I've been in France for the past three days, attending a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." I plan on blogging about that event later this week, but first a few comments about the surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani as the next president of Iran.
I suspect that almost everyone will interpret his election as a vindication of whatever position they held before any votes were cast. Hard-liners who have pushed for ever-tighter sanctions and threats of war will claim that the election is a sign that ordinary Iranians are saying uncle and want the government to do whatever is necessary to end Iran's isolation and encourage economic recovery. So naturally the hawks will call for more of the same. Alternatively, those who have called for engaging Iran and who have defended the legitimacy of the Iranian republic will see this surprising result as evidence that there is real democracy there, however truncated or constrained. And they will of course see this as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Perhaps the only person who will be seriously disappointed by the outcome is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bound to miss the less-than-competent and reliably cartoonish figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's irresponsible and offensive comments about Israel and the Holocaust made it easy to demonize the entire country and helped keep the idea of preventive war on the front burner. Rowhani is hardly a softie on the nuclear question or on regional security issues, but he's likely to be much harder to portray as a bloodthirsty Persian version of Hitler.
Rowhani's election also presents the kind of political opening that Barack Obama's administration hoped would emerge from the last Iranian presidential election, way back in 2009. Having extended a (very) tentative hand of friendship when he first took office, Obama was undoubtedly crossing his fingers for Ahmadinejad to lose and be replaced by a more moderate figure. The hope was that a more moderate president in Tehran would respond positively to Obama's overtures and that Ahmadinejad's departure would reduce domestic opposition to a less confrontational approach to Tehran. Instead, we got the contested election of 2009 and a harsh government crackdown against the Green Movement, developments that made it harder for both the United States and Iran to pursue an alternative course.
Although Rowhani's election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal.
Given the calcified layers of mistrust between these Iran and the United States -- dating back for decades now -- achieving a deal on the nuclear question and a broader improvement of relations will require both patience and political courage by both sides. Iran is not -- repeat not -- going to give up possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle, so the United States will have to accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power. Iran will have to accept strict limits on its program and will have to find ways to reassure its neighbors and the United States about its nuclear and regional ambitions.
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
And then there's the supreme leader, whose views and preferences remain something of a mystery. But not a complete mystery, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said he would judge the Obama administration not by its words but by its deeds. This is a perfectly sensible position, of course, and it is also how the United States ought to judge Iran. But that means that if U.S. policy doesn't change, and if it keeps making the same demands and employing the same tools (i.e., sanctions), we can be confident that nothing will change. And Obama's decision last week to send small arms to the rebels in Syria is hardly a step likely to make Iran feel better about Washington's regional objectives.
I could be wrong about all this, of course, but so far no one has ever lost money betting on Iran and America's seemingly infinite capacity to misread the other and thereby maintain their mostly irrational and counterproductive enmity. As is so often the case these days, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
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Wednesday night's presidential debate is about domestic policy, but that doesn't mean the candidates can't be asked questions that use foreign policy to raise an important point about domestic issues. Pivoting off this recent column by the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson, here's the question I'd like moderator Jim Lehrer to ask President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday.
"Since 9/11 the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars protecting Americans from "global terrorism." Yet the number of U.S. citizens killed by terrorists is very low. Since 9/11, in fact, the United States has lost on average fewer than 32 citizens per year to terrorist violence. Even if you include the 2,689 lives lost on 9/11, the annual average over the past 11 years is less than 275. And 9/11 was clearly an anomaly.
By contrast, every year more than 30,000 Americans are killed by guns here in the United States, a rate higher than any other advanced industrial country. Given that extraordinary death toll, why have both of you failed to speak out about the need for more effective gun control, even after several recent mass killings? As president, what will each of you do to decrease the danger Americans face from domestic gun violence, which is far greater than the risk they face from global terrorism?"
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A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
The esteemed CEO here at FP Inc., David Rothkopf, thinks Benjamin Netanyahu has finally killed off the Israel lobby. This step was probably unnecessary, however, because Rothkopf also thinks the lobby never existed or if it did, had very little influence.
Rothkopf is surely right in saying that Netanyahu has overplayed his hand in recent months. He is also correct to remind readers that AIPAC and the other key organizations in the lobby do not get everything they want. (No serious person ever said it did, of course.) His attempt to slay the supposed "myth" of the Israel lobby is unconvincing, however, as it rests mostly on misrepresenting what others have said and ignores the overwhelming evidence that groups like AIPAC, some other organizations, and a few individuals are in fact an important force in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. But his article deserves to be read carefully anyway, because it provides a primer on how Israel's defenders are now trying to hide the elephant in the room.
Step 1: Always portray discussions of the lobby's influence in the most extreme and easily ridiculed form. The first ploy is to suggest that people who write about the lobby think it is "all-powerful," that it "controls" U.S. foreign policy, or that it is responsible for every single problem in the Middle East. Use phrases like "Super K-streeters" to lampoon the idea that there is in fact a well-organized interest group trying to reinforce the "special relationship" on a daily basis. Or use words like "conspiracy" or "cabal" to hint that anyone who talks about the lobby is really just channeling discredited and venal anti-Jewish stereotypes.
A variation on this tactic is to suggest that such writers also see the lobby as a single monolithic organization, or that they believe "all Jews think alike." Pay no attention to the fact that serious scholars and journalists who do write about the lobby's influence have rejected all of these views; in fact, they've said the exact opposite. In short, start by erecting a straw man and then attack it.
Step 2: State or imply that anyone who writes critically about the Israel lobby is an anti-semite or a self-hating Jew. This is of course an old stratagem designed to silence anyone who thinks about raising the subject. It's not as effective as it used to be, because it was been used so widely and so inappropriately in the past, but it's still a key part of the playbook. As Rothkopf writes in this most recent piece, the Israel lobby "is just a boogie-man cooked up to serve the nasty agenda of people all too eager to sacrifice the truth on the altar of their prejudices." There's really nothing to see here, folks, and if you think you do see something, you must be a bigot.
Step 3. Studiously ignore all of the politicians and commentators who have openly testified to the lobby's influence. Such as the following well-known Israel-haters:
Bill Clinton: AIPAC is "stunningly effective. . . better than anyone at lobbying in this town."
Jeffrey Goldberg: AIPAC is a "leviathan among lobbies."
Rep. Lee Hamilton: "There's no lobby group that matches it . . . they're in a class by themselves."
Sen. Harry Reid: "I can't think of a policy organization in the country as well-organized and respected as AIPAC."
Rep. Newt Gingrich: "AIPAC is the most effective general interest group . . . . across the entire planet."
Sen. Barry Goldwater: "I was never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby. . .It's the most influential crowd in Congress and America by far."
Sen. Fritz Hollings: "You can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here [on Capitol Hill]."
Alan Dershowitz: "My generation of Jews . . .became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy."
Aaron David Miller: "Today you cannot be successful in American politics and not be good on Israel. And AIPAC plays a key role in making that happen."
Step 4: Focus attention on those occasional moments when Israel and the lobby don't get their way, and ignore all the other times that they do. Rothkopf's main piece of evidence that the lobby is a minor force is Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to get the United States to commit itself to a preventive war on Israel's behalf. That is one hell of an ask, of course, and sometimes when you demand the moon you don't get it. As Matt Duss tweeted yesterday, by this logic, the cancellation of the F-22 proves that there's no defense lobby either.
Netanyahu may not get his war with Iran, but he and his predecessors still get a lot of other things that no other country receives: $3 to 4 billion in aid each year for country that now ranks 27th in the world in per capita income, reliable diplomatic protection (including an endless stream of U.N. security council vetoes that place us at odds with our other democratic allies), plus a parade of prominent politicians delivering pandering speeches at the annual AIPAC policy conference and the opportunity to address joint sessions of Congress more often than any other world leaders. But wait, there's more! You also get the United States turning a blind eye toward Israel's nuclear program, and U.S. officials offering only the mildest of complaints when Israel builds another settlement, bombs Gaza, or kills an American peace activist. Does anyone seriously believe that the political clout of AIPAC and other "pro-Israel" organizations (including a few Christian Zionist groups) has nothing to do with all this?
I agree with Rothkopf that Netanyahu overplayed his hand badly, and that this incident does reveal both the limits of the lobby's power and (perhaps) some diminution of its influence overall. The declining influence may also be due to the fact that it is becoming harder to justify the special relationship after forty-plus years of occupation, and when Israel's own political order is moving in worrisome directions. It is also harder to defend that relationship when the costs to the United States -- in terms of rising anti-Americanism and declining influence in the region -- are more apparent. The special relationship isn't the only reason for those trends, but it is surely one of them, as former U.S. CENTCOM commanders have repeatedly said.
But there's another factor at work, which is not incompatible with this view, and that is the fact we are now getting a much more open discussion of these issues. Why? Because those of us who have been done serious research on the Israel lobby have presented an accurate and nuanced view of the lobby's influence and its limits and the negative impact of that influence on the United States and Israel. All someone has to do is read these works to see that they were not the bigoted screeds that Rothkopf and other critics described. And once people showed what was going on, others could see it and start to talk about it too. Netanyahu's humiliating smackdown of Obama over the settlement question and the two-state solution made this even more apparent to anyone with eyes, as Peter Beinart has documented quite convincingly, and his more recent antics over Iran just drove the point home.
Facts are stubborn things, and no amount of dust-kicking and hand-waving can prevent more and more people -- including Jews like Peter Beinart and M.J. Rosenberg and philo-semites like Andrew Sullivan and me -- from pointing them out. If AIPAC and its allies are in fact beginning to lose some of their clout, the recent emergence of a somewhat more open discourse on this question is at least partially responsible.
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Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state? A puff-piece in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago referred to her as a "rock star diplomat," and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her "the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson." (Hmm. . . has Mr. Schmidt ever heard of some guys named Dulles, Kissinger, and Baker?). I'm neither a fan nor a foe of Ms. Clinton, but one can't really call her a great secretary at this point, through no fault of her own.
First the positives. There's no question that Clinton has been terrifically energetic, as well as a loyal team player. In this sense, Obama's decision to appoint her has worked out brilliantly, due in no small part to her willingness to serve the man who defeated her for the 2008 nomination, and in a broader sense, to serve her country. She's also proved to be relatively gaffe-free (there have been a few slips, but that's inevitable for anyone who's in the limelight 24/7 and who has to respond and react to rapidly evolving events). Insiders with whom I've spoken say she is an excellent boss who elicits considerable loyalty from those around her. And as the Times piece notes, she's helped restore the somewhat battered morale of the foreign service, and used her celebrity to raise public awareness on a number of signature issues. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and I'd argue her record puts her well ahead of predecessors such as Warren Christopher, William Rogers, Christian Herter, Madeleine Albright, Dean Rusk, Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell. (For a balanced but positive appraisal of Clinton's record, see FP editor Susan Glasser's profile here).
The problem, however, is that she's hardly racked up any major achievements. The Chen Guangcheng affair was a nice bit of on-the-fly crisis management, but the fate of a single Chinese dissident is not exactly the stuff of high politics and in the end won't have much impact on Sino-American relations either way. She played little role in extricating us from Iraq, and it is hard to see her fingerprints on the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. She has done her best to smooth the troubled relationship with Pakistan, but anti-Americanism remains endemic in that country and it hardly looks like a success story at this point. Yes, her belated quasi-apology eventually got the NATO supply trucks rolling again, but it took months to get this matter resolved and the relationship itself remains deeply fractured. She certainly helped get tougher sanctions on Iran, but the danger of war still looms and there's been no breakthrough there either.
Needless to say, she has done nothing to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace or even to halt Israel's increasingly naked land grab there (for which she can share blame with the rest of the administration, AIPAC, the U.S. Congress, and the Netanyahu government). Finally, although she's helped articulate the need for the "pivot" to Asia and has done some effective salesmanship on that topic both at home and in the region, this move was both a geopolitical no-brainer and still faces significant obstacles. Among other things, the recent debacle over the aborted strategic cooperation agreement between South Korea and Japan (which led to the resignation of one of Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's top aides) is a setback for both Lee and for Clinton's efforts to build a stronger coalition in Asia.
The lack of major accomplishments isn't really her fault, however, for several reasons. First, as I noted way back when Obama became president, there just weren't a lot of low-hanging fruit available when the new team took office in 2009. On the contrary, they faced a series of difficult-to-intractable problems, several of which (Iraq, Afghanistan) were likely to end up looking like failures no matter what they did. Even if Clinton had been a magical combination of Bismarck, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Zhou en Lai, she'd have had trouble devising a strategy that could have solved all these problems quickly and without costs.
Second, Clinton isn't a great secretary of state because that is not the role that she's been asked to play in this administration. Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker had extremely close working relationship with the presidents that they served, and each enjoyed far more authority over foreign policy than Clinton has been given by the Obama White House. Obama's initial reliance on a set of "special envoys" diluted Clinton's clout even more, even when some of them (such as the late Richard Holbrooke) were personally close to the secretary.
Add to this the fact that the Pentagon and intelligence community now controls vastly greater resources than the State Department does, and has for more impact on our relations with trouble spots like Central Asia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, etc.. Given that raw bureaucratic reality, it's not surprising that Clinton cannot point to any major achievements on her watch. Indeed, a good case can be made that American foreign policy is still operating ass-backwards: Instead of seeing military power as one of the tools we use to advance a broad political agenda, today military imperatives tend to dominate and the diplomats just get sent out to line up some compliant partners and to clean things up afterward (see under: Drone wars).
Which is not to say that Clinton has performed badly. On the contrary, I'd give her high marks for executing the job she was asked to perform, especially given the constraints (both organizational and geopolitical) in which she had to operate. So maybe the "rock star" label is right after all. Rock stars get a lot of attention and sometimes adulation, and sometimes they even deserve it. But not even Elvis had much lasting impact on international politics.
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I'm back from Japan after a very enjoyable trip, and catching up on developments elsewhere. A few quick comments on recent events elsewhere.
On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for a more forceful international response, but the case for military intervention remains weak. Not because anybody condones the Assad regime's behavior, but simply because outside intervention could easily make things worse. Regrettably, not every foreign policy challenge has a ready solution, and sometimes "standing there" is still better than "doing something."
Russia continues to be Assad's primary protector, and it will be interesting to see if Obama and Putin can make any progress toward agreement during their meeting at the G20 summit. As I've written previously, Russia is the key to a political settlement, but only if a way can be found to preserve Russian interests and give them lots of credit for helping resolve the crisis. Russia's amoral stance has elicited a lot of condemnation thus far, but we shouldn't be surprised or overly outraged by what Moscow is doing. Syria is Russia's only remaining Middle East client and Russia is simply trying to protect its own position there. More broadly, Russia has long sought to prevent the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States and its allies -- i.e., one where Washington gets to decide who governs in key regions -- and backing Assad is one way for Russia to remind everyone that Washington isn't all-powerful. I suspect Putin isn't happy about what Assad is doing, just as the Obama administration wasn't happy about the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain. But when strategic interests are involved, moral niceties tend to be overlooked.
On Egypt: I'm not that surprised that Egypt's military leaders are trying to reverse the revolution/reform movement that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. Step 1 was getting Egyptian courts to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature; step 2 was the announcement that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would supervise the drafting of a new constitution. There are reports that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi has won the presidential election; if so, you can count on the SCAF to write a constitution that diminishes the president's powers. But I will be surprised if this effort to roll back the clock succeeds, because the SCAF has no solution for Egypt's debilitating economic and political stagnation and younger Egyptians aren't going to acquiesce in this reversal for long. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog, once free and fair elections become the norm, it becomes increasingly difficult for unelected military rulers to retain the same level of influence. If we take a longer view, the Egyptian revolution is likely to continue.
Speaking of which, I wonder how American neoconservatives will react to SCAF's efforts to reverse or retard Egypt's move toward democracy? Neocons have long portrayed themselves as vigorous proponents of liberty and democracy, and they are usually quick to demand forceful U.S. action against any non-democratic regimes they don't like. So presumably they will now call for the United States to use cut off all aid to Egypt until the Egyptian generals allow full democracy to re-emerge. But don't hold your breath.
On Iran: Negotiations resume tomorrow between Iran and the P5+1. We may see some progress, but I don't expect a breakthrough. The key questions are: 1) are the P5+1 are willing to concede Iran's right to enrich uranium at low levels and under strict safeguards? and 2) will the United States continue to demand that Iran dismantle its underground enrichment plant at Fordow? These two demands are deal-breakers: Iran has made it clear for years that it won't give up the right to enrich, and insisting that they dismantle Fordow is asking them to leave their program vulnerable so that we (or the Israelis) can attack it whenever we want.
Think about this for a second. What sensible government would ever agree to something like that? Imagine how the United States would have reacted if the Soviet Union had demanded that we leave our ICBMs above ground and completely exposed to a surprise attack, and had further demanded that we give them the locations of all our ballistic missile submarines, so that the USSR could attack them too if they ever felt they needed to. We would have rejected such a silly request in a nanosecond. Demanding that Iran dismantle Fordow is similar; would any government spend a lot of money hardening its enrichment capability only to give it up, especially when the United States and others have already done various things to try to damage or destroy their other nuclear facilities? If the P5+1 aren't willing to compromise on those two issues, it shows we're not serious about a genuine diplomatic deal.
The Obama administration is caught between two fires: They understand that military action is foolish and counterproductive (i.e., such action will just convince Iran to redouble its efforts to gain an effective deterrent), but they also understand that a realistic compromise would expose Obama to (bogus) charges of appeasement from Israel and from hardliners in the Israel lobby. That's not an appealing prospect in an election year, especially when the election promises to be close. So they can't go to war, but they can't make a deal either, at least not between now and November. And that means that the real issue is whether the various parties can find enough common ground to keep the negotiations limping along until then.
Are you tired of the 2012 presidential election? Bored by the endless series of gossipy articles and blogs dissecting every bump and turn in the road to the White House? Me too. I know that a professional political scientist is supposed to find this sort of thing fascinating, but by the time November rolls around, I'm more likely to be in the "just shoot me" phase.
The problem, of course, is that the United States has the unappealing combination of a relatively short presidential term and an unusually long election process. We elect the president every four years (unlike France, where the term used to be seven and is now five), and we now devote a year to the primary process. It's actually more like two years, if you count the exploratory phase of campaigning and fundraising. So in a sense the U.S. spends at least a quarter of each presidential term actively discussing and debating who the next president will be. (It's even worse for members of the House of Representatives, who have to start running for re-election even before they've unpacked their offices).
Other countries are not nearly so foolish. Parliamentary systems like Great Britain specify that general elections have to be held on regular intervals (i.e., every five years or so) though snap elections aren't unusual. But I can't think of any country that spends a year or more actually running the campaign. In Canada, for example, the Elections Act mandates that the minimum length of a campaign be 36 days, and the longest campaign ever recorded (in 1926), was only seventy-four days. In Australia, elections generally last about two months. Apart from the United States, the longest election period I could find in a brief search was Germany, at about 114 days for unscheduled elections. Needless to say, this period is still far shorter than the U.S. norm.
Our stupefyingly long election process is good for political journalists, I guess, and one could argue that it helps us weed out candidates who are obviously unqualified (not a proposition I'd be eager to defend, by the way). But overall, it seems to me that the combination of a short presidential term and a long electoral campaign creates all sorts of potential difficulties, including a number of foreign policy problems. To wit:
First, it is invariably a distraction, with oodles of ink and media time being consumed by mostly trivial discussions of who's up, who's down, who's just made a gaffe, etc., instead of having a serious discussion of real policy issues. (And if you've been watched any of the GOP debates, you'll have noticed that "serious discussion" wasn't in abundance in those events).
Second, the campaign invariably consumes a lot of the incumbent president's time, which is probably the single scarcest commodity in politics. President Obama and his inner circle already have too much to do, but he'll spend a good chunk of the next eight months raising money and giving speeches that are less about fixing the nation's problems than about trying to get re-elected. I don't blame him for that; I just wish he only had to it for a few weeks. And of course some issues (e.g., trade policy) have to go on the back burner during an election year, for all the obvious reasons.
Third, the longer the election campaign is, the more it costs to run and greater the influence moneyed interests will have. And that means both incumbents and rivals will have to pander to special interest groups, including groups with foreign policy agendas. That's normal in a democracy, but surely it would be better if politicians didn't have to do this for a full year. Among other things, pandering to special interest groups encourages politicians to say lots of silly things about different issues, in effect polluting public discourse in ways that can have lasting effects.
Fourth, a long electoral cycle also lengthens the period in which foreign actors can try to use our internal preoccupations to advance their own ends. In some cases (e.g., Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent visit), the election campaign provides foreign governments with an opportunity to press the president to shift his policies in the way some foreign leader might want. In other cases, foreign adversaries may conclude they can take advantage of a distracted America to shift the status quo in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, knowing that the last thing an incumbent president really wants is a major crisis on the eve of an election. This doesn't happen all that often, perhaps, but the longer the election campaign is underway, the greater the chance for outside forces to try to exploit it.
Finally, when you consider that a new administration has to make some three thousand appointments (some of them requiring Senate confirmation), and that this transition process itself takes months if not years, then the actual period when the United States can conduct a fully-staffed, energetic and more-or-less coherent foreign policy is no more than a year or two in each administration. One could even argue that this has larger systemic consequences, because it means that the world's most powerful country spends at least as much time picking its leaders and getting their advisors appointed as it does allowing those leaders to actually govern. Among other things, this situation makes it harder to implement and sustain policies that might take a long time to bear fruit.
This system might have worked well in the 19th century, when the United States was largely isolated from the other great powers, but it's hardly an ideal position for the self-designated "leader of the free world." Sad to say, I don't have a ready remedy for this problem. If I had a magic wand, I'd have a national primary election day and I'd institute various measures to raise voter turnout and prevent both parties from being so easily captured by narrow extremists. But I don't have such a wand (you can all heave a sigh of relief) and I don't know how you could conjure up the necessary support for this kind of far-reaching change. The bottom line is that this self-inflicted wound will persist for the rest of my lifetime (and beyond) and the problems alluded to above are going to get worse instead of better over time.
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Today, permit me a digression into U.S. electoral politics. In the aftermath of Rick Santorum's victories in Alabama and Mississippi, it seems clear that Santorum's best hope for securing the nomination is to get Gingrich to drop out and endorse him. The basic logic, as Andrew Sullivan links to here, is that this step produces a Santorum victory in Illinois and drives a stake in the heart of Romney's chances.
Assuming that this notion is correct, then Santorum ought to do whatever it takes to get Gingrich to drop out and back him. Why not offer to make him the vice-presidential nominee? If Gingrich has any sense of political reality (a proposition I'm not prepared to defend), he must understand by now that he has no chance whatsoever of being the nominee himself. But VP is, as they say, a heartbeat away, and it's actually a job that is suited to Gingrich's peculiar talents (if not his ego). He wouldn't be in charge of anything (which is good) but he would get to make a lot of windy speeches and he'd be available as a sharp-tongued attack dog when needed. Think Spiro Agnew.
This strategy would put two Catholics on the ticket, but that doesn't seem any worse than putting a Mormon at the top. I deplore this sort of religious prejudice myself -- I don't see much difference between venerable, well-established religions and more recent inventions -- but I'm a realist and it's clear that some Americans still think this stuff matters.
A Santorum/Gingrich ticket would probably be a dud in the general election, but so would Santorum/Anybody. But remember, the most important goal in the primary season is to win the nomination. Then worry about what you can do in Round 2. So if Santorum is serious about wanting to be president, he should offer Gingrich whatever it takes. As a registered if not quite loyal Democrat, I hope he does.
Update: The original post was edited slightly in response to a reader's comment and advice from a trusted personal advisor.
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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.
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I will be flying to Seattle tomorrow to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, so blogging for the rest of the week will be light. I'm on a roundtable discussion of John Ikenberry's new book Liberal Leviathan, and plan to offer some friendly but provocative points about the book. I'm also running for the APSA Council, as part of a broad effort to democratize its governance structures, encourage more open elections, and support efforts to make academic political science more attentive to real-world policy issues.
But the really important shift this week is a structural change in my home life. As of tomorrow, I move from the multi-polar system in which I've lived for the past sixteen years to a tri-polar world. Translation: my wife and I are taking my eldest son off to college, with pride and high hopes and every nickel we can scrape together. I just hope that the gloom-and-doom accounts of U.S. higher education that I've been reading lately are overly pessimistic.
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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A couple of weeks ago, Americans were treated to a remarkably clear demonstration of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States. First, Barack Obama gave a speech on Middle East policy at the State Department, which tried to position America as a supporter of the Arab spring and reiterated his belief that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The next day, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rejected several of Obama's assertions and lectured him about what "Israel expects" from its great power patron. Then Obama felt it was smart politics to go to AIPAC and clarify his remarks. It was a pretty good speech, but Obama didn't offer any ideas for how his vision of Middle East peace might be realized and he certainly never suggested that -- horrors! -- the United States might use its considerable leverage to push both sides to an agreement. And then Netanyahu received a hero's welcome up on Capitol Hill, getting twenty-nine standing ovations for a defiant speech that made it clear that the only "two-state" solution he's willing to contemplate is one where the Palestinians live in disconnected Bantustans under near-total Israeli control.
Not surprisingly, this display of the lobby's influence made plenty of people uncomfortable, and some of them -- such as M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters offered up some personal tales of their own run-ins with Israel's hardline backers. In response to Rosenberg's sally (and the hoopla surrounding the Netanyahu visit), Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has fallen back on a familiar line of defense. After conceding that there is a lobby and that it does have a lot of influence, he argued that "the most important basis of American support for Israel is not the lobby but the public's overwhelming sympathy for Israel." In other words, AIPAC et al don't really matter that much, and all those standing ovations on Capitol Hill were really just a genuine reflection of public opinion. He also said that John Mearsheimer and I believe the lobby exerts "total control" over U.S. foreign policy, and that we claim groups in the lobby were solely responsible for the invasion of Iraq.
To deal with the last claim first, this straw-man depiction of our argument merely confirms once again that Chait has not in fact read our book. I don't find that surprising, because a careful reading of the book would reveal to him that we weren't anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, had made none of the claims he accuses us of, and had in fact amassed considerable evidence to support the far more nuanced arguments that we did advance. And then he'd have to ponder the fact that virtually everything The New Republic has ever published about us was bogus. So I can easily see why he prefers to repeat the same falsehoods and leave it at that.
But what of his more basic claim that the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel is really a reflection of "the public's overwhelming sympathy?" There are at least three big problems with this assertion.
First, even if it were true that the public had "overwhelming sympathy" for Israel, it does not immediately follow that United States policy would necessarily follow suit. U.S. officials frequently do things that a majority of Americans oppose, if they believe that doing so is in the U.S. interest. A majority of Americans oppose fighting on in Afghanistan, for example, yet the Obama administration chose to escalate that war instead. Similarly, numerous polls show that the American people favor the "public option" in health care, but that's not exactly the policy that health care reform produced. Public opinion is an important factor, of course, but what public officials decide to do almost always reflects a more complex weighting of political factors (including the intensity of public preferences, broader strategic considerations, the weight of organized interests, etc.)
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President Obama is reportedly angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to anticipate the upheavals in Tunisia or Egypt. His irritation is silly, because there's a well-founded social science literature (by Timur Kuran, Susanne Lohmann, and Marc Granovetter, among others) explaining why it is nearly impossible to predict the onset of a revolutionary upheaval. You can identify countries where the government is unpopular or illegitimate, and thus were a rebellion might occur, but that doesn't tell you if or when a popular uprising of the sort we have been watching will occur.
As I explained before, the reason is because an individual's willingness to rebel is essentially private information, and nobody is going to tell you what they really think in an authoritarian society. Furthermore, an individual's willingness to march openly against the regime depends on what he or she thinks others will do, and that cannot be ascertained in advance either. But when conditions are right and some triggering event occurs (which can be almost anything), then you can get a rapid and unexpected revolutionary cascade, as more and more people decide that it is safe to express their previously-concealed resentment and that doing so is likely to succeed.
Instead of being angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies, therefore, Obama should be reserving his ire for his foreign policy advisors, who have been screwing up U.S. Middle East policy for over two years now and who may be in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yet again. If the news reports I've seen are correct, the United States is now getting behind a political transition that will be orchestrated by the new Vice President Omar Suleiman, a close Mubarak associate. It's not even clear if the United States now thinks Mubarak has to step down. Instead, Secretary of State Clinton seems to be suggesting that we need to help VP Suleiman "defuse" the street demonstrations, which would remove most of the impetus for change.
An unnamed "senior U.S. official" has also suggested that the Obama administration is dead set against a substantial political role for the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the official reportedly suggested that what the United States wants is a purely "secular" government in Egypt (i.e., one with no Islamist influence) as if that's even possible in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
It's early days, of course, and as FP's Josh Rogin reports here, there is a potential legal nightmare trying to revise Egyptian law in ways that would permit a genuinely "free and fair" election. But I worry that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistake that the Bush administration made in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. After insisting that the elections be held, the United States simply refused to accept the results of the elections when we didn't like the winner (Hamas). Are we now going to keep our thumb discreetly on the scale in Egypt, to make sure that a post-Mubarak government continues to dance to Washington's tune? When will Washington learn that you cannot simultaneously proclaim your commitment to democracy and freedom and then insist on dictating who is allowed to win?
The other problem is that Suleiman doesn't have much (any?) credibility as a steward of democratic change. I suggested a couple of days ago that one way he could bolster his position would be to help push Mubarak out (and to make it clear that he is doing so), and to openly declare that he (Suleiman) will serve only as a caretaker and not run for office himself in the next election. I'm not at all sure that these measures would work, however, and the anti-government forces might well see him as no different than Mubarak himself. That certainly seems to be their reaction thus far. And if subsequent reforms are mostly cosmetic and individuals or groups associated with the old regime end up retaining power in a subsequent election, they are likely to have no more legitimacy than Mubarak has right now. And the U.S. image in the region, which is bad enough already, will take another big hit.
So the United States has two long-term challenges. The first is to make sure it is not once again perceived as working to quash a genuinely representative government in Egypt. The second is get ready to accept the results of that process, even if the people we might prefer don't win.
For more analysis along these lines, check out Asli Bani and Aziz Rana's article "The Fake Moderation of America's Moderate Mideast Allies," from Foreign Policy in Focus, here.
Egyptians have returned to the streets for what anti-government forces have dubbed a "day of departure." The early reports I've seen are heartening: the demonstrations are peaceful, more and more members of the elite appear to be embracing change, and key institutions like the army continue to behave with restraint and to enjoy respect from the crowds. If it holds up, this augurs well for a transition that avoids most of the worst-case scenarios.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on, trying to convince Hosni Mubarak to step down and to coordinate some sort of transitional process. I hope that is the case, because Egypt will need a credible caretaker government to orchestrate the revision of the constitution, conduct either new elections or the elections already scheduled for September, and to maintain order during this process.
I don't know what sort of transitional arrangements would work best, so I'm not going to prescribe any particular scenario or road-map. Instead, here are few items you might want to read, to get a sense of the different issues, possibilities, and pitfalls.
1. My colleage Tarek Masoud has an very interesting op-ed in today's New York Times, arguing that Mubarak needs to say long enough to orchestrate a transition that is consistent with the existing constitution. His point is that it makes sense to change the government via existing procedures, to emphasize the importance of rule of law. I'm not convinced this will work (i.e., the popular forces may not tolerate it), but his broader point about giving the transitional process as much legitimacy as possible seems right to me. But would the best be the enemy of the good?
2. For an alternative procedure, see the statement by a group of Egyptian activists that was translated and released by the Carnegie Endowment here. In their scenario, the Vice-President would oversee an independent process of revising the constitution and preparing for new elections, in consultation with independent jurists and constitutional experts. For additional commentary on the proposal, and the more general problem of constitutional reform, see Egypt expert Nathan Brown's posting here.
3. If you've been hearing those wild-eyed claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is a mortal threat to US interests and the nucleus of a future radical Islamic republic in Egypt, please read Helena Cobban's thoughtful discussion of the MB and its background. I should add that I think the lurid fears of some sort of radical jihadist takeover of Egypt are wildly off-the-mark, especially so long as the Egyptian army remains intact and respected (as it has so far). And as Masoud says in the op-ed discussed above, "democracy in Egypt, or any other part of the world, is not something we should fear."
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There's a part of me that would like to blog about something other than Egypt, but how can I? Events there are both too dramatic and of potentially great import, so I find it hard to wrench myself onto other topics. Apologies to any of you who'd like me to turn my attention elsewhere...
If history is any guide (and it is, albeit a rather fickle and ambiguous one), we are still in the early stages. The French revolution went through a series of distinct phases for more than a decade (accelerated, to be sure, by war), before Bonaparte's seizure of power. The Russian Revolution began with the March 1917 uprisings, followed by the Bolshevik coup in October and then a civil war. The Islamic republic of Iran did not leap full-blown from the brow of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but took several years to assume its basic form. Even the United States was a work-in-progress for years after victory in the revolutionary war. (Remember the Articles of Confederation, and the debate over the Constitution?).
In short, history cautions that we have no clear idea what form a post-Mubarak government in Egypt will take, and there's a lot of contingency at work here. I have my hunches and hopes, but nobody can be really confident about their forecasts at this stage. (Heck, at first I didn't think the upheaval in Tunisia would spread!) It will help a lot if the process of political contestation in Egypt avoids large-scale violence, because the onset of mass violence (whether by the regime and its supporters or by the anti-Mubarak groups), is going to fuel greater hatred and paranoia and tilt the process in more dangerous directions. For this reason, those who are urging a peaceful and orderly transition (including the Obama adminstration) are exactly right. And that's why the reports I'm seeing about rising violence (a summary of which can be found on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish) is worrisome.
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The toppling of the Tunisian regime led by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has led a lot of smart people -- including my FP colleague Marc Lynch -- to suggest that this might be the catalyst for a wave of democratization throughout the Arab world. The basic idea is that events in Tunisia will have a powerful demonstration effect (magnified by various forms of new media), leading other unhappy masses to rise up and challenge the stultifying dictatorships in places like Egypt or Syria. The obvious analogy (though not everyone makes it) is to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, or perhaps the various "color revolutions" that took place in places like Ukraine or Georgia.
Color me skeptical. In fact, the history of world revolution suggests that this sort of revolutionary cascade is quite rare, and even when some sort of revolutionary contagion does take place, it happens pretty slowly and is often accompanied by overt foreign invasion.
I'm sure you political junkies out there are busy chewing over last night's election results, and I admit I spent a bit too much time last night reading 538.com and monitoring what was happening in various races. I like a three-ring circus as much as anyone, and it's hard to take one's eyes off a train-wreck too.
Of course, the really critical race to watch was for the County Board of DeKalb County, Illinois. The race in District 6 pitted incumbent Republican Steve Walt against Democrat Bob Brown, but somehow this important contest escaped the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and hot-shot election analysts like Nate Silver. So I can't confirm that my namesake won, but surely the outcome of that race must mean something.
But I digress. Truth be told, I'm with all of those people -- such as FP colleague Dan Drezner -- who said this election is neither about foreign policy nor likely to affect foreign policy very much. A few points to keep in mind as you digest the final tallies.
First and foremost is America's parlous economic condition: if the economy doesn't improve, we'll be pinching pennies across the board and our international clout will decline accordingly. As other great powers have discovered to their sorrow, it is damn hard to run the world when you owe lots of people money and your debts keep piling up and you're stuck in costly wars. Is divided government means gridlock then this problem could get worse-- as Paul Krugman has warned -- but the midterm results didn't create it.
Second, does Obama have the will and/or skill to extricate us from the war in Afghanistan, and does he have to keep a lot of U.S. troops in Iraq to keep it from spiraling back into large-scale sectarian violence? If he can't get out of these costly quagmires, then his ability to make bold initiatives elsewhere will be limited.
Third, does he write off the Middle East peace process as a lost cause, does he try a "new" (?!) team, or does he finally bite the bullet and say what he thinks a final status agreement ought to look like? Does he commit himself to ramming a peace deal through, even at the risk of being a one-term president like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush? (It is no accident, by the way, that former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami once wrote that Carter and the elder Bush had done more to help the cause of peace than any other U.S. presidents, and incurred the wrath of the lobby in the process). And do any of the local leaders show a little daring and imagination, and actually do something that might make peace more likely?
Fourth, now's the time when initial appointees start jumping ship, and it will be interesting to see who follows former National Security Advisor James Jones out the door. Pay special attention to appointees from academia, because most universities don't allow faculty to be on leave for more than two years, and the clock is ticking. Given how little Obama has accomplished in foreign policy so far, a fresh team might be just what he needs.
Finally, do real or potential rivals make things easier by committing some blunders of their own (as China did by overplaying its recent dispute with Japan), or are other states able to take advantage of our current discomfiture in smart ways? If the former, so much the better for us; if the latter, look out.
Those are the sort of things that will determine how U.S. foreign policy gets conducted over the next two years, and not which party gets to wield the gavel in all those committee meetings in Congress.
UPDATE #1: Through the magic of Google, I can now report that Dekalb County defied national trends, and Democrat Bob Brown has defeated Steve Walt for the District 6 seat on the Dekalb Country board. I can only hope this result does not herald a national trend against people who are interested in politics and happen to be named Steve Walt.
UPDATE #2: The most depressing analysis of last night's events that I've seen thus far is from John Judis here (h/t Andrew Sullivan), and I am sorry to say that I also find it quite convincing. It dovetails with my point about our economic condition being the single most critical element shaping our foreign policy, and really does make me wonder about the future.
When my wife and I are asked what we do, we sometime joke that my job is to "think globally," while her job is to "act locally." Translation: in addition to working as a consultant to a number of foundations and think tanks, my wife (Rebecca Stone) is also a member of Brookline's "Town Meeting." A Town Meeting is a venerable New England institution; in our case, it is a 250-person body of elected representatives that debates and approves major town initiatives.
But sometimes our concerns overlap. A month or so ago, when the Park 51 controversy was stoking the growing fires of xenophobia and nativist prejudice, my response was to write a few blog posts about the issue. Big deal. But she decided to do something more concrete. Specifically, she drafted and sponsored a "warrant article" to be considered and voted upon at the next Town Meeting. Her proposal would amend the town's by-laws and give permanent legal residents ("green card holders") the right to vote in local (i.e., town-wide) elections.
You can read all about it here.
Notice that this proposal is not about giving the right to vote to undocumented aliens, tourists, or temporary visa holders. Nor would it permit green card holders to vote in state-wide or national elections or to run for office. Rather, it is about a single town giving people who are permanent legal residents (the vast majority of whom are taxpayers, including property taxes), the opportunity to participate in local elections only. Most permanent legal residents eventually become naturalized citizens after the requisite waiting period, and permitting them to vote in local elections is also a way to encourage greater civic participation.
Equally important, it is a way to signal that America remains a country that welcomes people from overseas. It reminds us that we are a country whose very existence, past achievements, and future prospects rest on attracting and integrating future citizens from all over the world. Money quotation:
"A number of legal immigrants pay property taxes and send their children to public schools in Brookline, Stone said, and she believes allowing them to vote in local elections is a way to honor their commitment to the community.
"It may sound schmaltzy, but that's why I did it,'' said Stone, who is also an elected Town Meeting member. "I just got tired of complaining about what everybody else was saying. I figured it's a small thing to do. It's a small gesture. But it's a step in the right direction.''
There are also ample historical precedents for this arrangement. The Constitution is silent on this issue, but the Federal government has long given states and local communities the right to determine suffrage over state and local elections, and over forty different states permitted various forms of local non-citizen voting between 1776 and 1926. Both New York and Chicago have allowed permanent legal residents to vote in local elections as well, as have many other communities.
Massachusetts is a "home rule" state, which means that if the warrant article passes, then the town must petition the State legislature for final approval. Previous petitions from other communities have not been acted upon (if you know anything about the legislature here, that won't surprise you), but a number of other communities are considering similar measures and we may be seeing a turn of the tide.
In any case, the next time you hear about Newt Gingrich or some other fear-mongering blowhard trying to makes us more suspicious of anyone born elsewhere, be aware that there are other Americans working, in their own communities, to counter such poisonous attitudes. And needless to say, I couldn't be prouder.
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By Jack Snyder
Realists never miss a chance to criticize neoconservatives' noisy, sometimes violent support for democratization abroad. With a Pew survey showing that Americans rank democracy promotion abroad dead last in importance among fifteen major public issues, the realists would seem to have prevailed on this battlefield of ideas. Though the US still makes clients like Hamid Karzai hold elections, Hillary Clinton winks and is prepared to call just about anything free and fair. Even President Obama proclaims Reinhold Niebuhr one of his favorite authors.
But not so fast. Colin Dueck's Reluctant Crusaders reminds us that realist interludes in American foreign policy are short-lived. Liberal internationalism, steeped in the mission of making the world safe for democracy, is America's default setting. Realists, being above all realistic, need to accept this and think about pragmatic steps to advance what will inevitably be a liberal global agenda.
A brilliant new book by Barnard Professor Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo (Cambridge, 2010), can help us think this through. Luminaries' sizzling blurbs on the back cover call it "a magnificent accomplishment," a "disturbing book" that international peacemakers will read with "trepidation." Autesserre blames the failure of peace-building in Congo on the national-level "election fetish" of international aid culture. Instead, she says, security problems are mainly local and need to be solved by corralling spoilers, strengthening local capacity, and setting up working legal institutions at the grass roots level. These moves aren't a substitute for the strong national institutions that will eventually be needed to make democracy work, she says, but the bottom-up spadework needs to be done first.
My own research with Dawn Brancati, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points in a similar direction. Quick elections where conditions for democracy are not yet ripe often lead back to war, we find, but elections that come at a later stage in the transition are more likely to be compatible with stability. The key is to get the sequence right.
Brancati has put together a unique database of all the first post-civil-war elections since 1945. Statistical tests she designed show that the earlier a country holds its first post-conflict election, the more likely that the vote will be a revolving door spinning the country back into violence. Elections that happen before rebels are disarmed and before administrative and legal institutions are improved are especially likely to lead back to war. What makes this finding even more disturbing is that, since the end of the Cold War, the election fetish of international donors has cut in half the time from a peace deal to the first election.
The good news is that the international democracy promoters that are helping to cause this problem can also contribute to solving it. Our results show that early elections are much less dangerous when international actors provide peacekeeping, facilitate rebel disarmament, help build institutions of governance and law, and encourage power sharing that limits the cost of losing an election. For two papers detailing these results, "Rushing to the Polls" and "Time to Kill," please go to http://brancati.wustl.edu/Research.htm.
Realists with a pragmatic sensibility have a huge contribution to make to the idealistic liberal agenda, which is an inevitable part of the baggage that America brings to its engagement with the world. In the twenty-first century, realism can no longer mean a crabbed sense of the narrow national interest. Instead, it must increasingly mean figuring out clear-eyed ways, attuned to realities of power and interest, to make the liberal project work.
Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His books include to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (MIT Press, 2005), co-authored with Edward D. Mansfield.
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Over the past few years, media critics like Glenn Greenwald, Mark Danner, and Michael Massing have exposed some of the sloppiness, incestuousness, and group-think that routinely afflicts mainstream media coverage of world events, especially in the realm of foreign policy and national security. Even "faux news" outlets like Jon Stewart's Daily Show have contributed to greater awareness of media failings, mostly by pointing out biases and inconsistencies in a ruthlessly funny fashion.
Yet no matter how useful such critiques are, they need to be complemented by more systematic scholarly studies of the complex relationship between media coverage, public opinion, and actual foreign policy decisions. On that topic, my colleague Matthew Baum and his co-author, Tim Groeling of UCLA, have recently published an excellent book entitled War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views on War (Princeton University Press). Drawing on a wide array of empirical evidence (including opinion surveys, media content, and foreign policy decisions), they argue that the interaction between elites, media, and public opinion is a three-way process in which each group’s behavior is essentially strategic. Politicians try to use media to advance their aims; the media picks stories in order to maximize audience (or in some cases, to advance an ideological agenda), and therefore tend to favor stories that are novel or surprising (like when a prominent senator criticizes a president from his own party). Similarly, the public does not just consume the news passively; readers and viewers use various cues to gauge the credibility of different sources.
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Apropos my earlier arguments against those who think the Islamic Republic is teetering on the brink of collapse, comes the following report from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Their analysis of numerous surveys suggests that Ahmadinejad really did win the election, even though there were probably irregularities and his reported margin may have been inflated. Money quote:
[N]one of the polls found indications of support for regime change. Large majorities, including majorities of Mousavi supporters, endorse the Islamist character of the regime such as having a body of Islamic scholars with the power to veto laws they see as contrary to sharia.”
This result hardly means that there isn't serious opposition within Iran; nor does it absolve the clerical regime from having dealt with the protesters in an harsh and brutal fashion. But it ought to give those who think the Iranian people are panting for U.S.-led "liberation" a moment of pause (though I doubt it will lead the hawks to revise their views).
The poll also found that supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi remain interested in rapprochement with the United States and “were ready to make a deal whereby Iran would preclude developing nuclear weapons through intrusive international inspections in exchange for the removal of sanctions. However, this was equally true of the majority of all Iranians.”
Notice also that they are not saying they are willing to give up enrichment, but they are willing to forego weaponization. That’s the only possible deal that I can imagine anytime soon, and wouldn’t it be nice if we tried it?
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Lots of ink will be spilled and plenty of pixels will be generated in response to yesterday’s special Senate election here in Massachusetts, and I don’t have any deep and novel insights to offer. After all, this is a blog about foreign policy, not domestic politics, and foreign policy appears to have played little or no role in the outcome.
I also think it is a mistake to read too much into an outcome that could easily have gone the other way for reasons that have nothing to do with the issues and structural forces at work (i.e., had Coakley bothered to campaign in a serious way). The other reason to take a deep breath and relax is the pendulum-like nature of American politics: remember how cool and popular George Bush looked in that flight suit on "Mission Accomplished" day? Remember how hapelss he appeared a couple of years later? One other observation: this election also preserved the surprising and dubious tendency for "liberal" Massachusetts to not elect women to high office. What's up with that?
That said, I think there are two important lessons that Dems should draw from yesterday’s result, and especially any Dems who happen to live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The first lesson is the politics didn’t stop on Inauguration Day. The Obama administration ran a great campaign, and did an excellent job of framing issues and defining their candidate throughout 2008. Once in office, however, they turned immediately from politics to policy -- and there is a difference -- while the GOP did exactly the reverse. Instead of continuing to frame issues and establish a clear narrative about what they were accomplishing, the Dems have let the GOP attack machine construct a wholly fictitious but effective narrative that clearly helped Brown in Massachusetts. (Again, the fact that Coakley offered no clear story of her own was a huge liability too.)
The second lesson, and one I’ve harped about before, is about the dangers of trying to do too much, and without a clear strategy. In retrospect, Obama and the Dems would have been better off had they attempted a lot less in the past year, and gotten some of it done a lot quicker. Did Obama really need to jet off to Europe to try to get the Olympics for Chicago, or show up at a climate change summit that wasn’t going to yield an agreement? Was it a good idea to raise everyone’s expectations about Middle East peace, when your team hadn't thought through its strategy and when you didn’t have the political courage to do what was necessary to bring it about? Why talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons when everyone knows that isn’t going to happen for decades? And why betray your own base by doubling down in Afghanistan, largely in the hope of deflecting GOP criticism?
Back last spring, when Obama seemed to be launching a new initiative every other day, political theorist and former Clinton advisor William Galston warned that "If he's right, our traditional notion of the limits of the possible -- the idea that Washington can only handle so much at one time -- will be blown to smithereens. If he's wrong, he may be cruising for a bruising on a lot of things." I think it is way too soon to write the Obama presidency off, but he took a few lumps yesterday. The real question is his administration’s learning curve, and whether he starts replacing the people who’ve given him bad advice over the past year.
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Writing earlier this week in the Financial Times, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass made "The Case for Messy Multilateralism." Haass is almost always sensible, and this piece was too. His basic argument is that many global issues are increasingly complex, and trying to negotiate big global treaties or pacts (like Kyoto or the Doha Round) are probably beyond anyone's capacity, due to the enormous number of players involved and their widely diverging interests and capacities. Better to go with more limited agreements (i.e. involving the most powerful or engaged stakeholders), or various "coalitions of the willing." With luck, this flexible and opportunistic approach will produce a gradual evolution in the world's institutional structure (e.g., from G8 to G20, etc.), and allow us to make progress on issues that might otherwise defy solution. You know, the best is the enemy of the good, and all that.
Of course, FP readers will recognize that this idea bears a lot of resemblance to Moisés Naím's earlier argument for "minilateralism," and my minor reservations about that concept apply here too. But one passage in Haass' piece leapt out at me, where he says:
"In many cases it will prove impossible to negotiate international accords that will be approved by national parliaments. Instead, governments would sign up to implementing, as best they can, a series of measures consistent with agreed-upon international norms."
I haven't thought about this notion for very long, but at first read this sounds like a retreat from our usual ideas about democratic accountability, or at least the form that it normally takes here in the United States (i.e., where the Senate has to approve treaties). In essence, Haass seems to be saying that executives need to make an end-run around constitutional limits, by negotiating informal or tacit measures that don't need to be ratified by legislatures. I can see the appeal of that idea, I suppose, but despite my concerns about excessive congressional oversight (read: gridlock), I'm at least as worried by the damage that unconstrained executives can do.
Bottom line: this proposal ought to be read in conjunction with James Fallows' Atlantic cover story (which I'm still digesting) on the need for institutional reform here at home. I've been thinking similar thoughts myself, and I'll share them when they've gelled a bit more. The Burkean conservative in me says: "don't go there," but I have occasional Jacobin moments too.
P.S. I'll be traveling over the next week, so posting will be limited by my schedule and by internet availability. I'm counting on all of you to keep things quiet, ok?
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People like me have been spilling a lot of ink (and blogspace) over events in out-of-the-way places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and the like, and I'm not going to apologize for it. But I sometimes think this illustrates the tendency for humans to focus on what is urgent or vivid instead of what's important. People dying and things getting blown up rivet our attention, but sometimes the calm workings of a democratic process might be of greater long-term significance.
Consider the recent Japanese election. I'm far from being an expert on Japanese politics, but I do know there are good reasons to think that genuine reform will be as difficult to enact there as it is here in the United States. (Among other things, entrenched bureaucrats in powerful ministries will be hard to weaken or dislodge.) Nonetheless, if the defeat of the LDP and the emergence of the more populist Democratic Party of Japan leads to the emergence of a genuine two-party system, makes Japanese political institutions more accountable, and generally opens up a set of sclerotic policies, the impact could be far-reaching.
After all, Japan is still the world's second largest economy. Its military spending ranks fifth in the world. It has a highly educated populations and many advanced industries and scientific establishments (including the potential to get nuclear weapons very quickly if it wished). It is the location of several key U.S. military bases, and is bound to Washington by a long-standing security treaty.
All this means that if Japanese economic and foreign policy were to change significantly, the effects would be quite far-reaching. I'm not saying they will, but I am planning to spend a bit more time keeping an eye on events there.
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I've been getting my teaching materials together for the fall term and didn't have time to do much blogging today. I have no further thoughts on Afghanistan in the aftermath of the election, except to say that I don't think the election itself was a very significant event one way or the other. The fact that the election did come off is modestly encouraging, though reports that turnout was lower than expected are somewhat worrisome. As everybody keeps reminding us, we won’t even know for certain who won until October.
But to me the real question -- no matter who ends up winning -- is whether the new government starts performing better than the Karzai government has done over the past several years. Holding a "successful" election won't mean much if it doesn't, and a deeply flawed electoral process wouldn't matter if Karzai or Abdullah nonetheless managed to implement more effective policies, root out corruption, coopt contending warlords, and help make sure that external aid programs deliver more direct and tangible benefits. And we won't know if the new government can achieve that goal for many months, if not years.
As far our current "war of choice" there, I thought Richard Haass's op-ed in today's Times was smart. He's somewhat more supportive of the current effort than I am, but he understands that the stakes there do not justify any level of effort for an indefinite length of time. Money quote:
If Afghanistan were a war of necessity, it would justify any level of effort. It is not and does not. It is not certain that doing more will achieve more. And no one should forget that doing more in Afghanistan lessens our ability to act elsewhere, including North Korea, Iran and Iraq. There needs to be a limit to what the United States does in Afghanistan and how long it is prepared to do it, lest we find ourselves unable to contend with other wars, of choice or of necessity, if and when they arise.
As we watch the riveting and disturbing events from inside Iran, bloggers and other commentators are already beginning to raise the political and rhetorical stakes. Over at the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan (whose coverage of the events in Iran remains remarkable) declared today that "the first and absolute requirement of all Western governments" is not to recognize Ahmadinejad as president.
I can understand the sentiments behind this view, and I hold no brief for Ahmadinejad or the clerics behind him. But how far is Sullivan willing to take this? Suppose the existing regime survives the current turmoil and remains in power -- which is likely -- and that Ahmadinejad winds up serving as president for another term despite what appears to be clear electoral chicanery? Are we to have no dealings at all with Iran, despite the many issues of contention between us and them?
And notice the double-standard at work: we recognized China while Mao Zedong -- a murderous despot -- still ruled there and maintained relations with it after Tianenmen Square. We cut various strategic deals with Uzbekistan after 9/11 despite its lamentable human rights record and we had numerous direct dealings with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. We remain closely allied with Saudi Arabia despite its treatment of women and the complete absence of democracy, and we subsidize Israel generously even though it denies political rights to millions of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and killed more innocent civilians during the Gaza operation than Iran’s ruling authorities have done since last Friday.
Obama's measured response to the events in Iran strikes me as more sensible: we can and should deplore the abuses of basic rights and the democratic process, while making it clear that the United States is not interfering and remaining open to the possibility of constructive dialogue. Given our long and troubled history with Iran (which includes active support for groups seeking to overthrow the current government), any sense that we are now trying to back Moussavi is likely to backfire. Trying to steer this one from Washington won’t advance our interests or those of the reformists.
Here's a hypothetical question for you to ponder. Which world would you prefer: 1) a world where Ahmadinejad remains in power, but Iran formally reaffirms that it will not develop nuclear weapons, ratifies and implements the Additional Protocol of the NPT, comes clean to our satisfaction about past violations (including the so-called "alleged studies"), permits highly intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, and ends support for Hamas and Hezbollah as part of a "grand bargain" with the West; or 2) a world where Mir Hussein Mousavi -- who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister from 1981 to 1989 -- wins a new election but then doesn't alter Iran's activities at all?
This is hypothetical, of course, and almost certainly does not reflect the likely policy alternatives. But your choice of which world you'd prefer probably reveals a lot about how you conceive of the national interest, and the degree to which you think foreign policy should emphasize concrete security achievements on the one hand, or normative preferences on the other.
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My nominee for the silliest comment on the Iraqi provincial elections comes from -- no surprise here -- former UN Ambassador John Bolton. After praising the elections as a vindication of the "surge" and characterizing them as a setback for Iran, Bolton warned that the elections will not "put an end to Iran's ambitions. Tehran appears to believe that its influence in the region is expanding and that its neighbors and the United States have failed to respond effectively. This belief is unsurprising, given the Obama administration’s acquiescent attitude toward Tehran."
Let me get this straight. Obama has been in office for about two weeks, and Iran has already drawn the lesson from that brief period that "its influence is expanding." Has Bolton forgotten about the Bush administration, whose mishandling of Mideast policy failed to slow Iran's nuclear program and strengthened Iran's position in the Gulf, in Lebanon, and possibly in Gaza as well? The neoconservatives who ran our Mideast policy couldn’t have done more to help Iran if they had been on Tehran's payroll.
Better get used to Bolton's line of argument, because we are going to hear it over and over and over. As the new administration wrestles with the mess that Bush & Co. bequeathed them, neoconservative stalwarts will be rewriting history at every opportunity. They will try to portray our position on January 21, 2009, as basically sound, pin every subsequent bit of bad news on Obama, and hope we all forget who we got us into this situation. I have no doubt that Obama and his team will make some mistakes of their own -- and I'll be happy to criticize them when they do -- but let's not forget who dealt them the hand they are being forced to play now.
My take on the elections? They contain some encouraging signs but also some disturbing features, notably the growing accusations of fraud and the fact that exceptional measures had to be taken to prevent violent disruptions. A substantial number of Iraqis seem to be rallying around more secular parties and around Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in particular, which may make it easier for the United States to stick to the withdrawal timetable agreed to in the Status of Forces agreement signed last November. (Don't forget that a majority of Iraqis want us out either immediately or soon, and Maliki's toughminded handling of the SOFA negotiations probably boosted his popularity, even among some Sunnis.) Maliki's Dawa Party and his main coalition partners (the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq) aren't going to be Tehran's lackeys, but as Juan Cole points out (directly contradicting Bolton’s claims), both groups have good relations with Tehran and are viewed much more favorably by Tehran than Saddam ever was.
One aspect of the results give me pause. Iraq's voters appear to have endorsed parties who favor a strong central state, as opposed to those who might favor greater regional autonomy. On the one hand, a unified Iraq is in the U.S. interest, and we want a central government that is strong enough to maintain order after U.S. forces withdraw. But on the other hand, the stronger the central government becomes, the more that the contending groups will want to control it and greater the potential for trouble with Iraq's Kurds, who still want autonomy if not independence. If Iraq's Sunni population thinks it is getting shut out of power again, then prospects for genuine political reconciliation will remain bleak and renewed violence is likely after we are gone. And that has been the $64,000 question ever since the idea of invading Iraq was first proposed: What is the political formula by which Iraq will be governed now that Saddam's brutal dictatorship is gone?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.