I've finished my holiday shopping (at last), which means it's time for another round of hypothetical gift-giving for some important world leaders and political figures. If it were in my power, here's what I'd be sending some notables this year.
1. For Barack Obama: A dartboard. No, not so he can pin a picture of John Boehner on it, but so he can make some hard choices about his second-term priorities. Energy independence? Gun control? Rebuilding infrastructure? Middle East peace? A real negotiation with Iran? Climate change? Tax reform? The list is endless. Obama tried to do way too much during the first year of his first term, and I'm hoping he's learned his lesson and will focus more in the second term. Maybe a dartboard can help.
2. For Syrian tyrant Bashar al Assad: A one-pound bag of Arabian coffee to wake up and smell. Or better still: a one-way ticket for himself and his immediate family to anywhere they want. As an added bonus, a recording of this classic song. Just go. Now.
3. For Dick Morris, Karl Rove, and all the other people who called the election for Romney: A copy of Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise. Because it's never too late to learn.
4. For defeated GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney: Nothing. You've got five houses, a fleet of cars and boats, and a loving family. What could I possibly give you except my vote (and I'm afraid it's too late for that)?
5. For the people of America, and especially its children: A ban on assault weapons, and a Congressional resolution declaring that all the 2nd amendment guarantees is the right to keep a muzzle-loading musket.
6. For Benjamin Netanyahu: A signed copy of Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. And a mirror.
7. For Hillary Rodham Clinton: A one-year membership in the spa of her choice, and a book contract that takes until 2017 to complete.
8. For the Republican Party: A roundtrip ticket to see the Wizard of Oz. Because the party desperately needs a heart, a brain, courage, and a way to get back home to its true conservative roots.
9. For the beleaguered people of the eastern Congo: A miracle. Because it appears that is what it will take to end their suffering.
10. For my readers: My thanks for continuing to engage with this blog (and now @StephenWalt on twitter). I wish you all a joyful holiday season, the warmth of love from friends and family, and a New Year that turns out better than realists normally expect. I'll be back online after Xmas.
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With so much attention riveted on Election Day, some important contributions to our discourse are bound to get less attention than they deserve. Case in point: yesterday's NYT op-ed by Aaron O'Connell on the "permanent militarization of America." It's an excellent piece, and I just hope his arguments don't fall into the memory hole while we're all breathlessly awaiting the outcome in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or wherever.
Drawing in part on former president Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous speech on the "military- industrial complex," O'Connell documents how far we have departed from the original traditions of the Founding Fathers and the first 150 years of our history. Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were deeply wary of a permanent military establishment, which they recognized as a threat to a republican order. Eisenhower also understood that a country cannot be at war more-or-less permanently without creating a gross imbalance between military institutions (including weapons labs, contractors, and even some universities feeding at the DoD trough), and becoming vulnerable to spiritual erosion. We've long since forgotten that our rise to world power was facilitated by staying out of wars (or getting into them late). And we've clearly lost sight of the fact that smart great powers make allies bear their full share of the collective burden, instead of taking pride in one's own "indispensability" and rushing eagerly into the next quagmire.
The problem isn't so much a misallocation of resources -- defense spending is only about 4 percent of U.S. GDP -- but rather the deference that the military now receives from nearly everyone. On the very same day that O'Connell's piece appeared, Brooks Brothers ran an advertisement in the Times announcing a 25 percent off sale for active and retired military personnel. Not for firemen, police, EMTs, or other risky occupations (fishing, logging, coal mining, etc.): just for the military.
Don't get me wrong: I think our soldiers should be treated with respect and the country as a whole should compensate them adequately and be grateful for their sacrifices. We certainly ought to make sure that we provide excellent care for those who are wounded in the wars in which they have fought, and provide them the other benefits they were promised when they signed up. But this isn't a citizen army that has rallied to defend the nation against attack; it is a force made up solely of people who have voluntarily chosen a military career, with all the risks that this entails. They have done so in part because our country has offered them increasingly generous compensation packages, even though only a small percentage will ever serve in harm's way. But aren't we going just a bit overboard when joining the military gets you cheaper button-downs, early boarding privileges on civilian airlines, and endless words of praise from opportunistic politicians?
The final absurdity is the tendency to defer to military advice, even on matters where having worn a uniform confers no particular wisdom or insight. Veterans know a lot about the conduct of military operations, but serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else doesn't give you any special insights into whether such wars are in the national interest or not.
Similarly, having served in the military doesn't give you any special insight into who ought to govern the country. It was supposedly big news when a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and former Secretary of State), Colin Powell endorsed President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Not to be outdone, last week a bevy of retired generals and admirals endorsed Mitt Romney.
In fact, neither of these endorsements ought to carry much weight. Whatever his other virtues and achievements, Powell was an embarrassing failure as Secretary of State, and mostly because he misread the political tea leaves inside the Bush administration and didn't have the good sense or integrity to resign when his counsel was rejected. As for all those retired officers who endorsed Romney, has anyone noticed that the United States has lost not one but two wars in the past decade, and that America's senior military leaders did not exactly acquit themselves brilliantly in conducting either one? The civilian leadership (both Republican and Democratic) deserves plenty of blame too, but the quality of senior military advice that they received was often abysmal. One can be grateful for the sacrifices that our enlisted men have made, yet be underwhelmed by the strategic wisdom of their commanders.
As I noted last week, the composition, character, and current direction of the entire national security establishment is one of the big issues that the next president ought to address. But it's hard to believe either Obama or Romney will. Why? Because questioning the current militarization of American society will make you plenty of enemies and won't win you many friends. Which is precisely O'Connell's point.
Postscript: I'm just back from my neighborhood polling station, and am now basking in the psychological income of exercising the franchise. Feels good. If you're a U.S. citizen and registered to vote, don't miss out. VOTE.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
Today we're all obsessed with -- and exhausted by -- the U.S. election. There's a lot wrong with America's political institutions -- starting with the absurd Electoral College -- but right up there with the EC is the ridiculous length of the campaign season itself. No other modern democracy spends at least twenty-five percent of a presidential term determining who the next president will be, and this feature both inflates the cost of elections (thereby increasing the clout of well-heeled donors and lobbies) and distracts us all from the broader issues of the moment. All that's keeping us going now is the knowledge that it will soon be over.
Unlike my FP colleague Dan Drezner, I'm not going to offer a lengthy election endorsement. If you've been reading this blog and can't tell who I'm voting for, you haven't been paying attention. I've been disappointed by some of Obama's foreign policy decisions -- most notably his caving on the Middle East peace process and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan -- but I didn't expect a lot of dramatic foreign policy successes during the first term anyway. Unlike Dan (and Rosa Brooks), I don't think a better process would have made that much difference: Once you had populated the administration with the usual Democratic party wonks, you were going to get the usual post-Clintonian Democratic party foreign policy. Not realism, in other words, but good old-fashioned liberal interventionism suitably sobered by the Iraq debacle and the financial crisis. Obama has scored some limited successes, has avoided big disasters (like an attack on Iran) and has for the most part dealt with friends and foes in a sensible way. In the absence of a better alternative -- and such an alternative is clearly absent -- he gets my vote.
What makes it easy is looking at the other side. The Romney campaign's critique of Obama's foreign policy is about as factually accurate as its fairy budget proposals. It's also schizophrenic: The Romney campaign wants you to think Obama has been too hard on our allies and too easy on our foes, yet in the third debate Romney agreed with almost all of Obama's policies. Moreover, his campaign's reliance on a bunch of neoconservative retreads tells you he's either craven or a bad judge of talent, and neither is an especially appealing quality for a future leader. If you're still undecided, all you need to do is contrast Obama's pitch-perfect foreign tour in 2008 with the gaffe and pander-filled Romney tour last summer. On foreign policy grounds, therefore, this decision is a no-brainer.
Is it too early to talk about the foreign policy and national security agenda that will face the next president? No matter who wins on November 6, the feature that is going to dominate U.S. national security planning over the next four years is constraint. Even if we avoid going off the sequestration cliff, there is going to be considerable pressure on the defense budget. Forget all those promises that Romney made about ramping up defense spending, expanding the Navy, etc. If he does beat Obama and has to face reality (as opposed to his Etch-a-Sketch approach to campaigning) he'll figure out that budget math is real and unforgiving. And given the budget picture these days, that means limits.
Of course, foreign policy and national security tends to produce a lot of surprises; it's probably the least predictable part of a president's agenda. Remember that George W. Bush was totally blindsided by 9/11, an event that shaped almost everything he subsequently did in foreign and defense policy. Barack Obama didn't see the Arab spring coming, yet he's had to devote a lot of time and attention to figuring out what to do (or not to do) in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. No list of agenda items will cover all the possible topics, and it's a safe bet the next president will get to deal with something that hardly anybody anticipated.
That said, what do I see as some obvious items that the next president will have to address? Obviously, he'll have to manage the withdrawal from Afghanistan, keep relations with China on an even keel, cultivate reasonable ties with Mexico and other neighbors in the western hemisphere, and hope that the Eurozone mess doesn't get worse. But here's my list of the items that might take up even more of his time.
#1: Managing America's Asian Alliances
No matter how much you hear about the importance of cooperating with China, a serious rivalry is almost inevitable. I don't expect a shooting war -- and certainly not in the next four years -- instead, the key element of that rivalry will be a competition for influence in Asia. The United States is already trying to shore up ties with Japan, Korea, India, and various Southeast Asian nations, and China is going to try to limit with this process where it can.
As I've noted before, leading this alliance is going to be much harder than managing NATO was during the Cold War. The geographic distances are much larger, which makes it easier for allies to shirk responsibilities when trouble occurs a long ways away. Relations among some of our Asian partners aren't that good, as the collapse of a South Korean-Japanese agreement on intelligence sharing earlier this year illustrated. Furthermore, our NATO partners had minimal economic ties to the former Soviet Union, while our Asian allies are tightly linked to China's economy and are going to want to keep those ties intact if they can. We can also expect big debates on burden-sharing: the United States will want the allies to bear as much of the burden as possible, while they will want to keep free-riding as much as they have in the past.
In short, maintaining a secure position in Asia will require a lot of expertise and adroit diplomacy, which is not always America's long suit. The next president will need a good team, and will have to devote some of his own time, attention, and political capital to the problem.
#2: Dealing with the Arab Spring.
The Arab world is in midst of vast and unpredictable upheaval, which is likely to produce governments that are more responsive to popular sentiment than their predecessors were. They may not be perfect democracies, but rulers will worry a lot more about popular opinion than their predecessors did. But this process will take time -- measured in years, not months. As we've already seen in Libya and Syria, these events raise vexing national security questions for the United States. Are these events an opportunity to diminish Iran's influence, strike a blow for democracy, and further marginalize anti-American forces? Or is the collapse of the old order undermining traditional U.S. friends and allowing anti-American sentiment (and Islamic extremists) a greater voice in the region's politics? What if Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Kurds get drawn into the vortex?
Given what is already occurring, Obama or Romney will have to spend a lot of time worrying about this part of the world. But as Obama has already discovered (and Romney would quickly learn) they won't have a lot of leverage over these events, and not a lot of appealing policy options. What they'll have instead is a serious headache.
#3: Beyond the Two-State Solution.
The next president may also have to face up to the fact that there isn't going to be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and begin to think seriously about what an alternative U.S. policy should be. Obama has already learned that trying to pursue the 2SS is "just really hard," and Romney famously told a group of fat cat GOP donors that he didn't think that goal was achievable.
I've always seen the 2SS as the best outcome given where we were, but it is no longer realistic to expect it to happen. The Israeli right has no interest in it, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to put meaningful pressure on them, and the United States is too compromised by the Israel lobby to be an effective mediator. The "two-state solution" has become a fig leaf for politicians to hide behind, while realities on the ground make it less and less likely by the day.
But sooner or later, it will be obvious to everyone that it simply isn't going to happen. As I've argued before, that epiphany raises all sorts of awkward questions: In particular, what outcome should a liberal democracy like the United States favor if "two states for two peoples" is impossible? Do we abandon our commitment to "one person, one vote" and endorse permanent apartheid? Do we abandon our deep commitment to a Jewish state and support a one-state democracy for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine? Or do we quietly encourage ethnic cleansing?
No matter who the next president is, I'm sure they will try to avoid those awkward questions for as long as they can. But they may not be able to do so forever without looking like they are living in fantasyland.
#4: Living with a Nuclear-Capable Iran:
No matter who wins, I suspect we'll see a new push for some sort of diplomatic deal with Iran. It's been reported (and denied) that Obama intends to do this after the election, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Romney administration made at least a gesture in this direction. But my guess that the United States is going to gradually adjust itself to a nuclear-capable (but not nuclear armed) Iran.
Here's why. I don't think Iran will cross any overt "red lines" in the next four years, meaning that it isn't going to try to fabricate or test a nuclear weapon or start enriching uranium to 90%. They won't do this because that is the one step that might trigger a U.S. attack. Absent such a move by Iran, I don't think either Israel or the United States will conduct a preventive strike. Israel doesn't have the capability to conduct a strategically meaningful attack, and most of the U.S. national security establishment thinks an attack would be foolish. I can't rule out war, however, because countries sometimes do stupid things and there are prominent voices who are still pushing it, but I'm betting that cooler heads prevail.
So the next president will be facing an Iran that is nuclear capable (meaning it has the theoretical capacity to build a bomb if it chooses to do so). Even if we don't reach a formal diplomatic deal (i.e., one that permitted Iran to enrich uranium to low levels and gradually reduced economic sanctions), he'll probably deal with it exactly the same way we dealt with other nuclear powers: i.e., via containment and deterrence. Note: this step will also mean negotiating security arrangements with key U.S. allies in a period where regional politics are going to be quite volatile (see #2 above). In short, plenty for the next president to do on this issue, too.
#5: What sort of country are we becoming?
Finally, the next president needs to do some hard thinking about the kind of country the United States is becoming. The United States has fought four wars since 1990, and is currently conducting drone strikes and special operations in a half a dozen countries. We are deeply worried about cyber-war and cyber-security, but we are also using these weapons for offensive purposes in ways that we would regard as wholly illegitimate if someone did it to us.
In the same way, American experts now discuss "preventive war" in remarkably casual terms, as if it were just one of many strategic options. They seem to forget that by definition, preventive war means attacking countries that have not attacked us and are not about to do so. "Preventive war" was what Japan did to us at Pearl Harbor, and ambitious young policy wonks now prescribe it without much self-reflection and seemingly unaware that real human lives are at stake.
Instead of the citizen army that we relied upon in World War I, World War II, and Korea, we now have a professional military that receives enormous deference from politicians, pundits, academics, and the public. U.S. politicians rarely have military experience -- Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Romney never served, and neither have any of their children -- and this fact inevitably affects their relations with the military establishment. Neither Obama nor Romney said a critical word about the military during any of their debates, even though the quality of military leadership and advice in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been deficient. U.S. politicians rarely talk about peace anymore; instead, they try to sound tough-minded and ever-willing to use force.
Since 9/11, we have created a vast array of intelligence and counter-terrorist organizations whose activities are largely hidden from the citizens who are paying for them and who will bear the consequences if their actions are misguided. Both common sense and much history teaches us that lack of transparency and accountability usually breeds bad behavior, and we may one day be shocked when we find out what's been done in our country's name over the past decade.
Who will play watchdog? Not most academics, who are too busy with ivory-tower exercises and for the most part discomfited by national security issues. Not the mainstream media, which depends on cozy relations with those in power. Not the DC think tanks funded by the defense industry and employing would-be or former officials eager to preserve their career options (and consulting businesses).
So, in addition to all those other challenges, I hope the next president will start unwinding some of the practices we adopted in the aftermath of 9/11, and move us back to being a country that is slower to anger, more interested in diplomacy, and not quite as trigger happy. But I wouldn't bet on it, becuase he'll be too busy dealing with the rest of his agenda, plus the inevitable surprises that will rise up to bite him.
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he'd implement Obama's foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush's second term foreign policy agenda.
But Romney's sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn't ask:
"Governor, you maintain that you're a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God's name are you listening to them?"
To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn't dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn't imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam's character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.
Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don't look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won't remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.
The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren't very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don't hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool -- military force -- is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America's deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America's liberal/Wilsonian ideals.
Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran's interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.
Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third -- an even more expensive camera with even more features -- the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.
And that's the genius of neoconservatism's frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don't bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don't like (and it's a long list). No president -- not even George W. Bush -- has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they're pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.
Neoconservatism's final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn't follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that's because Bush didn't attack Iran and Syria too, or it's because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush's watch, it's because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it's because we didn't send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn't go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.
To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama's stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn't big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there's hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded.
In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you'll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they'll just say you failed because you didn't follow their advice to the letter.
In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can't tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.
Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what's he doing with all those neocons?
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Where is the Middle East headed? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.
That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.
But lately I'm wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I -- to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement -- and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since.
Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.
Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora's box when you start rearranging borders. There's also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don't think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.
That's why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don't think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects.
The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria's ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.
And then there's Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan's economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river.
To repeat: I'm not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I'd bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.
SEZAYI ERKEN/AFP/Getty Images
Wednesday night's presidential debate is about domestic policy, but that doesn't mean the candidates can't be asked questions that use foreign policy to raise an important point about domestic issues. Pivoting off this recent column by the Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson, here's the question I'd like moderator Jim Lehrer to ask President Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday.
"Since 9/11 the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars protecting Americans from "global terrorism." Yet the number of U.S. citizens killed by terrorists is very low. Since 9/11, in fact, the United States has lost on average fewer than 32 citizens per year to terrorist violence. Even if you include the 2,689 lives lost on 9/11, the annual average over the past 11 years is less than 275. And 9/11 was clearly an anomaly.
By contrast, every year more than 30,000 Americans are killed by guns here in the United States, a rate higher than any other advanced industrial country. Given that extraordinary death toll, why have both of you failed to speak out about the need for more effective gun control, even after several recent mass killings? As president, what will each of you do to decrease the danger Americans face from domestic gun violence, which is far greater than the risk they face from global terrorism?"
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A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
It's been a remarkable month for viral videos, hasn't it? There's hardly anything I could add to the blizzard of criticism provoked by the video of Mitt Romney's candid and callous remarks to a group of fat cat Republic donors, so I won't pile on. Well....not very much.
Here's what struck me about this latest incident. Romney is not a stupid man, whatever one might think of his political views or his awkward public persona. He is also a man who has been running for president for more than five years. He has done nothing else in that entire period: He was already wealthy and didn't have to work, and his children were grown. He could spend most of his time mastering the issues, and he could have invited virtually anyone he wished to come in and brief him on any topic he thought was important for a future president to understand. He's had more than enough time to learn the ins and outs of our economic situation, to study the pros and cons of alternative approaches to health care, infrastructure development, and the like, and to bone up on tricky foreign policy issues like relations with China and Russia, counter-terrorism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point, there is simply no excuse for his not having clear and defensible positions on these vital issues, and more. It's called doing one's homework.
There's also no excuse for Romney not knowing how to talk about these issues in a way that conveys a sophisticated awareness of where the minefields are. Somebody who really understands our tax system and the nature of government entitlements doesn't tell donors that 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes and imply they are just mooching off of everyone else. Someone with a halfway decent grasp of what foreign policy involves doesn't land in London and insult a long-standing ally, and then fly off to Israel and offer ignorant remarks about the supposed deficiencies of Arab culture. And even if he truly believes that a two-state solution is no longer possible -- a view that may well be correct -- he would know that presidential aspirants can't say that and then suggest that we just cross our fingers and hope for a miracle down the road. Finally, if Romney is such a great manager and judge of talent, why-oh-why has he saddled his campaign with all those neoconservative retreads? Given their track record, that's like hiring Charlie Sheen to handle outreach to women or putting Bernie Madoff in charge of campaign finances.
Like all of us, politicians sometimes utter ill-chosen phrases or get surprised by an unexpected question. But given how much uninterrupted time he has had to get ready for this election, the frequency of Romney's gaffes is revealing. They don't just expose the ignorance of a man who's spent his entire adult life protected in the bubble wrap of wealth, privilege, and intellectual conformity. What they reveal is either 1) enormous and inexplicable ignorance, 2) a smug and cynical willingness to say whatever he thinks each audience wants to hear, or 3) the iron grip of a world-view that is impervious to evidence.
I'm not sure which possibility scares me more, but it does seem less likely that we're going to find out which one it really is. There's some consolation in that. And for foreign policy wonks, there may even be a bigger silver lining in the death spiral that Romney's campaign may now be entering. The GOP used to be pretty good at foreign policy, back when realists ran the show. If Romney goes down to defeat despite all the factors in his favor, perhaps the GOP will come to its senses and abandon the extremist positions (and the extremists) that have dominated its ranks since the early 1990s. A development like that might even make former Republicans like me think about returning to the fold.
The Republican Party is big on leadership these days, and especially fond of demanding that the United States "lead from the front."This was a central theme in of John McCain's recent sally right here at Foreign Policy, as well as Condoleezza Rice's speech at the GOP convention in Tampa. Among other things, it reminds us that the Republican Party's foreign policy gurus aren't very good strategists. (The Bush administration's disastrous handling of foreign policy showed this all too clearly, but it's nice to have a reminder).
In fact, the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy.
The United States would be well-served by a more selective approach to "global leadership." It is not a foreign policy achievement when the United States gets stuck dealing with an intractable quagmire like Afghanistan -- at a cost of a half a trillion dollars and 2,000 lives -- or when it finds itself waging drone wars in half a dozen countries. A real achievement would have been to find a way to shift the burden of this problem onto others, and especially onto the backs of potential U.S. adversaries. We congratulate ourselves on finally tracking down Osama bin Laden, but the real winners over the past decade have been countries like China, which have concentrated on building up power at home while the United States bled itself white in a series of pointless foreign adventures.
Furthermore, America's reflexive urge to be in charge has other negative consequences. It has allowed our most important allies to free-ride for decades, to the point that they are increasingly liabilities rather than assets. NATO's European members spend a mere 1.7 percent on average on defense these days (and that number is going down), and none of these countries can mount a serious military operation anywhere without a lot of American help. Why? Because Uncle Sucker has spent the last 50 years doing it for them. Much the same story is true in Asia, where countries like Japan want lots of American protection but don't want to spend any money defending themselves. Washington ends up with not with allies but with dependents, and we see it as a victory whenever some new country requires our protection.
This demand that the United States constantly "lead from the front" also makes it easier for other states to drag us into their quarrels. Georgia tried to sucker us into its dispute with Russia a few years ago (and if McCain had been in charge, it would have succeeded), and Israel is still trying to get America to bomb Iran on its behalf. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to push the United States to confront China over issues like the South China Sea, and everybody seems to think the United States should "do something" about Syria. Perhaps we should, but first you need to explain why doing any of these things will make Americans safer or more prosperous here at home, and then you need to convince me that the countries who have a lot more at stake aren't up to the task. And if some other country wants me to spend American money and risk American lives, they'd better have a lot of skin in the game, too. Finally, if weaker countries want to demand my protection, they'd better be willing to follow my advice on other issues. Otherwise, they're on their own.
Don't get me wrong: in some cases the United States should be actively involved and it should exercise a leadership role. It is still the world's most powerful country, and a return to isolationism would have destabilizing consequences in some areas. But our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.
It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
I saw the documentary film "Searching for Sugarman" over the weekend, and it got me thinking again about the dearth of popular, mass-market political protest music these days. In case you haven't seen it (and you should!), the film is about a Mexican-American folk singer from Detroit named Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded a couple of albums in the early 1970s. His songs (which are featured on the soundtrack) are pretty interesting, but the albums flopped. He dropped out of the music business after that, but in one of those cosmic bounces that no one can foresee, ended up becoming a cult figure in apartheid-era South Africa. Progressive musicians there saw his music as revolutionary, and it helped inspire their own anti-apartheid artistry. I won't spoil the various revelations of this wonderful film, except to say that it does capture how music can transcend boundaries and have unexpected political repercussions. It's also a fascinating human story.
Meanwhile, over in Moscow, the punk band Pussy Riot got sentenced to two years in jail for "hooliganism," all because they had the temerity to poke some harmless fun at Vladimir Putin and made the mistake of doing it inside a Russian Orthodox Church. Now there's a real threat to public order! And the government's lame response is revealing: throwing young female musicians in jail is like taking out a full page ad in the world's leading newspapers announcing "We are afraid of independent thinking and have absolutely no sense of humor." In a world where success increasingly depends on tapping into the energy, imagination, and initiative of the citizenry, Putin is telling young Russians to be dull and conformist. I think he's also betraying a profound sense of insecurity: when a three-person punk band is a threat to society, you know that the government has lost all perspective. He's got Madonna ticked off too, although I'm not sure that matters all that much.
But as I've written about before, I'm still struck by the apolitical nature of modern popular music. Plenty of artists continue to record songs with serious political content, but none of them seem to have much popular resonance. Protest songs get recorded, but they don't make it to the top of the charts and they don't inspire much political action by their listeners. A mega-star like Bruce Springsteen can record an entire album like "Wrecking Ball" -- clearly inspired by the financial crisis and the declining fortunes of the middle-to-lower class -- but I'll bet most of the people attending his concerts jump out of their seats for "Thunder Road" and "Prove It All Night."
But I'm not sure why that's the case, especially given the contemporary context of two lost wars, persistent economic problems, and widespread contempt for politicians of all kinds. You'd think this would be a moment where at least one or two artists would be writing political songs and attracting a huge audience, and maybe even using their art to inspire political change. But I get little sense that contemporary musicians are shaping political attitudes or behavior as they might have in earlier eras.
It might be because there's no draft, and so anti-war songs don't hit home with a population of young people who don't have to serve if they don't want to. It might be because the digital/internet revolution has carved the listening audience into smaller and smaller niches, so that it's harder for any artist to write something with broad appeal and a political message. You get political messages inside each genre (i.e., in hip-hop, alt-country, folk, etc.) but nobody commands a platform as large as Dylan, the Beatles, or even Creedence Clearwater did back in the days of AM and FM radio saturation. It could be that other art forms have superseded music; younger people are too busy playing Wii or downloading Jon Stewart reruns to pay any attention to the lyrics of the songs on their iPhones. Maybe it's just simple demographics: the counterculture movement of the 1960s was fueled by the sheer size of the baby boomer bulge. Or perhaps it's because there is no real Left anymore -- which is where the good songs came from-and because the Right thinks Mike Huckabee is cutting edge.
Sadly, I'm not expecting this to change in 2012. A bland suit like Mitt Romney isn't going to inspire noteworthy songs of protest or praise, and groups like Rage against the Machine have already complained about Paul Ryan's transparent attempt to give himself a hip patina by saying he likes their music. As Rage guitarist Tom Morello explained:
Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the
embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two
decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn't understand them. Governor
Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't understand him. And Paul
Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine."
"Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage."
Barack Obama has revealed a certain tame affection for blues and soul music (and even an unexpected singing ability), and his 2008 campaign got a boost from a number of sympathetic artists. But I'll be surprised if will.i.am decides to record a follow-up to "Yes We Can," this time around, unless he's willing to focus the lyrics on drone strikes and the raid that got bin Laden.
Remember how the London Olympics were supposedly left vulnerable to terrorists after the security firm hired for the games admitted that it couldn't supply enough manpower? This "humiliating shambles" forced the British government to call in 3,500 security personnel of its own, and led GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to utter some tactless remarks about Britain's alleged mismanagement during his official "Foot-in-Mouth" foreign tour last month.
Well, surprise, surprise. Not only was there no terrorist attack, the Games themselves came off rather well. There were the inevitable minor glitches, of course, but no disasters and some quite impressive organizational achievements. And of course, athletes from around the world delivered inspiring, impressive, heroic, and sometimes disappointing performances, which is what the Games are all about.
Two lessons might be drawn from this event. The first is that the head-long rush to privatize everything -- including the provision of security -- has some obvious downsides. When markets and private firms fail, it is the state that has to come to the rescue. It was true after the 2007-08 financial crisis, it's true in the ongoing euro-mess, and it was true in the Olympics. Bear that in mind when Romney and new VP nominee Paul Ryan tout the virtues of shrinking government, especially the need to privatize Social Security and Medicare.
The second lesson is that we continue to over-react to the "terrorist threat." Here I recommend you read John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart's The Terrorism Delusion: America's Overwrought Response to September 11, in the latest issue of International Security. Mueller and Stewart analyze 50 cases of supposed "Islamic terrorist plots" against the United States, and show how virtually all of the perpetrators were (in their words) "incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish." They quote former Glenn Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats saying "we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are," noting further that al Qaeda's "capabilities are far inferior to its desires."
Further, Mueller and Stewart estimate that expenditures on domestic homeland security (i.e., not counting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) have increased by more than $1 trillion since 9/11, even though the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, they estimate that for these expenditures to be cost-effective "they would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year." Finally, they worry that this exaggerated sense of danger has now been "internalized": even when politicians and "terrorism experts" aren't hyping the danger, the public still sees the threat as large and imminent. As they conclude:
... Americans seems to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril. Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic that generated it ... This extraordinarily exaggerated and essentially delusional response may prove to be perpetual."
Which is another way of saying that you should be prepared to keep standing in those pleasant and efficient TSA lines for the rest of your life, and to keep paying for far-flung foreign interventions designed to "root out" those nasty jihadis.
These days I keep getting asked what the 2012 election means for U.S. foreign policy. I have no doubt that Romney's foreign policy would differ in some ways from Obama's, though it's hard to know exactly how, given Romney's remarkable ignorance of the subject and the opacity of many of his comments. Some of Romney's advisors have worrisome track records -- i.e., they were among the architects of some of our country's biggest foreign policy blunders -- but most of Obama's foreign policy team supported the invasion of Iraq too.
But on balance, I'd say the similarities would outweigh the differences. For one thing, Obama has run a pretty hawkish foreign policy for most of his first term, which is why Romney can hardly find anything serious to criticize. But equally important is the fact that there is a strong bipartisan consensus among mainstream foreign policy experts these days, with virtually all of them favoring the use of American power in lots of different places and lots of different ways. In other words, there's just not a lot of daylight between the liberal interventionists who run foreign policy in Democratic administrations and the neo-conservatives who are in charge when Republicans hold the White House. (Yes, new Romney advisor Robert Zoellick isn't really a neoconservative, but he did sign one of those PNAC letters calling for the U.S. to topple Saddam). Although neocons are usually quicker to call for the ambitious use of American power(and especially military force), the liberals tend to get there eventually. Both groups, in short, are addicted to the impulse to intervene.
Case in point: the current debacle in Syria. It's obviously a mess, and it's hard for any of us to observe what is happening there without feeling an urge to do something. Neoconservatives see an opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to the "axis of resistance" (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah), and liberal interventionists like my friend Anne-Marie Slaughter see an imperative to topple a tyrant, defend human rights, and strengthen the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine. Mainstream foreign policy institutions like the Aspen Strategy Group (the very embodiment of ‘conventional wisdom') become cheerleaders for action, and even a normally sensible pundit like Nicholas Kristof eventually gets won over by the consensus in favor of action. Never mind that we will almost certainly be fueling a sectarian war whose longer-term regional implications are deeply worrisome; we simply cannot resist the pressure to get involved.
Where does this impulse come from? It's partly a reflection of American power and wealth: Despite our economic woes, this is still a rich country and the government can always find the bucks to finance another military action. Plus, having outspent most of the world combined on military power for a couple of decades, there's always a pile of weapons lying around that we could send to whichever rebel groups have currently caught our fancy. If necessary, there is usually some airpower and special forces available to assign to the task, along with training, intelligence, and political advice (which is often ignored).
Add to that the crucial fact that there isn't a great power rival who could cause us serious harm in most of these contexts, which makes it less risky in the near term to contemplate action. We wouldn't be thinking about getting involved in Syria if we thought it might escalate to a great power war (as it might have back when the Soviet Union was around), or if we thought -- heaven forbid -- that U.S. territory might actually be at risk as a result.
It is as if the president has big red button on his desk, and then his aides come in and say, "There's something really nasty happening to some unfortunate people, Mr. President, but if you push that button, you can stop it. It might cost a few hundred million dollars, maybe even a few billion by the time we are done, but we can always float a bit more debt. As long as you don't send in ground troops, the public will probably go along, at least for awhile and there's no danger that anybody will retaliate against us -- at least not anytime soon -- because the bad guys (who are really nasty, by the way) are also very weak. Our vital interests aren't at stake,sir, so you don't have to do anything. But if you don't push the button lots of innocent people will die. The choice is yours, Mr. President.
It would take a very tough and resolute president -- or one with a clear set of national priorities and a deep understanding of the uncertainties of warfare -- to resist that siren song."
And that's the issue in Syria in a nutshell. We don't know if intervention would make things better in the long run or not. Maybe we can speed Assad's departure, get a U.N. or Arab League peacekeeping force in place, and help Syria avoid a bitter cycle of revenge-taking afterwards. Or maybe we'll just add more fuel to an already nasty fire, and eventually help bring to power a government that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Or perhaps there will be a lingering power vacuum that gives Al Qaeda new opportunities, and that invites lots of external meddling by all of Syria's neighbors. (Marc Lynch has a nice rundown of the dangers here).
Foreign policy is always uncertain, of course, and one could argue that the United States should still do whatever it can to try to tilt the outcome in a positive direction. This argument fits in perfectly with the incentives of the mainstream foreign policy community, which is usually looking for problems to solve and always eager to establish their street cred as tough-minded hawks. (Even when they favor diplomacy, most people in the foreign policy community understand that sounding like a pacifist or a principled anti-interventionist is not a good career move, because the default condition of U.S. grand strategy emphasizes our "global leadership" and that means lots of international crusading). I get all that, and it's not as if I have a brilliant sure-fire solution to the Syrian problem. But I am troubled by the systematic bias that keeps driving the United States to get involved in intractable internal conflicts, even when it's not clear what the U.S national interest is or whether intervention will actually advance whatever interests might be at stake.
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Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political tradition, especially in an election year. The practice is hard-wired into the U.S. system of government, which gives interest groups many different ways to pressure politicians into doing their bidding. Whether we are talking about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various ethnic lobbies, it's inevitable that politicians running for office will say and do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over. Especially in a close election.
Which of course explains why Mitt Romney flew to Israel over the weekend, and proceeded to say a lot of silly things designed to show everyone what a good friend to Israel he will be if he is elected. He wasn't trying to win over Israelis or make up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel's supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can, because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like Florida. Pandering on Israel might also alleviate evangelical Christian concerns about Romney's Mormon faith and make stalwart "Christian Zionists" more inclined to turn out for him. Of course, Romney also wants to convince wealthy supporters of Israel to give lots of money to his campaign (and not Obama's), which is why a flock of big U.S. donors, including gazillionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, accompanied Romney on his trip.
Once in Israel, Romney followed the script to the letter. He referred to Jerusalem as Israel's capital (something the U.S. government doesn't do, because Jerusalem's status is still supposed to be resolved via negotiation). He said that stopping Iran's nuclear program was "America's highest national security priority," which tells you that Romney has no idea how to rank-order national security threats. One of his aides, neoconservative Dan Senor, even gave Israel a green light to attack Iran, telling reporters that "If Israel has to take action on its own, the governor would respect that decision."
But this sort of pandering is a bipartisan activity, and it's not like Barack Obama isn't keeping up. The administration has been sending a steady stream of top advisors to Israel of late, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and last week Obama signed a $70 million military aid deal for Israel, in a public signing ceremony. His message: "Romney can fly around and give speeches, but I'm delivering real, tangible support."
The good news, such as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks about the "unshakeable commitment" to Israel, or even of their "love" for the country, they don't really mean it. They are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their policies with the lobby's clout in mind (as Obama's humiliating retreat on the settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.
Why do I say that? Well, consider what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in a July 2000 interview, conducted as part of an oral history project conducted by the University of Virginia's Miller Center.
"...Every president I worked for, at some point in his presidency, would get so pissed off at the Israelis that he couldn't speak. It didn't matter whether it was Jimmy Carter or Gerry Ford or Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Something would happen and they would just absolutely go screw themselves right into the ceiling they were so angry and they'd sort of rant and rave around the Oval Office. I think it was their frustration about knowing that there was so little they could do about it because of domestic politics and everything else that was so frustrating to them."
What was true of these presidents was also true of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and if Romney ends up getting elected, I'll bet the same thing will happen to him too. He just won't admit it publicly.
The obvious danger in this conspiracy of silence is that it prevents the foreign policy community from having an honest discussion about the whole Middle East situation, including the "special relationship." Although public discourse on this topic is more open and wide-ranging than it used to be, mostly because some journalists and academics are freer to write honestly about this topic, it is still nearly impossible for politicians or ambitious policy wonks to say what they really think. If you want to get elected, or if you want to work on a campaign and maybe serve in the U.S. government, you have to either 1) be fully committed to the "special relationship," 2) pretend to be committed by mouthing all the usual platitudes or 3) remain studiously silent about the whole subject. And I can't think of any other diplomatic relationship that is such a minefield.
This situation wouldn't be a problem if U.S. Middle East policy was filled with success stories or if Israel's own actions were beyond reproach. But no country is perfect and all governments make mistakes. The problem is that politicians and policymakers can't really have a completely open discussion of these issues here in the Land of the Free.
There's also a tragic irony in all this. In his book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote that the two presidents who did the most to advance Arab-Israeli peace were Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. Carter negotiated the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and Bush 41 led the 1991 Gulf War coalition and assembled the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference. According to Ben-Ami, Carter and Bush made progress on this difficult issue because each was willing "to confront Israel head one and overlook the sensibilities of her friends in America."
In other words, each was willing to do precisely what Romney is now telling you he won't.
But what thanks did they get? In 1976, Carter received 71 percent of the Jewish vote and Gerald Ford got 27 percent, a typical result given the tendency for American Jews to favor the Democrats. In 1980, however, Carter got only 45 percent, the lowest percentage ever recorded for a Democratic candidate since World War II. Similarly, George H. W. Bush got 35 percent of the Jewish vote in 1988 (compared with 64 percent for Dukakis), but his share plummeted to only 11 percent in 1992. Their Middle East policies are not the only reason for these shifts, but these two elections are the main outliers over the past fifty years and the (false) perception that Carter and Bush were insufficiently supportive of Israel clearly cost both of them some support.
Which is what Romney is hoping for. The losers will be the American people, whose Middle East policy will continue to be dysfunctional, and Israel, which will continue down its present course towards becoming an apartheid state. And of course the Palestinians will continue to suffer the direct costs of this unhappy situation. But that's democracy at work. If you don't like it, then you'll need to convince politicians that they will pay a price at the ballot box for this sort of mindless pandering. Until they do, it would be unrealistic to expect them to behave any differently.
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Mitt Romney gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention yesterday. To no one's surprise, he accused President Obama of leaking secrets, betraying U.S. allies, coddling dictators, and generally endangering America. The speech was long on rhetoric and innuendo but rather short on policy specifics, and it left me with a bunch of questions that I'd love to ask the GOP candidate. Because I doubt the campaign is going to offer me a one-on-one interview, I thought I'd serve up my top ten questions for Candidate Romney here.
#1. How dangerous is the modern world? Governor Romney: at the beginning of your speech, you said that "the world is dangerous, destructive, chaotic." But an impressive array of social science research shows that the overall level of global violence has been declining steadily. Moreover, the United States spends more on national security than the next twenty countries combined, and most of those states are close U.S. allies. What are the dangers that you are so worried about, and how do they threaten vital American interests?
#2. How will you pay for increased defense spending? In your speech, you said "we are just months away from an arbitrary, across the board reduction [in defense spending]." You referred to this possibility as "the president's radical cuts," but surely you know that it is the result of the sequestration deal that Congress passed last year, in which the GOP was fully complicit. More importantly, you have previously stated that you would increase U.S. defense spending, keep all the Bush-era tax cuts, and simultaneously reduce the federal budget deficit. Can you explain how you will perform this magic, without invoking discredited concepts like the "Laffer Curve"?
#3. In your opinion, why is President Obama still so popular overseas, including most American allies? In your speech, you said the United States must "nurture our alliances," and you asserted that "the president has moved in the opposite direction." To illustrate this, you accused him of the "sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech republic," based on Obama's decision to deploy missile defenses in a different configuration. Yet sixty percent of the Polish population opposed having missile defenses on their territory, and the percentage of Poles with a "favorable" view of the United States is higher in 2012 than it was in 2008 (under Bush) or in 2009 (right after Obama's election). For that matter, Obama remains a remarkably popular leader around the world. How do you explain this?
#4. Are there any circumstances when you would criticize Israel's actions or use U.S. influence to persuade it to change its policies? You claimed that President Obama has undermined Israel, even though the administration's first U.N. Security Council veto was cast on Israel's behalf and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says "he can hardly remember a better period" of U.S. support. More importantly, do you believe that American presidents should support Israel no matter what it does, including when it expands settlements and evicts Palestinians from more and more territory in the West Bank? Do you think that policies such as these make a two-state solution less likely, and is that outcome in Israel's long-term interest?
#5. What would you do differently about Iran? You said there is "no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the Ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability." As you undoubtedly know, the Obama administration has implemented stiffer sanctions than the Bush administration did, gotten more countries to go along with this effort, and continued to insist that Iran give up its enrichment capability. Obama and his aides have repeatedly declared that "all options were on the table," and the administration conducted a successful covert action program that damaged Iran's enrichment efforts significantly. To repeat: what would you do differently? In particular, at what point, if any, would you order a military strike against Iran?
#6. Will you impose trade sanctions on China? You told the VFW that "we face another continuing challenge in a rising China," and you accused Beijing of permitting "flagrant patent and copyright violations" and manipulating its currency to our detriment. You said President Obama hasn't stopped them, but you will. How will you get China to change its policies? Wouldn't a trade war just damage the fragile U.S. economy?
#7. Is there any real difference between you and President Obama on Afghanistan? President Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In your speech to the VFW, you said "my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces in 2014." Maybe I'm missing something, but that sounds identical to Obama's plan. You also said you would "evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders." What conditions would lead you to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014?
#8. Is American power always a force for good in the world? According to your speech, you believe "our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known," and you said that "you are not ashamed of American power." Neither am I, but all humans make mistakes and no country has a blameless record. So I'm wondering if you think there are any moments in American history where our power was misused. For example, do you think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good idea? What about the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953? Was it a good idea for Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965? Or do you think our track record is perfect?
#9. What specific steps would you take to prevent leaks from the Romney White House? Your VFW speech says that leaks of classified information are a "national security crisis," and you said that your White House would not do such things. Given how secretive you are about your tax returns and your on-again off-again status as CEO of Bain Capital, I'm inclined to believe that you mean this. But leaks have been a common practice of every White House in modern memory, and Obama has been far more aggressive about prosecuting leakers than all of his predecessors. Will you pledge today to prosecute any member of your administration-including your closest aides in the White House, if they are suspected leaking classified information?
#10. Now I'd like to ask you a hypothetical question. Suppose your good friend John McCain had been elected in 2008, and that he had followed the same foreign and defense policy that President Obama has pursued. Would you still be so critical? To be a bit more specific, imagine that McCain had expanded the use of drone strikes in several places, increased U.S. military strength in the Far East to balance China, located and killed Osama bin Laden, increased military cooperation with Israel and protected it from international censure after Operation Cast Lead and the raid on the Mavi Marmara, orchestrated the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, ended the war in Iraq according to the terms negotiated by President Bush, tightened global sanctions against Iran, and launched an accelerated global effort to improve nuclear security. If McCain had done all that, wouldn't you be defending his actions, and boasting about how it showed that the GOP was much better on national security issues?
(Oh, never mind.... I don't really expect you to answer that one.)
Like I said, I doubt Romney will agree sit down for an interview with me, and if his campaign to date is any indication, he's going to try dodge tough foreign policy questions for as long as he can. But if he really aspires to lead the country, he's going to have to tell us more about what he would actually do as president. Or as he told the VFW, "the time for stonewalling is over."
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By Justin Logan
The past week or so has seen a number of articles discussing Mitt Romney's foreign-policy message, with a surprising number of aides whining to the press that the candidate isn't paying their issue enough attention. Today, Politico reports that the Romney campaign has decided that "they must do more than simply hammer the incumbent on jobs" and consequently Romney is considering an overseas tour in late July in an effort to:
move away from a campaign message devoted almost singularly to criticizing President Barack Obama's handling of the economy...
[The trip's goal will be to] project Romney above the campaign's daily nitty-gritty and cast him as a plausible commander in chief at ease with foreign leaders and the general public in distant capitals...
This is insanity. Whether or not Romney follows through on this is going to say a lot about the candidate's judgment.
According to Politico, Romney is considering expanding his trip to Great Britain and Israel to include Germany and Poland, but having apparently ruled out a visit to Afghanistan.
Let's start with that last one, Afghanistan. Here it seems the Romney people have realized that Bill Kristol's suggestion, that he "go and look serious," is absurd. Going there at all is a huge lose. It's a zero-sum tradeoff between saying things the public will like and saying things Kristol and his foreign-policy team will like. The public loathes the war, but the Kristol and the Romney foreign-policy staffers like it a lot. So if he went and said anything the public wants to hear -- like that he wants America to leave soon -- he'd get trashed in the media by his foreign-policy team again. And if he gave a sop to his foreign-policy team, the public would worry he's Bush redux. So they're smart to stay away from Kabul.
But what about the rest of the trip? On Israel, the Politico piece quotes an "informal foreign policy adviser to Romney's campaign" saying that "there are a lot of donors and potentially a few voters in places like Florida for which [sic] it sticks in people's craw that Obama hasn't been there yet." There is probably considerable fundraising upside from super-wealthy donors who affiliate strongly with the Israeli right, and perhaps some marginal vote to be won, although that last part is less persuasive. Obama could easily reply that Israel's defense minister shot back to a question this week asking whether Obama is a "friend of Israel" with the succinct answer, "Yes, clearly so."
And what about the rest of the trip: Poland, Great Britain, and Germany?
It's tough to say what political advantage Romney thinks the trip to Poland will gain him. There was a lot of conjecture about a domestic political rationale for Bill Clinton's support for NATO expansion, but if Dick Morris can be trusted on the matter, "Neither I nor the president ever believed there is such a thing as a Polish vote."
There's also a danger that defending Romney's Poland-related policy preferences will allow Obama to go on offense. For example, Romney has made a mountain out of the molehill that is the New START treaty, which the Poles supported enthusiastically. So while the missile defense issue that Romney apparently wants to bring up could put him on the side of the Poles, Obama could just as easily point out how he shepherded through a treaty that the Poles support and Romney opposes.
Apparently the logic for Britain is that the Olympics will be held there, and for Germany it is that the Euro may collapse there. These rationales hold up better on substance, but still don't make much sense. Romney presided over the successful Salt Lake City Olympics, which might reiterate the image of Romney as successful leader. On Germany, if Europe implodes, it is going to be hugely consequential for the United States, but this is too wonky a discussion to have in front of the median voter. So there is a substantive reason, but it's tough to see a political logic for it.
Sometimes foreign-policy wonks have trouble divorcing what they are interested in from what voters are interested in. For the most part we live in a bubble of public intellectuals, insulated from the collapse of the national economy. For a refresher, let's have a look at what voters were interested in as of May:
Most Important Issue in the Presidential Election
(Percentage among registered voters)
Economy and jobs: 62
Federal budget deficit: 11
Health care: 9
Same-sex marriage: 7
Foreign policy: 4
Maybe missile defense has ticked up a few points since then, but if Romney's going to win this thing, he's going to win it on jobs, the economy, and the deficit. I like discussing foreign policy as much as anybody, but going to Poland and Israel isn't going to win the election for him. As Daniel Larison sensibly concludes at the American Conservative,
"Unlike Obama, Romney is running against a sitting president during a time of very slow (and possibly stalling) economic recovery. That makes the decision to spend any time out of the country even harder to understand."
Unless I'm missing something big here, every minute Romney spends overseas is a minute he's spending away from winning the election. So tell me what I'm missing.
Justin Logan is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.
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Will we eventually look back on President Obama's drop-in visit to Kabul as his "Mission Accomplished" moment? He's got a tough re-election battle to fight, the endless war in Central Asia isn't popular, and he wants to remind everyone that he's The Man Who Got Bin Laden. So he pulled a George W. Bush and burned up a lot of jet fuel racing to Kabul for a mostly meaningless photo op and a not-very convincing speech. This sort of posturing may help him get re-elected -- though I doubt it will have much effect -- but it's not going to help his long-term legacy when the U.S. is finally gone and Central Asia is on its own.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don't put much value in the new U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership." It has some symbolic value, I guess, and it can provide a fig leaf for our eventual withdrawal. If everything breaks the right way after 2014, it might even provide a general framework that facilitates some additional counter-terrorist activities. But it's merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, it is woefully short on specifics, and other people will be in charge in Kabul and Washington by the time the agreement runs out. If circumstances change in ways that give us reasons to renege (or give Afghan leaders grounds to want a different arrangement), this much-ballyhooed "partnership" won't be worth the pixels it's published with.
All told, nobody came off very well in this little episode. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney sounds both petty and silly trying to minimize Obama's genuine accomplishments against al Qaeda (and especially the elimination of bin Laden himself). But Obama's attempt to turn the Afghan debacle into some kind of strategic triumph isn't much better, as Juan Cole and Ahmed Rashid make clear in separate pieces. All of which is more evidence that our agonizingly long electoral cycle is a major impediment to a smarter foreign policy.
Obama should not forget that the elder President Bush won a far more smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War than we are going to get in Afghanistan, and he went down to defeat in 1992. It's still the economy, stupid, and most voters won't care much about bin Laden's demise when they go to the polls in November, no matter how often the president reminds them about it between now and then. Needless to say, that is precisely what Romney is counting on.
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There's been a lot of needless hoopla over Obama's "open mic" comment at the Nuclear Security Summit, including an almost certainly ghost-written piece by Mitt Romney here at FP. Obama was overheard telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he "would have more flexibility" to negotiate a deal on missile defense after the election, which is both correct and hardly a state secret. The flap illustrates the main point I was trying to make a few days ago, when I wrote about how the absurdly long U.S. election cycle was a major impediment to a more effective foreign policy. (It may also be an impediment to Romney's chances, because the longer the campaign goes on, the more opportunities he has for foot-in-mouth moments that expose his ignorance about foreign policy, including his silly comment about Russia being our major geopolitical rival).
In any case, the incident got me thinking about how much the arms control agenda has changed since the heyday of the Cold War. Back then, there was a serious constituency in the United States pushing nuclear arms control, which saw it as key to reducing the risk of nuclear war, managing the U.S.-Soviet relationship, and dampening the danger of international conflict more generally. Arms control was intended to save some money, preserve each side's second-strike deterrent capabilities, and help stabilize the political relationship between Moscow and Washington. It was thus a key ingredient in the basic agenda of détente, which sought to keep U.S.-Soviet competition within bounds. (One can argue about how effective it was, but it is worth noting that nuclear war didn't occur, and the U.S. and its allies triumphed over the Soviet Union without fighting a war with them.)
Accordingly, the main items on the arms control agenda involved direct negotiations with our Soviet adversaries (the SALT and START treaties, the INF treaty on intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, etc.). These efforts involved tough and protracted negotiations between more-or-less equals (even though the U.S. and its allies were a lot stronger than the Soviet Union and its various clients), and there was no possibility of either side issuing ultimatums or imposing a one-sided deal on the other. The other main arms control item was the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and this arrangement resulted from tacit collusion between the two superpowers to preserve their own nuclear superiority. After all, the basic NPT deal allowed nuclear powers keep their own arsenals (in exchange for pledges to share nuclear technology and make some sort of long-term effort disarmament), while putting in place a regime that made it much harder for other states to join the nuclear club.
But what about now? Since the end of the Cold War, the "arms control" agenda has become decidedly one-sided. Yes, there's been a not-very-significant "New Start" treaty with Russia, which didn't alter the basic strategic relationship at all and which hardly anybody (including Governor Romney) has paid much attention to. The real action in arms control has been a series of U.S.-led efforts to get states to give up their existing arsenals or abandon existing nuclear programs. In the 1990s, we put tremendous pressure on Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to give up the arsenals they inherited from the former Soviet Union, and we eventually succeeded. Then the United States nearly launched a preventive war against North Korea in 1994, and did various deals (e.g., the "Agreed Framework") to try to head off their development of nuclear weapons. We invaded Iraq in 2003 to stop Saddam's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" programs (which turned out to be fictitious -- our bad), and have been ratcheting up economic sanctions and waging a covert war against Iran to try to keep Tehran from getting too close to the nuclear weapons threshold. And we keep saying "all options are on the table," which is a threat to use force.
In short, instead of "arms control" being the product of mutual negotiation, as it was in the Cold War, it now consists of the United States making demands and ramping up pressure to get weak states to comply. Instead of being primarily a diplomatic process aimed at eliciting mutually beneficial cooperation (which might also help ameliorate mutual suspicions with current adversaries), arms control has become a coercive process designed to produce capitulation. This approach may have worked in a few cases (e.g., Libya, although even there the Bush administration made certain concessions to secure a final deal), but its overall track record is paltry. After all, North Korea eventually went ahead and tested a nuclear device, and escalating pressure on Iran has yet to convince its leaders to abandon their enrichment program. And as I've noted before, using military force would not eliminate Iran's ability to develop weapons if it wishes, and could easily convince them that they had not choice but to go ahead and weaponize.
Because material power is still the central currency in world politics, this tendency doesn't surprise me all that much. When the United States has to deal with near-equals, it understands that bargaining is necessary and that a successful outcome requires patience and compromise. But today, we think we can impose our will on almost anybody, so any sort of compromise is regarded as some sort of craven appeasement. But even a country as powerful as the United States cannot simply dictate to others -- as we should have learned by now from our experiences with Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few others -- and a disdain for genuine diplomacy (as opposed to merely issuing ultimatums and imposing sanctions) is getting in the way of potential deals that could reduce the risk of proliferation, dampen the danger of war, and enable U.S. leaders to turn their attention to other priorities. Being the world's #1 power confers many advantages, but it can also be a potent source of blind and counterproductive arrogance.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
Today, permit me a digression into U.S. electoral politics. In the aftermath of Rick Santorum's victories in Alabama and Mississippi, it seems clear that Santorum's best hope for securing the nomination is to get Gingrich to drop out and endorse him. The basic logic, as Andrew Sullivan links to here, is that this step produces a Santorum victory in Illinois and drives a stake in the heart of Romney's chances.
Assuming that this notion is correct, then Santorum ought to do whatever it takes to get Gingrich to drop out and back him. Why not offer to make him the vice-presidential nominee? If Gingrich has any sense of political reality (a proposition I'm not prepared to defend), he must understand by now that he has no chance whatsoever of being the nominee himself. But VP is, as they say, a heartbeat away, and it's actually a job that is suited to Gingrich's peculiar talents (if not his ego). He wouldn't be in charge of anything (which is good) but he would get to make a lot of windy speeches and he'd be available as a sharp-tongued attack dog when needed. Think Spiro Agnew.
This strategy would put two Catholics on the ticket, but that doesn't seem any worse than putting a Mormon at the top. I deplore this sort of religious prejudice myself -- I don't see much difference between venerable, well-established religions and more recent inventions -- but I'm a realist and it's clear that some Americans still think this stuff matters.
A Santorum/Gingrich ticket would probably be a dud in the general election, but so would Santorum/Anybody. But remember, the most important goal in the primary season is to win the nomination. Then worry about what you can do in Round 2. So if Santorum is serious about wanting to be president, he should offer Gingrich whatever it takes. As a registered if not quite loyal Democrat, I hope he does.
Update: The original post was edited slightly in response to a reader's comment and advice from a trusted personal advisor.
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According to the Census Bureau, about 53 percent of Americans are over the age of 35 and thus eligible to be President. Taking into account the roughly 11.3 million naturalized citizens (who are barred from the presidency by the Constitution) that's easily more than 150 million people.
According to Rasmussen Reports, about 34 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation (150 million x .34) yields roughly 51 million GOPers who are legally eligible to serve as President.
My question is: given that the GOP has (in theory) a pool of 51 million people from which to pick, is this the best they can do?
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In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):
The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.
This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.
As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.
Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.