The United States has lofty global ambitions, and its leaders still like to describe the country as the "leader of the free world," the "indispensable nation," and various other self-congratulatory labels. Yet it doesn't always marry these ambitions to a set of policies and practices that would help it achieve them.
Case in point: the well-sourced rumor that the Obama administration is about to appoint Caroline Kennedy to serve as our next ambassador to Japan. The obvious question: Is this an appointment that demonstrates a serious engagement with the complex problems the United States is now facing in Asia?
My concerns have nothing to do with Ms. Kennedy herself, of course. I've had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and thought she was smart, well-informed, and engaging. But she's neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she's certainly not an expert on East Asia. Unless I've missed something, she doesn't speak Japanese and has no academic or professional background in foreign affairs. Compared with some other former U.S. ambassadors to Japan (e.g., Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Michael Armacost, or Tom Foley), she's a political neophyte.
True, she comes from a prominent political dynasty, and she was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. So one might argue that she'll have a direct line to the White House and that her appointment is a way to signal to Japan that the U.S. is taking the relationship seriously.
It would be nice to think so, but what does that matter if she doesn't have the background necessary to give the White House or State Department independent advice or the experience necessary to convince Japanese officials to follow the U.S. lead? In case you hadn't noticed, politics in Asia are becoming more and more important, and managing our Asian alliances is going to be very tricky in the years ahead. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others are looking for clear signs of U.S. leadership, which means we need the most qualified and skilled people we can find in key diplomatic positions. We don't want ambassadors who are just reciting talking points prepared by others; we need ambassadors throughout Asia who have extensive knowledge of the region's history and the complicated economic and security landscape there. And, yes, it would be nice if they could read and speak the language.
Assuming the rumors are true, this case is just the most recent manifestation of America's overreliance on political appointments throughout our foreign policy system, and especially the diplomatic service. In fact, the United States is the only major power that routinely appoints amateurs to ambassadorial rank, even though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly recommends against this practice. Money quotation:
"[P]ositions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service. . . [Ambassadors] should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including ... useful knowledge of the language ... and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country. . . . Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor."
Yet despite this strong and sensible recommendation, roughly 30 percent of all U.S. ambassadors are political appointees rather than trained professional diplomats. This practice is completely bipartisan, by the way, and it's one of the many reasons why U.S. diplomacy is often ineffective.
The bottom line: International politics is a highly competitive enterprise, and if you want to succeed at it, you need to be ruthless about picking the best people to do the job. The New York Yankees don't put someone in centerfield just because they purchased a lot of advertising from the team's owners or have been renting a luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and the U.S. government shouldn't appoint amateurs -- no matter how smart, likeable, public-minded and well-connected they are -- to key diplomatic posts either.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A couple of years ago I devoted a couple of blog posts to arguing that allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the military made good strategic sense. My logic was straightforward: We want to attract the best people to military service and any sort of artificial restriction (such as banning gays, or any other social group) inevitably reduces the talent pool from which the country can draw. The result would be a weaker military than we would otherwise have. I'm certain my posts had exactly zero impact on President Obama's subsequent decision to end "don't ask, don't tell," but I was certainly happy when he did.
I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have any firm views on how the Supreme Court is going to handle the issue of gay marriage that is now before it. But I do think a parallel argument can be made about the effect of allowing gay marriage on U.S. foreign policy and national security. Specifically, permitting gay people to marry in the United States would have positive effects on both.
First, ending discrimination against gay couples is going to make the United States a more attractive place for gay people to live, especially when compared to societies that do not permit gay marriage or that actively discriminate (and in some cases, criminalize) being gay. Accordingly, some number of gay people are going to seek to emigrate to the United States, just as some gay Americans are now choosing to live abroad so that their relationships can be legally recognized and protected. The United States has long benefited from its attractiveness as a place to live and work, especially by attracting talented people who are being persecuted elsewhere. The United States would have gained greatly had someone like Alan Turing had known he could find a welcoming home here.
Permitting gay marriage isn't going to cause a flood of gay foreigners to flood our shores, but at the margin, it will make the United States a more attractive destination for some. Which would be to our overall benefit.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, legalizing gay marriage would reinforce America's public commitment to individual liberty and freedom, and its parallel commitment to non-discrimination. More than anything else, that commitment is America's global brand. In this country, the government doesn't tell you where to live, doesn't tell you what job to pursue, doesn't tell you what God to worship, and doesn't tell you who to fall in love with. At the same time, the government also says that you should not discriminate against those who happen to be different from you in some way. Instead, you are supposed to treat them as individuals and to expect the same in return.
But in most parts of the United States, the government does tell you that if you are in love with someone of your own gender, you aren't eligible for the same recognition and benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy. That's not as punishing a policy as slavery or Jim Crow or some of the other forms of discrimination that our country has practiced (and gradually abandoned), but it is still a source of considerable unhappiness for many gay couples and it is fundamentally at odds with our normal claim to privilege individual freedom of choice over category distinctions.
This enduring commitment to individual freedom and choice, and this fundamental hostility to the idea that some groups are better or worse than others, is central to what the United States stands for as a society. In other countries, ethnic and sectarian differences abound and sometimes explode in violence. Similar things have happened here, and racial, religious, or ethnic tensions still exist in many places, but our abiding commitment to individual freedom is like a solvent that continually works to erode the idea that you can judge someone merely by knowing what social group they are from. Martin Luther King dreamt that his children "would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And the same logic applies to sexual preference. In America, we should judge all people by their own individual characters, not by the gender they happen to prefer as lovers and partners.
Like those who once opposed interracial marriage or gays serving in the military, opponents of gay marriage have manufactured a bunch of bogus arguments about how allowing gays to marry would either damage children or undermine the institution of marriage itself. These arguments are pretty preposterous on their face. If anything, extending the right to marry to gay couples only reinforces the idea that stable, loving relationships between committed partners are a solid bedrock for society, as well as a profound source of long-term happiness. That's the main reason why opinion on this issue has shifted so rapidly in recent years. As homosexuality lost its stigma and straight Americans had more and more openly gay friends, the idea that married gay couples were some sort of subversive threat to society seemed increasingly ludicrous. As it should.
In American jurisprudence, the courts often look to whether the state has a "compelling interest" in regulating or interfering in some domain of activity. In this case, I'd argue that to the extent the state has an interest in this matter, that interest lies overwhelming in extending the privileges (and obligations) of marriage to all Americans. Not just because it is consistent with our commitment to liberty and to equality under the law, but also because it will be good for our global image, national cohesion, and even our long-term strength and prosperity.
So if you're still having trouble backing gay marriage on the simple grounds of fairness, you might consider supporting it on the basis of national security instead.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.
Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.
If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:
"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."
The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran's business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran's nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.
If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.
This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined "coercive diplomacy" as the use of military force or military threats "to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it." The book examined three cases of this approach -- the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam -- and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.
I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you're curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I'd go back and look at George's eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:
1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It's clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran's nuclear enrichment program doesn't pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it's not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a "breakout" capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn't entirely clear, despite the tough talk we've heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let's be conservative and score this in the plus column.
2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can't be blackmailed, because they don't want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case.
3. Clarity of American objectives. Having clear and well-understood goals aids coercion, because it lets the target know exactly what is being demanded and tells them what is not being sought. This condition is clearly absent in this case, although in theory it could be clarified through active diplomacy. If you were in Tehran, however, you'd probably be confused about what the U.S. really wants. Is the U.S. seeking to prevent an Iranian bomb? Certainly, but what else? Does Washington secretly share the Israeli goal of denying Iran a theoretical "weapons potential? Is the U.S. not-so-secretly interested in regime change, as some Congressional resolutions clearly state and as many Iranians suspect? And despite the tough talk about rejecting containment, etc., might the U.S. actually be willing to live with some Iranian enrichment, and might the US fall back on containment and deterrence if it had to? Nobody really knows. For the moment, therefore, this condition for successful coercive diplomacy is not met.
4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective. Coercion can be aided if the target becomes convinced time is running out and that it had better cut a deal. The Obama administration has explicitly sought to strengthen this condition by rejecting containment and saying that there is a "finite time limit" for negotiations. And Tehran may believe them. But that effort is undercut by the fact that there is no imminent "red line" (assuming Iran is not actively working on weaponization). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to impose red lines of his own, but he's cried wolf so often on this issue that his warnings may not be believed and his redlines aren't the same as Obama's in any case. Plus, the IDF cannot destroy Iran's nuclear potential on its own. So there are reasons to question whether the requisite urgency is present here. But let's be conservative here too and say that it is.
5. Adequate domestic political support. President Obama clearly has support for his policy of coercive diplomacy. Most Americans don't object to our squeezing Iran, don't mind talking about military force, and overwhelmingly favor diplomacy over war. And that's the rub: There's hardly any serious support for going to war, except among die-hard neoconservatives and the hardline wing of the Israel lobby. The U.S. military isn't pushing it and neither is the State Department, the intelligence services, the oil industry, or anyone else.
In his book, George argued that strong domestic support was especially necessary when pursuing the "strong form" of coercive diplomacy: i.e., the issuing of explicit demands or ultimatums. When domestic support is lacking, presidents have to rely on what he called the "try-and-see" approach: ratcheting up pressure but refraining from making demands with strict time limits. That's why you haven't seen him issue explicit ultimatums: Nobody really wants to have to carry out the implied threat when the deadline is up.
Bottom line: There's "adequate" support here, but barely.
6. Usable military options. Obviously, trying to coerce someone with threats of force won't work if there aren't genuine options that the opponent recognizes. In this case, I'd score it positively but with some important caveats. If we want to, the United States can certainly do a lot of damage to Iran's nuclear facilities (and other assets). In this narrow sense, therefore, Washington has "usable options." But those options come with significant risks, including the very real possibility that it will convince Iran that it has no choice but to go full-bore for a deterrent. And even extensive American air strikes cannot eliminate Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon. It can always rebuild its enrichment capacity, bury the machinery deeper, etc. Moreover, a preventive war would keep U.S.-Iranian relations in the deep freeze for at least another decade and could easily give the clerical regime a new lease on life. So one might conclude that the U.S. does have "usable" options, but they're aren't especially attractive ones. And Iran knows that.
7. Opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation. Thomas Schelling theorized the coercion (or what he called "compellence") works primarily by playing on the target's fear of what might happen if they do not comply. This criterion is difficult to gauge in advance, however, because opponents are obviously not going to admit publicly that they are worried about what the U.S. might do. On the contrary, they will claim not to fear escalation even if they are secretly quaking in their boots.
One might argue that Iran's infamous 2003 offer to negotiate a settlement -- made shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- shows that Tehran was deeply worried and eager to avoid the same fate that befell Saddam. Maybe so, but the subsequent debacle in Iraq and the U.S. failure in Afghanistan have almost certainly alleviated any fears they might have had back then. Iran's leaders know we aren't going to invade the country and they probably know that air strikes can't bring down their regime. I'm sure they don't want the U.S. to attack, but I doubt their fear is great enough to convince them to run up the white flag and comply with all of our present demands. Score this one on the "minus" side.
8. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. It is hard to coerce someone if they don't know what sort of concessions on their part will bring the pressure to an end. And the more ambiguity there is, the more they will fear a series of open-ended demands or an "agreement" that quickly breaks down amid mutual recriminations. Successful coercive diplomacy requires each side to be confident that there is a deal within sight, one that gives each at least something of what they want and in which each side understands exactly what is expected of the other.
This condition is presently lacking. As my colleague Nicholas Burns likes to emphasize, this gap exists in good part because we haven't had any real contact with Iran for more than thirty years, and we don't have any good sense of what their bottom lines might be. At the same time, it is hard for Iran's negotiators to know what the U.S. (or the P5+1) would be willing to accept either. Among other things, the fact that AIPAC and its lackeys in Congress keep trying to tie Obama's hands in the negotiations actually cripples our ability to conduct serious diplomacy, because Iran can't be sure that Obama could deliver on any offer he might make. If domestic politics here at home make it impossible to offer Iran any meaningful carrots (such as lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and turns the de facto U.S. position into one of demanding complete Iranian capitulation, then there obviously won't be a deal.
So where does this leave us? By my scoring, only four of George's conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are presently met (and remember, I was pretty conservative in evaluating the criteria). Assuming his framework is a useful guide, therefore, it is hard to be confident that military pressure on Iran will yield a positive diplomatic outcome. Which is yet another reason why I think we would be better off taking the threat of force off the table (thereby making it look less like blackmail and reducing Iran's interest in a latent or breakout capacity) and making the acceptable terms of a deal more explicit.
Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
In The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007) John Mearsheimer and I wrote:
The bottom line is that AIPAC, which bills itself as ‘America's Pro-Israel lobby' has an almost unchallenged hold on Congress ... Open debate about U.S. policy toward Israel does not occur there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world. (p. 162)
After discussing the lobby's efforts to influence the executive branch, we noted:
There is an even more obvious way to shape an administration's policy: the lobby's goals are served when individuals who share its perspective occupy important positions in the executive branch. . . .[G]roups in the lobby also try to make sure that people who are seen as critical of Israel do not get important foreign policy jobs. (pp. 165-66)
And after a lengthy discussion of the lobby's efforts to police public discourse and smear those who disagree with them with the charge of anti-semitism, we concluded:
The various strategies that groups in the lobby employ ... are mutually reinforcing. If politicians know that it is risky to question Israeli policy or the United States' unyielding support for Israel, then it will be harder for the mainstream media to locate authoritative voices that are willing to disagree with the lobby's views. If public discourse about Israel can be shaped so that most American have generally positive impressions of the Jewish state, then politicians will have even more reason to follow the lobby's lead. Playing the anti-Semitism card stifles discussion even more and allows myths about Israel to survive unchallenged. Although other interest groups employ similar strategies in varying form. most of them can only dream of having the political muscle that pro-Israel organizations have amassed. (p. 196)
I want to thank the Emergency Committee for Israel, Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Service Committee for providing such a compelling vindication of our views. As Rosie Gray amd Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed noted, at yesterday's hearing on Chuck Hagel Israel was mentioned 166 times, and Iran (a problem closely linked to Israel) 144 times. Afghanistan was mentioned only 20 times, and the problem of suicides of U.S. troops only twice. Glad to see that those Senators have their priorities straight. No wonder Mark Twain referred to Congress as "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes."
I am sometimes asked if I have any regrets about publishing our book. As of today, my only regret is that it isn't being published now. After the humiliations that Obama has endured at the hands of the lobby and now the Hagel circus, we'd sell even more copies and we wouldn't face nearly as much ill-informed criticism.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Barack Obama has received lots of advice on what he should say in his second inaugural. Unlike some commentators, I hope he doesn't use it as an opportunity to articulate a new grand strategy. George Bush tried that approach, and his second inaugural was a grandiose embarrassment.
At his best, Obama has a rare ability to convey painful truths to the American people and help us consider them in a new light. That is what he did in his famous Philadelphia speech on race, and his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. In that spirit, here's my fantasy about what he might tell the American people tomorrow. It's high time they heard it.
My fellow Americans:
The United States is a country of great ideals -- of liberty, equality, opportunity, and democracy -- truths that our Founding Fathers held to be "self-evident." These principles have inspired us from the start, and given us standards by which to judge our achievements and to reveal where we have fallen short.
Yet there is another set of truths that has guided us no less than these principles, truths that we are usually reluctant to acknowledge, even to ourselves. It is those neglected but important realities that I shall speak of today.
In addition to being a country of lofty ideals, America is also a land whose best leaders have been imbued from the beginning with a deep sense of realism about the world in which we live and the ways we must make our way through it. America's best moments have come when our ideals were tempered by a clear sense of what was in America's national interest and what our capabilities would allow us to do. In those moments, we also understood what lay beyond our reach.
As realists, the Founding Fathers understood that men (and women) are not angels, so they labored to devise a political system that could serve the governed without turning into tyranny. Because they recognized the central role of power and the inevitable frailties of all human beings, they wisely devised a system of checks and balances that has helped safeguard our liberties for well over two centuries.
As realists, our early leaders understood that our fledgling Republic was unlikely to thrive if it was surrounded and beset by powerful rivals. So they set themselves the task of continental expansion and economic growth, and, at the same time, they committed our young nation to driving the European great powers from the Western hemisphere. Over the next century, the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny made the United States supreme among its immediate neighbors, transforming the 13 original colonies into the most secure great power in history. But let us never forget that these achievements were borne on the backs of the original inhabitants of this continent, and that America's rise to great power was accompanied by the sufferings of millions.
As realists, we Americans understand the dangers that would arise if other great powers came to dominate their regions of the world in the same way that the United States dominates the Western hemisphere. So our leaders took the United States into both World Wars, not just to defeat aggressive dictators but also to uphold the balance of power in Eurasia. And our greatest presidents understood that success in both war and peace sometimes requires painful compromises. Franklin Roosevelt had no illusions about the evils of communism, but he also knew that allying with the Soviet Union during World War II was necessary to defeat the greater evil of Nazi Germany. In his words, "to cross that bridge I would hold hands with the devil."
Realism also guided the United States to victory in the long Cold War. Instead of withdrawing from Europe and Asia when World War II was over, America forged alliances with key powers in both regions to contain the communist threat. Some of our partners did not share all of our ideals, but American leaders understood that these ideals would not long survive were the Soviet Union to prevail. At the same time, U.S. leaders understood that trying to roll back communism by force of arms was far too dangerous in a nuclear age, and that the best approach was to patiently wait for the Soviet empire to self-destruct.
Even today, as we strive to advance our core ideals both at home and abroad, we must be guided not only by our hopes and dreams, but also by a clear-eyed sense of what is necessary and a hard-headed recognition of what is possible. As realists, we now know that whole societies cannot be remade overnight, and especially not by military occupation. As realists, we understand that our ideals and our interests will sometimes conflict, and that sometimes we must do what we must rather than what we might wish. As realists, we understand that climate change is not a problem we can wish away, and that addressing it may require significant sacrifices. And as realists, we understand that states will be drawn to us if we are strong but not aggressive, and that they will distance themselves if we use our power unwisely and too often.
Realism also reminds us that our success as a nation is not measured by military power alone; because our military prowess depends on a strong economy and a loyal and well-educated population. Realists also know that states are as likely to err by exaggerating dangers they face as by paying them insufficient heed. We are neither stronger nor safer as a nation when we squander money on senseless wars or on unnecessary weapons, and when we forgo opportunities to resolve disputes with diplomacy.
Finally, realism reminds us that no country has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. We are justly proud of America's many achievements, but we must also be ready to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. Indeed, perhaps our greatest strength as a people has been our willingness to learn from the past, to discard outmoded or unjust beliefs and policies, and to move forward with alacrity and audacity.
Make no mistake: America is, and always has been, an exceptional nation. Our citizens have come here from every corner of the world, and America has woven men and women of every race, creed, and religion into a resilient whole cloth. Our power is unmatched and our potential for good is enormous. We have the capacity to build an even better America and to help forge a safer and more just world. But our success in pursuit of these grand goals will require much more than lofty visions and pious principles. It will also require us to pursue those goals with an abiding sense of humility, the humility that a realistic approach to life and politics teaches. If we follow that path, then we shall surely succeed.
John Moore/Getty Images
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.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
So 2012 is coming to an end and you're busy planning how to ring in 2013. Are you aiming to host a world-historical event? If so, you might want to think about the impact that some past festivities have had on international affairs. And be careful: sometimes a poorly planned party can have all sorts of unintended consequences. As both inspiration and public service, therefore, today I provide my own list of Top Five Parties in International History.
#1: The Boston Tea Party. As a loyal American, I gotta start with this one, which helped kick off the War of Independence and free the American colonists from King George III's cruel yoke. I know, I know: it wasn't really a party, it was an act of political protest by the Sons of Liberty. It didn't even get the name "tea party" for decades. But c'mon: do you really think the participants were all sober, and that tossing all that English tea in the water wasn't fun? And in retrospect, it had far more positive effects than the plutocrat-financed shenanigans of the 21st century namesake (the "tea party movement").
#2: The Congress of Vienna. After the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats and officials from all over Europe convened in Vienna to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve the various issues that had arisen after over two decades of war. Sure, there was a lot of hard-nosed haggling over borders and other arrangements, but historical accounts of the Congress also make it clear that the participants also engaged in months of energetic revelry, much of it of a decidedly lubricious sort. Historians who regard the Congress as a great success might argue that all this frivolity helped; those who believe the Congress left many critical issues unresolved probably think the assembled plenipotentiaries should have spent less time partying and more time on their work.
#3: The "2500 Year Anniversary of the Persian Empire." In October 1971, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran presided over a lavish celebration to mark the supposed 2500th anniversary of the "Persian empire." Dozens of world leaders and celebrities assembled at an elaborate tent city in Persopolis, where they dined for over five hours on quail's eggs with caviar, roast peacock, and a host of other delicacies, served on custom Limoges china and accompanied by some of the world's most expensive wines. The whole blowout reportedly cost over $100 million, and was condemned by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the "Devil's Festival." The contrast between the Shah's pretensions and extravagance and the poverty that many Iranians still endured was all-too apparent, and the ill-conceived party played a small but not inconsequential role in undermining the legitimacy of the Pahlavi regime.
#4: The Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1520, Henry VIII of England traveled with most of his entire court to France to meet King Francis I. The purpose of the visit was to negotiate a treaty of alliance, but the summit soon degenerated into a testosterone-fueled competition, with each king trying show the other who was wealthiest. Encamped in two nearby villages, the two monarchs put on increasingly ostentatious displays including fireworks, the building of a temporary fountain that dispensed wine and water, elaborate arrangements of silks and gems, and sporting contests. The extravagance nearly bankrupted both monarchs, and the rivalry exacerbated the other obstacles to the alliance and the two leaders ended up enemies instead. The moral: if somebody wants to bring a really expensive bottle of wine to your party tonight, just let them.
#5: Woodstock. The enormous outdoor rock festival at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York in August 1969, both symbolized the youth movement of the 1960s and is now seen as its apotheosis. It wasn't the first outdoor rock festival or even the biggest, but it was undoubtedly the most memorable and had the most lasting cultural impact. You don't hear people talk about the "Lollapalooza Generation," do you?
These five historical parties can provide either inspiration or a cautionary lesson for your revels tonight. My advice: party responsibly, and get ready for 2013. Even if U.S. foreign policy follows the minimalist path I predicted in my last post, the rest of the world will provide us with plenty of things to worry (and blog) about.
Happy New Year!
I suppose I could be flattered that William Kristol is trying to use my endorsement to derail Senator Chuck Hagel's candidacy to be the next secretary of defense. But in fact I'm disgusted, because Kristol's predictable hatchet job depends on the false charge that my co-author John Mearsheimer and I are "Israel-haters." It is, to be blunt, a shameful lie. It is also a revealing glimpse into how Kristol thinks and operates.
Here's Kristol's problem: Hagel is a decorated Vietnam veteran who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Instead of helping cause wars from the sidelines like Bill does, Hagel fought with bravery on the battlefield. He's also a Republican with ample experience in national security and intelligence matters whose judgment President Obama respects. Hagel has been quite supportive of Israel throughout his public career, and his views on many Middle East topics are similar to those of prominent Israeli officials. But he hasn't been as slavishly devoted to Israel as fanatics like Kristol would like, and he's skeptical about the merits of a war with Iran (as are many Israeli experts). Hagel also said openly he "was a United States senator, not an Israeli senator," and that his primary responsibility is to serve the American national interest, not Israel's. This statement would disqualify him were he in the running to be Israel's minister of defense, but it is precisely what you'd expect a loyal American to say.
Well, if you're Bill Kristol and you can't find any legitimate grounds to oppose Hagel, what do you do? You smear him. You try to convince people that Hagel's perfectly sensible views are really a manifestation of some sort of hidden anti-Semitism. Since Hagel has never done or said anything to support such a vicious charge, you have to use the well-known McCarthyite tactic of guilt-by-association. How? Point out that yours truly blogged that his nomination would be a "smart move."
See how it works? Someone who has previously been falsely smeared as anti-Israel thinks Hagel would be a good choice, so Hagel must be a nasty piece of work too. Of course, the charges against me are equally baseless -- and I'll bet Kristol knows that quite well -- but factual accuracy is not his concern. The sad fact is that if someone displays the slightest degree of independent thought on the subject of U.S.-Israel relations, they'll get falsely smeared. And then if that person says anything favorable about anyone else, that statement will be used to smear the others too. The goal, of course, is to silence or marginalize anyone who doesn't fully support the current "special relationship" and prevent a full and open debate about its merits.
President Obama hasn't shown a lot of backbone on this issue in the past, and it's possible that Kristol and the other hardliners who are now spewing falsehoods about Hagel will get the White House to blink. It's also possible that Obama will prefer a less traditional defense and foreign policy team and will opt for somebody else for that reason. The rumors about Hagel may even have been a clever White House ploy to provoke Kristol and the other neocons into their usual frenzy, thereby exposing their monomania about Israel once again and discrediting future efforts to oppose a more sensible U.S. policy in the region.
But what this incident really reveals is how desperate Kristol & Co. are becoming. Having conceived, cheer-led, and then bungled the disastrous Iraq war, their credentials as foreign policy "experts" are forever tarnished. They've used the "anti-Semitism/Israel-hater" charge so often and so inaccurately that it is losing its power to silence or deter, and defending the "special relationship" will be more and more difficult as Israel drifts rightward and hopes for a two-state solution fade into oblivion.
These trends will force Kristol and those who share his views to use even more despicable tactics to defend an untenable status quo. So I wouldn't expect them to abandon the art of the smear anytime soon. At this point, what else have they got?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Mitt Romney gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention yesterday. To no one's surprise, he accused President Obama of leaking secrets, betraying U.S. allies, coddling dictators, and generally endangering America. The speech was long on rhetoric and innuendo but rather short on policy specifics, and it left me with a bunch of questions that I'd love to ask the GOP candidate. Because I doubt the campaign is going to offer me a one-on-one interview, I thought I'd serve up my top ten questions for Candidate Romney here.
#1. How dangerous is the modern world? Governor Romney: at the beginning of your speech, you said that "the world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic." But an impressive array of social science research shows that the overall level of global violence has been declining steadily. Moreover, the United States spends more on national security than the next twenty countries combined, and most of those states are close U.S. allies. What are the dangers that you are so worried about, and how do they threaten vital American interests?
#2. How will you pay for increased defense spending? In your speech, you said "we are just months away from an arbitrary, across the board reduction [in defense spending]." You referred to this possibility as "the president's radical cuts," but surely you know that it is the result of the sequestration deal that Congress passed last year, in which the GOP was fully complicit. More importantly, you have previously stated that you would increase U.S. defense spending, keep all the Bush-era tax cuts, and simultaneously reduce the federal budget deficit. Can you explain how you will perform this magic, without invoking discredited concepts like the "Laffer Curve"?
#3. In your opinion, why is President Obama still so popular overseas, including most American allies? In your speech, you said the United States must "nurture our alliances," and you asserted that "the president has moved in the opposite direction." To illustrate this, you accused him of the "sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech republic," based on Obama's decision to deploy missile defenses in a different configuration. Yet sixty percent of the Polish population opposed having missile defenses on their territory, and the percentage of Poles with a "favorable" view of the United States is higher in 2012 than it was in 2008 (under Bush) or in 2009 (right after Obama's election). For that matter, Obama remains a remarkably popular leader around the world. How do you explain this?
#4. Are there any circumstances when you would criticize Israel's actions or use U.S. influence to persuade it to change its policies? You claimed that President Obama has undermined Israel, even though the administration's first U.N. Security Council veto was cast on Israel's behalf and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says "he can hardly remember a better period" of U.S. support. More importantly, do you believe that American presidents should support Israel no matter what it does, including when it expands settlements and evicts Palestinians from more and more territory in the West Bank? Do you think that policies such as these make a two-state solution less likely, and is that outcome in Israel's long-term interest?
#5. What would you do differently about Iran? You said there is "no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the Ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability." As you undoubtedly know, the Obama administration has implemented stiffer sanctions than the Bush administration did, gotten more countries to go along with this effort, and continued to insist that Iran give up its enrichment capability. Obama and his aides have repeatedly declared that "all options were on the table," and the administration conducted a successful covert action program that damaged Iran's enrichment efforts significantly. To repeat: what would you do differently? In particular, at what point, if any, would you order a military strike against Iran?
#6. Will you impose trade sanctions on China? You told the VFW that "we face another continuing challenge in a rising China," and you accused Beijing of permitting "flagrant patent and copyright violations" and manipulating its currency to our detriment. You said President Obama hasn't stopped them, but you will. How will you get China to change its policies? Wouldn't a trade war just damage the fragile U.S. economy?
#7. Is there any real difference between you and President Obama on Afghanistan? President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In your speech to the VFW, you said "my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces in 2014." Maybe I'm missing something, but that sounds identical to Obama's plan. You also said you would "evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders." What conditions would lead you to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014?
#8. Is American power always a force for good in the world? According to your speech, you believe "our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known," and you said that "you are not ashamed of American power." Neither am I, but all humans make mistakes and no country has a blameless record. So I'm wondering if you think there are any moments in American history where our power was misused. For example, do you think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good idea? What about the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953? Was it a good idea for Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965? Or do you think our track record is perfect?
#9. What specific steps would you take to prevent leaks from the Romney White House? Your VFW speech says that leaks of classified information are a "national security crisis," and you said that your White House would not do such things. Given how secretive you are about your tax returns and your on-again off-again status as CEO of Bain Capital, I'm inclined to believe that you mean this. But leaks have been a common practice of every White House in modern memory, and Obama has been far more aggressive about prosecuting leakers than all of his predecessors. Will you pledge today to prosecute any member of your administration-including your closest aides in the White House, if they are suspected leaking classified information?
#10. Now I'd like to ask you a hypothetical question. Suppose your good friend John McCain had been elected in 2008, and that he had followed the same foreign and defense policy that President Obama has pursued. Would you still be so critical? To be a bit more specific, imagine that McCain had expanded the use of drone strikes in several places, increased U.S. military strength in the Far East to balance China, located and killed Osama bin Laden, increased military cooperation with Israel and protected it from international censure after Operation Cast Lead and the raid on the Mavi Marmara, orchestrated the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, ended the war in Iraq according to the terms negotiated by President Bush, tightened global sanctions against Iran, and launched an accelerated global effort to improve nuclear security. If McCain had done all that, wouldn't you be defending his actions, and boasting about how it showed that the GOP was much better on national security issues?
(Oh, never mind.... I don't really expect you to answer that one.)
Like I said, I doubt Romney will agree sit down for an interview with me, and if his campaign to date is any indication, he's going to try dodge tough foreign policy questions for as long as he can. But if he really aspires to lead the country, he's going to have to tell us more about what he would actually do as president. Or as he told the VFW, "the time for stonewalling is over."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
It's hot and sticky here in Boston, and I feel a rant coming on. Just consider the following items from today's headlines, around the web, and my inbox:
Item #1: An independent report on the fiscal condition of America's state governments (chaired by Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch) presented a gloomy prognosis about their budgetary prospects. State and local governments face exploding health care costs, declining revenues, lots of deferred expenditures, and anticipated cuts in federal support. Even if the U.S. economy grows more vigorously, the states are going to be in trouble for quite awhile. And that means we will all be living less well, because all the good things that governments provide (roads, bridges, schools, public safety, parks, museums, etc.) will be in shorter supply.
Item #2: Along the same lines, here's a report by Lisa Margonelli (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) on the increasingly fragile condition of America's electrical power grid. As she points out, not only have we under-invested in this critical national resource, but we've done so at a time when weather is becoming more extreme (due to climate change) and the grid is thus under greater strain. If you want to keep reading this blog, maybe it's time to install that portable generator (or a lot of spare batteries), but that won't help you if your ISP link goes down too.
Item #3: Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post offers a quick and easy guide to the latest budget battle between Republicans and Democrats over which elements of our current fiscal policy (i.e. taxes, credits, expenditures, etc.) we are going to preserve after December 2012. As Matthews' projections suggest, the obvious thing to do is to let the high income Bush tax cuts expire and keep some of the other measures. This approach would reassure the markets and stabilize our long-term fiscal situation, yet reduce the risk of a fiscal contraction that would tip the economy back into recession. But don't expect the GOP to go along with anything sensible like that.
Item #4: A new report by the Project for Defense Alternatives, reminding readers of the following basic facts:
a) the U.S. and its allies spend four times more on defense than our potential adversaries do. I like a margin of safety as much as anyone, but this is ridiculous.
b) Key U.S. allies perennially free ride on Uncle Sucker. The United States spends 4.8 percent of GDP on defense while our NATO allies in Europe spend an average of 1.7 percent, Japan spends 1 percent of GDP and South Korea spends only 2.8 percent.
c) China, our supposed emerging "peer competitor," a rising China, devotes only about 2 percent of GDP to defense.
Either we have our strategic priorities all mixed up, or the DoD is doing something very wrong. I would note in passing that Mitt Romney thinks we aren't spending enough, that we ought to cut taxes even more and that we also need to balance the federal budget. Needless to say, this combination makes no sense, and Romney (who seems to know a lot about clever accounting when his own fortune is involved) is being disingenuous or simply lying.
Is there a direct connection between these various items? No, because economies are complicated and cutting U.S. defense spending wouldn't automatically translate into more money for other items (include state and local governments). But there is clearly a connection between the amount the U.S. spends (trying to) provide global security in lots of far-flung places and our ability to pay for desirable things here at home, including things like education and infrastructure that are essential to our long-term well-being and strength as a nation.
Unfortunately, over the past forty years so-called conservatives in the United States have done a great job of convincing Americans that it is foolish, counter-productive, and even unpatriotic to pay taxes for the benefit of other Americans, while at the same time declaring that it is one's patriotic duty to pay taxes so that we can occupy other countries, build military facilities on every continent, and make it easier for Europeans, Asians, and others to live better under the umbrella of our protection. Unless, of course, you are really, really rich, and can hide a lot of your income in some nice offshore tax shelter. It's been a brilliant piece of salesmanship, but the results are exactly what one would predict: a gradual hollowing-out of the features that once made America the envy of the world, and a bunch of allies who aren't even all that grateful for the sacrifices made on their behalf.
I'm inclined to think that this phenomenon also reflects the rampant individualism that now permeates U.S. culture. If you're doing really well, what does it matter if the broader society is doing worse? Just put your kids in private school, live in a gated community, and let other poor schmucks depend on an eroding set of public goods. If you're a politician, forget about telling the truth or trying to do right by the voters you're supposed to represent, and just do or say whatever will keep your major donors happy and help you get reelected (and land a cushy lobbying job after you retire). If you're a tenured academic, spend your time writing articles that nobody reads and avoid topics that might be controversial, because being relevant or provocative won't help your career. If you're a pundit or a policy wonk, don't worry if you're repeatedly wrong or if your advice leads the country into costly quagmires, so long as you don't pay any price for past errors and you still get invited on all the talk shows.
I also think the roots of this problem can be traced in part to America's remarkably favorable overall position. Because the United States found itself was in such a blessed position after the Cold War-wealthy, powerful, with no serious rivals, etc. -- we could afford to be lazy and irresponsible in the conduct of public affairs. We could take on a lot of foolish projects overseas, allow our national discourse to be polluted by special interests, and let various rent-seeking groups within society pilfer the public purse for their own pet projects. So when al Qaeda showed up and seemed to be a more serious challenge (albeit one we exaggerated), we went off on an ill-conceived crusade that we weren't even willing to pay for. And absent a serious rival to focus the national mind and impose a bit more discipline on our discourse, I doubt this is going to change any time soon.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR
Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state? A puff-piece in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago referred to her as a "rock star diplomat," and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her "the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson." (Hmm. . . has Mr. Schmidt ever heard of some guys named Dulles, Kissinger, and Baker?). I'm neither a fan nor a foe of Ms. Clinton, but one can't really call her a great secretary at this point, through no fault of her own.
First the positives. There's no question that Clinton has been terrifically energetic, as well as a loyal team player. In this sense, Obama's decision to appoint her has worked out brilliantly, due in no small part to her willingness to serve the man who defeated her for the 2008 nomination, and in a broader sense, to serve her country. She's also proved to be relatively gaffe-free (there have been a few slips, but that's inevitable for anyone who's in the limelight 24/7 and who has to respond and react to rapidly evolving events). Insiders with whom I've spoken say she is an excellent boss who elicits considerable loyalty from those around her. And as the Times piece notes, she's helped restore the somewhat battered morale of the foreign service, and used her celebrity to raise public awareness on a number of signature issues. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and I'd argue her record puts her well ahead of predecessors such as Warren Christopher, William Rogers, Christian Herter, Madeleine Albright, Dean Rusk, Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell. (For a balanced but positive appraisal of Clinton's record, see FP editor Susan Glasser's profile here).
The problem, however, is that she's hardly racked up any major achievements. The Chen Guangcheng affair was a nice bit of on-the-fly crisis management, but the fate of a single Chinese dissident is not exactly the stuff of high politics and in the end won't have much impact on Sino-American relations either way. She played little role in extricating us from Iraq, and it is hard to see her fingerprints on the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. She has done her best to smooth the troubled relationship with Pakistan, but anti-Americanism remains endemic in that country and it hardly looks like a success story at this point. Yes, her belated quasi-apology eventually got the NATO supply trucks rolling again, but it took months to get this matter resolved and the relationship itself remains deeply fractured. She certainly helped get tougher sanctions on Iran, but the danger of war still looms and there's been no breakthrough there either.
Needless to say, she has done nothing to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace or even to halt Israel's increasingly naked land grab there (for which she can share blame with the rest of the administration, AIPAC, the U.S. Congress, and the Netanyahu government). Finally, although she's helped articulate the need for the "pivot" to Asia and has done some effective salesmanship on that topic both at home and in the region, this move was both a geopolitical no-brainer and still faces significant obstacles. Among other things, the recent debacle over the aborted strategic cooperation agreement between South Korea and Japan (which led to the resignation of one of Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's top aides) is a setback for both Lee and for Clinton's efforts to build a stronger coalition in Asia.
The lack of major accomplishments isn't really her fault, however, for several reasons. First, as I noted way back when Obama became president, there just weren't a lot of low-hanging fruit available when the new team took office in 2009. On the contrary, they faced a series of difficult-to-intractable problems, several of which (Iraq, Afghanistan) were likely to end up looking like failures no matter what they did. Even if Clinton had been a magical combination of Bismarck, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Zhou en Lai, she'd have had trouble devising a strategy that could have solved all these problems quickly and without costs.
Second, Clinton isn't a great secretary of state because that is not the role that she's been asked to play in this administration. Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker had extremely close working relationship with the presidents that they served, and each enjoyed far more authority over foreign policy than Clinton has been given by the Obama White House. Obama's initial reliance on a set of "special envoys" diluted Clinton's clout even more, even when some of them (such as the late Richard Holbrooke) were personally close to the secretary.
Add to this the fact that the Pentagon and intelligence community now controls vastly greater resources than the State Department does, and has for more impact on our relations with trouble spots like Central Asia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, etc.. Given that raw bureaucratic reality, it's not surprising that Clinton cannot point to any major achievements on her watch. Indeed, a good case can be made that American foreign policy is still operating ass-backwards: Instead of seeing military power as one of the tools we use to advance a broad political agenda, today military imperatives tend to dominate and the diplomats just get sent out to line up some compliant partners and to clean things up afterward (see under: Drone wars).
Which is not to say that Clinton has performed badly. On the contrary, I'd give her high marks for executing the job she was asked to perform, especially given the constraints (both organizational and geopolitical) in which she had to operate. So maybe the "rock star" label is right after all. Rock stars get a lot of attention and sometimes adulation, and sometimes they even deserve it. But not even Elvis had much lasting impact on international politics.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Imagine my surprise. I went to my office mailbox last Friday, and there was the new issue of Foreign Affairs. I was expecting the usual distillations of conventional wisdom, but there on the front cover was the name "Kenneth Waltz," along with the eye-grabbing title "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb."
For those of you who don't know, Waltz is arguably the preeminent IR theorist of the post-World War II generation, and certainly the preeminent postwar realist. (Full disclosure, he was also the chair of my dissertation committee back in graduate school). In addition to landmark works such as Man, the State, and War and Theory of International Politics, he is also well-known for a controversial Adelphi Paper arguing that the slow spread of nuclear weapons might not be so bad, and might even be desirable.
Waltz's brief article on Iran echoes this logic. He argues that nuclear asymmetry is inherently destabilizing, because it makes the unarmed side (Iran) feel weak and vulnerable and thus encourages it to look for ways to make itself more secure. At the same time, rival states who already have the bomb (in this case, Israel and the United States), will spend a lot of time contemplating preventive war (as indeed we have). If Iran gets the bomb, however, then the logic of deterrence will kick in and relations between these countries will be more stable, not less.
Waltz maintains that this pattern has generally applied in other nuclear contexts, whether one looks at U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, China's acquisition of the bomb in the 1960s, or the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan, which fought major wars before each got the bomb but have fought only relatively minor skirmishes since. He also reminds his readers that there is no evidence that Iran's leaders are irrational (and certainly no more irrational than ours), and no good reason to think they would ever use a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes or give one away to terrorists. (This latter possibility is especially absurd: Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?)
You should definitely read this important and well-argued article, which makes a lot more sense than the so-called "analysis" that others have dreamed up to make the case for war. I happen to think Waltz is too sanguine about the pacifying effects of nuclear weapons in this context, and that he discounts the other risks associated with nuclear spread (including questions of custody and authority). For these reasons, I think it would be better for us and for the region if Iran did not get the bomb. After all, taken to its logical conclusion, Waltz's argument implies that the United States ought to simply give Iran a few nuclear weapons (along with appropriate safeguards against unauthorized use), as a way of making the region more stable. Pretty hard to imagine that happening.
My other concern is that Waltz's article might convince more Iranians to restart an active weapons program, a step that might easily provoke trigger-happy Americans or Israelis into military action. The logic of nuclear deterrence may work well once both sides have reliably survivable forces, but the transition period where one side has them and another is getting close almost inevitably invites consideration of preventive war, with all the attendant costs and risks.
But Waltz's central point -- that we vastly overstate the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran -- is surely right. And remember: At this point the United States is trying to prevent not an Iran that is actually armed with nuclear weapons, but an Iran that would in theory be physically capable of building a nuclear weapon at some point down the road. This latter objective is a fool's errand, because Iran already has the knowledge and the technology to become "nuclear capable" if its leaders decide they want to be, and there's no way for us to prevent that without occupying the country. If we want to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, our best course is to try to convince them to forego that objective by taking the threat of force off the table and diminishing their perceived need for a deterrent, and by offering up a diplomatic deal that preserves their right to enrich. Unfortunately, that's not the position that we have taken so far, which is why the slow-motion standoff continues.
Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Which university is more likely to defend academia's basic commitment to sharing ideas and knowledge in an open and unconstrained way, West Point or Yale? You'd probably think it would be Yale, that well-known bastion of tweedy academics and liberal values. How wrong you'd be.
As West Point faculty member Gian Gentile outlines in a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, former U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has been teaching a course at Yale's Jackson Institute of Global Affairs on strategy and leadership. Nothing wrong with that: Plenty of universities (including my own) hire practitioners to share insights from the real world with students. And I've got no problem having a former general teach a course. But in a shocking departure from normal academic practices, Yale requires students taking the course to sign a non-disclosure form, pledging that they will not divulge what is said in the course to outsiders. In other words, McChrystal is teaching an "off-the-record" course.
This restriction is so contrary to the normal practice of universities that it is hard to know where to begin. Academic institutions exist to pursue knowledge, to teach what we know to our students, and to instill in them an appreciation for free and open inquiry. The whole principle of academic freedom rests on the idea that knowledge is best advanced by allowing ideas to blossom and to be shared without restriction. In this way, good ideas can be validated and retained and bad ideas or conjectures can be scrutinized and eventually excluded. By telling students in McChrystal's class that they cannot share what they learn with others, Yale is artificially constraining the normal give-and-take of ideas. There may be vigorous discussions inside that particular classroom, but the rest of Yale (and the larger world) won't know about them. Secrecy of any kind is fundamentally at odds with the principles that universities stand for, yet here Yale has enshrined it in one of their courses.
A commitment to free and open discussion also keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on the identity or the supposed prestige of the faculty member leading the course. Giving McChrystal a special exemption immediately tells Yale students that the general is a "Very Important Person" who gets to be treated differently from other members of the faculty. Again, that's not how universities are supposed to work: People taking my courses aren't supposed to accept what I tell them because I am the professor and they are mere students. They are supposed to accept what I tell them only if I've successfully convinced them it is useful and makes sense. And they are free -- even encouraged -- to disagree with me, especially if they have good reason to do so and can make their objections stick. And I want them to talk about my courses outside of class; maybe someone they know will point out a new way to think about an issue or identify a mistake I've made. But if I made my students sign a non-disclosure form, I would limit their capacity to hold me accountable.
Requiring students to sign a non-disclosure form also sends the subtle but unmistakable signal that the instructor is imparting secret knowledge that is too hot or potentially controversial to be shared with the outside world. I can easily imagine students lapping this up -- we all like thinking we're getting info that others aren't privy to -- but this is just not how universities are supposed to work.
Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn't blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times. But that argument won't wash: If McChrystal really believes what he's teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn't be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, "Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won't find out about in books. Trust me." He should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading). If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That's the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want. What's General McChrystal so afraid of?
Yale's abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment). The country has been at war for over a decade, and there's an inevitable tendency for civilians to start treating those who've been fighting these wars with kid gloves. This tendency is not healthy, however, because the professional military has its own interests and world view -- as such, it is not necessarily the best judge of what is in the overall interests of the nation. National security is a topic that affects all Americans, and it is more likely to be openly and intelligently debated when we don't give any of the participants (and especially not those with particular interests in the subject) a free pass.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
What's the most useless waste of time, money, and fuel that you can think of? A NASCAR race? A Star Trek convention? The Burning Man festival?
Well, right up there with those obvious granfalloons is the recent NATO summit in Chicago. I've now read the official statements and White House press releases, and it's tempting to see the whole thing as a subtle insult to our collective intelligence. To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many world leaders flown so far to accomplish so little.
Along with the usual boilerplate, there were three big items on the summit agenda.
First, the assembled leaders announced that NATO will end the war in Afghanistan by the summer of 2013, and gradually turn security over to the Afghans themselves. This decision sounds like a significant milestone, but it's really just acknowledging a foregone conclusion. Popular support for the war has been plummeting, and the Obama administration has been lowering U.S. objectives for some time. In fact, the war in Afghanistan was lost a long time ago (mostly because the Bush administration invaded Iraq and let the Taliban come back), and Obama's big mistake was failing to recognize this from the start. The 2009 "surge" provided a fig leaf to enable the U.S. and NATO to get out, but the cost has been billions more dollars squandered, more dead NATO soldiers and dead Afghans, and a deteriorating relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan. It's nice that NATO is acknowledging these realities, but it didn't take a summit to figure this out. Perhaps the only benefit of this announcement is that it might make it harder for Mitt Romney to reverse course in the event he gets elected, though I'm not at all sure that Romney would want to do so anyway.
Second, NATO has piously declared -- for the zillionth time -- that its members will enhance their military capabilities by improved intra-alliance cooperation. This step is justified in part by highlighting the alliance's supposed recent achievements, to wit:
"The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security."
NATO is "unmatched" because the United States maintains a global military presence, but the self-congratulation here seems misplaced. Libya hardly looks like a success story right now, success in Afghanistan has been downgraded not to what we originally wanted but to whatever we think we can achieve, and the Balkan operation now appears open-ended.
More importantly, how many times have we seen this movie? Ever since the 1952 Lisbon force goals, NATO's European members have promised to improve their capabilities and then failed to meet their agreed-upon goals. This pattern has continued for five-plus decades, and it makes you wonder why anyone takes such pledges seriously anymore. If EU countries can't find the money to backstop a proper firewall for the fragile Greek, Italian, and Spanish economies, it is hard to believe NATO's European members are going to make significant new investments in defense. I'm not saying they should, by the way, given that Europe faces no significant conventional military threats. Last time I checked, the U.S. was spending about 4 percent of its GDP on defense and the rest of NATO was averaging about 1.7 percent. Both halves of the transatlantic partnership will be trimming budgets in the years ahead, no matter what they said in Chicago. So I wouldn't put much stock in item #2.
Third, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to the missile defense boondoggle. Never mind that the Defense Science Board recently concluded that existing defense technologies are still easily spooked by inexpensive countermeasures. Please overlook the tens of billions of dollars we've spent chasing the Holy Grail of missile defense since the 1980s, without ever getting there. Ignore the poisonous effect this program has on relations with Russia, which has to assume the worst and take our efforts seriously. And pay no attention to the fact that if missile defense ever did work really, really well, it would just encourage potential adversaries to work on alternative delivery mechanisms (like smuggling) that would make it more difficult to trace an attack back to its source.
The summit did give Obama the opportunity to show off his home town to his European friends. As a former Chicagoan, I'm glad they had the chance to look around a great American city, and I hope everyone had a good time. But both the attendees and the various groups protesting the summit seem to have missed the most important fact about the gathering: It just wasn't a very important event.
What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.
On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.
Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.
One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.
I'd like to believe this version story -- really -- and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.
I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.
Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
The big event at Harvard yesterday was "A Conversation with Henry Kissinger" at Sanders Theater. The event featured the 89-year old statesman reflecting on his time at Harvard, his career in government, and the future relationship between the United States and China, along with several other topics. He was joined in the discussion by my colleagues Graham Allison (who moderated) and Joseph Nye, and by Jessica Blankshain, a graduate student from the Department of Government.
I won't try to summarize the whole conversation, but instead merely highlight a couple of moments that I found especially interesting. First, at one point Kissinger said he thought the best academic preparation for government service was training in philosophy, political theory, and history. In particular, he argued that training in political theory taught you how to think in a disciplined and rigorous manner, and knowledge of history was essential for grasping the broader political context in which decisions must be made. It was clear that he also sees a grounding in history as essential for understanding how different people see the world, and also for knowing something about the limits of the possible.
I found this observation intriguing because these subjects are not what schools of public policy typically emphasize, even though they are supposedly in the business of preparing students for careers in public service. The canonical curriculum in public policy emphasizes economics and statistics (i.e., regression analysis), sometimes combined with generic training in "public policy analysis" and political institutions. The Kennedy School (where I teach) does require MPP students to take one core course in ethics (which is grounded in political philosophy), but there's no required course in history and each year I feel my students know less and less about that important subject. Instead, they flock to courses on "leadership," as if this quality was something you can learn in a classroom in a semester or two. I would love to have asked Kissinger to elaborate on how aspiring public servants are being trained these days.
After Joe Nye asked him if there were any decisions he made that he wished he could do over (a question that Kissinger mostly evaded), he went on to reflect on how his thinking has changed over time. He noted that he has had lots of time to read and reflect since leaving government service, and he said there were many things about the world that he understood better now than when he was serving in government. He also said he was not as "self-confident" in some of his judgments as he had been when he was younger. But then he said he wasn't sure this greater wisdom would make him a better policymaker. The reason, he said, is that being a policymaker requires a powerful sense of self-confidence, precisely because so many decisions are not clear-cut -- they are 51/49 judgment calls. As he put it, "You don't get rewarded for your doubts." And in those circumstances, a little bit of bravado goes a long way; it might even be a job requirement.
It was entirely predictable, of course, that the event was briefly disrupted by a vocal protester who was quickly escorted from the room. One of the questions asked during the Q and A took a similar approach, reciting a list of Kissinger's alleged crimes and ending with the question "How do you sleep at night?" I understand where such questions come from, but I've also thought this tactic is a remarkably ineffective way to try to make a political point. Disrupting public gatherings is a form of free speech and I wouldn't try to ban it, but my experience is that it is almost always counterproductive. The reason is simple: When someone gets up and starts shouting accusations, it violates our innate sense of courtesy and almost always turns the crowd against the protester and toward the person they are attacking. I like spirited discourse as much as the next person, but I've found that a respectful, well-aimed, and devastating question usually opens more minds and does more damage than passionate denunciations do.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
At the Big Think website, John Horgan argues that war is just a cultural practice that humankind could eventually abandon, unless we keep infecting ourselves with the "war virus" (h/t Andrew Sullivan). If one state gets infected by war-proneness, so his argument runs, its neighbors may have no choice but to follow suit and adopt similar measures in order to prevent themselves from being conquered. In Horgan's words (as reported by Mark Cheney here):
"Imagine your neighbor is a violent psychopath who is out for blood and land. You, on the other hand, are person who wants peace. You would have few options but to embrace the ways of war for defense. So essentially your neighbor has infected you with war."
It's an arresting use of language, perhaps, but the history of social Darwinism should have taught us to be wary of bringing misplaced biological analogies into the study of world politics. Viral infections spread by very specific and well-known mechanisms -- e.g., they take over the DNA of neighboring cells and replicate themselves-and that's not remotely like the mechanism that Horgan is identifying here. Instead, he's actually describing a situation where an external threat forces the leaders of neighboring states to rationally choose to adopt policies and strategies designed to insure their survival. That's not how viruses spread: You don't catch a cold because you've decided the only way to protect yourself against your sneezing neighbor is to start sniffling and sneezing along with them.
The actual logic that Horgan is pointing to here is the basic "security dilemma" that realists have been talking about ever since John Herz. In a world where no agency or institution exists to protect states from each other, each is responsible for its own security. Because states cannot know each other's intentions with 100 percent certainty (either now or in the future), they have to prepare for the possibility that neighbors may do something nasty at some point. So they invest in their own armed forces or they look for powerful allies, especially if they think the possibility of trouble is fairly high. And once they do that, others have to worry about them in turn. This is the "tragedy" of great power politics identified by my colleague John Mearsheimer, and it's a much better explanation for security competition (and war) than some analogy to microbes.
To be fair, Horgan's larger point is simply that war is not a biological necessity; it is a specific political or cultural response to certain conditions and thus in theory could gradually be abandoned. This theme has been developed at length by John Mueller and more recently by Steven Pinker. I agree with Pinker's claim that the overall level of human violence has declined significantly over the past several centuries (mostly due to the emergence of increasingly stable domestic political orders, i.e., states), but I remain agnostic about the larger claims for a long-term reduction in inter-state violence. That trend is driven almost entirely by the absence of great-power war since 1945, and the absence of great-power war may have multiple and overlapping causes (bipolarity, nuclear weapons, the territorial separation of the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War, the spread of democracy, etc.) whose persistence is hard to forecast.
The absence of great-power war is a good thing, because major powers have the most capability and can do the greatest harm when their destructive capacities are fully roused. What we're seeing instead, however, is either protracted conflicts among warlords, insurgents, or relatively weak states (think the Congo, Sudan, or Colombia), and wars of choice waged by the United States and other powerful states in various strategic backwaters, mostly against adversaries that we don't think can do much in response. At least we hope not.
Are you tired of the 2012 presidential election? Bored by the endless series of gossipy articles and blogs dissecting every bump and turn in the road to the White House? Me too. I know that a professional political scientist is supposed to find this sort of thing fascinating, but by the time November rolls around, I'm more likely to be in the "just shoot me" phase.
The problem, of course, is that the United States has the unappealing combination of a relatively short presidential term and an unusually long election process. We elect the president every four years (unlike France, where the term used to be seven and is now five), and we now devote a year to the primary process. It's actually more like two years, if you count the exploratory phase of campaigning and fundraising. So in a sense the U.S. spends at least a quarter of each presidential term actively discussing and debating who the next president will be. (It's even worse for members of the House of Representatives, who have to start running for re-election even before they've unpacked their offices).
Other countries are not nearly so foolish. Parliamentary systems like Great Britain specify that general elections have to be held on regular intervals (i.e., every five years or so) though snap elections aren't unusual. But I can't think of any country that spends a year or more actually running the campaign. In Canada, for example, the Elections Act mandates that the minimum length of a campaign be 36 days, and the longest campaign ever recorded (in 1926), was only seventy-four days. In Australia, elections generally last about two months. Apart from the United States, the longest election period I could find in a brief search was Germany, at about 114 days for unscheduled elections. Needless to say, this period is still far shorter than the U.S. norm.
Our stupefyingly long election process is good for political journalists, I guess, and one could argue that it helps us weed out candidates who are obviously unqualified (not a proposition I'd be eager to defend, by the way). But overall, it seems to me that the combination of a short presidential term and a long electoral campaign creates all sorts of potential difficulties, including a number of foreign policy problems. To wit:
First, it is invariably a distraction, with oodles of ink and media time being consumed by mostly trivial discussions of who's up, who's down, who's just made a gaffe, etc., instead of having a serious discussion of real policy issues. (And if you've been watched any of the GOP debates, you'll have noticed that "serious discussion" wasn't in abundance in those events).
Second, the campaign invariably consumes a lot of the incumbent president's time, which is probably the single scarcest commodity in politics. President Obama and his inner circle already have too much to do, but he'll spend a good chunk of the next eight months raising money and giving speeches that are less about fixing the nation's problems than about trying to get re-elected. I don't blame him for that; I just wish he only had to it for a few weeks. And of course some issues (e.g., trade policy) have to go on the back burner during an election year, for all the obvious reasons.
Third, the longer the election campaign is, the more it costs to run and greater the influence moneyed interests will have. And that means both incumbents and rivals will have to pander to special interest groups, including groups with foreign policy agendas. That's normal in a democracy, but surely it would be better if politicians didn't have to do this for a full year. Among other things, pandering to special interest groups encourages politicians to say lots of silly things about different issues, in effect polluting public discourse in ways that can have lasting effects.
Fourth, a long electoral cycle also lengthens the period in which foreign actors can try to use our internal preoccupations to advance their own ends. In some cases (e.g., Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent visit), the election campaign provides foreign governments with an opportunity to press the president to shift his policies in the way some foreign leader might want. In other cases, foreign adversaries may conclude they can take advantage of a distracted America to shift the status quo in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, knowing that the last thing an incumbent president really wants is a major crisis on the eve of an election. This doesn't happen all that often, perhaps, but the longer the election campaign is underway, the greater the chance for outside forces to try to exploit it.
Finally, when you consider that a new administration has to make some three thousand appointments (some of them requiring Senate confirmation), and that this transition process itself takes months if not years, then the actual period when the United States can conduct a fully-staffed, energetic and more-or-less coherent foreign policy is no more than a year or two in each administration. One could even argue that this has larger systemic consequences, because it means that the world's most powerful country spends at least as much time picking its leaders and getting their advisors appointed as it does allowing those leaders to actually govern. Among other things, this situation makes it harder to implement and sustain policies that might take a long time to bear fruit.
This system might have worked well in the 19th century, when the United States was largely isolated from the other great powers, but it's hardly an ideal position for the self-designated "leader of the free world." Sad to say, I don't have a ready remedy for this problem. If I had a magic wand, I'd have a national primary election day and I'd institute various measures to raise voter turnout and prevent both parties from being so easily captured by narrow extremists. But I don't have such a wand (you can all heave a sigh of relief) and I don't know how you could conjure up the necessary support for this kind of far-reaching change. The bottom line is that this self-inflicted wound will persist for the rest of my lifetime (and beyond) and the problems alluded to above are going to get worse instead of better over time.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
I did a brief interview for All Things Considered last Friday, on the topic of media handling of the current war scare over Iran. Here's a link to the story, which ran over the weekend.
The interview got me thinking about the issue of media coverage of this whole business, and I'm sorry to say that most mainstream news organizations have let us down again. Although failures haven't been as egregious as the New York Times and Washington Post's wholesale swallowing of the Bush administration's sales pitch for war in 2002, on the whole the high-end media coverage has been disappointing. Here are my Top Ten Media Failures in the 2012 Iran War Scare.
#1: Mainstreaming the war. As I've written before, when prominent media organizations keep publishing alarmist pieces about how war is imminent, likely, inevitable, etc., this may convince the public that it is going to happen sooner or later and it discourages people from looking for better alternatives. Exhibits A and B for this problem are Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 article in The Atlantic Monthly and Ronan Bergman's February 2012 article in the New York Times Magazine. Both articles reported that top Israeli leaders believed time was running out and suggested that an attack might come soon.
#2: Loose talk about Iran's "nuclear [weapons] program." A recurring feature of Iran war coverage has been tendency to refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" as if its existence were an established fact. U.S. intelligence services still believe that Iran does not have an active program, and the IAEA has also declined to render that judgment either. Interestingly, both the Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane and Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton have recently chided their own organizations for muddying this issue.
#3: Obsessing about Ahmadinejad. A typical insertion into discussions of Iran is to make various references to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually including an obligatory reference to his penchant for Holocaust denial and his famously mis-translated statement about Israel "vanishing from the page of time." This feature is often linked to the issue of whether Iran's leaders are rational or not. But the obsession with Ahmadinejad is misleading in several ways: he has little or no influence over Iran's national security policy, his power has been declining sharply in recent months, and Supreme Leader Ali Khameini -- who does make the key decisions -- has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam. And while we're on the subject of Iranian "rationality," it is perhaps worth noting that its leaders weren't goofy enough to invade Iraq on a pretext and then spend trillions of dollars fighting an unnecessary war there.
#4: Ignoring Iranian weakness. As I've noted before, Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential and could exert far more international influence if its leaders were more competent. But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all. Among other things, that is why it has to rely on marriages of convenience with groups like Hezbollah or Hamas (who aren't that powerful either). Yet as Glenn Greenwald argues here, U.S. media coverage often portrays Iran as a looming threat, without offering any serious military analysis of its very limited capabilities.
#5: Failing to ask why Iran might want a bomb. Discussions of a possible war also tend to assume that if Iran does in fact intend to get a nuclear weapon, it is for some nefarious purpose. But the world's nine nuclear powers all obtained these weapons first and foremost for deterrent purposes (i.e., because they faced significant external threats and wanted a way to guarantee their own survival). Iran has good reason to worry: It has nuclear-armed states on two sides, a very bad relationship with the world's only superpower, and more than three dozen U.S. military facilities in its neighborhood. Prominent U.S. politicians repeatedly call for "regime change" there, and a covert action campaign against Iran has been underway for some time, including the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists.
#6: Failing to consider why Iran might NOT want a bomb. At the same time, discussions of Iran's nuclear ambitions often fail to consider the possibility that Iran might be better off without a nuclear weapons capability. As noted above, Supreme Leader Khameini has repeatedly said that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam, and he may very well mean it. He could be lying, but that sort of lie would be risky for a regime whose primary basis for legitimacy is its devotion to Islam. For another, Iran has the greatest power potential of any state in the Gulf, and if it had better leadership it would probably be the strongest power in the region. If it gets nuclear weapons some of its neighbors may follow suit, which would partly negate Iran's conventional advantages down the road. Furthermore, staying on this side of the nuclear weapons threshold keeps Iran from being suspected of complicity should a nuclear terrorist attack occur somewhere. For all these reasons, I'd bet Iran wants a latent nuclear option, but not an actual nuclear weapon. But there's been relatively little discussion of that possibility in recent media coverage.
#7: Exaggerating Israel's capabilities. In a very real sense, this whole war scare has been driven by the possibility that Israel might feel so endangered that they would launch a preventive war on their own, even if U.S. leaders warned them not to. But the IDF doesn't have the capacity to take out Iran's new facility at Fordow, because they don't have any aircraft that can carry a bomb big enough to penetrate the layers of rock that protect the facilities. And if they can't take out Fordow, then they can't do much to delay Iran's program at all and the only reason they might strike is to try to get the United States dragged in. In short, the recent war scare-whose taproot is the belief that Israel might strike on its own-may be based on a mirage.
#8: Letting spinmeisters play fast and loose with facts. Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn't let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it. When Rick Santorum announced on Meet the Press that "there were no inspectors" in Iran, for example, host David Gregory didn't challenge this obvious error. (In fact, Iran may be the most heavily inspected country in the history of the IAEA).
Even worse, when Israeli ambassador Michael Oren appeared on MSNBC last week, he offered the following set of dubious claims, without challenge:
"[Iran] has built an underground nuclear facility trying to hide its activities from the world. It has been enriching uranium to a high rate [sic.] that has no explanation other than a military nuclear program - that has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency now several times. It is advancing very quickly on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that's capable of carrying nuclear warheads."
Unfortunately, MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell apparently didn't know that Oren's claims were either false or misleading. 1) Iran's underground facility was built to make it hard to destroy, not to "hide its activities," and IAEA inspectors have already been inside it. 2) Iran is not enriching at a "high rate" (i.e., to weapons-grade); it is currently enriching to only 20% (which is not high enough to build a bomb). 3) Lastly, Western intelligence experts do not think Iran is anywhere near to having an ICBM capability.
In another interview on NPR, Oren falsely accused Iran of "killing hundreds, if not thousands of American troops," a claim that NPR host Robert Siegel did not challenge. Then we got the following exchange:
Oren: "Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies - Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon."
Siegel: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States..."
Never mind the fact that we have been living in the nuclear age for some 60 years now, and no nuclear state has even been able to conduct the sort of aggressive blackmail that Oren suggests Iran would be able to do. Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, and not much else, but the news media keep repeating alarmist fantasies without asking if they make sense or not.
Politicians and government officials are bound to use media moments to sell whatever story they are trying to spin; that's their job. But It is up to journalists to make this hard, and both Mitchell and Siegel didn't. (For another example of sloppy fact-checking, go here).
9. What about the human beings? One of the more bizarre failures of reporting on the war debate has been the dearth of discussion of what an attack might mean for Iranian civilians. If you take out some of Iran's nuclear facilities from the air, for example, there's a very real risk of spreading radioactive material or other poisonous chemicals in populated areas, thereby threatening the lives of lots of civilians. Yet when discussing the potentially dangerous consequences of a war, most discussions emphasize the dangers of Iranian retaliation, or the impact on oil prices, instead of asking how many innocent Iranian civilians might die in the attack. You know: the same civilians we supposedly want to liberate from a despotic clerical regime.
10. Could diplomacy work? Lastly, an underlying theme in a lot of the coverage is the suggestion that diplomacy is unlikely to work, because it's been tried before and failed. But the United States has had very little contact with Iranian officials over the past thirty years, and only one brief set of direct talks in the past three years. Moreover, we've insisted all along that Iran has to give up all nuclear enrichment, which is almost certainly a deal-breaker from Tehran's perspective. The bottom line is that diplomacy has yet to succeed-and it might not in any case-but it's also never been seriously tried.
I'm sure you can find exceptions to the various points I've made here, especially if you move outside major media outlets and focus on online publications and the blogosphere. Which may be why more people are inclined to get their news and analysis there, instead of from the usual outlets. But on the whole, Americans haven't been well-served by media coverage of the Iran debate. As the president said last week, "loose talk" about an issue like this isn't helpful.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Close your eyes, and imagine the following situation...
Suppose the town or city where you live had a bunch of heavily-armed foreign soldiers living nearby. As part of their normal duties, they sent patrols down your street with some frequency, bristling with guns and other instruments of war. Imagine that these soldiers were from a very different culture and nearly all of them did not speak your native language, although they could occasionally use a local translator to order you around. You have been told repeatedly that they are there to protect you, but sometimes these protective activities involve entering your neighbors' houses, arresting people, and even shooting up the place. Of course, these well-armed foreign troops have access to lots of sophisticated airpower, including helicopters, fighter-bombers, and drones, and these sophisticated gadgets fire missiles and drop bombs on suspected bad guys in your city, town, or village. Most of the time it appears that the foreign occupiers get who they were aiming at, but sometimes they make mistakes and kill your friends and neighbors. Maybe even one of your close relatives.
The question I'd ask you is this: If you had been living in such circumstances for five or ten years, do you think you and your neighbors might become resentful of those well-intentioned but heavy-handed foreigners? Do you think you might even begin to hate their intrusive interference, even if it were done with the best of intentions? If you then discovered that some of them were burning Bibles, Torahs, or the American flag, might you leave your house and join an angry demonstration, or may even try to do something worse?
If the answer to those questions is "yes," then you can probably understand why the United States and its allies are in such deep water in Afghanistan.
You see, the outburst of public rage at the idiotic burning of a bunch of Qurans actually tells you something very important about our Afghan campaign. It's not as if the news about this act suddenly swung lots of Afghans from being really fond of the United States to being really mad at us. Rather, news of the Quran burning was just a catalyst-the proverbial straw on the camel's back-that ignited resentments that have been building up for a long time.
The fact is: Nobody likes being ordered around by a tough and well-armed bunch of foreigners, and no amount of "hearts and minds" feel-good diplomacy can totally eliminate that fact. (And a lot of that COIN-speak was rhetoric intended as much to make the war sound more genteel here in the United States). That is one of the many reasons why the Obama administration was wrong to escalate the Afghan war in 2009, and why neoconservative supporters of the Afghan "surge" were as wrong about that as they were about the similar surge in Iraq. (For more on the latter issue, see Jim Sleeper's pointed commentary here).
Sending more troops to Afghanistan escalation didn't alter the trajectory of the war in any fundamental way, and this recent article in Armed Forces Journal suggests that we've been fed a bill of goods about the real conditions there. The Afghan reaction to the Quran burning is one of those moments of clarity where the real landscape is revealed, and it's not a pretty sight.
And now, all we need to do is imagine an administration that can face these facts squarely and bring this misguided effort to an end. I can't guarantee that Obama would do it in his second term (after all, he whiffed on this decision the first time around), but I'd bet he's more likely to do it than the people who hope to challenge him in November.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Xi Jinping has been to Washington, and is now traipsing across the country. Apart from traffic snarls in Washington and some feel-good stories from Iowa, I wonder how significant the visit was, or whether this sort of tete-a-tete matters as much as we think.
I wasn't present for any of the private discussions, of course, and I have no idea what impression top U.S. officials took away from their exchanges. I know even less about what Xi or his entourage concluded from the exchanges. But here's why I'm inclined to downplay the significance of the visit.
First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I've noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition -- especially in East Asia -- will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China's continued ascent, I'm guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.
The second reason I'm inclined to downplay this week's meeting has to do with timing. Assuming Xi does make it to the top of the Chinese hierarchy, he will only be president for a maximum of ten years. A lot can happen during his tenure, but China's overall power position isn't going overtake America's in that period and I believe the odds of a serious Sino-American quarrel will still be rather low while he is in office. The real test of Sino-American relations will still lie some distance into the future. As a result, what Xi's individual qualities and likely preferences matter somewhat less. (To the extent that they do, I'd argue that what really matters is Xi's ability to manage China's economy and its internal politics, not his views on specific foreign policy issues).
Third, although China remains an authoritarian state, its president is not an absolutist ruler. Whatever Xi's personal tendencies might be, he will be operating within a political system that will inevitably constrain what he's able to do. Again, that's not to say that his own character is irrelevant, only that its impact on actual policy will be warped, limited or shaped by other political forces.
The last reason why I'm inclined to discount the significance of this sort of visit is the fact that nobody can read minds. One can never be sure that you really know what someone else is thinking, especially in the sort of highly-scripted, read-your-talking-points type of sessions that predominate. You may be able to get a pretty good read on other leaders if you spend a lot of time with them (think of Reagan, Shultz and Gorbachev, Kissinger and Sadat, the interlocutors at Camp David in 1978, etc.) but that's not necessarily certain if you're dealing with someone who is a world-class dissimulator. So any impressions formed on this visit can only be provisional, which perforce lowers the value of the various exchanges.
Of course, the relative impact of individual, domestic, and international-structural causes is a long-running issue in the IR field (see under: level of analysis problem, or this classic work). I'm hardly going to resolve it in a single blog post. And to repeat: I'm not suggesting that leaders' personalities and propensities don't matter at all, or that they might not be extremely significant in certain circumstances. But on the whole, the rapt attention paid to high-profile visits of this sort is exaggerated, and especially right now. In other words, the future course of Sino-American relations is going to be determined primarily by enduring structural forces (or conceivably domestic interests), and not by whether Xi Jinping is smart, patient, risk-averse, impetuous, witty, cranky, brilliant, crafty, obtuse, ignorant, well-briefed, or whatever.
None of this is to argue against having top leaders in China and the United States get to know each other a bit better. And nothing will stop journalists (and bloggers!) from writing a lot of stories when they do explaining What It All Means. But in my case, I think it means less than you've been told up till now.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
If you are someone who is inclined to favor hawkish responses to foreign policy problems, then your choice for president should be Barack Obama. Not because Obama is especially hawkish himself, or interested in prolonging costly and failed commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. For that matter, his administration is making a modest and fiscally necessary effort to slow the steady rise in Pentagon spending, and they seem to understand that war with Iran is a Very Bad Idea. (It is of course no accident that military action there is being promoted by the same folks who thought invading Iraq was a Very Good Idea. But I digress.)
So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it's because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It's the flipside of the old "Nixon Goes to China" meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don't have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government's permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.
The key to making this work, as Andrew Bacevich suggests here, is to insulate the vast majority of the American population from the effects of this effort. Obama understands that there's no stomach for big, costly, and inconclusive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (he's right, and there's also little to be gained from them). But he and his advisors are betting that the American people will tolerate active efforts to hunt down and kill perceived bad guys, provided that the costs are low and occur far away and mostly out-of-sight. And it is in this context that one has to view recent proposals to give U.S. Special Forces greater presence, autonomy, and capability, an idea that remains controversial within military circles.
In other words, we are engaged in a grand strategic experiment: can the United States make itself more secure by dispatching troops and drones to various corners of the world, with the explicit mission of killing anyone we think might be a "terrorist?" At first glance, this approach certainly looks better than the debacle in Iraq, and it consistent with the "laser-like focus on Al Qaeda" that some of us recommended way back in 2001. But it is not without its own dangers, of which the following strike me as especially paramount.
The first danger lies in the secrecy with which these activities are now shrouded. We don't really know who is being targeted for attack, or what the error rates are. Is it really true that U.S. forces have targeted not just suspected terrorist but also the people who seek to provide medical or rescue assistance after an attack, on the assumption that the rescuers are in cahoots with original targets? How often do we make honest mistakes? How reliable is the information on which targeting is being conducted?
The second danger -- "blowback" -- follows from the first. What if we end up creating more new terrorists than we kill? What if aggressive efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda in Pakistan ends up destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistani state and convinces lots of people there that the United States is inherently hostile? Are we going to understand that such hostility didn't emerge solely because these people "hate our values," but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countrymen was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error? The less we know about what U.S. forces are doing, the harder it will be for us to understand why some people don't like us that much.
A third danger is imitation. There is every reason to assume that other states, as well as some non-state actors, will decide to follow us down this particular path. The United States used to say that it opposed "targeted assassinations," but now we we are legimitizing this practice and others are bound to get into the act too. Similarly, by paying less and less attention to the old norm of sovereignty, we are making it more difficult to object when other states start interfering in each other's internal affairs. If we can send drones and/or special forces into any country we choose, why can't other states violate national borders in order to advance some policy objective of their own? What are we going to say then?
Fourth, is this a temporary expedient or a slippery slope? A case can be made that Obama's approach is a smart response to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda and its progeny, and that his policies reflect a temporary necessity. In this view, groups like Al Qaeda arose in a particular historical and political context, and they are gradually being attrited by an increasingly precise and effective strategy. If you believe this, then you might also believe that eventually the war on terror will be won, and that eventually we will be able to ratchet back these activities, shut down Guantanamo, rescind the Patriot Act, get rid of those demeaning scanners at airports, and cut back or quit those drone strikes. One could even argue that what we are really seeing is a last flurry of activity as we exit Iraq, prepare to exit Afghanistan, and start pivoting toward East Asia.
I'd like to believe that, but as Bacevich suggests, it is at least as likely that we have entered a new phase in American strategy from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. The problem is that we have these new capabilities (i.e., drones), and Obama and Bush have established the precedent of a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to warfare that keeps most of what we are doing in the dark. My fear is that future presidents are going to find those capabilities and that precedent very hard to resist. When hammers (drones?) are cheap, it's tempting to buy a lot of them and you'll tend to see a world full of nails. Drug lords in Mexico causing trouble? Let's just take 'em out. Tired of Hugo Chavez and his shenanigans? We've got an app for that. Sickened by the carnage in Syria? Let's give Assad and his underlings the same treatment we gave Ghaddafi. And so on. But most actions generate unintended consequences, and I suspect that trying to be the global policeman -- or in the minds of some, the global vigilante -- on the cheap may be a decision we'll eventually regret.
Harry How/Getty Images
As co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security, I couldn't be more delighted by the attention that Michael Beckley's article questioning China's rise (and America's supposed decline) is getting. See here, here, and here. But I fear that people who are seizing on Beckley's article to pooh-pooh fears of U.S. decline -- including our own Daniel Drezner -- are mostly asking the wrong question.
As I've noted elsewhere, the issue isn't whether the United States is about to fall the from the ranks of the great powers, or even be equaled (let alone surpassed) by a rising China. The world may be evolving toward a more multipolar structure, for example, but the United States is going to be one of those poles, and almost certainly the strongest of them, for many years to come.
Instead, the real issue is whether developments at home and overseas are making it harder for the United States to exercise the kind of dominant influence that it did for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The United States had a larger share of global GDP in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn't running enormous budget deficits. The United States was seen as a reliable defender of human rights, and its support for decolonization after World War II had won it many friends in the developing world. It also had good relations with a variety of monarchies and dictatorships, which it justified as part of the struggle against communism. These features allowed the United States to create and lead combined economic, security and political orders in virtually every corner of the world, except for the portions directly controlled by our communist rivals. And the U.S. and its allies eventually won that struggle too, driving the USSR into exhaustion and watching the triumph of market economies and more participatory forms of government throughout the former communist world.
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Background: Matthew Kroenig has written a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, advocating a preventive war against Iran's nuclear facilities. I criticized his arguments in a previous post, and Kroenig offered this defense in response. Here is my rejoinder.
Matthew Kroenig's defense of his Foreign Affairs article calling for launching a preventive war against Iran does little to strengthen his case. He provides no additional evidence to explain why war is necessary; nor does he remedy the gaps and inconsistencies in his original analysis. Given that he's now had two swings at the same pitch, one may safely conclude that there is no good case for attacking Iran.
It is clear from the beginning of Kroenig's response that he misunderstood the central point of my critique. I accused him of employing the "classic blueprint" for justifying a preventive war, whereby one exaggerates the dangers of inaction, overstates the benefits of war, and understates the costs and risks of employing force. Kroenig responds by pointing out that "any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force," and he seems to think that this was the feature of his analysis to which I objected. Not so: my objection was to the one-sided way in which he conducted his assessment.
As I noted in my original post, Kroenig assumes that Iran's leaders are firmly committed to obtaining a nuclear weapon (as opposed to a latent capability), even though U.S. intelligence agencies still reject this conclusion. He provides no hard evidence demonstrating that the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates on Iran are wrong. Furthermore, he assumes that a nuclear-armed Iran would unleash a series of fearsome consequences, even though we have no theory that explains how Iran could use its nuclear weapons for offensive purposes, and no examples of other nuclear-armed states doing so successfully in the past. He also assumes that rejecting the war option will force the United States to maintain a costly and dangerous "containment and deterrence regime" for decades. In short, when considering the "no-war" scenario, he consistently employs worst-case analysis.
When making the case for how a war against Iran will succeed, however, he switches to "best-case" assumptions about the short-term consequences, the dangers of escalation, and the long-term benefits, even though each of his forecasts is wide open to challenge. My point was not that Kroenig failed to discuss the costs and benefits of using or not using force; it was that if he had adopted a similar standard on both sides of the equation, his conclusion that war was the "least bad" option would fall apart.
Kroenig's piece in Foreign Affairs is entitled "Time to Attack Iran." However, he says in his response to me that he doesn't think "Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack." Indeed, he now appears to concede that Iran might not be developing nuclear weapons and that we should wait to see if it takes certain measures (expels inspectors, enriches uranium to weapons grade levels, installs advanced centrifuges, etc.) before unleashing the dogs of war. But these arguments contradict both his title and his original argument, which is that preventive war is the least bad option and now is the time to do it. We are thus left wondering: is Iran developing nuclear weapons or not ? And if Kroenig isn't sure, is it really "Time to Attack?"
Kroenig tells us that "in the coming months, it is possible, even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice" between containment or military action (my emphasis), and he recommends we "begin building global support for (military action) in advance." As I've noted before, the danger here is that if you keep repeating that preventive war against Iran is necessary, people gradually become comfortable with the idea and assume that it is going to occur eventually. In fact, if we beat the war drums for months but don't attack, you can be confident that people like Kroenig will then arguethat U.S. credibility is on the line and we have to strike, lest those dangerous Iranians conclude we are paper tigers.
As in his original article, Kroenig's image of Iran is simplistic and contradictory. He portrays it as a highly capable and dangerously ambitious power, whose support for terrorism and proxy groups is supposedly restrained only by "fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation." But he never describes Iran's actual capabilities (which are quite modest) or explains why the threat it poses to vital U.S. interests is grave enough to warrant rolling the iron dice of war. Nor does he discuss Iranian threat perceptions, internal politics, or foreign policy strategy (including how its policies have evolved over time), or consider the possibility that some of its activities (including its support for some extremist groups) are an asymmetric response to past U.S. efforts to isolate and marginalize it. Instead, his portrait of Iran is conveniently contradictory: as Paul Pillar puts it, for Kroenig "the same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things . . . turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S. ‘redlines' once the United States starts waging war against it." If "knowing one's enemy" is a prerequisite for going to war, Kroenig has a lot of work to do.
Kroenig also misunderstands my comment about the possibility that an Iranian bomb might prompt others countries in the region to go nuclear. Contrary to what he writes, I did not say "we should not worry that Iran's proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons." Rather, my point was that if there were proliferation beyond Iran, it would give other states in the neighborhood the ability to deter Iran and make it impossible for Tehran to wield the coercive leverage that Kroenig (not me) thinks it would gain by building a bomb. To be clear: I think it would be better if Iran and its neighbors stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold. But unlike Kroenig, I'm not prepared to panic and start a major war at the possibility that they won't.
IIPA via Getty Images
If you'd like to read a textbook example of war-mongering disguised as "analysis," I recommend Matthew Kroenig's forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs, titled "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option." It is a remarkably poor piece of advocacy, all the more surprising because Kroenig is a smart scholar who has done some good work in the past. It makes one wonder if there's something peculiar in the D.C. water supply.
There is a simple and time-honored formula for making the case for war, especially preventive war. First, you portray the supposed threat as dire and growing, and then try to convince people that if we don't act now, horrible things will happen down the road. (Remember Condi Rice's infamous warnings about Saddam's "mushroom cloud"?) All this step requires is a bit of imagination and a willingness to assume the worst. Second, you have to persuade readers that the costs and risks of going to war aren't that great. If you want to sound sophisticated and balanced, you acknowledge that there are counterarguments and risks involved. But then you do your best to shoot down the objections and emphasize all the ways that those risks can be minimized. In short: In Step 1 you adopt a relentlessly gloomy view of the consequences of inaction; in Step 2 you switch to bulletproof optimism about how the war will play out.
Kroenig's piece follows this blueprint perfectly. He assumes that Iran is hellbent on getting nuclear weapons (not just a latent capability to produce one quickly if needed) and suggests that it is likely to cross the threshold soon. Never mind that Iran has had a nuclear program for decades and still has no weapon, and that both the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb. He further assumes -- without a shred of evidence -- that a nuclear-armed Iran would have far-reaching geopolitical consequences. For example, he says that other states are already "shifting their allegiances to Tehran" but doesn't offer a single example or explain how these alleged shifts have anything to do with Iran's nuclear program.
He also declares, "With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war." Huh? If this bizarre fantasy were true, why couldn't the former Soviet Union do similar things during the Cold War, and why can't other nuclear powers make similar threats today when they don't like a particular American initiative? The simple reason is that threatening nuclear war against the United States is not credible unless one is willing to commit national suicide, and even Kroenig concedes that Tehran is not suicidal. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring attacks on one's own territory (and perhaps the territory of very close allies), but that's about it. They are not good for blackmail, coercive diplomacy, or anything else. And if Kroenig is right in warning that an Iranian nuclear weapon might lead others to develop them too, then Iran would end up being deterred by the United States, by Israel, and by some of its other neighbors too. (As I've noted before, Iran's awareness of this possibility may be one reason why Tehran has thus far stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold.)
Kroenig also declares that a nuclear-armed Iran would force the United States to "deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come." But why? Iran's entire defense budget is only about $10 billion per year (compared with the nearly $700 billion the United States spends on national defense), and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. Thus, contrary to what Kroenig thinks, containing/deterring Iran would not add much to U.S. defense burdens. The Persian Gulf is already an American lake (from a military point of view), and Washington already has thousands of nuclear weapons in its own arsenal. Given how weak Iran really is, containing or deterring them for the foreseeable future will be relatively easy.
The key point is that Kroenig offers up these lurid forecasts in a completely uncritical way. He never asks the probing questions that any security scholar with a Ph.D. should axiomatically raise and examine in a sophisticated manner. Instead, his article is a classic illustration of worst-case analysis, intended to make not going to war seem more dangerous than peace.
When he turns to the case for using force, however, Kroenig offers a consistently upbeat appraisal of how the war would go. (Needless to say, this is not the kind of analysis one would expect from a Georgetown professor.) He knows there are serious objections to his proposed course of action, and he works hard to come up with reasons why these concerns should be not be taken seriously. What if Iran has concealed some of its facilities? Such fears are overblown, he thinks, because our intelligence is really, really good. (Gee, where have we heard that before?) What about facilities that are hardened or defended? Not an insurmountable obstacle, he maintains, and in any case there are plenty of other facilities that are aboveground and vulnerable.
Isn't there a danger of civilian casualties? Well, yes, but "Washington should be able to limit civilian casualties in any campaign." What if Iran escalates by firing missiles at U.S. allies, ordering its proxies to attack Israel, or closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipments? Not to worry, says Kroenig, "None of these outcomes is predetermined," and the United States "could do much to mitigate them." (Of course, none of the scary outcomes that Kroenig says would accompany an Iranian bomb are "predetermined" either.) Doesn't starting a war increase the risk of regional conflict, especially if Iran retaliates and Americans or Israelis die? Maybe, but not if the United States makes its own "redlines" clear in advance and if it takes prudent steps to "manage the confrontation." To do this we have to be willing to "absorb Iranian responses that [fall] short of these redlines" and reassure the mullahs that we aren't trying to overthrow them (!). Bombing another country is a peculiar way to "reassure" them, of course, and it's a bit odd to assume that those wicked Iranians will be cooperative and restrained as the bombs rain down. Won't Iran just reconstitute its nuclear program later, and possibly on a crash basis? It might, but Kroenig says that we would have bought time and that whacking the Iranians really hard right now might convince them to give up the whole idea. Or not.
You see the pattern: When Kroenig is trying to justify the need for war, he depicts an Iran with far-reaching capabilities and dangerously evil intentions in order to convince readers that we have to stop them before it is too late. But when he turns to selling a preventive war, then suddenly Iran's capabilities are rather modest, its leaders are sensible, and the United States can easily deal with any countermeasures that Iran might take. In other words, Kroenig makes the case for war by assuming everything will go south if the United States does not attack and that everything will go swimmingly if it does. This is not fair-minded "analysis"; it is simply a brief for war designed to reach a predetermined conclusion.
And let's be crystal clear about what Kroenig is advocating here. He is openly calling for preventive war against Iran, even though the United States has no authorization from the U.N. Security Council, it is not clear that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, and Iran has not attacked us or any of our allies -- ever. He is therefore openly calling for his country to violate international law. He is calmly advocating a course of action that will inevitably kill a significant number of people, including civilians, some of whom probably despise the clerical regime (and with good reason). And Kroenig is willing to have their deaths on his conscience on the basis of a series of unsupported assertions, almost all of them subject to serious doubt.
Kroenig tries to allay this concern by saying that the main victims of a U.S. attack would be the "military personnel, engineers, scientists, and technicians" working at Iran's nuclear facilities. But even if we assume for the moment that this is true, would he consider Iran justified if it followed a similar course of action, to the limited extent that it could? Suppose a bright young analyst working for Iran's Revolutionary Guards read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs and concluded that there were well-connected people at American universities and in the Department of Defense who were actively planning and advocating war against Iran. Suppose he further concluded that if these plans are allowed to come to fruition, it would pose a grave danger to the Islamic Republic. Iran doesn't have a sophisticated air force or drones capable of attacking the United States, so this bright young analyst recommends that the Revolutionary Guards organize a covert-action team to attack the people who were planning and advocating this war, and to do whatever else they could to sabotage the forces that the United States might use to conduct such an attack. He advises his superiors that appropriate measures be taken to minimize the loss of innocent life and that the attack should focus only on the "military and civilian personnel" who were working directly on planning or advocating war with Iran. From Iran's perspective, this response would be a "preventive strike" designed to forestall an attack from the United States. Does Kroenig think a purely preventive measure of this kind on Iran's part would be acceptable behavior? And if he doesn't, then why does he think it's perfectly OK for us to do far more?
Mario Tama/Getty Images
It's the holiday season, but Death does not observe such man-made conventions. I've been more conscious of that fact this past week, in part because my mother would have been 84 last Thursday and she is woven into a whole tapestry of my holiday memories. It is at such times that the loss is most acute.
And as it happens, we have seen three notable departures this week. Herewith a brief comment on each.
1. Christopher Hitchens. I never met Hitchens (though my wife knew him slightly back in the 1980s), but I've enjoyed several of his books and a fair bit of his commentary over the years. His talents were considerable and his achievements worthy of note (and I'd give a fair bit to be as able and witty a writer as he was), but the outpouring of tributes this past week struck me as decidedly over-the-top. (I can't help but think that he would have been first in line to skewer most of them). I don't doubt the sincerity of his friends' affection and or question their sense of loss, but as Glenn Greenwald notes, if you want people to say nice things about you when you're gone, make sure a lot of your friends are well-connected Establishment writers.
Like a lot of public intellectuals, Hitchens embraced an odd set of ideological fixations at various points in his career. He started out a Trotskyite, and ended up a cranky neoconservative fellow-traveler (at least regarding the Iraq War and the threat from radical Islam). And his public persona never seemed tempered by self-doubt, despite having been massively wrong on more than one occasion. A bit more humility might have made him a less successful writer, but also a more sensible one.
Is it possible that his oscillations reflected a lack of deep intellectual foundations? He was clearly formidably well-read, but apart from his outspoken atheism, I'm not sure he had a well-developed theory for how the world really worked. By his own account, the unifying core of his thinking was a hatred of "the totalitarian"--and especially any movement or ruler who tried to control what we think--but isn't that about the easiest target for anyone (and especially a writer) to pick? I mean, who's going to rise to totalitarianism's defense in this day and age, and especially inside the American Establishment? (Civil liberties may be under siege these days, but we have a ways to go before we come close to true tyranny.)
That said, I was also struck by one more thought upon reading all those commentaries on his career. I cannot imagine the American system of higher education producing anyone quite like him, and especially not the typical American Ph.D. program in the social sciences. Whatever his flaws may have been, Hitchens was wide-ranging, provocative, willing to take unpopular positions, and above all fun to read. Whereas graduate education in the United States is increasingly designed to take smart and ambitious young students, stamp most of the fire and creativity out of them, and make them safe, largely indistinguishable from each other, and above all, boring. (There's a reason we call them "academic disciplines"). So if Hitchens is your role model, for god's (note the small "g") sake don't go get a Ph.D.
David Levenson/Getty Images
Back in August 2010, I wrote a post warning about the possibility that war with Iran was being "mainstreamed." My concern was the likelihood that incessant talk of war would gradually accustom people to the idea and harden perceptions to the point that eventually even former skeptics would be convinced that war was inevitable and that we might as well get it over with. As I put it back then:
If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
I now wonder if my concerns were understated, and the danger a bit more subtle. It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. Earlier this week, the CIA lost a reconnaissance drone over Iranian territory (whether Iran shot it down or not is disputed). And just as I'd feared, this situation has led smart and normally sober people like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen to endorse this shadowy campaign, on the grounds that it is preferable to all-out war.
I certainly agree that what the United States is doing is better than launching an all-out attack, but I question this approach on three grounds. First, as I've already argued elsewhere, our preoccupation with Iran vastly overstates its capabilities and the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Iran is a minor military power at present, and it has no meaningful power projection capabilities. It has been pursuing some sort of nuclear capability for decades without getting there, which makes one wonder whether Iran intends to ever cross the nuclear weapons threshold. Even if it did, it could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else. Iran's "revolutionary" ideology is old and tired and inspires no one. The "Arab Spring" has underscored Iran's irrelevance as a political force, Iran's Syrian ally is under siege and may yet fall, and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will remove a key source of Iranian-Iraqi solidarity and encourage Arab-Persian differences to reemerge once again. Iran is a problem but a relatively minor one, and it is a sign of our collective strategic myopia that U.S. leaders either cannot figure this out or cannot say so openly.
Second, waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery. Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.
Third, a semi-secret war of this kind raises the inevitable risk of "blowback." The late Chalmers Johnson defined blowback as the unintended consequences of U.S. action abroad, and especially those actions of which the public is largely unaware. When we conduct semi-secret, not-quite wars in other countries, the targets sometime try to hit us back. When they do, many people back home will see their actions as unjustified aggression, and as evidence that our enemies are irrevocably hostile and unremittingly evil.
A case in point is the alleged Iranian plot to get Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Americans immediately concluded that this scheme was a sign of dastardly Iranian perfidy, when it might just as easily have been a harebrained Iranian riposte to what we were already doing. This is not to say that Iran was justified in trying to blow up a building in our nation's capital, but by what logic is peace-loving America justified in doing something similar over in Iran? In short: If the American people don't quite know what their government is up to, they cannot understand or interpret what other states are doing either. We may have good reasons not to like what others are doing, but the bigger danger is that we simply won't understand it, and won't understand our own role in helping bring such actions about.
Lastly, ratcheting up military pressure -- even if done covertly and at a relatively low level -- can only reaffirm deeply rooted Iranian suspicions of the United States and prolong U.S.-Iranian animosity. (The same is true in reverse, of course). I'm under no illusions about the depths of this animosity and the degree of skill, imagination, and patience it would take to unravel it, but doing more of the same is not going to make it any easier. Yes, many Iranians loathe the regime and would like it to go, but that doesn't mean they welcome U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iranian soil. And that is especially true of attacks on the nuclear program, which Iranians of many political persuasions view as an important symbol of national pride.
In short, the "silent campaign" against Iran is not without its own risks and costs. It is preferable to all-out attack, but a silent war and an all-out war are not the only options. The third option is a sustained and patient effort to reengage with Iran, in order to convince Iranian leaders that they are better off not going nuclear and that both sides will be better off if we can gradually work out some of our differences. Such an approach does not require the United States to sacrifice any core interests, nor would it preclude continuing to press Iran on its human rights record and on other matters that trouble us. And maybe it won't work. But as Trita Parsi shows in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice, that alternative approach has never really been tried.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.