Remember the "unipolar moment?" You know: that period that began when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in an unprecedented position of power. As former President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991, the United States found itself "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world." And both Democratic and Republican administrations tried to do just that: expanding NATO, supposedly spreading democracy, putting "rogue states" in the cross hairs, and sending the U.S. military into action on virtually every continent.
Of course, in the wake of the financial crisis and the self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, things don't look quite so rosy today. China's GDP is likely to overtake America's in the next decade or so, which will mark the first time in over a century that the United States won't have the world's largest economy. China still lags behind the United States on many other indicators of power, so it's far too soon to talk about a fundamental transfer of power from Washington to Beijing. Nonetheless, its steady rise and obviously growing assertiveness are making plenty of people wonder about how the United States should respond.
So let me simplify this issue for you. Boiled down to its essentials, the biggest question facing U.S. leaders over the next decade or so is whether America's global position will be enhanced more by successful foreign-policy initiatives, or by successful policy responses here at home. In other words, will America's long-term security and prosperity be enhanced most by various foreign and defense policy maneuvers, and especially by successful efforts to deal with potentially dangerous situations in various parts of the world? Alternatively, we will be more secure and more prosperous if we do less abroad and use the time and resources to get our house in order here in the United States instead? This is obviously not a simple either/or situation, but the key question is what priority one decides to place on each policy domain.
Those who favor the first position -- i.e., who think our security/prosperity depends mostly on the role we play globally -- tend to think that the United States faces many threats and that our forward presence in various parts of the world is essential for stability in key regions and indispensable for keeping lots of bad guys at bay. If we aren't fighting them in Kandahar, flying drones in Pakistan, helping rebel forces in Libya, providing aid and advice in Colombia, so the argument runs, we'll face rising dangers closer to home. Or sometimes they argue that the United States has a moral responsibility to use its power on behalf of others. This view is most evident among die-hard neoconservatives, but plenty of liberal internationalists still see the United States as the "indispensable nation" that has to shoulder the main burden whenever serious problems arise almost anywhere.
By contrast, people who incline to the second view think that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has a built-in tendency to overstate threats and a real problem setting clear priorities. They see the United States as remarkably secure and insulated from most problems by two enormous oceans, by a formidable nuclear deterrent, and by strong conventional forces that can tip the balance in key regions like the Persian Gulf. In this view, a lot of what we've been doing lately isn't making Americans richer or more secure, and certainly isn't worth the cost. They question whether spending $100 billion a year on Afghanistan makes a substantial contribution to American security and believe that sort of money could be better spent on productivity-enhancing projects here at home. When they read that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is about to lay off 4,000-plus teachers in order to close a budget deficit, they see it as one of the many independent policy decisions whose cumulative effect will be to leave America dumber and therefore weaker in the years ahead.
The second group recognizes that America does have a global role to play, but believes that in the end our power and influence depends far more on having a healthy, highly educated, politically loyal, and energetic society here at home than it does on shaping political outcomes in far-flung corners of the world. And the second group tends to think that we'd be a lot more popular in some parts if we weren't constantly trying to tell others how to live (and blowing things up in order to persuade them).
I've been sketching a pretty crude picture, of course, and the proper answer lies somewhere between these two stark alternatives. But as readers of this blog know, in the present era I think it is pretty clear that it is the home front needs the most attention. We do need an active foreign policy, but the emphasis has to be on setting clear priorities, liquidating commitments that are not vital (and may even be counterproductive), and making it clear to others that the United States is not a philanthropic organization with an infinite bank account and endless tolerance for feckless, fickle, or uncooperative allies. (Pakistan heads that list this week, but it is hardly alone). And at the same time, we need to address the eroding infrastructure, failing schools, world-record incarceration rates, elite corruption, and rising economic inequality from which the United States now suffers, all of which pose a far greater long-term threat to our security and prosperity than groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda do.
But here's the problem. Presidents and their advisors have lots of latitude in foreign policy, and we still have a big defense establishment that gives them lots of options for meddling. Heck, the president can decide it's a good idea to overthrow the government of Libya and get busy doing it, without asking anyone's permission or facing significant political opposition. But given the decentralized nature of the U.S. government, the pervasive influence of special interest lobbies, and the present state of political polarization, trying to implement major domestic reforms is like trying to drag a shipping container through quicksand with a bicycle. So it's no wonder that this administration (like its predecessors) finds it tempting to focus on foreign policy. It ain't easy, but it's a lot more fun than trying to fix what's broken back home.
Closing teaser: Some folks in the DoD seem to have reached similar conclusions to the ones I've expressed here, and a paper by two military officers (writing collectively as "Mr. Y") has been receiving some fawning attention in the press lately. Although I'm sympathetic to some of their ideas, the paper itself is a disappointment. I'll lay out my reasons in a subsequent post.
I've been buried with end-of-term obligations and some other administrivia, so I haven't posted anything since last week. Fortunately, you've all got the whole web to feast upon, so I doubt that anyone's been suffering from withdrawal.
Given all the other things that have been happening lately -- hey, did you hear we got bin Laden? -- I also haven't written anything about the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas that was announced more than a week ago. Several correspondents weighed in by email and asked me what I thought of it, so here goes.
The first and most obvious point to remember is that the agreement is very fragile. There's a lot of bad blood between the two main Palestinian factions, stemming both from doctrinal and strategic differences but also from a lot of prior violence between the two. Fatah conducted a harsh crackdown on Hamas during the 1990s-in an attempt to prove to the U.S. and Israel that it was serious about controlling terror -- and the two groups fought a short civil war in Gaza in 2007. Incompetent U.S. "leadership" helped cause that war: not only did the US refuse to accept the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections because we were miffed that Hamas had won, but then we tried to arm Fatah and encouraged it to attack Hamas, which led the latter to preempt and drive the less effective Fatah cadres out. In other words, the United States helped foment a little civil war, and then the side we were backing lost. Well done!
Of course, those who oppose the creation of Palestinian state promptly denounced the recent unity agreement, declaring that of course one could never negotiate with a "terrorist organization." I've never understood this position, given that many current governments had their origins in groups that used terrorist methods as part of struggle to gain national independence, and several terrorist leaders (including some former IRA members, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Shamir, and Menachem Begin) have all been welcomed at the White House. The U.S. government has backed its own "terrorist" groups on occasions, and some U.S. leaders are now openly hoping that bin Laden's death will encourage the Taliban -- which also relies on terrorism -- to come to the table and get serious about talks to end the war in Afghanistan. The obvious point is that sometimes states negotiate with groups using terrorist methods, if they are seriously interested in ending a conflict and they have sufficient reason to believe that the "terrorist" group is too. It didn't make sense to negotiate with bin Laden or al Qaeda, obviously, but it might with Hamas.
Israel and the United States now say that they won't negotiate with Hamas because it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and because its charter contains some hateful and frankly bizarre clauses, including an endorsement of that old Tsarist fraud, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here I find it hard to understand Hamas's reluctance to jettison rhetorical positions that serve no positive purpose and merely make it easy for their opponents to portray them as unreasonable. I can see why they might hold back on formal recognition-it's one of the last cards they have to play, and Fatah's decision to recognize Israel back in the late 1980s hasn't stopped the continued expansion of Israeli settlements or led to a Palestinian state. But Hamas could advance its own cause mightily if they made it clearer that they would be willing to recognize Israel provided that it withdrew to the 1967 borders and allowed for the creation of a Palestinian state. Some Hamas leaders have hinted about movement along these lines, but being less coy about it would place the Netanyahu government in a very difficult political position, especially now.
Despite these reservations, however, I think the unity agreement is in fact in everyone's interest. It is certainly in the Palestinians' interest, as they are already weak and vulnerable and internal divisions just make that situation worse. And given the current balance of power and the broader international situation, violence is not the Palestinians' best tactic: civil resistance, international publicity, and diplomatic engagement is. And I've always believed that the best way to either marginalize Hamas or force it to moderate its own positions was to make genuine progress toward ending the occupation and creating an independent state, which will make calls for continued resistance fall on deaf ears.
Palestinian reconciliation and unity is ultimately good for Israel too, assuming that Israel wants peace more than land. Divisions among the Palestinians were very useful for Israel during Zionism's expansionist phase, because it made establishment and consolidation of the state possible. But if Israel wants peace, then it needs a Palestinian neighbor that is not wracked by internal divisions: who wants to live next door to a failed state? At this point in Israel's history, in fact, its security would be enhanced by a stable, secure, and legitimate Palestinian government that could keep order in its territory, foster economic development, and when necessary, deal with any die-hard rejectionists that might still exist. (The same goes for Israel too: If a peace deal is ever reached, it will need to be able to control its own right-wing extremists, and that won't be a picnic either.) Ironically, Israel needs an effective Palestinian government as much as the Palestinians do, and that was always going to be hard to achieve so long as the Fatah-Hamas split endures.
Finally, the unity agreement is a potential opportunity for the United States as well, if it helps break the current deadlock and gets movement towards a final status agreement rolling again. As everyone knows (but some don't want to admit), the persistence of the I-P conflict is a major distraction for the United States and a major contributor to anti-Americanism, at a moment when the United States needs to be shifting its sights toward Asia and improving its relations with the Arab and Islamic world. So the idealist in me would love to believe that this agreement will hold, and that it can be used to jump-start a new diplomatic process (which will probably also involve moving beyond the current U.S. monopoly on this issue).
Alas, the realist in me suspects it won't. So far, nobody ever lost money assuming that things could go badly in that part of the world, or that new opportunities will be squandered.
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A realistic foreign policy seeks to deal with the world as it is, shorn of political illusions. Realists emphasize that even close allies often have conflicting interests, that cooperation between states is difficult to achieve or sustain, and that the conduct of nations is frequently shaped by some combination of fear, greed and stupidity.
Above all, realists warn against basing policy on wishful thinking: on the assumption that all will go as we want it to. Yet the pages of history are littered with episodes where leaders made decision on the basis of false hopes, idealistic delusions, or blind faith. And I regret to say that there's no shortage of this sort of wishful thinking today. As evidence, I offer here my "Top Ten Examples of Wishful Thinking in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy."
No. 1: China Won't Act Like a Great Power
Although most foreign policy gurus recognize that China's rising power will have profound effects on world politics, some still assume that a more powerful China will somehow act differently than other great powers have in the past. In particular, they maintain that China will cheerfully accept the institutional arrangements that were "made-in-America" after World War II. They also believe that Beijing will be content to let the United States maintain its current security posture in East Asia, and will not seek to undermine it over time. Maybe so, that's not how great powers have acted in the past, and it's certainly not how the United States behaved in its own rise to world power (remember the Monroe Doctrine?). This illusion is gradually being dispelled, I think, but one hears its echoes every time some official says that the United States "welcomes" China's rise.
Read the full article, "Wishful Thinking," here.
Also, I hope readers will send in their suggestions for other examples of "wishful thinking." Perhaps I'll devote a future post to the other side of the equation -- "worst-casing" -- which can be just as serious an error as excessive optimism.
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When my clock radio went off this AM, the first story I heard was about a NATO air attack on Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's compound near Tripoli. Although NATO officials have denied that this was an attempt to kill Qaddafi, it is hard to believe that the officials responsible weren't hoping for a lucky shot. U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham told CNN that it was time to "to cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing Qaddafi's inner circle, their compounds, their military headquarters." Similarly, Senator Joe Lieberman called for "going directly after Qaddafi," saying that "I can't think of anything that would protect the civilian population of Libya more than [his] removal."
In a situation like this, it is obviously tempting to think you can solve the problem by removing the bad guy at the top. Instead of a prolonged civil war that kills lots of combatants and civilians and inflicts vast property damage, why not just get rid of the individual you think is causing all the trouble, and maybe a few of his closest associates? To take the most obvious case: with the benefit of hindsight, wouldn't it have been far better to take out Adolf Hitler sometime in the 1930s? By a similar logic, wouldn't a surgical strike on Qaddafi and his inner circle be preferable to a protracted civil war?
But before you conclude that targeted assassination is the way to go, I suggest you read Ward Thomas' 2000 International Security article "Norms and Security: The Case of International Assassionation." Thomas traces the evolution of attitudes, norms, and practices regarding international assassination, and shows how they have changed significantly over time. He argues that assassination was a fairly common foreign policy tool a few centuries ago, but a combination of shifting material interests and evolving normative principles led to the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the killing of foreign leaders, even during wartime. This shift occurred in part because great powers preferred to confine conflict to the clash of armies on the battlefield (where they had the advantage over weaker states), and partly because it helped enshrine the idea that war was conducted by states and not by individuals. Thus, the norm helped reinforce the political legitimacy of the state itself, and it eventually grew so powerful that even deeply hostile states did not make serious efforts to kill each other's leaders.
Thomas also argues that the norm appears to be breaking down, for three separate reasons. First, as warfare became increasingly destructive, states began to look for cheaper alternatives. Second, terrorist groups routinely employ assassination against the states they oppose, and states have responded with targeted killings against suspected terrorist leaders. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, in the post-Nuremberg environment, national leaders are increasingly seen as individually responsible and morally accountable for acts undertaken at their behest. The creation of an International Criminal Court is another sign of a shifting moral and legal context in which raison d'etat no longer protects national leaders from accountability (if they lose, of course). And if individual leaders are seen as morally responsible, then it is easier to slip into viewing them as legitimate targets in war.
Of course, the United States (and some other countries) have been on this slippery slope for awhile, given our reliance on targeted killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The practice is troubling on at least three grounds. First, due to the imperfect nature of intelligence and the inevitable "fog of war," targeted killings inevitably murder innocents along with the supposedly guilty. Second, and following from the first point, killing innocent bystanders may create more adversaries than it eliminate, thereby undermining the strategic purpose of the program itself.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, going after foreign leaders-no matter how despicable-helps legitimate a tactic that will eventually be visited back upon us. If the world's most powerful countries see fit to kill any foreign leader that they don't like, what's to stop those same (presumably evil) leaders from threatening to pay us back in kind? Targeted assassinations of foreign despots may seem like a cheap and efficient way of solving today's problem, but we won't enjoy living in a world where foreign adversaries think attacking U.S. leaders (including the president and his inner circle) is a perfectly legitimate way of doing business. And notice that making targeted killings more legitimate tends to level the international playing field: you don't have to be a powerful or wealthy state to organize a few hit squads and cause lots of trouble for your enemies.
So even if this attempt at "decapitation" were to succeed in the short-term, the longer-term consequences may not be quite so salutary.
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According to the New York Times, the U.S. government is actively trying to find someplace for Muammar al-Qaddafi to go, where he (and presumably his family) can be comfortable and secure from prosecution. The idea, obviously, is to "build him a golden bridge" to retreat across, and thus hasten his removal from power.
In a different story, the Times also describes how the Mubarak family in Egypt is getting accustomed to life in jail.
So let me get this straight: one former dictator ultimately decides not to unleash massive force against anti-government demonstrators, and eventually leaves power more-or-less peacefully, if not exactly voluntarily. His reward? He winds up in jail (maybe deservedly). Another dictator responds by using loyal military units to repress unarmed demonstrators, and when they arm themselves, he starts using all the means at his disposal to defeat them and remain in power. But because the United States is now desperate to end the Libyan debacle and avoid a costly stalemate, Washington ends up trying to find him some sort of safe haven for him.
Meanwhile, what lesson will future autocrats draw from these events? The obvious one, it seems to me, is "No more Mr. Nice Guy," which may not be the message we really want to be sending.
It is also hard for me to believe that Qaddafi would accept our assurances at this point. After all, we promised not to try to overthrow him back in 2003, in exchange for his giving up his various WMD program. Given that overthrowing him is precisely what we are trying to do now, any guarantees we might give him are bound to sound pretty hollow and he's more likely to fight on and "gamble for resurrection."
Regrettably, this means that the intervening powers may have little choice but to persevere, in the hopes that the rebels eventually gain the upper hand. Unfortunately, that is likely to mean prolonging the current civil war, which in turn means more dead Libyans. All in the name of "humanitarianism."
NOTE: I'll be traveling for most of next week, and blogging will be intermittent at best.
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Was the decision to intervene in Libya justified by the threat of imminent massacres, and possibly even a genocide? And did President Obama have the authority to intervene?
If you're still wondering about either of those questions, I have two suggestions for further reading. The first is an op-ed by Alan Kuperman, which casts further doubt on the likelihood that Qadhafi's forces were about to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent bystanders in Benghazi. Kuperman points out that Qadhafi loyalists did not conduct massacres in any of the cities that they have recaptured, and that the Libyan tyrant's threats to show "no mercy" applied only to rebels. He also notes that the reported casualties are overwhelmingly male, which suggests that it is primarily combatants (i.e., rebels) who are being killed.
Note that Kuperman is no apologist for Qadhafi. He does not deny that Qadhafi is a thuggish ruler, that his loyalists were killing civilians, or that some of their actions constitute war crimes. The question, however, is whether there was an imminent risk of a bloodbath that "would stain the conscience of the world," as Obama put it.
Notice also that although Obama did not use the word genocide himself, both current and previous members of his administration did raise the spectre of a genocide in order to make the case for U.S. action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of Policy Planning in the State Department, tweeted ""The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted." Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ""We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda." The clear implication was that failure to act in Libya would produce hundreds of thousands of deliberate murders (which is what occurred in Rwanda in 1994).
Given that Qadhafi is a heinous ruler of dubious legitimacy, why does this matter? It matters because the case for intervention depends heavily on the magnitude of the humanitarian calamity that we sought to forestall. If the danger really was that grave, then the case for intervention goes up. But if the likely consequences of a Qadhafi victory were regrettable but not that large, then the case for intervention diminishes. And the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.
Second: did Obama exceed his powers when he ordered the use of force? The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion on this issue (perhaps coincidentally, on April 1st), and--surprise, surprise--they've concluded that it was perfectly ok. The OLC makes three arguments: 1) it's not really a war, and the President has broad powers short of war; 2) we're enforcing a Security Council resolution, which gives the President even more authority, in part because he has to uphold the credibility of the Security Council; and 3) the War Powers Resolution permits the President to use force for sixty days without advance approval.
Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School examines the OLC's arguments in the Harvard National Security Journal and finds them wanting on legal and constitutional grounds. More tellingly, he also shows that these justifications are at odds with Obama's own statements before he became President. In 2007, for example, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involves stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." (Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he's not exactly a tyro on these issues). And back when she was a mere Senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "I do not believe that the President can take military action--including any kind of strategic bombing--against Iran without congressional authorization." More strikingly still, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has repeatedly argued--as a scholar--against precisely this sort of expansive interpretation of presidential power. But not this time.
At this point in the history of the republic, it should come as no surprise that people working in the Executive Branch tend to think the President has the power to use military force just about any time the he and his advisors deem it necessary or advisable. It is equally unsurprising that politicians and pundits tend to be hypocritical about this issuet: they think the President ought to have broad powers when they agree with the particular use to which it is being put, and they think those powers ought to be limited when they think the President is doing something foolish or unnecessary.
Reasonable people can disagree about just how much authority the Executive Branch ought to have, just as they can also disagree about the course of action the United States and others should have followed with regard to the situation in Libya. But let's be clear about the long-term effects of the de facto authority we are granting every President. It's a messy world out there, and there will always be some trouble somewhere that people will want Uncle Sam to fix. If you give a single individual the authority to decide when to order the world's mightiest military into battle, without having to consult anyone except his own appointed advisors, then you shouldn't be surprised when that mighty military gets used over and over and over.
There's an interesting story in Politico, where Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) criticizes Obama's handling of the Middle East peace process and then goes out on a limb and predicts a new Middle East peace push. I don't know if he's right or wrong about that, but the Senator indulges in a bit of revisionist history about his past views on the peace process.
In particular, Kerry now says that he never thought it was a good idea to focus on Israel's continually expanding settlements in the West Bank. Money quote:
I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," Kerry told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, organized by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "I think it sort of put the cart ahead of the horse in a way here. The key is to get to the security and borders definition and if you can get the borders definition you've solved the problem of the settlements. But we can't get that discussion right now."
The problem is that this isn't what Kerry was saying and doing back in 2009, when the Obama administration was trying in vain to get a settlement freeze. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Washington that spring, he met personally with Kerry in the latter's capacity as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Here's what Kerry said about his conversation back then:
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began his remarks following his meeting with Netanyahu by saying, ‘I emphasized to the prime minister the importance of Israel moving forward, especially with respect to the settlements issue.'"
As a good realist, I certainly don't expect politicians to tell the truth all the time. Maybe Kerry was just forgot. Or maybe he really did think focusing on settlements was a mistake, but went along at the time as good team player. But I'm more inclined to think he was in favor of Obama's approach. ... before he was against it.
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It's that time again. No, I don't mean baseball season, or the arrival (finally) of spring in New England. I mean it's turnover time down in Washington, and we are seeing the usual speculations about who's up, who's down, who's in, and who's out. Everyone expects Robert Gates to leave Defense this summer, James Steinberg is leaving the #2 job at State, several East Asia hands have left or are leaving, and there will be additional departures from the NSC and other key positions.
Speculating about who is likely to replace the departing officials is a time-honored inside-the-Beltway tradition, and it's a popular sport at places like the Kennedy School too. For some informed speculation on possible new faces, check out FP's The Cable here and the New York Times here.
But I don't think these changes are going to make much difference. It's not like Obama will be replacing the current set of officials with people who have a fundamentally different perspective on foreign and defense policy. Instead, the likely successors in each of these jobs will be drawn from the same pool of familiar foreign policy gurus, chosen from the ranks of traditional Democratic party liberal imperialists. . . . (oops....I meant "liberal internationalists.") I don't expect to see any realists in prominent positions, and certainly no one who favors a major curtailing of America's self-ordained role as global policeman.
This tells you either that Obama is reasonably happy with his administration's handling of foreign policy, or (more likely) it tells you that he doesn't have a lot of options. In an ideal world, we would see Obama do a ruthless evaluative exercise, and get rid of the people who have performed poorly while doing his best to retain those who have done well. By this standard, he'd be keeping his Asia team (which has done tolerably well with a difficult situation), giving the nuclear security team a pat on the back, firing the whole Middle East group (whose performance has to be among his biggest disappointments), and he'd be taking a long, hard look at the people who've been marching him deeper into the Af-Pak quagmire.
But I don't expect anything like that to occur. By now, it is crashingly obvious that Obama is a very conventional foreign policy president, that whatever novel ideas or approaches he brought to office have been thoroughly diluted by entrenched interests in Washington, and his own governing style militates against taking bold positions and sticking with them in the face of opposition. Just look at how he caved on Gitmo, indefinite detention, drone strikes/targeted killings, or Israeli settlements. One gets the impression that the administration is already suffering from battle-fatigue, and that there won't be many (any?) shiny new initiatives even if he wins a second term.
To be sure, there's something to be said for modesty (especially if the alternative is the riverboat gambler approach that Bush and the neocons pursued from 2001-2005), but it isn't quite the change that some of us believed in.
The United States started out as thirteen small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original thirteen states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions.
Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don't regard our country as a "warrior nation" or "garrison state." Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that "a just war is far better for a man's soul than the most prosperous peace"), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.
In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama in part because they thought he would be different than his predecessor on a host of issues, but especially in his approach to the use of armed force. It was clear to nearly everyone that George W. Bush had launched a foolish and unnecessary war in Iraq, and then compounded the error by mismanaging it (and the war in Afghanistan too). So Americans chose a candidate who had opposed Bush's war in Iraq and bring U.S. commitments back in line with our resources. Above all, Americans thought Barack Obama would be a lot more thoughtful about where and how to use force, and that he understood the limits of this crudest of policy tools. The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have thought so too, when they awarded him the Peace Prize not for anything he had done, but for what they hoped he might do henceforth.
Yet a mere two years later, we find ourselves back in the fray once again. Since taking office, Barack Obama has escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and launched a new war against Libya. As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun. At first we hoped that most of the guns would be in the hands of the Europeans, or the hands of the rebel forces arrayed against Qaddafi, but it's increasingly clear that U.S. military forces, CIA operatives and foreign weapons supplies are going to be necessary to finish the job.
Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. There is no question that Qaddafi is a tyrant with few (if any) redemptive qualities, but the threat of a bloodbath that would "stain the conscience of the world" (as Obama put it) was slight.
It remains to be seen whether this latest lurch into war will pay off or not, and whether the United States and its allies will have saved lives or squandered them. But the real question we should be asking is: Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million/day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?
To read the full article, click here.
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In the past two years I've done several posts on sports, focusing on how athletic contests can sometimes (improbably) affect world politics. My top ten list of "foreign policy sporting events" is here, and some readers may recall I was rooting for the "Indo-Pak" express (the men's doubles team of Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan) at the U.S. Open last year.
We might be seeing a new entrant into the list of sports events that helped shape the foreign policy agenda. India and Pakistan played a semi-final match in the cricket World Cup today, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India invited Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani to watch the match with him. Thus, while over a billion people obsessed about spinners, fast bowlers, fielding miscues, and the bumpiness of the pitch, the two leaders had a chance to exchange some friendly words and establish a bit of personal rapport.
The issues dividing India and Pakistan are deep and enduring, and a cricket match obviously won't resolve them. Unlike the U.S. and China in the era of ping-pong diplomacy, there aren't powerful geopolitical forces pushing the two states toward a rapprochement. But it would be highly desirable if relations between the two countries improved, and if their leaders developed a greater sense of trust and mutual regard. So I hope the meeting went well.
In the end, India won by 29 runs. I tried to follow the match online, and I confess that none of it made any sense to me at all. I'm not proud of that fact, however, so I also hope somebody will stop by my office one of these days and explain cricket to me.
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Based on the weekend's events, what do we now know about Libya?
1. As you can see from these Pentagon slides here, the United States did the the heavy lifting during the initial phases of the intervention against Libya (h/t Micah Zenko & Jeremy Pressman). Notice that these figures omit missile strikes, which were overwhelmingly conducted by the United States, so the data actually understate the extent to which the initial operations were dominated by Uncle Sam. We are now told that allied forces are going to take over (most of) the mission, but patrolling the no-fly-zone is pretty easy work now that Libya's air defenses (which were never very good to begin with) have been largely if not entirely decimated. In short, this intervention fits the pattern of prior "coalitions of the willing": the United States does most of the work, and the other members are there mostly to provide diplomatic cover. That distribution of burdens is supposed to change now, but sticking to that plan will probably depend on whether the rebels keep making progress. If their campaign bogs down, Qaddafi's forces are able to regroup, or the British and French start feeling the pinch, look for more pressure on Washington to get back in the game.
2. The operation in Libya has quickly moved beyond a purely humanitarian mission and the intervening forces are more-or-less openly seeking to topple Qaddafi's regime. The New York Times reports that coalition air strikes against Qaddafi's forces are continuing, and making it possible for the rebels to advance, even though the immediate humanitarian concern (i.e., the threat of some sort of massacre in Benghazi) has now been removed.
This latest version of "mission creep" isn't surprising. Several Western leaders (including President Obama) have already called for Qaddafi to step down, the International Criminal Court says it is investigating possible crimes against humanity, and in any case his pariah status in the international community is well-earned. What is still not clear is the human price of this expanded mission. Ousting Qaddafi may still require a lot of bloody ground fighting, NATO airpower will be less valuable once it is a matter of urban warfare, the collapse of his regime could usher in a prolonged power vacuum, with lots of regrettable human consequences. It's possible that tribal leaders can work out some sort of post-Qaddafi political formula, but a benign outcome of that sort is hardly guaranteed.
3. Whether this was the right decision or not won't be known for awhile (remember that "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq?) The two situations are hardly identical, but the Iraqi case does remind us that there is a big difference between defeating a regime's armed forces and driving its leaders from power, and being able to stand up a new government that can establish order. There's still a real risk of prolonged internal disarray if we succeed, and the Libyan case is likely to teach other autocrats that giving up their WMD programs is a good way to leave themselves vulnerable to U.S.-led attack. Bottom line: the costs vs. benefits calculation here won't be possible for some time.
As readers know, I've questioned the wisdom of this intervention, and I've thought that it should have been a European operation from the start. I'm still hoping that it resolves itself quickly, and that my concerns about the post-Qaddafi environment turn out to be unwarranted. I also hope that putting Libya back together afterwards turns out to be easier and less costly than I expect, and that success doesn't embolden the neoconservative/liberal interventionist alliance and lead them off in search of new wrongs to right in places we don't understand very well. In short, as is often the case, I hope I'm wrong about a lot of this. We'll see.
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Five years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and I published "The Israel Lobby" in the London Review of Books. Our goal in writing the article (and subsequent book) was to break the taboo on discussions of the lobby's impact on U.S. foreign policy, and to transform it into a topic that people could talk about openly and calmly. Because we believed the "special relationship" that the lobby had promoted was harmful to the United States and Israel (not to mention the Palestinians), we hoped that a more open discourse on this topic would move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for almost everyone.
Did we succeed?To read the full article, click here.
Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya -- and let's not kid ourselves, that's what they are trying to do -- did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?
I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) "has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945." Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to "significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and finds that when interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.
The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of "foreign imposed regime change" going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account "selection effects" (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.
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Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post:
Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much
The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on
this issue but could not muster the sangfroid
to call the Europeans' bluff. France and Britain were out front early on
military intervention, yet the United States did not seize the opportunity to state the
obvious, namely, that the Europeans could handle this one. The European
Security Strategy is focused squarely on conflict management, "human security," and the defense
of human rights. The European Union maintains a "Mediterannean
partnership" with North African countries and a "neighborhood policy" that concerns stability and security on its southern and eastern flanks.
A humanitarian crisis in Libya fits perfectly into European security concerns.
President Sarkozy of France was especially eager to show what Europeans could do. He went out front and recognized a motley group of rebels as the legitimate government of Libya without consulting allies in either NATO or the European Union. A recent article in Le Figaro gives a terrific account of Bernard Henry Lévy's involvement in the affair. Levy is a public intellectual and another vain French rooster strutting around looking for glory. Ever the opportunist, Levy found the rebels in Benghazi and hooked them up with Sarkozy, who pounced on the chance to be their champion to the rest of the world.
The French and British recently joined together at Lancaster House to loudly proclaim European security cooperation in the joint use of aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and nuclear weapons. These two countries have the largest defense budgets and the most advanced military capabilities in Europe and can field forces that can pummel any African army, including Libya's, into submission.
Given that the United States has no vital interests of any kind to protect in
Libya, the situation was tailor-made for Europeans to take the initiative and
handle this one without us. Yet the President could not leave well enough
alone. He was somehow shamed into showing American "leadership."
The story of how the Europeans managed to bait Obama into joining the
"coalition" and supplying the vast bulk of military capabilities will be a fascinating
one to unravel.
In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs?
Mark Sheetz is a fellow in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.
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When the revolt in Tunisia occurred back in January, I wrote:
Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won't be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule."
Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge."
While conceding that a revolutionary cascade was possible and that pressure for greater openness might succeed in the long term, I concluded that a rapid transformation was unlikely.
As I've noted previously, I underestimated the degree to which events in Tunisia would inspire like-minded movements in other countries, and it's clear that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak didn't respond as swiftly or effectively as I expected. But Arab governments are under no illusions now, and we seem to be witnessing precisely the sort of counterrevolutionary responses that often serve to contain a revolutionary outbreak.
In Libya, the Qaddafi regime has responded in brutal but increasingly effective fashion and now seems likely to retain power in at least part of the country for some time to come. With few genuine foreign friends, a big pile of cash, and no place to run or hide, Qaddafi and his family had little choice but to fight it out and hope for the best, even if their brutal suppression of the rebel forces lands them back on the list of international pariahs.
For its part, the Saudi government has sought to pre-empt significant protests by doling out $37 billion worth of new social benefits, while making it clear that protests will be dealt with harshly. In neighboring Bahrain, the Khalifa dynasty has responded to rising protests from its Shiite majority population with heightened repression. It has also invited the Saudis -- which share the Khalifa regime's fear of Iranian influence -- to send several thousand troops there to back up the government.
So if you believed that the events in Tunisia and Egypt -- which were both relatively bloodless and remarkably swift -- were likely to be duplicated elsewhere, you were wrong. The revolutionary impulse has been remarkably contagious, but revolutionary outcomes much less so, at least thus far. Nor do we yet know how far-reaching the reforms in Tunisia and Egypt will ultimately be (though I remain cautiously optimistic).
All that said, I still find it hard to believe that these events do not herald more far-reaching political change throughout much of the Arab world. Even if some governments are able to keep the lid on for now, the social, political, and economic conditions that have given rise to these upheavals won't vanish anytime soon. Whether they consent to real reform or not, ruling elites are likely to be more mindful of popular opinion going forward, for fear of facing new protests in the future or driving frustrated reformers in more radical and dangerous directions.
If this view is correct, then the days when the United States could base key elements of its Middle East grand strategy on alliances with a set of Arab regimes whose policies tended to ignore popular sentiment -- including widespread popular anger at the U.S. role in the region -- are coming to an end. A new grand strategy is going to be needed -- and soon.
I've been thinking about how the international community should deal with the Libyan civil war, and like the Obama administration, I'm finding it hard to come up with a policy that leaves me completely satisfied. I'd like to see Qaddafi's regime replaced by a government that is less brutal, capricious, and inefficient, as well as one that would be more responsive to the desires and welfare of the Libyan people. And the sooner the better. For this reason, I support the various measures that have been taken to condemn Qaddafi's actions and to freeze his assets. We should also be open to providing humanitarian aid (such as food relief) to rebel-controlled areas, should that become necessary to avoid a large-scale humanitarian disaster.
At the same time, I'm cognizant that it is easier to take on new military commitments than it is to relinquish them -- even in the best of circumstances -- and that external intervention in civil conflicts often has unpredictable and unforeseen consequences. So instead of firm prescriptions, here are a few observations that have struck me as I've pondered.
For starters, let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle. Libyan oil production (about 1.6 million barrels/day prior to the recent violence) is valuable but not decisive, and can be made up by increased production in Saudi Arabia. Libya has no WMD (having been compelled to give up its various WMD programs by a protracted Western-led sanctions campaign), and it is not a significant military power. Qaddafi has no links to al Qaeda (in fact, he's been a target of al Qaeda sympathizers in the past) and few, if any allies in the rest of the world. Libya's population is less than 7 million, and its economy (apart from oil) is unimpressive. Despite Qaddafi's many unsavory qualities and hostile acts, most U.S. presidents ultimately concluded that he was not important enough to remove from power, though the Reagan administration did target his residence in a bombing raid back in the 1980s.
Thus, the U.S. (and international) interest here is humanitarian, not strategic, which does not by itself mean that we should do nothing. What is going on in Libya does not constitute genocide -- a deliberate attempt to exterminate a whole category of people -- but the government's actions are clearly brutal, inhumane, and almost certainly involve war crimes. It thus falls squarely under the heading of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine (R2P), a new norm of humanitarian intervention promulgated with some fanfare a few years ago. R2P says "where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect" (my emphasis).
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Question: What happens when other major powers face growing security problems, and begin to wonder whether the United States will continue to protect them?
Answer: They stop free-riding quite so much and start doing more themselves.
Case in point: Japan. As the New York Times reports today, Japan has responded to fears of a rising China, potential dangers from North Korea, and concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia not by "bandwagoning" with China or opting for neutrality, but by bolstering its own defenses and reaffirming its security ties with America. Its goal, according to the Times, is to become a "full military partner" with the United States.
There are two obvious, lessons to be drawn from this example. The first is that the United States can take advantage of the tendency of great powers to balance to reduce some of its own defense burdens, confident that wealthy allies like Japan can take up some of the slack. By playing "hard to get," in other words, we can "pass the buck" to our allies to a greater extent than we have in recent decades. The United States can do this in part because it has the luxury of being safe and secure in the Western hemisphere while our allies lie closer to potential sources of danger, and smart strategists should take advantage of this favorable situation. If the United States insists on doing it all, of course, we can confidently expect other states to keep free-riding on our efforts.
The second lesson, however, is that there's a limit to how far one can pass the buck to others. If the United States were to withdraw entirely from Asia, or to reduce its military capabilities too much, then some other states might eventually decide to make other strategic arrangements. But given that the U.S. is spending nearly 5 percent of GDP on national security these days, while Japan spends less than 1 percent, I'd say we've have a long way to go before our allies think seriously about realigning.
Remember: The main reason for a state to have allies is so that they can help make it more secure. If having a large array of allies just means the United States has more areas it is obligated to defend, then maybe we need to rethink how many of those commitments actually enhance our security, and how many of them just add burdens without compensating benefits.
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Most of the news out of Libya is deeply disturbing, but I did catch two uplifting developments:
1. For the first time, Israel and the Palestinians co-sponsored a resolution, in this case condemning Qaddafi's brutal treatment of the Libyan people.
2. In a worthy humanitarian gesture, the government of Israel said it would allow 300 Palestinians fleeing the Libyan violence to enter the West Bank. Among other things, this admirable act reminds us that stateless peoples are vulnerable precisely because they lack any sort of safe homeland.
Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel's continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn't question Israel's legitimacy, didn't declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn't call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with "secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.
There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.
Yet even now, with the peace process and the two-state solution flat-lining, the Obama administration couldn't bring itself to vote for a U.N. resolution that reflected the U.S. government's own position on settlements. The transparently lame explanation given by U.S. officials was that the security council isn't the right forum to address this issue. Instead, they claimed that the settlements issue ought to be dealt with in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the security council should have nothing to say on the issue.
This position is absurd on at least two grounds. First, the expansion of settlements is clearly an appropriate issue for the security council to consider, given that it is authorized to address obvious threats to international peace and security. Second, confining this issue to "direct talks" doesn't make much sense when those talks are going nowhere. Surely the Obama administration recognizes that its prolonged and prodigious effort to get meaningful discussions going have been a complete bust? It is hard to believe that they didn't recognize that voting "yes" on the resolution might be a much-needed wake-up call for the Israeli government, and thus be a good way to get the peace process moving again? Thus far, all that Obama's Middle East team has managed to do in two years is to further undermine U.S. credibility as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and to dash the early hopes that the United States was serious about "two states for two peoples." And while Obama, Mitchell, Clinton, Ross, and the rest of the team have floundered, the Netanyahu government has continued to evict Palestinian residents from their homes, its bulldozers and construction crews continuing to seize more and more of the land on which the Palestinians hoped to create a state.
Needless to say, the United States is all by its lonesome on this issue. Our fellow democracies -- France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, India, and Colombia -- all voted in favor of the resolution, but not the government of the Land of the Free. And it's not as if Netanyahu deserved to be rewarded at this point, given how consistently he has stiffed Obama and his Middle East team.
It's not as though the world came to a halt while the Egyptian drama was keeping us glued to our laptops, and at least one interesting development is worth watching closely for a number of reasons. You all know that the EU has been facing a major crisis over the past several years, triggered by deep economic problems in Greece, and to a slightly lesser extent in Spain and Portugal. These troubles forced the eurozone countries to authorize a major financial rescue package last year and led some observers to question whether the euro itself might be at risk.
Over the past few months, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been negotiating a joint proposal for deepening economic coordination within the EU (and especially the eurozone) in an attempt to solve some of the problems that produced the crisis in the first place. (The basic issue is that the eurozone countries share a currency, but do not have fully integrated tax systems, labor markets, or fiscal systems, thereby making it much harder for them to adjust when one economy gets into trouble).
Not only does this question have obvious implications for politics and economics in Europe itself, but it also raises some fundamental questions about IR theory and might even be a revealing test of "realist" vs. "liberal" perspectives on international relations more generally. Realists, most notably Sebastian Rosato of Notre Dame, have been bearish about the EU and the euro since the financial crisis, arguing that European member states were more likely to pursue their individual national interests and to begin to step back from some of the integrative measures that the EU had adopted in recent years.
By contrast, institutionalists, and EU-philes more generally, have suggested that the only way forward was to deepen political integration within Europe. The basic idea here is that economic integration is central to European economic health and one of the keys to continued amity within Europe. Equally important, any attempt to leave the eurozone or to dismantle the euro itself would cause an immediate collapse of the currency (and plunge several European states into even deeper crisis). In this view, there's no going back; Europe can only plunge ahead toward closer integration.
As you'd expect, I've tended to be among the bears, in part because I don't think greater "policy coordination" between the member states can eliminate occasional fiscal crises and because I think nationalism remains a powerful social force in Europe. European publics won't be willing to keep bailing out insolvent members of the eurozone, and the integrative measures that have been proposed won't be sufficient to eliminate the need. The original Merkel-Sarkozy proposals got a pretty hostile reception when they were rolled out, and Merkel's hopes of pushing them through probably declined when her designated choice to head the European Central Bank (Axel Weber) withdrew from consideration. So it remains to be seen how much of their program will actually get adopted.
But the EU has surprised doomsayers before, and I can't quite convince myself that a collapse of the eurozone is inevitable. So what we have here is a nice test of two rival paradigms, and students of international politics should pay close attention to how this all plays out. But remember: Like all social science theories, no general theory of international politics or foreign policy is right 100 percent of the time. Accordingly, the future evolution of the EU/eurozone won't provide a decisive test that will validate one approach completely and render the other view totally irrelevant and obsolete. Proponents of each perspective will probably try to claim total victory if events turn their way, but that's not really the way that social science operates.
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President Obama is reportedly angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to anticipate the upheavals in Tunisia or Egypt. His irritation is silly, because there's a well-founded social science literature (by Timur Kuran, Susanne Lohmann, and Marc Granovetter, among others) explaining why it is nearly impossible to predict the onset of a revolutionary upheaval. You can identify countries where the government is unpopular or illegitimate, and thus were a rebellion might occur, but that doesn't tell you if or when a popular uprising of the sort we have been watching will occur.
As I explained before, the reason is because an individual's willingness to rebel is essentially private information, and nobody is going to tell you what they really think in an authoritarian society. Furthermore, an individual's willingness to march openly against the regime depends on what he or she thinks others will do, and that cannot be ascertained in advance either. But when conditions are right and some triggering event occurs (which can be almost anything), then you can get a rapid and unexpected revolutionary cascade, as more and more people decide that it is safe to express their previously-concealed resentment and that doing so is likely to succeed.
Instead of being angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies, therefore, Obama should be reserving his ire for his foreign policy advisors, who have been screwing up U.S. Middle East policy for over two years now and who may be in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yet again. If the news reports I've seen are correct, the United States is now getting behind a political transition that will be orchestrated by the new Vice President Omar Suleiman, a close Mubarak associate. It's not even clear if the United States now thinks Mubarak has to step down. Instead, Secretary of State Clinton seems to be suggesting that we need to help VP Suleiman "defuse" the street demonstrations, which would remove most of the impetus for change.
An unnamed "senior U.S. official" has also suggested that the Obama administration is dead set against a substantial political role for the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the official reportedly suggested that what the United States wants is a purely "secular" government in Egypt (i.e., one with no Islamist influence) as if that's even possible in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
It's early days, of course, and as FP's Josh Rogin reports here, there is a potential legal nightmare trying to revise Egyptian law in ways that would permit a genuinely "free and fair" election. But I worry that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistake that the Bush administration made in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. After insisting that the elections be held, the United States simply refused to accept the results of the elections when we didn't like the winner (Hamas). Are we now going to keep our thumb discreetly on the scale in Egypt, to make sure that a post-Mubarak government continues to dance to Washington's tune? When will Washington learn that you cannot simultaneously proclaim your commitment to democracy and freedom and then insist on dictating who is allowed to win?
The other problem is that Suleiman doesn't have much (any?) credibility as a steward of democratic change. I suggested a couple of days ago that one way he could bolster his position would be to help push Mubarak out (and to make it clear that he is doing so), and to openly declare that he (Suleiman) will serve only as a caretaker and not run for office himself in the next election. I'm not at all sure that these measures would work, however, and the anti-government forces might well see him as no different than Mubarak himself. That certainly seems to be their reaction thus far. And if subsequent reforms are mostly cosmetic and individuals or groups associated with the old regime end up retaining power in a subsequent election, they are likely to have no more legitimacy than Mubarak has right now. And the U.S. image in the region, which is bad enough already, will take another big hit.
So the United States has two long-term challenges. The first is to make sure it is not once again perceived as working to quash a genuinely representative government in Egypt. The second is get ready to accept the results of that process, even if the people we might prefer don't win.
For more analysis along these lines, check out Asli Bani and Aziz Rana's article "The Fake Moderation of America's Moderate Mideast Allies," from Foreign Policy in Focus, here.
There's a part of me that would like to blog about something other than Egypt, but how can I? Events there are both too dramatic and of potentially great import, so I find it hard to wrench myself onto other topics. Apologies to any of you who'd like me to turn my attention elsewhere...
If history is any guide (and it is, albeit a rather fickle and ambiguous one), we are still in the early stages. The French revolution went through a series of distinct phases for more than a decade (accelerated, to be sure, by war), before Bonaparte's seizure of power. The Russian Revolution began with the March 1917 uprisings, followed by the Bolshevik coup in October and then a civil war. The Islamic republic of Iran did not leap full-blown from the brow of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but took several years to assume its basic form. Even the United States was a work-in-progress for years after victory in the revolutionary war. (Remember the Articles of Confederation, and the debate over the Constitution?).
In short, history cautions that we have no clear idea what form a post-Mubarak government in Egypt will take, and there's a lot of contingency at work here. I have my hunches and hopes, but nobody can be really confident about their forecasts at this stage. (Heck, at first I didn't think the upheaval in Tunisia would spread!) It will help a lot if the process of political contestation in Egypt avoids large-scale violence, because the onset of mass violence (whether by the regime and its supporters or by the anti-Mubarak groups), is going to fuel greater hatred and paranoia and tilt the process in more dangerous directions. For this reason, those who are urging a peaceful and orderly transition (including the Obama adminstration) are exactly right. And that's why the reports I'm seeing about rising violence (a summary of which can be found on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish) is worrisome.
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Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention to both.
Item No. 1: Steve and several of his associates have sponsored an important open letter, co-signed by an impressive list of former government officials, journalists, and academics. The letter calls for the United States government to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's continued efforts to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The normal U.S. practice is to veto such resolutions, even though the official U.S. government position is that settlement construction is illegal and an obstacle to peace. Given that the peace process itself is going nowhere, however, supporting such a resolution would be an important symbolic act that would signal to the Netanyahu government that it cannot act with impunity. It would also remind the rest of the world that the Obama administration isn't just a lap dog when it comes to these issues and that Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 wasn't just empty rhetoric.
More importantly, voting for this resolution is not an "anti-Israel" act, though it would undoubtedly be seen as such by most groups in the "status quo" lobby. The signatories to the letter were no doubt primarily concerned with advancing U.S. interests, but in this case the long-term interests of the United States and Israel are identical. As many Americans and Israelis now realize, the settlement enterprise has been a costly blunder for Israel. By making a two-state solution more difficult (and maybe impossible), it even threatens Israel's long-term future. Although no government likes open criticism or Security Council censure, backing this resolution is an easy way for the United States to help Israel begin to rethink its present course and strengthen our tarnished credentials as an honest broker.
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I'm just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China's Rise and America's Asian Alliances" and "Opportunities and Challenges in 2011" at the VNR500 Forum 2011 (a conference of the "top 500" Vietnamese companies), at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and at the Vietnamese Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi. I did an online interview with Vietnam.net, an important online newspaper in Vietnam, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials, mostly from the Foreign Affairs and Information ministries.
My impressions? First, there's clearly a tremendous amount of energy in Vietnam and lots of signs of economic potential. In addition to a wide array of restaurants, shops, and small enterprises, there are a growing number of industrial enterprises and (to me, at least) surprisingly modern "downtown" sections in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's growth potential remains limited by underperforming state-owned enterprises, corruption, and significant infrastructure challenges. But assuming those impediments can be overcome, I'd be bullish about its economic future (and it hasn't been doing all that badly in recent years, growing at about 7 percent).
Second, my visit coincided with the Party Congress, and though I'm hardly expert, I gather the results are something of a mixed bag. The new party secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, represents the old guard, which means that rapid reforms are less likely. On the other hand, I gather that reform elements are more numerous in the Central Committee and other party institutions, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, supports closer ties with the United States.
Which was another theme of my visit. The Vietnamese don't appear to have any hard feelings toward the United States (I didn't catch the slightest hint of any lingering resentments from the war), and it's probably noteworthy that virtually all the visitors at the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City were Westerners. This lack of resentment isn't all that surprising; as they see it, they beat us fair and square. Instead, the audiences at my talks (which included a fair number of students and intellectuals) and the officials with whom I met all sounded eager for closer ties with the United States. As I noted earlier, they were mostly concerned that the United States might cut some deal with China that would leave them isolated.
And China is a major long-term concern. That's hardly surprising either; all you have to do is look at a map and know a little bit about Sino-Vietnamese history. They have no desire for an open confrontation with Beijing, and Vietnam has a lot of important economic ties with China that could give the Chinese leverage in the future. But they are also under no illusions about the dangers of Chinese dominance (Vietnam was ruled by China for several hundred years), and I didn't sense much danger that Vietnam will bandwagon with Beijing. In that regard, the people with whom I spoke were clearly reassured and pleased by the tougher line the United States has taken regarding territorial issues in places like the South China Sea. So if Sino-American rivalry intensifies (as I expect it will), Vietnam will be an important U.S. ally.
All in all, it was a fascinating trip, and I'll be digesting my impressions for some time to come. And now it's time to catch up on what's been happening in the rest of the world; but first, I have to dig out the driveway.
I did a short interview with Al Jazeera's station in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, focused primarily on Secretary of Defense Gates' visit to China. For those of you who didn't catch it (which I assume is just about everyone), I thought I'd pass along what I said.
They asked me three questions. Here's what they asked, and more-or-less what I replied.
1. Is there a new Cold War between the United and China?
In my opinion, no. There is growing concern about the relationship in both countries, and I think there is likely to be a rising security competition between the two, especially in Asia. But it's a far cry from the Cold War struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. That was really a battle to the death, where both states actively wanted to bring the other down. Nothing like that is occurring between the United States and China these days. The Cold War was also an intense ideological competition, where each side saw the other's political system as not merely different, but as the embodiment of evil. There are some differences in values between the United States and China, but it's not at nearly the same level as the Cold War. Lastly, the United States and USSR did not interact very much: trade and investment were quite low and there wasn't a lot of personal or cultural exchange between the two states. Again, the situation with China and the United States today is very different: there is a lot of trade and investments, thousands of students going back and forth every year, and and fairly high degree of elite engagement too. So while there is an emerging rivalry that I expect to become more intense, it isn't what I'd call a "Cold War."
2. Is President Obama's Asia policy a
On balance, yes. Despite having allowed itself to get distracted by events elsewhere, I think the administration has done a fairly good job. President Obama's trip to Asia last year was quite successful. The security partnership with India is deepening, and the United States has managed relations with traditional allies such as Japan well. It has backed South Korea effectively in its delicate relationship with North Korea, and restored closer ties with Indonesia. Relations with Singapore are strong, and Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that the United States intends to remain closely engaged in Asia for many years to come. Overall, they've done much better in East Asia than they have in Central Asia (Afghanistant/Pakistan) or the Middle East.
3. What are China's aims?
China's objectives are not really that hard to understand. First, they want to continue to grow economically, because doing so is critical to the welfare of the Chinese people and to the stability and legitimacy of the government. Second, like any other country, China wants to maximize its security. It doesn't want to be vulnerable to events elsewhere, or to pressure from other major powers. This means it wants reliable access to raw materials, to energy, and to the world markets on which its prosperity increasingly depends. Over the long term, that means it would like to reduce the American role in Asia, because its leaders will feel they are safer if there isn't any major military adversary with a strong position in Asia. Americans wouldn't be happy is some world power had an array of alliances in the Western hemisphere; by the same logic, Beijing cannot be delighted by America's close ties with many Asian countries (not to mention Taiwan). This view isn't a sign of innate Chinese expansionism or aggressiveness; for a realist, it's how any great power would view this situation. Whether Beijing will achieve its various aims, of course, is another matter.
Postscript: I'm off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), so my next post will be from there.
I'm generally not inclined to take issue with my FP colleagues, but David Kenner's recent posting on the WikiLeaks release of a cable recounting Saddam Hussein's infamous meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie deserves a response.
In an article headlined "Why One U.S. Diplomat Didn't Cause the Gulf War," Kenner argues that the new release shows that Glaspie should not be blamed for the U.S. failure to make a clear deterrent warning to Saddam. And that is what he accuses me and John Mearsheimer (and the Washington Post) of doing. In his words, "the Washington Post described her as ‘the face of American incompetence in Iraq.' Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie's remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait."
I agree that the WikiLeaks release may exonerate Glaspie for being personally responsible for a diplomatic gaffe, but there are two problems with Kenner's version of events.
First, we never accused Glaspie of diplomatic incompetence, and we certainly didn't "pile on." Here's what we actually said in our 2003 piece:
In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.' The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."
Notice that we offered no opinion on whether Glaspie was free-lancing, mis-reading Saddam, or simply following orders from Washington. Our article was focused on the issue of whether Saddam was deterrable, and the key issue that concerned us about the Glaspie meeting was whether she had conveyed a clear deterrent threat to Saddam, or whether she might have unintentionally given him reason to think he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait without facing a strong military response from the United States.
I spent a half-hour yesterday on Warren Olney's KCRW radio show To the Point, discussing defense spending and deficit reduction. The other participants were Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker (the political writer I'm most jealous of because he writes so damn well), William Hartung of the New America Foundation, and Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council and a committed member of the "Tea Party" movement. If you're interested, you can get a link to the entire broadcast here.
The main topic of discussion was whether efforts at deficit reduction are going to include taking a major whack at defense spending. The general view on the panel was that you can't make serious efforts at deficit reduction without cutting DOD, if only because it occupies such a large percentage (i.e., more than half) of federal discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion then focused on what the new Congress would actually do and why there is still such resistance to trimming America's very large defense outlays.
For me, however, the most interesting part was listening to the Tea Party representative, Chris Littleton. His views were easily the most extreme of the group and bordered on what would normally be disparaged as "isolationism." He articulated this view very well, I thought, and was particularly good at countering the claim that such views are unpatriotic. He also acknowledged that Tea Partiers are far from unified on this issue: Some favor more hawkish defense policies while others believe the United States is badly overextended, should get out of the business of policing the world, and sharply cut back defense spending as part of an overall effort to shrink the size of government. (He would obviously place himself in the latter group).
As readers of this blog probably know, I also think U.S. defense spending is excessive and that our foreign policy should be more restrained. I don't go nearly as far as Littleton did, however, and I think the Tea Party's basic idea that the United States should drastically shrink the public sector is a Very Bad Idea. If we followed its prescriptions, we would quickly learn that all sorts of public services (good public schools, museums, snow removal, safety nets, police and fire, etc.) make life a lot better for all of us and that life without them would be pretty grim indeed.
But I came away from the conversation with a new appreciation for what the Tea Party may -- repeat, may -- bring to the national debate on foreign policy. Right now, there is still an overwhelming consensus inside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment for continuing to run the world, a consensus that includes liberal interventionists of the Madeleine ("Indispensable Nation") Albright variety and virtually all neoconservatives. And as I've noted before, there is significant imbalance of power inside Washington, generally favoring those who want to do more overseas. The result is that the United States tries to do more than it should, finds it much harder to set clear priorities, and tends to miss opportunities to "pass the buck" to others. If the rise of the Tea Party creates some significant domestic opposition to that tendency and helps generate a more lively public debate on fundamental issues of grand strategy, the country as a whole may end up with policies that make a lot more sense in the long run. It won't be Mr. Littleton's agenda, but it also won't be the outdated strategy we've been following since the end of the Cold War.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The news that various Afghan and Pakistani insurgent groups are coordinating their activities more extensively is neither surprising nor encouraging. This outcome is exactly what balance of power theory (or if you prefer, balance of threat theory) would predict: as the United States increases its military presence and escalates the level of violence, its various opponents put aside their differences for the moment in order to deal with the more imminent danger.
This pattern of behavior has a long-tradition in Afghan internal politics, as my former student Fotini Christia showed in a terrific Ph.D. thesis a few years back. It's also a phenomenon we've seen in earlier foreign interventions. The various mujaheddin warlords put aside their various quarrels in order to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, just as China, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam set aside their mutual fears and rivalries when the United States was fighting in Indochina.
Once the Soviets withdrew, of course, divisions within Afghan society re-emerged and made the place nearly ungovernable before the emergence of the Taliban. Something similar happened in Indochina: as soon as the United States withdrew from Vietnam, rivalries between the various communist nations and the Khmer Rouge eventually led to a Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea and a short border war between China and Vietnam. It was our presence that held them together and our departure that allowed long-standing resentments to burst forth anew.
The obvious lesson is that there is little danger of some sort of powerful jihadi monolith emerging in Central Asia. It is our war effort there that is leading these groups to make common cause with each other, and the longer the war goes on, the more we can expect them to cooperate. Because our strategic interests in Central Asia are very limited (i.e., we just don't want people organizing attacks on American soil from there) our real objective should be to reduce the U.S. presence, play "divide-and-conquer," and let the natural centrifugal tendencies in this region reassert themselves. That's not necessarily the "heroic" play (which is why our commanders aren't embracing it), but wouldn't it make more sense than giving a set of un-natural allies more reason to work together?
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
It's Christmas Eve, and my brain has been deadened by hours of grading a take-home final exam. (The papers themselves aren't bad, but reading dozens of answers to the same questions can get a bit mind-numbing). I can't dull the pain with egg nog or some other suitable spirit until this evening, so I'm taking a quick break to offer this holiday post.
My own holiday shopping is finished, thank goodness, but I began wondering about what sorts of gifts I'd like to see some prominent world leaders receive. In the spirit of the season, here's a hypothetical gift list for a few people who've been on my mind over the past year or so.
1. For Barack Obama. A copy of Machiavelli's The Prince. President Obama is ending the year on an up note, having successfully managed to end Don't Ask Don't Tell and obtained Senate approval for the New Start Treaty. I think the former achievement is more important than the latter, but both are worthy accomplishments. The new Congress won't be nearly as friendly (and the last one was no picnic), so the president will need all of Machiavelli's wily advice to confound his opponents. Let's hope he learns that it's better to be feared than loved, at least when you're dealing with today's Grand Obstructionist Party.
2. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: a pair of reading glasses, an espresso machine, and a couple of days off. Why? So she can read the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I just downloaded this sucker, and it's over 200 pages of bracing bureaucratic prose. I plan to read it myself over Xmas break, but I'll bet it takes me a few espressos to get through it too. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be cited more than read, even by people at State.
4. For Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas: A copy of Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes, and Ali Abunimah's One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Because if we don't get to "yes" on two states, one state is what you'll end up with.
5. For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: A copy of The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chavez has been obsessed with Simon Bolivar -to the extent of exhuming his remains in an attempt to prove that the South American hero was poisoned-but Marquez's novel also offers a warning of the sort of fate that Chavez himself may be destined for.
6. For UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: A copy of Albert Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." Running the United Nations must sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task, and every bit as absurd as Camus judged the fate of man to be. But perhaps the Secretary-General can take comfort from Camus' conclusion -- "we must imagine Sisyphus happy."
7. For North Korean heir apparent Kim Jong-un: A DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The question is: will he govern like Nurse Ratched, or like McMurphy?
8. For General David Petraeus: A Youtube link to Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." There just might be a lesson in there.
9. For Chinese General Secretary Hu Jintao: A framed reproduction of Matisse's Fall of Icarus, as a reminder of what can happen when one flies too high too fast.
10. For readers of this blog: My thanks for your interest, your sometimes spirited dissents, and your generous words of support. May each of you bask in the love of family and friends this holiday season, and may we all grow a little bit wiser in the year ahead.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
While I've been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I'd be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn't take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works.
The first is a big article in the latest issue of The National Interest, entitled "Imperial by Design." The article offers a compelling explanation for America's recent foreign policy failures, which he traces to the excesses and errors of the Clinton-era "liberal imperialists" and Bush-era neoconservatives. (Not surprisingly, Obama seems to be following the former's blueprint in most respects). Both groups sought to use American power to shape the world in our image, although Clinton did so rather gingerly while Bush & Co. did so with reckless abandon. This ambitious and largely bipartisan attempt to manage the entire globe ultimately led to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a costly squandering of American power. Mearsheimer proposes a return to the earlier U.S. strategy of "offshore balancing," a strategy that would protect America's core interests at far less cost and generate less anti-American extremism. Ideally, this article ought to begin a long-overdue debate on the fundamentals of American grand strategy, but I'm not at all sure that it will. At this point there are too many people inside-the-Beltway with a vested interest in a global military footprint, and little interest in examining its do footprint, and little interest in examining the downside to this posture.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.