Slush funds and sleaze

One of the great successes of the Obama administration has been its ability to divert attention from the wars the United States is still fighting, such as Afghanistan. Given Obama's decision to escalate and extend that war is looking worse and worse with time, you can understand why they are doing this. It's possible that sending more troops bought Obama time and is making it easier to get out now; the problem is that we ended up squandering more lives and money without getting a significantly better outcome.

My real fear is that this is merely a preamble to telling ourselves a lot of self-serving myths about that war. Count on it: Our exit from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a lot of feel-good stories about the U.S./NATO effort there designed to convince Americans that the surge "worked" and that we really did give it our all. If things go south later on, that will be the Afghans' fault, not ours, and so it won't be necessary to learn any lessons from our mistakes. 

But two recent news stories suggest a very different read. The first, from Saturday's New York Times, offered an account of the farewell gathering for the deparating French Ambassador in Kabul, Bernard Bajolet. According to the Times, Bajolet told the attendees:

"That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West's investment in it, would come to little."

And then there was this passage:

"At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan's government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said."

Think about that statement as you read the second story (from today's Times) describing the millions of dollars of slush funds that the CIA has paid to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But instead of purchasing Karzai's loyalty or enhancing U.S. influence, the money merely contributed to the endemic corruption that has marred the NATO effort from day one. As the Times reported:

"The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan," one American official said, "was the United States."

There you have it: The French ambassador (and everyone else) says the Afghan government needs to reduce corruption, yet a key element of the U.S. effort there has been contributing to that problem. I wonder if H.R. McMaster, the general who was assigned to head up NATO's anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan, knew what the CIA baksheesh office was up to. If so, he'll be in a great position to write a sequel to his earlier book on the U.S. failure in Vietnam.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Does it matter if Assad used sarin?

Does the possibility (likelihood?) that Syrian government forces have used sarin gas strengthen the case for military intervention or at least great U.S. involvement?

Pro-intervention hawks like Sen. John McCain certainly think so and have been quick to remind everyone that President Obama called chemical weapons use a "red line." But McCain has been a vocal advocate of greater U.S. action for quite some time, which suggests that the use of chemical weapons hasn't really altered his thinking at all. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that far more sensible commentators -- such as former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh -- also view these reports as an additional reason to topple Assad sooner rather than later.

But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad's forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It's been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it's been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It's not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.  

The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad's forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.

This is not an open-and-shut issue, and there are obvious points to make on the other side. Obama did suggest that chemical weapons use might be a "red line," in what was a fairly transparent attempt to deter Assad from going down that road. So one might argue that Washington would incur some loss of credibility if it does not respond now. Although I think we routinely exaggerate concerns about our credibility, that doesn't mean that it is of no concern at all. Nonetheless, Obama's prior statements do not require any particular response, and the administration certainly shouldn't do something unwise simply because it feels it has to do something.  

One might also argue that chemical weapons are a form of WMD and that allowing Assad to get away with their use will undercut the existing taboo against these weapons. There's a case for that point of view, but I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.  

Like Senator McCain, I find my position on this issue unchanged by the revelations about possible chemical weapons use. I still see Syria as a tragically vexing policy question. It is heart-wrenching to see what is happening there and the instinct to "do something" is understandable, but the downsides to direct or indirect military involvement remain formidable. I certainly think we should be doing more to help refugees and to minimize the destabilizing effects of the carnage on Syria's neighbors. I am all in favor of continued diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to end their support for Assad, and the chemical weapons report may provide additional leverage on that point. (See here for some useful thoughts along those lines). But I hope that Obama doesn't allow himself to be bullied into doing a lot more simply because of these reports, unless he is convinced that doing more now reduce the risks later on.