I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants -- Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas -- made an intriguing observation. With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:
"Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?"
Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we're damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don't. And then he concluded:
"At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn't give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people's problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write "Hic Dragones" on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community."
Though I have some reservations about Green's second point -- i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that "what we do" does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East -- I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the "Arab Spring" can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of "vital U.S. interests?"
Green's closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine "vital interests" (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of "vital interests" is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
What the heck were British officials thinking when they detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow Airport? As you can read about here, they kept him in custody for nine hours and confiscated a bunch of computer equipment, thumb drives, and the like. They did so under the auspices of Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2000, which authorizes detentions of persons suspected of being “involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."
As you’d expect, this foolish yet chilling act of official intimidation is being rightly condemned by Greenwald himself, and by commentators like Andrew Sullivan here. But I’m intrigued by the question of motivation: what did the British government hope to accomplish by doing this? I don’t know, but here are some possibilities that occurred to me.
First, it’s possible that this was just an act of overzealous low-level counter-terror bureaucrats, operating without official approval. But this explanation seems very unlikely: why would low-level functionaries single out Miranda (who was just transiting through Heathrow on his way back to Rio) and detain him for nine hours, all the while questioning him about his partner’s reporting on the NSA? And for that matter, how did he get on a watch list that would allow the British authorities to pluck him out from the thousands of people who stream through that airport every day? So I think we can rule out pure bureaucratic politics or low-level blundering as the explanation here.
Second, perhaps British officials were genuinely worried that Miranda (and by association, Greenwald and Laura Poitras) might be actively engaged in terrorism. But this is daft: whatever you think of Greenwald’s politics and journalistic activities, there isn’t the slightest basis for suspecting that he or his associates have ever endorsed or supported terrorism in any way. If British officials genuinely harbored such suspicions, we ought to be really worried about the quality of thinking inside these organizations.
Third, maybe they suspected that Miranda was transporting more of the information provided by Edward Snowden, information that had yet to be made public. In this version, they stopped him and seized the thumb drives, etc., to prevent another round of juicy revelations in the Guardian. Yet this account makes no sense either, because it assumes that Greenwald and Poitras aren’t smart enough to have made copies of any material that Miranda might have had on his person. If that was the goal, then detaining and harassing him accomplished nothing.
Fourth, maybe this was intended primarily as an act of intimidation: the British government was letting Greenwald know that they can harass his partner if he keeps releasing more materials that are….um….embarrassing to Britain’s U.S. ally. It sends the clear message to Greenwald that he's being watched, and those near to him are too. Greenwald himself believes that this was the motivation for the UK government’s action, and he may well be right. But if so, then it was also a completely lame-brained act on Britain’s part: you don’t need a triple-digit IQ to figure out that Greenwald is not the sort of person who can be intimidated in this fashion. On the contrary, his entire career as a blogger, writer, and journalist has been driven by the desire to expose and challenging abuses of power, and making him the personal object of this sort of abuse is hardly going to make him cease writing and go back to being a corporate lawyer. So if that was the goal, somebody in the UK counter-terror operation either hasn’t been paying attention, isn't very bright, or both.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that this was an act of petty bureaucratic vengeance. It was the outraged bleat of a transnational national security apparatus that is used to having its own way and generally disdainful of genuine oversight. In both the United States and the UK, as well as lots of other countries, the broad national security/intelligence bureaucracies are accustomed to acting with enormous latitude and autonomy. They get to decide what is secret and what is not, and they get to decide when it is ok to leak something to reporters and when it is preferable to prosecute someone for leaking or reporting. Most of the people doing these things undoubtedly believe that it is for the good of the nation; it just has the ancillary benefit of insulating them from annoying questions or criticisms from the rest of us.
They’re ticked off at people like Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, Assange, etc., because they just aren’t playing ball. And these critics and leakers have in fact released a lot of material that has punctured various myths about what officialdom is really doing. And officialdom is probably worried that if the veil of secrecy gets torn back further, ordinary citizens might be disturbed by what they learn and might start demanding that things change. Indeed, Snowden’s revelations about the NSA have already provoked movement for reform, and it would hardly be surprising if a few people in the vast world of intelligence and counterterrorism decided it was time for some payback.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Last week President Barack Obama proposed some modifications to the National Security Agency's program of domestic surveillance, but he missed a golden opportunity to build political support for the various programs that have been secretly vacuuming up phone records with little or no restraint. In particular, he could have directed the NSA to use all the information in a way that would benefit all Americans and make them appreciate what the NSA is up to.
What should he have done? Simple. Right now, Americans are routinely pestered by endless phone calls from marketers, political campaigns, nonprofit organizations, alumni fundraisers, and all sorts of other scummy people who don't mind interrupting you throughout your day. Signing up for the Federal Communications Commission's "do not call" registry doesn't do much good, as fly-by-night phone bank operators and robocallers routinely ignore these restrictions. I know: We probably get a dozen or more of these robocalls every day, and often at the most inconvenient times. You probably do too.
Here's an idea: Use the NSA's vast trove of phone information to put these guys out of business. If the NSA really does have access to all that phone data and is good at using computer algorithms to sift and sort it as everyone seems to think, why not use it to build an unassailable case against the organizations and businesses that are violating all those "do not call" laws? I mean: If the NSA really can eavesdrop on an al Qaeda conference call, surely documenting abuse of the "do not call" law would be child's play.
I know, I know: The NSA isn't supposed to do "domestic surveillance" or get involved in prosecuting Americans for domestic crimes. But it erased that line a while back, didn't it? If the NSA were used to put robocallers out of business, at least Americans would see some tangible, positive benefit for all the money spent spying on them.
Postscript: I hope you didn't miss the irony in Obama's announcement that the NSA's surveillance practices need to be modified. Had Edward Snowden not brought the NSA's current abuses to light, Obama (and the country) would never have recognized the need for a policy change. In other words, Obama was tacitly acknowledging that Snowden did us all a favor by revealing how out of control the NSA programs had become. But instead of getting our thanks (or at least granting a presidential pardon for the laws Snowden may have broken), Obama has moved heaven and earth to try to apprehend him. Ironic indeed.
Photo thumbnail: Lambert/Getty Images
What can I possibly add to the torrent of words, videos, tweets, and blogs that have proliferated since the coup in Cairo? Not much, I fear. But for what it may be worth, here's what has been going through my mind since the Egyptian Army stepped in and seized power last week.
First, we still have no idea where Egypt is headed, especially in light of the violence that broke out in the last 24 hours. As Simon Schama noted in the Financial Times, revolutionary upheavals tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with many unexpected twists and turns. The French Revolution proceeded through several distinct phases and abortive constitutions before culminating in Napoleon's coup d'état of 18 Brumaire. The Russian Revolution was equally turbulent, and the Bolsheviks' triumph was never preordained and the resulting Soviet Union did not emerge in its final Stalinist form for years after the storming of the Winter Palace.
Or consider events closer to home. The survival of "these United States" was hardly inevitable following victory in the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution that Americans now venerate wasn't even in place until more than a decade after 1776. As the early republic struggled, I can just imagine a bigoted 18th-century English version of David Brooks sneering that the former colonists lacked the "mental equipment" for self-government.[[LATEST]]
So the first and most important point is the need for patience; this isn't going to get resolved in a week or a month or even a year.
Second, for all the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood in its first experience in office, no one should be pleased by what is now transpiring in Egypt. Under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, the Egyptian military presided over decades of economic and social stagnation and rampant corruption, not to mention torture and widespread human rights abuses. There's no reason to believe the generals know how to restore Egypt's cratering economy or unite its fractious political factions, which is why they were reluctant to take a leading role and will try to turn power back to civilians (at least symbolically) as soon as they can.
But the recent turn toward violence is especially ominous, as it heralds the possibility of a civil war in a country of some 80 million. We are not there yet, but trends are in the wrong direction.
To repeat my first point, the struggle to create a legitimate, pluralist, and minimally competent government in Egypt has a long, long way to go.
Third, Americans should take a deep breath and recognize that Washington's ability to influence these events will be extremely limited. If Egypt's own people do not know where they are headed, if violence escalates, and if none of the contending forces are fully in control, then it would be folly for outsiders to think they can safely steer these events from afar. Moreover, given America's past support for Hosni Mubarak and the widespread Egyptian belief that "Mother America" is secretly pulling strings, any sort of heavy-handed U.S. interference is as likely to backfire as to succeed. If ever a set of events called for "benevolent neglect" and keeping one's distance, this is it.
Fourth, the good news, such as it is, is that vital U.S. interests are not really engaged here. I know that sounds like a radical statement, but it really isn't. Egypt is not a great power or a major oil producer, and there is no remotely plausible path by which the outcome in Egypt would make Americans substantially poorer or less secure at home. The United States would like to see the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty survive, of course, but even the worst Egypt you can imagine would be no match for heavily armed and well-trained Israelis, who beat Egypt soundly every time they fought in the past, and usually under less favorable conditions. Israel has a powerful nuclear deterrent to boot. An end to the peace treaty would not be a good thing, but it is not an existential threat to Israel and still less to the United States.
Indeed, given Egypt's parlous economic condition, whatever sort of government eventually emerges will be in no position to make regional waves. It will be in desperate need of trade, investment, and tourism for many years to come, and it will need good relations with as many countries as possible. Whether governed by the Egyptian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, or some sort of coalition, it will pose little threat to any of its neighbors or to key U.S. interests.
Finally, I continue to believe that the Arab Spring is a watershed from which there is no turning back. I could be wrong -- the revolutions of 1848 ultimately fizzled -- but I do not think the Arab world can or will remain aloof from the broader global trend toward more participatory government. The road will be bumpy, contingent, and uncertain, and there is no guarantee that Western-style liberal democracy will be the end result. But I am still convinced that future Arab governments will be far more sensitive to popular sentiment than most of their predecessors were and that this development will eventually be a positive one.
Just not anytime soon.
The following guest post is an edited version of an email I received from a friend in Cairo who prefers to remain anonymous. Note that it was written prior to the Egyptian Army's July 1 "ultimatum" to President Mohamed Morsy.
A view from the Nile, 30 June 2013
I have moved along a spectrum of opinion on how Egyptians see their nation and their situation, and I want to share a few impressions about how Egyptians view how change can occur in their country.
Organizing for the anniversary of their first presidential election
I began both excited and dismayed at their naivete when the Tamarod ("Rebel") campaign began gathering signatures around a month ago to pressure President Mohamed Morsy to resign. Egypt has no impeachment process, so to a foreign political scientist, it seemed a bit pointless to gather signatures that could have no legal effect on removing Morsy from office. "Perhaps they were also gathering email or Facebook addresses in order to develop a more organized movement?" I thought. But no, it was mostly a mobilizing effort.
Over the months since the last big anti-government protests on the second anniversary of the revolution's start, Jan. 25, much activity outside government had fallen to a lull. People had gotten tired, and the Tamarod campaign was an effort to re-energize and develop a base -- to tap into the "undecideds," that range of Egyptians -- mostly urban in Cairo and a number of the larger Nile delta cities -- who were relatively neutral about what was happening in politics. Over this month, Tamarod collected its goal of 15 million signatures (it announced 22 million signatures gathered yesterday) and during the process gained attention and a seat at the table with the established anti-government political opposition parties. (Note: At the same time, a pro-government signature-gathering campaign began and is now claiming to have gathered 25 million signatures.)
Still, I questioned Tamarod's effectiveness -- how could it accomplish anything except for having people in the streets? -- until a little over a week ago.
Whom do you trust?
One of the two core challenges in this current dynamic is the fact that there are only two institutions that its people trust. While Americans have trust and confidence (at various times) in the media, the president, elections, the Supreme Court, local elected officials, and maybe even their police, Egyptians really only have two: the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF -- often just referred to as the Army for shorthand, but it includes a navy and an air force among a few other services) and their devout faith for Islam. This is not a political Islam for a majority but a spirituality that, at most, imbues their every action in life and, at least, encourages a sense of surrender and acceptance -- the idea that there are many things beyond one's control and the best you can do is to do your best.
The EAF and their faith are the two institutions that they feel they can rely on, trust, and believe in. They have been the constants -- before and after the revolution -- and the ones that they hope will "come to their rescue" against the current difficult situation. When foreigners tell them "trust in your institutions," they think we are telling them to trust in the current corruptness -- which includes their courts, elections, police, presidency, etc -- which they don't see changing. As a result, our message "sent" is not the message "received." Instead, they believe that we are telling them to stay with something that is unacceptable to them.
The second challenge of the current dynamic is Egyptians' perception that the only way they have been able to achieve any real change in their system -- and in their elected government's behavior -- has been through street protests and demonstrations. Hosni Mubarak fell due to 18 days of protest. Morsy changed his stance on extensive presidential oversight and power in the draft of the Egyptian Constitution only after massive street protests last November and early December. The decision to call for earlier parliamentary elections (which later was undone) was achieved after the Jan. 25 protests this year. Hence, Egyptians' almost supernatural belief in the ability of the demonstrations -- starting June 28 -- to force a change in the government.
For non-Egyptian government officials watching from Berlin or Washington, this is a recipe for extreme civil unrest at best and civil war at worst. Yet again, for the anti-government protesters, they feel, they believe, that they have their deus ex machina to pluck Egypt from chaos and into, hopefully, a do-over. The Egyptian Armed Forces have very clearly said that they exist to protect the nation of Egypt and its people. In the most obvious form, this is protecting vital national infrastructure and resources -- the Suez Canal, the power supply system, the water system, the communications system. Statements by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the past weeks also indicate his and the EAF's dismay and disappointment at the inability of the civilian elected government, political opposition, and media to come to agreements on how to run and support the country. At the same time, Sisi and his messengers have been very clear that they really truly do not want to return to their role of running the country as they did during the 18 months after the fall of Mubarak.
The stated scenario (some might call fantasy) of many opposing the current government is a temporary military takeover that cleans out the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and sets the stage for a temporary caretaker government (the media has reported on a council of three), a rewriting of the Constitution, the election of a house of representatives (their lower house of parliament), and then the presidential election. This scenario has enormous support among the population that opposes the current government. For them, this is not a coup d'etat -- it is how Egypt can save itself. For the rest of Egypt, who voted for and still support President Morsy (slightly dwindling in the delta area but still at around 43 percent overall), this would be an undoing of a legitimate political process of elections -- and one that those in the United States and Europe endorse and hold as the standard for the transfer of power.
A wide range of Egyptians is planning to turn out for the demonstrations. Tamarod has helped educate and mobilize them. They feel it is another "January 25" moment. They want to be counted because they want to believe their numbers will affect the decisions of President Morsy. In retrospect, they now think that if Mubarak had addressed the public's demands within the first few days after Jan. 25, 2011, he could have retained power and started to change the system. Some of them are hoping for such an inspired moment of compromise by Morsy and his government. The only prediction that I have been willing to make is that I expect the demonstrations to be relatively peaceful (and in Egypt, that is a relative word) on June 30. But if change doesn't occur within the first few days, then I could see violence developing by the end of the week. I could see the presidency declaring emergency law (essentially martial law) and then the question for the Army will be "Who's side are you on?"
MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images
The National Security Agency has done us all a service by reminding the world that international politics is still a) inherently competitive and b) primarily conducted by nation-states. I refer, of course, to the recent revelations that in addition to spying on U.S. citizens, the National Security Agency (NSA) has also been spying on America's European allies. You know: our closest strategic partners!
Cue the old line from Casablanca ("I'm shocked, shocked…"). As former NSA head Michael Hayden retorted on a Sunday news show: "No. 1: The United States does conduct espionage.… No. 2: Our Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans' privacy, is not an international treaty. And No. 3: Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing."
Never mind that the Fourth Amendment isn't doing a great job of protecting Americans' privacy either. The broader point is that the NSA's activities in Europe provide a striking counter to the idealistic rhetoric about transatlantic solidarity that we been accustomed to hearing for the past 50 years or more. During the Cold War, both the United States and its European allies had good reasons to emphasize common political values and invoke phrases and symbols of an "Atlantic Community." Power politics was always the real reason for NATO and transatlantic cooperation, but feel-good rhetoric about how we were all in this together and part of a broader political community helped paper over differences about burden-sharing and disguise the degree to which the alliance was always dominated by the United States. Charles de Gaulle was perhaps the only prominent European leader who took serious issue with this conception, but even he never did anything that threatened the basic principles of this Atlantic order.
No, Virginia, we are not a "transatlantic community" in any meaningful sense of that term. It's not even clear if the European community is going to hold together in the future as it has in the recent past, given the travails of the eurozone and the residual power of nationalism throughout the continent. What we are is a set of national states whose interests align in many areas, but not everywhere. And that's also why various proposals for a global "League of Democracies" were always a bit silly: Sharing a democratic system is too weak a reed on which to rest a global alliance. Even democratic states experience conflicts of interest with each other, and as the NSA has now shown, they continue to see each other as competitors and spy on each other in order to seize various advantages.
So nobody should be surprised that the United States was using its superior technical capacity to try to gain an edge on its European partners, and you can be sure that America's European allies have been spying on the United States too, if not as extensively or as expensively.
What will it mean? One might expect Europeans to protest loudly -- if only to appease their offended publics -- but then revert to type and do little concrete in response. After all, America's European partners have a long history of deferring to Washington, and it's not entirely clear why anyone should expect them to grow a real backbone now. I can't quite see David Cameron, François Hollande, or even Angela Merkel doing anything really bold or confrontational, can you? And as Hayden suggests, it's not like they aren't doing similar things in their own fashion.
Which is not to say this aspect of the Snowden affair won't have significant consequences. Exposure of the NSA's efforts is bound to complicate efforts to negotiate a transatlantic trade and investment agreement, an initiative that faced plenty of obstacles already. It is also going to give ammunition to all those people who are worried about the globalization of information and who would like to see governments do more to protect privacy and limit both corporate and governmental data-collection. And that makes me wonder whether we are now at the high-water mark of loosely regulated global connectivity, and that all these revelations will eventually lead both democracies and authoritarian societies to place much stricter limits on how information flows between societies (and individuals).
If so, then you should probably enjoy the Wild West of Internet freedom while you can, before the firewalls go up.
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As I said a couple of posts ago, I began my trip to Europe at a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." It was a fascinating event, in part because it brought together two tribes that don't interact very often and have relatively few overlapping members.
In one group were various foreign-policy or IR scholars (myself, Dan Drezner, Beth Simmons, Karl Kaiser, John Mearsheimer, Rob Paarlberg, etc.); in the other group was a diverse collection of computer science experts, Internet entrepreneurs, communications scholars, and experts on Internet governance (e.g., Susan Crawford, Adam Bye, Milton Mueller, Zeynep Tufekci, Terry Roberts, Ben Scott, etc.). There were also some journalists, business leaders, and other academics who don't fit neatly in either group
As several people commented at the conference, it was interesting to see how differently the two main groups tended to approach these issues. To oversimplify, the IR/FP types tended to see the Internet as an important but not revolutionary development. In this view, it will affect some of the things that states did (or how they did them), but it isn't a transformative development that is going to alter the balance of power, shift the agenda of world affairs in fundamental ways, or render international politics substantially more benign. By contrast, most of the "Internet experts" seemed to have greater confidence in its revolutionary potential, saw the integration of markets, data, and individual platforms as a game-changer, and emphasized that states really had to get up to speed on its impact and implications. They were also (mostly) in agreement on the need for much better global cooperation on many of these questions.
The conference was planned long before L'affaire Snowden, so the timing was really remarkably fortuitous. As you might expect, there was a lot of discussion about what Edward Snowden's disclosures would mean for the broader question of Internet governance, privacy, social media, and politics more generally. There was a pretty broad consensus that the revelations about NSA surveillance and cyber-espionage had done a lot of damage to the U.S. position on a lot of cybersecurity issues, at least in terms of the United States' ability to lead the world toward some sort of a legal regime. As many people have already noted, how can Washington complain about Chinese hacking, global cybercrime, and all sorts of other bad things when it is clearly spending millions of dollars doing similar things itself?
At the heart of all this discussion is a very profound set of Brave New World-ish issues: Can we trust governments or private corporations to know this much about us, our preferences, our network of friends and associates, and even what we write or say to each other? The potential for abuse is enormous; the dangers of subtle forms of intimidation are real, and we are still in the earliest phase of these global developments. At the same time, the benefits of all this interconnectivity are already vast. To take a trivial example, it's why I can sit in a hotel room in Oslo and type this, and then ship it to FP at the speed of light. Interconnectivity empowers and enriches, but it also can threaten, incriminate, or enslave.
And as one participant observed, perhaps the most likely possibility is that we will see a partial convergence between authoritarian systems like the People's Republic of China and open democracies like Britain and the United States. Instead of empowering individuals and forcing monarchies and dictatorships to liberalize, the connectivity revolution could cause democracies and dictatorships to move somewhat closer together. Dictatorships will be less able to prevent new ideas from circulating and may even be vulnerable to collective action facilitated by social media (see under: Arab Spring). So they will become somewhat more open. But at the same time, previously open societies that privileged privacy and strictly limited government monitoring will be unable to resist the temptation to collect lots of private data, whether from surveillance cameras or from your laptop. Authoritarian states may get somewhat weaker, while liberal governments become somewhat more intrusive and authoritarian.
I'm not saying this development is inevitable, but it hardly seems like a remote possibility given recent events. There's also the possibility that states will start to retreat the vision of one-world united by digital data, with different countries adopting Chinese-style firewalls of various types to keep others from snooping as they do today. Might today's world be the high-water mark of globalized Internet access? I tend to think not, but I can't rule that out either. Somehow, I tend to think the real answer will be determined not by people of my generation, but by all those young people who are a lot more wired than most people my age. So I'm going to ask my kids just as soon as I get home.
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
You might think that you don't need to worry about the secret U.S. government programs to collect phone and Internet information on ordinary Americans, a program that is not quite so secret after last week's revelations. There are over 300 million Americans, after all, and the vast majority of their online and cell-phone communications have nothing to do with national security and are unlikely to attract any scrutiny. We are still some ways from Big Brother, "Minority Report," or "The Adjustment Bureau," and maybe we can trust the nameless, largely anonymous army of defense contractors and government employees (by one source numbering more than 800,000) to handle all that data responsibly. Yeah, right.
In fact, you should be worried, but not because most of you are likely to have your privacy violated and be publicly exposed. If you're an ordinary citizen who never does anything to attract any particular attention, you probably don't need to be concerned. Even if your Internet and phone records contain information you'd rather not be made public (an online flirtation, the time you emailed a friend to bring over some pot, or maybe some peculiar porn habits), there's safety in numbers, and you'll probably never be exposed.
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?
My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Vigorous debate on key issues is essential to a healthy democracy, and it is essential that outsiders be able to scrutinize and challenge what public officials are up to. People who work for the federal, state, and local governments aren't privileged overlords to whom we owe obeisance; in a democracy, they are public servants who work for us. Right now, however, there are hundreds of thousands of public servants (including private contractors with fat government contracts) who are busy collecting information about every one of us. Citizens don't have similar resources to devote to watching what our elected and appointment officials are doing, so we must rely on journalists, academics, and other independent voices to ferret out wrongdoing, government malfeasance, corruption, or just plain honest mistakes. But if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before -- and via completely legal means -- then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.
In short, the real reason you should be worried about these revelations of government surveillance is not that you're likely to be tracked, prosecuted, or exposed. You should be worried because it is another step in the process of making our vibrant, contentious, and most of all free-minded citizenry into a nation of sheep.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Thanks to some intrepid work by Glenn Greenwald and others, we now know a lot more about the secret surveillance that the U.S. government has been doing in recent years. If you're an American, bear in mind that all this has been paid for by your tax dollars. You should also remember that the issue isn't how these capabilities might be used by politicians you happen to like; it's how they might be abused by politicians you despise or might have reason to fear.
I don't have any stunning new insights to offer on this matter, except to reiterate my earlier point -- which you can read at greater length here -- that these developments are directly connected to the broader course of U.S. foreign policy.
Schematic version: One of the main purposes of government is to provide security. Ergo, when people are scared, they are more willing to let public officials take extreme actions in the name of "national security," including: 1) excessive secrecy laws, 2) prosecution of (some) whistle-blowers or leakers (except when authorized by those at the top), 3) preventive or preemptive wars, 4) targeted assassinations of suspected enemies, and 5) extraordinary rendition and/or torture. A population that is really scared will also turn a blind eye to all sorts of other dubious policies, including support for unsavory allies and the creation/maintenance of disproportionately large defense capabilities. Both dictators and democrats have been aware of these realities for centuries and have used public fears to justify any number of questionable actions.
This situation gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats. When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: "Ah, but if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me."
And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they "hate our freedoms" and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of "evil." If this gets expensive, then cheaper ways to do it must be found, but what doesn't stop is the open-ended effort to meddle in other countries. This in turn requires even more energetic efforts to conceal what government officials are up to, both to prevent foreign populations from being fully aware of what the United States is doing and to prevent Americans from connecting the dots or questioning the wisdom of the effort.
As James Madison famously warned:
"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Madison was a very smart guy.
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I'm not an expert on Turkey and so I don't have much to add to the chorus of commentary about recent events there. My own view of the AKP era in Turkey is mixed: I've been impressed by its economic achievements and by the energy, creativity and acumen of the various foreign policy officials with whom I've had the pleasure of interacting over the past five years or so. In particular, I've often found their views on regional affairs to be insightful and well-informed, though of course not infallible.
But there's also been a worrisome authoritarian undercurrent to the AKP's rule, including assaults on press freedoms, badly-run prosecutions of political opponents and alleged coup plotters, and PM Erdogan's tendency to think that he knows what's best for Turkey's citizens, even when they disagree. And it's always a worrisome sign when a leader blames internal opposition to his policies on "foreign agents" and Twitter.
But let me offer a few (relatively uniformed) thoughts on recent events. The first is that the current upheaval may -- repeat, may -- turn out to be a salutary development in Turkey's political evolution. Turkey's democracy is still a work-in-progress, and both its formal institutions and the guiding norms are in flux. (Remember: Turkey was a politically moribund, economically stagnant, and sometimes brutal military dictatorship not so very long ago). The current backlash against the Erdogan government is a reminder to the AKP that a Parliamentary majority is not a license to impose whatever the ruling party leadership wants; at least not if those same leaders also want a reasonably tranquil society. And if the current tug of war eventually leads Turkey to develop institutions that limit the "tyranny of the majority," it will be a salutary development in the history of Turkish government. Stay tuned.
Second, Americans ought to recognize that their influence over these developments is limited. President Obama reportedly has a good working relationship with Erdogan and can offer constructive advice if asked, and he should make it clear that a continued drift toward authoritarianism will make it harder to maintain close U.S.-Turkish relations in the future. (Yes, I know the U.S. has close ties with other authoritarian governments, but we already expect more from Turkey and Ankara doesn't have lots of oil). I have tried to make this point in my own conversations with Turkish officials, journalists, and scholars, though I doubt my words carried a great deal of weight. Turkey's leaders are likely to follow their own counsel; the big question is whether they will begin to recognize that no leader or party is infallible and that listening to popular sentiment-including the sentiments of those who didn't vote for you -- is almost always a smart political strategy.
As I tweeted yesterday, if I could assign the AKP leadership one book to read, it would be James Scott's Seeing Like a State: Why Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. It's long been one of my favorite books, because it shows how authoritarian governments get into trouble when they adopt ambitious plans for social engineering (often based on some sort of far-reaching "modernist" ideology) and when there are no political mechanisms available to check their ambitions. The results are uniformly disastrous, as the cases of Stalinist collectivized agriculture or Mao's "Great Leap Forward" attest, largely because overly ambitious schemes inevitably generate unintended consequences and tone-deaf authoritarian leaders won't recognize things are going wrong until it is too late. (That can happen in democracies too, by the way, as the Bush administration's sorry experience in Iraq shows all too well).
Turkey under the AKP is a very long way from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, of course, but the lessons of Scott's book are still useful. Democracy is a messy form of government, and as the current state of American and British politics shows, it has its own forms of gridlock and dysfunction. But healthy democracies do tend to be self-correcting (as the 2008 presidential election showed), and so are less likely to drive themselves completely off a cliff. Does anyone know if Seeing Like a State is available in Turkish?
Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
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A couple of years ago I devoted a couple of blog posts to arguing that allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the military made good strategic sense. My logic was straightforward: We want to attract the best people to military service and any sort of artificial restriction (such as banning gays, or any other social group) inevitably reduces the talent pool from which the country can draw. The result would be a weaker military than we would otherwise have. I'm certain my posts had exactly zero impact on President Obama's subsequent decision to end "don't ask, don't tell," but I was certainly happy when he did.
I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have any firm views on how the Supreme Court is going to handle the issue of gay marriage that is now before it. But I do think a parallel argument can be made about the effect of allowing gay marriage on U.S. foreign policy and national security. Specifically, permitting gay people to marry in the United States would have positive effects on both.
First, ending discrimination against gay couples is going to make the United States a more attractive place for gay people to live, especially when compared to societies that do not permit gay marriage or that actively discriminate (and in some cases, criminalize) being gay. Accordingly, some number of gay people are going to seek to emigrate to the United States, just as some gay Americans are now choosing to live abroad so that their relationships can be legally recognized and protected. The United States has long benefited from its attractiveness as a place to live and work, especially by attracting talented people who are being persecuted elsewhere. The United States would have gained greatly had someone like Alan Turing had known he could find a welcoming home here.
Permitting gay marriage isn't going to cause a flood of gay foreigners to flood our shores, but at the margin, it will make the United States a more attractive destination for some. Which would be to our overall benefit.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, legalizing gay marriage would reinforce America's public commitment to individual liberty and freedom, and its parallel commitment to non-discrimination. More than anything else, that commitment is America's global brand. In this country, the government doesn't tell you where to live, doesn't tell you what job to pursue, doesn't tell you what God to worship, and doesn't tell you who to fall in love with. At the same time, the government also says that you should not discriminate against those who happen to be different from you in some way. Instead, you are supposed to treat them as individuals and to expect the same in return.
But in most parts of the United States, the government does tell you that if you are in love with someone of your own gender, you aren't eligible for the same recognition and benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy. That's not as punishing a policy as slavery or Jim Crow or some of the other forms of discrimination that our country has practiced (and gradually abandoned), but it is still a source of considerable unhappiness for many gay couples and it is fundamentally at odds with our normal claim to privilege individual freedom of choice over category distinctions.
This enduring commitment to individual freedom and choice, and this fundamental hostility to the idea that some groups are better or worse than others, is central to what the United States stands for as a society. In other countries, ethnic and sectarian differences abound and sometimes explode in violence. Similar things have happened here, and racial, religious, or ethnic tensions still exist in many places, but our abiding commitment to individual freedom is like a solvent that continually works to erode the idea that you can judge someone merely by knowing what social group they are from. Martin Luther King dreamt that his children "would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And the same logic applies to sexual preference. In America, we should judge all people by their own individual characters, not by the gender they happen to prefer as lovers and partners.
Like those who once opposed interracial marriage or gays serving in the military, opponents of gay marriage have manufactured a bunch of bogus arguments about how allowing gays to marry would either damage children or undermine the institution of marriage itself. These arguments are pretty preposterous on their face. If anything, extending the right to marry to gay couples only reinforces the idea that stable, loving relationships between committed partners are a solid bedrock for society, as well as a profound source of long-term happiness. That's the main reason why opinion on this issue has shifted so rapidly in recent years. As homosexuality lost its stigma and straight Americans had more and more openly gay friends, the idea that married gay couples were some sort of subversive threat to society seemed increasingly ludicrous. As it should.
In American jurisprudence, the courts often look to whether the state has a "compelling interest" in regulating or interfering in some domain of activity. In this case, I'd argue that to the extent the state has an interest in this matter, that interest lies overwhelming in extending the privileges (and obligations) of marriage to all Americans. Not just because it is consistent with our commitment to liberty and to equality under the law, but also because it will be good for our global image, national cohesion, and even our long-term strength and prosperity.
So if you're still having trouble backing gay marriage on the simple grounds of fairness, you might consider supporting it on the basis of national security instead.
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What's going on in Egypt? The short answer is: precisely what we should have expected. What is happening is obviously disturbing, but it is also a completely predictable and probably protracted struggle for power. And unless the "Arab spring" is quite atypical, the political revolutions that began two years ago are going to take years to work out.
To summarize a passage from my 1996 book Revolution and War:
"Revolutions are usually (invariably?) characterized by violence. Even when the old regime collapses quickly, there is likely to be a violent struggle afterwards. The issues at stake are enormous, because the process of redefining a political community places everyone's future at risk. Until a new order is firmly established, no one is safe from exclusion and the temptation to use force to enhance one's position is difficult to resist. The possibility that winners will take all and losers will lose everything heightens the level of suspicion and insecurity. Fears of plots and conspiracies abound. Disagreements over specific policies can become life-or-death struggles . . . and achieving consensus on what new rules and institutions should govern the society is likely to be a difficult and prolonged process. In sum, revolutions are deadly serious contests for extremely high stakes." [pp. 20-21]
The history of modern revolutions confirms this view. The American Revolution was comparatively benign (though it did involve both a war of independence and the persecution and expulsion of the defeated loyalists), but more than a decade passed from the signing of the original Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. The original Articles of Confederation (1783) proved wholly inadequate, and the fight over the new Constitutions was protracted and sometimes bitter. Nor should we forget that the Founding Fathers sometimes saw each other as near-treasonous, and disputes between different factions were even more contentious than the partisan wrangling we observe today.
The French Revolution was equally protracted: it began in 1789, but Louis XVI was not deposed until 1792 and revolutionary France was convulsed by recurring struggles for power and several distinct governments and constitutions before Napoleon Bonaparte finally seized power in 1799 and eventually declared himself Emperor. By this standard, Egypt has a very long way to go.
The Russian Revolution was also a prolonged process: the Romanov dynasty was initially replaced by Kerensky's Provisional Government in March 1917, which was then ousted by the Bolshevik coup in November. But the Bolsheviks had to fight and win a protracted civil war and repel several foreign interventions before they consolidated their hold on power, a process not completed until the mid-1920s. Infighting among the Soviet leaders continued until Stalin was able to eliminate his various rivals and emerge supreme in the early 1930s.
The revolutions in Turkey, Mexico, China, and Iran were also violent and uncertain affairs, and in each case it took years before the final form of the new regime was reasonably well-established. Mao Zedong famously said that "a revolution is not a dinner party," and one might merely add that they are rarely, if ever, short.
There are several lessons to take from this quick history. First, unless the old guard somehow manages to regain full power quickly (thereby cutting off the revolutionary process), what is happening in Egypt (and elsewhere) will take a long time to work itself out. You cannot dismantle the rules and institutions of a political order and create new ones overnight. Even if you try, the various groups that have been mobilized through this process won't just nod and accept them, especially the new rules favor some groups more than others. What you get instead, of course, is a protracted struggle for power whose outcome is often highly contingent.
Second, outside powers can influence this process, but they cannot do so predictably. In fact, the more extensive and heavy-handed outside interference is, the more likely it is to backfire. In the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, for example, outside interference helped radicalize the revolution, allowed hardliners to use nationalism and foreign threats as a pretext to crush more moderate forces, thereby producing precisely the outcome that the external powers opposed. It follows that outsiders (to include the United States) need to show enormous patience and a very light touch when dealing with these turbulent situations.
Third, the central theme of my earlier book was the revolutions tend to increase security competition and increase the risk of war. Among other things, they do this by 1) altering the balance of power, 2) creating fears of contagion, 3) encouraging spirals of suspicion, 4) bringing inexperienced elites to power, and 5) creating apparent "windows of opportunity" or necessity. Revolutions do not make war inevitable, but they do make it more likely. And one could argue that we are now in the early stages of just this sort of process, with a proxy war going on in Syria, continued strife in Gaza, and as-yet unresolved political contestation in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and several other places.
Put these three together, and one has to hope that US Middle East policy will be in the hands of people who are smart, sensible, prudent, even-handed, and above all, realistic. Or as Talleyrand recommended: "surtout, pas trop de zele." But how likely is that?
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Where is the Middle East headed? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.
That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.
But lately I'm wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I -- to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement -- and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since.
Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.
Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora's box when you start rearranging borders. There's also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don't think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.
That's why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don't think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects.
The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria's ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.
And then there's Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan's economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river.
To repeat: I'm not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I'd bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.
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Where is the Middle East headed? Where will it be a decade or two hence? Although most commentary tends to obsess about recent events (Will Assad fall? Was Hezbollah for the bombing in Bulgaria? Will there be war with Iran? Is the two-state solution really dead? etc.) today, I want to step back and ask what the larger implications of these various events might be. Here are three scenarios for the Middle East, judged largely from the perspective of U.S. interests:
1. The Good: The optimistic scenario for the Middle East runs something like this: Although the road may be bumpy for awhile, the various upheavals now subsumed under the heading “Arab spring” mark the end of a long period of regional stagnation. In this view, the Arab world has languished for decades under the bankrupt leadership of a series of autocrats who were better at clinging to power than in developing their societies. Education, scientific competence, economic development and human rights have all suffered as a result. These circumstances have also fueled anti-Americanism and intensified regional tensions, as various entrenched elites have used the bogeyman of “Western imperialism,” Israel’s presence and occupation, and the sufferings of the Palestinians to distract their populations from their own failings.
But in this scenario, that era is coming to an end. Assad will fall the same way Qaddafi did, and his departure will deal a body blow to the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas), which is the last stubborn remnant of anti-Western opposition in the region. Weak and isolated, Iran will have no choice but to bow before the West’s demands, and the clerical regime itself will be living on borrowed time. As political change ushers in more responsive and accountable governments throughout the region, the long pent-up energies of these societies will be unleashed and broad-based economic development will begin.
Equally important, the flowering of democracy (or something closer to it) will reduce the current frictions between the United States and some of these societies, as citizens focus on getting educated and getting rich, instead of worrying about red herrings like the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, or the U.S. military presence in the region. Islam may play a somewhat larger role in political life, but it will be mostly moderate and benign.
This view is consistent with the traditional liberal view of international relations, which tends to dominate how U.S. policymakers think about foreign policy. Liberal theories of IR argue that foreign policy behavior is heavily influenced by societal preferences and regime type, by economic interdependence, and by the creation of powerful global institutions. They tend to assume that human beings mostly care about material prosperity. As Middle East countries become more like us, so the argument runs, conflicts of interest will diminish, anti-Americanism will fade, and interest in obtaining WMD will decline. And once these states become more democratic and fully enmeshed in the world economy, they will drop their outdated objections to Israel and all will be well.
Notice also that this view implies that neoconservatives’ program for “regional transformation” was the right idea all along; the problem was that the people who tried to implement it were incompetent and their chosen instrument -- military power and direct U.S. intervention -- was simply the wrong tool. Obama’s embrace of the “Arab spring” has been cautious and not always consistent (see under: Bahrain), but it was directed at essentially the same goal and his approach has proven to be far more effective. On balance, he has positioned the United States on the progressive side of change and confined the U.S. role to helping local forces win their battles.
In effect, the administration is betting that the arc of history will bend in a direction that leads to more participatory politics, to greater gender equality and human rights, and to a dramatic reduction in both regional tensions and anti-Americanism over time. It may take a couple of decades for this hopeful vision to be realized, and because massive social change is always messy, there are bound to be some rocky moments along the way. But all Americans need to do is stay the course, use their still-considerable power to nudge these societies in the right direction, and manage the inevitable turbulence for a little while longer.
In many ways, it would be nice if this hopeful future came to fruition, although it would probably consign the Palestinians to another generation or two of impoverished statelessness. Alas, this is not the only scenario one can envision.
2. The Bad: In this version of the future, the political changes unleashed by the “Arab spring” continue to roll forward, and attempts to reimpose the old order (as Egypt’s military seems to be attempting) ultimately fail. Moreover, the emergence of more participatory politics and greater openness do in fact generate many of the positive features described above: education expands, economic development accelerates, and national unity is ultimately strengthened in many of these societies. In short, social and political mobilization continues and deepens, and governments manage to create more open and effective institutions.
But in this scenario, these shifts do not transform the Middle East into a region of calm Kantian liberals, or some Middle Eastern version of the EU. As political dynamism returns to the region, this scenario envisions more and more governments that are both increasingly responsive to popular sentiment and increasingly capable of advancing their national interests (as defined by popular beliefs) on the world stage. And because some of those sentiments are at odds with long-standing U.S. policies, the emergence of a more politically mobilized and capable Arab world might turn out to be a real headache for Washington.
Recent history offers several cautionary warnings. Turkey under the AKP has enjoyed impressive economic growth in recent years -- in sharp contrast to the military governments that preceded it -- but it has also become a less compliant ally of the United States and increasingly an independent force in the region. U.S. and Turkish interests are often compatible but not always, and that is likely to be true of a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Or consider what has happened to China. If Mao had lived forever, China would still be saddled with a dysfunctional command economy. Embracing capitalism has lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty, but it has also given Beijing the capacity to challenge U.S. leadership on a host of issues, and may one day make it a true “peer competitor.” From a selfishly American perspective, therefore, it might have been better of the “four modernizations” had never occurred and China had remained weak and economically backward. By the same logic, Arab inefficiency is one of the main reasons why the United States and Israel have been able to dominate the Middle East for the past four decades, and we should not blindly assume that a more capable and competent Arab world would also be a more compliant one.
The “good” scenario assumes that the emergence of more participatory, quasi-democratic politics will eventually eliminate the existing conflicts of interest within the region and with the United States. But there are good reasons to question that optimistic belief. Sunni vs. Shiite divisions have been around for centuries and are likely to persist. Palestinians will still press for statehood (or for full voting rights), and politically mobilized Arab publics will continue to back them, in part because this might be an issue that democratic politicians exploit to make themselves more popular at home, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was done. A democratic Syrian government will still want the Golan Heights back, and a fully democratic Iran might want nuclear weapons as much as the Shah did or as much as democratic (and nuclear-armed) Israel does.
In this view, in short, we ought to be careful what we wish for. Autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and monarchs like King Hussein or King Abdullah of Jordan could ignore popular sentiment and align closely with Washington, but this may not be so easy for governments that have to depend on popular support. The assumption that progressive political change in the Arab world is a good thing for the United States rests on the belief that “all good things go together": political change will eventually foster economic development and attenuate existing political disputes. Unfortunately, history also reminds us that as states grow richer and stronger, they often grow more assertive and they start defining their interests in broader terms. This could be big trouble for Washington, given how unpopular U.S. policies have been and how deeply rooted these attitudes seem to be.
3. The Ugly: There is a third scenario, and it is the one we have already seen in Iraq and Lebanon and may now be seeing in Syria. In this version of the future, the Arab spring succeeds in overturning a number of bankrupt orders but does not lead to stable and progressive governance in some of them. Instead, we get weak and divided orders where sectarian quarrels are rife, extremism is rewarded, al Qaeda finds new followers, and those who are adept at violence are advantaged.
Needless to say, this bleak forecast implies that the region will remain messy and divided for many years to come. An economic renaissance will not occur, because political instability will discourage investment and tourism and force local populations to squander time and resources on fighting rather than building. Outside powers will be tempted to intervene in various ways, which will lead to tit-for-tat retaliations and raise the risk of broader regional conflicts. Given that the Gulf region will remain a key source of global energy supplies (no matter how much natural gas the U.S. eventually obtains from hydraulic fracking), continued regional instability could have far-reaching and harmful effects on the world economy.
This scenario isn’t good news for the United States either. It might be smart for the United States to remain aloof from the carnage, but that will be difficult given our interventionist tendencies and the pressure we’ll face from regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. And if the past is any guide, we can’t expect Russia or China or the Europeans to help us quiet things down; they’d rather hand Uncle Sam the burden of managing yet another regional cauldron. So not only would this scenario mean lots of trouble for people in the Middle East, it's bound to be a big headache for the United States too.
Which of these scenarios do I think is most likely? I lean towards the second, because I don’t think the Arab spring is reversible and because I don’t think that protracted instability in places like Syria will prove all that contagious. But that’s really no more than a hunch.
Of course, these three scenarios are not the only ones one can imagine. But they do help put the current turmoil into perspective, and they help us identify the underlying logic on which current U.S. policy is based. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted if the first scenario is the one we get. I’ll also be more than a little surprised.
Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
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In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I argued that America's penchant for counterproductive global interventionism was driven by not one but two imbalances of power. The first was the imbalance of power between the United States and the rest of the world, which made it possible for Washington to throw its weight around without worrying very much about the short-term consequences. If you're a lot stronger than anyone else, it's hard to imagine you could lose to anyone and you're more likely to do something stupid like invading Iraq.
The second imbalance was the disproportionate influence of pro-intervention forces within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As I put it back in 2009:
"America's rise to global primacy was accompanied by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn't just arise spontaneously as America's relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations. These institutions don't always agree on what specific actions the United States ought to take, and they aren't the sort of clandestine capitalist conspiracy depicted by Lyndon Larouche and other fringe groups. But together they stack the deck in favor doing more rather than less."
I went on to describe the DC think tank world (i.e., groups like AEI, Heritage, Brookings, Carnegie, etc.) and the numerous special interest groups that lobby for their own particular causes. And then I noted that:
"By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage. There is the CATO Institute. . . and maybe a few people at the Center for American Progress and the New America Foundation. And there are plenty of peace groups out there with an anti-interventionist agenda. But these groups are hardly a match for the array of forces on the other side."
I mention all this because there seems to be a concerted effort underway to turn one of those organizations -- the CATO Institute -- into another member of the pro-intervention choir. In particular, right-wing industrialists Charles and David Koch (who are long-time CATO supporters) have recently sought to place several new members on CATO's board of directors, and have filed a lawsuit challenging its current governance structure. You can read about this power struggle here and here.
Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because, as CATO Vice-President for Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble lays out in this blog post, the individuals the Kochs are seeking to appoint hold views that are decidedly antithetical to the libertarian, mostly realist, and generally peace-oriented foreign policy perspective that has been CATO's trademark, and which is an increasingly rare perspective in post-Cold War, post 9/11 Washington. Preble also notes that the Koch Foundation helped sponsor an invitation-only seminar series at the American Enterprise Institute last year, whose lineup consisted of a "who's who" of hawkish neo-conservatives (Eliot Cohen, Walter Russell Mead, Eric Edelman, Niall Ferguson, etc.). Each of the speakers was a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which tells you something about where the Kochs are coming from.
It's a free country where just about everything is potentially up for sale, and the Kochs are free to use their money to try to shape public discourse as they see fit. Needless to say, they haven't been exactly shy about doing that, though a commitment to truth doesn't seem to be a high priority of theirs. But if their efforts to transform CATO succeed, we will lose one of the few influential institutions in Washington that consistently calls for a more sensible and restrained foreign and defense policy. I'm not a libertarian and I don't agree with all of CATO's positions on these matters, but a further narrowing of public discourse on foreign policy is not what the country needs right now. So I hope CATO's current management wins this fight, and that the institution remains true to its original vision. We'll be better off as a country if it does.
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One of the nice things about being the world's only superpower is that United States gets to do certain things that it would object to if anybody tried to do them to us. A nice illustration of that tendency is the flap over the Egyptian government's recent decision to prevent employees of several global non-profits (including the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftuing) from leaving the country, amid a broader inquiry into their activities.
In the case of the NRI and IDI, these two groups are non-profit 501(c)3 organizations whose stated goal is to encourage democracy in other countries. They are supposedly "non-partisan"(even though one is labeled "Republican" and the other "Democratic"), and they get the bulk of their funding from the U.S. government (i.e., the State Department, AID, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc.).
IRI and NDI do a lot of fairly innocuous stuff, like teaching people in other countries the nuts and bolts of party organization, campaigning, election best practices, and the like. I don't have a big problem with that, and I agree with Tom Friedman and Mohamed El Dashan that the Egyptian decision to detain these employees is a dangerous bit of diplomatic brinksmanship. Moreover, some of the accusations lodged against these organizations are ridiculous, most notably the claim that they were advancing Zionist or "Jewish" interests. Statements by the Egyptian minister of planning Fayaz Abul Naga, the driving force behind the campaign, have been especially offensive and ill-informed, and tell you that bizarre conspiracy theories remain far too common in that part of the world.
But before we let our outrage overwhelm our judgment, we ought to ask ourselves how these organizations and their activities might look to officials and even some average citizens of other countries. We think that encouraging democracy is an innocuous or even wholly beneficial activity, because we are convinced it is the best form of government and that all societies will be better off if they adopt democratic systems. And maybe we're right. But if efforts to promote democracy destabilize an existing government, leading to political chaos and economic hardship, then you can understand why local authorities and some members of the population might look on this process rather differently.
This problem really shouldn't be all that hard for us to understand. During the Cold War, we thought Soviet support for communist parties in other countries was a dangerous form of subversion that showed just how aggressive those nasty Marxist-Leninists were. Heck, we even went through "Red Scares" in the 1920s and 1950s, based on grossly exaggerated claims that Commies were lurking everywhere. If we can spawn a Joe McCarthy, it shouldn't be hard to understand why ill-informed Egyptian officials might believe goofy conspiracy theories about the NGOs and their supposedly dangerous agenda?
Similarly, just imagine how we would react if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were openly funding a non-profit organization here in the United States, whose stated purpose was to spread the social welfare principles of the Brotherhood in under-served urban communities? If something like that were happening, I'll bet Pamela Geller and her followers would have a collective aneurysm, and people like Representative Peter King (R-NY) would be holding hearings about it on Capitol Hill.
Or what if China began expanding the activities of its various Confucius Institutes beyond language training and cultural exchange, and added courses on "The Superiority of Asian Values," and "The Virtues of One-State Capitalism?" What if some of their employees started reaching out to the Occupy Movement here in the United States, to suggest practical steps that this movement could use to promote greater economic equality? My guess is that Americans might find this more than a little troubling.
Bottom line: if you think promoting democracy is both morally right and strategically desirable in any and all circumstances, then you probably support everything that IRI, NDI and Freedom House do and you're willing to accept the fact that some governments won't like it. But let's at least be honest to admit that even the most innocuous forms of "democracy promotion" are intended to foster slow-motion regime change, and we shouldn't be especially surprised when other governments object.
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The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.
Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.
Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.
What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?
And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.
Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.
In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.
Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.
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I've detected a growing tendency to issue obituaries for the "Arab spring." This impulse is understandable given the relentless turmoil in Yemen, the brutal repression that continues in Syria, the simmering tensions in Libya and Bahrain, and the recent resurgence of sometimes violent protest against the military regime in Egypt. Not surprisingly, early hopes that the Arab world was at the dawn of a new era have been dashed-or at least diminished. And that's why pundits like Tom Friedman are now crossing their fingers and hoping for the reincarnation of Nelson Mandela in each of these states.
But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions -- in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life -- inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence.
Under these conditions, it is a pipedream to think that key actors in a complex and troubled society like Egypt or Libya (or in the future, Syria) could quickly agree on new political institutions and infuse them with legitimacy. Even if interim rulers write a quick constitution, hold a referendum, or elect new representatives, those whose interests are undermined by the outcomes are bound to question the new rules and the process and to do what they can to undermine or amend them. What one should expect, therefore, are half-measures, false starts, prolonged uncertainty, and highly contingent events, where seemingly random events (a riot, an accident, an episode of overt foreign interference, an unexpected flurry of violence, etc.) can alter the course of events in far-reaching ways. Tunisia notwithstanding, what you are unlikely to get is a quick and easy consensus on new institutions.
Remember the French Revolution? The storming of the Bastille took place in July 1789, the nobility was abolished by the National Assembly the following year, and Louis XVI tried unsuccessfully to flee in 1791 before being forced to accept a new constitution. Internal turmoil and foreign interference eventually lead to war in 1792, Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793, and Paris was soon engulfed by the Jacobin terror, which eventually burns itself out. A new constitution is adopted in 1795, establishing a government known as the "Directory," which is eventually overthrown by Napoleon's coup d'etat on 18 Brumaire, 1799. By the time Napoleon seized power, it had been more than ten years since the initial revolutionary upheaval.
To judge by that timetable, the "Arab spring" has a long way to go. And other cases offer a similar lesson. The Russian revolution starts with the fall of the Tsarist regime in March 1917 and the formation of Kerensky's provisional government, which is subsequently overthrown by the Bolshevik coup a few months later. But the Bolsheviks' hold on power isn't fully established until their victory in the Russian Civil War, which isn't fully won until 1923. The Soviet political order endured recurrent power struggles over the next decade, until Joseph Stalin vanquished his various opponents and established a personal dictatorship.
Or take a more recent case, Iran. The revolution begins in 1978, with a steadily escalating series of street demonstrations. The shah flees into exile in January 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns in February and appoints Mehdan Bazegar as Prime Minister of an interim government. A new constitution is drafted by October, but there is a continuing struggle for power between liberal, Islamist, and other groups.
The first president of the new "Islamic Republic," Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, is impeached in 1981, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war strengthens hardliners and provides an opportunity for a crackdown against some prominent members of the original revolutionary movement. The Islamic republic remains a work-in-progress to this day, with the role of the "Supreme Jurisprudent," the Revolutionary Guards, the clergy, the presidency, and the Majlis remaining in flux.
Even the comparatively benign American Revolution was hardly a done-deal when the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783. Independence from England had required the colonists to fight a lengthy war of independence, and the fledgling republic then faced several armed rebellions, most notably Shays' Rebellion in 1786. These challenges revealed the inadequacies of the original Articles of Confederation (1777-1786) leading to the drafting and adoption of what is now the U.S. Constitution.
In short, anybody who thought that the events that swept through the Arab world in 2011 were going to produce stable and orderly outcomes quickly was living in a dream world. To say this is not to oppose what has happened, or to believe that the old orders could or should have continued. Rather, it is to recognize that radical reform -- even revolution -- is a long, difficult, and uncertain process, and that the ride is likely to be a bumpy one for years to come.
History also warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course, making it clear that outsiders are prepared to let each country's citizens choose their own order, provided that important foreign policy redlines are not crossed. But for a country like the United States, which still sees itself as a model for others and tends to think that it has the right and the wisdom to tell them what to do, patience and restraint can be hard to sustain. And patience is what is needed most these days.
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Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I'm late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here's my initial take, for what it may be worth.
I don't think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya's leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya's wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.
Moreover, Qaddafi's death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).
The decision to intervene may have reinforced perceptions that the United States was in favor of democratic change in the Middle East, and kept some of the momentum of the "Arab Spring" alive. (According to Michael Hastings, that concern was a big part of Obama's rationale for going to war). It is also possible that the Colonel's fate will have a salutary effect on some other dictators (are you listening, Bashar?), and lead some of them to look for an early and safe exit instead of trying to hang on until the last bullet. Qaddafi's demise also eliminates any possibility of a restoration and spares the country the distraction of a prolonged trial and possible execution, thereby making it easier for Libyans to focus on the difficult task of constructing a workable political order.
So it would be foolish not to see a certain amount of good news in this outcome. But any sense of achievement should be tempered by several other considerations.
First, I still worry about the other lessons that other leaders may draw from Qaddafi's fate. He agreed to give up all his WMD programs in 2003, in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to overthrow him. And he got a lot of favorable attention from the United States after that--including a friendly visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- in part because he was openly hostile to Al Qaeda. Yet eight years later, that pledge was tossed aside and we intervened to help topple him from power. We should therefore expect the leaders of Iran and North Korea (and maybe some other countries) to draw the obvious conclusion: weapons of mass destruction are an effective means of deterring great powers from trying to overthrow you, and don't ever, ever believe Washington when it promises to leave you alone if you disarm.
Second, helping overthrow Qaddafi may have signaled U.S. support for the "Arab spring," but our response to upheavals in Bahrain and elsewhere shows that our policy is far from consistent. On the plus side, we did not allow at least one dictator to crush the opposition, and we can therefore claim to have taken action consistent with our values. But we are also guilty of obvious hypocrisy-both because we had previously embraced the supposedly reformed Qaddafi and because we have turned a blind eye when authoritarians on which we are more dependent cracked down on their populations. We can be sure that critics will remind us about our double-standards -- repeatedly. And any kudos we may have won in the Arab world are more than counteracted by our shameful policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
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I know I'm supposed to get excited about the "major policy address" on Middle East policy that President Obama is going to deliver today, and you can be sure that plenty of people will be standing by to parse and spin every syllable. And then they'll do the same thing to his speech at the AIPAC policy conference on Sunday, and will hover with equal intensity over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress next week.
But I'm finding it hard to get motivated this time around, because I don't think all this blather means anything. The advance word on Obama's speech says he's going to try to position the United States as a supporter of the "Arab spring" (except, of course, where it might be inconvenient), he'll make the usual ritual condemnations of Iran, and he'll offer up a modest package of economic support for Egypt (reportedly $2 billion worth of loan guarantees and debt restructuring which mostly just reallocates some existing funds).
Is your pulse racing with excitement? Didn't think so. For starters, Egypt's foreign debt is already more than $30 billion, so a bit of restructuring and increased loan guarantees (which just let Egypt borrow money at lower interest), isn't exactly a "Marshall Plan for the Mideast." For Obama to condemn Iran isn't exactly headline news either, and while it might make the Saudis happy to hear him say it, the bigger problem is that it does nothing to reduce Iran's ability to exploit popular discontent with the situation in the region itself. And reports are that Obama's team has ruled out saying anything interesting on the Israel-Palestine issue, which is hardly surprising given how badly they've bungled that part of their portfolio.
But the big problem is that nobody cares what U.S. presidents say anymore -- and especially not Obama -- because he hasn't delivered. As surveys of popular opinion in the Arab world have repeatedly shown, what his audience in the Middle East wants is not more elegant phrases beautifully delivered -- but actual policy change. Obama gave a wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2009 -- which was well-received -- but since then we've seen him backing down on Israel's settlements, helping trash the Goldstone Report, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the settlements, and adopting a decidedly inconsistent attitude towards the Arab spring (we like it in Egypt and Libya; not so much in Bahrain).
Words do matter, but only when they are backed up by appropriate action. Obama gave some pretty good speeches on our terrorism problem, for example, but it was the decision to redouble the search for bin Laden and then the bold choice to send a team after him in Pakistan that is the potential game-changer there. Without significant policy change, in short, the speeches we're going to hear over the next week will just be a lot of eloquent irrelevance.
The Wall Street Journal is a fine newspaper, but its op-ed page is like listening to O'Reilly, Beck, or Limbaugh but with a better vocabulary. And it usually makes about as much sense as they do.
The regime in Tehran -- aptly described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday as 'a military dictatorship with a kind of theocratic overlay' -- feels zero compunction or shame about repressing political opponents. Hosni Mubarak and Egypt's military, dependent on U.S. aid and support, were susceptible to outside pressure to shun violence. Tehran scorns the West.
To put it another way, pro-American dictatorships have more moral scruples. The comparison is akin to what happened in the 1980s when U.S. allies led by authoritarians fell peacefully in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, even as Communist regimes proved tougher."
I'm no fan of the Islamic Republic, but two points are relevant here. First, plenty of pro-American dictators--including former President Mubarak--felt zero compunction about brutally repressing political opponents in the past. That's one big reason why his regime was so unpopular. He just didn't do it this time around, in part because his security police weren't up to the task and because Egypt's armed services apparently refused to kill large numbers of their countrymen to keep him in power.
Second, and more importantly, has the WSJ editorial team completely forgotten about the fall of communism? Remember those nasty, hostile, brutal, anti-American, and vicious communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the USSR itself? These regimes didn't prove to be "tough" at all. In fact, by declining to suppress the "velvet revolutions" by force, they seem to have exhibited the same "moral scruples" that the WSJ attributes to its list of "pro-American" despots.
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."
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Do the large and angry demonstrations in Egypt mean that I was wrong to predict that the revolution in Tunisia wouldn't spread? Not yet, but I will be watching events closely and developments there could eventually prove me wrong. (As Keynes famously retorted, "when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?") But thus far, I'm sticking with my original forecast.
A couple of quick points. In my original post on the subject, I emphasized that revolutionary upheavals are always inherently unpredictable, because it is hard to know how much the population is willing to risk to overthrow the authorities and because each person's reaction will depend on what they think others will do. (Someone might be reluctant to join an angry mob if they thought only ten other people will show up, but if they are convinced that 5000 other people will be there, then there's safety in numbers and they'd be willing to be the 5001st).
I didn't deny that events in Tunisia might generate some sympathetic rumblings elsewhere, because this is common after a revolution, but I said that I didn't expect a wave of upheavals that ultimately overthrew neighboring governments. The main reason was that authoritarian governments would be on their guard against contagion, and would act quickly to snuff out any rising revolutionary tide. Thus far, that's precisely what the Mubarak regime seems to be doing, and they have a lot of practice at this sort of thing. See here for an eyewitness account. As Juan Cole warns, "Egypt is not Tunisia."
So what do I think now? It's clear that events in Tunisia have provided a catalyst for Egyptians to express their discontent with the Mubarak regime. (That discontent is not new, of course). It seems plausible that social media (e.g., the internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) may have facilitated some degree of mass mobilization, thereby encouraging larger turnout at demonstrations than one might otherwise have expected. It's hard to know how important this has been, but it could be a change in background conditions that makes this sort of revolutionary contagion more likely. I have an open mind about that subject.
What we don't know yet is whether the popular discontent that is being expressed in the streets will ultimately be able to challenge the government's authority, undermine the cohesion and loyalty of the Egyptian security forces, and render Mubarak's continued rule untenable. If I had to bet, I'd say not at present. But am as I confident as I was last week? 'Course not.
And for me, the more interesting question is not the short-term possibility of revolutionary contagion, but rather the long-term possibilities for political and social change that these events herald. Even if governments like Mubarak's remain in power today, it is hard for me to believe that the current political order in much of the Arab world can survive unchanged for much longer. Smart governments will try to get out ahead of these processes, and manage a gradual evolution towards more legitimate and participatory forms of government (which may not bear much resemblance to Western-style liberal democracy). The point is that political change in the Arab world need not come about through violent revolution; the mere possibility of violent upheaval may be enough to convince some leaders that they need to rethink some of their policies. Whatever the mechanism, we'll be living in interesting times.
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 on the other side of the world, and so I didn't get to see President Obama's speech in Arizona. I gather that he did well. I'm glad to hear it because one of the things presidents can do at times of crisis is to provide us with sentiments that most of us can readily embrace, at a moment when our unity as a nation is in some doubt.
I've tried to keep up with at least some of the blizzard of commentary that has followed the Arizona shooting, and although a lot of it has been thoughtful, I'm also disappointed (though not surprised) by the reflexive "who us?" reaction from a lot of conservative pundits. The most prominent example was probably David Brooks of the New York Times, who devoted an entire column to explaining why violent political discourse had absolutely nothing to do with a violent assault on a U.S. congresswoman. Brooks took this position, I suppose, because he knows that most of the hateful and violent rhetoric in America today comes from the right-hand side of the aisle. I'm not saying he agrees or endorses the worst rhetorical excesses of the American right (i.e., Brooks is often wrong but rarely openly hateful), but it was a pretty lame attempt to exonerate his ideological fellow-travelers.
One problem, of course, is that causality in a case like this is always murky. When someone arrives at a public event and starts shooting people, how do we determine the relative weight of mental illness, personal experience, opportunity, lax gun-control laws, and the toxic soup of violent rhetoric to which he had been exposed, when we try to figure out how something like this could have happened? Granting that Rep. Giffords's assailant was by all the evidence a deeply disturbed individual, it is still true that his madness manifested itself as an attack on a politician. He didn't shoot up his workplace, or a school, or even a random shopping mall: He chose a political target. And whatever his personal motives or internal dialogues may have been, he did this at a moment in our history when self-interested hatemongers have combined violent rhetoric and political polarization to an unprecedented degree. Yet for the American right, the violent, and frequently Manichaean, rhetoric that has been the stock in trade of some of their most prominent spokespeople (including Sarah Palin) is totally irrelevant, and anyone who says differently is just playing partisan politics.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
As far as I'm concerned, there are only three key points to make about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" last week.
First, as I've noted before, this decision will strengthen U.S. national security. Any policy that reduces the pool of qualified candidates for military service is inherently inefficient, and makes it harder for the United States to produce the best armed forces at the least cost. The only relevant question was whether allowing gay Americans to serve openly would have deleterious effects on cohesion or morale, and the evidence that it won't is overwhelming. By voting to repeal, the House and Senate have made America stronger.
Second, this decision is completely consistent with American ideals. Our politicians constantly proclaim their commitment to human liberty, and surely that ought to include a deeply personal trait like sexual preference. Both gay and straight personnel will of course be expected to follow appropriate rules of conduct towards others (just as the rest of us are supposed to do in civilian life), but a glaring contrast between our ideals and our practice has now been eliminated.
Third, the transition to the new policy will not occur overnight, and that's appropriate too. As the Times noted today, any major change in personnel policy involves adjustments, and it's better to get it done right than to get it done with undue haste. My bet is that the armed forces will handle implementation well, and in a few years we'll look back and wonder what the whole fuss was about. 'Bout time, too.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.