Should the Leahy Laws be repealed? An exchange between Senator Leahy and Brandon Weichert.
Re: Brandon J. Weichert, “Repeal the Leahy Law”:
To The Editor:
In “Realism in foreign policy is undercut by utopian gestures” (6/12/18), Brandon Weichert argues that the Leahy laws should be repealed. My first suggestion is that he read the laws, which are as concise as they are clear, because either he has not done so or he knowingly misstates their purpose and effect.
Mr. Weichert incorrectly states that “the provision,” which is actually two similar but not identical laws that apply, respectively, to the Department of Defense and the Department of State, “bans the United States government from rendering military assistance of any kind to countries with an unsavory human rights record,” and that “[should] the United States fully adhere to the Leahy Law and only support democratic regimes, it would find itself losing out in the grand, geopolitical game.”
None of that is accurate. Far from being the blunt instrument described by the author, the Leahy laws neither prohibit U.S. assistance for entire countries nor limit it to only “democratic regimes.” What the laws actually do is require the Secretaries of State and Defense to suspend U.S. assistance for an individual unit of foreign military or police forces if they have credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights, such as murder of a civilian, torture, or rape. However, assistance to the unit is suspended only if the foreign government fails to take steps to punish those who commit such crimes.
In the rare instances that U.S. assistance is suspended for a unit, assistance for the rest of the country’s security force remains unaffected. Over 90 percent of all cases submitted for vetting are approved annually. In exceptional cases when the U.S. withholds assistance for an entire country, it is due to a policy decision or another provision of law, not the Leahy laws.
I agree with Mr. Weichert that cutting off assistance to an entire country is rarely in our interest. But the Leahy laws provide a far more targeted approach. When our government is supporting the Afghan National Security Forces to reestablish control in former Taliban strongholds, ensuring that U.S. taxpayer money is not used to support units known to have raped children, while continuing to support units not involved in such acts, hardly seems like “idealism,” or a “utopian gesture.” Requiring accountability for such crimes is a pragmatic way to enhance the professionalism of our partners, which helps build their legitimacy and ensures that the U.S. is not associated with such acts.
Whether our partners are democratic, authoritarian, or otherwise, it is a mistake to hide behind so-called “realism” as an excuse for tolerating U.S. support for, or acceptance of, war crimes or other heinous offenses. Realists recognize that government repression is a leading risk factor for radicalization in many countries, and it is in our interest to help prevent it. Are we naïve enough to believe that the abuses and repression of today will lead to stability tomorrow? History has taught us otherwise.
Any law is only as effective as its implementation. Since 1997, the Department of State and Department of Defense have made great strides in institutionalizing the Leahy laws. But more can be done. We need to ensure that the laws are understood by our partners and by our own officials, and implemented proactively and effectively; improve the quality of the information used for vetting units of foreign security forces; and encourage and facilitate accountability for abuses, including so we can resume assistance to previously suspended units in partner countries to achieve our common objectives.
Our interests are not served by misrepresenting what the Leahy laws do or creating a false dichotomy between human rights and national security, nor does history support such a distinction. Far from impeding our ability to advance U.S. interests, the Leahy laws have provided an effective example of how U.S. national interests can be pursued overseas in a manner that promotes the rule of law and is sustainable over the long term.
— Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Dancing with the Ones Who Brought You
Brandon J. Weichert replies:
Senator Patrick Leahy understates the ramifications of the so-called “Leahy Laws.” As I described in my original article, the Leahy Laws are a set of provisions “found in both the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Foreign Assistance Act.” However well-meaning these provisions may be, they threaten to fundamentally undermine America’s already-precarious alliance system in the geostrategically vital Middle East.
In his rebuttal, Senator Leahy argues, “Whether our partners are democratic, authoritarian, or otherwise, it is a mistake to hide behind so-called ‘realism’ as an excuse for tolerating U.S. support for, or acceptance of, war crimes or other heinous offenses.” He’s partially correct: culture does matter.
Although, the senator is wrong when he asserts that “realists recognize that government repression is a leading risk factor for radicalization in many countries.” In fact, most classical realists do not believe as the senator claims.
For the sake of context, though, I believe we should understand the nature of the cultures we are dealing with. Given the nature of the political systems, the history, the culture, and the type of conflict being waged in the Mideast, how does the United States seriously implement the Leahy Laws when all but one state — Israel — does not share our values? It cannot. What’s more, it shouldn’t even try.
Culture Does Matter…
As the famed medieval Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, described in his epic work, Al-Muqaddima,“history is a matter of one tribe, nation, or civilization dominating the others by force until it, too, is overthrown by force.”
Toward that end, the preeminent Mideast scholar, Lee Smith, argued in his 2011 masterpiece, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Civilizations, that the war that most Islamists are waging against the United States is “merely a massive projection of the same pattern of force, with a tribe bound as one to defend against and defeat the outsider.” Smith believes that the Arab world is mostly governed by this strong horse principle that Khaldun wrote of centuries ago.
Under these conditions, the Leahy Laws — if applied — would fundamentally undermine America’s grand strategy for the region, since tribalism dominates all countries there.
Distinction Without a Difference
These provisions, according to Senator Leahy, “require the Secretaries of State and Defense to suspend U.S. assistance for an individual unit of foreign military or police forces if they have credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights, such as murder of a civilian, torture, or rape.” The senator adds the caveat, “However, assistance to the unit is suspended only if the foreign government fails to take steps to punish those who commit such crimes.”
Forgive me, but this sounds like a distinction without a difference.
How is sanctioning or cutting off aid to a specific unit of an allied military really going to help the overall strategic objective of defeating whatever enemy they may be fighting? If you begin weakening units of a national army based on hard-to-prove human rights violations, you will inevitably weaken the entire military — and the overall war effort. In effect, the Leahy Laws would weaken our own foreign policy in a toxic region, like the Mideast.
Implicating Israel, Empowering Iran
For instance, the United States relies on Israel to help contain Iran and to assist in the defeat of Sunni extremist terror networks, such as al Qaeda. Yet, Israel is under existential threat from Iran. Ever since George W. Bush engaged in his flight of fancy in Iraq, the entire region has been destabilized — releasing Iran from its proverbial box.
Like a rapidly growing cancer, Iran has spread from its borders and encompassed predominantly Shiite parts of the region. Things are so bad today, that an arc of Iranian influence extends from Afghanistan to Lebanon (which borders Israel). As this occurs, America’s position in the region weakens relative to Iran’s (and Russia’s).
The Obama Administration all-but solidified Iran’s rise when it distanced itself from both Israel and the Sunni Arab states. It made things still worse when it signed an ill-fated executive agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program (thereby legitimizing Iran’s revanchist claims). As Iran has grown its power, it has substantially increased its support for anti-Israel terror groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
In Israel, civilians are on the frontlines in a gruesome, daily war with Islamic extremists. Most Americans (thankfully) cannot conceive of the kind of threat that most Israelis live under. After one major terror attack (9/11), the United States institutionalized torture and extrajudicial killings (with its drones). Why do we expect Israel to act any differently from ourselves—especially when Israel is threatened by terrorism every day?
To make matters worse, the nature of the conflicts in the Middle East are mostly intra-state. Thus, the fighting is especially difficult, as it is usually fought among — and between — the population. Under these conditions of constant civil conflict, even the best trained and equipped soldiers may lose their heads. While that is terrible, it does not represent the majority of the Israeli Defense Force. It also does not warrant the United States threatening its erstwhile, democratic ally in the region — especially when we share enemies (and a common heritage).
While the Leahy Laws have not yet been used to ding Israel for perceived human rights abuses, Senator Leahy was one of ten senators who wrote a letter to former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016, urging the Obama Administration to punish Israel for “extrajudicial killings.” Thankfully, the Obama Administration refused to take up the matter. At some point, though, a well-meaning American leader will arise who will fully implement the Leahy Laws — much to the geostrategic detriment of the United States.
Sacrificing Saudi Arabia
During his inaugural year in office, President Donald J. Trump undertook the difficult task of rehabilitating America’s ailing position in the Middle East. After 18 years of constant conflict in the region, the United States had drained its treasure, blood, military capabilities, and prestige in the region (and throughout the world). Plus, the appeasement strategy of former President Obama only added to the strategic deficit the United States faced in a vitally important region, chock full of serious national security threats.
The Trump Administration rightly identified Israel and the Sunni Arab states as the key to effective foreign policy in the region. By empowering these tough regional actors against both Iran and Sunni extremists, the United States believed that it could slowly unwind its physical presence in the Middle East, and return to the role of offshore balancer, leaving the day-to-day stabilization of the area to the Sunni Arab states and Israel. However, the constant preening over human rights (in a part of the world where barely any exist) only complicates the American goal.
The Leahy Laws continue hovering over U.S.-Saudi relations, in particular, as Senator Leahy has spent the last year trying to stymie the increased sales of arms to the Saudi military on humanitarian grounds. Denying vital military and foreign assistance to Saudi Arabia — even on a limited basis — would only enhance Iran’s push for regional hegemony. It would also further empower the most extreme elements in the Sunni Arab world (since the prospect of a Shiite hegemony would compel the Sunni extremists to take greater action against their relatively pro-American governments).
No to Utopia
In my original article, I excoriated Senator Leahy for having engaged in utopianism when he shepherded the provisions in the NDAA and the Foreign Assistance Act which bear his name. I stand by my assertion. As evidenced above, the fact that these provisions exist act as a diplomatic Damocles’ Sword over the heads of our allies in a nasty part of the world.
Unless we repeal the Leahy Laws, inevitably, our alliance with countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia will be threatened. Such actions would ultimately weaken the United States and empower the very same forces we, the Israelis, and the Sunni Arab states have been fighting against for almost 20 years.
Again, I urge America’s leaders to repeal the Leahy Laws and fully embrace a more restrained, realistic foreign policy that empowers our local friends and allows our forces time to rest and recuperate after 18 years of endless — almost winless — warfare. After all, no matter how ugly they may be, it is always proper to dance with the ones who brought you to the party.