I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday's attack at the Boston Marathon -- to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb.
For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday's events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction -- and especially nuclear weapons -- then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism's web through no fault of their own.
Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday's events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice.
There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday's race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.
But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.
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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.
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I don't usually like to repeat myself (or at least not too often), but the antics of Senators Inhofe, Cruz, McCain, Graham, et al. really do exemplify the irresponsibility of today's GOP, as well as the extraordinary margin of security that Americans enjoy.
(See in particular point #2 in my last post).
Only in a country that was largely safe from serious harm could senior elected officials engage in the fact-free McCarthyism of Sen. Ted Cruz, who keeps inventing inane accusations that Chuck Hagel -- a decorated war veteran -- has somehow been bought off by foreign powers. I suspect Cruz has been watching too many episodes of Homeland back to back.
Only in a country that was really safe could someone like Sen. Lindsay Graham keep threatening to leave the Pentagon leaderless so that he can get more "answers" about Benghazi, even after the secretary of state and a bunch of other officials have testified at length on that tragic matter. And what exactly does Benghazi have to do with Hagel's fitness for office anyway, given that he wasn't in the Obama administration when our consulate was attacked?
Only in a country that was very, very secure could a senator like James Inhofe invoke a crackpot interpretation of the Old Testament to justify U.S. support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank without having his constiuents hound him from office for endangering the United States and Israel alike. Remember, Inhofe is defending an occupation that many Israelis -- including several former prime ministers -- believe threatens Israel's long-term future. With "friends" like Senator Inhofe, Israel doesn't need enemies (it has those in abundance already). But because America is so secure, he can say silly things like this and not be seen as endangering the country.
I'm pretty sure Hagel will be confirmed, as he should be. And I hope every one of the senators who voted against him get peppered by questions from their constituents about why they behaved so shamefully ... from start to finish.
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I've made this point before -- here and here -- and I suspect I'll have to make it again. But whatever you think of the outcome of yesterday's Super Bowl, the unexpected second half power outage was a small blow against U.S. power and influence.
Why? Because one of the reasons states are willing to follow the U.S. lead is their belief that we are competent: that we know what we are doing, have good judgment, and aren't going to screw up. When the power goes out in such a visible and embarrassing fashion, and in a country that still regards itself as technologically sophisticated, the rest of the world is entitled to nod and say: "Hmmm ... maybe those Americans aren't so skillful after all."
Or maybe we've just spent too much money building airbases in far-flung corners of the world, and not enough on infrastructure -- like power grids -- here at home.
P.S. The other lesson of the Super Bowl is that strategy matters. As in: the abysmal play-calling by the 49ers when they had first-and-goal inside the ten yard line, trailing by less than a touchdown. Four dumb plays, and the Ravens were champs. Sigh.
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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.
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Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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A frequent topic here has been America's position in the world and its future prospects. Today, my colleague Ali Wyne weighs in with his own upbeat take on why Americans should be fairly optimistic heading into 2013:
Ali Wyne writes:
With just over a month to go before New Year’s Day, Americans are divided. Following President Obama’s reelection on November 6th, USA Today that a “changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday -- not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago.” A Gallup poll taken shortly after the election found that while 94 percent of Democrats think that the United States will be better off four years from now (vs. just 4 percent who think that it will be worse off), only 11 percent of Republicans think so (86 percent think that it will be worse off). Some who belong to the 86 percent appear to be not just dispirited, but appalled: notable reactions include “America died,” “[w]hat happened on Nov. 6th was suicide by voter,” and “on November 6, 2012, America elected to end modern civilization.”
But leaving aside the partisan divides that are inevitably highlighted in the run-up to and aftermath of an election, Americans on the whole appear to be more pessimistic than usual about their country’s domestic condition and global role. to a mid-2012 poll by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, for example, 66 percent think that the U.S. economy is on the wrong track, and 63 percent think that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. Furthermore, several polls indicate that Americans regard the United States as a declining power. I cited some of them in an article for Zócalo Public Square this April, and corroborating ones have been conducted since then. According to a mid-2012 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, only 24 percent of Americans think that the United States “plays a more important and powerful role” “as a world leader” today than it did ten years ago; 43 percent think that its role is “less important and powerful.” In 2002, those figures were, respectively, 55 percent and 17 percent. Furthermore, whereas Americans judged the United States to be considerably more influential than China a decade earlier (9.1 vs. 6.8 on a ten-point scale), they predict that the two countries’ influence will essentially be equal ten years hence (8.1 vs. 7.8).
Despite feeling the blues, Americans of all stripes can still find reasons to give thanks as they celebrate the holidays and look forward to 2013.
First, the United States has endured far more trying times, dating back to its inception. As historians including David McCullough and John Ferling have documented, America’s victory in its war of independence was far from certain; in fact, in his farewell address to the Continental army in 1783, George Washington himself called it “little short of a standing miracle.” Furthermore, the United States bounced back -- indeed, emerged stronger -- after many events that may well have been judged fatal to its prospects for global leadership by the standards of some contemporary declinists: the Civil War, World War I, and the Great Depression come to mind readily.
Second, America’s economic picture is not entirely bleak. True, four years after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent, and growth continues to sputter along at less than 1.5 percent per year. More alarming, the debt is over $16 trillion and growing rapidly. On the other side of the ledger, however, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) -- at $14.83 trillion -- accounted for a little over one-fifth of gross world product (GWP) last year. As of the second quarter of this year, 62 percent of the world’s allocated foreign-exchange reserves were dollar-denominated. According to QS, 31 of the world’s top 100 universities are in the United States; furthermore, the Institute for International Education found that there were a record 764,495 international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2011-12 academic year, marking the sixth consecutive year that that figure has increased.
Looking forward, there are reasons to be upbeat, even bullish, about the U.S. economy. Its demographic outlook, for example, continues to be favorable; thus, it is expected to remain the world’s third most populous country in 2050, after India and China. Furthermore, rapidly growing indigenous supplies of tight oil and shale gas could enable the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign energy and potentially even create new bases of employment in its energy sector; according to the International Energy Agency, it could become “all but [energy] self-sufficient in net terms by 2035” and become “a net oil exporter by around 2030.” Further down the pike, breakthroughs in a host of fields -- ranging from digital fabrication to “big data” -- could inject new dynamism into the U.S. economy; citing its recent strides in telecommunications and energy, John Gapper observes that despite its “economic problems” and “worries about its comparative decline,” the United States is using its “amazing, enduring capacity to reinvent itself through technology.” The existence of such opportunities -- in demographics, energy, and innovation -- does not, of course, entail the promise of their realization; it does, however, suggest that the current unemployment-growth-debt triad need not become a “new normal.”
Third, America’s relative decline is not as concerning as it might appear at first glance. It largely stems, after all, from actions that it has taken (many of which it can avoid repeating, such as conducting another large-scale ground war), actions that it has not taken (many of which it can still take, such as reaching a budget deal along the lines of what the Simpson-Bowles commission and numerous other task forces have proposed), and the growth of other countries (a phenomenon that benefits the United States, as Europe and Asia’s postwar recoveries benefited it over a half century earlier). Relative decline, furthermore, does not nullify its mixture of hard and soft assets. The United States remains the only country that can project military power globally. Less discussed, it continues to underpin -- albeit under growing duress -- a liberal international order. While the rules and arrangements that form that system are evolving, the system itself does not yet face a coherent alternative -- in part because many countries that bristle at its reach nonetheless continue to benefit from it. China, America’s putative superpower replacement, is perhaps the most compelling example. It welcomes U.S. decline, but wants that phenomenon to occur gradually, not rapidly. In the interim, in fact, as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil grows, it will likely become more dependent on stable and open global commons, which U.S. military power plays an important role in preserving.
If one believes that the United States was once able to dominate the course of international affairs, and evaluates its role in the world according to its ability to continue doing so, then it has indeed been declining -- absolutely and precipitously. In reality, while shocks (such as the global financial crisis) and surprises (such as the “Arab Spring”) may play a growing role in determining U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never been able to exercise hegemony. Even after World War II, despite accounting for over a third of GWP and having “an overwhelming preponderance in nuclear weapons,” Joseph Nye observes that it “was unable to prevent the ‘loss’ of China, ‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.”
There is no question that the Obama administration will confront a daunting foreign-policy inbox come January 20, 2013, arguably one of unprecedented complexity: a partial inventory of its imperatives would include stabilizing America’s relationship with China, whose GDP is likely to be the world’s largest within the decade, and whose defense spending could conceivably be the world’s largest before the middle of the century; helping the European Union stay afloat; responding to the changing strategic contours of the Middle East and North Africa; and reinforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It would be simplistic, however, to adduce difficulty in dealing with a challenging world as evidence that the United States is a declining, even impotent, actor. As Stephen Walt argues,
[i]f all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy….[Americans should] be grateful for the country’s good fortune….most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary…That’s another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do.
If overestimating one’s influence and minimizing the urgency of one’s challenges can sow hubris, underestimating the former and minimizing one’s ability to respond to the latter can produce distress. Rather than fretting over the prospect of decline, Americans should strategize about how their country can adjust to the power shifts that are afoot -- and be thankful that the United States is better equipped than most to do so.
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Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, even though its origins can be traced back to Old World harvest festivals. It is based in part on a romanticized story of the Pilgrims, which took on new life after Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of a day of thanks intended to help reconcile North and South after the Civil War. It is also celebrated in Canada, however, so Americans don't have a monopoly on gratitude.
Still, if you're an American citizen or a green card holder, you've probably got a lot to be thankful for, especially compared to citizens of a lot of other countries. But of course, we Americans often forget to be properly thankful for many of our blessings; instead, we seem to think we deserve them because we are So Darn Exceptional. With that thought in mind, here's a slightly contrarian Top Ten List of Things Americans Should be Thankful For (But Often Aren't).
1. We have a state of our own. Americans could start by being thankful that the rebellious colonists won their war of independence, straightened out the Articles of Confederation, and built a strong state of our own. Having your own state means that you can protect yourself against enemies and there's a government to go to bat for you if you get in trouble. By contrast, stateless peoples like the Kurds, Chechens, Palestinians, Romany, Tamils, Jews before 1948, and many others live at the mercy of others. Given our own revolutionary past, you'd think we'd have a bit more sympathy for peoples trying to escape oppressive foreign rule, but never mind. In any case, in the dog-eat-dog world of global politics, having a state of our own is clearly something to be thankful for.
2. There are no great powers nearby. Given our propensity to exaggerate global dangers, Americans often forget that they are remarkably secure. We haven't had any powerful states near us since the 19th century, and we haven't had to worry seriously about defending our own territory against invasion. (This is what makes movies like Red Dawn so laughable). Or as the French Ambassador to the United States said back around 1910: "America is the most favored of the nations. To the north, a weak neighbor. To the south, a weak neighbor. To the east, fish. To the West, more fish. " This extraordinary level of territorial security explains why Americans are free to go gallivanting all around the world "searching for monsters to destroy" and trying to tell the world how to live. We've forgotten what it is like to face a real threat to our independence, and that sort of amnesia is a luxury for which we should be very thankful indeed.
3. We didn't adopt the same austerity programs that Britain, Europe, and Japan did. A lot of Americans are still hurting from the after-effects of the Great Recession, and those who are still unemployed may not feel especially appreciative tomorrow. And it's clear with hindsight that the governmental response to the financial crisis could have been more effective. But compared with the other industrial democracies, the United States has done much better to eschew austerity and focus more attention on stimulus. So let's give thanks for that.
4. We got lucky when they handed out the natural resources. Americans like to attribute their rise to wealth and power to their virtuous and hardworking nature, embrace of capitalism, novel Constitution, and commitment to liberty. But just as important was the fact that the country happened to be founded on a continent with fertile soils, navigable rivers, abundant wildlife, and a temperate climate. It had lots of iron ore and other minerals, plenty of oil, and it turns out we've got more natural gas than we know what to do with. (Good for us, if not necessarily so great for the atmosphere). This Thanksgiving, Americans ought to silently acknowledge that our privileged status today owes as much to good fortune as it does to any unique American virtues.
And while we're at it, let's not forget that realizing our "Manifest Destiny" involved the deaths of millions of native Americans and taking vast territories from other countries by force. Recalling the uglier side of America's rise to world power is a good way to keep overweening national pride in check.
5. In (many) Gods we trust. I don't know about you, but I for one am thankful that the Founding Fathers didn't try to establish a state religion and instead celebrated theological diversity, including the freedom not to believe. Over the past two centuries, the idea that free men and women could worship whatever gods they choose has protected this country from a powerful cause of civil strife in many other parts of the world. We can give thanks that anti-Semitism has been discredited and marginalized and Islamophobia confined mostly to far-right whack jobs and a few desperate politicians.
Just look at the last presidential election: a Christian with a Muslim name got 70 percent of the Jewish vote, while his opponent -- the first Mormon to be nominated -- didn't lose by that much (i.e., he had over 48 percent of the popular vote). That's America.
And maybe one of these days we'll have a serious presidential candidate who openly proclaims her or his faith in science and reason and rejects allegience to any unseen superhuman entity. Amen.
6. Another successful election. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should give thanks that this country has once again conducted an election where peace prevailed, citizens voted, and the losers conceded, mostly with good grace. Some GOP leaders may be baffled by the results, but they didn't take up arms or hire a lot of lawyers to try to reverse them. Who knows? They may even start pondering why they lost in a serious way, and beging move their party away from some of its antideluvian notions. That would be something to be grateful for too.
7. Tolerance of diversity. In addition to religious freedom, Americans can be grateful for the progress we have made in embracing those who at first seem different. This includes immigrants, who are often viewed with suspicion yet consistently become some of our most ambitious, energetic, hardworking, and accomplished citizens. Consistent with our liberal ideals of individual human liberty, our country is gradually ending discrimination against gays. We continue to work to reduce the long legacy of racial discrimination. Our reward is a country whose cultural life has been enriched by diverse currents and whose society has managed to take advantage of the best the world has to offer. We are far from perfect, but the American melting pot remains a phenomenon that richly deserves our thanks.
8. No war with Iran. Having wound down one losing war and positioned us to end another, at least President Obama has had the good sense not to start a third war with Iran. Keep your fingers crossed that he remains as wise in his second term, but be grateful that he didn't succumb to all the fear-mongering, even in an election year.
9. Health care for all Americans. I don't want to go all partisan on you, but unless you're one of the One Percent (and maybe even if you are), you ought to be grateful that we've finally taken steps to insure that all citizens get basic medical care. True, most of the industrialized world got there long before we did, but better late than never. It's not a perfect system and it's bound to need improvements over time, but we all ought to feel good about helping our fellow citizens feel good. And say a word of thanks, too.
10. What about the rest of you? Here's a suggestion: if you're not an American, this Thanksgiving you might give thanks if you haven't gotten a lot of attention from Uncle Sam lately. You might not want to be totally ignored (especially if the South China Sea laps your shores) but getting a lot of attention from the United States hasn't been such a good thing in recent years (see under: Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.) So if you're citizen of one of the many countries that Americans like to visit but American troops and drones don't, you can be thankful, too.
Today we're all obsessed with -- and exhausted by -- the U.S. election. There's a lot wrong with America's political institutions -- starting with the absurd Electoral College -- but right up there with the EC is the ridiculous length of the campaign season itself. No other modern democracy spends at least twenty-five percent of a presidential term determining who the next president will be, and this feature both inflates the cost of elections (thereby increasing the clout of well-heeled donors and lobbies) and distracts us all from the broader issues of the moment. All that's keeping us going now is the knowledge that it will soon be over.
Unlike my FP colleague Dan Drezner, I'm not going to offer a lengthy election endorsement. If you've been reading this blog and can't tell who I'm voting for, you haven't been paying attention. I've been disappointed by some of Obama's foreign policy decisions -- most notably his caving on the Middle East peace process and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan -- but I didn't expect a lot of dramatic foreign policy successes during the first term anyway. Unlike Dan (and Rosa Brooks), I don't think a better process would have made that much difference: Once you had populated the administration with the usual Democratic party wonks, you were going to get the usual post-Clintonian Democratic party foreign policy. Not realism, in other words, but good old-fashioned liberal interventionism suitably sobered by the Iraq debacle and the financial crisis. Obama has scored some limited successes, has avoided big disasters (like an attack on Iran) and has for the most part dealt with friends and foes in a sensible way. In the absence of a better alternative -- and such an alternative is clearly absent -- he gets my vote.
What makes it easy is looking at the other side. The Romney campaign's critique of Obama's foreign policy is about as factually accurate as its fairy budget proposals. It's also schizophrenic: The Romney campaign wants you to think Obama has been too hard on our allies and too easy on our foes, yet in the third debate Romney agreed with almost all of Obama's policies. Moreover, his campaign's reliance on a bunch of neoconservative retreads tells you he's either craven or a bad judge of talent, and neither is an especially appealing quality for a future leader. If you're still undecided, all you need to do is contrast Obama's pitch-perfect foreign tour in 2008 with the gaffe and pander-filled Romney tour last summer. On foreign policy grounds, therefore, this decision is a no-brainer.
If you're on the East Coast of the United States and hunkering down while Hurricane Sandy hits, you might devote some time to studying the heated (pun intended) exchanges that President Obama and Governor Romney had on the issue of climate change during the presidential debates. It won't take you long, because the two candidates ignored the issue completely.
It is of course possible that Sandy has nothing to do with climate change. Hurricanes have been hitting the East Coast for centuries, so this one is really nothing new, right? Except that one implication of rising global temperatures is that tropical storms will be larger and more destructive, and a storm the size of Sandy is more than a little unusual (indeed, it is reported to be the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded). Its arrival is thus entirely consistent with the warnings that atmospheric scientists have been giving for some time.
A storm like this inevitably brings loss of life and vast destruction. My guess is that the damage from this storm will far exceed all the death and destruction that terrorists have caused in this country since 9/11. Yet we remain obsessed with the threat of Al Qaeda & Co. and we use it to justify all sorts of dubious national security policies, while taking natural disasters that are probably more serious in stride. Consider that the 2013 budget request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is $13 billion, but the Department of Homeland Security will get roughly $50 billion (or more than three times the FEMA total).
American democracy has many virtues, but careful cost-benefit analysis doesn't appear to be one of them. In any case, no matter where you are, hope you stay dry and safe and the power doesn't go out. And if your internet connection is still up, here's some inspiring music....
Wednesday night's presidential debate is about domestic policy, but that doesn't mean the candidates can't be asked questions that use foreign policy to raise an important point about domestic issues. Pivoting off this recent column by the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson, here's the question I'd like moderator Jim Lehrer to ask President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday.
"Since 9/11 the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars protecting Americans from "global terrorism." Yet the number of U.S. citizens killed by terrorists is very low. Since 9/11, in fact, the United States has lost on average fewer than 32 citizens per year to terrorist violence. Even if you include the 2,689 lives lost on 9/11, the annual average over the past 11 years is less than 275. And 9/11 was clearly an anomaly.
By contrast, every year more than 30,000 Americans are killed by guns here in the United States, a rate higher than any other advanced industrial country. Given that extraordinary death toll, why have both of you failed to speak out about the need for more effective gun control, even after several recent mass killings? As president, what will each of you do to decrease the danger Americans face from domestic gun violence, which is far greater than the risk they face from global terrorism?"
Lars Baron/Getty Images
A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
There are two must-read articles in today's press: Pankaj Mishra's "America's Inevitable Retreat from the Middle East" in the New York Times, and Edward Luce's cautionary "An American recovery? Don't believe the hype" in the Financial Times.
Mishra does an excellent job of tracing why U.S. involvement in the Middle East is likely to decline in the years ahead. Not only has the United States pursued policies that have alienated most of the people in this region, but it can no longer count on compliant dictators and monarchs to do our bidding. Instead, governments of all types are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment, which bodes ill for U.S. efforts to shape the region's future.
But is this a bad thing? The problems that the Middle East is going to face in the years ahead -- social unrest, youth unemployment, contentious domestic politics, poorly developed institutions, etc. -- are by their very nature difficult for outsiders to fix. In fact, as we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, extensive and direct efforts to mold the politics of millions of people whose traditions differ from ours are likely to fail, and especially when most of the people are angry about our past policies. And as you've probably noticed, even our more well-intentioned failures tend to be very expensive. Luce's slightly gloomy prognosis just reinforces this point: A sluggish U.S. recovery will inevitably limit what the United States can do, and if we keep wasting lives and money on fool's errands, recovery will be delayed even more.
One should not overstate these trends, of course. Richard Nixon used to complain that the United States was becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant," which was wrong then and is wrong today. The United States is going to be the world's most powerful country for quite some time to come; it just won't have the same sort of influence it once enjoyed. The real question is how it will adjust to a slightly more modest role, and what strategies it will adopt going forward. To respond intelligently, the United States will have to overcome the psychological barrier of a somewhat reduced role, and to figure out how to take advantage of America's enduring strengths instead of constantly doing things that undermine them.
And that brings me to my main complaint with Mishra's article: his use of the word "retreat." If Americans view a reduced role as a "retreat" -- with all its defeatist implications -- they will be more likely to face a domestic backlash from neocons and other hardliners shouting "appeasement" and demanding increased defense spending and a renewed commitment to knocking heads together. Framing this trend as a "retreat," therefore, will delay the necessary adjustments and squander additional resources.
By contrast, if this trend is seen as a farsighted and voluntary adjustment to new conditions and strategic priorities, then the risk of backlash will be reduced and the shift won’t have much if any effect on America’s perceived credibility elsewhere. In this sense, the idea of a strategic "pivot" to Asia was smart rhetoric. We aren't being driven out of the Middle East; we're just choosing to assign resources where they can do us the most good.
More broadly, the key to making these adjustment lies in convincing Americans to think about their global role differently. Instead of harping on our "global responsibilities," Americans ought to focus instead on their national interests. The litmus test of any foreign policy commitment is not what it will do for others, but rather what it will do for us. (Doing both is perfectly ok by me, but first things first).
America's current global posture and its strategic toolbox were developed during the Cold War, when the main challenge was a well-armed and easily identifiable great power adversary. In that environment, it made sense for the United States to secure what George Kennan called the "key centers of industrial power." The U.S. achieved this goal through an active leadership role in NATO, its bilateral treaty relations in Asia, and its various security commitments in the Persian Gulf. The effort that the United States and Soviet Union expended in places like Indochina or Afghanistan was mostly wasted (and at great cost to these societies). Fortunately for us, we had a lot more resources to waste.
Times have changed. The United States may face a new peer competitor in the not-too distant future, but right now most security problems arise from regional rivalries, failng states, and local quagmires. In these circumstances, the main strategic objective should be to stay out of the quicksand. Better still, we could try to stick potential rivals with the burden of trying to solve intractable problems. Passing the buck to others isn't some sort of inglorious retreat; it's actually a smart strategy that will leaves the United States better prepared to deal with more serious challenges when they arise.
It's been a remarkable month for viral videos, hasn't it? There's hardly anything I could add to the blizzard of criticism provoked by the video of Mitt Romney's candid and callous remarks to a group of fat cat Republic donors, so I won't pile on. Well....not very much.
Here's what struck me about this latest incident. Romney is not a stupid man, whatever one might think of his political views or his awkward public persona. He is also a man who has been running for president for more than five years. He has done nothing else in that entire period: He was already wealthy and didn't have to work, and his children were grown. He could spend most of his time mastering the issues, and he could have invited virtually anyone he wished to come in and brief him on any topic he thought was important for a future president to understand. He's had more than enough time to learn the ins and outs of our economic situation, to study the pros and cons of alternative approaches to health care, infrastructure development, and the like, and to bone up on tricky foreign policy issues like relations with China and Russia, counter-terrorism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point, there is simply no excuse for his not having clear and defensible positions on these vital issues, and more. It's called doing one's homework.
There's also no excuse for Romney not knowing how to talk about these issues in a way that conveys a sophisticated awareness of where the minefields are. Somebody who really understands our tax system and the nature of government entitlements doesn't tell donors that 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes and imply they are just mooching off of everyone else. Someone with a halfway decent grasp of what foreign policy involves doesn't land in London and insult a long-standing ally, and then fly off to Israel and offer ignorant remarks about the supposed deficiencies of Arab culture. And even if he truly believes that a two-state solution is no longer possible -- a view that may well be correct -- he would know that presidential aspirants can't say that and then suggest that we just cross our fingers and hope for a miracle down the road. Finally, if Romney is such a great manager and judge of talent, why-oh-why has he saddled his campaign with all those neoconservative retreads? Given their track record, that's like hiring Charlie Sheen to handle outreach to women or putting Bernie Madoff in charge of campaign finances.
Like all of us, politicians sometimes utter ill-chosen phrases or get surprised by an unexpected question. But given how much uninterrupted time he has had to get ready for this election, the frequency of Romney's gaffes is revealing. They don't just expose the ignorance of a man who's spent his entire adult life protected in the bubble wrap of wealth, privilege, and intellectual conformity. What they reveal is either 1) enormous and inexplicable ignorance, 2) a smug and cynical willingness to say whatever he thinks each audience wants to hear, or 3) the iron grip of a world-view that is impervious to evidence.
I'm not sure which possibility scares me more, but it does seem less likely that we're going to find out which one it really is. There's some consolation in that. And for foreign policy wonks, there may even be a bigger silver lining in the death spiral that Romney's campaign may now be entering. The GOP used to be pretty good at foreign policy, back when realists ran the show. If Romney goes down to defeat despite all the factors in his favor, perhaps the GOP will come to its senses and abandon the extremist positions (and the extremists) that have dominated its ranks since the early 1990s. A development like that might even make former Republicans like me think about returning to the fold.
Remember the war in Afghanistan? You know: It was the "good war," fought in response to Al Qaeda's attack on 9/11 and the Taliban's refusal to turn them in, and subsequently justified by 1) the need to prevent future terrorist "safe havens," 2) the desire to liberate Afghan women, 3) the imperative to bring democracy and modern governance to an underdeveloped tribal society, and 4) as always, the need to preserve American "credibility."
Writing on the New Yorker's website, reporter Dexter Filkins warns that our long and costly effort there is likely to be a failure. We're getting out, he says, but there is little sign that we will leave behind a properly functioning Afghan state. He notes that neither Obama nor Romney are saying much about the war in this campaign (in part because there is about an angstrom's worth of difference in their respective positions). But he says "You can bet that, whoever the president is, he'll be talking about it [after we're gone]."
Three points. First, it is not really news to hear that our Afghan project is failing, because the effort to impose a centralized state from the outside was probably doomed from the start. It's possible that a focused international effort from 2002 onward would have succeeded (and especially if the geniuses in the Bush administration hadn't taken their eye off the ball in order to invade Iraq), but the odds are against it. Plenty of people have been warning for years now that this war was going to end up a failure, which is why some of us opposed Obama's decision to escalate the war in 2009 and called for disengagement instead.
Second, even if Filkins' pessimism is right, it is not clear why the next president will want or will have to spend a lot of time worrying about Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were truly a vital strategic interest, it wouldn't be all that hard to convince Americans to pony up the resources to stay. But the fact is that Afghanistan isn't a vital interest: it's a land-locked and impoverished country thousands of miles from our shores. The only reason that we went there in the first place is because a handful of misguided crackpots decided to hide out there, and subsequently got very lucky in staging a dramatic attack on U.S. soil. Once they were scattered and/or killed, Afghanistan reverted to being the strategic backwater it has always been. The American people understand this, yet Obama had to concoct a face-saving strategy of escalating first in order to withdraw later. If the next president-whoever it is-is smart, he'll spend as much time worrying about Afghanistan as Carter and Reagan spent worrying about Vietnam. Which is to say: hardly any.
Third, this whole sad episode should really be seen as a colossal failure of the American national security establishment. The futility of the Afghan campaign was apparent years ago, and we've heard plenty of testimony from returning soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers that the ISAF effort wasn't likely to work. Even those who continued to defend the effort usually had to admit that success was going to require a decade or more of additional commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars in additional aid. Yet our national security apparatus couldn't reach the conclusion to withdraw without first escalating the war, and without wasting more soldiers' lives and a few hundred billion more dollars.
I've offered my own thoughts on why it's hard to end costly wars here; today I'll simply say it's even harder when the culture of the national security establishment rewards hawkish postures, and tends to view anyone who counsels moderation or prudence as some sort of weak-willed idealist. Nothing does more than hard-headed and realistic assessments of the costs and benefits of alternative course of action, even when the writing was on the wall a long time ago.
These days I keep getting asked what the 2012 election means for U.S. foreign policy. I have no doubt that Romney's foreign policy would differ in some ways from Obama's, though it's hard to know exactly how, given Romney's remarkable ignorance of the subject and the opacity of many of his comments. Some of Romney's advisors have worrisome track records -- i.e., they were among the architects of some of our country's biggest foreign policy blunders -- but most of Obama's foreign policy team supported the invasion of Iraq too.
But on balance, I'd say the similarities would outweigh the differences. For one thing, Obama has run a pretty hawkish foreign policy for most of his first term, which is why Romney can hardly find anything serious to criticize. But equally important is the fact that there is a strong bipartisan consensus among mainstream foreign policy experts these days, with virtually all of them favoring the use of American power in lots of different places and lots of different ways. In other words, there's just not a lot of daylight between the liberal interventionists who run foreign policy in Democratic administrations and the neo-conservatives who are in charge when Republicans hold the White House. (Yes, new Romney advisor Robert Zoellick isn't really a neoconservative, but he did sign one of those PNAC letters calling for the U.S. to topple Saddam). Although neocons are usually quicker to call for the ambitious use of American power(and especially military force), the liberals tend to get there eventually. Both groups, in short, are addicted to the impulse to intervene.
Case in point: the current debacle in Syria. It's obviously a mess, and it's hard for any of us to observe what is happening there without feeling an urge to do something. Neoconservatives see an opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to the "axis of resistance" (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah), and liberal interventionists like my friend Anne-Marie Slaughter see an imperative to topple a tyrant, defend human rights, and strengthen the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine. Mainstream foreign policy institutions like the Aspen Strategy Group (the very embodiment of ‘conventional wisdom') become cheerleaders for action, and even a normally sensible pundit like Nicholas Kristof eventually gets won over by the consensus in favor of action. Never mind that we will almost certainly be fueling a sectarian war whose longer-term regional implications are deeply worrisome; we simply cannot resist the pressure to get involved.
Where does this impulse come from? It's partly a reflection of American power and wealth: Despite our economic woes, this is still a rich country and the government can always find the bucks to finance another military action. Plus, having outspent most of the world combined on military power for a couple of decades, there's always a pile of weapons lying around that we could send to whichever rebel groups have currently caught our fancy. If necessary, there is usually some airpower and special forces available to assign to the task, along with training, intelligence, and political advice (which is often ignored).
Add to that the crucial fact that there isn't a great power rival who could cause us serious harm in most of these contexts, which makes it less risky in the near term to contemplate action. We wouldn't be thinking about getting involved in Syria if we thought it might escalate to a great power war (as it might have back when the Soviet Union was around), or if we thought -- heaven forbid -- that U.S. territory might actually be at risk as a result.
It is as if the president has big red button on his desk, and then his aides come in and say, "There's something really nasty happening to some unfortunate people, Mr. President, but if you push that button, you can stop it. It might cost a few hundred million dollars, maybe even a few billion by the time we are done, but we can always float a bit more debt. As long as you don't send in ground troops, the public will probably go along, at least for awhile and there's no danger that anybody will retaliate against us -- at least not anytime soon -- because the bad guys (who are really nasty, by the way) are also very weak. Our vital interests aren't at stake,sir, so you don't have to do anything. But if you don't push the button lots of innocent people will die. The choice is yours, Mr. President.
It would take a very tough and resolute president -- or one with a clear set of national priorities and a deep understanding of the uncertainties of warfare -- to resist that siren song."
And that's the issue in Syria in a nutshell. We don't know if intervention would make things better in the long run or not. Maybe we can speed Assad's departure, get a U.N. or Arab League peacekeeping force in place, and help Syria avoid a bitter cycle of revenge-taking afterwards. Or maybe we'll just add more fuel to an already nasty fire, and eventually help bring to power a government that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Or perhaps there will be a lingering power vacuum that gives Al Qaeda new opportunities, and that invites lots of external meddling by all of Syria's neighbors. (Marc Lynch has a nice rundown of the dangers here).
Foreign policy is always uncertain, of course, and one could argue that the United States should still do whatever it can to try to tilt the outcome in a positive direction. This argument fits in perfectly with the incentives of the mainstream foreign policy community, which is usually looking for problems to solve and always eager to establish their street cred as tough-minded hawks. (Even when they favor diplomacy, most people in the foreign policy community understand that sounding like a pacifist or a principled anti-interventionist is not a good career move, because the default condition of U.S. grand strategy emphasizes our "global leadership" and that means lots of international crusading). I get all that, and it's not as if I have a brilliant sure-fire solution to the Syrian problem. But I am troubled by the systematic bias that keeps driving the United States to get involved in intractable internal conflicts, even when it's not clear what the U.S national interest is or whether intervention will actually advance whatever interests might be at stake.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
I was watching the Olympics last night, when a disquieting thing happened. I don't mean when gymnast John Orozco fell off the pommel horse, or when the beach volleyball team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings lost a set for the first time in their accomplished Olympic careers (Relax: They rallied to win their match and advance to the next round). Rather, the disturbing event was a promo for a new NBC TV program entitled "Stars Earn Stripes."
The new show, hosted by retired General Wesley Clark, takes various minor celebrities (e.g., Sarah Palin's husband Todd, singer Nick Lachey, former Olympic skier Picabo Street, etc.) and runs them through some mock military training, apparently including a few live fire drills. The idea, as near as I can tell, is to show these semi-famous people doing the sorts of things that military personnel do. And using real ammo is supposed to lend a certain verisimilitude, make it seem at least mildly dangerous, exploiting the well-documented human fascination with seeing stuff blow up.
This whole idea strikes me as so wrong that I hardly know where to begin. For starters, war is a serious business in which real human beings die. It's not a sporting competition to be conducted for our amusement, even if wartime coverage here in the safe and secure United States sometimes makes it seem like entertainment. Turning military training into a tawdry reality show obliterates the moral significance of violent conflict and invites us to pretend that it's all some sort of game. Can you think of a better way to demean the idea of genuine military service than to have a bunch of minor celebrities play soldier on camera?
The new show is also going to be unrealistic, in the sense that its not likely to give viewers an accurate picture of the full range of combat activities. We'll probably get to see the stars doing basic drills, running obstacle courses, and maybe firing some weapons, but we're not going to see them getting wounded, experiencing PTSD, dealing with intestinal parasites, shivering for days in a high altitude foxhole, or watching a close buddy expire from an IED blast. For that matter, we're also not going to see any of them sitting in a cubicle here in the United States operating an RPV against some suspected terrorist group in Pakistan, Yemen, or some other faraway country. Or how about another basic military activity: heading up to Capitol Hill to lobby for some expensive weapons system? In other words, "Stars Earn Stripes" will be presenting a selective and sanitized view of "military activities," chosen to be suitable for the viewing public and carefully designed not to make viewers less likely to buy the sponsors' products.
Finally, this new show must be seen as yet another manifestation of the uncritical deference to all things military that gets in the way of an intelligent national security policy. Don't get me wrong: I support a strong national defense and I am grateful for the sacrifices that real soldiers and sailors make on our behalf. But based on the promo I saw last night, this silly show portrays military service as the acme of human achievement, as the most demanding set of skills that these minor celebrities could aspire to master. As such, it subtly contributes to the idea that people in uniform are the greatest Americans, which in turn reinforces the belief that shoveling more and more money at the Pentagon is the best way to make Americans safer and more prosperous.
To repeat: A capable defense is a valuable asset, and the United States (and other countries), should spend what is necessary to protect their vital national interests. But both the Founding Fathers and experienced generals like former president Dwight D Eisenhower also understood that a healthy society must remain vigilant against the dangers of excessive military influence. By placing military activity on a weird sort of pedestal, "Stars Earn Stripes" will in some small way discourage the critical scrutiny that is necessary to keep today's powerful national security establishment under effective civil control.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has an op-ed in the Financial Times today, where she argues that America must overcome its "reluctance to lead." Given her own track record between 2001 and 2008, when she played a key role in a series of foreign policy disasters and rang up precious few genuine achievements, one might wonder why anybody would place much stock in her counsel today. But her piece is in fact quite valuable for underscoring the dearth of genuine strategic thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days.
Strategy is about relating ends and means, setting priorities, and manipulating critical global forces to one's own advantage. Even for a global superpower like the United States, an effective strategy depends on separating the vital from the trivial, and the realistic from the fanciful. It requires deciding which goals are most important, and then using the resources at one's disposal to try to achieve them. And most importantly, it often consists of figuring out how to get other countries to help, and maybe even inducing them to do most of the work. Indeed, getting other states to shoulder costly or difficult burdens is the hallmark of a smart strategy, because it helps you husband your own resources, stay out of costly quagmires, and focus on missions that are more critical. American leaders used to understand this basic principle before we started telling ourselves we were the "indispensable" nation and starting seeing it as some sort of foreign policy achievement when we got stuck with some intractable foreign problem.
Rice will have none of this, however, so her piece mostly consists of the typical laundry list of regions and issues where she believes the United States must shoulder the main burden. In her view, it is mostly our job to build democratic institutions in the Middle East. She also thinks we need to "re-engage" with Iraq (whatever that means), and use our trade policy to "help democracies" in Latin America. She favors creating a Palestinian state but thinks it will only come about via negotiations with a secure Israel, never mind that she gave Israel unconditional support for eight years and got bupkis. She supports the recent "pivot" toward Asia but thinks we aren't doing enough to counter a Chinese economic offensive. She says we need to do more to build strategic partnerships with Turkey, India, and Brazil, without saying what we should do to bring about closer ties or explaining what these countries will then do for us. She invokes the perennial bogeyman of declining U.S. credibility and says America must do more to "reassure our friends across the globe."
To achieve these (and other) goals, she says, "the American people have to be inspired to lead again." What exactly does this phrase mean? What specific "leadership" tasks require a renewed commitment from our citizenry? Does she mean Americans have to be convinced to forgo investments here at home so we can continue to meddle (oops, I mean "lead") abroad? Does she believe (contrary to Mitt Romney) that Americans need to be "inspired" to sacrifice by paying more taxes so that we can maintain our present military and eventually balance the budget? Or does she mean the American people should be "inspired" to attack Iran, as she once helped persuade them to invade Iraq? Must we be "inspired" to devote new moneys to the mostly futile pursuit of drug lords all over the world? Or maybe we need to be "inspired" to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, even if that requires some inconvenient adjustments in the U.S. lifestyle.
In fact, Rice isn't really talking about convincing the American people to lead; she's really saying they need to be "inspired" to follow whatever missions foreign policy mandarins like Rice dream up. And the usual way the mandarins do this is by hyping threats, exaggerating their own omniscience, and insisting that other countries are incapable of taking effective action if Americans aren't there in the cockpit telling them what to do.
In fact, although the American people occasionally succumb to ill-conceived foreign policy adventures, they usually have pretty good instincts about our global role. No mainstream politician is calling for isolationism today, and the American people aren't demanding it either. Americans want to remain the world's most powerful country for as long as possible, and they recognize that some foreign commitments are prudent and beneficial. The blunders that occurred on Ms. Rice's watch have constrained U.S. power somewhat, but Americans still favor global engagement. What they don't like are misguided adventures that result in costly failures. Too bad the FT didn't ask her to write about how we can avoid those.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/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."
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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.
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By Justin Logan
The past week or so has seen a number of articles discussing Mitt Romney's foreign-policy message, with a surprising number of aides whining to the press that the candidate isn't paying their issue enough attention. Today, Politico reports that the Romney campaign has decided that "they must do more than simply hammer the incumbent on jobs" and consequently Romney is considering an overseas tour in late July in an effort to:
move away from a campaign message devoted almost singularly to criticizing President Barack Obama's handling of the economy...
[The trip's goal will be to] project Romney above the campaign's daily nitty-gritty and cast him as a plausible commander in chief at ease with foreign leaders and the general public in distant capitals...
This is insanity. Whether or not Romney follows through on this is going to say a lot about the candidate's judgment.
According to Politico, Romney is considering expanding his trip to Great Britain and Israel to include Germany and Poland, but having apparently ruled out a visit to Afghanistan.
Let's start with that last one, Afghanistan. Here it seems the Romney people have realized that Bill Kristol's suggestion, that he "go and look serious," is absurd. Going there at all is a huge lose. It's a zero-sum tradeoff between saying things the public will like and saying things Kristol and his foreign-policy team will like. The public loathes the war, but the Kristol and the Romney foreign-policy staffers like it a lot. So if he went and said anything the public wants to hear -- like that he wants America to leave soon -- he'd get trashed in the media by his foreign-policy team again. And if he gave a sop to his foreign-policy team, the public would worry he's Bush redux. So they're smart to stay away from Kabul.
But what about the rest of the trip? On Israel, the Politico piece quotes an "informal foreign policy adviser to Romney's campaign" saying that "there are a lot of donors and potentially a few voters in places like Florida for which [sic] it sticks in people's craw that Obama hasn't been there yet." There is probably considerable fundraising upside from super-wealthy donors who affiliate strongly with the Israeli right, and perhaps some marginal vote to be won, although that last part is less persuasive. Obama could easily reply that Israel's defense minister shot back to a question this week asking whether Obama is a "friend of Israel" with the succinct answer, "Yes, clearly so."
And what about the rest of the trip: Poland, Great Britain, and Germany?
It's tough to say what political advantage Romney thinks the trip to Poland will gain him. There was a lot of conjecture about a domestic political rationale for Bill Clinton's support for NATO expansion, but if Dick Morris can be trusted on the matter, "Neither I nor the president ever believed there is such a thing as a Polish vote."
There's also a danger that defending Romney's Poland-related policy preferences will allow Obama to go on offense. For example, Romney has made a mountain out of the molehill that is the New START treaty, which the Poles supported enthusiastically. So while the missile defense issue that Romney apparently wants to bring up could put him on the side of the Poles, Obama could just as easily point out how he shepherded through a treaty that the Poles support and Romney opposes.
Apparently the logic for Britain is that the Olympics will be held there, and for Germany it is that the Euro may collapse there. These rationales hold up better on substance, but still don't make much sense. Romney presided over the successful Salt Lake City Olympics, which might reiterate the image of Romney as successful leader. On Germany, if Europe implodes, it is going to be hugely consequential for the United States, but this is too wonky a discussion to have in front of the median voter. So there is a substantive reason, but it's tough to see a political logic for it.
Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in. For the most part we live in a bubble of public intellectuals, insulated from the collapse of the national economy. For a refresher, let's have a look at what voters were interested in as of May:
Most Important Issue in the Presidential Election
(Percentage among registered voters)
Economy and jobs: 62
Federal budget deficit: 11
Health care: 9
Same-sex marriage: 7
Foreign policy: 4
Maybe missile defense has ticked up a few points since then, but if Romney's going to win this thing, he's going to win it on jobs, the economy, and the deficit. I like discussing foreign policy as much as anybody, but going to Poland and Israel isn't going to win the election for him. As Daniel Larison sensibly concludes at the American Conservative,
"Unlike Obama, Romney is running against a sitting president during a time of very slow (and possibly stalling) economic recovery. That makes the decision to spend any time out of the country even harder to understand."
Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election. So tell me what I'm missing.
Justin Logan is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.
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By Michael C. Desch
The Fourth of July is one of the most patriotic of holidays and nothing arouses national passions more than the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces. The urge to do so is especially ardent given that the country has been at war continuously for the last ten years and these soldiers have made many sacrifices for the country, from spending long periods of time away from their families in less-than-hospitable climes to the ultimate sacrifice of their health and even their lives.
Gratitude for their service is also tinged by a sub-text of guilt, given that fewer and fewer of us have joined them around the colors. This is true not only for Americans in general, but even for our elected leaders. Where once, veterans of military service were over-represented in elected office, today they are under-represented, as William T. Bianco and Jamie Markham document.
This trend is also manifest at the very highest level of the executive branch. For much of the Cold War, there was an unbroken line of presidents who served in uniform, (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) but the post-Cold War era has seen one president whose state-side Vietnam-era military service was questioned and two presidents with no military service whatsoever. No matter what the outcome in November, our next commander-in-chief will not be a veteran.
Ironically, now that we are increasingly electing individuals with little or no military service these presidents are returning the hand salute of members of the armed services more often. While one can find pictures of presidents before Ronald Reagan (who perfected it) returning the hand salute, an admittedly unscientific Google image search turns up relatively few examples of them doing so, and often it is not always clear whether they are actually "throwing the high-ball," as my late father-in-law a career air force officer used to put it, or just waving.
Conversely, after Reagan it has become de rigueur for presidents to return the hand salute. Bill Clinton, who "loathed" the military and avoided serving in it during the Vietnam War, got off to a rocky start, saluting like Hawkeye Pierce in a M*A*S*H* rerun. Conversely, Barack Obama, who also did not serve in uniform, but was obviously a quicker study, or at least coached sooner, rendered a snappy salute from the get-go. George W. Bush, whose Vietnam-era service was shaky, not surprisingly returned some pretty shaky salutes. Still, it seems that the "militarization" of the presidency is accelerating precisely at the time in which its occupants have the flimsier military credentials. The cynic in me wonders whether they aren't related?
The real question is whether this emerging custom is appropriate? The salute, according to The Air Force Officer's Guide is "an exchange of greeting" among "men of arms." No one knows for sure how it began but many believe that it originated in the need for armor-clad knights to have a reliable means of recognizing their comrades. According to lore, upon meeting a comrade, a knight would use his right hand -- with which he might otherwise wield a sword -- and lift his visor, simultaneously making a friendly gesture and also revealing his identity. In the post-armor world, the custom continued of using the hand that might otherwise use a weapon to greet other friendly soldiers. Today this custom reinforces the hierarchy of the chain of command, with lower ranking officers and enlisted rendering the salute, which is then returned by the more senior officer.
It is certainly befitting that all uniform members of the military to render a salute to the president by virtue of his (or her) role as commander-in-chief. But I find the trend among presidents -- either bona fide war heroes like Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush -- or those with less distinguished war records, or none at all, of returning hand salutes discomfiting. My reservations are grounded in military custom and the constitutional role of our presidents as Commander-in-Chief.
In terms of military protocol, while it is true that the practice of rendering and returning salutes while not in uniform is not completely absent among the services, it is pretty rare. The air force advises officers in civilian clothes to use a different form of salute, "placing the right hand (and hat) over ‘the left breast'" when the occasion demands a sign of respect. The army also stipulates that "salutes are not required to be rendered or returned when the senior and subordinate are both in civilian attire." The navy's (and presumably also the marine corps) usage is similar: Salutes "received when in uniform and covered shall be returned." If the senior officer is not in uniform, the expectation is that he or she "shall not salute" but rather acknowledge the salute in some other appropriate fashion.
One issue in terms of military protocol, which is admittedly not fully dispositive on this question, is whether the commander-in-chief is in uniform or not? But unless we are prepared to regard the president's dark suit, white shirt, and blue or read tie as a "uniform," it is hard to argue that the C-of-C is required to return the salute on that basis.
Another concern is, as the navy puts it, would a president's failure to return a salute "cause embarrassment or misunderstanding"? By my, again unscientific, investigation of this question (mostly gleaned from discussions of civilian protocol while visiting military installations over the years), many (but not all) officers I spoken to find the practice of presidents returning salutes unnatural. In other words, I am not alone in my discomfort.
Finally, opinion about presidents saluting seems to wax and wane depending upon who is in office. I heard fewer objections when Reagan and W. saluted and more grumbling about it when Clinton and Obama emulated the Gipper. One might argue that the former served and the latter did not and that explains the different reactions. This is true but hardly settles the issue as the debate ought to center on the nature of the presidency in our system, not the personal history of its current incumbent.We certainly don't want respect for the commander-in-chief to be a partisan issue.
But it is the constitutional issue that is ultimately dispositive for me. America's Founders took deliberate steps to ensure civilian control of the military. One was to split the war powers -- the power to declare war and the conduct of the war itself -- between the legislative and executive branches. Their aim was to prevent the president from becoming a king. But they were also careful to specify, as the participants in debate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 framed it, that the president was a "civil," not a military, officer. As one participant observed, George Washington was not president when he was a general and not a general when he became our first president. Civilian control of the military was at the core of how the Founders thought about the institution of commander-in-chief and I worry that we are losing sight of that when we treat it as just another military rank.
I am also troubled that the related trends of presidents not only returning salutes but also adorning themselves in various forms of military accoutrement (flight suits, pilot's jackets, unit or ship baseball caps, etc.) represent more manifestations of what historian (and former army officer) Andy Bacevich characterizes as the "new American militarism." This concern that the fundamental distinction between the military institution and the rest of civilian society is eroding is not the exclusive preoccupation of Left-wing college professors. After all, President Dwight Eisenhower, another army veteran and a political conservative by all but today's extreme definition, warned in his famous "Farewell Address" of the growing influence of the military in our society through its increasing interpenetration with ostensibly civilian institutions. It seems to me that my reservations on this score naturally follow from Ike's.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that presidents should ignore the respect paid to them when members of the military salute them. I am simply saying that there is a more appropriate civilian way for them to acknowledge that salute, and thereby honor the service those individuals render to the country. President Truman, for example, was content to simply remove his hat. Since President Kennedy, few presidents have worn hats in public (another deplorable trend, in my humble opinion) so we need other means for them to acknowledge a military salute. I'd argue that a nod in the direction of the individual saluting, a quite word of thanks, and perhaps a handshake would be sufficient. Presidents should, of course, honor the troops -- they just should not salute them.
Michael C. Desch is the co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: another upbeat moment on the increasngly fraught U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
I'm glad to hear that State's money managers are keeping a watchful eye on expenditures, but the whole theory behind this initiative seems dubious to me. Apparently the idea was that if you got Pakistani tots acquainted with cute Muppets like Elmo (the only character transplanted from the U.S. version), they'd develop a greater love of learning, a better sense of social tolerance, and they might even grow up with a more favorable image of the United States.
I'm not one to deny the power of television, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. The Pakistani version of Sesame Street (known locally as Sim Sim Hamara) may have been popular with kiddies (I don't know) and may even have encouraged some basic literacy and tolerance. But such programs are also justified by the desire to improve the U.S. image in places where it could use some polishing. And if that is the case, as Peter Van Buren notes here, then canceling the program could negate whatever benefits were previously gained by funding it.
More broadly, the assumption underlying most efforts at public diplomacy seems to be the belief that anti-Americanism around the world is a failure of marketing. If we just do a better job of selling what we do around the world (or if we get to them young enough, with clever characters like Elmo or Cookie Monster), then Pakistanis won't mind our launching drone strikes on their territory and will give us a free pass when we kill a bunch of border guards by accident.
The core problem, needless to say, is that a successful public diplomacy effort needs to start with a good product. Defending America's dominant world role isn't impossible, but it's not primarily a question of "spin," propaganda, cultural exchange, or better children's TV programming. If U.S. foreign policy is consistently insensitive to others' interests, and if our actions are seen by others as making things worse instead of better, then no amount of clever public diplomacy is going to convince them that Washington is really acting selflessly on behalf of all mankind.
Ironically, Obama's first term offers a potent illustration of both the potential and the limits of public diplomacy. In his first year, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the U.S. rose dramatically in most of the world, and even improved slightly in the Middle East (where the U.S. image is especially poor). But while Obama and the U.S. remain fairly popular in Europe, his subsequent policies have produced a profound slide in a number of key areas, including Pakistan. Other societies don't always have a fully accurate view of what the United States is doing and why, but they aren't completely ignorant or ill-informed either. Sorry to sound like Oscar the Grouch, but bringing Sesame Street to Islamabad wasn't going to fix that problem, even if all the money had been spent as intended.
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For the past few years, a group of scholars at the College of William and Mary have been conducting surveys of the international relations discipline, as part of the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project. (FP has published excerpts from their reports in the past, such as this one.) Their latest results have just been released, and this year they've gone global, surveying nearly 3500 IR scholars from around the globe. You can download the whole survey -- "TRIP Around the World" -- here.
For me, the most interesting results are at the beginning, and they show that there's quite a bit of variation in how IR is taught in different parts of the world. For example, 9 percent of IR teachers in the U.S. say that they include material on Central Asia in their course, but in Turkey that number is 25 percent. 40 percent of American IR scholars include material on East Asia, the same percentage as in Australia, but in Israel the number reported was zero. In other words, there's a lot of regional bias in the content of IR courses: what you teach depends in part on where your country sits. This pattern isn't that surprising, perhaps, but it does tell you that students in different countries (and future policy professionals) aren't absorbing quite the same view of the world.
Those aren't the only differences, of course. On average, U.S. scholars report that 28 percent of their courses deal with "policy analysis" of various sorts. But in Turkey the reported average is 49 percent, and in Finland and Singapore the average is only 14 percent. And then there's the question of which authors get assigned: in the United States, IR teachers report that 71 percent of the readings are by American authors, and both Singapore and Israel report a similar number. But the percentage of American authors drops to the mid-forties in the U.K., Canada, Colombia, France, and several other countries, and those independent-minded Finns assign only 27 percent. Other TRIP results show that American academics still dominate the lists of "most influential" scholars, but what students are reading clearly varies a lot by country.
I'm also happy to report that realism appears to be alive and well in the academy, at least as measured by the self-reported content of undergraduate "Intro to IR courses." Once again, it's Finland where realism seems least widespread (only 11 percent of the course material), but none of the rival paradigms seem all that popular in Finland either).
Do these variations in basic IR teaching tell us anything about international politics and foreign policy itself? If students are being taught somewhat different views of the world (and if there's a lot of regional bias in what they are learning), then one could argue this will tend to create policy elites who don't see the world in the same way and will have more trouble finding common ground. It might be tempting to see this as a potent source of international conflict, but I'd be wary of such a facile explanation. For starters, international conflict and competition took place long before anyone started teaching undergraduate courses about it, and nation-states would still have conflicting interests even if everyone everywhere took exactly the same courses and read the same books. (Depending on which books they read, in fact, maybe reading the same ones would make things worse). Furthermore, many of the people who ultimately are in charge of foreign policy aren't relying on what they learned in some undergraduate course, and at least some of them may have escaped some of the ethnocentrism within their earlier training. Understanding how potential antagonists think can be very useful, but it hardly guarantees you'll get along.
Most importantly, the TRIP survey covered only twenty countries, and some pretty interesting possibilities weren't included. China wasn't part of the survey, for example, and neither was Iran, even though both countries have significant academic institutions and a lot of young people taking international relations courses. I wonder what they are reading, and what conclusions they are drawing from the content of their courses?
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Today's jobs report has got to be a real downer for the White House, because it gives Mitt Romney more ammo to make the case that he would be a better steward of the U.S. economy than Obama. I don't think that view is correct, by the way, but winning elections isn't really about who's right or wrong.
If Obama does lose in November, will it be because he made too sharp a departure from the policies of his predecessor, governed the country like some sort of 1960s radical, and in so doing lost the broad support of the American middle? Hardly. If he loses, a good case could be made that his mistake was to act too much like George W. Bush and not enough like Barack Obama the candidate.
To be more specific, he spent too much time and money on Afghanistan, too much time sanctioning Iran (thereby driving up oil prices), too much time picking drone targets, and too much time on a Middle East peace effort that he abandoned as soon as AIPAC & Co. howled. Getting bin Laden was an achievement, but as I noted at the time, it wasn't going to win him any more votes than Bush 41 got for liberating Kuwait in 1991. He got a Nobel Prize because people liked his speeches, but his actual behavior was not that different from Bush's second term. At the same time, he did too little to stimulate the U.S. economy, and too little to constrain an unapologetic financial industry. And I'd argue he spent too much time and political capital getting a modest health care reform bill passed, one that will neither fix the U.S. health care system nor win him many votes in November. (I applaud the ambition, but I'd have gotten the economy rolling first and then done health care). Some of this clearly isn't his fault (i.e., Europe's economic doldrums are not his responsibility), but voters aren't likely to make distinctions like that if economic growth remains sluggish.
As readers here probably know, I'm among those who were genuinely excited by Obama's election and hoped that he would succeed in guiding America onto a different path. Nor have I forgotten what a difficult situation he faced when he took office, and it's unrealistic to expect politicians to be perfect. I'll almost certainly vote for him in November, if only because some of Romney's foreign policy advisors have track records that should worry all of us. And he may still pull it out, because he's a lot more likeable and a lot less gaffe-prone than his GOP rival. But it's going to be close, and a bit more bad news on the economic front will make Barack a one-term president.
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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.
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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.
Note: In response to my previous post on the hazards of the new Atrocities Prevention Board, Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action offers the following alternative view. I'm not persuaded, but it is a thoughtful and intelligent rejoinder that I wanted to share with you. Take it away, Andrew....
Andrew Miller writes:
Stephen Walt's skepticism of the recently-announced Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is understandable. New bureaucracies often create more problems than they solve. But, the APB is a worthwhile (albeit, modest) attempt to improve the government's mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. A close look at the board shows that it has the potential to both avert atrocities and lessen the likelihood of humanitarian interventions -- outcomes that realists, of course, can welcome with open arms.
The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don't get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn't even a side-show for policymakers; it was a "no show" in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake.
The APB, as a standing body with senior officials (assistant secretaries and above), would be well-positioned to avoid such bloodshed becoming a "no-show". In tandem with the board, the president has vowed to set up "alert channels" that allow lower-level officials to raise red flags about potential atrocities. The APB could serve as a conduit in processing these warnings and ultimately getting them to the Oval Office if warranted.
Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda? Simply put: No.
As the board's title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.
Given the board's interagency make-up, it can leverage these preventive tools rather than relying on the military to resolve crises. The APB will have representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Treasure, Justice, Homeland Security, among others, with the White House's director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power chairing the group. This broad representation will help make the military less of a go-to institution for dealing with atrocities as has been the case since the end of the Cold War.
It is fair to ask, what happens if preventive action fails? Or, as Walt puts it, "how likely is it that [the APB] will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens?" While the APB will probably recommend taking serious mitigating steps, there is a wide range of measures short of a large-scale military operation. Even Power, whom the National Interest has dubbed "Interventionista", stresses measures beyond "sending in the Marines." In her book A Problem from Hell, she lays out a host of policies that the Clinton administration could have taken during Rwanda: frequently denouncing the slaughter, beefing up the United Nations peacekeeper force there, jamming belligerent radio broadcasts used to coordinate attacks, threatening to prosecute the perpetrators, etc.
These are the sorts of measures that the APB will rely upon. In fact, the Obama administration has already used them to help end last year's bloodshed in Ivory Coast. Atrocities broke out there when opposition forces tried to unseat incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo who had lost the country's November 2010 elections. The administration subsequently slapped sanctions on the main perpetrators, backed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in-country, and ultimately supported a French troop deployment. Tensions in Ivory Coast remain today, but the mass killings have stopped.
The APB would not have made intervention in Ivory Coast any more likely. Walt accurately states that there are "good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts." Even if the APB had advocated for U.S. troops, there is little reason to believe that Obama would have deployed them to a place of negligible U.S. interests. (Perhaps the only effect Ivorian instability had on Americans was a rise in chocolate prices.) In other words, the president's strategic calculus on Ivory Coast was set, and the APB would not have changed that -- a good thing from the realist point of view.
Finally, Walt raises the uncomfortable reality of the United States' spotty human rights record. He argues that past U.S. misdeeds make the APB just another example of American "smug self-congratulation." If one takes a victim's perspective, however, this smugness seems less relevant. Srebrenica's Muslims, for example, surely would have appreciated American help in July 1995 regardless of U.S. sanctions on Iraq at the time. In the same vein, would the United States want to end its fight against human trafficking (modern-day slavery in many respects) given its pre-1860s history? Most realists (presumably Walt included) would say, no.
As this blog has made clear, realists are not divorced from morality. Like anybody else, they don't want to see Rwandan rivers choked with bodies or emaciated Bosnians behind barbed wire. They also don't want to see the United States' national security imperiled by military overstretch. The APB is a modest step toward reaching both ends.
Andrew C. Miller is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.
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Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
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I'm in California to deliver a keynote talk at the Stanford U.S-Russia Forum (or SURF). My topic will be the end of the "American Era" and its implications for U.S.-Russian relations. The Forum is a student-run event, and it will be fun to spend some time interacting with students at my alma mater. The closing dinner will be at the Faculty Club, which will be an exercise in further nostalgia, since I worked there as a waiter and bartender back in the 1970s. (And no, I am not going to divulge the drinking habits of the faculty back then).
Getting here involved flying, of course, which in turn means another enjoyable encounter with the Transportation Security Administration. The lines and pointless interference at Logan Airport were no worse than usual yesterday, but one TSA employee did manage to add a new wrinkle of misery to the experience. As we all stood in line like obedient sheep, he recited the usual litany about removing belts, shoes, liquids, emptying pockets, etc. At the same time, he also kept up a loud, non-stop monologue of unfunny, mildly sexist, and occasionally offensive jokes, to an entirely captive audience of travelers. No doubt he thought he was providing an amusing diversion, but he didn't seem to notice that no one was laughing. And given the ever-present threat of a strip-search, nobody was going to tell this loudmouth in a uniform to just zip it. So in addition to the degrading inconvenience of the security checkpoints themselves, they've now added noise pollution.
For more on the sheer pointlessness and inefficiency of the current security regime at airports, check out Bruce Schneier's rant here (h/t to Dave Clemente of Chatham House). One does wonder what it will take before the world adopts a saner approach to this problem, one which recognizes that perfect security isn't possible to achieve, and trying to get there has enormous downsides.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.