Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants who've been studying this matter for the past decade or more, you would think we would have a better idea of how well we are doing. And given the stakes involved, by this time you'd think that some serious cost-benefit analysis would be applied to the problem of counterterrorism: Hard-nosed people would be asking whether it really makes sense to spend all that money hardening the United States and chasing terrorists with drones and special operations forces, especially if most terrorists aren't focused on the United States and don't have the capability to do much damage to us.
I raise this question because our leaders don't seem to be able to get their stories straight on this one. A good case can be made that the "war on terror" is mostly won -- in the sense that we've defanged the most dangerous anti-American types -- and that what's left are various copycats in various places that ultimately don't matter that much to the United States and are best dealt with by local authorities. If this view is correct, then President Barack Obama was right to suggest that the "war on terror" is over and to try to shift our attention back to other foreign-policy priorities. To say that is not to say the danger is zero -- indeed, there will be terrorist attacks in the future - it is just to say that it's more of a tragic nuisance than a Major Threat.
But now we're being told by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, that the terrorist threat is back and worse than it was a few years ago. In particular, they point to the growing jihadi role in places like Syria and to self-congratulatory statements from al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication, as this New York Times story makes clear, is that the United States needs to get more directly involved in defeating this ever-expanding set of terrorist copycats.
I understand that terrorist groups like al Qaeda do operate in secret (to the extent that they can), and that gauging the actual level of the threat they pose is not an exact science. And I recognize that risk-averse politicians prefer to err on the side of caution. If you issue lots of scary warnings and nothing happens, you can take credit for having been prudent. But if you tell people the danger isn't that great and then an attack takes place, you sound naïve, credulous, and insufficiently devoted to national security. So when in doubt, politicians are inclined to oversell the danger.
Still, it really is important to get this right: Just how serious is the threat, some 12 years after the 9/11 attacks? In terms of the direct harm to Americans in the United States, the danger appears to be quite modest. So why are Feinstein and Rogers so animated by this latest set of developments? And doesn't Boston's defiant and resolute reaction to the city's marathon bombing in April suggest that the American population isn't nearly as querulous as politicians fear: If you explain to them that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, they don't go all wobbly. Instead, they display precisely the sort of calm resolution that causes terrorist campaigns to fail.
It is even more important to figure out how best to respond. If Islamic extremists using terrorist methods are trying to gain power in various countries, does it make sense for the United States to insert itself in these conflicts and inevitably invite their attention? Or is the country better off remaining aloof or just backing local authorities (if it can find any who seem reasonably competent)?
My larger concern is that we have also created a vast counterterrorism industry that has a vested interest in continuing this campaign. Those in the industry are the most prominent and visible experts, but fighting terrorists is also a meal ticket for many of them and self-interest might naturally incline them to hype the threat. The danger is that the United States will devote too much effort and energy to chasing relatively weak and obscure bad guys in various not-very-important places (see under: Afghanistan, Pakistan's frontier provinces, Somalia, etc., etc.,) while other problems get short shrift.
But like I said at the start, mostly I'm frustrated by the lack of consensus at this point in the campaign. And you should be too.
Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr
A few idle questions occurred to me this morning, and I thought I'd share them with you.
1. If NATO didn't exist, would the United States and Europe bother to create it? Why?
2. Is it possible that the Obama administration is just telling Israeli and Saudi leaders what they want to hear, and then doing what they think is in the U.S. interest? Wouldn't it be nice to think so?
3. Chuck Hagel is really upset that US defense spending is going down. My question: how many of you Americans out there are now worried about foreign attack as a result?
4. Perhaps the most fundamental question in politics is the classic "who guards the guardians?" In other words, how does one create institutions powerful enough to protect the state, without having them take over? Modern version: how do you keep super-secret agencies like the NSA from overstepping their boundaries? (If your answer is "Congressional oversight" you haven't been paying attention.)
5. Will a rising China continue to tolerate the U.S. security role in Asia, or will it gradually try to convince other Asian states to distance themselves from Washington? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about global politics over the next few decades.
6. How many people at AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, JINSA, the Presidents' Conference or the Saudi embassy are sitting around thinking: "how the heck do we stop a deal with Iran yet not get blamed for derailing it?"
7. Is the finance industry inherently corrupt? Every few months we hear about another big financial firm being indicted for something, and eventually paying a big fine. Yet the leaders of this industry are still respected public figures (and big-time political contributors). Seems to me if leading firms in an industry are more-or-less constantly being caught cheating, there's something fundamentally wrong with the way the whole sector is run.
8. If Toronto mayor Rob Ford has to resign in the wake of his admission that he used crack cocaine, which Canadian university will be first to offer him a visiting professorship?
9. Have ANY of the people who led the charge for NATO intervention in Libya expressed second thoughts about the results? Just asking.
10. Hawks and doves can both get their countries into big trouble. Hawks do it by getting you into unnecessary and protracted wars; doves by being too trusting and leaving you vulnerable. Yet being hawkish tends to pay off better professionally, at least in the United States. Why?
I have other questions too, but I'll stop there. Maybe some of you have answers!
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been writing about the Israel lobby that much lately. Life's too short to spend all one's time on the activities of one particular interest group -- even if it has an awful lot of influence -- and there are many topics at least as important as the special relationship between the United States and one small country in the Middle East. Plus, I'm satisfied with my earlier writings on this topic, in part because subsequent events kept confirming their accuracy and because most of the criticisms we received were remarkably weak and tended to confirm our main points.
But occasionally I do see someone writing about the Israel lobby in a way that merits a response. Case in point: the recent WaPo blog post on this topic by Max Fisher, which inspired a sympathetic exegesis by Michael Koplow here. Fisher is often an astute analyst and Koplow has written some smart things on other topics, so it was somewhat surprising to see such careless reasoning from both of them.
The gist of their argument is two-fold. First, they maintain that there is a widespread belief that AIPAC and other organizations in the Israel lobby are all-powerful, and that the lobby "controls" U.S. Middle East policy. Koplow implies that John Mearsheimer and I hold this view, though Fisher does not. Second, recent events -- most notably the Obama administration's failure to heed AIPAC et al.'s push for military intervention in Syria -- demonstrate that this view is bogus. Together, the two pieces suggest that all this talk about an "Israel lobby" is sort of silly, and that these groups have rather limited influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Like some other attempts to kick up dust on this question, both pieces involve the ritual slaughter of a straw man. No serious person writing on this topic believes the Israel lobby is "all-powerful" or that it controls every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy. It is telling that Fisher does not mention or quote any individual or group making such a claim. Mearsheimer and I certainly didn't; in our book we repeatedly state that the lobby does not get its way all the time. We also emphasized that its activities were akin to those of other powerful interest groups, and generally consistent with normal practice in American politics.
Viewed in this light, the lobby's failure to get the United States into a war in Syria is hardly telling evidence of its limited influence. Getting the United States to launch an unprovoked war is a big task -- especially when you consider how America's recent wars in that part of the world have gone -- and no lobbying or interest group can accomplish that by itself. Various elements of the lobby did play an important role in getting the United States to invade Iraq, but as we emphasized in our book, they didn't do it by themselves then either. In particular, the war would not have occurred had Bush and Cheney not gotten on board, and it would almost certainly not have happened absent the 9/11 attacks. As with all interest groups, it matters what they are asking for and when they are asking for it.
Does this mean the lobby's power is on the wane? Maybe, but not by much. Israel continues to receive $3-4 billion in U.S. aid each year, even though it is now a wealthy country. It gets this aid even as it continues to take actions the United States opposes, most notably building settlements in the Occupied Territories. The United States continues to provide it with diplomatic cover in the United Nations and other international organizations, and U.S. officials consistently turn a blind eye to Israeli actions that are making the two-state solution that the U.S. favors impossible. Aspiring officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power still have to perform demeaning acts of self-criticism in order to win Senate confirmation. Do Fisher and Koplow think the lobby's influence has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this?
Or ask yourself this: why has President Obama spent more time meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu -- the leader of a small Middle Eastern country whose total population is less than New York City -- than with any other foreign official, and why did Netanyahu recently get a seven-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry? Is it because Obama and Kerry find Bibi's company so engaging that they just can't bear to be apart? I don't think so. One measure of the lobby's impact is simply the amount of time and attention that US officials have to devote to this one small country, while studiously ignoring its nuclear arsenal, illegal settlements, and other deficiencies. (No country is perfect, of course, but Israel is uniquely immune to criticism by prominent U.S. political figures.)
Finally, if you're not wearing blinders, it is impossible to miss the fact that AIPAC, WINEP, JINSA, the RJC, the ADL, and a host of other hardline groups in the lobby are now the principal opponents to a diplomatic deal with Iran. Just look at this article from The Forward, or this one from Ha'aretz, which make it clear that these are the principal groups holding Obama's feet to the fire on this issue. And of course it is many of these same groups or individuals who have been insisting for years that the U.S. keep all options "on the table" and use force against Iran if necessary. Absent pressure from these groups, it would be much, much easier for the United States to come to terms with Tehran.
Will they succeed in derailing a deal? I don't know. As I laid out in detail more than a year ago, the situation vis-à-vis Iran is different than the pre-war situation with Iraq in 2003, and "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States are not as unified on this topic. A reasonable deal with Iran is clearly preferable to another Middle East war, and preferable to making unrealistic demands that make it harder to monitor Iran's nuclear research activities and might eventually convince Iran to pursue actual weapons. Because the United States and its allies have powerful incentives to pursue a diplomatic solution, resistance from hardline groups in the lobby may be insufficient to stop them.
Bu no interest group gets everything it wants. Interest groups and lobbies advance their cause partly by pushing for specific policies (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). But they also succeed when they can limit the options that policymakers are willing to consider or can force policymakers to offer up other concessions to keep these groups happy. AIPAC famously lost the AWACs fight during the Reagan administration, but the battle was so difficult and costly that Reagan never really challenged it again. Similarly, former US Mideast negotiator (and FP colleague) Aaron David Miller has noted that "those of us advising the Secretary of State and the president were very sensitive to what the pro-Israel community was thinking, and when it came to considering ideas that Israel didn't like, we too often engaged in a kind of preemptive self-censorship." Bottom line: powerful interest groups often get their way not by achieving specific goals directly, but by shaping and constraining the options politicians are willing to contemplate.
So the question to ask is not whether AIPAC "wins" any particular issue (particularly when that issue involves a big demand). It is what US policy would be if these groups did not exist, or if they were advocating a different course of action. In other words, if Obama and Kerry didn't have to worry at all about the lobby, or if groups like J Street or Americans for Peace Now had as much clout as AIPAC, would the United States have handled relation with Iran in exactly the same way for the past twenty year or more? More tellingly still: would the United States have done a better job of brokering an Israel-Palestinian peace if its negotiators (a number of whom were drawn from the lobby's ranks) had not been acting as "Israel's lawyer" and if the U.S. could have made its aid to Israel conditional on an end to settlement building? If you think the lobby's clout had no impact on our mishandling of these two important problems, I've got a bridge to sell you and then a couple of books for you to read.
One final point. Despite the flaws in their two posts, Fisher and Koplow may in fact be on to something. Two things have changed since Mearsheimer and I wrote our original article and subsequent book: 1) a lot more people are aware of the lobby and understand that its positions are often harmful to U.S. (and Israeli) interests, and 2) a few more people are willing to talk and write about this phenomenon openly, instead of being silenced by false charges of anti-Semitism or the fear of professional retribution. Democracy thrives on free, open, and rational debate, which is why a sensible but frank discussion of the lobby's influence is all to the good. Or as Andrew Sullivan might say: know hope.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
One of the most common phrases in contemporary foreign-policy discourse is the declaration that the threat to use military force must be kept "on the table." Pundits and policy wonks say this all the time, and so do prominent politicians from both political parties. These days it's most commonly found in discussions about the U.S. relationship with Iran, but that's hardly the only place where we are constantly being reminded about the need to keep our powder dry and our finger on the trigger.
The more I think about it, however, the dumber that expression sounds. Why? Because for the United States, the option of using military force is always on the table, especially when we're dealing with weak states like Iran. After all, since the end of the Cold War the United States has used force over and over: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bosnia, Serbia, and a host of other places too. We've fired cruise missiles, Hellfires, and other sophisticated chunks of ordnance at a wide variety of targets, and you could add Special Forces operations and computer viruses (e.g., Stuxnet) to the list.
Of course, people do not use this admonition to keep force "on the table" in a serious or sophisticated fashion; it's just an easy way for politicians and pundits to show they're tough-minded and not averse to using the pointed end of the stick. In other words, it's a way to maintain your inside-the-Beltway street cred. But it's really a meaningless phrase, because countries like Iran (and others) are well aware that the option of using force is right there and could be used if U.S. leaders ever decided it would accomplish a genuine positive purpose.
In fact, this constant insistence that force must be "on the table" also reveals a pervasive blindness about how the United States looks to others. People repeat this phrase because they seem to think that other countries see the United States as a feckless wimp that will never do anything to harm them and that our politicians need to rattle sabers and bluster just to get other countries' attention. News flash: That's not how the rest of the world sees Uncle Sam these days. In reality, everybody knows the United States is still very powerful -- the sequester notwithstanding -- and other countries are well aware of the frequency with which we've been blowing things up in different places for the past 20 years. Our politicians may be trying to remind U.S. voters that they are willing to use force, but the rest of the world hardly needs to be told at this point.
In the vast majority of cases -- including Iran -- the use of force makes no sense because it won't advance U.S. policy goals and could in fact make things worse. And the only way to give the option of using force more coercive bite is to make it look like we are really about to use it, either by issuing an ultimatum (with a strict time limit) or by mobilizing forces in a highly visible way so that it really looks like we're coming. But that tactic has obvious risks: If the target doesn't capitulate and do our bidding, either we have to follow through with an attack we may not really want to launch or we pay the political costs of issuing a threat and then backing down. Issuing overt military threats is also a really good way to destroy the current coalition that is pressuring Iran and the absolutely best way to convince Iran that it has no choice but to sprint across the nuclear threshold as quickly as it can.
Given the many options that America's vast military power creates, the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to convince others that force is off the table. If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we're not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. If we did that, the Iranians would feel less need for either an active deterrent or a short timeline breakout capability. Bombing won't accomplish much and we probably couldn't overthrow them if we tried, but we certainly have the capacity to attempt either one. So how can we convince Tehran that we won't exercise either option?
In theory, President Barack Obama could make an explicit statement to that effect, or the two states could even sign some sort of "nonaggression" pact. Such pledges are never ironclad, however, and U.S. and Iranian officials both say they will judge each other not by words but by actions. The United States could also draw down its forces in the Persian Gulf region as a sign of good faith, but that's going to drive our other regional allies bonkers and would be quite imprudent in the short term. It's a tricky problem, but isn't it interesting that we seem to spend all our time thinking about how to make our threats credible, instead of thinking just as hard about how we could make our assurances equally convincing?
In the end, the real issue is whether potential adversaries can resolve the political issues that might bring the use of force into play. The option to use it is always right there on the table -- especially for the United States -- but most states don't worry about this very much because the political differences between them and us aren't serious enough to warrant a military response. The bottom line: We would get further in our efforts to resolve some of our differences with others if U.S. politicians and commentators weren't constantly reminding them that we have oodles of military power lying right there on the table ready to be used. I mean: It's not like Iran doesn't know that already.
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Some of America's Middle Eastern allies are reportedly not very happy with the United States these days. I refer, of course, to Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are troubled by U.S. discussions with Iran and upset by Obama's reluctance to plunge head-first into the Syrian quagmire. But those of us with a more strategic view of U.S. interests in the Middle East may welcome these developments, as they contain the kernel of a more flexible and effective approach that may be emerging.
Let's start with U.S. interests. The United States has at most three strategic interests in the Middle East. First, we want Persian Gulf oil and gas to continue to flow to world markets. Hydraulic fracturing notwithstanding, a major disruption in energy supplies from the Gulf would drive up world prices and hurt a still-fragile global economy. Second, we want to discourage countries in the Middle East from developing WMD, and especially nuclear weapons. (It would have been better had the United States done more to stop Israel from getting the bomb, but that horse left the barn in the 1960s.) Third, we would like to reduce extremist violence emanating from this region, mostly in the form of terrorism. (This threat is usually exaggerated, in my view, but it is hardly non-existent.)
The key to advancing these interests is two-fold: first, help maintain a balance of power in the region, and second, keep the US military presence there to a minimum. If one regional state becomes too powerful, or if an external power were able to intervene there, it might be able to dominate the various oil-producing countries and manipulate energy supplies in ways we might find unpleasant. Concerns about that possibility led the United States to create the Rapid Deployment Force in the late 1970s, and led us to tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. It also led to our direct military intervention to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
At the same time, excessive U.S. interference and a large-scale U.S. military presence threatens our other strategic goals, either by encouraging some states to seek WMD as a means of deterrence or by fueling anti-American terrorism of the Al Qaeda sort. Policies like 1990s-era "dual containment" or the Bush administration's disastrous attempt at "regional transformation" were strategic missteps for this reason, not to mention their human and economic costs. Given the unpredictable turmoil that has roiled the region ever since the "Arab spring" erupted, it makes even more sense for the U.S. to keep its presence limited, lest we be seen as a predatory imperial power addicted to interference in local political events.
A balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) approach to the Middle East also highlights the costs of America's "special relationships" with Israel and Saudi Arabia. If you are playing the balance of power game, you want to maximize your diplomatic flexibility and avoid becoming overly committed to any particular ally. As was said of England during its own balance of power heyday: it had "no permanent friends, only permanent interests."
Today, because the United States is so closely tied to Israel and Saudi Arabia, it gets blamed for and associated with their various misdeeds. Specifically, we are seen as complicit in Israel's cruel treatment of its Palestinian subjects, and seen as the chief protector of a decadent Saudi monarchy whose ruling values are sharply at odds with our own. Equally important, preserving these "special relationships" has reduced U.S. influence over both partners: the Saudis have repeatedly dragged their feet on counter-terrorism issues while Israel has continued expand settlements and either threatened or used force with disturbing frequency, and often in ways that complicate US relations with the rest of the region.
Talking to Iran and taking a more measured approach to intervention in the region is thus a very good development. Although the United States and Iran won't become close allies anytime soon, rebuilding a working relationship with Tehran would be a great benefit to the U.S. strategic interests. Not only would it facilitate cooperation on various issues where U.S. and Iranian interests align (such as Afghanistan), but the mere fact that the U.S. and Iran were talking to each other constructively would also make our other allies in the region more attentive to our concerns and responsive to our requests.
I don't want to overstate this trend or exaggerate its likely benefits: the United States is not about to abandon its current allies or entirely reverse its long-standing regional commitments, and widening our circle of contacts won't immediately force others to leap to do our bidding. Nor do I think it should. But a bit more distance from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and an open channel of communication between Washington and Tehran would maximize U.S. influence and leverage over time. It's also a useful hedge against unpredictable events: when you become too strongly committed to any particular ally (as the U.S. was once committed to the Shah of Iran), you suffer more damage if anything happens to them.
Because the United States is not a Middle Eastern power -- a geographic reality we sometimes forget -- and because its primary goal is the preservation of a regional balance of power, it has the luxury of playing "hard to get." That's why it's not such a bad thing if our present regional allies are a bit miffed at U.S. these days. Remember: they are weaker than the United States is and they face more urgent threats than we do. And if they want to keep getting U.S. protection and support and they are concerned that our attention might be waning a wee bit, they might start doing more to keep U.S. happy.
For further reading: for an excellent analysis of these issues which makes a number of similar points, see Paul Pillar's blog post here.
Heidi Levine-Pool/Getty Images
I'm in Williamsburg, Virginia, to give a set of lectures at the College of William and Mary. I'll be speaking first to students on the virtues of theory and the vices of "simplistic hypothesis testing," based on the article I wrote with John Mearsheimer that was recently published in the European Journal of International Relations. Then a class presentation on the relationship between academia and the policy world, which will address issues I've discussed here. And then I wrap up with a public lecture this evening on "Why Does U.S. Foreign Policy Keep Failing?"
There are a lot of potential answers to that last question, and I'm sure each of you has your favorite candidate(s). My own list is a pretty long one (and no, it doesn't start with the Israel lobby), but the one I'm thinking most about today is the irresponsibility of so many public officials. How can one retain any respect for most politicians these days, given their recent behavior? The GOP appears to be making a run at the world record for self-destructive political conduct, which wouldn't be so bad if they were the only ones damaged by it. Unfortunately, their brain-dead fiscal brinkmanship is actively harmful to the U.S. economy and is doing more damage to U.S. credibility than a thousand Munichs. Not that it bothers people who are trapped in the Limbaugh/FOX News bubble.
As I've noted before, a key part of the problem is a lack of accountability within our entire political system, and maybe even our entire society. Politicians in gerrymandered districts aren't accountable because they only have to appeal to a carefully selected set of voters who already agreed with the incumbents. (This is democracy inside-out: Instead of broad groups of voters selecting their political representatives, we have career politicians drawing district lines in order to cherry-pick the voters they want). Foreign-policy "experts" can launch disastrous wars and commit countless follies -- and then land safe sinecures at various D.C. think tanks, from which they can plot their return to power and continue to lobby for the same policies that failed when they were in power. Top officials can admit they lied to Congress or screw up the Obamacare rollout and still remain comfortably in their posts. With rare exceptions, military commanders can continue to rise even when their battlefield performance is subpar. And it's not like we've held Wall Street accountable for its own machinations either. Even universities tend to turn a blind eye to faculty misconduct unless it is truly egregious (and sometimes not even then).
Given all that, it's probably hopeless to expect elected officials to show a lot of insight, courage, or backbone. Think about it: How many politicians can you name who seem to be genuinely admirable people, animated not by their own ambitions and ego but by a sincere desire to serve the public? Similarly, how often have you heard some leading political figure say a bunch of nonsensical things that they knew were not true, but did so because saying them was politically expedient?
By contrast, how many politicians can you name who have taken positions they knew might jeopardize their political futures, but did so because they truly believed it was the right thing to do? How many have openly admitted they were wrong about some weighty issue and actually seem humbled by this moment of fallibility? Whether one looks left or right, there just don't seem to be many people with those qualities in our political life these days. I can think of a few, but not many.
I'm not naive about this issue: Politics is the art of compromise, and even principled leaders sometimes have to make trade-offs to advance a broader agenda. And clinging firmly to principle can be dangerous if the principles are loony (see under: Tea Party). But whether the issue is our inability to address basic fiscal issues in a responsible manner, our propensity to intervene in places of no strategic importance, our eroding infrastructure, or the growing gulf between privileged people like me (and you) and the rest of society, the country is crying out for some pragmatic people who are interested in Getting Things Done and have some idea how to do it.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
As the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to play Russian roulette with the American and world economies, there's no shortage of explanations being offered for the wing's risky and irresponsible behavior. Some commenters blame it on Sen. Ted Cruz's megalomania, others on racist opposition to the first black president. The poisonous impact of Fox News and the perverse effects of gerrymandering are also popular culprits. Yet another strand of thought pins the blame on Rep. John Boehner's spineless desire to cling to his House speaker post even if doing so drives the country off a cliff. And then there are those who see this episode as an inevitable consequence of the separation of powers inherent in the U.S. Constitution. In this view, crazy-making moments like this one are hard-wired into the American system of government. They don't happen often -- thank goodness -- but they are bound to occur from time to time.
Any or all of these causes may well be at work, but these explanations all miss a broader structural reason for the current impasse, one whose roots are found not in the nature of American politics but in the nature of the contemporary international system. In brief: All this mishigas is happening in part because the United States is in fact very secure, which leads many people to think it doesn't need a strong central state. They are therefore willing to countenance steps that they would not consider if the country were really facing a serious external danger.
For a prophetic analysis of this basic issue, check out Michael Desch's 1996 article "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" in International Organization. Drawing on Otto Hintze and others, Desch argued that the end of the Cold War was going to undermine and weaken many existing state structures. The logic is straightforward: During periods when international conflict is rife, populations look to the state to protect them, and they are willing to tolerate (even encourage) increases in state capacity. Moreover, they are less willing to tolerate anyone who seems to be threatening national unity. In extreme forms, this tendency leads to abuses -- such as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and other crimes -- but in milder forms it means punishing politicians who act in an irresponsible or divisive fashion.
But when nations are feeling secure from external dangers, both citizens and politicians are freer to indulge ideological whims or to pursue self-serving agendas of their own, because the body politic won't see these actions as undermining national unity or threatening national security. And that's at least partly why a yahoo like Cruz can get away with what he's doing.
But wait: Doesn't the United States face a serious threat from international terrorism? Isn't that why Congress passed the Patriot Act, why it approved the vast expansion of the National Security Agency and other intelligence capabilities, and why the public supports the use of American drones and special forces all over the world? Don't these dangers create a profound need for national unity and resolve and thus contradict this basic line of argument?
Nope. Despite all the hype about terrorism, the United States is still a remarkably secure country and ordinary Americans get this, which is why presidents and foreign-policy wonks have to work overtime trying to scare us enough to get us to keep policing the world. Sure, foreign-policy experts like me love to talk about the implications of events in far-flung regions, but that's mostly to give ourselves something to do and to remind everyone that We're Really Important. But most people in the United States don't care very much about these things, except on those rare occasions when someone bombs Pearl Harbor or flies a plane into the World Trade Center. Then you get a vigorous response, but it wears off as soon as the problem is gone.
Ironically, the surest cure for the self-indulgent insanity of the current Republican Party would be a serious external threat. Ideally, we'd need an external threat that was just large enough to require us to pull together more and keep fringe groups out on the margins where they belong, but one that was not so large as to pose a genuine danger to our security and way of life here at home. Alas, dangers don't always limit themselves to that convenient "not too hot, not too cold" range.
On the whole, I'd rather live in a world where the United States faced relatively few external challenges, so that it could concentrate more of its energy and wealth on improving the lives of U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, a favorable international environment tends to bring out the crazy here at home and might actually do more damage to the country than Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or Nikita Khrushchev ever managed.
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Even if you stayed up since Friday and skipped the finale of Breaking Bad, there's no way you could have kept up with all the commentary about the U.S.-Iranian minuet at the U.N. General Assembly opening last week. There was a lot of spinning going on, of course, with proponents of a nuclear deal looking for reasons to be optimistic and die-hard opponents looking for signs that it was all just a bad dream.
For a conventional assessment of where things now stand, I recommend Richard Haass's piece today in the Financial Times. Haass notes the various obstacles that still remain and argues that the two sides have reached a tacit agreement on the end point of negotiations but not the sequence of events. In other words, he thinks there's already something of an understanding on the terms of a nuclear deal (i.e., how much nuclear capability Iran will be allowed to retain), but what needs to be worked out is the pace at which elements of Iran's nuclear program are given up and the pace at which economic sanctions are lifted.
Haass also believes the political obstacles to a deal are formidable, especially on the Iranian side. In making this claim, he offered a classic illustration of the biases that warp U.S. efforts to deal with countries like Iran. Here's the sentence that caught my eye:
It was also that Mr Obama's UN address gave Iran quite a lot -- no US desire for regime change; acceptance of Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear programme - but Mr Rouhani offered little in return.
For Haass (and many other Americans, one suspects), Obama was being incredibly generous last week. In Haass's mind, saying that the world's most powerful country won't seek regime change in Iran is a wonderful gift, a lavish sign of American goodwill. Never mind that overthrowing the Iranian regime would be an illegal act of war. Never mind that Haass would probably not see a pledge by Rouhani that Iran does not seek regime change in America as giving the United States "quite a lot."
This attitude is symptomatic of an enduring U.S. foreign- policy mindset: Overthrowing other governments is just one of those "normal" options that we keep in our foreign-policy tool kit, and telling another country we won't actually use it this time is a really big sacrifice on our part. Haass probably thinks it is, because he was openly calling for the United States to topple the clerics back in 2010. And he now thinks those pesky Iranians ought to be grateful that Obama didn't follow his advice.
Similarly, it is not an act of generosity for the United States to "accept" Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program. That right is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. Full stop. Iran is also one of the most heavily inspected countries on Earth, and neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran has a nuclear weapons program at present. Iran did violate some of its NPT obligations in the past, and there are valid reasons to wonder about its long-term nuclear aims. Reaching agreement on additional safeguards is likely to be essential to any future nuclear deal, and the United States (and others) should press for them. But Iranians see their "right" to a peaceful program as something they already possess; it is not a gift or a concession or a sign of U.S. goodwill. From their perspective, there was no need for Rouhani to offer up something in return.
To be clear: I found last week's events heartening, though we have a long way to go before we get an actual agreement, and this initiative won't be a success until it gets all the way across the finish line. But a good way to derail this process is for Americans to believe that we are making lots of big concessions or gifts -- and getting little for them. And my guess is that we're going to hear a lot of people making that sort of argument in the weeks and months ahead.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
If you wanted yet more evidence of how unserious the United States is in its conduct of diplomacy, I'd nominate the breathless "will they, won't they?" attention paid to whether U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani will actually meet during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. If they do meet, will they shake hands? Will it be an impromptu sidebar or a sit-down conversation? What color tie will Obama be wearing? Will they drink coffee or tea? Boxers or briefs?
For all I know, these and other truly vital questions will have been resolved by the time this gets posted. My main point is that Americans attach too much significance to these sorts of meetings -- mostly because we are too fond of not talking to countries we dislike -- and this reticence cripples our diplomacy. Refusing to talk to people or countries with whom we differ is really just a childish form of spite and one the United States indulges in mostly because we can get away with it. But it also makes it more difficult to resolve differences in ways that would advance U.S. interests. In short, it's dumb.
Did it really help U.S. diplomacy when we refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1934? Were U.S. interests really furthered by our refusal to recognize the People's Republic of China for more than two decades after Mao's forces gained control there? Has keeping Fidel Castro's Cuba in the deep freeze since 1961-- that's nearly 53 years, folks -- brought his regime crashing down, helped the lives of Cubans, or even advanced the political goals of Cuban-American exiles? Has our refusal to conduct direct talks with Iran slowed the development of its nuclear research program and helped us explore possible solutions to the problems in Afghanistan, Syria, or the Persian Gulf itself?
Obviously not. But because the United States is so powerful and so secure, it can usually afford to snub people or governments it doesn't like. Despite what you keep hearing from various threat-mongers, Iran isn't a very powerful country and it isn't an existential, looming threat to vital U.S. interests. To the extent that its behavior does impinge on certain U.S. interests -- such as the maintenance of a balance of power in the Gulf -- we have lots of tools for addressing that problem. If our various clients in the region don't think we are doing enough for their security, they are welcome to look for other patrons (good luck with that!).
Because the United States is so much stronger, we really shouldn't be afraid to talk to Iranian officials, especially when they are not mouthing offensive nonsense like Iran's previous president was fond of doing. Unfortunately, our strength and favorable geographic position also makes it possible for the United States to ostracize hostile governments without paying any immediate price. But once we do that, then it becomes a BIG DEAL when we finally do contemplate talking, and presidents have to spend political capital just to start the conversation. The result: Our own ability to explore solutions with rivals is crippled.
Hawks at home and abroad are always harping about U.S. credibility and the need for presidents to show their strength. But refusing to talk to those with whom we differ isn't a sign of confidence and strength; it's actually a sign of timidity and weakness. It tells the world that we're afraid that shaking hands, sitting down, and talking with someone might rock the foundations of our power. Are we really so worried? Having a conversation with an adversary doesn't require us to agree with them; indeed, sometimes talking exposes just how sharp the differences are and reveals that compromise isn't possible at that time. By itself, talking to another sovereign government gives away nothing, especially when it is just a normal part of one's diplomatic practice.
So if I could wave my magic wand today, I'd make the perennial U.S. aversion to talking to our enemies disappear. In a perfect world, conversations with our adversaries would be routine, as U.S.-Soviet dialogues were during the Cold War. Somehow, having lots of meetings between U.S. and Soviet officials didn't undermine America's global position; instead, the United States ended up winning the Cold War.
In short, I'd like our attention focused not on the mere fact that Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are finally talking or that Obama and Rouhani might shake hands, but on the substance of the exchanges and the possible terms of a U.S.-Iranian détente. That's what really matters, and all the attention paid to the atmospherics of a possible meeting just gets in the way and wastes everyone's time.
UPDATE: News reports now say that there won't be any Obama/Rouhani meeting, and attribute this to Iranian reluctance. Apparently, the Iranian side felt it wasn't ready for a meeting, and that a one-on-one encounter would raise expectations too high, especially when it was clear that Rouhani wasn't going to be coming home with any tangible US concessions. Which if true, also goes to show you that the United States isn't the only country that sometimes declines to maintain regular channels of communication, and then discovers that reopening them becomes a lot more difficult and fraught with unhelpful political complexities.
Photo: MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images
By all indications, Iran's new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hasan Rouhani was elected, they began describing him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and suggesting that nothing had changed. Then, after Rouhani unleashed a wave of conciliatory actions, skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by proposing a new set of deal-breaking conditions, and other Israeli officials suggested that time had already run out and that further diplomacy was a waste of time.
Given that these are the same people and organizations that have been pushing for military action against Iran for some time, it is hardly surprising that they pooh-pooh the prospect of diplomacy now. But notice that their core position is fundamentally contradictory: They have been saying for years that only sustained outside pressure will get Iran to "say uncle." So the United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions and made repeated threats to use force. Surprise, surprise: Iran's new leaders are now saying they want a deal, precisely the response that this pressure was supposed to produce. If the hawks were consistent, they would at a minimum recommend that we explore the possibility carefully. Instead, they are trying to make sure that the United States continues to demand complete Iranian capitulation (or maybe even regime change). This tells you all you need to know about their sincerity and why Barack Obama shouldn't pay them the slightest attention.
In fact, the United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere? Political scientist Robert Jervis explored this issue in depth in The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) and drew a nice distinction between "signals" (i.e., actions that contain no inherent credibility) and "indices," which he defined as "statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct."
More recently, this basic idea was resurrected in economics (and borrowed by IR scholars) in the notion of a "costly signal." Unlike "cheap talk," a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn't really mean it. A classic example was Anwar Sadat's 1977 offer to fly to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli Knesset in search of a peace deal. Because this move was obviously a risky step for Sadat (who was condemned throughout the Arab world), his Israeli counterparts had good reason to believe that his desire for peace was genuine.
So should we take Rouhani's overtures seriously? I think we should. As noted above, the possibility that Iran is genuinely interested in a deal is inherently credible, because we have in fact been squeezing the Iranians quite hard. To repeat: Isn't what they are now doing exactly what we've been trying to achieve? Equally important is that Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show "heroic flexibility," thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran's leaders to reverse course on a whim.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
After President Barack Obama was re-elected last year, I wrote that I didn't expect him to devote much attention to foreign affairs and that we should not expect any major breakthroughs in that arena. In light of recent events (e.g., Syria, the relaunching of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, etc.), does my position need rethinking?
Yes and no.
It is true that the Syria business has forced Obama to spend more time on foreign affairs than he probably wanted to, but let's not forget that what happens in Syria is not that important in the larger scheme of things. Yes, it is obviously important to the people of Syria and to some of their immediate neighbors, but Syria itself is just not that powerful or influential. No matter what happens in Syria -- a victory for Bashar al-Assad's thugs, the removal of all the chemical weapons, a complete rebel triumph, the establishment of genuine democracy, or the creation of an Islamist state, etc. -- the broader trajectory of world politics isn't going to change very much. So even if the deal in Geneva works out as well as one might hope, and even if I gave Obama & Co. full credit for the deal (which they don't deserve), I wouldn't score it as a "major" foreign-policy achievement.
Now for some more bad news. Right now, it doesn't look like the main currents of the so-called "Arab Spring" are going to turn out well either, at least not in the short term. Given that Obama pushed for greater openness throughout the region, having to tacitly support a military coup and crackdown in Egypt hardly seems like a big win for U.S. policy. Similarly, the resumption of "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians is not a success unless it actually gets all the way to the finish line and produces a viable Palestinian state. How many of you would bet $5 on that outcome? Instead, as Ian Lustick laid out clearly in the New York Times yesterday, what we have is a "peace process" that does far more harm than good. Actually achieving a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a major achievement, but is the talks are far, far more likely to end in another ignominious failure.
So where might a genuine foreign-policy accomplishment be found? The obvious place is the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Iran is a potentially powerful and influential state (though not the looming danger that threat-mongers often depict), and a positive relationship between Tehran and Washington would benefit both countries. Indeed, even having a more normal sort of rivalry -- including diplomatic recognition -- would make it easier to deal with the various areas of friction that might remain. That is why people like Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat Thomas Pickering see the present moment as a golden opportunity to explore a fundamentally different relationship with Tehran.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
I don't know how the Syria business is going to turn out, and neither do you. But I think everyone ought to take a deep breath and ratchet down their forecasts of how deep, significant, and meaningful this event is.
On one side, advocates of military strikes have been using increasingly overheated rhetoric over the past week, employing the familiar tropes and arguments that hawks have relied on ever since World War II. Comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust? Check. Obligatory reference to Munich? Got it. Lurid warnings about a loss of American "credibility"? Uh-huh. Repeated attempts to portray opponents of a military strike as "isolationists" or worse? Roger.
This approach makes it appear that what is at stake in the Syria debate is nothing less than America's Future Role in the World. If the United States doesn't act, so the argument runs, this one decision heralds a progressive retreat of the United States from its global responsibilities (whatever those are), its steady decline as a great power, and the onset of a new era of global anarchy. But if the United States can just find the will to send some cruise missiles into Syria, then all those terrible things can be avoided and American leadership will be restored (until the next time it is hanging by a hair, of course -- probably a few months from now).[[LATEST]]
Dire warnings can be just as lurid on the other side. Opponents warn that bombing Bashar al-Assad's forces will start the United States down a slippery slope to a major ground-force commitment (it might, but it's unlikely). They suggest that attacking Assad will bring al Qaeda extremists to power (a possibility, but far from certain). Or they believe it will just reinforce America's tendency to use force first and do diplomacy later, a tendency that has gotten the United States into trouble repeatedly over the past two decades. And some more overwrought doves worry that attacking yet another Middle Eastern country will further intensify Islamic radicalism and produce a lot of nasty blowback down the road.
I remain opposed to military intervention because I do not think it will advance U.S. strategic or moral interests, and because I do not believe we have a magic formula for solving the Syrian civil war. But I also believe that both sides in this debate need to take a deep breath and to stop portraying this moment as an all-important fork in the road that will shape world events for decades to come.
In fact, what happens in Syria is not going to affect America's overall position in the world very much. Syria is a small and weak country, and what happens there isn't going to alter the global balance of power in any significant way. It's not even clear it will alter the regional balance all that much. (Israel will remain the region's strongest power no matter what happens in Damascus.) America's global position will be determined primarily by the state of the U.S. economy and by what happens in places like China, the European Union, India, Turkey, and Brazil in the years ahead.
To be more specific: If America's economic recovery continues and if the advent of hydraulic fracking and cheaper energy gives the U.S. economy an additional boost, then America will remain the world's No. 1 power no matter what happens to Assad, the Free Syrian Army, or the al-Nusra Front. If China's economy hits a wall, if Brazil, Turkey, and India hit economic headwinds, and if the EU remains hampered by its various economic woes, then the United States will be in relatively good shape whether it bombs Damascus or not.
Ditto "American engagement." Contrary to what people like Bill Keller seem to think, the United States is not becoming "isolationist." Opposition to the Syrian adventure stems from the fact that U.S. strategic interests are not deeply engaged (here the American people have got this one right), and moral considerations do not mandate intervention because we might easily make things worse and increase the level of human suffering. But comparisons to World War II are deeply misleading: Assad is a thug and a war criminal, but he's not genocidal or bent on world domination, and Syria is not a great power like Germany was. No matter what happens in Syria, the United States will remain the single most formidable international actor, and other countries aren't going to lose sight of that reality in the years ahead. I'd even bet that the pivot to Asia continues no matter who is elected the next U.S. president, unless China slips badly and doesn't seem like an emerging threat anymore.
Instead of becoming "isolationist," the American people seem to be returning to a realistic degree of prudence. To oppose a military response in Syria because it won't make Americans more secure and may not help the Syrians very much isn't cowardly, irresponsible, or feckless; you might just call it common sense.
Postscript: There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity today, based on a Russian proposal to take control of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. If the U.S. goal is merely to reinforce the "red line" against chemical weapons use, then it has little choice but to take the deal and spin it as a great success for "tough" U.S. diplomacy. But it is likely to take some time to work out the procedures and actually secure the weapons, and there's always the risk that Russia would renege (or Assad would cheat) so as to retain a chemical weapons option in extremis. More importantly, this arrangement doesn't by itself get us much closer to settling the war, which should be our primary objective. To do that, the United States is going to have to engage with Russia and Iran, and we might even have to agree to leave Assad in power for a while. That's not a very satisfying outcome, perhaps, but it is one that would save a lot of lives.
Thumbnail image: The Keep Calm-o-Matic (www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-dont-bomb-syria-1)
The Honorable Joseph Kennedy III
Dear Representative Kennedy:
I am a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, and I voted for you with enthusiasm during your election campaign last year. I am writing to encourage you to oppose the proposed resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. The Washington Post currently scores you as "undecided" on the resolution; I urge you to get off the fence and make your opposition publicly known.
A U.S. attack on Syria is unwise for several reasons. First, the United States has no vital strategic interests there. Bashar al-Assad's government is clearly a brutal dictatorship, but neither Democratic nor Republican presidents have cared about that before now. Instead, presidents from both parties have cooperated with the Assad regime whenever it seemed advisable to do so. More importantly, helping to topple the regime is likely to turn Syria into a failed state, igniting a struggle for power among competing sectarian factions. Some of these factions are deeply hostile to America and sympathetic to al Qaeda, which means that U.S. intervention could help bring some of our worst enemies to power.
Second, the moral case for intervention is not compelling either. Yes, the Syrian people are suffering greatly, but U.S. airstrikes will not alter that situation and could easily make it worse. Indeed, recent scholarly research on civil wars shows that outside intervention tends to increase civilian killings and doesn't shorten the length of wars. If we are interested in reducing human suffering, therefore, we should eschew airstrikes and increase our relief aid to Syrian refugees instead.[[LATEST]]
The likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not justify war either. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by conventional arms; that a small percentage of the dead were killed by weapons that happen to be banned is not by itself a reason to get directly involved. Nor is it necessary to bomb Syria to "defend the norm" against these weapons. Chemical weapons have only been used a handful of times over the past 80 years, mostly because they are less effective than conventional arms in most battlefield situations. The United States did not punish the other governments that violated this norm, and it is not obvious why this most recent violation calls for a major military response on our part.
Supporters of a new Middle East war claim that we must act because our "credibility" is at stake. We have heard such arguments many, many times in the past; they are the inevitable refuge whenever someone is trying to bolster a weak case for war. The United States has used military force dozens of times over the past several decades, and President Barack Obama himself escalated the war in Afghanistan and ordered dozens of drone strikes and special forces operations in several countries over the past four-plus years. No one seriously doubts U.S. power or our willingness to use it when our vital interests are genuinely engaged. If we refrain from using force when vital interests are not involved or when doing so would only make things worse, it says nothing about our willingness to use force when it is truly necessary and when it can achieve clear and well-defined objectives.
Lastly, wise leaders do not go to war without robust international and domestic support. Neither is present in this case. U.S. public opinion opposes military intervention in this case, and few foreign countries favor a U.S. military response at this time. You will undoubtedly face pressure from organized special-interest groups that now favor war, but these groups are neither representative of broader public opinion or the opinions of most of your constituents here in Massachusetts.
Back in 2002, I had the privilege of speaking with your great-uncle, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, on several occasions regarding the proposed war with Iraq. I opposed that war, as did he, and I supported his efforts to craft an approach that would have prevented that act of folly. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would be equally opposed to this ill-advised approach to the Syrian tragedy.
For all these reasons, I encourage you to be a "profile in courage" and to come out strongly against the proposed resolution when it comes to the congressional floor
Stephen M. Walt
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Who is this imposter who has the gall to call himself "John Kerry?" The real John Kerry is an intelligent liberal, indeed something of a hero for having the courage to not only vigorously oppose the Vietnam War -- the last U.S. war fought in the name of "credibility" -- but to openly charge that the U.S. was committing "war crimes" there. Surely this can't be the same fellow who is not only leading the charge for the U.S. to plunge into yet another unnecessary and unwise war, but whose rhetoric is increasingly bizarre.
Now he fears that if we don't go to war in Syria, we will lose our "credibility?" Credibility to do what? Stupidly intervene in yet another civil war in a country of little importance to vital U.S. interests, in which we not only lack "vital interests" at stake, but in which, if we had, we wouldn't know which side to support, and in which we have no idea whether our intervention will save innocent lives or put them still further into danger?
If that wasn't bad enough, now "John Kerry" accuses opponents of an attack on Syria of advocating "armchair isolationism." What? First of all, to oppose the war in Syria does not make one "isolationist," or even "anti-war," as opposed to opposing this specific war. The opposite of "isolationism" usually is defined as "internationalism." By such reasoning, then, this must mean that "internationalists" favor going to war with everyone.
Moreover, the United States would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of isolationism to at least partly balance what ought to be called "mindless interventionism." After all, the problem with U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II -- and even more so since the end of the Cold War -- has not exactly been a refusal to get into foreign wars.
Finally, the very concept of an "armchair isolationist" is incoherent. Apparently Kerry has confused the term with that of the common one, "armchair warrior." That is a coherent and, indeed, powerful concept. It refers, of course, to someone who wants other people to go to war while he sits safely at home. Now try making sense of "armchair isolationism."
Jerome Slater is a University Research Scholar and professor of political science (emeritus) at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He blogs at jeromeslater.com, where this article is cross-posted.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions were:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.[[LATEST]]
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine" (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S. military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S. security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on "other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital" interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed. But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I've noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses for the past 20 years.
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on Syria or to the piece I put up today as part of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange. But America's slow-motion entry into the Syrian bloodletting does illustrate how hard it is for the United States to stay out of these nasty little wars, even when it is not obvious what using force will accomplish, when it is clear that doing a little now will create pressure to do more later, when there is little public support for getting in, and when it is hard to identify a clear or vital U.S. interest at stake.
Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria -- and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad's forces have used chemical weapons -- or so he believes -- but as I've noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad's forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there's a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.
What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn't want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won't solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he's been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a "red line" a few months back, so now he's getting taunted with the old canard about the need to "restore U.S. credibility." This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president's credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?
More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didn't go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward "doing something" because he feels he simply can't afford not to.
Sad, but also revealing.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Thomas Friedman's piece in the Sunday New York Times was vintage Friedman: chatty, moderately insightful, and filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum. The basic theme of the column was the limits of U.S. influence and U.S. interests in the Middle East. U.S. influence is down because the name of the game today is shaping the internal evolution of these societies, and outside powers will never be very good at that. U.S. interests are declining because the global energy market is changing and Middle East oil and gas are not as critical as they once were. As a result, what happens in the Middle East just won't matter as much as it did during the Cold War or even over the past couple of decades.
Fair enough. But here's the line that caught my eye, near the end of the piece:
"Obama knows all of this. He just can't say it."
Why in heaven's name can't he? What's the big secret that Obama or his administration dare not speak of? If Friedman can write about in the Times, why can't Obama or John Kerry or Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel talk about it too? What is to be gained from keeping the American people in the dark about the changing nature of American interests and involvement in this turbulent region?
Indeed, if I were to fault the Obama administration on its handling of the Arab spring (and a bunch of other issues) it is that they never bothered to lay out a clear strategic framework that explains why they are acting as they are. As Friedman and others note, it is clear that Obama is deeply reluctant to get drawn into more Middle Eastern conflicts and that he prefers limited uses of force (drones, targeted killings, etc.) to grandiose invasions and costly occupations. It is also pretty clear that Obama wants to shift American strategic attention out of the Middle East and toward Asia.
But for the most part this gifted communicator has never tried to explain why this policy makes sense. Sure, he keeps saying that it is up to the peoples of these countries to determine their own fate, but he keeps getting dragged back into doing things he'd clearly prefer to avoid (and stay tuned for airstrikes in Syria). Instead of educating the American people about how global interests are changing and how our policies must adapt to reflect new realities, Obama tends to fall back on the familiar rhetorical bromides that have informed U.S. grand strategy for decades: democracy, human rights, stability, order, rejection of extremism, and, of course, American leadership.
But then what we get are a series of ad hoc responses and a grab bag of justifications. First we are going to stay out of Libya, and then we get involved, and then we write it off (more or less). Then we help usher Mubarak out (because we think that's the way history is running), but then we refuse to call a military coup by its right name and acquiesce in the reimposition of Mubarak-lite. We ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria but limit our direct involvement to humanitarian aid and covert assistance, while turning a blind eye to continued oppression in places like Bahrain. And so on.
The problem with this ad hoc approach to policy formation is it leaves the administration perennially buffeted by events and vulnerable to pressure from all those factions, interest groups, GOP politicians, and ambitious policy wonks who think they know what ought to be done. If you don't explain what you are trying to do and why it makes sense, it is hard for anyone to get behind the policy or see the common thread behind each separate decision. By failing to lay out a clear set of principles -- which in this case means explaining to the American people the basic points that Friedman made and why it doesn't make sense for the US to toss a lot of resources into these various struggles -- Obama & Co. end up looking inconsistent, confused, and indecisive.
By the way, laying out a clear set of strategic principles wouldn't force the country into a rigid political straightjacket. Sometimes broad goals have to adapt to particular circumstances, and foreign policymakers often have to accept what is possible rather than what is ideal. But if you don't explain what your underlying objectives are, why those objectives are the right ones, and how your polices are on balance going to move us in the right direction, then you are giving your political opponents a free gift and your supporters little with which to defend you.
In other words, if Friedman is correct that President Obama and his advisors really do "know all this," it would be in their interest to explain it to the country. And not just in one of those stand-alone speechifying moments that Obama likes so much, but over and over and over. Who knows? Americans might like hearing the president explain why this part of the world is less important than it used to be and why Americans can start focusing their worries somewhere else.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
This week, the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon posted a sharp critique of Barack Obama's foreign policy, accusing his administration of "lack of ambition." And that was before Obama's tepid response to the brutal military crackdown in Egypt. Here's Krepon's lede:
Remember when American presidents set out to do big things in the world?
That was when denizens of the Oval Office had one powerful attribute: ambition. And that's exactly what President Barack Obama is lacking today: a desire to shape world events to America's liking, and a willingness to take big risks to make that happen.
No wonder he is making little progress on the enormous foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. The less ambition an administration has, the harder achieving anything becomes.
Krepon is a smart, sensible guy, and getting to know him was one of the high points of the year I spent at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace back in the 1980s. He has written a lot of wise things over the years, and he is certainly correct that Obama's foreign-policy team can claim few real successes over the past five-plus years.
But is the problem really "lack of ambition"? After all, consider some of the goals that Obama has set forth since becoming president. He was going to get a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was going to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. He greatly expanded the U.S. effort to kill suspected terrorists with drones and special operations forces, thereby inserting the United States directly into the internal politics of several unstable countries. He also pledged to lead the world to a new climate change agreement and take big steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. And he was going to "reset" with Russia, "pivot" to Asia, nurture the democratic roots of the "Arab spring," and rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward greater emphasis on "development and diplomacy." Or so he and his minions said.
Sounds pretty darn ambitious to me. The real problem is that this laundry list is wholly emblematic of the exceptionalist, "America must lead the world" vision that has informed U.S. foreign policy for decades. In particular, Obama hasn't challenged any of the entrenched interests and worldviews that continue to drive U.S. engagement in the world. The United States may be getting out of Afghanistan, but five years later than it should have. Americans still think their security depends on having military bases all over the world and that they won't be safe if their country can't determine who governs every little strategic backwater on the planet. Washington still sees itself as a credible broker of Middle East peace, despite 30 years of failure. The United States still thinks it can coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program, even though America has been trying to do that for over a decade without success. And so on.
Krepon is right that Obama hasn't plunged into foolish crusades in places like Syria, and I share his dismay at Obama's halfhearted response to the recent presidential election in Iran. Among other things, if Obama is serious about negotiating with Iran, he needs to start preparing the American people and the various yahoos in Congress for a deal and explain what they can realistically expect (and what they can't). But the real problem isn't lack of ambition; it's that Obama is pursuing some misguided goals, and he's doing it with a foreign-policy establishment that seems to become less effective with each passing year.
Krepon's article also paints an overly upbeat portrait of what American engagement can produce. True, ambitious U.S. diplomacy has sometimes accomplished positive and lasting ends. Between 1945 and 1950, for example, the United States helped lay the groundwork for NATO, the United Nations, and a panoply of enduring international institutions, while simultaneously developing and implementing the strategy of containment that eventually won the Cold War. Similarly, George H.W. Bush's administration did a good job managing the Soviet collapse and German reunification and handled the 1991 Gulf War well (after some initial stumbles).
But these achievements have to be balanced against some notable failures: the damaging coups the United States helped engineer in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and the Dominican Republic (1965), as well as its long, insensitive, and tragic involvement in Indochina. And surely it was ambitious of George W. Bush to think he could transform the entire Middle East at the point of a gun, a lamebrained idea that cost the United States more than $2 trillion and thousands of dead soldiers, cost the Iraqi people even more, and ended up enhancing Iranian influence.
Lastly, Krepon's piece also reflects the common Washington belief that American national security is precarious, as in his statement that the United States faces "enormous foreign policy and national security challenges." As I've written before, most of these supposed "challenges" are simply burdens the U.S. government has chosen to take on, and most of them have scant effect on the life expectancy or prosperity of Americans at home. Great powers always tend to define their interests expansively, and as the world's most powerful country, the United States has decided that everything everywhere somehow matters to it because one can at least conjure up some hypothetical reason why an event in, say, Syria or Somalia or Tadzhikistan, might somehow rebound back on American soil. That's probably true in a handful of instances, but trying to control everything everywhere increases the opposition the United States faces and in most cases isn't cost-effective. The truth is that most of those "foreign-policy challenges" are acts of philanthropy undertaken on behalf of various U.S. "allies," rather than making a direct contribution to the security of the 50 states. I think Obama may have understood that; he just didn't do much to change the prevailing mindset.
My point is simple: It is perfectly fine for presidents to be ambitious, but lofty ideals need to be tempered by a sense of political realism. Otherwise, you get either vague speeches that never seem to lead anywhere or foolish crusades that do far more harm than good.
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
What's happening throughout the Middle East isn't really surprising. Mideast experts had long been aware of the strains that these societies are under: stagnant economies, widespread corruption, massive youth bulges, faded political ideologies, and the rise of various dissident movements -- all of them held in check by brutal police states. U.S. and other leaders rightly worried about what might happen if the old order began to collapse, and mostly they hoped that this would take place on someone else's watch.[[LATEST]]
When the Arab Spring first started, many people hoped it would shake the Arab world out of its torpor and eventually produce more just, open, and efficient societies. That might still happen -- eventually -- but it is going to take a very long time and it's going to be a bumpy ride. That shouldn't surprise us either: The emergence of modern democracy in Western Europe and the United States took centuries and was punctuated by contentious and bloody politics throughout. Remember the French Revolution? The Whiskey Rebellion? European fascism? The American Civil War? One may hope that the Arab world traverses this terrain more quickly than the West did, but there's little reason to think that it will or that it will end up in the same place.
I don't pretend to be expert on the domestic politics of these societies; for valuable commentary from some people who are, see Juan Cole, Marc Lynch, and Issandr El Amrani, among others. But here are some initial thoughts on the latest events.
For starters, what is happening in Egypt today is the triumph of stupidity. First Hosni Mubarak, who had clearly lost touch with the country by the time he was driven from power. Then Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, who had the opportunity to rule after decades in opposition and blew it, big time. Instead of building a political order in which power was shared among the various groups and factions in Egyptian society, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to run roughshod over its opponents, in a heavy-handed power grab that alarmed everyone else and brought the military back into the field. And now the generals are back and trying to suppress the Brotherhood and other opponents with brutal force. That's dumb too, because the Brotherhood is well organized, has deep roots in Egyptian society, and has been around for decades.
The only solution for Egypt that I can see is one where the contending groups agree to share the country. The competing factions will eventually have to realize that none of them can rule alone and that a political order must be devised that gives each a stake and guarantees each at least some degree of political influence. That's the only formula for successful participatory politics: Those in power today can't ignore the rest of society or try to rig the game to keep themselves in power forever. (BTW: This is a lesson that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP in Turkey might heed as well). If that doesn't happen, then I fear Egypt is headed down the same dark road that Algeria traveled in the 1990s and that Syria is already on today.
What should the United States do? Not much. I'm certainly with those -- like FP's Marc Lynch -- who are calling for the United States to cease all military aid to Egypt. I actually recommended this several weeks ago, in part because Egypt doesn't need more weapons and in part because it does the United States no good to be associated with yet another military crackdown. And oh yeah: Ending aid after the July coup would also have been consistent with U.S. law. Aid to Egypt's military isn't buying the United States any leverage and U.S. aid is dwarfed by the funds that the Gulf Arab states are pouring in. If they want to double down on a bankrupt order, fine; but there's no reason for the American taxpayer to do the same.
More importantly, there isn't much the United States can do. The country lost any moral authority it might have had years ago, when it backed Arab dictators, turned a blind eye to Israel's predations, and showed a callous disregard for Arab populations in places like Iraq. Nor does the United States know how to manipulate or guide Egypt's internal politics. If the Egyptians can't figure out how to construct a workable polity, do you think national security advisor Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry could? And because a narrative of Western interference is a key element of jihadi ideology, the last thing the United States should do is intervene with military force or try to tell Egyptians how to run their own country.
The good news -- such as it is -- is that U.S. "vital interests" are not really engaged here. I know Americans like to think that everything that happens everywhere is a direct threat to American security, but this is another one of those cases where the actual U.S. interest is modest. We have every reason to prefer an Egypt that is stable, prosperous, friendly, supportive of human rights, and at peace with Israel. But Egypt has been none of those things at various points over the past 50 years, and somehow the United States managed to survive and prosper anyway. Yes, what happens in Egypt could affect Israel's security in a modest way, but Egypt is too weak to be an "existential threat" to Israel and Israel isn't the United States (despite what some senators and congressmen seem to think).
Lastly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. government is basically out of its depth here and has been for some time. Bill Clinton's administration helped put the United States in al Qaeda's cross-hairs through its policy of "dual containment" and its bungling of the Oslo peace process. George W. Bush's administration made things worse by invading Iraq and promoting a policy of "regional transformation." And Barack Obama seemed to think that all he needed to do in the Middle East was give a few speeches and rely on the same discredited diplomats who were responsible for most of the previous failures. It is Obama's misfortune to be president when these long-simmering problems finally came back to haunt us, but the writing has been on the wall for a long, long time.
Last week President Barack Obama proposed some modifications to the National Security Agency's program of domestic surveillance, but he missed a golden opportunity to build political support for the various programs that have been secretly vacuuming up phone records with little or no restraint. In particular, he could have directed the NSA to use all the information in a way that would benefit all Americans and make them appreciate what the NSA is up to.
What should he have done? Simple. Right now, Americans are routinely pestered by endless phone calls from marketers, political campaigns, nonprofit organizations, alumni fundraisers, and all sorts of other scummy people who don't mind interrupting you throughout your day. Signing up for the Federal Communications Commission's "do not call" registry doesn't do much good, as fly-by-night phone bank operators and robocallers routinely ignore these restrictions. I know: We probably get a dozen or more of these robocalls every day, and often at the most inconvenient times. You probably do too.
Here's an idea: Use the NSA's vast trove of phone information to put these guys out of business. If the NSA really does have access to all that phone data and is good at using computer algorithms to sift and sort it as everyone seems to think, why not use it to build an unassailable case against the organizations and businesses that are violating all those "do not call" laws? I mean: If the NSA really can eavesdrop on an al Qaeda conference call, surely documenting abuse of the "do not call" law would be child's play.
I know, I know: The NSA isn't supposed to do "domestic surveillance" or get involved in prosecuting Americans for domestic crimes. But it erased that line a while back, didn't it? If the NSA were used to put robocallers out of business, at least Americans would see some tangible, positive benefit for all the money spent spying on them.
Postscript: I hope you didn't miss the irony in Obama's announcement that the NSA's surveillance practices need to be modified. Had Edward Snowden not brought the NSA's current abuses to light, Obama (and the country) would never have recognized the need for a policy change. In other words, Obama was tacitly acknowledging that Snowden did us all a favor by revealing how out of control the NSA programs had become. But instead of getting our thanks (or at least granting a presidential pardon for the laws Snowden may have broken), Obama has moved heaven and earth to try to apprehend him. Ironic indeed.
Photo thumbnail: Lambert/Getty Images
If you're anything like me, you find it hard to keep up with the Niagara of events and information with which you're deluged every day. It used to be a challenge just to keep track of a half-dozen or so professional journals in my field/subfield; now there's that plus online pubs, bloggers, twitter feeds, and the various books I'm reading in the course of my research. Not to mention reviewing manuscripts, writing tenure letters, and other professional responsibilities. And then there are the "events, dear boy, events" in the real world that we all try to comprehend.
So today, a few short takes on things I wish I had time to comment on at greater length.
1. Iran. I've blogged about this a lot over the past five years, but isn't it crashingly obvious that we have a golden opportunity to explore a real rapprochement with Iran? Frankly, if we don't pursue that possibility energetically, creatively and sincerely, it will be the most revealing example of foreign policy incompetence that I can imagine.
2. Putin, Snowden and the aborted summit. I can understand why the Obama administration was annoyed with Russia for not turning over Snowden, but did they really expect Moscow to passively fall in line? Would we have turned over someone who had sent similar secrets about the KGB to the Guardian and then somehow gotten themselves to Dulles Airport? I rather doubt it. The best reason to cancel the summit, however, was the fact that nothing was likely to be achieved there.
3. More good news on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks: Netanyahu gets them off on positive note by expanding government subsidies to settlements in the occupied territories. Next step: John Kerry and Martin Indyk will hint -- ever, ever, so gently -- that this decision was "not helpful."
4. The Ride of the Valkyries: I find it interesting that some of the most hawkish voices on Syria have been women (e.g., Anne-Marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton). This doesn't necessarily contradict Micah Zenko's observation that women are generally less disposed to using force (or at least drones), but it's still curious. My hypothesis: it has nothing to do with gender, but instead reflects their lack of knowledge about military operations and a tendency to downplay the unintended consequences of military action. (And no: John McCain's support for aggressive action doesn't contradict my point, because McCain's own operational knowledge seems pretty paltry and his past military judgments have been questionable).
5. The sequester: There's no doubt in my mind that the sequester is a terrible way to try to trim defense spending. But given the entrenched interests that fight like tigers to preserve every defense nickel, I'm not sure there was any other way to do it. And I console myself with the thought that the U.S. will still be spending vastly more than any other single country on national security. Now if we could just connect that process to a rethinking of our overseas commitments (cue The Impossible Dream).
6. America the Skittish (Round 2). The terror plot alert that shut down 19 US diplomatic facilities was certainly conveniently timed, wasn't it? Just when Congress was starting to show some backbone on the issue of NSA spying, we get a report of some new "chatter" (or maybe an Al Qaeda "conference call") that justified a vaguely scary new alert. But what really bugs me is the message that this sends: that the mighty United States can be spooked into closing its doors with remarkable ease. We want to run the world, it seems, but we want to be able to do it without taking any risks at all. And it makes me question (once again) the effectiveness of the whole "war on terror." If we've been pursuing the right policies for the past twelve years, why are these guys still so dangerous?
7. "The New Newt" (2013 version). Newt Gingrich isn't an important politician anymore, as his lackluster performance in the last GOP primary season proved. But he's still a world-class egomaniac, and like many politicians, he can't stop seeking the spotlight. He grabbed it again this week by suggesting that the neoconservative foreign policy that he used to champion might have been ... well ... stupid, and that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz might have some good ideas on that subject. This event is interesting because Gingrich is nothing if not an opportunistic weathervane, and it tells you that he thinks that calls for a more restrained foreign and military policy would find a lot of takers out there in the body politic. As I suggested once before, all it will take to launch a serious debate on this issue is an articulate champion who isn't saddled with a lot of unrelated baggage. Rand Paul may or may not be that person (and I fervently hope Ted Cruz isn't) but he/she is bound to show up eventually.
8. The Death of IR theory: Noah Smith and Paul Krugman had some interesting blog posts up on the "death of theory" in economics. This is as good an excuse as any to remind folks that John Mearsheimer and I have written an article on similar trends in international relations, which will be out in the European Journal of IR next month. Plus, stay tuned for an upcoming symposium on the broader topic of the future of IR theory at Duck of Minerva website.
9. Anarchy, the State, and Dystopia. If nothing else, the events in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo remind us all that the only thing worse than a bad state is no effective state at all. For insightful commentary, see Robert Kaplan's reflections on the late Samuel Huntington's best book, Political Order in Changing Societies.
10. I'm off to California tomorrow for a family wedding (congratulations, Lindsay and Bobby!), so blogging will be light-to-nonexistent through the weekend. But you've got the rest of FP (and a zillion other bloggers) to tide you over, and nobody's commentary is indispensable.
About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the election of new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. I said it was precisely the sort of opportunity that Barack Obama's administration had been looking for back in 2009, but I was pretty sure the United States and Iran would find a way to squander it. Here's one paragraph from that post, dated June 17, 2013:
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
It's a bit too soon to say, "I told you so," but so far my initial prediction is on track. Although Rouhani has appointed a series of moderate officials (many associated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), softened Iranian rhetoric about Israel somewhat, and pledged to seek the path of "détente," we still have little idea how the Obama administration intends to respond. I'm not even sure who is taking the lead in figuring that out. In the meantime, hawks in the United States -- led by the always-helpful lobbyists at AIPAC -- are already doing everything they can to derail a possible rapprochement.
Unfortunately, they can always count on the help of a timorous and craven Congress, including a number of prominent "progressive" Democrats. Just last week, the House passed H.R. 850, an AIPAC-sponsored resolution tightening sanctions for the umpteenth time. The bill was called the "Nuclear Iran Prevention Act," but as Paul Pillar blogged on National Interest's website, a more honest title would be the "Nuclear Iran Promotion Act." The vote was 400-20 (with 378 co-sponsors!), and I'm sorry to say that my own representative, Joe Kennedy III, wasn't exactly a "profile in courage" on this issue. Of course, he had plenty of company.
And now 76 supine Senators are sending Obama one of those stern AIPAC-drafted letters warning him to keep up the pressure. Negotiating with Iran is OK, they concede, provided that any discussions are backed up by the constant threat of military force. Never mind that the United States has been threatening force and conducting various forms of covert action against Iran for years, and Iran hasn't said "uncle" yet. Never mind that Congress has repeatedly called for regime change in Tehran (now there's a confidence-building measure!), and Iran has responded by building more centrifuges. Never mind that Iran has said all along that it won't be bullied into concessions. Never mind the obvious fact that threats of military force are a pretty silly way to convince a much weaker country that it doesn't need some sort of deterrent. And please ignore the fact that America's key allies in Europe and even conservative publications like the Economist are urging the Obama administration to seize this and give Rouhani a serious chance. So is Bloomberg News.
I'm still fairly confident that Obama and the White House have little or no interest in another Middle East war. The State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence services aren't pushing for a war that could only delay but not eliminate Iran's nuclear potential either. And I'm 100 percent sure that the United States should engage Iran's new government seriously and patiently to see whether a deal can be struck. I even suspect that most of the senators and representatives who voted for or signed those silly but dangerous documents last week know all this too. But nobody ever went broke betting on the spinelessness of elected representatives in Congress, especially on just about anything concerning the Middle East.
After the 9/11 attacks, the United States quickly declared a "war on terror." In the conduct of that war, the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, imprisoned hundreds of captured "enemy combatants" without trial, tortured suspected terrorists, drastically ratcheted up homeland security, conducted drone strikes and/or targeted assassinations in several countries, and conducted a vast campaign of electronic surveillance at home and abroad.
Virtually all these actions were designed to detect or eliminate actual terrorists or prevent them from carrying out deliberate attacks. In other words, whether offensive or defensive in nature, they were actions designed to win the war by thwarting or eliminating existing terrorist organizations.
But what about the parallel problem of terrorist recruitment? The other way to defeat terrorism is to make it harder for movements employing terrorist methods to recruit new followers, and to gradually marginalize the radicals within the societies in which they were trying to grow. There was a lot of talk about trying to do this immediately after 9/11: The State Department commissioned a task force report on public diplomacy toward the Arab/Islamic world, George W. Bush's administration hired a series of public diplomacy czarinas, and various experts offered advice on how the United States could undercut Osama bin Laden's message and rebuild the country's dubious image in that part of the world. This goal also underlay Barack Obama's initial outreach to the region and especially his infamous Cairo speech in June 2009.[[LATEST]]
But looking back, has the United States actually acted in ways that would reduce the jihadi appeal? In some cases (e.g., Jordan and Iraq), we were fortunate that terrorist groups acted in ways that reduced their appeal significantly. But has the United States also adjusted its policies to make it harder rather than easier for a jihadi leader to convince a potential recruit to join up?
The answer is no.
When he launched the original al Qaeda and began targeting the United States, bin Laden emphasized three main grievances. First, he accused the West -- and especially the United States -- of constant and hostile interference in the Islamic world. This charge included the U.S. sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s (which caused thousands of Iraqi deaths) and the West's alleged exploitation of Mideast oil. Second, he accused the United States of propping up corrupt and illegitimate dictatorships in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and he specifically cited the stationing of thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia following the 1991 Gulf War. Third, he blamed the United States for giving lavish, unconditional support to Israel and for turning a blind eye to Israel's harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.
These charges have remained prominent elements in the overall jihadi narrative ever since. The question is: Has U.S. behavior since then made such charges look more credible or less credible? Has the United States undertaken actions designed to show that bin Laden's charges were basically bogus, or has it behaved in ways that make them appear to be largely correct?
Has the United States stopped using military force in the Arab or Islamic world? Hardly. The United States invaded two Muslim countries -- Afghanistan and then Iraq -- even though the latter had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. Each war then led to long and incompetently run occupations in which many local inhabitants died. The United States was not directly responsible for all these deaths, of course, and some of its acts in both countries were obviously intended to help local citizens. But overall, these actions merely reinforced the idea that the United States has an irresistible propensity to interfere in these societies, and often with military force. The war on terror also led to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and an outpouring of Islamophobic rhetoric by certain U.S. pundits and politicians. And oh yes: The United States has also imposed increasingly stringent sanctions on Iran, which makes both Israel and the Saudi royal family happy but reinforces perceptions of a powerful but hypocritical America. In short, the past 12 years provide plenty of ammunition for anyone trying to argue that the United States remains intrinsically hostile to the Muslim world.
Has the United States stopped propping up Arab dictatorships? The record here is more mixed, but it is hard to argue that the United States has consistently embraced a true "freedom agenda." The United States did remove its troops from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but it's still an important military presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. The United States has consistently backed Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan, despite endemic corruption and even a palpably fraudulent election. Washington did help ease Hosni Mubarak from power two years ago, but it subsequently turned a blind eye to the Saudi-backed crackdown against popular forces in Bahrain and continues a cozy relationship with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. U.S. tolerance for the recent military coup in Egypt also suggests that its commitment to genuine democracy or the promotion of basic human rights remains thin. The Obama administration has for the most part stayed out of the Syrian mess (wisely, in my view), but some jihadists will no doubt see this as evidence that Washington isn't all that hostile to Bashar al-Assad's regime. Bottom line: bin Laden's complaint that the United States has no problem with Arab authoritarianism is still pretty hard to refute.
Is the United States still backing an expansionist Israel? Although public criticism of the "special relationship" has become somewhat more vocal in recent years, the broad outlines of U.S. policy have changed little. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have given Israel everything it has wanted (except a green light to attack Iran), and U.S. politicians continue to bend over backward to express their deep devotion to the Jewish state. The United States gave Israel diplomatic cover during the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Gaza War, and also following the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Obama caved completely on the issue of a settlement freeze, and the U.S. Congress continues to vote a generous aid package every year and demean itself with various AIPAC-drafted resolutions. Heck, if I were a jihadist trying to convince a recruit that the United States had no sincere commitment to human rights and no respect for Arab or Muslim lives, I'd just show them a transcript of Chuck Hagel or Samantha Power's confirmation hearings and leave it at that.
My point is not that the United States should have responded to 9/11 by totally upending its Middle East foreign policy or by leaning over backward to appease bin Laden's complaints. I'm certainly not suggesting that the United States break diplomatic relations with Riyadh or throw Israel under the bus. Nor am I suggesting that some adjustment to U.S. policies would make the terrorist problem dry up overnight, if only because many terrorist groups are motivated as much or more by local concerns than by a fundamentally anti-American agenda.
My point, instead, is that the United States has been fighting a completely one-sided campaign against al Qaeda and the group's cousins. It has hardened its own society (excessively) and taken the battle to those suspected of being hostile to it (probably excessively too). But the United States has done hardly anything to counter the narratives that anti-American forces use to rally support, and it has done plenty to reinforce them. And a lot of the things the United States has done -- such as invading Iraq or giving Israel unconditional support -- are bad for the United States and bad for its various friends in the region (Israel included).
This just isn't smart strategy: If we really want to bring the "war on terror" to an end, then we cannot simply deal with the terrorists who exist today -- we also have to diminish the number and fervor of those we will face tomorrow. Sadly, that task remains to be tackled.
HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images
As I write this, numerous online news stories and Twitter feeds are announcing the imminent resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. (Apparently the framework for the talks is still being finalized, but presumably it's enough of a done deal for the United States to go public.) It is to some degree a vindication of Secretary of State John Kerry's dogged effort to get the peace process started again, and no doubt he and the rest of Barack Obama's administration are going to spin this achievement as an important breakthrough.
I hope they're right, but we can all be forgiven for a certain skepticism by this point. Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership have been taking place off and on for over two decades (not counting the various back-channel, covert, or track II discussions), and the main result of all that palaver has been the further expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and the steady deterioration of Fatah's prestige and authority. Let's also not forget that Hamas was a relatively minor force when the Oslo process started back in the early 1990s; today it governs in Gaza. America's handling of the "peace process" hasn't won it any laurels either; serving as "Israel's lawyer" merely confirmed that the United States was incapable of being an effective mediator and made the country complicit in Israel's harsh treatment of its Palestinian subjects.
The only serious question to ask is whether this new round of talks has a better chance of succeeding. And let's be clear: Success means actually reaching a final status agreement that establishes a viable state for the Palestinian people. Kicking the can down the road for another few years is not success. Endless discussions that collapse in mutual recriminations, while the bulldozers continue to demolish Palestinian homes and construction crews erect more condos and apartments for Israelis in the occupied territories, are not success either. And neither is another demonstration of American fecklessness, naivete, and diplomatic incompetence.
The structural reasons for pessimism are plain for all to see. First, Israel's government is led by a man who opposed Oslo from the start and whose Likud party's official platform openly rejects any possibility of a Palestinian state. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of a Palestinian "state" in recent years, it is clear that what he has in mind is a set of disconnected Bantustans under complete Israeli control, which is of course a nonstarter.
Second, most of Netanyahu's governing coalition is even more hard-line than he is, and his government would almost certainly collapse if he were to offer the Palestinians any sort of reasonable deal. And given that the Israeli peace movement is much weaker than it used to be, it's hard to imagine a different Israeli government being substantially more forthcoming.
Third, the Palestinians remain deeply divided themselves. Not only does this reduce their bargaining leverage (which was already pretty paltry), but it means Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has to get a pretty good deal if he is going to sell it to the broader population and marginalize the rejectionists. But as just noted, it's hard to imagine him being offered anything very generous by his Israeli counterparts, and it's even harder to imagine the United States putting sufficient pressure on Israel to make the kind of concessions that would now be needed.
Fourth, these are hardly ideal conditions to pursue a final status agreement. Syria is in flames, Lebanon is unsettled, and Egypt's future course is anyone's guess. One might argue that these events give Israel a big incentive to resolve the I-P issue once and for all, but even the boldest Israeli peacenik might be leery of making the necessary concessions while the regional environment is so uncertain. I personally think that this view is shortsighted and that Israel would be more secure if it reached a fair deal with the Palestinians, but I can easily understand why even moderate Israelis would proceed with caution these days.
So what are the grounds for optimism? Well, it is possible that Netanyahu & Co. are aware of broader global trends that are working against them. The recent EU decision barring aid to organizations operating in the occupied territories was a straw in the wind, and TIAA/CREF's recent decision to divest its holding in the Israeli firm Soda Stream might be another. By reminding even hard-line Israelis that the occupation is eating away at their international acceptance, such events give even the current government some reason to think differently. And there are prominent voices inside Israel -- such as the former Shin Bet heads profiled in the documentary The Gatekeepers -- who have been sounding the alarm about where Israel may be headed.
It is also possible that Obama will show more spine than he did during his first term and that he'll get sufficient cover from groups like J Street so that he can pursue a more effective approach. That approach is going to require a combination of bribes and pressure: Kerry and Obama will have to convince both sides that a bright future is ahead of them if they can end the conflict and focus instead on economic development, but Kerry and Obama are also going to have to make it clear that things are going to get worse for both sides if they don't. The Palestinians know that already, of course, because they are the ones under occupation and dependent on international handouts. On the other side, American economic subsidies and diplomatic protection have been insulating Israel from the consequences of its own intransigent expansionism. Until that situation changes, there's little reason to expect a different outcome this time.
Still, it will be interesting to see what the terms of the new discussions are. Will the 1967 borders be viewed as the starting point for talks, albeit with the understanding that the final borders will almost certainly be different? Will anything be said about a settlement freeze? What time frame, if any, will be put on the discussions? And will either leader make a gesture designed to demonstrate a genuine interest in reaching an agreement? I don't know, but I will be looking to see whether any of the three main parties -- the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority -- does or says anything different or surprising this time around. If not, then there's no reason to expect a different outcome.
My forecast: a lot of talk, but ultimately no action. The Palestinians have nothing left to give up (save for symbolic concessions over the so-called "right to return"), and I can't see Netanyahu offering them a deal that comes even close to a viable state. And while Kerry's tenacity is admirable, I've yet to see any sign of a genuinely different U.S. approach. Remember: Assorted U.S. diplomats have spent thousands of hours going back and forth with both sides over the years and have ended up with bupkis. So I think we'll see more talks, along with more settlement building, and ultimately no agreement. And then Obama and Kerry will be gone, and another "opportunity" for peace -- if it even is one -- will have been lost.
I take no pleasure in this gloomy appraisal, and I will be genuinely delighted to be proved wrong here. I'm prepared to eat my words, but alas, I fear I won't have to.
UPDATE: The text of Kerry's statement announcing the talk is now available here. He says a lot of the right things, and I'll be curious to learn more about the "positive steps" he says both sides are taking on the ground. Words matter here, but actions usually speak louder.
Perhaps it's just the summer doldrums or the various small setbacks that second-term presidents routinely suffer. But it's hard to avoid the impression that the Obama administration's foreign policy is running out of gas, despite the arrival of a new secretary of state, a new secretary of defense, and a new national security advisor.
On Egypt, U.S. policy is neither hard-nosed realist nor a principled defense of democracy. Indeed, I can't quite figure out what the U.S. policy is except that the Egyptian generals are still going to get the customary U.S. baksheesh and the United States will do its best to nudge them into something it can plausibly defend as kinda, sorta democratic. On Syria, I'm glad the United States hasn't gone the Full McCain (defined as a blindfolded dive into a shark-infested pool), but it would be nice if someone explained to the world what U.S. policy is. On Iran, the arrival of a new, more moderate president -- something the administration was positively panting for back in 2009 -- seems to have elicited the most timid of policy responses. Instead of a serious diplomatic initiative, Americans just get to hear more lectures from Prime Minister-Who-Cries-Wolf Netanyahu, who seems to think the United States owes his country another Middle East war. (And while I'm at it, when did CBS News' Bob Schieffer forget how to ask serious questions? If he plans on retiring anytime soon, a second career hosting paid infomercials beckons).
Maybe I'm being too harsh. The transatlantic trade talks seem to have survived Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency spying in Europe, though it will be a long slog before a deal is reached. Despite the sequester, the U.S. military (especially the Special Forces) is busy partnering with foreign militaries around the world. (But am I the only person worrying that the most extensive U.S. connection to a lot of countries seems to be through their generals?). The foreign-policy bureaucracy in Washington is still busy churning out talking points for the next set of summit(s), principals' meetings, or visits from foreign dignitaries. Of course, the vast, top-secret intelligence and counterterrorism empire created after the 9/11 attacks is continuing to burn up $billions, collect gazilla-bytes of data, and Keep Us Safe against a wildly overstated threat.
Of course, compared with the challenges that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Dilma Rousseff, Xi Jinping, Manmohan Singh, François Hollande, and David Cameron are facing these days, I'll bet the view from the White House looks pretty good. But think back to where Obama started back in 2009. Remember that dizzying array of initiatives he launched back then? The Cairo speech, heralding "two states" for "two peoples"? Gone, baby, gone. The Prague speech on nuclear disarmament? There has been some modest progress, perhaps, but nothing you'd call a breakthrough. Climate change? Obama's latest set of initiatives was a step in the right direction, but mostly it proved he's still very good at making a speech. And don't get me started about Afghanistan: I'm glad the United States is finally going to get out, but it's with a whimper, not a bang (or a victory).
I know what you're thinking. Isn't he always complaining that the United States is trying to do too much in international affairs? And didn't I recently label Obama a "buck-passer" and suggest that this isn't such a bad approach for this particular period of U.S. foreign policy? So if the United States is "running on empty" these days, why am I not rejoicing?
Here's why. I'm certainly pleased that the United States isn't doing foolish things like invading Syria or bombing Iran. But that doesn't mean there aren't other areas where greater energy, effort, and focus are needed. What I don't see is a clear sense of what the administration is trying to accomplish in the time it has left in office, or a well-developed strategy for reaching those goals (whatever they might be). Barack Obama's administration had lots of good instincts from the very beginning, but it never developed a clear set of strategic priorities (i.e., what steps would bring the American people the greatest benefits in terms of security and prosperity) or a well-articulated program of initiatives designed to accomplish those ends. And surely we know by now that a really well-crafted Obama speech is not by itself a policy or a strategy; at best it can be one element of the PR campaign.
So I'd like some reporter with more access than I have to ask the president, Susan Rice, or maybe John Kerry the following question: What are the two most important foreign-policy objectives that you intend to achieve by the time you leave office in January 2017? Follow-up: How are you going to use American power and influence to ensure you succeed?
Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Smart statecraft is sometimes opportunistic. No government can anticipate every twist and turn in global politics; the question is whether it can seize the moment when one arrives and advance the national interest in new, unexpected circumstances.
So it is with the recent ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This is an opportunity for the United States to do something it should have done a long time ago -- namely, end its unjustified military aid packages to Egypt and Israel. Robert Wright and Andrew Sullivan have raised this issue in different ways over the past week; here I want to explore the connection between the two aid programs.
In essence, the current level of U.S. aid to Egypt and Israel is a bribe dating back to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel demanded a long-term aid commitment in exchange for withdrawing from the Sinai, which it had occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt got the money as a reward for making peace and realigning with the West. The United States made a bunch of other commitments as part of this deal, and it has been locked in ever since, which is why recent events provide a tempting opportunity to restore U.S. freedom of action.
Let's start with Egypt. U.S. law prohibits the U.S. government from providing aid to any government that has taken power as the result of a military coup. Unless you torture the English language to the breaking point, this is precisely what has just happened in Egypt. So if you believe in the rule of law, the United States ought to be terminating its aid program.
But as Robert Wright tweeted on July 8, it would make a lot more sense to convert the current military aid program into something more useful, such as food aid. The last thing Egypt needs is more high-priced toys for its generals, like F-22s or tanks or even armored personnel carriers. Nobody is threatening to invade Egypt, and most of these weapons aren't all that useful for keeping public order. What Egypt needs is more-effective government, less corruption, economic growth, lower food prices, more reliable water and energy supplies, etc., etc. -- not more sophisticated or well-armed conventional military forces. The coup is an opportunity to end an aid program that outlived its usefulness a long time ago, and the United States ought to seize it.
Now for Israel. At this point there's no valid strategic reason for Israel to receive $3 billion to $4 billion in U.S. aid each year (most of it in various forms of military assistance). Israel isn't a poor country; its per capita income is nearly $30,000 per year, and it ranks in the world's top 30 countries on that indicator. Israel is far and away the dominant military power in the region, and its regional superiority would only increase if the United States stopped subsidizing Egypt's armed forces. Remember that Israel won the 1948, 1956, and 1967 Middle East wars, and each of these took place before the U.S. government was providing it with lots of military assistance. Egypt and Syria launched a stunningly successful surprise attack in October 1973, yet Israel eventually won that war too. And this was back in the bad old days when Israel's Arab adversaries were getting lots of help from the Soviet Union. Israel's various neighbors are much weaker today than they used to be (just look at the condition that Syria and Iraq are now in), and Israel also has the ultimate deterrent in the form of more than a hundred nuclear weapons. And as President Barack Obama learned during his first term, it's not like the United States gets any diplomatic leverage from giving Israel all that money. Bottom line: The case for continued U.S. military assistance is laughably weak.
So instead of military aid that Israel doesn't need and that serves only as an indirect subsidy for the settlements the United States opposes, the United States should offer Israel an equivalent amount of aid, provided it agrees to use the money to begin dismantling settlements in the West Bank and allowing the Palestinians to create a viable state of their own on these lands. That would be consistent with the stated U.S. objective of "two states for two peoples," and this shift in policy might actually get Netanyahu & Co. to pay serious attention to Secretary of State John Kerry the next time he pops in for a visit. (I don't think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would take the money and do this, by the way, but that's another issue).
In short, the events in Cairo are a perfect opportunity to wean these two dependencies off the U.S. dole or to convert U.S. assistance into something from which these two societies could actually benefit. This shift would also do wonders for the America's image in the region, which has taken a beating over the years for being too supportive of an expansionist Israel and too supportive of unpopular Arab dictatorships.
But we all know that a sensible response like this is about as likely as snow on the pyramids. The United States' Middle East policy isn't driven by rational calculations of the national interest or by a desire to make the United States stronger, more secure, or more prosperous. It's not even driven by moral considerations, given that the United States still provides generous support to governments that routinely commit serious human rights abuses or deny political rights to millions of people. Instead, it's driven mostly by domestic politics, especially the political power of AIPAC and the rest of the Israel lobby. And that's why the phrase "sensible U.S. Middle East policy" has become an oxymoron. The results, both for the United States and for the various peoples in the region, speak for themselves.
EPA/ABED AL HAFIZ HASHLAMOUN
As some of you may know, I published an op-ed today in the Financial Times, arguing that President Barack Obama should stop trying to apprehend Edward Snowden and offer him a presidential pardon instead. I argue that Snowden acted from laudable motives -- indeed, ones that are consistent with Obama's own emphasis on the need for "We, the People" to defend individual liberty and conduct open, transparent government. And unlike Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard, and other spies, Snowden didn't sell his information to a foreign government. I also argue that Snowden did a public service by informing us of the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance and exposing the inadequate oversight of these programs. Indeed, history warns that sooner or later a vast, secret system of surveillance will eventually be used for selfish purposes. Lastly, I suggest that even if he broke the law, he is as deserving of pardon as Richard Nixon, the Iran-Contra miscreants, or some of the other convicted felons whom Obama has already spared.
There is another reason Obama might decide that a pardon is in order. If Snowden goes into exile overseas, he is likely to remain a polarizing figure and even a martyr for years to come. By contrast, if he is pardoned, he is unlikely to attract much attention in the future. He will never again have access to government secrets, and there is little reason to believe that his views on other subjects will attract that much attention. From a purely pragmatic point of view (which is Obama's stock in trade), pardoning him might be the best way to put this incident behind us and move forward. Isn't that the reason Obama & Co. also declined to prosecute any Bush-era officials for authorizing torture?
Every year on the Fourth of July I sit down and read the Declaration of Independence. It's a habit I got into some years ago, but I take a peculiar pleasure in reading through the founding principles of the American Revolution, archaic language and all. In these days of creeping executive power, supine journalism, and reflexive threat-inflation, it's a valuable reminder that governments exist to serve the people -- and not the other way around.
On this Independence Day, I am wondering what the Founding Fathers would have made of Edward Snowden. The question is obviously a bit absurd, as they could hardly have imagined something like the Internet, or even the telephone, back in 1776. But they would have understood the ability of a government to seize the mail and to investigate and harass those suspected of disloyalty. And they surely would have understood the concept of risking one's future for the sake of one's ideals.
It is of course possible that they would have seen Snowden as some members of Congress do, as a man who betrayed his country by releasing classified information. But isn't it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit -- someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.
Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.
The United States can no longer protect the country's security with a citizen militia, of course, and a permanent defense establishment has become a necessary evil in the competitive world of contemporary international politics. But the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.
Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden's idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.
I've been in France for the past three days, attending a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." I plan on blogging about that event later this week, but first a few comments about the surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani as the next president of Iran.
I suspect that almost everyone will interpret his election as a vindication of whatever position they held before any votes were cast. Hard-liners who have pushed for ever-tighter sanctions and threats of war will claim that the election is a sign that ordinary Iranians are saying uncle and want the government to do whatever is necessary to end Iran's isolation and encourage economic recovery. So naturally the hawks will call for more of the same. Alternatively, those who have called for engaging Iran and who have defended the legitimacy of the Iranian republic will see this surprising result as evidence that there is real democracy there, however truncated or constrained. And they will of course see this as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Perhaps the only person who will be seriously disappointed by the outcome is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bound to miss the less-than-competent and reliably cartoonish figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's irresponsible and offensive comments about Israel and the Holocaust made it easy to demonize the entire country and helped keep the idea of preventive war on the front burner. Rowhani is hardly a softie on the nuclear question or on regional security issues, but he's likely to be much harder to portray as a bloodthirsty Persian version of Hitler.
Rowhani's election also presents the kind of political opening that Barack Obama's administration hoped would emerge from the last Iranian presidential election, way back in 2009. Having extended a (very) tentative hand of friendship when he first took office, Obama was undoubtedly crossing his fingers for Ahmadinejad to lose and be replaced by a more moderate figure. The hope was that a more moderate president in Tehran would respond positively to Obama's overtures and that Ahmadinejad's departure would reduce domestic opposition to a less confrontational approach to Tehran. Instead, we got the contested election of 2009 and a harsh government crackdown against the Green Movement, developments that made it harder for both the United States and Iran to pursue an alternative course.
Although Rowhani's election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal.
Given the calcified layers of mistrust between these Iran and the United States -- dating back for decades now -- achieving a deal on the nuclear question and a broader improvement of relations will require both patience and political courage by both sides. Iran is not -- repeat not -- going to give up possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle, so the United States will have to accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power. Iran will have to accept strict limits on its program and will have to find ways to reassure its neighbors and the United States about its nuclear and regional ambitions.
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
And then there's the supreme leader, whose views and preferences remain something of a mystery. But not a complete mystery, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said he would judge the Obama administration not by its words but by its deeds. This is a perfectly sensible position, of course, and it is also how the United States ought to judge Iran. But that means that if U.S. policy doesn't change, and if it keeps making the same demands and employing the same tools (i.e., sanctions), we can be confident that nothing will change. And Obama's decision last week to send small arms to the rebels in Syria is hardly a step likely to make Iran feel better about Washington's regional objectives.
I could be wrong about all this, of course, but so far no one has ever lost money betting on Iran and America's seemingly infinite capacity to misread the other and thereby maintain their mostly irrational and counterproductive enmity. As is so often the case these days, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
You might think that you don't need to worry about the secret U.S. government programs to collect phone and Internet information on ordinary Americans, a program that is not quite so secret after last week's revelations. There are over 300 million Americans, after all, and the vast majority of their online and cell-phone communications have nothing to do with national security and are unlikely to attract any scrutiny. We are still some ways from Big Brother, "Minority Report," or "The Adjustment Bureau," and maybe we can trust the nameless, largely anonymous army of defense contractors and government employees (by one source numbering more than 800,000) to handle all that data responsibly. Yeah, right.
In fact, you should be worried, but not because most of you are likely to have your privacy violated and be publicly exposed. If you're an ordinary citizen who never does anything to attract any particular attention, you probably don't need to be concerned. Even if your Internet and phone records contain information you'd rather not be made public (an online flirtation, the time you emailed a friend to bring over some pot, or maybe some peculiar porn habits), there's safety in numbers, and you'll probably never be exposed.
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?
My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Vigorous debate on key issues is essential to a healthy democracy, and it is essential that outsiders be able to scrutinize and challenge what public officials are up to. People who work for the federal, state, and local governments aren't privileged overlords to whom we owe obeisance; in a democracy, they are public servants who work for us. Right now, however, there are hundreds of thousands of public servants (including private contractors with fat government contracts) who are busy collecting information about every one of us. Citizens don't have similar resources to devote to watching what our elected and appointment officials are doing, so we must rely on journalists, academics, and other independent voices to ferret out wrongdoing, government malfeasance, corruption, or just plain honest mistakes. But if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before -- and via completely legal means -- then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.
In short, the real reason you should be worried about these revelations of government surveillance is not that you're likely to be tracked, prosecuted, or exposed. You should be worried because it is another step in the process of making our vibrant, contentious, and most of all free-minded citizenry into a nation of sheep.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.