Why Did “We” Accept Petraeus’s Resignation?

I had just finished playing basketball with some colleagues when I saw a text on my phone from Niloufer Siddiqui, my co-editor-in-chief at The Smoke-Filled Room: “Petraeus just resigned.” My response, in complete ignorance and shock at this point, was simply “Benghazi?” Almost two weeks later, it seems that one of the few things we know with certainty is that it was not, in fact, Benghazi-related. This has not stopped talking heads from asking questions that seem to have irrelevant answers or refuse to accept relevant answers to more pertinent questions. However, this should subside sooner rather than later. Or so one hopes. Indeed, we face far more critical questions in light of this affair, the answers to which are much more important to how we think about national security policy in this country.

First and foremost, are national intelligence officials different from the military and other civilians? The answer here appears, unfortunately, fairly straightforward. Members of the national intelligence community must take care not to share sensitive information with those that do not have the requisite clearance. It is this that distinguishes them from other civilians and, to a certain extent, our men and women in uniform. If it is true for those working entry-level jobs at Langley, it should be true for the CIA Director. Or so the logic goes.

But should Petraeus have resigned? Good generals are a precious commodity and it seems like a waste to have Petraeus resign over something potentially so minor. Again, it is not clear to what extent national security was or will ever be compromised by this affair. While I agree that potential security breaches must be kept under close watch, it seems as if the administration moved awfully fast without a lot of information available in this case. I am not entirely sure that Petraeus was comfortable at the CIA–a general without a war. Moreover, I believe that the policies that have come out of Langley over the past year or so, particularly the drone program, deserve greater scrutiny than both Benghazi or with whom the Director was sleeping. But it is not evident why we should excommunicate Petraeus based on something presumably apolitical.

The no-drama Obama administration is notoriously scandal-averse and excellent at cleaning up messes quickly. And, indeed, the Petraeus affair could potentially have reflected very poorly on this administration. However, to blame the President for accepting the resignation of a talented military leader would be unfair. After all, the Obama administration’s actions in scandal containment are conditioned entirely by what the public considers a scandal. This, in turn, begs the question: why are we so concerned with Petraeus’s personal life? Is it truly because there might be a national security breach or is it because, as with Anthony Wiener and countless others before him, it suggests a moral failing that we Americans deem unacceptable from our public figures?

The idea of an absolute morality that distinguishes our leaders from the rest of us is, of course, a bit ridiculous. We are all human, after all. In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik tied in this element of the affair with the central lesson of Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain: we are all “flawed” in the same way.

Presumably, it is a bad idea for spies to have embarrassing secrets that other spies might learn—and what goes for the smaller spies should go for the big spy—and so the resignation of General Petraeus may have been necessary. But the rest really did seem to be nobody’s business but the General’s and his family’s. If there is a small truth to cherish here, it lies in the reminder that Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner and all the other earlier, undecorated sinners were not heated by undignified lusts because they were baby boomers or Democrats, or because they lacked the moral core of real men making real decisions, or because they had spent too much time on Twitter, or whatever the latest explanation for self-destructive sexual behavior is. The truth is that the force which through the not so green fuse drives all our flowers, and much else besides—the force of wanting that can cause women of substance to send pestering e-mails, leaving distinguished generals caught in the middle—is the force of life.

But, for some reason, we expect more from our public officials  We expect moral perfection. We gloss over this by attempting to bind Petraeus to a (potential) national security breach. In reality, we care less about the fact that he may have had compromising secrets than the fact that Petraeus was not, as we thought, perfect. And, sadly, the imperfection of the man seems to matter much more than the imperfection of the policies he helped craft. Perhaps more importantly, even as Petraeus’s time at the CIA ends abruptly, these policies resume, unscrutinized by public discourse.

For more of his thoughts on the Petraeus’ affair, follow William on Twitter.


A Tale of Two Wars in Turkey

Editor’s note: the following is a piece by The Smoke-Filled Room contributor Lionel Beehner that originally appeared on The World Policy Blog.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Gaziantep is surprisingly quiet, despite the ruckus of metal workers plying their trade in the town’s souk. Not thirty miles south of this Anatolian city sits the Syrian border, beyond which massacres and military air strikes have become an almost daily routine. The violence has pushed over 100,000 Syrians to seek refuge along Turkey’s border in camps and cities like Gaziantep (I’m told vendors at the local mall and souk have been brushing up on their Arabic). Cross-border shelling by the Syrian military in recent weeks has killed five Turkish civilians. Syrian defenses also shot down a Turkish fighter jet. Yet none of these violations of Turkish sovereignty has provoked a mass retaliation or convinced most Turks of the need for escalating the war with Syria.

Turkey has responded in a restrained fashion, with limited tit-for-tat artillery strikes against Syrian targets across the border. Ankara grounded a Russian commercial plane bound for Damascus on suspicions of spiriting radar equipment to the Assad regime, while its parliament green-lighted a motion for military intervention. But Turkey has mostly put pressure on the Assad regime through indirect means: By providing safe haven to Syrian opposition parties and rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army and allowing the free flow of arms and other aid across its 500-mile border.

All of the above might be cause for alarm among Gaziantep residents, whose backyard could become the next flashpoint of Mideast violence. But Turks, whether in “Antep” or Ankara, do not believe that war with Syria is imminent. Moreover, most of the population remains at odds with the government over the Syria issue. Despite repeated provocations, large majorities do not favor military retaliation or escalation, according to recent polls, for fear of being sucked into what some here call “Turkey’s Vietnam.” But it would be incorrect to chalk this gun-shyness up to pacifism among the Turkish public. After all, in response to a surge of cross-border attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, holed up in the hills of Iraqi Kurdistan, polls indicate that two-thirds of the population favor responding with greater military force. Even while conceding more social and cultural rights to its 14 million Kurds, Turkey has preferred using sticks over carrots against the PKK. So what explains this yin and yang stance among Turks toward war?

The Syria question bedevils Turkish policy-makers, namely because their government has led the charge in favor of Syrian regime change, even at the costly imposition of some kind of no-fly zone in the north to tip the balance of power in the rebels’ favor. While this approach has won it admiration among humanitarian interventionists abroad (myself included), it goes against the wishes of Turkey’s public and vocal business community. The government got too far ahead of itself in its belligerent rhetoric, their thinking goes, perhaps assuming Assad would have fallen by now or that NATO would have rallied behind it, and now finds itself in the awkward position of calling for regime change but lacking sufficient leverage to do anything about it.

The AKP leadership has been motivated by mixed impulses. On one hand, it found itself on the wrong side of history by not supporting NATO’s intervention into Libya more forcefully. On the other, the government is motivated by genuine humanitarian concerns as well as the presence of a bloodbath on its doorstep, to say nothing of the refugee crisis such a one-sided war would cause. Yet without NATO’s backing, Turkey will not unilaterally intervene in Syria. It will continue to respond in kind to any cross-border attacks, but it cannot impose a meaningful no-fly zone, much less depose the Assad regime. That is partly because of Turkey’s divisive domestic politics – the country has enough on its hands trying to rewrite a new constitution – but also because Turkish forces are mostly defensive in nature, not offensive, according to a recent report published by IHS Jane’s. Hence, Ankara must rely on its soft power to cajole allies and assist the Syrian opposition.

Yet, what we sometimes fail to appreciate in the West is that the main war on most Turks’ minds is the ongoing conflict against the PKK, not the one next door in Syria. The PKK issue receives scant attention abroad, but it continues to galvanize the Turkish public after three decades of violence. The conflict for many Turks presents an existential crisis that threatens the nation’s social and cultural fabric, whereas the Syrian issue is viewed as a passing threat, serious in scope but something to be managed like countless others in the region.

Of course the two wars are intertwined. The escalation of PKK violence in recent months has coincided with spikes in attacks from Syria. Ankara accuses the Assad regime of providing Syrian Kurds safe haven and material support in hopes that they take their fight across the border into Turkey. Damascus’s logic is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and ostensibly Assad wants to punish Turkey for assisting Syrian rebel organizations and drive a wedge between its Kurdish communities and the Free Syrian Army. There could be blowback to this strategy of course if Kurds throughout the region become more organized and raise greater demands for an independent state, which could end up carving up parts of northern Syria and Iraq as well as Iran.

In response, Turkey’s routine raids against PKK strongholds in Northern Iraq could extend into Syria on a more regular basis. These violations of sovereignty raise thorny issues for international legal scholars, but not among Turks. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned Syria that his government would “not stand idle” in the face of cross-border incursions, and “is capable of exercising its right to pursue Kurdish rebels inside Syria, if necessary.” That script sounds vaguely similar to what a retired Turkish general told the BBC back in 2007, regarding incursions into northern Iraq: “I believe operations will continue on this scale–pin-point operations, hot-pursuit raids and carefully controlled air strikes.” Turkey has also lashed out at foreign forces – even its nominal allies – for abetting the Kurdish insurgents. Ankara even went so far earlier this year as to accuse Israel of using its surveillance drones to assist the PKK.

The surge in PKK violence has killed some 700 people over the past 15 months, according to the International Crisis Group, including a car bomb that killed nine in Gaziantep last August blamed on Kurdish rebels. Turkey finds itself in the awkward spot of aiding rebels whose ranks include untold numbers of Syrian Kurds that could take up arms against Ankara after the Assad regime falls (Syria’s Kurds have struck deals with the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government as a way to both hedge its bets and remain autonomous). In this way, the buffer zone Ankara is calling for along the Syrian border, not unlike the one imposed on Northern Iraq in 1991 to halt flows of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, might actually provide Kurdish militants with greater cover to carry out cross-border attacks in Turkey.

That may explain why the public mood in places like Gaziantep, which is 30 percent Kurdish, remains reflexively antiwar when it comes to Syria. Despite impressive growth in recent years, businessmen here are also worried about their bottom line, which has suffered as relations with Russia and Iran, two of Turkey’s most important energy partners that are both aligned with the Syrian regime, spiral downward. Turks also suspect the opposition in Syria is too Salafist and fear that an Islamist government unfavorable to Turkish interests will succeed Assad. Better the secular devil you know than the Islamist devil you don’t know, this theory goes. A final oft-heard view holds that Turkey, as a rising regional power striving to fill the perceived security void left by the United States as it redeploys forces out of Iraq and “pivots” toward Asia, should be deploying its “soft power” abroad and in the region, not its hard power. The phrase gets invoked so much among experts here, I half-expected to see a statue of Joseph Nye next to Ataturk. These analysts see Turkey’s role in the region as an honest broker of disputes arising out of the Arab Spring and a middleman between the Muslim world and Western powers.

But a state’s ability to project soft power is incumbent on the strength of its own values and perception abroad. On the PKK issue, soft power has taken a backseat to hard power. This heavy-handed approach is partly rooted in public opinion – after peace talks with the PKK stalled two years ago, many Turks lost hope that political dialogue could resolve the crisis and turned increasingly hawkish — but it is also partly rooted in Turkey’s Kemalist past, which has traditionally favored blunt force to quash domestic uprisings of any kind. As a retired army colonel told me, “Turkey has a long history of exaggerating internal threats.” Under Ankara’s draconian anti-terror laws, thousands of pro-Kurdish activists, lawyers, and journalists have been imprisoned by the AKP government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jails more journalists than any other country, including even Iran and China. Over the past six months, its military has staged around 1,000 counterinsurgency sorties against PKK targets.

Standing in the gleaming conference room of one of 90 new universities Ankara has erected over the past decade, a Turkish political science professor gazed out the window eastward. A vast panorama of construction projects punctuated an otherwise barren landscape of twisted olive groves.  “If you look out that window,” he said, “the only democracies you see are Japan and India.” He was correct, but his point was to situate Turkey’s important place not just in the region but in the whole Eurasian landmass. Westerners fret that Turkey is reorienting itself eastward and away from Europe. At the same time, given the creeping authoritarianism of the current government in power, the professor claimed that Turkish exceptionalism was weakening. Moreover, Ankara’s foreign policy of “zero problems” on its borders appears to be in tatters. Its relationship with Iraq was imperiled after Ankara gave shelter to Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president accused by the al-Maliki regime of being involved in death squads. Turkey’s relations with Israel, though reportedly on the mend, remain strained after the infamous 2010 Marmara flotilla raid.

After making great strides to open up its border with Syria to ease cross-border trade, Turkey now finds itself on the precipice of not one but two wars. So far its military has acted with surprising restraint in response to Syrian attacks. Yet on the PKK front, Turkey has gone on the offensive and doubled-down on the military option. The trouble is that it is next to impossible to favor a peaceful and diplomatic solution to Turkey’s interstate conflict with one hand while applying hard power to its intrastate crisis with the other. Expect Turkish soft power to suffer as a result.

Great Power Confrontation: India and China, 50 Years On

After a series of smashing victories in the border war with India, Chinese troops swept down from the towering Himalayas and were poised at the edge of the fertile plains of Assam, whose jute and tea plantations account for one-fourth of India’s export trade. Then, with Assam lying defenseless before her conquering army, Red China suddenly called a halt to the fighting.

Radio Peking announced that, “on its own initiative,” Red China was ordering a cease-fire on all fronts….

–       Time Magazine Cover, October 1962

Fifty years after India and China had a month-long confrontation that ended in a humiliating defeat for India, the two great powers still continue to have friction over the northeastern border, the subject of 14 fruitless talks between the two nations. The McMahon Line, the initial cause of the disagreement, was demarcated by British officials in 1914 in order to settle the issue of Tibetan suzerainty. As the map below shows, India claims a part of the northern frontier for its Ladakh. In the eastern part, China claims a huge chunk of one of India’s states, Arunachal Pradesh. The dissatisfaction with these boundaries as well as the Chinese refusal to recognize Tibetan sovereignty resulted in a war that has led to one of the most militarized borders in contemporary times.

Source: The Economist

What does this underlying friction mean for Indian security and defense policy? By looking at Indian efforts towards both internal and external balancing, we might be able to gauge whether India visualizes China as a threat or not. In terms of internal balancing, the graph below shows us the steadily increasing value of Indian defense spending. The biggest jumps  have been in the last two years, with an 11% and 17% increase in the defense budget in 2011 and 2012. One of the main targets of these expenditures has been the development of the Agni-V missile. The missile has a range of more than 5,000 km (3,100 miles), potentially bringing targets in China within range. The development of such long-range missiles was clearly carried out with China in mind, as with its previous level of capability, India already possessed the capability to hit Pakistan, its traditional rival. There have also been growing fears in India over the strength of the Chinese navy. The most powerful signal of recent Chinese naval expansion has been the purchase of an aircraft carrier which they have recently begun testing at sea. Because Indian power and trade is reliant on open access to the seas, it is vital that India try and keep up with the Chinese buildup, at least to a certain extent. To that end, India has set out on its own naval expansion program.

Indian military spending. Data from SIPRI.

Interpreting such developments in terms of an offensive posture, however, might be misleading.  In August 2009, India’s former Chief of Naval Staff declared “In military terms, both conventionally and unconventionally, we can neither have the capability nor the intention to match China force for force…” Pointing out that India’s expenditure on defense has been hovering around a low two-three percent of the GDP in recent years, Mehta said that the strategy to deal with China on the military front would be to introduce modern technology and create a “reliable stand-off deterrent.” Such increasing armaments programs are counter-intuitive from the perspective of deterrence theory, as both India and China already possess nuclear weapons. These efforts then, should not just be interpreted in terms of preparation for explicit military engagement, but rather in terms of containing China’s sphere of influence in the region.

This broader Indian security policy can be understood by looking at efforts involving other nations in military exercises and informal security arrangements. In 2011, India started conducting naval exercises with Japan after a five-year hiatus of not involving any country except the U.S. in such exercises. Indeed, in terms of external balancing, it is not only India who might seek out the U.S., who might very well need India to counter-balance a rising regional hegemon.

Developments in this region do not just have huge implications for India, but for the U.S. as well. Robert Kaplan predicts that the Indian Ocean will replace the Mediterranean as the central arena of global energy flows, container traffic, and politics in this century. Though necessary, systematizing an alliance with India however, will not be the easiest choice for the United States. The Indian government is plagued with uncertainty – this was visible in the stalling that took place in implementing the nuclear deal with the United States. As Narang and Staniland point out, “The combination of tight electoral competition, pervasive patronage, and coalition politics has led to minimal political incentives for ambitious (Indian)politicians to invest in strategic assessment, policy debates, or the other mechanisms of strategic optimization that are supposed to bolster strategic preparation in a democratic polity.” While it is too early to claim that India has gotten to the point of seeing China as an immediate and direct threat to its national interest, it certainly seems that India is hedging its bets, even if it is just in terms of threat preparation via internal balancing.