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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I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday's attack at the Boston Marathon -- to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb.
For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday's events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction -- and especially nuclear weapons -- then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism's web through no fault of their own.
Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday's events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice.
There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday's race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.
But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.
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Many people believe that the United States is incapable of bold and ambitious responses to contemporary policy problems, largely because its political institutions aren't designed to act decisively. In this view, the United States is saddled with a federal system where government power is divided, with multiple veto points and various "checks and balances" that help prevent excessive concentrations of power. Add to that free speech, an intermittently vigorous press corps, a vast array of interest groups, and a degree of political partisanship, and you have a recipe for gridlock.
Or so it is said. There is a grain of truth in this caricature: the men who designed the U.S. Constitution were wary of centralized power (and standing armies!), and it is not at all surprising that they designed a system that seems to make radical change difficult. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule, and the exceptions themselves are instructive.
For example, during World War II the Manhattan Project assembled much of the world's most eminent scientific talent in a crash program that produced an atomic bomb in less than five years. Moreover, at its peak the Project was consuming ten percent (!) of the electricity produced in the entire United States, and its facilities contained more floor space than the entire U.S. auto industry. Despite this vast effort, only a handful of Americans were even aware of the project until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
More recently, the 9/11 attacks produced a similarly rapid and far-reaching U.S. response, whose full dimensions are still not completely known by the U.S. public. In addition to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent lame-brained decision to invade Iraq, the United States also passed the Patriot Act and launched a wide-ranging global effort to track down and kill as many al Qaeda members as it could find. In the process, it has created a large infrastructure of government and contractor agencies and shifted the CIA's focus away from intelligence gathering and toward a global effort to eradicate al Qaeda and its affiliates through mostly lethal means.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the U.S. system of government is quite capable of swift and ambitious policy initiatives when the public and key officials are really scared (as we were in 1941 and after 9/11). One might add the response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950 and to Sputnik's launch back in 1957. And this tendency in turn helps explain why threat-inflation is such a common tool within the foreign policy establishment. When Americans are feeling safe and secure, gridlock prevails. But when they are frightened, politicians are both able to launch big initiatives and motivated to do so by the fear that the public will punish them if they don't do enough to defend the nation.
The other important lesson is that big and bold initiatives are far easier when they are kept secret. Nobody knew about the Manhattan Project, and to this day nobody knows the full extent of what our national security machinery has been up to do since 9/11. Books like Mark Mazzetti's new The Way of the Knife and the Washington Post's important articles on "Top Secret America" have peeled back the veil to a degree, but there are undoubtedly many things being done in America's name (and with U.S. tax dollars) about which taxpayers are still unaware.
The danger is two-fold. First, if secrecy makes it easier to do big things, then policymakers will be tempted to make many issues as secret as possible. Classification will run amok, not to keep valuable information from our enemies but mostly from citizens who might object. And with secrecy comes a greater danger that foolish policies won't be adequately debated or scrutinized. This problem is widespread in authoritarian regimes where dissent is squelched and open debate is impossible, but it can also happen in democracies if the circle of decision is tiny and the public is kept in the dark.
The second danger stemming from popular ignorance is blowback. If Americans don't know what their government is doing (or has done), they won't fully understand why other societies view the United States as they do. In particular, Americans won't understand why others are sometimes angry at the United States, and they will tend to interpret anger or resistance as evidence of some sort of primordial or culturally-based hatred. The result is a familiar spiral of conflict, where each side sees its own actions as fully justified by the other's supposedly innate hostility. And I'd argue that spiral dynamics are at the heart of a number of difficult foreign policy challenges, especially in our dealings with the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, unwinding spirals is not easy, and all the more so if a country still doesn't understand exactly why others are ticked off.
Addendum: By a strange coincidence, my colleague Larry Summers has published a column in today's Financial Times, making a somewhat similar argument about the ability of the U.S. government to act more decisively than many people often believe. You can find his views here.
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If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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I've been thinking this week about U.S. defense spending and grand strategy. It's increasingly clear that while the sequester may be an accounting and planning nightmare for Pentagon officials, it's not going to leave the United States naked and defenseless before its enemies. How could it? Even after the 9 percent budget cut mandated by the sequester, the United States is still going to spend at least four times more than the number two military power (China). Moreover, the United States is in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position -- with friendly countries on both borders and no great power rivals nearby -- and it has thousands of nuclear weapons to deter attack. As I've noted before, this remarkably high level of basic territorial security is why foreign policy mavens in the United States can devote their time to worrying about and meddling in far-flung backwaters.
Nonetheless, a reduced defense budget is bound to have some effects. How should Americans think about it? Here are three quick ideas.
First, one wrong way to respond is to engage in threat inflation. This was the Pentagon's reflexive answer as the sequester approached. Top military leaders began shouting that the sky was about to fall and that sequestration was going to turn the United States, as former SecDef Leon Panetta put it, into "a second rate power." The commandant of the Marine Corps, James Amos, said the sequester would have a "devastating impact" on military readiness and create "unacceptable levels of risk." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, told Congress a year ago that "in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now."
In a rare moment of sanity, Congress didn't fall for these scare tactics. And my guess is that this sort of alarmism won't work well in the future either, because Al Qaeda is on the ropes, China isn't a peer competitor yet, and even a healthier U.S. economy is going to face fiscal pressures -- an aging population, deferred maintenance on U.S. infrastructure, etc. -- that will be hard for the Pentagon to tilt against.
Second, an equally bad response would be to assume the U.S. military can and should try to perform every one of its current missions as its capabilities decline. Not only is that unfair to the men and women in uniform, it's also bad strategy. Even if you believe that we've been spending more than we needed to in recent years, there ought to be some correspondence between capabilities and commitments. If you spend less and have to trim force structure and other capabilities, the missions you are committed to perform ought to shrink too, which, in turn, means rethinking how the U.S. uses its power around the world and being more selective in identifying and setting priorities.
Third, the right way to think about this issue is to focus more attention on interests -- both our own and those of our allies. For the past fifty years or more, America's overarching power made it possible to expand our definition of "interests" almost without limit. And as the world's most powerful country, we assumed it was our right and responsibility to do most of the heavy lifting in various trouble spots. That tendency increased even more after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving us without a peer competitor and in a position of (nearly) unchallenged primacy. Our Foreign Policy Mandarins readily embraced this role, as it gave them lots of missions to perform and allowed them to strut around the world telling other countries what to do. U.S. officials began to describe the United States as the "indispensable nation" and assumed that the solution to most (all?) global problems had to be "Made in America."
Today, having been chastened by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis and facing the prospect of a serious, long-term competition with China that is in its early stages, it behooves American strategic planners to move from a power-centered perspective to one that focuses more closely on interests. Specifically, when problems arise in particular areas, our first question should not be "what can we do about this?" but rather "who has the greatest interest in this problem?" And if there are other states that share our basic outlook and have a greater interest in the issue, then we should let them take the lead and bear the burden of addressing it, with the United States playing a back-up role when appropriate.
IR theorists have a term for this -- "buck-passing." It may not sound heroic, but it's often a superb strategy. If you can get others to pay the price and bear the burden, then you can often get the results you want at very low cost. And as the United States learned in both world wars, keeping one's powder dry while others rush to war sometimes puts you in an excellent position to win the peace. It is hardly fool-proof, of course, but the good news is that America's remarkably favorable geostrategic position gives us a greater opportunity to pursue this approach at relatively little risk.
One can see the seeds of this new approach in the Obama administration's response to events in Libya, Mali, and Syria. Instead of placing the United States in the vanguard -- which invariably generates concern, resentment, and free-riding -- Washington has let countries with a greater interest in the outcome take the lead. It has not been entirely aloof, of course -- especially in the Libyan case -- but it has kept its commitments appropriately modest. Not only does that keep us out of additional costly quagmires, but it also keeps us from pouring gasoline on conflicts that might in fact get worse if we do. Far from being a sign of strategic impotence, one might think of it instead as a sign of good judgment.
This is not isolationism. Instead, think of it as "playing hard to get." American power is still enormous and a great asset for others, which means they should be willing to go a long way to accommodate us in order to be able to obtain it. The only way to get others -- including our allies -- to do more to address common security problems is for the United States to do less, especially in those areas where others have a greater stake in the issue than we do. If Uncle Sucker insists on doing it all, others will be happy to let us while they stand around carping about heavy-handed American interference.
The challenge going forward lies in striking the right balance between engagement and independence -- doing just enough so that others know they can count on us if needed but not so much that those with a greater stake take advantage of our overweening ambition. By the way, that will be primarily a task of intelligence and diplomacy, not military strategy. And while the sequester is a pretty stupid way to trim defense spending (i.e., Panetta was right to call it a "goofy meataxe"), it might have a silver lining. If it accelerates the process of rethinking our overall grand strategy, then the net effect might be quite salutary.
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The ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is generating a variety of post-mortems and reflections from many of the participants in the pre-war debate. Andrew Sullivan has been especially forthright in acknowledging his own errors during that time and has a lively thread up and running probing what some famous people like Bill Clinton had to say on the matter a decade or so ago.
Going to war is a fateful decision for any country, but it is now clear that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment performed abysmally during the run-up to the war. Top officials in the Bush administration told several important lies to bolster the case for war, such as the claim that there was no doubt Iraq had WMD -- indeed, they said they knew where they were - -and the charge that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda.
The majority of prominent Democrats and plenty of card-carrying liberals backed the war as well. Indeed, almost all of the top foreign policy officials in Obama's first term were vocal supporters of the invasion, with the president himself being a notable exception. Denizens of the usual Washington think-tanks -- including supposedly "moderate" organizations like Brookings and bipartisan organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations -- were also filled with pro-war cheerleaders. The same was true of the New York Times and Washington Post, whose editors and reporters swallowed the Bush team's sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. All in all, the decision to invade was taken with a degree of carelessness and callowness unworthy of any country with pretensions to global leadership. And one should never forget that this reckless decision cost more than $1 trillion and led to thousands of American battlefield casualties and many ruined lives. Of course, the Iraqi people have suffered even more over the past decade.
But not everyone thought invading Iraq was a good idea. In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, "War with Iraq is Not in America's National Interest." You can read the original ad here. It is striking how accurate its warnings were. At the risk of sounding like I am bragging, I was one of the signatories, although I certainly take no pleasure in having anticipated the trouble ahead. It would have been better for the United States, not to mention Iraq, if the hawks had been proven right. Sadly, this was not to be.
As the ten-year anniversary nears, I want to call attention to the other people who signed the ad and helped pay for its publication. Some of them are no longer with us, but their prescience and their willingness to resist the stampede for war should not go unremembered. Here are the other signatories, with their professional affiliations at the time.
Robert Art, Brandeis
Richard Betts, Columbia
Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia
Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky
Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas
Alexander L. George, Stanford
Charles Glaser, University of Chicago
Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State
George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky
Robert Jervis, Columbia
Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh
Carl Kaysen, MIT
Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington
Deborah Larson, UCLA
Jack S. Levy, Rutgers
Peter Liberman, Queen's College
John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
Steven E. Miller, Harvard University
Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern
Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago
Barry R. Posen, MIT
Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley
George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland
Richard Rosecrance, UCLA
Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland
Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State
Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina
Jack L. Snyder, Columbia
Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland
Stephen Van Evera, MIT
Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia
Cindy Williams, MIT
It is worth noting that none of the signatories on this list has held a government position since then, and my guess is that none is likely to do so in the future. Instead, it is mostly people who backed the war who have occupied key policymaking positions in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Even today, a reputation for hawkishness is a prerequisite for being taken seriously in Washington.
Policymakers and pundits love to disparage "ivory-tower" academics for being aloof, out-of-touch, or insufficiently sensitive to how the real world works. Sometimes those charges are valid. But in this case -- and many others -- it was the "experts" inside-the-Beltway who got it tragically wrong and the academics who got it right.
Postscript: A subsequent effort to critique the Bush administration's handling of the war -- organized under the aegis of "Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy" -- produced an open letter signed by 851 people. The text is here; an account of this group's activities can be found here.
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If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.
This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.
As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:
"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.
The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.
And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?
It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).
So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).
Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.
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I don't usually like to repeat myself (or at least not too often), but the antics of Senators Inhofe, Cruz, McCain, Graham, et al. really do exemplify the irresponsibility of today's GOP, as well as the extraordinary margin of security that Americans enjoy.
(See in particular point #2 in my last post).
Only in a country that was largely safe from serious harm could senior elected officials engage in the fact-free McCarthyism of Sen. Ted Cruz, who keeps inventing inane accusations that Chuck Hagel -- a decorated war veteran -- has somehow been bought off by foreign powers. I suspect Cruz has been watching too many episodes of Homeland back to back.
Only in a country that was really safe could someone like Sen. Lindsay Graham keep threatening to leave the Pentagon leaderless so that he can get more "answers" about Benghazi, even after the secretary of state and a bunch of other officials have testified at length on that tragic matter. And what exactly does Benghazi have to do with Hagel's fitness for office anyway, given that he wasn't in the Obama administration when our consulate was attacked?
Only in a country that was very, very secure could a senator like James Inhofe invoke a crackpot interpretation of the Old Testament to justify U.S. support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank without having his constiuents hound him from office for endangering the United States and Israel alike. Remember, Inhofe is defending an occupation that many Israelis -- including several former prime ministers -- believe threatens Israel's long-term future. With "friends" like Senator Inhofe, Israel doesn't need enemies (it has those in abundance already). But because America is so secure, he can say silly things like this and not be seen as endangering the country.
I'm pretty sure Hagel will be confirmed, as he should be. And I hope every one of the senators who voted against him get peppered by questions from their constituents about why they behaved so shamefully ... from start to finish.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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The flap over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense -- brought to you, like so many other foolish things, by hardliners in the Israel lobby -- has been a distraction from the real questions that the next secretary of defense ought to be ready to address. I happen to think Hagel is a good choice for the position, but he shouldn't get a free ride when he testifies tomorrow. In that spirit, here are the Ten Questions I'd Ask Chuck Hagel on Thursday.
1. On China: "Do you think China's rising power poses a serious threat to U.S. interests? If its power continues to rise, should the United States continue to strengthen its Asian alliances and move more military forces to Asia? What other steps should the United States take now to protect its geopolitical interests in Asia, and how can we avoid a new Cold War there?"
2. On Taiwan: "As China's naval, air, and missile capabilities increase, defending Taiwan will become increasingly difficult. If at some point defending Taiwan is no longer militarily feasible, what should the United States do?"
3. On cyberwar: "Are you worried that America's use of cyberwarfare capabilities -- such as the famous STUXNET attack on Iran -- is setting a dangerous precedent for others? Given our growing dependence on computer networks, shouldn't we be actively pursuing some sort of a global regime to limit this danger, instead of assuming we will always be better at it than others?
Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"
#4. On nuclear weapons: "If it were solely up to you, sir, how many nuclear weapons would you maintain in the U.S. stockpile, even if other states did not reduce their arsenals at all?"
#5: On U.S.-Japanese relations: "The U.S.-Japanese security treaty is decidedly one-sided. As MIT professor Barry Posen points out, the treaty commits us to defending Japan while Japan promises to help. Shouldn't this arrangement be reversed? Why should America be more committed to defending Japan than the Japanese are? As secretary of defense, what will you do to produce a more equitable sharing of burdens between the U.S. and its wealthiest allies?"
#6: On torture: "Are you comfortable with how the Obama administration dealt with the previous use of torture by U.S. personnel? Do you think the officials who authorized torture and other war crimes should have been prosecuted?"
#7: On Iraq and Afghanistan: "In the past decade, the United States has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in two major conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the obvious lesson that we should not start foolish wars, what other lessons should the U.S. military be learning from these twin failures?"
#8: On the global military footprint: "The United States has hundreds of bases and other military facilities in every continent of the world; no other country comes even close. In the absence of a serious peer competitor, does our security really depend on this enormous global footprint? Which facilities could we do without?"
Bonus follow-up: "Defense experts also agree that America's basing structure at home is inefficient. As Secretary, are there any bases you would close or consolidate?
#9: On rape in the U.S. armed forces: "President Obama has recently authorized the deployment of women in combat roles. Yet sexual harassment and rape have reached epidemic proportions within the U.S. military, with over 3000 incidents per year being reported. What do you intend to do about this?"
#10: On veterans' benefits: "The United States should pay its soldiers a fair wage and stand by its veterans. Yet a number of budget experts now believe that ever-escalating benefit packages threaten our ability to maintain an effective defense. Do you think our current approach to military compensation is about right, or does it need to be fundamentally rethought? If the latter, how?"
If anybody asks him a few questions like that, they might even forget about some of those other issues, and the Senators might learn something useful about his qualifications and judgment.
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The war of words about the nomination of Chuck Hagel will undoubtedly continue for some time, even though his confirmation by the Senate looks overwhelmingly likely at this point. I'm standing by my earlier comments on the case, but here are a couple of additional thoughts on what it does and doesn't mean.
First, as I noted a week or so ago, I don't think Hagel's appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It's been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama's national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home. To the extent that he used the sword overseas, it was through limited, surgical means like special forces and drones and not big U.S. deployments. (The Afghan surge is the exception, of course, but I think Obama learned his lesson on that one).
That's the general approach he wanted Gates and Panetta to pursue, and that's the same strategy that he's chosen Hagel to continue. Given Hagel's basic world-view, experience, and savvy, he's an excellent choice. There won't be war with Iran, there will be defense cuts, and there will be an earnest effort to get allies in key areas to do more for the collective defense. There won't be a big push for Israel-Palestinian peace (too many obstacles, too many other things to do). Bottom line: the appointment of Hagel (and Kerry and Brennan) signals no big change in policy direction.
Second, the real question with the fight over Hagel is whether it is the beginning of a thaw in foreign policy discourse inside the American establishment. Until the Hagel case, ambitious foreign policy wannabes understood that one either had to be completely silent about the "special relationship" with Israel or one had to be an open and vocal supporter. The merest hint that you had independent thoughts on this matter would make you slightly suspect at best or provoke overt accusations that you were an anti-semite, effectively derailing any political ambitions you might have had. The result was an absurdly truncated debate in Washington, where one couldn't even talk about the role of the Israel lobby without getting smeared. Indeed, one couldn't even ask if unconditional U.S. support for Israel was in Israel's best interest, let alone America's, despite the growing evidence that its settlement policy was threatening its long-term future.
By making such ludicrous charges about Hagel, however, neoconservatives and other extremists made it clear just how nasty, factually ignorant, and narrow-minded they are, and how much they believed that the commitment to Israel ought to trump other foreign policy priorities. And it wasn't just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. The attacks on Hagel triggered a long-overdue reaction from a remarkably wide circle -- including many staunch defenders of Israel -- who were clearly disgusted by the smear tactics and aren't willing to quail before them anymore.
Furthemore, as Peter Beinart noted yesterday, Hagel's appointment might also dilute the perceived need for policy wonks to seem hawkish and bellicose even when skepticism about the use of force is called for. While no dove, Hagel has been intelligently critical of sending young men and women into harm's way without a clear strategy and compelling national interest. His appointment might open up foreign policy debate to a much wider range of views, instead of the narrow-minded bellicosity that has prevailed since 9/11 (if not before).
It's too soon to tell how far-reaching this shift might be. No doubt Hagel's opponents will try to make him express his undying fidelity to Israel during his hearings, in an effort to restore the previous political orthodoxy. But it's a losing cause, especially when Israel itself is about to elect the most right-wing government in its history and when Americans of many political stripes are beginning to understand that the "special relationship" may in fact have become a form of assisted suicide. For the record, I hope that's not the case. Avoiding it will require the United States to be able to speak more honestly on this entire subject, and I hope the Hagel affair opens the door to a far more open, fact-based, and smear-free debate on the entire subject of U.S. foreign and defense policy, including our perenially hamstrung approach to the greater Middle East.
Unrelated note: I will be traveling in Asia for the next eight days, and blogging will be hit-or-miss while I'm away. Next stop: Singapore.
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If you'd like to start 2013 by sinking your teeth into the debate on U.S. grand strategy, I recommend you start with two pieces in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Both are by good friends of mine, and together they nicely limn the contours of a useful debate on America's global role. It's also worth noting that there are realists on both sides of this particular exchange, which reminds us that agreement on fundamental principles doesn't necessarily yield agreement on policy conclusions.
The first piece is Barry Posen's "Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy," and the second is Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth's "Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement." (A longer version of the B, I & W argument can be found in the latest issue of International Security; Posen's argument is outlined at length in a forthcoming book.)
Dedicated readers of this blog know that I am largely in agreement with Posen's position, so I'm going to focus today on what I find lacking in B, I & W. Like all of their work, it's vigorously argued and the longer version is richly documented. But all those footnotes cannot save it from some serious weaknesses.
First, B, I, & W straw-man their target by lumping together a group of strategic thinkers whose differences are at least as significant as their points of agreement. The "proponents of retrenchment" that they criticize range from libertarian isolationists who want to bring virtually all US forces home to "offshore balancers" like Posen who support a robust but less extravagant defense budget and favor not isolationism but merely more limited forms of international engagement. Needless to say, there is a world of difference in these views (even if both are broadly in favor of doing less), and so many of B, I & W's broad-brush charges miss their mark.
Second, there is something deeply puzzling about B, I & W's devotion to what Ikenberry used to called "liberal hegemony," and what he and his co-authors now prefer to call "deep engagement." B, I & W argue that deep engagement has been America's grand strategy since World War II and they believe it was the optimal strategy for the bipolar Cold War, when the United States faced a global threat from a major great-power rival. Not only was the USSR a formidable military power, but it was also an ideological rival whose Marxist-Leninist principles once commanded millions of loyal followers around the world.
Here's the puzzle: the Soviet Union disappeared in 1992, and no rival of equal capacity has yet emerged. Yet somehow "deep engagement" is still the optimal strategy in these radically different geopolitical circumstances. It's possible that U.S. leaders in the late 1940s hit on the ideal grand strategy for any and all structural conditions, but it is surely odd that an event as significant as the Soviet collapse can have so few implications for how America deals with the other 190-plus countries around the globe.
Third, B, I, & W give "deep engagement" full credit for nearly all the good things that have occurred internationally since 1945 (great power peace, globalization, non-proliferation, expansion of trade, etc.), even though the direct connection between the strategy and these developments remains contested. More importantly, they absolve the strategy from most if not all of the negative developments that also took place during this period. They recognize the events like the Indochina War and the 2003 war in Iraq were costly blunders, but they regard them as deviations from "deep engagement" rather than as a likely consequence of a strategy that sees the entire world as of critical importance and the remaking of other societies along liberal lines as highly desirable if not strategically essential.
The problem, of course, is that U.S. leaders can only sell deep engagement by convincing Americans that the nation's security will be fatally compromised if they do not get busy managing the entire globe. Because the United States is in fact quite secure from direct attack and/or conquest, the only way to do that is by ceaseless threat-mongering, as has been done in the United States ever since the Truman Doctrine, the first Committee on the Present Danger and the alarmist rhetoric of NSC-68. Unfortunately, threat-mongering requires people in the national security establishment to exaggerate U.S. interests more-or-less constantly and to conjure up half-baked ideas like the domino theory to keep people nervous. And once a country has talked itself into a properly paranoid frame of mind, it inevitably stumbles into various quagmires, as the United States did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Again, such debacles are not deviations from "deep engagement"; they are a nearly inevitable consequence of it.
Fourth, B, I, & W largely ignore the issue of opportunity cost. Advocates of restraint like Posen (and myself) are not saying that the United States cannot afford to intervene in lots of overseas venues, they are saying that the United States would be better off with a smaller set of commitments and a more equitable division of labor between itself and its principal allies. If the United States were not spending more than more of the world combined on "deep engagement," it could invest more in infrastructure here at home, lower taxes, balance budgets more easily, provide more generous health or welfare benefits, or do whatever combination of the above the public embraced.
Fifth, B, I, & W argue that deep engagement works because hardly anybody is actively trying to balance American power. In their view, most of the world likes this strategy, and is eager for Washington to continue along the same path. On the one hand, this isn't that surprising: why shouldn't NATO countries or Japan prefer a world where they can spend 1-2% of GDP on defense while Uncle Sucker shoulders the main burden? More importantly, advocates of restraint believe doing somewhat less would encourage present allies to bear a fairer share of the burden, and also discourage some of them from adventurist behavior encouraged by excessive confidence in U.S. protection (which Posen terms "reckless driving"). If the U.S. played hard-to-get on occasion, it would discover that some of its allies would do more both to secure their own interests and to remain eligible for future U.S. help. Instead of bending over backwards to convince the rest of the world that the United States is 100 percent reliable, U.S. leaders should be encouraging other states to bend over backwards to convince us that they are worth supporting.
Moreover, even if most of the world isn't balancing U.S. power, the parts that are remain troublesome. For instance, "deep engagement" in the Middle East has produced some pretty vigorous balancing behavior, in the form of Iraq and Iran's nuclear programs, Tehran's support for groups such as Hezbollah, and the virulent anti-Americanism of Al Qaeda. Indeed, the more deeply engaged we became in the region (especially with the onset of "dual containment" following the first Gulf War), the more local resistance we faced. Ditto our "deep engagement" in Iraq and Afghanistan. And given that those two wars may have cost upwards of $3 trillion, it seems clear that at least a few people have "balanced" against the United States with a certain amount of success.
Sixth, reading B, I, & W, one would hardly know that the nuclear revolution had even occurred. Nuclear weapons are not very useful as instruments of coercion, but they do make their possessors largely unconquerable and thus reduce overall security requirements considerably. Because the United States has a second-strike capability sufficient to devastate any country foolish enough to attack us, the core security of the United States is not in serious question. The presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of eight other countries also makes a conventional great power war like World War I or World War II exceedingly unlikely. Yet despite this fundamental shift in the global strategic environment, B, I & W believe the United States must remain "deeply engaged" in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in order to prevent a replay of the first half of the 20th century.
To repeat: most of the strategists who reject "deep engagement/liberal hegemony" do not call for isolationism, a retreat to Fortress America, or a slash-and-burn approach to defense spending. On the contrary: they favor continued U.S. engagement, albeit in a more restrained, highly selective, and strategically sustainable way. They believe the United States should seek to maintain favorable balances of power in key regions, but that it does not need to provide all the military muscle itself and certainly should not try to dictate or control the political evolution of these areas with military force. They believe this approach would preserve core U.S. interests at an acceptable cost, and would be far better suited to the current distribution of global power.
"Deep engagement" might have been a good strategy for the Cold War, though even that proposition is debatable. But as you may have noticed, the Cold War is now over. Isn't it about time that U.S. grand strategy caught up with that fact?
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I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on the manufactured controversy about Senator Chuck Hagel's fitness for the post of secretary of defense. But I do encourage you to read the more recent comments by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Wright, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Avishai, all of whom make clear that Hagel is perfectly qualified for the position and that the people who are now trying to smear him deserve the same contempt with which former Senator Joseph McCarthy and other narrow-minded bullies are now viewed.
Three aspects of the affair do merit brief comment, however. First, I'm baffled by the Obama administration's handling of the whole business. What in God's name were they trying to accomplish by floating Hagel's name as the leading candidate without either a formal nomination or a vigorous defense? This lame-brained strategy gave Hagel's enemies in the Israel lobby time to rally their forces and turn what would have been a routine appointment into a cause célèbre. If Obama backs down to these smear artists now, he'll confirm the widespread suspicion that he's got no backbone and he'll lose clout both at home and abroad. If he goes ahead with the appointment (as he should), he'll have to spend a bit of political capital and it will be a distraction from other pressing issues. And all this could have been avoided had the White House just kept quiet until it was ready to announce its nominee. So whatever the outcome, this episode hardly reflects well on the political savvy of Obama's inner circle.
Second, let's not lose sight of what is at stake here. Contrary to what some suggest, the choice of SecDef isn't going to make any difference in U.S. policy toward Israel or the "peace process." Policy on those issues will be set by the White House and Congress, with AIPAC et al. breathing down both their necks. The Israeli government has no interest in a two-state solution, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to persuade Israel to rethink its present course, and the United States is incapable of mounting the sort of sustained pressure that might force both sides to compromise. Which means the two-state solution is dead, and it won't matter whether Hagel gets the nod or not. The $3-4 billion annual aid package won't be affected, and I'll bet the United States continues to wield its U.N. Security Council veto whenever it is asked.
This appointment could affect U.S. policy toward Iran, insofar as Hagel's been skeptical about the wisdom of using military force in the past. He's hardly a dove or an appeaser, of course; he just recognizes that military force may not be a very good way to deal with this problem. (Well, duh.) If Obama wants to pursue diplomacy instead of preventive war -- and he should -- the combination of Hagel at Defense and Kerry at State would give him two respected, articulate, and persuasive voices to help him make that case. But if Obama were to decide that force was a good idea, neither Kerry nor Hagel would stand in his way. So in terms of overall Middle East policy in the next couple of years, this appointment may matter less than most people think.
The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free. Given America's track record in the region in recent decades, you'd think a more open debate on U.S. policy would be just what the country needs, both for its own sake and for Israel's. But because the case for the current "special relationship" of unconditional support is so weak, the last thing that hardliners like Bill Kristol or Elliot Abrams want is an open debate on that subject. If Hagel gets appointed, it means other people in Washington might realize they could say what they really think without fear that their careers will be destroyed. And once that happens, who knows where it might lead? It might even lead to a Middle East policy that actually worked! We wouldn't want that now, would we?
At this point, if Obama picks someone other than Hagel, he won't just be sticking a knife in the back of a dedicated public servant who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Obama will also be sending an unmistakable signal to future politicians, to young foreign policy wonks eager to rise in the Establishment, and to anyone who might hope to get appointed to an important position after 2016. He will be telling them that they either have to remain completely silent on the subject of U.S. Middle East policy or mouth whatever talking points they get from AIPAC, the Weekly Standard, or the rest of the Israel lobby, even though it is palpably obvious that the policies these groups have defended for years have been a disaster for the United States and Israel alike.
Instead of having a robust and open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy inside official Washington, we will continue to have the current stilted, one-sided, and deeply dishonest discussion of our actions and interests in the region. And the long list of U.S. failures -- the Oslo process, the settlements, the Iraq War, the rise of al Qaeda, etc. -- will get longer still.
Over to you, Mr. President.
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Today's post is something of a follow-up to yesterday's query about integrity in the policy community. According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has just issued a gloomy new report suggesting that we've made far less progress in the war than is often claimed. Money quotation:
"A bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners."
The Times continues: "The report, released Monday, also found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010.
The assessment found that the Taliban remain resilient, that widespread corruption continues to weaken the central Afghan government and that Pakistan persists in providing critical support to the insurgency. Insider attacks by Afghan security forces on their NATO coalition partners, while still small, are up significantly: there have been 37 so far in 2012, compared with 2 in 2007."
Here's what I'd like to know: did any Pentagon officials or military leaders tell Barack Obama that the "surge" was a mistake? Did any of them ever say something like this to him:
"Mr. President, we respect civilian authority and if you order us to continue this war we will give it our all. But in my best professional judgment I believe this is not a war we can win at an acceptable cost. The conditions for waging a successful counterinsurgency do not exist, and we do not need to defeat the Taliban or build a stable new state in Afghanistan in order to destroy the original nucleus of al Qaeda. I will follow whatever orders you give me, sir, but my advice as a soldier is that we end this war."
If not, then Obama got very bad advice. And for the United States to have fought so long and with so little to show for it is a stunning indictment of our entire national security establishment: civilians, military leaders, and think tank experts alike. Time to start working on Dereliction of Duty: The Sequel.
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The United States has extended a security umbrella over its allies in Asia for roughly sixty years. This policy had obvious benefits, but it has also encouraged these same allies to forget how balance-of-power politics works.
Suppose you were responsible for national security policy in Japan and South Korea. Unless you were completely feckless, you'd be at least somewhat worried about the rise of China. You do have good relations with the United States, which is in the process of "pivoting" to Asia (whatever that means). But will that be enough? Is there anything else you could do to maintain a favorable balance of power and avoid having to show excessive deference to Beijing in the decades ahead?
Here's the rub: Although Japan's capita income is nearly four times greater than China's, its population is less than 10 percent that of China's and its demographic structure is even less favorable. South Korea's economy and population are even smaller, and it also faces an unpredictable neighbor across the DMZ. Most important of all, China's economy is still growing more rapidly than either of these two Asian powers. Unless the Chinese bubble bursts, its advantage in overall power potential is likely to grow over time.
Well, if that was a major long-term concern, what could you do? You might start by asking yourself what other countries did when they faced similar circumstances. For example, you might look at Britain's response to Germany's rise at the beginning of the 20th century. German unification and its rapid industrial development created a powerhouse in continental Europe, and by 1900, Britain could not keep pace through internal effort alone.
How did Britain respond? By mending fences with other major powers. It settled a dispute with the United States over the Venezuelan border, supported the United States during the Spanish-American War, and settled another boundary dispute over Alaska in 1903. It muted its colonial rivalry with France through the Entente Cordiale in 1904, and concluded another entente with Russia by settling border disputes in Persia, Tibet, and Afghanistan in 1907. These were mostly acts of appeasement, by the way, but undertaken with a larger strategic purpose in mind.
In short, the obvious and growing threat from Germany led Britain to resolve various disputes and form stronger ties with other major powers, reducing the number of conflicts it had to worry about and laying the foundation for the alliance that ultimately defeated Germany's attempt to establish hegemony in Europe in World War I.
So if you were a smart Japanese or South Korean strategist and you believed that China was probably your most serious long-term security challenge, you'd be looking to mend fences with other countries and especially with each other. Not only would this allow you to concentrate more attention on China, it would increase the odds that China would face cohesive opposition if it tried to throw its weight around in the future. If done adroitly, that possibility might have a sobering effect on Chinese calculations, thereby stabilizing East Asia for everyone.
Yet this is precisely what Japan and South Korea are NOT doing. To the contrary: at the same time that Japan is having an increasingly ugly spat with China over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, Japan and South Korea are also engaged in an intermittently heated quarrel over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, a different and equally insignificant pile of rocks.
I don't know whose claim to these little chunks of land is more deserving and I certainly wouldn't try to arbitrate it here. But it is hard to read about these disputes -- and especially the flap between South Korea and Japan -- without concluding that these two states are letting national pride cloud their thinking in a most unproductive way. And one big reason might be the long habit of expecting Uncle Sam to take care of their security for them.
I've made this point before: managing alliance relations in Asia is not going to be easy. But instead of focusing primarily on military deployments and doctrinal innovations like "Air-Sea Battle," the United States needs to devote at least as much attention to East Asian diplomacy, to include helping its friends settle differences among themselves. In the end, helping our friends work together (and for that matter, helping them resolve differences with China in a fair-minded way) could do more to stabilize relations in the region than shifting another carrier battle group there or doing a lot of saber-rattling.
Balancing against threats is a powerful tendency in international affairs, but it is not always done efficiently and the uncertainties that this creates can tempt others to take advantage. Helping lubricate the balancing process is an ideal role for the United States. It is also the best way to ensure that Uncle Sam doesn't get stuck carrying most of the burden itself.
Update: For a broadly similar view from my colleague Joseph Nye, go here.
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In The Origins of Alliances (1987), I wrote:
"...the domestic situation of the United States may be more important than anything else. External events impinge on U.S. power; internal conditions generate it. Losses abroad will add up slowly (if at all) and will be compensated by balancing behavior by allies and by the United States itself. Thus a final prescription is to avoid policies that jeopardize the health of the U.S. economy. It is far more important to maintain a robust and productive economic system than it is to correct some minor weaknesses in defense capability or to control the outcome of some insignificant clash in the developing world." (p. 284)
I wrote those lines before the Cold War ended; they are even more true today. I thought of them as I read Edward Luce's perceptive discussion of America's deteriorating infrastructure in yesterday's Financial Times. Money paragraph:
"...most Americans are unaware of how far behind the rest of the world their country has fallen. According to the World Economic Forum's competitiveness report, U.S. infrastructure ranks below 20th in most of the nine categories, and below 30 for quality of air transport and electricity supply. The U.S. gave birth to the internet -- the kind of decentralized network that the U.S. power grid desperately needs. Yet according to the OECD club of mostly rich nations, average U.S. internet speeds are barely a 10th of those in countries such as South Korea and Germany. In an age where the global IT superhighway is no longer a slogan, this is no joke."
Why aren't Americans more concerned about their eroding infrastructure? Luce argues we've just adapted to delays, discomfort, and inefficiencies, much as the fabled frog supposedly doesn't recognize it is being boiled to death if the temperature in the pot rises slowly. But I'd argue there are a number of other forces at work.
The first is militarized patriotism: It's easier to get Americans to cheer when a B-2 or the Blue Angels does a flyover above a football game than it is to get them to take pride in a truly modern flight tracking system that would streamline commercial air travel. Similarly, it is easier to scare taxpayers by inflating foreign threats than it is to get them to put money into roads, bridges and other safety features that would reduce U.S. highway fatalities. We all know that nearly 3000 people died on September 11, 2001, but we never notice the deaths that might have been avoided if we had better hospitals, highways, and a more productive economy that kept fewer people in poverty.
Combine the hyping of foreign dangers with America's liberal idealism, and you get a country that will pour a trillion or more dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan, send special forces and drones into countries of little or no strategic value, and spend more time worrying about who's going to run Syria than it does worrying about conditions here at home.
Second, and following from the first, infrastructure improvements don't enjoy the support of large and well-organized lobbies constantly beating the drum for keeping our infrastructure in good working order. Such groups aren't non-existent, but their political power pales in comparison with other groups who are constantly thrusting their hands into the public till.
And then there's the time lag: Building road, bridges, internet capacity, air traffic control, a robust power grid, and protections against climate change/rising sea levels will be expensive and take years to complete. Equally important, the benefits accrue far into the future, long after today's politicians are gone. It takes foresight and a powerful sense of civic duty to invest in things that will mostly benefit future generations, which is why today's politicians are more likely to pander to today's voters and to well-heeled interest groups, instead of helping the country as a whole prepare for the future.
Lastly, as Luce notes, the GOP is no longer interested in federally-funded and managed programs for building national infrastructure, and their long campaign to convince Americans that government is always the problem and never the solution has undermined public support for a major campaign to rebuild the sinews of the U.S. economy. Their skepticism doesn't apply to military spending, however, even though it is hardly a model of efficiency (see my first point above).
This is not an argument for gutting defense, by the way; but cutting defense is clearly implied. More to the point, it is an argument for not squandering lots of money elsewhere when there are obvious needs here at home. And let's not forget that building infrastructure is actually something we know how to do, unlike the various costly projects of "nation-building" we've taken on elsewhere.
So here's a basic strategic principle that we've largely forgotten over the past seventy years, but which would serve us well today: Let's first make sure our leaders have done all we can to improve the lives of Americans -- you know, the citizens who work and pay taxes to support the government -- before they take on various international projects whose primary purpose is to benefit someone else. The United States shouldn't retreat into isolationism, of course, and it would still do things abroad that contributed directly and significantly to making Americans safer and more prosperous. Such actions would include support for an open world economy, maintaining "command of the commons," and helping maintain balances of power in key regions (but not trying to do it all ourselves).
Most importantly, we would not take on the various philanthropic projects embraced by neoconservative hawks, liberal imperialists, and other apostles of American "greatness" until we had addressed all of the obvious problems we are facing here at home. Let's first make that "shining city" really gleam, and then worry about which thugs are running Syria, or which politicians are fleecing depositors in Kabul.
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As you might expect, the unfolding saga of the Petraeus/Broadwell/Kelley, etc. affair has been a popular topic of conversation during breaks here at the World Economic Forum meetings. (The other fun topic is speculation about who will get top posts in Obama's second term). Here with a few additional comments.
For what it's worth, I couldn't care less about the private lives of public figures, although I suppose I would worry some if I thought they were spending hours canoodling when they were supposed to be winning a war or conducting the public's business. But in general, I think Americans hold public figures far too accountable for their sex lives, and insufficiently accountable for their actual performance while in office. The only group that is even less accountable are pundits (see under: Weekly Standard, Fox News, etc.).
That said, I think there are two obvious implications of these revelations.
First, even if Petraeus eventually gets somewhat rehabilitated and doesn't disappear from public life, these events will puncture the image of a superhuman general that he has carefully cultivated over the years. More importantly, this embarrassing personal failure will open the door to a more toughminded and dispassionate look at his actual record in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his brief tenure as CIA head. Indeed, that process has already started, as these pieces by Michael Hastings, Robert Wright, Michael Cohen, and Paul Pillar show.
And the key thing to keep in mind with respect to both wars is that the United States lost. In Iraq, the "surge" was at best only part of the reason that violence declined after 2006, even though Petraeus and other counterinsurgency mavens tried to spin it that way. More importantly, all the hype about the surge cannot conceal the fact that United States spend over a trillion dollars and thousands of lives, and ended up creating an unstable state riven by sectarian tensions, and at least partly aligned with ... Iran. No good reason for a ticker tape parade there.
In Afghanistan, Petraeus and the other generals managed to sell an inexperienced commander-in-chief a bill of goods about how escalating the war would break the back of the Taliban and permit us to achieve victory. Now, some four years later, we are no closer to a decisive victory and the Afghan surge is increasingly recognized to be a fig leaf designed to give us an excuse for a long-overdue withdrawal. The expenditure of hundreds of billions of more dollars and hundreds of soldiers' lives did not produce a strategically meaningful different in the outcome, and one wishes that Petraeus had given Obama rather different advice back in 2009.
To recognize these failures is not to blame these outcomes solely on Petraeus or the military, of course; U.S. civilian leaders deserve a lot of the blame too. My point is simply that it's not just Petraeus' personal reputation that will be tarnished by these revelations; his image as a successful military commander is also going to suffer.
Second, this whole episode reminds us of the corrupt and incestual relationship that exists throughout the national security establishment, to include lots of people in the media and commentariat. As I've written before, the excessive deference -- indeed, veneration -- often given the U.S. military is not healthy, because it encourages both journalists and academics to suck up to powerful and charismatic generals instead of treating them as public servants who need to be aggressively challenged. On this point, see these intelligent comments by Tara McKelvey and Andrew Sullivan.
The point is not to tear our generals down for sport; it is rather to subject them to the same critical scrutiny that anyone doing the public's business should receive. The last thing the military should get is a free pass from the media, academia, or the other designated watchdogs in our society, and the arc of David Petraeus' career shows the hazards that arise when reporters, pundits, and other people check their critical faculties at the door.
Third, as the inimitable Glenn Greenwald argues as only he can, this affair is also Exhibit A for those believe we have a Surveillance State run amok. Money quotation (h/t Sullivan:
"So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell's physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime -- at most, they had a case of "cyber-harassment" more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people -- and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court."
But if those are the key lessons, the lingering question is whether anything will change. Will reporters become less cozy and more confrontational in dealing with the Pentagon? I wouldn't bet on that. Will we provide citizens (and public officials) with real protections for their online privacy? I rather doubt it, especially when we don't even know exactly what information the government might be collecting on us. If this scandal is like a lot of others, in short, it will have more impact on the lives of the protagonists that it does on public policy.
Full disclosure: As some people may know, I was the third member of Petraeus' dissertation committee at Princeton back in the 1980s. I was added near the end of the process when one of his other advisors left for another university. As I recall, it was a pretty good dissertation, but I've had no contact with Petraeus in over twenty years. In a slightly bizarrre coincidence, I was also one of Paula Broadwell's advisors during her time in the Kennedy School's Ph.D. program, but have not seen her since she left the program some years ago. I have no knowledge of or insight into their personal dealings, apart from what I've read in various news accounts.
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Now that the election is over we can get back to thinking about the future, and that includes thinking about China under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a provocative piece suggesting that Xi's close ties with the Chinese military will make him a "force to contend with." The article also quoted a a Chinese academic, Jin Canrong, saying that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power. In his words: "China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China." U.S. elites won't like it, he says, but "they will have to accept it."
Well, count me as one member of the U.S. elite that would like to see China shoulder more burdens (emphasis on that last word). Instead of focusing lots of effort on confronting China directly, a smarter strategy would be to saddle China with the same sort of burdens that U.S. elites have so eagerly taken on in recent years. How about letting Bejing try to fix Afghanistan, or encouraging them handle a post-Assad mess in Syria? Or perhaps China can show its diplomatic mettle by dealing with the Somali pirates, global narcotics traffickers, and the recurring crises in Sudan. Not to mention North Korea.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should helping China gain lots of influence in places that are of vital strategic importance, though we ought to recognize that we won't be able to prevent China from gaining influence as its power rises. Rather, I'm saying that smart great powers pass the buck to others when they can (including their allies) and try to maneuver potential adversaries into taking on costly burdens that bring few benefits. During the Cold War, the U.S. wisely invested in rebuilding and protecting the industrial areas of Europe and Japan, and wisely forged close ties with a number of Persian Gulf oil producers. It erred by squandering resources on a lot of minor conflicts in the developing world; fortunately for Americans, the Soviet Union followed suit and wasted money it didn't have on its own feckless clients and profitless quagmires (e.g., Afghanistan).
The lesson for today is obvious: the outcome of a future Sino-American rivalry will be partly based on which country manages its economy best (because that it is the ultimate source of national power). It will also depend on which state can elicit useful support from other important countries. But it will also be affected by which nation gets stuck defending allies that aren't worth much and which one gets bogged down trying to solve intractable and costly problems in places that ultimately don't matter very much in geopolitical terms. Winning the competition to stick others with costly burdens requires more brains than brawn, and a capacity to spot a quagmire before you're in it. The United States used to be pretty good at that, and it's a skill we would do well to rediscover in the years ahead.
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With so much attention riveted on Election Day, some important contributions to our discourse are bound to get less attention than they deserve. Case in point: yesterday's NYT op-ed by Aaron O'Connell on the "permanent militarization of America." It's an excellent piece, and I just hope his arguments don't fall into the memory hole while we're all breathlessly awaiting the outcome in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or wherever.
Drawing in part on former president Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous speech on the "military- industrial complex," O'Connell documents how far we have departed from the original traditions of the Founding Fathers and the first 150 years of our history. Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were deeply wary of a permanent military establishment, which they recognized as a threat to a republican order. Eisenhower also understood that a country cannot be at war more-or-less permanently without creating a gross imbalance between military institutions (including weapons labs, contractors, and even some universities feeding at the DoD trough), and becoming vulnerable to spiritual erosion. We've long since forgotten that our rise to world power was facilitated by staying out of wars (or getting into them late). And we've clearly lost sight of the fact that smart great powers make allies bear their full share of the collective burden, instead of taking pride in one's own "indispensability" and rushing eagerly into the next quagmire.
The problem isn't so much a misallocation of resources -- defense spending is only about 4 percent of U.S. GDP -- but rather the deference that the military now receives from nearly everyone. On the very same day that O'Connell's piece appeared, Brooks Brothers ran an advertisement in the Times announcing a 25 percent off sale for active and retired military personnel. Not for firemen, police, EMTs, or other risky occupations (fishing, logging, coal mining, etc.): just for the military.
Don't get me wrong: I think our soldiers should be treated with respect and the country as a whole should compensate them adequately and be grateful for their sacrifices. We certainly ought to make sure that we provide excellent care for those who are wounded in the wars in which they have fought, and provide them the other benefits they were promised when they signed up. But this isn't a citizen army that has rallied to defend the nation against attack; it is a force made up solely of people who have voluntarily chosen a military career, with all the risks that this entails. They have done so in part because our country has offered them increasingly generous compensation packages, even though only a small percentage will ever serve in harm's way. But aren't we going just a bit overboard when joining the military gets you cheaper button-downs, early boarding privileges on civilian airlines, and endless words of praise from opportunistic politicians?
The final absurdity is the tendency to defer to military advice, even on matters where having worn a uniform confers no particular wisdom or insight. Veterans know a lot about the conduct of military operations, but serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else doesn't give you any special insights into whether such wars are in the national interest or not.
Similarly, having served in the military doesn't give you any special insight into who ought to govern the country. It was supposedly big news when a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and former Secretary of State), Colin Powell endorsed President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Not to be outdone, last week a bevy of retired generals and admirals endorsed Mitt Romney.
In fact, neither of these endorsements ought to carry much weight. Whatever his other virtues and achievements, Powell was an embarrassing failure as Secretary of State, and mostly because he misread the political tea leaves inside the Bush administration and didn't have the good sense or integrity to resign when his counsel was rejected. As for all those retired officers who endorsed Romney, has anyone noticed that the United States has lost not one but two wars in the past decade, and that America's senior military leaders did not exactly acquit themselves brilliantly in conducting either one? The civilian leadership (both Republican and Democratic) deserves plenty of blame too, but the quality of senior military advice that they received was often abysmal. One can be grateful for the sacrifices that our enlisted men have made, yet be underwhelmed by the strategic wisdom of their commanders.
As I noted last week, the composition, character, and current direction of the entire national security establishment is one of the big issues that the next president ought to address. But it's hard to believe either Obama or Romney will. Why? Because questioning the current militarization of American society will make you plenty of enemies and won't win you many friends. Which is precisely O'Connell's point.
Postscript: I'm just back from my neighborhood polling station, and am now basking in the psychological income of exercising the franchise. Feels good. If you're a U.S. citizen and registered to vote, don't miss out. VOTE.
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As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he'd implement Obama's foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush's second term foreign policy agenda.
But Romney's sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn't ask:
"Governor, you maintain that you're a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God's name are you listening to them?"
To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn't dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn't imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam's character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.
Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don't look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won't remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.
The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren't very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don't hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool -- military force -- is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America's deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America's liberal/Wilsonian ideals.
Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran's interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.
Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third -- an even more expensive camera with even more features -- the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.
And that's the genius of neoconservatism's frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don't bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don't like (and it's a long list). No president -- not even George W. Bush -- has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they're pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.
Neoconservatism's final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn't follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that's because Bush didn't attack Iran and Syria too, or it's because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush's watch, it's because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it's because we didn't send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn't go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.
To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama's stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn't big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there's hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded.
In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you'll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they'll just say you failed because you didn't follow their advice to the letter.
In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can't tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.
Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what's he doing with all those neocons?
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One of my favorite Cold War stories is the tale of the Moscow air show of 1955, when Western observers were awed by a flyover of what seemed to be hundreds of Mya-4 Bison long range bombers. The CIA later determined that this was a Potemkin armada: Visibility was low that day and the Soviets in charge just had the same group of planes fly out of sight and then circle back over the field, creating the impression that they had a much larger arsenal than they did. Such antics helped fuel fears of a bomber gap, much as Khrushchev's later missile rattling fueled fears of a so-called missile gap. Neither existed, and neither did the Stanley Kubrick's infamous "mine shaft gap."
I thought of this episode when I read about the launching of China's first "aircraft carrier." I put those words in quotation marks because the vessel isn't carrying any aircraft, because China has yet to build any that can land on a carrier deck. For the moment, in short, it's just a big vessel that doesn't add to China's actual military capability at all. Even so, this development is being interpreted as a sign of China's growing military muscle, and the New York Times story quotes officials in Asia describing the launching itself as an act of intimidation.
China is obviously growing wealthier and stronger, but the United States and others have a powerful interest in assessing this trend as accurately as possible. If we are complacent and understate China's capabilities, we might unpleasantly surprised at some point in the future. But if we inflate the threat and overstate China's power, we'll waste money trying to stay ahead and we might even end up deterring ourselves. Exaggerating Chinese power could also convince some of Beijing's weaker neighbors that standing up to it is just too hard. So the United States (and others) have a big incentive to get this one right, despite the unavoidable uncertainties that military assessments entail.
Unfortunately, there are lots of people and groups with an incentive to distort public discourse on this broad issue. Some of our Asian allies are likely to cry wolf every time China does anything remotely worrisome, in the hope of scaring Washington and getting us to do even more to protect them. Defense contractors and think tanks that depend on their largesse are likely to threat-inflate as well, in order convince the Pentagon to fund new weapons. Politicians from both parties will offer their own worst-case assessments if they think they can make their opponents look bad on this issue. For all these reasons, developing and maintaining a reasonably accurate sense of what China can and cannot do is going to be hard.
You might say that we can just let the "marketplace of ideas" operate, and over time competing views about China's capabilities will contend with each other and we'll gradually converge on a more-or-less accurate appraisal. It would be nice if things worked like this, but this is sort of issue where intellectual market failure is likely. Why? Because there will be a lot more money supporting the hawkish side of this debate, and lots of bureaucratic interests committed toward worst-case appraisals. That view might be the right one, of course, but it's going to be hard to be sure.
Of course, my remedy for this problem (and some others) is to get a lot of smart people who don't have a professional or financial stake in this debate involved in the discussion. I don't want the debate on China's capabilities to be dominated by people working for the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, or D.C.-based think tanks funded by such groups. I don't want to exclude them either, but I'd like to see a lot of other disinterested voices too. And to follow up on yesterday's post, this is another reason why we want a healthy, diverse, and engaged set of scholars in the academic world, who aren't directly beholden to anyone with a dog in particular policy fights.
That participation won't occur if universities don't support training and teaching in security studies, or if university-based scholars disengage from the public sphere and spend their time debating minor issues that are mostly of interest only to each other. In this issue, as in many others, getting academics and other independent voices to be an active part of public discourse is essential to making accurate assessments and reasonably smart decisions.
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There are two must-read articles in today's press: Pankaj Mishra's "America's Inevitable Retreat from the Middle East" in the New York Times, and Edward Luce's cautionary "An American recovery? Don't believe the hype" in the Financial Times.
Mishra does an excellent job of tracing why U.S. involvement in the Middle East is likely to decline in the years ahead. Not only has the United States pursued policies that have alienated most of the people in this region, but it can no longer count on compliant dictators and monarchs to do our bidding. Instead, governments of all types are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment, which bodes ill for U.S. efforts to shape the region's future.
But is this a bad thing? The problems that the Middle East is going to face in the years ahead -- social unrest, youth unemployment, contentious domestic politics, poorly developed institutions, etc. -- are by their very nature difficult for outsiders to fix. In fact, as we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, extensive and direct efforts to mold the politics of millions of people whose traditions differ from ours are likely to fail, and especially when most of the people are angry about our past policies. And as you've probably noticed, even our more well-intentioned failures tend to be very expensive. Luce's slightly gloomy prognosis just reinforces this point: A sluggish U.S. recovery will inevitably limit what the United States can do, and if we keep wasting lives and money on fool's errands, recovery will be delayed even more.
One should not overstate these trends, of course. Richard Nixon used to complain that the United States was becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant," which was wrong then and is wrong today. The United States is going to be the world's most powerful country for quite some time to come; it just won't have the same sort of influence it once enjoyed. The real question is how it will adjust to a slightly more modest role, and what strategies it will adopt going forward. To respond intelligently, the United States will have to overcome the psychological barrier of a somewhat reduced role, and to figure out how to take advantage of America's enduring strengths instead of constantly doing things that undermine them.
And that brings me to my main complaint with Mishra's article: his use of the word "retreat." If Americans view a reduced role as a "retreat" -- with all its defeatist implications -- they will be more likely to face a domestic backlash from neocons and other hardliners shouting "appeasement" and demanding increased defense spending and a renewed commitment to knocking heads together. Framing this trend as a "retreat," therefore, will delay the necessary adjustments and squander additional resources.
By contrast, if this trend is seen as a farsighted and voluntary adjustment to new conditions and strategic priorities, then the risk of backlash will be reduced and the shift won’t have much if any effect on America’s perceived credibility elsewhere. In this sense, the idea of a strategic "pivot" to Asia was smart rhetoric. We aren't being driven out of the Middle East; we're just choosing to assign resources where they can do us the most good.
More broadly, the key to making these adjustment lies in convincing Americans to think about their global role differently. Instead of harping on our "global responsibilities," Americans ought to focus instead on their national interests. The litmus test of any foreign policy commitment is not what it will do for others, but rather what it will do for us. (Doing both is perfectly ok by me, but first things first).
America's current global posture and its strategic toolbox were developed during the Cold War, when the main challenge was a well-armed and easily identifiable great power adversary. In that environment, it made sense for the United States to secure what George Kennan called the "key centers of industrial power." The U.S. achieved this goal through an active leadership role in NATO, its bilateral treaty relations in Asia, and its various security commitments in the Persian Gulf. The effort that the United States and Soviet Union expended in places like Indochina or Afghanistan was mostly wasted (and at great cost to these societies). Fortunately for us, we had a lot more resources to waste.
Times have changed. The United States may face a new peer competitor in the not-too distant future, but right now most security problems arise from regional rivalries, failng states, and local quagmires. In these circumstances, the main strategic objective should be to stay out of the quicksand. Better still, we could try to stick potential rivals with the burden of trying to solve intractable problems. Passing the buck to others isn't some sort of inglorious retreat; it's actually a smart strategy that will leaves the United States better prepared to deal with more serious challenges when they arise.
Just how committed should the United States be in the Far East? Everybody knows that the Obama administration has announced a "pivot" to Asia this year, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just reiterated the U.S. position that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and certainly without the use of force."
At one level there's nothing all that new here. The United States has long sought to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia, because such a power would then be in a better position to threaten U.S. interests elsewhere. That motive explained U.S opposition to Japanese expansion in the 1930s and the formation of a Washington-centered, anti-Soviet alliance network in Asia during the Cold War. Today, it means keeping a wary eye on a rising China and strengthening security ties with a number of different Asian partners.
But this effort today faces the classic "Goldilocks problem." The U.S. commitment in Asia needs to be "just right"; not too hot and not too cold. If it is "too hot" (meaning that the U.S. is too assertive and too confrontational), then hardliners in Beijing will be empowered and security competition between Washington and Beijing will intensify even more. If U.S. leaders seem to be picking unnecessary quarrels that might jeopardize profitable economic relations -- as the Romney campaign suggests it might -- then Washington is likely to be seen not as the solution but as the problem.
But equally important, an overly energetic U.S. policy will encourage its regional allies to misbehave in a number of ways. First, if the U.S. does too much to reassure its allies that it is ready to help them, they will free-ride and let Uncle Sam bear most of the burden of containing China. Second, if America's regional allies are too confident that Washington will protect them no matter what, they will continue to indulge assorted bilateral squabbles and devote insufficient attention to ironing out lingering historical enmities. (Case in point: the continued territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan, and the domestic uproar in South Korea that derailed a useful intelligence cooperation agreement with Tokyo).
But if U.S. policy is "too cold" -- that is, if the United States seems distracted by other problems, or insufficiently attuned to regional concerns, then some of its Asian partners may start to consider other options. Assuming that China continues to grow economically (and continues to build a more capable military), they may eventually conclude that trying to stand up to it won't be possible.
This dilemma may also explain why countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have been so assertive in challenging China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. They may be thinking that they have to get Uncle Sam fully committed now, while the United States is still richer and stronger than China, in the hope that the U.S. will take action to slow China's rise and use its influence to get these territorial issues resolved on terms that other littoral countries can live with. If they believe the balance of power will shift against them (and the U.S.) in the future, then they have an incentive to raise the temperature now.
The big lesson to take from this discussion is that managing security relations in the Far East is going to be very tricky for many years to come. We have all the ingredients for trouble: shifting balances of power, territorial disputes, lingering historical resentments, and a large number of interested parties (each with their own interests and concerns). Like I said, getting U.S. policy "just right" is not going to be easy.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.