Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants who've been studying this matter for the past decade or more, you would think we would have a better idea of how well we are doing. And given the stakes involved, by this time you'd think that some serious cost-benefit analysis would be applied to the problem of counterterrorism: Hard-nosed people would be asking whether it really makes sense to spend all that money hardening the United States and chasing terrorists with drones and special operations forces, especially if most terrorists aren't focused on the United States and don't have the capability to do much damage to us.
I raise this question because our leaders don't seem to be able to get their stories straight on this one. A good case can be made that the "war on terror" is mostly won -- in the sense that we've defanged the most dangerous anti-American types -- and that what's left are various copycats in various places that ultimately don't matter that much to the United States and are best dealt with by local authorities. If this view is correct, then President Barack Obama was right to suggest that the "war on terror" is over and to try to shift our attention back to other foreign-policy priorities. To say that is not to say the danger is zero -- indeed, there will be terrorist attacks in the future - it is just to say that it's more of a tragic nuisance than a Major Threat.
But now we're being told by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, that the terrorist threat is back and worse than it was a few years ago. In particular, they point to the growing jihadi role in places like Syria and to self-congratulatory statements from al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication, as this New York Times story makes clear, is that the United States needs to get more directly involved in defeating this ever-expanding set of terrorist copycats.
I understand that terrorist groups like al Qaeda do operate in secret (to the extent that they can), and that gauging the actual level of the threat they pose is not an exact science. And I recognize that risk-averse politicians prefer to err on the side of caution. If you issue lots of scary warnings and nothing happens, you can take credit for having been prudent. But if you tell people the danger isn't that great and then an attack takes place, you sound naïve, credulous, and insufficiently devoted to national security. So when in doubt, politicians are inclined to oversell the danger.
Still, it really is important to get this right: Just how serious is the threat, some 12 years after the 9/11 attacks? In terms of the direct harm to Americans in the United States, the danger appears to be quite modest. So why are Feinstein and Rogers so animated by this latest set of developments? And doesn't Boston's defiant and resolute reaction to the city's marathon bombing in April suggest that the American population isn't nearly as querulous as politicians fear: If you explain to them that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, they don't go all wobbly. Instead, they display precisely the sort of calm resolution that causes terrorist campaigns to fail.
It is even more important to figure out how best to respond. If Islamic extremists using terrorist methods are trying to gain power in various countries, does it make sense for the United States to insert itself in these conflicts and inevitably invite their attention? Or is the country better off remaining aloof or just backing local authorities (if it can find any who seem reasonably competent)?
My larger concern is that we have also created a vast counterterrorism industry that has a vested interest in continuing this campaign. Those in the industry are the most prominent and visible experts, but fighting terrorists is also a meal ticket for many of them and self-interest might naturally incline them to hype the threat. The danger is that the United States will devote too much effort and energy to chasing relatively weak and obscure bad guys in various not-very-important places (see under: Afghanistan, Pakistan's frontier provinces, Somalia, etc., etc.,) while other problems get short shrift.
But like I said at the start, mostly I'm frustrated by the lack of consensus at this point in the campaign. And you should be too.
Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr
As I promised in my last post, today I want to offer a somewhat different view of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. I've been traveling for the past 10 days, giving talks at several venues in the United Kingdom and attending the World Economic Forum's meeting of Global Agenda Councils in Abu Dhabi. There was a lot of discussion of America's evolving role in the world at these meetings, and I intend to revisit some of those issues in subsequent posts. But for now, a few thoughts on the Middle East, which is in the news big time these days.
For me, any discussion of U.S. strategy has to begin by acknowledging America's remarkably favorable international position in the world. In the endless quest to identify and neutralize new threats -- both real and imagined -- Americans often forget just how secure the United States is, especially compared with other states. As I've noted many times before, the United States is blessed with a large population, abundant resources, fertile land, navigable rivers, and a technologically sophisticated economy that encourages innovation. These core sources of American power are highly robust, which means that U.S. security and prosperity depend more on what happens at home than on anything that might happen abroad.
Furthermore, the United States has no serious rivals in the Western Hemisphere. It is protected -- still! -- by two vast oceans. As the French ambassador to the United States said in 1910: "The United States was blessed among nations. On the north, she had a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east, fish, and on the west, fish." Today, the United States possesses the world's most capable conventional military forces and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, giving Washington a deterrent power that others can only envy. Indeed, the main reason the United States can roam around concerning itself with other countries' business (and interfering in various ways) is because it doesn't have to worry about defending itself against foreign invasions, blockades, and the like.
One consequence of this favorable position, by the way, is that the country routinely blows minor threats out of all proportion. I mean: Iran has a defense budget of about $10 billion (less than 1/50th of what the United States spends on national security), yet we manage to convince ourselves that Iran is a Very Serious Threat to U.S. vital interests. Ditto the constant fretting about minor-league powers like Syria, North Korea, Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, and other so-called "rogue states."
When we talk about U.S. strategy in the Middle East, therefore, we need to start by recognizing that the United States is in very good shape, and a lot of what happens in that part of the world may not matter very much to the country in the long run. Put differently, no matter what happens there, the United States can almost certainly adjust and adapt and be just fine.
So what are U.S. interests in the Middle East? I'd say the United States has three strategic interests and two moral interests. The three strategic interests are 1) keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; 2) minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and 3) inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The two moral interests are 1) promotion of human rights and participatory government, and 2) helping ensure Israel's survival.
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I have a question about the diplomatic value of all the NSA spying we've been reading about lately: Where's the tangible payoff for all this activity? With each week, it seems, we learn more about just how active and energetic the NSA has been. They've spied on our enemies, they've spied on our closest allies, and they've spied on us. The NSA's defenders have made various claims about thwarting terrors plots and the like, but these claims don't seem to stand up too much scrutiny. I repeat: Where are the big foreign policy and national security gains that we're reaping from this work?
As a realist, I'm neither surprised nor horrified to learn that governments spy on each other, or that a wealthy, powerful, self-important, and slightly paranoid country like the United States might...ahem...do a bit more of it than others. But this unthinking, unstrategic Hoovering of data, megadata, and actual conversations is obviously out of control, and the diplomatic and other costs could easily outstrip any putative benefits.
In particular, given our capacity and willingness to spy on virtually everyone, you'd think that American diplomats would be entering foreign policy contests and diplomatic negotiations with an enormous advantage over their counterparts. If we're as good at extracting private information from other countries' networks, cell phones, emails, and the like, you'd think U.S. officials would usually have a good idea of our antagonists' bottom line and would be really skilled at manipulating them to our advantage. We now know that the Allies in World War II got big strategic benefits from cracking German and Japanese codes; I want to know if we're getting similar benefits today.
It is hard to believe we are, given that America's foreign policy record since the end of the Cold War is mostly one of failure. And that leads me to suspect that one of two things is true. Either 1) the NSA is good at collecting gazilla-bytes of stuff but not very good at deciding what to collect or figuring out what it means, or 2) the rest of our foreign policy establishment is not very good at taking advantage of the information the NSA has worked so hard to acquire. In other words, either the NSA is not worth the money we're paying for it, or the rest of our foreign policy establishment is less competent than we thought. To be frank, I'm not sure which possibility I prefer.
There is a third possibility, of course: The kind of information that the NSA is good at getting isn't that useful for most policy problems. They collect it because that is what they are able to do -- like the proverbial drunkard looking for lost keys under the lamppost "because that's where the light is" -- but the overwhelming majority of it doesn't really aid our foreign policy (or our counterterrorism efforts) very much. One might say the same for the vast majority of stuff that the U.S. government now classifies. Which raises the worrisome question of whether we are unwittingly laying the groundwork for a much more intrusive authoritarian state without getting much compensating benefits.
Given how ossified and entrenched government bureaucracies tend to be, I doubt another Church Committee-style congressional inquiry is going to have much effect on this problem. Instead, it seems to me that what we need is a real root-and-branch investigation that fearlessly probes the costs and benefits of these activities. And it can't be done by pre-neutered Congressional watchdogs whose sympathies are clear. To be both effective and credible, we'd need an independent task force of intelligence professionals, civil liberties experts, highly skeptical journalists (Jane Mayer or Glenn Greenwald, anyone?), some seasoned but sensible politicians, and maybe a smart academic or two. Otherwise, I suspect we'll get a whitewash, and a rapid return to business-as-usual.
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As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been writing about the Israel lobby that much lately. Life's too short to spend all one's time on the activities of one particular interest group -- even if it has an awful lot of influence -- and there are many topics at least as important as the special relationship between the United States and one small country in the Middle East. Plus, I'm satisfied with my earlier writings on this topic, in part because subsequent events kept confirming their accuracy and because most of the criticisms we received were remarkably weak and tended to confirm our main points.
But occasionally I do see someone writing about the Israel lobby in a way that merits a response. Case in point: the recent WaPo blog post on this topic by Max Fisher, which inspired a sympathetic exegesis by Michael Koplow here. Fisher is often an astute analyst and Koplow has written some smart things on other topics, so it was somewhat surprising to see such careless reasoning from both of them.
The gist of their argument is two-fold. First, they maintain that there is a widespread belief that AIPAC and other organizations in the Israel lobby are all-powerful, and that the lobby "controls" U.S. Middle East policy. Koplow implies that John Mearsheimer and I hold this view, though Fisher does not. Second, recent events -- most notably the Obama administration's failure to heed AIPAC et al.'s push for military intervention in Syria -- demonstrate that this view is bogus. Together, the two pieces suggest that all this talk about an "Israel lobby" is sort of silly, and that these groups have rather limited influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Like some other attempts to kick up dust on this question, both pieces involve the ritual slaughter of a straw man. No serious person writing on this topic believes the Israel lobby is "all-powerful" or that it controls every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy. It is telling that Fisher does not mention or quote any individual or group making such a claim. Mearsheimer and I certainly didn't; in our book we repeatedly state that the lobby does not get its way all the time. We also emphasized that its activities were akin to those of other powerful interest groups, and generally consistent with normal practice in American politics.
Viewed in this light, the lobby's failure to get the United States into a war in Syria is hardly telling evidence of its limited influence. Getting the United States to launch an unprovoked war is a big task -- especially when you consider how America's recent wars in that part of the world have gone -- and no lobbying or interest group can accomplish that by itself. Various elements of the lobby did play an important role in getting the United States to invade Iraq, but as we emphasized in our book, they didn't do it by themselves then either. In particular, the war would not have occurred had Bush and Cheney not gotten on board, and it would almost certainly not have happened absent the 9/11 attacks. As with all interest groups, it matters what they are asking for and when they are asking for it.
Does this mean the lobby's power is on the wane? Maybe, but not by much. Israel continues to receive $3-4 billion in U.S. aid each year, even though it is now a wealthy country. It gets this aid even as it continues to take actions the United States opposes, most notably building settlements in the Occupied Territories. The United States continues to provide it with diplomatic cover in the United Nations and other international organizations, and U.S. officials consistently turn a blind eye to Israeli actions that are making the two-state solution that the U.S. favors impossible. Aspiring officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power still have to perform demeaning acts of self-criticism in order to win Senate confirmation. Do Fisher and Koplow think the lobby's influence has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this?
Or ask yourself this: why has President Obama spent more time meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu -- the leader of a small Middle Eastern country whose total population is less than New York City -- than with any other foreign official, and why did Netanyahu recently get a seven-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry? Is it because Obama and Kerry find Bibi's company so engaging that they just can't bear to be apart? I don't think so. One measure of the lobby's impact is simply the amount of time and attention that US officials have to devote to this one small country, while studiously ignoring its nuclear arsenal, illegal settlements, and other deficiencies. (No country is perfect, of course, but Israel is uniquely immune to criticism by prominent U.S. political figures.)
Finally, if you're not wearing blinders, it is impossible to miss the fact that AIPAC, WINEP, JINSA, the RJC, the ADL, and a host of other hardline groups in the lobby are now the principal opponents to a diplomatic deal with Iran. Just look at this article from The Forward, or this one from Ha'aretz, which make it clear that these are the principal groups holding Obama's feet to the fire on this issue. And of course it is many of these same groups or individuals who have been insisting for years that the U.S. keep all options "on the table" and use force against Iran if necessary. Absent pressure from these groups, it would be much, much easier for the United States to come to terms with Tehran.
Will they succeed in derailing a deal? I don't know. As I laid out in detail more than a year ago, the situation vis-à-vis Iran is different than the pre-war situation with Iraq in 2003, and "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States are not as unified on this topic. A reasonable deal with Iran is clearly preferable to another Middle East war, and preferable to making unrealistic demands that make it harder to monitor Iran's nuclear research activities and might eventually convince Iran to pursue actual weapons. Because the United States and its allies have powerful incentives to pursue a diplomatic solution, resistance from hardline groups in the lobby may be insufficient to stop them.
Bu no interest group gets everything it wants. Interest groups and lobbies advance their cause partly by pushing for specific policies (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). But they also succeed when they can limit the options that policymakers are willing to consider or can force policymakers to offer up other concessions to keep these groups happy. AIPAC famously lost the AWACs fight during the Reagan administration, but the battle was so difficult and costly that Reagan never really challenged it again. Similarly, former US Mideast negotiator (and FP colleague) Aaron David Miller has noted that "those of us advising the Secretary of State and the president were very sensitive to what the pro-Israel community was thinking, and when it came to considering ideas that Israel didn't like, we too often engaged in a kind of preemptive self-censorship." Bottom line: powerful interest groups often get their way not by achieving specific goals directly, but by shaping and constraining the options politicians are willing to contemplate.
So the question to ask is not whether AIPAC "wins" any particular issue (particularly when that issue involves a big demand). It is what US policy would be if these groups did not exist, or if they were advocating a different course of action. In other words, if Obama and Kerry didn't have to worry at all about the lobby, or if groups like J Street or Americans for Peace Now had as much clout as AIPAC, would the United States have handled relation with Iran in exactly the same way for the past twenty year or more? More tellingly still: would the United States have done a better job of brokering an Israel-Palestinian peace if its negotiators (a number of whom were drawn from the lobby's ranks) had not been acting as "Israel's lawyer" and if the U.S. could have made its aid to Israel conditional on an end to settlement building? If you think the lobby's clout had no impact on our mishandling of these two important problems, I've got a bridge to sell you and then a couple of books for you to read.
One final point. Despite the flaws in their two posts, Fisher and Koplow may in fact be on to something. Two things have changed since Mearsheimer and I wrote our original article and subsequent book: 1) a lot more people are aware of the lobby and understand that its positions are often harmful to U.S. (and Israeli) interests, and 2) a few more people are willing to talk and write about this phenomenon openly, instead of being silenced by false charges of anti-Semitism or the fear of professional retribution. Democracy thrives on free, open, and rational debate, which is why a sensible but frank discussion of the lobby's influence is all to the good. Or as Andrew Sullivan might say: know hope.
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One of the most common phrases in contemporary foreign-policy discourse is the declaration that the threat to use military force must be kept "on the table." Pundits and policy wonks say this all the time, and so do prominent politicians from both political parties. These days it's most commonly found in discussions about the U.S. relationship with Iran, but that's hardly the only place where we are constantly being reminded about the need to keep our powder dry and our finger on the trigger.
The more I think about it, however, the dumber that expression sounds. Why? Because for the United States, the option of using military force is always on the table, especially when we're dealing with weak states like Iran. After all, since the end of the Cold War the United States has used force over and over: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bosnia, Serbia, and a host of other places too. We've fired cruise missiles, Hellfires, and other sophisticated chunks of ordnance at a wide variety of targets, and you could add Special Forces operations and computer viruses (e.g., Stuxnet) to the list.
Of course, people do not use this admonition to keep force "on the table" in a serious or sophisticated fashion; it's just an easy way for politicians and pundits to show they're tough-minded and not averse to using the pointed end of the stick. In other words, it's a way to maintain your inside-the-Beltway street cred. But it's really a meaningless phrase, because countries like Iran (and others) are well aware that the option of using force is right there and could be used if U.S. leaders ever decided it would accomplish a genuine positive purpose.
In fact, this constant insistence that force must be "on the table" also reveals a pervasive blindness about how the United States looks to others. People repeat this phrase because they seem to think that other countries see the United States as a feckless wimp that will never do anything to harm them and that our politicians need to rattle sabers and bluster just to get other countries' attention. News flash: That's not how the rest of the world sees Uncle Sam these days. In reality, everybody knows the United States is still very powerful -- the sequester notwithstanding -- and other countries are well aware of the frequency with which we've been blowing things up in different places for the past 20 years. Our politicians may be trying to remind U.S. voters that they are willing to use force, but the rest of the world hardly needs to be told at this point.
In the vast majority of cases -- including Iran -- the use of force makes no sense because it won't advance U.S. policy goals and could in fact make things worse. And the only way to give the option of using force more coercive bite is to make it look like we are really about to use it, either by issuing an ultimatum (with a strict time limit) or by mobilizing forces in a highly visible way so that it really looks like we're coming. But that tactic has obvious risks: If the target doesn't capitulate and do our bidding, either we have to follow through with an attack we may not really want to launch or we pay the political costs of issuing a threat and then backing down. Issuing overt military threats is also a really good way to destroy the current coalition that is pressuring Iran and the absolutely best way to convince Iran that it has no choice but to sprint across the nuclear threshold as quickly as it can.
Given the many options that America's vast military power creates, the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to convince others that force is off the table. If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we're not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. If we did that, the Iranians would feel less need for either an active deterrent or a short timeline breakout capability. Bombing won't accomplish much and we probably couldn't overthrow them if we tried, but we certainly have the capacity to attempt either one. So how can we convince Tehran that we won't exercise either option?
In theory, President Barack Obama could make an explicit statement to that effect, or the two states could even sign some sort of "nonaggression" pact. Such pledges are never ironclad, however, and U.S. and Iranian officials both say they will judge each other not by words but by actions. The United States could also draw down its forces in the Persian Gulf region as a sign of good faith, but that's going to drive our other regional allies bonkers and would be quite imprudent in the short term. It's a tricky problem, but isn't it interesting that we seem to spend all our time thinking about how to make our threats credible, instead of thinking just as hard about how we could make our assurances equally convincing?
In the end, the real issue is whether potential adversaries can resolve the political issues that might bring the use of force into play. The option to use it is always right there on the table -- especially for the United States -- but most states don't worry about this very much because the political differences between them and us aren't serious enough to warrant a military response. The bottom line: We would get further in our efforts to resolve some of our differences with others if U.S. politicians and commentators weren't constantly reminding them that we have oodles of military power lying right there on the table ready to be used. I mean: It's not like Iran doesn't know that already.
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As I write this, Iranian and American negotiators, along with the other members of the P5+1, are meeting in Geneva to discuss the nuclear dispute that has divided Iran and these nations for many years. The core issues are: 1) how much of Iran's present nuclear capacity might it be willing to give up, 2) the scope of international inspections of Iran's remaining facilities, and 3) the speed with which the United States and others will lift the economic sanctions they have imposed on Iran.
Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader have already posted an excellent guide to the negotiations, and they correctly note that pursuing the pipe dream of "zero enrichment" will merely ensure that this latest round of negotiations fails. If Obama and his team want success, therefore, they are going to have to ignore the various voices that are now recommending either unrealistic demands or ill-advised negotiating strategies.
Obama should ignore these voices because their approach has been a complete failure for over a decade. Iran had zero centrifuges in operation in 2000 and only a handful in 2005, the last time the Iranians offered to freeze their program. The United States rejected all these previous offers, and now Iran has some 19,000 centrifuges, a plutonium program, and a larger stockpile of uranium that could in theory be enriched to make a bomb if Iran ever decides it wants one. In short, the hard-line position of issuing threats, imposing sanctions, and insisting that Iran give in to all our demands has backfired and put us in a worse position today.
Here's a quick guide to some of the voices whose advice should be ignored.
First and foremost, the government of Israel, which continues to insist that Iran be forced to dismantle its entire enrichment program. I can understand why nuclear-armed Israel would like this, but it's not going to happen unless and until the entire region becomes a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Letting Tel Aviv dictate our negotiating position guarantees failure.
Second, the bipartisan group of senators issued one of those helpful "open letters" to Obama last week. In addition to repeating the usual bromides about "a convincing threat of the use of force" and describing Iran's "nuclear weapons program" (which the U.S. intelligence community does not think exists), the senators told Obama to seek full suspension of Iranian enrichment in exchange for a suspension of new U.S. sanctions. In other words: Iran should give us the most important thing on our wish list, in exchange for our generously agreeing to leave the existing sanctions in place but not add any new ones. This idea is not serious, which is hardly surprising given that it came from Capitol Hill.
Third, lobbying groups like JINSA and United Against Nuclear Iran. The former group issued a new policy brief last week, outlining the usual set of U.S. demands and recommending that the United States increase pressure on Iran in order to get a deal. In their view, the best way to get a successful deal is to impose more sanctions on Iran and to threaten U.S. or Israeli military strikes. (Right: Military threats are an ideal way to convince a country that it has no need for even a latent nuclear deterrent.) Oddly, the report acknowledges that Iran has responded to the past decade of U.S. pressure with its own strategy of "counter-pressure": assembling more centrifuges, accumulating larger stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, making nuclear fuel at the Arak reactor, etc. Yet even though the approach they recommend has backfired for a decade, we should just keep doing it. And as I've noted in other contexts, a one-sided deal that you impose on an adversary by brute coercion isn't likely to endure; it just gives the other side reason to reverse the results once conditions are more favorable. To succeed, any deal with Iran has got to give both sides something positive, instead of leaving one side thinking it got screwed.
As for United Against Nuclear Iran, this is the group of diplomatic geniuses that was pressuring hotels in New York not to rent rooms to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani during his recent visit. Its new president, Gary Samore (who is also a colleague of mine at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), wasn't in charge of the group when that little flap occurred, but he seems to be on board with the same coercive approach that has repeatedly failed in the past. He told Time magazine last week that "[the Iranians] want to have a nuclear weapons capability" and that our only tool is "coercive pressure." He added that any deal we reach will not end the matter, but will only be a way to "buy time, in the hopes that the next Iranian government has a different calculation of their national interest" (my emphasis). For United Against Nuclear Iran, it seems, the real goal is still regime change.
In short, the hard-liners' approach to Iran still insists on maximal objectives on our end and zero carrots for Iran. It still sees sanctions and active threats of military force as the only way to convince Iran to abandon most if not all of its nuclear energy program. This approach is also deeply hypocritical, given America's own nuclear arsenal and our propensity to use force with far greater frequency than the Islamic Republic has. And worst of all, it has been a complete failure so far: Iran has a far more extensive nuclear program than it did when the United States started trying to coerce it into complete capitulation. You would think that America's foreign-policy establishment would look back at the past decade or more and at least consider a different approach, but that seems to be a very hard thing for us to do.
Photo: Iran International Photo Agency via Getty Images
As the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to play Russian roulette with the American and world economies, there's no shortage of explanations being offered for the wing's risky and irresponsible behavior. Some commenters blame it on Sen. Ted Cruz's megalomania, others on racist opposition to the first black president. The poisonous impact of Fox News and the perverse effects of gerrymandering are also popular culprits. Yet another strand of thought pins the blame on Rep. John Boehner's spineless desire to cling to his House speaker post even if doing so drives the country off a cliff. And then there are those who see this episode as an inevitable consequence of the separation of powers inherent in the U.S. Constitution. In this view, crazy-making moments like this one are hard-wired into the American system of government. They don't happen often -- thank goodness -- but they are bound to occur from time to time.
Any or all of these causes may well be at work, but these explanations all miss a broader structural reason for the current impasse, one whose roots are found not in the nature of American politics but in the nature of the contemporary international system. In brief: All this mishigas is happening in part because the United States is in fact very secure, which leads many people to think it doesn't need a strong central state. They are therefore willing to countenance steps that they would not consider if the country were really facing a serious external danger.
For a prophetic analysis of this basic issue, check out Michael Desch's 1996 article "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" in International Organization. Drawing on Otto Hintze and others, Desch argued that the end of the Cold War was going to undermine and weaken many existing state structures. The logic is straightforward: During periods when international conflict is rife, populations look to the state to protect them, and they are willing to tolerate (even encourage) increases in state capacity. Moreover, they are less willing to tolerate anyone who seems to be threatening national unity. In extreme forms, this tendency leads to abuses -- such as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and other crimes -- but in milder forms it means punishing politicians who act in an irresponsible or divisive fashion.
But when nations are feeling secure from external dangers, both citizens and politicians are freer to indulge ideological whims or to pursue self-serving agendas of their own, because the body politic won't see these actions as undermining national unity or threatening national security. And that's at least partly why a yahoo like Cruz can get away with what he's doing.
But wait: Doesn't the United States face a serious threat from international terrorism? Isn't that why Congress passed the Patriot Act, why it approved the vast expansion of the National Security Agency and other intelligence capabilities, and why the public supports the use of American drones and special forces all over the world? Don't these dangers create a profound need for national unity and resolve and thus contradict this basic line of argument?
Nope. Despite all the hype about terrorism, the United States is still a remarkably secure country and ordinary Americans get this, which is why presidents and foreign-policy wonks have to work overtime trying to scare us enough to get us to keep policing the world. Sure, foreign-policy experts like me love to talk about the implications of events in far-flung regions, but that's mostly to give ourselves something to do and to remind everyone that We're Really Important. But most people in the United States don't care very much about these things, except on those rare occasions when someone bombs Pearl Harbor or flies a plane into the World Trade Center. Then you get a vigorous response, but it wears off as soon as the problem is gone.
Ironically, the surest cure for the self-indulgent insanity of the current Republican Party would be a serious external threat. Ideally, we'd need an external threat that was just large enough to require us to pull together more and keep fringe groups out on the margins where they belong, but one that was not so large as to pose a genuine danger to our security and way of life here at home. Alas, dangers don't always limit themselves to that convenient "not too hot, not too cold" range.
On the whole, I'd rather live in a world where the United States faced relatively few external challenges, so that it could concentrate more of its energy and wealth on improving the lives of U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, a favorable international environment tends to bring out the crazy here at home and might actually do more damage to the country than Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or Nikita Khrushchev ever managed.
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Sometimes you read a news story that brilliantly illuminates just what is wrong with the basic U.S. approach to national security these days. Case in point: today's New York Times story headlined "U.S. Sees Direct Threat in Attack at Kenya Mall." Of course we do. When was the last time something bad happened somewhere and the U.S. government didn't see it as a threat?
The article goes on to describe how the FBI has already sent more than 20 agents to investigate the bombing, and it quotes various government officials and think-tank pundits about the need to respond lest al-Shabab (the Somali extremist group that conducted the attacks) turn its attention to America.
For instance, here's former counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin: "You never know when a terrorist attack in a faraway place could be a harbinger of something that could strike at the United States." Of course, we also never know when such an attack is a harbinger of nothing at all. The article also quotes Katherine Zimmerman of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute: "One of the misconceptions is that we can let al Qaeda or other terrorist groups stay abroad and not fight them there, and that we would be safe at home." The Times' reporters adopt this same line themselves, writing that "the American government has learned the hard way what happens if it does not contain groups responsible for faraway attacks," a point they illustrate by referring to al Qaeda's attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the 1990s.
Got it? For Americans to be 100 percent safe on American soil, the U.S. government has to get more deeply involved in the local politics and national security problems of this troubled East African region -- using the FBI, CIA, special operations forces, drones, whatever -- in order to root out bad guys wherever they might be.
There are two obvious problems with this line of reasoning. First, it fails to ask whether America's repeated interference in this and other parts of the world is one of the reasons groups like al Qaeda and al-Shabab sometimes decide to come after us. Indeed, to the extent that the United States might face a threat from al-Shabab, it might be because Washington has been blundering around in Somali politics since the early 1990s and usually making things worse. The same goes for Kenya too. Al-Shabab attacked the mall because Kenya sent troops into Somalia in 2011 and their intervention had undermined al-Shabab's position in that troubled country. Kenya may have had its own good reasons for intervening; my point is simply that the tragic attack it suffered wasn't a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya's own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack -- it merely identifies cause and effect.
Ditto al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden didn't get up one day and decide he wanted to launch a few terrorist attacks, pull out his atlas, and pick the United States at random. His decision to attack U.S. military forces and government installations, and then to attack the United States directly, was reprehensible and an obvious threat, but it didn't come out of nowhere. On the contrary, the emergence of al Qaeda was a direct response to various aspects of America's Middle East policy (e.g., blanket support for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf through the 1990s). As I've noted before, the United States has devoted most of its energy and effort since then to chasing down bad guys and killing them, but hardly any time trying to act in ways that would make the terrorists' message less appealing to potential recruits.
So before we declare the Kenyan bombing a direct threat to the United States and get more directly involved in a set of regional dynamics that we don't understand very well, we ought to ask ourselves if this will make the terrorism danger that we face worse or better.
Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
The Honorable Joseph Kennedy III
Dear Representative Kennedy:
I am a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, and I voted for you with enthusiasm during your election campaign last year. I am writing to encourage you to oppose the proposed resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. The Washington Post currently scores you as "undecided" on the resolution; I urge you to get off the fence and make your opposition publicly known.
A U.S. attack on Syria is unwise for several reasons. First, the United States has no vital strategic interests there. Bashar al-Assad's government is clearly a brutal dictatorship, but neither Democratic nor Republican presidents have cared about that before now. Instead, presidents from both parties have cooperated with the Assad regime whenever it seemed advisable to do so. More importantly, helping to topple the regime is likely to turn Syria into a failed state, igniting a struggle for power among competing sectarian factions. Some of these factions are deeply hostile to America and sympathetic to al Qaeda, which means that U.S. intervention could help bring some of our worst enemies to power.
Second, the moral case for intervention is not compelling either. Yes, the Syrian people are suffering greatly, but U.S. airstrikes will not alter that situation and could easily make it worse. Indeed, recent scholarly research on civil wars shows that outside intervention tends to increase civilian killings and doesn't shorten the length of wars. If we are interested in reducing human suffering, therefore, we should eschew airstrikes and increase our relief aid to Syrian refugees instead.[[LATEST]]
The likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not justify war either. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by conventional arms; that a small percentage of the dead were killed by weapons that happen to be banned is not by itself a reason to get directly involved. Nor is it necessary to bomb Syria to "defend the norm" against these weapons. Chemical weapons have only been used a handful of times over the past 80 years, mostly because they are less effective than conventional arms in most battlefield situations. The United States did not punish the other governments that violated this norm, and it is not obvious why this most recent violation calls for a major military response on our part.
Supporters of a new Middle East war claim that we must act because our "credibility" is at stake. We have heard such arguments many, many times in the past; they are the inevitable refuge whenever someone is trying to bolster a weak case for war. The United States has used military force dozens of times over the past several decades, and President Barack Obama himself escalated the war in Afghanistan and ordered dozens of drone strikes and special forces operations in several countries over the past four-plus years. No one seriously doubts U.S. power or our willingness to use it when our vital interests are genuinely engaged. If we refrain from using force when vital interests are not involved or when doing so would only make things worse, it says nothing about our willingness to use force when it is truly necessary and when it can achieve clear and well-defined objectives.
Lastly, wise leaders do not go to war without robust international and domestic support. Neither is present in this case. U.S. public opinion opposes military intervention in this case, and few foreign countries favor a U.S. military response at this time. You will undoubtedly face pressure from organized special-interest groups that now favor war, but these groups are neither representative of broader public opinion or the opinions of most of your constituents here in Massachusetts.
Back in 2002, I had the privilege of speaking with your great-uncle, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, on several occasions regarding the proposed war with Iraq. I opposed that war, as did he, and I supported his efforts to craft an approach that would have prevented that act of folly. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would be equally opposed to this ill-advised approach to the Syrian tragedy.
For all these reasons, I encourage you to be a "profile in courage" and to come out strongly against the proposed resolution when it comes to the congressional floor
Stephen M. Walt
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Who is this imposter who has the gall to call himself "John Kerry?" The real John Kerry is an intelligent liberal, indeed something of a hero for having the courage to not only vigorously oppose the Vietnam War -- the last U.S. war fought in the name of "credibility" -- but to openly charge that the U.S. was committing "war crimes" there. Surely this can't be the same fellow who is not only leading the charge for the U.S. to plunge into yet another unnecessary and unwise war, but whose rhetoric is increasingly bizarre.
Now he fears that if we don't go to war in Syria, we will lose our "credibility?" Credibility to do what? Stupidly intervene in yet another civil war in a country of little importance to vital U.S. interests, in which we not only lack "vital interests" at stake, but in which, if we had, we wouldn't know which side to support, and in which we have no idea whether our intervention will save innocent lives or put them still further into danger?
If that wasn't bad enough, now "John Kerry" accuses opponents of an attack on Syria of advocating "armchair isolationism." What? First of all, to oppose the war in Syria does not make one "isolationist," or even "anti-war," as opposed to opposing this specific war. The opposite of "isolationism" usually is defined as "internationalism." By such reasoning, then, this must mean that "internationalists" favor going to war with everyone.
Moreover, the United States would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of isolationism to at least partly balance what ought to be called "mindless interventionism." After all, the problem with U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II -- and even more so since the end of the Cold War -- has not exactly been a refusal to get into foreign wars.
Finally, the very concept of an "armchair isolationist" is incoherent. Apparently Kerry has confused the term with that of the common one, "armchair warrior." That is a coherent and, indeed, powerful concept. It refers, of course, to someone who wants other people to go to war while he sits safely at home. Now try making sense of "armchair isolationism."
Jerome Slater is a University Research Scholar and professor of political science (emeritus) at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He blogs at jeromeslater.com, where this article is cross-posted.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions were:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.[[LATEST]]
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine" (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S. military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S. security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on "other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital" interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed. But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I've noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses for the past 20 years.
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Friedman's piece in the Sunday New York Times was vintage Friedman: chatty, moderately insightful, and filled with quotations from his pal (and co-author) Michael Mandelbaum. The basic theme of the column was the limits of U.S. influence and U.S. interests in the Middle East. U.S. influence is down because the name of the game today is shaping the internal evolution of these societies, and outside powers will never be very good at that. U.S. interests are declining because the global energy market is changing and Middle East oil and gas are not as critical as they once were. As a result, what happens in the Middle East just won't matter as much as it did during the Cold War or even over the past couple of decades.
Fair enough. But here's the line that caught my eye, near the end of the piece:
"Obama knows all of this. He just can't say it."
Why in heaven's name can't he? What's the big secret that Obama or his administration dare not speak of? If Friedman can write about in the Times, why can't Obama or John Kerry or Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel talk about it too? What is to be gained from keeping the American people in the dark about the changing nature of American interests and involvement in this turbulent region?
Indeed, if I were to fault the Obama administration on its handling of the Arab spring (and a bunch of other issues) it is that they never bothered to lay out a clear strategic framework that explains why they are acting as they are. As Friedman and others note, it is clear that Obama is deeply reluctant to get drawn into more Middle Eastern conflicts and that he prefers limited uses of force (drones, targeted killings, etc.) to grandiose invasions and costly occupations. It is also pretty clear that Obama wants to shift American strategic attention out of the Middle East and toward Asia.
But for the most part this gifted communicator has never tried to explain why this policy makes sense. Sure, he keeps saying that it is up to the peoples of these countries to determine their own fate, but he keeps getting dragged back into doing things he'd clearly prefer to avoid (and stay tuned for airstrikes in Syria). Instead of educating the American people about how global interests are changing and how our policies must adapt to reflect new realities, Obama tends to fall back on the familiar rhetorical bromides that have informed U.S. grand strategy for decades: democracy, human rights, stability, order, rejection of extremism, and, of course, American leadership.
But then what we get are a series of ad hoc responses and a grab bag of justifications. First we are going to stay out of Libya, and then we get involved, and then we write it off (more or less). Then we help usher Mubarak out (because we think that's the way history is running), but then we refuse to call a military coup by its right name and acquiesce in the reimposition of Mubarak-lite. We ratchet up the rhetoric on Syria but limit our direct involvement to humanitarian aid and covert assistance, while turning a blind eye to continued oppression in places like Bahrain. And so on.
The problem with this ad hoc approach to policy formation is it leaves the administration perennially buffeted by events and vulnerable to pressure from all those factions, interest groups, GOP politicians, and ambitious policy wonks who think they know what ought to be done. If you don't explain what you are trying to do and why it makes sense, it is hard for anyone to get behind the policy or see the common thread behind each separate decision. By failing to lay out a clear set of principles -- which in this case means explaining to the American people the basic points that Friedman made and why it doesn't make sense for the US to toss a lot of resources into these various struggles -- Obama & Co. end up looking inconsistent, confused, and indecisive.
By the way, laying out a clear set of strategic principles wouldn't force the country into a rigid political straightjacket. Sometimes broad goals have to adapt to particular circumstances, and foreign policymakers often have to accept what is possible rather than what is ideal. But if you don't explain what your underlying objectives are, why those objectives are the right ones, and how your polices are on balance going to move us in the right direction, then you are giving your political opponents a free gift and your supporters little with which to defend you.
In other words, if Friedman is correct that President Obama and his advisors really do "know all this," it would be in their interest to explain it to the country. And not just in one of those stand-alone speechifying moments that Obama likes so much, but over and over and over. Who knows? Americans might like hearing the president explain why this part of the world is less important than it used to be and why Americans can start focusing their worries somewhere else.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants -- Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas -- made an intriguing observation. With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:
"Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?"
Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we're damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don't. And then he concluded:
"At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn't give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people's problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write "Hic Dragones" on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community."
Though I have some reservations about Green's second point -- i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that "what we do" does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East -- I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the "Arab Spring" can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of "vital U.S. interests?"
Green's closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine "vital interests" (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of "vital interests" is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?
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This week, the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon posted a sharp critique of Barack Obama's foreign policy, accusing his administration of "lack of ambition." And that was before Obama's tepid response to the brutal military crackdown in Egypt. Here's Krepon's lede:
Remember when American presidents set out to do big things in the world?
That was when denizens of the Oval Office had one powerful attribute: ambition. And that's exactly what President Barack Obama is lacking today: a desire to shape world events to America's liking, and a willingness to take big risks to make that happen.
No wonder he is making little progress on the enormous foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. The less ambition an administration has, the harder achieving anything becomes.
Krepon is a smart, sensible guy, and getting to know him was one of the high points of the year I spent at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace back in the 1980s. He has written a lot of wise things over the years, and he is certainly correct that Obama's foreign-policy team can claim few real successes over the past five-plus years.
But is the problem really "lack of ambition"? After all, consider some of the goals that Obama has set forth since becoming president. He was going to get a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was going to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. He greatly expanded the U.S. effort to kill suspected terrorists with drones and special operations forces, thereby inserting the United States directly into the internal politics of several unstable countries. He also pledged to lead the world to a new climate change agreement and take big steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. And he was going to "reset" with Russia, "pivot" to Asia, nurture the democratic roots of the "Arab spring," and rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward greater emphasis on "development and diplomacy." Or so he and his minions said.
Sounds pretty darn ambitious to me. The real problem is that this laundry list is wholly emblematic of the exceptionalist, "America must lead the world" vision that has informed U.S. foreign policy for decades. In particular, Obama hasn't challenged any of the entrenched interests and worldviews that continue to drive U.S. engagement in the world. The United States may be getting out of Afghanistan, but five years later than it should have. Americans still think their security depends on having military bases all over the world and that they won't be safe if their country can't determine who governs every little strategic backwater on the planet. Washington still sees itself as a credible broker of Middle East peace, despite 30 years of failure. The United States still thinks it can coerce Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program, even though America has been trying to do that for over a decade without success. And so on.
Krepon is right that Obama hasn't plunged into foolish crusades in places like Syria, and I share his dismay at Obama's halfhearted response to the recent presidential election in Iran. Among other things, if Obama is serious about negotiating with Iran, he needs to start preparing the American people and the various yahoos in Congress for a deal and explain what they can realistically expect (and what they can't). But the real problem isn't lack of ambition; it's that Obama is pursuing some misguided goals, and he's doing it with a foreign-policy establishment that seems to become less effective with each passing year.
Krepon's article also paints an overly upbeat portrait of what American engagement can produce. True, ambitious U.S. diplomacy has sometimes accomplished positive and lasting ends. Between 1945 and 1950, for example, the United States helped lay the groundwork for NATO, the United Nations, and a panoply of enduring international institutions, while simultaneously developing and implementing the strategy of containment that eventually won the Cold War. Similarly, George H.W. Bush's administration did a good job managing the Soviet collapse and German reunification and handled the 1991 Gulf War well (after some initial stumbles).
But these achievements have to be balanced against some notable failures: the damaging coups the United States helped engineer in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and the Dominican Republic (1965), as well as its long, insensitive, and tragic involvement in Indochina. And surely it was ambitious of George W. Bush to think he could transform the entire Middle East at the point of a gun, a lamebrained idea that cost the United States more than $2 trillion and thousands of dead soldiers, cost the Iraqi people even more, and ended up enhancing Iranian influence.
Lastly, Krepon's piece also reflects the common Washington belief that American national security is precarious, as in his statement that the United States faces "enormous foreign policy and national security challenges." As I've written before, most of these supposed "challenges" are simply burdens the U.S. government has chosen to take on, and most of them have scant effect on the life expectancy or prosperity of Americans at home. Great powers always tend to define their interests expansively, and as the world's most powerful country, the United States has decided that everything everywhere somehow matters to it because one can at least conjure up some hypothetical reason why an event in, say, Syria or Somalia or Tadzhikistan, might somehow rebound back on American soil. That's probably true in a handful of instances, but trying to control everything everywhere increases the opposition the United States faces and in most cases isn't cost-effective. The truth is that most of those "foreign-policy challenges" are acts of philanthropy undertaken on behalf of various U.S. "allies," rather than making a direct contribution to the security of the 50 states. I think Obama may have understood that; he just didn't do much to change the prevailing mindset.
My point is simple: It is perfectly fine for presidents to be ambitious, but lofty ideals need to be tempered by a sense of political realism. Otherwise, you get either vague speeches that never seem to lead anywhere or foolish crusades that do far more harm than good.
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Here in the United States, federal judge Shira Scheindlin has ruled that New York City's "stop and frisk" policy is in fact a form of racial profiling that violates basic constitutional rights. According to the New York Times editorial:
"Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime. Over the years, however, the Police Department has adopted a strategy that encourages cops to stop and question mainly minority citizens first and to come up with reasons for having done so later."
I read this story and immediately thought about the similarities to certain aspects of U.S. foreign and national security policies. "Stop and frisk" is essentially an act of preemption or prevention: The suspect hasn't committed a crime, but the police go after the person on the basis of the thinnest of suspicions, like a bulging pocket or the loosely defined "furtive gestures."
Now think about the United States' use of drones or special operations forces to conduct "targeted assassinations" of suspected terrorists. In many cases, U.S. officials have some reason to think somebody might be planning a terrorist operation, but the person isn't actually doing it when officials decide to take the individual out. Notice that this policy goes way beyond mere "stop and frisk": If the United States can't apprehend someone it thinks might be dangerous, these days it just blows the person away and calls the individual a "suspected terrorist" afterward.
Unfortunately, the information on which these suspicions are based is far from 100 percent reliable. Moreover, no matter how often we are told that drone strikes are "surgical" and precise, sometimes the United States is in fact killing innocent people along with those who might actually be dangerous. But most Americans don't care because this is all happening a long way away and mostly out of sight. The negative consequences -- increased terrorist recruitment and rising anti-Americanism abroad -- only show up later.
Or think about the story that John Grisham published in the Times Aug. 11, chronicling the sorry plight of Nabil Hadjarab, an Algerian who has been imprisoned for 11 years (11!) in Guantánamo. Since being captured after the invasion of Afghanistan, Hadjarab has been tortured, force-fed, and kept mostly in solitary confinement. But what he hasn't been is tried and convicted of a crime.
Think about it: 11 years in brutal solitary confinement, and we still don't know whether this man did anything wrong. A saga like this sounds like Stalinist Russia or Saddam Hussein's Iraq; instead, it is the official policy of the Land of the Free. Indeed, Grisham reports that Hadjarab has twice been recommended for release yet remains in custody today. The sad Gitmo saga is "stop, frisk, and toss in jail" on a global scale: The United States scooped up all sorts of people, sometimes for good reason but in other cases simply because somebody sold them out for a bounty. And then the country let them languish in legal limbo for years.
What's going on is a predictable consequence of the post-9/11 hysteria that swept the United States, aided and abetted by the George W. Bush's administration and largely seconded by President Barack Obama. U.S. officials built al Qaeda into a threat of monstrous proportions -- which it never was -- and they continue to sound that tocsin today. This approach is no different from those of earlier presidents who declared a "war on drugs" in order to justify policies that have filled America's prisons with minor offenders but have done nothing to reduce drug use. The basic principle is the same: If you get enough people sufficiently scared, they will let government officials do all sorts of dubious things in order to feel safer.
I know: These situations aren't identical. The U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees certain rights for U.S. citizens, but those constitutional protections don't extend to foreigners. One could also argue that international politics is a dangerous business and that preserving security and liberty in the United States requires the country to do nasty things overseas. Of course, this last argument is always invoked whenever someone wants to justify an otherwise heinous action, whether firebombing civilians in World War II or overthrowing nationalist leaders in the developing world during the Cold War.
An exaggerated sense of threat is the common thread uniting these various policies. Unfortunately, hardly anyone in official circles has an interest in downplaying threats, and plenty have an interest in inflating them. A dangerous world is one where politicians and officials get a free pass from most of the citizenry, and a pervasive sense of danger allows them to keep more secrets, intimidate the media, marginalize or prosecute dissidents, and operate with far greater latitude in general. Small wonder that Democrats and Republicans seem equally inclined to portray minor global problems in the most lurid terms.
It really is quite funny: The United States is still the world's strongest economy, and it has the world's most advanced and capable military forces, the world's most reliable nuclear deterrent, and no great powers nearby. Yet it finds itself chasing spooks and ghosts all over the world because it has somehow convinced itself that it is in fact very, very vulnerable. I'm not saying that no dangers exist, but hardly any pose a serious threat to the American way of life. Until the U.S. political system is able to calibrate these dangers in a more sensible way, the country is likely to continue chasing fantasies. And the tragic part is that many things the country is now doing may in fact be making these problems worse.
U.S. leaders are fond of saying that America's great power and moral values give it a "special responsibility" for global leadership. In fact, America's great power seems mostly to give U.S. leaders a remarkable sense of indifference to the consequences of their actions. (Have you heard any members of the Bush administration apologize for the carnage the United States helped unleash in Iraq?). And in contrast to Judge Scheindlin's recent ruling about the New York Police Department, the real difference is that there is no global judge who can rule these actions illegal and force the U.S. government to conform to broader global norms.
Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
According to Thom Shanker of the New York Times, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "looking for a few good ideas." Translated: The Defense Department is under a lot of budget pressure (from the sequester and from broader fiscal realities), so he's looking for smart ways to cut the budget without jeopardizing U.S. security.
If Hagel is really looking for some "outside-the-box" thinking on this important issue, then I've got three suggestions for him. First, he won't make real progress without examining the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy: What America's real interests are, what are the different ways it can advance or protect them, and what are the costs, benefits, and trade-offs among different commitments? Trying to maintain all U.S. present commitments on a shoestring makes it much more likely that the country will in fact defend nothing very well.
Second, in addition to directing the Defense Department bureaucracy and the uniformed services to work hard on it, he ought to convene a "Team B" of outside experts to brainstorm the problem too. And if he needs new ideas, he ought to populate that Team B with knowledgeable people whose views aren't warped by long service inside the Washington bubble or by years spent inside the Pentagon itself. Instead, this group should be composed mostly of people who don't work for defense contractors and who don't depend on Defense Department consulting contracts for their livelihoods. I'd also exclude people at think tanks that receive a lot of defense-industry dollars and anyone who has ever spoken at the Aspen Security Forum. (I'm not dissing any of these organizations, by the way; I'm just saying that it's not where I'd look to find alternatives to the conventional wisdom).
In short, I'd be looking for smart academics and independent thinkers, like MIT's Barry Posen or Cindy Williams, Dartmouth College's Daryl Press, or the Cato Institute's Christopher Preble. Throw in Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives. A creative, thoughtful journalist like James Fallows and an iconoclast like Michael Lind would be good additions too. Hagel should also encourage this group to consult with insiders or seasoned Washington veterans -- such as Brent Scowcroft, Steve Clemons, Colin Powell, Gordon Adams (an FP columnist), etc. -- to make sure that their recommendations aren't just pie in the sky.
The point is not that such people would necessarily come up with the best ideas; the purpose of this sort of exercise is to ensure that a wide range of possibilities gets considered and that well-worn shibboleths get challenged.
Third, Hagel should remind everyone involved in this process who they are working for. The name of the organization in question is the "U.S. Department of Defense." It is not the "Department of Imperial Power Projection," "Department of World Order Maintenance," the "Department of Democracy Promotion," or the "Department of Regime Change and Global Pest Control." My dictionary defines "defense" as "the action of resisting attack," and the focus of its efforts ought to be on that fundamental goal. Weaning the United States away from the belief that its security is enhanced by constantly searching for monsters to destroy in faraway lands (a task the country has been doing rather badly in recent years) would be a major achievement. But it's not one the United States is likely to accomplish if the task is left solely to the usual experts and the existing institutions.
After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. national security establishment started focusing on the various ways that "international terrorism" might pose a threat to U.S. interests or the United States itself. Unsurprisingly, experts began to dream up all sorts of frightening scenarios and worry about all sorts of far-fetched scenarios. I remember this period well, and I recall sitting through seminars and workshops at which lots of very smart and creative people were imagining various nasty things that groups like al Qaeda might try to do. Hijack gas trucks and blow up the Lincoln Tunnel? Take over the Mall of America and create carnage on a big shopping day? Commandeer a supertanker and smash it into the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge? Wait until summer and then set forest fires all over the American West? The list of conceivable dangers was infinitely long, but if you sat in enough of those seminars, you could easily become convinced that it was only a matter of time before somebody did something really nasty to you or your loved ones.
Imagination is one thing, but disciplined risk assessment is another. It's easy to dream up bad things that could conceivably happen, but intelligent public policy should rest on a more careful and sustained appraisal of how likely those various scary things are. And that's why I suggest you read Keir Lieber and Daryl Press's recent article in the journal International Security on "Why States Won't Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists."
The fear that nuclear-armed states would hand weapons to terrorists has been a staple of U.S. threat-mongering ever since 9/11. It was a key part of the justification for invading Iraq in 2003, and it forms part of the constant drumbeat for military action against Iran. But it never made much sense for two reasons. First, a nuclear-armed state has little incentive to give up control over weapons it has labored long and hard to acquire, for what could the state possibly gain from doing so? Second, a state giving nuclear weapons to terrorists could never be sure that those weapons would not be traced back to it and thereby invite devastating retaliation.
Lieber and Press examine the historical record and show that it is almost impossible to conduct a major terrorist operation and not be blamed for it. Here's the abstract for their article:
Many experts consider nuclear terrorism the single greatest threat to U.S. security. The fear that a state might transfer nuclear materials to terrorists was a core justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, for a strike against Iran's nuclear program. The logical basis for this concern is sound: if a state could orchestrate an anonymous nuclear terror attack, it could destroy an enemy yet avoid retaliation. But how likely is it that the perpetrators of nuclear terrorism could remain anonymous?
Data culled from a decade of terrorist incidents reveal that attribution is very likely after high-casualty terror attacks. Attribution rates are even higher for attacks on the U.S. homeland or the territory of a major U.S. ally -- 97 percent for incidents in which ten or more people were killed. Moreover, tracing a terrorist group that used a nuclear weapon to its state sponsor would not be difficult, because few countries sponsor terror; few terror groups have multiple sponsors; and only one country that sponsors terrorism, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons or enough material to manufacture them. If leaders understand these facts, they will be as reluctant to give weapons to terrorists as they are to use them directly; both actions would invite devastating retaliation.
I might add that this is the kind of important, nonpartisan, policy-relevant work that more social scientists ought to be doing. It is also important to disseminate these findings widely, so that 1) U.S. policymakers won't keep chasing phantom dangers, 2) the leaders of nuclear-armed states understand that their arsenals are good for deterrence and not much else, and 3) said leaders also understand the need to keep whatever weapons they might have under very reliable control.
There were two interesting developments regarding the United States' Middle East diplomacy last week. The first, of course, was Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement of a tentative agreement to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I've already noted my skepticism about that initiative here, but feel free to look at Bernard Avishai or Ben Birnbaum if you'd like to read a more optimistic take. The second development was the surprising level of bipartisan congressional support for the Dent-Price letter endorsing renewed diplomacy with Iran. Given that Congress normally votes hawkish AIPAC-sponsored resolutions on Iran without a semblance of thought, the fact that 131 representatives from both parties backed this Dent-Price letter constitutes a rare moment of sanity on Capitol Hill.
I just hope that these two initiatives don't find out about each other. There are a lot of ways that diplomacy on both issues could fail, but one good way to raise the odds of failure would be to link the two. For instance, the United States could try to get Israel to be more forthcoming in its talks with the Palestinians by promising to take a tougher line toward Iran, based on the familiar theory that a more secure Israel will be more willing to make concessions.
Bad idea. For starters, this approach has been tried before, most notably in the policy of "dual containment" that Martin Indyk formulated during his first stint in government back in 1993. "Dual containment," in case you've forgotten, committed the United States to containing both Iraq and Iran, even though these two regimes were deeply hostile to one another and it would have made a lot more sense to play one off against the other. But as Trita Parsi and Kenneth Pollack have shown, the United States pledged to contain both states in part to reassure Israel, in the hope that it would then be more forthcoming in the Oslo peace process. This approach didn't work, of course, and keeping lots of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia (as dual containment required) was one reason Osama bin Laden decided to attack the United States on 9/11.
Furthermore, explicitly linking these two issues merely increases the number of players with a potential veto over any possible agreement. If progress on Israel-Palestine is tied to an agreement with Iran, then Tehran could in theory scuttle an Israeli-Palestinian deal by digging in its heels. Similarly, linking a deal with the Palestinians to a resolution of the various disputes with Iran would give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a perfect reason to either raise the ante or simply walk away from a deal that he doesn't like. Linkage would in effect force U.S. negotiators on both issues to look over their shoulders constantly to see what was happening in the other arena, thereby impairing their ability to craft a workable deal on the issue at hand.
Most importantly, this approach is neither necessary nor in the U.S. interest. On Israel-Palestine, U.S. leaders have correctly seen a two-state solution as the best outcome. As President Barack Obama put in his Cairo speech, it is in "Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest." Retired Centcom commander James Mattis underscored that point in his remarks at the Aspen Security Forum last week, telling his audience, "I paid a military security price every day as a commander of Centcom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel." I have my doubts about whether "two states for two peoples" is possible at this point, but achieving that goal would clearly remove one potent source of anti-Americanism in the region.
In short, the United States has a profound interest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal no matter what its relationship with Iran is like and no matter what Tehran is up to. And despite its occasional bluster, Iran is far less of an existential threat to Israel than continuing the occupation, because trying to maintain a "Greater Israel" is leading Jerusalem toward permanent apartheid and growing international isolation. Moreover, achieving a just peace with the Palestinians would deprive Iran of the one issue that gives it some modest street cred within the Arab and Islamic world and would make it easier for the United States to organize a regional coalition against Iran should that ever become necessary.
By the same token, a deal that reliably capped Iran's nuclear program and began a process of reconciliation with that country would be very much in America's (and the world's) interest, irrespective of the state of play on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, a good case can be made that Iranian meddling on that issue -- including its support for radical Palestinian groups -- is largely a tactical maneuver designed to ensure they are not marginalized within the broader region. Once a deal was reached, however, both Iran's incentive and its ability to make trouble on Palestine would decline. But even if Kerry's efforts fail and there is no two-state solution, resolving the dispute on Iran's nuclear program would still be highly desirable.
For these reasons, therefore, the United States should reject any attempt to link these two already difficult diplomatic projects. The key thing to remember is that progress on either one would be a good thing, even if there were little or no progress on the other. Indeed, progress on either one would probably facilitate progress on the other, but only if said progress were not contingent on movement on the other. It will be tough enough to overcome the many obstacles to agreement in either case, and linking the two is a blueprint for failure on both.
As some of you may know, I published an op-ed today in the Financial Times, arguing that President Barack Obama should stop trying to apprehend Edward Snowden and offer him a presidential pardon instead. I argue that Snowden acted from laudable motives -- indeed, ones that are consistent with Obama's own emphasis on the need for "We, the People" to defend individual liberty and conduct open, transparent government. And unlike Aldrich Ames, Jonathan Pollard, and other spies, Snowden didn't sell his information to a foreign government. I also argue that Snowden did a public service by informing us of the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance and exposing the inadequate oversight of these programs. Indeed, history warns that sooner or later a vast, secret system of surveillance will eventually be used for selfish purposes. Lastly, I suggest that even if he broke the law, he is as deserving of pardon as Richard Nixon, the Iran-Contra miscreants, or some of the other convicted felons whom Obama has already spared.
There is another reason Obama might decide that a pardon is in order. If Snowden goes into exile overseas, he is likely to remain a polarizing figure and even a martyr for years to come. By contrast, if he is pardoned, he is unlikely to attract much attention in the future. He will never again have access to government secrets, and there is little reason to believe that his views on other subjects will attract that much attention. From a purely pragmatic point of view (which is Obama's stock in trade), pardoning him might be the best way to put this incident behind us and move forward. Isn't that the reason Obama & Co. also declined to prosecute any Bush-era officials for authorizing torture?
Every year on the Fourth of July I sit down and read the Declaration of Independence. It's a habit I got into some years ago, but I take a peculiar pleasure in reading through the founding principles of the American Revolution, archaic language and all. In these days of creeping executive power, supine journalism, and reflexive threat-inflation, it's a valuable reminder that governments exist to serve the people -- and not the other way around.
On this Independence Day, I am wondering what the Founding Fathers would have made of Edward Snowden. The question is obviously a bit absurd, as they could hardly have imagined something like the Internet, or even the telephone, back in 1776. But they would have understood the ability of a government to seize the mail and to investigate and harass those suspected of disloyalty. And they surely would have understood the concept of risking one's future for the sake of one's ideals.
It is of course possible that they would have seen Snowden as some members of Congress do, as a man who betrayed his country by releasing classified information. But isn't it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit -- someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.
Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.
The United States can no longer protect the country's security with a citizen militia, of course, and a permanent defense establishment has become a necessary evil in the competitive world of contemporary international politics. But the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.
Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden's idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.
The National Security Agency has done us all a service by reminding the world that international politics is still a) inherently competitive and b) primarily conducted by nation-states. I refer, of course, to the recent revelations that in addition to spying on U.S. citizens, the National Security Agency (NSA) has also been spying on America's European allies. You know: our closest strategic partners!
Cue the old line from Casablanca ("I'm shocked, shocked…"). As former NSA head Michael Hayden retorted on a Sunday news show: "No. 1: The United States does conduct espionage.… No. 2: Our Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans' privacy, is not an international treaty. And No. 3: Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing."
Never mind that the Fourth Amendment isn't doing a great job of protecting Americans' privacy either. The broader point is that the NSA's activities in Europe provide a striking counter to the idealistic rhetoric about transatlantic solidarity that we been accustomed to hearing for the past 50 years or more. During the Cold War, both the United States and its European allies had good reasons to emphasize common political values and invoke phrases and symbols of an "Atlantic Community." Power politics was always the real reason for NATO and transatlantic cooperation, but feel-good rhetoric about how we were all in this together and part of a broader political community helped paper over differences about burden-sharing and disguise the degree to which the alliance was always dominated by the United States. Charles de Gaulle was perhaps the only prominent European leader who took serious issue with this conception, but even he never did anything that threatened the basic principles of this Atlantic order.
No, Virginia, we are not a "transatlantic community" in any meaningful sense of that term. It's not even clear if the European community is going to hold together in the future as it has in the recent past, given the travails of the eurozone and the residual power of nationalism throughout the continent. What we are is a set of national states whose interests align in many areas, but not everywhere. And that's also why various proposals for a global "League of Democracies" were always a bit silly: Sharing a democratic system is too weak a reed on which to rest a global alliance. Even democratic states experience conflicts of interest with each other, and as the NSA has now shown, they continue to see each other as competitors and spy on each other in order to seize various advantages.
So nobody should be surprised that the United States was using its superior technical capacity to try to gain an edge on its European partners, and you can be sure that America's European allies have been spying on the United States too, if not as extensively or as expensively.
What will it mean? One might expect Europeans to protest loudly -- if only to appease their offended publics -- but then revert to type and do little concrete in response. After all, America's European partners have a long history of deferring to Washington, and it's not entirely clear why anyone should expect them to grow a real backbone now. I can't quite see David Cameron, François Hollande, or even Angela Merkel doing anything really bold or confrontational, can you? And as Hayden suggests, it's not like they aren't doing similar things in their own fashion.
Which is not to say this aspect of the Snowden affair won't have significant consequences. Exposure of the NSA's efforts is bound to complicate efforts to negotiate a transatlantic trade and investment agreement, an initiative that faced plenty of obstacles already. It is also going to give ammunition to all those people who are worried about the globalization of information and who would like to see governments do more to protect privacy and limit both corporate and governmental data-collection. And that makes me wonder whether we are now at the high-water mark of loosely regulated global connectivity, and that all these revelations will eventually lead both democracies and authoritarian societies to place much stricter limits on how information flows between societies (and individuals).
If so, then you should probably enjoy the Wild West of Internet freedom while you can, before the firewalls go up.
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I'm in Oslo to give a seminar and a public lecture at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, and I'm looking forward to hearing how world politics looks from a Nordic perspective. I haven't been to Norway since 2009, when my visit coincided with the Norwegian Nobel Committee's surprising (and with the passage of time, disappointing) decision to award U.S. President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he'd barely finished arranging the furniture in the Oval Office.
It was probably the only time the prize was given to someone in anticipation of he or she might accomplish, and I suspect the prize committee does not look back on that decision with great pride. Obama has shown many virtues as president, but actively promoting peace hasn't been one of them. As in some other areas, he talks a better game than he delivers.
Consider Syria, for example. A few weeks ago I posted an entry suggesting Obama is a "buck-passer" whose foreign policy is most clearly defined by his effort to shift costs onto others wherever possible. I still think that characterization is accurate, but my friend Alan Berger (formerly of the Boston Globe) has gone me one better. In a brilliant piece published two days ago in the Globe, Berger suggests that Obama may be playing a very hard-nosed and quintessentially realist game in Syria. Obama recognizes the dangers of deep U.S. involvement, but he also recognizes the potential gains from a long war run on the cheap. Specifically, the civil war in Syria is draining Iranian resources and tarnishing Iran's and Hezbollah's image as staunch and principled resisters of American imperialism and/or Zionism. Backing Bashar al-Assad isn't helping Russia's or China's global image much either. So why not let it continue to burn, especially if you can get the Qataris and Saudis to foot most of the bill? Obama's reluctance to intervene more energetically also defuses the usual accusations about U.S. imperialism; by playing hard to get, Obama's approach actually gets other countries to start pleading for more U.S. involvement.
The downside is that it is imposing a frightful cost on the Syrian people and could easily lead to the formation of a failed state there. But a fractured and quarreling Middle East is something that the United States can deal with -- among other things, it will make a number of states even more eager for U.S. help -- provided that Washington doesn't send ground troops to try to occupy, govern, and reorganize the region. Been there, done that (badly).
Berger doesn't claim that this strategy is a conscious ploy on Obama's part, and it is hard to feel good about a policy that helps prolong the suffering of so many people. And the history of both Lebanon and Afghanistan warns that letting a country burn for years can have far-reaching consequences. But Berger's interpretation of Obama's Syria policy supports the idea that the president has a pretty strong realpolitik gene. And as the president's policies have shown, when forced to choose between peace and the chance to undermine an adversary at low cost, political leaders normally choose the latter course.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
I've been in France for the past three days, attending a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." I plan on blogging about that event later this week, but first a few comments about the surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani as the next president of Iran.
I suspect that almost everyone will interpret his election as a vindication of whatever position they held before any votes were cast. Hard-liners who have pushed for ever-tighter sanctions and threats of war will claim that the election is a sign that ordinary Iranians are saying uncle and want the government to do whatever is necessary to end Iran's isolation and encourage economic recovery. So naturally the hawks will call for more of the same. Alternatively, those who have called for engaging Iran and who have defended the legitimacy of the Iranian republic will see this surprising result as evidence that there is real democracy there, however truncated or constrained. And they will of course see this as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Perhaps the only person who will be seriously disappointed by the outcome is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bound to miss the less-than-competent and reliably cartoonish figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's irresponsible and offensive comments about Israel and the Holocaust made it easy to demonize the entire country and helped keep the idea of preventive war on the front burner. Rowhani is hardly a softie on the nuclear question or on regional security issues, but he's likely to be much harder to portray as a bloodthirsty Persian version of Hitler.
Rowhani's election also presents the kind of political opening that Barack Obama's administration hoped would emerge from the last Iranian presidential election, way back in 2009. Having extended a (very) tentative hand of friendship when he first took office, Obama was undoubtedly crossing his fingers for Ahmadinejad to lose and be replaced by a more moderate figure. The hope was that a more moderate president in Tehran would respond positively to Obama's overtures and that Ahmadinejad's departure would reduce domestic opposition to a less confrontational approach to Tehran. Instead, we got the contested election of 2009 and a harsh government crackdown against the Green Movement, developments that made it harder for both the United States and Iran to pursue an alternative course.
Although Rowhani's election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal.
Given the calcified layers of mistrust between these Iran and the United States -- dating back for decades now -- achieving a deal on the nuclear question and a broader improvement of relations will require both patience and political courage by both sides. Iran is not -- repeat not -- going to give up possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle, so the United States will have to accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power. Iran will have to accept strict limits on its program and will have to find ways to reassure its neighbors and the United States about its nuclear and regional ambitions.
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
And then there's the supreme leader, whose views and preferences remain something of a mystery. But not a complete mystery, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said he would judge the Obama administration not by its words but by its deeds. This is a perfectly sensible position, of course, and it is also how the United States ought to judge Iran. But that means that if U.S. policy doesn't change, and if it keeps making the same demands and employing the same tools (i.e., sanctions), we can be confident that nothing will change. And Obama's decision last week to send small arms to the rebels in Syria is hardly a step likely to make Iran feel better about Washington's regional objectives.
I could be wrong about all this, of course, but so far no one has ever lost money betting on Iran and America's seemingly infinite capacity to misread the other and thereby maintain their mostly irrational and counterproductive enmity. As is so often the case these days, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
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Thanks to some intrepid work by Glenn Greenwald and others, we now know a lot more about the secret surveillance that the U.S. government has been doing in recent years. If you're an American, bear in mind that all this has been paid for by your tax dollars. You should also remember that the issue isn't how these capabilities might be used by politicians you happen to like; it's how they might be abused by politicians you despise or might have reason to fear.
I don't have any stunning new insights to offer on this matter, except to reiterate my earlier point -- which you can read at greater length here -- that these developments are directly connected to the broader course of U.S. foreign policy.
Schematic version: One of the main purposes of government is to provide security. Ergo, when people are scared, they are more willing to let public officials take extreme actions in the name of "national security," including: 1) excessive secrecy laws, 2) prosecution of (some) whistle-blowers or leakers (except when authorized by those at the top), 3) preventive or preemptive wars, 4) targeted assassinations of suspected enemies, and 5) extraordinary rendition and/or torture. A population that is really scared will also turn a blind eye to all sorts of other dubious policies, including support for unsavory allies and the creation/maintenance of disproportionately large defense capabilities. Both dictators and democrats have been aware of these realities for centuries and have used public fears to justify any number of questionable actions.
This situation gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats. When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: "Ah, but if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me."
And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they "hate our freedoms" and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of "evil." If this gets expensive, then cheaper ways to do it must be found, but what doesn't stop is the open-ended effort to meddle in other countries. This in turn requires even more energetic efforts to conceal what government officials are up to, both to prevent foreign populations from being fully aware of what the United States is doing and to prevent Americans from connecting the dots or questioning the wisdom of the effort.
As James Madison famously warned:
"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Madison was a very smart guy.
NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY / HANDOUT
Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
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If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
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I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka "terrorism"), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly. I am beginning to wonder if our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind.
Don't get me wrong: The speed with which the Tsarnaev brothers were identified was remarkable, and citizens at the scene of the bombing showed resolution and humanity in helping the victims. Here in Boston, a great many people worked with energy, courage, and effectiveness to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. And one can only feel a sense of heartache and tragedy when reading about each of the victims, senselessly murdered.
It's the larger response to the tragedy that worries me. Although politicians from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick offered up the usual defiant statements about America's toughness and resilience in the face of terror, the overall reaction to the attacks was anything but. Public officials shut down the entire city of Boston and several surrounding suburbs for most of the day, at an estimated cost of roughly $300 million. What did this accomplish? It showed that a 19 year-old amateur could paralyze an entire American metropolis. As numerous commentators have already pointed out, a city-wide lockdown is not what public officials have done in countless other manhunts, such as the search for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles. And Dorner was a former Navy reservist who had killed four people and who was at least as "armed and dangerous" as the Tsarnaevs. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the attitude that tamed the West, stopped the Third Reich, or won the Cold War.
The media frenzy that accompanied these events was equally disturbing. If terrorists "want a lot of people watching," then that's precisely what the American media gave them. It is probably unrealistic to hope that today's hydra-headed and commercially voracious media would respond to an event like this with even a modicum of restraint, but the feeding frenzy that CNN, Fox, and many other outlets engaged in must have been deeply gratifying to America's enemies. Television networks have learned not to train their cameras on the lunkheads who sometimes jump out of the bleachers and race across a baseball field. In a perfect world, these same organizations would act with similar wisdom when terrorists strike. In particular they would tell the public what it needed to know for the sake of safety, but they would spare us the round-the-clock, obsessive-compulsive, and error-ridden blather that merely gives extremists the publicity they seek.
As Boston shut down and the world watched, fourteen Americans were killed and more than 200 were injured in a factory explosion in Texas. Those people are just as dead as the four victims in Boston, yet their story is already fading to the back pages of the major papers. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaevs remain the Big Story and got profiled on 60 Minutes last night. As I write this, the death toll from last week's earthquake in China nears 200 -- with thousands injured -- but it barely rates a passing glance. And the week before the Marathon bombing, those courageous members of our bought-and-paid-for Senate rejected the very mildest of efforts to reduce the danger from guns, even though firearms kill over 30,000 Americans every year. As Michael Cohen noted in the Guardian, we fear that which scares us, but not the things that actually threaten us.
What is it about terrorism that terrorizes? Is the disproportionate attention it receives due to its seemingly random nature? The sense that it could strike any of us without warning? That explanation seems unlikely, given that other equally random dangers pose a greater risk. Is it because terrorism is the product of human volition, an explicit act of malevolence? This may have something to do with our tendency to overreact, yet other equally heinous acts don't seem to transfix society in the same way.
Or was it the intrusion of an act of wanton violence into an event -- the Boston Marathon -- that is supposed to be celebratory and fun? Or do we react viscerally to terrorism because such acts force us to think -- however reluctantly -- about the rage, animosity, and alienation that others feel towards us?
I don't know. But I cannot help but think that our political leaders have been letting us down ever since 9/11. Instead of teaching Americans that that actual risk from terrorism was minimal, they have kept us disrobing in security lines, obsessing over every bizarre jihadi utterance, and constantly fretting about the Next Big One. An entire industry of "terrorism experts" has arisen to keep us on the edge of our seats, even though many other dangers pose a far greater risk. The result of this obsession has been catastrophic: a failed effort to nation-build in Afghanistan, a wholly misbegotten war in Iraq, and an enormous distraction from any number of other issues -- education, climate, energy, the economy -- whose mismanagement will ultimately claim far more lives and create far more immiseration than those two misguided and angry young brothers did.
I do not mean to trivialize what happened last week. Four innocent people died, and many more were grievously hurt. Finding the persons responsible was necessary, and I'm as happy as anyone else that they are no longer at large. But the brutal reality of human existence is that it is fragile, and there are no guarantees. Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur. The grossly disproportionate reaction to the Marathon attacks tells me that our political system is increasingly incapable of weighing dangers intelligently and allocating resources in a sensible manner. Unless we get better at evaluating dangers and responding to them appropriately, we are going to focus too much time and attention on a few bad things because they happen to be particularly vivid, and not enough on the problems on which many more lives ultimately depend.
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I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I've been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.
As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects' origins doesn't tell you what their motives were. Let's assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects' origins are little more than guesses.
Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn't appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn't try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.
But as I suggested a couple of days ago, that observation doesn't change our situation very much. Given the nature of destructive technology -- in this case, fairly primitive bombs -- and the fact that there will always be a few people with a destructive agenda of some kind, there are always going to be senseless acts of violence. Governments and society at large can and should take reasonable measures to reduce that risk -- and yes, a saner approach to gun regulation would help -- but 100 percent safety isn't possible. Fortunately, the odds that any of us will ever experience a direct encounter with this sort of violence are still vanishingly small. Even if you're a police officer or a soldier, the odds are in your favor. For the rest of us, we are still remarkably safe by historic standards. And Americans are much, much safer than people in many other places.
And remember, four people have now died in Boston (not counting the dead suspect), but some fifteen people died in Texas when a fertilizer plant blew up. The world is not foolproof. Bad things do happen. That bedrock reality is not even interesting; what matters is that we recognize dangers for what they are, calibrate them properly, and respond to them intelligently.
P.S.: Continued kudos to the law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem, who identified the suspects with remarkable speed and have handled an extremely difficult situation with calm but decisive measures. Cable TV? Not so much.
Update: As I've watched today's events and pondered further, I've become convinced that public officials in Boston erred by locking down the City and most surrounding suburbs for an entire day. There may be a good explanation for this decision, but it hasn't been provided yet. The economic cost has been enormous (by one estimate about $1 billion), and it sets a worrisome precedent if a 19 year old fugitive can paralyze an entire metropolitan region. We didn't shut down DC when the snipers were operating there, and we didn't shut down Los Angeles when a renegade and heavily armed police officer was a fugitive. This response also belies our insistence that we're tough and we won't be intimidated. On the contrary: we look skittish and scared. I suspect public officials were deathly afraid of further violence, and of being blamed later for not taking precautions. We'll see. But I worry that potential copycats will be inspired rather than deterred by the combination of media frenzy and governmental overreaction.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.