WASHINGTON – During a speech delivered at the Wilson Center earlier today, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, outlined eight, forward-looking foreign policy principles to guide America’s role as a global leader in the 21st Century. The principles, as laid out in an op-ed published in Foreign Affairs by Murphy, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), provide a clear alternative to the limited perspectives that often dominate American foreign policy conversations in the United States Senate.
A video of the speech will be available shortly here. The full text of Murphy’s remarks, as prepared, are below:
I remember this particular day that I’m going to talk about like it was yesterday. It was the spring of 2011, and I was in a small, small village called Parmakan in Herat Province, Afghanistan. It was my third, and really my most memorable, trip to Afghanistan. President Obama’s Afghanistan surge was underway, and ISAF command had sent us – our delegation – to this tiny village to see General Petraeus’s counter-insurgency strategy in action.
We met with a group of about a hundred Army Commandos, which was led by a young man from a town even smaller than Parmakan, Goshen, Connecticut. They were wildly impressive, and there was no doubt that they had brought a modicum of peace and stability to a parcel of Herat Province that had been under the thumb of the Taliban just months ago.
After a briefing in their ramshackle headquarters, they led us on a heavily guarded walk through the town, along with a collection of village elders. It was a stunningly beautiful walk. Rocky dirt roads surrounded by acres and acres of the most beautiful flowers that I had ever seen. Irrigation canals, maintained with U.S. dollars and protected by our newly arrived soldiers, lined the roads and disappeared into the fields, where a half dozen workers were busy harvesting whatever crop these flowers provided a canopy for. I finally asked one of our hosts, one of the elders, what the crop was.
“Poppy, of course”, he said plainly.
I asked, “And what do you do with it once you harvest is?”
“We sell it to the Taliban, who comes and pays us a good price.” That’s what he said, within earshot of the U.S. soldiers, who no doubt knew all about the arrangement. And arrangement for which they were sent to provide cover and protection.
Now I can’t say I was stunned, because by this time, I had heard it all during my trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. But this was as clear cut an indictment of our presence in those theaters as you could imagine. A hundred troops in far western Afghanistan; they were buying us temporary peace – we could credibly claim that we had purged the Taliban from control of that town. But they were lying in wait, in the hills surrounding the villages. And worse, they were marching into town to collect the revenue that would fuel their return once we left. We were achieving our military objective – no doubt – but we had done nothing to change the underlying long term susceptibility of Parmakan to extremist influence and control. They still had no way to feed their families other than producing poppy which was being sold to the very guys we were there to eliminate. Local governance in places in Herat was either irrelevant or corrupt or nonexistent. All signs pointed to the disturbing, but to me, increasingly unsurprising reality that our military success was practically meaningless there if we didn’t have a viable strategy to change the economic and political reality on the ground for these people.
Now in Iraq, this contradiction played out with even more devastating results during, and in the aftermath, of the late Bush Administration surge. Waves of U.S. troops, and even bigger waves of U.S. cash, provided a security blanket over parts of Iraq, while political and economic progress went in the opposite direction. The U.S. handed out bags of cash to Sunni tribal leaders – a short sighted and impractical strategy for the long term – while Prime Minister al Malaki waged a quiet war against the Sunnis, marginalizing them economically and politically to the point that when our troops left, they were happy to align themselves with anyone who was willing to fight the central government in Baghdad.
Today, I am confident that the vast majority of our high level military planners and diplomats fully understand this failing our U.S. military intervention over the past decade plus. Just last week, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, a battle hardened veteran of Iraq, said this when asked about calls to deploy troops back to the Middle East to fight ISIS. “My worry is, could I put 150,000 soldiers on the ground and defeat ISIS? Yes. But then what? It would go right back to where we are. A year later, it would be right back where we are today. Before we even consider anything like that we need to solve the political problem.” And of course, Secretary Bob Gates famously remarked upon leaving the Defense Department that any future President that contemplated sending combat troops back in to the Middle East should have their head examined.
And yet, there are these creeping signs that we are on the verge of repeating the very mistakes we should have learned.
The architects of the Iraq War are back, unapologetic, and in charge of the Republican presidential candidates’ foreign policy. The intraparty fight between John McCain and the interventionalists and Rand Paul and the isolationists is over – with a convincing neoconservative victory. Republican Senators are calling for thousands of American troops to march back into Iraq, and maybe even Syria too.
And recently, these Senators are making an interesting claim – one that we wouldn’t have thought possible a year or so ago – that the American public is on their side. Interestingly, they have a few polls to back them up. There are numbers on both sides, but a few recent surveys suggest that Americans are scared to death by ISIS, and they want Washington to do something about it. Something dramatic. Something that answers the ferocity of the ISIS death cult with the kind of powerful, shock and awe response that only America can muster. So McCain and Graham are right that some polls are showing that Americans support putting combat troops into the fight against ISIS.
But these polls all have something in common. They ask respondents a battery of questions about how concerned they are with ISIS and how they feel President Obama is handling the problem. But then when it comes to possible responses, they ask only one question – do you support combat troops or not. There is no other option. There is no other alternative. Send troops or effectively do nothing. And given how scared people are of the real perceived threat that ISIS poses, they choose to do the only something that are presented with.
But polling, and simple organic voter touch and feel, tells us that America is also still very wary about war. Witness the unexpectedly ferocious backlash against President Obama’s plan to bomb Syria in 2013. And no matter what the neoconservatives and Republican presidential candidates say, the lessons of places like Parmakan and Mosul haven’t gone away.
That is why I believe, now more than ever, Americans want an alternative vision for how American can protect itself from threats like Al Qaeda and ISIS and the Taliban than simply military intervention.
Americans will respond to a new, forward thinking, progressive strategy that meets these new threats with new tools, rather than simply relying on interventions that were designed for a time when armies marched against each other and grand peace treaties ended conflicts.
And to be political for just a moment, this is the moment for progressive Democrats to seize this opportunity to lead. I would argue that congressional Democrats, especially over the past few years, have been absent from a serious, interesting debate over the future course of American foreign policy. Yes, we weigh in on the weighty issues that demand our temporal attention. But it’s only President Obama and the Republicans that are attempting to offer any broad vision for the rules of how we engage in a world full of very new, very scary, threats. Maybe our “vision” silence has been understandable since we’ve been able to lean on a President who we broadly agree with. We read his May 2014 West Point speech, and in it, there was little to argue with. But we only have his cover for the next eighteen months. Now, I support Secretary Clinton, and I support her foreign policy ideas, but in a 50/50 country, we can’t simply hold our tongues and hope that she wins. We have to show leadership, and show it now, so that the American people have a choice when evaluating how to respond to these new enemies that we face.
So this is the context within which Senator Heinrich, Senator Schatz, and I decided to produce a set of eight principles that we think should guide American foreign policy and Congress’s foreign policy agenda as we reorient our policies to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
And so let me just take a few minutes to lay our eight guideposts.
First, we believe that America’s non-kinetic toolset is dangerously under-resourced. We seem to have forgotten the lessons of the post-World War II era, in which we were spending 3% of GDP on foreign aid in an attempt to rebuild stability in war torn areas. We learned the lessons from after World War I, and we invested gigantic sums of money in rebuilding our friends – and our enemies – in an effort to use economic development and political inclusiveness to stomp out potential instability that could undo the post-war balance of power. Today, foreign aid is 4% of what it was in 1950 as a share of our economy. A 96% real-time reduction. We believe that a new Marshall Plan for at-risk regions like the Middle East, or portions of Russia or China’s periphery, can get us the kind of stability and win us the kind of allies that were produced by large non-military investments in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We don’t need to spend 3% of GDP of foreign aid to do this, but you can’t justify any longer spending 15 times more money on the military and military aid than we do on USAID, diplomacy, and peacekeeping combined.
Second, we believe in working multilaterally to increase our effectiveness and reduce the moral and practical burdens of unilateral action. Working through international bodies like the UN and NATO make us stronger, not weaker. And just as importantly, multilateral support can also be a check on American hubris. If no other ally is willing to join us in a military endeavor, then why shouldn’t it cause us to question the wisdom of the intervention in the first place? Yes, there are instances where America is under immediate threat and we can’t wait for partners to sign up, but as a rule with limited exceptions, our actions are more effective with coalitions.
Third, we believe in a far more thoughtful and restrained approach to military intervention. Significant military action has got to have clear goals and exit strategies, a plan to pay for it, and be authorized by Congress as the framers of our Constitutions intended. If you measure calls to dramatically increase troop levels in Iraq to fight ISIS, for instance, I would argue that none of those tests could be met.
Fourth, we believe that military action is only worthwhile when there is a political strategy to clean up the mess once the fighting ends. This is Odierno’s caution, and it’s ours too. The U.S. military is the most powerful in the world, but even it has limits. If there isn’t a political answer on the ground to remove the impetus for a terrorist organization, then military gains are only going to be temporary, and rarely worth the price in lives and treasure.
Fifth, we believe covert actions like mass surveillance and large-scale CIA lethal operations must be constrained. The dramatic expansion of our intelligence apparatus after 9/11 needs greater oversight and restraint. The USA Freedom Act is a step in the right direction, but more must be done, like taking large scale military operations, like drones, away from the CIA for good.
Sixth, we believe that strength at home leads to strength abroad. Americans simply won’t support more foreign aid spending if we aren’t rebuilding our own roads and schools, if we aren’t addressing our own economic limitations. That makes sense, in part because America leads best by example. Countries follow our lead because they look up to America’s economic track record, to our standard of living. As it slips, so does our ability to lead.
Seventh, we need to watch the gulf between what we say about human rights and what we do about it. How can we tell other countries to get serious about how they treat people if we are mealy mouthed on torture, if we hold people at Guantanamo with no hope of trial, if we listen in on our allies and our own citizens. Like with economic strength, our ability to effect international chance on human rights in dependent on our ability to walk the walk at home.
Finally, we believe that climate change has to be at the center of every international relationship we have. Future generations will judge us by whether we elevated this discussion at every forum possible given the catastrophe that will be wrought if we don’t act. Plus, the effects of climate change, like increased drought in places like Syria and Mali, are already here, with disastrous effects on political stability.
I think it’s important to say that I’m not suggesting that there is anything earth shattering or groundbreaking in these principles, but at least they would stand in contrast to the enviably simple worldview of our neoconservative competition.
They argue for ending sequester for only the defense budget. We say that the other elements of the national security budget are just as, if not more important, than military funding.
They believe participating in international organizations demonstrates weakness. We think it’s the key to strength in this new multi-polar world.
They think that terrorism exists in a military vacuum. We believe that it exists in a political and economic vacuum, and that our policy should respond accordingly.
They think there is a choice between protecting civil liberties and national security. We believe they are codependent.
And these differences play out in real time, as applied to current crises. A progressive foreign policy applied to the fight against ISIS would start with an honest assessment of our goals. For instance, it sounds really good to say that the American objective is to defeat ISIS, but should it be? Frankly, our policy should be to eliminate the ability of ISIS to attack the United States – whether ISIS is going to be wiped from the face of the Middle East is really a question for our partners in the region. If our goal is to end the threat of ISIS to the United States, then ground troops make no sense. But it would argue for the massive plus-up of humanitarian assistance – our current levels are both big and embarrassingly insufficient. It would argue for a robust military partnership with our regional partners – so long as that partnership was broad and deep. It wouldn’t ever rule out going after high value targets that presented a threat the United States. And it would call for us to learn from the successes of those bags of cash we handed out in Anbar province in 2007. It was the wrong tactic, but a bigger, smarter assistance budget, administered in coordination with the Abadi government, could move mountains.
On the night of our delegation’s visit to Parmakan, we were briefed by Admiral McRaven at Special Operations Command. As we walked into the briefing room, he showed us the pictures of the most wanted terrorists in the region. At the top of the pyramid of photos was, of course, Osama Bin Laden. What we didn’t know was that before and after our briefing, McRaven was putting the finishing touches on the Bin Laden raid. The night after we left, Connecticut-made Blackhawk helicopters set off to take him down.
Despite what we saw in Herat Province, the Bin Laden raid was a reminder of the seemingly infinite capacity of our armed forces, our men in uniform. When you watch them work, it’s easy to understand why our influence in the world has been viewed through the prism of the U.S. military for so long. They are damn good at what they do.
But today, as President Obama has warned us, we can’t view every problem as a nail, simply because we have the most effective hammer in the world. The tactic of terrorism is impossible to fight with an army. Disease epidemics can’t be cowed by an Air Force. Propaganda is hard to combat from a surface ship.
Last week, a report, noticed by almost no one, noted that the Taliban, in fierce fighting, had taken back four villages in Herat Province, Afghanistan, in the district right next to Parmakan.
The new threats we face today don’t look like the old ones. It’s why we need a new toolkit, new rules for engagement, and new allies in this endeavor.
Thank you to the Wilson Center for having me, and look forward to a great discussion.