Running the Table

How to beat your uncle in a foreign-policy debate at Thanksgiving dinner.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
ConstructionDealMkting
ConstructionDealMkting
ConstructionDealMkting

Afghanistan

We need a surge in Afghanistan. It worked in Iraq!

Nope. Take it from Gen. David Petraeus himself: "We cannot just take the tactics, techniques, and procedures that worked in Iraq and employ them in Afghanistan."

Afghanistan

We need a surge in Afghanistan. It worked in Iraq!

Nope. Take it from Gen. David Petraeus himself: "We cannot just take the tactics, techniques, and procedures that worked in Iraq and employ them in Afghanistan."

Afghanistan has lower rates of literacy, little experience with central government, a far more complex tribal structure, and a homegrown insurgent movement that remains largely a mystery to Western policymakers and military planners. In any event, to do counterinsurgency effectively, most strategists believe that a ratio of at least 25 troops per thousand local residents is necessary. Even if President Obama complied with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s reported full request for 40,000 new troops, that would bring the ratio up to only 12.5 per 1,000. Counterinsurgency also requires a legitimate central government, which given Hamid Karzai’s botched re-election, seems near impossible to achieve in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam!

Pretty unlikely. As AfPak channel editor Peter Bergen wrote last summer, the number of Taliban is likely in the tens of thousands, compared with the superpower-backed force of half a million that the U.S. military faced in Vietnam. While the 298 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year represents a disturbing increase, at least that many Americans were dying nearly every week at the height of the Vietnam War. Thanks to the end of the draft, the domestic political debate on the war is far less contentious than in the late 1960s as well. None of this is to say that the task won’t be brutal and painful, but America’s favorite antiwar analogy just doesn’t withstand scrutiny in this case.

Afghanistan will turn into an al Qaeda safe haven unless more troops are sent!

That’s debatable. First of all, most of al Qaeda’s senior leadership is likely across the border in Pakistan. Secondly, it’s far from clear how much al Qaeda still needs large swathes of territory in order to operate. Since 2001, the terrorist has largely transformed from a coherent centralized organization into a disaggregated network of cells that, if they communicate with the central leadership at all, do so online rather than at training camps in Afghanistan. Eight years of fighting in Afghanistan has succeeded in pushing Osama bin Laden and his core followers underground, but their message is still spreading to a willing audience. In any case, even if we could turn Afghanistan into Switzerland, the world is full of ungoverned spaces where terrorists could operate. Just look at Somalia or Yemen.

There’s no reason for the war in Afghanistan. We should pull out now!

No. The consequences of leaving Afghanistan to its own devices are vastly more serious than advocates of immediate withdrawal often like to admit. The Taliban would likely overrun the tottering Western-backed government, which could conceivably lead to a full-on civil war between Taliban-supporting Pashtuns and anti-Taliban non-Pashtuns in the north of Afghanistan. Pulling out would constitute an abandonment of Afghanistan’s population — particularly its women — to the whims of the Taliban. Even if most Americans can live with that, they probably can’t live with the boost that an Afghan victory would give to the Taliban and various other militant groups in neighboring Pakistan — a nuclear armed state where the geopolitical stakes are even higher.

Israel

Israel is trying to cooperate. We should put more pressure on the Palestinians!

It won’t work. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announced partial settlement freeze as “unprecedented,” it still allowed for the continued construction of 3,000 units – about average construction for a year – and excluded East Jerusalem. More than 40 percent of the land in the West Bank is currently in the municipal jurisdiction of the settlements — though only 2 percent has been developed — and without a firm permanent freeze on settlements, Palestinian cooperation on achieving the two-state solution is unthinkable.

The Palestinians are trying to cooperate. We should put more pressure on Israel!

That won’t work either. Obama’s credibility in Israel is sinking like a stone. His “trust” rating among the Israeli public is below 10 percent, compared with the 70-80 percent that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush enjoyed. The Palestinian leadership has never before made a complete settlement freeze an absolute precondition for talks and by continually hammering away at this point, Obama would only be reinforcing the perception that he cares more about Muslim public opinion than the interests of the staunchest U.S. ally in the Middle East, undermining the U.S. standing as an honest broker and further isolating Israel. 

 

Iran

Diplomacy is failing. We need to bomb Iran before they can build nukes!

Good luck with that. Since Iran likely has multiple unknown nuclear sites under development, a military strike by the U.S. or Israel could potentially only delay, rather than destroy, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear hero. Meanwhile, it would strengthen the hand of anti-Western hardliners in the Iranian government, increase President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s folk-hero status in the greater Middle East even farther, and drive up the price of oil, the regime’s main source of income. Additionally, zealots though they may be, the ayatollahs have always demonstrated a healthy interest in self-preservation and there’s little to suggest that the basic rules of nuclear deterrence wouldn’t apply if Iran were to get the bomb. The threat of Iran giving nuclear technology to terrorist groups is real, but the global nuclear black market, which gets far less attention than rogue states like Iran and North Korea — is probably a larger threat on that front.

There’s no proof Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. What are we worried about?

Plenty. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has always carefully stated that there is no proof that Iran is working on a nuclear-weapons program, but there was no proof of the secret enrichment facility at Qom until its existence was recently revealed. Iran only disclosed the existence of the site after it became clear that Western intelligence agencies already knew about it and then delayed for nearly a month before allowing inspectors to tour it — not exactly the behavior of someone with nothing to hide. The inspectors who toured the site said that with only 3,000 centrifuges, it was too small for a civilian nuclear enrichment material but could potentially be used to make fissile material for bombs. Even the normally diplomatic ElBaradei described Iran as being on the “wrong side of the law” when it came to the plant.

 

Health Care

America has the best health care in the world!

Sorry. Contrary to what opponents of U.S. health-care reform will tell you, there are no wait times for emergency procedures in Canada; Britons do have the right to pay for private care; and government panels in such countries do not decide which patients live and which ones die. Yes, there is “rationing“ of care in government-run systems, but it doesn’t differ significantly from decisions on the allocation of medical resources made by private insurers in the United States. It is simply not true, as Republican Senator Chuck Grassley claimed, that 77-year old Edward Kennedy would not have been treated for brain cancer under the British system. In the World Health Organization’s ranking of global health-care systems, the U.S. came in 37th. 

Every country in Europe has created a single-payer system!

Nope. European countries have  variety of systems for paying for citizens’ medical care. Britain’s National Health Service is, indeed, government run, but doctors and hospitals are private in France and Germany. Switzerland and the Netherlands have public-private hybrid systems similar to what is being considered in the U.S. It’s also not true that the quality of care always improves when the government guarantees it. Brazil’s creation of a public option for health insurance 20 years ago was followed by an overall decline in quality of the country’s health-care system as more and more middle-class Brazilians purchased private insurance, creating a two-tiered system of medical care.

 

Wild Card

If conversation starts to slow at the table, try these off-the-beaten-path topics from recent Foreign Policy articles to dazzle your dinner companions:

The Balkans: Radovan Karadzic’s trial won’t heal Bosnia’s ethnic divisions; it will only increase Serb resentment.

Bioterror: The risk of an accident from the U.S. bioterrorism research program is greater than the risk of a bioterror attack.

The EU: The appointment of low-key figures Herman van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton to EU leadership positions show that the European Union isn’t ready to have a louder voice on the international stage.

Green China: There’s a lot less than meets the eye to China’s efforts to get emissions under control.

Iran’s Green Revolution: Mir Hossein Moussavi, Mohammad Khatami, and Mehdi Karroubi have less influence over the movement than you think.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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