David Ignatius is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. He is the author of several books, most famously Body of Lies, which was adapted to film by director Ridley Scott.
We’re living an era of economic restraint, yet trying to deal with multiple threats from around the world. If you were advising, say, the Pentagon; at this point, where would you say U.S. dollars are best spent in 2013?
Well, the Pentagon came out with new defense guidance in January 2012, which reflected the Obama administration’s understanding that budgets were going to be constrained, first. And second, the U.S. would not be able to fight anymore wars like Iraq or Afghanistan in the near future; the next decade or so. I think that reflects an understanding of where the country is.
Whatever you think about how long U.S. troops were in Afghanistan, I think everyone thinks that’s enough of that kind of commitment of U.S. forces overseas. So, the strategic guidance is to try to focus on the way the world is going to look. The keynote phrase was the pivot toward Asia; so all new U.S. combat forces are going to be devoted to the Asia theater — so the Marines in Australia, though that’s a largely symbolic presence — and focus on naval and air forces; the ways we’ve been traditionally projecting power in the Asia Pacific area and, correspondingly, less focus on ground forces.
I think the difficult issue the administration hasn’t faced up to yet is — and for me that’s the key budget and strategic question as I look out over the next five years or so — how does the U.S. remain strong, or even add to its strength in Asia, without simply reinforcing what I think of the “legacy systems” that we’ve had for generations that were our means of projecting power during WWII?
We still have air craft carrier task forces in the Pacific as our primary platform for projecting power. Obviously, those go back to the 1940s. We still spend an awful lot of money on manned bombers and other traditional air means of projecting power.
When I talk to Chinese defense analysts and scholars when I visit China, they don’t talk about these legacy systems. They’re happy to let us patrol the sea lanes and do all these traditional great power things that require these big, extremely expensive systems. They want to jump over the world of aircraft carried and manned bombers into a new era, in which the wars will be fought in space — blinding our sensors — and in cyberspace; in this electronic sphere in which we increasingly depend on for all these images and transactions.
This is now the “central nervous system” of our world and the world as a whole. So, my concern is that as this administration — and future administrations — try to spend scarce dollars, they’ll be pushed toward spending on these legacy systems that have such powerful constituencies. You always have someone telling you to build the next air craft carrier, build the next fighter, build the next bomber; because the production lines are in states with powerful congressional networks of support. And the emphasis would not be on the new systems that would jump over the legacy systems that we’ve known now for sixty years. It’s a big challenge — it’s a challenge first to think it through. What are the systems you need? And then have the toughness to actually spend the money.
Is the U.S. still at the forefront of the developments of some of those new technologies that you mentioned?
The U.S. has been very aggressive and secret in its attempt to develop cyber-warfare, no question about that. So have our adversaries or potentially adversaries; so have the Chinese, so have the Russians, so have the Indians. And smart people around the world can use the same tools that the United States can. Just look at the countries where the software is being developed.
You’ll see Singapore, you’ll see India, you’ll see a lot of countries that you wouldn’t think of at the first tier of power projection; they’re going to be there in this new, forgive the term, “battle space.” So, the United States has been out there. It’s just in terms of priorities; it’s a fact that in our country it’s easier to fund existing things that have their support structure, lobbying structure if you will, pre-set; than it is to fund new things.
Just to pick up on the area in between those two. The Obama administration has renewed, has been criticized for focusing on covert operations, drone aircraft technology. How would you rank this administration on that front?
I think that one of the things we’ve come to understand about Barack Obama is that — whatever his reluctance, his diffidence sometimes — as commander-in-chief, as covert-commander-in-chief, he’s been incredibly aggressive and effective. The symbolic action, obviously, is the decision to go after and kill Osama bin Laden in his compounded in Abbottabad. Since then, we’ve learned the details of that raid and learned what a gutsy call it was, to send in those Navy SEALS when the President was getting a lot of advise to “play it safe” and use the drones or B2 bombers. We see that he was, in that decision, he’s a risk-taker.
He also sharply increased the number of drone strikes over Pakistan, and then extended those drone attacks to Yemen and Somalia, to an extent that concerns some within the administration. I think that there’s a concern that this new form of warfare — it’s somewhere between covert action and traditional warfare — where without an authorization to use military force that’s country-specific, which the U.S. still relies on the 2001 authorization to use military force against al-Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. is dropping bombs, is in fact conducting assassinations from high altitude, in a growing number of countries.
There’s increasing pressure to sell these weapons to allies. As we talk, Italy is clamoring for the U.S. to sell it predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles, so Italy too can conduct these kinds of operations. The argument for selling to Italy is that, if we don’t, other nations, such as Israel, that are rushing to develop these technologies will sell them. The last I counted there were approaching fifty countries that either had or were developing drone attack capabilities. So this is a world where drones will be available, not just to the United States, but to many countries—including our adversaries. It’s a world where overhead, unseen many places in the world there may be these cruising drones with the ability to kill people.
So, it’s a very different world. I’m not comfortable to the extent to which these issues have been discussed publicly, to the extent in which there really is a legal framework that wraps around that. And I worry about that, not just in terms of the legality and morality of U.S. actions, but as the whole world moves into this area, have we really set up a structure that will guide others to the sensible use of these weapons?
And what about the cost-effectiveness?
From a limited standpoint of cost-effectiveness, drones are great weapons. They’re extremely precise, they kill the people you want to kill and, generally speaking, don’t kill the people that you don’t want to kill. The missiles themselves are fairly cheap; the air platform, the unmanned is fairly cheap. This really is a revolution in warfare — it pushes the cost of killing way down. It also allows you to operate without your own soldiers on the ground and risk casualties yourself. So you’re not spending money, you’re not spending lives, and you’re able to take out your adversaries.
In the world that followed 9/11, in which American and the world were so shocked at the scale of the terrorist attack on the United States, it seemed a no-brainer to most people, including me, that we use these weapons to go after al-Qaeda. And we’ve been incredibly successful; we’ve really taken down the network of core al-Qaeda, from everything I know. Where al-Qaeda tries to put down roots, as it has in Yemen, the aggressive use of drones is been very effective in their limited spread. So, in terms of effectiveness against a real threat that nobody would question, drones have been great. But they’ve opened a door on a new era that people need to think through carefully before we go much further.
Would you consider, from the U.S. perspective, the operation in Libya to be a success? Is it a model that can be replicated, say in Syria or in a future conflict situation that the U.S. might get involved?
I think Libya was a limited success for the U.S. and NATO, and I think it did establish a doctrine, which you can call “the Obama Doctrine,” in which the President set forward in a speech he made on March 28 2011, after the U.S. had launched the initial phase of its operations. That doctrine essentially says that where the United States confronts conflict in which the U.S. itself is not directly threatened — I mean, nobody thought the Qaddafi regime was going to attack the United States’ homeland — but where we have interests, and where we have both regional allies — and in this case it was NATO plus the Arab League that supported military action — and some sort of international authorization through the United Nations — in this case, which did support the action — that the U.S. will feel comfortable in using some military force. But another part of this doctrine, if you will, is that the U.S. will not feel it has to take the lead and fight the whole war. In the case of Libya, the U.S. got it started by taking out the Libyan air force in the way that really only the U.S. has the weapons to it quickly and cleanly. I thought through the summer of 2011 that the President was right to resist calls — which increased to the point that they were pretty noisy — for a larger scale intervention.
That was a kind of panic in the summer of 2011. There was a stalemate in Libya; Qaddafi was going to hang on unless the U.S. added force. So, you had people like John McCain and other regular advocates of greater U.S. military intervention, but the President was right to resist it. He understood that this was basically a waiting game, which time did work to the advantage of the U.S. In the end, he was proven right.
The way in which you would have to say that Libya has not been a success, is that this country under Qaddafi and under all previous governments going back through the Italian colonizers — even the Ottomans — never developed a coherent government structure, and still doesn’t have one. It’s essentially a country of tribal militias; one controlling the airport, one controlling this hospital, another controlling this large gathering point.
It’s a scary place in which order has not been maintained. You can argue that, in terms of U.S. and Western economic interests, the fact that Libya is, again, pumping lots of oil and keeping the price of oil down that, “Who cares how this place is governed—that’s for the Libyans to decide.” Maybe that’s a sensible answer. If we tried to go in and create government structures like we did in Iraq, we’d fail anyway. So let’s just leave it to them, and they’ll sort it out. As long as the oil keeps flowing, that’s basically the end of the story for us. I think that’s basically where the administration, and probably most Americans, has come out.
And what about applying that doctrine to another country like Syria, or even Iran?
In Syria, you don’t have the same coincidence of factors. First, you don’t have firm regional support. NATO doesn’t want to intervene, Turkey doesn’t really want to intervene; Saudi Arabia wants to supply weapons and money behind the scenes, so does Qatar. But in terms of a big military intervention — having troops on the ground, having the force to take care of the Syrian air force, plus the Syrian chemical weapons, plus maybe the Syrian biological weapons — that’s a big conflict, and there’s not the broad alliance of support for that. In terms of international support, you still have Russia and China adamantly resisting any U.N. authorization, even any really potent U.N. observer force. So it’s not the same as Libya in terms of support for an operation in which the U.S. would take part.
There are lots of other differences. I just traveled to Lebanon and was in the part of north Lebanon where the rebels are beginning to operate from a staging ground. It’s almost the local version of the tribal areas in Pakistan from which an insurgency — in this case an insurgency that we feel great sympathy for, the opposition of Bashar al-Assad — would use as a space of operations. It’s incredibly dangerous to go down this road. Bashar al-Assad is almost certain to try to carry the war into these sanctuaries that his adversaries are using; that threatens to tear up another country, Lebanon. I guess you’d also move the war east into the Sunni staging areas in Iraq, which starts up that near civil war again. I can’t think of a foreign policy issue, even including the ones we’ve talked about (Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq), that is potentially as dangerous and destabilizing as a Syrian war that got out of control.
How would you respond to those who question the necessity of NATO?
Looking at my lifetime, I think there’s no question that the U.S. is more successful in its foreign policy when it operates through allies, through international organizations like the U.N. and NATO, rather than acting unilaterally. I think that’s a really important lesson of the Bush years. Putting aside the wisdom of the intervention in Iraq, which I think most people today would question, the fact that it wasn’t backed by a broad consensus of international support — yes, we did cobble together a coalition there, but it didn’t have the kind of support you’d want — was one of the reasons it was so difficult.
I think with President Obama, one of the smart things he did was to try to reattach the United States to international institutions and to our traditional alliances; not as a way of ducking responsibility, but as a way of being more effective. I just think the U.S. projects power better when it goes into battle with lots of people alongside. The U.S. is clearly in the lead — our military forces overwhelm anybody else or any combination of anybody else’s. But that’s not the issue. The issue is if we have the soft power augmentation that goes along with not being out there alone.
There’s a lot of concern about the so-called pivot to Asia, in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe and European capitals, is there cause for concern?
I think Europeans are right to be worried about lots of things. Their union, which they worked so hard to build, is failing. It’s most important undertaking— the euro-zone, the common currency — is worse than fraying; it’s just in terrible shape. Demographically, Europe’s going to have trouble supporting itself in twenty, thirty years. There aren’t enough young workers to support the older, retiring workers. Europe doesn’t spend enough on its own defense or the defense of its region to be coherent and credible. The U.S. has been footing the bill in NATO; the basic theme hasn’t been pounded: Europe has to pay more for its own defense. We’re paying x percent of our GDP and you’re paying, by comparison, almost nothing. The message gets repeated, the Europeans nod, “Yes, of course we will,” and it doesn’t happen.
And even though at some level NATO is a paper mache facade for what effectively is U.S. power, I still think it is valuable because it keeps our allies together. It’s been very valuable in giving Eastern Europeans a kind of confidence as they spread their wings in this post-Communist period. To be honest, I’d love to see something similar in the Middle East, so that countries would have a shelter that wasn’t U.S. dominated and, in that way, humiliating or embarrassing for many people; but gave them that basic steadiness. That’s something to think about for the next decade also.
What’s your assessment of Iran nuclear negotiations? Might they be successful as an attack from either Israel or the U.S.?
Well, on the day that we’re recording this, I just talked to our chief negotiator — who had had her most recent session in Moscow as part of the negotiating group known as the P5+1, sitting down with the Iranian negotiators. And, as of today, you’d say that this process is heading into the ditch; that the agreement that the people think is possible, that the Iranians themselves have sketched and prepared their own population to accept, just isn’t’ enough “umpf” to get the deal done, given the mutual suspicion. Whether by the time people see this, those problems will have been overcome and we’ll have a deal, or whether we’ll be heading towards the possibility of military conflict — you just can’t predict.
I do think that the comment made by Graham Austin, who is a great historian of the Cuban missile crisis, about Iran is right. Graham said that the Iran nuclear issue is the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion. It does happen slowly, but absent some change, some ability to deal with the fundamentals of this and stop the program; these two sides are going to collide. You can’t say when it’s going to happen, you can’t say precisely how. You’ve already had an extraordinary use of cyber-warfare against Iran, using cyber-weapons to cripple Iranian centrifuges in a way that could destroy whole plants, could kill workers in those facilities. That’s pretty tough stuff, and that’s what we’ve already done. And that’s only the beginning, I suspect. There are probably a lot of things we don’t know yet. This is drifting toward a deep crisis, and people watching this will see, as I will, how this unfolds.
Is the threat of a nuclear armed Iran overblown? Could the U.S. live with a nuclear Iran?
That’s a tough question because you’re not simply talking about a nuclear armed Iran. If that was the only issue, my own judgment would be, yes. I don’t think that the Iranian government — the mullahs who run Iran, the people who work for the mullahs — are deranged. This notion that they’re suicide bombers “in disguise,” is wrong. I’ve visited Iran, I’ve talked with them, [and] tomorrow I’ll be meeting with an Iranian official in New York. So these are not crazy people, and I think that traditional ideas of deterrence — if you cross a line, we are going to deliver a devastating retaliation — should operate with Iran as effectively as it does with any other country.
The issue is actually a different one. If you end up with a nuclear armed Iran, you’re also going to end up with a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia, a nuclear armed Turkey, a nuclear armed Egypt, a nuclear armed Iraq — for all we know — all next to a nuclear armed Israel. And the notion that that’s going to remain stable — and I mean both stable in the sense that nobody is going to send a bomb by missile, cruise missile, truck, kamikaze ship, or that materials will leak and be delivered as dirty bombs — the chance that nothing like that is going to happen is; I don’t want to say I know what the chance is, but I know it is unacceptably high. And I think that’s why people say it’s important to draw the line here. Not because Iranians are uniquely dangerous, but because the situation that would flow from a nuclear armed Iran is uniquely dangerous. There’s nothing that we’ve ever seen like it, and our ability to get through it without something really bad happening is scarily small.