I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday's attack at the Boston Marathon -- to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb.
For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday's events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction -- and especially nuclear weapons -- then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism's web through no fault of their own.
Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday's events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice.
There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday's race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.
But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
Note: In response to my previous post on the hazards of the new Atrocities Prevention Board, Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action offers the following alternative view. I'm not persuaded, but it is a thoughtful and intelligent rejoinder that I wanted to share with you. Take it away, Andrew....
Andrew Miller writes:
Stephen Walt's skepticism of the recently-announced Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is understandable. New bureaucracies often create more problems than they solve. But, the APB is a worthwhile (albeit, modest) attempt to improve the government's mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. A close look at the board shows that it has the potential to both avert atrocities and lessen the likelihood of humanitarian interventions -- outcomes that realists, of course, can welcome with open arms.
The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don't get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn't even a side-show for policymakers; it was a "no show" in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake.
The APB, as a standing body with senior officials (assistant secretaries and above), would be well-positioned to avoid such bloodshed becoming a "no-show". In tandem with the board, the president has vowed to set up "alert channels" that allow lower-level officials to raise red flags about potential atrocities. The APB could serve as a conduit in processing these warnings and ultimately getting them to the Oval Office if warranted.
Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda? Simply put: No.
As the board's title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.
Given the board's interagency make-up, it can leverage these preventive tools rather than relying on the military to resolve crises. The APB will have representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Treasure, Justice, Homeland Security, among others, with the White House's director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power chairing the group. This broad representation will help make the military less of a go-to institution for dealing with atrocities as has been the case since the end of the Cold War.
It is fair to ask, what happens if preventive action fails? Or, as Walt puts it, "how likely is it that [the APB] will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens?" While the APB will probably recommend taking serious mitigating steps, there is a wide range of measures short of a large-scale military operation. Even Power, whom the National Interest has dubbed "Interventionista", stresses measures beyond "sending in the Marines." In her book A Problem from Hell, she lays out a host of policies that the Clinton administration could have taken during Rwanda: frequently denouncing the slaughter, beefing up the United Nations peacekeeper force there, jamming belligerent radio broadcasts used to coordinate attacks, threatening to prosecute the perpetrators, etc.
These are the sorts of measures that the APB will rely upon. In fact, the Obama administration has already used them to help end last year's bloodshed in Ivory Coast. Atrocities broke out there when opposition forces tried to unseat incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo who had lost the country's November 2010 elections. The administration subsequently slapped sanctions on the main perpetrators, backed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in-country, and ultimately supported a French troop deployment. Tensions in Ivory Coast remain today, but the mass killings have stopped.
The APB would not have made intervention in Ivory Coast any more likely. Walt accurately states that there are "good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts." Even if the APB had advocated for U.S. troops, there is little reason to believe that Obama would have deployed them to a place of negligible U.S. interests. (Perhaps the only effect Ivorian instability had on Americans was a rise in chocolate prices.) In other words, the president's strategic calculus on Ivory Coast was set, and the APB would not have changed that -- a good thing from the realist point of view.
Finally, Walt raises the uncomfortable reality of the United States' spotty human rights record. He argues that past U.S. misdeeds make the APB just another example of American "smug self-congratulation." If one takes a victim's perspective, however, this smugness seems less relevant. Srebrenica's Muslims, for example, surely would have appreciated American help in July 1995 regardless of U.S. sanctions on Iraq at the time. In the same vein, would the United States want to end its fight against human trafficking (modern-day slavery in many respects) given its pre-1860s history? Most realists (presumably Walt included) would say, no.
As this blog has made clear, realists are not divorced from morality. Like anybody else, they don't want to see Rwandan rivers choked with bodies or emaciated Bosnians behind barbed wire. They also don't want to see the United States' national security imperiled by military overstretch. The APB is a modest step toward reaching both ends.
Andrew C. Miller is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
There's a must-read
op-ed in today's New York Times by
Yan Xuetong, the dean of the School of Modern International Relations as
Tsinghua University. Writing as a self-described "realist," Yan
acknowledges that the emerging Sino-American competition is a zero-sum game (an
idea deemed politically incorrect by many inside-the-Beltway), and plainly states
that "competition between the United States and China is inevitable."
He approvingly quotes past Chinese sages as emphasizing that "the key to
international influence was political power."
Part of the novelty in Yan's essay is his emphasis on political morality. Power is critical, he says, but "the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership." Accordingly, the future struggle between the United States and China will be won by the government that best demonstrates what he terms "humane authority," which is material power fused with moral principle. In his words, "states relying on military or economic power without concern for morally informed leadership are bound to fail." Even more interestingly, he says the essential "humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad."
There's a lot of wisdom in this essay, as well as a subtle warning. On the one hand, Yan offers a neat summary of America's current advantages over China: our model of governance, tarnished though it is, is still more attractive than Chinese-style authoritarianism. America's past efforts to stabilize key regions have won it a large array of allies around the world, although these ties have been weakened by a decade of folly and misplaced aggression. U.S. society remains far more open to talented immigrants, such as AIDs researcher David Ho, journalist Fareed Zakaria, the late General John Shalikashvili, or former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and State Madeleine Albright. Yan offers a set of prescriptions clearly intended for Chinese readers: the country must assume more global responsibilities, open itself up to talented individuals from overseas, and "develop more high-quality diplomatic relationships."
But on the other hand, Yan also believes China "needs to create additional regional security arrangements with surrounding countries," and says its leaders "must play a larger role on the world stage and offer more security protection and economic support to less powerful countries." These words sound innocuous, but they actually reflect China's understandable desire to create a sphere of influence in key areas, and especially in East and Southeast Asia. Why should countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or Indonesia maintain security ties with the United States, if Beijing is willing to offer beneficial economic ties and "protection?"
This is what all great powers tend to do as they grow stronger: they extend "protection" to weaker states in their vicinity in order to make sure that those states adopt foreign policies that do not threaten the larger power's interests. ("Hmmmm. Nice country you've got there. Would hate to see anything happen to it.") This doesn't mean China wants to conquer its neighbors or incorporate them into a formal empire, because that would be hard to do in an era of nationalism and wouldn't be worth the effort. Instead, the long-term goal is merely to ensure that its weaker neighbors defer to Chinese interests on key issues, including the future role of the United States in the region.
And as I outlined last week, that is why Sino-American competition in the years ahead is going to be primarily a competition for allies. Yan maintains that "there is little danger of military clashes" and that "neither China nor America needs proxy wars to protect its strategic interests." He's right in theory -- neither state needs such things and both would do well to avoid them -- but that is no guarantee that they won't happen anyway.
And to bring this full circle: that is why the latest episode of Congressional dysfunction -- the failure of the inaptly named "supercommittee" -- is so worrisome. The United States possesses the basic ingredients needed to more than hold its own in a future competition with China -- a competition that is already underway -- were it not for our growing talent for podiatric marksmanship (i.e., shooting ourselves in the foot). Whether the issue is the GOP's stalwart effort to protect the super-wealthy, the bipartisan commitment to throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan, or the gradual hollowing out of the essential sinews of an advanced society (schools, roads, power grids, transport hubs, etc.), it is clear that our problem is not a rising China. On the contrary, the real problem is a befuddled and aimless political class, comprised of men and women lacking knowledge, accountability, political courage, or any genuine commitment to the common weal. What they've got in spades is personal ambition, but not much else. If "morally informed leadership" is a prerequisite for success, then we are in big trouble.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
What do Joe Paterno, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi, and Rupert Murdoch have in common?
The obvious answer, of course, is that 2011 turned out to be a very bad year for each of them. There were clearly important differences between them -- Qaddafi was the only one with blood on his hands and is the only one who is dead -- but there are some striking similarities too.
For starters, all of these men -- and note, they are all men -- were not exactly ... umm ... young. Qaddafi was the youngest of the bunch at 69; Berlusconi is 75, Murdoch is 80, and Paterno almost 85.
Second, all four held power in their respective domains for long periods. Qaddafi ruled Libya for 41 years; Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for roughly 17, Murdoch took over his first media company in the early 1950s, and Paterno became head football coach at Penn State way back in 1966.
Third, except for Qaddafi -- who did remarkably little for Libya despite the vast oil wealth at his disposal -- the other three could lay claim to a number of positive achievements. Whatever one thinks of Berlusconi's political career or Murdoch's journalistic standards, one has to concede that both men did create successful business empires. And whatever one thinks of Paterno's handling of the scandal that cost him his job, there's no question he was a highly successful college football coach for many years. But as dramatists have taught us since ancient Greece, success has a way of breeding hubris.
But the feature that unites these very different men is that each became less and less accountable, and increasingly insulated from candid, face-to-face criticism. Who was going to tell Qaddafi that he was mostly a despotic failure and increasingly unpopular, and that his "Green Book" of supposed "philosophy" was incomprehensible claptrap? Which News Corp. employee was going to warn Rupert Murdoch that his take-no-prisoners approach to journalism was leading the company into corrupt criminality? Did anyone in Berlusconi's inner circle try to tell him that he had become a self-indulgent and sybaritic laughingstock? Could any member of Penn State's cult of "JoePa" puncture the bubble and make it clear to him that there was something rotten in Happy Valley? It appears not.
As a result, each of them began to think that the normal rules didn't apply. Paterno seemed to think he was as effective a coach at 84 as he'd been twenty years previously, ignoring everything we know about the aging process. Berlusconi's media empire allowed him to shape what many Italians believed about him, despite the recurring scandals and his protracted failure to do anything to fix the anemic Italian economy. Murdoch and his associates seemed to think that spying on people and hacking their phones was perfectly legit as long as it helped sell papers. And at the extreme end, a megalomaniac like Qaddafi was willing to kill his own people to sustain his own kleptocracy, while somehow believing to the end that he deserved to govern. And in each case, the events that ended their long runs seemed to catch them unawares and unable to respond.
Finally, in each case, a culture of deference and sycophancy gradually blinded all of them to what was really happening. The personal tragedy is most apparent in the case of Paterno, a decent if stubborn man who failed to recognize or accept that a trusted associate was in fact a criminal sexual predator. But this same tendency is also evident in the other cases -- and with even greater effect -- as the vainglory of these powerful men inflicted great harm on many others.
"If men were angels," James Madison wrote in Federalist #51, "no government would be necessary." But we are not angels, and the dark side of human nature is likely to emerge whenever any of us becomes too big, too powerful, or too revered to be held accountable. The ignominious ends that these four men suffered in 2011 also remind us that even clever and powerful leaders cannot always escape their past sins.
David Ramos/Getty Images
Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
As soon as the shocking and tragic news from Norway hit the airwaves, it was entirely predictable that various right-wing Islamophobes would type first and think later. They were so eager to exploit the tragedy to peddle their pre-existing policy preferences that they blindly assumed the acts had to have been perpetrated by al Qaeda, by its various clones, or by some other radical Muslim group.
This is the sort of bias one expects from an ideologue like Jennifer Rubin (who gets taken to task for her rush-to-judgment by James Fallows here). Sadly, it is also not out of character for the supposedly respectable Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page has been a reliable source of threat-mongering and distortion for years. Even as Norwegian officials were cautioning that they had no reason to suspect Islamist groups, the Journal was plunging ahead with an editorial entitled "Terror in Oslo," which drew the following utterly bogus conclusion:
Norway certainly did not buy itself much grace from the jihadis for staying out of the Iraq war, or for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's demand that Israel open its borders with Gaza, or for his calls for a Palestinian unity government between Fatah and its terrorist cousin Hamas.
Norway can do all this and more, but in jihadist eyes it will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to these ideals Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price."
Given that remarkable statement, the Journal's editors must have been deeply disappointed to learn that the person who was actually charged in the case, Anders Behring Breivik, was not in fact a jihadi, a critic of Israel, or even a Muslim. Instead, he is a right-wing Norwegian Islamophobe who is reportedly obsessed with the dangers of multi-culturalism and a contributor to extremist websites like Jihad Watch and Atlas Shrugs. In other words, he's the sort of person who might well subscribe to the Wall Street Journal not for its coverage of the business world, but for its predictably hardline editorial "insight."
As I write this (Saturday noon EDT), the editorial has still not been removed from the WSJ website and no apology or retraction has been issued. The Journal and its editors are obviously free to continue to sow the seeds of hatred and paranoia, but the rest of us are equally free to view them with appropriate contempt. And let us also take time to reflect on Norway's sorrow, and to remember that hatred and violence can erupt from many directions.
UPDATE: Obviously aware of the egg on its face, the Journal has posted a rewritten version of the editorial on its website here. Note the marked absence of any apology for its initial rush-to-judgment. You can find a fascimile of the original editorial here. And for an interesting commentary suggesting that right-wing hate-mongering websites might have contributed to the murderous mind-set behind the attack, see Paul Woodward's War in Context here.
[NOTE: I originally drafted this post on July 3, but the FP staff was on holiday too so it didn't get posted in time for the Fourth. I've updated it and reposted, with appropriate changes of verb tense]
Independence Day is when Americans celebrate their two hundred year-plus experiment with self-government. After two centuries it's not really an experiment anymore, though it certainly feels like we are still making it up as we go along. On July 4th, my family read the Declaration of Independence outloud (an annual ritual) and talked about what we thought it really meant. And across the country, Americans grilled, drank, watched fireworks, and listened to John Philip Sousa, and probably spent a lot of time being grateful that they are not living somewhere else.
But what exactly are we celebrating these days? We are on a sour phase of our history, where hardly anyone seems happy about our condition at home or our position abroad. The economy remains dismal, where only the rich enjoy comfort and security, and our politics gets nastier and more dysfunctional with each passing day. Instead of working together to meet a growing array of challenges, a toxic combination of pundits, poseurs, and provocateurs is choking the life out of political system like so much kudzu. Our leaders continue to give speeches about our global responsibilities, but how many people now believe that America is leading the way to a safer, saner or more just world? We don't bring peace to war-torn lands, we are not doing much to build more effective global institutions, and sometimes it feels like armed drones and special forces have become our primary export.
In such times, it is tempting to descend into world-weary fatalism, and merely chronicle the many ways that America's reality falls short of our Founders' hopes. But I am not going to succumb to that temptation-at least not today. For although the Founding Fathers were in many ways consummate realists--acutely aware of human frailties, mindful of the dangers facing a small, weak and new nation, and ruthless in pursuit of hemispheric dominance--they were also idealists who dreamt big. On Independence Day, we can honor our past by indulging in some dreams of our own.
On this 4th of July, I dreamt of an America at peace, no longer squandering its wealth and power in unnecessary global crusades. I dreamt of an America that knows there are risks in the world, but that does not allow fear to dominate its foreign policy agenda or its domestic discourse. I dreamt of an America that has regained the world's respect, and where others trust our judgment and value our competence. I imagined an America where economic inequality is declining, not growing, and where people are judged, as Martin Luther King put it, by the content of their character and not by their race, religion, or sexual orientation. I thought about an America that is not afraid to talk to its adversaries, because it was confident that it wouldn't get bamboozled and knew that talking is often the best way to persuade others to change. I dreamt of an America that does not torture, and that has the integrity to prosecute anyone who does. I dream of an America that does not lead the world in the number of people in its prisons. Like Woodrow Wilson, I yearned for an America with the "self-restraint of a truly great nation, that knows its own strength and scorns to misuse it." I looked ahead to an America whose first concern is the well-being of all its citizens here at home, instead of trying to tell the rest of the world how to live. And I dreamt of an America where political debate is unfettered but civil, and where those who seek to win arguments by smearing their opponents or distorting their arguments are regarded by their fellow citizens with appropriate contempt.
Do I expect to see this America emerge? Sadly, no (I am a realist, after all). But if we are truly the political descendants of the brave men and women of 1776, then we have to believe in the power of imagination and the ability of human beings to chart a new course. And in that knowledge lies hope.
I hope you all had a pleasant and inspiring Independence Day, and that in the next year we move a bit closer to the ideals we celebrated on Monday.
The last day or two demonstrates that Mubarak has no intention of going down without a fight. At the same time, Egypt's Prime Minister has expressed regret for the loss of life and is pledging an orderly transition. Where does this leave us?
First of all, the events in the past day or two confirm a point I've made before: revolutionary upheavals are very hard to predict and the final outcome often isn't determined for weeks or months or even years. I was obviously wrong about the potential for contagion from the original Tunisian catalyst, but not about the fact that authoritarian governments are often able to ride out these storms. I'm not saying that Mubarak will (and as I said a couple of days ago, I think the regime is fatally compromised even if he does hang on), but the past day or two reminds us that the regime is not without resources. To repeat myself further, the danger is that the onset of a significant violence will create a situation where extremists on both sides feel empowered, resulting in far more extensive damage to Egypt's social order.
From a U.S. perspective, I'm with FP colleague Marc Lynch. If Obama goes wobbly at this point, he'll look even weaker than many people in the Middle East already assume he is. Given that Mubarak is beginning to do exactly what Obama asked him not to do, now's the time to distance ourselves even further. Obama should announce an immediate suspension of military aid to Egypt, while ordering the Pentagon to send a quiet message to Egyptian military commanders that aid will resume as soon as Mubarak steps down. We are playing the long game here, and need to take clear steps to ensure that we are not seen as complicit in dictatorial repression. Here I'm standing by my earlier remarks about the likely strategic consequences
From the perspective of the Egyptian leadership-and especially the new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, how do things look? Nobody is sharing any secrets with me, but I can still speculate. I caught part of an interview that Suleiman gave on Al Jazeera English (which has been indispensable throughout this crisis), and I thought he was doing his best to sound reasonable and to hold out the prospect of substantial reform but in an orderly manner. The problem, as I noted yesterday, is that neither Mubarak nor Suleiman (a long-time Mubarak associate who runs the intelligence services) has much (any?) credibility as a reformer. If Suleiman really wants to lead an orderly transition via constitutional reforms and September elections, therefore, the smartest thing he could do is to get Mubarak to leave power now, take credit for having done so, and then to govern openly and explicitly as a caretaker. That's just about the only way that Suleiman could gain a bit of credibility and legitimacy, and it might just make it possible to conduct a reform effort that could command broad acceptance.
One last point. In today's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne says that Obama's handling of this crisis will ultimately be judged by whether we get an anti-American/anti-Israel outcome or not. In his words, "Obama will be judged by results. If the Egyptian uprising eventually leads to an undemocratic regime hostile to the United States and Israel, the president will pay the price." I think he's right as a matter of practical politics, but this view also reflects the widespread assumption that the United States government has the capacity to determine the outcome of unruly political processes of the sort we are now witnessing in Egypt. This is silly: Nobody is in control of events there, nobody knows how it will turn out, and it's quite possible that we'll get either a good outcome or a bad outcome no matter what the United States government does. That doesn't mean the USG shouldn't try to shape events to the extent that we can, but we should not forget that our capacity to mold them is inherently limited.
I'm all for holding leaders accountable, especially when they do foolish things entirely on their own initiative (like invading Iraq). But we would do a better job of judging our leaders' performance if we acknowleged that presidents are neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
There's been a lot of thoughtful reaction already to the appalling shooting in Tucson, much of it focusing on what it says about the polarized state of American politics and the violent and overheated rhetoric that has been a staple of right-wing political discourse over the past decade or so. I don't have anything deeply profound to add to this discussion, but I do want to offer two thoughts.
First, when something horrific like this happens, we can only hope that we learn something from an otherwise awful event. In my course on the causes of war, I tell students that learning valuable lessons from the history of human conflict is a way to make the losses suffered in war worth something; it is a way of at least partly redeeming the sacrifices that others made. The greatest benefit we could derive from the Tucson madness would a lot of genuine soul-searching within our political establishment, and especially among the pundits and media figures who have made hateful and violent rhetoric a key part -- and in some cases, the only distinctive element -- of their discourse. And frankly, I don't know what's worse: when politicians use extreme and demonizing rhetoric to advance a political agenda, or when media figures use hateful and violent rhetoric merely to make a buck. If this tragedy helps delegitimize such behavior, and restore some measure of civility to our political discourse, we will all have gained something from a tragic and senseless event.
Second, those of us who do some or all of our work in the blogosphere should do some soul-searching ourselves. Rhetoric in the blogosphere is a lot more combative and even violent than what you'd typically read in your local newspaper, or what you'd read in a scholarly journal. And this isn't just a monopoly of the political right: You can find some pretty hot language coming from bloggers on the left as well. Bloggers like to use verbs like "demolish," or "eviscerate" when discussing those with whom they disagree, as in "Smith offers a new justification for the war in Afghanistan, and Jones shreds it here." Or we get into heated exchanges that degenerate into name-calling and various forms of character assassination. Sometimes editors make this worse by going for edgy or combative headlines to titillate readers and drive up page-views. Edginess is part of what makes the blogosphere entertaining, I guess, but is it also contributing to the coarsening of our political values and the erosion of any sense of shared identity, humility, and common humanity? And don't get me started about the flame wars that occur in the "comments" sections, where people exploit anonymity to voice all manner of vile accusations.
I've tried to avoid that sort of thing in my own postings, but I suspect you could find a few places where I went further than I should have. So as we mourn the victims, hope for the survivors, and reflect on what this says the state of our country at this moment, let's spend some time looking in the mirror. Words matter, people, and if we are all going to be part of a public conversation, we owe it the society of which we are part to conduct it in a spirited, frank, but civil manner. Or we will reap what we sow.
Postscript: I'm leaving for an extended trip to Southeast Asia today, to attend some meetings at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and to give a series of lectures there and in Vietnam. It's my first visit to the latter country, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity. Blogging will be erratic while I'm on the road, although I'll try to squeeze a few posts in when I can.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Today I want to call your attention to two on-line debates, each dealing with an important issue on contemporary world affairs.
The first is an extremely interesting back-and-forth between Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, on the question of whether President Obama was correct in authorizing the CIA to kill several U.S. citizens (including Anwar al-Awlaki) who is believed to be actively aiding al Qaeda in Yemen. You can read the various posts here, here, here, and here, and each links to useful comments from other people as well.
One sign of the quality of their exchange is that I found my own views shifting back and forth as I read each one. In the end I think Greenwald has the better of the argument -- at least so far -- but that may well be because it's closer to my own prior views. I don't really believe Obama's decision puts us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but I do think there is a genuine danger in allowing any president the authority to order the killing of a U.S. citizen without due process.
I am also deeply leery of the increasingly widespread use of the "state secrets" doctrine to defend executive actions from public scrutiny, simply because I do not trust people not to abuse their authority in the absence of accountability. Moreover, the "state secrets" doctrine is a powerful tool for threat-mongering ("trust me, if you knew what we know, you'd be really, really scared"), and keeping people terrified is a good way to get them to go along with all sorts of foreign policy foolishness.
But read their exchange and make up your own mind. And kudos to both of them for conducting it in a spirited but civil fashion. (UPDATE: Sullivan has a new reply to Greenwald and others here.
The second debate I can't resist plugging is a Bloggingheads conversation I did last week with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. The topic is "AfPak Dilemmas" and it is mostly a discussion about conditions in the region and the proper course for U.S. policy. Peter and I have different views about the nature of the challenge we face in Central Asia, and about the merits of continued military involvement there. Those disagreements are clear in our conversation, but we had an excellent exchange of views and some of you may find it enlightening.
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I have only two thoughts on the deal that has sent ten Russian spies back to their homeland, in exchange for four people who were, as the Times puts it, "deemed to be spies" in Russia.
First, some people wonder why the United States didn't get more upset about this, and why the Obama administration didn't allow the incident to derail its long-term effort to "reset" relations with Moscow. The simple answer is: because we are undoubtedly doing the same thing, albeit probably in different ways. I doubt we've sent U.S. citizens to Russia as long-term moles (though anything's possible), but I have no doubt whatsoever that we are engaged in all sort of espionage efforts there (and in plenty of other countries too). To pitch the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit over something that we are doing ourselves would be asinine. And as Reagan administration official Richard Burt pointed out, the United States and the Soviet Union ratified numerous agreement at the height of the Cold War, even though we were spying on each other like crazy and trying to bring about the other side's collapse (we succeeded, they failed).
Second, it is remarkable how quickly the whole business was resolved. The two governments did the deal, the Russian spies plead guilty, and the handoff was made. Turns out its much better to be spying for Russia than to be detained as a suspected terrorist. If that happens, you could end up being held without trial for eight years, with the U.S. government bending over backwards to find some way to keep you in custody, even when there was mounting evidence that you were innocent. Keep that latter point in mind the next time you decide to visit Yemen, or when somebody brags about our deep commitment to the "rule of law" and the importance of habeas corpus.
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It's been a long
time since I've offered a counter-factual for you to ponder, but one popped
into my head as I was reading the latest set of all-too-predictable smears being
directed at South African Judge Richard Goldstone, who directed the U.N. report
documenting Israeli war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive.
If you're coming in late, the basic story is that Israeli newspapers and government officials have been spreading the story that Goldstone (who is Jewish) condemned a number of black activists to death when he was a judge in apartheid-era South Africa. Never mind that 1) it was his job as a judge to uphold the (admittedly harsh) laws of his country, 2) he is widely acknowledged as having played a positive role in the transition to majority rule, 3) Israel was one of white South Africa's staunchest allies, which makes these pious denunciations of apartheid absurdly hypocritical, and 4) none of this tells you a darn thing about either the contents or the merits of the report on Gaza that bears his name. For able rebuttals of this smear campaign, see here and here.
So here's my counterfactual. Suppose Goldstone's U.N. report had exonerated Israel's conduct during the Gaza War, and placed most if not all of the blame on Hamas. Suppose further that a prominent Palestinian group had then delved into Goldstone's past and tried to discredit the report by disclosing the same information about him. Do you think Israeli officials and/or media pundits like Jonathan Chait, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Alan Dershowitz would have rushed to pile on Goldstone, as they have leapt to do over the past few days? Isn't it more likely that they would have rallied to his defense, and denounced those unscrupulous Palestinians for trying to confuse the issue? Do these guys really think they are fooling anyone?
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What does it tell you about the New York Times op-ed page that they would publish a lengthy attack on the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell by a former air force chief of staff, which contains one obvious falsehood and another obvious omission?
The op-ed (by retired general Merrill A. McPeak) rehashes the old argument that permitting gay Americans to serve openly in the armed forces would undermine unit cohesion. He falsely claims that "advocates for gays in the service have by and large avoided a discussion of unit cohesion." This assertion is simply untrue; in fact, advocates for repealing DADT have addressed this issue repeatedly, as a thirty-second Google search would reveal. Indeed, a prize-winning article in the DoD's own Joint Forces Quarterly argued last year that "[T]he stated premise of the law -- to protect unit cohesion and combat effectiveness -- is not supported by any scientific studies." (For more on this issue, go here.)
So much for the false information purveyed in this article. The glaring omission in McPeak's op-ed was his failure to discuss any of the countries where gays do serve openly, such as Israel, Australia, Canada, or Great Britain. Have these states-all close U.S. allies and regarded as effective military performers-suffered a catastrophic decline in "unit cohesion?" The answer is no. As the JFQ article cited above notes:
"In a survey of over 100 experts from Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, it was found that all agreed the decision to lift the ban on homosexuals had no impact on military performance, readiness, cohesion, or ability to recruit or retain, nor did it increase the HIV rate among troops."
In short, McPeak doesn't know what he's talking about. And though the experience of modern militaries where gay people serve openly would seem to be germane to any discussion of this issue here in the United States, the Times' editors do not appear to have queried him about it.
I'm not surprised that a retired Air Force general has outdated and poorly-informed views on sexuality. Nor am I bothered that the Times gave him space to express them on their op-ed page, because it should be a platform for public debate and present a wide range of views. What I don't understand is why the Times' editors would let him make obviously bogus or misleading claims, without any perceptible attempt to verify them beforehand? Or maybe all those budget cuts have eliminated the fact-checkers?
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When I got out of the shower this morning, my wife was waking up to NPR. Her first comment to me was this: “I never thought I would hear an NPR reporter say those words.” What had she just heard? A report that the Obama administration was “under fire” for defending the rights of terrorist suspects.
She wasn’t complaining about NPR’s coverage, mind you, she was commenting on the bizarre situation where anyone -- let alone a president and his administration -- could be “under fire” for defending a core principle of the American justice system. The Founding Fathers would be spinning in their graves, about as fast as a nuclear centrifuge. They understood the dangers of giving executives arbitrary authority to arrest, detain, coerce, and try suspects (i.e., those whom authorities think might have committed a crime but whose guilt has not yet been determined). So suspects -- all suspects -- are accorded certain legal rights.
I’m not a lawyer and so I don’t normally weigh in on legal issues, including the continuing debate over torture, the use of civilian vs. military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, and the other aspects of post-9/11 policy. As a matter of policy, however, the case for abandoning our normal criminal justice procedures strikes me as laughably weak. As Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have noted repeatedly, the various Bush-era abuses (including torture, “preventive detention,” reliance on military tribunals) were a propaganda boon for our adversaries, and did not in fact lead to significant intelligence breakthroughs or other strategic benefits. And as numerous commentators have pointed out, the criminal justice system worked just fine in the case of Richard Reid (the Al Qaeda “shoe bomber”) and Ramzi Yousef (who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and is now serving a life sentence without parole). And on the issue of torture, top military commanders like David Petraeus agree.
The latest evidence, of course, is the guilty plea entered by Najibullah Zazi at his trial in New York City (yes, the very same New York city that supposedly couldn’t hold a trial for Khalid Sheikh Muhammed). Zazi was was arrested and charged with conspiracy, for plotting to detonate a bomb in the New York subway system. He was Mirandized and interrogated in the normal fashion (i.e., he wasn’t waterboarded). The result? He pleads guilty, and appears to be singing like a bird. Good thing we didn’t send him to Guantanamo, where he might have been tortured, and his evidence rendered either suspect or legally inadmissible.
The lesson here is that Americans ought to have more faith in our existing institutions. It’s a great paradox: we constantly tell the world how great our country is, how our values ought to be emulated, and how other states would be much better off if they re-made their societies in our image. But then something bad happens, panic sets in, and people conclude that those same precious values are in fact a fatal weakness that our enemies will exploit to bring us down. And the result is usually an embarrassing and shameful tragedy (like the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II), for which we later have to apologize and make restitution.
Defenders of these abuses sometimes point out that Lincoln, Roosevelt, and other American icons were also willing to suspend core U.S. values in times of national emergency, and that the pendulum swung back once the danger is over. I would make three comments in response.
First, to the extent that this is true, it merely underscores the need for opponents of these policies to keep making the case against them. The pendulum won’t swing back if critics don’t explain why these policies are misguided, or if their advocates prove to be louder or more persistent.
Second, even if the pendulum does swing back somewhat, it may not go all the way. We may have abandoned water-boarding, for example, but the Obama administration has retained a number of other Bush-era policies, including preventive detention and extraordinary rendition. And we all know that once in place, many policies prove remarkably resistant to change. Moreover, executive power in the realm of national security has been growing steadily for the past century -- and especially since the Cold War began -- and it is not obvious to me that this has been a net positive. Third, it is worth remembering that former Vice President Cheney and key aides like David Addington were not advocating a temporary response to a new threat, akin to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Rather, they saw 9/11 as an opportunity to pursue a permanent increase in executive power, a goal that they had been seeking for many years. (Never mind that they don't seem very interested in a strong executive during this administration). And I suppose we should be grateful that Bush’s many failures helped slow this power grab somewhat.
You might think a realist like me would be in favor of a strong executive, on the grounds that states in the dog-eat-dog world of international politics need a strong hand on the tiller of the ship of state. But realists also have a healthy appreciation for human frailty, and the tendency for those who possess great power to abuse it. Concentrating too much power in the executive is a good way to blunder into foolish wars, and it can even discourage the sort of open debate and discussion that (sometimes) helps democracies to avoid the fatal errors that authoritarian governments often make.
So have a little faith in our existing institutions, and stop trying to become more like the countries we normally oppose.
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Yesterday I pointed out that neither the New York Times nor Washington Post had yet covered the story of the "Gaza Freedom March," a group of 1300 or so peace activists who were trying to travel to Gaza to protest the continued blockade of this beleaguered region. I am pleased to report that today the Times ran a pretty good story on the march. As near as I could tell from its website, the Post has yet to do so.
Over at Mondoweiss, Adam Horowitz reports that the Egyptian government has now agreed to let 100 Freedom Marchers enter Gaza. One of the organizers of the March, Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin, called it a "partial victory," that shows that "mass pressure has an an effect." I hope she's right, both in that context and in some others.
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I don’t know where the latest unrest in Iran will lead -- and neither does anyone else -- but it seems like the regime is losing whatever legitimacy it had left and may also be losing its capacity to squelch dissent with displays of force. (As before, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish has lots of videos and commentary on events there.) The outcome of this sort of challenge is inherently difficult to forecast, as it is nearly impossible to know ex ante when a critical “tipping point” might be reached. At a minimum, the regime has clearly gotten significantly weaker since the contested election last summer.
Here are some cautionary lessons to bear in mind. First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.
Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing. I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel.
If you’re looking for a useful historical analogy, think back to the "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe. Neoconservatives used to argue that the rapid and mostly peaceful collapse of communism proved that rapid democratic transformations were possible in unlikely settings, and they used that argument to justify trying the same thing in Iraq. (We all know how well that turned out.) In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.
Finally, as I mentioned a few days ago, we should not assume that a Green triumph in Iran would eliminate all sources of friction between Iran and the West. A new government would probably seek to continue Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and will certainly want a secure (read: superior) position in its own neighborhood. In practice, that means trying to achieve an imbalance of power in its favor, which will make the U.S. uncomfortable. If the clerical regime falls and we continue to insist that Iran stop enriching uranium and conform to our policy preferences, that will convince many Iranians that the United States is irrevocably hostile to their country and not just to the current regime. So I hope somebody in the Obama administration is starting to think about a) what we do if the Green Movement succeeds, b) what we do if it fails, and c) how to keep hawks in the United States and Israel from making things worse.
Is there anything more absurd than the U.S. Congress's decision to deny funds to close Guantanamo, on the grounds that this might result in detainees being held on American soil? Excuse me, but isn't this taking the "not-in-my-backyard" principle to absurd lengths? We're not talking about letting a suspected terrorist walk around free in your hometown while he awaits trial; we talking about putting them in jail while they are tried (and by a military tribunal). If convicted, they'd end up in prison (along with over 200,000 other federal prisoners already incarcerated and the more than 3,000 convicted murderers now on death row). If acquitted, they could still be deported.
This episode betrays a certain schizophrenia about America's role as a world power. On the one hand, the foreign policy elite continually tells Americans that the United States is the "leader of the free world," and that they have a long list of global responsibilities. As a result, the United States spends a lot of money on its national security apparatus, tells lots of countries how to run their own affairs, maintain an extensive array of military bases, and send its armed forces into harm’s way in various faraway lands. Indeed, William Pfaff is not far off in saying that the United States has become "addicted to war."
But on the other hand, U.S politicians somehow believe that all this overseas activity shouldn't have any impact here at home, apart from making us stand in long security lines at the airport. So President Bush didn't raise taxes to pay for the war on terror or the war in Iraq, and now Congress doesn't think the American people would tolerate having a couple of hundred suspected terrorists in prison somewhere in the United States.
Frankly, if Americans are that skittish and self-absorbed, the country has no business exercising any sort of "global leadership" and the various Congresspersons who voted to deny the funds should immediately demand the abrogation of all existing alliances, the termination of all military activities overseas, and a return to a strict policy of isolationism. I don't think that's a good idea, by the way, but at least our Congressional representatives would be being consistent.
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A couple of commenters suggested that my previous post on the Harman affair was adopting a "guilty until proven innocent" approach. Not true. I did say that I wasn't buying the spin offered by some of her defenders, but that doesn't mean I accept the CQ story as gospel either. I made two main points: 1) the idea that Harman might have traded favors in the manner implied by the CQ story had a certain prima facie plausibility (which doesn’t mean was in fact true, of course), and 2) that I hoped more information would become available so that we could determine what actually occurred. I also said I hoped that the transcript of the conversation between Harman would be released, so that we could all know exactly what was said (and to whom). Representative Harman agrees, and has now called for the transcript of the wiretapped calls to be made public. I hope it is.
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On the torture memos: I’m not a lawyer, but I think I understand the political calculations that led Obama to say that his administration would not be prosecuting individuals for their role in this loathsome episode. He understood that this could reach very far up in the Bush administration, and that beginning a legal process would be divisive and cost him some swing votes he thinks he’ll need on other issues. So the principals in the Bush administration torture regime may end up with a free pass, at least in terms of criminal prosecution. But I have three thoughts:
First, a lot of countries (including the United States) have expended considerable diplomatic effort to hold people like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic or Liberia’s Charles Taylor accountable for their crimes. Apparently Obama feels that this principle can be jettisoned when it might be politically expedient to do so. At a minimum, we ought to remember this incident the next time we get upset that some other country is declining to prosecute a former leader, turning a blind eye to some other ruler's depredations (think Robert Mugabe), or cutting a deal with some warlord or terrorist leader. Maybe they were making pragmatic calculations too, and we holier-than-thou Americans ought to be a bit less judgmental.
Second, does our failure to prosecute open the door to other efforts to do so? A number of states (France, Canada, Belgium, Spain, etc.) have incorporated a principle of “universal jurisdiction” into their own domestic legal systems, when dealing with genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity (including torture). This principle can be invoked when the home country of the alleged perpetrator is "unwilling or unable to prosecute" Earlier reports suggesting that Spanish officials were going to indict six former Bush administration officials eventually led Spain's attorney general to say that U.S. courts would be the proper venue, but Obama has now made it clear that this isn't going to happen. I don’t know what the practical implications might be, but if I were Dick Cheney or David Addington, I wouldn’t be planning a summer vacation in Spain.
Third, for those of you who think that power is of declining relevance in world politics and that normative and legal standards are becoming increasingly important, I'd just point out that the various officials who sanctioned these abuses would be in a lot more trouble if they came from a weak and vulnerable state, as opposed to a global power like the United States. Not only does power corrupt, but it allows people who sanction torture to get away with it, albeit at some considerable cost to America's image and reputation. Those reputational costs will be borne by all Americans, who ought to be furious at the crimes that were committed in their name.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.