Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions were:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.[[LATEST]]
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine" (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S. military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S. security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on "other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital" interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed. But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I've noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses for the past 20 years.
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I'm attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association this week, so I don't have much time to blog. I'd love to write about something besides Syria, but it's hard to avoid such an obvious issue right now. Here are a few further thoughts to add to my previous posts on the subject.
First, it looks like Barack Obama's administration has painted itself into something of a corner (though to be fair, a lot of inside-the-Beltway hawks were wielding their own paintbrushes too). With the administration having made a number of unequivocal statements about the Assad government's responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks, it is going to be hard for it to do nothing and not get accused of being wishy-washy at best and pusillanimous at worst.
But there are several problems. It's still not clear what positive objectives a limited use of force would accomplish. It won't tip the balance inside Syria or drive Bashar al-Assad from power. It's not even clear that punitive strikes would do much to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, as any leader contemplating the use of these weapons in the future is probably going to be in pretty dire straits and might not care if some foreign power might retaliate. Moreover, the American people are clearly not interested in getting into this war, and Obama and the Dems could pay a big price if retaliation goes awry in any way. Indeed, as Conor Friedersdorf writes in a brilliant piece on the Atlantic's website, this is another elite-driven intervention led by inside-the-Beltway politicos who are addicted to using American power even when vital U.S. interests aren't at stake.
Perhaps what bothers me most is how little imagination we seem to be showing in dealing with this deeply troubling situation. Everyone seems to be viewing this as a vexing problem that just has to be managed, instead of asking whether the crisis might be an opportunity for creative and potentially game-changing diplomacy.
To be specific: Why not use the crisis over chemical weapons as an opportunity to launch a new diplomatic initiative? Start by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council, and let everyone on the Security Council see the intelligence that lies behind U.S. suspicions. And as Sean Kay has proposed, for good measure we could ask the Security Council to refer the issue of possible war crimes to the International Criminal Court. But most importantly, before launching punitive strikes that probably won't accomplish anything positive, the United States could invite the European Union, Russia, China, Turkey and -- wait for it -- Iran to a diplomatic conference on Syria.
What would that accomplish? Plenty. Including Iran would satisfy its long-standing desire to be recognized as a regional stakeholder (which it is, no matter how much the United States tries to pretend otherwise). America would giving Iran the chance to play a constructive role, much as Iran did back in 2002 and 2003 over Afghanistan. Doing so would also help ensure that the crisis in Syria didn't interfere with the more important task of negotiating an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Inviting Iran into the picture would also be a way of rewarding the moderate stance the President Hasan Rouhani has taken since his election and his own public condemnation of any use of chemical weapons.
This route is obviously unlikely to yield an agreement that removes Assad from power, at least not anytime soon. My guess is that the most one could hope for is an agreement that imposed a cease-fire, acknowledged the de facto partition of Syrian territory into government and opposition zones, began negotiations on some sort of power-sharing arrangement, and maybe got outside powers to reduce their support for their various clients. But might this approach also begin to weaken the political support Assad has been getting from Russia, China, and Iran? They can't enjoy being the main protectors of a larcenous regime that has been killing lots of innocent people, and they might be looking for a way to distance themselves provided their own interests are protected.
As with all diplomatic initiatives, the idea sketched above might fail. But I doubt it would do any harm to try it, and it would certainly make the United States look less trigger-happy. That would be a positive outcome all by itself.
Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on Syria or to the piece I put up today as part of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange. But America's slow-motion entry into the Syrian bloodletting does illustrate how hard it is for the United States to stay out of these nasty little wars, even when it is not obvious what using force will accomplish, when it is clear that doing a little now will create pressure to do more later, when there is little public support for getting in, and when it is hard to identify a clear or vital U.S. interest at stake.
Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria -- and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad's forces have used chemical weapons -- or so he believes -- but as I've noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad's forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there's a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.
What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn't want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won't solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he's been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a "red line" a few months back, so now he's getting taunted with the old canard about the need to "restore U.S. credibility." This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president's credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?
More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didn't go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward "doing something" because he feels he simply can't afford not to.
Sad, but also revealing.
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Thomas Friedman's piece in the Sunday New York Times was vintage Friedman: chatty, moderately insightful, and filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum. The basic theme of the column was the limits of U.S. influence and U.S. interests in the Middle East. U.S. influence is down because the name of the game today is shaping the internal evolution of these societies, and outside powers will never be very good at that. U.S. interests are declining because the global energy market is changing and Middle East oil and gas are not as critical as they once were. As a result, what happens in the Middle East just won't matter as much as it did during the Cold War or even over the past couple of decades.
Fair enough. But here's the line that caught my eye, near the end of the piece:
"Obama knows all of this. He just can't say it."
Why in heaven's name can't he? What's the big secret that Obama or his administration dare not speak of? If Friedman can write about in the Times, why can't Obama or John Kerry or Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel talk about it too? What is to be gained from keeping the American people in the dark about the changing nature of American interests and involvement in this turbulent region?
Indeed, if I were to fault the Obama administration on its handling of the Arab spring (and a bunch of other issues) it is that they never bothered to lay out a clear strategic framework that explains why they are acting as they are. As Friedman and others note, it is clear that Obama is deeply reluctant to get drawn into more Middle Eastern conflicts and that he prefers limited uses of force (drones, targeted killings, etc.) to grandiose invasions and costly occupations. It is also pretty clear that Obama wants to shift American strategic attention out of the Middle East and toward Asia.
But for the most part this gifted communicator has never tried to explain why this policy makes sense. Sure, he keeps saying that it is up to the peoples of these countries to determine their own fate, but he keeps getting dragged back into doing things he'd clearly prefer to avoid (and stay tuned for airstrikes in Syria). Instead of educating the American people about how global interests are changing and how our policies must adapt to reflect new realities, Obama tends to fall back on the familiar rhetorical bromides that have informed U.S. grand strategy for decades: democracy, human rights, stability, order, rejection of extremism, and, of course, American leadership.
But then what we get are a series of ad hoc responses and a grab bag of justifications. First we are going to stay out of Libya, and then we get involved, and then we write it off (more or less). Then we help usher Mubarak out (because we think that's the way history is running), but then we refuse to call a military coup by its right name and acquiesce in the reimposition of Mubarak-lite. We ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria but limit our direct involvement to humanitarian aid and covert assistance, while turning a blind eye to continued oppression in places like Bahrain. And so on.
The problem with this ad hoc approach to policy formation is it leaves the administration perennially buffeted by events and vulnerable to pressure from all those factions, interest groups, GOP politicians, and ambitious policy wonks who think they know what ought to be done. If you don't explain what you are trying to do and why it makes sense, it is hard for anyone to get behind the policy or see the common thread behind each separate decision. By failing to lay out a clear set of principles -- which in this case means explaining to the American people the basic points that Friedman made and why it doesn't make sense for the US to toss a lot of resources into these various struggles -- Obama & Co. end up looking inconsistent, confused, and indecisive.
By the way, laying out a clear set of strategic principles wouldn't force the country into a rigid political straightjacket. Sometimes broad goals have to adapt to particular circumstances, and foreign policymakers often have to accept what is possible rather than what is ideal. But if you don't explain what your underlying objectives are, why those objectives are the right ones, and how your polices are on balance going to move us in the right direction, then you are giving your political opponents a free gift and your supporters little with which to defend you.
In other words, if Friedman is correct that President Obama and his advisors really do "know all this," it would be in their interest to explain it to the country. And not just in one of those stand-alone speechifying moments that Obama likes so much, but over and over and over. Who knows? Americans might like hearing the president explain why this part of the world is less important than it used to be and why Americans can start focusing their worries somewhere else.
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I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants -- Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas -- made an intriguing observation. With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:
"Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?"
Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we're damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don't. And then he concluded:
"At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn't give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people's problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write "Hic Dragones" on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community."
Though I have some reservations about Green's second point -- i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that "what we do" does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East -- I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the "Arab Spring" can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of "vital U.S. interests?"
Green's closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine "vital interests" (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of "vital interests" is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?
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What are the "greatest hits" of U.S. foreign policy since World War II? I mean: what would you regard as the most important "success stories" in America's handling of world affairs? Off the top of my head, here's a list of possible contenders.
1. The Marshall Plan. By almost any account, the Marshall Plan was brilliant success. It jump-started European economic recovery, demonstrated U.S. goodwill to former adversaries like Germany and Italy, and helped stave off the appeal of communism in the immediate aftermath of World War II. It was also a remarkably far-sighted and innovative policy, and implemented with great skill.
2. Bretton Woods, the GATT & the WTO. Management of the world economy hasn't been perfect since World War II, but the institutional arrangements that were set up after World War II and that have evolved since then have played a critical role in reducing barriers to trade and investment and fueling a long period of economic growth. Most of us would be a lot poorer had these institutions not been in place, and U.S. leadership has been critical to their expansion over time.
3. The Non-Proliferation Regime. The NPT and its associated arrangements haven't prevented nuclear proliferation, but they played a major role in discouraging it and have made it much easier to keep tabs on states with nuclear ambitions. Back in the 1960s, many experts believed there would be forty-plus nuclear weapons states by 2000; the NPT is a big reason why that didn't happen.
4. The Opening to China, 1972. Nixon's decision to end the long U.S. ostracism of China was both a major event in modern diplomacy and a smart geo-strategic move. It increased external pressure on the Soviet Union, facilitated the U.S. exit from the Vietnam conflict, and laid the foundation for subsequent Sino-American cooperation. China may be a peer competitor in the decades ahead, but this breakthrough was still the correct policy for its time.
5. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. There were five wars between Israel and Egypt (and sometimes others) between 1948 and 1973; there have been precisely zero since this treaty was signed. Unless you're a big fan of Middle East wars, this is a good thing, even if the United States (and others) failed to follow through with the rest of the agenda laid out in the original Camp David process. At a minimum, the treaty also reminds us what US mediation can accomplish when it is run by skillful and tenacious leaders who aren't afraid to push both sides.
6. German Reunification. When empires collapse, it usually means big trouble. Indeed, the break-up of the Soviet Union led to various conflicts throughout the former Soviet territories. The prospect of a reunified Germany alarmed many people--including some Germans--yet it took place with remarkably little conflict, and Europe (and the world) are far better off as a result. There were many players involved, but sober guidance from the first Bush administration was an important ingredient in the relatively benign outcome.
One can think of other candidates: NATO, the Dayton Accords, the first Gulf War, etc.-but the six items listed above aren't a bad list.
Now here's the question: what do all of these successes have in common? Answer: they were all primarily diplomatic initiatives, where the use of force played little or no direct role. This stands in sharp contrast to U.S. foreign policy today, where the preferred response to many problems tends to be some form of "kinetic action" (in the form of drone strikes, special operations, covert action, large-scale bombing raids, or in a few cases, all-out invasions). And notice that those cases where we turn to military force don't seem to be working out all that well. It failed in Indochina and in Iraq, it is failing in Afghanistan, and it is by no means clear that trying to kill our way to victory against al Qaeda is going to work out either.
The apparent futility of military power is partly due to selection effects: governments tend to use force when other approaches have failed (and one is therefore dealing with highly resolved opponents and situations where success may be elusive). But our poor track record in recent years is also due to a tendency to shoot first and talk later, and to use military force to solve problems for which it is ill-suited. Just look at the recurring debate over whether the United States should even talk to Iran, and you get an idea of how much we have devalued diplomacy and privileged military power.
To be sure, military power can be a key to diplomatic success. As George Kennan once remarked, "you have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet force in the background." But the key word there is "quiet," and the focus is still on diplomacy, not simply on blowing things up.
Bottom line: it is worth remembering that America's greatest foreign policy successes were mostly the result of skillful diplomacy, not military prowess. Having a big stick is nice, but speaking softly is usually more effective. And if a country finds itself using that stick over and over and over, that's a very good sign that its foreign policy has lost its way.
What the heck were British officials thinking when they detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow Airport? As you can read about here, they kept him in custody for nine hours and confiscated a bunch of computer equipment, thumb drives, and the like. They did so under the auspices of Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2000, which authorizes detentions of persons suspected of being “involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."
As you’d expect, this foolish yet chilling act of official intimidation is being rightly condemned by Greenwald himself, and by commentators like Andrew Sullivan here. But I’m intrigued by the question of motivation: what did the British government hope to accomplish by doing this? I don’t know, but here are some possibilities that occurred to me.
First, it’s possible that this was just an act of overzealous low-level counter-terror bureaucrats, operating without official approval. But this explanation seems very unlikely: why would low-level functionaries single out Miranda (who was just transiting through Heathrow on his way back to Rio) and detain him for nine hours, all the while questioning him about his partner’s reporting on the NSA? And for that matter, how did he get on a watch list that would allow the British authorities to pluck him out from the thousands of people who stream through that airport every day? So I think we can rule out pure bureaucratic politics or low-level blundering as the explanation here.
Second, perhaps British officials were genuinely worried that Miranda (and by association, Greenwald and Laura Poitras) might be actively engaged in terrorism. But this is daft: whatever you think of Greenwald’s politics and journalistic activities, there isn’t the slightest basis for suspecting that he or his associates have ever endorsed or supported terrorism in any way. If British officials genuinely harbored such suspicions, we ought to be really worried about the quality of thinking inside these organizations.
Third, maybe they suspected that Miranda was transporting more of the information provided by Edward Snowden, information that had yet to be made public. In this version, they stopped him and seized the thumb drives, etc., to prevent another round of juicy revelations in the Guardian. Yet this account makes no sense either, because it assumes that Greenwald and Poitras aren’t smart enough to have made copies of any material that Miranda might have had on his person. If that was the goal, then detaining and harassing him accomplished nothing.
Fourth, maybe this was intended primarily as an act of intimidation: the British government was letting Greenwald know that they can harass his partner if he keeps releasing more materials that are….um….embarrassing to Britain’s U.S. ally. It sends the clear message to Greenwald that he's being watched, and those near to him are too. Greenwald himself believes that this was the motivation for the UK government’s action, and he may well be right. But if so, then it was also a completely lame-brained act on Britain’s part: you don’t need a triple-digit IQ to figure out that Greenwald is not the sort of person who can be intimidated in this fashion. On the contrary, his entire career as a blogger, writer, and journalist has been driven by the desire to expose and challenging abuses of power, and making him the personal object of this sort of abuse is hardly going to make him cease writing and go back to being a corporate lawyer. So if that was the goal, somebody in the UK counter-terror operation either hasn’t been paying attention, isn't very bright, or both.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that this was an act of petty bureaucratic vengeance. It was the outraged bleat of a transnational national security apparatus that is used to having its own way and generally disdainful of genuine oversight. In both the United States and the UK, as well as lots of other countries, the broad national security/intelligence bureaucracies are accustomed to acting with enormous latitude and autonomy. They get to decide what is secret and what is not, and they get to decide when it is ok to leak something to reporters and when it is preferable to prosecute someone for leaking or reporting. Most of the people doing these things undoubtedly believe that it is for the good of the nation; it just has the ancillary benefit of insulating them from annoying questions or criticisms from the rest of us.
They’re ticked off at people like Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, Assange, etc., because they just aren’t playing ball. And these critics and leakers have in fact released a lot of material that has punctured various myths about what officialdom is really doing. And officialdom is probably worried that if the veil of secrecy gets torn back further, ordinary citizens might be disturbed by what they learn and might start demanding that things change. Indeed, Snowden’s revelations about the NSA have already provoked movement for reform, and it would hardly be surprising if a few people in the vast world of intelligence and counterterrorism decided it was time for some payback.
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This week, the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon posted a sharp critique of Barack Obama's foreign policy, accusing his administration of "lack of ambition." And that was before Obama's tepid response to the brutal military crackdown in Egypt. Here's Krepon's lede:
Remember when American presidents set out to do big things in the world?
That was when denizens of the Oval Office had one powerful attribute: ambition. And that's exactly what President Barack Obama is lacking today: a desire to shape world events to America's liking, and a willingness to take big risks to make that happen.
No wonder he is making little progress on the enormous foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. The less ambition an administration has, the harder achieving anything becomes.
Krepon is a smart, sensible guy, and getting to know him was one of the high points of the year I spent at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace back in the 1980s. He has written a lot of wise things over the years, and he is certainly correct that Obama's foreign-policy team can claim few real successes over the past five-plus years.
But is the problem really "lack of ambition"? After all, consider some of the goals that Obama has set forth since becoming president. He was going to get a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was going to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. He greatly expanded the U.S. effort to kill suspected terrorists with drones and special operations forces, thereby inserting the United States directly into the internal politics of several unstable countries. He also pledged to lead the world to a new climate change agreement and take big steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. And he was going to "reset" with Russia, "pivot" to Asia, nurture the democratic roots of the "Arab spring," and rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward greater emphasis on "development and diplomacy." Or so he and his minions said.
Sounds pretty darn ambitious to me. The real problem is that this laundry list is wholly emblematic of the exceptionalist, "America must lead the world" vision that has informed U.S. foreign policy for decades. In particular, Obama hasn't challenged any of the entrenched interests and worldviews that continue to drive U.S. engagement in the world. The United States may be getting out of Afghanistan, but five years later than it should have. Americans still think their security depends on having military bases all over the world and that they won't be safe if their country can't determine who governs every little strategic backwater on the planet. Washington still sees itself as a credible broker of Middle East peace, despite 30 years of failure. The United States still thinks it can coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program, even though America has been trying to do that for over a decade without success. And so on.
Krepon is right that Obama hasn't plunged into foolish crusades in places like Syria, and I share his dismay at Obama's halfhearted response to the recent presidential election in Iran. Among other things, if Obama is serious about negotiating with Iran, he needs to start preparing the American people and the various yahoos in Congress for a deal and explain what they can realistically expect (and what they can't). But the real problem isn't lack of ambition; it's that Obama is pursuing some misguided goals, and he's doing it with a foreign-policy establishment that seems to become less effective with each passing year.
Krepon's article also paints an overly upbeat portrait of what American engagement can produce. True, ambitious U.S. diplomacy has sometimes accomplished positive and lasting ends. Between 1945 and 1950, for example, the United States helped lay the groundwork for NATO, the United Nations, and a panoply of enduring international institutions, while simultaneously developing and implementing the strategy of containment that eventually won the Cold War. Similarly, George H.W. Bush's administration did a good job managing the Soviet collapse and German reunification and handled the 1991 Gulf War well (after some initial stumbles).
But these achievements have to be balanced against some notable failures: the damaging coups the United States helped engineer in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and the Dominican Republic (1965), as well as its long, insensitive, and tragic involvement in Indochina. And surely it was ambitious of George W. Bush to think he could transform the entire Middle East at the point of a gun, a lamebrained idea that cost the United States more than $2 trillion and thousands of dead soldiers, cost the Iraqi people even more, and ended up enhancing Iranian influence.
Lastly, Krepon's piece also reflects the common Washington belief that American national security is precarious, as in his statement that the United States faces "enormous foreign policy and national security challenges." As I've written before, most of these supposed "challenges" are simply burdens the U.S. government has chosen to take on, and most of them have scant effect on the life expectancy or prosperity of Americans at home. Great powers always tend to define their interests expansively, and as the world's most powerful country, the United States has decided that everything everywhere somehow matters to it because one can at least conjure up some hypothetical reason why an event in, say, Syria or Somalia or Tadzhikistan, might somehow rebound back on American soil. That's probably true in a handful of instances, but trying to control everything everywhere increases the opposition the United States faces and in most cases isn't cost-effective. The truth is that most of those "foreign-policy challenges" are acts of philanthropy undertaken on behalf of various U.S. "allies," rather than making a direct contribution to the security of the 50 states. I think Obama may have understood that; he just didn't do much to change the prevailing mindset.
My point is simple: It is perfectly fine for presidents to be ambitious, but lofty ideals need to be tempered by a sense of political realism. Otherwise, you get either vague speeches that never seem to lead anywhere or foolish crusades that do far more harm than good.
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.