I'm scrambling to get ready for a trip overseas, so today's post will be brief. I'll be participating in a conference in Berlin on "The Public Mission of the SocialSciences and Humanities," co-sponsored by the Social Science Research Counciland the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlinfür Sozialforschung. (You can find some of the papers -- including mine -- here. I'malso giving a lecture on "The Twilight of the American Era" at the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik, and then heading off to the University ofLille in France to converse about U.S. Middle East policy. Of course, what I'm really going to be doing is trying to figure out if Europe is really headed over a cliff, and I'll be especially interested in what my German and French hosts have to say about the momentous decisions that their leaders have to make about Greece, the euro, and the whole EU experiment.
I'll blog when I can, and there may be one or two guest posts while I'm away, but in the meantime take a look at this short piece on Afghanistan by Columbia's Graciana del Castillo. It makes lots of smart points about how we ought to be approaching Afghan reconstruction, although I think she exaggerates the ability of the international community to shape events inside the country. But most importantly, the implicit assumption in her analysis is that it is time for a political solution to what is best thought of as a protracted Afghan civil war.
NATO (read: the United States) is not going to defeat the Taliban so long as the Karzai government refuses to reform or share power andas long as the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan, and there is no reason to think that the latter problem is going to be solved in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the Taliban aren'tstrong or popular enough to take over themselves. In this sort of stalemate, a negotiated settlement to devolve power to local areas, end what many Afghans see as a foreign occupation, and remove the current $100 billion per year drain on theU.S. Treasury is the smart way to go. But I haven't seen anything that suggests we're exploring that possibility with any energy, and it makes me wonder what special envoy Marc Grossman has been up to lately.
Given all the other problems on the president's plate, I'm betting this is one can that just gets kicked down the road into 2013. To little good purpose, I might add.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is backing a plan to keep some 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end-of-year deadline, albeit only in a training role. This plan would violate President Obama's pledge to remove all U.S. troops by that time, but it is fewer troops than 14,000-18,000 figure that the military reportedly recommended.
But the real kicker comes later in the article, where the Times reports:
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department ... "
The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats (my emphasis)."
My question is: Whom do we think we are fooling? Surely not the Iraqis, who aren't likely to see much difference between U.S. soldiers and U.S. "paramilitary security contractors." Indeed, the Sadrist movement has already denounced these plans, and is holding a major demonstration in Baghdad today to demand a complete U.S. withdrawal. And we aren't fooling the remaining anti-American extremists in the rest of the region, who believe that the United States is an aggressive imperial power seeking to dominate the region with military force and who will use our remaining presence-no matter how it is camouflaged-as a recruiting tool.
The real answer, I suspect, is that we fooling ourselves. By removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq. This will make it easier for Obama to claim that he ended an unpopular war and for Americans to think we won some sort of victory. Of course, the fact that the Pentagon still thinks we have to have troops there to "stabilize" the situation underscores how false the latter claim is. But one danger is that we will think we have left Iraq when we really haven't, and so we won't understand why many people there (and in neighboring countries) continue to see the United States as having designs on the region.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Back in 2009, right after Barack Obama took office, I published the following prediction in the Australian journal American Age:
To be blunt, anyone who expects Obama to produce a dramatic transformation in America's global position is going to be disappointed. There are three reasons why major foreign policy achievements are unlikely. First, the big issue is still the economy, and Obama is going to focus most of his time and political capital there. Success in this area is critical to the rest of his agenda and to his prospects for re-election in 2012. Second, Obama is a pragmatic centrist and his foreign policy team is made up of mainstream liberal internationalists who believe active US leadership is essential to solving most international problems. Although they will undoubtedly try to reverse the excesses of the Bush administration, this group is unlikely to undertake a fundamental rethinking of the US's global role. Third, and most important, there are no easy problems on Obama's foreign policy "to-do" list. Even if he was able to devote his full attention to these issues, it would be difficult to resolve any of them quickly.
I thought of that article and those predictions after two conversations with friends who are both experts in American politics. One is a political scientist and entrepreneur who leans toward the GOP these days, and the other is a political scientist with considerable experience in the Democratic Party establishment. My businessman friend told me bluntly: "Obama is toast. The Republicans could run a scarecrow against him and win." Interestingly, my Democratic party friend was even more outspoken in condemning the president and his advisors, and bluntly called them "a disaster." (As for my own forecasts, I think I was basically right, although Obama did not focus as much on economic matters as I expected and put too much time and capital into the health-care fight. And that is why he's in big trouble now.)
It's still early in the election season, of course, and the GOP field looks none too strong. But there's a lot of solid political science research showing that incumbent presidents have a very tough time when the economy is in the doldrums, and it's hard for me to see how Obama can get things moving again, especially when the GOP leadership has every incentive to thwart his efforts, even if it means keeping Americans out of work for another year or so.
The prospect of a one-term Obama presidency is bound to have important effects on foreign policy too. I'll bet other countries are already starting to think about the possibility, and starting to factor that into their calculations. The obvious implication is that any governments who have serious differences with the Obama administration are going to dig in their heels even more and hope for better after 2012. It's possible that some governments who fear a more hard-line U.S. response under the GOP might be tempted to cut deals while they can, but I don't think that's very likely because they would also have to wonder if a lame-duck administration could deliver on any deal it made. The absurd length of the U.S. presidential campaign season will compound all these problems, by burning up even more of the president's time and attention over the next year or so.
This is obviously speculative and should not be overstated. But now, as in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid." And the bottom line: Expect even less from U.S. foreign policy in the year ahead. Like I said back in 2009: If you thought this administration would produce a major change in our overall global position, get used to disappointment.
One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.
Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.
Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.
The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.
Specifically: invading Iraq was never necessary, because Saddam Hussein had no genuine links to al Qaeda and no WMD, and because he could not have used any WMD that he might one day have produced without facing devastating retaliation. It was a blunder because destroying the Ba'athist state left us in charge of a deeply divided country that we had no idea how to govern. It also destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and enhanced Iran's regional position, which was not exactly a brilliant idea from the American point of view. Invading Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, which helped the Taliban to regain lost ground and derailed our early efforts to aid the Karzai government.
President Obama inherited both of these costly wars, and his main error was not to recognize that they were not winnable at an acceptable cost. He's wisely stuck (more-or-less) to the withdrawal plan for Iraq, but he foolishly decided to escalate in Afghanistan, in the hope of creating enough stability to allow us to leave. This move might have been politically adroit, but it just meant squandering more resources in ways that won't affect the final outcome.
I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 -- a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.
What's most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It's obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there's a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush's foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.
That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there's some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren't generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don't want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy.
Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won't decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what's truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.
Except that Washington won't do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we're about to do the same thing if we don't change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn't helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.
What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don't see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant -- Governor Rick Perry of Texas -- seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don't want to tread on anyone's beliefs, but if that isn't a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don't know what is.
Lord knows that I don't have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I'm beginning to wonder.
Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images
Remember the 1990s? Back in those days, the U.S. was recognized as the world's sole superpower. Our economy was booming, we ended the decade with a budget surplus, and there was a widespread sense around the world that the United States really had its act together. True, we had some pretty bitter partisan politics, misguided polices like "dual containment" were helping pave the way for 9/11, and corrupt financiers were busy sowing the seeds for the 2007 meltdown, but most of the world had the impression -- rightly or wrongly -- that the United States knew what it was doing. People like Tom Friedman extolled America's virtues in books like The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing that the rest of the world would have to embrace "DOS.Capitalism 6.0" (in other words, our system), or fall by the wayside. Overall, a powerful aura of competence enhanced U.S. influence and magnified our "hard power."
Fast forward to right now. We are on the brink of a major self-inflicted wound, driven solely by the deep dysfunction that now seems baked into our political system. Why should Pakistanis, Afghanis, Europeans, Chinese, Thais, Mexicans, Venezuelans, or anybody else take our advice on how to govern, when they watch the sorry set of ignorant clowns who are holding the rest of us hostage? If the worst case happens and the United States ends up defaulting, the economic costs will be significant enough. But it is also likely to do considerable damage to America's reputation for being a reasonably well-governed society, and it will accelerate the tendency for people around the world to look elsewhere for guidance. And while all this time and attention has been wasted on the debt ceiling, other problems are festering and will be there to bite us later.
I wonder if all those "patriots" in the Tea Party and the GOP ever thought about that. And if they did, would they even care?
My vacation is drawing to a close, and as usual, I didn't get as much done as I'd hoped. I did bring my reading list along and I've made some progress on it, but then I got distracted re-reading Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars. It's even more depressing the second time around, insofar as it shows just how difficult it was for Obama and his advisors to get the national security establishment to think "outside the box" on the AfPak problem. And most of the warnings that were issued at the time -- that the "surge" wouldn't work in the absence of effective Afghan partners and genuine help from Pakistan -- seem to have been borne out.
Assuming Woodward's account is accurate, what is most striking is how most of the inside debate is about tactics rather than strategy. There are endless go-rounds about how many troops to send, what mix of counterterrorism vs. counter-insurgency to adopt, what deadlines to impose (or not), and how to try to elicit more cooperation from the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But there's not a lot of discussion of the broader strategic issues: is it a good idea for the United States to be constantly interfering in the lives of some 200 million Muslims in Central Asia? What are the fundamental sources of our terrorism problem, just how serious is it, and is it possible that the problem might diminish if we weren't meddling there (and elsewhere) and if we passed the buck to others and let them bear burdens in non-essential areas? These are strategic issues, and you don't get the sense from Woodward that these got much of an airing.
If you're intrigued by these larger questions, you should definitely read Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent's "Graceful Decline: The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment," from the Spring 2011 issue of International Security. Based on a comprehensive survey of 18 cases of great power decline (defined as situations where a great power's ordinal ranking of share of economic power changes for the worse), MacDonald and Parent show that declining powers are usually able to adjust their strategic commitments without significant harmful consequences. Money quotation:
Faced with diminishing resources, great powers moderate their foreign policy ambitions and offer concessions in areas of lesser strategic value. Contrary to the pessimistic conclusions of critics, retrenchment neither requires aggression nor invites predation. Great powers are able to rebalance their commitments through compromise, rather than conflict. In these ways, states respond to penury the same way they do to plenty: they seek to adopt policies that maximize security given available means. Far from being a hazardous policy, retrenchment can be successful. States that retrench often regain their position in the hierarchy of great powers. Of the fifteen great powers that adopted retrenchment in response to acute relative decline, 40 percent managed to recover their ordinal rank. In contrast, none of the declining powers that failed to retrench recovered their relative position.
If McDonald and Parent are right, it suggests that Obama & Co. erred when they decided to double down in Central Asia. After the debacle in Iraq and the 2007 financial crisis, the United States needed to take bold action to bring its global commitments in line with its resources. Obama wisely kept us on course out of Iraq (though not that quickly), but an ambitious new team of foreign policy wonks wanted their turn at running the world and did relatively little to put U.S. grand strategy on a more sustainable footing. Woodward's account of the debate on Afghanistan suggests that Obama and a few of his advisors understood the need to retrench in a general way (and Obama has repeatedly talked about the greater importance of "nation-building" at home) but they were unable or unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to pull of this adjustment or to impose that consensus on the entire national security establishment.
Retrenchment is going to happen eventually, I'm sure, just not nearly as fast as it should have.
In case you missed it, veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has written a scathing denunciation of U.S. Middle East policy -- and long-time Middle East advisor Dennis Ross -- in Ha'aretz. His bottom line is that Oslo is over, yet the United States is still trying to convince the Palestinian leadership to buy into a diplomatic process that has been a cover for continued settlement building and has manifestly failed to bring them a state. The key passage:
"It would be tough to find a bigger expert than Ross on the myths and illusions related to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For years he has been nurturing the myth that if the United States would only meet his exact specifications, the Israeli right would offer the Arabs extensive concessions.
During the years he headed the American peace team, Israeli settlement construction ramped up. Now Ross, the former chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, is trying to convince the Palestinians to give up on bringing Palestinian independence for a vote in the United Nations in September and recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people -- in other words, as his country, though he was born in San Francisco, more than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed.
If they give up on the U.N. vote, Ross argues, then Netanyahu will be so kind as to negotiate a final-status agreement with them. Has anyone heard anything recently about a construction freeze in the settlements?
Ross is trying to peddle the illusion that the most right-wing government Israel has ever seen will abandon the strategy of eradicating the Oslo approach in favor of fulfilling the hated agreement. In an effort to save his latest boss from choosing between recognizing a Palestinian state at the risk of clashing with the Jewish community and voting against recognition at the risk of damaging U.S. standing in the Arab world, Ross is trying to drag the Palestinians back into the "peace process" trap.
If Obama really intended to justify his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would not have left the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of this whiz at the never-ending management of the conflict."
As Eldar makes clear, Ross has been advising presidents ever since the first Bush administration and played a central role in both the Clinton and Obama administration, and his stewardship of the "peace process" has led exactly nowhere.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cleans out his desk and heads for retirement, Ido Oren of the University of Florida highlights what might have been his most important accomplishment: preventing a war with Iran. Money quotation:
"This scenario [of war with Iran] failed to materialize because the political forces pushing for active consideration of the military option -- Vice President Dick Cheney's camp in the George W. Bush White House, hawkish pundits, key congressional leaders and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- have been outmaneuvered by an informal antiwar coalition that included the Pentagon, the military's top brass, the intelligence community and the Department of State.
This coalition was ably led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is stepping down from his post at the end of the month. If one person were to receive the top credit for preventing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, it would be Gates."
This non-incident also reminds us that sometimes policymakers succeed not by achieving some positive goal, but by helping produce a "non-event"; in this case, preventing the dogs of war from barking. Those who'd like the United States to be at odds with the entire Muslim world for the next century or so are probably disappointed that we didn't add Iran to the list that now includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya (and arguably, Pakistan), but the rest of us should be grateful for this rare bit of sanity.
I visited the National Library in Dublin last week, and spent an hour at a terrific exhibit on the life and works of W. B. Yeats. I've never been a big fan of Yeats's poetry (my tastes run more to Auden, Neruda, e. e. cummings, and Hardy), but some of his best works are undeniably brilliant. Like "The Second Coming," which is probably one of the most famous poems of the 20th century and one that seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics:
Turning and turning in the
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I thought of that poem as I reflected this morning on recent events, and wondered if we are now witnessing the slow crumbling of the international order that has existed for decades. As I noted in an earlier post, after World War II the United States created and led a political, security, and economic order in nearly every corner of the globe, except for the communist world. The communist world eventually succumbed and became part of that order too, as first China and then Russia abandoned communism and adopted market economies and joined the various global institutions that had been designed and coordinated in Washington.
Looking back, a striking feature of the past two decades is that the central features of U.S. foreign policy and the basic Cold War institutions remained largely unchanged long after the Cold War ended. NATO is still around; our bilateral security ties in Asia haven't changed much, and we retained pretty much the same set of allies and policies in the Middle East. The United States continues to think of itself as the "indispensable power" and the Leader of the Free World (which is a bit ironic given our incarceration rate), and Democratic and Republican policy wonks spend most of their time debating how and where to use American power, but never questioning whether it was right or proper or wise to use it in lots of places. Despite an enormous set of structural changes, in short, the central features of U.S. foreign policy have remained quite constant.
The end of the Cold War -- and the brief "unipolar moment" that followed it -- just meant the United States could throw its weight around a bit more without worrying that a hostile great power might try to stop us. Instead, it was a combination of hubris, ignorance, and arrogance that led us into a series of costly quagmires, accompanied by a self-inflicted financial meltdown that stemmed from an equally toxic combination of arrogance and avarice.
But have those disasters brought us to the brink of a major shift in the global order? Is the familiar landscape of world politics in the process of being transformed? Consider the following:
1. The financial crisis has put the Eurozone under unprecedented stress, and the European Union's future looks increasingly bleak. Check out this piece from the Guardian here, and see how confident you are that the European Union will survive in its present form.
2. NATO looks more and more obsolescent. Its performance in Afghanistan has been disheartening and the recent war in Libya is a monument to NATO disharmony (because most NATO members aren't involved), as well as a revealing demonstration of just how weak the alliance is when it can't rely on the United States to do all the work. And does anyone seriously believe that the Libyan adventure will convince Europe to get serious about defense spending in the future? Not in this economic climate, and not when Europe really doesn't face major external threats.
3. The Arab world is in upheaval, and seems likely to remain unsettled for years. The United States has yet to formulate a clear policy towards this new situation, and contrary what the White House seems to think, having the President give another lofty speech is not a policy. Qaddafi's days may be numbered and the Assad regime in Syria looks like it's on borrowed time too, but what comes after either one is anyone's guess. Prospects for a smooth transition and economic turnaround in Egypt look equally dim.
But the key point is that the outcomes of these processes won't be determined by us; the United States lacks the resources, respect, and moral authority to shape the political future in any of these countries. Given our track record in the region in recent years -- and I include Obama's dismal post-Cairo performance -- why should anyone listen seriously to our views?
I'm gratified by the number of people who read this blog, and in the unlikely event that some of you are starved for something to do or truly desperate for some form of entertainment, here are links to two recent appearances of mine.
The first is a video of the talk I gave in Dublin last week, on Obama's foreign policy and the twilight of the American era. The video covers the speech itself but not the Q & A, which is unfortunate because some of the questions were excellent. And kudos to the IIEA for getting the link up quickly. There's a summary and analysis of the talk from the Irish Times here.
The second item is the NPR show "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. The topic of the one-hour segment on Monday was "Bringing the Troops Home," and the main theme was the growing chorus of voices calling for significant cuts in defense. The other participants were Chris Preble of the CATO Institute and Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman National Security Project (both of whom were excellent) and on the whole I thought the discussion covered lots of ground fairly well. My central theme was that you can't save much money simply by redeploying U.S. forces; the only way to save real money is to shrink the size of the force (fewer people, weapons, etc.), and be a lot more careful about which wars you choose to fight.
As I've noted before, states don't need to think that clearly about strategy when they have a comfortable surplus, but the need for clear strategy goes up as soon as resources are constrained and/or threats multiply. It's therefore a good thing that we are finally beginning to have a more serious discussion of U.S. grand strategy, and it might even figure signficantly in next year's presidential race. It's just too bad that it took a couple of military debacles and a major financial meltdown to get us there.
Postscript: I was attending an advisory board meeting yesterday and missed the President's speech on Afghanistan. It's a baby step in the right direction, but nothing more. If Obama believes it's time to rebuild America instead of rebuilding Afghanistan, he's certainly doesn't seem to be in any hurry to get to it.
Not that FP has suddenly become joke central, but there's an old joke that runs like this:
An accountant, a social scientist and a lawyer are seated in a room. A guy walks in and asks them: "how much is 2 + 2?" The accountant whips out a calculator, pencils and paper, scribbles for awhile, and then says: "The answer, sir, is 4." The social scientist grabs her laptop, fires it up a few minutes, and then says "Well, as you know this is not an exact science, but I can say with a 95% level of confidence that the answer is between 3 and 5."
The lawyer, meanwhile, gets up, looks under all the chairs, checks in the closet, opens the door to the room and looks both ways down the hall. Then he comes back, sidles up to the guy who asked the question, and whispers:
"I don't care. How much do you want it to be?"
I mention this because I learned that the Obama administration is claiming that it doesn't need congressional authorization for its Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Why? Because what we are doing doesn't amount to "full-blown" hostilities.
Oh, please. Let's start with the definition of "war" itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country." Now, let's see: what are we doing in Libya? What we know is that we've sent cruise missiles, and drones and U.S. aircraft to attack military targets in various places, including several attacks on Qaddafi's own compound. We are continuing to provide targeting information to our NATO allies, who are conducting additional raids on their own. Although U.S. ground troops are not present in force, it's a safe bet that U.S. special forces are operating in various places, probably helping provide some of that targeting info. And of course because the Obama administration isn't telling us everything that it's doing, we have no clear way of knowing exactly how involved we really are.
By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn't matter that we aren't using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn't being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether this war makes strategic sense or not. (I think not, but I can see the merits of the other side's case). They can also disagree about whether outside intervention was necessary to avert an anticipated "bloodbath" in Benghazi, or whether it was really a precipitous decision that may in the end make things worse. But let's not fall for the creative legal sophistry being offered up here. If Obama and his foreign policy team think this war (yes, war) is really in our interest, then they should make their case to the American people and their elected representatives and let the chips fall where they may. I don't have enormous respect for Congress (who could, these days?) but that's how a republic is supposed to operate. And let's not forget that Obama used to think so himself.
Postscript: Lest readers think that I'm ticked off because I'm jet-lagged, or because my trip is not going well, let me just say that I'm feeling perfectly fine, the weather here in Dublin is sensational and my Irish hosts at the IIEA couldn't have been more gracious. I'm just disappointed, but not for the first time.
Jeramy Spivey/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
I'm off to Europe this evening, and blogging will be light-to-non-existent for the rest of the week, depending a bit on internet access. First stop is Dublin, where I'll be giving a lecture on Obama's foreign policy at the Institute for International and European Affairs. It's not a particularly upbeat assessment-though I will give Obama credit for some positive steps -- and more and more I think he's in for a real dog-fight in the 2012 election.
We all know that he inherited a bleak economic picture, two losing wars, and an American whose global image was in free-fall. He's done a lot to repair America's overall image, and the administration's initial response to the financial crisis clearly averted a more serious and lasting meltdown. But with the passage of time, it's become clearer that Obama is more comfortable with bold rhetoric than bold action. With some rare exceptions -- the raid that took out Osama bin Laden being an obvious example -- it's been a pretty tepid and unimaginative presidency and at a moment in history where bigger and harder decisions were needed. He put together a financial rescue package, but it was smaller than necessary and it didn't do much to reform the overall financial system. He got a health care bill passed, but in a watered-down form that won't make that much difference to health care costs. And apart from the initial stimulus package, there wasn't a sustained focus on job creation, which is coming back to haunt him now.
On foreign policy, he's getting out of Iraq, but very slowly. Instead of cutting our losses in Afghanistan and focusing on more serious problems, he chose a half-hearted "surge" instead and will have trouble selling Afghanistan as a success story when he campaigns next year. He gives great speeches on the Middle East but doesn't follow through with policy change, so he can't claim any progress there either. He's done better in strengthening ties in Asia and I get the impression that he'd like to get us out of our current quagmires and focus even more attention there (which would be smart), but then he sends us into a strategically pointless intervention in Libya.
In short, it's not clear exactly what big achievements Obama is going to tout when he heads out on the hustings next year. You don't get much credit for helping avert disasters that didn't actually happen (like a spiral into another Great Depression), and it's already clear that the GOP field is going to beat him up repeatedly over the sluggish economy and the high unemployment numbers. And don't expect the Republican House to lift a finger to help on that front, no matter how many Americans suffer as a result. Foreign policy issues won't play much role in the campaign, but it's hard for me to think of any big wins that will sway many voters, and most people will have forgotten about our getting bin Laden by the time they enter the voting both. So if I were one of the people who write for FP's' "Shadow Government," I'd be keeping my CV up-to-date.
After spending Bloomsday sightseeing in Dublin (a city I've never visited), I'm off to a conference in France on Friday. The topic is "The Middle East and World Order: A Continued Focus of Transatlantic Concern," and there will be an interesting collection of people from Europe, the Middle East and the United States in attendance. I'm especially interested to hear how these problems look from outside the United States, and although the proceedings are "off-the-record", I'll try to pass along any pearls of wisdom (suitably anonymized) that I glean from the exchanges.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
I've never been a huge fan of Robert Gates, even though friends whose judgment I trust hold him in high regard. But as his tenure as Secretary of Defense comes to a close, I'm prepared to concede that he exceeded my initial expectations. He had the advantage of succeeding Donald Rumsfeld -- whose combination of arrogance and incompetence could make anyone look good by comparison -- but Gates has also shown remarkable balance, common-sense and imagination in dealing with one of the world's more challenging managerial jobs. Of course, Gates is often regarded as something of a realist, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.
In any case, today I commend to you Gates' final policy speech, which he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute a couple of days ago. It's not the equivalent of Eisenhower's famous farewell address on the "military-industrial complex," but it is a sober and realistic assessment of some of the things that the Department of Defense needs to do.
Most importantly, it acknowledges that cold hard fact that DoD will have to do it with less money, and that this is ok. Money quote:
But as I am fond of saying, we live in the real world. Absent a catastrophic international conflict or a new existential threat, we are not likely to return to Cold War levels of defense expenditures, at least as a share of national wealth, anytime soon. Nor do I believe we need to."
Translation: sorry, folks: but you can't fight a couple of costly wars, experience a major global financial meltdown, and spend nearly a decade cutting taxes, and still expect to have lots of money to throw at national security. And it would be foolish to do so even if we did, because we live in an era where we face no existential great power threats. Instead, our main priority needs to be getting our economic house in order and preparing for longer-term challenges down the road, while maintaining the essential elements of our current global security role.
One of the classic tradeoffs in national security is between measures that increase short-term readiness and those that enhance long-term strength. We could be a lot stronger in the short-term if we ramped up defense spending -- even if there wasn't an obvious need -- but if we neglected our fiscal health, education, national infrastructure, etc., then we would end up a lot weaker down the road. Which is why I think we should be focusing a lot more attention on long-term capacity building than fighting costly wars in places that don't matter very much (like Afghanistan).
Furthermore, although Gates elides this issue in his speech, the various pressures that are going to constrain national security spending in the years ahead are also going to put some limits on our global ambitions. The United States will remain a very powerful and very influential international actor; indeed, it will probably be the single most powerful and influential player on the globe for many years to come. But it won't be quite as dominant as it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II, or as it appeared to be at the end of the Cold War. Instead of trying to dictate events in virtually every corner of the world, future US leaders are going to have to pick-and-choose a bit more, and rely more on regional allies who will have their own interests and preferences and may be unwilling to follow Washington's guidance from time to time. That's not necessarily a bad world to be living in, but it will require considerable adjustment in how we do business. And after sixty-plus years of global primacy, getting used to that fact is likely to take awhile.
I was wrong. I thought it made little sense for President Obama to deliver a speech to the AIPAC policy conference, because he'd lose points globally if all he did was pander, and he'd face a firestorm at home if he told the truth and offered up a little tough love. Plus, I thought it was a little demeaning for a sitting president to appear in front of any foreign policy lobbying group.
But Obama was cleverer than that, which is one of the countless reasons why he is president and I am not. Instead of choosing between pandering and speaking truth to power, he did both.
Specifically, he offered up the usual bromides about shared values and ironclad commitments, and put down various markers about the U.N. vote and Hamas and security that were obviously intended to defuse suspicions. He also used the opportunity to expose how his critics-including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu-had deliberately mischaracterized what he had said in his speech at the State Department last Thursday, especially his reference to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.
But the important part of the speech was when he told AIPAC what everyone knows: Israel and its die-hard supporters here in the United States have a choice. Down one road is a viable two-state solution that will guarantee Israel's democratic and Jewish character, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, remove the stigma of looming apartheid, turn the 2007 Arab Peace Plan into a reality and ensure Israel's acceptance in the region, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, and ultimately preserve the Zionist dream. Down another road lies the folly of a "greater Israel," in which a minority Jewish population tries to permanently subjugate an eventual Arab majority, thereby guaranteeing endless conflict, accelerating the gradual delegitimization of Israel in the eyes of the rest of the world, handing Iran a potent wedge issue, and making the United States look deeply hypocritical whenever it talks about self-determination and human rights.
The speech also tells you how much Obama has learned since taking office. After being repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu and the lobby ever since the June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has learned that he can't take them on directly. By necessity, therefore, he's now relying on the indirect approach. His strategy is to keep pointing out what is palpably obvious: the alternative that Netanyahu and AIPAC propose is simply not going to work, and the costs of trying to pursue it will only increase with time. And because this argument has the merit of being true, more and more people are going to be convinced by it.
It would be better, of course, if a great power like the United States could use its considerable leverage directly, in order to bring the parties to an agreement. Indeed, it would have been far, far better had the U.S. done so during the Oslo peace process, instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer." But given political realities in the region and the lobby's continued influence here in the United States, what Obama did yesterday was probably the best one could hope for. I doubt it will be enough, but it was better than I expected.
I know I'm supposed to get excited about the "major policy address" on Middle East policy that President Obama is going to deliver today, and you can be sure that plenty of people will be standing by to parse and spin every syllable. And then they'll do the same thing to his speech at the AIPAC policy conference on Sunday, and will hover with equal intensity over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress next week.
But I'm finding it hard to get motivated this time around, because I don't think all this blather means anything. The advance word on Obama's speech says he's going to try to position the United States as a supporter of the "Arab spring" (except, of course, where it might be inconvenient), he'll make the usual ritual condemnations of Iran, and he'll offer up a modest package of economic support for Egypt (reportedly $2 billion worth of loan guarantees and debt restructuring which mostly just reallocates some existing funds).
Is your pulse racing with excitement? Didn't think so. For starters, Egypt's foreign debt is already more than $30 billion, so a bit of restructuring and increased loan guarantees (which just let Egypt borrow money at lower interest), isn't exactly a "Marshall Plan for the Mideast." For Obama to condemn Iran isn't exactly headline news either, and while it might make the Saudis happy to hear him say it, the bigger problem is that it does nothing to reduce Iran's ability to exploit popular discontent with the situation in the region itself. And reports are that Obama's team has ruled out saying anything interesting on the Israel-Palestine issue, which is hardly surprising given how badly they've bungled that part of their portfolio.
But the big problem is that nobody cares what U.S. presidents say anymore -- and especially not Obama -- because he hasn't delivered. As surveys of popular opinion in the Arab world have repeatedly shown, what his audience in the Middle East wants is not more elegant phrases beautifully delivered -- but actual policy change. Obama gave a wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2009 -- which was well-received -- but since then we've seen him backing down on Israel's settlements, helping trash the Goldstone Report, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the settlements, and adopting a decidedly inconsistent attitude towards the Arab spring (we like it in Egypt and Libya; not so much in Bahrain).
Words do matter, but only when they are backed up by appropriate action. Obama gave some pretty good speeches on our terrorism problem, for example, but it was the decision to redouble the search for bin Laden and then the bold choice to send a team after him in Pakistan that is the potential game-changer there. Without significant policy change, in short, the speeches we're going to hear over the next week will just be a lot of eloquent irrelevance.
Glenn Greenwald has a couple of must-read posts over at Salon, and I want to highlight the connection between them. The first post deals with the familiar issue of anti-Americanism, and Glenn makes the obvious but often-forgotten point that foreign animosity to the United States is largely a reaction to things that the United States does. In other words, they don't hate us for our freedoms, or for our values, or even our supposedly decadent TV shows. Rather, people who are angry at the United States -- and this includes most anti-American terrorists -- are opposed to different aspects of U.S. policy. Whether those U.S. policies are the right ones can be debated, of course, but the key point is that anti-Americanism doesn't come out of nowhere.
His second post draws on a just-published New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, detailing the Obama administration's unprecedented campaign to preserve official secrets and to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers. We've already seen the outlines of this campaign in the administration's overheated response to Wikileaks and its harsh treatment of alleged Wiki-leaker Bradley Manning, but Mayer offers a typically thorough account of just how widespread the administration's campaign is and I recommend you read it for yourself. The irony, of course is that candidate Obama used to be a loud advocate of greater transparency in government. But now that he's president, not so much.
The point I want to highlight, however, is that these two phenemona are tightly linked. America's global military presence, and its penchant for intervening in other countries for various reasons, inevitably generates a hostile backlash in lots of places. We tend to see our actions as wholly benevolent, in part because we take our leaders' rhetoric at face value and assume that if our stated purpose is noble, then the people whose countries we are meddling in will see it that way too. But no matter how noble our aims may be, military intervention and occupation inevitably creates winners and losers, and some of the losers aren't very happy about it. And because force is a crude instrument, even well-intentioned actions often have unfortunate unintended consequences (like civilian deaths). And so some people plant IEDs, or organize suicide attacks on our troops or our clients, and the most extreme of them even fly airplanes into buildings.
When things like this happen, Americans begin to see the world as increasingly hostile and dangerous, and so they naturally demand that the government do more to protect them. And as both Joseph McCarthy and Dick Cheney understood, the easiest way to convince people to give up their civil liberties is to magnify foreign threats. Once people are sufficiently scared, they will be more than happy to compromise civil liberties, especially if they think this is necessary for their protection (see under: Patriot Act).
One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you'll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza,and Syria (!) spill across the ceasefire lines and the "most moral army in theworld" ends up shooting and killing several of them. Meanwhile, NATO officials call for escalating the war inLibya, the head of the IMF gets arrested on suspicion of rape in New York, andthere's lots of speculation about what Obama is going to say in his upcomingMiddle East speech (and what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his speech toCongress the day after). And then we learn that Obama is planning to address the annual AIPAC policy conferencenext weekend, a decision that strikes me as both beneath the dignity of the Presidency and a classic "no-win" situation to boot. (If he panders he'll just confirm what everybody now suspects about America's paralyzed Middle East policy; if he tells them the truth, he'll face a firestorm of criticism here at home. Why not just send Biden?)
I know this isn't about me, but if this is what happens whenI go away for a weekend, maybe I should just stay home. So let me play catch-up on some of the news.
The word that comes to mind is "trapped." George Mitchell was trapped in a dead-endjob as special envoy, because his job was to shepherd negotiations and therewere no negotiations taking place. Someof you may recall that I thought Mitchell should have resigned eighteen months ago, onceit became clear that Obama wasn't willing to take on Netanyahu or the Israellobby. Had he resigned then, it mighthave been of some modest value as a wake-up call. His resignation last Friday was more of awhimper than a bang.
But Mitchell wasn't the only one who's trapped. So are Arab dictators like Muammar Qadhafi in Libyaand Bashar Assad in Syria, even if they manage to cling to power temporarily throughthe use of brutal force. They aretrapped because demands for greater openness and justice aren't going to end,and their responses over the past few months now guarantee that there can be nosoft landing or safe exit strategy for them. If they fall, they will fall completely, andprobably lose their lives in the bargain. So they are trapped in the dead-end spiral of repression and stagnation,while the rest of the world advances.
The Palestinians are still trapped of course; they remain theworld's largest stateless populations and are simultaneously victims ofIsrael's expulsion in 1947-48 and again in 1967, decades of Arab neglect andexploitation, Israel's long occupation/control of the West Bank and Gaza, and prolongedWestern indifference. Their only silver lining is the growing realization that terrorist violence is not their best route to statehood, but diplomacy, publicity, and non-violent civil protest might be.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trapped too: by hisideological devotion to the dream of "Greater Israel," by the even more hawkishstance of the settlers and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and by theuncertainties created by the recent upheavals in the Arab world. He can't do the right thing and move swiftlytowards the creation of a viable Palestinian state--even if he wanted to, whichis highly unlikely--though this step would end the demographic threat toIsrael's democratic and Jewish character andremove the main reason why people around the world are increasinglycritical of Israel's conduct. Instead, by clinging to the policies of the past,the IDF ends up having to crack down on demonstrators on the West Bank andalong the borders, which means they start to resemble the thugs that areputting down pro-democracy movements in Syria and Bahrain. (No, I'm not saying the situations are identical, but appearances do matter).
And Barack Obama is surely trapped too. I think he's understood what needed to bedone in the Middle East since before he became president; he just didn't recognizethat it would be a lot harder to do than he thought. He knew that achieving a viable two-statesolution was the most obvious way to remove the primary source of Arab andMuslim anger at the United States, as well as the best way to safeguardIsrael's long-term future. As he said inCairo back in June 2009, a two-state solution was "in America's interest, thePalestinians' interest, Israel's interest," and the world's interest." And if he could pull that off, then theUnited States could stop devoting so much time on the squabbles in the MiddleEast and start shifting more of its strategic attention to the far more seriousissue of China's rise in Asia. But Obamadidn't fully recognize the power of the Israel lobby, which made it impossiblefor him to deliver on his early commitments. And as long as that is the case, Obama (or his successors) will remaintrapped in policies that aren't good for America, Israel, or any of our otherfriends in the region.
Remember the "unipolar moment?" You know: that period that began when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in an unprecedented position of power. As former President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991, the United States found itself "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world." And both Democratic and Republican administrations tried to do just that: expanding NATO, supposedly spreading democracy, putting "rogue states" in the cross hairs, and sending the U.S. military into action on virtually every continent.
Of course, in the wake of the financial crisis and the self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, things don't look quite so rosy today. China's GDP is likely to overtake America's in the next decade or so, which will mark the first time in over a century that the United States won't have the world's largest economy. China still lags behind the United States on many other indicators of power, so it's far too soon to talk about a fundamental transfer of power from Washington to Beijing. Nonetheless, its steady rise and obviously growing assertiveness are making plenty of people wonder about how the United States should respond.
So let me simplify this issue for you. Boiled down to its essentials, the biggest question facing U.S. leaders over the next decade or so is whether America's global position will be enhanced more by successful foreign-policy initiatives, or by successful policy responses here at home. In other words, will America's long-term security and prosperity be enhanced most by various foreign and defense policy maneuvers, and especially by successful efforts to deal with potentially dangerous situations in various parts of the world? Alternatively, we will be more secure and more prosperous if we do less abroad and use the time and resources to get our house in order here in the United States instead? This is obviously not a simple either/or situation, but the key question is what priority one decides to place on each policy domain.
Those who favor the first position -- i.e., who think our security/prosperity depends mostly on the role we play globally -- tend to think that the United States faces many threats and that our forward presence in various parts of the world is essential for stability in key regions and indispensable for keeping lots of bad guys at bay. If we aren't fighting them in Kandahar, flying drones in Pakistan, helping rebel forces in Libya, providing aid and advice in Colombia, so the argument runs, we'll face rising dangers closer to home. Or sometimes they argue that the United States has a moral responsibility to use its power on behalf of others. This view is most evident among die-hard neoconservatives, but plenty of liberal internationalists still see the United States as the "indispensable nation" that has to shoulder the main burden whenever serious problems arise almost anywhere.
By contrast, people who incline to the second view think that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has a built-in tendency to overstate threats and a real problem setting clear priorities. They see the United States as remarkably secure and insulated from most problems by two enormous oceans, by a formidable nuclear deterrent, and by strong conventional forces that can tip the balance in key regions like the Persian Gulf. In this view, a lot of what we've been doing lately isn't making Americans richer or more secure, and certainly isn't worth the cost. They question whether spending $100 billion a year on Afghanistan makes a substantial contribution to American security and believe that sort of money could be better spent on productivity-enhancing projects here at home. When they read that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is about to lay off 4,000-plus teachers in order to close a budget deficit, they see it as one of the many independent policy decisions whose cumulative effect will be to leave America dumber and therefore weaker in the years ahead.
The second group recognizes that America does have a global role to play, but believes that in the end our power and influence depends far more on having a healthy, highly educated, politically loyal, and energetic society here at home than it does on shaping political outcomes in far-flung corners of the world. And the second group tends to think that we'd be a lot more popular in some parts if we weren't constantly trying to tell others how to live (and blowing things up in order to persuade them).
I've been sketching a pretty crude picture, of course, and the proper answer lies somewhere between these two stark alternatives. But as readers of this blog know, in the present era I think it is pretty clear that it is the home front needs the most attention. We do need an active foreign policy, but the emphasis has to be on setting clear priorities, liquidating commitments that are not vital (and may even be counterproductive), and making it clear to others that the United States is not a philanthropic organization with an infinite bank account and endless tolerance for feckless, fickle, or uncooperative allies. (Pakistan heads that list this week, but it is hardly alone). And at the same time, we need to address the eroding infrastructure, failing schools, world-record incarceration rates, elite corruption, and rising economic inequality from which the United States now suffers, all of which pose a far greater long-term threat to our security and prosperity than groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda do.
But here's the problem. Presidents and their advisors have lots of latitude in foreign policy, and we still have a big defense establishment that gives them lots of options for meddling. Heck, the president can decide it's a good idea to overthrow the government of Libya and get busy doing it, without asking anyone's permission or facing significant political opposition. But given the decentralized nature of the U.S. government, the pervasive influence of special interest lobbies, and the present state of political polarization, trying to implement major domestic reforms is like trying to drag a shipping container through quicksand with a bicycle. So it's no wonder that this administration (like its predecessors) finds it tempting to focus on foreign policy. It ain't easy, but it's a lot more fun than trying to fix what's broken back home.
Closing teaser: Some folks in the DoD seem to have reached similar conclusions to the ones I've expressed here, and a paper by two military officers (writing collectively as "Mr. Y") has been receiving some fawning attention in the press lately. Although I'm sympathetic to some of their ideas, the paper itself is a disappointment. I'll lay out my reasons in a subsequent post.
I've been buried with end-of-term obligations and some other administrivia, so I haven't posted anything since last week. Fortunately, you've all got the whole web to feast upon, so I doubt that anyone's been suffering from withdrawal.
Given all the other things that have been happening lately -- hey, did you hear we got bin Laden? -- I also haven't written anything about the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas that was announced more than a week ago. Several correspondents weighed in by email and asked me what I thought of it, so here goes.
The first and most obvious point to remember is that the agreement is very fragile. There's a lot of bad blood between the two main Palestinian factions, stemming both from doctrinal and strategic differences but also from a lot of prior violence between the two. Fatah conducted a harsh crackdown on Hamas during the 1990s-in an attempt to prove to the U.S. and Israel that it was serious about controlling terror -- and the two groups fought a short civil war in Gaza in 2007. Incompetent U.S. "leadership" helped cause that war: not only did the US refuse to accept the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections because we were miffed that Hamas had won, but then we tried to arm Fatah and encouraged it to attack Hamas, which led the latter to preempt and drive the less effective Fatah cadres out. In other words, the United States helped foment a little civil war, and then the side we were backing lost. Well done!
Of course, those who oppose the creation of Palestinian state promptly denounced the recent unity agreement, declaring that of course one could never negotiate with a "terrorist organization." I've never understood this position, given that many current governments had their origins in groups that used terrorist methods as part of struggle to gain national independence, and several terrorist leaders (including some former IRA members, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Shamir, and Menachem Begin) have all been welcomed at the White House. The U.S. government has backed its own "terrorist" groups on occasions, and some U.S. leaders are now openly hoping that bin Laden's death will encourage the Taliban -- which also relies on terrorism -- to come to the table and get serious about talks to end the war in Afghanistan. The obvious point is that sometimes states negotiate with groups using terrorist methods, if they are seriously interested in ending a conflict and they have sufficient reason to believe that the "terrorist" group is too. It didn't make sense to negotiate with bin Laden or al Qaeda, obviously, but it might with Hamas.
Israel and the United States now say that they won't negotiate with Hamas because it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and because its charter contains some hateful and frankly bizarre clauses, including an endorsement of that old Tsarist fraud, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here I find it hard to understand Hamas's reluctance to jettison rhetorical positions that serve no positive purpose and merely make it easy for their opponents to portray them as unreasonable. I can see why they might hold back on formal recognition-it's one of the last cards they have to play, and Fatah's decision to recognize Israel back in the late 1980s hasn't stopped the continued expansion of Israeli settlements or led to a Palestinian state. But Hamas could advance its own cause mightily if they made it clearer that they would be willing to recognize Israel provided that it withdrew to the 1967 borders and allowed for the creation of a Palestinian state. Some Hamas leaders have hinted about movement along these lines, but being less coy about it would place the Netanyahu government in a very difficult political position, especially now.
Despite these reservations, however, I think the unity agreement is in fact in everyone's interest. It is certainly in the Palestinians' interest, as they are already weak and vulnerable and internal divisions just make that situation worse. And given the current balance of power and the broader international situation, violence is not the Palestinians' best tactic: civil resistance, international publicity, and diplomatic engagement is. And I've always believed that the best way to either marginalize Hamas or force it to moderate its own positions was to make genuine progress toward ending the occupation and creating an independent state, which will make calls for continued resistance fall on deaf ears.
Palestinian reconciliation and unity is ultimately good for Israel too, assuming that Israel wants peace more than land. Divisions among the Palestinians were very useful for Israel during Zionism's expansionist phase, because it made establishment and consolidation of the state possible. But if Israel wants peace, then it needs a Palestinian neighbor that is not wracked by internal divisions: who wants to live next door to a failed state? At this point in Israel's history, in fact, its security would be enhanced by a stable, secure, and legitimate Palestinian government that could keep order in its territory, foster economic development, and when necessary, deal with any die-hard rejectionists that might still exist. (The same goes for Israel too: If a peace deal is ever reached, it will need to be able to control its own right-wing extremists, and that won't be a picnic either.) Ironically, Israel needs an effective Palestinian government as much as the Palestinians do, and that was always going to be hard to achieve so long as the Fatah-Hamas split endures.
Finally, the unity agreement is a potential opportunity for the United States as well, if it helps break the current deadlock and gets movement towards a final status agreement rolling again. As everyone knows (but some don't want to admit), the persistence of the I-P conflict is a major distraction for the United States and a major contributor to anti-Americanism, at a moment when the United States needs to be shifting its sights toward Asia and improving its relations with the Arab and Islamic world. So the idealist in me would love to believe that this agreement will hold, and that it can be used to jump-start a new diplomatic process (which will probably also involve moving beyond the current U.S. monopoly on this issue).
Alas, the realist in me suspects it won't. So far, nobody ever lost money assuming that things could go badly in that part of the world, or that new opportunities will be squandered.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
There's a terrific piece in the National Journal today, adding up the costs of the "war on terror" and pointing out that unlike some other costly wars in American history, this one has produced almost no economic benefits. That is, unless you think people standing in TSA lines are using those idle minutes (hours?) to dream up lots of innovative new ideas that will fire up the U.S. economy. I rather doubt it.
If we had a rational discourse on this subject, it ought to provoke two questions. First, how did we get into this mess in the first place? Specifically, what were the U.S. policies that contributed to the rise of groups like Al Qaeda, and made it difficult-to-impossible to head them off before they hit us? (You'd think the 9/11 Commission would have tackled this question head on, but of course that proved too controversial for them). This subject hasn't been wholly neglected since 9/11 (i.e., there was some discussion of the familiar "why do they hate us?" question), but even raising the question could get you accused of being someone who "blamed America first." So hardly anybody asked if maybe 9/11 was also a wake-up call, and that there were some aspects of U.S. foreign policy that needed to be rethought. Of course, raising the question doesn't necessarily mean that the policies that contributed to Al Qaeda's rise (e.g., stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, unconditional support for Israel, propping up the Mubarak regime in Egypt, etc.) were necessarily wrong, but it does suggest that these policies were more expensive than we previously believed.
The second question would be: which responses to 9/11 have worked well, and which policies have proven to be costly failures? Ideally, the United States ought to conduct a ruthless assessment of the post-9/11 response, in order to determine -- to the extent possible -- which of the post 9/11 policy changes were effective and which were not. The purpose here isn't a witch-hunt directed at former government officials, as I assume that even the neocons who led us blindly into Iraq believed that this decision was in the best interests of the country. But now, nearly ten years later, we ought to be mature enough to recognize that some of the actions we took after 9/11 weren't that smart, while some other responses turned out to be quite effective. And both ends of the political spectrum should be open to revising their views: some policies abhorred by liberals (such as electronic eavesdropping) may actually have been a net positive, while some actions favored by hardline conservatives (such as waterboarding and other forms of torture) should be seen as misguided failures.
That is how a mature great power would deal with the vast and costly response that began on 9/11: it would try to learn the right lessons from the past decade so that it did better the next time it faced an unexpected challenge. But in the polarized, partisan, and fact-free world of contemporary policy discourse, how likely is that?
There's some second-guessing going on in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, mostly having to do with whether he actually "resisted" or whether the SEAL team that took him out did so deliberately. Although it would be better if the Obama administration's original story had been more complete from the start, I'm inclined to cut them a bit of slack on this one. To me, it's not that surprising that some details were wrong in the initial accounts, and to their credit the administration has been forthcoming about amending the basic account.
Did the Obama administration deliberately send the team in to take him out? I don't know. But I'm sure the SEALs were given very loose "rules of engagement," such that even a minimal degree of "resistance" could be met (as it was) with deadly force. At the same time, I suspect that one reason Obama decided to send a team in rather than simply bomb the compound was a desire to use discriminate force, and to minimize the danger to bystanders. Killing bin Laden during the raid is one thing; killing his wives or the children present there would have played far worse in the eyes of much of the world. Sending a team in was also a way to ensure that we could prove we had got him; leveling the compound would have given even more fodder to conspiracy theorists to argue that he had actually escaped (presumably to join Elvis and Hitler somewhere in South America).
There are two reasons to suspect that we were more interested in killing him than capturing him. The first is the obvious point that having him in custody would have been a major policy challenge. How many terror threats or hostage takings might have accompanied his trial and incarceration? In the abstract, I'd prefer to have put him on trial for his crimes, to draw the sharpest possible contrast between his lawless behavior and the principles of the rule of law that we like to proclaim. But the practical obstacles to that course would have been daunting, and I can understand why the U.S. government might have preferred just taking him out.
The second reason, of course, is that targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of U.S. security policy. And it's not just drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, targeted killings by special forces are one of the key ways that we are prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And there's certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly. Given our current practice in these contexts, it would hardly be a stretch to imagine Obama sending in the SEALs not with deliberate orders to kill bin Laden, but with instructions that made his death very, very likely.
Lastly, what about the decision to dispose of his body at sea? Somebody clearly thought about this issue in advance, and this step was supposedly done because 1) there was no country that would want to accept his remains, 2) the United States had no interest in keeping them ourselves, and 3) U.S. officials were worried that a gravesite might become some sort of inspirational shrine for like-minded extremists.
I get all that, but I'm not totally convinced. For one thing, some Muslims are likely to see the burial at sea as disrespectful or callous, and Muslim religious experts seem to be divided on this issue. Second, while it's possible that his body/grave might have emerged as some sort of shrine, that's hardly a certainty. Mussolini's place in the family crypt isn't a big pilgrimage site for proto-fascists, and the site of the bunker where Hitler died hasn't become a big rallying place for neo-Nazis. Revolutionary states like the Soviet Union, Iran, and Vietnam have built enormous shrines to their founding leaders, but do these pretentious attempts at immortality really inspire many followers? And needless to say, no government or charitable foundation was going to pour any money into a shrine for bin Laden. If his body had ended up buried in some remote corner of Saudi Arabia, I rather doubt it would attract a lot of visitors. And even if it did, as Yglesias points out, it would be a nice way to get their pictures on file.
It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can't quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.
For starters, I think it's important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda's banner merely to avenge his death.
In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.
Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.
Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn't the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we'd still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
Furthermore, there's a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect.
Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim -- as Obama did last night -- that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That's not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he'll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.
But don't count on it. For one thing, we've spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we'll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.
Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn't rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It's the economy, stupid."
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
A realistic foreign policy seeks to deal with the world as it is, shorn of political illusions. Realists emphasize that even close allies often have conflicting interests, that cooperation between states is difficult to achieve or sustain, and that the conduct of nations is frequently shaped by some combination of fear, greed and stupidity.
Above all, realists warn against basing policy on wishful thinking: on the assumption that all will go as we want it to. Yet the pages of history are littered with episodes where leaders made decision on the basis of false hopes, idealistic delusions, or blind faith. And I regret to say that there's no shortage of this sort of wishful thinking today. As evidence, I offer here my "Top Ten Examples of Wishful Thinking in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy."
No. 1: China Won't Act Like a Great Power
Although most foreign policy gurus recognize that China's rising power will have profound effects on world politics, some still assume that a more powerful China will somehow act differently than other great powers have in the past. In particular, they maintain that China will cheerfully accept the institutional arrangements that were "made-in-America" after World War II. They also believe that Beijing will be content to let the United States maintain its current security posture in East Asia, and will not seek to undermine it over time. Maybe so, that's not how great powers have acted in the past, and it's certainly not how the United States behaved in its own rise to world power (remember the Monroe Doctrine?). This illusion is gradually being dispelled, I think, but one hears its echoes every time some official says that the United States "welcomes" China's rise.
Read the full article, "Wishful Thinking," here.
Also, I hope readers will send in their suggestions for other examples of "wishful thinking." Perhaps I'll devote a future post to the other side of the equation -- "worst-casing" -- which can be just as serious an error as excessive optimism.
BAY ISMOYO/Getty Images
No doubt foreign policy wonks will be all a-twitter for a day or so, chewing over the news that President Obama is going to move CIA head Leon Panetta over to DoD to replace outgoing Secretary Robert Gates, and then replace Panetta with Afghan commander General David Petraeus. This is the sort of event that Washington-watchers tend to see as Very Significant, but I'm sticking with my original view: this sort of reshuffle doesn't matter very much.
Why? Because there's no reason to suppose that Panetta or Petraeus will be bringing either new ideas, new political clout, or substantially different managerial expertise to their jobs. The only way to get a dramatic change in U.S. national security policy would be if either man were going to recommend fundamentally different policies, or if either man was going to be substantially more effective at implementing policies that were already in place. But there's no reason to assume that either of these conditions will hold.
Mind you, I'm not knocking Panetta or Petraeus. The former is a consummate Washington insider, and presumably will be reasonably effective at maneuvering in the Beltway jungle. So was outgoing SecDef Gates, however, so Panetta's move into the Pentagon doesn't really change anything. Moreover, is there any evidence that he has new, original, or creative ideas about either defense management or national strategy? If so, I haven't seen them. As for Petraeus, he's been an energetic defender of the basic thrust of U.S. military policy for more than a decade, including our emphasis on fighting costly wars in the periphery. More importantly, for all the talk of winning hearts and minds through a more sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy, he's also been a big fan of using CIA drones to fight the AfPak war. So there's no reason to expect a significant shift in how the CIA operates.
In short, there's less here than meets the eye, but that won't stop Washingtonians (and bloggers like me) from talking about it.
Mandel Ngan - Pool/Getty Images
In an obvious example of "mission creep," France, Britain, and now Italy have decided to send military advisors to support the rebel army in Libya. While resolutely declaring the no ground troops will be sent, these NATO powers (and the United States), continue to move beyond the original limited purpose of the intervention and are openly seeking to unseat the Qadhafi regime completely.
This situation is a textbook illustration of what one might call the Intervention Paradox. Because there are no vital strategic interests at stake in the Libyan situation, outside leaders are reluctant to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation quickly. You don't hear Obama, Sarkozy, or Cameron declaring that they are going to call up reserves, redeploy forces from other commitments, or launch a direct invasion of Libya itself. They know that that mission isn't worth it, and that their own populations would quickly question the wisdom of such a massive operation.
Instead, intervening powers try to use as little force as possible, and seek to minimize their own casualties above all. After all, when there are no vital interests at stake, it is much harder to justify the loss of one's own soldiers. So they rely on airpower, not boots on the ground. They'll send advisors and weapons, but not their own troops. But because the rebel army is a ramshackle operation, and because there are real limits to what NATO can achieve with airpower alone, this minimalist approach is more likely to produce a costly stalemate in which more Libyans die. Even if it eventually succeeds, going in small prolongs the fighting and does more damage to the people we are supposedly helping.
The other option, of course, is to use overwhelming force from the very beginning. Qaddafi's loyal forces might be effective against a poorly-trained rebel army, but they would be no match for a sizeable NATO force. But this isn't really the answer either, even if we had such forces readily available (and remember, the United States is already bogged down in other places). For one thing, doing it this way is a lot more expensive, and you're likely to lose some of your own people along the way. And once you've ousted the regime you own the country, and trying to put a society like Libya back together again would not be easy or cheap (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan). Given the divisions that are already apparent among the rebels themselves, and the absence of well-functioning social and political institutions, a post-Qaddafi Libya is likely to be a real headache. And there's always the risk that an insurgency will spring up, further inflating the costs.
Hence the paradox: if you go in light you get a protracted stalemate; if you go in big you end up with a costly quagmire. Under these circumstances you can understand why the intervening powers are tiptoeing their way in, but as noted above, that merely increases the danger that the civil war drags on.
There is a third option, however: great powers could be a lot more careful about where and when they used military power to try to determine who gets to run some foreign country. But that's an option that U.S. leaders seem to have forgotten.
GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, the U.S. government is actively trying to find someplace for Muammar al-Qaddafi to go, where he (and presumably his family) can be comfortable and secure from prosecution. The idea, obviously, is to "build him a golden bridge" to retreat across, and thus hasten his removal from power.
In a different story, the Times also describes how the Mubarak family in Egypt is getting accustomed to life in jail.
So let me get this straight: one former dictator ultimately decides not to unleash massive force against anti-government demonstrators, and eventually leaves power more-or-less peacefully, if not exactly voluntarily. His reward? He winds up in jail (maybe deservedly). Another dictator responds by using loyal military units to repress unarmed demonstrators, and when they arm themselves, he starts using all the means at his disposal to defeat them and remain in power. But because the United States is now desperate to end the Libyan debacle and avoid a costly stalemate, Washington ends up trying to find him some sort of safe haven for him.
Meanwhile, what lesson will future autocrats draw from these events? The obvious one, it seems to me, is "No more Mr. Nice Guy," which may not be the message we really want to be sending.
It is also hard for me to believe that Qaddafi would accept our assurances at this point. After all, we promised not to try to overthrow him back in 2003, in exchange for his giving up his various WMD program. Given that overthrowing him is precisely what we are trying to do now, any guarantees we might give him are bound to sound pretty hollow and he's more likely to fight on and "gamble for resurrection."
Regrettably, this means that the intervening powers may have little choice but to persevere, in the hopes that the rebels eventually gain the upper hand. Unfortunately, that is likely to mean prolonging the current civil war, which in turn means more dead Libyans. All in the name of "humanitarianism."
NOTE: I'll be traveling for most of next week, and blogging will be intermittent at best.
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
Was the decision to intervene in Libya justified by the threat of imminent massacres, and possibly even a genocide? And did President Obama have the authority to intervene?
If you're still wondering about either of those questions, I have two suggestions for further reading. The first is an op-ed by Alan Kuperman, which casts further doubt on the likelihood that Qadhafi's forces were about to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent bystanders in Benghazi. Kuperman points out that Qadhafi loyalists did not conduct massacres in any of the cities that they have recaptured, and that the Libyan tyrant's threats to show "no mercy" applied only to rebels. He also notes that the reported casualties are overwhelmingly male, which suggests that it is primarily combatants (i.e., rebels) who are being killed.
Note that Kuperman is no apologist for Qadhafi. He does not deny that Qadhafi is a thuggish ruler, that his loyalists were killing civilians, or that some of their actions constitute war crimes. The question, however, is whether there was an imminent risk of a bloodbath that "would stain the conscience of the world," as Obama put it.
Notice also that although Obama did not use the word genocide himself, both current and previous members of his administration did raise the spectre of a genocide in order to make the case for U.S. action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of Policy Planning in the State Department, tweeted ""The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted." Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ""We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda." The clear implication was that failure to act in Libya would produce hundreds of thousands of deliberate murders (which is what occurred in Rwanda in 1994).
Given that Qadhafi is a heinous ruler of dubious legitimacy, why does this matter? It matters because the case for intervention depends heavily on the magnitude of the humanitarian calamity that we sought to forestall. If the danger really was that grave, then the case for intervention goes up. But if the likely consequences of a Qadhafi victory were regrettable but not that large, then the case for intervention diminishes. And the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.
Second: did Obama exceed his powers when he ordered the use of force? The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion on this issue (perhaps coincidentally, on April 1st), and--surprise, surprise--they've concluded that it was perfectly ok. The OLC makes three arguments: 1) it's not really a war, and the President has broad powers short of war; 2) we're enforcing a Security Council resolution, which gives the President even more authority, in part because he has to uphold the credibility of the Security Council; and 3) the War Powers Resolution permits the President to use force for sixty days without advance approval.
Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School examines the OLC's arguments in the Harvard National Security Journal and finds them wanting on legal and constitutional grounds. More tellingly, he also shows that these justifications are at odds with Obama's own statements before he became President. In 2007, for example, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involves stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." (Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he's not exactly a tyro on these issues). And back when she was a mere Senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "I do not believe that the President can take military action--including any kind of strategic bombing--against Iran without congressional authorization." More strikingly still, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has repeatedly argued--as a scholar--against precisely this sort of expansive interpretation of presidential power. But not this time.
At this point in the history of the republic, it should come as no surprise that people working in the Executive Branch tend to think the President has the power to use military force just about any time the he and his advisors deem it necessary or advisable. It is equally unsurprising that politicians and pundits tend to be hypocritical about this issuet: they think the President ought to have broad powers when they agree with the particular use to which it is being put, and they think those powers ought to be limited when they think the President is doing something foolish or unnecessary.
Reasonable people can disagree about just how much authority the Executive Branch ought to have, just as they can also disagree about the course of action the United States and others should have followed with regard to the situation in Libya. But let's be clear about the long-term effects of the de facto authority we are granting every President. It's a messy world out there, and there will always be some trouble somewhere that people will want Uncle Sam to fix. If you give a single individual the authority to decide when to order the world's mightiest military into battle, without having to consult anyone except his own appointed advisors, then you shouldn't be surprised when that mighty military gets used over and over and over.
There's an interesting story in Politico, where Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) criticizes Obama's handling of the Middle East peace process and then goes out on a limb and predicts a new Middle East peace push. I don't know if he's right or wrong about that, but the Senator indulges in a bit of revisionist history about his past views on the peace process.
In particular, Kerry now says that he never thought it was a good idea to focus on Israel's continually expanding settlements in the West Bank. Money quote:
I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," Kerry told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, organized by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "I think it sort of put the cart ahead of the horse in a way here. The key is to get to the security and borders definition and if you can get the borders definition you've solved the problem of the settlements. But we can't get that discussion right now."
The problem is that this isn't what Kerry was saying and doing back in 2009, when the Obama administration was trying in vain to get a settlement freeze. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Washington that spring, he met personally with Kerry in the latter's capacity as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Here's what Kerry said about his conversation back then:
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began his remarks following his meeting with Netanyahu by saying, ‘I emphasized to the prime minister the importance of Israel moving forward, especially with respect to the settlements issue.'"
As a good realist, I certainly don't expect politicians to tell the truth all the time. Maybe Kerry was just forgot. Or maybe he really did think focusing on settlements was a mistake, but went along at the time as good team player. But I'm more inclined to think he was in favor of Obama's approach. ... before he was against it.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
It's that time again. No, I don't mean baseball season, or the arrival (finally) of spring in New England. I mean it's turnover time down in Washington, and we are seeing the usual speculations about who's up, who's down, who's in, and who's out. Everyone expects Robert Gates to leave Defense this summer, James Steinberg is leaving the #2 job at State, several East Asia hands have left or are leaving, and there will be additional departures from the NSC and other key positions.
Speculating about who is likely to replace the departing officials is a time-honored inside-the-Beltway tradition, and it's a popular sport at places like the Kennedy School too. For some informed speculation on possible new faces, check out FP's The Cable here and the New York Times here.
But I don't think these changes are going to make much difference. It's not like Obama will be replacing the current set of officials with people who have a fundamentally different perspective on foreign and defense policy. Instead, the likely successors in each of these jobs will be drawn from the same pool of familiar foreign policy gurus, chosen from the ranks of traditional Democratic party liberal imperialists. . . . (oops....I meant "liberal internationalists.") I don't expect to see any realists in prominent positions, and certainly no one who favors a major curtailing of America's self-ordained role as global policeman.
This tells you either that Obama is reasonably happy with his administration's handling of foreign policy, or (more likely) it tells you that he doesn't have a lot of options. In an ideal world, we would see Obama do a ruthless evaluative exercise, and get rid of the people who have performed poorly while doing his best to retain those who have done well. By this standard, he'd be keeping his Asia team (which has done tolerably well with a difficult situation), giving the nuclear security team a pat on the back, firing the whole Middle East group (whose performance has to be among his biggest disappointments), and he'd be taking a long, hard look at the people who've been marching him deeper into the Af-Pak quagmire.
But I don't expect anything like that to occur. By now, it is crashingly obvious that Obama is a very conventional foreign policy president, that whatever novel ideas or approaches he brought to office have been thoroughly diluted by entrenched interests in Washington, and his own governing style militates against taking bold positions and sticking with them in the face of opposition. Just look at how he caved on Gitmo, indefinite detention, drone strikes/targeted killings, or Israeli settlements. One gets the impression that the administration is already suffering from battle-fatigue, and that there won't be many (any?) shiny new initiatives even if he wins a second term.
To be sure, there's something to be said for modesty (especially if the alternative is the riverboat gambler approach that Bush and the neocons pursued from 2001-2005), but it isn't quite the change that some of us believed in.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.