Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi's forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."
To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi's force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I'm pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too. But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president's rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama's advisors.
Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers -- whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors -- but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.
The United States started out as thirteen small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original thirteen states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions.
Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don't regard our country as a "warrior nation" or "garrison state." Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that "a just war is far better for a man's soul than the most prosperous peace"), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.
In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama in part because they thought he would be different than his predecessor on a host of issues, but especially in his approach to the use of armed force. It was clear to nearly everyone that George W. Bush had launched a foolish and unnecessary war in Iraq, and then compounded the error by mismanaging it (and the war in Afghanistan too). So Americans chose a candidate who had opposed Bush's war in Iraq and bring U.S. commitments back in line with our resources. Above all, Americans thought Barack Obama would be a lot more thoughtful about where and how to use force, and that he understood the limits of this crudest of policy tools. The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have thought so too, when they awarded him the Peace Prize not for anything he had done, but for what they hoped he might do henceforth.
Yet a mere two years later, we find ourselves back in the fray once again. Since taking office, Barack Obama has escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and launched a new war against Libya. As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun. At first we hoped that most of the guns would be in the hands of the Europeans, or the hands of the rebel forces arrayed against Qaddafi, but it's increasingly clear that U.S. military forces, CIA operatives and foreign weapons supplies are going to be necessary to finish the job.
Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. There is no question that Qaddafi is a tyrant with few (if any) redemptive qualities, but the threat of a bloodbath that would "stain the conscience of the world" (as Obama put it) was slight.
It remains to be seen whether this latest lurch into war will pay off or not, and whether the United States and its allies will have saved lives or squandered them. But the real question we should be asking is: Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million/day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?
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The president is tiptoeing through a mine-field of conflicting imperatives, seeking to justify a war that he has launched even though there are no vital strategic interests at stake. And make no mistake: it is a war. When your forces are flying hundreds of sorties, and firing missiles and dropping bombs on another country's armed forces, it is Orwellian to call it anything else.
It is a war being fought for humanitarian objectives -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with that -- but the president's somewhat tortured parsing of the reasons for his action betrays an awareness that he's on shaky ground. And notice that almost all of his justifications were anticipatory in nature: we went to war to prevent a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, to prevent evens in Libya from possibly affecting developments elsewhere in the Arab world, and to forestall some future tarnishing of America's reputation. When you are as strong and secure as the United States really is, everything becomes a "preventive" operation. (Too bad we don't think that way when it comes to financial matters). Ironically, if the United States faced real threats to its security, it wouldn't be wasting much time or effort on operations like this one.
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Based on the weekend's events, what do we now know about Libya?
1. As you can see from these Pentagon slides here, the United States did the the heavy lifting during the initial phases of the intervention against Libya (h/t Micah Zenko & Jeremy Pressman). Notice that these figures omit missile strikes, which were overwhelmingly conducted by the United States, so the data actually understate the extent to which the initial operations were dominated by Uncle Sam. We are now told that allied forces are going to take over (most of) the mission, but patrolling the no-fly-zone is pretty easy work now that Libya's air defenses (which were never very good to begin with) have been largely if not entirely decimated. In short, this intervention fits the pattern of prior "coalitions of the willing": the United States does most of the work, and the other members are there mostly to provide diplomatic cover. That distribution of burdens is supposed to change now, but sticking to that plan will probably depend on whether the rebels keep making progress. If their campaign bogs down, Qaddafi's forces are able to regroup, or the British and French start feeling the pinch, look for more pressure on Washington to get back in the game.
2. The operation in Libya has quickly moved beyond a purely humanitarian mission and the intervening forces are more-or-less openly seeking to topple Qaddafi's regime. The New York Times reports that coalition air strikes against Qaddafi's forces are continuing, and making it possible for the rebels to advance, even though the immediate humanitarian concern (i.e., the threat of some sort of massacre in Benghazi) has now been removed.
This latest version of "mission creep" isn't surprising. Several Western leaders (including President Obama) have already called for Qaddafi to step down, the International Criminal Court says it is investigating possible crimes against humanity, and in any case his pariah status in the international community is well-earned. What is still not clear is the human price of this expanded mission. Ousting Qaddafi may still require a lot of bloody ground fighting, NATO airpower will be less valuable once it is a matter of urban warfare, the collapse of his regime could usher in a prolonged power vacuum, with lots of regrettable human consequences. It's possible that tribal leaders can work out some sort of post-Qaddafi political formula, but a benign outcome of that sort is hardly guaranteed.
3. Whether this was the right decision or not won't be known for awhile (remember that "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq?) The two situations are hardly identical, but the Iraqi case does remind us that there is a big difference between defeating a regime's armed forces and driving its leaders from power, and being able to stand up a new government that can establish order. There's still a real risk of prolonged internal disarray if we succeed, and the Libyan case is likely to teach other autocrats that giving up their WMD programs is a good way to leave themselves vulnerable to U.S.-led attack. Bottom line: the costs vs. benefits calculation here won't be possible for some time.
As readers know, I've questioned the wisdom of this intervention, and I've thought that it should have been a European operation from the start. I'm still hoping that it resolves itself quickly, and that my concerns about the post-Qaddafi environment turn out to be unwarranted. I also hope that putting Libya back together afterwards turns out to be easier and less costly than I expect, and that success doesn't embolden the neoconservative/liberal interventionist alliance and lead them off in search of new wrongs to right in places we don't understand very well. In short, as is often the case, I hope I'm wrong about a lot of this. We'll see.
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Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post:
Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much
The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on
this issue but could not muster the sangfroid
to call the Europeans' bluff. France and Britain were out front early on
military intervention, yet the United States did not seize the opportunity to state the
obvious, namely, that the Europeans could handle this one. The European
Security Strategy is focused squarely on conflict management, "human security," and the defense
of human rights. The European Union maintains a "Mediterannean
partnership" with North African countries and a "neighborhood policy" that concerns stability and security on its southern and eastern flanks.
A humanitarian crisis in Libya fits perfectly into European security concerns.
President Sarkozy of France was especially eager to show what Europeans could do. He went out front and recognized a motley group of rebels as the legitimate government of Libya without consulting allies in either NATO or the European Union. A recent article in Le Figaro gives a terrific account of Bernard Henry Lévy's involvement in the affair. Levy is a public intellectual and another vain French rooster strutting around looking for glory. Ever the opportunist, Levy found the rebels in Benghazi and hooked them up with Sarkozy, who pounced on the chance to be their champion to the rest of the world.
The French and British recently joined together at Lancaster House to loudly proclaim European security cooperation in the joint use of aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and nuclear weapons. These two countries have the largest defense budgets and the most advanced military capabilities in Europe and can field forces that can pummel any African army, including Libya's, into submission.
Given that the United States has no vital interests of any kind to protect in
Libya, the situation was tailor-made for Europeans to take the initiative and
handle this one without us. Yet the President could not leave well enough
alone. He was somehow shamed into showing American "leadership."
The story of how the Europeans managed to bait Obama into joining the
"coalition" and supplying the vast bulk of military capabilities will be a fascinating
one to unravel.
In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs?
Mark Sheetz is a fellow in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.
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Wednesday I spoke at an event
at Hofstra University, on the subject of "Barack Obama's Foreign
Policy." The other panelists were former DNC chair and 2004 presidential
candidate Howard Dean and longtime Republican campaign guru Ed Rollins. The
organizers at Hofstra were efficient and friendly, the audience asked good
questions, and I thought both Dean and Rollins were gracious and insightful in
their comments. All in all, it was a very successful session.
During the Q & A, I talked about the narrowness of foreign policy debate in Washington and the close political kinship between the liberal interventionists of the Democratic Party and the neoconservatives that dominate the GOP. At one point, I said that "liberal interventionists are just ‘kinder, gentler' neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionists on steroids."
Dean challenged me rather forcefully on this point, declaring that there was simply no similarity whatsoever between a smart and sensible person like U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and a "crazy guy" like Paul Wolfowitz. (I didn't write down Dean's exact words, but I am certain that he portrayed Wolfowitz in more-or-less those terms). I responded by listing all the similarites between the two schools of thought, and the discussion went on from there.
I mention this anecdote because I wonder what Dean would say now. In case you hadn't noticed, over the weekend President Obama took the nation to war against Libya, largely on the advice of liberal interventionists like Ambassador Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and NSC aides Samantha Power and Michael McFaul. According to several news reports I've read, he did this despite objections from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.
The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power -- and especially its military power -- can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America's right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.
So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I'm not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn't really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.
So where does this leave us? For starters, Barack Obama now owns not one but two wars. He inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and he chose to escalate instead of withdrawing. Instead of being George Bush's mismanaged blunder, Afghanistan became "Obama's War." And now he's taken on a second, potentially open-ended military commitment, after no public debate, scant consultation with Congress, without a clear articulation of national interest, and in the face of great public skepticism. Talk about going with a gut instinct.
When the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 last week and it was clear we were going to war, I credited the administration with letting Europe and the Arab League take the lead in the operation. My fear back then, however, was that the Europeans and Arab states would not be up to the job and that Uncle Sucker would end up holding the bag. But even there I gave them too much credit, insofar as U.S. forces have been extensively involved from the very start, and the Arab League has already gone wobbly on us. Can anyone really doubt that this affair will be perceived by people around the world as a United States-led operation, no matter what we say about it?
More importantly, despite Obama's declaration that he would not send ground troops into Libya -- a statement made to assuage an overcommitted military, reassure a skeptical public, or both -- what is he going to do if the air assault doesn't work? What if Qaddafi hangs tough, which would hardly be surprising given the dearth of attractive alternatives that he's facing? What if his supporters see this as another case of illegitimate Western interferences, and continue to back him? What if he moves forces back into the cities he controls, blends them in with the local population, and dares us to bomb civilians? Will the United States and its allies continue to pummel Libya until he says uncle? Or will Obama and Sarkozy and Cameron then decide that now it's time for special forces, or even ground troops?
And even if we are successful, what then? As in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, over forty years of Qaddafi's erratic and despotic rule have left Libya in very poor shape despite its oil wealth. Apart from some potentially fractious tribes, the country is almost completely lacking in effective national institutions. If Qaddafi goes we will own the place, and we will probably have to do something substantial to rebuild it lest it turn into an exporter of refugees, a breeding ground for criminals, or the sort of terrorist "safe haven" we're supposedly trying to prevent in Afghanistan.
But the real lesson is what it tells us about America's inability to resist the temptation to meddle with military power. Because the United States seems so much stronger than a country like Libya, well-intentioned liberal hawks can easily convince themselves that they can use the mailed fist at low cost and without onerous unintended consequences. When you have a big hammer the whole world looks like a nail; when you have thousand of cruise missiles and smart bombs and lots of B-2s and F-18s, the whole world looks like a target set. The United States doesn't get involved everywhere that despots crack down on rebels (as our limp reaction to the crackdowns in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrate), but lately we always seems to doing this sort of thing somewhere. Even a smart guy like Barack Obama couldn't keep himself from going abroad in search of a monster to destroy.
And even if this little adventure goes better than I expect, it's likely to come back to haunt us later. One reason that the Bush administration could stampede the country to war in Iraq was the apparent ease with which the United States had toppled the Taliban back in 2001. After a string of seeming successes dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. leaders and the American public had become convinced that the Pentagon had a magic formula for remaking whole countries without breaking a sweat. It took the debacle in Iraq and the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to remind us of the limits of military power, and it seems to have taken Obama less than two years on the job to forget that lesson. We may get reminded again in Libya, but if we don't, the neocon/liberal alliance will be emboldened and we'll be more likely to stumble into a quagmire somewhere else.
And who's the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China's leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire.
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I don't have any profound wisdom to offer in response to the breaktaking scenes coming out of Japan (as usual, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish is a fount of videos, tweets, and other on-the-scene accounts), but I do want to make one overarching point about unexpected disasters of this sort. One of the reasons that people like me constantly harp on the dangers of overcommitment is the simple fact that much of life remains unpredictable. To quote the distinguished political philosopher Donald Rumsfeld: "Stuff happens."
No matter how carefully you plan, there are always going to be some unpleasant surprises. Maybe it will be an earthquake hitting a longtime ally. Maybe it's an uprising that topples a friendly leader. Or it could be a financial panic, an outbreak of infectious disease, or a military operation that turns out to be much harder than you thought.
When the unexpected occurs, great powers need to have something in reserve. But if a country has already gotten bogged down in lots of costly commitments, and if its citizens don't like to pay taxes and thus tend to underfund anything anyway, it will be a lot harder to respond effectively when a crisis suddenly arrives. Which is why the United States should think harder about its willingness (at least rhetorically) to "pay any price and bear any burden." That's not isolationism; it's just what Walter Lippman called "solvency" (i.e., making sure that our commitments match our interests and our resources, with something left over to deal with emergencies.
All that said, a prompt and generous provision of relief aid to Japan seems like a no-brainer, in sharp contrast to the more vexing question of what to do about Libya.
Next week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will visit Capitol Hill to tell Congress about our progress there. Judging from this pre-visit story in the New York Times, he'll offer an upbeat appraisal, no doubt tempered with the usual cautions about how there are still challenges to be overcome, that the mission remains difficult, etc. etc. As I've noted before, this is pretty much what one expects any commander to do in such circumstances, so one should approach his testimony with a certain healthy skepticism.
I do hope the Hill staffers who will be preparing questions for their bosses will also read C.J. Chivers's account of the complexities that continue to bedevil our efforts in Afghanistan. Chivers has clearly been talking to soldiers in the field, and his story paints a less optimistic vision than we are likely to hear next week. Here's the revealing hint that the view from the bottom is different from the view at the top:
Officially, Mr. Obama's Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration's plan has crested."
Chivers also quotes a U.S. colonel (who requested anonymity) as follows:
You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics," said one American colonel outside of this province. "We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn't working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?"
Needless to say, the problems at the strategic level are quite familiar:
The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led. And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven."
As for the anonymous colonel's last question -- "How does this end?" -- I think the best we can hope for now is that the Obama administration goes in to full spin mode, touting all the progress it has made, and uses that as a justification for a gradual strategic withdrawal. That's one way to interpret Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's own remarks about recent U.S. progress, heralding the likelihood that U.S. troop levels will begin to decline this summer. It's a variation of the old "declare victory and get out" strategy that was once proposed for Vietnam, and if that's what it takes to end this continued drain on our resources and strategic attention, fine by me.
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I've been thinking about how the international community should deal with the Libyan civil war, and like the Obama administration, I'm finding it hard to come up with a policy that leaves me completely satisfied. I'd like to see Qaddafi's regime replaced by a government that is less brutal, capricious, and inefficient, as well as one that would be more responsive to the desires and welfare of the Libyan people. And the sooner the better. For this reason, I support the various measures that have been taken to condemn Qaddafi's actions and to freeze his assets. We should also be open to providing humanitarian aid (such as food relief) to rebel-controlled areas, should that become necessary to avoid a large-scale humanitarian disaster.
At the same time, I'm cognizant that it is easier to take on new military commitments than it is to relinquish them -- even in the best of circumstances -- and that external intervention in civil conflicts often has unpredictable and unforeseen consequences. So instead of firm prescriptions, here are a few observations that have struck me as I've pondered.
For starters, let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle. Libyan oil production (about 1.6 million barrels/day prior to the recent violence) is valuable but not decisive, and can be made up by increased production in Saudi Arabia. Libya has no WMD (having been compelled to give up its various WMD programs by a protracted Western-led sanctions campaign), and it is not a significant military power. Qaddafi has no links to al Qaeda (in fact, he's been a target of al Qaeda sympathizers in the past) and few, if any allies in the rest of the world. Libya's population is less than 7 million, and its economy (apart from oil) is unimpressive. Despite Qaddafi's many unsavory qualities and hostile acts, most U.S. presidents ultimately concluded that he was not important enough to remove from power, though the Reagan administration did target his residence in a bombing raid back in the 1980s.
Thus, the U.S. (and international) interest here is humanitarian, not strategic, which does not by itself mean that we should do nothing. What is going on in Libya does not constitute genocide -- a deliberate attempt to exterminate a whole category of people -- but the government's actions are clearly brutal, inhumane, and almost certainly involve war crimes. It thus falls squarely under the heading of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine (R2P), a new norm of humanitarian intervention promulgated with some fanfare a few years ago. R2P says "where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect" (my emphasis).
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It goes without saying that the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys by an American helicopter gunship was yet another public relations setback for the U.S. war effort. But more than that, I think it may also tell us a lot about how we are really waging that war, which is somewhat at odds with the rhetorical emphasis that it tends to get back home. The incident also underscores the inherent contradictions in U.S. strategy and does not augur well for our long-term prospects.
Ever since the publication of Field Manual 3-24, much of the rhetorical emphasis in U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine has been on "population protection," along with the necessity of building local institutions. As noted at the very beginning of FM 3-24: "A successful COIN operation meets the contested population's needs to the extent needed to win popular support while protecting the population from the insurgents." To win "hearts and minds," in short, a counterinsurgency force is supposed to provide security for the local population so that the enemy cannot win local support via intimidation or by exploiting local rivalries. Protecting the population is also supposed to earn their gratitude and convince them that the central government and its NATO allies are winning, so that local populations will tilt in our direction and provide us with additional intelligence, thereby allowing us to go after insurgents effectively.
This approach sounds great on paper, and it helps make the war more palatable to Americans back home. We all like to think that our armed forces are performing noble deeds, and protecting Afghan civilians from the likes of the Taliban certainly qualifies on that score. The problem, however, is that this is a misleading picture of what our forces are actually doing in Afghanistan. (It's also an oversimplification of what the Field Manual actually says because it also devotes plenty of space to the military operations that are also part of any serious counterinsurgency effort.)
The deaths of these nine Afghan boys remind us that this is a real war and that we're actually devoting a lot (most?) of our effort not to population protection but to killing suspected insurgents. U.S. reliance on airpower has increased dramatically, and USAF airstrikes are reportedly up by some 172 percent since General David Petraeus replaced Stanley McChrystal last year. The approach is also consistent with greater U.S. reliance on drone strikes in Pakistan and should be seen as part of an intensifying effort to kill as many insurgents as possible and especially to target key insurgent leaders.
Furthermore, "population protection" itself is not always a purely benign or politically neutral act. Protecting a local population often requires interfering with their daily lives in sometimes onerous and bothersome ways, whether through the construction of massive concrete barriers (as in Baghdad), or "strategic hamlets" (as in Vietnam), or through intrusive search missions in local villages. Even when we are in fact improving the security of the local population, that may not be how the people we are supposedly protecting perceive it. In the Pech Valley, at least, the local population mostly wanted us to get out and leave them alone.
Put all these elements together, and the central conundrum of our position becomes clearer. Heavier reliance on airpower and more aggressive military operations on the ground are bound to lead to more accidental civilian deaths, because military force is a crude weapon, humans are imperfect, and errors are bound to happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Yet the more we emphasize that our objective is "hearts and minds" and protecting the population, the more damage the inevitable mistakes do in the eyes of Afghans, the world at large, and to popular support here at home.
Ironically, Section E-6 of FM 3-24 makes this same point quite clearly (my emphasis):
The proper and well-executed use of aerial attack can conserve resources, increase effectiveness, and reduce risk to U.S. forces. Given timely, accurate intelligence, precisely delivered weapons with a demonstrated low failure rate, appropriate yield, and proper fuse can achieve desired effects while mitigating adverse effects. However, inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during COIN operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively."
But in their zeal to find some way to turn the war around (or to at least appear to have done so), have our commanders forgotten their own advice? And given all the internal contradictions in U.S. strategy, doesn't it suggest that the war simply isn't winnable (in any meaningful sense), at anything like a reasonable cost?
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Last Friday I suggested that one reason we keep slogging along in Afghanistan is the natural tendency for military organizations to portray their own efforts in the most favorable possible light. This tendency is not unique to militaries, of course; most organizations (including universities) prefer to talk about their virtues and achievements and find it harder to acknowedge shortcomings and setbacks.
In a democracy, it isn't the miltiary's job to decide where and when to fight, or for how long. But they don't like to lose either (which is by itself an admirable trait), and one should therefore expect them to do a lot of spinning, especially in the absence of clear and obvious signs of progress.
With that warning in mind, two sentences caught my eye over the weekend. The first was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' much-publicized remark to cadets at West Point. His whole speech is well worth reading, but here's the money quote:
In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined," as General MacArthur so delicately put it."
Notice the not-so-subtle implication: if it would be foolish to send a big army into Asia in the future, might we also question the wisdom of having one there now? Or to put it somewhat differently: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly as it is today but U.S. forces were not present at all, would President Obama be getting ready to send 100,000+ troops there? I very much doubt it. And if that's the case, then the only reason we are still fighting there is some combination of the "sunk cost" fallacy, misplaced concerns about credibility, overblown fears of an al Qaeda "safe haven," and the usual fears about domestic political payback.
The second sentence that grabbed my attention came at the end of Dexter Filkins' New York Times Book Review piece on Bing West's new book The Wrong War. Filkins writes (my emphasis):
As ‘The Wrong War' shows so well, the Americans will spend more money and more lives trying to transform Afghanistan, and their soldiers will sacrifice themselves trying to succeed. But nothing short of a miracle will give them much in return."
Put those two statements together, and they cast further doubt on the positive spin we've been hearing about how the Taliban is on the run, the Afghan "surge" is working, and how we'll be able to start leaving by 2014. I think the latter claim is correct, by the way, but not because we will have succeeded in creating a stable Afghanistan. We'll eventually leave Afghanistan to its fate, but it will be because we've finally figured out that the stakes there aren't worth the effort, especially given the low odds of meaningful success. It's just taking us longer to figure that out than it should.
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Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel's continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn't question Israel's legitimacy, didn't declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn't call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with "secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.
There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.
Yet even now, with the peace process and the two-state solution flat-lining, the Obama administration couldn't bring itself to vote for a U.N. resolution that reflected the U.S. government's own position on settlements. The transparently lame explanation given by U.S. officials was that the security council isn't the right forum to address this issue. Instead, they claimed that the settlements issue ought to be dealt with in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the security council should have nothing to say on the issue.
This position is absurd on at least two grounds. First, the expansion of settlements is clearly an appropriate issue for the security council to consider, given that it is authorized to address obvious threats to international peace and security. Second, confining this issue to "direct talks" doesn't make much sense when those talks are going nowhere. Surely the Obama administration recognizes that its prolonged and prodigious effort to get meaningful discussions going have been a complete bust? It is hard to believe that they didn't recognize that voting "yes" on the resolution might be a much-needed wake-up call for the Israeli government, and thus be a good way to get the peace process moving again? Thus far, all that Obama's Middle East team has managed to do in two years is to further undermine U.S. credibility as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and to dash the early hopes that the United States was serious about "two states for two peoples." And while Obama, Mitchell, Clinton, Ross, and the rest of the team have floundered, the Netanyahu government has continued to evict Palestinian residents from their homes, its bulldozers and construction crews continuing to seize more and more of the land on which the Palestinians hoped to create a state.
Needless to say, the United States is all by its lonesome on this issue. Our fellow democracies -- France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, India, and Colombia -- all voted in favor of the resolution, but not the government of the Land of the Free. And it's not as if Netanyahu deserved to be rewarded at this point, given how consistently he has stiffed Obama and his Middle East team.
When Zhou en-Lai was asked in the 1970s about the historical significance of the French Revolution, he famously responded that it was "too soon to tell." Given that wise caution, it is undoubtedly foolhardy for me to try to pick the winners and losers of the upheaval whose ultimate implications remain uncertain. But at the risk of looking silly in a few days (or weeks or months or years), I'm going to ignore the obvious pitfalls and forge ahead. Here's my current list of winners and losers, plus a third category: those for whom I have no idea.
1. The Demonstrators
The obvious winners in these events are the thousands of ordinary Egyptians who poured into the streets to demand Mubarak's ouster, and to insist on the credible prospect of genuine reform. For this reason, Mubarak's designated deputy, Omar Suleiman, had to go too. Some of the demonstrators' activities were planned and coordinated (and we'll probably know a lot more about it over time) but a lot of it was the spontaneous expression of long-simmering frustration. By relying on non-violent methods, maintaining morale and discipline, and by insisting that Mubarak had to go, the anti-government uprising succeeded where prior protest campaigns had failed. "People power" with an Arab face. And oh yes: Google got a great product placement too.
2. Al Jazeera
With round-the-clock coverage that put a lot of Western coverage to shame, Al Jazeera comes out of these events with its reputation enhanced. Its ability to transmit these images throughout the Arab world may have given events in Tunisia and in Egypt far greater regional resonance. If Radio Cairo was the great revolutionary amplifier of the Nasser era, Al Jazeera may have emerged as an even more potent revolutionary force, as a medium that is shared by Arab publics and accessible to outsiders too. And I'll bet that is what Mubarak now thinks.
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The last day or two demonstrates that Mubarak has no intention of going down without a fight. At the same time, Egypt's Prime Minister has expressed regret for the loss of life and is pledging an orderly transition. Where does this leave us?
First of all, the events in the past day or two confirm a point I've made before: revolutionary upheavals are very hard to predict and the final outcome often isn't determined for weeks or months or even years. I was obviously wrong about the potential for contagion from the original Tunisian catalyst, but not about the fact that authoritarian governments are often able to ride out these storms. I'm not saying that Mubarak will (and as I said a couple of days ago, I think the regime is fatally compromised even if he does hang on), but the past day or two reminds us that the regime is not without resources. To repeat myself further, the danger is that the onset of a significant violence will create a situation where extremists on both sides feel empowered, resulting in far more extensive damage to Egypt's social order.
From a U.S. perspective, I'm with FP colleague Marc Lynch. If Obama goes wobbly at this point, he'll look even weaker than many people in the Middle East already assume he is. Given that Mubarak is beginning to do exactly what Obama asked him not to do, now's the time to distance ourselves even further. Obama should announce an immediate suspension of military aid to Egypt, while ordering the Pentagon to send a quiet message to Egyptian military commanders that aid will resume as soon as Mubarak steps down. We are playing the long game here, and need to take clear steps to ensure that we are not seen as complicit in dictatorial repression. Here I'm standing by my earlier remarks about the likely strategic consequences
From the perspective of the Egyptian leadership-and especially the new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, how do things look? Nobody is sharing any secrets with me, but I can still speculate. I caught part of an interview that Suleiman gave on Al Jazeera English (which has been indispensable throughout this crisis), and I thought he was doing his best to sound reasonable and to hold out the prospect of substantial reform but in an orderly manner. The problem, as I noted yesterday, is that neither Mubarak nor Suleiman (a long-time Mubarak associate who runs the intelligence services) has much (any?) credibility as a reformer. If Suleiman really wants to lead an orderly transition via constitutional reforms and September elections, therefore, the smartest thing he could do is to get Mubarak to leave power now, take credit for having done so, and then to govern openly and explicitly as a caretaker. That's just about the only way that Suleiman could gain a bit of credibility and legitimacy, and it might just make it possible to conduct a reform effort that could command broad acceptance.
One last point. In today's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne says that Obama's handling of this crisis will ultimately be judged by whether we get an anti-American/anti-Israel outcome or not. In his words, "Obama will be judged by results. If the Egyptian uprising eventually leads to an undemocratic regime hostile to the United States and Israel, the president will pay the price." I think he's right as a matter of practical politics, but this view also reflects the widespread assumption that the United States government has the capacity to determine the outcome of unruly political processes of the sort we are now witnessing in Egypt. This is silly: Nobody is in control of events there, nobody knows how it will turn out, and it's quite possible that we'll get either a good outcome or a bad outcome no matter what the United States government does. That doesn't mean the USG shouldn't try to shape events to the extent that we can, but we should not forget that our capacity to mold them is inherently limited.
I'm all for holding leaders accountable, especially when they do foolish things entirely on their own initiative (like invading Iraq). But we would do a better job of judging our leaders' performance if we acknowleged that presidents are neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
There's a part of me that would like to blog about something other than Egypt, but how can I? Events there are both too dramatic and of potentially great import, so I find it hard to wrench myself onto other topics. Apologies to any of you who'd like me to turn my attention elsewhere...
If history is any guide (and it is, albeit a rather fickle and ambiguous one), we are still in the early stages. The French revolution went through a series of distinct phases for more than a decade (accelerated, to be sure, by war), before Bonaparte's seizure of power. The Russian Revolution began with the March 1917 uprisings, followed by the Bolshevik coup in October and then a civil war. The Islamic republic of Iran did not leap full-blown from the brow of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but took several years to assume its basic form. Even the United States was a work-in-progress for years after victory in the revolutionary war. (Remember the Articles of Confederation, and the debate over the Constitution?).
In short, history cautions that we have no clear idea what form a post-Mubarak government in Egypt will take, and there's a lot of contingency at work here. I have my hunches and hopes, but nobody can be really confident about their forecasts at this stage. (Heck, at first I didn't think the upheaval in Tunisia would spread!) It will help a lot if the process of political contestation in Egypt avoids large-scale violence, because the onset of mass violence (whether by the regime and its supporters or by the anti-Mubarak groups), is going to fuel greater hatred and paranoia and tilt the process in more dangerous directions. For this reason, those who are urging a peaceful and orderly transition (including the Obama adminstration) are exactly right. And that's why the reports I'm seeing about rising violence (a summary of which can be found on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish) is worrisome.
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Like nearly everyone-including, I assume, Hosni Mubarak himself -- I've been surprised by the speed, scope and intensity of the upheaval in Egypt. As I write this, it's still not clear whether Mubarak will remain in power. Nor do we know how far-reaching the changes might be if he were to leave. We should all be somewhat humble about our ability to forecast where things are headed, or what the future implications might be.
That caveat notwithstanding, I want to offer a realist interpretation of what these events mean for the United States, along with the basic prescription that follows from that analysis. And though it may surprise some of you, I think realism dictates that the United States encourage Mubarak to leave, and openly endorse the creation of a democratic government in Egypt.
Realists are often caricatured as being uninterested in democracy or human rights, and concerned solely with the distribution of power and a narrowly defined national interest. It is true that realists tend to see calculations about power as the most important factor shaping international politics, and they often see sharp tradeoffs between strategic interests and moral preferences. Yet domestic considerations-including human rights-can be relevant for realists, particularly when thinking about one's allies.
To maximize their own security, states want allies that are strong, stable, and that do not cause major strategic problems for them (i.e., by getting into counterproductive quarrels with others). Other things being equal, states are better off if they don't have to worry about their allies' internal stability, and if an allied government enjoys considerable support among its population. An ally that is internally divided, whose government is corrupt or illegitimate, or that is disliked by lots of other countries is ipso facto less valuable than one whose population is unified, whose government is legitimate, and that enjoys lots of international support. For this reason, even a staunch realist would prefer allies that were neither internally fragile nor international pariahs, while recognizing that sometimes you have to work with what you have.
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There is an awful lot of unpredictable stuff going on right now -- Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc. -- and I haven't had time to comment at length on the "Palestine Papers" that were leaked to Al Jazeera and released earlier this week. So here are a few quick reactions, based on a less-than-complete survey of the documents (which you can find here), and some perusal of the commentary surrounding them.
For starters, a caveat. As with the various WikiLeaks revelations, it's a mistake to view these documents (which detail all sorts of confidential negotiations) as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." For one thing, the leaked documents are the Palestinians' record of these events, and even if they are being scrupulously honest (and they probably were, insofar as these were internal records), the other participants might have seen or heard the conversations differently. You know, the old Rashomon effect. As far as I know, nobody has successfully impugned their accuracy (the PA tried to do so at first, but soon dropped that approach), but these exchanges are hardly the sum total of the diplomatic record. They offer lots of revealing information, but they need to be read in context and supplemented with other sources.
Second, the above caveat notwithstanding, the documents put to death the idea that Israel has no Palestinian "partner for peace." On the contrary, they reveal a PA leadership that is desperate for peace -- sometimes to the point of being craven -- and getting no help at all from the Israelis and precious little from the United States. They keep offering various concessions and trying different formulas, and get bupkus in return. Indeed, even when they might think they've obtained something of value -- such as Condi Rice's pledge that the 1967 borders will be the baseline for negotiations and territorial swaps -- they find that the next set of U.S. negotiators take it away with scarcely a backward glance.
In this sense, the documents also expose the bipartisan and binational strategy that Israel and the United States have followed under both Bush and Obama: to keep putting pressure on the Palestinians to cut a one-sided deal. And if you thought George Mitchell was acting like an evenhanded mediator, think again: He keeps leaning on the Palestinians to get back to the table, to accept a less-than-complete settlement freeze, etc., yet there's no hint of any pressure on the Israeli side.
Third, I can't make up my mind about the PA itself. A good case can be made that they've become complicit in the occupation and that the much-heralded "Fayyadism" -- building state institutions, emphasizing development and normalcy, and cracking down on "extremists" -- has put them in the role of doing Israel's dirty work for it, but with little to show for it. (That's a familiar strategy for a colonial power: find local elites who like holding positions of power and use them as your local agents). And the fact that Abbas and Fayyad have exceeded their terms of office yet refused to hold new elections reinforces that case. Yet I'm reluctant to condemn them for this response, both because the Palestinians do need more effective institutions and because they had precious few cards to play. Another intifada was only going to make things worse.
Fourth, these releases can also be read as the final obituary for the Oslo peace process. Lord knows it had been on life support for years, and most analysts have already understood it was going nowhere. In that sense, these documents aren't really revelatory: They merely confirm what most of us had suspected ever since Obama began walking back from the Cairo speech. But what I've argued before is now abundantly clear: The Palestinians aren't going to accept anything less than a viable state (plus at least symbolic acknowledgement of a "right of return"), and Israel isn't going to offer them anything remotely close to that. (See Jeremy Pressman here for further details on the difficulties.) It's equally clear that the United States is incapable of acting like an honest broker on this issue, despite its importance to our broader security position. That means no "two states for two peoples," which in turn means that some future U.S. president is going to face some really awkward choices.
And if we step back and take a larger and longer view, it begins to look like the U.S. position in the Middle East, which seemed so dominant after the fall of the USSR and the first Gulf War, is now crumbling. Hezbollah just formed a government in Lebanon, possibly after the United States convinced former PM Saad Hariri to go back on a compromise deal over the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of his father. Iraq is now governed by a Shiite government with extensive links to Iran and is denying the U.S. any future military role there. A democratic government in Turkey, while not anti-American, is charting an independent course. The Mubarak government in Egypt, long a close U.S. client, has been shaken, and even if it survives the current turmoil, its long-term status is up for grabs.
The problem is this: The United States has no idea how to deal with a Middle East where the voice of the people might actually be heard, rather than being subject to the writ of various aging potentates. And having followed policies for decades that are unpopular with most of those same people, we may be about to reap the whirlwind.
As someone who cares about politics and uses words for a living, I suppose I ought to be more interested in tonight's State of the Union address. Pundits and politicos are in the usual lather about it, either predicting or prescribing what Obama will or should say. I'm sure plenty of people will live-blog it tonight, and then spend tomorrow doing the usual array of post-mortems.
But I'm feeling more like Eliza Doolittle: "Words, words, words. ... I'm so sick of words." I say that because I don't think this speech is going to make much difference one way or the other. It will be mostly about domestic priorities (possibly justified by the need to compete more effectively abroad), and foreign policy is bound to get short shrift. Given the dearth of major foreign policy achievements, I'd say that's both predictable and wise.
But what will the speech accomplish? It's not going to tame House Republicans, or make obstructionist Senators more cooperative. Neither the Tea Party nor Fox/News (a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP) is going to be won over by the president's words, no matter how eloquent he is or how effectively he triangulates. His oratory won't alter the calculations or conduct of the Taliban, sway the governments of Iran, or China, or turn Hamid Karzai into a popular and effective leader. And even in the wake of the Tucson shooting, I doubt that eloquent pleas for greater bipartisanship and a more civil discourse will end the vitriol on talk radio and in the blogosphere.
What matters isn't what Obama says tonight, but what he and his advisors, and the Congress ultimately do. The achievements of his first two years (such as health care, and rescuing the U.S. economy from the abyss), were based not on speeches but on a lot of gritty, messy, sausage-making policy work. By contrast, some of Obama's more conspicuous failures (the Middle East peace process, the half-hearted "opening" to Iran, and the Afghan quagmire), featured high-flying and well-delivered acts of oratory but were followed by ill-conceived or poorly implemented policies.
So I'll probably watch the speech, but I'm not expecting much. And my guess is that a couple of weeks hence, most of us will have forgotten about it.
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Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention to both.
Item No. 1: Steve and several of his associates have sponsored an important open letter, co-signed by an impressive list of former government officials, journalists, and academics. The letter calls for the United States government to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's continued efforts to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The normal U.S. practice is to veto such resolutions, even though the official U.S. government position is that settlement construction is illegal and an obstacle to peace. Given that the peace process itself is going nowhere, however, supporting such a resolution would be an important symbolic act that would signal to the Netanyahu government that it cannot act with impunity. It would also remind the rest of the world that the Obama administration isn't just a lap dog when it comes to these issues and that Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 wasn't just empty rhetoric.
More importantly, voting for this resolution is not an "anti-Israel" act, though it would undoubtedly be seen as such by most groups in the "status quo" lobby. The signatories to the letter were no doubt primarily concerned with advancing U.S. interests, but in this case the long-term interests of the United States and Israel are identical. As many Americans and Israelis now realize, the settlement enterprise has been a costly blunder for Israel. By making a two-state solution more difficult (and maybe impossible), it even threatens Israel's long-term future. Although no government likes open criticism or Security Council censure, backing this resolution is an easy way for the United States to help Israel begin to rethink its present course and strengthen our tarnished credentials as an honest broker.
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I don't know what President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao will say to each other during their summit meeting this week. But based on my conversations and discussions in Vietnam this week, I think I know one thing that Obama should not say.
I have given several lectures since my arrival here, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials. One theme that has come up repeatedly is the fear that the United States and China will reach some sort of great power condominium. at the expense of the weaker powers in the region. There is clearly considerable concern that the United States will "do a deal" with China, in effect granting it a free hand in its neighborhood in exchange for concessions elsewhere.
I've tried to explain to my audiences here that this is very unlikely. Realism tells you that the two most powerful states in the international system tend to be very wary of each other, and find it difficult (though of course not impossible) to cooperate, particularly on core issues of national security. Some sort of "G-2" condominium would be difficult to negotiate and hard to sustain, because both sides would worry that the other was getting the better part of the deal.
The immediate problem, however, is that both China and the United States have some incentives to make the summit a success, and to mask or minimize differences under a veil of flattering diplomatic language. Moreover, China's neighbors are somewhat ambivalent themselves: they don't want to be dominated by China, but they also don't want a "Cold War" in the region. This situations gives the United States and China reasons to "act nice," even if both are aware of some significant underlying differences, and it may tempt the Obama administration to remain silent on some key areas of disagreement, such as China's territorial claims.
So President Obama needs to be careful. His normal instinct, as we've seen repeatedly, is to play the role of conciliator, to avoid setting clear red lines, and to look for whatever deals he can get. My guess is that his advisors will also be encouraging him to avoid any sort of confrontational language, and Secretary of State Clinton has already emphasized the U.S. desire for "real action, on real issues." If the United States and China can make progress on currency issues, North Korea, and climate change, then they can view the summit as a success and other states in Asia will not be overly alarmed.
But he also needs to avoid giving the impression that all the United States cares about is a good relationship with China, and he certainly does not want to convey the idea that Beijing and Washington are getting together to divide up the world, or that the United States is ready to make any concessions on China's territorial claims in the South China sea or elsewhere. People here in Southeast Asia are watching the summit very closely, and they will probably over-interpret the normal diplomatic niceties in any case. They will also be alert to issues that aren't mentioned, and will be worried if the two leaders appear to be getting along too well.
Lastly, bear in mind that this is just one meeting. No matter what gets said by either side, or what agreements they do or do not reach, this meeting is not going to determine the future of Sino-American relations or the future of the U.S. position in Asia. There are enduring structural features -- both economic and strategic -- that will exert lasting effects on how those features of contemporary world politics evolve, and it would be a mistake to put too much weight on just one meeting. But I still hope the president chooses his words with great care, and keeps that smile of his in check.
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I did a short interview with Al Jazeera's station in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, focused primarily on Secretary of Defense Gates' visit to China. For those of you who didn't catch it (which I assume is just about everyone), I thought I'd pass along what I said.
They asked me three questions. Here's what they asked, and more-or-less what I replied.
1. Is there a new Cold War between the United and China?
In my opinion, no. There is growing concern about the relationship in both countries, and I think there is likely to be a rising security competition between the two, especially in Asia. But it's a far cry from the Cold War struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. That was really a battle to the death, where both states actively wanted to bring the other down. Nothing like that is occurring between the United States and China these days. The Cold War was also an intense ideological competition, where each side saw the other's political system as not merely different, but as the embodiment of evil. There are some differences in values between the United States and China, but it's not at nearly the same level as the Cold War. Lastly, the United States and USSR did not interact very much: trade and investment were quite low and there wasn't a lot of personal or cultural exchange between the two states. Again, the situation with China and the United States today is very different: there is a lot of trade and investments, thousands of students going back and forth every year, and and fairly high degree of elite engagement too. So while there is an emerging rivalry that I expect to become more intense, it isn't what I'd call a "Cold War."
2. Is President Obama's Asia policy a
On balance, yes. Despite having allowed itself to get distracted by events elsewhere, I think the administration has done a fairly good job. President Obama's trip to Asia last year was quite successful. The security partnership with India is deepening, and the United States has managed relations with traditional allies such as Japan well. It has backed South Korea effectively in its delicate relationship with North Korea, and restored closer ties with Indonesia. Relations with Singapore are strong, and Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that the United States intends to remain closely engaged in Asia for many years to come. Overall, they've done much better in East Asia than they have in Central Asia (Afghanistant/Pakistan) or the Middle East.
3. What are China's aims?
China's objectives are not really that hard to understand. First, they want to continue to grow economically, because doing so is critical to the welfare of the Chinese people and to the stability and legitimacy of the government. Second, like any other country, China wants to maximize its security. It doesn't want to be vulnerable to events elsewhere, or to pressure from other major powers. This means it wants reliable access to raw materials, to energy, and to the world markets on which its prosperity increasingly depends. Over the long term, that means it would like to reduce the American role in Asia, because its leaders will feel they are safer if there isn't any major military adversary with a strong position in Asia. Americans wouldn't be happy is some world power had an array of alliances in the Western hemisphere; by the same logic, Beijing cannot be delighted by America's close ties with many Asian countries (not to mention Taiwan). This view isn't a sign of innate Chinese expansionism or aggressiveness; for a realist, it's how any great power would view this situation. Whether Beijing will achieve its various aims, of course, is another matter.
Postscript: I'm off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), so my next post will be from there.
It's a New Year, and there's more news from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No surprise: It's not good. Over the weekend a 36-year-old Palestinian woman, Jawahar Abu Rahmah, died after inhaling tear gas fired at a demonstration at Bilin in the occupied territories. For eyewitness accounts and useful commentary, check out the Israeli website +972mag here.
Please note that Abu Rahmah wasn't a suicide bomber, wasn't firing rockets, and wasn't demanding an end to the Jewish state. She posed no direct threat to Israel's security at all. Instead, along with other courageous Israeli and Palestinian activists, she was merely protesting the illegal construction of Israel's "security fence" (aka "apartheid wall") near the village of Bilin. According to the New York Times, Israel's High Court declared in 2007 that "the barrier at Bilin should be rerouted to take in less of the village's agricultural land. That work has still not been completed." It is also worth noting that she was the second member of her family to die in this way; her brother Bassem was hit in the chest and killed by an Israeli tear-gas canister in 2009. (The tear gas, by the way, is manufactured right here in the United States).
Meanwhile, back in America, a number of prominent commentators are beginning to figure out that the Zionist dream is becoming a nightmare. First came Peter Beinart's important piece in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. Then, in the past couple of weeks, New Yorker editor David Remnick has given several interviews condemning the occupation in unusually blunt terms. Even die-hard defenders like Marty Peretz and Jeffrey Goldberg have expressed concerns about Israel's trajectory, wondering if it will remain a democracy.
These are hopeful signs because progress is only possible if we take an unsentimental look at the situation there. And the central point is that Israel's problems are not due to a handful of extremist rabbis, authoritarian tendencies among the recent Russian immigrants, or even the growing percentage of haredim. The core problem remains the occupation itself, which is a project that every Israeli government since 1967 has endorsed and supported. It is by now deeply embedded in the Israeli political establishment, which is why it will be so hard -- and maybe impossible -- to end. Among other things, that is why I have so much admiration for those courageous Israelis who understand where this course is leading and who are doing what they can to save their country from itself. (And yes, this unhappy situation affects America too, as even the Weekly Standard seemed to acknowledge indirectly last week).
Finally, in a bizarre bit of CYA diplomacy, the Israeli press is reporting that unnamed U.S. officials are now blaming the failure of the latest peace negotiations on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to the reports, Barak "charmed" U.S. officials into thinking that he could persuade Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze and other compromises, but then Barak failed to deliver as promised. "See: It's not really our fault; we just got hoodwinked by that wily fellow Barak."
In fact, if this report is even remotely accurate, it is yet another display of diplomatic incompetence on the part of Obama's Middle East team. Ehud Barak is hardly an unknown figure, and nobody who dealt with him during his earlier tenure as prime minister should have accepted his blandishments at face value now. When it comes to the peace process, in fact, Barak is a serial blunderer who repeatedly drove Bill Clinton and his Middle East team crazy with his high-handed and mercurial tactics. Even Dennis Ross, who is rarely critical of Israeli officials, expressed considerable exasperation with Barak in his memoir of those years. So what does it say when these same people get taken in by him yet again?
All of which leads me to the following suggestion for U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Given the sorry track record of the past two decades, we ought to establish a simple litmus test for future members of any presidential Middle East team. We just ask if they have any prior government service on this issue, and if the answer is yes, then they are automatically disqualified from serving again. I don't care if you're Protestant, Muslim, Coptic, Catholic, Quaker, Jewish, or Zoroastrian, or if you're a Republican, a Democrat, a realist, a neoconservative, or for that matter a La Follette Progressive. I don't care if you worked for AIPAC, for WINEP, for ATFP, or even for JVP. The rule is simple and clear: If you were directly associated with any of our past (failed) efforts, we thank you for your prior service, but we aren't going to use you again. None of us would go back to the same orthopedist after he or she bungled a knee operation, and we shouldn't keep reusing the same diplomats who have conspicuously failed to deliver in the past.
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It's Christmas Eve, and my brain has been deadened by hours of grading a take-home final exam. (The papers themselves aren't bad, but reading dozens of answers to the same questions can get a bit mind-numbing). I can't dull the pain with egg nog or some other suitable spirit until this evening, so I'm taking a quick break to offer this holiday post.
My own holiday shopping is finished, thank goodness, but I began wondering about what sorts of gifts I'd like to see some prominent world leaders receive. In the spirit of the season, here's a hypothetical gift list for a few people who've been on my mind over the past year or so.
1. For Barack Obama. A copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. President Obama is ending the year on an up note, having successfully managed to end Don't Ask Don't Tell and obtained Senate approval for the New Start Treaty. I think the former achievement is more important than the latter, but both are worthy accomplishments. The new Congress won't be nearly as friendly (and the last one was no picnic), so the president will need all of Machiavelli's wily advice to confound his opponents. Let's hope he learns that it's better to be feared than loved, at least when you're dealing with today's Grand Obstructionist Party.
2. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: a pair of reading glasses, an espresso machine, and a couple of days off. Why? So she can read the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I just downloaded this sucker, and it's over 200 pages of bracing bureaucratic prose. I plan to read it myself over Xmas break, but I'll bet it takes me a few espressos to get through it too. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be cited more than read, even by people at State.
4. For Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: A copy of Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes, and Ali Abunimah's One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Because if we don't get to "yes" on two states, one state is what you'll end up with.
5. For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: A copy of The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chavez has been obsessed with Simon Bolivar -to the extent of exhuming his remains in an attempt to prove that the South American hero was poisoned-but Marquez's novel also offers a warning of the sort of fate that Chavez himself may be destined for.
6. For UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: A copy of Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." Running the United Nations must sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, and every bit as absurd as Camus judged the fate of man to be. But perhaps the Secretary-General can take comfort from Camus' conclusion -- "we must imagine Sisyphus happy."
7. For North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un: A DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The question is: will he govern like Nurse Ratched, or like McMurphy?
8. For General David Petraeus: A Youtube link to Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." There just might be a lesson in there.
9. For Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao: A framed reproduction of Matisse's Fall of Icarus, as a reminder of what can happen when one flies too high too fast.
10. For readers of this blog: My thanks for your interest, your sometimes spirited dissents, and your generous words of support. May each of you bask in the love of family and friends this holiday season, and may we all grow a little bit wiser in the year ahead.
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While I've been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I'd be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn't take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works.
The first is a big article in the latest issue of The National Interest, entitled "Imperial by Design." The article offers a compelling explanation for America's recent foreign policy failures, which he traces to the excesses and errors of the Clinton-era "liberal imperialists" and Bush-era neoconservatives. (Not surprisingly, Obama seems to be following the former's blueprint in most respects). Both groups sought to use American power to shape the world in our image, although Clinton did so rather gingerly while Bush & Co. did so with reckless abandon. This ambitious and largely bipartisan attempt to manage the entire globe ultimately led to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a costly squandering of American power. Mearsheimer proposes a return to the earlier U.S. strategy of "offshore balancing," a strategy that would protect America's core interests at far less cost and generate less anti-American extremism. Ideally, this article ought to begin a long-overdue debate on the fundamentals of American grand strategy, but I'm not at all sure that it will. At this point there are too many people inside-the-Beltway with a vested interest in a global military footprint, and little interest in examining its do footprint, and little interest in examining the downside to this posture.
As far as I'm concerned, there are only three key points to make about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" last week.
First, as I've noted before, this decision will strengthen U.S. national security. Any policy that reduces the pool of qualified candidates for military service is inherently inefficient, and makes it harder for the United States to produce the best armed forces at the least cost. The only relevant question was whether allowing gay Americans to serve openly would have deleterious effects on cohesion or morale, and the evidence that it won't is overwhelming. By voting to repeal, the House and Senate have made America stronger.
Second, this decision is completely consistent with American ideals. Our politicians constantly proclaim their commitment to human liberty, and surely that ought to include a deeply personal trait like sexual preference. Both gay and straight personnel will of course be expected to follow appropriate rules of conduct towards others (just as the rest of us are supposed to do in civilian life), but a glaring contrast between our ideals and our practice has now been eliminated.
Third, the transition to the new policy will not occur overnight, and that's appropriate too. As the Times noted today, any major change in personnel policy involves adjustments, and it's better to get it done right than to get it done with undue haste. My bet is that the armed forces will handle implementation well, and in a few years we'll look back and wonder what the whole fuss was about. 'Bout time, too.
Perhaps you noticed the following two headlines from today's New York Times (print edition; the online headline is different):
Those two stories tell you a lot about the situation in Central Asia, especially when read in the context of the latest strategy review. Surprise, surprise: that review reaffirmed virtually all of the Obama administration's justifications for continuing the war, and offered just enough upbeat assessments to support a continued effort. At the same time, it provides just enough prophylactic pessimism to appear "realistic."
But what's missing in all this role-playing was a clear and convincing statement of costs and benefits. For all the talk of defeating al Qaeda (which isn't in Afghanistan any more), or preventing "safe havens," the administration scrupulously avoided the question of whether the money spent, lives lost, and presidential time consumed is worth it in terms of advancing core American interests. While parsing the evidence that it is making progress, the administration carefully avoids the question of whether the resources devoted to achieving something that might be defined as "success" are worth spending. Similarly, it avoids asking whether the costs of disengagement would be all that significant; it simply assumes that getting out would lead to catastrophe. So it just repeats the usual affirmations that "we must...." and "we will...." while avoiding the far more important issue of whether we should. Our German allies appear to have asked themselves that question, and come up with a different answer.
And the news that the United States intends to expand the war even further into Pakistan is especially worrisome. On the one hand, it suggests that the administration has figured out that it cannot ever win in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban have a safe haven across the border (and the tacit or active support of some key elements in the Pakistani military). But as Anatol Lieven notes in The Nation, unleashing additional violence in Pakistan could have long-term destabilizing consequences that would be far more significant than whatever ultimately happens in Afghanistan.
And it is hard not to see echoes of Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia in 1970, in a failed attempt to eradicate Viet Cong bases there. The two situations are hardly identical, but both illustrate the tendency for wars to expand in both the scope and extent of violence, especially when they aren't going well. You send more troops, but that doesn't turn things around. So you send a few more, and you widen the war to new areas. But that doesn't work either, so you decide you have to alter the rules of engagement, use more missiles, bombs, or drones, or whatever. Maybe that will work, but it's looking more and more like the strategic equivalent of the Hail Mary pass. And so we have the bizarre situation where the president who won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office has now escalated the war twice, expanded the use of drones, and now intends to widen the war in Pakistan even more.
Let's not forget that the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 also helped destabilize that country, and helped usher in the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. I'm not predicting a similar outcome here, but that example is a cruel reminder that military force is a crude instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to anticipate in advance.
Decades from now, historians will look back and wonder how the United States allowed itself to get bogged down in a long and costly war to determine the political fate of landlocked country whose entire gross national product is about a quarter the size of the New York city budget. And when they reflect on the fact that the United States did this even after a major financial collapse and in the face of persistent budget deficits and macroeconomic imbalances, they will shake their heads in amazement.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
I keep thinking about the Wikileaks affair, and I keep seeing the double-standards multiplying. Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President's hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange's activities.
Or consider the case of the most famous of all "insider" journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he's built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he's gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a #1 position on the best-seller list.
Has anybody proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn't writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays-information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government-is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama's secret Afghanistan decision-making?
I'm not for a minute suggesting that somebody ought to threaten Woodward with prosecution, ban his books, or try to hack his laptop and destroy his hard drive. But the contrast between the reflexive praise with which his books are received-and to be fair, some of them make for pretty interesting reading -- and the "sky is falling" witch-hunt surrounding Julian Assange, is striking.
And I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don't really trust "the people" in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being "on the inside" conveys: it's a turn-on to know things that other people don't, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current "best and brightest" are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact "public servants" who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.
Their view of the public's right to information is akin to the view expressed by Col. Nathan Jessep (memorably played by Jack Nicholson) in the film A Few Good Men. When defense attorney Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) says "I want the truth!," Jessep retorts: "You can't handle the truth!" Unless, of course, it is filtered by establishment journalists like Woodward, and not by some unsympathetic upstart like Assange.
UPDATE: My colleague and friend Jack Goldsmith from Harvard Law School has two good pieces on this issue, both well worth reading. He also noted the double-standard being applied to Woodward and Assange, and suggests that this case actually suggests that the entire system of security classification ought to be re-thought. You can his two pieces here and here.
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Keeping up with Jeffrey Goldberg's errors is like trying to dam the Gulf Stream, and responding to his repeated smears is a mug's game. I suppose I could quote a bunch of snarky comments about him too, and we could have a nasty blogosopheric food fight for the entertainment of our readers. But I prefer to focus on the issues, instead of the name-calling that is J.G.'s stock-in-trade.
His latest silly sally is to chide me for my saying that there is no meaningful "Arab lobby" in Washington. As evidence, he points out that various Arab states have paid a lot of money to various public relations firms, in a rather transparent attempt to gain some influence in Washington. The question to ask is whether these activities produce "meaningful" influence on key foreign policy issues, especially when you compare them with the lobbying groups on the other side.
Once you ask that question, of course, his case collapses. Let's look at the vast influence that the "Arab lobby" has wielded in recent years.
1. It is undoubtedly the all-powerful Arab lobby that ensures that Israel gets $3-4 billion in economic and military aid each year, even when it does things that the United States opposes, like building settlements. And were it not for the Arab lobby, the United States would be putting a lot of pressure on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and come clean about its nuclear arsenal.
2. It was the vaunted Arab lobby that convinced President Bush to delay a U.N. ceasefire resolution during the Lebanon War of 2006, so that Israel could try to finish off Hezbollah and continue bombing civilian areas in Lebanon. Pressure from the Arab lobby also convinced Congress to pass a resolution backing Israel to the hilt, and to remove language from the original draft that called for both sides to "protect civilian life and infrastructure."
3. When Ambassador Charles Freeman was nominated to chair the National Intelligence Council in 2009, the vast Arab lobby promptly launched a successful smear campaign to deny him the post, running roughshod over his outnumbered and powerless defenders at the New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, and Washington Post.
4. When Obama asked Israel to implement a settlement freeze in 2009, the Arab lobby promptly swung into action and drafted open letters warning the President not to put any pressure on Israel. These resolutions passed overwhelmingly in both Houses, another sign of the Arab lobby's political clout.
5. When Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008, the Arab lobby was there to prevent the U.S. from interfering. And when the Goldstone Report raised the issue of possible Israeli war crimes in that war, the Arab Lobby no doubt called the Obama administration and told it to condemn the report, which it promptly did.
The good news is that the Obama administration has withdrawn its humiliating attempt to bribe Israel into accepting a 90-day extension of the (partial) settlement freeze. Not only was this negotiating ploy one of the more degrading moments in the annals of U.S. diplomacy, it also had scant chance of success. To their credit, Obama's Middle East teams finally figured this out -- a few weeks later than most observers -- and pulled the plug on the deal.
The bad news, however, is that it's not clear what their next move is. Everyone now realizes that the United States cannot play the role of a fair-minded mediator in this conflict, and the early hopes that Obama would adopt a smarter approach have been repeatedly dashed.
This situation isn't good for anyone -- not the United States, not Israel, and not the Palestinians. It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.
This failure will further complicate our efforts elsewhere in the region. As former President Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, solving the Israel-Palestine problem "will take about half the impetus in the whole world -- not just the region, the whole world -- for terror away. . . It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done." It is also clear from the recent WikiLeaks releases that our Arab partners want the United States to do something about Iran, but they remain deeply concerned by the Palestinian issue and they recognize that progress on Israel-Palestine would go a long way to reducing Iran's regional influence.
Unfortunately, there's little reason to expect any sort of breakthrough, which means that local forces and dynamics are going to be exerting greater weight. When others believe that the United States is in charge of the "peace process" and leading it in a positive direction, they sit back and let Uncle Sam do the work. But now that Obama's team has failed, local actors will take matters into their own hands and U.S. influence is likely to diminish further. Why wait for Washington to deliver a deal when it is obvious that it can't?
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the events of the past two years have done a lot to clarify both where we are and where we are headed. One can take no joy from that, because the current path is bound to produce more needless suffering in the short to medium term, and maybe beyond. But dispelling the myths and illusions that have obscured our vision is of some value, and in this case, one didn't even need WikiLeaks to figure out what's going on.
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As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I've been reading some of the latest releases and I've read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven't seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they've changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it's hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.
Please note that I am not arguing that there isn't useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.
Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one's they've seen. Until we've had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.
Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing. Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn't allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There's also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.
But let's get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I'm willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn't be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It's mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I'm not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.
And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell's cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it's hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel's concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I've read or the news accounts I've seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order.
Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents -- it's my own Rorschach, I guess -- is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems. South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don't agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.
You'd expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Fifth, the big story in the early releases -- at least as highlighted in the Times -- seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don't actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.
But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I've heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.
Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn't going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy's deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings -- and this include foreign policy-makers -- are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed. If you have to keep something secret, that's often a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all.
And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don't mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I'm sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I'm also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.
But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There's an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don't write if you can talk; don't talk if you can nod; don't nod if you can wink." Somehow, I'm not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.