Political leaders often draw negative inferences from an adversary's conduct, without realizing that their own behavior is not really that different. In particular, an opponent's past actions is frequently invoked to demonstrate how aggressive/dangerous/hostile/unstable they are, but when one's own country (or a close ally) acts in the very same way, we are quick to find ways to rationalize or justify it and we would never conclude that we might be equally aggressive or irrational.
Case in point: in an interview with Charlie Rose on Sept. 7, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair came close to endorsing the use of force against Iran, on the grounds that it would be too dangerous if Iran were some day to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. He explicitly rejected the idea that deterrence could work against a nuclear Iran in the same way that it worked against the Soviet Union, saying that "this regime is qualitatively different in their makeup. I see them now exporting terrorism, instability around the Middle East." (Blair also threw in an incorrect reference to one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offensive statements about Israel, based on the usual mistranslation, though what Ahmadinejad actually did say is still pretty objectionable).
But the main point is that Blair's reasoning here is faulty. For one thing, the Soviet Union exported a lot of terrorism and instability in its day (while murdering its own citizens in large numbers), yet containment and deterrence worked well for some forty years. Iran's past conduct, while far from perfect, isn't remotely in the same league with Stalin's or Brezhnev's.
Second, the United States has been a far greater source of "instability" in the Middle East in recent years than Iran (aided in no small part by tame puppets like Blair). Yet surely the former PM doesn't think that the U.S. and British "regimes" are "qualitatively different" (i.e., irrational or aggressive) and therefore cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons either.
Third, countries like Iran rely on low-level strategies like covert support for terrorist organizations precisely because they don't want to take serious risks and don't have any other ways to try to protect their own interests. Far from indicating some sort of dangerous irrationality, therefore, this behavior might be evidence of fairly rational (if from our perspective, undesirable) behavior.
In short, Blair's tacit support for military force in this case is without foundation.
Political psychologists sometimes attribute this sort of faulty reasoning to the "fundamental attribution theorem." The term refers to the tendency of people to attribute another actor's behavior almost entirely to that actor's dispositions or attributes, while ignoring the circumstances that might be forcing the actor in question to behave in a particular way. At the same time, we tend to see our own behavior as forced upon us by the situation we are in. In other words, my actions are forced upon me by my situation, but others are freer to do what they want and so their actions tell me a lot about their character and motives.
Something of the sort may be at work here, but I think it mostly tells you that Blair is not a very careful thinker. And like most politicians, he tends to see his conduct as virtuous and principled and the behavior of potential adversaries as a reflection of bad character. Even when the behavior is essentially identical, or arguably worse on our side.
And please: I'm not defending Iran's support for terrorist groups, justifying Ahmadinejad's hateful rhetoric, or playing down the oppressive nature of the clerical regime. Nor do I think it would be a good thing if Tehran got nuclear weapons. My only point is that if we are going to justify preventive war against Iran by using its past behavior to draw inferences about the nature of their future decision-making, we ought to pause for a second and consider what inferences others might reasonably draw from ours.
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Tom Friedman has a pretty good column today on the future of Sino-American relations, in effect warning that unruly nationalism in China could spell trouble down the road. Money quotation:
The days when Nixon and Mao could manage this relationship in secret are long gone. There are a lot of unstable chemicals at work out here today, and so many more players with the power to inflame or calm U.S.-China relations.
A Sino-American Cold War is not inevitable, perhaps, and it is easy to think of reasons why the two largest economies (and over time, two most significant military powers) might manage to keep their competition within safe bounds. Optimists invoke the usual liberal antidotes to conflict: the growing economic ties between the two countries, China's "socialization" into existing institutions, and the possibility that China will one day become a democracy. Or one may hope that Beijing will realize that overly assertive behavior will quickly provoke balancing behavior by China's neighbors (moving them to align more closely with each other and with the United States), thereby leaving China isolated and worse off overall. And if the United States manages to extricate itself from its Iraqi and Afghan morasses and devotes more attention on Asia, then there might be even less chance of a Sino-American train wreck down the road.
But here's why I'm less optimistic. Assuming China continues to grow economically, it will also increase its military power and thus its capacity to threaten certain U.S. interests. Like any great power, it will tend to view its own "vital interests" more expansively as its power rises, and it will want to do what it can to ensure that others cannot threaten those interests. For example, a rising China that is increasingly dependent on overseas resources and markets will naturally want to make it harder for others to threaten these vital sea lines of communication. To be concerned by these things is not a sign of aggressive expansionism; it is just typical great power behavior. And given that U.S. leaders think they have "vital interest" in virtually every part of the globe, this sort of behavior ought to be easy for Americans to recognize.
Now, if one also assumes that both the United States and China will always be governed by mature, far-sighted, and sensible politicians who won't succumb to xenophobia or threat-mongering, won't be swayed by narrow interest groups, won't let propaganda from self-interested allies warp their judgment, and who will manage each and every crisis with restraint and aplomb, then one might easily conclude that any future rivalry will remain fairly muted.
But if one assumes that occasionally an impulsive, weak, or rambunctious leader will come to power in one of the two countries, or that either state's foreign policy apparatus might at some point be overly influenced by people with more dangerous agendas, or that at some point one of the two will hit a rough patch and tempt the other to seize an advantage, then you'd obviously be more concerned about trouble down the road. And what if this happened in both countries simultaneously?
Now: based on what you know about these two countries, which assumption do you think is more reasonable? Based on past history, I think its safe to assume that sooner or later one side or the other is going to do something stupid. Friedman is clearly worried about social forces in China that might make conflict more likely; I'm also worried about the judgment of people at the top and some of the social forces here at home. And not just today, but for a long time into the future.
Obligatory IR Theory footnote: the discussion above in effect combines a structural realist analysis with a sensitivity to the impact of domestic politics. Structural theory tells you why a rising China creates greater potential for security competition between Washington and Beijing: in the bipolar world that a rising China is gradually creating, the two most powerful states will naturally eye each other warily. But structure alone doesn't make intense conflict (let alone all-out war) inevitable. That will be determined, at least in part, by how well each country's foreign policy apparatus manages things. But note that "managing" doesn't just mean accommodation: it will also require displays of resolve and a careful drawing of "red lines," which also creates the possibility of misunderstanding and miscalculation. And don't forget: If this emerging bipolarity lasts a long time, the challenge lies in managing relations not just for a year or two, but for many decades. Based on what I know about each country's foreign policy establishment, it's hard for me to believe that one (or both) won't blow it sooner or later and lead us into a serious security competition.
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The Afghanistan Study Group report that I wrote about last week is getting some predictable flak from people who hold different views about U.S. strategy there.
It is hardly surprising, for example, that Andrew Exum lavished high praise on Joshua Foust's extended rant against the report. Exum is a counterinsurgency enthusiast and was a vocal advocate of escalating the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As such, he is hardly likely to favor a report that questions the wisdom of this approach, despite his telling admission that our current strategy is "troubled."
It is of course possible that Exum will one day be proven right, but one would have more faith in his judgment if the situation in Afghanistan had not gone from bad to worse since Obama took his advice. Obama began escalating the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan shortly after he took office, and since then we've had a fraudulent presidential election, an inconclusive offensive in Marjah, a delayed and downgraded operation in Kandahar, and a run on the corrupt Bank of Kabul. Casualty levels are up, and aid groups in Afghanistan now report that the security situation is worse than ever, despite a heightened U.S. presence.
This situation is no accident, as Anatol Lieven outlines here. Rather, it reflects our enduring ignorance about Afghan society and the folly of trying to build a Western-style centralized government in a multi-ethnic society that is notoriously suspicious of foreign occupiers and where the prerequisites for a Western-style political order are lacking. Given the actual situation on the ground (and the condition of the U.S. economy), the Study Group concluded that it did not make sense to spend $100 billion or more per year trying to "nation-build" in a country whose entire GNP is about $14 billion.
As for Foust, his main criticism seems to be that the Study Group didn't consult as many Afghan experts as he would have liked, or provide a lot of nitty-gritty empirical detail to back up our analysis. This latter complaint is partly valid, but largely beside the point. Our objective was to encourage U.S. leaders to rethink the strategic stakes at issue in Afghanistan, to help them understand why the current U.S. strategy wasn't working, and to outline a plausible alternative approach. Despite his overheated rhetoric, Foust says he agrees with most of that, and he also agrees that the current U.S. approach is wrong-headed. Yet he is so eager to cast cold water on the report that he dismisses virtually all of its recommendations, even on obviously specious grounds. For example, he criticizes our call for greater effort to engaging regional partners by saying "it's been tried." But what's his alternative: that we refrain from trying to get regional stakeholders to help us neutralize the conflict? And isn't it palpably obvious that any enduring solution to the Afghan mess is going to require a lot of buy-in from its neighbors?
Moreover, Foust can't even get our arguments straight. He claims that we recommend turning Afghanistan into a "Special Forces and drone firing range," which is simply false. Like President Obama, we argued that America's only vital strategic interest in Afghanistan was to prevent it from becoming a "safe haven" that would materially increase al Qaeda's capabilities and thus make it a significantly greater threat to the United States. This situation could only occur if 1) the Taliban regained power, 2) Al Qaeda moved back into Afghan territory in strength, and 3) if it once again created large bases in which to train a substantial number of new cadres and thus become significantly more dangerous. We pointed out that if that were to happen -- and it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it will -- such large bases would be readily visible and could be targeted in a variety of ways. And unlike the 1990s, when the Clinton administration vacillated about attacking al Qaeda's compounds, there were would be little debate about going after large al Qaeda encampments today. As Greg Scoblete notes here this sort of campaign does not requires a large scale U.S. military presence, and it is far cry from turning the entire country into a "firing range."
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As we all know by now, President Obama and General Petraeus hope to win the war in Afghanistan through a strategy of escalated counterinsurgency warfare. Yesterday, I suggested that they ought to be thinking about a Plan B in case (or when) their approach fails. With splendid timing, on Wednesday the New America Foundation will provide that Plan B, in a report entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." (You can watch a press conference on the report at 12 noon on Wednesday here, or read study director Steve Clemons' summary here.)
Full disclosure: I was a member of the Study Group, so you won't be surprised to hear that I agree with most of its contents. But don't let that stop you from reading the report and pondering its arguments carefully.
To whet your appetite, here are the Study Group's five main recommendations:
But wait, there's more! The Study Group also identified eleven important "myths" in the current debate on Afghanistan. Here they are (I've omitted the Group's assessment of what the reality on each one is):
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know why I think a lot of these claims are mistaken. If you want to know what the realities are, read the full Study Group report. And kudos to Steve Clemons and the other members of the Study Group for providing the administration with an alternative approach. We're going to need one.
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Last week I offered up "Ten reasons why wars last too long," which tried to explain why it was hard for leaders to recognize they are in a losing war and difficult for them to simply "cut their losses" and disengage.
Coincidentally, last week Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University published a smart piece entitled "How do long wars become so long?" in The New Republic. TNR dropped off my "must-read" list a long time ago, but Sestanovich's piece is excellent and well worth a look. He argues that many "long wars" begin with a half-hearted, desultory effort (as in Vietnam in the early 1960s, or Afghanistan from 2003-2007), often because U.S. leaders have more pressing priorities. When it becomes clear that things aren't going well, however, presidents and their advisors normally conclude that they haven't given the war their best shot and tend to assume that a serious effort will turn the tide.
Thus, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who also served as U.S. Ambassador in South Vietnam, explained the decision to escalate in 1965 by saying "we had not exhausted our alternatives." In his view, the United States still had "vast resources" to bring to bear -- and new strategies to try -- "before we thought of quitting."
This problem was the sixth point in my list of ten reasons, but Sestanovich offers an important amendment in his own piece. By the time the U.S. gets serious about these local conflicts, the situation has often deteriorated so badly that even a major effort may not succeed, or at least not quickly. But while the public will let them take "their best shot," it will expect that shot to succeed in fairly short order. Thus, presidents do not get an infinite number of "do-overs." Even if the military keeps coming up with clever new strategies, the public won't support a lengthy campaign that isn't producing visible and positive results.
The obvious implication is that Obama and General Petraeus have a few more months to show tangible results of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. And if I were them, I'd be thinking about a Plan B. I'll have more to say on that point tomorrow.
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When great powers intervene in minor countries, sometimes they win quick and fairly decisive victories. (Think U.S. in Grenada). When this happens, the only short-term problem is where to hold the victory parade and how many medals to give out. But when a war of choice goes badly, then national leaders have to decide either to cut their losses and get out or to "stay the course." If the opponent is an insatiable great power like the Third Reich, there may be little choice in the matter. But if the enemy is an insurgency in a relatively weak and unimportant state, and the challenge is nation-building in a society that you don't understand very well, it's a much trickier decision.
As we've seen in Iraq and are seeing again in Afghanistan, getting out of a quagmire is a whole lot harder than getting into one. Indeed, I'd argue that this is a general tendency in most wars of choice: they usually last longer than the people who launch them expect, and they usually cost a lot more. I'm hardly the first person to notice this phenomenon, which does make you wonder why it keeps happening.
In any case, now that we are (supposedly) leaving Iraq, here are my Top Ten Reasons why wars of choice last too long, and why it's so hard for politicians to wake up, smell the coffee, and just get out.
1. Political leaders get trapped by their own beliefs. All human beings tend to interpret new information in light of their pre-existing beliefs, and therefore tend to revise strongly-held views more slowly than they should. Having made the difficult decision to go to war (or to escalate a war that is already under way) it will be hard for any leader to rethink the merits of that decision, even if lots of information piles up suggesting that it was a blunder.
2. Information in war is often ambiguous. Another reason wars of choice last too long is that the case for cutting one's losses is rarely crystal-clear. Even if there is lots of evidence that the war is going badly, there are bound to be some positive signs too. Remember all those "benchmarks" the Bush administration developed for measuring progress in Iraq? If you have enough of them, you can always find a few items on the list where things are looking better. When the evidence is mixed (as it usually is), leaders are even less likely to rethink their beliefs that the war is worth fighting.
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On the eve of President Obama's speech to the nation on Iraq, some of the people who dreamed up this foolish war or helped persuade the nation that it was a good idea are getting out their paintbrushes and whitewash. I refer, of course, to the twin op-eds in today's New York Times by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and neoconservative columnist David Brooks.
Wolfowitz, you will recall, was one of the main architects of the war, having pushed the invasion during the 1990s and as soon as he became Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Bush adminstration. He was the guy who recommended invading Iraq four days after 9/11, even though Osama bin Laden was nowhere near Iraq and there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with it. For his part, Brooks was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war in the months prior to the invasion, and he continued to defend it long after the original rationale had been exposed as a sham.
The main thrust of Wolfowitz's column is that the United States should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to yield a "stable country." His analogy is to Korea, where the United States has stationed troops for nearly sixty years. Of course, Wolfowitz ignores the fact that our role in Korea was defensive: we entered the Korean War after North Korea invaded the South (with Soviet help), and we did so with the full authorization of the U.N. Security Council. In Iraq, by contrast, the United States went to war on the basis of bogus evidence, as part of a grand scheme to "transform" the entire Middle East.
Staying in Korea was also part of the broader strategy of containment, which made good sense in that historical epoch. The Soviet Union was a serious great power adversary and North Korea was a close Soviet ally, and there was every reason to think the North might try again if South Korea were left on its own. By contrast, maintaining a semi-permanent military presence in Iraq isn't going to contain anyone, and it is precisely that sort of on-the-ground interference that fuels jihadi narratives about nefarious Western plans to dominate Muslim lands. It is perhaps also worth remembering that our prolonged military presence in South Korea isn't very popular there anymore, and that most Iraqis want us out of their country too.
Notice also that Wolfowitz says very little about the costs of this adventure in the past, or how much more blood and treasure the United States should be expected to spend in the future. There are boilerplate references to the "brave men and women" of the U.S. military, and to Iraq's people "who have borne a heavy burden." All true, but he doesn't offer any numbers (either dollars spent or lives lost), because he might have to take his share of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people who would be alive today if the United States had not followed his advice. It would also remind us that he once predicted that the war would cost less than $100 billion and that Iraq's oil revenues would pay for reconstruction and so it wouldn't cost the American taxpayer a dime. Given that track record, in fact, one wonders why the Times editors thought he was a reliable source of useful advice on Iraq today.
As for Brooks, his column is a transparent attempt to retroactively justify an unnecessary war. He marshals an array of statistics showing how much things have improved in Iraq, but all his various numbers show is that after you've flattened a country and dismantled its entire political order, you can generate some positive growth rates if you pour billions of dollars back in. He claims this "nation-building" effort cost only $53 billion (hardly a trivial sum), but that figure omits all the other costs of the war (which economist Joseph Stiglitz and budget expert Linda Bilmes estimate to be in excess of $3 trillion). And like Wolfowitz, Brooks is mostly silent about the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and thousands of dead and wounded Americans who paid the price for their naïve experiment in social engineering.
Of course, what Wolfowitz and Brooks are up to is not hard to discern. They want Americans to keep pouring resources into Iraq for as long as it takes to make their ill-fated scheme look like a success. Equally important, they want to portray Iraq in a somewhat positive light now, so that Obama and the Democrats get blamed when things go south.
All countries make mistakes, because leaders are fallible and no political system is immune from folly. But countries compound their errors when they cannot learn from them, and when they don't hold the people responsible for them accountable. Sadly, these two pieces suggest that the campaign to lobotomize our collective memory is now underway. If it succeeds, we can look forward to more "success stories" like this in the future.
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If you're looking for another realistic counter to the official optimism about Afghanistan, check out Christopher Layne's op-ed from two days ago in the Chicago Tribune. In a handful of sharp, short paragraphs, Layne reminds us that 1) the "surge" in Iraq (the approach now being adapted to Afghanistan) didn't work, 2) the current emphasis on counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare misdiagnoses the origins of our troubles in the Middle East and Central Asia, and 3) our current fascination with COIN "sets exactly the wrong strategic priorities for the United States."
Smart piece. It will take some time before this view become the conventional wisdom, but I'm still betting that it will. Unfortunately, it will be many billions of dollars and thousands of lives too late.
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One of the themes I have harped about on this blog has been the issue of opportunity costs. When a great power gets itself over-committed in a lot of costly and time-consuming commitments (and when it mismanages its economy in various ways), then it won't have the surplus it needs when an unexpected challenge (or an unforeseen opportunity) arises.
Case in point: the current floods that have ravaged Pakistan in recent weeks. The situation is by all accounts horrific, and could have significant long-term consequences for millions of people. It is precisely the sort of event that calls for a vigorous and generous U.S. response.
As everyone knows, the United States is widely despised among broad swathes of Pakistani society. Some of this hostility is unmerited, but some of it is a direct result of misguided U.S. policies going back many decades. As the U.S. experience with Indonesia following the 2004 Asian tsunami demonstrated, however, a prompt and generous relief effort could have a marked positive effects on Pakistani attitudes. Such a shift could undermine support for extremist groups and make it easier for the Pakistani government to crack down on them later on. It is also the right thing to do, and the U.S. military is actually pretty good at organizing such efforts.
The United States has so far pledged some $76 million dollars in relief aid, and has sent 19 helicopters to help ferry relief supplies. That's all well and good, but notice that the U.S. government sent nearly $1 billion in aid in response to the tsunami, and we are currently spending roughly $100 billion annually trying to defeat the Taliban. More to the point, bear in mind that the United States currently has some over 200 helicopters deployed in Afghanistan (and most reports suggest that we could actually use a lot more).
So imagine what we might be able to do to help stranded Pakistanis if we weren't bogged down in a costly and seemingly open-ended counterinsurgency war, and didn't have all those military assets (and money) already tied up there? It's entirely possible that we could do more to help suffering individuals, and more to advance our own interests in the region, if some of these military assets weren't already committed.
Of course, Obama didn't know that there would be catastrophic flooding in Pakistan when he decided to escalate and prolong the Afghan campaign. But that's just the point: when national leaders make or escalate a particular strategic commitment, they are not just determining what the country is going to do, they are also determining other things that that they won't be able to do (or at least won't be able to do as well).
Thus, another good argument for a more restrained grand strategy is that it might free up the resources that would allow us do some real good in the world, whenever unfortunate surprises occur. As they always will.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has sensibly concluded that when the United States: 1) Is facing massive federal budget deficits, combined with a looming fiscal crisis at the state and local levels, 2) Is already spending more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and 3) Faces no "peer competitors" or dangerous great powers nearby, then it makes sense to make a few modest cuts in its military spending.
Of course, patriotic Congressmen will now fight tooth-and-nail to preserve spending in their states or districts, so it's not even clear how much money will ultimately be saved. But it's a step in the right direction, and Gates deserves credit for seeing where the wind was blowing and for addressing the problem, even if only in a modest way.
Just don't lose sight of the real issue, which is not so much the amount of money we devote to national security as the purposes for which we use these capabilities. It doesn't make much sense to cut spending if you're going to continue to use the military on ill-advised missions; in fact, if you have a very ambitious foreign policy, then you ought to expect to spend a lot of blood and treasure on it. As the Times noted this morning, the White House backed Gates's plan, saying that "his plan would free money that could be better spent on war fighting." And when some key elements of your foreign policy make you very unpopular in large swathes of the world, it will probably fuel anti-American terrorism and create dangers that might not exist otherwise, or at least might not be as large or as difficult to address.
In other words, the debate that is about to occur about Pentagon cuts is mostly a disagreement about the allocation of pork and short-term priorities. Gates did not propose any change in the roles and missions of the U.S. armed forces, in our international commitments, or even our overall force levels. His proposals do not invite a debate about the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy. And until that debate occurs, don't expect major changes in America's force posture or its underlying belief that it has the right and/or responsibility to intervene in far-flung corners of the world, even when vital interests are not at stake and when we don't really have any idea how to run these places reliably.
On the latter point, I hope you caught the delicious irony on General Ray Odierno's statement that U.S. forces in Iraq were now there "to prevent foreign powers from meddling with Iraq's new government" (h/t Yglesias and Greenwald). It's easy to lampoon such a comment -- weren't we "meddling" just a bit when we invaded in 2003? -- but the real lesson is that this is how virtually all imperial powers tend to see their own conduct. Great Britain claimed to shoulder the "white man's burden" (i.e. to bring civilization to its benighted colonial subjects), and the French saw their colonial role as "la mission civilizatrice." The former Soviet Union thought it was helping spread the benefits of socialism to its Third World clients, and the United States has convinced itself that it is spreading freedom, democracy, liberty, the rule of law, "world order," etc.
I don't know if countries tell themselves this sort of thing in order to rally support for interventionist policies, or to convince other states that their actions are inspired by noble aims rather than the self-interested dictates of realpolitik (probably both). Whatever the motivation, I remain convinced that the United States would be better off if it devoted more attention to nation-building here at home, and somewhat less to fruitless efforts to do so abroad, especially in those places where the preconditions for Western-style liberal democracy are sorely lacking.
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As my vacation comes to an end, I want to thank Columbia's Jack Snyder and Georgetown's David Edelstein for their thoughtful guest posts. Last week David had an excellent entry on the war-aversion of most contemporary realists and I wanted to offer a brief reaction. I've always found it odd that many academics see realism as a hawkish view of world politics and think that realists are big fans of using military power, even though most contemporary realists -- with a few exceptions like Henry Kissinger -- have generally been prudent about the use of force and skeptical about most overseas military adventures. As Edelstein points out, realists like Waltz, Morgenthau, and Kennan were opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam -- on strategic rather than moral grounds -- and younger realists (including me) opposed the Iraq War in 2003, were ambivalent about our intervention in Balkans or Africa in the 1990s, and think attacking Iran would be major strategic blunder today.
Edelstein's discussion of this issue is excellent and I don't have any major disagreements with his post, but I would add a few additional points.
To start with a minor correction: the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 is not the only post-Cold War military operation that realists supported. As I recall, most realists also supported Desert Storm, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Moreover, it was two realists -- John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Barry Posen of MIT -- who offered the most optimistic (and as it turned out, accurate) pre-war forecasts of how easy that war was likely to be. (By contrast, both doves and a surprising number of hawks seemed to think ousting Saddam from Kuwait was going to be very difficult).
As one might expect, realists supported Desert Storm for good balance-of-power reasons. If Saddam's Iraq had absorbed Kuwait permanently, its GDP would have increased by about 40 percent and it could have translated that additional wealth into additional military power. Although Saddam's military machine was never very impressive by U.S. standards, a somewhat stronger Iraq might have posed a more serious long-term threat to the regional balance in the Gulf and presented a more serious threat to Saudi Arabia in particular. Given that the United States has always sought to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, it made good strategic sense to expel Iraq from Kuwait and to degrade its military power in the process. Most of the rest of the world agreed, by the way, which is why they helped us do it and why that operation did not tarnish our national image.
It was also the right decision not to go to Baghdad back then, because toppling Saddam in 1991 would have dragged us into precisely the same quagmire we have been dealing with since we foolishly invaded in 2003.
The other reason why contemporary realists have been skeptical about many recent military adventures is essentially structural. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position. Realists care primarily (thought not exclusively) about the balance of material power, and there just isn't a lot of additional power out there to be won via military action. Instead, the main arenas of American military activity have been conflict-ridden backwaters of little or no strategic importance. They are hard to get to, difficult-to-impossible to pacify, and don't have a lot of economic potential or military power of their own. Getting bogged down in places like Iraq or Afghanistan just strengthens jihadi narratives about America's alleged antipathy to Islam, and as with Vietnam, it ultimately won't matter very much whether we win or lose. On simple cost-benefit grounds, therefore, realists don't think these wars are worth the effort.
In short, because realists understand that military power is a crude instrument and that governing alien societies is a costly business, they have argued against such foolishness. Instead, the main advocates of military involvement have been a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationationalists, driven by a a variety of agendas and infused with a remarkable degree of hubris. The results -- first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan -- have not been pretty.
Realists have lost these debates, however, for somewhat similar structural reasons. When a state is as big and powerful as the United States is, it is hard for its leaders to believe that they can't do the impossible in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. And when you are geographically distant from the places you are meddling, it's hard to believe that it will have any serious consequences back here at home (9/11 notwithstanding). Also, as I've noted before, the Cold War got the United States in the habit of going everywhere and doing everything, and led to the emergence of a large set of domestic institutions whose cumulative impact is to to keep the United States engaged in as many places as possible.
So long as there are no great power rivals out there, it is hard to argue that attacking some country we have taken a disliking too (whether for valid or bogus reasons) is going to be costly or difficult. Even worse, there will always be various propagandists and clever briefers out there to explain why this time the intended target is really dangerous and this time the war really will pay for itself, and this time failure to act will have catastrophic consequences, and oh yes, this time other states really want us to do it, etc., etc., etc. And no matter how many times the hawks have been wrong in the past, plenty of people will take them seriously. For an 800-lb gorilla like the USA, amnesia seems to be a congenital condition.
One last point. Contrary to what some critics think, realists don't want a weaker America. But they do understand that a robust economy is the foundation of all national power and that wasting money or lives on foolish foreign adventures, excessive military spending, or a large, secretive, redundant, and dysfunctional "intelligence" apparatus does not make the country stronger or more secure.
As the realist Kenneth Waltz put it back in the early 1980s, "more is not better if less is enough." Those wise words apply to the entire national security establishment, and to the costly misadventures that civilians have been asking it to do in recent years. So in addition to the reasons that Professor Edelstein emphasized, that's why realists have been wary of using force in recent years.
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I've been thinking about U.S. grand strategy again, and pondering some big questions that ought to be central to the debate on America's global role. Some of these big questions are researchable, others are by their very nature more speculative. How you answer some of them also depends on the theories you think are most powerful or applicable (i.e., realist theory suggests one set of answers, liberal approaches offer a different set, etc.), and the answers your get should have profound implications for what you think U.S. grand strategy ought to be.
So here are Five Big Questions about contemporary world politics.
1. Where is the EU project headed? The construction of the European Union was a major innovation in global politics, but new doubts have arisen about its long-term future. Pessimists such as Notre Dame's Sebastian Rosato believe the highwater mark of European unity has already been passed, while optimists like Princeton's Andrew Moravcsik think that Europe's current difficulties are likely to encourage further steps towards integration. The answer matters, because the re-emergence of genuine power politics within Europe could force the United States to devote more attention to a continent that some argue is "primed for peace" and no longer of much strategic concern.
2. If China's power continues to rise, how easy will it be to get Asian states to balance against it? Balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) theory predicts that weaker states will try to limit the influence of rising powers by forming defensive alliances against them. China's rise is already provoking alarm in many of its neighbors, who look first to the United States and possibly to each other for assistance. But how strong will this tendency to balance be? If China gets really powerful, and the United States disengages entirely, some of China's neighbors might be tempted to bandwagon with Beijing, thereby facilitating the emergence of a Chinese "sphere of influence" in Asia. But if China's neighbors get support from each other and from the United States, then they'll probably prefer to balance.
But here's the question: Just how much support does the United States have to provide, given that this issue ought to matter more to the Asian states than it does to us? If you think balancing is the dominant tendency (as I do), then the United States can pass a lot of the burden to Japan, India, Vietnam, etc. It can "free-ride" to some degree on them, instead of the other way around. But if you think these states will be reluctant to balance, then the United States might have to do a lot of the heavy lifting itself.
To make matters more complicated still, both the United States and its Asian allies may be tempted to do some bluffing with each other, to try to get their allies to pay a larger share of the burden. Asian states will quietly threaten to realign or go neutral if they don't get more backing from the United States, and U.S. leaders may drop hints about disengagement if they don't get what they want from the allies they are helping protect. And this means figuring out just how large and iron-clad the U.S. commitment needs to be in order to sustain a future balancing coalition is a tricky business, and there will be lots of room for disagreement.
The late George Carlin was a brilliant comedian and social critic, especially in his obsession with how language can be used to distort or deceive. He's also a lot funnier than Derrida or Bourdieu.
In one of his best routines, Carlin began by noting:
You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth. I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American english is loaded with euphemisms. Because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation. "
He then proceeds to trace how the same combat-induced condition once known as "shell shock" (two syllables, clear and evocative), gradually evolved into "battle fatigue" (four syllables), then "operational exhaustion" (eight syllables) and then into today's "post-traumatic stress disorder." (eight syllables plus a hyphen!). And in the process, its nature is concealed and its impact is quietly diluted.
The spirit of Carlin is probably smiling ruefully right now, because this tendency appears to be alive and well. According to the Associated Press, the Army has now dropped the term "psychological operations" (nine syllables, unless you use the two-syllable label "psy-ops").
The new term is -- are you ready? -- "military information support operations" (a whopping fourteen syllables). Both the old term and the new one are euphemisms, but the latter is precisely the sort of bland and neutral phrase intended to conceal what is really going on.
You know, just like saying "enhanced interrogation" (seven highly misleading syllables), instead of "torture" (just two syllables; clear, on point, and illegal).
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I hope that all of the people who helped push the UnitedStates to invade Iraq in 2003 read the front-page story in Sunday's New YorkTimes about a courageous soldier, Specialist Brendan Marrocco. It is heart-breaking. He lostboth arms and both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq and is now in rehabilitation. Tens of thousands of others havesuffered or died in that unnecessary and foolish war. Marrocco's story, however, brings us face-to-face with war's horrible consequences and reminds us of the price that is paid when policymakers blunder into war.
I can't help but wonder what George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, James Woolsey, and Doug Feith will think when they read about the damage done to Specialist Marrocco's life and his family? Do they feel a secret shame, which they are too proud or afraid to voice? Do they have any regrets for the pain that they have caused him? Do they still believe they were right, even though so many Iraqi and American lives have been shattered, and Iraq is still a wreck of a country? Or do they simply turn the page without reflecting on the consequences of their actions, and hope that the rest of us will forget the role they played?
Wars are sometimes necessary, but that was certainly not true of the Iraq war. War should always be a last resort, because many of those who get caught up in the maelstrom suffer and die. The decision to send our armed forces into combat should never be made in a half-baked way. The decision should only come after there has been a vigorous and serious public debate about the costs, benefits, and possible alternatives to fighting.
Of course, that is not what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war. Instead, we went to war on March 19, 2003 because a narrow clique of neo-conservatives dreamed up a bizarre scheme to "transform" the Middle East by spreading democracy across the region at the end of a rifle barrel, and eventually managed to sell that idea to a naïve and gullible president. We went to war because the Bush administration and its friends in the media and Congress deceived us about the dangers Iraq posed, and because they misled us about how easy it would be to win a decisive victory and exit Iraq. We went to war because the mainstream media, which is heavily into cultivating favor with influential policymakers, hardly ever asked our leaders hard questions about the case for war. Indeed, many influential pundits became enthusiastic cheerleaders for the invasion. We went to war because many politicians in both parties were so worried about their careers that they were afraid to raise doubts about the war, even though some of them had serious reservations about whether we would succeed. And we went to war because experts who craved influence in Washington or future careers in government wanted to show how tough and resolute they were.
The United States is a remarkably powerful and sheltered country, which is why it can afford to fight stupid wars in places like Iraq and Vietnam at only modest cost to its overall security. But we should never forget the human cost of these follies, which are paid by brave patriots like Brendan Marrocco as well as the 58,000-plus names on the Vietnam Memorial. And when the same people start telling us we need to attack someone else, we should remember just how foolish and ignorant their advice was in 2002 and remind ourselves that they show no sign of either learning or remorse.
It's easy to think of examples where great powers stayed in in some foreign war too long, and with the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that they would have been better off getting out sooner. Examples might include the United States in Vietnam, France in Algeria, Britain and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or Israel in southern Lebanon.
Similarly, it's easy to think of wars when states suffered early setbacks, chose to stay the course anyway, and ultimately succeeded. World Wars I and II, Korea, and the Boer War might be examples of this category, and some would place Iraq in this category too (although I wouldn't).
Finally, I can think of several cases where states chose to get out of trouble quickly when things turned south, and never regretted it. The United States got out of Lebanon after a suicide bomber destoyed the Marine barracks there in 1983 and it withdrew from Somalia in 1993 following the Black Hawk Down incident, and withdrawal didn't have particularly significant strategic consequences in either case. More importantly, staying longer wouldn't have been worth it in any case.
So here's my question: Are there good historical examples where a great power withdrew because a foreign military intervention wasn't going well, and where hindsight shows that the decision to withdraw was a terrible blunder? If there are plenty of examples where states fought too long and got out too late, are there clear-cut cases where states got out too early?
For a case to qualify, you'd have to show that early withdrawal led to all sorts of negative consequences that might otherwise have been avoided. Hawks normally argue that getting out will embolden one's adversaries, undermine one's credibility, or jeopardize one's geopolitical position, but how often does any of these anticipated misfortunes really happen? Or you could argue that the withdrawing state was very close to winning but didn't know it, and that "staying the course" would have worked if they had just held on a little longer.
One possible candidate is U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in 2002-2003, but even that case isn't clear-cut. Many experts now argue that our current troubles there could have been avoided had we kept our eyes on the ball in 2003 and concentrated on building an effective Afghan government, thereby preventing the Taliban from making a comeback. The main problem with this line of argument is that the United States didn't really "withdraw" from Afghanistan (and certainly not because things were going badly). Instead, we just drew down our forces so we could go invade Iraq. Also, it's not obvious that greater effort back then would have produced a markedly different situation today, although it is certainly possible.
In any case, my question still stands: How often has early and rapid strategic withdrawal from a war of choice lead to disastrous results for the withdrawing power? Is staying too long the greater and more common danger? And can anyone think of some good examples?
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Contrary to what many (but not all) commentators seem to think, the firing of Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus is not that significant. To be more precise, it will only be a significant event if Obama uses this shift as an opportunity to move towards withdrawal. Otherwise, we'll just rearrange some deck chairs and watch the war effort continue to founder.
Until the Rolling Stone article surfaced, there was little sign that Obama was unhappy with McChrystal's handling of the war. (Gareth Porter of IPS reports that there was in fact growing discontent within the administration over the lack of progress, but it hadn't surfaced in any visible way.) More importantly, there was no sign that Petraeus had serious problems with McChrystal's performance or visible doubts about the need to continue the fight until "victory" was achieved. Don't forget that Petraeus's status and prestige is based on his knowledge of and commitment to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, and COIN is exactly what McChrystal was doing too. Unlike the "surge" in Iraq, which involved a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy and tactics, there is no reason to expect Petraeus to implement a fundamentally different approach in Afghanistan. The subhead in today's New York Times says it all: "Obama Says Afghan Policy Won't Change after Dismissal." Uh-oh.
There is also no reason to believe Petraeus will achieve significantly different results because the problem in Afghanistan is not the quality of our generals. Bad leadership can hamper a war effort, of course, but it is a fallacy to think that all we need to do is get the right leader in place at the top and then all will be well. (Military history is often written in ways that glorifies the role of the "great captains," but there's a lot more to military success than just a smart and inspired commanders).
The real problem is that our campaign in Afghanistan is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The Karzai government is a liability, not an asset, and we have no way of making it perform better. Similarly, we have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open -- where they would be easy to beat -- when confronted by superior force, they simply melt away and wait us out. Although troop morale seems to be good, our forces have been fighting a long time and burnout is beginning to set in. Our NATO allies are leaving the field, and Americans are beginning to realize that the costs of continuing this fight exceed either the benefits of victory or the risks of withdrawal. "Victory" in Afghanistan -- whatever that might mean -- wouldn't make al Qaeda a lot weaker; and "failure" wouldn't make them much stronger either. Putting a new general in charge doesn't change that calculus at all.
Third, some prominent commentators like Andrew Sullivan now worry that Obama is in effect hostage to Petraeus, because the latter's stature and prestige will make it almost impossible for Obama to overrule him should he ask for more troops or seek to continue the war indefinitely. That is an obvious danger, but that same prestige and stature also makes Petraeus the best person to help Obama sell a prudent decision to cut our losses and get out. Moreover, Petraeus' stature is based primarily on the supposed success of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, a campaign that achieved the tactical objective of lowering the level of violenace but did not achieve the strategic goal of political reconciliation. If Iraq goes south again as U.S. forces withdraw, some of Petraeus's current luster is bound to diminish and Obama's freedom of maneuver might increase.
In any case, the only important question here is what Obama is telling Petraeus to do. In essence, McChrystal's gaffe has given Obama a chance for a "do-over." He made the wrong choice in the fall of 2009, when he agreed to escalate the U.S. presence despite all the obvious pitfalls. Has he learned from the results of the past nine months? Does he now realize that he is not the master of events in Afghanistan, and that he cannot achieve success there simply by giving inspiring speeches and sending more troops? And has he begun to sense that this war might not be winnable at acceptable cost, and that continuing the fight is putting his entire presidency at risk?
If he has, he'll tell Petraeus that his mission isn't to pacify Afghanistan, build a stable central government there, or even "defeat, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda" (which isn't in Afghanistan anymore). Rather, his mission is to find a way for the United States to end this futile and unnecessary adventure in social engineering, so that we can turn our attention (and our finite resources) to more pressing problems.
If Obama hasn't learned that lesson, then he will find himself stuck in the Afghan quagmire for the remainder of his time in office. As with Johnson in Vietnam and Bush in Iraq, the war will suck the life out of his presidency and make it impossible to achieve more urgent domestic and international priorities. And because he's now had two opportunities to chart a different course, it will have been entirely his own doing.
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I gave a guest lecture on U.S. grand strategy at the Army War College yesterday, and got some terrific questions and comments from the officers attending the course. One of the most intriguing questions was whether withdrawal from Afghanistan would have divisive effects here at home, including a backlash against the U.S. military and the kind of wrenching experience that the United States experienced after Vietnam.
I said that this was certainly a possibility, but also not inevitable, and that a lot depended on how U.S. elites and commentators dealt with that situation were it in fact to occur. I also reminded the soldiers that defeat in Vietnam was followed by a triumphant victory in the Cold War, a mere fourteen years after Saigon fell. The lesson is that a single setback need not have catastrophic or lasting consequences, if the United States retains the core elements of national power and deploy them wisely going forward.
I thought of that exchange this morning, when I read the already-infamous Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which contains a number of indiscreet comments about the war in Afghanistan and the way that various members of Obama administration are handling it.
Whatever else it might mean, this article is yet another sign that the war is not going well, and the article itself paints a rather grim picture of the situation. Most of the commentary I've seen is focusing on whether McChrystal will or should be asked to resign, but I think the real question is what this tells us about the state of the war itself. When civilian leaders or uniformed commanders (or their aides) start taking pot shots at each other in public, it tells you that they are getting frustrated and that they are looking to pin the blame for failure on someone else. You would certainly not expect to see this sort of article to appear if the campaign was going swimmingly.
McChrystal has already expressed regret for his remarks, but he's still been summoned to the White House for a one-on-one with his commander-in-chief. I don't know if he'll keep his job or not, but this sort of distraction can't be good for either Obama or the war effort. Whatever happens to McChrystal, the real question remains unresolved: What the heck are we doing in Afghanistan, and is an open-ended war there in the U.S. national interest?
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If the United States reduced its defense budget significantly, how would this affect international affairs? I raise this point because one of the primary justifications for America's disproportionately high level of defense spending is the idea that U.S. military dominance is an essential stabilizing force in contemporary world politics. This argument has been advanced by scholars like William Wohlforth and Michael Mandelbaum, was implicit in Madeleine Albright's infamous characterization of the United States as the "indispensable power," and runs throughout the Clinton, Bush and now Obama versions of the National Security Strategy. It is also one of those well-established verities that are rarely questioned in the American foreign policy establishment.
Given our current budget situation, however, that assumption really ought to be questioned. The United States spends more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and a substantially larger fraction of its GDP than other major powers do. According to the 2010 edition of the IISS Military Balance, in 2008 the US spent about 4.9 percent of GDP on national security, and the defense budget has grown in real terms by about 3 percent per year since 2001. By contrast, China spent about 1.4 percent of its GDP on defense, Russia 2.4% Great Britain only 2.3 percent , and German and Japan roughly 1.3 percent and 0.9 percent respectively. Lucky them.
Meanwhile, the United States has been piling up impressive amounts of red ink in recent years. The federal deficit reached 10 percent of GDP in FY2009 (the highest level since 1945), and various projections suggest that total U.S debt could reach 80 to 100 percent of GDP by FY2020. (My thanks to Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center and George Washington University, the author of an unpublished paper from which I drew these numbers). This situation led President Obama to form a bipartisan commission to study ways to reduce the federal deficit, and the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both made it clear that defense spending has to be part of that process.
No doubt defense contractors and congressional hawks will try to insulate DoD from significant cuts, but that position will be politically untenable if other sectors are being slashed. In fact, if we were really serious about trying to close the deficits mentioned above, we'd be looking at cuts similar to the "peace dividend" that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Measured in constant dollars, for example, the DoD budget fell 36 percent in constant dollars between 1985 and 1998, accompanied by comparable reductions in the active-duty force and the Pentagon's civilian workforce.
So here's my question: Would similar cuts today produce a dangerous shift in the structure of world politics and invite all sorts of nasty regional instability? I don't think so. If the U.S. cut defense by 20-30 percent (an enormous reduction), it would still be devoting roughly $400 billion per year to keeping Americans safe. Our national security spending would still be six times larger than China's, ten times larger than Russia's and a whopping forty times larger than Iran's. And because many militarily consequential powers are U.S. allies, its actual position is even better than those crude comparisons suggest. Thus, even seemingly draconian defense cuts would still leave the United States far stronger than any current rivals, especially if the reductions were done intelligently.
Moreover, if you look region-by-region, it's not obvious that reductions of this magnitude would change things very much. It would have little or no effect on Europe, because a large U.S. presence isn't central to European security any longer. There's little danger of serious conflict in Europe these days (and certainly no potential threat that the European states can't handle), and all that's needed from the United States is a mostly symbolic presence to help hold NATO together and remind Europeans not to let security competition reignite on the continent. And please don't try to tell me that Putin's Russia poses a resurgent threat to the rest of Europe. NATO Europe spends roughly $300 billion on defense each year compared to Russia's $40 billion; if our European allies can't handle Russia's not-very-impressive military, then they don't deserve U.S. help.
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The headline on yesterday's New York Times story on Afghanistan struck me as odd. It was "Setbacks Cloud U.S. Plans to Get Out of Afghanistan." The story itself is solid reporting but the headline has it exactly backwards: the setbacks we have experienced recently actually clarify the need to get out.
The thrust of the story was straightforward: the war is not going well, which means that Obama won't be able to "declare victory" next spring and start withdrawing troops next summer. That's what he said he'd do when he sent them in, but nobody should have believed that we could turn things around that fast.
The harsh truth, as some of us tried to warn him last fall, is that the decision to escalate in Afghanistan was a mistake. Our involvement there is a fool's errand that is rife with strategic contradictions, which is why we keep having "setbacks." The proper lesson to draw is not that it will be harder to get out; the proper message is that the sooner we do, the better.
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A quick shout-out for two studies you should look at, particularly if you're interested on how the United States could spend less money on defense without making itself dangerously insecure. The first is Debts, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward, and is from the Program for Defense Alternatives here in Boston. The second is a study by Patrick Cronin of the Center for New American Security, entitled "Restraint: Recalibrating American Strategy." There are points I might challenge in both studies, but each one shows smart people wrestling with the fiscal and strategic realities that are going to shape U.S. national security policy in the years and decades to come. To their credit, the authors of both studies are not wedded to inside-the-Beltway orthodoxy and they recognize that the United States will be much better off once it reduces its current level of over-commitment.
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Color me skeptical. The past few weeks have seen a spate of news suggesting that the US/NATO effort in Afghanistan isn't going well at all. For starters, the assault on Marjah last spring failed to achieve any decisive strategic goals. The much-heralded summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and downgraded, and U.S. officials have been steadily lowering expectations. We learnt over the weekend that U.S. intelligence is increasingly focused on uncovering corruption, which means we are getting sucked back into "nation-building" instead of focusing our assets on destroying al Qaeda (which is what President Obama said he'd do when he (foolishly) decided to increase the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. The Taliban managed to bomb Afghan President Hamid Karzai's semi-bogus "peace jirga," and Karzai himself is said to be losing faith in our ability to prevail and hoping to cut a deal with the Taliban.
So today -- surprise, surprise -- comes news that Afghanistan isn't a poor country whose primary strategic asset is its ability to grow opium poppies. Nope, turns out Afghanistan is just brimming with iron ore, lithium, cobalt, copper, and other strategic minerals. This report -- which comes from "a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists" may well be completely correct, but isn't the timing of the release a mite suspicious? This looks to me like an attempt to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn't going well.
As Jack Snyder noted in his book Myths of Empire, the "El Dorado" myth is a common justification for imperial expansion. Great powers often convince themselves they have to control some far-flung area because it is supposedly rich with gold, diamonds, oil, etc., and that physical control is essentially to preserving access to them. In most cases, however, the cost of trying to control these areas isn't worth the resources they contain, and it usually isn't necessary anyway. Gulf Oil used to pump oil from Marxist Angola, and those pesky Iranians would be happy to sell us oil and gas and give us fat development contracts for their petroleum industry if only we were willing to do business with them.
We don't need to control Afghanistan in order to gain access to whatever minerals do exist, because whoever is in charge is going to have to sell them to someone and won't be able to prevent them from being sold to us (even if indirectly) if we want to buy (that's how markets work). And if we want to make sure that U.S. companies have the opportunity to compete for the opportunity to mine these resources some day, it might be a good idea if we didn't spend the next decade blundering around and angering the local population.
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Back in May 1967, the Egyptian government led by Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, cutting off Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba. This action crossed a "red line" for Israel, and was a major escalatory step in the crisis that led to the Six Day War. President Lyndon Johnson considered sending U.S. warships or some sort of international flotilla to challenge the blockade and defuse the crisis. But even though the United States had previously given Israel certain assurances about protecting freedom of navigation in the straits, Johnson ultimately declined to take decisive action to defend Israel's navigation rights. The United States was already bogged down in Vietnam and Johnson feared getting trapped in another volatile conflict. So he dithered, and Israel ultimately chose to go to war instead.
Had Johnson used U.S. naval forces to challenge the blockade, the Six Day War might not have occurred. Egypt would not have dared to challenge U.S. warships, of course, and sending a U.S. fleet to break the blockade would have given Nasser a way to back down but save face (i.e., he would have been backing down to a superpower, and not to Israel). And had the Six Day War been averted, many of the problems we are wrestling with now -- including the disastrous occupation of the West Bank -- might never have arisen.
Remembering this previous failure got me thinking: why doesn't the United States use its considerable power to lift the blockade of Gaza unilaterally? It's clear that the blockade of Gaza is causing enormous human suffering and making both the United States and Israel look terrible in the eyes of the rest of the world. It has also failed to achieve any positive political purpose, like defeating Hamas. So why doesn't the United States take the bull by the horns and organize a relief flotilla of its own, and use the U.S. Navy to escort the ships into Gaza? I'll bet we could easily get a few NATO allies to help too, and if money's the issue, we can get some EU members or Scandinavians to help pay for the relief supplies. And somehow I don't think the IDF would try to stop us, or board any of the vessels.
The advantages of this course of action seem obvious. The United States has been looking both ineffective and hypocritical ever since the Cairo speech a year ago, and many people in the Arab and Islamic world are beginning to see Barack Obama as just a smooth-talking version of George W. Bush. By taking concrete steps to relieve Palestinian suffering, Obama would be showing the world that the United States was not in thrall to Israel or its hard-core lobbyists here in the United States. What better way to discredit the fulminations of anti-American terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who constantly accuse us of being indifferent to Muslim suffering? The photo ops of U.S. personnel unloading tons of relief supplies would go a long way to repairing our tarnished image in that part of the world. Remember the Berlin airlift, or our relief operations in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami? Doing good for others can win a lot of good will.
Second, having the U.S. and NATO take charge of a relief operation would alleviate Israel's security concerns. The Israeli government claims the blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. That is surely a legitimate concern, but if the United States and its allies are bringing relief aid in, then we can determine what goes on the ships and we obviously won't bring in weaponry.
But wait a minute: wouldn't bringing relief aid to Gaza end up strengthening Hamas? Not if we arrange for the relief aid to be distributed through the United Nations or other independent relief agencies. Some of it might end up in Hamas's hands indirectly but most of it won't, and reducing the level of deprivation and suffering would undercut the influence Hamas gains as a provider of social services.
It's true that a relief operation of this sort will probably require some U.S. officials to have some minimal dealings with Hamas, but this would actually be a good thing. If the United States is really serious about a genuine two-state solution, it is going to have to bring Hamas into the political process sooner or later and this is a pretty low-key, non-committal way to start. And while we're at it, we can tell them to get busy fixing that Charter of theirs and take a humanitarian gesture or two of their own, such as releasing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In short, using American power to end the blockade of Gaza could be a win-win-win for everyone. The United States (and Obama himself) would demonstrate that we really did seek a "new beginning" in the Middle East, and correct the impression that the Cairo speech was just a lot of elegant hooey. Israel's security concerns would be addressed, it would look flexible and reasonable, and we would be providing Netanyahu with an easy way to extricate himself from a position that is increasingly untenable. (It's one thing for him to lift the blockade himself, but quite another to do it at Washington's behest). And of course the long-suffering population of Gaza would be much better off, which should make us all feel better.
The more that I think about it, the more attractive this approach looks. All it takes is an administration that is willing to take bold action to correct a situation that is both a humanitarian outrage and a simmering threat to regional peace. That probably means that it has zero chance of being adopted. And of course you all know why.
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Back in September, I said I wished the Obama administration wasn't required by law to submit a formal statement of its “National Security Strategy.” I said this in part because I think such efforts are mostly a waste of time, but also because I thought it might be better not to be too explicit about the adjustments forced upon Obama by the Bush administration’s errors and the 2008 recession. So I suggested that they try to make the report as boring as possible.
The new National Security Strategy was released yesterday, and the usual parsing of its prose is now underway. (You can find other reactions here, and here, and an inteview with the report's primary author, Ben Rhodes, here.) I doubt Rhodes and his colleagues were trying to take my advice, but they have succeeded in producing a document that could make even the most dedicated foreign policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. I haven’t done a word count compared to the Clinton or Bush versions, but I’d bet this one is substantially longer. It’s certainly duller. None of the earlier reports deserved prizes for clarity, consistency, or rhetorical achievement, but the new version manages to make the drama of world politics positively enervating. Given my earlier recommendation, I guess congratulations are in order.
So having struggled through it, what are my first impressions? Let me start by saying that it's hard for me not to like a report whose first page says "to succeed, we must face the world as it is." It then goes on to say that "we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time." I read that and almost thought that somebody had screwed up and let a realist into the drafting room.
But I kept reading, and soon realized that this was not the case. Although the report reflects certain broad realities, it ignores plenty of others. It offers the usual bromides about NATO’s position as the “cornerstone” of U.S. engagement, for example, but takes no notice of the economic difficulties that will inevitably reduce Europe’s ability to be a substantial partner. It talks about the continued "pursuit" of Middle East peace, but is silent on what the administration has learned after eighteen months of trying. It offers a predictably upbeat view of our strategy in Central Asia without acknowledging the possibility that our efforts won’t succeed. Needless to say, that is not quite "facing the world as it is."
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I have only one thing to say about Gary Schaub Jr. and James Forsythe Jr.'s op-ed in today's New York Times, published under the title "An Arsenal We Can All Live With."
Schaub and Forsythe argue that the United States could satisfy all its legitimate security requirements with an arsenal of 311 nuclear warheads, dispersed among bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and ICBM's. Not a thousand. Not 1,550 plus a few thousand more in reserve. Only 311. That's all.
Actually, I think that number might still be too large, because you only need a very small handful of nuclear weapons (e.g., maybe a dozen?) to inflict a level of damage that no political leader could tolerate. As former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy famously wrote:
A decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable."
American policymakers clearly understand the compelling logic of minimum deterrence, or else they wouldn't be so worried when states like North Korea or (maybe) Iran seek to join the nuclear club. U.S. leaders recognize that even a handful of nuclear weapons in the hands of a hostile country constrains what we can do to that country (which is of course why some states want to get them in the first place). But if a very small number of weapons can induce such sobriety on our part, why exactly do we need thousands, especially when our conventional forces are already far stronger than any other country on the planet?
Of course, the fact that deterrence isn't sensitive to the actual number of weapons also implies that having more weapons than we need isn't that dangerous, provided that you are very, very certain that you won't lose one, that your large arsenal won't encourage others with less reliable security arrangements to build up, and provided you have lots of money to pay for an arsenal you don't really need. But since I like saving money, would prefer that other states either didn't get nuclear weapons or kept their own arsenals small (and therefore easy to guard), and believe that decreasing the number of warheads in the world is an important step in improving overall nuclear security, I think Schaub and Forsythe's article should be taken seriously.
But I doubt it will. Schaub and Forsythe's analysis is based on careful strategic reasoning, and their conclusions challenge both the bureacratic interests of the professional military and the more atavistic instincts of the body politic. A serious attempt to implement their recommendations would elicit howls of protest from hawkish politicos and pundits, who will maintain that the world's only superpower also needs the biggest pile of (unusable) bombs in order to preserve its capacity to swagger, even if they can't actually explain how we would ever use that many weapons or how we derive any practical political benefits from this alleged "superiority." In the hothouse world of political commentary, insisting that "size doesn't matter" isn't a winning argument, even when logic and evidence are overwhelmingly on its side.
I'm beginning to think that what’s happening in Europe these days is really critical, in the sense that it will have large and lasting ramifications no matter how it turns out. Europeans were feeling their oats a few years back, and starting to talk in lofty terms about the strength of their common currency, their unique ideas about "civilian power," and their plans for defense integration and a common foreign and security policy. The EU was expanding, major neighbors like Turkey were knocking on the door, and the United States was shooting itself in the foot in Iraq and elsewhere.
Today, however, Europe's prospects don't look quite so bright. European officials have finally gotten around to assembling a rescue package for Greece (remember when a trillion dollars was a lot of money?) and this belated action seems to have quieted markets for awhile. But it remains to be seen if Europe’s problem children (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland) will be able to raise taxes and cut budgets enough to make themselves solvent again. If not, then the rescue package will just have kicked the problem down the road, and we will face a renewed crisis a year or two from now. And if that happens, don’t expect another bailout.
In the past, Euro-optimists like Princeton’s Andrew Moravcsik have argued that crises like this just make Europe stronger, by forcing it to get its house in order and strengthen the relevant supra-national institutions. Maybe, but I’d be more convinced if my friend Andy hadn't described Europe as being "stronger than ever" last August (i.e., well before this latest crisis hit). Meanwhile, voters in Germany just delivered a sharp rebuke to Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats, sending a clear message that their support for costly bailout packages is not infinite.
The larger problem is longer-term. Europe’s population is declining and aging, which means that a smaller number of workers will have to pay for welfare benefits for an ever-growing number of retirees. Cutting benefits will be politically difficult, raising taxes is always hard, and immigration won’t bring in many of the skilled and highly productive workers that Europe needs. The latter step also creates cultural frictions. Maybe the well-off countries can jettison Greece et al from the Eurozone (thoug not the EU), but to do this would be to enshrine inequality within the EU itself and would be a major step backward. No doubt Europe will find a way to muddle through, but austerity will be the watchword for some time to come.
In any case, whether Europe grows closer together or begins to spin apart, it’s going to carry a lot less weight in world affairs in the next few decades. Its population is shrinking and aging, its military power is increasingly hollow, and it’s going to be short on money for years to come. If U.S. officials think they are going to get a lot more help from NATO in the decades ahead, they are living in a dream world.
So here’s my question: will NATO's new “Strategic Concept,” currently being formulated for presentation at the NATO summit next fall, reflect this emerging reality? Will it openly acknowledge that Europe is not going to commit more resources, and identify a set of (fairly modest) common goals that the alliance actually has some chance of achieving? Or will it contain the usual pious declarations of transatlantic solidarity, along with various empty pledges that everyone knows are no more than polite fictions?
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Back when I started writing this blog, I warned that the idea of preventive war against Iran wasn't going to go away just because Barack Obama was president. The topic got another little burst of oxygen over the past few days, in response to what seems to have been an over-hyped memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and some remarks by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, following a speech at Columbia University. In particular, Mullen noted that military action against Iran could "go a long way" toward delaying Iran's acquisition of a weapons capability, though he also noted this could only be a "last resort" and made it clear it was not an option he favored.
One of the more remarkable features about the endless drumbeat of alarm about Iran is that it pays virtually no attention to Iran's actual capabilities, and rests on all sorts of worst case assumptions about Iranian behavior. Consider the following facts, most of them courtesy of the 2010 edition of The Military Balance, published annually by the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London:
States -- 13.8 trillion
Iran --$ 359 billion (U.S. GDP is roughly 38 times greater than Iran's)
U.S. -- $692 billion
Iran -- $9.6 billion (U.S. defense budget is over 70 times larger than Iran)
U.S.--1,580,255 active; 864,547 reserves (very well trained)
Iran-- 525,000 active; 350,000 reserves (poorly trained)
U.S. -- 4,090 (includes USAF, USN, USMC and reserves)
Iran -- 312 (serviceability questionable)
Main battle tanks:
U.S. -- 6,251 (Army + Marine Corps)
Iran -- 1,613 (serviceability questionable)
U.S. -- 11 aircraft carriers, 99 principal surface combatants, 71 submarines, 160 patrol boats, plus large auxiliary fleet
Iran -- 6 principal surface combatants, 10 submarines, 146 patrol boats
U.S. -- 2,702 deployed, >6,000 in reserve
Iran -- Zero
One might add that Iran hasn't invaded anyone since the Islamic revolution, although it has supported a number of terrorist organizations and engaged in various forms of covert action. The United States has also backed terrorist groups and conducted covert ops during this same period, and attacked a number of other countries, including Panama, Grenada, Serbia, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan.
By any objective measure, therefore, Iran isn't even on the same page with the United States in terms of latent power, deployed capabilities, or the willingness to use them. Indeed, Iran is significantly weaker than Israel, which has roughly the same toal of regular plus reserve military personnel and vastly superior training. Israel also has more numerous and modern armored and air capabilities and a sizeable nuclear weapons stockpile of its own. Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal. Despite what some alarmists think, Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone.
The more one thinks about it, the odder our obsession with Iran appears. It's a pretty unloveable regime, to be sure, but given Iran's actual capabilities, why do U.S. leaders devote so much time and effort trying to corral support for more economic sanctions (which aren't going to work) or devising strategies to "contain" an Iran that shows no sign of being able to expand in any meaningful way? Even the danger that a future Iranian bomb might set off some sort of regional arms race seems exaggerated, according to an unpublished dissertation by Philipp Bleek of Georgetown University. Bleek's thesis examines the history of nuclear acquisition since 1945 and finds little evidence for so-called "reactive proliferation." If he's right, it suggests that Iran's neighbors might not follow suit even if Iran did "go nuclear" at some point in the future).
Obviously, simple bean counts like the one presented above do not tell you everything about the two countries, or the political challenges that Iran might pose to its neighbors. Iran has engaged in a number of actions that are cause for concern (such as its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon), and it has some capacity to influence events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, as we have learned in both of these countries, objectively weaker adversaries can still mount serious counterinsurgency operations against a foreign occupier. And if attacked, Iran does have various retaliatory options that we would find unpleasant, such as attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. So Iran's present weakness does not imply that the United States can go ahead and bomb it with impunity.
What it does mean is that we ought to keep this relatively minor "threat" in perspective, and not allow the usual threat-inflators to stampede us into another unnecessary war. My impression is that Admiral Mullen and SecDef Gates understand this. I hope I'm right. But I'm still puzzled as to why the Obama administration hasn't tried the one strategy that might actually get somewhere: take the threat of force off the table, tell Tehran that we are willing to talk seriously about the issues that bother them (as well as the items that bother us), and try to cut a deal whereby Iran ratifies and implements the NPT Additional Protocol and is then permitted to enrich uranium for legitimate purposes (but not to weapons-grade levels). It might not work, of course, but neither will our present course of action or the "last resort" that Mullen referred to last weekend.
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The always-interesting Matt Yglesias has a nice post on the political feasibility of defense spending cuts, which pivots off an Economist/YouGov poll and some data presentation and commentary by Annie Lowrey at the Washington Indepedendent and Ezra Klein at WaPo. I have no disagreement with what any of them said, but I did want to register one comment.
There are really only two sensible ways to think about reducing defense spending. One is to hold one’s military obligations (aka “roles and missions”) constant and to devise cheaper ways of meeting these commitments. In this approach, you have to identify genuine waste, fraud and abuse in the Pentagon, and devise a convincing way to defend various interests while spending less money. People who believe that the United States could have a robust nuclear deterrent with a much smaller nuclear arsenal are making this sort of argument, and so did the so-called "military reform" movement back in the 1980s.
The second way to cut defense spending is to reduce one’s military commitments; i.e., to decide that there are some missions or obligations that the United States does not need to perform, either because they are not essential, because they are counterproductive, or because other states can and will do them better than we will. Some of us might put the Afghan War under this heading.
The point, however, is that it doesn’t get us very far to talk about reducing U.S. defense spending unless you’re prepared to identify how to do the same missions at less cost, or unless you think there are some things we don’t need to do at all.
P.S. Isn’t the point of having lots of allies around the world to get them to do lots of things that will make us safer (and save us money), instead of simply multiplying the number of countries we think we are obligated to protect?
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According to the New York Times, that viral video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attacking a group of people in a Baghdad suburb -- an attack that killed two Reuters reporters -- has now been viewed at least two million times on YouTube. I was one of those two million viewers, and it's pretty horrifying, especially when you know as you watch that the targets were in fact innocent victims.
But you should watch it anyway, if you want to understand why many Iraqis now want us out of their country and why the United States is less popular than its citizens and leaders think it ought to be. For me, the most remarkable thing about the video is the business-as-usual dialogue between the pilots and crew of the Apache and the ground controllers that are guiding their actions. Although they clearly perceive this as a combat situation -- and there were insurgents operating in their vicinity -- nothing in their exchange suggests that the situation is unusual or that they were in imminent danger themselves. The tone is calm, with occasional moments of frustration at not having a clear shot and elation after the targets are hit.
It is the "banality of combat." The crew followed normal procedures, obtained authorization to shoot before firing, maneuvered to get a clean line of fire, and then unleashed a devastating fusillade. (If you're unfamiliar with the firepower of modern weaponry, the video is graphic and revealing). The self-congratulatory banter and occasional laughter following the attack -- after the violent death of fellow human beings -- is downright chilling.
This tells me that this incident wasn't unusual, which is of course why no disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved. What is different in this case is that two Reuters journalists got killed, and eventually a video got leaked and put on the internet. And if this particular episode is just one among many, there must be plenty of Iraqis who lost relatives to American firepower or at least had reason to fear and resent it. Not too hard to figure out why pressing for a rapid U.S. withdrawal now wins votes there.
Notice that I am not suggesting that the personnel involved failed to observe the proper "rules of engagement," or did not genuinely think that the individuals they were attacking were in fact armed. Rather, what bothers me is that they were clearly trying to operate within the rules, and still made a tragic error. It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.
One last point: one of the fundamental problems for a country with an interventionist foreign policy is that it frequently does things that others don't like and sometimes resist. If U.S. citizens do not know what their own government is doing, however, they won't understand exactly where that hostility is coming from. Instead of recognizing it as a reaction to their own policies, they will tend to assume that foreign opposition is irrational, a reflection of deep ideological antipathies, or based on some sort of weird hostility to our "values." Believing ourselves to be blameless, and motivated only by noble aims, we will misread the sources of anti-Americanism and overlook opportunities to reduce it by adjusting our own behavior.
It is therefore vital for American citizens to know about the various things that are being done in the name of our national security. We need to know about drone strikes, targeted assassinations, civilians killed by mistake, support for corrupt or vicious warlords, "covert" actions against foreign regimes, etc., as well as similar activities undertaken by allies with whom we are closely identified. Whether those various policies are still justifiable and/or effective is a separate issue (i.e., the benefits may be worth the price of greater hostility, though I am personally skeptical) but at least we won't be surprised when those who have experienced the sharp end of American power are angry at us, and we won't be as likely to misinterpret it.
And that means that organizations like Wikileaks are performing a public service, by exposing incidents and activities that the government would rather you didn't know about. The administration and the Pentagon are very good at telling us about the positive things that they do (and don't get me wrong, there are plenty of them), but an intelligent republic needs independent, tough-minded journalists (and bloggers) to tell us the rest. Because it is more difficult for entrenched interests to control or manipulate, the Internet and the blogosphere is a major asset in the fight for greater public awareness. For more on this latter point, I find Glenn Greenwald convincing.
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The Obama administration is now rolling out the results of its "Nuclear Posture Review," and presenting it as a significant if not quite revolutionary rethinking of U.S. nuclear strategy. I haven't seen the full text of the document and have only excerpts and press reports to go by, but the basic idea is to narrow the range of scenarios in which the United States would threaten a nuclear response.
To be a bit more specific, instead of reserving the option of nuclear strikes in response to a nuclear attack, an attack by other forms of WMD (such as biological weapons) or even a large-scale conventional invasion, the review declares that the "fundamental role" of the U.S. arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks on the U.S., its allies, or partners." Accordingly, as a matter of declaratory policy, the Review declares that "the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations."
The exceptions to this narrower focus would be non-nuclear attacks by any nuclear-armed state, or states that the United States deems to be in violation of the NPT. Translation: We still reserve the option of first nuclear use against Iran and North Korea.
Lots of ink will no doubt be spilled analyzing this shift in declaratory policy, and nuclear theologians will spend time at conferences and workshops parsing the fine-grained implications of the change. And stay tuned for assorted hawkish windbags and right-wing think-tankers declaring that this new language has somehow imperiled U.S. security, even though we still have thousands of nuclear weaspons in our arsenal and the strongest conventional forces in the world.
I'll concede that this new statement may have some public relations value -- i.e, it lowers the priority given to nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic thinking, consistent with Obama's commitment to eventually reduce global nuclear arsenals. But from a purely strategic perspective, this new statement is largely meaningless. To the extent that it does matter, it may even be counter-productive.
Here's why. No matter what the U.S. government says about its nuclear strategy, no potential adversary can confidently assume that the U.S. would stick to its declared policy in the event of a crisis or war. If you were a world leader thinking about launching a major conventional attack on an important U.S. ally or interest, or contemplating the use of chemical or biological weapons in a situation where the United States was involved, would you conclude that it was safe to do so simply because Barack Obama said back in 2010 that the U.S. wasn't going to use nuclear weapons in that situation?
Of course you wouldn't, because there is absolutely nothing to stop the United States from changing its mind. You'd worry that the United States might conclude that the interests at stake were worth issuing a nuclear threat, and maybe even using a nuclear weapon, and that it really didn't matter what anyone had said in a posture review or an interview with a few journalists. And you'd also have to worry that the situation might escalate in unpredictable or unintended ways -- what Thomas Schelling famously termed the "threat that leaves something to chance -- and thereby ruin your whole day.
To the extent that nuclear weapons deter -- and I happen to think they do -- it is the mere fact of their existence and not the specific words we use when we speak about them. In short, nobody can know for certain if, when or how a nuclear state might actually use its arsenal to protect its interests, and that goes for any potential aggressor too. Because the prospect of nuclear use is so awful, no minimally rational aggressor is going to run that risk solely because of some words typed in a posture statement.
Furthermore, the decision to exclude nuclear weapons states, non-signatories of the NPT, or states we deem in violation of it (e.g., Iran) strikes me as both too clever by half and maybe counterproductive. The purpose seems to be to give these states an additional incentive to sign the NPT or to conform to it, but it's hard to believe that this statement will have that effect on anyone. India, Pakistan and Israel are all non-signatories, but surely they aren't worried about U.S. "first use" against them and so this statement will be irrelevant to their nuclear calculations.
The real target of this exception is Iran (and conceivably North Korea and Syria). At best, this new statement will have little or no effect, for the reasons noted above (i.e., no one know what we might do in a crisis or war, so pledges of no-first-use are essentially meaningless). At worst, however, excluding Iran in this fashion -- which amounts to saying that Iran is still a nuclear target even when it has no weapons its own -- merely gives them additional incentives to pursue a nuclear weapons option. In particular, declaring that we reserve the right of "first use" against Iran now (when it has no weapons at all), sounds like a good way to convince them that their own deterrent might be a pretty nice thing to have.
Remarkably, U.S. policymakers never seem to realize that the same arguments they use to justify our own nuclear arsenal apply even more powerfully to states whose security is a lot more precarious than America's. If the U.S. government believes that "the fundamental role" of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States, and the United States is now proclaiming that it still reserves the option of using nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear Iran (under some admittedly extreme circumstances), then wouldn't a sensible Iranian leadership conclude that it could use a nuclear arsenal of its own, whose "fundamental role" would be to deter us from doing just that?
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Winning a counter-insurgency war is hard, and especially when you don't have reliable partners from within the local population. What makes it even harder is when policies designed to accomplish one goal that have the unintended effect of making other goals harder to achieve. When your own strategy contains such internal contradictions, success will be even more elusive.
Case in point: our commander-in-chief flew to Afghanistan last week to pay a call on Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in part to insist that Karzai do more to root out corruption in his government and in the country more generally. A stern lecture from Obama is unlikely to work, however, because Karzai knows a lot more about incentives and constraints he's facing and the various deals he has to make to stay in power. He's betting that Obama won't be willing to pull the plug and leave him on his own, and I'm sorry to say that Karzai is probably right.
But even as we are telling the Afghans to stop corruption, we are contributing to it by pumping vast sums of cold hard cash into Afghan society. According to yesterday's New York Times, part of our strategy in southern Afghanistan consists of flooding places like Marjah with "hundreds of thousands of dollars a week," in an effort to buy the loyalty of the local population.
There are three problems here.
First, as Times reporter Richard Oppel pointed out in his piece, we can't easily discriminate between Taliban sympathizers and other members of the local population, so some of the money we are disbursing is almost certainly going to our enemies.
Second, other recipients of U.S. cash are quickly targeted by the Taliban, which continues to enjoy signifcant support among the local population. If Oppel's account is accurate, we are basically reminding the local population that cooperating with us is really, really dangerous. Moreover, as William Polk argues here, many local Pashtuns actually oppose these various cash-based "aid programs," because they perceive them (correctly) as designed to aid a foreign occupier's campaign against them, and to strengthen the despised central government.
Third, how can we credibly tell Karzai to "end corruption" (i.e., patronage, drug-dealing, payments to warlords, the exchange of cabinet positions for support, etc.), when we're relying on some of the same tactics ourselves? If our approach is to buy political support by doling out money or other benefits, why are we surprised when Karzai and his henchmen employ more-or-less that same approach back in Kabul? Pumping piles of cash into the local economy (no doubt with little or no accounting) is precisely the sort of policy that itself encourages very corruption that we claim to be opposing.
Even though I don't regard Afghanistan as a vital interest (for reasons I've explained before), I would like to think that our overall strategy was working. Remaining bogged down there is costly, and a significant distraction from other policy problems. So it would be nice if we were making genuine progress in weakening the Taliban, encouraging a political process of reconciliation, and fostering a more effective Afghan government. But it sure sounds like our efforts are at cross-purposes right now, which may be one reason why relations with the Karzai government are deteriorating.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.