Guest post by Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind
With reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, many U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have called for U.S. military intervention there. They quote President Obama's previous statements referring to chemical weapons use as an unacceptable crossing of a "red line." This is unsurprising: Every time analysts and leaders call for war, they warn that inaction will jeopardize America's credibility. What is more surprising, however, is how little evidence there is for this view.
What has actually transpired in Syria remains unclear (especially with a new claim that Syria rebels may have used nerve gas), but the possibility that Syria crossed the administration's "red line" has brought calls for U.S. military action. "The credibility of the United States is on the line," declared Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action." (Many others have made similar arguments, for example here and here.)
To be sure, for a country like the United States -- which seeks to assure allies and deter adversaries around the globe -- credibility is a precious asset. Credibility -- the belief held by others that a country will carry out its threats and promises -- is the difference between deterring attacks and having to wage war to repel them.
But how do countries build credibility? Those who favor intervention in Syria assert that credibility comes from having a reputation for keeping commitments. The "smoking gun" evidence for this view can allegedly be found in a 1939 speech in which Adolf Hitler explained to his generals why he felt emboldened to invade Poland. He dismissed French and British threats, mocking them for their concessions at the Munich Conference: "Our enemies are worms," he scoffed, "I saw them at Munich."
Hitler's quote, and the so-called "Munich Analogy," has come to embody the danger of breaking commitments and featured prominently in U.S. decisions to defend South Korea in 1950 and later to fight (and stay) in Vietnam. Since then, the fear of losing credibility helped propel the United States into conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya.
The problem is that there's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility. Jonathan Mercer, in his book Reputation and International Politics, examined a series of crises leading up to World War I and found that backing down did not cause one's adversaries to discount one's credibility.
In another book, Daryl Press examined a series of Cold War crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From 1958 to 1961, Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to cut off NATO's access to West Berlin. Each time, the deadlines passed and Khrushchev failed to carry out his threats.
If backing down damages credibility, Khrushchev's credibility should have been plummeting, but the deliberations of American and British leaders show that his credibility steadily grew throughout this period. And a year after the 1961 Berlin confrontation, when the same American decision-makers confronted Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they took his threats very seriously. Senior U.S. leaders were convinced that Khrushchev would respond to any forceful U.S. act against Cuba with an immediate Soviet attack against Berlin. Four years of backing down had not damaged Soviet credibility in the least.
Documents from American and British archives reveal that when NATO leaders tried to assess the credibility of Soviet threats, they didn't focus on the past. Instead, they looked at Khrushchev's current threat and the current circumstances and asked themselves two simple questions. Can he do it? And would it serve his interests?
In the eyes of the Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy governments, Soviet credibility was growing -- despite Khrushchev's bluster -- simply because Soviet power was expanding. Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.
Even the canonical case for reputational arguments -- Hitler's dismissal of French and British threats in 1939 -- shows that credibility stems from power and interests. When Hitler told his generals why the British and French would not oppose him when he invaded Poland, he listed seven reasons, every one of which was about the balance of power. The "worms" quote was a throwaway line after a detailed analysis of the balance of military power and Poland's indefensibility.
Advocates of intervention in Syria worry that a failure to act will embolden U.S. adversaries around the world. But if Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out whether or not the United States would defend South Korea, he will notice that Washington and Seoul have been allies for more than six decades, and that with the rise of China, the United States is increasing its focus on East Asia. The notion that Kim would interpret U.S. reluctance to stop a humanitarian disaster in Syria as a green light to conquer a major U.S. ally strains credulity.
Similarly, leaders in Tehran assessing U.S. threats to strike their nuclear facilities will weigh America's clear interest in nuclear nonproliferation against the real limitations of airstrikes against Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities. American reluctance to support various extremist rebels in Syria is unlikely to enter into Iran's calculus.
As the civil war in Syria unfolds, the United States may eventually decide to intervene. U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts might make the case (which we disagree with) to join the fighting in order to stop the humanitarian disaster, to contain regional instability, or to secure U.S. influence with the post-Assad Syrian government. But the case for U.S. military intervention should not rest on a bogus theory about signaling resolve to Khamenei and Kim. American credibility lies elsewhere.
Daryl G. Press is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. Jennifer Lind is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
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How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.
According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.
But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.
Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.
I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.
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One of the sillier things that U.S. leaders have done over the past year or so is to formally reject a policy of "containment" or deterrence with respect to Iran. AIPAC pushed this position last year (in the form of a non-binding resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsay Graham), but even President Obama eventually had to go along. And then he sent Vice President Joe Biden to tell AIPAC that the U.S. wasn't bluffing.
Apart from pandering to the bomb Iran crowd, the apparent purpose behind such statements is to convince Iran that the United States simply couldn't live with an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and that they had better make damn sure they don't try to get one. Such rhetoric might make sense as a negotiating tactic -- though it's hardly guaranteed to work -- but it tells you exactly nothing about what the United States would or should do in the event that Iran one day crosses the nuclear weapons threshold. To see this, consider the following hypothetical.
Suppose there were a massive intelligence failure on the part of the IAEA and all of America's intelligence agencies and that Iran had a totally secret nuclear weapons development program. (This is precisely the scenario that hawks routinely warn about, by the way, especially whenever National Intelligence Estimates reach more optimistic conclusions). Suppose further that we got up one morning next week and discovered that Iran had successfully tested a nuclear bomb. And then suppose Iran provided us with additional information demonstrating that they had already manufactured a dozen more and that we had no idea where they were hidden. In short, imagine that the hawks' worst fears had all come true and that the Islamic Republic had become a nuclear weapons state overnight.
What do you suppose we would do? Would President Obama (or anyone else) immediately order a preventive war? Not on your life, because he could not be sure that Iran wouldn't find some way to get a bomb on American soil or use it against some close U.S. ally. Would Obama immediately announce a blockade or threaten an invasion, in order to persuade Iran to voluntarily give up its weapons? Hardly, because we couldn't put enough pressure on them to force compliance. Would the U.S. decide to abandon its regional allies and let Iran dominate the Persian Gulf? Of course not -- for the same reasons that it didn't abandon NATO when the Soviets tested a bomb in 1949 and it didn't abandon Japan and South Korea when China and North Korea tested nuclear weapons.
No, if Iran ever did cross the nuclear weapons threshold, the United States would do what it has always done when an adversary went nuclear: It would fall back on containment and deterrence. We would extend our far more potent nuclear umbrella over key regional allies, and we would send clear and unmistakable messages to Tehran about the dire consequences that would befall them if their new arsenal were ever used by anyone. Getting a bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a global superpower, and it certainly wouldn't allow them to blackmail their neighbors or launch a war of conquest. The only thing this situation would prevent the United States from doing is forcible regime change, which is something we shouldn't be contemplating in any case.
This situation would not be ideal, which is why I favor intelligent diplomacy that reduces Iran's incentive to acquire a deterrent. There are a number of good reasons why Tehran would prefer to stay on the safe side of the nuclear threshold, and there are a number of obvious ways that the United States could make that choice even more attractive, such as taking the threat of regime change "off-the-table." But declaring that Washington will never use containment or deterrence isn't credible, because these options are always there if we need them, and they make a lot more sense than the alternatives. In this regard the United States is bluffing, and the main risk is that they will feel compelled to follow through if the bluff gets called.
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Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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I suspect a lot of people would like to believe Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defense shows that Obama has broken the back of the Israel lobby and will now move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for us, better for Israel, better for the Palestinians, and maybe even better for the entire region.
Don't count on it.
It is of course a very good thing that the Senate confirmed Hagel. He had excellent credentials for the job, had done nothing to disqualify himself, and to have been denied the post on the basis of the lobby's slander would have been truly disheartening. And there's no question that the antics of the Emergency Committee for Israel (note: for Israel, not the U.S.), the Washington Free Beacon, Elliot Abrams, Ted Cruz, Jennifer Rubin, et al. ultimately did more harm to themselves than to Hagel. They revealed both their preference for innuendo over facts and their belief that support for Israel matters more than any other aspect of U.S. defense policy. As I've noted before, their behavior merely confirmed what some of us have been saying for a very long time, and they did so center-stage with the spotlight on. Very gratifying indeed.
But it would be a huge mistake to conclude that the lobby's clout has been broken and that Obama will now be free to chart a new course. For starters, the behavior of several senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee shows that they are still mightily beholden to groups like AIPAC and extremist Christian Zionists, not to mention some unrepentant neoconservatives. Chuck Hagel was about as bulletproof a candidate as one could ask for (decorated war hero, defense and intelligence expert, successful businessman, respected ex-senator, etc.) and that didn't stop these zealots from unloading the SIOP against him. The fact that they ultimately failed is important, but so is the fact that they could even make an issue of it. The lobby failed to stop Ronald Reagan from selling AWACs to Saudi Arabia in 1981, but they made him work really, really hard to get the deal through and he never took them on again.
One should also remember that Obama has basically been caving in to the lobby ever since 2009, which tells you something about its clout. It's true that he doesn't have to run for reelection again. But most of those Congressmen do, and they aren't going to back him up if he tries to play hardball with Netanyahu. The annual aid package to Israel will be approved like clockwork, which means Obama won't have many levers to use if he needs to push both sides toward a peace deal.
And that's why I previously argued that you aren't going to see a big Middle East peace push during the second term. Sure, Obama might let John Kerry see what he can accomplish. But Netanyahu will just stiff him, and Obama won't do anything about it. The Palestinians are still divided and too weak to negotiate a fair deal, and conditions throughout the region are hardly propitious for compromise. If Obama is looking for a legacy, in short, the Middle East is not the place to find it. And I suspect he knows that.
Which is not to say that there isn't good news here. The pro-peace, pro-two state lobby J Street's support for Hagel was vindicated, and that's likely to win them greater access going forward. (I mean, who really wants to be in the company of the smear artists who went after Hagel?) Hagel's confirmation and the lobby's defeat diminishes the push for war with Iran -- which is a good thing -- and might encourage the administration to formulate a negotiating strategy toward Tehran that has some prospect of success (as opposed to the dead-on-arrival offers we've been making so far). And it certainly doesn't hurt for politicians in Washington to be reminded that the lobby doesn't win every time.
But the bottom line is that no powerful interest group disappears after a single defeat. Even when a lobby doesn't get its way, it can gain a partial victory by making the winning side pay a price, and by reminding everyone that it can still make trouble. And that was the lobby's real strategy here. They probably knew that Hagel was likely to be confirmed, for the simple reason that he was a well-qualifed candidate whose patriotism was beyond question. Their aim instead was to deter future administration from nominating people who weren't lobby-certified, and to discourage ambitious young foreign policy professionals from doing or saying anything that might put the lobby's crosshairs on them.
In short, so long as opportunistic rabble-rousers like Ted Cruz believe that pandering to the lobby is the smart political play, Capitol Hill will remain supine, the executive branch will be constrained, and U.S. Middle East policy will be about as successful as its been for the last couple of decades.
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You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
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I don't usually like to repeat myself (or at least not too often), but the antics of Senators Inhofe, Cruz, McCain, Graham, et al. really do exemplify the irresponsibility of today's GOP, as well as the extraordinary margin of security that Americans enjoy.
(See in particular point #2 in my last post).
Only in a country that was largely safe from serious harm could senior elected officials engage in the fact-free McCarthyism of Sen. Ted Cruz, who keeps inventing inane accusations that Chuck Hagel -- a decorated war veteran -- has somehow been bought off by foreign powers. I suspect Cruz has been watching too many episodes of Homeland back to back.
Only in a country that was really safe could someone like Sen. Lindsay Graham keep threatening to leave the Pentagon leaderless so that he can get more "answers" about Benghazi, even after the secretary of state and a bunch of other officials have testified at length on that tragic matter. And what exactly does Benghazi have to do with Hagel's fitness for office anyway, given that he wasn't in the Obama administration when our consulate was attacked?
Only in a country that was very, very secure could a senator like James Inhofe invoke a crackpot interpretation of the Old Testament to justify U.S. support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank without having his constiuents hound him from office for endangering the United States and Israel alike. Remember, Inhofe is defending an occupation that many Israelis -- including several former prime ministers -- believe threatens Israel's long-term future. With "friends" like Senator Inhofe, Israel doesn't need enemies (it has those in abundance already). But because America is so secure, he can say silly things like this and not be seen as endangering the country.
I'm pretty sure Hagel will be confirmed, as he should be. And I hope every one of the senators who voted against him get peppered by questions from their constituents about why they behaved so shamefully ... from start to finish.
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Most American global activism -- particularly of the military sort -- is justified by the claim that the security of the American homeland and the safety of U.S. citizens ultimately depends on controlling, shaping, influencing, deterring, compelling, dominating, destroying or in some way interfering with people in lots of far-away places. Yet the simple fact that we can do all those things in almost any corner of the world tells you two things that belie this justification.
Specifically: 1) the United States still has military capabilities that dwarf everyone else's, and 2) we are so secure here at home that we don't have to spend much time or effort worrying about defending our own soil. Even if another terrorist group got as lucky as al Qaeda did back on 9/11, it wouldn't threaten our independence, long-term prosperity, or way of life unless we responded to such an attack in especially foolish ways (see under: Operation Iraqi Freedom).
Call this the (In)Security Paradox: The main reason Americans are able to gallivant all over the world and expend lots of ink and bytes and pixels debating whether to get involved in Syria, Mali, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the South China Sea, etc., etc., is because the United States is actually very secure. What happens in most of these places isn't going to affect the safety or prosperity of the vast majority of Americans at all; U.S. citizens are much more likely to be harmed in an automobile accident, in a big storm, or in a household accident, than as a result of something happening in some distant land. We say we need to do these things to be secure; in reality, we are so secure that we have the luxury of intervening in wars of choice that ultimately don't matter very much. Which is one reason why we do.
This paradox got me thinking: what would happen if the United States were really insecure? What if we faced a malevolent peer competitor that was larger, more populous, more advanced, more productive, and more powerful than we were? What if our immediate neighbors were both hostile and military capable? What if all of the world's major powers were united in an alliance against us? What would our foreign and defense policy look like then? Here are a few thoughts.
#1: If the United States were really insecure, it would spend a lot more on defense and raise taxes to pay for it. If the US were really threatened, most Americans would accept diminished living standards and higher taxes in order to afford a more robust defense. You know, like we did in World War II. But because we are in reality very secure today, we don't spend that much on defense and we think we can still run the world on the cheap.
#2: If the United States were really insecure, you wouldn't see irresponsible and grandstanding senators acting like buffoons at confirmation hearings. If they did, they'd be rightly condemned as unpatriotic know-nothings who were placing the country at risk by pandering to powerful interest groups. More broadly, a real external threat would focus the national mind and encourage a more responsible bipartisan debate on critical national security questions, instead of the monkey show we often observe these days.
#3: If the United States were really insecure, it would have to make its defense dollars stretch as far as they could. For starters, we'd have a more rational military basing structure, instead of wasting resources just to keep pork-hungry members of Congress happy.
#4: If the United States were really insecure, it wouldn't wage wars of choice at the drop of a hat. Instead, it would conserve its strength, keep its powder dry, and focus primarily on the biggest or most dangerous challenges. Translation: There'd be a lot less for liberal interventionists to talk about.
#5: If the United States were really insecure, it would be lot more careful in how it chose its allies and would be wary of giving any of them unconditional support. If the United States were really threatened, we'd want capable allies who didn't free-ride on our benevolence or take actions that got us into trouble with other important nations. And we wouldn't be all that picky about whether they were democratic or not. The main question would be whether being allied with them made us safer overall. Remember: Washington was allied with Stalinist Russia during World War II and with plenty of unsavory regimes throughout the long Cold War. When you face real threats, you can't afford to be either too picky or too generous.
#6: If the United were really insecure, we would hold military commanders and foreign policy advisors accountable for their failings and follies. Instead of firing people for sexual misconduct and other peccadillos (however regrettable they might be), we would mostly hold them accountable for their foreign policy performance. And that means serial blunderers like today's neoconservatives would be marginalized after driving the country into a ditch, and they wouldn't be treated as respected pundits and they wouldn't be advising presidential hopefuls. Only a state that is very, very secure can afford to keep listening to people whose have been wrong with such disastrous consistency.
#7: If the United States were really insecure, more academics would be engaged by important policy issues and fewer would spend their time writing obscure articles and books intended for a small number of like-minded navel-gazers. In other words, academic departments would place more value on policy-relevance, because it would be seen as an important way to help the nation deal with serious external challenges. I'd also expect Americans to put more attention and effort into teaching and learning about languages and foreign cultures, so that they could maneuver in a dangerous world more effectively. Only a truly secure nation can get away with being as ignorant of the outside world as the United States is, while at the same time believing it is somehow qualified and prepared to "lead" the world.
#8: If the United States were really insecure, we would be even more likely to play hardball with our enemies. As Alexander Downes has shown, democracies don't follow Marquis of Queensbury's rules when they find themselves in a serious war of national survival. Instead, they are as likely to deliberately kill large numbers of civilians as non-democracies are. Although the United States often does things to other countries that it would regard as barbaric were they done to us (including targeted assassinations and economic sanctions that harm civilians), U.S. armed forces do go to considerable lengths to minimize collateral damage. That would change quickly if we thought our survival or security were really at risk.
#9: If the United States were really insecure, our civil liberties were be under even greater pressure than they are today. When countries are really scared, individual freedoms and constitutional guarantees tend to go out the window. (See under: Patriot Act, McCarthyism, "warrantless surveillance," Alien & Sedition Acts, etc.) If the United States were not the world's most powerful country and actually faced a serious threat to its national independence, my guess is that there would be even more aggressive efforts to police discourse, wiretap suspected fifth columnists, and generally interfere with our traditional freedoms. Among other things this is why it is critically important to weigh threats and risks carefully. If national security elites get away with inflating threats, it becomes easier to place more shackles on us at home.
#10: If the United States were really insecure, we'd have a very different attitude toward international law, and on devising legal and/or normative constraints on warfare. Right now, American dominance encourages us to use whatever forces we have at our disposal (drones, cyber capabilities, surveillance, etc.) because we assume we will always be better at it than anyone else. But if we were really threatened, we might be more interested in eliminating categories of weaponry that we recognize could do great harm to us and might not confer any real military advantage. Who knows? We might even ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty!
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Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).
It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.
The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications.
This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.
The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come.
As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.
This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.
But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.
The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.
There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has the opportunity to make a principled stand in favor of reasoned discourse about American foreign policy. All he needs to do is insist that one of his employees -- senior fellow Elliott Abrams -- issue a public apology to Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel.
Why does Abrams owe Hagel a public apology? Not because he opposes Hagel's candidacy, which is his right. Rather, Abrams owes Hagel an apology because he falsely accused him of being an anti-Semite. The charge wasn't something Abrams just blurted out in an ill-considered moment: He first made the accusation in writing in the neoconservative journal the Weekly Standard (where accusing people of anti-Semitism is a well-developed practice) and then repeated it in an interview with National Public Radio.
As Ali Gharib of the Daily Beast and others have documented, these charges are baseless. Not only have prominent Israelis leapt to Hagel's defense against these smears, but so have important American Jewish leaders and some of Hagel's longtime Jewish friends from Nebraska. Abrams knows all this, of course, but that has not led him to retract his earlier calumnies against a distinguished public servant and decorated soldier.
Why does Haass need to take firm stand on this issue? Because making false accusations of anti-Semitism is an odious tactic that runs contrary to how one should behave in a great democracy like the United States. Not only have such smear tactics done great damage to innocent individuals' careers, but they also have a chilling effect on public debate about important foreign-policy issues. Promoting intelligent discourse about American foreign policy is the CFR's main raison d'être, which is why its leadership should not tolerate an employee who engages in this reprehensible behavior.
Given the long and tragic history of anti-Semitism, it is imperative that we remain on guard against it. Indeed, one can understand why some people err on the side of caution when questions about anti-Semitism are raised. But the assault on Hagel has nothing to do with protecting Jews from bigotry. On the contrary, it is a politically motivated smear campaign conducted by a small number of extremist neoconservatives who disagree with Hagel's views on foreign policy and are also trying to enforce the crumbling taboo against open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy, especially as it relates to Israel. To do this, Abrams and his allies have slandered Hagel with a hateful and false charge. In a fairer world, their campaign would have no impact on Hagel's reputation and instead discredit them.
Unfortunately, making false charges of anti-Semitism has become a risk-free activity that carries virtually no penalty and may even win the accuser support in some circles. Small wonder that hard-line defenders of Israel use this charge so promiscuously: They pay no price for doing so while their targets invariably pay dearly, even when the targets are innocent. So long as this is the case, why should anyone expect such slanders to stop?
Abrams is obviously free to oppose Hagel's nomination and to marshal legitimate arguments against his candidacy. And Haass -- who is a strong and vocal supporter of Hagel's candidacy -- should certainly not try to force anyone at the council to agree with him and support Hagel. But what Abrams should not be permitted to do under CFR's aegis is make unsubstantiated insinuations about Hagel's supposed "problem with Jews." That is the rankest form of McCarthyism and is antithetical to everything the council represents.
So as president of an organization that aims to foster open and respectful debate about foreign policy and improve America's standing in the world, Haass now has the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to make a stand for reasoned, rational discourse. To his credit, he has distanced himself and the council from Abrams's remarks, telling an interviewer that these insinuations of anti-Semitism were "over the line." But he needs to go further and tell Abrams to issue a public apology to Hagel. If Abrams refuses, Haass should fire him.
If Haass doesn't do that, he will have allowed Abrams's behavior to tarnish CFR's reputation, and he will have helped stymie open and honest debate about American foreign policy. Needless to say, that is exactly the opposite of what the president of the Council on Foreign Relations is supposed to be doing.
Richard Haass has made important contributions to U.S. foreign policy through his writings, his own public service, and his leadership at CFR. By doing the right thing now, he has the chance to make another one. And all Abrams has to do is admit he was wrong and say he is sorry.
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When Andrew Sullivan announced last week that he was taking his uber-blog, The Dish, independent and relying solely on reader subscriptions to fund the operation, the first thing I thought of was...
Not because the announcement made me yearn for a nice IPA, but because it made me wonder whether what is happening to the media environment is in some ways analogous to the extraordinary improvements in brewmaking over the past couple of decades, especially here in North America.
Back in my youth, beer in America was a consistently bland and homogeneous product. Watery lagers predominated, because the big brewing companies all sought to appeal to the median drinker. There just wasn't much difference between Bud, Miller, Schlitz, etc., which is why beer like Coors -- which had even less flavor but was hard to get in much of the country -- could become a fad for awhile. Beer snobs sometimes drank imports like Beck's or Guinness, but the major U.S. brands were boring, conventional, and competing to be more-or-less like each other. Kinda like Detroit's Big Three automakers or the three major TV networks.
Enter the microbrewery revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, enterprising Americans in search of good beer began drawing on artisanal brewing traditions and techniques from Europe, leading to an explosion of small craft breweries whose main selling point was creativity and diversity. Not to mention taste. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, microbrews thrived by presenting unique and interesting products that could actually hold a beer fan's interest. Instead of putting out a cheap product to be swilled in front of the TV or at a football game, microbrewers sought to produce something you could savor, discuss, and get seriously passionate about. No wonder I haven't sipped a Bud in years. Even the Obama White House has caught the bug, producing its own Honey ale in recent years.
So too with blogs. As Sullivan has realized, you don't have to be connected to some big media giant like the New York Times or the Economist in order to have a significant readership. It helps to be part of a well-known brand, of course but it's not essential, especially if you're more interested in appealing to a smaller group of engaged readers than in grabbing as much market share and advertising revenue as you can.
Furthermore, as the diverse set of writers that Sullivan often features on his blog illustrate, those who work primarily in the blogosphere are usually more interesting, provocative, willing to experiment, and well-informed than the mainstream commentators and pundits writing for the big media outlets. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm constantly impressed by how many smart people and good writers now inhabit the internet, and I frequently find myself in awe of how well so many of them use language and how much genuine pleasure one can get from reading them. By contrast, outstanding writing is becoming harder to find in a lot of mainstream media platforms, and its almost an endangered species in the hallowed halls of academe. It's not that they are bad writers, it's just that they are mostly so cautious, predictable, and bland. You know: like PBR.
Given the effectiveness of modern search engines, interested citizens can get lots of information from the web if they're willing do a little bit of dedicated trolling, which in turn makes it harder for governments, interest groups, or big media conglomerates to control discourse anymore. And that's why authoritarian governments in countries like China or Iran have worked so hard to slap restrictions on this free-wheeling environment, lest their own actions and legitimacy get undermined by the unconstrained flow of ideas.
None of this is big news by now, and Sullivan isn't the first blogger to rely solely on reader support. He's just the most visible and prominent, and his experiment reminds us that the information revolution that we are all living through is still in its early stages. But I hope Sullivan's venture succeeds and that others follow his lead. I don't know what the information industries will look like a decade or two into the future, but it's certain to be different than it is today and a lot different than it was when I was a kid. I'm already reconciled to the fact that I'll eventually have to give up my cherished morning newspapers and get almost everything in digitized form. I'll heave a nostalgic sigh when that happens, but in the end I think it will be for the best. Why? Because I also believe that the open exchange of information and ideas eventually leads to greater collective wisdom and better public policies. For this reason, the break-up of big media oligopolies and the proliferation of independent voices is a good thing.
And on that happy note, I think I'll have a beer.
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Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on the manufactured controversy about Senator Chuck Hagel's fitness for the post of secretary of defense. But I do encourage you to read the more recent comments by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Wright, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Avishai, all of whom make clear that Hagel is perfectly qualified for the position and that the people who are now trying to smear him deserve the same contempt with which former Senator Joseph McCarthy and other narrow-minded bullies are now viewed.
Three aspects of the affair do merit brief comment, however. First, I'm baffled by the Obama administration's handling of the whole business. What in God's name were they trying to accomplish by floating Hagel's name as the leading candidate without either a formal nomination or a vigorous defense? This lame-brained strategy gave Hagel's enemies in the Israel lobby time to rally their forces and turn what would have been a routine appointment into a cause célèbre. If Obama backs down to these smear artists now, he'll confirm the widespread suspicion that he's got no backbone and he'll lose clout both at home and abroad. If he goes ahead with the appointment (as he should), he'll have to spend a bit of political capital and it will be a distraction from other pressing issues. And all this could have been avoided had the White House just kept quiet until it was ready to announce its nominee. So whatever the outcome, this episode hardly reflects well on the political savvy of Obama's inner circle.
Second, let's not lose sight of what is at stake here. Contrary to what some suggest, the choice of SecDef isn't going to make any difference in U.S. policy toward Israel or the "peace process." Policy on those issues will be set by the White House and Congress, with AIPAC et al. breathing down both their necks. The Israeli government has no interest in a two-state solution, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to persuade Israel to rethink its present course, and the United States is incapable of mounting the sort of sustained pressure that might force both sides to compromise. Which means the two-state solution is dead, and it won't matter whether Hagel gets the nod or not. The $3-4 billion annual aid package won't be affected, and I'll bet the United States continues to wield its U.N. Security Council veto whenever it is asked.
This appointment could affect U.S. policy toward Iran, insofar as Hagel's been skeptical about the wisdom of using military force in the past. He's hardly a dove or an appeaser, of course; he just recognizes that military force may not be a very good way to deal with this problem. (Well, duh.) If Obama wants to pursue diplomacy instead of preventive war -- and he should -- the combination of Hagel at Defense and Kerry at State would give him two respected, articulate, and persuasive voices to help him make that case. But if Obama were to decide that force was a good idea, neither Kerry nor Hagel would stand in his way. So in terms of overall Middle East policy in the next couple of years, this appointment may matter less than most people think.
The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free. Given America's track record in the region in recent decades, you'd think a more open debate on U.S. policy would be just what the country needs, both for its own sake and for Israel's. But because the case for the current "special relationship" of unconditional support is so weak, the last thing that hardliners like Bill Kristol or Elliot Abrams want is an open debate on that subject. If Hagel gets appointed, it means other people in Washington might realize they could say what they really think without fear that their careers will be destroyed. And once that happens, who knows where it might lead? It might even lead to a Middle East policy that actually worked! We wouldn't want that now, would we?
At this point, if Obama picks someone other than Hagel, he won't just be sticking a knife in the back of a dedicated public servant who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Obama will also be sending an unmistakable signal to future politicians, to young foreign policy wonks eager to rise in the Establishment, and to anyone who might hope to get appointed to an important position after 2016. He will be telling them that they either have to remain completely silent on the subject of U.S. Middle East policy or mouth whatever talking points they get from AIPAC, the Weekly Standard, or the rest of the Israel lobby, even though it is palpably obvious that the policies these groups have defended for years have been a disaster for the United States and Israel alike.
Instead of having a robust and open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy inside official Washington, we will continue to have the current stilted, one-sided, and deeply dishonest discussion of our actions and interests in the region. And the long list of U.S. failures -- the Oslo process, the settlements, the Iraq War, the rise of al Qaeda, etc. -- will get longer still.
Over to you, Mr. President.
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Over at FP's new National Security Channel, reporter Gordon Lubold has a lengthy interview with U.S. Afghan commander John Allen. Allen offers a pretty upbeat assessment: He says the Afghan National Security Force "is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past," adding that our Security Force Assistance Teams are "really accelerating that." He doesn't actually come out and say we're going to win (or even try to define what "victory" would look like), but his bottom line is simple: "the campaign is on track."
But to where? I thought Obama made a bad mistake when he decided to escalate in Afghanistan, but this is another one of those issues where I'd love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I've heard nothing but upbeat assessments from U.S. commanders ever since Obama took office, which makes me more than a little skeptical about Allen's testimony now. Back in January 2010, for example, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he "believed we had turned the tide." His successor, General David Petraeus, issued a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments and followed by a major increase in the overall level of violence.
Well, it's déjà vu all over again: Today, despite a dramatic increase in "green on blue" attacks (i.e., attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. or ISAF personnel) and the announced departure of other U.S. allies, the latest American commander continues to portray our efforts in a positive light, especially with respect to the progress made by Afghan security forces. But you might have missed the fact that the DoD quietly lowered the bar for the latter, by eliminating the category of "independent" (meaning that a unit that can operate on its own) from the ratings system used to assess Afghan forces. Now the top ranking is "independent with advisors," which allows us to describe more Afghan units as "top rated." And even with these lower standards, less than ten percent of Afghan units are rated as capable of being able to operate semi-independently.
In one sense, Allen's optimism is neither surprising nor objectionable. You're not going to hear the U.S. commander tell a reporter that things aren't going well, because that is hardly the best way to inspire your troops to greater effort. Plus, the "surge" in Afghanistan was not designed to fix all of that unfortunate country's problems; it was intended either to 1) provide a fig leaf for a U.S. withdrawal, 2) inflict enough pain on the Taliban so that they'd cut a deal, or 3) buy a bit of time to build up Afghan security forces, at which point we'd get the hell out. Notice that these various goals aren't mutually exclusive, but none of them constitutes "victory."
And that's been the problem in Afghanistan all along. The original rationale for being there disappeared once Al Qaeda fled the country and metastasized to other areas. It never made much sense to spend $100 billion plus per year on a country whose entire GDP was less than 20 percent of that figure, especially once it became clear that the Karzai government was irredeemably corrupt and mostly incompetent and equally clear that we had no idea how to "nation-build" there ourselves. Plus, our main adversaries could always avoid us by slipping over the border into Pakistan or melting back into the local population. They knew we'd eventually go home, at which point Afghanistan's future will be determined by the Afghans themselves. As it should be.
In short, General Allen's testimony is precisely what you'd expect him to say, and thus doesn't really doesn't tell you much of anything at all. But his optimism stands in sharp contrast to the assessment you'll find in a book like Rajiv Chandraksekaran's Little America, which I've just been reading. I hope Allen is right, that the ANSF really is making headlong progress, and that it will be up to the task of providing security once we are gone. But I wouldn't bet on it.The only consolation -- if you're not Afghan, that is -- is that it won't matter much to us one way or the other.
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"Tell me how this ends," David Petraeus famously asked back in 2003, referring to the U.S. war in Iraq. Today, I'd like somebody who knows more about international finance than I do to answer that question regarding the eurozone.
Today we learned that with the exception of Germany, the rest of the eurozone is slipping back into recession. Take a look at this graphic here, and you'll see that problem countries like Spain and Italy are in particularly bad shape, with economies that are not only under their 2008 levels, but beginning to shrink at an accelerating rate. And the OECD forecasts for next year -- see here, here, and here -- are not exactly encouraging.
Why does this matter? Because countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece all need genuine economic growth in order to get out of their larger debt problems. In fact, they need economic growth that is sufficiently strong to provide a surplus over their existing debt service (and other expenses), so that people holding their debt (or expecting to buy new bonds when it's time to roll the current set over) have reason to believe that the debts will eventually be repaid. This is why everybody gets nervous when interest rates on new debt rise about the canonical 7 percent mark.
The issue is ultimately one of confidence. If the institutions holding Spanish or Italian debt and the lenders who have to issue new debt (to cover the service on the old debt) are convinced that the Spanish and Italian economies will eventually start growing and that the money to pay these debts will be there in the future, then interest rates will remain low and the danger of default will recede. But if these same lenders begin to suspect that these economies aren't going to grow enough (and might even continue to shrink) they will rightly conclude that the money to pay their existing debts (including the debt service) will be lacking. At that point, they will only be willing to lend more money at interest rates that are even less sustainable. And that's when states have to start thinking about bailouts, or about leaving the eurozone and solving their problems through a new (and highly devalued) local currency.
The happy ending to this story, if there is one, is that the various structural reforms now being imposed on these countries will simultaneously cut government costs (thereby freeing up money for debt service) and eventually trigger robust economic growth (thereby increasing tax revenues and providing even more money). But thus far this doesn't seem to be happening. Instead, we get recurring crises, each dealt with by some sort of hastily improvised mechanism mostly designed to kick the can down the road and wait for a miracle to occur. But unless the curves in the graphic cited above hit an inflection point and start heading upward, I don't see how this favorable outcome ever gets reached.
But international finance isn't my real gig, so there may be aspects of this situation that I've failed to grasp. If any of you think you understand what's really happening, tell me how this ends.
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I'm just back from a brief trip to Maine, to give a lecture at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. As I have in a couple of other venues, I spoke on the similarities and differences between the earlier campaign for war with Iraq and the current debate over war with Iran. The main similarity, of course, is that the same groups and individuals who pushed hardest for war with Iraq are also in the vanguard of the groups pusshing for war with Iran today. But there are also some critical differences, most notably the fact that the Obama administration isn't staffed by die-hard neoconservatives and Obama isn't as gullible as Bush and Cheney turned out to be. For those of us who believe that war with Iran is neither necessary nor wise, this is good news.
My hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the attendees asked a lot of smart questions, so I had an excellent time. A fair number of the people I met have backgrounds in international affairs (in business, academia, government, intelligence, etc.), and all are obviously engaged by the subject. I didn't hand out a questionnaire so I don't know what everyone in attendance thought, but I was struck by two themes in both the Q & A at my talk and in my private conversations with various members.
First, I detected no support for any sort of war with Iran. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not by us, not by Israel, and not by anybody else. It's possible that some people in the audience would use force as a last resort, but no one in the audience or in private spoke in favor of that option or even asked a question that leaned in that direction. (One retired government official said he believed there would eventually be a war, but he made it clear that he thought that it was a terrible idea). Instead, they were mostly interested in what could be done to prevent a war, and several questions centered on what could be done to improve U.S.-Iranian relations over the longer term. That view, by the way, is more-or-less consistent with recent surveys showing relatively little support for the "military option." This result is especially telling given that Americans also seem to hold quite alarmist views about Iran's nuclear intentions, and given that the war party has been working overtime to hype the threat for years.
Second, I was also struck by the intelligent skepticism that several attendees expressed regarding America's global role. This was a sophisticated group, and most of the people with whom I spoke would be considered "internationalist" in orientation. Yet several also spoke against what they perceived as excessive U.S. interventionism, and one openly complained about the U.S. serving as the "world's policeman." Statements such as these reinforce my sense that a lot of well-informed Americans recognize that trying to run most of the world isn't in America's interest or the world's interest, and that a smarter and more selective approach to global engagement would be easy to sell.
In fact, because the United States is in reality amazingly secure (relative to most other nations) it takes a lot of effort to get us to shoulder all these international burdens. Our leaders and other interested parties have to do a lot of threat-mongering, usually by treating minor powers as if they were looming international dangers. And these minor powers can't be portrayed merely as regimes with whom we have differences; they have to be given scary labels like the "Axis of Evil" or demonized as the Greatest Threat to Human Decency since Hitler (or Stalin, or Saddam, or Genghis Khan or whomever). Advocates of endless intervention also rely on elaborate domino-theory scenarios whereby some obscure setback somewhere eventually leads to a snafu, which triggers a defeat, which in turn provokes a crisis, which then undermines our credibility, which leads allies to defect, and eventually leaves us isolated and vulnerable. Via this sort of logic, victory is necessary in Afghanistan or else someday North Korea will invade and conquer all of North America.
As I said, these impressions aren't based on a scientific survey, and the views expressed above are my own. But the whole trip made me wish that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could spend less time with their advisors and less time cuddling up to fat cat donors with bellicose agendas, and more time talking about foreign policy with well-informed regular citizens. I'll bet they'd discover that what passes for unquestioned truth inside-the-Beltway is much less widely accepted in a lot of other places.
Over at the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan links to my earlier post on the Olympics and nationalism and connects it to the interesting issue of international "free agency." But I think he may have misinterpreted one aspect of my post.
I wrote: "I don't root for Ryan Lochte of the United States over Yannick Agnel of France because I know them both personally, and I happen to like Lochte more, or because my personal knowledge of the two tells me that Lochte is more deserving in some larger sense (i.e., he works harder, has overcome more obstacles, etc.)."
Sullivan comments, "[W]ho knew Walt was chummy with Lochte?"
In fact, I'm not: My point was that personal knowledge of the competitors did not explain why we tend to root for one over another. As I said: "I have no idea [if Lochte or Yannick Agnel]" are more deserving of victory; my point was that nationalism tends to make us root for our countrymen even if we don't actually know if they are friendly, ethical, and admirable, or shallow, vain, and unlikeable. (I have in fact known a fair number of world-class athletes in my time, and they run the gamut.)
For the record: Press accounts suggest that Lochte is in fact a very nice guy, and I'd be happy to meet him sometime. But I don't know him, or Agnell, or anyone else at the Games. So why do I care who wins? See my earlier post.
I was watching the Olympics last night, when a disquieting thing happened. I don't mean when gymnast John Orozco fell off the pommel horse, or when the beach volleyball team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings lost a set for the first time in their accomplished Olympic careers (Relax: They rallied to win their match and advance to the next round). Rather, the disturbing event was a promo for a new NBC TV program entitled "Stars Earn Stripes."
The new show, hosted by retired General Wesley Clark, takes various minor celebrities (e.g., Sarah Palin's husband Todd, singer Nick Lachey, former Olympic skier Picabo Street, etc.) and runs them through some mock military training, apparently including a few live fire drills. The idea, as near as I can tell, is to show these semi-famous people doing the sorts of things that military personnel do. And using real ammo is supposed to lend a certain verisimilitude, make it seem at least mildly dangerous, exploiting the well-documented human fascination with seeing stuff blow up.
This whole idea strikes me as so wrong that I hardly know where to begin. For starters, war is a serious business in which real human beings die. It's not a sporting competition to be conducted for our amusement, even if wartime coverage here in the safe and secure United States sometimes makes it seem like entertainment. Turning military training into a tawdry reality show obliterates the moral significance of violent conflict and invites us to pretend that it's all some sort of game. Can you think of a better way to demean the idea of genuine military service than to have a bunch of minor celebrities play soldier on camera?
The new show is also going to be unrealistic, in the sense that its not likely to give viewers an accurate picture of the full range of combat activities. We'll probably get to see the stars doing basic drills, running obstacle courses, and maybe firing some weapons, but we're not going to see them getting wounded, experiencing PTSD, dealing with intestinal parasites, shivering for days in a high altitude foxhole, or watching a close buddy expire from an IED blast. For that matter, we're also not going to see any of them sitting in a cubicle here in the United States operating an RPV against some suspected terrorist group in Pakistan, Yemen, or some other faraway country. Or how about another basic military activity: heading up to Capitol Hill to lobby for some expensive weapons system? In other words, "Stars Earn Stripes" will be presenting a selective and sanitized view of "military activities," chosen to be suitable for the viewing public and carefully designed not to make viewers less likely to buy the sponsors' products.
Finally, this new show must be seen as yet another manifestation of the uncritical deference to all things military that gets in the way of an intelligent national security policy. Don't get me wrong: I support a strong national defense and I am grateful for the sacrifices that real soldiers and sailors make on our behalf. But based on the promo I saw last night, this silly show portrays military service as the acme of human achievement, as the most demanding set of skills that these minor celebrities could aspire to master. As such, it subtly contributes to the idea that people in uniform are the greatest Americans, which in turn reinforces the belief that shoveling more and more money at the Pentagon is the best way to make Americans safer and more prosperous.
To repeat: A capable defense is a valuable asset, and the United States (and other countries), should spend what is necessary to protect their vital national interests. But both the Founding Fathers and experienced generals like former president Dwight D Eisenhower also understood that a healthy society must remain vigilant against the dangers of excessive military influence. By placing military activity on a weird sort of pedestal, "Stars Earn Stripes" will in some small way discourage the critical scrutiny that is necessary to keep today's powerful national security establishment under effective civil control.
Nine months ago I visited South Korea for a conference on security issues, and I posted a summary of my conference paper here on this site. Among the main points I made (and not for the first time) was that creating and managing balancing coalitions in Asia was going to be tricky, and require some adroit diplomacy and skillful U.S. leadership. As I said back then:
"For starters, a balancing coalition in Asia will face serious dilemmas of collective action. Although many Asian states may worry about a rising threat from China, each will also be tempted to get others to bear most of the burden and to free-ride on their efforts. These incentives may lead some states to simultaneously balance against China (at least somewhat) while at the same time trying cultivating close economic relations with China. Indeed, one could argue that this is precisely what South Korea has tried to do over the past decade or more. This problem may be compounded by lingering historical divisions between potential alliance partners (e.g., Japan and South Korea), and by adroit Chinese efforts to play "divide-and-rule."
The past several weeks provide some instructive support for this view. First, a May 2012 agreement to increase security cooperation and intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan (a move that the United States clearly supported) has foundered in recent weeks, in good part due to domestic opposition in South Korea. Some of the opposition was merely opportunistic (the agreement provided President Lee's opponents with an issue to exploit), but the controversy also stemmed from Korea's bitter experience as a Japanese colony during the first half of the 20th century. Second, the recent ASEAN summit failed to issue a closing communiqué fo the first time in the organization's forty-five year history, largely because there was no consensus on how to respond to China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Both events highlight some of the key obstacles to effective balancing behavior in Asia: 1) the temptation to free-ride, 2) lingering historical tensions between key members, and 3) China's ability to cultivate certain regional states (in this case, Cambodia) and block a coordinated regional response.
States do tend to balance against threats, and it is no surprise that the United States has begun to focus more attention on Asia and that many Asian states welcome the enhanced attention. But creating effective balancing coalitions is neither easy nor automatic, and it's going to require more time and skill to pull it off, especially if the United States wants to make sure that other states pull their weight and don't leave Uncle Sucker doing all of the heavy lifting. And my guess is that managing intra-alliance diplomacy in Asia is going to make the history of NATO look like child's play.
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I've been in Tokyo for two days, and this morning I read in the Japan Times that Japan has fallen to fifth place in the global "peace index" put out by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace. I just want to make it clear that my presence here had nothing to do with this change: The shift in Japan's ranking reportedly reflected the upgrading of its missile defenses and a loosening of arms export constraints.
Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada occupied the top four spots (beating out Japan) and the three lowest rated countries were Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Syria tumbled from 116th to 147th (no big surprise there), and overall the Middle East/North Africa has replaced Sub-Saharan Africa as the world's least peaceful region. The United States, by the way, ranked 88th, but our president does have a Nobel Peace Prize.
As for my trip, I've been having a very enjoyable visit, and my hosts have been especially gracious in arranging an interesting schedule of meetings and events. I had an lengthy meeting with a group of Japanese scholars yesterday morning and delivered a lecture on the impact of the Israel lobby on Obama's Middle East policy yesterday afternoon. Today I'll meet with a group of journalists and then head off to Kyoto, partly to sight-see but also to meet with some academics there.
My conversations have alternated between discussions of Middle East events and exchanges about the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. With respect to the former, I think it's safe to say that my Japanese interlocutors are politely baffled by U.S. policy. (But aren't we all?) And it is not just an idle issue for them, because what the U.S. does in the Middle East affects Japanese interests both directly (via energy costs), and indirectly (the more time and attention we devote to Middle Eastern affairs, the less time and attention U.S. leaders can devote to events in East Asia). This wouldn't be a big problem if the United States were doing a great job of keeping the Middle East quiet and stable, but it's pretty hard to defend our track record over the past decade.
With respect to Asia, I was struck (though not surprised) by the continued concerns that several people voiced about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Asia. I can understand why the Japanese (and other U.S. partners) fret about this, and I can even understand why they bring this up when talking to Americans. But as I told my Japanese colleagues, their concerns are misplaced and could become a dangerous source of friction within America's Asian alliances. In fact, the United States has gone to enormous lengths over the past five decades to reassure its allies around the world about its credibility, even though most of these allies need us far more than we need them. The United States spends a much larger share of its GDP on defense than its Asian allies do. It maintains a substantial military presence in Asia, even though U.S. security is not directly at risk there. So the idea that U.S. credibility is seriously in question is just plain wrong, and it won't help our relations with these states if they keep complaining about it, because it will make Americans wonder if they are being asked to do more for Asia than our Asian allies are willing to do for themselves.
A further implication is that a successful U.S. security policy in Asia will depend less on specific military capabilities than on effective diplomacy. Military power isn't irrelevant, of course, but the United States will have plenty of forces to bring to bear in Asia if they are needed for many years to come. But Asia is an exceedingly complicated strategic environment, and there are lots of cross-cutting interests that could interfere with a collective effort to maintain a stable political-military order there. To navigate these issues successfully and to avoid being exploited, the United States will need to pay a lot of attention to the region. It will need a cadre of regional experts with deep knowledge of these countries and their elites, and it will need to devote a lot of time and energy to managing these relations over time.
Which is yet another reason why the United States pays a price when it gets bogged down in fruitless conflicts in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, when it engages in half-hearted and unsuccessful efforts to advance a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, or when it gets trapped in a counter-productively hardline policy toward Iran. Diplomatic resources, political capital, and presidential time are not infinite resources, and shouldn't be invested unless we're serious about making them pay off.
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For the past few years, a group of scholars at the College of William and Mary have been conducting surveys of the international relations discipline, as part of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project. (FP has published excerpts from their reports in the past, such as this one.) Their latest results have just been released, and this year they've gone global, surveying nearly 3500 IR scholars from around the globe. You can download the whole survey -- "TRIP Around the World" -- here.
For me, the most interesting results are at the beginning, and they show that there's quite a bit of variation in how IR is taught in different parts of the world. For example, 9 percent of IR teachers in the U.S. say that they include material on Central Asia in their course, but in Turkey that number is 25 percent. 40 percent of American IR scholars include material on East Asia, the same percentage as in Australia, but in Israel the number reported was zero. In other words, there's a lot of regional bias in the content of IR courses: what you teach depends in part on where your country sits. This pattern isn't that surprising, perhaps, but it does tell you that students in different countries (and future policy professionals) aren't absorbing quite the same view of the world.
Those aren't the only differences, of course. On average, U.S. scholars report that 28 percent of their courses deal with "policy analysis" of various sorts. But in Turkey the reported average is 49 percent, and in Finland and Singapore the average is only 14 percent. And then there's the question of which authors get assigned: in the United States, IR teachers report that 71 percent of the readings are by American authors, and both Singapore and Israel report a similar number. But the percentage of American authors drops to the mid-forties in the U.K., Canada, Colombia, France, and several other countries, and those independent-minded Finns assign only 27 percent. Other TRIP results show that American academics still dominate the lists of "most influential" scholars, but what students are reading clearly varies a lot by country.
I'm also happy to report that realism appears to be alive and well in the academy, at least as measured by the self-reported content of undergraduate "Intro to IR courses." Once again, it's Finland where realism seems least widespread (only 11 percent of the course material), but none of the rival paradigms seem all that popular in Finland either).
Do these variations in basic IR teaching tell us anything about international politics and foreign policy itself? If students are being taught somewhat different views of the world (and if there's a lot of regional bias in what they are learning), then one could argue this will tend to create policy elites who don't see the world in the same way and will have more trouble finding common ground. It might be tempting to see this as a potent source of international conflict, but I'd be wary of such a facile explanation. For starters, international conflict and competition took place long before anyone started teaching undergraduate courses about it, and nation-states would still have conflicting interests even if everyone everywhere took exactly the same courses and read the same books. (Depending on which books they read, in fact, maybe reading the same ones would make things worse). Furthermore, many of the people who ultimately are in charge of foreign policy aren't relying on what they learned in some undergraduate course, and at least some of them may have escaped some of the ethnocentrism within their earlier training. Understanding how potential antagonists think can be very useful, but it hardly guarantees you'll get along.
Most importantly, the TRIP survey covered only twenty countries, and some pretty interesting possibilities weren't included. China wasn't part of the survey, for example, and neither was Iran, even though both countries have significant academic institutions and a lot of young people taking international relations courses. I wonder what they are reading, and what conclusions they are drawing from the content of their courses?
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I gave a lecture last night at the Cape Ann Forum, on the topic of America's changing position in the world and what it might (should) mean for U.S. grand strategy. My hosts were gracious and the crowd asked plenty of good questions, which is what I've come to expect when I speak to non-academic groups. Indeed, I'm often impressed by how sensible many "ordinary" Americans are about international affairs in general and U.S. foreign policy in particular. And so it was last night.
One of the attendees was iconoclastic journalist Christopher Lydon, who's been a friend for some years now. Chris asked a great question: Why is there so little accountability in contemporary U.S. policy-making, and especially regarding foreign policy? To be more specific: He wanted to know why some of the same people who got us into the Iraq debacle, mismanaged the Afghanistan war, and now clamor for war with Iran are still treated as respected experts, welcomed as pundits, and recruited to advise Presidential campaigns?
I didn't have a particularly good answer for him, but I thought about it more as I drove home. I'm not sure why there seems to be so little accountability in the American establishment these days (though it is true that if you lose $2 billion dollars, it does affect your job security), but here are a few thoughts.
Part of the problem is institutionalized amnesia. The United States is busy all around the world, and if the short-term results of some action look okay then we tend to move on and forget about what we've left behind. We fought a proxy war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and it was a controversial issue at the time, with 40,000 or so Nicaraguan perishing as a result. But eventually the war ended, and we moved on with nary a backward glance. We intervened in the Bosnian civil war, patched together a Rube Goldberg-like structure to govern the place, gave ourselves high-fives, and spend the next fifteen years telling ourselves what a success it was. Except that it wasn't. Really. Last year we helped topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya, rejoiced at the fall of a despised and brutal dictator, and then moved on again, even as Libya descends into chaos. But it's not our problem anymore, unless a contraband MANPAD eventually finds its way to some unfortunate civilian airline somewhere. And if that airliner doesn't have Americans on board, we won't worry about it very much.
Heck, I'll bet if Bush had just pulled all our troops out of Iraq after his "Mission Accomplished" photo op, we'd be hailing it as a great military victory no matter what condition Iraq was in today. ("Hey, we got rid of Saddam for them; it's not our fault if the Iraqis can't run the place...")
A second reason is the incestuous clubbiness of the foreign policy establishment. Mainstream foreign policy organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations thrive by being inclusive: It's not clear what a member in good standing would have to do in order not to be welcome there. This is actually a smart principle up to a point: Because none of us is infallible, you wouldn't want to live in a society where being wrong rendered anyone a pariah for life. But neither does one want a system where conceiving and selling a disastrous war has no consequences at all.
Third, the incestuous relationship between mainstream journalists, policy wonks, and politicos reinforces this problem. All three groups live in a symbiotic relationship with each other, and you wouldn't expect to see many people in this world donning their brass knuckles and saying what they really think about other members of the club. And because their livelihoods and well-being aren't directly affected by catastrophes that happen Far Away, why should they worry about holding people accountable and conducting their relations in a more adversarial fashion? Bad for business, man....
A related reason has to do with career paths in the foreign policy world. I'm well aware that most would-be foreign policy wannabes don't have the luxury of tenure, and a lot of them have to survive on soft money budgets at think tanks or as in-and-outers doing private sector work when their party is out of power. In a world like this, yesterday's adversary is tomorrow's ally, and that means pulling punches and doing a lot of forgiving and forgetting. In most case, a bland conformism is the best route to long-term professional success, which diminishes the tendency to render harsh judgments, even when they are appropriate.
Fifth, as U.S. neoconservatives have long demonstrated, the best defense is sometimes a good offense. No influential political faction in America is more willing to engage in character assassination and combative politics than they are, in sharp contrast to most liberals and even most realists. I'm not talking about spirited debate over the issues -- which is a key part of effective democratic politics -- I'm talking about the tendency to accuse those with whom they disagree of being unpatriotic, morally bankrupt, anti-semitic, or whatever. Their willingness to play hardball intimidates a lot of people, which in turn protects them from a full accounting for their past actions.
Finally, there is obviously less accountability for anyone who has reliable financial backing. It doesn't matter how often people at the Weekly Standard or American Enterprise Institute advocate failed policies, so long as somebody is willing to keep bankrolling them. If you've got the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, or Sheldon Adelson in your corner, you can stay in the game no matter how often you've been wrong about really big and important issues, and no matter how big a price others may have paid for your mistakes.
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Strategy is all about setting priorities: Deciding which problems merit the most attention and allocating the right level of resources to each challenge. It is about not letting the urgent overwhelm the important, and not getting blown off course by random events or unexpected surprises. Whether we are talking about a country's overall policy menu, a corporate business plan, or a military engagement, success requires first identifying what really matters.
So when I read James Hansen's op-ed about climate change yesterday, my first thought was: "Boy, do we have our priorities screwed up." Here in America, we spend endless hours arguing and debating trivialities, like who is going to get to run Afghanistan (a country whose entire GDP is about one-third the size of the municipal budget for New York City). We turn issues of personal freedom and preference (like marrying whomever you want) into Grand Moral Challenges. We kvetch about a single blind dissident in China, and work ourselves into a lather over not-very-powerful countries like Iran that pose no serious threat to any vital U.S. interests. Like a paranoid nation of sheep, we accept an increasingly onerous set of security restrictions in a futile attempt to drive the probability of a terrorist attack on an airliner down to absolute zero, no matter what the cost or the inconvenience. (And some people now think the current level of TSA madness isn't enough!)
Meanwhile , we merrily go about finding new sources of hydrocarbon-based energy -- like Canada's tar sands -- and get excited about the possibility that "fracking" will free us from dependence on "foreign oil" and allow us to keep using energy at our current profligate levels. Instead of orchestrating a gradual increase in the cost of hydrocarbon-based fuels -- to discourage consumption -- politicians search instead for ways to keep the cost low (and our SUVs running).
If Hansen is right -- and his track record is pretty good -- this behavior is utterly myopic. I'm not saying that we shouldn't devote some attention to other issues -- and if you're been reading this blog, you know that I'm as guilty as everyone else of doing just that -- but I wonder how much of Barack Obama's time and attention has been spent thinking about what his administration could do to advance a sensible agenda of long-term environmental protection, as opposed to the time he's spent on things that basically won't matter a damn in a few years. Remember that big climate-change summit back in 2009? Haven't heard much about that agenda lately, have you?
When historians of the 22nd century look back on our era, I suspect we'll take a lot of heat (sorry for the pun) both for what we did, but also for what we failed to do. Especially if a lot of places that are dry land today are under water. The only good news: China and its various Southeast Asian neighbors won't be squabbling over all those bits of rock in the South China Sea that are barely above sea level now.
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I enjoy blogging for Foreign Policy, and one of the strengths of this site is that there's clearly no party line. So permit me to take issue with several items recently posted by my FP colleagues.
1. Over the weekend, Oren Kessler had an interesting piece on the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline Jabotinskyite father Benzion, who passed away last week at the age of 102. I don't doubt that the father-son relationship has a lot to do with Bibi's political predilections, but too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the individual here. Specifically, there is a tendency to blame Israeli expansionism and intransigence on the Likud Party, or on Bibi himself, or even on the divided and fractious nature of Israeli coalition politics. If only Israel had a different PM, so the argument runs, we'd see a turn away from settlement expansion and renewed hope for a two-state solution.
This line of thinking ignores the simple fact that settlement expansion has occurred under every Israeli government since 1967: Labor, Likud, Kadima, unity coalitions, etc. And these activities haven't been mere passive acquiescence: Each of these governments actively backed settlement expansion with subsidies, military protection, and expanded infrastructure. It's true that some Israeli leaders have been more open to some sort of two-state deal (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in particular), but neither leader put a completely acceptable deal on the table and both only got close to doing so when they were lame ducks about to leave office. And both continued to expand settlements while they were supposedly negotiating, which only made attempts to reach a deal harder.
Netanyahu just called for early elections, and he's likely to win a new term. But I'm not sure this development makes much difference, given the obstacles that have already been created to any meaningful form of two-state solution.
2. Dan Drezner has written several smart posts about the "surprising resilience" of Sino-American relations, as demonstrated by how the two governments handled the Chen Guangcheng case. I agree with his assessment of the diplomacy surrounding this particular incident, but I would caution against drawing any long-term conclusions from it. The real issue in Sino-American relations is not how the two governments deal with current bilateral, regional and global issues, but how they will be handled if the balance of power continues to shift. For all the publicity about China's rapid rise, it is still decidedly weaker than the United States is and it has considerable incentive to avoid major tests of strength. What worries realists is not what China might do this year, or even next year, but what a more powerful China might do in the decades ahead.
As I've emphasized before, it is entirely possible that Sino-American relations will continue to be handled in a sensible and mature fashion for many decades to come, if you assume that both sides are led by sensible and mature leaders and never by rabid nationalists, impulsive neoconservatives, or inexperienced officials who like to go with their "gut instincts." But over the longer term, how likely is that?
3. Last week Aaron Miller offered up five "bad ideas" for screwing up the Middle East. Rather than comment on his list (which I did find disappointing), I'll just offer a sixth: consistently placing U.S. Middle East policy in the hands of the same people who've repeatedly failed to achieve peace despite having lots of opportunities, and making reflexive support for the "special relationship" a litmus test for service in the U.S. government.
Will we eventually look back on President Obama's drop-in visit to Kabul as his "Mission Accomplished" moment? He's got a tough re-election battle to fight, the endless war in Central Asia isn't popular, and he wants to remind everyone that he's The Man Who Got Bin Laden. So he pulled a George W. Bush and burned up a lot of jet fuel racing to Kabul for a mostly meaningless photo op and a not-very convincing speech. This sort of posturing may help him get re-elected -- though I doubt it will have much effect -- but it's not going to help his long-term legacy when the U.S. is finally gone and Central Asia is on its own.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don't put much value in the new U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership." It has some symbolic value, I guess, and it can provide a fig leaf for our eventual withdrawal. If everything breaks the right way after 2014, it might even provide a general framework that facilitates some additional counter-terrorist activities. But it's merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, it is woefully short on specifics, and other people will be in charge in Kabul and Washington by the time the agreement runs out. If circumstances change in ways that give us reasons to renege (or give Afghan leaders grounds to want a different arrangement), this much-ballyhooed "partnership" won't be worth the pixels it's published with.
All told, nobody came off very well in this little episode. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney sounds both petty and silly trying to minimize Obama's genuine accomplishments against al Qaeda (and especially the elimination of bin Laden himself). But Obama's attempt to turn the Afghan debacle into some kind of strategic triumph isn't much better, as Juan Cole and Ahmed Rashid make clear in separate pieces. All of which is more evidence that our agonizingly long electoral cycle is a major impediment to a smarter foreign policy.
Obama should not forget that the elder President Bush won a far more smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War than we are going to get in Afghanistan, and he went down to defeat in 1992. It's still the economy, stupid, and most voters won't care much about bin Laden's demise when they go to the polls in November, no matter how often the president reminds them about it between now and then. Needless to say, that is precisely what Romney is counting on.
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Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been largely run by a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Both groups favor a highly activist foreign policy intended to spread democracy, defend human rights, prevent proliferation, and maintain American dominance, by force if necessary. Both groups are intensely hostile to so-called "rogue states," comfortable using American power to coerce or overthrow weaker powers, and convinced that America's power and political virtues entitle it to lead the world. The main difference between the two groups is that neoconservatives are hostile to international institutions like the United Nations (which they see as a constraint on America's freedom of action), whereas liberal interventionists believe these institutions can be an important adjunct to American power. Thus, liberal interventionists are just "kinder, gentler neocons," while neocons just "liberal interventionists on steroids."
The liberal/neoconservative alliance is responsible for most of America's major military interventions of the past two decades, as well as other key initiatives like NATO expansion. By contrast, realists have been largely absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights of punditry. That situation got me wondering: What would U.S. foreign policy have been like had realists been running the show for the past two decades? It's obviously impossible to know for sure, but here's my Top Ten List of What Would Have Happened if Realists Had Been in Charge.
#1. No war in Iraq. This one is easy. Realists like Brent Scowcroft played key roles in the first Bush administration, which declined to "go to Baghdad" in 1991 because they understood what a costly quagmire it would be. Realists were in the forefront of opposition to the war in 2003, and our warnings look strikingly prescient, especially when compared to the neocons' confident pre-war forecasts. If realists had been in charge, more than 4,500 Americans would be alive today, more than 30,000 soldiers would not have been wounded, and the country would have saved more than a trillion dollars, which would come in handy these days. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive too, and the balance of power in the Gulf would be more compatible with U.S. interests.
#2: No "Global War on Terror." If realists had been in charge after 9/11, they would have launched a focused effort to destroy al Qaeda. Realists backed the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a realist approach to the post-9/11 threat environment would have focused laser-like on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were a direct threat to the United States. But realists would have treated them like criminals rather than as "enemy combatants" and would not have identified all terrorist groups as enemies of the United States. And as noted above, realists would not have included "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (the infamous "axis of evil") in the broader "war on terror." Needless to say, with realists in charge, the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy calling for preventive war would never have been written.
#3. Staying out of the nation-building business. A third difference follows from the first two. Realists understand that transforming foreign societies is a difficult, costly, and uncertain enterprise that rarely succeeds. It is especially hard to do in poor countries with deep internal divisions, no history of democracy, and a well-established aversion to foreign interference. By avoiding the long-term occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would have had little need to invest in counter-insurgency or "nation-building," and could have focused instead on more serious strategic challenges. Which leads us to #4.
#4. A restrained strategy of "Offshore Balancing." Since the end of the Cold War, prominent realists have called for the United States to adopt a more restrained grand strategy that focuses on maintaining the balance of power in key areas (e.g., Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf) but reduces America's global footprint and keeps the U.S. out of unnecessary trouble elsewhere. Such a strategy would also force U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden and discourage them from either "free-riding" or "reckless driving" (i.e., adventurism encouraged by overconfidence in U.S. support). For instance, realists would never have adopted the Clinton administration's foolish strategy of "dual containment" in the Persian Gulf, or the Bush administration's even more reckless effort at "regional transformation." Instead, realists would have maintained a robust intervention capability but kept it offshore and over-the-horizon, bringing it to bear only when the balance of power broke down (as it did when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). Had we followed this approach from 1992 onward, it is even possible that al Qaeda would never have gotten rolling in a big way or never tried to attack the United States directly.
#5. No NATO expansion. Realists weren't surprised when the United States decided to move NATO eastwards; it's typical of victorious great powers to try to press their advantage. But they were skeptical about the whole idea, fearing (correctly) that it would poison relations with Russia and that the U.S. was taking on commitments that it might not be willing to meet and that would make NATO increasingly unwieldy. A realist approach would have stuck with the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, a much smarter move that enabled many useful forms of security cooperation and kept the door open to a more constructive relationship with Russia. Over time, realists would have pressed Europe to take on the main burden of its own defense, fully aware that Europe faces no security problems at present that it cannot handle on its own.
#6: No Balkan adventures. If realists had been in charge, the United States and its allies would have taken a different approach to the Balkan war in the 1990s. The United States might have stayed out entirely -- as former Secretary of State James Baker seemed to want -- because its vital interests were not at stake. Or it might have pushed for a partition plan for Bosnia, as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, and Stephen Van Evera proposed here and here. What would not have happened was the Rube Goldberg effort to cobble together a multi-ethnic "liberal" democracy in Bosnia (an effort that has largely failed and is likely to unravel if outside forces ever withdraw) or the subsequent ill-conceived war in Kosovo (which inept U.S. diplomacy helped provoke). Reasonable people can disagree about whether the world is better off for the U.S. having intervened, but it's by no means clear that the results were worth the effort.
#7. A normal relationship with Israel. Realists have long been skeptical of the "special relationship" with Israel, and they would have worked to transform it into a normal relationship. The United States would have remained committed to helping Israel were its survival ever threatened, but instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer," Washington would have used its leverage to prevent Israel from endlessly expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories. An even-handed U.S. approach would have taken swift advantage of the opportunity created by the 1993 Oslo Accords, and might well have achieved the elusive two-state solution that U.S. presidents have long sought. At a minimum, realists could hardly have done worse than the various "un-realists" who've mismanaged this relationship for the past 20 years.
#8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons. Realists have long emphasized the defensive advantages conferred by nuclear weapons, and have opposed the excessively large nuclear arsenals built up during the Cold War. Realists appreciate the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and believe complete disarmament is impractical, but they would have been much bolder in reducing the U.S. arsenal and would have focused more attention on securing nuclear materials world-wide. At the same time, realists would have acknowledged the technological futility of strategic missile defense as well as its dubious strategic rationale (i.e., even if missile defenses worked perfectly, an adversary could always deliver a warhead to U.S. territory through covert means, thereby making it harder to know where it came from).
#9. No Libyan intervention. Realists (and some others) were skeptical of the wisdom of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime in Libya. This position wasn't based on any sympathy for Qaddafi or his supporters, but rather on a hard-headed calculation of the interests involved and the potential pitfalls. In particular, realists worried that Qaddafi's fall would lead to a prolonged power vacuum (it has), and that the groups we were supporting were unknown and unreliable. The intervention also set a bad precedent: Not only did the U.S. and its allies run roughshod over the Security Council resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians (but not regime change), but we were toppling an autocrat who had previously succumbed to Western pressure and given up his WMD programs. It's possible that Libya will settle down and become a success story for liberal interventionism, but the jury is still out.
#10. A growing focus on China. Realists focus mostly on power and believe that the anarchic structure of world politics encourages powerful states to compete with each other for security. Not necessarily because they want to, of course, but because powerful states cannot take each other's benevolent intentions for granted. Accordingly, realists are skeptical of the claim that Sino-American rivalry can be avoided by "engaging" China, by fostering tight economic ties, or by enmeshing Beijing in institutions designed and led primarily by the United States. Accordingly, realists would focus on strengthening security ties in Asia (while getting our Asian allies to pull their weight), and work to establish clearer "red lines" with China's leadership. Over time, making it harder for China to translate its economic wealth into military power will be in order as well. Realists don't seek a war with China or regard it as inevitable, but they believe that avoiding it is going to take a lot of careful attention to Asian security issues.
To be sure, both the Bush and Obama administrations have moved in this direction, as exemplified by the "strategic partnership" with India and the recent "pivot" to Asia. These shifts occurred in part because there were a few realists involved (e.g., former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill), and partly because the structural forces were impossible to ignore.
Not all realists would subscribe to every item on this list, of course, and one could add other items to it. For instance, if the EU member-states had been led by realists in recent decades, their ill-fated experiment with the Euro would never have been tried and Europe would be in much better economic shape today. Similarly, realists would have followed a different approach toward Iran, and would almost certainly have tried to follow up on earlier Iranian efforts to improve relations with a "grand bargain" that acknowledged Iran's right to nuclear enrichment but put stringent safeguards in place to discourage weaponization. (That seems to be where we are headed right now, but it remains to be seen if Washington and Tehran have the patience and political will to get there).
As noted above, realists may have wrong about some of these items (e.g., the interventions in the Balkans and in Libya) and it's possible that U.S. leaders ultimately did the right thing in those cases on humanitarian (as opposed to strategic) grounds. I'll concede that possibility, but on the whole, I'd argue that both the United States and some key parts of the world would have been far better off if the United States had used its power in a more realistic fashion. It's too late to avoid the past mistakes, of course, but at least we can try to learn from them.
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Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.