Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
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Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
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I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
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Every now and then you read about a seemingly minor incident that illuminates an entire way of thinking about international affairs. And sometimes the harsh light of reality exposes the flaws in a popular body of theory, or at least reveals its limits.
Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that China is trying to get the World Bank to water down its annual Doing Business report, which ranks the world's nations by focusing mostly on the efficiency and transparency of the regulatory environment and thus the ease of starting or conducting new business. For what it's worth, Singapore ranks #1 on the list, Hong Kong #2, the United States #4, Taiwan #16, but the rest of the People's Republic of China ends up in the middle of the pack, at #91.
What's the IR theory angle in all this? For the past couple of decades, a number of IR scholars and China experts have argued that the best way to accommodate China's rise was to enmesh it in a wide array of international institutions. These institutions would bind China into an existing set of norms and rules, help "socialize" it into prevailing global practices, and guard against Beijing feeling like it was being excluded or marginalized. This sort of thinking justified the Clinton administration's entire policy of engagement, and especially its lengthy effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
There's nothing wrong with including China in existing international institutions, and doing so undoubtedly facilitates day-to-day cooperation on all sorts of mundane international transactions. In this sense, the institutionalist perspective reflected above remains helpful. But it is a mistake to assume that an increasingly powerful China will just passively accept a set of rules and practices that had been developed by the United States and Europe over the past fifty-plus years.
On the contrary, like other great powers, China will use its growing power to try to rewrite international norms and rules in ways that will benefit it. As the FT notes: "The row [over the Doing Business report] is an example of China's growing assertiveness at international bodies and its increased willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions."
There's nothing nefarious or imperialistic about such behavior -- at least, not in my book -- because major powers have always tried to rig the rules of global conduct in their favor. You weren't expecting altruism, were you? Or they simply ignore the rules when they turn out to be inconvenient, as the United States did when it went off the gold standard in 1971 or invaded Iraq in 2003. But the fact that such behavior is familiar doesn't mean it will be any less of a problem, and it reminds us that international institutions themselves are at best weak constraints on the behavior of major countries.
In short, if China continues to rise and competition between the United States and China (and others) intensifies, the battleground won't just be confined to the South China Sea, the competition for allies in Asia, or the shadowy world of cyber-espionage. It will also be fought out in the corridors, offices, plenaries, and sidebar meetings at major international institutions. And in these arenas, economic clout and diplomatic skill will count as much or more than aircraft carriers, drones, or sophisticated special forces.
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Guest post by Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind
With reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, many U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have called for U.S. military intervention there. They quote President Obama's previous statements referring to chemical weapons use as an unacceptable crossing of a "red line." This is unsurprising: Every time analysts and leaders call for war, they warn that inaction will jeopardize America's credibility. What is more surprising, however, is how little evidence there is for this view.
What has actually transpired in Syria remains unclear (especially with a new claim that Syria rebels may have used nerve gas), but the possibility that Syria crossed the administration's "red line" has brought calls for U.S. military action. "The credibility of the United States is on the line," declared Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action." (Many others have made similar arguments, for example here and here.)
To be sure, for a country like the United States -- which seeks to assure allies and deter adversaries around the globe -- credibility is a precious asset. Credibility -- the belief held by others that a country will carry out its threats and promises -- is the difference between deterring attacks and having to wage war to repel them.
But how do countries build credibility? Those who favor intervention in Syria assert that credibility comes from having a reputation for keeping commitments. The "smoking gun" evidence for this view can allegedly be found in a 1939 speech in which Adolf Hitler explained to his generals why he felt emboldened to invade Poland. He dismissed French and British threats, mocking them for their concessions at the Munich Conference: "Our enemies are worms," he scoffed, "I saw them at Munich."
Hitler's quote, and the so-called "Munich Analogy," has come to embody the danger of breaking commitments and featured prominently in U.S. decisions to defend South Korea in 1950 and later to fight (and stay) in Vietnam. Since then, the fear of losing credibility helped propel the United States into conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya.
The problem is that there's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility. Jonathan Mercer, in his book Reputation and International Politics, examined a series of crises leading up to World War I and found that backing down did not cause one's adversaries to discount one's credibility.
In another book, Daryl Press examined a series of Cold War crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From 1958 to 1961, Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to cut off NATO's access to West Berlin. Each time, the deadlines passed and Khrushchev failed to carry out his threats.
If backing down damages credibility, Khrushchev's credibility should have been plummeting, but the deliberations of American and British leaders show that his credibility steadily grew throughout this period. And a year after the 1961 Berlin confrontation, when the same American decision-makers confronted Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they took his threats very seriously. Senior U.S. leaders were convinced that Khrushchev would respond to any forceful U.S. act against Cuba with an immediate Soviet attack against Berlin. Four years of backing down had not damaged Soviet credibility in the least.
Documents from American and British archives reveal that when NATO leaders tried to assess the credibility of Soviet threats, they didn't focus on the past. Instead, they looked at Khrushchev's current threat and the current circumstances and asked themselves two simple questions. Can he do it? And would it serve his interests?
In the eyes of the Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy governments, Soviet credibility was growing -- despite Khrushchev's bluster -- simply because Soviet power was expanding. Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.
Even the canonical case for reputational arguments -- Hitler's dismissal of French and British threats in 1939 -- shows that credibility stems from power and interests. When Hitler told his generals why the British and French would not oppose him when he invaded Poland, he listed seven reasons, every one of which was about the balance of power. The "worms" quote was a throwaway line after a detailed analysis of the balance of military power and Poland's indefensibility.
Advocates of intervention in Syria worry that a failure to act will embolden U.S. adversaries around the world. But if Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out whether or not the United States would defend South Korea, he will notice that Washington and Seoul have been allies for more than six decades, and that with the rise of China, the United States is increasing its focus on East Asia. The notion that Kim would interpret U.S. reluctance to stop a humanitarian disaster in Syria as a green light to conquer a major U.S. ally strains credulity.
Similarly, leaders in Tehran assessing U.S. threats to strike their nuclear facilities will weigh America's clear interest in nuclear nonproliferation against the real limitations of airstrikes against Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities. American reluctance to support various extremist rebels in Syria is unlikely to enter into Iran's calculus.
As the civil war in Syria unfolds, the United States may eventually decide to intervene. U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts might make the case (which we disagree with) to join the fighting in order to stop the humanitarian disaster, to contain regional instability, or to secure U.S. influence with the post-Assad Syrian government. But the case for U.S. military intervention should not rest on a bogus theory about signaling resolve to Khamenei and Kim. American credibility lies elsewhere.
Daryl G. Press is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. Jennifer Lind is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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One of the great successes of the Obama administration has been its ability to divert attention from the wars the United States is still fighting, such as Afghanistan. Given Obama's decision to escalate and extend that war is looking worse and worse with time, you can understand why they are doing this. It's possible that sending more troops bought Obama time and is making it easier to get out now; the problem is that we ended up squandering more lives and money without getting a significantly better outcome.
My real fear is that this is merely a preamble to telling ourselves a lot of self-serving myths about that war. Count on it: Our exit from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a lot of feel-good stories about the U.S./NATO effort there designed to convince Americans that the surge "worked" and that we really did give it our all. If things go south later on, that will be the Afghans' fault, not ours, and so it won't be necessary to learn any lessons from our mistakes.
But two recent news stories suggest a very different read. The first, from Saturday's New York Times, offered an account of the farewell gathering for the deparating French Ambassador in Kabul, Bernard Bajolet. According to the Times, Bajolet told the attendees:
"That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West's investment in it, would come to little."
And then there was this passage:
"At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan's government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said."
Think about that statement as you read the second story (from today's Times) describing the millions of dollars of slush funds that the CIA has paid to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But instead of purchasing Karzai's loyalty or enhancing U.S. influence, the money merely contributed to the endemic corruption that has marred the NATO effort from day one. As the Times reported:
"The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan," one American official said, "was the United States."
There you have it: The French ambassador (and everyone else) says the Afghan government needs to reduce corruption, yet a key element of the U.S. effort there has been contributing to that problem. I wonder if H.R. McMaster, the general who was assigned to head up NATO's anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan, knew what the CIA baksheesh office was up to. If so, he'll be in a great position to write a sequel to his earlier book on the U.S. failure in Vietnam.
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On several occasions I've commented on how I thought the U.S. approach to Iran was difficult to fathom at best. For some reason, U.S. leaders seem to believe that constantly threatening Iran and ratcheting up economic sanctions will eventually force Tehran to say "Uncle" and give us everything we want, or it will lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the clerics, dismantle their nuclear program, and jump warmly into the embrace of a grateful world.
Never mind that this approach is contradictory (how does threatening someone make them less interested in a deterrent?) and imposes enormous human suffering on innocent Iranians. Never mind that the scholarly literature on economic sanctions shows that they are not a very effective instrument of coercion. Pay no attention to the fact that we've been trying this policy for over a decade, without any apparent success.
It is hard to know if Washington really thinks that some day this is going to work or if this just a politically expedient process of kicking the can down the road. You know: the same sort of brilliant statecraft that has led the mighty United States to maintain an economic embargo on Cuba for over fifty years. Really brought ol' Fidel to his knees, didn't it?
But you don't have to take my word for it. In a recent speech at a Carnegie Endowment conference, Swedish Foreign Minsiter Carl Bildt offered up some wise words about the role that sanctions should (and should not) play in our policies toward Iran and other difficult regimes. Money quotation:
"There is no doubt that sanctions are and should be part of our toolbox. Preferably and primarily decided upon by the Security Council -- for reasons of legality as well as efficiency.
But sanctions can only work if they are part of an overall policy where the different instruments are clearly geared towards specified objectives.
Sanctions can be part of such a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy.
Sometimes I fear that this rather fundamental distinction is lost."
And as Paul Pillar noted earlier this week, it's not even clear what the United States and its allies are actually trying to accomplish with their Iran policy, which is why Iranians often wonder if we actually want an agreement at all. He recommends the following approach:
"The P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it."
Assuming, of course, that we really do want a deal. But if you don't really know what your objective is and you are misusing the various diplomatic and other tools at your disposal, then it is hard to see how you could ever achieve anything that might look like "success." Sadly, neither Bildt nor Pillar are likely to be in a position to implement a more promising approach.
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As Hillary Clinton showed, one of the tasks of the secretary of state is to take on unpleasant duties that the president doesn't want to bother with. John Kerry gets to play that role now, and we saw it in action in the Middle East over the past week or so. Here's how Kerry justified a new U.S. effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a goal that took him to Israel on three separate occasions:
"I am intensely focused on this issue and the region because it is vital really to American interests and regional interests to try and advance the peace process and because this festering absence of peace is used by groups everywhere to recruit and encourage extremism ... Both sides mistrust each other deeply and there are reasons that mistrust has built up ... I am convinced that we can break that down."
An intriguing side note is the idea that Kerry and Obama want to revive the Saudi/Arab League peace initiative, first put forward back in 2002 and reiterated in 2007. That proposal offered Israel full peace and diplomatic recognition if it returned to the 1967 borders and agreed to the formation of a viable Palestinian state. The original proposal was far from perfect and there were lots of details that would have had to be settled via negotiation, but it was a promising start that Israel and the Bush administration foolishly ignored.
So what are the odds that this new U.S. effort will succeed? Short answer: slim to none. Obama was badly burned by this issue during his first term, and he's not going to waste time or political capital on it unless he is very, very confident that he can get across the finish line. He knows that a final deal will involve knocking heads with Netanyahu and defying the hardline elements of the Israel lobby here at home, and he's not going to do either of those things unless he can really, truly pull off a final status deal. He's willing to let his secretary of state run around and do what he can accomplish, but Obama himself has got other things to do.
So the real question is whether Kerry can pull off a miracle and get the parties close enough to an agreement to convince Obama to re-engage. To succeed, Kerry needs to be able to come into the Oval Office and say, "Mr. President, we are really, really, really close. Here are the terms I've gotten each side to accept, and both are ready to sign on the dotted line. There are just one or two teeny-tiny sticking points, but if you get involved and provide a final nudge, we can finally end this long and tragic conflict. I am 99 percent confident you can do it."
The key to this scenario is that the Israelis and Palestinians really do have to be that close to an agreement. And the problem is that there's hardly any reason to expect that to happen, unless the Netanyahu government changes its position significantly. (Israel has to do more compromising than the Palestinians because the latter doesn't have much more to give up, having already agreed to no more than 22 percent of the territory and to an unfavorable division of Jerusalem.) Remember that Netanyahu opposed the Oslo agreement in 1993 and his own vision of a "Palestinian state" is nothing more than disconnected Bantustans under de facto Israeli control. Even the most compromised and compliant Palestinian leader is not going to agree to that. But key members of Netanyahu's new coalition would never go along with anything more generous.
Similarly, a meaningful final status agreement will depend on getting Hamas to go along, and they aren't going to agree to even a long-term truce (hudna) for anything less than a sovereign state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza. To make matters worse, the civil war in Syria and the turmoil in countries like Egypt is going to make Israelis even more skittish about major compromises, for understandable reasons. Result: stalemate.
So even if Kerry revives the Arab League initiative (possibly modified to accommodate Israeli preferences), I don't see how he can get the two parties close enough to a deal to convince Obama to take the leap.
Instead, what we will see is Kabuki diplomacy: a Potemkin peace process that burns up time and jet fuel and makes it look like the United States still cares about this issue and is still in some sense interested in the Palestinians' fate. What we are not going to see is real diplomatic progress, let alone a final peace agreement. And after twenty-plus years of post-Oslo failure, a flurry of meaningless diplomatic activity isn't going to fool anyone anymore.
Unless, of course, the parties prove me wrong. I hope they do, but nobody ever lost money betting the other way.
UPDATE: When I wrote this post yesterday, I really didn't know that the Netanyahu government was going to immediately trash Kerry's proposals. See Ha'aretz here and Larry Derfner of +972 here. But I can't say I'm surprised, and at this point, you shouldn't be either.
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How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.
According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.
But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.
Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.
I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.
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The United States has lofty global ambitions, and its leaders still like to describe the country as the "leader of the free world," the "indispensable nation," and various other self-congratulatory labels. Yet it doesn't always marry these ambitions to a set of policies and practices that would help it achieve them.
Case in point: the well-sourced rumor that the Obama administration is about to appoint Caroline Kennedy to serve as our next ambassador to Japan. The obvious question: Is this an appointment that demonstrates a serious engagement with the complex problems the United States is now facing in Asia?
My concerns have nothing to do with Ms. Kennedy herself, of course. I've had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and thought she was smart, well-informed, and engaging. But she's neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she's certainly not an expert on East Asia. Unless I've missed something, she doesn't speak Japanese and has no academic or professional background in foreign affairs. Compared with some other former U.S. ambassadors to Japan (e.g., Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Michael Armacost, or Tom Foley), she's a political neophyte.
True, she comes from a prominent political dynasty, and she was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. So one might argue that she'll have a direct line to the White House and that her appointment is a way to signal to Japan that the U.S. is taking the relationship seriously.
It would be nice to think so, but what does that matter if she doesn't have the background necessary to give the White House or State Department independent advice or the experience necessary to convince Japanese officials to follow the U.S. lead? In case you hadn't noticed, politics in Asia are becoming more and more important, and managing our Asian alliances is going to be very tricky in the years ahead. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others are looking for clear signs of U.S. leadership, which means we need the most qualified and skilled people we can find in key diplomatic positions. We don't want ambassadors who are just reciting talking points prepared by others; we need ambassadors throughout Asia who have extensive knowledge of the region's history and the complicated economic and security landscape there. And, yes, it would be nice if they could read and speak the language.
Assuming the rumors are true, this case is just the most recent manifestation of America's overreliance on political appointments throughout our foreign policy system, and especially the diplomatic service. In fact, the United States is the only major power that routinely appoints amateurs to ambassadorial rank, even though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly recommends against this practice. Money quotation:
"[P]ositions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service. . . [Ambassadors] should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including ... useful knowledge of the language ... and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country. . . . Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor."
Yet despite this strong and sensible recommendation, roughly 30 percent of all U.S. ambassadors are political appointees rather than trained professional diplomats. This practice is completely bipartisan, by the way, and it's one of the many reasons why U.S. diplomacy is often ineffective.
The bottom line: International politics is a highly competitive enterprise, and if you want to succeed at it, you need to be ruthless about picking the best people to do the job. The New York Yankees don't put someone in centerfield just because they purchased a lot of advertising from the team's owners or have been renting a luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and the U.S. government shouldn't appoint amateurs -- no matter how smart, likeable, public-minded and well-connected they are -- to key diplomatic posts either.
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When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.
Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.
If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:
"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."
The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran's business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran's nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.
If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.
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I didn't realize this at first, but what Barack Obama was really doing in the Middle East last week was setting up a test of competing IR theories.
As we've come to expect, the centerpiece of Obama's trip was a beautifully crafted speech to a select group of Israeli students. It's really what he does best: offer a cloud of rhetoric designed to seduce, cajole, and convince. Remember back in 2009, when he gave great speeches in Istanbul, Prague, Cairo, and Oslo, and then failed to follow through on any of them? Having been reelected, it's back to the 2009 playbook.
This time around, he went to great lengths to convey his deep affection and regard for Israel and his commitment to Zionism. He told Israelis that the U.S.-Israel relationship was "eternal" (a pledge no mortal can actually make), and offered up the usual bromides about keeping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. A lot of that stuff was just pandering to the Israel lobby, but he played his part effectively, and the Israeli reaction has been quite positive.
Obama also offered rhetorical support for Palestinian aspirations, and his speech went further than any of his predecessors. He spoke openly of their "right to self-determination and justice" and invited his Israeli listeners "to look at the world through their eyes." He also told them "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer" and said "Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." He reiterated his call for direct negotiations -- though he no longer suggests that Israel stop building more settlements -- and he called upon his youthful audience to "create the change that you want to see."
But that's all he did. He did not say that a Palestinian state would have to be fully sovereign (i.e., entitled to have its defense forces). He did not give any indication of where he thought the borders of such a state might lie, or whether illegal settlements like Ariel (whose presence cuts the West Bank in two) would have to be abandoned. He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans). On the contrary, his every move and phrase made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States providing generous and unconditional support to the vastly stronger of the two parties. He made no mention of a special envoy or an "Obama plan." In short, he did not announce a single concrete policy initiative designed to advance the vision of "two states for two peoples" that he first laid out in the almost-forgotten Cairo speech of June 2009.
And therein lies the test of competing theories. There is a broad school of thought in international relations -- often labeled "social constructivism" -- which maintains that discourse can be of tremendous importance in shaping the conduct of states. In this view, how leaders talk and how intellectuals write gradually shapes how we all think, and over time these discursive activities can exert a tremendous influence on norms, identities, and perceptions of what is right and what is possible.
It is this view of the world that President Obama was channeling during his trip. By telling Israelis that he loved them and by telling both Israelis and Palestinians that the latter had just as much right to a state as the former, he was hoping to mold hearts and minds and convince them -- through logic and reason -- to end their century-old conflict. And make no mistake: He was saying that peace would require a powerful and increasingly wealthy Israel to make generous concessions, because the Palestinians have hardly anything more to give up. As Churchill put it, "in victory, magnanimity."
Discourse does matter in some circumstances, of course, and perhaps Obama's words will prompt some deep soul-searching within the Israeli political establishment. But there is another broad family of IR theories -- the realist family -- and it maintains that what matters most in politics is power and how it is applied. In this view, national leaders often say lots of things they don't really mean, or they say things they mean but then fail to follow through on because doing so would be politically costly. From this perspective, words sometimes inspire and may change a few minds on occasion, but they are rarely enough to overcome deep and bitter conflicts. No matter how well-written or delivered, a speech cannot divert whole societies from a well-established course of action. Policies in motion tend to remain in motion; to change the trajectory of a deeply-entrenched set of initiatives requires the application of political forces of equal momentum.
For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel's creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama's eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.
Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won't take long before Obama's visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama's successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility. What will he or she say then?
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I know many foreign policy mavens are obsessed with Obama's trip to Israel, and we are already seeing an explosion of punditry attempting to tell us What It All Means. Because I don't think the trip will accomplish anything worth remembering, I've decided to refrain from commenting unless something surprising or significant occurs. So far, nada.
Instead, I gave an interview to The European (an online publication in Germany) offering a post-mortem on Iraq and its implications for transatlantic relations. You can read it here.
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One of the sillier things that U.S. leaders have done over the past year or so is to formally reject a policy of "containment" or deterrence with respect to Iran. AIPAC pushed this position last year (in the form of a non-binding resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsay Graham), but even President Obama eventually had to go along. And then he sent Vice President Joe Biden to tell AIPAC that the U.S. wasn't bluffing.
Apart from pandering to the bomb Iran crowd, the apparent purpose behind such statements is to convince Iran that the United States simply couldn't live with an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and that they had better make damn sure they don't try to get one. Such rhetoric might make sense as a negotiating tactic -- though it's hardly guaranteed to work -- but it tells you exactly nothing about what the United States would or should do in the event that Iran one day crosses the nuclear weapons threshold. To see this, consider the following hypothetical.
Suppose there were a massive intelligence failure on the part of the IAEA and all of America's intelligence agencies and that Iran had a totally secret nuclear weapons development program. (This is precisely the scenario that hawks routinely warn about, by the way, especially whenever National Intelligence Estimates reach more optimistic conclusions). Suppose further that we got up one morning next week and discovered that Iran had successfully tested a nuclear bomb. And then suppose Iran provided us with additional information demonstrating that they had already manufactured a dozen more and that we had no idea where they were hidden. In short, imagine that the hawks' worst fears had all come true and that the Islamic Republic had become a nuclear weapons state overnight.
What do you suppose we would do? Would President Obama (or anyone else) immediately order a preventive war? Not on your life, because he could not be sure that Iran wouldn't find some way to get a bomb on American soil or use it against some close U.S. ally. Would Obama immediately announce a blockade or threaten an invasion, in order to persuade Iran to voluntarily give up its weapons? Hardly, because we couldn't put enough pressure on them to force compliance. Would the U.S. decide to abandon its regional allies and let Iran dominate the Persian Gulf? Of course not -- for the same reasons that it didn't abandon NATO when the Soviets tested a bomb in 1949 and it didn't abandon Japan and South Korea when China and North Korea tested nuclear weapons.
No, if Iran ever did cross the nuclear weapons threshold, the United States would do what it has always done when an adversary went nuclear: It would fall back on containment and deterrence. We would extend our far more potent nuclear umbrella over key regional allies, and we would send clear and unmistakable messages to Tehran about the dire consequences that would befall them if their new arsenal were ever used by anyone. Getting a bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a global superpower, and it certainly wouldn't allow them to blackmail their neighbors or launch a war of conquest. The only thing this situation would prevent the United States from doing is forcible regime change, which is something we shouldn't be contemplating in any case.
This situation would not be ideal, which is why I favor intelligent diplomacy that reduces Iran's incentive to acquire a deterrent. There are a number of good reasons why Tehran would prefer to stay on the safe side of the nuclear threshold, and there are a number of obvious ways that the United States could make that choice even more attractive, such as taking the threat of regime change "off-the-table." But declaring that Washington will never use containment or deterrence isn't credible, because these options are always there if we need them, and they make a lot more sense than the alternatives. In this regard the United States is bluffing, and the main risk is that they will feel compelled to follow through if the bluff gets called.
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Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.
This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined "coercive diplomacy" as the use of military force or military threats "to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it." The book examined three cases of this approach -- the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam -- and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.
I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you're curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I'd go back and look at George's eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:
1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It's clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran's nuclear enrichment program doesn't pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it's not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a "breakout" capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn't entirely clear, despite the tough talk we've heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let's be conservative and score this in the plus column.
2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can't be blackmailed, because they don't want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case.
3. Clarity of American objectives. Having clear and well-understood goals aids coercion, because it lets the target know exactly what is being demanded and tells them what is not being sought. This condition is clearly absent in this case, although in theory it could be clarified through active diplomacy. If you were in Tehran, however, you'd probably be confused about what the U.S. really wants. Is the U.S. seeking to prevent an Iranian bomb? Certainly, but what else? Does Washington secretly share the Israeli goal of denying Iran a theoretical "weapons potential? Is the U.S. not-so-secretly interested in regime change, as some Congressional resolutions clearly state and as many Iranians suspect? And despite the tough talk about rejecting containment, etc., might the U.S. actually be willing to live with some Iranian enrichment, and might the US fall back on containment and deterrence if it had to? Nobody really knows. For the moment, therefore, this condition for successful coercive diplomacy is not met.
4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective. Coercion can be aided if the target becomes convinced time is running out and that it had better cut a deal. The Obama administration has explicitly sought to strengthen this condition by rejecting containment and saying that there is a "finite time limit" for negotiations. And Tehran may believe them. But that effort is undercut by the fact that there is no imminent "red line" (assuming Iran is not actively working on weaponization). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to impose red lines of his own, but he's cried wolf so often on this issue that his warnings may not be believed and his redlines aren't the same as Obama's in any case. Plus, the IDF cannot destroy Iran's nuclear potential on its own. So there are reasons to question whether the requisite urgency is present here. But let's be conservative here too and say that it is.
5. Adequate domestic political support. President Obama clearly has support for his policy of coercive diplomacy. Most Americans don't object to our squeezing Iran, don't mind talking about military force, and overwhelmingly favor diplomacy over war. And that's the rub: There's hardly any serious support for going to war, except among die-hard neoconservatives and the hardline wing of the Israel lobby. The U.S. military isn't pushing it and neither is the State Department, the intelligence services, the oil industry, or anyone else.
In his book, George argued that strong domestic support was especially necessary when pursuing the "strong form" of coercive diplomacy: i.e., the issuing of explicit demands or ultimatums. When domestic support is lacking, presidents have to rely on what he called the "try-and-see" approach: ratcheting up pressure but refraining from making demands with strict time limits. That's why you haven't seen him issue explicit ultimatums: Nobody really wants to have to carry out the implied threat when the deadline is up.
Bottom line: There's "adequate" support here, but barely.
6. Usable military options. Obviously, trying to coerce someone with threats of force won't work if there aren't genuine options that the opponent recognizes. In this case, I'd score it positively but with some important caveats. If we want to, the United States can certainly do a lot of damage to Iran's nuclear facilities (and other assets). In this narrow sense, therefore, Washington has "usable options." But those options come with significant risks, including the very real possibility that it will convince Iran that it has no choice but to go full-bore for a deterrent. And even extensive American air strikes cannot eliminate Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon. It can always rebuild its enrichment capacity, bury the machinery deeper, etc. Moreover, a preventive war would keep U.S.-Iranian relations in the deep freeze for at least another decade and could easily give the clerical regime a new lease on life. So one might conclude that the U.S. does have "usable" options, but they're aren't especially attractive ones. And Iran knows that.
7. Opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation. Thomas Schelling theorized the coercion (or what he called "compellence") works primarily by playing on the target's fear of what might happen if they do not comply. This criterion is difficult to gauge in advance, however, because opponents are obviously not going to admit publicly that they are worried about what the U.S. might do. On the contrary, they will claim not to fear escalation even if they are secretly quaking in their boots.
One might argue that Iran's infamous 2003 offer to negotiate a settlement -- made shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- shows that Tehran was deeply worried and eager to avoid the same fate that befell Saddam. Maybe so, but the subsequent debacle in Iraq and the U.S. failure in Afghanistan have almost certainly alleviated any fears they might have had back then. Iran's leaders know we aren't going to invade the country and they probably know that air strikes can't bring down their regime. I'm sure they don't want the U.S. to attack, but I doubt their fear is great enough to convince them to run up the white flag and comply with all of our present demands. Score this one on the "minus" side.
8. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. It is hard to coerce someone if they don't know what sort of concessions on their part will bring the pressure to an end. And the more ambiguity there is, the more they will fear a series of open-ended demands or an "agreement" that quickly breaks down amid mutual recriminations. Successful coercive diplomacy requires each side to be confident that there is a deal within sight, one that gives each at least something of what they want and in which each side understands exactly what is expected of the other.
This condition is presently lacking. As my colleague Nicholas Burns likes to emphasize, this gap exists in good part because we haven't had any real contact with Iran for more than thirty years, and we don't have any good sense of what their bottom lines might be. At the same time, it is hard for Iran's negotiators to know what the U.S. (or the P5+1) would be willing to accept either. Among other things, the fact that AIPAC and its lackeys in Congress keep trying to tie Obama's hands in the negotiations actually cripples our ability to conduct serious diplomacy, because Iran can't be sure that Obama could deliver on any offer he might make. If domestic politics here at home make it impossible to offer Iran any meaningful carrots (such as lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and turns the de facto U.S. position into one of demanding complete Iranian capitulation, then there obviously won't be a deal.
So where does this leave us? By my scoring, only four of George's conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are presently met (and remember, I was pretty conservative in evaluating the criteria). Assuming his framework is a useful guide, therefore, it is hard to be confident that military pressure on Iran will yield a positive diplomatic outcome. Which is yet another reason why I think we would be better off taking the threat of force off the table (thereby making it look less like blackmail and reducing Iran's interest in a latent or breakout capacity) and making the acceptable terms of a deal more explicit.
Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
President Obama is about to leave for the Middle East -- including his first trip to Israel as president -- and he's getting the usual advice from all corners on what to do while he's there. Here are a few things you might want to read and a comment you may want to ponder.
You can start with Ben Birnbaum's piece in the New Republic on the disappearing two-state solution. It's well-reported, fair-minded, and certainly won't make you optimistic about the prospects for a deal. Birnbaum can't quite admit that the 2SS might be dead already, and its worth remembering that a peace process that is always on life support but never really ends gives Israel the diplomatic cover to keep expanding control over the West Bank. Nonetheless, it is an intelligent and sobering piece, and its publication in the post-Peretz TNR is significant in itself.
Then, follow that up by re-reading the Boston Study Group's Two States for Two Peoples: If not now, when?, along with a new introduction, available here. The Boston Study Group is an informal collective of colleagues with extensive background on these issues, and I've been privileged to be a member of the group for the past several years. The new introduction reminds Obama that he has a chance to reinvigorate the quest for peace and urges him to take the leap. I'm not optimistic that he will, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong in this case.
Finally, take a quick look at Jerry Haber's discussion of "Who is a Liberal Zionist?" available at Open Zion and Jerry's own blog. It's a fascinating discussion of the tensions between liberal values and Zionism, and he nicely skewers the contradictions common to many liberal Zionists. His analysis will be all the more relevant if the two-state solution ultimately fails and the world ends up with some sort of de facto one-state outcome, which is where we are headed if there is no change of course.
And now my comment. Obama's trip is bound to generate more discussion about how to get the peace process started again, along with the usual back-and-forths about which side is more responsible for the current impasse and the familiar debates about what an appropriate solution might be. And a lot of defenders of Israel will repeatedly remind us that they oppose the occupation and are in favor of two states.
But here's the litmus test you should use: How many of them are in favor of the United States using the leverage at its disposal to bring the occupation to an end and obtain a two-state outcome? In other words, how many of them favor the United States using both carrots and sticks with both sides in order to achieve the outcome that they claim to favor? How many of them would openly back Obama if he did just that? The United States has steadfastly refused to use its leverage evenhandedly in the past, and the result after twenty-plus years of "peace processing" has been abject failure. Not only is failure bad for Israelis and Palestinians alike, it doesn't exactly do wonders for America's credibility as an effective mediator. Yet you rarely hear advocates of a two-state solution calling for the U.S. to try a different approach.
And don't forget that the Palestinians are already under tremendous pressure -- stateless, under occupation, dependent on outside aid, and watching the territory in dispute disappear as settlements expand. At this point, there's little to be gained by squeezing them even harder. If you genuinely believe in "two states for two peoples," then you ought to be openly calling for the United States to act like a true global power and knock some heads together. And anyone who claims to oppose the occupation and support the 2SS while insisting that the United States must back Israel no matter what it does is either delusional or disingenuous.
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I've been thinking this week about U.S. defense spending and grand strategy. It's increasingly clear that while the sequester may be an accounting and planning nightmare for Pentagon officials, it's not going to leave the United States naked and defenseless before its enemies. How could it? Even after the 9 percent budget cut mandated by the sequester, the United States is still going to spend at least four times more than the number two military power (China). Moreover, the United States is in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position -- with friendly countries on both borders and no great power rivals nearby -- and it has thousands of nuclear weapons to deter attack. As I've noted before, this remarkably high level of basic territorial security is why foreign policy mavens in the United States can devote their time to worrying about and meddling in far-flung backwaters.
Nonetheless, a reduced defense budget is bound to have some effects. How should Americans think about it? Here are three quick ideas.
First, one wrong way to respond is to engage in threat inflation. This was the Pentagon's reflexive answer as the sequester approached. Top military leaders began shouting that the sky was about to fall and that sequestration was going to turn the United States, as former SecDef Leon Panetta put it, into "a second rate power." The commandant of the Marine Corps, James Amos, said the sequester would have a "devastating impact" on military readiness and create "unacceptable levels of risk." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, told Congress a year ago that "in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now."
In a rare moment of sanity, Congress didn't fall for these scare tactics. And my guess is that this sort of alarmism won't work well in the future either, because Al Qaeda is on the ropes, China isn't a peer competitor yet, and even a healthier U.S. economy is going to face fiscal pressures -- an aging population, deferred maintenance on U.S. infrastructure, etc. -- that will be hard for the Pentagon to tilt against.
Second, an equally bad response would be to assume the U.S. military can and should try to perform every one of its current missions as its capabilities decline. Not only is that unfair to the men and women in uniform, it's also bad strategy. Even if you believe that we've been spending more than we needed to in recent years, there ought to be some correspondence between capabilities and commitments. If you spend less and have to trim force structure and other capabilities, the missions you are committed to perform ought to shrink too, which, in turn, means rethinking how the U.S. uses its power around the world and being more selective in identifying and setting priorities.
Third, the right way to think about this issue is to focus more attention on interests -- both our own and those of our allies. For the past fifty years or more, America's overarching power made it possible to expand our definition of "interests" almost without limit. And as the world's most powerful country, we assumed it was our right and responsibility to do most of the heavy lifting in various trouble spots. That tendency increased even more after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving us without a peer competitor and in a position of (nearly) unchallenged primacy. Our Foreign Policy Mandarins readily embraced this role, as it gave them lots of missions to perform and allowed them to strut around the world telling other countries what to do. U.S. officials began to describe the United States as the "indispensable nation" and assumed that the solution to most (all?) global problems had to be "Made in America."
Today, having been chastened by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis and facing the prospect of a serious, long-term competition with China that is in its early stages, it behooves American strategic planners to move from a power-centered perspective to one that focuses more closely on interests. Specifically, when problems arise in particular areas, our first question should not be "what can we do about this?" but rather "who has the greatest interest in this problem?" And if there are other states that share our basic outlook and have a greater interest in the issue, then we should let them take the lead and bear the burden of addressing it, with the United States playing a back-up role when appropriate.
IR theorists have a term for this -- "buck-passing." It may not sound heroic, but it's often a superb strategy. If you can get others to pay the price and bear the burden, then you can often get the results you want at very low cost. And as the United States learned in both world wars, keeping one's powder dry while others rush to war sometimes puts you in an excellent position to win the peace. It is hardly fool-proof, of course, but the good news is that America's remarkably favorable geostrategic position gives us a greater opportunity to pursue this approach at relatively little risk.
One can see the seeds of this new approach in the Obama administration's response to events in Libya, Mali, and Syria. Instead of placing the United States in the vanguard -- which invariably generates concern, resentment, and free-riding -- Washington has let countries with a greater interest in the outcome take the lead. It has not been entirely aloof, of course -- especially in the Libyan case -- but it has kept its commitments appropriately modest. Not only does that keep us out of additional costly quagmires, but it also keeps us from pouring gasoline on conflicts that might in fact get worse if we do. Far from being a sign of strategic impotence, one might think of it instead as a sign of good judgment.
This is not isolationism. Instead, think of it as "playing hard to get." American power is still enormous and a great asset for others, which means they should be willing to go a long way to accommodate us in order to be able to obtain it. The only way to get others -- including our allies -- to do more to address common security problems is for the United States to do less, especially in those areas where others have a greater stake in the issue than we do. If Uncle Sucker insists on doing it all, others will be happy to let us while they stand around carping about heavy-handed American interference.
The challenge going forward lies in striking the right balance between engagement and independence -- doing just enough so that others know they can count on us if needed but not so much that those with a greater stake take advantage of our overweening ambition. By the way, that will be primarily a task of intelligence and diplomacy, not military strategy. And while the sequester is a pretty stupid way to trim defense spending (i.e., Panetta was right to call it a "goofy meataxe"), it might have a silver lining. If it accelerates the process of rethinking our overall grand strategy, then the net effect might be quite salutary.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Dusty Howell/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Watching the musical chairs taking place in the first months of Obama's second term reminds me of how fundamentally unserious America's approach to foreign affairs really is. Kerry and Hagel are now in, but apparently Biden's star is ascending too, while all sorts of other folks are rotating to new jobs, unpacking their offices, or heading back to private life to pen memoirs. You might think this was a great opportunity for fresh thinking and renewed energy, but what it really reveals is how our approach to staffing foreign affairs may be the worst of all possible worlds.
For starters, the United States has a relatively small civil service. Compared with other countries, a relatively large percentage of top government jobs are held by presidential appointees. The result: top jobs in the State Department and Pentagon are handled not by career foreign service officers or experienced bureaucrats, but by partisan appointees who rarely last more than a couple of years and then return to private life. Not only does this mean tremendous turnover whenever the White House changes hands, it means we are constantly bringing in people who lack experience or who are not up to speed on current issues.
Next, the appointments process itself has gone completely off the rails. Candidates have to go through elaborate vetting procedures that would daunt a saint, and then they also face a Senate confirmation process that is slow, arbitrary, and leaves lots of positions unfilled for months if not years. And sometimes you get an embarrassing circus like the recent Hagel confirmation hearings, which revealed the GOP members of the Armed Services Committee to be spiteful and factually challenged hacks and no doubt confirmed many foreigners' dubious views of America's overall political competence.
Third, we are so afraid that our career diplomats will "go native" or develop "localitis," that we discourage them from developing deep regional expertise and instead rotate them around the globe on a frequent basis. There is something to be said for gaining a global perspective, of course, but it also means that unlike some of our rivals, we won't have many diplomats with deep linguistic expertise or lots of in-depth experience in the societies in which they are operating. Yet we then expect them to hold their own against their local counterparts, or against diplomats from other countries whose knowledge and training in particular areas is more extensive.
To make matters worse, the United States has a four-year presidential term and a campaign cycle that lasts well over a year. This latter period is far longer than the election periods in any other advanced democracy, and the endless parade of primaries and other forms of electoral hoopla eat up lots of bandwith in our national discourse. The result? The country, the incumbent administration, and the president's various rivals are all distracted for more than 25 percent of each president's term, and less able to make hard political choices.
And then there's the question of resources. When there was a Cold War to win, American taxpayers were willing to devote one percent of GDP to non-military international affairs spending (e.g., on development, diplomacy, and things like that). Today, we spend about only 0.2 percent of GDP in this area, which tells you all you need to know about the real priority that Americans place on non-military tools of international influence.
None of this would matter if the United States had a less ambitious foreign policy. But instead, we're trying to be the "indispensable power" on the cheap. The results, I am sorry to say, speak for themselves.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
I suspect a lot of people would like to believe Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defense shows that Obama has broken the back of the Israel lobby and will now move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for us, better for Israel, better for the Palestinians, and maybe even better for the entire region.
Don't count on it.
It is of course a very good thing that the Senate confirmed Hagel. He had excellent credentials for the job, had done nothing to disqualify himself, and to have been denied the post on the basis of the lobby's slander would have been truly disheartening. And there's no question that the antics of the Emergency Committee for Israel (note: for Israel, not the U.S.), the Washington Free Beacon, Elliot Abrams, Ted Cruz, Jennifer Rubin, et al. ultimately did more harm to themselves than to Hagel. They revealed both their preference for innuendo over facts and their belief that support for Israel matters more than any other aspect of U.S. defense policy. As I've noted before, their behavior merely confirmed what some of us have been saying for a very long time, and they did so center-stage with the spotlight on. Very gratifying indeed.
But it would be a huge mistake to conclude that the lobby's clout has been broken and that Obama will now be free to chart a new course. For starters, the behavior of several senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee shows that they are still mightily beholden to groups like AIPAC and extremist Christian Zionists, not to mention some unrepentant neoconservatives. Chuck Hagel was about as bulletproof a candidate as one could ask for (decorated war hero, defense and intelligence expert, successful businessman, respected ex-senator, etc.) and that didn't stop these zealots from unloading the SIOP against him. The fact that they ultimately failed is important, but so is the fact that they could even make an issue of it. The lobby failed to stop Ronald Reagan from selling AWACs to Saudi Arabia in 1981, but they made him work really, really hard to get the deal through and he never took them on again.
One should also remember that Obama has basically been caving in to the lobby ever since 2009, which tells you something about its clout. It's true that he doesn't have to run for reelection again. But most of those Congressmen do, and they aren't going to back him up if he tries to play hardball with Netanyahu. The annual aid package to Israel will be approved like clockwork, which means Obama won't have many levers to use if he needs to push both sides toward a peace deal.
And that's why I previously argued that you aren't going to see a big Middle East peace push during the second term. Sure, Obama might let John Kerry see what he can accomplish. But Netanyahu will just stiff him, and Obama won't do anything about it. The Palestinians are still divided and too weak to negotiate a fair deal, and conditions throughout the region are hardly propitious for compromise. If Obama is looking for a legacy, in short, the Middle East is not the place to find it. And I suspect he knows that.
Which is not to say that there isn't good news here. The pro-peace, pro-two state lobby J Street's support for Hagel was vindicated, and that's likely to win them greater access going forward. (I mean, who really wants to be in the company of the smear artists who went after Hagel?) Hagel's confirmation and the lobby's defeat diminishes the push for war with Iran -- which is a good thing -- and might encourage the administration to formulate a negotiating strategy toward Tehran that has some prospect of success (as opposed to the dead-on-arrival offers we've been making so far). And it certainly doesn't hurt for politicians in Washington to be reminded that the lobby doesn't win every time.
But the bottom line is that no powerful interest group disappears after a single defeat. Even when a lobby doesn't get its way, it can gain a partial victory by making the winning side pay a price, and by reminding everyone that it can still make trouble. And that was the lobby's real strategy here. They probably knew that Hagel was likely to be confirmed, for the simple reason that he was a well-qualifed candidate whose patriotism was beyond question. Their aim instead was to deter future administration from nominating people who weren't lobby-certified, and to discourage ambitious young foreign policy professionals from doing or saying anything that might put the lobby's crosshairs on them.
In short, so long as opportunistic rabble-rousers like Ted Cruz believe that pandering to the lobby is the smart political play, Capitol Hill will remain supine, the executive branch will be constrained, and U.S. Middle East policy will be about as successful as its been for the last couple of decades.
AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON
You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.
This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.
As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:
"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.
The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.
And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?
It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).
So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).
Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Most American global activism -- particularly of the military sort -- is justified by the claim that the security of the American homeland and the safety of U.S. citizens ultimately depends on controlling, shaping, influencing, deterring, compelling, dominating, destroying or in some way interfering with people in lots of far-away places. Yet the simple fact that we can do all those things in almost any corner of the world tells you two things that belie this justification.
Specifically: 1) the United States still has military capabilities that dwarf everyone else's, and 2) we are so secure here at home that we don't have to spend much time or effort worrying about defending our own soil. Even if another terrorist group got as lucky as al Qaeda did back on 9/11, it wouldn't threaten our independence, long-term prosperity, or way of life unless we responded to such an attack in especially foolish ways (see under: Operation Iraqi Freedom).
Call this the (In)Security Paradox: The main reason Americans are able to gallivant all over the world and expend lots of ink and bytes and pixels debating whether to get involved in Syria, Mali, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the South China Sea, etc., etc., is because the United States is actually very secure. What happens in most of these places isn't going to affect the safety or prosperity of the vast majority of Americans at all; U.S. citizens are much more likely to be harmed in an automobile accident, in a big storm, or in a household accident, than as a result of something happening in some distant land. We say we need to do these things to be secure; in reality, we are so secure that we have the luxury of intervening in wars of choice that ultimately don't matter very much. Which is one reason why we do.
This paradox got me thinking: what would happen if the United States were really insecure? What if we faced a malevolent peer competitor that was larger, more populous, more advanced, more productive, and more powerful than we were? What if our immediate neighbors were both hostile and military capable? What if all of the world's major powers were united in an alliance against us? What would our foreign and defense policy look like then? Here are a few thoughts.
#1: If the United States were really insecure, it would spend a lot more on defense and raise taxes to pay for it. If the US were really threatened, most Americans would accept diminished living standards and higher taxes in order to afford a more robust defense. You know, like we did in World War II. But because we are in reality very secure today, we don't spend that much on defense and we think we can still run the world on the cheap.
#2: If the United States were really insecure, you wouldn't see irresponsible and grandstanding senators acting like buffoons at confirmation hearings. If they did, they'd be rightly condemned as unpatriotic know-nothings who were placing the country at risk by pandering to powerful interest groups. More broadly, a real external threat would focus the national mind and encourage a more responsible bipartisan debate on critical national security questions, instead of the monkey show we often observe these days.
#3: If the United States were really insecure, it would have to make its defense dollars stretch as far as they could. For starters, we'd have a more rational military basing structure, instead of wasting resources just to keep pork-hungry members of Congress happy.
#4: If the United States were really insecure, it wouldn't wage wars of choice at the drop of a hat. Instead, it would conserve its strength, keep its powder dry, and focus primarily on the biggest or most dangerous challenges. Translation: There'd be a lot less for liberal interventionists to talk about.
#5: If the United States were really insecure, it would be lot more careful in how it chose its allies and would be wary of giving any of them unconditional support. If the United States were really threatened, we'd want capable allies who didn't free-ride on our benevolence or take actions that got us into trouble with other important nations. And we wouldn't be all that picky about whether they were democratic or not. The main question would be whether being allied with them made us safer overall. Remember: Washington was allied with Stalinist Russia during World War II and with plenty of unsavory regimes throughout the long Cold War. When you face real threats, you can't afford to be either too picky or too generous.
#6: If the United were really insecure, we would hold military commanders and foreign policy advisors accountable for their failings and follies. Instead of firing people for sexual misconduct and other peccadillos (however regrettable they might be), we would mostly hold them accountable for their foreign policy performance. And that means serial blunderers like today's neoconservatives would be marginalized after driving the country into a ditch, and they wouldn't be treated as respected pundits and they wouldn't be advising presidential hopefuls. Only a state that is very, very secure can afford to keep listening to people whose have been wrong with such disastrous consistency.
#7: If the United States were really insecure, more academics would be engaged by important policy issues and fewer would spend their time writing obscure articles and books intended for a small number of like-minded navel-gazers. In other words, academic departments would place more value on policy-relevance, because it would be seen as an important way to help the nation deal with serious external challenges. I'd also expect Americans to put more attention and effort into teaching and learning about languages and foreign cultures, so that they could maneuver in a dangerous world more effectively. Only a truly secure nation can get away with being as ignorant of the outside world as the United States is, while at the same time believing it is somehow qualified and prepared to "lead" the world.
#8: If the United States were really insecure, we would be even more likely to play hardball with our enemies. As Alexander Downes has shown, democracies don't follow Marquis of Queensbury's rules when they find themselves in a serious war of national survival. Instead, they are as likely to deliberately kill large numbers of civilians as non-democracies are. Although the United States often does things to other countries that it would regard as barbaric were they done to us (including targeted assassinations and economic sanctions that harm civilians), U.S. armed forces do go to considerable lengths to minimize collateral damage. That would change quickly if we thought our survival or security were really at risk.
#9: If the United States were really insecure, our civil liberties were be under even greater pressure than they are today. When countries are really scared, individual freedoms and constitutional guarantees tend to go out the window. (See under: Patriot Act, McCarthyism, "warrantless surveillance," Alien & Sedition Acts, etc.) If the United States were not the world's most powerful country and actually faced a serious threat to its national independence, my guess is that there would be even more aggressive efforts to police discourse, wiretap suspected fifth columnists, and generally interfere with our traditional freedoms. Among other things this is why it is critically important to weigh threats and risks carefully. If national security elites get away with inflating threats, it becomes easier to place more shackles on us at home.
#10: If the United States were really insecure, we'd have a very different attitude toward international law, and on devising legal and/or normative constraints on warfare. Right now, American dominance encourages us to use whatever forces we have at our disposal (drones, cyber capabilities, surveillance, etc.) because we assume we will always be better at it than anyone else. But if we were really threatened, we might be more interested in eliminating categories of weaponry that we recognize could do great harm to us and might not confer any real military advantage. Who knows? We might even ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty!
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).
It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.
The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications.
This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.
The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come.
As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.
This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.
But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.
The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.
There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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Today is Hillary Rodham Clinton's last day as Secretary of State. She's been receiving mostly accolades for her service, including considerable praise from President Obama in a recent joint televised interview. But with the exception of the mean-spirited and highly partisan grilling she got from a congressional committee over Benghazi, most of the interviews I've seen have been pretty gentle affairs. I've sufficient respect for Secretary Clinton's talents and intellect that I'd like to see her take a swing at a few fastballs.
In that spirit, here are my Top Ten Tough Questions for Secretary Clinton:
#1. You have said that your "biggest regret" during your four years of service was the loss of four American lives during the Benghazi attack. It was a painful event, to be sure, and your regret is understandable, but aren't there many other events and decisions whose negative consequences were much greater? Shouldn't we be focusing more on the loss of American, NATO, and local lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or our inability to bring other conflicts to an end, and not on this one unhappy occurrence?
#2. You have been widely praised for your tireless travels, logging more miles than any Secretary of State in our nation's history. It's easy to understand why getting out of Washington, DC is so tempting, but is all that travel really necessary or desirable in an era when modern communications would allow you to speak face-to-face to virtually any world leader anytime you want? Videolinks would even permit you to give speeches and answer questions anywhere in the world, but without having to go there in person. Looking back, do you think you might have had more influence had you stayed home a bit more?
#3. You have been justly praised for being a great team player in this administration, something that many people did not anticipate when you were nominated. At the same time, the Obama White House and NSC has held the reins on a lot of key foreign policy issues. What foreign policy problems do you wish you had been given greater authority to handle on your own?
#4. As Secretary, one of your major initiatives was the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, eventually released in 2010. It created a bit of buzz when it was released, but it seems to have largely disappeared from the scene. What concrete and tangible impact has this report had on the conduct of American diplomacy or on specific policy initiatives in key areas?
#5. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama appointed "special envoys" to handle thorny foreign policy areas like Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and North Korea. One of these envoys was the late Richard Holbrooke, a close personal friend of yours. For various reasons, none of these special envoys seem to have accomplished very much. What lessons should we draw from this failed experiment? And did having all these independent operators diminish your authority and ability to craft an overall foreign policy strategy?
#6. U.S. military forces are now organized in various regional combatant commands, each under a designated regional "commander-in-chief" or CINC. These regional CINCs have a vast array of military, intelligence, and other assets at their disposal, and the resources they can bring to bear far exceed those of the State Department. For this reason, foreign governments often pay as much or more attention to the CINCs as they do to the U.S. ambassador, for the simple reason that the CinCs can do more for or against them. Here's my question: if you were an ambitious young person who wanted to make a mark on U.S. foreign policy, why go to a nice four-year college and then join the Foreign Service? Wouldn't it make more sense to go to West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs and try to become a senior military leader instead?
#7. One of your signature issues has been the advancement and empowerment of women, and your efforts on this issue have won you enormous praise both here in the United States and in many other countries. Given your strong convictions on this issue, are you sorry that you are being succeeded by a wealthy white male, that the Pentagon will also be led by another white male, and that there are hardly any women in top foreign policy jobs in Obama's second-term team? Did you ever raise this issue with the President, and if so, what did he say?
#8. You have made it clear that you strongly support former Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination as Secretary of Defense. What did you think of the Senate Armed Services' Committee grilling of him yesterday? Was it appropriate for them to talk incessantly about Israel, and to ignore most of the key problems that he will face as SecDef? Why do you think the Senators -- including your successor, Kirsten Gillibrand -- acted in this way, and what do you think foreign governments thought as they watched the circus?
#9. What is one aspect of world politics and America's global role that you believe most Americans do not understand? If you could magically change one thing that most Americans believe about the rest of the world and its relationship with us, what would it be?
#10. What do you regard as your single greatest achievement as Secretary of State? And if you could have one "do-over" -- apart from Benghazi -- what would it be?
Secretary Clinton is a seasoned pol by this point, and I'm sure she'd find a way to dodge some of those queries. But what if we put her on truth serum first...?
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Here's a little fantasy for you to ponder: what if one of our senior foreign policy officials accidentally swallowed some sodium pentothal (aka "truth serum") before some public hearing or press conference, and started speaking the truth about one of those issues where prevarication, political correctness, and obfuscation normally prevail? You know: what if they started saying in public all those things that they probably believe in private? What sorts of "inconvenient truths" might suddenly get revealed?
In that spirit, here's my Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit.
#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons." U.S. presidents have talked about disarmament since the beginning of the nuclear age. According to the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, we're formally committed to "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." It has even become fashionable for retired foreign policy experts like George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger to call for eliminating nuclear weapons too (even though they would have strenuously opposed such actions while in office) and of course Barack Obama made some speeches about it early in his presidency. And now some folks are trying to make a big deal about Chuck Hagel's involvement with Global Zero, a respectable international campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons.
But let's get serious for a minute. Although the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile sharply since the end of the Cold War, it still has thousands either on active deployment or in reserve. Nobody in power is seriously advocating getting rid of all of them anytime soon, and even modest reductions (such as those stipulated by the most recent arms control treaty with Russia) are politically controversial. U.S. leaders have to pay lip service to the goal of total disarmament, and a few of them might privately favor it, but they understand that these weapons are the ultimate deterrent and that the United States isn't going to give them all up until it is confident that there is no conceivable scenario in which it might want them. Which means: not in my lifetime, or yours.
#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights." Presidents, diplomats, and other politicians talk about human rights all the time, and both Congress and the Executive Branch often bully small countries over their human rights performance, especially when we have other differences with them). But when human rights concerns conflict with other interests, our ethical concerns take a back seat nearly every time. Most Americans didn't care when the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis (many of them children), and none of the senior officials who authorized torture during the Bush administration has faced indictment or even serious investigation (Just imagine how much we'd be howling if we suspected some foreign government had been waterboarding captive Americans!). The United States has plenty of allies whose human rights performance ranges from questionable to awful, and we continue to trade and invest in China despite its own lax human rights standards. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. government is totally indifferent to such concerns, of course; what I'm saying is that we are rarely willing to do very much or pay significant costs in order to advance human rights, unless our strategic interests run parallel. Like most countries, in short, we talk a better game on human rights than we actually deliver. But you're not going to hear many American politicians admit it.
#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution." For official Washington insiders, the politically-correct answer to any question about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that we favor a two-state solution based on negotiations between the two parties, preferably done under U.S. auspices. Never mind that there's not much support for creating a viable Palestinian state in Israel (surveys in Israel sometimes show slim majorities in favor of a 2SS, but support drops sharply when you spell out the details of what a viable state would mean). Never mind that the Palestinians are too weak and divided to negotiate properly, and the failure of the long Oslo process has diminished Fatah's legitimacy and strengthened the more hardline Hamas. Never mind that the latest Israeli election, while it weakened Netanyahu, did not strengthen the peace camp at all. And never mind that the United States has had twenty-plus years to pull of the deal and has blown it every time, mostly because it never acted like a genuine mediator. But nobody in official-dom is going to say this out loud, because they have no idea what U.S. policy would be once the 2SS was kaput.
#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can." Most U.S. leaders like to talk about global partnerships and the need to work with allies, and they try not to speak too glowingly about American dominance. But make no mistake: U.S. leaders have long recognized that being stronger than everyone else was desirable, and nobody ever runs for president vowing to "make America #2." That's why U.S. leaders have always been ambivalent about European unity: they want Europe to be sufficiently unified so that it doesn't become a source of trouble, but they don't want it to cohere into a super-state that might be powerful enough to stand up to Washington.
The problem, of course, is that openly proclaiming global primacy irritates other governments and makes them look for ways to keep Washington in check. That's why the first Bush administration had to disavow an early draft of the 1992 Defense Guidance; it was way too explicit in laying out these familiar aims. But dropping that draft didn't alter the ambition, and despite what you might think, neither Clinton, Bush Jr., or Obama has abandoned the basic goal of keeping the United States #1. Whether their policies advanced that goal is another question.
#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it." Everyone knows that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a failure since the early 1960s -- that's half a century, folks -- but it never changes because the stakes don't seem worth it and it would tick off a handful of influential people in Florida. Everyone knows the foreign policy side of the "war on drugs" has been no more successful than the anti-drug campaign here at home, but you didn't hear Kerry say that during his hearings last week and you won't hear Hagel (or anyone else) say that either. Everyone knows that most U.S. allies around the world have been free-riding for decades and taking advantage of our protection to pursue their own interests, but saying so out loud wouldn't be ... well, diplomatic. More and more insiders know that the Afghan war is a loser, but we're going to pretend it's a victory because that makes it getting out politically feasible. It's obvious that our basic approach to Iran's nuclear program has been misguided, and that we've spent the last two decades giving Iran more reasons to want a nuclear deterrent and digging ourselves into an deeper diplomatic hole. But don't expect officials to acknowledge that simple fact, and certainly not in public.
Like I said, this is just an idle fantasy. I don't really want to see what Kerry or Hagel or McDonough or Lew or others would be like on truth serum (though I sometimes wonder if somebody is slipping a smidge to Biden every now and then). But it is kinda fun to imagine what they might blurt out in an idle moment, especially if the normal inhibitions and constraints were removed. What would you expect them to say?
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I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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I was in Beijing earlier this week, attending a conference on Sino-American relations. The conference was jointly sponsored by Beijing University and Harvard, and featured a number of prominent Chinese and American academics (and a few former policymakers). Our Chinese hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the absence of clean air didn't prevent the other participants from making lots of interesting presentations. (For another summary of the proceedings, check out Alan Alexandroff's account here).
The panel on which I spoke was focused on how the United States and China could cooperate to enhance international security. I made five basic points and thought I'd pass them along to you.
1. Positive and Negative Forms of Security Cooperation. In theory (I argued), there are two broad forms that Sino-American security cooperation could take. The first type consists of positive acts of collaboration, such as counterterrorism measures or anti-piracy operations (as in the Gulf of Aden). One can also imagine more ambitious sorts of cooperation, as when the two states jointly approve U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. One could even imagine situations where China and the United States might join forces to halt some deep civil conflict, although that is obviously less likely.
The second type of security cooperation is essentially negative: Each side seeks to enhance its mutual security by limiting or restraining its activities in some important realm. Traditional arms control is an obvious example of this sort of cooperation, as was the U.S.-Soviet "Incidents at Sea" agreement. Sino-American agreement on a naval "code of conduct" or a ban on cyberattacks would be of this type as well.
In short, it is not hard to think of various ways that Washington and Beijing could cooperate to reduce the risk of international conflict. But is significant cooperation likely, and what factors might make it more or less probable?
2. Prospects for Cooperation. Unfortunately, the probability that two states will engage in significant acts of security cooperation -- and especially of the positive sort noted above -- is largely determined by the level of amity or trust between them. If they have generally positive relations, cooperation is fairly easy. If there is a lot of mutual suspicion, however, positive acts of cooperation will be hard to sustain because both sides may fear that the other is gaining some sort of advantage. Paradoxically: Security cooperation is easiest when it is least important and hardest when it would be most valuable. Welcome to the wonderful world of international relations!
3. Rival Grand Strategies. The main barrier to extensive Sino-American cooperation to enhance global security is the tension between their respective grand strategies. China's central strategic aim is to continue to grow economically, gradually acquire greater economic and military power, and eventually reduce or eliminate the U.S. security role in Asia. Not by conquest or force necessarily, but by co-opting or cowing neighboring states into distancing themselves from the United States. The reason is easy to fathom: Just as U.S. leaders wanted to expel the European great powers from the Western Hemisphere (see under: Monroe Doctrine), China's leaders believe they will be more secure in the long run if the United States does not have a large military presence near their borders and does not have close security ties with their neighbors.
The United States, by contrast, wants to stay in Asia in order to keep China from establishing a dominant position there. Since the U.S. became a great power, a core principle of its grand strategy was to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia. That's why the United States opposed Germany in World War I, fought Germany and Japan in World War II, and worked to contain the Soviet Union in the Cold War. If no single power dominates Europe or Asia, the states there will worry mostly about each other, and none are able to focus solely on the United States or do much to interfere over in the Western Hemisphere. Accordingly, the U.S. will want to stay in Asia, to backstop its allies there and prevent Beijing from dominating the region.
4. Will the U.S. and China Act with Restraint? If the United States and China each pursue their respective grand strategies energetically, conflicts of interest will be numerous and intense, and we will see lots of trouble down the road. In this sort of world, there won't be much security cooperation between the two sides, and there will be a very intense security competition in Asia itself, with each side trying to cultivate allies of its own and trying simultaneously to undermine the opposing coalition. But if the two states pursue their strategies in a restrained, even lazy, fashion, they'll find it easier to reach common ground on some issues and might even engage in positive acts of collaboration on occasion.
Alas, I don't think the latter outcome is likely. Restraint is not something the United States does very well, and the recent "pivot" to Asia is probably a harbinger of more to come. Fiscal constraints will put some limits on what the United States can do, but you can bet that the Pentagon sees a coming conflict with China as a major force driver and will push hard for an assertive approach and the preservation of our current "forward presence." Similarly, China's own level of restraint has declined as its relative power has grown, and Deng Xiaoping's strategy of the "peaceful rise" has been gradually giving way to a more assertive nationalism. If China's economic growth rate does not slow significantly, I wouldn't expect a lot of restraint on either side. (FWIW, I think a slowdown is nearly inevitable, which will create big problems for the Chinese leadership but might dampen tensions somewhat.)
5. Stability for the Long Term. Unfortunately, managing Sino-American relations over the long term will be even harder. If Chinese leaders are consistently smart, judicious, farsighted, clear-eyed, and wise, and if their American counterparts consistently exhibit similar qualities, then the two governments may be able to manage their future relations without serious trouble. But the history of both countries suggests that there is very little chance that these idyllic circumstances will prevail every year for the next several decades. Sooner or later, we are bound to get a cadre of foolish, impetuous, or incompetent leaders in one capital or the other, or maybe even both at the same time. If "wise leadership" is the prerequisite for managing Sino-American rivalry over the long haul, in short, history suggests one ought to worry. A lot.
The bottom line is that Washington and Beijing have an obvious interest in taking steps now that might make their relationship easier to manage in the future. In particular, establishing rules of the road for naval activity (similar to the earlier Incidents at Sea agreement) might reduce the danger of an unintended clash on the high seas. Reaching an understanding on the use of unmanned drones or cyberattacks would help too. Military-to-military contacts and other forms of elite exchange would be a good idea as well, so that elites in both societies know the people with whom they are dealing personally and are less likely to misread or misinterpret what they may do while in official positions. None of these steps makes rivalry disappear, but together they could help keep it from boiling over.
And that just might be the greatest contribution that these two states could make to international peace and security over the next 25 years.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.