While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others are guest-blogging. The following guest post is from Yale University's Jolyon Howorth:
NATO's future is once again up for grabs. The fall of the Berlin Wall robbed the alliance of the enemy against which it had initially mobilized. Ever since, it has been in search of a new role. It has published three successive "strategic concepts" in a bid to explain its purpose. It has experimented with geographical expansion and with crisis management. It has dabbled in disaster relief and helped police the Olympic Games. It has engaged in multiple partnerships. And it has launched three major military operations: in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, and in Libya. None of these proved to be straightforward, and all of them exacerbated internal tensions. There remains widespread uncertainty as to what the alliance is actually for.
Americans and Europeans have differed sharply over NATO's purpose. The traditional U.S. view has envisaged a "global alliance," an association, around NATO, of the world's main democracies, linked by shared values and a joint commitment to preserve them. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, this became the "League of Democracies" promoted by then-candidate John McCain. The global alliance idea implies European payback for 40 years of American protection. An alliance initially forged to guarantee U.S. commitment to European security would morph into one designed to encourage European commitment to American global strategy. The Europeans, for the most part, have rejected that notion.
European member states having borders (or historical involvement) with Russia value, above all, the North Atlantic Treaty's Article 5, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus Latvians, for instance, can believe that if Moscow cut up rough, Uncle Sam would step up to the plate. Belief is reassuring. Other Europeans feel a debt of gratitude to the United States and believe that shared values require shared commitments. But after the generally unsatisfactory experience of Kosovo and the bitterly divisive experience of Afghanistan, Europeans are in no hurry to repeat the experience of far-flung adventures. So what is NATO for, post-Afghanistan?
The Libyan crisis in 2011, followed by events in Mali, offer a way forward. In Libya, the United States claimed to be "leading from behind." President Barack Obama set the administration's face firmly against high-profile military missions, especially in Muslim countries. The U.S. position was that Libya was the responsibility of the Europeans. But the European Union's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) proved inadequate to the task. There was neither the political will nor the military capacity to tackle the Libyan crisis. Eventually, the Libyan mission fell to NATO. Despite the mantra of "leading from behind," the mission depended crucially on U.S. military inputs. But the model was established. Leadership of the mission was assumed by France and Britain, with the United States supplying key "enablers."
This past January, we saw a repeat of this model in Mali, where France took overall responsibility for Operation Serval, driving Islamist insurgents north into the Sahara desert, with key enabling support from the United States.
What do these examples tell us about the future of European security arrangements? Ever since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been urging the Europeans to assume responsibility for their own regional security. That is why the EU member states, in 1999, launched their CSDP project, which has subsequently carried out almost 30 overseas missions, some of them militarily significant, like the ongoing anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa. The "Greater European area," for whose stability the EU might reasonably assume responsibility, covers the entire eastern and southern neighborhoods, the latter extending from the Red Sea, through the Sahel, to the Atlantic.
For 15 years, CSDP strove to remain "autonomous" of NATO. The idea was for Europe to develop its own strategic culture, based on a judicious mix of soft and hard power, and not simply replicate the muscular profile of the U.S. military. This has severe limitations. Most EU missions have been overwhelmingly advisory and civilian in nature (police missions, border control missions, security-sector reform missions). When real crises have arisen (the Balkans in the 1990s and North Africa in the 2010s), the EU has proved unequal to the task. Meanwhile, NATO continues to exist alongside CSDP. Both struggle to define their purpose and their mutual relationship.
The answer is progressively to move closer together and even, eventually, to merge. The merged entity would progressively assume responsibility, in conjunction with other regional actors (Russia, Turkey, the Arab League), for the "Greater European area."
NATO is like a bicycle that has only ever been ridden by the United States, with the Europeans bundled behind in the baby seat. Now the United States is urging the Europeans to learn to ride the bicycle themselves. The European response has been that they prefer to design their own, rather different, bicycle. It is smaller, slower, and fitted with large training wheels. It is useful for the sorts of missions CSDP has undertaken, but simply inadequate for serious crisis-management tasks. The Europeans need, sooner or later, to master the adult bike. In Libya, the message from the United States was: "Look, you have to acquire the confidence to ride a big bike. Just try. We will supply some large training wheels (air-to-air refueling, logistics, intelligence), and we'll follow along behind to steady you if you start to wobble. But you must do the pedaling, and you must hold the handlebars."
This is the way forward. The Europeans can become autonomous via NATO. Once they have mastered the adult bike, the United States can progressively fit smaller and smaller training wheels. And eventually, perhaps, there will be no need for any at all. The United States and the European Union would finally become true partners and allies in a world of power transition.
Jolyon Howorth has been visiting professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University since 2002. He is professor emeritus of European politics at the University of Bath in Britain.
By dadblunders [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I've been in France for the past three days, attending a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." I plan on blogging about that event later this week, but first a few comments about the surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani as the next president of Iran.
I suspect that almost everyone will interpret his election as a vindication of whatever position they held before any votes were cast. Hard-liners who have pushed for ever-tighter sanctions and threats of war will claim that the election is a sign that ordinary Iranians are saying uncle and want the government to do whatever is necessary to end Iran's isolation and encourage economic recovery. So naturally the hawks will call for more of the same. Alternatively, those who have called for engaging Iran and who have defended the legitimacy of the Iranian republic will see this surprising result as evidence that there is real democracy there, however truncated or constrained. And they will of course see this as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Perhaps the only person who will be seriously disappointed by the outcome is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bound to miss the less-than-competent and reliably cartoonish figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's irresponsible and offensive comments about Israel and the Holocaust made it easy to demonize the entire country and helped keep the idea of preventive war on the front burner. Rowhani is hardly a softie on the nuclear question or on regional security issues, but he's likely to be much harder to portray as a bloodthirsty Persian version of Hitler.
Rowhani's election also presents the kind of political opening that Barack Obama's administration hoped would emerge from the last Iranian presidential election, way back in 2009. Having extended a (very) tentative hand of friendship when he first took office, Obama was undoubtedly crossing his fingers for Ahmadinejad to lose and be replaced by a more moderate figure. The hope was that a more moderate president in Tehran would respond positively to Obama's overtures and that Ahmadinejad's departure would reduce domestic opposition to a less confrontational approach to Tehran. Instead, we got the contested election of 2009 and a harsh government crackdown against the Green Movement, developments that made it harder for both the United States and Iran to pursue an alternative course.
Although Rowhani's election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal.
Given the calcified layers of mistrust between these Iran and the United States -- dating back for decades now -- achieving a deal on the nuclear question and a broader improvement of relations will require both patience and political courage by both sides. Iran is not -- repeat not -- going to give up possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle, so the United States will have to accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power. Iran will have to accept strict limits on its program and will have to find ways to reassure its neighbors and the United States about its nuclear and regional ambitions.
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
And then there's the supreme leader, whose views and preferences remain something of a mystery. But not a complete mystery, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said he would judge the Obama administration not by its words but by its deeds. This is a perfectly sensible position, of course, and it is also how the United States ought to judge Iran. But that means that if U.S. policy doesn't change, and if it keeps making the same demands and employing the same tools (i.e., sanctions), we can be confident that nothing will change. And Obama's decision last week to send small arms to the rebels in Syria is hardly a step likely to make Iran feel better about Washington's regional objectives.
I could be wrong about all this, of course, but so far no one has ever lost money betting on Iran and America's seemingly infinite capacity to misread the other and thereby maintain their mostly irrational and counterproductive enmity. As is so often the case these days, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
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While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others will be guest-blogging:
is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost.…
For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
I think this is wrong and does realism a disservice.
There is a case to be made that if realists endorsed the broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East, a realist thing to do would be to engage in a variant of a "bait and bleed" proxy war without regard for the human cost in order to cause headaches for Iran and Hezbollah. Except I don't know any realists who endorse the broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East, which ought to pose a problem for Drezner's argument.
There's a Vietnam analogy here. As John Mearsheimer has pointed out a thousand times, essentially all realists except Henry Kissinger opposed the Vietnam War, and essentially all realists except Kissinger opposed the Iraq war. Why? Not because they were peacenik hippies, but rather because they disagreed with the theory on which the war was based: in Vietnam, the domino theory; and in Iraq, both the Saddam-can't-be-deterred theory and especially the democratic domino theory. As ever, there is an enormous difference between Beltway realism and actual realism. The Beltway foreign-policy community might deploy realist tactics, but it does not listen to realists on strategy.
As John Schuessler and Sebastian Rosato have argued, at the strategic level, realists wouldn't have us pay terribly much attention to who rules Syria, or Hezbollah, or even Iran. In their view, realism
would advise the US to balance against other great powers and to take a relaxed attitude toward minor powers. The exception would be when a minor power is situated in a strategically important region of the world, in which case it would prescribe vigilant containment. These injunctions are similar to those that fall under the rubric of "offshore balancing," a grand strategy favored by many realists.
They include Iran as being situated in a strategically important region of the world and advise containing Tehran should it acquire a nuclear weapon. So I don't think it's right to read realists as advising Washington to fuel the Syrian civil war in the hopes of bleeding Hezbollah and Iran white.
It's this sort of operationally realist but strategically grandiose foreign policy that has given realism a bad name. Sometimes, in the name of conservatism and defraying the costs of war, realists advise deeply cynical policies that force those costs onto others. But in a similar spirit of conservatism, and indeed ethics, they tend to define the national interest in such a way that a profoundly secure country like the United States doesn't have to do terrible things across the globe all the time. But for some reason, realism winds up taking the blame for the humanitarian cost, rather than the ambitious, non-realist strategy.
At any rate, if realism counsels the approach Dan identifies, one would expect realists to have been advocating it. I haven't heard any. Have you?Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
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While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others will be guest-blogging:
There are clear indicators that, in his second term, President Barack Obama is trying to shift American foreign policy toward a more "realist-leaning" direction. He has, so far, resisted the pull to intervene in Syria; his administration has begun significant ground-force reductions in Europe and has embraced the so-called "pivot" toward Asia. His choices of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to lead the State Department and Pentagon, respectively, suggest a desire to ensure that the voices of restraint are at the table when major policies are discussed.
Yet Obama has also just appointed Susan Rice as his national security advisor and Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations -- two strong advocates of humanitarian intervention abroad. This week, former President Bill Clinton announced his support for neoconservative advocate Sen. John McCain's arguments that America should be more involved in Syria. Close Hillary Clinton advisor in the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has been one of the strongest public advocates of a robust American intervention there. At the core of this worldview is a basic belief that American values at home face an existential threat abroad if the country fails to use its power to stop humanitarian crisis and spread democracy. With the White House now promising direct military aid to the rebels in Syria, the United States appears to risk again being on a slippery slope toward escalating intervention in yet another war with dubious national interests, little clear objective, and no defined end state.
The case for a new, robustly articulated foreign policy guided primarily by realism is strong. First, America's rise to global power largely resulted from realist-leaning restraint. While over the first 150 years of the nation's existence its commitments and overseas interests grew, there was always a degree of reserve that rejected overstretch. This helped the United States maintain and preserve its resources and focus on the long-term economic growth that eventually made it the world's greatest superpower. Second, the most dramatic gains America made after World War II and during the Cold War were advanced when policies guided by restraint were preferred, i.e. building rules in the United Nations to share great-power decision-making, the original concept of George Kennan's geographic containment of the Soviet Union, Dwight Eisenhower's refusal to be dragged into what he called "brush-fire wars," Richard Nixon's abandonment of ideological judgment that allowed for outreach to China, and Ronald Reagan's repeated statements, even at the height of his tough anti-Soviet worldview, that he wanted to negotiate with the Soviets and that he would work with Mikhail Gorbachev. President George H.W. Bush's decision to not march on to Baghdad and instead pursue containment via sanctions and weapons inspectors, we now know successfully disarmed Iraq and constrained Iran simultaneously. Each of these presidents had variations and contradictions on specific policies, but overall, the worldview was guided by realist restraint and produced major gains for America's global position. Also, third, on the biggest strategic miscalculation in American history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, realists consistently warned about risks and dangers -- and they were right. For decades now, contemporary realists like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Steve Walt, and more have cautioned against the pitfalls of overstretch in American foreign policy.
In 1992, however, the United States began to reject and unravel what had proved to work so well. A draft defense planning guidance done that year set out a goal of global primacy for the United States. It talked of enlarging NATO into Central and Eastern Europe and sustaining massive peacetime defense budgets to ensure no peer competitor would ever challenge the United States' global position, and it noted that America might act unilaterally when collective action was not possible. The draft was rejected by George H.W. Bush's White House, and a watered-down version went forward. It was described, however, by historian John Lewis Gaddis as reflecting "American hegemony, a doctrine in which the United States would seek to maintain a position that it came out of the Cold War with, in which there were no obvious or plausible challengers to the United States. That was considered quite shocking in 1992 -- so shocking, in fact, that the first Bush administration disavowed it."
Bill Clinton's administration also rejected, it seemed, this concept at first. It was first ambitious on United Nations peacekeeping, but after a disastrous experience in Somalia, it worked to stay out of Rwanda and the Balkans (initially). Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff set the tone, telling reporters, "We don't have the influence. We don't have the inclination to use military force. We certainly don't have the money to bring to bear the kind of pressure which will produce positive results anytime soon." He was, however, quickly disavowed by his bosses, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who said: "Some say -- and I'm sure you've heard this said -- that our nation is on a course of decline, that we can no longer afford to lead.… And certainly, it is true that the United States faces many challenges unlike our nation has ever felt before in our history. But to me that means that we must be more engaged internationally, not less; more ardent in the promotion of democracy, not less; and more inspired in our leadership, not less."
By 1995, the Clinton administration appeared to have embraced many of the major assumptions of the previously rejected 1992 defense planning guidance, including the option of unilateral military force, though preferring collective action. The new view embraced "assertive multilateralism" generated by the strong advocacy of Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and then secretary of state, who saw the world in black-and-white images via her sense of the dangers of appeasement of brutality, as was the case in Munich before World War II. Her worldview also embraced using American power to spread values, advance human rights, and spread democracy -- it was at core a liberal interventionist policy.
Albright chastised Colin Powell for his preference on restrained use of American military power. She would justify American interventionism on a sense that: "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future." Official Clinton policy embraced a new National Security Strategy published in 1995 that explicitly linked spreading democracy abroad to American national security. Realist concerns were brushed aside. Kosovo -- now a war championed as a model but, in reality, one that America and NATO almost failed to win -- set the tone. After the war, President Clinton said: "Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background, or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it." Clinton also, in 1998, signed the "Iraq Liberation Act," which was referenced by the following administration of George W. Bush as having laid the formal premise for regime change in Iraq.
Since 1992, the tools of American foreign policy have been put in the service of "assertive multilateralism" (now characterized as "responsibility to protect," or for neoconservative advocacy like the invasion of Iraq). Obama's first term embraced continuity in this worldview. He appointed a foreign-policy team that included no prominent early opponents of the Iraq invasion and ran a national security process on Afghanistan in 2009 that only seriously debated variations on escalation. Libya, in 2011, came to reflect a dangerous result -- embracing the foreign-policy agenda of liberal intervention but trying to avoid the high costs of responsibilities that come with the decision to intervene. Now he must reconcile this dilemma in Syria. This is not to say that the basic concepts behind a liberal foreign policy are bad ideas, but the record from Vietnam to Iraq and now Afghanistan is not a good one. Indeed, most success stories involve nonmilitary actions -- like the Marshall Plan and the Helsinki Accords. A realist approach to spreading democracy abroad begins with setting the best example for freedom and progress at home and aligning appropriate tools to shape foreign-policy outcomes abroad.
It is difficult to know what message Obama is sending in having now set up a foreign-policy team that, while more diverse in worldview than that of his first administration, is also potentially at odds with itself. Worst of all worlds is that the president might be tempted to sustain the primacy goals of American global engagement, but on the cheap. Deep cuts in capabilities combined with a continued overambitious worldview are a recipe for near-term disaster and a continued drain on American power. A realist worldview can avoid this via tough choices to realign the scale of America's global role -- and associated budgets.
Even if he wants to shift the sails and embrace a new era of realist restraint, Obama might find this very difficult to do. He would be reversing 20 years of American foreign-policy priorities embraced by both political parties and now deeply entrenched in America's national security establishment and budgets. It would, however, be in the national interest to lead the nation into a discussion of new national security priorities and embrace what most polling shows Americans already get -- that there are limits to American power overseas and it is time to realign foreign-policy priorities. Realism will offer the president a good guide -- if he embraces and implements it.
Sean Kay is Robson professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University and an associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Privacy under siege here in the USA. Turmoil in Turkey. A grinding civil war in Syria. Obama and Xi making nice out in California. Bond markets queasy. The fate of the eurozone is still anyone's guess.
With so much going on, it's an awkward time to take a break from blogging, but I'm going to drop (mostly) off the grid starting tomorrow. I'm spending the next two weeks in Europe, attending conferences and seminars in France, Britain, Norway, and Crete. Not exactly a restful trip, but I'm looking forward to it anyway. I may post occasionally when connectivity allows, and I'm hoping a few guest bloggers weigh in while I'm away, but no promises.
If anyone needs to reach me, just contact the NSA. They'll probably know where I am … (just kidding … I think).
You might think that you don't need to worry about the secret U.S. government programs to collect phone and Internet information on ordinary Americans, a program that is not quite so secret after last week's revelations. There are over 300 million Americans, after all, and the vast majority of their online and cell-phone communications have nothing to do with national security and are unlikely to attract any scrutiny. We are still some ways from Big Brother, "Minority Report," or "The Adjustment Bureau," and maybe we can trust the nameless, largely anonymous army of defense contractors and government employees (by one source numbering more than 800,000) to handle all that data responsibly. Yeah, right.
In fact, you should be worried, but not because most of you are likely to have your privacy violated and be publicly exposed. If you're an ordinary citizen who never does anything to attract any particular attention, you probably don't need to be concerned. Even if your Internet and phone records contain information you'd rather not be made public (an online flirtation, the time you emailed a friend to bring over some pot, or maybe some peculiar porn habits), there's safety in numbers, and you'll probably never be exposed.
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?
My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Vigorous debate on key issues is essential to a healthy democracy, and it is essential that outsiders be able to scrutinize and challenge what public officials are up to. People who work for the federal, state, and local governments aren't privileged overlords to whom we owe obeisance; in a democracy, they are public servants who work for us. Right now, however, there are hundreds of thousands of public servants (including private contractors with fat government contracts) who are busy collecting information about every one of us. Citizens don't have similar resources to devote to watching what our elected and appointment officials are doing, so we must rely on journalists, academics, and other independent voices to ferret out wrongdoing, government malfeasance, corruption, or just plain honest mistakes. But if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before -- and via completely legal means -- then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.
In short, the real reason you should be worried about these revelations of government surveillance is not that you're likely to be tracked, prosecuted, or exposed. You should be worried because it is another step in the process of making our vibrant, contentious, and most of all free-minded citizenry into a nation of sheep.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Thanks to some intrepid work by Glenn Greenwald and others, we now know a lot more about the secret surveillance that the U.S. government has been doing in recent years. If you're an American, bear in mind that all this has been paid for by your tax dollars. You should also remember that the issue isn't how these capabilities might be used by politicians you happen to like; it's how they might be abused by politicians you despise or might have reason to fear.
I don't have any stunning new insights to offer on this matter, except to reiterate my earlier point -- which you can read at greater length here -- that these developments are directly connected to the broader course of U.S. foreign policy.
Schematic version: One of the main purposes of government is to provide security. Ergo, when people are scared, they are more willing to let public officials take extreme actions in the name of "national security," including: 1) excessive secrecy laws, 2) prosecution of (some) whistle-blowers or leakers (except when authorized by those at the top), 3) preventive or preemptive wars, 4) targeted assassinations of suspected enemies, and 5) extraordinary rendition and/or torture. A population that is really scared will also turn a blind eye to all sorts of other dubious policies, including support for unsavory allies and the creation/maintenance of disproportionately large defense capabilities. Both dictators and democrats have been aware of these realities for centuries and have used public fears to justify any number of questionable actions.
This situation gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats. When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: "Ah, but if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me."
And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they "hate our freedoms" and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of "evil." If this gets expensive, then cheaper ways to do it must be found, but what doesn't stop is the open-ended effort to meddle in other countries. This in turn requires even more energetic efforts to conceal what government officials are up to, both to prevent foreign populations from being fully aware of what the United States is doing and to prevent Americans from connecting the dots or questioning the wisdom of the effort.
As James Madison famously warned:
"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Madison was a very smart guy.
NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY / HANDOUT
Andrew Sullivan has offered a measured response to the Guardian's revelations about a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to collect metadata about ordinary Americans' phone calls. You can read his whole comment here, but the sentences that caught my eye were these:
"This kind of technology is one of the US' only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence."
There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in "competitive advantages" against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They're vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.
Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the "consequences of its absence" could be "terrible." This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism -- even of the sort suffered on 9/11 -- is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren't secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from "jihadi terrorism." The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don't have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don't seem to be crying out for a "Patriot Act" to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.
Terrorism often succeeds when its targets overreact, thereby confirming the extremists' narrative and helping tilt opinion toward their cause. Thus, a key lesson in dealing with these (modest) dangers is not to exaggerate them or attribute to enemies advantages that they do not possess. I suspect Sullivan knows this, even if he briefly forgot it when writing his otherwise thoughtful post.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.