Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
FP colleague Dan Drezner is clearly feeling generous this holiday season, which is a wonderful thing. Yet at the same time, I miss his normally sharp-elbowed intelligence. To be specific, his recent post is too forgiving of the incestuous relationship between Iraq/Afghan commander David Petraeus and inside-the-Beltway operators Fred and Kimberly Kagan, as well as of the other think-tankers Petraeus "consulted" with during his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his credit, Dan acknowledges that there are troubling features in this case. It bothers him that Kimberly Kagan hinted that they'd say critical things about the Afghan campaign unless they got more cooperation from the Pentagon, and then penned upbeat stuff once they got what they wanted. Dan also thinks exploiting their relationship with Petraeus for fundraising purposes was "unseemly" (an uncharacteristically timid charge for him.) And he's bothered by the reports that they overstepped their role as consultants and seemed to interfere with the chain of command.
Dan's main defense of the Petraeus/Kagan relationship is that military commanders ought to get outside their own bureaucratic environments on occasion and solicit informed advice from independent experts. It is hard to disagree with this general observation, but the devil is in the details and in this case they are pretty damning.
The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that's exactly what they did.
Here's the basic structure of the situation. If you're a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren't known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.
Next, consider how this looks from the consultants' perspective. If you're an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you're someone who depends on soft money), it's a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let's not forget the role of ego: it's just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
Your well-scripted tour of the battle zone will probably convince you things are generally okay, of course, but you may still have a few doubts or questions and you may even express them to the commanders who invited you over. But what you won't do is tell them that the entire enterprise is misguided, or return home and write a hard-hitting piece explaining why the strategy is wrong or that the war effort is likely to fail. Because if you did that, it would be the last invitation you'd ever get and you wouldn't be able to play up your insider status anymore. Even worse, powerful people inside the national security bureaucracy might start bad-mouthing you, thereby diminishing your clout in Washington and destroying any hopes you might have had about serving in the government.
To see how well this works, ask yourself: How many of the people who took advantage of Petraeus' hospitality ended up writing critical assessments of his strategy or offered pessimistic forecasts about the prospects for victory? Not Michael O'Hanlon or Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, not Max Boot or Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and certainly not the Kagans. I haven't done a comprehensive survey of everything that Petraeus' various advisors have written since then, but my impression is that virtually all of them remained upbeat about both wars for quite some time and none were critical early on. And it isn't as if there wasn't plenty of evidence that both of these wars were going badly.
Dan and I agree in principle: U.S. government officials and military commanders should sometimes solicit independent outside advice. And I have no problem with academics offering advice if they feel they have something to contribute. But we ought to recognize from the start that these relations are fraught with the potential for corruption and cooptation. Powerful leaders aren't likely to solicit advice from people who aren't already sympathetic to their views, and even scholars with considerable integrity will find it hard to keep their bearings, speak truth to power, and tell the rest of us what's really going on.
I've been too busy to blog much this week, but I thought I"d mention that I've taken the plunge and signed up for Twitter (@StephenWalt). I'll probably use it sparingly, but who knows? Please bear with me until I get the hang of it. Brevity has never been my long suit, so this may take awhile.
Today we're all obsessed with -- and exhausted by -- the U.S. election. There's a lot wrong with America's political institutions -- starting with the absurd Electoral College -- but right up there with the EC is the ridiculous length of the campaign season itself. No other modern democracy spends at least twenty-five percent of a presidential term determining who the next president will be, and this feature both inflates the cost of elections (thereby increasing the clout of well-heeled donors and lobbies) and distracts us all from the broader issues of the moment. All that's keeping us going now is the knowledge that it will soon be over.
Unlike my FP colleague Dan Drezner, I'm not going to offer a lengthy election endorsement. If you've been reading this blog and can't tell who I'm voting for, you haven't been paying attention. I've been disappointed by some of Obama's foreign policy decisions -- most notably his caving on the Middle East peace process and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan -- but I didn't expect a lot of dramatic foreign policy successes during the first term anyway. Unlike Dan (and Rosa Brooks), I don't think a better process would have made that much difference: Once you had populated the administration with the usual Democratic party wonks, you were going to get the usual post-Clintonian Democratic party foreign policy. Not realism, in other words, but good old-fashioned liberal interventionism suitably sobered by the Iraq debacle and the financial crisis. Obama has scored some limited successes, has avoided big disasters (like an attack on Iran) and has for the most part dealt with friends and foes in a sensible way. In the absence of a better alternative -- and such an alternative is clearly absent -- he gets my vote.
What makes it easy is looking at the other side. The Romney campaign's critique of Obama's foreign policy is about as factually accurate as its fairy budget proposals. It's also schizophrenic: The Romney campaign wants you to think Obama has been too hard on our allies and too easy on our foes, yet in the third debate Romney agreed with almost all of Obama's policies. Moreover, his campaign's reliance on a bunch of neoconservative retreads tells you he's either craven or a bad judge of talent, and neither is an especially appealing quality for a future leader. If you're still undecided, all you need to do is contrast Obama's pitch-perfect foreign tour in 2008 with the gaffe and pander-filled Romney tour last summer. On foreign policy grounds, therefore, this decision is a no-brainer.
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.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Over at FP's new National Security Channel, reporter Gordon Lubold has a lengthy interview with U.S. Afghan commander John Allen. Allen offers a pretty upbeat assessment: He says the Afghan National Security Force "is really taking over much more of the fighting than it has done in the past," adding that our Security Force Assistance Teams are "really accelerating that." He doesn't actually come out and say we're going to win (or even try to define what "victory" would look like), but his bottom line is simple: "the campaign is on track."
But to where? I thought Obama made a bad mistake when he decided to escalate in Afghanistan, but this is another one of those issues where I'd love to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I've heard nothing but upbeat assessments from U.S. commanders ever since Obama took office, which makes me more than a little skeptical about Allen's testimony now. Back in January 2010, for example, former U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he "believed we had turned the tide." His successor, General David Petraeus, issued a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments and followed by a major increase in the overall level of violence.
Well, it's déjà vu all over again: Today, despite a dramatic increase in "green on blue" attacks (i.e., attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. or ISAF personnel) and the announced departure of other U.S. allies, the latest American commander continues to portray our efforts in a positive light, especially with respect to the progress made by Afghan security forces. But you might have missed the fact that the DoD quietly lowered the bar for the latter, by eliminating the category of "independent" (meaning that a unit that can operate on its own) from the ratings system used to assess Afghan forces. Now the top ranking is "independent with advisors," which allows us to describe more Afghan units as "top rated." And even with these lower standards, less than ten percent of Afghan units are rated as capable of being able to operate semi-independently.
In one sense, Allen's optimism is neither surprising nor objectionable. You're not going to hear the U.S. commander tell a reporter that things aren't going well, because that is hardly the best way to inspire your troops to greater effort. Plus, the "surge" in Afghanistan was not designed to fix all of that unfortunate country's problems; it was intended either to 1) provide a fig leaf for a U.S. withdrawal, 2) inflict enough pain on the Taliban so that they'd cut a deal, or 3) buy a bit of time to build up Afghan security forces, at which point we'd get the hell out. Notice that these various goals aren't mutually exclusive, but none of them constitutes "victory."
And that's been the problem in Afghanistan all along. The original rationale for being there disappeared once Al Qaeda fled the country and metastasized to other areas. It never made much sense to spend $100 billion plus per year on a country whose entire GDP was less than 20 percent of that figure, especially once it became clear that the Karzai government was irredeemably corrupt and mostly incompetent and equally clear that we had no idea how to "nation-build" there ourselves. Plus, our main adversaries could always avoid us by slipping over the border into Pakistan or melting back into the local population. They knew we'd eventually go home, at which point Afghanistan's future will be determined by the Afghans themselves. As it should be.
In short, General Allen's testimony is precisely what you'd expect him to say, and thus doesn't really doesn't tell you much of anything at all. But his optimism stands in sharp contrast to the assessment you'll find in a book like Rajiv Chandraksekaran's Little America, which I've just been reading. I hope Allen is right, that the ANSF really is making headlong progress, and that it will be up to the task of providing security once we are gone. But I wouldn't bet on it.The only consolation -- if you're not Afghan, that is -- is that it won't matter much to us one way or the other.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
You may have noticed that there is an active campaign underway to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In fact, the real goal is to prevent Iran from having even the latent capacity to build a weapon if at some point it decided it wanted one. This is why the United States and other countries have imposed increasingly draconian economic sanctions on Iran, launched covert actions such as the Stuxnet virus, and made repeated threats to use military force.
One of the background elements in this campaign has been repeated warnings that Israel's leaders believed "time was running out" and that they were getting ready to launch a preventive strike on their own. This recurring theme has depended heavily on cooperation from sympathetic journalists and compliant media organizations, who have provided a platform to disseminate these various dark prophecies.
In September 2010, for example, The Atlantic published a cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg ("The Point of No Return") based on interviews with dozens of Israeli officials. Goldberg concluded that the odds of an Israeli attack by July 2011 were greater than 50 percent. Fortunately, this forecast proved to be as accurate as most of Goldberg's other writings about the Middle East.
Then, in January of this year, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Israeli journalist Ronan Bergman entitled "Will Israel Attack Iran?" The piece essentially replicated Goldberg's earlier article: once again, various Israeli officials were quoted as saying that Iran's nuclear program was nearing a critical stage and that Israel was going to take action if Iran did not agree to end all enrichment. Despite a few caveats about the risks of an attack and the possibility that it wouldn't halt Iran's progress for very long, the overall tenor of the piece made it clear that Bergman thought war was very likely.
Even Foreign Policy has gotten into the act, publishing a similar report from former Cheney aide John Hannah a few days ago. According to Hannah, his recent conversations with Israeli officials convinced him that "Israel's resolve to deal with the Iranian nuclear program on its own is no mere bluster." His conclusion: "an attack on Iran was significantly more likely than I had believed before."
Then yesterday Ha'aretz published an article by Barak Ravid -- based on interviews with an unnamed Israeli official -- claiming that U.S. intelligence had now concluded that Iran was making rapid progress toward a bomb. The information in the article was subsequently "confirmed" by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (who for all we know was the source of the original leak), but quickly denied by American officials. (Side note: shouldn't someone ask Ravid and his editors if they now want to retract the story?) And as Noam Sheizaf describes here, newspapers in Israel are now filled with stories suggesting that the danger is growing and that Netanyahu and Barak are determined to hit Iran sometime this fall.
Last but not least, yesterday's New York Times featured a one-sided story on the "shadow war" between Israel and Iran that placed virtually all the blame for the trouble on Tehran. On the front page, it described a "continuing offensive" by Iran, without mentioning that there has been a long cycle of tit-for-tat between these two countries. Only after the jump came any mention of the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists (almost certainly by the Mossad), or any acknowledgement that Iran might be acting defensively rather than conducting a totally unprovoked campaign of aggression. I'm not defending what Iran is doing, by the way, only suggesting that it's deeply misleading to portray what the U.S. and Israel are doing as purely defensive and to suggest that it is Iran that has launched some sort of ambitious "offensive.")
As I noted a few months back, it's virtually impossible to know how much credence to place in the repeated predictions that Israel is about to attack. It does prove that there is no shortage of journalists or pundits who are willing to serve as sympathetic stenographers for government officials, but it doesn't tell you very much about what is going to happen or what these officials really believe. Why? Because the various officials whose alarming testimony forms the basis for these articles have lots of different reasons for stirring the pot in this fashion.
In this case, those prophesying war may be trying to reinforce the global sanctions effort and keep Iran isolated. They know that the U.S. and the EU see sanctions as preferable to war, so constantly threatening to slip the leash is a good way to stiffen others' resolve and get them to ramp up demands and pressure. It's also a good way to blackmail the United States into providing additional military assistance, and it helps distract everyone from annoying issues like settlement expansion and the nearly-dead-and-buried "peace process." Given these various motivations, one should take all these forecasts of an imminent Israeli attack with many grains of salt.
Although I believe war with Iran would be folly, one cannot rule it out. All countries commit blunders, and neither the United States nor Israel is immune to this sort of miscalculation (see under: Iraq, Lebanon, etc.). But I am remain skeptical that Israel will attack, for the simple reason that it does not have the military capability to inflict strategically significant damage on Iran's nuclear facilities. As the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year, "Israeli officials and analysts generally agree that a strike would not completely destroy the [Iranian nuclear] program." The CRS report also suggested that an Israeli strike could not delay the program for long, and that long-term success would depend either on repeated follow-up strikes or on subsequent diplomatic activity (e.g., more sanctions).
All of which suggests that all this talk of Israeli "red lines" and some sort of imminent attack (including the possibility of an "October surprise") is just talk. Indeed, those prophesying war are starting to sound like those wacky cult leaders who keep predicting the End of the World, and then keep moving the date when the world doesn't end on schedule. At what point are we going to stop paying attention?
Like I said, I can't be completely sure that reason will prevail and that a war won't happen, although there do seem to be a lot of sensible voices inside the Israeli security establishment who are counseling against it. What worries me most is that the people who have been sounding all these alarmist warnings will start to worry that their credibility is evaporating, and they will feel compelled to go to war because they've talked about it for so long. That's just about the dumbest reason I can think of, but sometimes even pretty smart people do dumb things.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
I enjoy blogging for Foreign Policy, and one of the strengths of this site is that there's clearly no party line. So permit me to take issue with several items recently posted by my FP colleagues.
1. Over the weekend, Oren Kessler had an interesting piece on the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline Jabotinskyite father Benzion, who passed away last week at the age of 102. I don't doubt that the father-son relationship has a lot to do with Bibi's political predilections, but too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the individual here. Specifically, there is a tendency to blame Israeli expansionism and intransigence on the Likud Party, or on Bibi himself, or even on the divided and fractious nature of Israeli coalition politics. If only Israel had a different PM, so the argument runs, we'd see a turn away from settlement expansion and renewed hope for a two-state solution.
This line of thinking ignores the simple fact that settlement expansion has occurred under every Israeli government since 1967: Labor, Likud, Kadima, unity coalitions, etc. And these activities haven't been mere passive acquiescence: Each of these governments actively backed settlement expansion with subsidies, military protection, and expanded infrastructure. It's true that some Israeli leaders have been more open to some sort of two-state deal (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in particular), but neither leader put a completely acceptable deal on the table and both only got close to doing so when they were lame ducks about to leave office. And both continued to expand settlements while they were supposedly negotiating, which only made attempts to reach a deal harder.
Netanyahu just called for early elections, and he's likely to win a new term. But I'm not sure this development makes much difference, given the obstacles that have already been created to any meaningful form of two-state solution.
2. Dan Drezner has written several smart posts about the "surprising resilience" of Sino-American relations, as demonstrated by how the two governments handled the Chen Guangcheng case. I agree with his assessment of the diplomacy surrounding this particular incident, but I would caution against drawing any long-term conclusions from it. The real issue in Sino-American relations is not how the two governments deal with current bilateral, regional and global issues, but how they will be handled if the balance of power continues to shift. For all the publicity about China's rapid rise, it is still decidedly weaker than the United States is and it has considerable incentive to avoid major tests of strength. What worries realists is not what China might do this year, or even next year, but what a more powerful China might do in the decades ahead.
As I've emphasized before, it is entirely possible that Sino-American relations will continue to be handled in a sensible and mature fashion for many decades to come, if you assume that both sides are led by sensible and mature leaders and never by rabid nationalists, impulsive neoconservatives, or inexperienced officials who like to go with their "gut instincts." But over the longer term, how likely is that?
3. Last week Aaron Miller offered up five "bad ideas" for screwing up the Middle East. Rather than comment on his list (which I did find disappointing), I'll just offer a sixth: consistently placing U.S. Middle East policy in the hands of the same people who've repeatedly failed to achieve peace despite having lots of opportunities, and making reflexive support for the "special relationship" a litmus test for service in the U.S. government.
FP is about to inaugurate a new "comments" system, and it will be interesting to see how this change affects discourse on this site and on others. I don't yet know exactly how the new system is supposed to operate, but I want to use this moment to offer a few comments of my own on the reactions that readers have contributed since I started writing this blog back in 2009.
On the whole, it has been gratifying that some of my posts have elicited a lot of lively discussion. I don't read the comments religiously -- who has the time? -- but when I do, I often find a lot of smart observations and occasionally some useful corrections to things I've written. It's also instructive just to read people scrutinize my ideas from different perspectives, some of them sharply at odds with my own.
What's more disappointing, however, is the level of name-calling and gratuitous spleen that some commenters display. This problem is hardly unique to this site, of course, and plenty of other bloggers and online publications have dealt with this problem too. Unfortunately, anonymity gives people the freedom to write a lot of venomous bilge, and some participants here have leapt to exploit that opportunity.
I welcome pointed arguments, sarcasm, wit, and even the occasional modest dose of snark, but some issues seem to bring out some people's worst instincts on a consistent basis, and reason and civility just run right out the door. The problem is not confined to people who disagree with me, by the way, as I find some readers' attacks on my critics to be equally offensive and/or juvenile. It may be cathartic for the person who's typing, but flame wars do not advance our understanding of difficult issues.
So by all means take issue with me, or with each other, but why not see if you can do it on the basis of logic and evidence, instead of relying on character assassination and name-calling? Or if you do want to call someone out in a direct and personal fashion, drop the cloak of anonymity, sign your real name, and include your email address.
A related gripe is the tendency of some participants to paste lengthy articles from other publications into the "comments" thread. Not only does this clog up FP's servers, it's a disservice to other readers, as it forces them to scroll through a long entry just to get to the next comment. (Hint: because it's so annoying, I suspect this practice doesn't win many converts either.) My view is that readers should feel free to paste in links to articles that support the point they are making, or offer a brief quotation from another source to back up their claims. But as a courtesy to others, commenters would refrain from inserting whole articles from other publications.
Last point: because I don't read every comment, I've refrained from trying to monitor or censor the comments thread. I have deleted a few comments on occasion, either because I judged them to be bigoted, because they were completely off-topic, or because they consisted solely of an excessively long entry "borrowed" from another publication. But I don't have time to do that consistently, and while I take full responsibility for what I write, I bear no responsibility for what all of you write. But I will offer the following unsolicited advice: regardless of what views you espouse, you will win more converts with logic and evidence than you will with invective.
At least I hope so.
In another corner of the vast FP media empire, David Bosco wants to know if "in some secret chamber of [my] heart, [I am] a believer in international law and institutions." He was writing in response to my post earlier this week, where I argued that NATO's decision to conduct "regime change" in Libya under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, even though the resolution did not authorize this act, may have contributed to Russia and China's decision to veto a proposed resolution on Syria. He finds it surprising that a realist such as myself could take the niceties of international law -- and in this case, the text of a Security Council resolution -- so seriously.
In fact, Bosco's query betrays a common misconception about realism, as well as a misunderstanding of my original position. Of course realists "believe in" international law and institutions": they exist, and we'd have to be blind to deny that basic fact. Moreover, realists have long acknowledged that international law and international institutions can be useful tools of statecraft, which states can use to achieve their national interests. In particular, law and institutions can help states coordinate their behavior so as to reap greater gains or avoid various problems (think of the rules that regulate air traffic, some forms of pollution, or global communications), and they can also provide mechanisms to facilitate international trade and to resolve various disputes. Where realists part company with some (but not all) liberal idealists is in their emphasis on the limits of institutions: they cannot force powerful states to act against their own interests and they usually reflect the underlying balance of power in important ways.
Thus, a realist like me isn't surprised when a powerful country like the United States ignores the fine details of a U.N. resolution, and proceeds to undertake unauthorized regime change. Nor are we surprised when the U.S. and some of its allies invaded Iraq without any U.N. authorization at all. It was a surprising decision because it was so stupid, but it was apparent by late 2002 that U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of serial blunderers. Sadly, there was nothing international law or the U.N. could do about that fact.
The central point in my post, however, was not that Russia and China were necessarily upset by the fact that the U.S. and its allies had trod all over the text of Resolution 1973. Rather, they were upset because they didn't like the United States and its allies saying one thing and doing another, and they were upset by the precedent that the Libya case appeared to set. Put differently, they think they got snookered over Libya, and they weren't about to get snookered again. Realists understand that institutions are weak constraints on state behavior (which is why the U.S. could act as it did), but realists also understand that when you take advantage of others, they are going to take notice and make it harder for you to exploit them again. And that appears to be part of the tragic story that is unfolding in Syria.
In short, the puzzle isn't why a realist might point out that we are now paying a price for our earlier high-handedness. The real puzzle is why advocates of intervention are so fond of invoking multilateralism, institutions, and the importance of international law, and then so quick to ignore it when it gets in the way of today's pet project. Realists aren't always right, but at least we're not hypocrites.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
It's Thanksgiving once again, and it's become something of a ritual for me to record what I'm feeling grateful for each year. For starters, I want to thank the various people who responded to my request for advice on "policy analysis" yesterday, both via the "comments" section and to me directly. I got some very good suggestions, and I appreciate the help. Whether my students will be similarly appreciative remains to be seen.
This year, I'm thankful that the euro hasn't collapsed - yet -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't. It's true that the unraveling of the eurozone would be a striking vindication of a broadly realist view of international relations, but it would also produce tremendous human suffering and that's way too big a price to pay to vindicate a theory. So I hope Europe's leaders manage to defy my usual pessimism and navigate through the crisis. If they do, I'll be even more thankful next year.
I'm also grateful that there's been no war with Iran. Whatever the Obama administration's other shortcomings might have been, those at the top seem to have understood the folly and futility of unleashing major military action against Iran. I won't give them high marks for imaginative diplomacy, but at least they haven't done great harm.
I'm also giving thanks that the United States is getting out of Iraq, and I wish I could believe that we will draw the right long-term lessons from the debacle. On that score, it is not a good sign that many of the architects of that war are still taken seriously as foreign policy "experts," and some are even advising GOP candidates. Doesn't say much for our national learning curve, does it? But even if historical amnesia sets in quickly, I'm pleased that we are finally leaving Iraq to its own leaders. Now if we can just draw a similar conclusion about that other exercise in imperial futility ... Afghanistan.
Like nearly everyone, I'm troubled by the continued turmoil in Egypt and by the Assad regime's brutal behavior in Syria. But I'm thankful that the situation in Libya has thus far defied my worst fears and made at least some modest progress toward the establishment of a more legitimate political order. The capture of former heir-apparent (and accused war criminal) Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and former security head Abudullah al-Senussi pretty much eliminates any possibility of a "loyalist" insurgency, which is a good sign too. The country still has a long way to go, but I will be keeping my fingers crossed.
On a purely personal note, I'm thankful for the courageous policy analysts, writers and bloggers who make it easier for me to do this blog. I'm talking about people who seek puncture conventional wisdom, challenge orthodoxies, and rock the boat on occasion. I value them because they are an antidote to the flood of cautious semi-official narratives that dominate most of the writing on foreign policy, and so they help me think outside the box. So heartfelt thanks to Carl Conetta, Phil Weiss, Juan Cole, Gordon Adams, Martin Wolf, Jerry Haber, Uri Avnery, Jim Lobe, Helena Cobban, Glenn Greenwald, M. J. Rosenberg, John Mueller, Andrew Sullivan, Spencer Ackerman, Jerry Slater, Gideon Rachman, and many others too numerous to list or even remember. I don't know a lot of the people just mentioned, and I don't always agree with any of them. Heck, I don't always agree with this guy either. But I'm glad they are doing what they do.
Of course, I cannot omit my annual word of thanks to the whole gang at FP, including the reporters, writers, and bloggers with whom I've occasionally tussled. The editors remain a delight with whom to work, and it's been a pleasure to be part of their team. And because all bloggers ultimately depend on readers, I'm especially grateful for those of you who take the time to read this stuff.
With each passing year, I've become more aware and more appreciative of my own good fortune. It's been a pretty soft gig to be born a white American male in the mid-1950s, in a country enjoying enormous geopolitical advantages and considerable prosperity. I like to think I've done ok with the advantages I was handed, and there's no doubt that the deck was stacked in my favor from the start. And that goes for a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries too.
More broadly, if you compare the era in which most of us have lived to the previous fifty years (1900-1950), there's little question that we've enjoyed a period of comparative benevolence. The first half of the 20th century witnessed two enormously destructive world wars, the worst economic depression in history, and several brutal genocides. The past sixty years has its own share of tragedies, to be sure, but the overall level of violence was much lower, economic growth was fairly steady (until recently), and many of us never had to endure the insecurities, travesties, and sacrifices that earlier generations experienced or that were still common in other parts of the world.
Most Americans ought to be especially grateful for their extraordinary good fortune, and Thanksgiving is an appropriate time for us to reflect upon it. And as I watch Europe teeter on the brink of financial collapse, observe the violent political contestation that is sweeping the Middle East, note the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia, and contemplate the tragicomic follies of our so-called leaders in Washington, I do wonder how long it will last, and whether I will look back with regret at the tranquility we have lost.
But tomorrow, I will give thanks for the good that remains, and think about what can still be done to preserve and extend it.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I'm leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don't get a life. So I'm a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner's reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama's foreign policy. If we're not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke ... and before long you will all be asleep.
That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama's foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).
In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you're considering. I've argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas -- consistent with my TNI piece -- and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I've argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn't a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it's just too soon to tell.
In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he's played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he's also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn't have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.
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The steadily expanding "phone hacking" scandal in Great Britain is a good reminder that understanding politics requires a healthy appreciation of the role of arrogance and stupidity. What began is a seemingly straightforward example of sleazy journalistic practice has grown into a full-blown scandal, and the circle of guilt keeps widening.
Just look at the repercussions so far: 1) the NewsCorp's bid to take over all of British Sky Broadcasting has been scuppered, 2) NewsCorp CEO Rebekah Brooks has resigned and is now under arrest, 3) long-time Murdoch associate and Wall Street Journal publisher Les HInton has also resigned his post, 4) Prime Minister David Cameron has been badly tarnished, and oh yes, 5) the head of Scotland Yard has resigned in the wake of revelations that it had bungled the investigation (which is a charitable way of putting it). The WSJ and FoxNews have been exposed as shills for their boss (Murdoch), which is hardly surprising but is hardly going to help their reputations.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave....
Gallons of ink (or gigabytes of blog posts) have already been devoted to this story, but one broader element has received less attention amidst all the juicy personal stuff. What the scandal really teaches us is the dangers that inevitably arise when any single company or individual exercises excessive influence in media circles. Why? Because a healthy democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry, and media oligarchs can use excessive influence to skew what the public knows or believes in order to advance their own political objectives. If the Murdoch scandal doesn't convince you, just look at how Silvio Berlusconi used his media empire to drive his political career and look where Italy is today.
Furthermore, politicians are likely to accommodate powerful media organizations that are willing to play hardball, punishing politicians they didn't like and rewarding officials who played along. The NewsCorp was a master at this, and it is no wonder David Cameron and even Scotland Yard became compliant.
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi's forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."
To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi's force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I'm pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too. But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president's rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama's advisors.
Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers -- whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors -- but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.
I'm generally not inclined to take issue with my FP colleagues, but David Kenner's recent posting on the WikiLeaks release of a cable recounting Saddam Hussein's infamous meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie deserves a response.
In an article headlined "Why One U.S. Diplomat Didn't Cause the Gulf War," Kenner argues that the new release shows that Glaspie should not be blamed for the U.S. failure to make a clear deterrent warning to Saddam. And that is what he accuses me and John Mearsheimer (and the Washington Post) of doing. In his words, "the Washington Post described her as ‘the face of American incompetence in Iraq.' Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer piled on in a 2003 article for Foreign Policy, arguing that Glaspie's remarks unwittingly gave Iraq a green light to invade Kuwait."
I agree that the WikiLeaks release may exonerate Glaspie for being personally responsible for a diplomatic gaffe, but there are two problems with Kenner's version of events.
First, we never accused Glaspie of diplomatic incompetence, and we certainly didn't "pile on." Here's what we actually said in our 2003 piece:
In a now famous interview with the Iraqi leader, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.' The U.S. State Department had earlier told Saddam that Washington had ‘no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait.' The United States may not have intended to give Iraq a green light, but that is effectively what it did."
Notice that we offered no opinion on whether Glaspie was free-lancing, mis-reading Saddam, or simply following orders from Washington. Our article was focused on the issue of whether Saddam was deterrable, and the key issue that concerned us about the Glaspie meeting was whether she had conveyed a clear deterrent threat to Saddam, or whether she might have unintentionally given him reason to think he could go ahead and absorb Kuwait without facing a strong military response from the United States.
Even though I am on vacation with my family this week, I was planning to blog today about the Washington Post's stunning series on the extraordinary expansion of America's intelligence apparatus since 9/11. It is outstanding investigative journalism, and its authors -- Dana Priest and William Arkin -- deserve enormous kudos. I'll share my thoughts on this matter later this week.
Instead of writing today about quality journalism, I unfortunately have to write about an article that fits squarely at the other end of the journalism spectrum. I refer here to the nasty column in Tablet magazine by Lee Smith, denouncing Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Philip Weiss, Jim Lobe and me for being "career Jew-baiters" and serving as facilitators of anti-Semitism.
As one might expect, the piece is long on invective and innuendo but almost completely devoid of meaningful evidence. Its only real value is to once again demonstrate the usual tactics that many of the so-called defenders of Israel employ against anyone who is critical either of Israel's actions or of America's special relationship with Israel.
The first thing to observe about Smith's screed is that even though he accuses me and my fellow bloggers of being anti-Semites and "Jew-baiters," his article contains not a scintilla of evidence that Sullivan, Greenwald, Weiss, or I have written or said anything that is remotely anti-Semitic, much less that involves "Jew-baiting." There's an obvious reason for this omission: None of us has ever written or said anything that supports Smith's outrageous charges.
Smith therefore has to resort to a new and bizarre form of "guilt-by-association." He attacks the four of us-and me in particular-by looking at some of the anonymous reader comments that appear in response to some of our posts. He finds that a few of those individuals who comment make some extreme statements, which he uses to argue that we are deliberately fostering anti-Semitism on our blogs. In other words, we must be anti-Semites because a handful of people whom we don't even know -- because their identities are secret -- are commenting on our posts. (It's not clear how this applies to Sullivan, by the way, because his blog doesn't have a comments thread.)
Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the U.N. Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions."
Dan knows more than I do about the intricacies of economic sanctions, but I can think of two obvious explanations for this apparent paradox. First, as I noted a few days ago, countries like China have little interest in sanctioning Iran, no interest in war, and some interest in prolonging the U.S.-Iranian imbroglio. So they'll drag their feet no matter how popular or unpopular the United States is. Second, we've been down the sanctions road for some time now, and (as one would expect), it's not having any appreciable effect on Iranian behavior. Maybe other states are figuring this out: Why take some costly and inconvenient action when it won't do much good? Obama and the United States may be more popular, but that doesn't make sanctions more effective and therefore international enthusiasm for more of them isn't forthcoming.
NOTE: I will be on the road for the rest of the week, giving a guest lecture at Wesleyan University and attending a conference at Notre Dame, so posting will be dependent on the vagaries of travel and internet access.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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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This week marks the one-year anniversary of FP's on-line re-launch, and thus the one-year anniversary of this blog. So I thought I'd offer a few reflections on what the experience has been like, and what I've learned from it.
I was of course flattered when FP invited me to contribute, but I agreed to do so with some trepidation. I'd done a lot of writing by this point, including for some popular venues, but I had usually found it difficult to write op-eds and short pieces of commentary and therefore hadn't done a lot of it. The only way to attract readers is to provide a fairly constant stream of commentary (i.e., nobody comes back if you only post once a month), and I was worried that I'd find it hard to keep the words and ideas flowing.
Thankfully, that hasn't been a big problem. Although there have been a few slow days where I was less than fully inspired (you may have noticed), its more often the case that I don't have time to post on all the topics that I'd like to discuss. One result is that my respect for those who write a biweekly column in the mainstream media has gone down; it would be a luxury to write only twice a week. Given that most of them aren't teaching classes, chairing committees, or writing letters of recommendation, what do all those big-time columnists do with their time?
I quickly discovered that there is a big difference between blogging and academic scholarship, and one has to approach them with a completely different mental attitude. In academic writing, the overriding imperative is to make things as perfect as you can (even though perfection is impossible), and to take as much time as you have to refine and bolster an argument. When academics write a scholarly book or article, it typically goes through a dozen or so drafts, gets presented and criticized at conferences and seminars, and gets circulated to colleagues for additional feedback. And in some cases (e.g., our book on the Israel lobby), we hired two professional fact checkers to go over every line and then spent an entire week with our editor proofing and fine-tuning.
Needless to say, that's not how the blogosphere works. I sometimes spend a fair bit of time researching what I write here, and I occasionally run a piece past a colleague to get their advice, but there is a premium on being timely and analytically sharp, and you rarely have time to sit, sift, ponder, and deliberate. That means bloggers are by definition writing things that are more provisional. If we're honest, we all have to admit that we're going to get a few big things wrong, or offer opinions that we subsequently conclude are mistaken. I'm reasonably happy with most of what I've posted in the past year, but I confess to a sense of trepidation every time I hit "publish." Advice to would-be bloggers: Bring a sense of humility, but also a thick skin.
Of course, that same sense of immediacy is one of the most gratifying things about having a blog. Instead of writing an op-ed and sending it in to some newspaper, and then waiting for days until some editor rules up or down, I just hit "publish" and it appears. Writing a more-or-less daily commentary forces me to stay more closely in touch with world events, and it has made it imperative to develop new sources and new methods for tracking what others have to say about issues I'm interested in.
Indeed, given the concerns I've sometimes expressed about the "cult of irrelevance" in academe, I've come to believe that blogging ought to be actively encouraged in the academic world. I'm not saying that all political scientists, historians, or economists ought to start their own blogs, but we shouldn't penalize scholars who do engage in this activity and we might even consider rewarding it, the same way we should reward scholars who care enough about public service to use their talents and training working in the public or NGO sector. It would be good for the IR field if academic scholars were expected to write a few blog posts every now and then, if only for the purpose of self-examination. If the typical academic had to write a blog for two weeks, they might discover they had nothing to say to their fellow citizens, couldn't say it clearly, or that nobody cared. That experience might even lead a few of my fellow academics to scratch their heads and ask if they were investing their research time appropriately, which would be all to the good.
What's been the best part so far? First and foremost, I've appreciated the opportunity to participate more actively in the public debate on key topics like U.S. foreign policy, the AfPak dilemma, the ongoing drama in the Middle East, etc.). At the same time, I've also enjoyed exploring more fanciful topics (movies, pop music, sports, novels, holidays), as well as the chance to wander into areas I simply didn't know that much about. Knowing that I had to "feed the beast" each morning has encouraged me to read more widely and keep a notebook of ideas (a useful diversion during boring faculty meetings), and I've found that intellectual spur to be very satisfying.
And as I had hoped, writing this blog has forced me to connect more with the blogosphere itself, which I see as a revolutionary development in mankind's collective conversation. I remain in awe of many of my fellow bloggers -- there are simply far too many for me to mention them all -- and I wish I had more time to wander the net and search out nuggets of insight that aren't likely to make into more conventional formats (at least not yet). I've also appreciated the supportive emails I've received from lots of readers, and even smiled at some of the snarky comments from some who seem less-than-enthralled (if not downright hostile). Forgive me if I don't read them all or respond; I am trying to retain some semblance of a normal life.
The downside? Obvious: it's a big time-sink, and I'm still trying to figure out how to write my next book while doing this gig. Writing a solo blog can have a certain treadmill-like quality to it, and there have been a few mornings where I approach my laptop with a sense of obligation rather than zest. And there are those cringe-worthy moments when I realize I've made an obvious mistake; thankfully, there haven't been too many of those.
But on the whole, it's been a fun ride and I'm looking forward to Year 2. If peace breaks out, expect to read more about arts and music and less about fear, greed, stupidity, corruption and other enduring features of world politics. But don't hold your breath.
Like some of you, I ran out of time to shop for a few people this year. But I wanted them to know what I would have gotten them if I had more time. Here are a few holiday presents that I offer in spirit (or if you prefer, in theory).
1. For Rebecca Frankel, my ace editor at FP, a new edition of Photoshop. She picks all the great pictures that accompany my posts: just imagine what she could do if she could take a stock image and alter it. How about Obama's head on Angela Merkel's body or a photo-shopped picture of Dick Cheney, Hugo Chavez, and Ayatollah Khameini swapping stories about civil liberties? Becky's done a terrific job of making this blog visually striking, and I appreciate her efforts greatly.
2. For Barack Obama, a signed copy of Taming American Power, with a bookmark at chapter 5: ("Foreign Policy in the National Interest"). Given the pounding the president took this past year from Benjamin Netanyahu and his American friends, there's nothing I could teach him about the Israel lobby, so no need to send him that one. Plus he has probably read it anyway, but just can't admit it.
3. For David Rothkopf, a DVD of Yoav Shamir's terrific documentary on anti-Semitism -- Defamation -- which he should find educational. I probably ought to include a valium with the card.
4. For my students, a promise to grade your exams in a benevolent frame of mind. That means that I promise not to start grading until at least one hour after reading the morning papers. And if I happen to read the op-ed page of either the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal, I'll wait a good two hours.
5. For my readers: a pledge to keep trying to enlighten, amuse, and confound you in 2010. I've learned a lot from writing this blog, and I hope many of you have too. I wish you all a warm and joyous holiday, and may 2010 be more benign than a realist would expect.
DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.