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.
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I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
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One of the cool things about being as powerful and fortunate as the United States is that you get to preach to other countries about how they ought to behave. In that spirit, the U.S. State Department puts out a human rights report every year, and basically wags its finger at countries that don't measure up. Of course, the report tends to go easy on close allies, but it's still a useful document. Among other things, it provides data that scholars interested in human rights can use to test their ideas about the causes of violations and the policies that might alleviate them.
But as you might expect, the world isn't just sitting around and passively accepting report cards from Washington anymore. Case in point: China has just released its own human rights report on the United States, and it makes for rather interesting reading. It's hardly an objective assessment of life in America, of course, but much of the information contained within it is factually accurate. The incidence of gun violence and crime in the U.S. is far above the level of other industrial democracies, and having the world's highest incarceration rate is not exactly consistent with being the "Land of the Free."
China's point is that the United States is being pretty hypocritical in singling out other countries, and maybe we ought to remove the log in our own eye before we start telling everyone else what to do. Add to this the recent bipartisan report confirming that Bush-era officials authorized the widespread use of torture and the fact that none of them has ever been indicted or prosecuted, and American hypocrisy on this score looks even more damning.
The Chinese report may not be objective, and the fact that U.S. leaders authorized torture does not mean Washington hasn't done plenty of morally admirable things too. But this gap between America's professed ideals and its actual behavior matters. Not just in moral terms, but in terms of power and global influence too. Smaller and weaker states are more likely to tolerate American primacy if they think the United States is a generally good society and led by individuals who are not just ruthlessly self-interested. They will be more willing to tolerate the asymmetry of power in America's favor if they think that power is used for the greater good. The more that others view the United States as hypocritical, self-absorbed, and indifferent to others, the more likely they are to ignore U.S. advice and to secretly welcome those moments when the U.S. gets taken down a peg or two.
The 9/11 attacks produced an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the United States ("nous sommes toutes Americains" headlined Le Monde), and we've seen a similar reaction in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But such expressions of solidarity tend to be fleeting and especially when U.S. behavior gives opponents an easy way to heighten dissatisfaction with America's global role. What's going on here is a struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the wider world, and it would be foolish to believe that we will win that struggle just because we're the "good guys." That may be how we see ourselves, but Americans are only 5 percent of the world's population, and plenty of other people around the world have a rather different view.
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If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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The ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is generating a variety of post-mortems and reflections from many of the participants in the pre-war debate. Andrew Sullivan has been especially forthright in acknowledging his own errors during that time and has a lively thread up and running probing what some famous people like Bill Clinton had to say on the matter a decade or so ago.
Going to war is a fateful decision for any country, but it is now clear that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment performed abysmally during the run-up to the war. Top officials in the Bush administration told several important lies to bolster the case for war, such as the claim that there was no doubt Iraq had WMD -- indeed, they said they knew where they were - -and the charge that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda.
The majority of prominent Democrats and plenty of card-carrying liberals backed the war as well. Indeed, almost all of the top foreign policy officials in Obama's first term were vocal supporters of the invasion, with the president himself being a notable exception. Denizens of the usual Washington think-tanks -- including supposedly "moderate" organizations like Brookings and bipartisan organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations -- were also filled with pro-war cheerleaders. The same was true of the New York Times and Washington Post, whose editors and reporters swallowed the Bush team's sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. All in all, the decision to invade was taken with a degree of carelessness and callowness unworthy of any country with pretensions to global leadership. And one should never forget that this reckless decision cost more than $1 trillion and led to thousands of American battlefield casualties and many ruined lives. Of course, the Iraqi people have suffered even more over the past decade.
But not everyone thought invading Iraq was a good idea. In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, "War with Iraq is Not in America's National Interest." You can read the original ad here. It is striking how accurate its warnings were. At the risk of sounding like I am bragging, I was one of the signatories, although I certainly take no pleasure in having anticipated the trouble ahead. It would have been better for the United States, not to mention Iraq, if the hawks had been proven right. Sadly, this was not to be.
As the ten-year anniversary nears, I want to call attention to the other people who signed the ad and helped pay for its publication. Some of them are no longer with us, but their prescience and their willingness to resist the stampede for war should not go unremembered. Here are the other signatories, with their professional affiliations at the time.
Robert Art, Brandeis
Richard Betts, Columbia
Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia
Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky
Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas
Alexander L. George, Stanford
Charles Glaser, University of Chicago
Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State
George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky
Robert Jervis, Columbia
Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh
Carl Kaysen, MIT
Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington
Deborah Larson, UCLA
Jack S. Levy, Rutgers
Peter Liberman, Queen's College
John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
Steven E. Miller, Harvard University
Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern
Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago
Barry R. Posen, MIT
Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley
George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland
Richard Rosecrance, UCLA
Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland
Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State
Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina
Jack L. Snyder, Columbia
Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland
Stephen Van Evera, MIT
Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia
Cindy Williams, MIT
It is worth noting that none of the signatories on this list has held a government position since then, and my guess is that none is likely to do so in the future. Instead, it is mostly people who backed the war who have occupied key policymaking positions in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Even today, a reputation for hawkishness is a prerequisite for being taken seriously in Washington.
Policymakers and pundits love to disparage "ivory-tower" academics for being aloof, out-of-touch, or insufficiently sensitive to how the real world works. Sometimes those charges are valid. But in this case -- and many others -- it was the "experts" inside-the-Beltway who got it tragically wrong and the academics who got it right.
Postscript: A subsequent effort to critique the Bush administration's handling of the war -- organized under the aegis of "Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy" -- produced an open letter signed by 851 people. The text is here; an account of this group's activities can be found here.
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Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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I suppose I could be flattered that William Kristol is trying to use my endorsement to derail Senator Chuck Hagel's candidacy to be the next secretary of defense. But in fact I'm disgusted, because Kristol's predictable hatchet job depends on the false charge that my co-author John Mearsheimer and I are "Israel-haters." It is, to be blunt, a shameful lie. It is also a revealing glimpse into how Kristol thinks and operates.
Here's Kristol's problem: Hagel is a decorated Vietnam veteran who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Instead of helping cause wars from the sidelines like Bill does, Hagel fought with bravery on the battlefield. He's also a Republican with ample experience in national security and intelligence matters whose judgment President Obama respects. Hagel has been quite supportive of Israel throughout his public career, and his views on many Middle East topics are similar to those of prominent Israeli officials. But he hasn't been as slavishly devoted to Israel as fanatics like Kristol would like, and he's skeptical about the merits of a war with Iran (as are many Israeli experts). Hagel also said openly he "was a United States senator, not an Israeli senator," and that his primary responsibility is to serve the American national interest, not Israel's. This statement would disqualify him were he in the running to be Israel's minister of defense, but it is precisely what you'd expect a loyal American to say.
Well, if you're Bill Kristol and you can't find any legitimate grounds to oppose Hagel, what do you do? You smear him. You try to convince people that Hagel's perfectly sensible views are really a manifestation of some sort of hidden anti-Semitism. Since Hagel has never done or said anything to support such a vicious charge, you have to use the well-known McCarthyite tactic of guilt-by-association. How? Point out that yours truly blogged that his nomination would be a "smart move."
See how it works? Someone who has previously been falsely smeared as anti-Israel thinks Hagel would be a good choice, so Hagel must be a nasty piece of work too. Of course, the charges against me are equally baseless -- and I'll bet Kristol knows that quite well -- but factual accuracy is not his concern. The sad fact is that if someone displays the slightest degree of independent thought on the subject of U.S.-Israel relations, they'll get falsely smeared. And then if that person says anything favorable about anyone else, that statement will be used to smear the others too. The goal, of course, is to silence or marginalize anyone who doesn't fully support the current "special relationship" and prevent a full and open debate about its merits.
President Obama hasn't shown a lot of backbone on this issue in the past, and it's possible that Kristol and the other hardliners who are now spewing falsehoods about Hagel will get the White House to blink. It's also possible that Obama will prefer a less traditional defense and foreign policy team and will opt for somebody else for that reason. The rumors about Hagel may even have been a clever White House ploy to provoke Kristol and the other neocons into their usual frenzy, thereby exposing their monomania about Israel once again and discrediting future efforts to oppose a more sensible U.S. policy in the region.
But what this incident really reveals is how desperate Kristol & Co. are becoming. Having conceived, cheer-led, and then bungled the disastrous Iraq war, their credentials as foreign policy "experts" are forever tarnished. They've used the "anti-Semitism/Israel-hater" charge so often and so inaccurately that it is losing its power to silence or deter, and defending the "special relationship" will be more and more difficult as Israel drifts rightward and hopes for a two-state solution fade into oblivion.
These trends will force Kristol and those who share his views to use even more despicable tactics to defend an untenable status quo. So I wouldn't expect them to abandon the art of the smear anytime soon. At this point, what else have they got?
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So the Beltway world is a-twitter (literally) with the rumor that President Obama will nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) to be the next secretary of defense. This is a smart move that will gladden the hearts of sensible centrists, because Hagel is a principled, intelligent and patriotic American who believes that U.S. foreign and defense policy should serve the national interest. Here are my top five reasons why Hagel would be an excellent choice for the job.
1: He's a Republican realist. Like former defense secretary Robert Gates, Hagel is a realist from the moderate wing of the Republican party. He's a staunch advocate of a strong defense, yet he's clearly opposed to squandering U.S. power, prestige, and wealth on misbegotten crusades. He's also not prone to threat-inflation, which makes him almost unique.
Hagel's candidacy is also something of a no-lose appointment for Obama. By nominating a well-known Republican, Obama can again demonstrate a genuine commitment to bipartisanship. And if Republican senators try to torpedo the nomination of one of their own, it merely underscores how petty, extreme, and out of touch they are. Either way, Obama wins.
2: He thinks for himself. Unlike the usual inside-the-Beltway careerists with jelly for vertebrae and weathervanes for a conscience, Hagel is an independent thinker who wasn't afraid to challenge his own party when it started heading off the rails under President George W. Bush. Hagel showed real courage when he said that the Bush administration was the "most arrogant and incompetent administration"; he was telling it like it was. Washington could use more plain speaking these days, especially where foreign and defense policy are concerned. That's what Obama liked about Gates, and that's what he would get with Hagel.
3: He knows the subject. Hagel is a decorated Army veteran who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and he's remained involved with defense matters throughout his public career. More importantly, he's also well-versed on intelligence issues, having served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). In an era where DoD and the intelligence community increasingly intersect, that's a valuable pedigree. And if his personal experience in war has made him less inclined to intervene than eager civilians with no military experience, so much the better.
4: He's got good judgment. Although Hagel erred in voting for the Iraq War resolution in 2002, he figured out the war was a blunder a lot faster than most of his colleagues did. He wisely opposed the "surge" in 2006, and called instead for an immediate U.S. withdrawal. In terms of U.S. interests, getting out earlier would have saved us tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of soldiers' lives, and it would produced essentially the same outcome we have today. Remember: we stuck around long enough to cement Nuri al-Maliki's hold on power, only to watch him align his country with Iran, tell us to leave, and then obstruct our efforts in Syria. With the benefit of hindsight, Hagel's judgment looks sound.
5: He's got the right enemies. Hagel does have one political liability: Unlike almost all of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he hasn't been a complete doormat for the Israel lobby. In the summer of 2006, for example, he incurred the lobby's wrath by calling for a joint ceasefire during Israel's war with Hezbollah. Pressed by the lobby, Bush & Co. rejected this advice and let the war drag on, even though prolonging it made Hezbollah more popular in Lebanon and cost additional Israeli lives. Hagel has also been outspoken in calling for the United States to be more evenhanded in its handling of the peace process, and he's generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against Iran. Needless to say, such positions are anathema to Israel's hard-line supporters, some of whom are already attacking Hagel's suitability for SecDef. For the rest of us, however, Hagel's views are not only sensible -- they are in America and Israel's best interest.
Having lost out on Susan Rice, Obama is unlikely to put forward a nominee he's not willing to fight for or whom he thinks he might lose. So if Hagel is his pick to run the Pentagon, you can bet Obama will go to the mattresses for him. And what better way for Obama to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the "cooperation" Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi's transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?
For what it's worth, I hope Obama nominates Hagel and that AIPAC and its allies go all-out to oppose him. If they lose, it might convince Obama to be less fearful of the lobby and encourage him to do what he thinks is best for the country (and incidentally, better for Israel) instead of toeing AIPAC's line. But if the lobby takes Hagel down, it will provide even more evidence of its power, and the extent to which supine support for Israel has become a litmus test for high office in America.
Of course, it hard to know how effective a manager of the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy Hagel would be. But he would inherit a seasoned team of deputies to help him handle the day-to-day administrative tasks, and he certainly knows how the sausage gets made in Washington. Obama reportedly has confidence in Hagel's judgment, and could rely on him both for sage advice and political cover when needed. It is therefore easy to see why the president might find him an appealing pick. Equally important, he'd be an excellent choice for our country, which has a crying need for effective and principled leaders.
With so much attention riveted on Election Day, some important contributions to our discourse are bound to get less attention than they deserve. Case in point: yesterday's NYT op-ed by Aaron O'Connell on the "permanent militarization of America." It's an excellent piece, and I just hope his arguments don't fall into the memory hole while we're all breathlessly awaiting the outcome in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or wherever.
Drawing in part on former president Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous speech on the "military- industrial complex," O'Connell documents how far we have departed from the original traditions of the Founding Fathers and the first 150 years of our history. Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were deeply wary of a permanent military establishment, which they recognized as a threat to a republican order. Eisenhower also understood that a country cannot be at war more-or-less permanently without creating a gross imbalance between military institutions (including weapons labs, contractors, and even some universities feeding at the DoD trough), and becoming vulnerable to spiritual erosion. We've long since forgotten that our rise to world power was facilitated by staying out of wars (or getting into them late). And we've clearly lost sight of the fact that smart great powers make allies bear their full share of the collective burden, instead of taking pride in one's own "indispensability" and rushing eagerly into the next quagmire.
The problem isn't so much a misallocation of resources -- defense spending is only about 4 percent of U.S. GDP -- but rather the deference that the military now receives from nearly everyone. On the very same day that O'Connell's piece appeared, Brooks Brothers ran an advertisement in the Times announcing a 25 percent off sale for active and retired military personnel. Not for firemen, police, EMTs, or other risky occupations (fishing, logging, coal mining, etc.): just for the military.
Don't get me wrong: I think our soldiers should be treated with respect and the country as a whole should compensate them adequately and be grateful for their sacrifices. We certainly ought to make sure that we provide excellent care for those who are wounded in the wars in which they have fought, and provide them the other benefits they were promised when they signed up. But this isn't a citizen army that has rallied to defend the nation against attack; it is a force made up solely of people who have voluntarily chosen a military career, with all the risks that this entails. They have done so in part because our country has offered them increasingly generous compensation packages, even though only a small percentage will ever serve in harm's way. But aren't we going just a bit overboard when joining the military gets you cheaper button-downs, early boarding privileges on civilian airlines, and endless words of praise from opportunistic politicians?
The final absurdity is the tendency to defer to military advice, even on matters where having worn a uniform confers no particular wisdom or insight. Veterans know a lot about the conduct of military operations, but serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else doesn't give you any special insights into whether such wars are in the national interest or not.
Similarly, having served in the military doesn't give you any special insight into who ought to govern the country. It was supposedly big news when a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and former Secretary of State), Colin Powell endorsed President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Not to be outdone, last week a bevy of retired generals and admirals endorsed Mitt Romney.
In fact, neither of these endorsements ought to carry much weight. Whatever his other virtues and achievements, Powell was an embarrassing failure as Secretary of State, and mostly because he misread the political tea leaves inside the Bush administration and didn't have the good sense or integrity to resign when his counsel was rejected. As for all those retired officers who endorsed Romney, has anyone noticed that the United States has lost not one but two wars in the past decade, and that America's senior military leaders did not exactly acquit themselves brilliantly in conducting either one? The civilian leadership (both Republican and Democratic) deserves plenty of blame too, but the quality of senior military advice that they received was often abysmal. One can be grateful for the sacrifices that our enlisted men have made, yet be underwhelmed by the strategic wisdom of their commanders.
As I noted last week, the composition, character, and current direction of the entire national security establishment is one of the big issues that the next president ought to address. But it's hard to believe either Obama or Romney will. Why? Because questioning the current militarization of American society will make you plenty of enemies and won't win you many friends. Which is precisely O'Connell's point.
Postscript: I'm just back from my neighborhood polling station, and am now basking in the psychological income of exercising the franchise. Feels good. If you're a U.S. citizen and registered to vote, don't miss out. VOTE.
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As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he'd implement Obama's foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush's second term foreign policy agenda.
But Romney's sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn't ask:
"Governor, you maintain that you're a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God's name are you listening to them?"
To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn't dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn't imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam's character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.
Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don't look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won't remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.
The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren't very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don't hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool -- military force -- is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America's deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America's liberal/Wilsonian ideals.
Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran's interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.
Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third -- an even more expensive camera with even more features -- the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.
And that's the genius of neoconservatism's frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don't bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don't like (and it's a long list). No president -- not even George W. Bush -- has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they're pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.
Neoconservatism's final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn't follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that's because Bush didn't attack Iran and Syria too, or it's because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush's watch, it's because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it's because we didn't send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn't go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.
To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama's stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn't big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there's hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded.
In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you'll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they'll just say you failed because you didn't follow their advice to the letter.
In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can't tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.
Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what's he doing with all those neocons?
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A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
Today we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
Effective strategy requires thinking more than one move ahead, and not basing momentous decisions on worst-case assumptions about the risks of inaction and best-case forecasts about the benefits that war will bring. It was obvious at the time that destroying Iraq would tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in Iran's favor, and there was no good reason to expect it to produce the pro-American tilt that the neocons promised. So America ended up replacing an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad with one that is at least partially attuned to Tehran's wishes, with the bill for the operation being footed by the U.S. taxpayer.
This issue might not matter that much had we really learned from the experience, and if the people who got us into that foolish war had been put out to pasture. But as I've noted before, failure doesn't have any real consequences in America's foreign policy community, which is why the architects of the Iraq war still have safe sinecures at D.C. think-tanks, still have prominent platforms on FOX News and other major media outlets, and still have trusted positions advising the Romney campaign. Of course, the Democrats who backed the war haven't suffered any career penalties either, which may help you understand why things haven't improved as much as some of us hoped they would back in 2008.
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The Republican Party is big on leadership these days, and especially fond of demanding that the United States "lead from the front."This was a central theme in of John McCain's recent sally right here at Foreign Policy, as well as Condoleezza Rice's speech at the GOP convention in Tampa. Among other things, it reminds us that the Republican Party's foreign policy gurus aren't very good strategists. (The Bush administration's disastrous handling of foreign policy showed this all too clearly, but it's nice to have a reminder).
In fact, the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy.
The United States would be well-served by a more selective approach to "global leadership." It is not a foreign policy achievement when the United States gets stuck dealing with an intractable quagmire like Afghanistan -- at a cost of a half a trillion dollars and 2,000 lives -- or when it finds itself waging drone wars in half a dozen countries. A real achievement would have been to find a way to shift the burden of this problem onto others, and especially onto the backs of potential U.S. adversaries. We congratulate ourselves on finally tracking down Osama bin Laden, but the real winners over the past decade have been countries like China, which have concentrated on building up power at home while the United States bled itself white in a series of pointless foreign adventures.
Furthermore, America's reflexive urge to be in charge has other negative consequences. It has allowed our most important allies to free-ride for decades, to the point that they are increasingly liabilities rather than assets. NATO's European members spend a mere 1.7 percent on average on defense these days (and that number is going down), and none of these countries can mount a serious military operation anywhere without a lot of American help. Why? Because Uncle Sucker has spent the last 50 years doing it for them. Much the same story is true in Asia, where countries like Japan want lots of American protection but don't want to spend any money defending themselves. Washington ends up with not with allies but with dependents, and we see it as a victory whenever some new country requires our protection.
This demand that the United States constantly "lead from the front" also makes it easier for other states to drag us into their quarrels. Georgia tried to sucker us into its dispute with Russia a few years ago (and if McCain had been in charge, it would have succeeded), and Israel is still trying to get America to bomb Iran on its behalf. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to push the United States to confront China over issues like the South China Sea, and everybody seems to think the United States should "do something" about Syria. Perhaps we should, but first you need to explain why doing any of these things will make Americans safer or more prosperous here at home, and then you need to convince me that the countries who have a lot more at stake aren't up to the task. And if some other country wants me to spend American money and risk American lives, they'd better have a lot of skin in the game, too. Finally, if weaker countries want to demand my protection, they'd better be willing to follow my advice on other issues. Otherwise, they're on their own.
Don't get me wrong: in some cases the United States should be actively involved and it should exercise a leadership role. It is still the world's most powerful country, and a return to isolationism would have destabilizing consequences in some areas. But our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.
It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.
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Remember how the London Olympics were supposedly left vulnerable to terrorists after the security firm hired for the games admitted that it couldn't supply enough manpower? This "humiliating shambles" forced the British government to call in 3,500 security personnel of its own, and led GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to utter some tactless remarks about Britain's alleged mismanagement during his official "Foot-in-Mouth" foreign tour last month.
Well, surprise, surprise. Not only was there no terrorist attack, the Games themselves came off rather well. There were the inevitable minor glitches, of course, but no disasters and some quite impressive organizational achievements. And of course, athletes from around the world delivered inspiring, impressive, heroic, and sometimes disappointing performances, which is what the Games are all about.
Two lessons might be drawn from this event. The first is that the head-long rush to privatize everything -- including the provision of security -- has some obvious downsides. When markets and private firms fail, it is the state that has to come to the rescue. It was true after the 2007-08 financial crisis, it's true in the ongoing euro-mess, and it was true in the Olympics. Bear that in mind when Romney and new VP nominee Paul Ryan tout the virtues of shrinking government, especially the need to privatize Social Security and Medicare.
The second lesson is that we continue to over-react to the "terrorist threat." Here I recommend you read John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart's The Terrorism Delusion: America's Overwrought Response to September 11, in the latest issue of International Security. Mueller and Stewart analyze 50 cases of supposed "Islamic terrorist plots" against the United States, and show how virtually all of the perpetrators were (in their words) "incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish." They quote former Glenn Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats saying "we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are," noting further that al Qaeda's "capabilities are far inferior to its desires."
Further, Mueller and Stewart estimate that expenditures on domestic homeland security (i.e., not counting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) have increased by more than $1 trillion since 9/11, even though the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, they estimate that for these expenditures to be cost-effective "they would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year." Finally, they worry that this exaggerated sense of danger has now been "internalized": even when politicians and "terrorism experts" aren't hyping the danger, the public still sees the threat as large and imminent. As they conclude:
... Americans seems to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril. Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic that generated it ... This extraordinarily exaggerated and essentially delusional response may prove to be perpetual."
Which is another way of saying that you should be prepared to keep standing in those pleasant and efficient TSA lines for the rest of your life, and to keep paying for far-flung foreign interventions designed to "root out" those nasty jihadis.
I'm just back from a brief trip to Maine, to give a lecture at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. As I have in a couple of other venues, I spoke on the similarities and differences between the earlier campaign for war with Iraq and the current debate over war with Iran. The main similarity, of course, is that the same groups and individuals who pushed hardest for war with Iraq are also in the vanguard of the groups pusshing for war with Iran today. But there are also some critical differences, most notably the fact that the Obama administration isn't staffed by die-hard neoconservatives and Obama isn't as gullible as Bush and Cheney turned out to be. For those of us who believe that war with Iran is neither necessary nor wise, this is good news.
My hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the attendees asked a lot of smart questions, so I had an excellent time. A fair number of the people I met have backgrounds in international affairs (in business, academia, government, intelligence, etc.), and all are obviously engaged by the subject. I didn't hand out a questionnaire so I don't know what everyone in attendance thought, but I was struck by two themes in both the Q & A at my talk and in my private conversations with various members.
First, I detected no support for any sort of war with Iran. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not by us, not by Israel, and not by anybody else. It's possible that some people in the audience would use force as a last resort, but no one in the audience or in private spoke in favor of that option or even asked a question that leaned in that direction. (One retired government official said he believed there would eventually be a war, but he made it clear that he thought that it was a terrible idea). Instead, they were mostly interested in what could be done to prevent a war, and several questions centered on what could be done to improve U.S.-Iranian relations over the longer term. That view, by the way, is more-or-less consistent with recent surveys showing relatively little support for the "military option." This result is especially telling given that Americans also seem to hold quite alarmist views about Iran's nuclear intentions, and given that the war party has been working overtime to hype the threat for years.
Second, I was also struck by the intelligent skepticism that several attendees expressed regarding America's global role. This was a sophisticated group, and most of the people with whom I spoke would be considered "internationalist" in orientation. Yet several also spoke against what they perceived as excessive U.S. interventionism, and one openly complained about the U.S. serving as the "world's policeman." Statements such as these reinforce my sense that a lot of well-informed Americans recognize that trying to run most of the world isn't in America's interest or the world's interest, and that a smarter and more selective approach to global engagement would be easy to sell.
In fact, because the United States is in reality amazingly secure (relative to most other nations) it takes a lot of effort to get us to shoulder all these international burdens. Our leaders and other interested parties have to do a lot of threat-mongering, usually by treating minor powers as if they were looming international dangers. And these minor powers can't be portrayed merely as regimes with whom we have differences; they have to be given scary labels like the "Axis of Evil" or demonized as the Greatest Threat to Human Decency since Hitler (or Stalin, or Saddam, or Genghis Khan or whomever). Advocates of endless intervention also rely on elaborate domino-theory scenarios whereby some obscure setback somewhere eventually leads to a snafu, which triggers a defeat, which in turn provokes a crisis, which then undermines our credibility, which leads allies to defect, and eventually leaves us isolated and vulnerable. Via this sort of logic, victory is necessary in Afghanistan or else someday North Korea will invade and conquer all of North America.
As I said, these impressions aren't based on a scientific survey, and the views expressed above are my own. But the whole trip made me wish that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could spend less time with their advisors and less time cuddling up to fat cat donors with bellicose agendas, and more time talking about foreign policy with well-informed regular citizens. I'll bet they'd discover that what passes for unquestioned truth inside-the-Beltway is much less widely accepted in a lot of other places.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has an op-ed in the Financial Times today, where she argues that America must overcome its "reluctance to lead." Given her own track record between 2001 and 2008, when she played a key role in a series of foreign policy disasters and rang up precious few genuine achievements, one might wonder why anybody would place much stock in her counsel today. But her piece is in fact quite valuable for underscoring the dearth of genuine strategic thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days.
Strategy is about relating ends and means, setting priorities, and manipulating critical global forces to one's own advantage. Even for a global superpower like the United States, an effective strategy depends on separating the vital from the trivial, and the realistic from the fanciful. It requires deciding which goals are most important, and then using the resources at one's disposal to try to achieve them. And most importantly, it often consists of figuring out how to get other countries to help, and maybe even inducing them to do most of the work. Indeed, getting other states to shoulder costly or difficult burdens is the hallmark of a smart strategy, because it helps you husband your own resources, stay out of costly quagmires, and focus on missions that are more critical. American leaders used to understand this basic principle before we started telling ourselves we were the "indispensable" nation and starting seeing it as some sort of foreign policy achievement when we got stuck with some intractable foreign problem.
Rice will have none of this, however, so her piece mostly consists of the typical laundry list of regions and issues where she believes the United States must shoulder the main burden. In her view, it is mostly our job to build democratic institutions in the Middle East. She also thinks we need to "re-engage" with Iraq (whatever that means), and use our trade policy to "help democracies" in Latin America. She favors creating a Palestinian state but thinks it will only come about via negotiations with a secure Israel, never mind that she gave Israel unconditional support for eight years and got bupkis. She supports the recent "pivot" toward Asia but thinks we aren't doing enough to counter a Chinese economic offensive. She says we need to do more to build strategic partnerships with Turkey, India, and Brazil, without saying what we should do to bring about closer ties or explaining what these countries will then do for us. She invokes the perennial bogeyman of declining U.S. credibility and says America must do more to "reassure our friends across the globe."
To achieve these (and other) goals, she says, "the American people have to be inspired to lead again." What exactly does this phrase mean? What specific "leadership" tasks require a renewed commitment from our citizenry? Does she mean Americans have to be convinced to forgo investments here at home so we can continue to meddle (oops, I mean "lead") abroad? Does she believe (contrary to Mitt Romney) that Americans need to be "inspired" to sacrifice by paying more taxes so that we can maintain our present military and eventually balance the budget? Or does she mean the American people should be "inspired" to attack Iran, as she once helped persuade them to invade Iraq? Must we be "inspired" to devote new moneys to the mostly futile pursuit of drug lords all over the world? Or maybe we need to be "inspired" to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, even if that requires some inconvenient adjustments in the U.S. lifestyle.
In fact, Rice isn't really talking about convincing the American people to lead; she's really saying they need to be "inspired" to follow whatever missions foreign policy mandarins like Rice dream up. And the usual way the mandarins do this is by hyping threats, exaggerating their own omniscience, and insisting that other countries are incapable of taking effective action if Americans aren't there in the cockpit telling them what to do.
In fact, although the American people occasionally succumb to ill-conceived foreign policy adventures, they usually have pretty good instincts about our global role. No mainstream politician is calling for isolationism today, and the American people aren't demanding it either. Americans want to remain the world's most powerful country for as long as possible, and they recognize that some foreign commitments are prudent and beneficial. The blunders that occurred on Ms. Rice's watch have constrained U.S. power somewhat, but Americans still favor global engagement. What they don't like are misguided adventures that result in costly failures. Too bad the FT didn't ask her to write about how we can avoid those.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
Mitt Romney gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention yesterday. To no one's surprise, he accused President Obama of leaking secrets, betraying U.S. allies, coddling dictators, and generally endangering America. The speech was long on rhetoric and innuendo but rather short on policy specifics, and it left me with a bunch of questions that I'd love to ask the GOP candidate. Because I doubt the campaign is going to offer me a one-on-one interview, I thought I'd serve up my top ten questions for Candidate Romney here.
#1. How dangerous is the modern world? Governor Romney: at the beginning of your speech, you said that "the world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic." But an impressive array of social science research shows that the overall level of global violence has been declining steadily. Moreover, the United States spends more on national security than the next twenty countries combined, and most of those states are close U.S. allies. What are the dangers that you are so worried about, and how do they threaten vital American interests?
#2. How will you pay for increased defense spending? In your speech, you said "we are just months away from an arbitrary, across the board reduction [in defense spending]." You referred to this possibility as "the president's radical cuts," but surely you know that it is the result of the sequestration deal that Congress passed last year, in which the GOP was fully complicit. More importantly, you have previously stated that you would increase U.S. defense spending, keep all the Bush-era tax cuts, and simultaneously reduce the federal budget deficit. Can you explain how you will perform this magic, without invoking discredited concepts like the "Laffer Curve"?
#3. In your opinion, why is President Obama still so popular overseas, including most American allies? In your speech, you said the United States must "nurture our alliances," and you asserted that "the president has moved in the opposite direction." To illustrate this, you accused him of the "sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech republic," based on Obama's decision to deploy missile defenses in a different configuration. Yet sixty percent of the Polish population opposed having missile defenses on their territory, and the percentage of Poles with a "favorable" view of the United States is higher in 2012 than it was in 2008 (under Bush) or in 2009 (right after Obama's election). For that matter, Obama remains a remarkably popular leader around the world. How do you explain this?
#4. Are there any circumstances when you would criticize Israel's actions or use U.S. influence to persuade it to change its policies? You claimed that President Obama has undermined Israel, even though the administration's first U.N. Security Council veto was cast on Israel's behalf and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says "he can hardly remember a better period" of U.S. support. More importantly, do you believe that American presidents should support Israel no matter what it does, including when it expands settlements and evicts Palestinians from more and more territory in the West Bank? Do you think that policies such as these make a two-state solution less likely, and is that outcome in Israel's long-term interest?
#5. What would you do differently about Iran? You said there is "no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the Ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability." As you undoubtedly know, the Obama administration has implemented stiffer sanctions than the Bush administration did, gotten more countries to go along with this effort, and continued to insist that Iran give up its enrichment capability. Obama and his aides have repeatedly declared that "all options were on the table," and the administration conducted a successful covert action program that damaged Iran's enrichment efforts significantly. To repeat: what would you do differently? In particular, at what point, if any, would you order a military strike against Iran?
#6. Will you impose trade sanctions on China? You told the VFW that "we face another continuing challenge in a rising China," and you accused Beijing of permitting "flagrant patent and copyright violations" and manipulating its currency to our detriment. You said President Obama hasn't stopped them, but you will. How will you get China to change its policies? Wouldn't a trade war just damage the fragile U.S. economy?
#7. Is there any real difference between you and President Obama on Afghanistan? President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In your speech to the VFW, you said "my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces in 2014." Maybe I'm missing something, but that sounds identical to Obama's plan. You also said you would "evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders." What conditions would lead you to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014?
#8. Is American power always a force for good in the world? According to your speech, you believe "our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known," and you said that "you are not ashamed of American power." Neither am I, but all humans make mistakes and no country has a blameless record. So I'm wondering if you think there are any moments in American history where our power was misused. For example, do you think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good idea? What about the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953? Was it a good idea for Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965? Or do you think our track record is perfect?
#9. What specific steps would you take to prevent leaks from the Romney White House? Your VFW speech says that leaks of classified information are a "national security crisis," and you said that your White House would not do such things. Given how secretive you are about your tax returns and your on-again off-again status as CEO of Bain Capital, I'm inclined to believe that you mean this. But leaks have been a common practice of every White House in modern memory, and Obama has been far more aggressive about prosecuting leakers than all of his predecessors. Will you pledge today to prosecute any member of your administration-including your closest aides in the White House, if they are suspected leaking classified information?
#10. Now I'd like to ask you a hypothetical question. Suppose your good friend John McCain had been elected in 2008, and that he had followed the same foreign and defense policy that President Obama has pursued. Would you still be so critical? To be a bit more specific, imagine that McCain had expanded the use of drone strikes in several places, increased U.S. military strength in the Far East to balance China, located and killed Osama bin Laden, increased military cooperation with Israel and protected it from international censure after Operation Cast Lead and the raid on the Mavi Marmara, orchestrated the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, ended the war in Iraq according to the terms negotiated by President Bush, tightened global sanctions against Iran, and launched an accelerated global effort to improve nuclear security. If McCain had done all that, wouldn't you be defending his actions, and boasting about how it showed that the GOP was much better on national security issues?
(Oh, never mind.... I don't really expect you to answer that one.)
Like I said, I doubt Romney will agree sit down for an interview with me, and if his campaign to date is any indication, he's going to try dodge tough foreign policy questions for as long as he can. But if he really aspires to lead the country, he's going to have to tell us more about what he would actually do as president. Or as he told the VFW, "the time for stonewalling is over."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Where is the Middle East headed? Where will it be a decade or two hence? Although most commentary tends to obsess about recent events (Will Assad fall? Was Hezbollah for the bombing in Bulgaria? Will there be war with Iran? Is the two-state solution really dead? etc.) today, I want to step back and ask what the larger implications of these various events might be. Here are three scenarios for the Middle East, judged largely from the perspective of U.S. interests:
1. The Good: The optimistic scenario for the Middle East runs something like this: Although the road may be bumpy for awhile, the various upheavals now subsumed under the heading “Arab spring” mark the end of a long period of regional stagnation. In this view, the Arab world has languished for decades under the bankrupt leadership of a series of autocrats who were better at clinging to power than in developing their societies. Education, scientific competence, economic development and human rights have all suffered as a result. These circumstances have also fueled anti-Americanism and intensified regional tensions, as various entrenched elites have used the bogeyman of “Western imperialism,” Israel’s presence and occupation, and the sufferings of the Palestinians to distract their populations from their own failings.
But in this scenario, that era is coming to an end. Assad will fall the same way Qaddafi did, and his departure will deal a body blow to the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas), which is the last stubborn remnant of anti-Western opposition in the region. Weak and isolated, Iran will have no choice but to bow before the West’s demands, and the clerical regime itself will be living on borrowed time. As political change ushers in more responsive and accountable governments throughout the region, the long pent-up energies of these societies will be unleashed and broad-based economic development will begin.
Equally important, the flowering of democracy (or something closer to it) will reduce the current frictions between the United States and some of these societies, as citizens focus on getting educated and getting rich, instead of worrying about red herrings like the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, or the U.S. military presence in the region. Islam may play a somewhat larger role in political life, but it will be mostly moderate and benign.
This view is consistent with the traditional liberal view of international relations, which tends to dominate how U.S. policymakers think about foreign policy. Liberal theories of IR argue that foreign policy behavior is heavily influenced by societal preferences and regime type, by economic interdependence, and by the creation of powerful global institutions. They tend to assume that human beings mostly care about material prosperity. As Middle East countries become more like us, so the argument runs, conflicts of interest will diminish, anti-Americanism will fade, and interest in obtaining WMD will decline. And once these states become more democratic and fully enmeshed in the world economy, they will drop their outdated objections to Israel and all will be well.
Notice also that this view implies that neoconservatives’ program for “regional transformation” was the right idea all along; the problem was that the people who tried to implement it were incompetent and their chosen instrument -- military power and direct U.S. intervention -- was simply the wrong tool. Obama’s embrace of the “Arab spring” has been cautious and not always consistent (see under: Bahrain), but it was directed at essentially the same goal and his approach has proven to be far more effective. On balance, he has positioned the United States on the progressive side of change and confined the U.S. role to helping local forces win their battles.
In effect, the administration is betting that the arc of history will bend in a direction that leads to more participatory politics, to greater gender equality and human rights, and to a dramatic reduction in both regional tensions and anti-Americanism over time. It may take a couple of decades for this hopeful vision to be realized, and because massive social change is always messy, there are bound to be some rocky moments along the way. But all Americans need to do is stay the course, use their still-considerable power to nudge these societies in the right direction, and manage the inevitable turbulence for a little while longer.
In many ways, it would be nice if this hopeful future came to fruition, although it would probably consign the Palestinians to another generation or two of impoverished statelessness. Alas, this is not the only scenario one can envision.
2. The Bad: In this version of the future, the political changes unleashed by the “Arab spring” continue to roll forward, and attempts to reimpose the old order (as Egypt’s military seems to be attempting) ultimately fail. Moreover, the emergence of more participatory politics and greater openness do in fact generate many of the positive features described above: education expands, economic development accelerates, and national unity is ultimately strengthened in many of these societies. In short, social and political mobilization continues and deepens, and governments manage to create more open and effective institutions.
But in this scenario, these shifts do not transform the Middle East into a region of calm Kantian liberals, or some Middle Eastern version of the EU. As political dynamism returns to the region, this scenario envisions more and more governments that are both increasingly responsive to popular sentiment and increasingly capable of advancing their national interests (as defined by popular beliefs) on the world stage. And because some of those sentiments are at odds with long-standing U.S. policies, the emergence of a more politically mobilized and capable Arab world might turn out to be a real headache for Washington.
Recent history offers several cautionary warnings. Turkey under the AKP has enjoyed impressive economic growth in recent years -- in sharp contrast to the military governments that preceded it -- but it has also become a less compliant ally of the United States and increasingly an independent force in the region. U.S. and Turkish interests are often compatible but not always, and that is likely to be true of a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Or consider what has happened to China. If Mao had lived forever, China would still be saddled with a dysfunctional command economy. Embracing capitalism has lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty, but it has also given Beijing the capacity to challenge U.S. leadership on a host of issues, and may one day make it a true “peer competitor.” From a selfishly American perspective, therefore, it might have been better of the “four modernizations” had never occurred and China had remained weak and economically backward. By the same logic, Arab inefficiency is one of the main reasons why the United States and Israel have been able to dominate the Middle East for the past four decades, and we should not blindly assume that a more capable and competent Arab world would also be a more compliant one.
The “good” scenario assumes that the emergence of more participatory, quasi-democratic politics will eventually eliminate the existing conflicts of interest within the region and with the United States. But there are good reasons to question that optimistic belief. Sunni vs. Shiite divisions have been around for centuries and are likely to persist. Palestinians will still press for statehood (or for full voting rights), and politically mobilized Arab publics will continue to back them, in part because this might be an issue that democratic politicians exploit to make themselves more popular at home, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was done. A democratic Syrian government will still want the Golan Heights back, and a fully democratic Iran might want nuclear weapons as much as the Shah did or as much as democratic (and nuclear-armed) Israel does.
In this view, in short, we ought to be careful what we wish for. Autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and monarchs like King Hussein or King Abdullah of Jordan could ignore popular sentiment and align closely with Washington, but this may not be so easy for governments that have to depend on popular support. The assumption that progressive political change in the Arab world is a good thing for the United States rests on the belief that “all good things go together": political change will eventually foster economic development and attenuate existing political disputes. Unfortunately, history also reminds us that as states grow richer and stronger, they often grow more assertive and they start defining their interests in broader terms. This could be big trouble for Washington, given how unpopular U.S. policies have been and how deeply rooted these attitudes seem to be.
3. The Ugly: There is a third scenario, and it is the one we have already seen in Iraq and Lebanon and may now be seeing in Syria. In this version of the future, the Arab spring succeeds in overturning a number of bankrupt orders but does not lead to stable and progressive governance in some of them. Instead, we get weak and divided orders where sectarian quarrels are rife, extremism is rewarded, al Qaeda finds new followers, and those who are adept at violence are advantaged.
Needless to say, this bleak forecast implies that the region will remain messy and divided for many years to come. An economic renaissance will not occur, because political instability will discourage investment and tourism and force local populations to squander time and resources on fighting rather than building. Outside powers will be tempted to intervene in various ways, which will lead to tit-for-tat retaliations and raise the risk of broader regional conflicts. Given that the Gulf region will remain a key source of global energy supplies (no matter how much natural gas the U.S. eventually obtains from hydraulic fracking), continued regional instability could have far-reaching and harmful effects on the world economy.
This scenario isn’t good news for the United States either. It might be smart for the United States to remain aloof from the carnage, but that will be difficult given our interventionist tendencies and the pressure we’ll face from regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. And if the past is any guide, we can’t expect Russia or China or the Europeans to help us quiet things down; they’d rather hand Uncle Sam the burden of managing yet another regional cauldron. So not only would this scenario mean lots of trouble for people in the Middle East, it's bound to be a big headache for the United States too.
Which of these scenarios do I think is most likely? I lean towards the second, because I don’t think the Arab spring is reversible and because I don’t think that protracted instability in places like Syria will prove all that contagious. But that’s really no more than a hunch.
Of course, these three scenarios are not the only ones one can imagine. But they do help put the current turmoil into perspective, and they help us identify the underlying logic on which current U.S. policy is based. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted if the first scenario is the one we get. I’ll also be more than a little surprised.
Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state? A puff-piece in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago referred to her as a "rock star diplomat," and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her "the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson." (Hmm. . . has Mr. Schmidt ever heard of some guys named Dulles, Kissinger, and Baker?). I'm neither a fan nor a foe of Ms. Clinton, but one can't really call her a great secretary at this point, through no fault of her own.
First the positives. There's no question that Clinton has been terrifically energetic, as well as a loyal team player. In this sense, Obama's decision to appoint her has worked out brilliantly, due in no small part to her willingness to serve the man who defeated her for the 2008 nomination, and in a broader sense, to serve her country. She's also proved to be relatively gaffe-free (there have been a few slips, but that's inevitable for anyone who's in the limelight 24/7 and who has to respond and react to rapidly evolving events). Insiders with whom I've spoken say she is an excellent boss who elicits considerable loyalty from those around her. And as the Times piece notes, she's helped restore the somewhat battered morale of the foreign service, and used her celebrity to raise public awareness on a number of signature issues. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and I'd argue her record puts her well ahead of predecessors such as Warren Christopher, William Rogers, Christian Herter, Madeleine Albright, Dean Rusk, Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell. (For a balanced but positive appraisal of Clinton's record, see FP editor Susan Glasser's profile here).
The problem, however, is that she's hardly racked up any major achievements. The Chen Guangcheng affair was a nice bit of on-the-fly crisis management, but the fate of a single Chinese dissident is not exactly the stuff of high politics and in the end won't have much impact on Sino-American relations either way. She played little role in extricating us from Iraq, and it is hard to see her fingerprints on the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. She has done her best to smooth the troubled relationship with Pakistan, but anti-Americanism remains endemic in that country and it hardly looks like a success story at this point. Yes, her belated quasi-apology eventually got the NATO supply trucks rolling again, but it took months to get this matter resolved and the relationship itself remains deeply fractured. She certainly helped get tougher sanctions on Iran, but the danger of war still looms and there's been no breakthrough there either.
Needless to say, she has done nothing to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace or even to halt Israel's increasingly naked land grab there (for which she can share blame with the rest of the administration, AIPAC, the U.S. Congress, and the Netanyahu government). Finally, although she's helped articulate the need for the "pivot" to Asia and has done some effective salesmanship on that topic both at home and in the region, this move was both a geopolitical no-brainer and still faces significant obstacles. Among other things, the recent debacle over the aborted strategic cooperation agreement between South Korea and Japan (which led to the resignation of one of Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's top aides) is a setback for both Lee and for Clinton's efforts to build a stronger coalition in Asia.
The lack of major accomplishments isn't really her fault, however, for several reasons. First, as I noted way back when Obama became president, there just weren't a lot of low-hanging fruit available when the new team took office in 2009. On the contrary, they faced a series of difficult-to-intractable problems, several of which (Iraq, Afghanistan) were likely to end up looking like failures no matter what they did. Even if Clinton had been a magical combination of Bismarck, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Zhou en Lai, she'd have had trouble devising a strategy that could have solved all these problems quickly and without costs.
Second, Clinton isn't a great secretary of state because that is not the role that she's been asked to play in this administration. Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker had extremely close working relationship with the presidents that they served, and each enjoyed far more authority over foreign policy than Clinton has been given by the Obama White House. Obama's initial reliance on a set of "special envoys" diluted Clinton's clout even more, even when some of them (such as the late Richard Holbrooke) were personally close to the secretary.
Add to this the fact that the Pentagon and intelligence community now controls vastly greater resources than the State Department does, and has for more impact on our relations with trouble spots like Central Asia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, etc.. Given that raw bureaucratic reality, it's not surprising that Clinton cannot point to any major achievements on her watch. Indeed, a good case can be made that American foreign policy is still operating ass-backwards: Instead of seeing military power as one of the tools we use to advance a broad political agenda, today military imperatives tend to dominate and the diplomats just get sent out to line up some compliant partners and to clean things up afterward (see under: Drone wars).
Which is not to say that Clinton has performed badly. On the contrary, I'd give her high marks for executing the job she was asked to perform, especially given the constraints (both organizational and geopolitical) in which she had to operate. So maybe the "rock star" label is right after all. Rock stars get a lot of attention and sometimes adulation, and sometimes they even deserve it. But not even Elvis had much lasting impact on international politics.
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Back in 2002, a group of influential neoconservatives convinced President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that it was a really smart idea to invade Iraq. With help from AIPAC and other groups in the Israel lobby, and an assist from Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the neocons and the Bush administration then persuaded the U.S. Congress to authorize the use of force by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Most of the top figures in the Obama administration (including then-Senators Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton) supported the war.
Given how that foolish adventure turned out (4,500 dead Americans, $1-2 trillion down the drain, etc.), you'd think the last thing the United States would be contemplating is another preventive war in the Middle East. You'd think that the architects of that earlier debacle would have been as badly discredited as George Custer, Neville Chamberlain, or Charles Lindberg, and that only certifiable war-mongers would be paying attention to their strategic advice. And you'd certainly think that Congress would have learned its lesson, and would be subjecting calls for a new war to careful scrutiny and wide-ranging debate.
How wrong you'd be. Case in point: the recent letter that a bipartisan group of 44 senators recently sent President Obama, declaring that, "Iran must come into full cooperation with the IAEA and full compliance with all relevant United National Security Council resolutions, including verifiable suspension of nuclear enrichment." The senators also insist that the "absolute minimum steps that Iran must take immediately are shutting down of the Fordow facility, freezing enrichment above 5 percent, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country. And if Iran does not capitulate to our demands, the senators urge Obama "to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists" (my emphasis).
If you ever wondered why so few Americans have any respect for Congress, here's part of your answer. (To be sure, disrespect for Congress is by now over-determined, given our representatives' dysfunctional behavior on a wide range of issues. But still ... ) As Glenn Greenwald notes, in this case those beating the drums of war include a number of prominent "liberal" Senators, including progressives like Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. And as I pointed out earlier this week, the terms the senators are insisting upon are almost certainly a deal-breaker from Iran's point of view. I'm still convinced that the Obama administration understands war is foolish -- you can go here if you'd like to watch a fuller presentation of my views on this topic -- but as Robert Wright noted a few days ago, he is being boxed in by the pro-war faction -- the usual alliance of Israel, AIPAC, the neocons, and a few Christian Zionists -- and he isn't getting any cover from the supine members of Congress. The result: Negotiations that go nowhere as a "drift" toward war continues.
So what can you do? As it happens, there is an online petition at the Credo/Working Assets website opposing war with Iran. It has garnered over 100,000 signatures so far, including mine. You can sign it yourself by clicking on this link and following the instructions. I'm not saying your signature will stop another foolish war all by itself, but it can't hurt.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Today's jobs report has got to be a real downer for the White House, because it gives Mitt Romney more ammo to make the case that he would be a better steward of the U.S. economy than Obama. I don't think that view is correct, by the way, but winning elections isn't really about who's right or wrong.
If Obama does lose in November, will it be because he made too sharp a departure from the policies of his predecessor, governed the country like some sort of 1960s radical, and in so doing lost the broad support of the American middle? Hardly. If he loses, a good case could be made that his mistake was to act too much like George W. Bush and not enough like Barack Obama the candidate.
To be more specific, he spent too much time and money on Afghanistan, too much time sanctioning Iran (thereby driving up oil prices), too much time picking drone targets, and too much time on a Middle East peace effort that he abandoned as soon as AIPAC & Co. howled. Getting bin Laden was an achievement, but as I noted at the time, it wasn't going to win him any more votes than Bush 41 got for liberating Kuwait in 1991. He got a Nobel Prize because people liked his speeches, but his actual behavior was not that different from Bush's second term. At the same time, he did too little to stimulate the U.S. economy, and too little to constrain an unapologetic financial industry. And I'd argue he spent too much time and political capital getting a modest health care reform bill passed, one that will neither fix the U.S. health care system nor win him many votes in November. (I applaud the ambition, but I'd have gotten the economy rolling first and then done health care). Some of this clearly isn't his fault (i.e., Europe's economic doldrums are not his responsibility), but voters aren't likely to make distinctions like that if economic growth remains sluggish.
As readers here probably know, I'm among those who were genuinely excited by Obama's election and hoped that he would succeed in guiding America onto a different path. Nor have I forgotten what a difficult situation he faced when he took office, and it's unrealistic to expect politicians to be perfect. I'll almost certainly vote for him in November, if only because some of Romney's foreign policy advisors have track records that should worry all of us. And he may still pull it out, because he's a lot more likeable and a lot less gaffe-prone than his GOP rival. But it's going to be close, and a bit more bad news on the economic front will make Barack a one-term president.
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A couple of weeks ago, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer made the news by writing a short but sincere apology to the gay community for his earlier support of "reparative therapy" intended to "cure" homosexuality. He now regards the 2003 experiments that seemed to show success for this "treatment" were irredeemably flawed, and he regrets any role he might have played in reinforcing anti-gay stereotypes. Good for him.
Spitzer's recantation got me thinking: Why do we so rarely see foreign policy mavens offer similar apologies for obvious screw-ups? None of us is infallible, but powerful people sometimes make colossal blunders that lead to enormous human suffering. When that happens, it really does merit a mea culpa from those responsible. Yet with a few exceptions, I can't think of very many politicians, pundits, or government officials who have openly acknowledged their errors and apologized for them. Here in the United States, this only seems to happen when sexual indiscretion is involved, or when former officials are at the end of their careers and seeking some sort of absolution.
At this point, don't you think that William Kristol owes his fellow citizens an apology for his repeated war-mongering about Iraq, a war that cost the United States over a trillion dollars, killed thousands of people, and created millions of refugees? Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear George W. Bush and Dick Cheney admit their numerous mistakes and express some regret for them, instead of trying to stonewall the judgment of history? Couldn't a few of the ambitious "visionaries" who created the Euro say they're sorry they didn't listen to the skeptics who warned that Europe lacked the institutional mechanisms needed to make a common currency work? Shouldn't Elliot Abrams show some contrition about his role in fomenting the disastrous Fatah-coup attempt against Hamas, which left the latter in charge in Gaza? And so on. Heck, we're still waiting to hear regrets from the folks who brought us the financial crisis of 2007-2008, although Bernie Madoff did offer up something of an apology for his massive swindle.
Admitting you were wrong really isn't that hard. I've been in this business for nearly three decades, and I've been blogging for three and half years. In that time, I think I've gotten a number of things right, both in my scholarly work and my public commentary. I think I was mostly right about the core causes of alliance formation, right about the general direction NATO was headed after the Cold War, certainly right about the folly of invading Iraq, and right about the harmful impact of the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy. (Does anyone seriously believe that lobby isn't a very powerful force anymore?) And I think my skepticism about Obama's abortive peace efforts in the Middle East and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan have been borne out as well.
But I've been dead wrong on several occasions too. I was overly critical of post-modern IR theory back in the early 1990s, and overly optimistic about the Oslo peace process. I may have recognized the centrifugal tendencies that buffeted NATO following the Soviet breakup, but I also underestimated its staying power. And as I've noted before, I clearly missed the potential for contagion in the Arab spring. I regret every one of those errors, although I don't think very many people suffered as a result.
Of course, academia isn't quite like the policy world. Scholarship advances through vigorous criticism, and no matter how careful we try to be, every academic can look back and see how our earlier work could be improved. No scholar expects to be 100 percent right and all of us (should) understand that our prior work will eventually be overtaken and revised in light of new research. By contrast, people in the policy world or the commentariat can't readily admit mistakes, because their admissions will be seized upon by rivals and used to marginalize them. So instead of honest admissions of error, you mostly get silence, obfuscation, or denial. That's mildly offensive and morally dubious, but the real danger is that it allows serial blunderers to keep influencing policy or public discourse, no matter how many failures they've been associated with in the past.
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The remainder of my trip to Turkey sparked some further thoughts, including some qualifications to my last post. To wit:
1. I previously described the conference I attended -- the Istanbul World Political Forum -- as an illustration of Turkey's emphasis on "soft power." By creating a Davos-like annual meeting oriented towards issues central to emerging economies, the organizers sought to display Turkey's growing importance as a political player. I still think that's right, but my conversations with other attendees suggest that the IWPF will need to raise its game in the years ahead if they want to reap the full benefits. The panels were interesting and well-attended, and there were a number of informative speakers, but I also heard a lot of complaints about the overall level of organization of the operation. Some speakers didn't know which panels they would appear on until the last minute, and the format of some sessions wasn't clear until you showed up. I also heard complaints about haphazard travel arrangements, although in my own case the bookings worked well after some initial glitches. Putting on an event like this isn't easy, but if the Turkish government and the other sponsors hope to use these forums as a way of demonstrating their efficiency, competence, and managerial ability, they've got a ways to go.
2. One of the more vivid impressions I took from the conference was the prevailing wariness -- if not outright suspicion -- with which the United States was viewed by many of the attendees. Virtually any statement that cast even mild doubt about U.S. policy (on Iran, Middle East peace, past interventions, Iraq, etc.) drew spontaneous approval from the audience, even if the statements weren't especially provocative, penetrating, or anti-American. For example, in the panel on a possible war with Iran, I suggested that if the U.S. wanted to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, it might make sense to stop threatening Tehran with regime change. The audience immediately burst into loud applause. Similar statements by journalist and professor Stephen Kinzer and Juergen Chrobog of the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt elicited much the same response. And most of the questions (or diatribes) from the audience were either explicitly or implicitly critical of the U.S. position. I had a similar experience in my other panel as well.
I wish some U.S. government officials had been there to observe this phenomenon, because it drove home to me the degree to which U.S. policy is regarded by many is inherently myopic, selfish, and illegitimate. (And the positive bump produced by Obama's election in 2008 is long gone). It's not a deep hatred of Americans themselves, but rather a simmering resentment of America's global role. And I think many Americans just don't get this, especially when they spend all their time talking to their counterparts (i.e., the global 1 percent) in other countries.
3. The trip also highlighted for me the ambiguities of Turkey's internal politics under the AKP. I've been trying to figure out where Turkey is headed for a number of years now, and I still don't consider myself anything like an expert on political developments there. But several incidents on this trip underscored the deep tensions that still persist and may be getting worse.
On the one hand, the AKP has done an impressive job of stimulating economic growth, reforming ordinary criminal justice practice, encouraging some forms of democratic participation, and emphasizing higher education. I would also give them high marks for their overall handling of foreign policy. The much-ballyhooed "zero problems" strategy trumpeted by Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davatoglu has hit some rough spots in the past couple of years (most visibly over Syria), but it's still a smart aspiration, even if it has proven more difficult to implement in practice. And I still think the U.S. has an important interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey going forward; to see this, just imagine how much more difficult our dealings with this region would be if Ankara and Washington were really at odds.
But on the other hand, AKP rule has been heavy-handed in a variety of disturbing ways, most notably in the protracted detention of the so-called Ergenekon suspects and in its various efforts to manipulate or intimidate the Turkish press. The AKP hasn't been anywhere near as brutal as some previous military governments (among other things, Turkey's overall human rights record is vastly better than in some earlier eras, but there are still a lot of disturbing elements. While I was at the conference, three different people came up to tell me privately that "things were really bad here," and that the United States had to do more to pressure the AKP. It was clear after a few minutes of conversation that these speakers were secularists from the old order (i.e., they are part of a class that has been losing power), but it was nonetheless striking to hear their concerns. At a minimum, it suggested to me that that AKP has done a much better job of clipping the wings of the old guard than it has of reconciling them to the realities of the new Turkey.
Given Turkey's turbulent past, this lingering animosity is not that surprising. But it does not bode well for the future, especially if the economic prosperity on which the AKP's popularity rests begins to flag. And as I said on one panel, the continued deterioration of domestic freedoms in Turkey is bound to be exploited by groups who are worried about Turkey's foreign policy direction, thereby damaging U.S.-Turkish relations in ways that both countries would soon regret.
4. Adding it all up, I'd argue that we are witnessing an important shift in world politics whose broader implications are worrisome for the United States. Political participation is broadening and deepening in more and more countries, and even if the results fall far short of some ideal vision of democracy (let alone the imperfect U.S. version of that ideal), these states are going to be increasingly sensitive to popular sentiment. Unfortunately, U.S. policy towards many parts of the world has depended more on cushy deals with oligarchs, dictators, and plutocrats, and past U.S. actions (most of them undertaken for various Cold War/anti-communist reasons) have left a toxic legacy that most Americans do not fully appreciate. Add to that our frequent resort to military force since the Cold War ended, our enthusiastic use of sanctions despite the human costs to ordinary citizens, and our insistence that there are really two sets of rules in world politics (the U.S. can violate other states' sovereignty whenever we want, but weaker states who object to this get demonized and/or threatened with more of the same). The result is a world where many people would like to take us down several pegs, and where it can be costly for political leaders to be openly supportive of U.S. initiatives (see under: Pakistan).
America is still very powerful, and plenty of governments still understand that some of our strategic interests overlap. But we're entering a world were fewer and fewer governments are going to be reflexively deferential to the United States, for the simple reason that they pay attention to popular sentiment and their own national interests aren't in fact identical to ours. If we expect governments in these countries to be as supine as some of their predecessors, we had better get used to disappointment. What will be needed is a lot more nuance, flexibility, and diplomatic skill, as well as a greater sense of humility and restraint. I only hope that we are better at displaying these qualities in the future than we've been in the recent past.
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A heads-up for readers with time on their hands: I'll be delivering the annual Hisham Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington DC tomorrow at noon. The title of my talk is "Deja Vu All Over Again?: Iraq, Iran, and the Israel Lobby," and I'll be comparing the campaign for war against Iraq and the current campaign for military action against Iran. There are some obvious similarities between these two episodes but also some important differences, for which we can be grateful. The lecture will be live-streamed here.
UPDATE: You can watch a recording of the lecture here.
The killing of 16 Afghan civilians -- nine of them children -- by a rogue U.S. soldier is a tragedy in several senses. First, because of the loss of innocent life. Second, because the alleged perpetrator is likely someone whose psyche and spirit broke under the pressure of a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. And third, because it was all so unnecessary.
Because Barack Obama has run a generally hawkish foreign policy, his Republican opponents don't have a lot of daylight to exploit on that issue. But if they weren't so preoccupied with sounding tough, they could go after Obama's foolish decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan back in 2009, which remains his biggest foreign policy blunder to date.
A brutal reality is that counterinsurgency campaigns almost always produce atrocities. Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre, and now this. You simply can't place soldiers in the ambiguous environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some of them to crack and go rogue. Even if discipline holds and mental health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism. There isn't a "nice" way to wage a counterinsurgency -- no matter how often we talk about "hearts and minds" -- which is why leaders ought to think long and hard before they order the military to occupy another country and try to remake its society. Or before they decide to escalate a war that is already underway.
And the sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first term. Yes, I know he promised to get out of Iraq and focus on Central Asia, but no president fulfills all his campaign promises (remember how he was going to close Gitmo?) and Obama could have pulled the plug on this failed enterprise at the start. Maybe he didn't for political reasons, or because commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal convinced him they could turn things around. Or maybe he genuinely believed that U.S. national security required an open-ended effort to remake Afghanistan.
Whatever the reason, he was wrong. The sad truth is that the extra effort isn't going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted. That was apparent before this weekend's events, which can only make our futile task even more impossible.
Here's what I wrote about this situation back in November 2009:
"America's odds of winning this war are slim. The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace, making it possible for them simply to outlast us. Pakistan has backed the Afghan Taliban in the past and is not a reliable partner now. Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a U.S. victory."
It didn't take a genius to see this, and I had lots of company in voicing my doubts. It gives me no pleasure to recall it now. Indeed, I wish the critics had been proven wrong and Obama, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al. had been proven right. I concede that the situation in Afghanistan may get worse after we depart, and the more civilians will die at the hands of the Taliban, or as a consequence of renewed civil war. But the brutal fact remains: the United States can't fix that country, it is not a vital U.S. interest that we try, and we should have been gone a long time ago.
According to the Census Bureau, about 53 percent of Americans are over the age of 35 and thus eligible to be President. Taking into account the roughly 11.3 million naturalized citizens (who are barred from the presidency by the Constitution) that's easily more than 150 million people.
According to Rasmussen Reports, about 34 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation (150 million x .34) yields roughly 51 million GOPers who are legally eligible to serve as President.
My question is: given that the GOP has (in theory) a pool of 51 million people from which to pick, is this the best they can do?
Scott Olson/Getty Images
The New York Times reports that the United States is planning to beef up its security ties in the Gulf, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq. On the one hand, this makes sense given global dependence on stable oil exports from the Gulf region and the damage that the war in Iraq has done to the strategic balance there. On the other hand, a large ground or air force presence in the region is precisely the sort of thing that invites accusations of Western "imperialism," and puts the United States in a close embrace with regimes like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain. One could argue that this is one of those places where strategic necessity requires us to compromise the idealistic commitment to democracy, human rights, and other desirable things like that.
There is little question that the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 weakened our strategic position and bolstered Iran's. As the Times story makes clear, some hardliners now complain that Obama's decision to cut our (considerable) losses in Iraq will undermine U.S. interests even more. That's what I'd expect them to say, but there are good reasons to question that judgment (and not just because these same hardliners have been wrong so often in the past). In fact, withdrawal from Iraq could actually bolster our strategic position in other ways, mostly by encouraging greater frictions between Iraq and Iran.
Ever since 2003, the U.S. presence in Iraq has reinforced cooperation between Iran and some significant portions of Iraq's Shiite community, and especially those elements (such as Muktada al Sadr's Mahdi Army) who really wanted the United States to get out. But once we withdraw, then it is far from obvious that the bulk of Iraqis -- including most Iraqi leaders -- will want to become a satrap for Iran. It's true that the Sunni-Shiite divide provides Iran with some avenues of influence in Iraq society, but there's also the enduring division between Arabs and Persians and Iraq's overriding interest in not allowing Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Gulf region. Let's not forget that the two countries fought a brutal and costly war for most of the 1980s, and plenty of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites killed each other during that conflict.
The Indochina war offers an obvious historical analogy. One of the reasons the United States fought there for so long was the familiar domino theory -- the dubious idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would trigger a cascade of falling dominos and undermine the entire US position in Asia (and possibly elsewhere). But when the United States finally got out, the exact opposite thing happened: none of our other Asian allies abandoned us and China and Vietnam had a rapid falling-out that led to war between the two communist states in 1979. And over time, of course, China abandoned Maoism and Vietnam grew more and more interested in better relations with America. And let's not forget that fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash-heap of history. Once we stopped pouring troops and bombs into Indochina, in short, our strategic position began to improve and we could focus on the more serious aspects of Cold War competition.
In short, if you really think Iran is a threat to dominate the Gulf region, and if you also believe that states tend to balance against threatening powers instead of band-wagoning with them, then you should also expect the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to encourage more regional powers--including Iraq--to take actions to limit Iranian power and influence. And that might also include being a bit more favorably inclined toward the United States, despite all the other things we do that tick off people in that part of the world. That could be why we're getting a positive response to these new initiatives, and that's why getting out of Iraq may actually bolster our overall strategic position.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth
Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather
bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on
Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While
rejecting preventive war -- at least for the moment -- they call for a variety
of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means
to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article
portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to
convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.
For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration's "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.
Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we've supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program ... should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn't produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).
In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington's demands. You surrender, and then we'll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn't Iran's willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.
The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn't as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.
Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.
It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran's deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran's belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.
Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don't always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don't always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh's own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.
Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran's current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.
Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony -- or it is hypocrisy? -- in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran's sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran's leaders don't see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.
Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran's motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran's leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran's politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react. And once again, the fact that it hasn't conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.
In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran's interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity. It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach -- which has never been tried -- is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.
But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack's The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack's depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran's security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn't worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn't work, and then tell us -- with great reluctance, of course -- that we have no choice but to go to war again.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
The New York Times has a startling report today about an incident from way back in 2007, where Pakistani soldiers attacked a group of U.S. military officials, killing one officer and wounding three others. It is obviously a disturbing report, although not that surprising to anyone who's been paying even modest attention to the highly complicated relationship between the United States, the various factions that make up Pakistan's government, and the various groups that are contending for power in Central Asia. Juan Cole has a good quick rundown here.
I have two comments of my own. First, it is interesting that this story is coming out now, in the aftermath of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen's recent denunciations of Pakistani collaboration with the Haqqani network. The Times story says that the incident was hushed up back in 2007 so as not to disturb overall U.S. relations with Pakistan, but its appearance in the news right now sure looks like a deliberate leak. If so, what's the larger purpose here? Is the Obama administration or the Pentagon contemplating a real rupture with Islamabad, or do they think that turning up the heat in this highly public fashion is going to convince the ISI or whoever is doing these things to change their ways?
Second, the incident also shows you the dangers that arise when governments keep lots of secrets. Suppose this story had come out back in 2007. It would have been additional evidence conveying just how little control we had over our putative allies in the region, and cast further doubt on our ability to achieve a successful outcome in the Afghan campaign. Success in Afghanistan depends on cooperation with Pakistan (and in particular, on getting rid of the safe havens for the Taliban there), and this incident from four years ago was a clear sign that it was going to be damn hard to get the requisite help. It would also have suggested that U.S. officials really didn't understand very much about the complicated dynamics in that region, thereby suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we were never going to accomplish our stated objectives.
So: if Americans had actually known about this attack, they might have had a clearer picture of our prospects in Central Asia, and the uphill fight we faced. Barack Obama's claims that he was going to get out of Iraq and focus on Afghanistan might have been viewed with greater skepticism, and his subsequent decision to escalate the war might have faced greater opposition within his administration and in the public at large.
In short, when U.S. officials swept this incident under the rug for various short-term reasons, they encouraged the American people to maintain a false picture of the actual situation in Central Asia. Unfortunately, making judgments and decisions on the basis of inaccurate information rarely works out well.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.