A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
Over at FP's new National Security Channel, reporter Gordon Lubold has a lengthy interview with U.S. Afghan commander John Allen. Allen offers a pretty upbeat assessment: He says the Afghan National Security Force "is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past," adding that our Security Force Assistance Teams are "really accelerating that." He doesn't actually come out and say we're going to win (or even try to define what "victory" would look like), but his bottom line is simple: "the campaign is on track."
But to where? I thought Obama made a bad mistake when he decided to escalate in Afghanistan, but this is another one of those issues where I'd love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I've heard nothing but upbeat assessments from U.S. commanders ever since Obama took office, which makes me more than a little skeptical about Allen's testimony now. Back in January 2010, for example, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he "believed we had turned the tide." His successor, General David Petraeus, issued a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments and followed by a major increase in the overall level of violence.
Well, it's déjà vu all over again: Today, despite a dramatic increase in "green on blue" attacks (i.e., attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. or ISAF personnel) and the announced departure of other U.S. allies, the latest American commander continues to portray our efforts in a positive light, especially with respect to the progress made by Afghan security forces. But you might have missed the fact that the DoD quietly lowered the bar for the latter, by eliminating the category of "independent" (meaning that a unit that can operate on its own) from the ratings system used to assess Afghan forces. Now the top ranking is "independent with advisors," which allows us to describe more Afghan units as "top rated." And even with these lower standards, less than ten percent of Afghan units are rated as capable of being able to operate semi-independently.
In one sense, Allen's optimism is neither surprising nor objectionable. You're not going to hear the U.S. commander tell a reporter that things aren't going well, because that is hardly the best way to inspire your troops to greater effort. Plus, the "surge" in Afghanistan was not designed to fix all of that unfortunate country's problems; it was intended either to 1) provide a fig leaf for a U.S. withdrawal, 2) inflict enough pain on the Taliban so that they'd cut a deal, or 3) buy a bit of time to build up Afghan security forces, at which point we'd get the hell out. Notice that these various goals aren't mutually exclusive, but none of them constitutes "victory."
And that's been the problem in Afghanistan all along. The original rationale for being there disappeared once Al Qaeda fled the country and metastasized to other areas. It never made much sense to spend $100 billion plus per year on a country whose entire GDP was less than 20 percent of that figure, especially once it became clear that the Karzai government was irredeemably corrupt and mostly incompetent and equally clear that we had no idea how to "nation-build" there ourselves. Plus, our main adversaries could always avoid us by slipping over the border into Pakistan or melting back into the local population. They knew we'd eventually go home, at which point Afghanistan's future will be determined by the Afghans themselves. As it should be.
In short, General Allen's testimony is precisely what you'd expect him to say, and thus doesn't really doesn't tell you much of anything at all. But his optimism stands in sharp contrast to the assessment you'll find in a book like Rajiv Chandraksekaran's Little America, which I've just been reading. I hope Allen is right, that the ANSF really is making headlong progress, and that it will be up to the task of providing security once we are gone. But I wouldn't bet on it.The only consolation -- if you're not Afghan, that is -- is that it won't matter much to us one way or the other.
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Today we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
Effective strategy requires thinking more than one move ahead, and not basing momentous decisions on worst-case assumptions about the risks of inaction and best-case forecasts about the benefits that war will bring. It was obvious at the time that destroying Iraq would tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in Iran's favor, and there was no good reason to expect it to produce the pro-American tilt that the neocons promised. So America ended up replacing an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad with one that is at least partially attuned to Tehran's wishes, with the bill for the operation being footed by the U.S. taxpayer.
This issue might not matter that much had we really learned from the experience, and if the people who got us into that foolish war had been put out to pasture. But as I've noted before, failure doesn't have any real consequences in America's foreign policy community, which is why the architects of the Iraq war still have safe sinecures at D.C. think-tanks, still have prominent platforms on FOX News and other major media outlets, and still have trusted positions advising the Romney campaign. Of course, the Democrats who backed the war haven't suffered any career penalties either, which may help you understand why things haven't improved as much as some of us hoped they would back in 2008.
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The Republican Party is big on leadership these days, and especially fond of demanding that the United States "lead from the front."This was a central theme in of John McCain's recent sally right here at Foreign Policy, as well as Condoleezza Rice's speech at the GOP convention in Tampa. Among other things, it reminds us that the Republican Party's foreign policy gurus aren't very good strategists. (The Bush administration's disastrous handling of foreign policy showed this all too clearly, but it's nice to have a reminder).
In fact, the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy.
The United States would be well-served by a more selective approach to "global leadership." It is not a foreign policy achievement when the United States gets stuck dealing with an intractable quagmire like Afghanistan -- at a cost of a half a trillion dollars and 2,000 lives -- or when it finds itself waging drone wars in half a dozen countries. A real achievement would have been to find a way to shift the burden of this problem onto others, and especially onto the backs of potential U.S. adversaries. We congratulate ourselves on finally tracking down Osama bin Laden, but the real winners over the past decade have been countries like China, which have concentrated on building up power at home while the United States bled itself white in a series of pointless foreign adventures.
Furthermore, America's reflexive urge to be in charge has other negative consequences. It has allowed our most important allies to free-ride for decades, to the point that they are increasingly liabilities rather than assets. NATO's European members spend a mere 1.7 percent on average on defense these days (and that number is going down), and none of these countries can mount a serious military operation anywhere without a lot of American help. Why? Because Uncle Sucker has spent the last 50 years doing it for them. Much the same story is true in Asia, where countries like Japan want lots of American protection but don't want to spend any money defending themselves. Washington ends up with not with allies but with dependents, and we see it as a victory whenever some new country requires our protection.
This demand that the United States constantly "lead from the front" also makes it easier for other states to drag us into their quarrels. Georgia tried to sucker us into its dispute with Russia a few years ago (and if McCain had been in charge, it would have succeeded), and Israel is still trying to get America to bomb Iran on its behalf. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to push the United States to confront China over issues like the South China Sea, and everybody seems to think the United States should "do something" about Syria. Perhaps we should, but first you need to explain why doing any of these things will make Americans safer or more prosperous here at home, and then you need to convince me that the countries who have a lot more at stake aren't up to the task. And if some other country wants me to spend American money and risk American lives, they'd better have a lot of skin in the game, too. Finally, if weaker countries want to demand my protection, they'd better be willing to follow my advice on other issues. Otherwise, they're on their own.
Don't get me wrong: in some cases the United States should be actively involved and it should exercise a leadership role. It is still the world's most powerful country, and a return to isolationism would have destabilizing consequences in some areas. But our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.
It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.
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Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has an op-ed in the Financial Times today, where she argues that America must overcome its "reluctance to lead." Given her own track record between 2001 and 2008, when she played a key role in a series of foreign policy disasters and rang up precious few genuine achievements, one might wonder why anybody would place much stock in her counsel today. But her piece is in fact quite valuable for underscoring the dearth of genuine strategic thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days.
Strategy is about relating ends and means, setting priorities, and manipulating critical global forces to one's own advantage. Even for a global superpower like the United States, an effective strategy depends on separating the vital from the trivial, and the realistic from the fanciful. It requires deciding which goals are most important, and then using the resources at one's disposal to try to achieve them. And most importantly, it often consists of figuring out how to get other countries to help, and maybe even inducing them to do most of the work. Indeed, getting other states to shoulder costly or difficult burdens is the hallmark of a smart strategy, because it helps you husband your own resources, stay out of costly quagmires, and focus on missions that are more critical. American leaders used to understand this basic principle before we started telling ourselves we were the "indispensable" nation and starting seeing it as some sort of foreign policy achievement when we got stuck with some intractable foreign problem.
Rice will have none of this, however, so her piece mostly consists of the typical laundry list of regions and issues where she believes the United States must shoulder the main burden. In her view, it is mostly our job to build democratic institutions in the Middle East. She also thinks we need to "re-engage" with Iraq (whatever that means), and use our trade policy to "help democracies" in Latin America. She favors creating a Palestinian state but thinks it will only come about via negotiations with a secure Israel, never mind that she gave Israel unconditional support for eight years and got bupkis. She supports the recent "pivot" toward Asia but thinks we aren't doing enough to counter a Chinese economic offensive. She says we need to do more to build strategic partnerships with Turkey, India, and Brazil, without saying what we should do to bring about closer ties or explaining what these countries will then do for us. She invokes the perennial bogeyman of declining U.S. credibility and says America must do more to "reassure our friends across the globe."
To achieve these (and other) goals, she says, "the American people have to be inspired to lead again." What exactly does this phrase mean? What specific "leadership" tasks require a renewed commitment from our citizenry? Does she mean Americans have to be convinced to forgo investments here at home so we can continue to meddle (oops, I mean "lead") abroad? Does she believe (contrary to Mitt Romney) that Americans need to be "inspired" to sacrifice by paying more taxes so that we can maintain our present military and eventually balance the budget? Or does she mean the American people should be "inspired" to attack Iran, as she once helped persuade them to invade Iraq? Must we be "inspired" to devote new moneys to the mostly futile pursuit of drug lords all over the world? Or maybe we need to be "inspired" to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, even if that requires some inconvenient adjustments in the U.S. lifestyle.
In fact, Rice isn't really talking about convincing the American people to lead; she's really saying they need to be "inspired" to follow whatever missions foreign policy mandarins like Rice dream up. And the usual way the mandarins do this is by hyping threats, exaggerating their own omniscience, and insisting that other countries are incapable of taking effective action if Americans aren't there in the cockpit telling them what to do.
In fact, although the American people occasionally succumb to ill-conceived foreign policy adventures, they usually have pretty good instincts about our global role. No mainstream politician is calling for isolationism today, and the American people aren't demanding it either. Americans want to remain the world's most powerful country for as long as possible, and they recognize that some foreign commitments are prudent and beneficial. The blunders that occurred on Ms. Rice's watch have constrained U.S. power somewhat, but Americans still favor global engagement. What they don't like are misguided adventures that result in costly failures. Too bad the FT didn't ask her to write about how we can avoid those.
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It's summer, and a searing drought is shriveling corn fields in the Midwest. Meanwhile torrential rains (the worst in 60 years) have killed several dozen people in Beijing. Sea ice continues to shrink in the arctic -- the decline in June was the largest in the satellite record -- creating new sea areas for the Coast Guard to patrol. Welcome to climate change 2012.
But how serious is the problem? How worried should you be? I don't know, because I'm neither an atmospheric physicist, environmental economist, nor specialist in global institutions designed to address collective goods (or negative externalities). Nonetheless, I do try to stay informed on this issue, and I occasionally use the case of climate change to illustrate certain features of international politics to my students. And what makes it frustrating for a layperson like me is the range of opinion one can find even among well-informed journalists.
Case in point: two prominent articles on this topic appeared this past week, reaching sharply contrasting conclusions. The first article, by science writer/environmental journalist Bill McKibben, presents a deeply worrisome picture of the planet's future. According to McKibben, it's all in the math. There is now a strong scientific consensus that human beings can only put another 565 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere without causing average atmospheric temperature to rise more than two degrees Celsius. (Two degrees was the agreed-upon target figure at the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen, though many climate scientists think even that level of increase would be very harmful.)
Unfortunately, a recent inventory of current oil and gas reserves showed that they contain enough carbon to release roughly 2,795 gigatons of CO2, if it is all brought to the surface and burned. That's about five times the upper limit identified above. The problem, of course, is that the companies that own these reserves will want to pump the oil and gas out and sell it -- that's the business they're in -- even though spewing that much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would be disastrous. In the absence of effective government action to discourage consumption (i.e., by taxing carbon to raise the price and diminish consumption) we're in deep trouble.
The second article, from yesterday's New York Times, offers a cheerier view. In the words of business reporter David Leonhardt, "behind the scenes. . .a somewhat different story is starting to emerge -- one that offers reason for optimism to anyone worried about the planet." He describes how investments in clean energy are reducing the price of solar and wind power and how shifts from coal to natural gas (which is less carbon-intensive) for electricity generation have accelerated. And he dangles that hope that government-sponsored R and D will eventually create "disruptive technologies" that "can power the economy without heating the planet."
To be sure, these two articles aren't totally at odds. Leonhardt acknowledges that we have a long way to go, and that many experts believe that you need a combination of regulation to raise the price of carbon along with further reductions in the cost of alternative energy sources. Similarly, McKibben's account accepts that there is probably still time for effective political action to address this situation (Indeed, his whole article is clearly intended as a clarion call for greater activism).
As is so often the case, the issue boils down to politics. And that's why I'm pessimistic, because I can't think of any issue where the barriers to effective political action are so great. First of all, you have an array of special interests with little or no interest in allowing the government to interfere with their ability to make money in the short-term (see under: Koch Brothers). Second, you have a political system in the United States (the world's second largest greenhouse gas producer) that is unusually open to lobbying and other forms of political interference. Third, climate change is a classic example of an intergenerational equity problem: it's hard to get people to make sacrifices today (i.e., in the form of higher energy prices, less comfortable houses and offices, more expensive travel, etc.) for the sake of people who haven't even been conceived yet. That same principle applies to politicians too: Why should they jeopardize their re-election prospects for the sake of voters who won't be around until they are long gone? Fourth, there's also a thorny equity issue between advanced industrial countries like the United States (whose economies were developed before anyone knew about climate change) and emerging economies like China or India that don't want to slow their economic growth by reducing greenhouse gas emissions today. Even if there is a rapidly growing consensus on the need to do something soon, everybody wants somebody else pay most of the price or bear most of the burdens.
For all these reasons, the well-publicized effort to devise an effective global solution to the problem of human-induced climate change has largely failed thus far. It's possible that some new disruptive technology will swoop in and solve the problem for us, or maybe some of the intriguing proposals for "geo-engineering" the planet may prove workable and effective.
Maybe, but such hopes remind me of this old cartoon. If we're going to need a miracle (whether political or technological) we're going to have to be more explicit about what happens in step two.
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It's hot and sticky here in Boston, and I feel a rant coming on. Just consider the following items from today's headlines, around the web, and my inbox:
Item #1: An independent report on the fiscal condition of America's state governments (chaired by Paul Volcker and Richard Ravitch) presented a gloomy prognosis about their budgetary prospects. State and local governments face exploding health care costs, declining revenues, lots of deferred expenditures, and anticipated cuts in federal support. Even if the U.S. economy grows more vigorously, the states are going to be in trouble for quite awhile. And that means we will all be living less well, because all the good things that governments provide (roads, bridges, schools, public safety, parks, museums, etc.) will be in shorter supply.
Item #2: Along the same lines, here's a report by Lisa Margonelli (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) on the increasingly fragile condition of America's electrical power grid. As she points out, not only have we under-invested in this critical national resource, but we've done so at a time when weather is becoming more extreme (due to climate change) and the grid is thus under greater strain. If you want to keep reading this blog, maybe it's time to install that portable generator (or a lot of spare batteries), but that won't help you if your ISP link goes down too.
Item #3: Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post offers a quick and easy guide to the latest budget battle between Republicans and Democrats over which elements of our current fiscal policy (i.e. taxes, credits, expenditures, etc.) we are going to preserve after December 2012. As Matthews' projections suggest, the obvious thing to do is to let the high income Bush tax cuts expire and keep some of the other measures. This approach would reassure the markets and stabilize our long-term fiscal situation, yet reduce the risk of a fiscal contraction that would tip the economy back into recession. But don't expect the GOP to go along with anything sensible like that.
Item #4: A new report by the Project for Defense Alternatives, reminding readers of the following basic facts:
a) the U.S. and its allies spend four times more on defense than our potential adversaries do. I like a margin of safety as much as anyone, but this is ridiculous.
b) Key U.S. allies perennially free ride on Uncle Sucker. The United States spends 4.8 percent of GDP on defense while our NATO allies in Europe spend an average of 1.7 percent, Japan spends 1 percent of GDP and South Korea spends only 2.8 percent.
c) China, our supposed emerging "peer competitor," a rising China, devotes only about 2 percent of GDP to defense.
Either we have our strategic priorities all mixed up, or the DoD is doing something very wrong. I would note in passing that Mitt Romney thinks we aren't spending enough, that we ought to cut taxes even more and that we also need to balance the federal budget. Needless to say, this combination makes no sense, and Romney (who seems to know a lot about clever accounting when his own fortune is involved) is being disingenuous or simply lying.
Is there a direct connection between these various items? No, because economies are complicated and cutting U.S. defense spending wouldn't automatically translate into more money for other items (include state and local governments). But there is clearly a connection between the amount the U.S. spends (trying to) provide global security in lots of far-flung places and our ability to pay for desirable things here at home, including things like education and infrastructure that are essential to our long-term well-being and strength as a nation.
Unfortunately, over the past forty years so-called conservatives in the United States have done a great job of convincing Americans that it is foolish, counter-productive, and even unpatriotic to pay taxes for the benefit of other Americans, while at the same time declaring that it is one's patriotic duty to pay taxes so that we can occupy other countries, build military facilities on every continent, and make it easier for Europeans, Asians, and others to live better under the umbrella of our protection. Unless, of course, you are really, really rich, and can hide a lot of your income in some nice offshore tax shelter. It's been a brilliant piece of salesmanship, but the results are exactly what one would predict: a gradual hollowing-out of the features that once made America the envy of the world, and a bunch of allies who aren't even all that grateful for the sacrifices made on their behalf.
I'm inclined to think that this phenomenon also reflects the rampant individualism that now permeates U.S. culture. If you're doing really well, what does it matter if the broader society is doing worse? Just put your kids in private school, live in a gated community, and let other poor schmucks depend on an eroding set of public goods. If you're a politician, forget about telling the truth or trying to do right by the voters you're supposed to represent, and just do or say whatever will keep your major donors happy and help you get reelected (and land a cushy lobbying job after you retire). If you're a tenured academic, spend your time writing articles that nobody reads and avoid topics that might be controversial, because being relevant or provocative won't help your career. If you're a pundit or a policy wonk, don't worry if you're repeatedly wrong or if your advice leads the country into costly quagmires, so long as you don't pay any price for past errors and you still get invited on all the talk shows.
I also think the roots of this problem can be traced in part to America's remarkably favorable overall position. Because the United States found itself was in such a blessed position after the Cold War-wealthy, powerful, with no serious rivals, etc. -- we could afford to be lazy and irresponsible in the conduct of public affairs. We could take on a lot of foolish projects overseas, allow our national discourse to be polluted by special interests, and let various rent-seeking groups within society pilfer the public purse for their own pet projects. So when al Qaeda showed up and seemed to be a more serious challenge (albeit one we exaggerated), we went off on an ill-conceived crusade that we weren't even willing to pay for. And absent a serious rival to focus the national mind and impose a bit more discipline on our discourse, I doubt this is going to change any time soon.
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One of the more enduring myths in the perennial debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict is the claim that Israel has always been interested in a fair and just peace, and that the only thing standing in the way of a deal is the Palestinians' commitment to Israel's destruction. This notion has been endlessly recycled by Israeli diplomats and by Israel's defenders in the United States and elsewhere.
Of course, fair-minded analysts of the conflict have long known that this pernicious narrative was bogus. They knew that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who signed the Oslo Accords) never favored creating a viable Palestinian state (indeed, he explicitly said that a future Palestinian entity would be "less than a state.") The Palestinians' errors notwithstanding, they also understood that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offers at Camp David in 2000 -- though more generous than his predecessors' -- still fell well short of a genuine two-state deal. But the idea that Israel sought peace above all else but lacked a genuine "partner for peace" has remained an enduring "explanation" for Oslo's failure.
Over the past several weeks, however, the veil has fallen off almost completely. If you want to understand what's really going on, here are a few things you need to read.
Start with Akiva Eldar's cover article in The National Interest, entitled "Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine." Eldar is the chief political columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, and his article provides a succinct account for why the two-state vision is at best on life support and is unlikely to be resuscitated. Money quotation:
"[T]he Palestinian leadership, as far back as 1988, made a strategic decision favoring the two-state solution, presented in the Algiers declaration of the Palestinian National Council. The Arab League, for its part, voted in favor of a peace initiative that would recognize the state of Israel and set the terms for a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Meanwhile, various bodies of the international community reasserted partition of the land as their formal policy. But Israel, which signed the Oslo accords nearly two decades ago, has been moving in a different direction."
Eldar goes on to describe in detail the demographic and political trends that have made the two-solution an increasingly remote prospect, undermining Israeli democracy in the process and leading to a deepening policy of "separation." Eldar avoids the politically loaded term apartheid, but here is how he describes the current reality:
"To exercise control over the land without giving up its Jewish identity, Israel has embraced various policies of "separation." It has separate legal systems for traditional Israeli territory and for the territory it occupies; it divides those who reside in occupied lands based on ethnic identity; it has retained control over occupied lands but evaded responsibility for the people living there; and it has created a conceptual distinction between its democratic principles and its actual practices in the occupied territories. These separations have allowed Israel to manage the occupation for forty-five years while maintaining its identity and international status. No other state in the twenty-first century has been able to get away with this, but it works for Israel, which has little incentive to change it."
It works, of course, because the Israel lobby makes it virtually impossible for U.S. leaders to put any meaningful pressure on Israel to change its behavior, much of which is now antithetical to core American values.
To grasp what Eldar is talking about, check out former Netanyahu aide Michael Freund's June 20 column from the Jerusalem Post, entitled "Kiss the Green Line Goodbye." Unlike Eldar's requiem for the end of the two-state vision, Freund's column is a proud declaration that the settlement project has succeeded in making "greater Israel" a permanent reality. In his words "the Green Line (the 1967 borders) is dead and buried. . . it is no longer of any relevance, politically or otherwise." And he offers critics a piece of advice regarding "Judea and Samaria": "you had better get used to it, because the Jewish people are here to stay." This is not a wild-eyed assertion by some extremist settler, by the way, but a revealing glimpse at an increasingly mainstream view.
Next, to see the on-the-ground consequences of these developments, check out Nir Hasson's piece on how residents of East Jerusalem (illegally annexed by Israel following the 1967 war) face increasingly erratic water supplies. Then give a listen or a read to NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro's report on how home demolitions in East Jerusalem have increased dramatically over the past year, with about 1100 people -- half of them children -- displaced. Israeli officials claim that this is merely an appropriate response to "illegal" construction, but as a recent U.N. report documents, over 90 percent of Palestinian applications for building permits are denied, even as Israel continues to build housing settlements for Jews in various east Jerusalem neighborhoods.
What is going on, in short, is slow-motion ethnic cleansing. Instead of driving Palestinians out by force -- as was done in 1948 and 1967 -- the goal is simply to make life increasingly untenable over time, so that they will gradually leave their ancestral homelands of their own accord.
Finally, make sure you read up on the recent Levy Commission report -- excerpted here. (A good place to start is Matt Duss's summary here.) This commission, appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, has concluded that Israel's presence in the West Bank isn't really an "occupation," so the 4th Geneva Convention regarding protection of the local population doesn't apply. It sees no legal barrier to Israel transferring as many of its citizens as it wants into the territory, and it therefore recommends that the government retroactively authorize dozens of illegal settlements. Never mind that no other country in the world -- including the United States -- agrees with this dubious legal interpretation, and neither does the United Nations or any other recognized juridical body outside Israel.
Needless to say, anyone who has visited the West Bank and seen the "matrix of control" imposed there will quickly understand that the Commission's members were smoking something, and even a staunch defender of Israel like Jeffrey Goldberg had problems with the commission's Alice-in-Wonderland line of argument. A wide array of commentators (including the New York Times editorial board and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer) have already denounced these claims, albeit in a typically qualified fashion. The Times' expresses the hope that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will "drive U.S. concerns home" when she visits Israel this month. As if that's going to do any good at this point.
The veil slipped a long time ago, and now it has been torn away almost completely. But once you grasp what's really happening here, you have to completely rethink your views about who the real friends of Israel are and who are the ones threatening its future. Israel's true friends may or may not be emotionally committed to it, but they are the ones who understand that the settlement enterprise has been a disaster and that only concerted and principled action by the United States, the EU, and others can avert this future train wreck. They are the ones who understand that it is Israel's actions in Lebanon, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Dubai, in Iran, etc. that are slowly squandering the legitimacy and support it once enjoyed, including support within the diaspora. When Israel ends up tied with North Korea (!) in a 2012 BBC survey on which countries have the "most negative" global influence (and ahead of only Iran and Pakistan), you know there's a problem. They are also among those who fear that Israel's conduct and the smear tactics employed by some of its defenders have no place in American political life, and might eventually cost it the support it has long enjoyed here in the United States.
By contrast, Israel's loudest defenders (and those in the middle who are cowed by them) are the ones whose short-sighted focus has allowed the occupation to persist and deepen over time. Their unthinking loyalty has helped squander genuine opportunities for peace, empowered extremists on both sides, and prolonged a long and bitter conflict. The question to ask is simple: Where do they think this is headed?
And the same principle applies to American interests and U.S. policy. Given the current "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel, America's standing in the region and in the world is inevitably tarnished as long as Israel persists on the course described in the articles cited above. This situation forces U.S. leaders to adopt contorted and hypocritical positions on human rights, non-proliferation, democracy promotion, and the legitimacy of military force. It makes U.S. leaders look impotent whenever they repeatedly term Israel's actions "regrettable" or an "obstacle to peace" but then do nothing about them. It forces politicians of both parties to devote an inordinate amount of attention to one small country, to the neglect of many others. Worst of all, U.S. policy ends up undermining the reasonable people in Israel and the Arab world -- including moderate Palestinians -- those who are genuinely interested in a peaceful solution and to coexistence among the peoples of the region. Instead, we unwittingly aid the various extremists who gain power from the prolonged stalemate and the sowing of hatred. This bipartisan practice may not be the most dysfunctional policy in the history of U.S. foreign policy, but it's got to be damned close.
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I had a relaxing vacation out on Fire Island, though of course I didn't get quite as much accomplished as I intended. But I did do a lot of reading, and I thought I'd pass a bit of what I learned on to all of you.
I started with Volume 4 of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, which covers the period 1958-1964. In this period Johnson runs half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully) for the 1960 presidential nomination, accepts the vice-presidential nod, and then languishes miserably in a powerless position. He's mostly ignored (if not openly dissed) by Kennedy's inner circle, and thinks his political career is mostly over. But Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 suddenly places him in the Oval office, and Caro offers a vivid description of how LBJ rises to the occasion, gets Kennedy's legislative program moving, and helps the country overcome a major national trauma.
The book is a great read, and Caro has few equals at sketching a character or describing how personalities operate within American institutions. He does have a weakness for stark contrasts and mano-a-mano confrontations (e.g.. he makes much of the blood feud between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy, going back to the early 1950s), but such portraits are part of what make the book difficult to put down.
But for me, a subtler message in the book (possibly overstated for dramatic effect) is that John F. Kennedy wasn't much of a president. He was smart, articulate, charming, and courageous (as his exploits in World War II revealed), and he often had sound political instincts. He had a knack for attracting talented acolytes and inspiring deep loyalty from them, and he knew how to use a gifted advisor/speechwriter like Ted Sorenson to great effect. But his record as a congressman and a senator was unremarkable, and Caro's account shows he didn't achieve much in his three years as president. The main elements of his legislative program were stalled in Congress, and his main foreign policy achievement was managing a crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba that his own policies (e.g., the attempt to overthrow Castro and an unnecessary nuclear weapons build-up) had helped provoke. We obviously will never know what he might have achieved had he not been assassinated and if he had won a second term, but this book makes it clear that the post-assassination hagiography has little basis in fact.
My next selection was David Kang's "East Asia before the West," which I recommend to anyone with a shaky grasp of East Asian history. It's a slim book that focuses primarily on explaining the Sino-centric trade and tributary order that existed in Asia from roughly 1400 to 1900. Kang's emphasis is on interpreting this history, and demonstrating how this order differed from the Westphalian model that has inspired most contemporary IR theory. In particular, he argues that relative power played a lesser role in relations between China and its principal neighbors (Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) than realist theories might suggest, and that status (defined largely in cultural terms) was in fact of critical importance. Instead of being competing billiard balls interacting on the basis of relative power, Kang depicts these societies as heavily (though not totally) shaped by Chinese cultural ideas (primarily Confucianism). Relations among them reflected norms of deference that reflected not just power but also the degree to which other societies met Chinese cultural standards. He also depicts it as an unusually peaceful order -- at least with respect to state-to-state relations -- with the bulk of violence being directed at rebels, bandits, or nomadic tribes, rather than by governments against each other.
Not surprisingly, I though the book downplays the role of power somewhat. Given how much larger and stronger China was, it's not all that surprising that the lesser states didn't challenge it (and in the rare cases when they did, it didn't go well for them). But it is quite a thoughtful book, and well worth your time.
My last selection (apart from a few novels), was Fredrik Logevall's forthcoming book "Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam." It is a fascinating, beautifully-written, and deeply depressing account of the First Indochina War (i.e., the war between France and the Vietnamese resistance led by Ho Chi Minh), with particular emphasis on the background role played by the United States. Many parts of this story have been told before, but Logevall's account provides much new detail and important new insights. Among other revelations, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower was far more hawkish on Vietnam than is sometimes claimed, and that the U.S. came closer to intervening during the siege of Dienbienphu that I had previously believed.
It is impossible to read the book without being struck by contemporary parallels, and without concluding that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has learned virtually nothing over the past sixty years. Although the French clearly knew more about Vietnamese society than their American counterparts did, officials in both governments were often embarrassingly ill-informed about the actual state of Vietnamese society and opinion. Back in Washington, key decisions were often being made by people (such as Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles) who had little knowledge of Asian history or society and who were inevitably distracted and shaped by problems elsewhere. And alleged experts like Senator Mike Mansfield (whose opinions were heeded because he had once taught classes in Asian history) were blinded by Cold War ideology and simplistic ideas like the "domino theory." Meanwhile, the American public was chronically misinformed about Asian events by publishers like Henry Luce of Time and Life, and well-organized propaganda campaigns.
Logevall never makes explicit comparisons between the events he describes and more recent counterinsurgencies, but the parallels are quite remarkable. Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the French forces in Indochina faced enormous logistical difficulties and were frequently vulnerable to ambushes (including what we would know call "improvised explosive devices"). The occupying powers were allied with local elites who were feckless, unreliable, and corrupt, and neither the French nor the United States ever had much leverage over their local clients. The French faced chronic manpower shortages, largely because the war was increasingly unpopular and French politicians could not institute a draft and deploy conscripts there. Instead, they had to rely on legionnaires, troops from their other colonies, or on professional soldiers. Similarly, the Pentagon has always had trouble finding enough troops to run its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course could never contemplate turning to a draft. The French thought that a heroic general (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny) would reverse their fortunes and produce a victory, just as U.S. leaders have occasionally pinned their hopes on the likes of David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal. Both the French and the Americans tried to create local forces who could take over for them; neither effort succeeded to the extent necessary. Massive expenditures and much suffering was justified by baseless fears of falling dominoes, just as today U.S. pundits have somehow managed to turn impoverished Afghanistan into a "vital interest." Finally, Logevall shows that U.S. citizens had very little knowledge of what the United States was actually doing in Indochina -- especially in the period between the signing of the Geneva Accord and the escalation of direct U.S. involvement -- just as we are mostly kept in the dark about the full extent of our involvement in places like Yemen or Pakistan today.
All in all, a pleasant vacation, even if I spent a lot of it reading about unpleasant things and drawing depressing conclusions. Alas, that's an occupational hazard for people in this business, even when we're supposedly taking a break.
Back in 2002, a group of influential neoconservatives convinced President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that it was a really smart idea to invade Iraq. With help from AIPAC and other groups in the Israel lobby, and an assist from Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the neocons and the Bush administration then persuaded the U.S. Congress to authorize the use of force by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Most of the top figures in the Obama administration (including then-Senators Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton) supported the war.
Given how that foolish adventure turned out (4,500 dead Americans, $1-2 trillion down the drain, etc.), you'd think the last thing the United States would be contemplating is another preventive war in the Middle East. You'd think that the architects of that earlier debacle would have been as badly discredited as George Custer, Neville Chamberlain, or Charles Lindberg, and that only certifiable war-mongers would be paying attention to their strategic advice. And you'd certainly think that Congress would have learned its lesson, and would be subjecting calls for a new war to careful scrutiny and wide-ranging debate.
How wrong you'd be. Case in point: the recent letter that a bipartisan group of 44 senators recently sent President Obama, declaring that, "Iran must come into full cooperation with the IAEA and full compliance with all relevant United National Security Council resolutions, including verifiable suspension of nuclear enrichment." The senators also insist that the "absolute minimum steps that Iran must take immediately are shutting down of the Fordow facility, freezing enrichment above 5 percent, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country. And if Iran does not capitulate to our demands, the senators urge Obama "to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists" (my emphasis).
If you ever wondered why so few Americans have any respect for Congress, here's part of your answer. (To be sure, disrespect for Congress is by now over-determined, given our representatives' dysfunctional behavior on a wide range of issues. But still ... ) As Glenn Greenwald notes, in this case those beating the drums of war include a number of prominent "liberal" Senators, including progressives like Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. And as I pointed out earlier this week, the terms the senators are insisting upon are almost certainly a deal-breaker from Iran's point of view. I'm still convinced that the Obama administration understands war is foolish -- you can go here if you'd like to watch a fuller presentation of my views on this topic -- but as Robert Wright noted a few days ago, he is being boxed in by the pro-war faction -- the usual alliance of Israel, AIPAC, the neocons, and a few Christian Zionists -- and he isn't getting any cover from the supine members of Congress. The result: Negotiations that go nowhere as a "drift" toward war continues.
So what can you do? As it happens, there is an online petition at the Credo/Working Assets website opposing war with Iran. It has garnered over 100,000 signatures so far, including mine. You can sign it yourself by clicking on this link and following the instructions. I'm not saying your signature will stop another foolish war all by itself, but it can't hurt.
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A couple of weeks ago, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer made the news by writing a short but sincere apology to the gay community for his earlier support of "reparative therapy" intended to "cure" homosexuality. He now regards the 2003 experiments that seemed to show success for this "treatment" were irredeemably flawed, and he regrets any role he might have played in reinforcing anti-gay stereotypes. Good for him.
Spitzer's recantation got me thinking: Why do we so rarely see foreign policy mavens offer similar apologies for obvious screw-ups? None of us is infallible, but powerful people sometimes make colossal blunders that lead to enormous human suffering. When that happens, it really does merit a mea culpa from those responsible. Yet with a few exceptions, I can't think of very many politicians, pundits, or government officials who have openly acknowledged their errors and apologized for them. Here in the United States, this only seems to happen when sexual indiscretion is involved, or when former officials are at the end of their careers and seeking some sort of absolution.
At this point, don't you think that William Kristol owes his fellow citizens an apology for his repeated war-mongering about Iraq, a war that cost the United States over a trillion dollars, killed thousands of people, and created millions of refugees? Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear George W. Bush and Dick Cheney admit their numerous mistakes and express some regret for them, instead of trying to stonewall the judgment of history? Couldn't a few of the ambitious "visionaries" who created the Euro say they're sorry they didn't listen to the skeptics who warned that Europe lacked the institutional mechanisms needed to make a common currency work? Shouldn't Elliot Abrams show some contrition about his role in fomenting the disastrous Fatah-coup attempt against Hamas, which left the latter in charge in Gaza? And so on. Heck, we're still waiting to hear regrets from the folks who brought us the financial crisis of 2007-2008, although Bernie Madoff did offer up something of an apology for his massive swindle.
Admitting you were wrong really isn't that hard. I've been in this business for nearly three decades, and I've been blogging for three and half years. In that time, I think I've gotten a number of things right, both in my scholarly work and my public commentary. I think I was mostly right about the core causes of alliance formation, right about the general direction NATO was headed after the Cold War, certainly right about the folly of invading Iraq, and right about the harmful impact of the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy. (Does anyone seriously believe that lobby isn't a very powerful force anymore?) And I think my skepticism about Obama's abortive peace efforts in the Middle East and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan have been borne out as well.
But I've been dead wrong on several occasions too. I was overly critical of post-modern IR theory back in the early 1990s, and overly optimistic about the Oslo peace process. I may have recognized the centrifugal tendencies that buffeted NATO following the Soviet breakup, but I also underestimated its staying power. And as I've noted before, I clearly missed the potential for contagion in the Arab spring. I regret every one of those errors, although I don't think very many people suffered as a result.
Of course, academia isn't quite like the policy world. Scholarship advances through vigorous criticism, and no matter how careful we try to be, every academic can look back and see how our earlier work could be improved. No scholar expects to be 100 percent right and all of us (should) understand that our prior work will eventually be overtaken and revised in light of new research. By contrast, people in the policy world or the commentariat can't readily admit mistakes, because their admissions will be seized upon by rivals and used to marginalize them. So instead of honest admissions of error, you mostly get silence, obfuscation, or denial. That's mildly offensive and morally dubious, but the real danger is that it allows serial blunderers to keep influencing policy or public discourse, no matter how many failures they've been associated with in the past.
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I gave a lecture last night at the Cape Ann Forum, on the topic of America's changing position in the world and what it might (should) mean for U.S. grand strategy. My hosts were gracious and the crowd asked plenty of good questions, which is what I've come to expect when I speak to non-academic groups. Indeed, I'm often impressed by how sensible many "ordinary" Americans are about international affairs in general and U.S. foreign policy in particular. And so it was last night.
One of the attendees was iconoclastic journalist Christopher Lydon, who's been a friend for some years now. Chris asked a great question: Why is there so little accountability in contemporary U.S. policy-making, and especially regarding foreign policy? To be more specific: He wanted to know why some of the same people who got us into the Iraq debacle, mismanaged the Afghanistan war, and now clamor for war with Iran are still treated as respected experts, welcomed as pundits, and recruited to advise Presidential campaigns?
I didn't have a particularly good answer for him, but I thought about it more as I drove home. I'm not sure why there seems to be so little accountability in the American establishment these days (though it is true that if you lose $2 billion dollars, it does affect your job security), but here are a few thoughts.
Part of the problem is institutionalized amnesia. The United States is busy all around the world, and if the short-term results of some action look okay then we tend to move on and forget about what we've left behind. We fought a proxy war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and it was a controversial issue at the time, with 40,000 or so Nicaraguan perishing as a result. But eventually the war ended, and we moved on with nary a backward glance. We intervened in the Bosnian civil war, patched together a Rube Goldberg-like structure to govern the place, gave ourselves high-fives, and spend the next fifteen years telling ourselves what a success it was. Except that it wasn't. Really. Last year we helped topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya, rejoiced at the fall of a despised and brutal dictator, and then moved on again, even as Libya descends into chaos. But it's not our problem anymore, unless a contraband MANPAD eventually finds its way to some unfortunate civilian airline somewhere. And if that airliner doesn't have Americans on board, we won't worry about it very much.
Heck, I'll bet if Bush had just pulled all our troops out of Iraq after his "Mission Accomplished" photo op, we'd be hailing it as a great military victory no matter what condition Iraq was in today. ("Hey, we got rid of Saddam for them; it's not our fault if the Iraqis can't run the place...")
A second reason is the incestuous clubbiness of the foreign policy establishment. Mainstream foreign policy organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations thrive by being inclusive: It's not clear what a member in good standing would have to do in order not to be welcome there. This is actually a smart principle up to a point: Because none of us is infallible, you wouldn't want to live in a society where being wrong rendered anyone a pariah for life. But neither does one want a system where conceiving and selling a disastrous war has no consequences at all.
Third, the incestuous relationship between mainstream journalists, policy wonks, and politicos reinforces this problem. All three groups live in a symbiotic relationship with each other, and you wouldn't expect to see many people in this world donning their brass knuckles and saying what they really think about other members of the club. And because their livelihoods and well-being aren't directly affected by catastrophes that happen Far Away, why should they worry about holding people accountable and conducting their relations in a more adversarial fashion? Bad for business, man....
A related reason has to do with career paths in the foreign policy world. I'm well aware that most would-be foreign policy wannabes don't have the luxury of tenure, and a lot of them have to survive on soft money budgets at think tanks or as in-and-outers doing private sector work when their party is out of power. In a world like this, yesterday's adversary is tomorrow's ally, and that means pulling punches and doing a lot of forgiving and forgetting. In most case, a bland conformism is the best route to long-term professional success, which diminishes the tendency to render harsh judgments, even when they are appropriate.
Fifth, as U.S. neoconservatives have long demonstrated, the best defense is sometimes a good offense. No influential political faction in America is more willing to engage in character assassination and combative politics than they are, in sharp contrast to most liberals and even most realists. I'm not talking about spirited debate over the issues -- which is a key part of effective democratic politics -- I'm talking about the tendency to accuse those with whom they disagree of being unpatriotic, morally bankrupt, anti-semitic, or whatever. Their willingness to play hardball intimidates a lot of people, which in turn protects them from a full accounting for their past actions.
Finally, there is obviously less accountability for anyone who has reliable financial backing. It doesn't matter how often people at the Weekly Standard or American Enterprise Institute advocate failed policies, so long as somebody is willing to keep bankrolling them. If you've got the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, or Sheldon Adelson in your corner, you can stay in the game no matter how often you've been wrong about really big and important issues, and no matter how big a price others may have paid for your mistakes.
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Strategy is all about setting priorities: Deciding which problems merit the most attention and allocating the right level of resources to each challenge. It is about not letting the urgent overwhelm the important, and not getting blown off course by random events or unexpected surprises. Whether we are talking about a country's overall policy menu, a corporate business plan, or a military engagement, success requires first identifying what really matters.
So when I read James Hansen's op-ed about climate change yesterday, my first thought was: "Boy, do we have our priorities screwed up." Here in America, we spend endless hours arguing and debating trivialities, like who is going to get to run Afghanistan (a country whose entire GDP is about one-third the size of the municipal budget for New York City). We turn issues of personal freedom and preference (like marrying whomever you want) into Grand Moral Challenges. We kvetch about a single blind dissident in China, and work ourselves into a lather over not-very-powerful countries like Iran that pose no serious threat to any vital U.S. interests. Like a paranoid nation of sheep, we accept an increasingly onerous set of security restrictions in a futile attempt to drive the probability of a terrorist attack on an airliner down to absolute zero, no matter what the cost or the inconvenience. (And some people now think the current level of TSA madness isn't enough!)
Meanwhile , we merrily go about finding new sources of hydrocarbon-based energy -- like Canada's tar sands -- and get excited about the possibility that "fracking" will free us from dependence on "foreign oil" and allow us to keep using energy at our current profligate levels. Instead of orchestrating a gradual increase in the cost of hydrocarbon-based fuels -- to discourage consumption -- politicians search instead for ways to keep the cost low (and our SUVs running).
If Hansen is right -- and his track record is pretty good -- this behavior is utterly myopic. I'm not saying that we shouldn't devote some attention to other issues -- and if you're been reading this blog, you know that I'm as guilty as everyone else of doing just that -- but I wonder how much of Barack Obama's time and attention has been spent thinking about what his administration could do to advance a sensible agenda of long-term environmental protection, as opposed to the time he's spent on things that basically won't matter a damn in a few years. Remember that big climate-change summit back in 2009? Haven't heard much about that agenda lately, have you?
When historians of the 22nd century look back on our era, I suspect we'll take a lot of heat (sorry for the pun) both for what we did, but also for what we failed to do. Especially if a lot of places that are dry land today are under water. The only good news: China and its various Southeast Asian neighbors won't be squabbling over all those bits of rock in the South China Sea that are barely above sea level now.
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A heads-up for readers with time on their hands: I'll be delivering the annual Hisham Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington DC tomorrow at noon. The title of my talk is "Deja Vu All Over Again?: Iraq, Iran, and the Israel Lobby," and I'll be comparing the campaign for war against Iraq and the current campaign for military action against Iran. There are some obvious similarities between these two episodes but also some important differences, for which we can be grateful. The lecture will be live-streamed here.
UPDATE: You can watch a recording of the lecture here.
Will we eventually look back on President Obama's drop-in visit to Kabul as his "Mission Accomplished" moment? He's got a tough re-election battle to fight, the endless war in Central Asia isn't popular, and he wants to remind everyone that he's The Man Who Got Bin Laden. So he pulled a George W. Bush and burned up a lot of jet fuel racing to Kabul for a mostly meaningless photo op and a not-very convincing speech. This sort of posturing may help him get re-elected -- though I doubt it will have much effect -- but it's not going to help his long-term legacy when the U.S. is finally gone and Central Asia is on its own.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don't put much value in the new U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership." It has some symbolic value, I guess, and it can provide a fig leaf for our eventual withdrawal. If everything breaks the right way after 2014, it might even provide a general framework that facilitates some additional counter-terrorist activities. But it's merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, it is woefully short on specifics, and other people will be in charge in Kabul and Washington by the time the agreement runs out. If circumstances change in ways that give us reasons to renege (or give Afghan leaders grounds to want a different arrangement), this much-ballyhooed "partnership" won't be worth the pixels it's published with.
All told, nobody came off very well in this little episode. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney sounds both petty and silly trying to minimize Obama's genuine accomplishments against al Qaeda (and especially the elimination of bin Laden himself). But Obama's attempt to turn the Afghan debacle into some kind of strategic triumph isn't much better, as Juan Cole and Ahmed Rashid make clear in separate pieces. All of which is more evidence that our agonizingly long electoral cycle is a major impediment to a smarter foreign policy.
Obama should not forget that the elder President Bush won a far more smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War than we are going to get in Afghanistan, and he went down to defeat in 1992. It's still the economy, stupid, and most voters won't care much about bin Laden's demise when they go to the polls in November, no matter how often the president reminds them about it between now and then. Needless to say, that is precisely what Romney is counting on.
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Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been largely run by a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Both groups favor a highly activist foreign policy intended to spread democracy, defend human rights, prevent proliferation, and maintain American dominance, by force if necessary. Both groups are intensely hostile to so-called "rogue states," comfortable using American power to coerce or overthrow weaker powers, and convinced that America's power and political virtues entitle it to lead the world. The main difference between the two groups is that neoconservatives are hostile to international institutions like the United Nations (which they see as a constraint on America's freedom of action), whereas liberal interventionists believe these institutions can be an important adjunct to American power. Thus, liberal interventionists are just "kinder, gentler neocons," while neocons just "liberal interventionists on steroids."
The liberal/neoconservative alliance is responsible for most of America's major military interventions of the past two decades, as well as other key initiatives like NATO expansion. By contrast, realists have been largely absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights of punditry. That situation got me wondering: What would U.S. foreign policy have been like had realists been running the show for the past two decades? It's obviously impossible to know for sure, but here's my Top Ten List of What Would Have Happened if Realists Had Been in Charge.
#1. No war in Iraq. This one is easy. Realists like Brent Scowcroft played key roles in the first Bush administration, which declined to "go to Baghdad" in 1991 because they understood what a costly quagmire it would be. Realists were in the forefront of opposition to the war in 2003, and our warnings look strikingly prescient, especially when compared to the neocons' confident pre-war forecasts. If realists had been in charge, more than 4,500 Americans would be alive today, more than 30,000 soldiers would not have been wounded, and the country would have saved more than a trillion dollars, which would come in handy these days. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive too, and the balance of power in the Gulf would be more compatible with U.S. interests.
#2: No "Global War on Terror." If realists had been in charge after 9/11, they would have launched a focused effort to destroy al Qaeda. Realists backed the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a realist approach to the post-9/11 threat environment would have focused laser-like on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were a direct threat to the United States. But realists would have treated them like criminals rather than as "enemy combatants" and would not have identified all terrorist groups as enemies of the United States. And as noted above, realists would not have included "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (the infamous "axis of evil") in the broader "war on terror." Needless to say, with realists in charge, the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy calling for preventive war would never have been written.
#3. Staying out of the nation-building business. A third difference follows from the first two. Realists understand that transforming foreign societies is a difficult, costly, and uncertain enterprise that rarely succeeds. It is especially hard to do in poor countries with deep internal divisions, no history of democracy, and a well-established aversion to foreign interference. By avoiding the long-term occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would have had little need to invest in counter-insurgency or "nation-building," and could have focused instead on more serious strategic challenges. Which leads us to #4.
#4. A restrained strategy of "Offshore Balancing." Since the end of the Cold War, prominent realists have called for the United States to adopt a more restrained grand strategy that focuses on maintaining the balance of power in key areas (e.g., Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf) but reduces America's global footprint and keeps the U.S. out of unnecessary trouble elsewhere. Such a strategy would also force U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden and discourage them from either "free-riding" or "reckless driving" (i.e., adventurism encouraged by overconfidence in U.S. support). For instance, realists would never have adopted the Clinton administration's foolish strategy of "dual containment" in the Persian Gulf, or the Bush administration's even more reckless effort at "regional transformation." Instead, realists would have maintained a robust intervention capability but kept it offshore and over-the-horizon, bringing it to bear only when the balance of power broke down (as it did when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). Had we followed this approach from 1992 onward, it is even possible that al Qaeda would never have gotten rolling in a big way or never tried to attack the United States directly.
#5. No NATO expansion. Realists weren't surprised when the United States decided to move NATO eastwards; it's typical of victorious great powers to try to press their advantage. But they were skeptical about the whole idea, fearing (correctly) that it would poison relations with Russia and that the U.S. was taking on commitments that it might not be willing to meet and that would make NATO increasingly unwieldy. A realist approach would have stuck with the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, a much smarter move that enabled many useful forms of security cooperation and kept the door open to a more constructive relationship with Russia. Over time, realists would have pressed Europe to take on the main burden of its own defense, fully aware that Europe faces no security problems at present that it cannot handle on its own.
#6: No Balkan adventures. If realists had been in charge, the United States and its allies would have taken a different approach to the Balkan war in the 1990s. The United States might have stayed out entirely -- as former Secretary of State James Baker seemed to want -- because its vital interests were not at stake. Or it might have pushed for a partition plan for Bosnia, as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, and Stephen Van Evera proposed here and here. What would not have happened was the Rube Goldberg effort to cobble together a multi-ethnic "liberal" democracy in Bosnia (an effort that has largely failed and is likely to unravel if outside forces ever withdraw) or the subsequent ill-conceived war in Kosovo (which inept U.S. diplomacy helped provoke). Reasonable people can disagree about whether the world is better off for the U.S. having intervened, but it's by no means clear that the results were worth the effort.
#7. A normal relationship with Israel. Realists have long been skeptical of the "special relationship" with Israel, and they would have worked to transform it into a normal relationship. The United States would have remained committed to helping Israel were its survival ever threatened, but instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer," Washington would have used its leverage to prevent Israel from endlessly expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories. An even-handed U.S. approach would have taken swift advantage of the opportunity created by the 1993 Oslo Accords, and might well have achieved the elusive two-state solution that U.S. presidents have long sought. At a minimum, realists could hardly have done worse than the various "un-realists" who've mismanaged this relationship for the past 20 years.
#8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons. Realists have long emphasized the defensive advantages conferred by nuclear weapons, and have opposed the excessively large nuclear arsenals built up during the Cold War. Realists appreciate the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and believe complete disarmament is impractical, but they would have been much bolder in reducing the U.S. arsenal and would have focused more attention on securing nuclear materials world-wide. At the same time, realists would have acknowledged the technological futility of strategic missile defense as well as its dubious strategic rationale (i.e., even if missile defenses worked perfectly, an adversary could always deliver a warhead to U.S. territory through covert means, thereby making it harder to know where it came from).
#9. No Libyan intervention. Realists (and some others) were skeptical of the wisdom of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime in Libya. This position wasn't based on any sympathy for Qaddafi or his supporters, but rather on a hard-headed calculation of the interests involved and the potential pitfalls. In particular, realists worried that Qaddafi's fall would lead to a prolonged power vacuum (it has), and that the groups we were supporting were unknown and unreliable. The intervention also set a bad precedent: Not only did the U.S. and its allies run roughshod over the Security Council resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians (but not regime change), but we were toppling an autocrat who had previously succumbed to Western pressure and given up his WMD programs. It's possible that Libya will settle down and become a success story for liberal interventionism, but the jury is still out.
#10. A growing focus on China. Realists focus mostly on power and believe that the anarchic structure of world politics encourages powerful states to compete with each other for security. Not necessarily because they want to, of course, but because powerful states cannot take each other's benevolent intentions for granted. Accordingly, realists are skeptical of the claim that Sino-American rivalry can be avoided by "engaging" China, by fostering tight economic ties, or by enmeshing Beijing in institutions designed and led primarily by the United States. Accordingly, realists would focus on strengthening security ties in Asia (while getting our Asian allies to pull their weight), and work to establish clearer "red lines" with China's leadership. Over time, making it harder for China to translate its economic wealth into military power will be in order as well. Realists don't seek a war with China or regard it as inevitable, but they believe that avoiding it is going to take a lot of careful attention to Asian security issues.
To be sure, both the Bush and Obama administrations have moved in this direction, as exemplified by the "strategic partnership" with India and the recent "pivot" to Asia. These shifts occurred in part because there were a few realists involved (e.g., former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill), and partly because the structural forces were impossible to ignore.
Not all realists would subscribe to every item on this list, of course, and one could add other items to it. For instance, if the EU member-states had been led by realists in recent decades, their ill-fated experiment with the Euro would never have been tried and Europe would be in much better economic shape today. Similarly, realists would have followed a different approach toward Iran, and would almost certainly have tried to follow up on earlier Iranian efforts to improve relations with a "grand bargain" that acknowledged Iran's right to nuclear enrichment but put stringent safeguards in place to discourage weaponization. (That seems to be where we are headed right now, but it remains to be seen if Washington and Tehran have the patience and political will to get there).
As noted above, realists may have wrong about some of these items (e.g., the interventions in the Balkans and in Libya) and it's possible that U.S. leaders ultimately did the right thing in those cases on humanitarian (as opposed to strategic) grounds. I'll concede that possibility, but on the whole, I'd argue that both the United States and some key parts of the world would have been far better off if the United States had used its power in a more realistic fashion. It's too late to avoid the past mistakes, of course, but at least we can try to learn from them.
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What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.
On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.
Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.
One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.
I'd like to believe this version story -- really -- and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.
I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.
Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.
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What should we do about Syria? By "we," I don't mean just the United States. Rather, I mean that wonderfully ambivalent phrase the "international community," and especially those states with a clear stake in the outcome (i.e., Syria's immediate neighbors, its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian allies, and its various adversaries, including the United States).
Reading two pieces that appeared today helps clarify the basic dilemma. The first piece, by economist Paul Collier of Oxford, argues that the Assad regime is living on borrowed time, having "crossed a red line" of international acceptance. He advocates ramping up the pressure by arming the opposition forces, in order to encourage Syrian army leaders and other Baath officials to defect. (The piece is in the Financial Times, and is firewalled on their site).
A second piece by Asli Bali of UCLA and Aziz Rana of Cornell, warns of the perils of this approach. While highly critical of Assad, they emphasize the danger of prolonged civil war and point out that a significant number of Syrians still worry as much about internal instability and sectarian violence as they do about Assad's brutalities. Accordingly, Bani and Rana favor an inclusive diplomatic process that avoids isolating Assad completely, in order to head off a destructive civil war.
One could make a crude realist case for Collier's approach, if you believed that the strategic benefits of ousting Assad were worth the human costs to Syrian civilians. One might argue that toppling Assad would eliminate a key Iranian ally and deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah, thereby advancing broader U.S. interests in the region. In this optimistic scenario, grateful Syrians would seek friendly relations with their Western benefactors, including Washington. Notice that this view assumes that the transition is swift, that few civilians die in the fighting, and that forming a new government is fairly easy.
But a sophisticated realist would be skeptical of a grand scheme like this. Realists understand that force is a crude instrument that usually generates lots of unintended consequences, and trying to exploit the Syrian crisis to shape the regional balance of power could backfire in all sorts of unpredictable ways. If one gives Assad & co. no choice but to fight to the end, we're likely to get a protracted civil conflict. Some officers may defect, but plenty of others won't and will do whatever it takes to try to hold on. In these circumstances, groups and individuals who are adept at using violence tend to come to the fore, and politics inside Syria will tend toward the extreme.
Nor should we assume that a post-Assad Syria will be a compliant client state governed by pro-Western elites who are grateful for our help. The Syrian opposition may despise Assad -- and with good reason -- but it is hardly unified. Moreover, a post-Assad government will still have security concerns and interests to pursue (such as the return of the Golan Heights). Our experiences with Iraq and Libya also belie Collier's blithe assumption that reconstituting a new Syrian government will be easy. The composition of a post-Assad state in Syria is anyone's guess, but there are plenty of contenders for power who are wary of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A post-Assad Syria would still be buffeted by its neighbors and other interested parties, especially if outsider powers are supporting different factions. And the greater the level of force needed to topple him, the harder it will be to put Syria back together afterward.
And as Bali and Rana emphasize, even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention can have the unintended consequence of putting more Syrian lives at risk. Thus, for both strategic and moral reasons, the international community should concentrate on stopping what is now a slowly escalating civil war, instead of trying to escalate it. This may not be a morally heroic stance, but it is realistic.
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I hope to post later today on another issue, but in the meantime, here's a link to my contribution to a New York Times' "Room for Debate" forum on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The question was whether we should get out sooner or get out later. As you can read, I favor the former. Money quote:
"Afghanistan is not a vital United States interest. President Obama had said that we must prevent Al Qaeda from establishing safe havens there, but Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda already has better safe havens elsewhere. Victory in Afghanistan will not eliminate Al Qaeda, and leaving won’t make it more dangerous. If it makes no difference whether we win or lose, why fight on?"
I would only add that I don't think most Americans have any idea what the conflict in Afghanistan has really been like, or what U.S. soldiers and commanders really did and really thought. We will learn more with the passage of time, and I suspect it won't be pretty.
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The killing of 16 Afghan civilians -- nine of them children -- by a rogue U.S. soldier is a tragedy in several senses. First, because of the loss of innocent life. Second, because the alleged perpetrator is likely someone whose psyche and spirit broke under the pressure of a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. And third, because it was all so unnecessary.
Because Barack Obama has run a generally hawkish foreign policy, his Republican opponents don't have a lot of daylight to exploit on that issue. But if they weren't so preoccupied with sounding tough, they could go after Obama's foolish decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan back in 2009, which remains his biggest foreign policy blunder to date.
A brutal reality is that counterinsurgency campaigns almost always produce atrocities. Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre, and now this. You simply can't place soldiers in the ambiguous environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some of them to crack and go rogue. Even if discipline holds and mental health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism. There isn't a "nice" way to wage a counterinsurgency -- no matter how often we talk about "hearts and minds" -- which is why leaders ought to think long and hard before they order the military to occupy another country and try to remake its society. Or before they decide to escalate a war that is already underway.
And the sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first term. Yes, I know he promised to get out of Iraq and focus on Central Asia, but no president fulfills all his campaign promises (remember how he was going to close Gitmo?) and Obama could have pulled the plug on this failed enterprise at the start. Maybe he didn't for political reasons, or because commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal convinced him they could turn things around. Or maybe he genuinely believed that U.S. national security required an open-ended effort to remake Afghanistan.
Whatever the reason, he was wrong. The sad truth is that the extra effort isn't going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted. That was apparent before this weekend's events, which can only make our futile task even more impossible.
Here's what I wrote about this situation back in November 2009:
"America's odds of winning this war are slim. The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace, making it possible for them simply to outlast us. Pakistan has backed the Afghan Taliban in the past and is not a reliable partner now. Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a U.S. victory."
It didn't take a genius to see this, and I had lots of company in voicing my doubts. It gives me no pleasure to recall it now. Indeed, I wish the critics had been proven wrong and Obama, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al. had been proven right. I concede that the situation in Afghanistan may get worse after we depart, and the more civilians will die at the hands of the Taliban, or as a consequence of renewed civil war. But the brutal fact remains: the United States can't fix that country, it is not a vital U.S. interest that we try, and we should have been gone a long time ago.
You know a case for war is weak when its advocates have to marshal blatant untruths in order to convince people that their advice should be followed. Exhibit A is today's alarmist op-ed in the New York Times, in which former IDF general Amos Yadlin argues for a preventive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
He recites the by-now familiar arguments for an attack, and makes it clear that he thinks Obama should make an "ironclad" pledge to do it if Iran doesn't cease its nuclear activities. But the big historical howler comes in the middle of the piece, where he attempts to deal with the counter-argument that an attack would only delay an Iranian program, and probably not for all that long. He writes:
"After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed."
This claim is at best deeply misleading and at worst simply false. It's technically true that there hasn't been a resumption of either the Iraqi or Syrian programs since 2007, but what about there the twenty-six year gap between the Osirak raid in 1981 and the raid on Syria? What happened during those intervening years? As Malfrid Hegghammer, Daniel Reiter, and Richard Betts have all shown, the destruction of Osirak led to an elite consensus that Iraq needed its own deterrent, and led Saddam Hussein to order a redoubling of Iraq's nuclear program in a more clandestine fashion. This effort was so successful that the UN inspectors who entered Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War were surprised by how extensive the program was and how close it had come to producing a bomb. Indeed, if Saddam had been smart enough to wait a few more years, he might have crossed the nuclear finish line.
Thus, the true history teaches the opposite lesson from the one Yadlin is proposing. In the Iraqi case, a preventive strike reinforced Iraq's interest in acquiring a deterrent, and led Iraq to pursue it in ways that were more difficult to detect or prevent. That is what Iran is likely to do as well if Israel or the United States were foolish enough to strike them. U.S. intelligence still believes Iran has not made a final decision to weaponize; ironically, an Israeli or U.S. attack is the step that is most likely to push them over the edge.
It's hardly surprising that some Israelis would like the United States to shoulder the burden of bombing Iran. It's also not surprising that they would make up specious arguments or distort history to do this; the Bush administration got us into the Iraq war in the same way. But the Times' editors ought to insist that op-eds, whatever their positions, meet at least minimum standards for historical accuracy. And they don't even need to scour the academic literature; all they had to do was keep track of what they had already published.
In any case, if Americans fall for this sort of contorted historical analysis, we'll have only ourselves to blame. Instead of giving "ironclad" guarantees that we will launch preventive war, we'd be better served if Obama merely reminded Netanyahu that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak doesn't think Iran is an existential threat, and that the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has called an attack on Iran the "the stupidest thing I ever heard."
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The continued carnage in Syria is leading more people to call for some sort
of international intervention, ostensibly to protect Syrian rebels from further
attacks by government forces. A prominent example was a New York Times op-ed
last week by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the
State Department, which recommended that the United States and others create
"no-kill zones" on Syrian territory, protected by a coalition of
outside powers. She also wants these outside powers to give the rebel forces
various forms of weaponry, military training, and tactical advice. To avoid the
criticism that her policy would fuel a civil war, Slaughter insists that
support be conditional on the aid being used "defensively," though
Turkish or Arab League units would be free to use drones or unmanned helicopters
"to attack Syrian air defenses and mortars in order to protect the no-kill
The core problem with this proposal, as Paul Staniland makes clear in this incisive critique, is that it ignores basic military realities. The rebels are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad; once we commit ourselves to arming and protecting them, how are we going to stop them from doing whatever they can to bring him down? Once engaged on their behalf, is it realistic that any government could cut them off because they had gone beyond our Marquis of Queensbury rules of engagement? Moreover, Slaughter admits that we cannot protect her "no-kill zones" without degrading Assad's forces. In practice, therefore, her neat distinction between "defensive" and "offensive" operations would quickly break down.
In fact, her proposal would lead inexorably to an active military effort to overthrow the Assad regime. As in Libya, what sounds at first like a noble effort to protect civilians would quickly turn into offensive action against a despised regime, and in partnership with a host of opposition forces whose character and competence we can only guess at. If that's what Slaughter and others want to do, they should say so openly, instead of performing what can only be described as a strategic bait-and-switch. China and Russia have figured this ploy out, by the way, which is one reason they've been so reluctant to endorse any international action to stop the killing.
Here's the basic problem. Once we commit ourselves to creating safe havens ("no-kill zones"), we will be obliged to defend them for as long as there is any possibility that Assad's forces might attack. As our experience with the no-fly zones in Iraq teaches, this could involve defending them for years. And if Assad's forces start shelling the rebel areas, then we will have to defend them or risk humiliation. But let's be clear: "defending them" means attacking Assad's own forces. In other words: war. And once that happens, the United States and the other outside powers will face enormous pressures to complete the job.
In fact, it is hard to believe that we could take the step Slaughter is recommending and subsequently agree to leave Assad and his regime in place. As soon as outside powers take sides and intervene, a failure to remove Assad from power would be interpreted as a striking defeat for the intervening powers and a blow to those who have seen the Arab Spring as a hopeful turn for a troubled region.
In short, there is no way to conduct the sort of minimalist, purely defensive, and strictly humanitarian operation that Slaughter describes in her op-ed, without it eventually leading to forcible regime change. And one big reason that Syria's neighbors have been reluctant to go that route is their understandable fear of a protracted internal conflict there that would make the present carnage look mild by comparison.
I take no pleasure from that reality, and I share Slaughter's anger and disgust at what Assad is doing. But the choice we face is stark and agonizing, and pretending that we can keep our balance on this steep and slippery slope is not helpful.
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Paul Pillar has a great piece up at The National Interest that illuminates just how nutty the present debate about war with Iran really is. And it got me thinking.
If a sensible Martian came down to Earth and looked at the sabre-rattling about Iran, I suspect he/she/it would be completely flummoxed. For our Martian visitor would observe two very capable states -- the United States and Israel -- threatening to attack a country that hardly seems worth the effort. The U.S. and Israel together spend more than $700 billion each year on their national security establishments; Iran spends about $10 billion. The U.S. and Israel have the most advanced military hardware in the world; Iran's weapons are mostly outdated and lack spare parts. The U.S. and Israeli militaries are well-educated and very well-trained; not true of Iran. The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and Israel has several hundred, while Iran has a vast arsenal of … zero. Iran does have a nuclear enrichment program (which is the reason for all the war talk), but the most recent National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that Iran does not presently have an active nuclear weapons program. The United States has several dozen military bases in Iran's immediate vicinity; Iran has exactly none in the Western hemisphere. The United States has powerful allies in every corner of the world; Iran's friends include a handful of minor nonstate actors like Hezbollah or minor-league potentates like Bashar al Assad (who's not looking like an asset these days) or Hugo Chávez.
Moreover, the United States has fought four wars since 1990. It has bombed, invaded or occupied a half dozen countries in that period, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. Israel has been colonizing the West Bank since 1967, it invaded and occupied much of Lebanon from 1982 to 1999, and its armed forces pummeled Lebanon again in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09. Prominent U.S. politicians have repeatedly called for "regime change" in Iran, and U.S. government officials now report that Israel has been murdering civilian scientists in Iran, in cahoots with the MEK, a terrorist organization that is still on the State Department's terrorist "watchlist." Iran's past conduct is far from pure, but it has done nothing remotely similar in recent years.
In fact, given the various threats now facing Tehran, our Martian friend might have trouble explaining why Iran's leaders hadn't gone all-out to get themselves some sort of WMD, merely as a deterrent. And yet it is the United States and Israel that profess themselves to be terribly, terribly worried about the supposed "threat" from Iran, and who are contemplating a preventive war that most observers realize would strengthen Iran's nuclear ambitions and could only delay its program for a couple of years.
Let's be clear: There's nothing to like about the current Iranian regime -- to include its clerical rulers, its buffoonish president, and the various thugs that keep the regime in power -- and I for one am very glad I live here and not there. Nonetheless, our Martian observer might have a lot of trouble figuring out why politicians in Washington and Jerusalem were so scared. In fact, he might very reasonably conclude that both states were losing all sense of perspective, and allowing the worst sort of worst-case analysis to cloud their thinking and cut off useful avenues of diplomatic engagement. And given that the United States likes to think of itself as the "leader of the free world" and is normally expected to exercise sound judgment on a host of complex issues, that possibility is not reassuring.
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The family of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower is now weighing in against renowned architect Frank Gehry's proposed design for an Eisenhower Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C. Good for them. Their main objection is that the main representation of the former president in Gehry's proposed design is a statue of Eisenhower as a young Kansas farm-boy. The rest of the four-acre memorial is an elaborate and soulless structure whose paved walkways also celebrate -- are you ready for this? -- the interstate highway system. Just the sort of message one ought to highlight in an era of climate change, right?
I'm with the Eisenhower family on this one, and the brouhaha has reaffirmed my belief that Gehry is one of the more overrated architects of the modern era. (OK, his Bilbao museum was visually arresting--if you like chaos--but you should thank your lucky stars you don't have an office in this building). This incident may also mark the only moment in recorded history when I've agreed with something published in the National Review.
What's the real problem? Let's start with Gehry's witless decision to depict one of the architects of victory in World War II, as well as a two-term president whose standing has risen steadily over time, as a barefoot farm-boy. The other presidential memorials on the mall are either majestic in their simplicity (e.g., the Washington Monument), or they pay homage to past leaders like Lincoln in their maturity, portraying them as they were when they made their singular contributions to our common heritage. To portray Eisenhower as a boy immediately diminishes him, and give us no sense of his unique qualities as a leader or the achievements that we treasure. Instead, it invites us to see him as an untutored naïf, which is precisely what some of his political opponents mistakenly thought he was.
I should confess that I'm not a huge fan of presidential monuments anyway, because they reinforce popular deference to executive authority and strengthen the growing tendency to view our presidents as akin to monarchs but with term limits. But I'll concede that a handful of presidents have performed acts of leadership, wisdom and courage that can provide enduring inspiration for subsequent generations, and that memorials on the Mall to a very few might be in order.
When it comes to Eisenhower, therefore, I'd like to see a memorial that underscored his singular contribution to our understanding of post-World War II security problems: namely, his eloquent warnings about the danger of the "military-industrial complex" and his consistent efforts to advance the cause of peace. Think about it: here is a West Point graduate and five-star general, who had seen as much of war as any American, and who had presided over a significant expansion of America's strategic nuclear arsenal in the 1950s. Nonetheless, he ends his second term with a message to his countrymen about the dangers of unchecked military/industrial power.
And can anyone doubt that his warnings were prescient, when we realize that the United States still spends more than the next ten or twenty nations combined, when its National Security Mandarins feel little or no compunction about ordering drones to kill suspected terrorists (and sometimes innocent bystanders) while refusing to reveal to the voters who fund these activities exactly what their government are doing (or even the legal basis being used to justify it), and when our post-9/11 panic has led to a massive expansion of secret agencies and contractors whose full extent is not known or understood by the politicians who are supposedly overseeing them?
And let's not forget Ike ended the Korean War faster than Obama got us out of Iraq or Afghanistan, declined to get ensnared in France's debacle in Indochina, quashed the boneheaded Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, and generally avoided costly military entanglements afterwards. His foreign policy record wasn't perfect by any means, but he compares quite favorably to virtually all of his successors.
A proper memorial to President Eisenhower would highlight not his boyhood -- iconic and stereotypical though it might be -- but his maturity, and his wise concerns about the trajectory our nation was on. Such a memorial would bring into fierce relief his final presidential speech, as well as some of his other remarks, where these words could help reverse our robotic tendency to assume our greatness is measured primarily by how much we can destroy, rather than by how much we can provide.
So how about a memorial where quotations such as the following were carved in stone, for each new generation to read and ponder:
"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
Now that's a memorial I'd like to see us build. Back to the drawing board, Frank.
Did last year's triumph in Libya help stymie efforts to forge an international consensus on Syria?
Some of you will have already seen FP colleagues Marc and Colum Lynch's excellent posts bemoaning the U.N. Security Council's inability to pass a resolution addressing the continuing violence on Syria. The proximate cause was a joint Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed resolution, ostensibly on the grounds that it was one-sided.
I think Marc is right to say that this lapse weakens the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council (SC). I place less weight on the SC than some commentators do, but even I don't think a weak and discredited SC is a good thing. I also agree that this development increases the danger of a prolonged conflict in Syria, and maybe even an internationalized civil war there.
There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.
You'll recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized military action in Libya to protect civilians. The resolution was directly inspired by the fear that Qaddafi loyalists laying siege to the rebel town of Benghazi were about to conduct some sort of massacre there. In response, Res. 1973 authorized member states "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." France, the United States and other foreign powers quickly went beyond this mandate, using airpower and other forms of assistance to help the rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi's forces and oust him from power.
One can argue that this was the right course of action anyway, because getting rid of a thug like Qaddafi was worth it. That's a debate for another day, although I would note in passing that post-Qaddafi Libya remains deeply troubled and the collapse of the regime seems to be fueling conflicts elsewhere. But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong: I shed no tears for Qaddafi or his family and I'd be delighted to see Bashar al-Assad gone in Syria. The Libya precedent is not the only reason why China and Russia dug in their heels, and I think their decision to veto the resolution could be costly for them. But it is both ironic and tragic that some of the most enthusiastic defenders of multilateralism and international law seem all too willing to ignore them when they get in the way of other things they want to do, however laudable the latter goal might be. But a commitment to multilateralism and international law is not something you can invoke when it suits you and ignore when it doesn't, at least not without paying a price. Powerful states like the United States can (and do) act with impunity on occasion, but they shouldn't be surprised when such behavior backfires later on.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
The drumbeats for war with Iran keep pounding, as you can read about here and here. There are some features of the campaign that are scarily (or maybe comically) reminiscent of 2002-2003 (as Glenn Greenwald documents here), but for now there's one key difference. Back in 2002, the neocon-heavy Bush administration led the charge to sell the invasion of Iraq. Today, by contrast, the case for war is being made primarily by other countries (i.e., Israel), or by assorted think tanks, lobbying groups, and national security commentators in the United States. The Obama administration isn't leading the campaign, having correctly concluded that a war is neither necessary nor wise. In particular, they do not seem to have bought into the rampant threat inflation that forms the core of the hawks' case for war.
But today I want to focus on another remarkable feature of this situation: the absence of any sort of meaningful diplomacy between the United States and the country whose citizens we would be attacking and killing if we were to launch a strike. The United States had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union from 1933 on, including the period when Joseph Stalin was murdering millions. We never broke relations with Moscow during the Cold War, even though the United States and USSR had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other and were waging bloody proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East, and Africa. U.S. and Soviet leaders met repeatedly at summit meetings (some of them contentious), and U.S. and Soviet diplomats interacted more-or-less constantly on matters of mutual concern. The purpose of these various exchanges wasn't appeasement or even accommodation; we talked to them so that we could figure out what they thought, and so that we could explain our positions to them. It was important that each side know what the consequences of different courses of action might be, and sometimes that involved spelling it out for each other.
And what was the result? Not only were the two superpowers occasionally able to cooperate in mutually beneficial ways (i.e., managing crises, reducing nuclear risks, ending wars, etc.) but the United States eventually won the Cold War and presided over the Soviet Union's demise without triggering a direct U.S.-Soviet clash. Indeed, U.S. diplomats did a good job of picking Mikhail Gorbachev's pocket as the USSR imploded, in part because they had established a good working relationship with him. Furthermore, contacts between Russians and Americans seem to have helped thaw communist society, in part by teaching younger Soviet elites that the West was doing better and was not irrevocably hostile.
By contrast, the United States hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran for over three decades. That is a longer hiatus than occurred after either the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 or the communist seizure of power in China in 1949. Only a tiny handful of U.S. officials have direct experience with their Iranian counterparts. Few Americans have extensive dealings with Iranians, save for Iranian exiles who often have their own agendas. We don't have a good sense of where the different Iranian factions are, what they think, or how they might respond to different U.S. policies. Yet we blindly assume that there is no recourse but to sanction and maybe bomb them.
The Obama administration likes to portray itself as having "extended a hand of friendship" to Iran, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. Even now, we seem unable to offer Iran a "yessable" proposition, and we merely repeat our long-standing position it simply comply with our demands. The administration has done a good job of rounding up international support for its position, but isn't it ironic that we've devoted far more time and energy to that task, instead of exploring whether there might be a mutually acceptable solution to the current impasse itself.
The bottom line: I find it bizarre that anyone is seriously contemplating waging war on a country about whom we know so little and with whom we barely engage. And why do we know so little? Because we are too scared, or proud, or politically paralyzed to even talk to them. This is not the behavior one expects of a confident, mature great power: it is the behavior of a government that is either afraid it will get tricked by devious Persians, or that is more worried about domestic criticism than foreign consequences.
Winston Churchill has become something of an iconic figure among U.S. hardliners, including many in the vanguard of the war party. But it was Churchill who famously remarked that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Rather than unleashing the U.S. Air Force, in short, how about unleashing our diplomats instead?
Oh, wait. It's an election year. Never mind.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the U.S. is going to step back from a combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, and shift over to an "advise and assist role" instead. Assuming he means it, we'll be ending our combat role about a year before all U.S. troops are supposed to be out.
As regular readers know, I've favored a greatly reduced presence in Afghanistan for a long time, simply because I didn't think a COIN/nation-building campaign there was worth the costs, and because I don't think the outcome in Afghanistan makes much difference in the larger struggle against Al Qaeda. (In other words, I reject the "safe haven" justification for the war, largely because Al Qaeda has havens elsewhere and Afghanistan isn't an especially desirable one from their point of view).
But by a strange coincidence, we were discussing an aspect of this problem in my graduate course the very same day that Panetta made his announcement, in the context of a broader discussion on international cooperation. As some of you know, one of the basic principles of the literature on cooperation is that it is facilitated when there is a lengthy "shadow of the future." States are more likely to cooperate today if they anticipate being able to reap the benefits of cooperation far into the future; they will be leery of stiffing potential partners and foregoing that stream of long-term benefits.
What does this insight have to do with Afghanistan? Although I favor getting out as rapidly as possible, we ought to do so with the full knowledge that announcing a certain date (or even an approximate date) will reduce Afghan incentives to cooperate with us now and in the interim, and their incentive to cooperate will decline more and more as the date of withdrawal nears. Once they know that the stream of benefits is finite, they will be less willing to make adjustments or concessions to us in order to keep us in the fight. So by announcing we're leaving, Panetta was tacitly acknowledging that our leverage over the Afghan government is going to erode pretty quickly. Not that it was ever that great, of course.
Notice: This situation is different than trying to encourage greater Afghan cooperation by threatening to leave if they don't shape up, coupled with a credible promise to stay if they do. In this case, continued U.S. help would be conditional on Afghan cooperation and reform. But that's not what we're saying: Instead, we've made an essentially unconditional pledge to end our combat role (and eventually leave completely). In short: We've had enough of this war and are heading home, if not exactly briskly.
As I said, I think this is the right course of action. But actions have consequences, and we should be under no illusions about what it means for our ability to determine outcomes there. Washington still has a few cards to play (i.e., we can still empower different contenders by providing them with money, arms and training), but our long-term influence over decisions there is going to decline rapidly. But unless you're one of those people who thinks it's a good idea for Americans to try to steer the politics of an impoverished, deeply-divided Islamic country in the middle of Central Asia, this development really isn't so bad.
John Moore/Getty Images
If you'd like to read a textbook example of war-mongering disguised as "analysis," I recommend Matthew Kroenig's forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs, titled "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option." It is a remarkably poor piece of advocacy, all the more surprising because Kroenig is a smart scholar who has done some good work in the past. It makes one wonder if there's something peculiar in the D.C. water supply.
There is a simple and time-honored formula for making the case for war, especially preventive war. First, you portray the supposed threat as dire and growing, and then try to convince people that if we don't act now, horrible things will happen down the road. (Remember Condi Rice's infamous warnings about Saddam's "mushroom cloud"?) All this step requires is a bit of imagination and a willingness to assume the worst. Second, you have to persuade readers that the costs and risks of going to war aren't that great. If you want to sound sophisticated and balanced, you acknowledge that there are counterarguments and risks involved. But then you do your best to shoot down the objections and emphasize all the ways that those risks can be minimized. In short: In Step 1 you adopt a relentlessly gloomy view of the consequences of inaction; in Step 2 you switch to bulletproof optimism about how the war will play out.
Kroenig's piece follows this blueprint perfectly. He assumes that Iran is hellbent on getting nuclear weapons (not just a latent capability to produce one quickly if needed) and suggests that it is likely to cross the threshold soon. Never mind that Iran has had a nuclear program for decades and still has no weapon, and that both the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb. He further assumes -- without a shred of evidence -- that a nuclear-armed Iran would have far-reaching geopolitical consequences. For example, he says that other states are already "shifting their allegiances to Tehran" but doesn't offer a single example or explain how these alleged shifts have anything to do with Iran's nuclear program.
He also declares, "With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war." Huh? If this bizarre fantasy were true, why couldn't the former Soviet Union do similar things during the Cold War, and why can't other nuclear powers make similar threats today when they don't like a particular American initiative? The simple reason is that threatening nuclear war against the United States is not credible unless one is willing to commit national suicide, and even Kroenig concedes that Tehran is not suicidal. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring attacks on one's own territory (and perhaps the territory of very close allies), but that's about it. They are not good for blackmail, coercive diplomacy, or anything else. And if Kroenig is right in warning that an Iranian nuclear weapon might lead others to develop them too, then Iran would end up being deterred by the United States, by Israel, and by some of its other neighbors too. (As I've noted before, Iran's awareness of this possibility may be one reason why Tehran has thus far stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold.)
Kroenig also declares that a nuclear-armed Iran would force the United States to "deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come." But why? Iran's entire defense budget is only about $10 billion per year (compared with the nearly $700 billion the United States spends on national defense), and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. Thus, contrary to what Kroenig thinks, containing/deterring Iran would not add much to U.S. defense burdens. The Persian Gulf is already an American lake (from a military point of view), and Washington already has thousands of nuclear weapons in its own arsenal. Given how weak Iran really is, containing or deterring them for the foreseeable future will be relatively easy.
The key point is that Kroenig offers up these lurid forecasts in a completely uncritical way. He never asks the probing questions that any security scholar with a Ph.D. should axiomatically raise and examine in a sophisticated manner. Instead, his article is a classic illustration of worst-case analysis, intended to make not going to war seem more dangerous than peace.
When he turns to the case for using force, however, Kroenig offers a consistently upbeat appraisal of how the war would go. (Needless to say, this is not the kind of analysis one would expect from a Georgetown professor.) He knows there are serious objections to his proposed course of action, and he works hard to come up with reasons why these concerns should be not be taken seriously. What if Iran has concealed some of its facilities? Such fears are overblown, he thinks, because our intelligence is really, really good. (Gee, where have we heard that before?) What about facilities that are hardened or defended? Not an insurmountable obstacle, he maintains, and in any case there are plenty of other facilities that are aboveground and vulnerable.
Isn't there a danger of civilian casualties? Well, yes, but "Washington should be able to limit civilian casualties in any campaign." What if Iran escalates by firing missiles at U.S. allies, ordering its proxies to attack Israel, or closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipments? Not to worry, says Kroenig, "None of these outcomes is predetermined," and the United States "could do much to mitigate them." (Of course, none of the scary outcomes that Kroenig says would accompany an Iranian bomb are "predetermined" either.) Doesn't starting a war increase the risk of regional conflict, especially if Iran retaliates and Americans or Israelis die? Maybe, but not if the United States makes its own "redlines" clear in advance and if it takes prudent steps to "manage the confrontation." To do this we have to be willing to "absorb Iranian responses that [fall] short of these redlines" and reassure the mullahs that we aren't trying to overthrow them (!). Bombing another country is a peculiar way to "reassure" them, of course, and it's a bit odd to assume that those wicked Iranians will be cooperative and restrained as the bombs rain down. Won't Iran just reconstitute its nuclear program later, and possibly on a crash basis? It might, but Kroenig says that we would have bought time and that whacking the Iranians really hard right now might convince them to give up the whole idea. Or not.
You see the pattern: When Kroenig is trying to justify the need for war, he depicts an Iran with far-reaching capabilities and dangerously evil intentions in order to convince readers that we have to stop them before it is too late. But when he turns to selling a preventive war, then suddenly Iran's capabilities are rather modest, its leaders are sensible, and the United States can easily deal with any countermeasures that Iran might take. In other words, Kroenig makes the case for war by assuming everything will go south if the United States does not attack and that everything will go swimmingly if it does. This is not fair-minded "analysis"; it is simply a brief for war designed to reach a predetermined conclusion.
And let's be crystal clear about what Kroenig is advocating here. He is openly calling for preventive war against Iran, even though the United States has no authorization from the U.N. Security Council, it is not clear that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, and Iran has not attacked us or any of our allies -- ever. He is therefore openly calling for his country to violate international law. He is calmly advocating a course of action that will inevitably kill a significant number of people, including civilians, some of whom probably despise the clerical regime (and with good reason). And Kroenig is willing to have their deaths on his conscience on the basis of a series of unsupported assertions, almost all of them subject to serious doubt.
Kroenig tries to allay this concern by saying that the main victims of a U.S. attack would be the "military personnel, engineers, scientists, and technicians" working at Iran's nuclear facilities. But even if we assume for the moment that this is true, would he consider Iran justified if it followed a similar course of action, to the limited extent that it could? Suppose a bright young analyst working for Iran's Revolutionary Guards read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs and concluded that there were well-connected people at American universities and in the Department of Defense who were actively planning and advocating war against Iran. Suppose he further concluded that if these plans are allowed to come to fruition, it would pose a grave danger to the Islamic Republic. Iran doesn't have a sophisticated air force or drones capable of attacking the United States, so this bright young analyst recommends that the Revolutionary Guards organize a covert-action team to attack the people who were planning and advocating this war, and to do whatever else they could to sabotage the forces that the United States might use to conduct such an attack. He advises his superiors that appropriate measures be taken to minimize the loss of innocent life and that the attack should focus only on the "military and civilian personnel" who were working directly on planning or advocating war with Iran. From Iran's perspective, this response would be a "preventive strike" designed to forestall an attack from the United States. Does Kroenig think a purely preventive measure of this kind on Iran's part would be acceptable behavior? And if he doesn't, then why does he think it's perfectly OK for us to do far more?
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Back in August 2010, I wrote a post warning about the possibility that war with Iran was being "mainstreamed." My concern was the likelihood that incessant talk of war would gradually accustom people to the idea and harden perceptions to the point that eventually even former skeptics would be convinced that war was inevitable and that we might as well get it over with. As I put it back then:
If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
I now wonder if my concerns were understated, and the danger a bit more subtle. It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. Earlier this week, the CIA lost a reconnaissance drone over Iranian territory (whether Iran shot it down or not is disputed). And just as I'd feared, this situation has led smart and normally sober people like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen to endorse this shadowy campaign, on the grounds that it is preferable to all-out war.
I certainly agree that what the United States is doing is better than launching an all-out attack, but I question this approach on three grounds. First, as I've already argued elsewhere, our preoccupation with Iran vastly overstates its capabilities and the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Iran is a minor military power at present, and it has no meaningful power projection capabilities. It has been pursuing some sort of nuclear capability for decades without getting there, which makes one wonder whether Iran intends to ever cross the nuclear weapons threshold. Even if it did, it could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else. Iran's "revolutionary" ideology is old and tired and inspires no one. The "Arab Spring" has underscored Iran's irrelevance as a political force, Iran's Syrian ally is under siege and may yet fall, and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will remove a key source of Iranian-Iraqi solidarity and encourage Arab-Persian differences to reemerge once again. Iran is a problem but a relatively minor one, and it is a sign of our collective strategic myopia that U.S. leaders either cannot figure this out or cannot say so openly.
Second, waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery. Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.
Third, a semi-secret war of this kind raises the inevitable risk of "blowback." The late Chalmers Johnson defined blowback as the unintended consequences of U.S. action abroad, and especially those actions of which the public is largely unaware. When we conduct semi-secret, not-quite wars in other countries, the targets sometime try to hit us back. When they do, many people back home will see their actions as unjustified aggression, and as evidence that our enemies are irrevocably hostile and unremittingly evil.
A case in point is the alleged Iranian plot to get Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Americans immediately concluded that this scheme was a sign of dastardly Iranian perfidy, when it might just as easily have been a harebrained Iranian riposte to what we were already doing. This is not to say that Iran was justified in trying to blow up a building in our nation's capital, but by what logic is peace-loving America justified in doing something similar over in Iran? In short: If the American people don't quite know what their government is up to, they cannot understand or interpret what other states are doing either. We may have good reasons not to like what others are doing, but the bigger danger is that we simply won't understand it, and won't understand our own role in helping bring such actions about.
Lastly, ratcheting up military pressure -- even if done covertly and at a relatively low level -- can only reaffirm deeply rooted Iranian suspicions of the United States and prolong U.S.-Iranian animosity. (The same is true in reverse, of course). I'm under no illusions about the depths of this animosity and the degree of skill, imagination, and patience it would take to unravel it, but doing more of the same is not going to make it any easier. Yes, many Iranians loathe the regime and would like it to go, but that doesn't mean they welcome U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iranian soil. And that is especially true of attacks on the nuclear program, which Iranians of many political persuasions view as an important symbol of national pride.
In short, the "silent campaign" against Iran is not without its own risks and costs. It is preferable to all-out attack, but a silent war and an all-out war are not the only options. The third option is a sustained and patient effort to reengage with Iran, in order to convince Iranian leaders that they are better off not going nuclear and that both sides will be better off if we can gradually work out some of our differences. Such an approach does not require the United States to sacrifice any core interests, nor would it preclude continuing to press Iran on its human rights record and on other matters that trouble us. And maybe it won't work. But as Trita Parsi shows in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice, that alternative approach has never really been tried.
What do Joe Paterno, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi, and Rupert Murdoch have in common?
The obvious answer, of course, is that 2011 turned out to be a very bad year for each of them. There were clearly important differences between them -- Qaddafi was the only one with blood on his hands and is the only one who is dead -- but there are some striking similarities too.
For starters, all of these men -- and note, they are all men -- were not exactly ... umm ... young. Qaddafi was the youngest of the bunch at 69; Berlusconi is 75, Murdoch is 80, and Paterno almost 85.
Second, all four held power in their respective domains for long periods. Qaddafi ruled Libya for 41 years; Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for roughly 17, Murdoch took over his first media company in the early 1950s, and Paterno became head football coach at Penn State way back in 1966.
Third, except for Qaddafi -- who did remarkably little for Libya despite the vast oil wealth at his disposal -- the other three could lay claim to a number of positive achievements. Whatever one thinks of Berlusconi's political career or Murdoch's journalistic standards, one has to concede that both men did create successful business empires. And whatever one thinks of Paterno's handling of the scandal that cost him his job, there's no question he was a highly successful college football coach for many years. But as dramatists have taught us since ancient Greece, success has a way of breeding hubris.
But the feature that unites these very different men is that each became less and less accountable, and increasingly insulated from candid, face-to-face criticism. Who was going to tell Qaddafi that he was mostly a despotic failure and increasingly unpopular, and that his "Green Book" of supposed "philosophy" was incomprehensible claptrap? Which News Corp. employee was going to warn Rupert Murdoch that his take-no-prisoners approach to journalism was leading the company into corrupt criminality? Did anyone in Berlusconi's inner circle try to tell him that he had become a self-indulgent and sybaritic laughingstock? Could any member of Penn State's cult of "JoePa" puncture the bubble and make it clear to him that there was something rotten in Happy Valley? It appears not.
As a result, each of them began to think that the normal rules didn't apply. Paterno seemed to think he was as effective a coach at 84 as he'd been twenty years previously, ignoring everything we know about the aging process. Berlusconi's media empire allowed him to shape what many Italians believed about him, despite the recurring scandals and his protracted failure to do anything to fix the anemic Italian economy. Murdoch and his associates seemed to think that spying on people and hacking their phones was perfectly legit as long as it helped sell papers. And at the extreme end, a megalomaniac like Qaddafi was willing to kill his own people to sustain his own kleptocracy, while somehow believing to the end that he deserved to govern. And in each case, the events that ended their long runs seemed to catch them unawares and unable to respond.
Finally, in each case, a culture of deference and sycophancy gradually blinded all of them to what was really happening. The personal tragedy is most apparent in the case of Paterno, a decent if stubborn man who failed to recognize or accept that a trusted associate was in fact a criminal sexual predator. But this same tendency is also evident in the other cases -- and with even greater effect -- as the vainglory of these powerful men inflicted great harm on many others.
"If men were angels," James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, "no government would be necessary." But we are not angels, and the dark side of human nature is likely to emerge whenever any of us becomes too big, too powerful, or too revered to be held accountable. The ignominious ends that these four men suffered in 2011 also remind us that even clever and powerful leaders cannot always escape their past sins.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.