The ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is generating a variety of post-mortems and reflections from many of the participants in the pre-war debate. Andrew Sullivan has been especially forthright in acknowledging his own errors during that time and has a lively thread up and running probing what some famous people like Bill Clinton had to say on the matter a decade or so ago.
Going to war is a fateful decision for any country, but it is now clear that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment performed abysmally during the run-up to the war. Top officials in the Bush administration told several important lies to bolster the case for war, such as the claim that there was no doubt Iraq had WMD -- indeed, they said they knew where they were - -and the charge that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda.
The majority of prominent Democrats and plenty of card-carrying liberals backed the war as well. Indeed, almost all of the top foreign policy officials in Obama's first term were vocal supporters of the invasion, with the president himself being a notable exception. Denizens of the usual Washington think-tanks -- including supposedly "moderate" organizations like Brookings and bipartisan organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations -- were also filled with pro-war cheerleaders. The same was true of the New York Times and Washington Post, whose editors and reporters swallowed the Bush team's sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. All in all, the decision to invade was taken with a degree of carelessness and callowness unworthy of any country with pretensions to global leadership. And one should never forget that this reckless decision cost more than $1 trillion and led to thousands of American battlefield casualties and many ruined lives. Of course, the Iraqi people have suffered even more over the past decade.
But not everyone thought invading Iraq was a good idea. In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, "War with Iraq is Not in America's National Interest." You can read the original ad here. It is striking how accurate its warnings were. At the risk of sounding like I am bragging, I was one of the signatories, although I certainly take no pleasure in having anticipated the trouble ahead. It would have been better for the United States, not to mention Iraq, if the hawks had been proven right. Sadly, this was not to be.
As the ten-year anniversary nears, I want to call attention to the other people who signed the ad and helped pay for its publication. Some of them are no longer with us, but their prescience and their willingness to resist the stampede for war should not go unremembered. Here are the other signatories, with their professional affiliations at the time.
Robert Art, Brandeis
Richard Betts, Columbia
Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia
Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky
Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas
Alexander L. George, Stanford
Charles Glaser, University of Chicago
Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State
George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky
Robert Jervis, Columbia
Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh
Carl Kaysen, MIT
Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington
Deborah Larson, UCLA
Jack S. Levy, Rutgers
Peter Liberman, Queen's College
John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
Steven E. Miller, Harvard University
Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern
Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago
Barry R. Posen, MIT
Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley
George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland
Richard Rosecrance, UCLA
Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland
Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State
Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina
Jack L. Snyder, Columbia
Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland
Stephen Van Evera, MIT
Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia
Cindy Williams, MIT
It is worth noting that none of the signatories on this list has held a government position since then, and my guess is that none is likely to do so in the future. Instead, it is mostly people who backed the war who have occupied key policymaking positions in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Even today, a reputation for hawkishness is a prerequisite for being taken seriously in Washington.
Policymakers and pundits love to disparage "ivory-tower" academics for being aloof, out-of-touch, or insufficiently sensitive to how the real world works. Sometimes those charges are valid. But in this case -- and many others -- it was the "experts" inside-the-Beltway who got it tragically wrong and the academics who got it right.
Postscript: A subsequent effort to critique the Bush administration's handling of the war -- organized under the aegis of "Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy" -- produced an open letter signed by 851 people. The text is here; an account of this group's activities can be found here.
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The Republican Party is big on leadership these days, and especially fond of demanding that the United States "lead from the front."This was a central theme in of John McCain's recent sally right here at Foreign Policy, as well as Condoleezza Rice's speech at the GOP convention in Tampa. Among other things, it reminds us that the Republican Party's foreign policy gurus aren't very good strategists. (The Bush administration's disastrous handling of foreign policy showed this all too clearly, but it's nice to have a reminder).
In fact, the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy.
The United States would be well-served by a more selective approach to "global leadership." It is not a foreign policy achievement when the United States gets stuck dealing with an intractable quagmire like Afghanistan -- at a cost of a half a trillion dollars and 2,000 lives -- or when it finds itself waging drone wars in half a dozen countries. A real achievement would have been to find a way to shift the burden of this problem onto others, and especially onto the backs of potential U.S. adversaries. We congratulate ourselves on finally tracking down Osama bin Laden, but the real winners over the past decade have been countries like China, which have concentrated on building up power at home while the United States bled itself white in a series of pointless foreign adventures.
Furthermore, America's reflexive urge to be in charge has other negative consequences. It has allowed our most important allies to free-ride for decades, to the point that they are increasingly liabilities rather than assets. NATO's European members spend a mere 1.7 percent on average on defense these days (and that number is going down), and none of these countries can mount a serious military operation anywhere without a lot of American help. Why? Because Uncle Sucker has spent the last 50 years doing it for them. Much the same story is true in Asia, where countries like Japan want lots of American protection but don't want to spend any money defending themselves. Washington ends up with not with allies but with dependents, and we see it as a victory whenever some new country requires our protection.
This demand that the United States constantly "lead from the front" also makes it easier for other states to drag us into their quarrels. Georgia tried to sucker us into its dispute with Russia a few years ago (and if McCain had been in charge, it would have succeeded), and Israel is still trying to get America to bomb Iran on its behalf. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to push the United States to confront China over issues like the South China Sea, and everybody seems to think the United States should "do something" about Syria. Perhaps we should, but first you need to explain why doing any of these things will make Americans safer or more prosperous here at home, and then you need to convince me that the countries who have a lot more at stake aren't up to the task. And if some other country wants me to spend American money and risk American lives, they'd better have a lot of skin in the game, too. Finally, if weaker countries want to demand my protection, they'd better be willing to follow my advice on other issues. Otherwise, they're on their own.
Don't get me wrong: in some cases the United States should be actively involved and it should exercise a leadership role. It is still the world's most powerful country, and a return to isolationism would have destabilizing consequences in some areas. But our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.
It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.
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Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has an op-ed in the Financial Times today, where she argues that America must overcome its "reluctance to lead." Given her own track record between 2001 and 2008, when she played a key role in a series of foreign policy disasters and rang up precious few genuine achievements, one might wonder why anybody would place much stock in her counsel today. But her piece is in fact quite valuable for underscoring the dearth of genuine strategic thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days.
Strategy is about relating ends and means, setting priorities, and manipulating critical global forces to one's own advantage. Even for a global superpower like the United States, an effective strategy depends on separating the vital from the trivial, and the realistic from the fanciful. It requires deciding which goals are most important, and then using the resources at one's disposal to try to achieve them. And most importantly, it often consists of figuring out how to get other countries to help, and maybe even inducing them to do most of the work. Indeed, getting other states to shoulder costly or difficult burdens is the hallmark of a smart strategy, because it helps you husband your own resources, stay out of costly quagmires, and focus on missions that are more critical. American leaders used to understand this basic principle before we started telling ourselves we were the "indispensable" nation and starting seeing it as some sort of foreign policy achievement when we got stuck with some intractable foreign problem.
Rice will have none of this, however, so her piece mostly consists of the typical laundry list of regions and issues where she believes the United States must shoulder the main burden. In her view, it is mostly our job to build democratic institutions in the Middle East. She also thinks we need to "re-engage" with Iraq (whatever that means), and use our trade policy to "help democracies" in Latin America. She favors creating a Palestinian state but thinks it will only come about via negotiations with a secure Israel, never mind that she gave Israel unconditional support for eight years and got bupkis. She supports the recent "pivot" toward Asia but thinks we aren't doing enough to counter a Chinese economic offensive. She says we need to do more to build strategic partnerships with Turkey, India, and Brazil, without saying what we should do to bring about closer ties or explaining what these countries will then do for us. She invokes the perennial bogeyman of declining U.S. credibility and says America must do more to "reassure our friends across the globe."
To achieve these (and other) goals, she says, "the American people have to be inspired to lead again." What exactly does this phrase mean? What specific "leadership" tasks require a renewed commitment from our citizenry? Does she mean Americans have to be convinced to forgo investments here at home so we can continue to meddle (oops, I mean "lead") abroad? Does she believe (contrary to Mitt Romney) that Americans need to be "inspired" to sacrifice by paying more taxes so that we can maintain our present military and eventually balance the budget? Or does she mean the American people should be "inspired" to attack Iran, as she once helped persuade them to invade Iraq? Must we be "inspired" to devote new moneys to the mostly futile pursuit of drug lords all over the world? Or maybe we need to be "inspired" to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, even if that requires some inconvenient adjustments in the U.S. lifestyle.
In fact, Rice isn't really talking about convincing the American people to lead; she's really saying they need to be "inspired" to follow whatever missions foreign policy mandarins like Rice dream up. And the usual way the mandarins do this is by hyping threats, exaggerating their own omniscience, and insisting that other countries are incapable of taking effective action if Americans aren't there in the cockpit telling them what to do.
In fact, although the American people occasionally succumb to ill-conceived foreign policy adventures, they usually have pretty good instincts about our global role. No mainstream politician is calling for isolationism today, and the American people aren't demanding it either. Americans want to remain the world's most powerful country for as long as possible, and they recognize that some foreign commitments are prudent and beneficial. The blunders that occurred on Ms. Rice's watch have constrained U.S. power somewhat, but Americans still favor global engagement. What they don't like are misguided adventures that result in costly failures. Too bad the FT didn't ask her to write about how we can avoid those.
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This month marks the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless of your views on the wisdom of that decision, it's fair to say the results were not what most Americans expected. Now that the war is officially over and most U.S. forces have withdrawn, what lessons should Americans (and others) draw from the experience? There are many lessons that one might learn, of course, but here are my Top 10 Lessons from the Iraq War.
Lesson #1: The United States lost. The first and most important lesson of Iraq war is that we didn't win in any meaningful sense of that term. The alleged purpose of the war was eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but it turns out he didn't have any. Oops. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran's position in the Persian Gulf -- which is hardly something the United States intended -- and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan), and it made the United States much less popular around the world.
This lesson is important because supporters of the war are already marketing a revisionist version. In this counter-narrative, the surge in 2007 was a huge success (it wasn't, because it failed to produce political reconciliation) and Iraq is now on the road to stable and prosperous democracy. And the costs weren't really that bad. Another variant of this myth is the idea that President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus had "won" the war by 2008, but President Barack Obama then lost it by getting out early. This view ignores the fact that the Bush administration negotiated the 2008 Status of Forces agreement that set the timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and Obama couldn't stay in Iraq once the Iraqi government made it clear it wanted us out.
The danger of this false narrative is obvious: if Americans come to see the war as a success -- which it clearly wasn't -- they may continue to listen to the advice of its advocates and be more inclined to repeat similar mistakes in the future.
Read the entire piece here.
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One of the nice things about writing for Foreign Policy is the energy and creativity of its leadership, as exemplified by their relentless quest for new publishing innovations. Just yesterday, for example, FP launched a new fiction section, clearly intended to highlight writing on international affairs that doesn't have much basis in reality.
I refer, of course, to Elliott Abrams' brief essay entitled "A Forward Strategy of Freedom," where he argues that neoconservative ideas and policies are responsible for the "Arab Spring." It's been apparent for a long time that being a neoconservative means never having to say you're sorry (or even admit that you're wrong), but this essay displayed a degree of historical amnesia unusual even by neoconservative standards. It's not really worth a sustained critique, so I'll just make a few quick points.
First, there's no evidence that the Bush administration's "forward strategy for freedom" had anything to do with the Tunisian's fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi's tragic decision to set himself afire, an act of protest that started the wave of upheavals that has convulsed much of the Arab world ever since. Or is Abrams' suggesting that Bush's 2nd inaugural inspired Bouazizi? More tellingly, neither the liberal forces that drove much of the uprisings against the Mubarak regime nor the Islamic forces that have profited most from Mubarak's departure give credit to Bush & co. for inspiring their efforts. And it's not hard to see why: both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Egyptian Salafis have been anathema for the neocons from the get-go.
Second, the entire neoconservative strategy for spreading democracy depended heavily on U.S. military power, and it focused almost entirely on countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The Bush administration in which Abrams served continued to coddle Mubarak, the Saudis, and America's other authoritarian allies, for the same reasons that previous administrations did. The Arab spring emerged elsewhere, however, and had little to do with the deployment of American military power. Obama's Cairo speech is a far more plausible candidate in this regard (though I'd have my doubts about its impact too), but strangely, Abrams doesn't mention it.
Meanwhile, in the one place where the neocon strategy was fully implemented -- Iraq -- it was a colossal failure. The United States spent trillions of dollars and thousands of its soldiers' lives, and the end result is a deeply divided society and a dysfunctional political system that is drifting steadily back towards authoritarian rule and is at least partly aligned with Iran. So what were the neocons right about?
Third, the neoconservative hypocrisy about democracy was exposed in 2006, when the United States refused to accept Hamas' victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. You don't have to like Hamas or its charter to concede that they won the election fair and square, but that didn't stop the Bush administration from ignoring the outcome completely. In fact, Abrams subsequently tried to foment a Fatah coup against Hamas in Gaza, only to have his putative allies routed and discredited. Another neocon blunder, in short. And isn't it a bit odd that this deeply committed apostle of democracy has no problem with Israel continuing to violate the human rights of the millions of Palestinians it controls via its illegal occupation of the West Bank and its continued restrictions on movement in Gaza? Why isn't he pressing Israel to either give these people the right to vote, or to let them have a viable state of their own so that they can vote there? Some neoconservatives (e.g., Paul Wolfowitz) have been sympathetic to such aspirations, but as far as I know Abrams is not one of them.
Finally, let's not lose sight of all the other things that neoconservatives got wrong. They were wrong about Saddam's WMD. They were wrong about his alleged links to Al Qaeda. They were wrong that the occupation of Iraq would pay for itself. They were wrong that it would be easy to create democracy there once Saddam was gone. And given America's toxic image in much of the Arab world, they were wrong to believe that fostering democracy in the Arab world would create legitimate and pro-American regimes.
Weighed in the balance, therefore, the neocons got far more wrong than right, and it would be refreshing if they'd just man up and admit it.
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As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cleans out his desk and heads for retirement, Ido Oren of the University of Florida highlights what might have been his most important accomplishment: preventing a war with Iran. Money quotation:
"This scenario [of war with Iran] failed to materialize because the political forces pushing for active consideration of the military option -- Vice President Dick Cheney's camp in the George W. Bush White House, hawkish pundits, key congressional leaders and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- have been outmaneuvered by an informal antiwar coalition that included the Pentagon, the military's top brass, the intelligence community and the Department of State.
This coalition was ably led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is stepping down from his post at the end of the month. If one person were to receive the top credit for preventing an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, it would be Gates."
This non-incident also reminds us that sometimes policymakers succeed not by achieving some positive goal, but by helping produce a "non-event"; in this case, preventing the dogs of war from barking. Those who'd like the United States to be at odds with the entire Muslim world for the next century or so are probably disappointed that we didn't add Iran to the list that now includes Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya (and arguably, Pakistan), but the rest of us should be grateful for this rare bit of sanity.
I'm generally not inclined to take issue with my FP colleagues, but David Kenner's recent posting on the WikiLeaks release of a cable recounting Saddam Hussein's infamous meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie deserves a response.
In an article headlined "Why One U.S. Diplomat Didn't Cause the Gulf War," Kenner argues that the new release shows that Glaspie should not be blamed for the U.S. failure to make a clear deterrent warning to Saddam. And that is what he accuses me and John Mearsheimer (and the Washington Post) of doing. In his words, "the Washington Post described her as ‘the face of American incompetence in Iraq.' Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie's remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait."
I agree that the WikiLeaks release may exonerate Glaspie for being personally responsible for a diplomatic gaffe, but there are two problems with Kenner's version of events.
First, we never accused Glaspie of diplomatic incompetence, and we certainly didn't "pile on." Here's what we actually said in our 2003 piece:
In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.' The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."
Notice that we offered no opinion on whether Glaspie was free-lancing, mis-reading Saddam, or simply following orders from Washington. Our article was focused on the issue of whether Saddam was deterrable, and the key issue that concerned us about the Glaspie meeting was whether she had conveyed a clear deterrent threat to Saddam, or whether she might have unintentionally given him reason to think he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait without facing a strong military response from the United States.
While I've been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I'd be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn't take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works.
The first is a big article in the latest issue of The National Interest, entitled "Imperial by Design." The article offers a compelling explanation for America's recent foreign policy failures, which he traces to the excesses and errors of the Clinton-era "liberal imperialists" and Bush-era neoconservatives. (Not surprisingly, Obama seems to be following the former's blueprint in most respects). Both groups sought to use American power to shape the world in our image, although Clinton did so rather gingerly while Bush & Co. did so with reckless abandon. This ambitious and largely bipartisan attempt to manage the entire globe ultimately led to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a costly squandering of American power. Mearsheimer proposes a return to the earlier U.S. strategy of "offshore balancing," a strategy that would protect America's core interests at far less cost and generate less anti-American extremism. Ideally, this article ought to begin a long-overdue debate on the fundamentals of American grand strategy, but I'm not at all sure that it will. At this point there are too many people inside-the-Beltway with a vested interest in a global military footprint, and little interest in examining its do footprint, and little interest in examining the downside to this posture.
I hope that all of the people who helped push the UnitedStates to invade Iraq in 2003 read the front-page story in Sunday's New YorkTimes about a courageous soldier, Specialist Brendan Marrocco. It is heart-breaking. He lostboth arms and both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq and is now in rehabilitation. Tens of thousands of others havesuffered or died in that unnecessary and foolish war. Marrocco's story, however, brings us face-to-face with war's horrible consequences and reminds us of the price that is paid when policymakers blunder into war.
I can't help but wonder what George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, James Woolsey, and Doug Feith will think when they read about the damage done to Specialist Marrocco's life and his family? Do they feel a secret shame, which they are too proud or afraid to voice? Do they have any regrets for the pain that they have caused him? Do they still believe they were right, even though so many Iraqi and American lives have been shattered, and Iraq is still a wreck of a country? Or do they simply turn the page without reflecting on the consequences of their actions, and hope that the rest of us will forget the role they played?
Wars are sometimes necessary, but that was certainly not true of the Iraq war. War should always be a last resort, because many of those who get caught up in the maelstrom suffer and die. The decision to send our armed forces into combat should never be made in a half-baked way. The decision should only come after there has been a vigorous and serious public debate about the costs, benefits, and possible alternatives to fighting.
Of course, that is not what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war. Instead, we went to war on March 19, 2003 because a narrow clique of neo-conservatives dreamed up a bizarre scheme to "transform" the Middle East by spreading democracy across the region at the end of a rifle barrel, and eventually managed to sell that idea to a naïve and gullible president. We went to war because the Bush administration and its friends in the media and Congress deceived us about the dangers Iraq posed, and because they misled us about how easy it would be to win a decisive victory and exit Iraq. We went to war because the mainstream media, which is heavily into cultivating favor with influential policymakers, hardly ever asked our leaders hard questions about the case for war. Indeed, many influential pundits became enthusiastic cheerleaders for the invasion. We went to war because many politicians in both parties were so worried about their careers that they were afraid to raise doubts about the war, even though some of them had serious reservations about whether we would succeed. And we went to war because experts who craved influence in Washington or future careers in government wanted to show how tough and resolute they were.
The United States is a remarkably powerful and sheltered country, which is why it can afford to fight stupid wars in places like Iraq and Vietnam at only modest cost to its overall security. But we should never forget the human cost of these follies, which are paid by brave patriots like Brendan Marrocco as well as the 58,000-plus names on the Vietnam Memorial. And when the same people start telling us we need to attack someone else, we should remember just how foolish and ignorant their advice was in 2002 and remind ourselves that they show no sign of either learning or remorse.
Probably the most controversial claim in my work with John Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby is our argument that it played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Even some readers who were generally sympathetic to our overall position found that claim hard to accept, and some left-wing critics accused us of letting Bush and Cheney off the hook or of ignoring the importance of other interests, especially oil. Of course, Israel's defenders in the lobby took issue even more strenuously, usually by mischaracterizing our arguments and ignoring most (if not all) of the evidence we presented.
So I hope readers will forgive me if I indulge today in a bit of self-promotion, or more precisely, self-defense. This week, yet another piece of evidence surfaced that suggests we were right all along (HT to Mehdi Hasan at the New Statesman and J. Glatzer at Mondoweiss). In his testimony to the Iraq war commission in the U.K., former Prime Minister Tony Blair offered the following account of his discussions with Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Blair reveals that concerns about Israel were part of the equation and that Israel officials were involved in those discussions.
Take it away, Tony:
As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this."
Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war.
Blair's comments fit neatly with the argument we make about the lobby and Iraq. Specifically, Professor Mearsheimer and I made it clear in our article and especially in our book that the idea of invading Iraq originated in the United States with the neoconservatives, and not with the Israeli government. But as the neoconservative pundit Max Boot once put it, steadfast support for Israel is "a key tenet of neoconservatism." Prominent neo-conservatives occupied important positions in the Bush administration, and in the aftermath of 9/11, they played a major role in persuading Bush and Cheney to back a war against Iraq, which they had been advocating since the late 1990s. We also pointed out that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials were initially skeptical of this scheme, because they wanted the U.S. to focus on Iran, not Iraq. However, they became enthusiastic supporters of the idea of invading Iraq once the Bush administration made it clear to them that Iraq was just the first step in a broader campaign of "regional transformation" that would eventually include Iran.
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I'm still on the road (about which more later), but have been trying to keep up with the news, most notably the tragic events in Haiti. As Yglesias says, Haiti has been "one of the unluckiest countries on earth," and it's especially heartbreaking that this earthquake occurred after several years of genuine progress. That progress, one might add, was facilitated by the U.N. peacekeeping mission, one of those unheralded episodes that habitual critics of the U.N. ought to reflect upon. I don't think the U.N. is the answer to all the world's problems or an institution that can prevent major powers from pursuing their interests, but it does do a lot of good around the world and shouldn't be bashed just for sport, or because of cockamamie fears about mythical black helicopters, alleged threats to U.S. sovereignty, or other staples of rightwing paranoia.
The obvious thing for the United States (and the world community) to do is respond quickly, effectively, and generously. The Bush administration's initial response to the Indian Ocean tsunami was initially quite niggardly (our first pledge of aid was a paltry $15 million or so), but Bush & Co. eventually got its act together and the U.S. Navy in particular performed very effective relief operations in Indonesia. Some accounts credit the Navy's effort with helping reverse the slide in America's image in that country, which had fallen to very low numbers before the disaster struck. So this is a case where we can do good for beleaguered Haitians and for ourselves by responding rapidly and generously, and it appears that the Obama administration is trying to do the right thing from the start this time.
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Am I the only person who sees a parallel between the furor over the Scottish decision to release convicted Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, and the heated debate over whether to investigate possible criminal misconduct during the Bush administration "torture regime?"
With respect to the former, many people are upset by the decision to release al-Megrahi -- who has terminal prostate cancer and only a few months to live -- because they do not think an act of mercy was warranted in his case. Fair enough; reasonable people can legitimately disagree about whether the dying man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing deserves any form of clemency. But the real anger stems from the suspicion that al-Megrahi's release was part of some larger deal, and that British officials traded the release for commercial or political advantages. In other words, opponents of the decision to release him are incensed because they believe government officials let broader political or business considerations interfere with an important issue of criminal justice.
Yet those who oppose an open-ended investigation into what the Bush administration did -- which might eventually lead to the prosecution of top officials -- are doing the same thing for which British officials are being criticized: they are saying that politics should outweigh the requirements of law and justice. In essence, they are saying that broader political considerations should trump the normal operations of the criminal justice system. Yet I suspect most of the people making this argument would be outraged if it turned out that the British government decided to release al Megrahi in part to cultivate Libyan business or secure other political advantages.
For a country that claims to revere the "rule of law," this really isn't a hard issue conceptually. Attorney General Holder's task is to determine whether laws may have been broken, and whether an investigation of the alleged wrongdoing is warranted. Once that investigation has been conducted, he then has decide if he has a strong enough case to warrant prosecution. If he thinks he does, the case goes forward, and defendants get their day in court. Politics isn't supposed to have anything to do with this process (though a sensible prosecutor would probably be especially reluctant to bring a weak case against prominent senior officials). Finally, if any defendants are found guilty, the president could then step in and issue a pardon, if he felt that doing so was in the best interests of the nation.
Note that it is still possible to criticize and debate every aspect of this process, but not by invoking partisanship, political expediency, or the need to "look forward rather than backward." People can disagree about whether there is enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant further investigation (though I think the recent revelations make it hard to make the case that there is simply no basis for a further investigation). If AG Holder decides to indict anyone, or if he declines to do so, people will undoubtedly disagree about what he should have done so based on the available evidence. And if the cases go to trial we can argue about them too. If the defendants are acquitted, people will say the case should never have been brought; if convicted, some will claim they were railroaded. If people are convicted and the president pardons them, no doubt there would be heated discussions about whether this was appropriate or not.
But the key point is that if you genuinely believe in the rule of law, you can't invoke political expediency as a guide to whether possible crimes should be investigated and prosecuted. And the fact that the Attorney-General has decided to go forward should be seen as very positive sign, because it shows that he is willing to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities even if it is politically inconvenient for the president who appointed him. I have no doubt that the president would prefer to "look forward," because an investigation and/or prosecution will drive both the CIA and the right-wing media types crazy and because he's got enough alligators to wrestle with already. But he also promised us that he would end the politicization of the Department of Justice that his predecessor practiced, and Holder's decision, however inconvenient for Obama, is a reassuring sign that there is still life in the U.S. Constitution.
Am I being -- shall we say, unrealistic -- to stress the rule of law as opposed to the naked exercise of political power? Hardly. Realists have a rather dim view of human nature, which is why we like legitimate, well-ordered governments in which laws and checks and balances exist to keep human frailties in check. The Founding Fathers had a lot of realist instincts, so they constructed a variety of essentially liberal institutions to try to address and contain our worst instincts. Domestic politics in a well-ordered society is a lot nicer than life in the international system, which conspicuously lacks strong institutions and where the rule of law is weak. And that's why we ought to defend the rule of law in this case (and others), and try hard to keep politics out of the discussion.
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
I'm a bit puzzled by the flap over revelations that the Bush administration approved a secret CIA program to send assassination teams overseas to kill suspected al Qaeda leaders. I understand the concerns about the absence of Congressional oversight, but three aspects of the case strike me as odd.
First, although the Bush administration should be criticized for not informing Congress, this is one case where key officials seem to have realized that the proposed program wasn't really feasible and decided not to implement it. Because examples of competent national security decision-making by the Bush team were few and far-between, shouldn’t we give them a smidge of credit for NOT sending some unfortunate Jack Bauer on a foolish mission?
Second, for those who are outraged to learn that the United States was planning to assassinate suspected terrorists leader, please explain to me the difference between sending in an assassination team to kill a suspected al Qaeda member, and sending a Predator or Reaper drone into some remote area to do the same thing? The target is just as dead no matter what instrument is used, and as we have already seen on several occasions, the risk to innocent civilians and the danger of various forms of blowback is probably greater when the U.S. uses unmanned drones. Moreover, both responses are essentially extra-judicial executions: the potential targets are suspected of being "enemy combatants" but that hasn't been proven and U.S. intelligence has mis-identified a number of alleged "terrorists" in the past. And then ask yourself how Americans would react if some other country were doing the same thing on U.S. soil.
So if you're troubled by the idea that the United States was preparing to send hit squads into some foreign country, you ought to be equally troubled by our current policy of taking terrorist suspects out from the air. But I don’t get the impression that the latter program bothers very many people here in the United States, and certainly not the leadership in either party. As Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) remarked following the recent revelations, "The Predator strikes have been successful, and I was pleased to see the Obama administration continue them ... This [covert assassination program] was another effort that was trying to accomplish the same objective."
Thucydides had it right: "the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must." The strong also try to convince everyone that they are also more virtuous, even when the evidence for the latter claim is dubious. And on that note, the Times today also has a piece on U.S. air tactics in Afghanistan that reads like a press release straight from CentCom HQ. It reports that the United States is now conducting a "kinder, gentler" air cover policy, in order to avoid civilian casualties. I hope that's true, but I also hope someone remembers this piece the next time we hit a village by mistake.
One last point: the fact that the CIA concluded that the assassination program was unworkable suggests that there is a very large gap between the image of covert action portrayed in American pop culture and the reality on the ground. If you watch 24, Mission Impossible, the various Bourne movies, or even lighter fare like Ocean's 11, they depict a world where smart and exceedingly well-trained experts, equipped with a lot of cool high-tech gadgetry, can perform extraordinary feats of derring-do in far-flung locations. They also portray a world where the U.S. government has enormous real-time surveillance capabilities, vast and swift analytical capacities, and a well-trained set of agents ready to send virtually anywhere to go after virtually anyone (even if someone like Jason Bourne keeps outwitting them).
If you watched enough of these movies, and didn’t have any other sources of information, it would be easy to believe all sorts of crazy ideas about black helicopters and other loony conspiracies. And it makes me wonder: do such productions lead viewers in the U.S. and abroad to exaggerate what the United States is actually capable of doing? If so, then Americans may expect too much from their national security apparatus, and foreign populations may be too inclined to blame events on nefarious American interference.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
I didn't agree with all of President Obama's speech yesterday (notably his rejection of a investigatory commission and his endorsement of open-ended "preventive detention"), but what a relief it is to watch an American president appeal to our sense of reason instead of our sense of fear.
The best thing one can say about Cheney's performance is that it was given by an ex-Vice President. Others have dissected the various lies and distortions that filled his speech (what did one expect?), I would only add that there is a track record here. 9/11 occurred on Cheney’s watch, and he helped lead us into two losing wars, at a cost of thousands of dead Americans, tens of thousands wounded, and over a trillion dollars spent, mostly in ways that have improved the strategic position of, oops, ... Iran. Plus, he gets partial credit for an unprecedented decline in America's global image and the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. At this point, taking Cheney's recommendations on any issue of public policy is like getting investment help from Bernie Madoff, marital counseling from Donald Trump, or advice on economic development from Robert Mugabe.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
On the torture memos: I’m not a lawyer, but I think I understand the political calculations that led Obama to say that his administration would not be prosecuting individuals for their role in this loathsome episode. He understood that this could reach very far up in the Bush administration, and that beginning a legal process would be divisive and cost him some swing votes he thinks he’ll need on other issues. So the principals in the Bush administration torture regime may end up with a free pass, at least in terms of criminal prosecution. But I have three thoughts:
First, a lot of countries (including the United States) have expended considerable diplomatic effort to hold people like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic or Liberia’s Charles Taylor accountable for their crimes. Apparently Obama feels that this principle can be jettisoned when it might be politically expedient to do so. At a minimum, we ought to remember this incident the next time we get upset that some other country is declining to prosecute a former leader, turning a blind eye to some other ruler's depredations (think Robert Mugabe), or cutting a deal with some warlord or terrorist leader. Maybe they were making pragmatic calculations too, and we holier-than-thou Americans ought to be a bit less judgmental.
Second, does our failure to prosecute open the door to other efforts to do so? A number of states (France, Canada, Belgium, Spain, etc.) have incorporated a principle of “universal jurisdiction” into their own domestic legal systems, when dealing with genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity (including torture). This principle can be invoked when the home country of the alleged perpetrator is "unwilling or unable to prosecute" Earlier reports suggesting that Spanish officials were going to indict six former Bush administration officials eventually led Spain's attorney general to say that U.S. courts would be the proper venue, but Obama has now made it clear that this isn't going to happen. I don’t know what the practical implications might be, but if I were Dick Cheney or David Addington, I wouldn’t be planning a summer vacation in Spain.
Third, for those of you who think that power is of declining relevance in world politics and that normative and legal standards are becoming increasingly important, I'd just point out that the various officials who sanctioned these abuses would be in a lot more trouble if they came from a weak and vulnerable state, as opposed to a global power like the United States. Not only does power corrupt, but it allows people who sanction torture to get away with it, albeit at some considerable cost to America's image and reputation. Those reputational costs will be borne by all Americans, who ought to be furious at the crimes that were committed in their name.
By Michael Desch
I was at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas this week at the invitation of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, which prepares majors to become the next generation of leaders for the Army, to participate on panel on Civil-Military Relations, not surprisingly an important component of the CGSC curriculum.
The theme of the panel came from noted military historian Richard Kohn's recent piece "Coming Soon: A Crisis in Civil-Military Relations." Some readers may recall that Kohn created quite a stir in 1994 with a provocatively titled piece in The National Interest "Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil Military Relations," in which he argued that an increasingly Republican officer corps was becoming less amenable to civilian control, particularly under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Of course, there was lots of evidence for his thesis during the Clinton administration, including the furor about allowing gays to serve openly in the military and the intense debates about humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere. Exhibit A was then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell who, even before Clinton took office, wrote pieces for The New York Times and Foreign Affairs explaining why civilian politicians made generals nervous when they pushed to use military force outside of the strictures of his eponymously named doctrine.
Many people thought that after Clinton, who one Air Force general had publicly referred to as his "pot-smoking, draft-dodging, skirt-chasing Commander-in-Chief," the new Bush administration, which campaigned on the promise to the military that "help is on the way," would enjoy a new era of civil-military harmony.
What they failed to see was that behind the overtly pro-military rhetoric of the Bush campaign, many of the key figures in the new administration's defense team actually harbored mixed feelings about the American armed forces. Beginning his second tour as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had apparently come to believe that left to its own devices the U.S. military was incapable of making the organization and doctrinal changes necessary to modernize itself so as to take advantage of what he and other visionaries anticipated would be a revolution in military affairs. Thus, he made it his mission to drag the military kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and stepped on a lot of toes in the process.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives blamed military realists like Colin Powell for dragging their feet in the face of the Clinton administration's humanitarian interventions in the 1990s, and they no doubt understood that same impulse would lead many military officers to be skeptical of their global crusade for regime change.
Reflecting the more general schizophrenia of the American public who patriotically affixed magnetic "support our troops" yellow ribbons to their gas guzzling SUVs, many on the Bush national security team similarly combined noisy pro-military rhetoric with wariness, sometimes bordering upon contempt, for actual military expertise. Nothing epitomized this better than Wolfowitz's brusque dismissal of Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's suggestion that we would need a couple of hundred thousand troops for stability and support operations in Iraq as "wildly off the mark."
By the fall
of 2003, the mounting insurgency in Iraq had made it clear that Shinseki's
estimate had not been so far off the mark after all. Indeed, six prominent retired generals would subsequently
call for Rumsfeld's resignation over his mishandling of the war. This lead the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to
conclude that rebuilding the relationship of trust and confidence between the
military and civilian leaders was an urgent task. Kohn, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
General Richard Myers, Naval War College Professor Mackubin Owens, and I
debated my take
on this period in a subsequent exchange
in Foreign Affairs.
In his most recent piece, Kohn points to four continuing issues that could make the relationship between the U.S. military and the new Obama administration tense. These include: the messy end games in Iraq and Afghanistan, a growing mismatch between defense spending and a federal budget being stretched in too many other directions, the challenge of transforming the nation's armed forces to meet future great power challenges while simultaneously fighting a global counterinsurgency war on a number of fronts today, and the recrudescence of polarizing social issues like the status of open homosexuals in the military and the aggressive proselytizing of Evangelical Christians in uniform. Without adroit leadership from the Obama Administration, and a willingness among senior military leaders to assume a more submissive posture, Kohn fears another breakdown in their relationship.
Despite the pessimistic tone of Kohn's article, he was surprisingly up-beat at our panel. The root of this optimism was his belief that both the senior military leadership and the Obama administration are eager to reestablish better relations after the acrimony of the last sixteen years.
Kohn was impressed with Obama's pragmatism on this front: The new President had taken steps to cover his flank by appointing a number of retired senior officers to his cabinet and other high-level positions, including General James Jones as National Security Advisor, General Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence.
Also, Kohn thought that Obama's decision to keep on Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was an astute move, not only given the secretary's success in rebuilding the bridges to the military that his predecessor burned, but also because having a Republican in this position will make it hard for Republicans to criticize Obama's draw-down in Iraq or conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
Finally, at the purely atmospheric level, he commended the Obama for striking the right cord in dealing with the troops, sending the First Lady on her first official trip to visit Ft. Bragg and shying away from rekindling the military culture wars by taking a lower key approach to such hot-button issues as rescinding the gay ban.
I agree with Kohn that both President Obama and the current military leadership have so far taken positive steps to try to heal the civil-military rupture. But I have an even simpler explanation for the apparent change in atmospherics: After the last eight years of the Bush administration's meddling in, and mismanagement of, military affairs, even a Democrat doesn't look too bad these days to our men and women in uniform. That's at least one thing for which we can thank the last administration.
If you want to get the soldiers' take on our panel, see their blog.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
"A containment strategy places a ceiling on the threat while awaiting its eventual internal collapse. Against this, it allows more time to jihadists, possibly on a generational timescale, for further atrocities. But a hyperactive strategy of ‘rollback’ risks the more likely outcomes of financial haemorrhage, the erosion of constitutional liberties and the inflaming of other world crises. Consider this in blunt policy terms. An Al-Qaeda at large, trying full-time to stay alive, pursued by an ever-growing set of enemies, even with the remote chance that it inflicts a terrible blow, is less dangerous than wars with Iran or Pakistan, an emptied treasury or a shredded constitution. Trading off time and conceding longevity to the enemy for the sake of lowering the war’s costs is worth it. This is because Al-Qaeda’s capacity to hurt America is less than America’s capacity to hurt itself. The ‘war on terror’ is a war declared on a tactical method rather than an identifiable group, for cosmic rather than achievable goals, with little grasp of ends, ways and means or weighing of vital versus peripheral interests.”For my immediate post-9/11 thoughts on this same subject, take a look at this admittedly dated piece. I got some things wrong (i.e., I was too ambitious about Afghanistan, too willing to coddle governments in places like Pakistan, and too confident that the U.S. would act smartly), but the Bush administration mostly did the exact opposite of what I suggested and we all know how that turned out.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a predictably unhelpful response to President Barack Obama's conciliatory message to the Muslim world last week. Ahmadinejad's answer: first the United States has to "apologize" for its opposition to Iran's nuclear program and for a host of other transgressions.
I've got news for him: we've already done so -- at least in part -- and he's not going to get another apology any time soon. Obama may be hoping for a fresh start with Tehran, but he is not going to start the process by apologizing for anything. And he's certainly not going to take any steps that might bolster Ahmadinejad's popularity between now and the Iranian presidential election in June.
Yet Ahmadinejad's statement does raise a broader question: should states apologize at all, even when they've done something they regret?
You might think that realists wouldn't put much stock in apologies; aren't they just meaningless "cheap talk?" Don't realists worry more about balances of power and conflicts of interest, and don't they emphasize that international politics is a rough business where states routinely do nasty things to weaker parties? Given that world-view, what's the point of saying you're sorry?
In fact, even realists think being willing to apologize sometimes matters. But as Dartmouth's Jennifer Lind argues in her book Sorry States: Apologies in World Politics, the act of apology can be tricky too, and can easily backfire.
There are at least three good reasons for states to apologize when they have behaved badly towards others.
First, apologizing to those you have wronged is an acknowledgement of their equal status; it is a recognition that they are of sufficient stature to deserve an expression of regret. Refusing to apologize sends the message that you think the wronged party is too insignificant to warrant any contrition. To do so betrays contempt for the party we have wronged, and treating someone with contempt is bound to fuel a desire for revenge.
Second, far from being "cheap talk," apologies can be a costly signal that conveys a genuine and sincere desire for a new relationship. Why? Because apologizing to a former adversary is politically risky, and only leaders who are genuinely sorry would be willing to run the risks and bear the costs. When a state acknowledges responsibility and expresses regret, it also opens itself up to demands for compensation or various forms of sanction and it may even lend legitimacy to opponents who then try to take advantage of the admission. The fact that there can be genuine costs to an apology explains why mere words still carry genuine meaning to the wronged party.
Third, apologizing tells others that no matter what we may have done in the past, we understand where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie. If a country commits a heinous act and then refuses to apologize for it, others have reason to question whether its leaders are even aware that they have crossed a moral boundary. When someone shows no understanding of where the lines are, there is every reason to think they would cross them again without a second thought. To take an obvious example, had Germany failed to acknowledge the Holocaust and to openly apologize for it, people everywhere would have reason to think that Germans might easily do something similar again. The same logic explains why Pope Benedict's decision to reverse the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying priest is troubling; if the Vatican thinks Holocaust-denial is a minor matter that should take a back seat to the unity of the church, what does that tell us about the priority it places on crimes against humanity?
Even for realists, therefore, apologies can be a necessary tool of diplomacy. Apologizing for past mistakes is sometimes the best -- maybe the only -- way to wipe the slate clean and provide others with some basis for giving a country a second chance. Being a great power may mean that you never have to say you're sorry, but sometimes it is still a good idea.
But not always. Lind's book also shows that the question of apologies is more complicated than the simple picture I just sketched. She points out that states sometimes reconcile in the absence of an official apology -- as France and Germany did after World War II -- especially when former rivals realize that they have powerful strategic reasons to bury the hatchet and move on. Moreover, sometimes the act of extending an apology triggers a domestic backlash that undercuts the very leaders who are trying to promoting reconciliation, reinforcing existing suspicions and frustrating efforts to build a new relationship. In order to balance these conflicting imperatives, states may be better off eschewing efforts to "name and shame" and relying on less accusatory forms of remembrance and regret, such as memorials to victims (on both sides), international commissions to advise on the writing of textbooks and other educational materials, and joint scholarly programs designed to address sensitive historical events.
With respect to the United States and Iran, this is good advice. To build a new relationship, both sides will have to come to terms with the various hostile acts that each has committed over the past fifty-plus years. But no Iranian leader is likely to apologize to the "Great Satan" and no U.S. president could go beyond past expressions of regret without risking a backlash here at home. A better path is to emphasize the interests that the United States and Iran do have in common -- such as a shared desire for a stable and unified Iraq, and a growing concern about the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan -- while addressing the obvious points of contention (e.g., Iran's nuclear program). If we can make progress on the concrete diplomatic issues, we can also begin unofficial efforts to understand how and why U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated in the past. American and Iranian scholars could usefully explore these issues through academic exchanges and then disseminate their findings more broadly, allowing each society to learn from past mistakes but without demanding humiliating expressions of regret that neither is likely to get.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush defended his presidency yesterday by noting that "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Depending on your definition of "terrorism," this claim is about as accurate as his claims about Iraqi WMD. See here or here. And it's worth remembering that the only major foreign terrorist attack on American soil in our history occurred on Bush's watch, and anti-American terrorist groups have conducted major attacks in Jordan, Indonesia, Spain, and a number of other countries since 9/11. I think the Bush administration did some smart things after 9/11 (such as ousting al Qaeda from its safe haven in Afghanistan) and I'm glad that we haven't suffered another attack, but the fact there hasn't been any large-scale foreign terrorist attack on American soil is an insufficient criterion for judging the "war on terror," not to mention an entire presidency.
As the presidency of George W. Bush staggers to a long-awaited and much-needed end, it is high time for me to 'fess up about the worst forecast of my scholarly career. Head bowed, I quote from the March/April 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs ("Two Cheers for Clinton’s Foreign Policy"). My closing lines:
Pundits may carp and Republicans may complain, but the American people judge [Bill Clinton's] stewardship of foreign policy to be 'outstanding,' according to polls conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. That is why his successor is likely to follow in his footsteps, no matter what is promised between now and January 2001, and no matter which party wins" (emphasis added).
To say I was wrong is something of an understatement. I could offer excuses -- "Uh, 9/11 changed everything! "Er, Bush pretended to be a realist!" "But he told us his foreign policy would be 'humble!'" -- but the cold fact remains that I just plain blew it. I knew it wasn't going to be good, but I didn't realize just how bad it could get. How bad was it? See here.
Readers who wish to confess their own failed forecasts are welcome to do so. Bonus points for anyone who uses their real name.
In today's New York Times, David Sanger reveals that the Bush administration "deflected" an Israeli request last year for bunker-busting bombs, which they reportedly intended to use for a preventive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. An Israeli request for permission to overfly Iraq (whose airspace is controlled by the United States) was also denied. As partial compensation, the United States agreed to closer intelligence cooperation with Israel and informed Jerusalem that it had intensified a covert action campaign to sabotage Iran's nuclear programs.
This episode reveals that once he stopped listening to neoconservatives, President Bush was able to figure out that a preventive strike would be counterproductive. Not only would an Israeli or U.S. attack encourage Iran to retaliate against U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- where we still have our hands full -- it would provide no more than a temporary fix. Just as Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor led Saddam Hussein to redouble his own nuclear efforts, a preventive strike on Iran would have led Tehran to intensify its efforts to acquire a deterrent of its own and to do so in ways that would make it even harder for us to address. According to Sanger, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was especially influential in convincing Bush that an attack would "prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, and drive Iran's nuclear effort out of view."
Sanger also reports that the United States has stepped up covert actions against Iran. This is hardly a revelation, but it may help us understand why Iran is meddling in areas where it knows it can cause trouble for the United States and its allies. As Trita Parsi argues in his excellent book Treacherous Alliance, there is a lot more realpolitik in Iranian foreign policy than most Americans recognize, and many of their actions that we rightly oppose (such as their support for Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad) are motivated as much by a desire to force the United States to recognize Iranian interests as by deep ideological convictions. Among other things, Parsi shows that there was little love lost between the Islamic Republic and the PLO in the 1980s, and that Iran began backing more extreme Palestinian groups only after the United States excluded it from the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference and adopted the policy of "dual containment" in the first years of the Clinton administration.
Some of you may believe that Bush's departure and Obama's arrival means that that the use of force is no longer a serious option, and that the United States is going to pursue a diplomatic approach instead. That hopeful conclusion is almost certainly premature, for at least three reasons.
First, there are still influential voices in Washington who maintain that the United States cannot permit Iran to maintain an independent enrichment capability, and who believe that the United States should use force to prevent this in the event that diplomacy does not succeed. See this recent report, cowritten by neoconservative Michael Rubin and endorsed by a task force whose members included Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a number of other prominent individuals. If Ross ends up as the State Department's special envoy on Iran, as has been rumored, this view will be front-and-center in the new administration. (I have been told that Ross's appointment is not a done deal and that there is opposition to it within the transition team, so we don't yet know just how influential that view is likely to be. But it is unlikely to be wholly absent).
Second, as the United States draws down its presence in Iraq, Iran's ability to retaliate in that area of operations will decline. Opponents of the military option will lose one of the obvious counter-arguments to an attack (though there are plenty of others), and opposition within the uniformed military (which has been deeply skeptical of the military option in the past) may decline.
Third, Obama will almost certainly try the diplomatic route first, just as he promised in the campaign. The question is whether the diplomatic strategy that the administration follows has any realistic chance of succeeding. Specifically, will the Obama administration follow the Bush administration's line and insist that Iran abandon its desire to control the full nuclear fuel cycle? In addition, will it take the threat of military force off the table? Threatening Iran with regime change merely increases its desire for a nuclear deterrent, and they are much less likely to abandon that goal if we are continue to point a gun at their heads. Remember that the deal that eventually convinced Muammar al-Qaddafi to abandon his own WMD programs involved an explicit U.S. assurance that we would not try to overthrow his regime. If the United States won't do this for Tehran, and if we demand full cessation of all enrichment activities, we are not going to get an agreement. At that point, hawks will claim that diplomacy has been tried and found wanting and Obama is going to find it harder to resist a more forceful response.
Several readers have asked me what I think of Peter Feaver's "realist" defense of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Feaver's logic is admirably straightforward: 1) realism emphasizes evaluating great powers by how they manage relations with other great powers, 2) Bush did relatively well on that front, therefore: 3) Bush had a good foreign policy by "realist" standards. QED.
Not so fast.
First of all, relations with the other great powers weren't a top priority for Bush and his team, especially after 9/11. So even if one accepts Feaver's argument, it amounts to saying that Bush and Co. did better on issues they paid less attention to, while screwing up royally in the areas that they focused on most. I'd agree, but it's not exactly a ringing defense.
Second, as Feaver admits, relations with Russia got worse throughout Bush's two terms, culminating in that nasty little war in Georgia last summer. Part of the problem may have been Bush's decidedly non-realist method of gauging Russian intentions (i.e., looking into Vladimir Putin's soul), but the larger problem was that the administration kept assuming it could trample all over Russian interests and ignore various Russian "red lines" and not pay any diplomatic price for it. (To be fair, this was merely the continuation of the Clinton administration's own approach, but Bush failed to realize that Russia was no longer as hapless as it had been in the Yeltsin era). So they continued to expand NATO (including open support for Ukrainian and Georgian membership), insisted on independence for Kosovo, and started deploying missile defenses in Eastern Europe, a step which Moscow could only see as an attempt to gain some sort of first-strike advantage. Whatever the merits of these various initiatives, it was entirely predictable that Russia would be very, very, annoyed by them and that it would be eager for payback.
Even if Bush did manage to avoid a violent blow-up with Moscow, his approach made it impossible to get Russia's cooperation on several issues that did matter a lot to Washington. Russia didn't support the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, and along with France and Germany, this opposition made it impossible to get a second U.N. Security Council supporting military action. Russia also repeatedly balked on tougher sanctions toward Iran, which made it harder to deal effectively with Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Nor does Bush deserve an "A grade" on relations with India. The new security partnership with India is a positive step that can certainly be justified on realist grounds, but the price Bush paid -- in effect turning a blind eye toward India's nuclear programs and thereby sending a torpedo into the existing non-proliferation regime -- was too high, especially in an era when we were rightly worried about discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states or terrorists. But at least he got a lot of help from India in Iraq, and strong backing from New Delhi on Iran? Oops, my mistake: they stiffed us on Iraq and provided only mild diplomatic support on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Seems that new strategic partnership still has some growing to do. As for China, it has taken advantage of our confrontation with Tehran to quietly enhance its own position in this vital strategic area, and forged a series of new connections in Asia while our attention was focused elsewhere.
Finally, realists would judge a great power's foreign policy not just on how one manages bilateral relations with other great powers, but on whether one’s overall foreign policy has left it in a better position vis-à-vis the other major states, and especially those that might become serious competitors. Here the record is much more worrisome: by mismanaging relations in other places -- most notably the Middle East -- Bush weakened U.S. material power and brought America's global image to new lows. One suspects that Chinese foreign policy elites have found it difficult to contain their glee; their influence has risen not so much because they have played their hand skillfully, but because we've been shooting ourselves in the foot.
Bottom line: even on this narrow "realist" criteria, it's hard to give Bush high marks.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.