How should we respond to North Korea's latest bit of infuriating behavior? So far, the Obama administration's decision to send a US carrier for joint naval exercises with South Korea strikes me as about right. Overreacting would just give North Korea what they usually want-i.e., more attention than they deserve-but a purely verbal statement of support would have been seen as too modest by South Korea and our other Asian allies.
At the same time, we want to let Seoul take the lead in responding to this attack (while letting them know that we have their back), because we want our Asian allies to start taking more responsibility for their own security. South Korea is far wealthier and stronger than the North (which has a large but poorly trained and equipped army), and there's little danger of escalation if South Korea chooses to retaliate in a measured way. A real war on the Korean Peninsula would almost certainly bring about the final death knell of the North Korean regime, and somehow I don't think Kim & Co. have a death-wish.
But there's another step that I'd consider. Specifically, I'd try to initiate some quiet discussions with China on how to deal with the whole thorny issue of a post-Kim environment and the prospect of reunification. We're already asking China to intercede, but I'd go further and push them to talk about what our two countries will do in the event that the Pyongyang regime begins to unravel and reunification suddenly begins to look like a real possibility. One of the reasons China keeps protecting North Korea is their legitimate concern that the collapse of the Kim regime would cause enormous headaches for them. Among other things, they worry about a massive influx of refugees, the emergence of a major public health crisis just across the border, the security of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, and the possibility that a reunified Korea would remain allied with the United States, thereby putting a traditional U.S. ally right next door. Because China doesn't want any of those things to happen, it doesn't want the Kim dynasty to disappear. And this situation gives Pyongyang some leverage.
Yet even though I don't think North Korea is on the verge of collapsing, there are two good reasons to start some quiet conversations about what we would do it if did. First, North Korea might implode at some point in the future, and it would be nice to have thought about how we should respond and to have discussed this problem with China in advance. The second reason, and the one more relevant to today's concerns, is that news of these conversations would inevitably leak, and Pyongyang would undoubtedly be deeply concerned if they thought that Beijing was having serious conversations with Washington about the implications of a post-Kim world.
Of course, it is possible that China would just stiff us on this issue, either refusing to discuss the matter or using the conversations as an opportunity to back up Pyongyang once again. But at this point they may be growing tired of North Korea's unpredictable antics, and the steps outlined above would be a subtle and low-cost way for them to show it. And if they refused to help on this issue, it will undercut their attempts to portray themselves as an increasingly responsible "stakeholder" in the East Asian security environment.
Yesterday the Israeli Knesset voted 65-33 to approve the so-called referendum law, which requires a national referendum on any subsequent withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. According to Israeli journalist Dimi Reider, the new law:
Conditions any Israeli withdrawal from any of its territory -- into which Israel, alone in the world, includes the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem -- on passing a nation-wide referendum. To overrule the law, the Knesset would need a privileged majority of 80 out of 120 parliamentarians."
In other words, you can kiss the two-state solution good-bye. (For a similar appraisal of the new law, see Mitchell Plitnick here.) Given the current (and likely future) state of politics within Israel, this law in effect gives a veto to the hard-line settler faction. Even in the unlikely event that Netanyahu agreed to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state and a capital in East Jerusalem, the deal would probably be killed by the referendum or just die in the Knesset. Needless to say, the bill was fully supported by Netanyahu and his Likud Party.
Wake up and smell the coffee, folks. "Two states for two peoples" is dead. I say that with genuine regret, because I've long thought it was the best solution to a long and tragic conflict. If Obama's Middle East team had any backbone -- and it's been clear for some time that they don't -- they would pull their demeaning offer to give Israel extra $3 billion in weapons and a bunch of diplomatic concessions in exchange for a partial 90-day settlement freeze off the table immediately, and keep it off until the Israeli government voted to rescind this law.
But don't hold your breath. Instead, those courageous folks in the State Department offered up the following comment at yesterday's press briefing (HT Jim Lobe):
Question: Is the U.S. concerned about legislation passed by the Israeli parliament requiring a two-thirds vote by the Knesset or a referendum to withdraw from annexed east Jerusalem or the Golan Heights?
Answer: This is an internal Israeli issue and the Israeli government is in the best position to address inquiries related to its process."
The U.S. spokesman couldn't even bring himself to say this latest action was "regrettable." Isn't it great to be the world's only superpower? Don't you just swell with national pride at moments like this?
I've been trying to figure what I think of the latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the most part I agree with FP colleague Marc Lynch -- it's hard to see how this is going to lead anywhere. Even if you get a 90-day extension of the partial freeze on settlement building, nobody thinks you can get a viable final-status agreement in that time period. The best you could hope for is some sort of agreement on borders, but even there I'd be pretty pessimistic.
But let me put aside my usual skepticism and ask a different question: What can the Obama team do to maximize the chances of tangible progress? They've already given Israel a lot of carrots up front: a promise of F-35 aircraft, a pledge to never, ever, ever raise the issue of a settlement freeze again, and a guarantee that we will keep defending Israel in the United Nations, and probably a bunch of other goodies too. Plus, we agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the deal, even though this is a major irritant on the Palestinian side. All told, Netanyahu got a pretty big reward for being recalcitrant. At first glance, there's not much to stop him for halting some (but not all) settlement building, digging in his heels for 90 days, and then going back to business-as-usual.
Here's the rub: given the power of the Israel lobby, it's unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would be able to put any overt pressure on Israel. Congress will make sure that Israel gets its annual aid package, and die-hard defenders like Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) will make it impossible for Obama to use the leverage that is potentially at his disposal. And as noted above, those same forces will make sure that the United States continues veto any unfavorable resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and deflects international efforts to raise question about Israel's nuclear program.
So what's a president to do? Obama and his team have a huge incentive to make this latest gamble pay off. Obama has been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech (which can't be pleasant), George Mitchell is probably worried his long career as a public servant will end in abject failure, and I'll bet Middle East advisor Dennis Ross would like to prove that he's not really "Israel's lawyer" after all. And surely everybody on the team knows that another cave-in will completely derail any hope of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Islamic world. But given that overt pressure is out, what cards do Mitchell, Ross, Clinton, and Obama have to play?
Here's my suggestion: assuming direct talks do resume under U.S. auspices, tell the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that the United States is going to keep a very careful record of who did and said what, and the United States will not hesitate to go public in the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions. Unlike Camp David 2000, where nothing was written down and no maps were exchanged (at Israel's insistence), this time we are going to prevent anybody from doing a lot of spin-control after the fact. In other words, the United States tells everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change, and if either side refuses to play ball, we are going to expose their recalcitrance in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, this declaration can't be a bluff: if the talks bog down, the administration has to be prepared to go public.
And remember: The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all made it clear a viable state for the Palestinians is the only alternative that the United States can get behind. It is what the original U.N. partition plan in 1947 called for, and all the other alternatives (binational democracy, ethnic cleansing, or permanent apartheid) are either impractical or directly at odds with U.S. values.
This approach might actually work, because public discourse on this subject has begun to open up and it is increasingly difficult to spin a one-sided story. (See here for a recent example.) Moreover, many Israelis are growing worried about what they see as a growing international campaign to "delegitimize" their country. The best way to counter that alleged campaign is to end the occupation and establish internationally recognized borders. By contrast, if Israel is seen as the main obstacle to peace, international criticism is bound to increase. Given these concerns, a threat to make the negotiating process public might actually have some bite to it.
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So far, the big news from the NATO Summit in Lisbon is that the United States is trying to change the "sell by" date in Afghanistan. Instead of July 2011, the new deadline for victory is going to be sometime in 2014. Right.
In policy terms, this is called "kicking the can down the road." At that point, I'm betting we'll declare victory and get out, via the same sort of blue-smoke-and-mirrors ("the surge worked") that we used in Iraq. Except that as with Iraq, there will still be thousands of U.S. troops there and we will still be spending billions of dollars trying to create a workable Afghan state. This is good news for corrupt Afghans, but not the U.S. taxpayer or, in the longer term, the U.S. military.
I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
McClatchy news service reports that the Obama administration is starting to back away from the president's July 2011 timeline for a de-escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Instead, "the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014."
Assuming the report is accurate, it shouldn't be a surprise. I don't know anyone who thought the U.S. could turn things around in eighteen months, and that particular deadline was little more than a piece of political sleight-of-hand designed to make escalation look like a temporary step. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan was the right one (I think it wasn't), but Obama's straddle on this issue is one reason why some of his most enthusiastic supporters have become disenchanted.
Of course, there's a long tradition of presidents telling the American people that some new military mission won't take long and won't cost that much. Nixon told us he has a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War (he didn't) and Bill Clinton said U.S. troops would only be in Bosnia for 12 months (it was more like nine years). President George W. Bush and his advisors said that the occupation of Iraq would be brief and pay for itself yet we are still there today. And now Obama has done essentially same thing: selling an increased committed by suggesting that it is only temporary, and then backing away from his own self-imposed deadline.
This report also suggests that the war is not going as well as we're being told. We may be achieving some successes on the battlefield, but as with Iraq, the real challenge is political. Success requires building some sort of effective and legitimate governing authority in Afghanistan, and achieving some sort of political reconciliation among various contending groups. If this goal means building a strong, centralized Afghan state (something that has never existed before) then we are talking about an effort that will take years, costs tens of billions of additional dollars, and could still fail. It also requires rooting out corruption in the Karzai government, but the news on that front is hardly encouraging. Al Qaeda's leaders are no longer in Afghanistan and they don't need safe havens there in order to threaten the U.S., so it is no longer even clear why we are engaged in a massive effort at social engineering in this country. Or as I've said before: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today, but no U.S. forces were present, would Obama have ordered 100,000-plus troops to go there?
I don't think so, but he'll keep them there for the rest of his presidency (whether he gets one or two terms), and he or his successor could end up facing essentially the same choice in 2014 that he is facing today. Barring a new approach from the United States, does anyone think it will be any easier to change course then?
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I am swamped with teaching, travel and some writing deadlines the next two weeks, so my blogging output will probably be sparse. Sadly, this pindown coincides with Obama's big Asian trip, and I regret not being able to comment at length. Given that I think the United States' strategic attention ought to be shifting toward Asia, the trip is long overdue and I'm mostly glad Obama is taking it.
But like Frank Rich, one does wonder about the timing of this particular journey. In his column yesterday, Rich complained that blowing town right after last week's "shellacking" in the midterms sent exactly the wrong message, especially when India is a country that Americans tend to associate with outsourcing and lost jobs. (There's even a new sitcom exploiting that idea.)
My concern is somewhat different. As the United States works to shore up existing alliances in Asia and to strengthen or forge some new ones, it will have to do a fair bit of hard bargaining. Even if there are strong geopolitical forces pushing states like India and the United States together, there are also lingering differences over specific policy issues (such as Afghanistan and Kashmir). Moreover, even close alliance partners will want to get others to do most of the heavy lifting, which usually means some tough negotiating.
My fear, therefore, is that a weakened president with a weak economy will be too eager to make deals while he's on the road. Despite our current woes, Obama should not be so desperate for symbolic foreign policy "achievements" that he ends up looking or sounding like a supplicant. Our Asian partners still need us more than we need them, and the United States hardly needs to be begging them to cooperate with us.
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
I'm sure you political junkies out there are busy chewing over last night's election results, and I admit I spent a bit too much time last night reading 538.com and monitoring what was happening in various races. I like a three-ring circus as much as anyone, and it's hard to take one's eyes off a train-wreck too.
Of course, the really critical race to watch was for the County Board of DeKalb County, Illinois. The race in District 6 pitted incumbent Republican Steve Walt against Democrat Bob Brown, but somehow this important contest escaped the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and hot-shot election analysts like Nate Silver. So I can't confirm that my namesake won, but surely the outcome of that race must mean something.
But I digress. Truth be told, I'm with all of those people -- such as FP colleague Dan Drezner -- who said this election is neither about foreign policy nor likely to affect foreign policy very much. A few points to keep in mind as you digest the final tallies.
First and foremost is America's parlous economic condition: if the economy doesn't improve, we'll be pinching pennies across the board and our international clout will decline accordingly. As other great powers have discovered to their sorrow, it is damn hard to run the world when you owe lots of people money and your debts keep piling up and you're stuck in costly wars. Is divided government means gridlock then this problem could get worse-- as Paul Krugman has warned -- but the midterm results didn't create it.
Second, does Obama have the will and/or skill to extricate us from the war in Afghanistan, and does he have to keep a lot of U.S. troops in Iraq to keep it from spiraling back into large-scale sectarian violence? If he can't get out of these costly quagmires, then his ability to make bold initiatives elsewhere will be limited.
Third, does he write off the Middle East peace process as a lost cause, does he try a "new" (?!) team, or does he finally bite the bullet and say what he thinks a final status agreement ought to look like? Does he commit himself to ramming a peace deal through, even at the risk of being a one-term president like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush? (It is no accident, by the way, that former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami once wrote that Carter and the elder Bush had done more to help the cause of peace than any other U.S. presidents, and incurred the wrath of the lobby in the process). And do any of the local leaders show a little daring and imagination, and actually do something that might make peace more likely?
Fourth, now's the time when initial appointees start jumping ship, and it will be interesting to see who follows former National Security Advisor James Jones out the door. Pay special attention to appointees from academia, because most universities don't allow faculty to be on leave for more than two years, and the clock is ticking. Given how little Obama has accomplished in foreign policy so far, a fresh team might be just what he needs.
Finally, do real or potential rivals make things easier by committing some blunders of their own (as China did by overplaying its recent dispute with Japan), or are other states able to take advantage of our current discomfiture in smart ways? If the former, so much the better for us; if the latter, look out.
Those are the sort of things that will determine how U.S. foreign policy gets conducted over the next two years, and not which party gets to wield the gavel in all those committee meetings in Congress.
UPDATE #1: Through the magic of Google, I can now report that Dekalb County defied national trends, and Democrat Bob Brown has defeated Steve Walt for the District 6 seat on the Dekalb Country board. I can only hope this result does not herald a national trend against people who are interested in politics and happen to be named Steve Walt.
UPDATE #2: The most depressing analysis of last night's events that I've seen thus far is from John Judis here (h/t Andrew Sullivan), and I am sorry to say that I also find it quite convincing. It dovetails with my point about our economic condition being the single most critical element shaping our foreign policy, and really does make me wonder about the future.
If you want to see just how ill informed and morally bankrupt an "establishment" political voice can be, check out David Broder's op-ed column in this Sunday's Washington Post. Broder argues that President Obama's prospects will remain bleak if the economy doesn't improve, and that the President cannot count on the business cycle to do that for him. So after reminding his readers that World War II helped end the Great Depression, Broder offers Obama the following advice:
With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history."
I haven't read such an ill informed and morally bankrupt piece of "analysis" in quite some time (which is saying something). For starters, on what basis does Broder believe that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world?" The United States spends over $700 billion on defense each year; Iran spends a mere $10 billion. That amount is less than Greece, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, or Taiwan. As I've noted previously, Iran has no meaningful power-projection capabilities, and its main "weapon" is the ability to modest amounts of money and arms to groups like Hezbollah. This behavior is clearly a problem, but Iran is not an existential threat to anyone. And if Iran were to get a few nuclear weapons at some point in the future -- which is by no means a certainty -- it could neither use them nor give them to terrorists without inviting devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation.
One of the silliest things ever written was F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement that, "There are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald obviously wasn't around to witness the lives of Oliver North, Elliot Spitzer, G. Gordon Liddy, Elliott Abrams, or Madonna's entire career. I'm even betting Tiger Woods manages a pretty successful second act after his own embarrassing melodrama.
If Fitzgerald were alive today and studying the United States' Middle East policy, he'd never have written such a silly line. I refer to Laura Rozen's latest Politico column, entitled "On the Mideast: Waiting for Superman." Rozen suggests that the Obama administration is thinking about bringing former Clinton-era official Martin Indyk into the government to jump-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks. She also speculates about the possibility of using former president Bill Clinton as some sort of a special envoy, an idea that has been recently advanced by New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
Waiting for Superman? More like Waiting for Godot.
There's little doubt that the Obama's administration's handling of Mideast affairs has been an embarrassing failure, but it is hard to see how these personnel moves would help. Nothing personal, but didn't these guys have the chance to produce an Israel-Palestinian peace in the 1990s -- when conditions were a lot more favorable -- and didn't their efforts end in near-total failure? (That goes for Dennis Ross too, who is already a key player on this issue in the current administration, and who seems to be repeating his past mistakes.) Clinton, Indyk, and Ross were handed a golden opportunity with the Oslo Peace Accords back in 1993, and they spent the rest of the 1990s squandering it. They had plenty of help from the Israelis and Palestinians, but the U.S. record during that decade is hardly one that inspires confidence.
Let's also not forget that Indyk was the chief architect of "dual containment," a remarkably foolish policy that achieved the neat trick of putting the United States at odds with two countries (Iran and Iraq) that also hated each other. It also forced the United States to keep large air and ground forces in the Persian Gulf, thereby contributing to the rise of al Qaeda. And as both Ken Pollock and Trita Parsi have shown, a primary motive for dual containment was reassuring Israel about Iran, so that it would be more forthcoming in the peace discussions. Gee, that worked out great, didn't it?
As for the former president, it's clear he recognizes the value that a peace deal would bring, and I don't question his sincerity on this issue. But his own track record isn't encouraging either. The number of Israeli settlers more than doubled during his eight years as president, and he didn't lift a finger to stop it. Moreover, he persuaded Yasser Arafat to go to the hastily-prepared Camp David summit by promising Arafat that he would not be blamed if the talks didn't succeed. But when the talks collapsed, Clinton walked out to the microphones and put all the blame squarely on Arafat, in violation of his earlier promise and contrary to the available evidence. (Arafat was partly to blame for Camp David's failure, but so were the United States and Israel.) That act of political vengeance contributed greatly to the myth that Israel has "no partner" for peace, a belief that has undermined all subsequent efforts to end this tragic conflict.
When it comes to the United States' Middle East policy, in short, there are an infinite number of "second acts." In a country of 300 million people, you'd think we could find a few fresh faces to handle these issues, instead of retreads who have been tried and found wanting. Instead, we keep recycling the same people (mostly for domestic political reasons), who adopt more-or-less the same negotiating strategy, yet somehow we expect a different, happier ending. And so we get the same familiar melodrama, and like any tragedy, the play always ends badly.
RALPH ALSWANG/AFP/Getty Images
I'd like to believe that the United States and its (remaining) allies have got their act together and turned a corner in Afghanistan. Really. That's more-or-less what New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall told us in a front-page piece yesterday, and it was the key theme of retired general Jack Keane's appearance on Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago.
It would obviously be better for nearly everyone if the Taliban were routed, if order and security were restored in Afghanistan, and if the United States could extricate itself from this costly and seemingly open-ended commitment. But there are at least two good reasons to view these upbeat reports with some skepticism.
First, U.S. commanders have emphasized in the past that this conflict is largely one of perceptions. If everyone thinks we're winning, so the argument runs, then fence-straddlers in Afghanistan will tilt our way and popular support in the United States will remain high enough to keep us in the war. If everyone thinks we're losing, by contrast, momentum will swing the other way, more Afghans will gravitate toward the Taliban, and support back here will evaporate. Unfortunately, this situation means we can't really believe anything that our military leaders tell us about the progress of the war, because they have an obvious incentive to spin an upbeat story to reporters, or to people like Charlie Rose.
Second, as critics of the war have repeatedly pointed out, defeating the Taliban on the battlefield is nearly impossible as long as they can go to ground in local areas or flee across the border into Pakistan. And Gall's story in the Times makes it clear that this is precisely what is happening now. This is undoubtedly why the Obama administration is making yet another effort to get Pakistan to do more on its side of the border, and dangling a fat new military aid package as inducement. And at the same time, we're supposedly supporting negotiations with certain Taliban leaders, and we might even be willing to back some sort of deal.
So let me tell you what I think is going to happen. The United States is going to spend the next few months trying to clear out or kill as many Taliban as we can find, accompanied by a lot of optimistic reports about how well we are doing. This won't be about a "hearts and minds" approach or even a long-term strategy of nation-building; it will be about creating the appearance of momentum and success. At the same time, we're going to try to shepherd a political process that can be sold as "peace deal" between the Karzai government and some moderate Taliban. If we're really lucky and offer big enough bribes (oops, I mean foreign aid), we might get Pakistan to pretend to be on board too. And then Obama will claim "the Afghan surge worked" sometime in the latter half of 2011, and begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
As our numbers fall, the Taliban will regroup, Pakistan will help rearm them covertly, and the struggle for power in Afghanistan will resume. Afghanistan's fate will once again be primarily in the hands of the Afghan people and the nearby neighbors who meddle there for their own reasons. I don't know who will win, but it actually won't matter very much for U.S. national security interests.
There are ample historical precedents for this sort of outcome. The Soviet Union concocted a peace deal before they withdrew in 1988, but their chosen successor, Najibullah, didn't last long once they had left. (Notice, however, that their enemies in Afghanistan didn't "follow them home" either). The United States achieved "peace with honor" in the 1973 Vietnam peace accords, but then Saigon fell two years later. No matter; the United States ended up winning the Cold War anyway. And then there's Iraq,where the 2007 "surge" was hailed as a great military victory but is now unraveling. In each case, the peace deal was mostly a fig leaf designed to let a great power get out of a costly war without admitting it had been beaten.
Petraeus & Co. are trying to pull off something similar here, and it may well be the best that can be made of a bad situation. But there is a subtle, long-term danger in this sort of sleight-of-hand. If we tell ourselves we won and then get out, we will end up learning the wrong lessons from the whole experience. By portraying the Iraqi and Afghan "surges" as victories, we fool ourselves into thinking that this sort of war is something we are good at fighting, that the benefits of doing so are worth the costs, and that all it takes to win this sort of war is the right commander, the right weapons, and the right Field Manual. And if we indulge in this familiar form of historical amnesia, we'll be more likely to make similar errors down the road.
Update: According to McClatchey, those recent stories about the United States facilitating peace talks between Taliban leaders and the Karzai government are part of an elaborate "psychological operation" designed to sow dissension within Taliban ranks. I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, it suggests that the U.S. military is either still hoping for a decisive victory over the Taliban (which would make negotiations unnecessary), or it thinks that the Taliban has to be weakened a lot more before negotiations are likely to work. I think the latter is more likely, but it still leaves open the possibility of "declaring victory" and getting out, starting next summer. We'll see.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Am I the only person who was struck by the almost complete absence of discussion of foreign policy issues in Peter Baker's article "Education of a President" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine?
I'm not knocking Baker, who clearly talked to plenty of people and had a lengthy conversation with Obama himself. What is striking is how the various insiders he interviewed -- including the president -- seem to be focusing primarily on domestic issues and on the usual inside-the-Beltway matters of partisan politics.
At one level that makes sense, insofar as the state of the U.S. economy is undoubtedly the most important factor shaping their political fortunes. Moreover, Obama and his team clearly have to worry about what the GOP (aka "Grand Obstructionist Party") will do after November. With less than a month to go before the mid-terms, a certain preoccupation with domestic issues and partisan politics is to be expected. And it's not as if they have a lot of foreign policy accomplishments to crow about.
Nonetheless, I would love to know what Obama and his team have learned about foreign policy in the months since he took the oath of office. Which initial preconceptions does the president now question? Which members of his team have worked out well, and whose judgment has he learned not to trust? Ditto for the foreign leaders with whom he's dealt: whose stock has risen, and whose has fallen? Is Bob Woodward's portrait of simmering civil-military tensions even partly accurate (I'd say it is), and how does Obama plan to deal with it going forward? Which international problems now loom larger in his mind, and which issues does he think ought to get less attention?
Other presidents facing this sort of sophomore slump have often made significant shifts in their foreign policy priorities, and sometimes with considerable success. Bill Clinton stumbled badly in his first two years (remember the debacle in Somalia, and the rift with Japan?), but replaced some key people and gradually found his footing. George W. Bush blundered badly throughout his first term, but did a bit better once he ditched Rumsfeld and most of the neocons. So I hope Baker returns to the subject at some point in the future, but with an eye toward the education that Obama has been getting in the foreign policy domain.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
By Michael Desch
The title of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars is ambiguous: Is he referring to the two on-going wars the United States is waging in Iraq or Afghanistan? But only Afghanistan can fairly be called "Obama's war," and Iraq gets very short shrift here. Why then the plural
Like Woodward's previous series of books Bush at War, Obama's Wars is as much, if not more, about the political war at home as it is about the war in Afghanistan itself. Of course, every war involves lots of domestic debate and struggle, and bureaucratic politics hardly wane when the balloon goes up, but the United States' most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been notable in that they have sparked more civil-military conflict on the home front than we've seen since the Vietnam War.
Low-intensity conflict between the Obama administration and the key elements of the U.S.
military charged with conducting the war in Afghanistan (ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen) is such a constant theme in Woodward's account that the president feels the need in his valedictory interview to deny that civil-military conflict over the strategy and force-levels of the Afghanistan war is as bad as it had been during the Vietnam War (p. 377).
If civil-military relations aren't that bad, then why even mention them? The answer is clear: The Iraq and Afghan wars have seriously frayed the fabric civil-military in the United States, perhaps not yet at the level of the Vietnam War, but certainly heading in that direction.
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Last week, Laura Rozen of Politico reported that Mideast envoy George Mitchell's chief of staff, Mara Rudman, was resigning to take a job with USAID. Her article suggested that it was a sign of friction in Clinton's Middle East team, and for all I know that's correct. But the real problem isn't "friction" inside Obama's team; the problem is that nobody there seems to have any idea what they are doing.
I used to think that the 2000 Camp David Summit was the most ill-prepared and mishandled peace discussion in Middle East history -- which is saying something -- but I'm beginning to think that Obama and his team are making a serious try at breaking that dubious record. First they raise expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, then undercut their own credibility by retreating steadiliy in the face of Israeli intransigence, until they end up literally begging and bribing Netanyahu to continue a settlement slowdown (not freeze) for a mere two months.
Question: Is this how a smart great power behaves?
Answer: Not if it wants to get anything done or be taken seriously.
Rudman's departure, however, is essentially meaningless. There is no evidence that anyone in the Obama team is committed to doing what it takes to actually get a meaningful deal, and so there won't be one. Full stop. You'd have to fire the whole lot of them and start over, and appoint people who were willing to get really mad when they were repeatedly diddled by a client state, and who didn't think that the best way to negotiate was to give one side a lot of goodies up front (in exchange for very little), while expecting the other side to accept a lot of promises to be redeemed at some unspecified point down the road (and maybe never).
Unfortunately, the odds that Obama will clean house and bring in a new team are about the same as the odds of my sprouting wings and flying to the moon. And the result, as I've said before, will be not "two states" but one, with all the attendant difficulties that this outcome will produce for all concerned. So I guess Rudman should be congratulated for having the good sense to abandon this charade. My question remains: Why hasn't George Mitchell done the same?
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I've been slow to react to the departure of James Jones as national security advisor, and his replacement by Tom Donilon, and it's mostly because I just can't get excited about it one way or the other. You can read a more-or-less favorable appraisal from Steve Clemons here, and a sharply critical assessment from Chas Freeman here. I find myself more-or-less aligned with FP colleague Dan Drezner, who thinks it won't make much difference.
By all accounts Donilon has an excellent relationship with Obama, and people think he'll be good at making the paper flow inside NSC itself. He's also supposed to be an advocate of "rebalancing" U.S. commitments around the world, and something of a skeptic on Afghanistan. That's encouraging, I guess, although it hardly took a genius to figure out that the United States was badly overcommitted in 2008, and anyone with a triple-digit IQ could tell that the war in Afghanistan was not going well.
My reservations are two-fold. First, has Donilon ever expressed an interesting or novel foreign policy idea, or shown that he has a larger vision for what the United States' position and strategy ought to be? If so, I haven't heard about it. This isn't just an academic's desire for some broader theoretical framework, because foreign policy isn't just about making a "to-do list" and patiently checking off different items. Instead, success depends on seeing the larger picture and figuring out how to set priorities and align different goals, so that actions taken in one arena don't end up undermining other initiatives. That is especially true when a country is facing as many different challenges as the United States currently is, and when you have to make hard choices from among a set of bad alternatives.
Second, has Donilon ever taken a position that involved some level of moral courage? Has he ever done or said anything that might be regarded as controversial inside the Beltway? Given his long career as a lobbyist and political operative, that's hardly likely. What was his view on invading Iraq in 2003, for example? Did he publicly oppose that boneheaded decision? Don't think so. And given that the Obama administration's defining characteristic in foreign policy has been a tendency to spell out promising courses of action and then beat a hasty retreat from them at the first sign of serious resistance, there's little reason to expect someone with Donilon's bio to act any differently.
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Q. How can you tell when William Kristol is giving bad policy advice?
A. His lips are moving. Or he's typing. Or he's writing an open letter for a bunch of hawks to sign. Or launching some new letterhead organization.
I refer, of course, to Kristol's recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (co-authored with the presidents of the the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute). The basic theme is that the world is very, very dangerous, and so the United States should not cut a nickel from its defense budget, even though we already spend more than the rest of the world combined, have most of the world's major powers on our side, and possess a robust nuclear deterrent. So even though the country is also facing massive budget deficits, at least partly due to policies that Kristol has previously promoted, we need to build a wall around the defense budget and make sure it doesn't get shrunk. At all.
Seriously, given Kristol's track record over the past decade, you'd think that people who were hoping to be taken seriously in Washington would shy away from any association with his policy ideas. But to think that, you'd also have to believe that there was some degree of accountability in American political discourse, which is of course not the case. So despite the various disasters that Kristol and his associates have helped cause over the years, they are back with another well-orchestrated campaign to convince the country to do something foolish.
This latest proposal (part of a new "Defending Defense" initiative) has already attracted ample fire from a diverse array of experts and pundits, including FP's Dan Drezner here. I see no need to pile on these various critiques, each of which makes good points. Instead, I want to focus on something that the critics have largely ignored; namely, how difficult it is going to be to make substantial cuts in defense spending, even in period of budgetary stringency, without simultaneously rethinking America's overall grand strategy.
To start with, any serious attempt to cut defense spending would face opposition from Congressional representatives who want to keep defense contractors busy and military bases open in their states or districts. Thus, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' proposed that DoD save some bucks by closing the Joint Forces Command, the suggestion drew howls of protest from Virginia's entire Congressional delegation. Was this because a separate Joint Forces Command was so essential to our national security? Of course not. It was because its headquarters was located in Virginia. When you consider how carefully the Pentagon scatters bases or sprinkles defense dollars in every Congressional district, you can see how hard it is going to be to make a significant dent in our current defense expenditures. And you certainly better not try to do so by trimming veterans' benefits.
Second, as I've noted before, defense spending (and an activist foreign policy) are proudly defended by most prominent DC think tanks, many of whom depend on military contractors for a substantial part of their funding. This has been true of AEI and Heritage for a long time, but take a look at the funding sources for supposedly more "progressive" think tanks like the Center for New American Security. Inside the Beltway, defenders of a large defense budget are bound to be more numerous and better-funded than critics, thereby ensuring a chorus of "expert" opinion defending the budgetary status quo (or at the most, disagreeing at the margins).
Third, national security wannabes (i.e., civilians who aspire to careers in the national security establishment) have learned that critics of excessive defense spending aren't taken as seriously in Washington and have a tougher time landing big foreign policy jobs. To be blunt, there isn't that much daylight between hardcore neocons and energetic liberal interventionists, especially when it comes to preserving U.S. military preponderance or using that power against anyone we've taken a dislike to. So even though a lot of national security jobs are likely to open up in the next year or so (as Obama's initial appointees cycle out) you shouldn't expect to see advocates of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy replacing the current group. Sadly, most of the bloggers who've been eviscerating the Kristol et al position are not in line for big jobs in DC.
Fourth, cutting defense spending is going to be hard as long as we are still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, maintaining a globe-encircling array of military commitments, and letting most of our allies free-ride on our protection. As Drezner notes, Kristol and Co. vastly overstate the actual level of threat we face. But although U.S. forces are smaller than they were during the Cold War, we are still trying to patrol the same amount of real estate and the social engineering we've been trying to do in places like Afghanistan is very expensive, especially when compared to the strategic benefits it brings. Plus, we've burned up a lot of equipment over the past decade, and some serious money will have to be spent to re-equip U.S. forces once those wars are (finally) over.
Which brings me to my main point. Although it is mind-boggling to realize that five percent of the world's population (the United States) now spends more on defense than the other 95 percent put together, this situation is hard to avoid when you see threats emerging virtually everywhere and when you think all of them are best met by an ambitious and highly interventionst foreign policy. If Americans want to be able to go anywhere and do anything, then they are going to have keep spending lots of money, even if all that activity merely reinforces anti-American extremism and makes more people want to come after us. (And for more on that latter point, read this book).
If you want to cut defense spending significantly, in short, you have to make some non-trivial adjustments in U.S. grand strategy. As some of you know, I think the United States would be both more prosperous and safer if we had a more restrained grand strategy and a more intelligent foreign policy. Until that happens, however, reducing defense spending itself is going to be an uphill fight, and our defense expenditures will be closer to the views of Kristol et al than to mine. Unfortunately.
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Today I want to call your attention to two on-line debates, each dealing with an important issue on contemporary world affairs.
The first is an extremely interesting back-and-forth between Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, on the question of whether President Obama was correct in authorizing the CIA to kill several U.S. citizens (including Anwar al-Awlaki) who is believed to be actively aiding al Qaeda in Yemen. You can read the various posts here, here, here, and here, and each links to useful comments from other people as well.
One sign of the quality of their exchange is that I found my own views shifting back and forth as I read each one. In the end I think Greenwald has the better of the argument -- at least so far -- but that may well be because it's closer to my own prior views. I don't really believe Obama's decision puts us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but I do think there is a genuine danger in allowing any president the authority to order the killing of a U.S. citizen without due process.
I am also deeply leery of the increasingly widespread use of the "state secrets" doctrine to defend executive actions from public scrutiny, simply because I do not trust people not to abuse their authority in the absence of accountability. Moreover, the "state secrets" doctrine is a powerful tool for threat-mongering ("trust me, if you knew what we know, you'd be really, really scared"), and keeping people terrified is a good way to get them to go along with all sorts of foreign policy foolishness.
But read their exchange and make up your own mind. And kudos to both of them for conducting it in a spirited but civil fashion. (UPDATE: Sullivan has a new reply to Greenwald and others here.
The second debate I can't resist plugging is a Bloggingheads conversation I did last week with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. The topic is "AfPak Dilemmas" and it is mostly a discussion about conditions in the region and the proper course for U.S. policy. Peter and I have different views about the nature of the challenge we face in Central Asia, and about the merits of continued military involvement there. Those disagreements are clear in our conversation, but we had an excellent exchange of views and some of you may find it enlightening.
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Back in 2007, a couple of political scientists wrote the following:
One might think that U.S. generosity would give Washington considerable leverage over Israel's conduct, but this has not been the case. When dealing with Israel, in fact, U.S. leaders can usually elicit cooperation only by offering additional carrots (increased assistance) rather than employing sticks (threats to withhold aid)." (pp. 37-38)
They offered several examples to illustrate this phenomenon, and quoted Israeli leader Shimon Peres saying that: "As to the question of U.S. pressure on Israel, I would say they handled us more with a carrot than with a stick."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Yesterday the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama administration has offered Israel a generous package of new benefits if it will just extend the settlement freeze for another two months. The source for the report was David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a key organization in the Israel lobby. Makovsky is also a co-author with Obama Middle East advisor Dennis Ross, so presumably he has accurate knowledge about this latest initiative, which is said to take the form of a personal letter from Obama to Netanyahu.
Assuming this report is true, it marks a new low in U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Just consider the message that Obama's team is sending the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu has been giving Obama the finger ever since the Cairo speech in June 2009, but instead of being punished for it, he's getting rewarded for being so difficult. So why should any rational person expect Bibi's position to change if this is what happens when he digs in his heels?
Although failure to achieve a two-state solution is ultimately much more of a problem for Israel than for the United States, we have been reduced to begging them and bribing to stop building settlements -- please ... please ... pretty please? ... and then only for a mere 60 days.
Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably craven fashion, it's just plain stupid. How will this latest bribe change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in two months? Remember that there isn't even a genuine freeze right now, only a slowdown, which means that a deal will be just a little bit harder in two months than it is today. Does Obama think his bargaining position will be stronger after the midterm elections? And if construction resumes, what then?
Back when direct talks were announced, I said they wouldn't go anywhere, and I've made it clear in the past that I think this situation is a brewing tragedy for all concerned. And then I said I hoped the Obama administration would prove me wrong. Looks like there's little danger of that, alas.
P.S. Haaretz has reported that Netanyahu is not inclined to accept the administration's offer, which leaves us right where we started. That is to say, with little hope that this latest round of talks will lead anywhere. The real question is: When will the United States try a different approach?
UPDATE: Ha'aretz now reports that the White House is denying that any letter was sent outlining the conditions originally identified by Makovsky, thought it does not say that the information was not conveyed in some other way. If the entire report is bogus then new puzzles arise: where did Makovsky get these ideas? Was it a trial balloon? An attempt to make policy via leaks? An attempt to show that Netanyahu was being really stubborn? I have no idea, but unless the whole thing was just a hallucination on Makovsky's part (and that's hard to believe), then it reinforces the idea that the Obama Middle East team is improvising wildly and/or not on the same page.
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Back on Sept. 16, I gave a lecture at Cornell University's Einaudi Center for International Studies. The title was "Doomed to Fail: The Foreign Policy of Barack Obama," and in it I elaborated a number of themes that I've also addressed in several blog posts, including this one and this one. The audience was attentive, the questions were excellent, and I especially enjoyed my conversations with Cornell students afterward.
One member of the audience took issue with my central theme during the Q and A, and offered a perceptive alternative analysis. He argued that I hadn't given Obama sufficient credit for staving off an even deeper collapse of the U.S. and world economy, and he reminded me and the audience that Obama inherited an economy in free-fall. Back then, a lot of people were genuinely worried that we were headed toward a 1930s-style global depression. We seem to have avoided that fate -- knock wood-at least so far.
The questioner also pointed out (correctly) that a further melt-down would have caused great human misery and had poisonous effects on politics at home and abroad, fueling even more xenophobia, conspiracy theorizing, and nativism than we have already seen. And if that had happened, then the failures that I had focused on in my talk (Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Iran, China, etc.) would have seemed like minor problems by comparison.
On the whole, I thought he made a very good point. Although I had begun my talk by describing the mess the Obama inherited -- including the economic downturn -- I hadn't given him enough credit for the economic measures undertaken at the very outset of the administration. Critics may be right that he should have done more to rein in Wall Street, pushed for a bigger and less pork-driven stimulus, etc., but the fact remains that we didn't tumble totally into the abyss, and we've already forgotten how worried everyone was back then.
The problem Obama faces, alas, is that you don't get much political credit for preventing non-events. He'd be blamed if the 2008-09 depression had gotten worse, but he gets no applause for preventing any number of Very-Bad-Things-That-Might-Have-Occurred-But-Didn't. In addition to the Even-Greater Depression of 2009, other non-events include the 2009 Israeli attack on Iran, the Venezuelan-Colombian border war of 2010, and al Qaeda's successful attack on Yankee Stadium last week. I could go on but presumably you get the point: we're not very good at giving our leaders credit for the bad things that don't happen on their watch. And to be fair, that goes for Obama's predecessor too.
I've been perfectly happy to criticize Obama & Co. when I thought they were making mistakes, but my critic's question reminded me that we ought to give them credit where's it due. Hence this post.
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I'm sure most of you are "shocked, shocked" to hear that the Israeli government rejected U.S. requests that it extend the so-called freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Never mind that it wasn't a real freeze (i.e., it didn't stop existing projects or the expulsion of more Palestinians from East Jerusalem, etc.); the partial halt in new authorizations did have a certain symbolic value. By refusing to extend it, the Netanyahu government has shown that it cares more about continuing the 43-years-and-counting process of colonization than it does about achieving a final peace deal.
At this point, Obama's Middle East team will try to come up with some sort of face-saving maneuver to keep the negotiations alive. Translated: they need a fig leaf to conceal how badly they've bungled this issue. Because putting serious pressure on Israel is anathema (especially in an election year), they will have to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the table even as construction resumes, so that he can watch the bulldozers make a "viable state" impossible while the talk, talk, talk continues. They may succeed in keeping the charade going, but it will be a pyrrhic victory that changes nothing.
Two key points should be kept in mind as you watch this diplomatic train wreck.
First, one of the great myths of Middle East diplomacy is the old cliché that "the United States can't want it more than the parties do." This excuse for inaction is trotted out whenever the United States fails to exercise the enormous potential leverage at its disposal, and it's just plain silly. There's no reason why the United States can't want a settlement more than Israel or the Palestinians do, particularly if the two sides are so mired in dysfunctional politics or old Likudnik dreams that they need to be pushed hard to make a deal. Unfortunately, this conflict isn't just about them; it's also about us. And when U.S. interests are at stake, we can want a solution just as much -- and maybe even more -- than they do.
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Back in 2005, I wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times on the value of having a reputation for competence. My inspiration was the lame U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina, and I argued that one ingredient in U.S. global influence was other states' perceptions that Americans knew what they were doing, would deliver as promised, and would get the job done. The Marshall Plan, the moon landing, and other straightforward displays of competence reinforced America's material power and made other leaders more inclined to listen to our advice. By contrast, repeated blunders lead other states to doubt our wisdom or our capacity to deliver, and make them more inclined to tune us out. You can read it here.
I was reminded of that piece this morning, when I read about all the problems India has experienced trying to prepare for next week's Commonwealth Games. The obvious contrast is with the Beijing Olympics, which were intended to demonstrate Chinese efficiency and competence, and clearly did just that. By coincidence, Tom Friedman picked up on the same theme is his column today, and made some invidious comparisons with America's current situation.
How competent do we look these days? Although the United States is still an attractive society in many respects, one doesn't get the sense that others are dazzled by how competent we are. The 2008 economic meltdown made Wall Street look inept or corrupt (or both), and the endless partisan squabbling in Washington isn't going to impress foreign audiences either. And as I've harped on before, our foreign policy record in recent years is mostly a litany of failures, and I don't expect it to improve much in the near future.
A big part of the problem, however, is that the United States has chosen to do a few things that are very difficult, and where failure is to be expected. Like nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to occupy and govern foreign societies that are rife with internal divisions, where there is a well-founded hatred of foreign intruders, wouldn't be easy for anyone. Indeed, trying to create a political system there based on our historical experience rather than theirs has got to be one of more ambitious -- if not utterly misguided -- objectives that Washington could have picked.
You don't see the Chinese trying to do anything silly like that, which may be one reason they are looking more competent these days. (I'm not saying they actually are, however, because China's own development plans have some significant downsides too). But no matter how much we try to spin the story ("the surge worked!") our dismal record in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the United States look like it doesn't really know what it is doing. Why should anyone follow the U.S. lead anymore, if this is where it gets you?
The solution is not to retreat into isolationism and cede the initiative to others. Rather, the solution is to remind ourselves what American power is good for, and avoid taking on tasks for which it is ill-suited. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale aggression, and thus good at ensuring stability in key regions. (That assumes, of course, that we aren't using that same power to destabilize certain regions on purpose). We are sometimes good at brokering peace deals -- as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans -- when we use our power judiciously and fairly. And we've often done a pretty fair job -- in concert with others -- at encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy. The United States is not very good at governing foreign societies, especially when the local inhabitants don't want us there and when we have little understanding of how they work. And if we keep trying to do this sort of thing, we're likely to look inept far more often than we look effective.
In short, regaining an aura of competence isn't just about trying harder, or restoring the work ethic and "can do" attitude that we associate (rightly or wrongly) with earlier eras. It also entails picking the right goals and not squandering time, money and lives on fool's errands.
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The Obama administration is about to propose the sale of more than $60 billion worth of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia. Apart from providing an obvious boost to the U.S. defense industry, the clear purpose here is to send a message to Iran. As an unnamed U.S. official stated a few days ago, "We want Iran to understand that its nuclear program is not getting them leverage over their neighbors, that they are not getting an advantage. . . We want the Iranians to know that every time they think they will gain, they will actually lose." In short, the sale is "mainly intended as a building block for Middle East regional defenses to box in Iran."
I get all that, although it seems like an awful lot of weaponry to "contain" a country whose entire defense budget, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is only $10 billion.
But my real question is this: if our primary goal is to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, then might this new initiative be counter-productive? Doesn't it just give Iran an even bigger incentive to get a nuclear deterrent of its own? Think about it: if you had a bad relationship with the world's most powerful country, if you knew (or just suspected) that it was still backing anti-government forces in your country, if its president kept telling people that "all options were still on the table," and if that same powerful country were now about to sell billions of dollars of weapons to your neighbors, wouldn't you think seriously about obtaining some way to enhance your own security? And that's hard to do with purely conventional means, because your economy is a lot smaller and is already constrained by economic sanctions. Hmmm....so what are your other options?
Of course, it's possible that Iran's leaders have already made that decision, and if so then these moves won't have much effect on their calculations. And I'm all for maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Gulf. But if we are still hoping to convince Iran that it would be better off without some sort of nuclear weapons capability (even if only of a "latent" sort), this move strikes me as a step in the wrong direction.
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I had dinner a couple of weeks ago with a group of Harvard colleagues (and a visiting speaker), and we got into an interesting discussion about America's future as a world power. Nobody at the table questioned whether the United States was going to remain a very powerful and influential state for many years/decades to come. Instead, the main issues were whether it would retain its current position of primacy, whether China might one day supplant it as the dominant global power, and whether U.S. standards of living would be significantly compromised in the future.
One participant (a distinguished economist), was especially bullish. He argued that the United States enjoyed a considerable demographic advantage over Europe, Russia, and Japan, largely due a higher birth rate and greater openness to immigration. These societies will be shrinking and getting much older on average, while the United States will continue to grow for some time to come. He also argued that the United States remained far more entrepreneurial than most other societies, and a better incubator of technological innovation. Despite our current difficulties, therefore, he was optimistic about the longer-term prospects for the U.S. economy and for America's position as a global power.
But then came the crucial caveat. After reciting this long list of American advantages, my colleague remarked: "of course, our political system could screw it all up." And everyone around the table nodded in agreement.
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The Afghanistan Study Group report that I wrote about last week is getting some predictable flak from people who hold different views about U.S. strategy there.
It is hardly surprising, for example, that Andrew Exum lavished high praise on Joshua Foust's extended rant against the report. Exum is a counterinsurgency enthusiast and was a vocal advocate of escalating the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As such, he is hardly likely to favor a report that questions the wisdom of this approach, despite his telling admission that our current strategy is "troubled."
It is of course possible that Exum will one day be proven right, but one would have more faith in his judgment if the situation in Afghanistan had not gone from bad to worse since Obama took his advice. Obama began escalating the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan shortly after he took office, and since then we've had a fraudulent presidential election, an inconclusive offensive in Marjah, a delayed and downgraded operation in Kandahar, and a run on the corrupt Bank of Kabul. Casualty levels are up, and aid groups in Afghanistan now report that the security situation is worse than ever, despite a heightened U.S. presence.
This situation is no accident, as Anatol Lieven outlines here. Rather, it reflects our enduring ignorance about Afghan society and the folly of trying to build a Western-style centralized government in a multi-ethnic society that is notoriously suspicious of foreign occupiers and where the prerequisites for a Western-style political order are lacking. Given the actual situation on the ground (and the condition of the U.S. economy), the Study Group concluded that it did not make sense to spend $100 billion or more per year trying to "nation-build" in a country whose entire GNP is about $14 billion.
As for Foust, his main criticism seems to be that the Study Group didn't consult as many Afghan experts as he would have liked, or provide a lot of nitty-gritty empirical detail to back up our analysis. This latter complaint is partly valid, but largely beside the point. Our objective was to encourage U.S. leaders to rethink the strategic stakes at issue in Afghanistan, to help them understand why the current U.S. strategy wasn't working, and to outline a plausible alternative approach. Despite his overheated rhetoric, Foust says he agrees with most of that, and he also agrees that the current U.S. approach is wrong-headed. Yet he is so eager to cast cold water on the report that he dismisses virtually all of its recommendations, even on obviously specious grounds. For example, he criticizes our call for greater effort to engaging regional partners by saying "it's been tried." But what's his alternative: that we refrain from trying to get regional stakeholders to help us neutralize the conflict? And isn't it palpably obvious that any enduring solution to the Afghan mess is going to require a lot of buy-in from its neighbors?
Moreover, Foust can't even get our arguments straight. He claims that we recommend turning Afghanistan into a "Special Forces and drone firing range," which is simply false. Like President Obama, we argued that America's only vital strategic interest in Afghanistan was to prevent it from becoming a "safe haven" that would materially increase al Qaeda's capabilities and thus make it a significantly greater threat to the United States. This situation could only occur if 1) the Taliban regained power, 2) Al Qaeda moved back into Afghan territory in strength, and 3) if it once again created large bases in which to train a substantial number of new cadres and thus become significantly more dangerous. We pointed out that if that were to happen -- and it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it will -- such large bases would be readily visible and could be targeted in a variety of ways. And unlike the 1990s, when the Clinton administration vacillated about attacking al Qaeda's compounds, there were would be little debate about going after large al Qaeda encampments today. As Greg Scoblete notes here this sort of campaign does not requires a large scale U.S. military presence, and it is far cry from turning the entire country into a "firing range."
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Over the past twenty months, progressives, realists, and even some sensible conservatives have been disappointed by various aspects of the Obama administration's foreign and defense policy. Convinced that his election would mark a dramatic departure from the Bush administration's many missteps, they have been surprised and dismayed by Obama's increased reliance on drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, his decisions to escalate the war in Afghanistan (not just once but twice), the retreat on Guantanamo, the Justice Department's use of dubious secrecy laws to shield torturers and deny victims the ability to sue them, the slow-motion reassessment of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the timid retreat from the lofty principles enunciated in his 2009 Cairo speech, and the unwillingness to consider anything more than trivial redutions in the bloated national security apparatus.
I share many of these concerns, but I don't really blame Obama. The buck may stop in the Oval Office, but it's not like he can simply wave a magic wand (or give another speech) and get the rest of the government to fall into line. Instead, the fact that U.S. foreign and defense policy hasn't changed very much reflects the powerful structural forces that inhibit any president's freedom of action. Or to put it more simply: he's trapped. Even if Obama wanted to chart a fundamentally different course (and I'm not at all sure that he does), he wouldn't be able to pull it off.
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As we all know by now, President Obama and General Petraeus hope to win the war in Afghanistan through a strategy of escalated counterinsurgency warfare. Yesterday, I suggested that they ought to be thinking about a Plan B in case (or when) their approach fails. With splendid timing, on Wednesday the New America Foundation will provide that Plan B, in a report entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." (You can watch a press conference on the report at 12 noon on Wednesday here, or read study director Steve Clemons' summary here.)
Full disclosure: I was a member of the Study Group, so you won't be surprised to hear that I agree with most of its contents. But don't let that stop you from reading the report and pondering its arguments carefully.
To whet your appetite, here are the Study Group's five main recommendations:
But wait, there's more! The Study Group also identified eleven important "myths" in the current debate on Afghanistan. Here they are (I've omitted the Group's assessment of what the reality on each one is):
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know why I think a lot of these claims are mistaken. If you want to know what the realities are, read the full Study Group report. And kudos to Steve Clemons and the other members of the Study Group for providing the administration with an alternative approach. We're going to need one.
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Last week I offered up "Ten reasons why wars last too long," which tried to explain why it was hard for leaders to recognize they are in a losing war and difficult for them to simply "cut their losses" and disengage.
Coincidentally, last week Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University published a smart piece entitled "How do long wars become so long?" in The New Republic. TNR dropped off my "must-read" list a long time ago, but Sestanovich's piece is excellent and well worth a look. He argues that many "long wars" begin with a half-hearted, desultory effort (as in Vietnam in the early 1960s, or Afghanistan from 2003-2007), often because U.S. leaders have more pressing priorities. When it becomes clear that things aren't going well, however, presidents and their advisors normally conclude that they haven't given the war their best shot and tend to assume that a serious effort will turn the tide.
Thus, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who also served as U.S. Ambassador in South Vietnam, explained the decision to escalate in 1965 by saying "we had not exhausted our alternatives." In his view, the United States still had "vast resources" to bring to bear -- and new strategies to try -- "before we thought of quitting."
This problem was the sixth point in my list of ten reasons, but Sestanovich offers an important amendment in his own piece. By the time the U.S. gets serious about these local conflicts, the situation has often deteriorated so badly that even a major effort may not succeed, or at least not quickly. But while the public will let them take "their best shot," it will expect that shot to succeed in fairly short order. Thus, presidents do not get an infinite number of "do-overs." Even if the military keeps coming up with clever new strategies, the public won't support a lengthy campaign that isn't producing visible and positive results.
The obvious implication is that Obama and General Petraeus have a few more months to show tangible results of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. And if I were them, I'd be thinking about a Plan B. I'll have more to say on that point tomorrow.
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On the eve of President Obama's speech to the nation on Iraq, some of the people who dreamed up this foolish war or helped persuade the nation that it was a good idea are getting out their paintbrushes and whitewash. I refer, of course, to the twin op-eds in today's New York Times by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and neoconservative columnist David Brooks.
Wolfowitz, you will recall, was one of the main architects of the war, having pushed the invasion during the 1990s and as soon as he became Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Bush adminstration. He was the guy who recommended invading Iraq four days after 9/11, even though Osama bin Laden was nowhere near Iraq and there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with it. For his part, Brooks was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war in the months prior to the invasion, and he continued to defend it long after the original rationale had been exposed as a sham.
The main thrust of Wolfowitz's column is that the United States should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to yield a "stable country." His analogy is to Korea, where the United States has stationed troops for nearly sixty years. Of course, Wolfowitz ignores the fact that our role in Korea was defensive: we entered the Korean War after North Korea invaded the South (with Soviet help), and we did so with the full authorization of the U.N. Security Council. In Iraq, by contrast, the United States went to war on the basis of bogus evidence, as part of a grand scheme to "transform" the entire Middle East.
Staying in Korea was also part of the broader strategy of containment, which made good sense in that historical epoch. The Soviet Union was a serious great power adversary and North Korea was a close Soviet ally, and there was every reason to think the North might try again if South Korea were left on its own. By contrast, maintaining a semi-permanent military presence in Iraq isn't going to contain anyone, and it is precisely that sort of on-the-ground interference that fuels jihadi narratives about nefarious Western plans to dominate Muslim lands. It is perhaps also worth remembering that our prolonged military presence in South Korea isn't very popular there anymore, and that most Iraqis want us out of their country too.
Notice also that Wolfowitz says very little about the costs of this adventure in the past, or how much more blood and treasure the United States should be expected to spend in the future. There are boilerplate references to the "brave men and women" of the U.S. military, and to Iraq's people "who have borne a heavy burden." All true, but he doesn't offer any numbers (either dollars spent or lives lost), because he might have to take his share of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people who would be alive today if the United States had not followed his advice. It would also remind us that he once predicted that the war would cost less than $100 billion and that Iraq's oil revenues would pay for reconstruction and so it wouldn't cost the American taxpayer a dime. Given that track record, in fact, one wonders why the Times editors thought he was a reliable source of useful advice on Iraq today.
As for Brooks, his column is a transparent attempt to retroactively justify an unnecessary war. He marshals an array of statistics showing how much things have improved in Iraq, but all his various numbers show is that after you've flattened a country and dismantled its entire political order, you can generate some positive growth rates if you pour billions of dollars back in. He claims this "nation-building" effort cost only $53 billion (hardly a trivial sum), but that figure omits all the other costs of the war (which economist Joseph Stiglitz and budget expert Linda Bilmes estimate to be in excess of $3 trillion). And like Wolfowitz, Brooks is mostly silent about the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and thousands of dead and wounded Americans who paid the price for their naïve experiment in social engineering.
Of course, what Wolfowitz and Brooks are up to is not hard to discern. They want Americans to keep pouring resources into Iraq for as long as it takes to make their ill-fated scheme look like a success. Equally important, they want to portray Iraq in a somewhat positive light now, so that Obama and the Democrats get blamed when things go south.
All countries make mistakes, because leaders are fallible and no political system is immune from folly. But countries compound their errors when they cannot learn from them, and when they don't hold the people responsible for them accountable. Sadly, these two pieces suggest that the campaign to lobotomize our collective memory is now underway. If it succeeds, we can look forward to more "success stories" like this in the future.
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President Obama is hosting a dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 1, in order to kick off the new round of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. As regular readers know, I don't think this effort will go anywhere, because the two sides are too far apart and because the Obama administration won't have the political will to push them towards the necessary compromises.
Furthermore, there are now a few hints that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistakes that doomed the Clinton administration's own Middle East peacemaking efforts and the Bush administration's even more half-hearted attempts (i.e., the "Road Map" and the stillborn Annapolis summit). Last week, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth provided a summary of a conference call between Obama Middle East advisors Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and David Hale and the leaders of a number of influential American Jewish organizations. According to the article (whose accuracy I cannot vouch for), the goal of the direct talks will be a "framework agreement" between the two sides that would then be implemented over a period of up to ten years.
Excuse me, but haven't we seen this movie before, and isn't the last reel a bummer? This idea sounds a lot like the Oslo Accords, which also laid out a "framework" for peace, but deferred the hard issues to the end and repeatedly missed key deadlines. Or maybe it's another version of the Road Map/Annapolis summit, which offered deadlines and bold talk and led precisely nowhere. Or perhaps what they have in mind is a "shelf agreement" -- a piece of paper that sits "on the shelf" until conditions are right (i.e., forever). It is this sort of charade that has led veteran observers like Henry Siegman to denounce the long-running peace process as a "scam," and Siegman is hardly alone in that view.
Here's the basic problem: Unless the new "framework" is very detailed and specific about the core issues -- borders, the status of East Jerusalem, the refugee issue, etc., -- we will once again have a situation where spoilers on both sides have both an incentive and the opportunity to do whatever they can to disrupt the process. And even if it were close to a detailed final-status agreement, a ten-year implementation schedule provides those same spoilers (or malevolent third parties) with all the time they will need to try to derail the deal. I can easily imagine Netanyahu and other hardliners being happy with this arrangement, as they would be able to keep expanding settlements (either openly or covertly) while the talks drag on, which is what has happened ever since Oslo (and under both Likud and Labor governments). Ironically, some members of Hamas might secretly welcome this outcome too, because it would further discredit moderates like Abbas and Fayyad. And there is little reason to think the United States would do a better job of managing the process than it did in 1990s.
The great paradox of the negotiations is that United States is clearly willing and able to put great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas (albeit in different ways), even though that is like squeezing a dry lemon by now. Fatah has already recognized Israel's existence and has surrendered any claims to 78 percent of original Mandate Palestine; all they are bargaining over now is the share they will get of the remaining 22 percent. Moreover, that 22 percent is already dotted with Israeli settlements (containing about 500,000 people), and carved up by settler-only bypass roads, checkpoints, fences, and walls. And even if they were to get an independent state on all of that remaining 22 percent (which isn't likely) they will probably have to agree to some significant constraints on Palestinian sovereignty and they are going to have to compromise in some fashion on the issue of the "right of return." The obvious point is that when you've got next to nothing, you've got very little left to give up, no matter how hard Uncle Sam twists your arm.
At this point, the main concessions have to come from Israel, simply because it is the occupying power whose presence in the West Bank and whose physical control over Gaza makes a Palestinian state impossible. Some readers may think this characterization is unfair, but the issue isn't so much one of "fairness" as one of simple practicality. How do you possibly create "two states for two peoples" if Israel doesn't withdraw from virtually all of the West Bank?
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It's a glorious day in New England, and I hope President Obama's vacation improves now that it's stopped pouring. Now that he's got a little down-time, I hope he's thinking hard about his economic and foreign policy team. He's been in office for more than a year and a half, and he's had to wrestle with more than the usual number of alligators. He inherited an American economy in free fall, a lost war in Iraq and a losing war in Afghanistan, a declining U.S. image abroad, a comatose peace process in the Middle East, and assorted challenges in places like Sudan, Somalia, and Colombia.
Given that array of troubles, one would hardly expect him to achieve a perfect record of success after a little more than nineteen months. But having said that, does Obama have any private concerns about the people upon whose advice he's been relying? As the economic recovery effort slows, does he still have the same confidence in people like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Ben Bernanke? With the GOP poised to make big gains in November, does he still think advisors like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod have the fingers on the pulse of the people? As his own approval ratings slip (despite a slight bump up this month), does he think his media team is doing a good job of managing public perceptions?
Then there's foreign and defense policy. With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates contemplating retirement sometime next year, who is waiting in the wings to give him balanced and sage advice on national security matters? After the roller-coaster ride Obama experienced on Middle East issues (the initial demand for a settlement freeze, the Cairo speech, the humiliating climb-down, and now direct talks that hardly anyone thinks will succeed), does he still have faith in his Middle East team? What about Richard Holbrooke and Stephen Bosworth, the high-profile special envoys who were supposed to work their magic in AfPak and North Korea? And has the seemingly endless parade of bad news and the dearth of tangible progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan raised any doubts in his mind about the wisdom of those who encouraged him to escalate there?
I don't expect President Obama to voice any of these concerns (if he has them), and for all I know he still believes that he's got the best and the brightest on his team. But no president makes all the right appointments, and one sign of effective leadership is the ability to reshuffle your team over time. Back when he took office, I wrote that one sign of his effectiveness would his willingness to replace people who weren't performing well, but the only high-profile departures I can think of so far are the resignation of DNI Dennis Blair and Obama's decision for relieve Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal. And Obama took the latter step because McChrystal made some ill-advised remarks to a journalist, not because he had lost confidence in McChrystal's handling of the war itself.
But I'm still wondering if we're on the cusp of a significant reshuffle. It's pretty common for some people to depart after a couple of years anyway, because these jobs are killers and because academics serving in government normally get no more than two years of leave. The midterms are going to be seen as a referendum on Obama's performance to date, and it's not going to be pretty. The Right hates him, the progressive left has lost faith, and the middle is muddled. Obama will have to start looking forward to 2012, and he will want to inject some new blood and new energy into the Executive Branch. And lord knows he needs a prominent win somewhere. But where? And which of his current team can deliver it?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.