. In South Africa, the country with the largest number of people living with HIV, the rate of new infections dropped by 35 percent over the same period.” To keep the fight going, the United States in particular will have to make good on its financial contributions.

Finally, we have two articles in our Fiesta section on culture and foreign policy. In Pepsi, Pot, Porn…and Politics, FPIF contributor Fouad Pervez takes aim at simplistic cultural explanations involving al-Qaeda. “The fact that bin Laden apparently embraced some aspects of Western culture isn’t necessarily a contradiction at all — he was only relevant because of politics, not culture,” Pervez writes. “Similarly, some of the 9/11 hijackers visited strip clubs, drank alcohol, and gambled. This should serve as a dagger into the heart of the ‘clash of civilizations’ argument that al-Qaeda was at war with Western values. This notion was always ignorant at best. Although culture may have played a role as an organizing mechanism, it was not the main causal explanation for al-Qaeda’s founder.”

FPIF contributor Noah Gimbel takes us to a new exhibit of art about the wall in the Occupied Territories. “The only piece done by a part-time resident of occupied Palestine was hardly ornate, and could scarcely be called beautiful,” he writes in Breaching the Wall through Art. “It greets visitors to the gallery at the door and consists of 50 tiled images of the same photograph: the sign that dictates instructions for Palestinians going through the Atarot checkpoint.”

FPIF, June 14, 2011

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