One can only look on the continuing violence in Syria with a
mixture of awe, anguish, and dismay. Awe because so many Syrians continue to
protest against the Assad government, despite the enormous personal risks that
this entails. Anguish and dismay because there is relatively little that
outside powers can do to bring about a speedy end to the crisis, apart from the
measures that have already been taken (which I support).
The Obama administration has come under some criticism for not turning against Assad sooner. I'm inclined to cut them some slack here, because it would have been far better had the United States, Turkey, and a few others been able to convince Assad to begin a genuine process of dialogue, compromise, and liberalization. So it was worth trying to see if a deal could be struck, even if that effort ultimately failed. Having tried to give the Assad regime a way out also made it much easier to line up international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The central difficulty at this stage is two-fold: 1) the regime has no easy exit options and thus every incentive to fight on, and 2) its opponents inside and outside the country -- including the United States -- do not have a lot of attractive ways to put more pressure on the regime. Let's consider each aspect in turn.
Assad's problem now is that he's lost any chance of a genuine compromise and must therefore fight on in the hopes that he can cow the opposition and restore order. Regrettably, that is precisely what his father managed to do when he crushed an uprising in Hama in 1982 (killing some 20,000 people in the process). Once an authoritarian ruler rejects compromise and liberalization and launches a bloody crackdown instead, they have to do whatever it takes to win. With 3,500 people already dead, no one in Syria would believe any offers Assad might subsequently make to share power, and Assad and his cronies undoubtedly know that the risk of future retribution will be considerable if other actors in Syria ever gain real political power.
The other option for Assad, of course, is accepting a graceful flight into exile (presumably with a pile of cash to pay for a comfortable retirement). Several Arab states have reportedly offered Assad this sort of safe haven, and other notorious dictators (such as Uganda's Idi Amin) left power in this way. But that option isn't very attractive for Assad either, because leaders with bloody hands now face international prosecution for crimes against humanity. Furthermore, this hypothetical option would only be available to Assad, his family, and perhaps his inner circle of advisors. But other members of the government are implicated in the crackdown -- most of them drawn from the minority Alawi sect -- and they would be inclined to fight on even if Assad himself were to leave. This situation helps us understand why the regime and its security forces haven't cracked yet: they just don't have a lot of options at this point and they must either hang together (or hang separately).
The problem for the United States, Turkey, and other opponents of the regime is that there are real costs and risks to trying to do a lot more than they are already doing. Syria is more urban, mountainous, and densely-populated than Libya, so an air campaign against the regime's security forces would be a far trickier affair and Syria could respond to a drone campaign or other overt military action in ways that we might find unpleasant. Moreover, Assad's security forces are mostly conducting small-scale operations against unarmed civilians, not massed army assaults on cities, so they are less vulnerable to an air campaign. Libya was also a minor player far from the center of Middle East politics, but Syria lies in the heart of the region and instability there could easily reverberate into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Assad, for all his faults, is not as hated or despised as Qaddafi was, which means we aren't likely to get the same support from the Arab League that we had during the Libyan campaign. And we will never get UN Security Council authorization for military action, because both China and Russia are opposed. (This situation, by the way, is at least partly fallout from the Libya intervention, which Moscow and Beijing regard as having exceeded the Security Council mandate. It also reflects their enduring concern to limit U.S. efforts to dictate conditions in the Middle East.)
Hence the dismay one feels when reading news accounts and watching videos of the violence being wreaked against Syrian civilians, and when one remembers that their movement began in a completely peaceful manner. I fear that the Syrian tragedy will grind on for many months, and its principal victims will be ordinary Syrians who dreamt of a more open political order, and dared to think they could bring them about. And because societies take a long time to recover from extended bouts of internal violence (see under: Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, etc.), the consequences of this tragedy are likely to be with us for a long time after it is finally resolved.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):
The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.
This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.
As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.
Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.
Amos BenGershom/GPO via Getty Images
I had planned to write about something else this morning, but the simmering confrontation with Iran keeps intruding. For starters, President Obama is standing firmly behind the administration's allegations, but without offering any new evidence to support them. This approach isn't going to wash, however, especially if journalists do their job, start asking a lot of probing questions, and don't allow themselves to get spun by "anonymous" sources and inside leaks.
Add to the mix a New York Times story -- clearly based on briefings from U.S. officials -- that "militants trained and financed by Iran's Quds Force attacked United States forces in Iraq on Wednesday." As Time magazine's Tony Karon notes on his own blog, "Washington certainly seems to be scooping up everything it can find on alleged Iranian malfeasance to throw into the p.r. battle. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials told the Washington Post that they believe that Iran was behind the May 16 killing of a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi."
Put it all together, and it looks like the Administration is making a concerted campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. Countries like Britain, Saudi Arabia and France are going along with that program, and no doubt Israel is happy to see this development too. But so far other countries appear to be at best agnostic about the whole business, which is still the only sensible response in light of the paltry public evidence offered to date. And as I said yesterday, if Obama & co. can't produce some smoking gun support for their assertions, the backlash could be formidable.
More to the point: what's the endgame here? What is the positive purpose to be gained from this new campaign? If there really is hard and reliable evidence of a serious Iranian plot to bomb buildings in the United States and to kill foreign emissaries on our soil, then that's one thing. But if this turns out to be a much more ambiguous business -- either a rogue Iranian operation, a false flag scheme, or a case of FBI entrapment -- then what are we trying to accomplish by rolling out a seemingly well-orchestrated round of new accusations, especially when there's little chance of getting the sort of "crippling sanctions" that might actually alter Iran's behavior? Are we just trying to divert attention from other issues (the economy, the "Arab Spring," the failed diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, etc.), or is this somehow linked to the 2012 campaign?
Last point: as one would expect, Obama is already facing pressure from the right to do more. He's resisted their calls to attack Iran before, and if I had to bet I'd say he'll do so again. But the overall pattern of his presidency has been to accommodate hardline pressure on a variety of fronts, without necessarily adopting their entire agenda. And if you believe half of what Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward have written about Obama, he is a president who is prone to being played by his advisors, especially on national security matters. He escalated in Afghanistan, extended the deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, ramped up the drone war, ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, kept Gitmo up and running, and went spineless on Israel-Palestine after a promising start. There was an obvious domestic payoff to this approach: by tilting so heavily to the rightwing status quo, he's pretty much taken foreign policy off the table in the 2012 campaign. The GOP candidates can carp in various ways, but there's so little daylight between their views and his policies that he's not really vulnerable there.
But all that still leaves the more important question: where is this one headed? Like the alleged assassination plot itself, I'm still scratching my head on that one.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
Today is one of those days when blogging is difficult -- lots
of meetings through the day, office hours for students, and then I take off for
Korea. So no time for extended reflection on anything, except...
I sometimes think the U.S. Congress is working overtime to prove my point about the domestic origins of our screwed-up Middle East policy, and to set a new record for fealty to the Israel lobby. Of course you already saw that those enlightened and courageous patriots up on the Hill have voted to slash our foreign aid budget, except, of course, for the biggest chunk, which happens to go to one of the wealthiest recipients. Translation: Israel will still get its $3 billion per year, even though its per capita income is now 27th in the world and even though lots of other countries and programs are getting their aid totals whacked. Moreover, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now runs down here, they are also targeting the Palestinian Authority because it had the temerity to apply for recognition as a state a week or so ago. Those fiends! How dare they seek a state of their own!
Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a policy that could be better designed to solidify regional resentment and hatred of the United States, and at a moment when local populations are finding their own voice for the first time in decades. And it's equally hard to find an approach to this conflict that is more likely to do long-term harm to Israel itself, by encouraging it to continue the policies that have squandered so much international acceptance and directly contributed to various social and economic problems there. Not to mention the dubious morality of punishing stateless peoples while rewarding the country that is continue to expand its illegal settlements. Talk about hitting the negative policy trifecta: bad for the United States, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Israel too.
Meanwhile, I'm off to Seoul this evening, to attend a conference on regional security issues at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security. It is a very impressive group of American and Korean scholars, including several who know a lot more about these issues than I do. I expect to learn a lot, but mostly I'm interested in figuring out just who worries the South Koreans most: China, North Korea, or us?
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth
Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather
bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on
Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While
rejecting preventive war -- at least for the moment -- they call for a variety
of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means
to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article
portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to
convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.
For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration's "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.
Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we've supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program ... should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn't produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).
In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington's demands. You surrender, and then we'll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn't Iran's willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.
The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn't as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.
Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.
It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran's deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran's belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.
Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don't always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don't always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh's own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.
Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran's current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.
Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony -- or it is hypocrisy? -- in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran's sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran's leaders don't see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.
Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran's motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran's leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran's politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react. And once again, the fact that it hasn't conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.
In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran's interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity. It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach -- which has never been tried -- is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.
But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack's The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack's depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran's security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn't worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn't work, and then tell us -- with great reluctance, of course -- that we have no choice but to go to war again.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
The New York Times has a startling report today about an incident from way back in 2007, where Pakistani soldiers attacked a group of U.S. military officials, killing one officer and wounding three others. It is obviously a disturbing report, although not that surprising to anyone who's been paying even modest attention to the highly complicated relationship between the United States, the various factions that make up Pakistan's government, and the various groups that are contending for power in Central Asia. Juan Cole has a good quick rundown here.
I have two comments of my own. First, it is interesting that this story is coming out now, in the aftermath of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen's recent denunciations of Pakistani collaboration with the Haqqani network. The Times story says that the incident was hushed up back in 2007 so as not to disturb overall U.S. relations with Pakistan, but its appearance in the news right now sure looks like a deliberate leak. If so, what's the larger purpose here? Is the Obama administration or the Pentagon contemplating a real rupture with Islamabad, or do they think that turning up the heat in this highly public fashion is going to convince the ISI or whoever is doing these things to change their ways?
Second, the incident also shows you the dangers that arise when governments keep lots of secrets. Suppose this story had come out back in 2007. It would have been additional evidence conveying just how little control we had over our putative allies in the region, and cast further doubt on our ability to achieve a successful outcome in the Afghan campaign. Success in Afghanistan depends on cooperation with Pakistan (and in particular, on getting rid of the safe havens for the Taliban there), and this incident from four years ago was a clear sign that it was going to be damn hard to get the requisite help. It would also have suggested that U.S. officials really didn't understand very much about the complicated dynamics in that region, thereby suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we were never going to accomplish our stated objectives.
So: if Americans had actually known about this attack, they might have had a clearer picture of our prospects in Central Asia, and the uphill fight we faced. Barack Obama's claims that he was going to get out of Iraq and focus on Afghanistan might have been viewed with greater skepticism, and his subsequent decision to escalate the war might have faced greater opposition within his administration and in the public at large.
In short, when U.S. officials swept this incident under the rug for various short-term reasons, they encouraged the American people to maintain a false picture of the actual situation in Central Asia. Unfortunately, making judgments and decisions on the basis of inaccurate information rarely works out well.
John Moore/Getty Images
So today I'm watching stock markets around the world go into
free fall, and the following set of thoughts struck me. For starters, what if the world economy hits a
"perfect storm?" The United States is already well on its way to a
"lost decade," mostly because the Bush administration created an
enormous mess and Obama, his advisors, and the Congress combined to do too
little back in 2009. Europe is still teetering on the brink of meltdown, and
some people have real concerns about China's overheated and opaque economy too.
And these problems are all connected, and not just by bad loans, credit-default
swaps, and the like. If any of these big economies heads back into recession,
that will slow the others and could -- in the worst case -- sends us spiraling
back down into the sort of economic tailspin not seen since the 1930s.
I am not an economist, and I have no idea how likely that "perfect storm" scenario is. But remember that what ultimately got the United States out of the Great Depression was World War II. Suddenly there was a war to win, and the American people didn't mind deficit spending and didn't mind devoting over 40 percent of GDP to defense. And they also accepted that sacrifices would be needed -- rationing, scrap drives, a draft, and the like -- and the war muted the partisan wrangling of the 1930s. That gigantic Keynesian stimulus finally got the economy roaring to life.
So here's my question: in the nuclear age, the danger of a World War II-style global conventional war is greatly reduced, and maybe even impossible. And even the most hard-edged realist would have trouble finding the equivalent of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan in today's world (by comparison, the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a $10 billion defense budget that is less than 3 percent of U.S. national security spending, isn't remotely in the same league). So if the world were to fall into an economic abyss and a big conventional war is neither likely nor desirable (and let me make it clear that I think replaying World War II would be a VERY BAD THING), then how would we dig ourselves out? And how long would it take, especially when you consider just how dysfunctional, fact-free, and irresponsible our politics has become.
Despite what you might think, I don't have much to say about Tom Friedman's column in the Sunday New York Times, where he openly bemoans the disastrous influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy and puts up in bright lights how bad it is for Israel as well. I'm grateful to Glenn Greenwald and Phil Weiss for pointing out that this is the main point that John Mearsheimer and I have been making for some time in our writings about the lobby.
But I will say this: Friedman's admission reflects the protracted failure of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, going back several decades. That's not news, of course. What has changed in the past few years is that the lobby's operations and its harmful influence are now out in the open for all to see, which makes it almost impossible to make the old arguments that Israel is a "vital strategic asset" or a country that "shares our values" with a straight face, or to convince anyone who's not already in agreement. Not after more than forty years of occupation, not after 9/11, not after the 2006 Lebanon War, not after Operation Cast Lead, not after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, and not after PM Netanyahu's repeated acts of contempt toward the U.S. president.
The United States has backed Israel no matter what it did because AIPAC and the other groups in the lobby have enormous influence inside the Beltway and use that political muscle to defend Israel whenever its government's policies clash with America's interests. But the problem they face now is that almost everyone can see what they are doing and people like Friedman understand that the policies the lobby is promoting are a disaster for the United States and Israel alike. At this point, only hardcore individuals and groups in the lobby and opportunistic fellow-travelers try to kick up dust by blaming our failed Middle East policy on "public opinion" or on the supposed influence of Christian evangelicals. Right: like they were the ones who told Obama to stop pressing Netanyahu if he wanted to get his health care bill passed, and they were the ones holding one-sided Congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes to the UN to get statehood.
The elephant has been in the room for a long time, but now it has the spotlights on it and it's wearing a pink bikini too. It's hard to miss, in short, which is surely why Tom Friedman wrote what he did.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
If you're still wondering why the United States is in trouble these days, a good place to start is Bill Keller's piece in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. It's a softball attempt at self-criticism, in which Keller reflects on why he was wrong to favor war in Iraq, and it illustrates a lot of what is wrong with entire foreign policy establishment in the Land of the Free. The tone is mildly sorrowful, but there's only a hint of genuine regret. One gets little sense that Keller has lost much sleep over his error, and he barely acknowledges that the war he and his associates enabled left hundreds of thousands of people dead, created millions of refugees, and squandered trillions of dollars.
Instead, he tells us that his post-9/11 hawkishness came from "a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the [9/11] attack." Excuse me? I'm all for fatherly devotion, but I also expect people in a positions of authority like Keller's to keep such feelings in check and think with their heads and not just their hearts. And did Keller ever stop to think about the Iraqi fathers and daughters whose lives would be irrevocably shattered by the U.S. invasion?
Keller makes much of the fact that lots of other liberal pundits were hawkish on the war, a group he refers to as the "I Can't Believe I'm a Hawk Club." This defense amounts to saying "Ok, I was wrong, but so were a lot of other smart guys." What he fails to mention is that plenty of others got it right, including the thirty-three international security scholars who published a paid advertisement on Keller's very own op-ed page on September 27, 2002. But did Keller or any other members of the Times' editorial board reach out to them, to see if their opposition to war was well-founded? Of course not.
Finally, Keller's reflections are silent on what the Times has done to prevent similar debacles in the future. Let's not forget that Keller & Co. hired William Kristol, who deserves as much blame for the war as anyone, to write an op-ed column a few years back, long after the Iraq War had gone south. That little experiment didn't work out too well, but it gives you some idea of the Times' learning curve.
To cap it all off, turn to yesterday's Book Review, where the cover story is neoconservative David Frum's review of Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's new book on how America can get its mojo back. Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who gave us the phrase "axis of evil," and co-author (with Richard Perle) of one of the most comically over-the-top books on the "war on terror." And like Keller, Frum, Friedman and Mandelbaum were all enthusiastic Iraq War hawks too.
There you have it, folks: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Times gave prominent place to four people who were all vocal supporters of the invasion of Iraq, a decision that did far more damage to the United States than Al Qaeda ever did. Instead of holding itself accountable for its past misjudgments and looking elsewhere for expert advice, the Times -- like most of the foreign policy establishment -- continues to run on autopilot and recycle the same ideologues. And if the country keeps relying on advice from those who gotten so many big things wrong in the past, why should it expect better results?
Postscript: I did not feel inclined to join the orgy of 10th anniversary reflections this past week, but I did offer a brief assessment on the Belfer Center's website here.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is backing a plan to keep some 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end-of-year deadline, albeit only in a training role. This plan would violate President Obama's pledge to remove all U.S. troops by that time, but it is fewer troops than 14,000-18,000 figure that the military reportedly recommended.
But the real kicker comes later in the article, where the Times reports:
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department ... "
The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats (my emphasis)."
My question is: Whom do we think we are fooling? Surely not the Iraqis, who aren't likely to see much difference between U.S. soldiers and U.S. "paramilitary security contractors." Indeed, the Sadrist movement has already denounced these plans, and is holding a major demonstration in Baghdad today to demand a complete U.S. withdrawal. And we aren't fooling the remaining anti-American extremists in the rest of the region, who believe that the United States is an aggressive imperial power seeking to dominate the region with military force and who will use our remaining presence-no matter how it is camouflaged-as a recruiting tool.
The real answer, I suspect, is that we fooling ourselves. By removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq. This will make it easier for Obama to claim that he ended an unpopular war and for Americans to think we won some sort of victory. Of course, the fact that the Pentagon still thinks we have to have troops there to "stabilize" the situation underscores how false the latter claim is. But one danger is that we will think we have left Iraq when we really haven't, and so we won't understand why many people there (and in neighboring countries) continue to see the United States as having designs on the region.
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One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.
Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.
Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.
The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.
Specifically: invading Iraq was never necessary, because Saddam Hussein had no genuine links to al Qaeda and no WMD, and because he could not have used any WMD that he might one day have produced without facing devastating retaliation. It was a blunder because destroying the Ba'athist state left us in charge of a deeply divided country that we had no idea how to govern. It also destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and enhanced Iran's regional position, which was not exactly a brilliant idea from the American point of view. Invading Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, which helped the Taliban to regain lost ground and derailed our early efforts to aid the Karzai government.
President Obama inherited both of these costly wars, and his main error was not to recognize that they were not winnable at an acceptable cost. He's wisely stuck (more-or-less) to the withdrawal plan for Iraq, but he foolishly decided to escalate in Afghanistan, in the hope of creating enough stability to allow us to leave. This move might have been politically adroit, but it just meant squandering more resources in ways that won't affect the final outcome.
I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 -- a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.
What's most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It's obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there's a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush's foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.
That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there's some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren't generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don't want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy.
Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won't decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what's truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.
Except that Washington won't do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we're about to do the same thing if we don't change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn't helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.
What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don't see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant -- Governor Rick Perry of Texas -- seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don't want to tread on anyone's beliefs, but if that isn't a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don't know what is.
Lord knows that I don't have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I'm beginning to wonder.
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Today is the 21st anniversary of a key date in world history. On this date in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a train of events that would have fateful consequences for Saddam himself, but also for the United States. Indeed, one could argue that this invasion was the first step in a train of events that did enormous damage to the United States and its position in the world.
Of course, we all know what happened in the first Gulf War. After a brief period of vacillation (and a vigorous public debate on different options), the first Bush administration assembled a large and diverse international coalition and quickly mobilized an impressive array of military power (most of it American). It got approval from the U.N. Security Council for the use of force. Although a number of prominent hawks predicted that the war would be long and bloody, the U.S.-led coalition routed the third-rate Iraqi forces and destroyed much of Saddam's military machine. We then imposed an intrusive sanctions regime that dismantled Iraqi's WMD programs and left it a hollow shell. Despite hard-line pressure to "go to Baghdad," Bush & Co. wisely chose not to occupy the country. They understood what Bush's son did not: Trying to occupy and reorder the politics of a deeply divided Arab country is a fool's errand.
Unfortunately, the smashing victory in the first Gulf War also set in train an unfortunate series of subsequent events. For starters, Saddam Hussein was now firmly identified as the World's Worst Human Being, even though the United States had been happy to back him during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. More importantly, the war left the United States committed to enforcing "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq.
But even worse, the Clinton administration entered office in 1993 and proceeded to adopt a strategy of "dual containment." Until that moment, the United States had acted as an "offshore balancer" in the Persian Gulf, and we had carefully refrained from deploying large air or ground force units there on a permanent basis. We had backed the Shah of Iran since the 1940s, and then switched sides and tilted toward Iraq during the 1980s. Our goal was to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, and we cleverly played competing powers off against each other for several decades.
With dual containment, however, the United States had committed itself to containing two different countries -- Iran and Iraq -- who hated each other, which in turn forced us to keep lots of airplanes and troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We did this, as both Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi have documented, because Israel wanted us to do it, and U.S. officials foolishly believed that doing so would make Israel more compliant during the Oslo peace process. But in addition to costing a lot more money, keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for the long term also fueled the rise of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was deeply offended by the presence of "infidel" troops on Saudi territory, and so the foolish strategy of dual containment played no small role in causing our terrorism problem. It also helped derail several attempts to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Dual containment, in short, was a colossal blunder.
But no strategy is so bad that somebody else can't make it worse. And that is precisely what George W. Bush did after 9/11. Under the influence of neoconservatives who had opposed dual containment because they thought it didn't go far enough, Bush adopted a new strategy of "regional transformation." Instead of preserving a regional balance of power, or containing Iraq and Iran simultaneously, the United States was now going to use its military power to topple regimes across the Middle East and turn those countries into pro-American democracies. This was social engineering on a scale never seen before. The American public and the Congress were unenthusiastic, if not suspicious, about this grand enterprise, which forced the Bush administration to wage a massive deception campaign to get them on board for what was supposed to be the first step in this wildly ambitious scheme. The chicanery worked, and the United States launched its unnecessary war on Iraq in March 2003.
Not only did "Mission Accomplished" soon become a costly quagmire, but wrecking Iraq -- which is what we did -- destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and improved Iran's geopolitical position. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources away from the war in Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to re-emerge as a formidable fighting force. Thus, Bush's decision to topple Saddam in 2003 led directly to two losing wars, not just one. And these wars were enormously expensive to boot. Combined with Bush's tax cuts and other fiscal irresponsibilities, this strategic incompetence caused the federal deficit to balloon to dangerous levels and helped bring about the fiscal impasse that we will be dealing with for years to come.
Obviously, none of these outcomes were inevitable back in 1990. Had cooler heads and smarter strategists been in charge after the first Gulf War, we might have taken advantage of that victory to foster a more secure and stable order throughout the Middle East. In particular, we would have pulled our military forces out of the region and gone back to offshore balancing. After all, Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 did not force the United States to choose "dual containment." Nor did it make it inevitable that we would bungle the Oslo peace process, pay insufficient attention to al Qaeda's intentions, or drink the neocons' Kool-Aid and gallop off on their foolish misadventure in Iraq. But when future historians search for the moment when the "American Empire" reached its pinnacle and began its descent, the war that began 21 years ago would be a good place to start.
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I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. Go here for a peek at The Life I Could Have Had if I Had Talent.
Along the way I've been reflecting more on the shooting/bombing in Norway and the debates that have surfaced since last weekend. One of the striking features of Anders Breivik's worldview (which is shared by some of the Islamophobe ideologues who influenced his thinking) is the idea that he is defending some fixed and sacred notion of the "Christian West," which is supposedly under siege by an aggressive alien culture.
There are plenty of problems with this worldview (among other things, it greatly overstates the actual size of the immigrant influx in places like Norway, whose Muslim minority is less than 4 percent of the population). In addition, such paranoia also rests on a wholly romanticized vision of what the "Christian West" really is, and it ignores the fact that what we now think of as "Western civilization" has changed dramatically over time, partly in response to influences from abroad. For starters, Christianity itself is an import to Europe -- it was invented by dissident Jews in Roman Palestine and eventually spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. I'll bet there were Norse pagans who were just as upset when the Christians showed up as Breivik is today.
Moreover, even Christian Europe is hardly a fixed cultural or political entity. The history of Western Europe (itself an artificial geographic construct) featured bitter religious wars, the Inquisition, patriarchy of the worst sort, slavery, the divine right of kings, the goofy idea of "noble birth," colonialism, and a whole lot of other dubious baggage. Fundamentalists like Breivik pick and choose among the many different elements of Western culture in order to construct a romanticized vision that they now believe is under "threat." This approach is not that different from Osama bin Laden's desire to restore the old Muslim Caliphate; each of these extremists is trying to preserve (or restore) an idealized vision of some pure and sacred past, based on a remarkably narrow reading of history.
In fact, any living, breathing society is driven partly by its "inner life," but also inevitably shaped by outside forces. Indeed, as Juan Cole notes in a recent post, most societies benefit greatly from immigration, especially if they have strong social institutions (as Norway does) and the confidence to assimilate new arrivals into the existing order while allowing that order to itself be shaped over time. What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists.
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Remember the 1990s? Back in those days, the U.S. was recognized as the world's sole superpower. Our economy was booming, we ended the decade with a budget surplus, and there was a widespread sense around the world that the United States really had its act together. True, we had some pretty bitter partisan politics, misguided polices like "dual containment" were helping pave the way for 9/11, and corrupt financiers were busy sowing the seeds for the 2007 meltdown, but most of the world had the impression -- rightly or wrongly -- that the United States knew what it was doing. People like Tom Friedman extolled America's virtues in books like The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing that the rest of the world would have to embrace "DOS.Capitalism 6.0" (in other words, our system), or fall by the wayside. Overall, a powerful aura of competence enhanced U.S. influence and magnified our "hard power."
Fast forward to right now. We are on the brink of a major self-inflicted wound, driven solely by the deep dysfunction that now seems baked into our political system. Why should Pakistanis, Afghanis, Europeans, Chinese, Thais, Mexicans, Venezuelans, or anybody else take our advice on how to govern, when they watch the sorry set of ignorant clowns who are holding the rest of us hostage? If the worst case happens and the United States ends up defaulting, the economic costs will be significant enough. But it is also likely to do considerable damage to America's reputation for being a reasonably well-governed society, and it will accelerate the tendency for people around the world to look elsewhere for guidance. And while all this time and attention has been wasted on the debt ceiling, other problems are festering and will be there to bite us later.
I wonder if all those "patriots" in the Tea Party and the GOP ever thought about that. And if they did, would they even care?
I don't know any more than you do about the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the well-connected and notoriously corrupt half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was also de facto governor of Kandahar province and reportedly on the CIA payroll. In fact, I probably know less than some of you. But I'll offer a few quick reactions to the news nonetheless.
First, unless the killing was some sort of personal vendetta, it seems likely that it was politically motivated and it strikes me as plausible that it was ordered by the Taliban. The killer, a family associate named Sardar Mohammed, was a regular visitor to Karzai's home, and he must have known that shooting Karzai in his own compound was a suicide mission.
Second, in the short run this has to be a propaganda boost for the Taliban, who have already claimed credit for the killing and called it one of the "great achievements" of the war. From the very beginning, the Taliban's main appeal was their ability to provide order (albeit of a very brutal sort) and their lack of personal corruption. Wali Karzai, needless to say, was a vivid symbol of the latter. More importantly, the Taliban will undoubtedly use the killing to cast doubt on the Afghan government's ability to protect even top officials. In a war of perceptions, this is not good news for our side.
Third, to me it merely underscores the continued futility of trying to win a counter-insurgency war in a country where we lack a competent, committed, or fully-legitimate local partner. We're likely to get a lot of upbeat reports of progress in the months to come, as the Obama administration tries to persuade us that the "surge" worked and that we can start going home. I hope this sleight of hand works, because the war is a running sore and a distraction from more important problems. But spin and PR won't change the basic reality: Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans and not by us.
Heck, our own political system can't even get a budget deal done without a lot of eleventh-hour hysterics, and yet we think we can reliably reshape the political order of a country of 32 million Muslims, many of them illiterate, and divided into at least five major tribes. Can you say "hubris?"
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My vacation is drawing to a close, and as usual, I didn't get as much done as I'd hoped. I did bring my reading list along and I've made some progress on it, but then I got distracted re-reading Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars. It's even more depressing the second time around, insofar as it shows just how difficult it was for Obama and his advisors to get the national security establishment to think "outside the box" on the AfPak problem. And most of the warnings that were issued at the time -- that the "surge" wouldn't work in the absence of effective Afghan partners and genuine help from Pakistan -- seem to have been borne out.
Assuming Woodward's account is accurate, what is most striking is how most of the inside debate is about tactics rather than strategy. There are endless go-rounds about how many troops to send, what mix of counterterrorism vs. counter-insurgency to adopt, what deadlines to impose (or not), and how to try to elicit more cooperation from the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But there's not a lot of discussion of the broader strategic issues: is it a good idea for the United States to be constantly interfering in the lives of some 200 million Muslims in Central Asia? What are the fundamental sources of our terrorism problem, just how serious is it, and is it possible that the problem might diminish if we weren't meddling there (and elsewhere) and if we passed the buck to others and let them bear burdens in non-essential areas? These are strategic issues, and you don't get the sense from Woodward that these got much of an airing.
If you're intrigued by these larger questions, you should definitely read Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent's "Graceful Decline: The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment," from the Spring 2011 issue of International Security. Based on a comprehensive survey of 18 cases of great power decline (defined as situations where a great power's ordinal ranking of share of economic power changes for the worse), MacDonald and Parent show that declining powers are usually able to adjust their strategic commitments without significant harmful consequences. Money quotation:
Faced with diminishing resources, great powers moderate their foreign policy ambitions and offer concessions in areas of lesser strategic value. Contrary to the pessimistic conclusions of critics, retrenchment neither requires aggression nor invites predation. Great powers are able to rebalance their commitments through compromise, rather than conflict. In these ways, states respond to penury the same way they do to plenty: they seek to adopt policies that maximize security given available means. Far from being a hazardous policy, retrenchment can be successful. States that retrench often regain their position in the hierarchy of great powers. Of the fifteen great powers that adopted retrenchment in response to acute relative decline, 40 percent managed to recover their ordinal rank. In contrast, none of the declining powers that failed to retrench recovered their relative position.
If McDonald and Parent are right, it suggests that Obama & Co. erred when they decided to double down in Central Asia. After the debacle in Iraq and the 2007 financial crisis, the United States needed to take bold action to bring its global commitments in line with its resources. Obama wisely kept us on course out of Iraq (though not that quickly), but an ambitious new team of foreign policy wonks wanted their turn at running the world and did relatively little to put U.S. grand strategy on a more sustainable footing. Woodward's account of the debate on Afghanistan suggests that Obama and a few of his advisors understood the need to retrench in a general way (and Obama has repeatedly talked about the greater importance of "nation-building" at home) but they were unable or unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to pull of this adjustment or to impose that consensus on the entire national security establishment.
Retrenchment is going to happen eventually, I'm sure, just not nearly as fast as it should have.
In case you missed it, veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has written a scathing denunciation of U.S. Middle East policy -- and long-time Middle East advisor Dennis Ross -- in Ha'aretz. His bottom line is that Oslo is over, yet the United States is still trying to convince the Palestinian leadership to buy into a diplomatic process that has been a cover for continued settlement building and has manifestly failed to bring them a state. The key passage:
"It would be tough to find a bigger expert than Ross on the myths and illusions related to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For years he has been nurturing the myth that if the United States would only meet his exact specifications, the Israeli right would offer the Arabs extensive concessions.
During the years he headed the American peace team, Israeli settlement construction ramped up. Now Ross, the former chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, is trying to convince the Palestinians to give up on bringing Palestinian independence for a vote in the United Nations in September and recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people -- in other words, as his country, though he was born in San Francisco, more than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed.
If they give up on the U.N. vote, Ross argues, then Netanyahu will be so kind as to negotiate a final-status agreement with them. Has anyone heard anything recently about a construction freeze in the settlements?
Ross is trying to peddle the illusion that the most right-wing government Israel has ever seen will abandon the strategy of eradicating the Oslo approach in favor of fulfilling the hated agreement. In an effort to save his latest boss from choosing between recognizing a Palestinian state at the risk of clashing with the Jewish community and voting against recognition at the risk of damaging U.S. standing in the Arab world, Ross is trying to drag the Palestinians back into the "peace process" trap.
If Obama really intended to justify his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would not have left the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of this whiz at the never-ending management of the conflict."
As Eldar makes clear, Ross has been advising presidents ever since the first Bush administration and played a central role in both the Clinton and Obama administration, and his stewardship of the "peace process" has led exactly nowhere.
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I visited the National Library in Dublin last week, and spent an hour at a terrific exhibit on the life and works of W. B. Yeats. I've never been a big fan of Yeats's poetry (my tastes run more to Auden, Neruda, e. e. cummings, and Hardy), but some of his best works are undeniably brilliant. Like "The Second Coming," which is probably one of the most famous poems of the 20th century and one that seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics:
Turning and turning in the
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I thought of that poem as I reflected this morning on recent events, and wondered if we are now witnessing the slow crumbling of the international order that has existed for decades. As I noted in an earlier post, after World War II the United States created and led a political, security, and economic order in nearly every corner of the globe, except for the communist world. The communist world eventually succumbed and became part of that order too, as first China and then Russia abandoned communism and adopted market economies and joined the various global institutions that had been designed and coordinated in Washington.
Looking back, a striking feature of the past two decades is that the central features of U.S. foreign policy and the basic Cold War institutions remained largely unchanged long after the Cold War ended. NATO is still around; our bilateral security ties in Asia haven't changed much, and we retained pretty much the same set of allies and policies in the Middle East. The United States continues to think of itself as the "indispensable power" and the Leader of the Free World (which is a bit ironic given our incarceration rate), and Democratic and Republican policy wonks spend most of their time debating how and where to use American power, but never questioning whether it was right or proper or wise to use it in lots of places. Despite an enormous set of structural changes, in short, the central features of U.S. foreign policy have remained quite constant.
The end of the Cold War -- and the brief "unipolar moment" that followed it -- just meant the United States could throw its weight around a bit more without worrying that a hostile great power might try to stop us. Instead, it was a combination of hubris, ignorance, and arrogance that led us into a series of costly quagmires, accompanied by a self-inflicted financial meltdown that stemmed from an equally toxic combination of arrogance and avarice.
But have those disasters brought us to the brink of a major shift in the global order? Is the familiar landscape of world politics in the process of being transformed? Consider the following:
1. The financial crisis has put the Eurozone under unprecedented stress, and the European Union's future looks increasingly bleak. Check out this piece from the Guardian here, and see how confident you are that the European Union will survive in its present form.
2. NATO looks more and more obsolescent. Its performance in Afghanistan has been disheartening and the recent war in Libya is a monument to NATO disharmony (because most NATO members aren't involved), as well as a revealing demonstration of just how weak the alliance is when it can't rely on the United States to do all the work. And does anyone seriously believe that the Libyan adventure will convince Europe to get serious about defense spending in the future? Not in this economic climate, and not when Europe really doesn't face major external threats.
3. The Arab world is in upheaval, and seems likely to remain unsettled for years. The United States has yet to formulate a clear policy towards this new situation, and contrary what the White House seems to think, having the President give another lofty speech is not a policy. Qaddafi's days may be numbered and the Assad regime in Syria looks like it's on borrowed time too, but what comes after either one is anyone's guess. Prospects for a smooth transition and economic turnaround in Egypt look equally dim.
But the key point is that the outcomes of these processes won't be determined by us; the United States lacks the resources, respect, and moral authority to shape the political future in any of these countries. Given our track record in the region in recent years -- and I include Obama's dismal post-Cairo performance -- why should anyone listen seriously to our views?
About 13 months ago, I returned from a visit to Greece and said I was increasingly pessimistic about prospects for a successful turnaround there. Money quotation (emphasis added):
In order to stave off default, Greece needs to trim its budget drastically (which means throwing people out of work or reducing their incomes), while at the same time stimulating economic growth. The problem is that it's hard to do both at the same time, because cutting the budget (or collecting taxes more efficiently) reduces domestic demand and thus chokes off economic growth. And because Greece is part of the Eurozone, it can't stimulate export-led growth by the normal expedient of devaluing its currency. (The sinking Euro helps globally, but not within the Eurozone itself.) Greece's prospects for economic growth are further handicapped by conditions elsewhere in Europe: It will be hard for Greece to grow if the rest of Europe is stagnant. If the government's efforts at restructuring lead to widespread political unrest, then chances of robust growth are even slimmer. And once the financial markets begin to realize all this, bond spreads will increase again and we will be back in the same soup we were in a few weeks ago.
All of which leads me to conclude that Europe as a whole is going to be in difficult shape for quite some time, unless EU officials figure out a way to do a lot more than they have done so far. And a double-dip European recession could trigger a double-dip recession here in the United States, which would have profound economic and political consequences (e.g., goodbye to Barack's second term?)."
Back then, I was surprised that anybody thought differently (i.e., that anyone believed the initial bailout would work). It didn't, of course, and Greece, the bankers, and the EU are now back in the soup. As the New York Times reports (my emphasis):
"Analysts and Socialist Party insiders said that Mr. Papandreou seems likely to succeed in passing the austerity package, having secured more support within the party. But economists are nearly unanimous in predicting the loans will only buy time, but do nothing to pull the country out of its economic morass and potential default.
Or as Ken Rogoff, co-author of a terrific study of financial crises ("This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly), points out: "There is every possibility that at the end of this Greece is going to default anyway."
If that's true (and it sounds right to me) then Greece may have no alternative but to abandon the Euro and leave its creditors (and the Eurozone countries) to their fates. I'm no expert on these matters, but most of what I've read so far tells me that this would be very bad news for the European economy, and for us. But you can relax, because at least things are going well in Libya and Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Mideast and Japan and ...
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
Responding to E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan wants to know at what point the U.S. political system became "decadent," and he offers up a number of possibilities: the Weiner scandal (E.J. Dionne's nomination), the odd notion that Sarah Palin could be considered a serious candidate for any office above a local Parks and Recreation board, or congressional "assent to torture" in 2006.
I'm glad he (and Dionne) raised the issue, but trying to pinpoint a single moment or cause is probably futile. Corruption and decadence don't occur all at once; it's a progressive disease with no clear tipping point. Part of it lies in the rise of the conservative movement post-Goldwater, when wealthy conservatives began to bankroll think tanks and media organs that were more interested in waging political warfare than getting facts right. Part of it is a pop-media culture that lets an ignorant buffoon like Rush Limbaugh or a bizarre whack-job like Glenn Beck become influential voices in our national debate. Part of it is the culture of non-accountability that is pervasive in official Washington, where the frauds that helped produce the financial crisis of 2007 barely get investigated, or where a deputy secretary of defense can play a key role in causing the Iraq debacle and then get rewarded by being named president of the World Bank, screw that up too, and bail out to a safe sinecure at a D.C. think tank. As L'affaire Weiner demonstrates, in today's America you're more likely to derail your career by sending some lewd and idiotic tweets than by sending thousands of your fellow citizens to their deaths (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis) in an unnecessary war.
What else is to blame? A political order that creates enormous incumbency advantages through gerrymandering. An electoral system that depends on an ocean of campaign contributions, thereby empowering special interest groups with deep pockets and focused agendas. A presidential election cycle that lasts for more than one-fourth of a term, thereby forcing candidates to spend too much time running for election and too little time actually governing. A Senate that spends more time preventing the appointment of needed judges and other government officials than it does debating the wisdom of going to war. And I could go on.
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If you're relaxing on Memorial Day and reflecting on the sacrifices that some of our fellow citizens have made to advance the common good, I have three suggestions for things to read. All are drawn from the Sunday New York Times, and together they paint a worrisome portrait of the challenges we face as a nation.
The first article, appropriately, is a portrait of several soldiers from the 1st battalion, 87th infantry and the challenges they face as they return from Afghanistan. Several have been wounded, one has seen his marriage dissolve, all of them face an array of medical problems or personal obstacles, and none seem to have bright prospects once they return. Together, their stories remind us that most of the people who have been fighting these wars aren't members of a privileged elite; quite the contrary, in fact.
The second article, by Gretchen Morgenson, summarizes a recent paper by Joseph Gagnon and Marc Hinterschweiger of the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Here the subject isn't the human cost of war; it is the economic consequences of a decade or more of American profligacy. The basic story is that our society has lived well beyond its means, and we will face a rising mountain of public debt -- in the best case rising to more than 150 percent of GDP by 2035 -- unless we "design a long-term plan to reduce fiscal deficits in the future." Gagnon and Hinterschweiger believe there is still time to ward off this gloomy scenario, but only political leaders are willing to make hard choices about entitlements, tax rates, and other forms of government spending (including defense).
And the third article is Robert Reich's review of a new book on the financial crisis: Reckless Endangerment, also by Gretchen Morgenson (the same) and Joshua Rosner. The book (which I have downloaded this but not yet read) is a portrait of some of the key individuals who helped create the environment in which the mortgage crisis and financial meltdown occurred. Here's the paragraph (by Reich), that caught my eye:
The real problem, which the authors only hint at, is that Washington and the financial sector have become so tightly intertwined that public accountability has all but vanished. The revolving door described in "Reckless Endangerment" is but one symptom. The extraordinary wealth of America's financial class also elicits boundless cooperation from politicians who depend on it for campaign contributions and from a fawning business press, as well as a stream of honors from universities, prestigious charities and think tanks eager to reward their generosity. In this symbiotic world, conflicts of interest are easily hidden, appearances of conflicts taken for granted and abuses of public trust for personal gain readily dismissed."
Reich is quite familiar with this world, having famously been a "Friend of Bill (Clinton)" from the latter's Oxford days, as well as faculty member at Harvard and Secretary of Labor in Clinton's first term. As someone who has been lucky enough to teach at prestigious universities, I've some experience with these interconnected webs of influence myself, though hardly at the highest reaches, and Reich's summary here rings true to me.
Put the three pieces together, and it makes somber reading for Memorial Day. For they remind us that the people who have engineered our biggest failings in recent decades -- including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-have largely escaped any of the consequences. Similarly, most of the people whose mistakes led to the financial meltdown have retained their wealth, status, and political power. And as we spend the next couple of decades digging ourselves out from these various messes (assuming that our sclerotic political system actually manages to make do something effective), it's ordinary Americans who will pay the biggest price. As usual.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images
One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you'll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza,and Syria (!) spill across the ceasefire lines and the "most moral army in theworld" ends up shooting and killing several of them. Meanwhile, NATO officials call for escalating the war inLibya, the head of the IMF gets arrested on suspicion of rape in New York, andthere's lots of speculation about what Obama is going to say in his upcomingMiddle East speech (and what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his speech toCongress the day after). And then we learn that Obama is planning to address the annual AIPAC policy conferencenext weekend, a decision that strikes me as both beneath the dignity of the Presidency and a classic "no-win" situation to boot. (If he panders he'll just confirm what everybody now suspects about America's paralyzed Middle East policy; if he tells them the truth, he'll face a firestorm of criticism here at home. Why not just send Biden?)
I know this isn't about me, but if this is what happens whenI go away for a weekend, maybe I should just stay home. So let me play catch-up on some of the news.
The word that comes to mind is "trapped." George Mitchell was trapped in a dead-endjob as special envoy, because his job was to shepherd negotiations and therewere no negotiations taking place. Someof you may recall that I thought Mitchell should have resigned eighteen months ago, onceit became clear that Obama wasn't willing to take on Netanyahu or the Israellobby. Had he resigned then, it mighthave been of some modest value as a wake-up call. His resignation last Friday was more of awhimper than a bang.
But Mitchell wasn't the only one who's trapped. So are Arab dictators like Muammar Qadhafi in Libyaand Bashar Assad in Syria, even if they manage to cling to power temporarily throughthe use of brutal force. They aretrapped because demands for greater openness and justice aren't going to end,and their responses over the past few months now guarantee that there can be nosoft landing or safe exit strategy for them. If they fall, they will fall completely, andprobably lose their lives in the bargain. So they are trapped in the dead-end spiral of repression and stagnation,while the rest of the world advances.
The Palestinians are still trapped of course; they remain theworld's largest stateless populations and are simultaneously victims ofIsrael's expulsion in 1947-48 and again in 1967, decades of Arab neglect andexploitation, Israel's long occupation/control of the West Bank and Gaza, and prolongedWestern indifference. Their only silver lining is the growing realization that terrorist violence is not their best route to statehood, but diplomacy, publicity, and non-violent civil protest might be.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trapped too: by hisideological devotion to the dream of "Greater Israel," by the even more hawkishstance of the settlers and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and by theuncertainties created by the recent upheavals in the Arab world. He can't do the right thing and move swiftlytowards the creation of a viable Palestinian state--even if he wanted to, whichis highly unlikely--though this step would end the demographic threat toIsrael's democratic and Jewish character andremove the main reason why people around the world are increasinglycritical of Israel's conduct. Instead, by clinging to the policies of the past,the IDF ends up having to crack down on demonstrators on the West Bank andalong the borders, which means they start to resemble the thugs that areputting down pro-democracy movements in Syria and Bahrain. (No, I'm not saying the situations are identical, but appearances do matter).
And Barack Obama is surely trapped too. I think he's understood what needed to bedone in the Middle East since before he became president; he just didn't recognizethat it would be a lot harder to do than he thought. He knew that achieving a viable two-statesolution was the most obvious way to remove the primary source of Arab andMuslim anger at the United States, as well as the best way to safeguardIsrael's long-term future. As he said inCairo back in June 2009, a two-state solution was "in America's interest, thePalestinians' interest, Israel's interest," and the world's interest." And if he could pull that off, then theUnited States could stop devoting so much time on the squabbles in the MiddleEast and start shifting more of its strategic attention to the far more seriousissue of China's rise in Asia. But Obamadidn't fully recognize the power of the Israel lobby, which made it impossiblefor him to deliver on his early commitments. And as long as that is the case, Obama (or his successors) will remaintrapped in policies that aren't good for America, Israel, or any of our otherfriends in the region.
A realistic foreign policy seeks to deal with the world as it is, shorn of political illusions. Realists emphasize that even close allies often have conflicting interests, that cooperation between states is difficult to achieve or sustain, and that the conduct of nations is frequently shaped by some combination of fear, greed and stupidity.
Above all, realists warn against basing policy on wishful thinking: on the assumption that all will go as we want it to. Yet the pages of history are littered with episodes where leaders made decision on the basis of false hopes, idealistic delusions, or blind faith. And I regret to say that there's no shortage of this sort of wishful thinking today. As evidence, I offer here my "Top Ten Examples of Wishful Thinking in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy."
No. 1: China Won't Act Like a Great Power
Although most foreign policy gurus recognize that China's rising power will have profound effects on world politics, some still assume that a more powerful China will somehow act differently than other great powers have in the past. In particular, they maintain that China will cheerfully accept the institutional arrangements that were "made-in-America" after World War II. They also believe that Beijing will be content to let the United States maintain its current security posture in East Asia, and will not seek to undermine it over time. Maybe so, that's not how great powers have acted in the past, and it's certainly not how the United States behaved in its own rise to world power (remember the Monroe Doctrine?). This illusion is gradually being dispelled, I think, but one hears its echoes every time some official says that the United States "welcomes" China's rise.
Read the full article, "Wishful Thinking," here.
Also, I hope readers will send in their suggestions for other examples of "wishful thinking." Perhaps I'll devote a future post to the other side of the equation -- "worst-casing" -- which can be just as serious an error as excessive optimism.
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The United States started out as thirteen small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original thirteen states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions.
Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don't regard our country as a "warrior nation" or "garrison state." Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that "a just war is far better for a man's soul than the most prosperous peace"), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.
In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama in part because they thought he would be different than his predecessor on a host of issues, but especially in his approach to the use of armed force. It was clear to nearly everyone that George W. Bush had launched a foolish and unnecessary war in Iraq, and then compounded the error by mismanaging it (and the war in Afghanistan too). So Americans chose a candidate who had opposed Bush's war in Iraq and bring U.S. commitments back in line with our resources. Above all, Americans thought Barack Obama would be a lot more thoughtful about where and how to use force, and that he understood the limits of this crudest of policy tools. The Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have thought so too, when they awarded him the Peace Prize not for anything he had done, but for what they hoped he might do henceforth.
Yet a mere two years later, we find ourselves back in the fray once again. Since taking office, Barack Obama has escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and launched a new war against Libya. As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun. At first we hoped that most of the guns would be in the hands of the Europeans, or the hands of the rebel forces arrayed against Qaddafi, but it's increasingly clear that U.S. military forces, CIA operatives and foreign weapons supplies are going to be necessary to finish the job.
Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. There is no question that Qaddafi is a tyrant with few (if any) redemptive qualities, but the threat of a bloodbath that would "stain the conscience of the world" (as Obama put it) was slight.
It remains to be seen whether this latest lurch into war will pay off or not, and whether the United States and its allies will have saved lives or squandered them. But the real question we should be asking is: Why does this keep happening? Why do such different presidents keep doing such similar things? How can an electorate that seemed sick of war in 2008 watch passively while one war escalates in 2009 and another one gets launched in 2011? How can two political parties that are locked in a nasty partisan fight over every nickel in the government budget sit blithely by and watch a president start running up a $100 million/day tab in this latest adventure? What is going on here?
To read the full article, click here.
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Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya -- and let's not kid ourselves, that's what they are trying to do -- did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?
I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) "has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945." Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to "significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and finds that when interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.
The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of "foreign imposed regime change" going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account "selection effects" (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post:
Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much
The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on
this issue but could not muster the sangfroid
to call the Europeans' bluff. France and Britain were out front early on
military intervention, yet the United States did not seize the opportunity to state the
obvious, namely, that the Europeans could handle this one. The European
Security Strategy is focused squarely on conflict management, "human security," and the defense
of human rights. The European Union maintains a "Mediterannean
partnership" with North African countries and a "neighborhood policy" that concerns stability and security on its southern and eastern flanks.
A humanitarian crisis in Libya fits perfectly into European security concerns.
President Sarkozy of France was especially eager to show what Europeans could do. He went out front and recognized a motley group of rebels as the legitimate government of Libya without consulting allies in either NATO or the European Union. A recent article in Le Figaro gives a terrific account of Bernard Henry Lévy's involvement in the affair. Levy is a public intellectual and another vain French rooster strutting around looking for glory. Ever the opportunist, Levy found the rebels in Benghazi and hooked them up with Sarkozy, who pounced on the chance to be their champion to the rest of the world.
The French and British recently joined together at Lancaster House to loudly proclaim European security cooperation in the joint use of aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and nuclear weapons. These two countries have the largest defense budgets and the most advanced military capabilities in Europe and can field forces that can pummel any African army, including Libya's, into submission.
Given that the United States has no vital interests of any kind to protect in
Libya, the situation was tailor-made for Europeans to take the initiative and
handle this one without us. Yet the President could not leave well enough
alone. He was somehow shamed into showing American "leadership."
The story of how the Europeans managed to bait Obama into joining the
"coalition" and supplying the vast bulk of military capabilities will be a fascinating
one to unravel.
In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs?
Mark Sheetz is a fellow in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.
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Explanatory Note: A couple of weeks ago, I read a news story about how museums around the country were competing to exhibit the retired space shuttle Discovery, after its long and supposedly distinguished career. That's not surprising, of course, as having a shuttle on display would undoubtedly be a big draw for a lot of museums. What troubled me was the suspicion that future museum exhibits would depict the whole shuttle program in laudatory terms, instead of treating it as an foolish diversion of national resources. Space policy isn't really my thing, however, and I said to myself: "You know, you'd need a rocket scientist to write this properly!" Fortunately, I have one available: my father. He's a geophysicist who spent much of his career designing satellite packages and interpreting the data they produced, so I asked him if he'd be willing to contribute a guest post on the topic. Here's what he sent in. -- S.M.W.
By Martin Walt IV
Recent news columns have commemorated the retirement of the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery. It is indeed noteworthy that this vehicle experienced some 39 launches and traveled 150 million miles in near-Earth space. This achievement was made possible by the imaginative engineers and scientists who conceived the Shuttle program and developed the necessary technical innovations. Recognition must also be given to the dauntless flight crews -- both military personnel and civilians -- whose courage and dedication were outstanding, especially those astronauts who volunteered to fly after two orbiters were lost in accidents that revealed serious weaknesses in the hardware and in NASA's managerial culture.
NASA via Getty Images
The scope of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heart-rending, and readers who are in a position to help should donate generously to the charity of their choice. (See here for a list of worthy options).
The immediate consequences of the disaster are real enough, but today's New York Times also identifies what could be an even more significant long-term effect of this event: the curtailing of plans to address global warming through sharply increased reliance on nuclear power.
The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and "green" energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries -- including the United States -- would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It's not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.
The destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely. At a minimum, it will make it much harder to get approval for new power plants -- which already face classic NIMBY objections -- which will drive up the cost and make a significant expansion of the nuclear industry politically infeasible in many countries, especially the United States.
This reaction doesn't make a lot of sense because the costs and risks of nuclear energy need to be rigorously compared against the costs and risks of other energy sources and the long-term costs and risks of global warming itself. But that's not the way that the human mind and the democratic process often work. We tend to worry more about rare but vivid events -- like an accident at a nuclear plant -- and we downplay even greater risks that seem like they are part of the normal course of daily life. Thus, people worry more about terrorist attacks than they do about highway accidents or falling in a bathtub, even though they are far more likely to be hurt by the latter than the former.
So, in addition to the thousands of lives lost, the billions of dollars of property damage, and the knock-on economic consequences of the Japanese disaster, we need to add the likely prospect of more damage from climate change down the road. It's possible that clearer heads will prevail and guide either more stringent conservation measures or the sensible expansion of nuclear power (along with other energy alternatives), but I wouldn't bet on it.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.