I'm in Williamsburg, Virginia, to give a set of lectures at the College of William and Mary. I'll be speaking first to students on the virtues of theory and the vices of "simplistic hypothesis testing," based on the article I wrote with John Mearsheimer that was recently published in the European Journal of International Relations. Then a class presentation on the relationship between academia and the policy world, which will address issues I've discussed here. And then I wrap up with a public lecture this evening on "Why Does U.S. Foreign Policy Keep Failing?"
There are a lot of potential answers to that last question, and I'm sure each of you has your favorite candidate(s). My own list is a pretty long one (and no, it doesn't start with the Israel lobby), but the one I'm thinking most about today is the irresponsibility of so many public officials. How can one retain any respect for most politicians these days, given their recent behavior? The GOP appears to be making a run at the world record for self-destructive political conduct, which wouldn't be so bad if they were the only ones damaged by it. Unfortunately, their brain-dead fiscal brinkmanship is actively harmful to the U.S. economy and is doing more damage to U.S. credibility than a thousand Munichs. Not that it bothers people who are trapped in the Limbaugh/FOX News bubble.
As I've noted before, a key part of the problem is a lack of accountability within our entire political system, and maybe even our entire society. Politicians in gerrymandered districts aren't accountable because they only have to appeal to a carefully selected set of voters who already agreed with the incumbents. (This is democracy inside-out: Instead of broad groups of voters selecting their political representatives, we have career politicians drawing district lines in order to cherry-pick the voters they want). Foreign-policy "experts" can launch disastrous wars and commit countless follies -- and then land safe sinecures at various D.C. think tanks, from which they can plot their return to power and continue to lobby for the same policies that failed when they were in power. Top officials can admit they lied to Congress or screw up the Obamacare rollout and still remain comfortably in their posts. With rare exceptions, military commanders can continue to rise even when their battlefield performance is subpar. And it's not like we've held Wall Street accountable for its own machinations either. Even universities tend to turn a blind eye to faculty misconduct unless it is truly egregious (and sometimes not even then).
Given all that, it's probably hopeless to expect elected officials to show a lot of insight, courage, or backbone. Think about it: How many politicians can you name who seem to be genuinely admirable people, animated not by their own ambitions and ego but by a sincere desire to serve the public? Similarly, how often have you heard some leading political figure say a bunch of nonsensical things that they knew were not true, but did so because saying them was politically expedient?
By contrast, how many politicians can you name who have taken positions they knew might jeopardize their political futures, but did so because they truly believed it was the right thing to do? How many have openly admitted they were wrong about some weighty issue and actually seem humbled by this moment of fallibility? Whether one looks left or right, there just don't seem to be many people with those qualities in our political life these days. I can think of a few, but not many.
I'm not naive about this issue: Politics is the art of compromise, and even principled leaders sometimes have to make trade-offs to advance a broader agenda. And clinging firmly to principle can be dangerous if the principles are loony (see under: Tea Party). But whether the issue is our inability to address basic fiscal issues in a responsible manner, our propensity to intervene in places of no strategic importance, our eroding infrastructure, or the growing gulf between privileged people like me (and you) and the rest of society, the country is crying out for some pragmatic people who are interested in Getting Things Done and have some idea how to do it.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
As the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party continues to play Russian roulette with the American and world economies, there's no shortage of explanations being offered for the wing's risky and irresponsible behavior. Some commenters blame it on Sen. Ted Cruz's megalomania, others on racist opposition to the first black president. The poisonous impact of Fox News and the perverse effects of gerrymandering are also popular culprits. Yet another strand of thought pins the blame on Rep. John Boehner's spineless desire to cling to his House speaker post even if doing so drives the country off a cliff. And then there are those who see this episode as an inevitable consequence of the separation of powers inherent in the U.S. Constitution. In this view, crazy-making moments like this one are hard-wired into the American system of government. They don't happen often -- thank goodness -- but they are bound to occur from time to time.
Any or all of these causes may well be at work, but these explanations all miss a broader structural reason for the current impasse, one whose roots are found not in the nature of American politics but in the nature of the contemporary international system. In brief: All this mishigas is happening in part because the United States is in fact very secure, which leads many people to think it doesn't need a strong central state. They are therefore willing to countenance steps that they would not consider if the country were really facing a serious external danger.
For a prophetic analysis of this basic issue, check out Michael Desch's 1996 article "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" in International Organization. Drawing on Otto Hintze and others, Desch argued that the end of the Cold War was going to undermine and weaken many existing state structures. The logic is straightforward: During periods when international conflict is rife, populations look to the state to protect them, and they are willing to tolerate (even encourage) increases in state capacity. Moreover, they are less willing to tolerate anyone who seems to be threatening national unity. In extreme forms, this tendency leads to abuses -- such as the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and other crimes -- but in milder forms it means punishing politicians who act in an irresponsible or divisive fashion.
But when nations are feeling secure from external dangers, both citizens and politicians are freer to indulge ideological whims or to pursue self-serving agendas of their own, because the body politic won't see these actions as undermining national unity or threatening national security. And that's at least partly why a yahoo like Cruz can get away with what he's doing.
But wait: Doesn't the United States face a serious threat from international terrorism? Isn't that why Congress passed the Patriot Act, why it approved the vast expansion of the National Security Agency and other intelligence capabilities, and why the public supports the use of American drones and special forces all over the world? Don't these dangers create a profound need for national unity and resolve and thus contradict this basic line of argument?
Nope. Despite all the hype about terrorism, the United States is still a remarkably secure country and ordinary Americans get this, which is why presidents and foreign-policy wonks have to work overtime trying to scare us enough to get us to keep policing the world. Sure, foreign-policy experts like me love to talk about the implications of events in far-flung regions, but that's mostly to give ourselves something to do and to remind everyone that We're Really Important. But most people in the United States don't care very much about these things, except on those rare occasions when someone bombs Pearl Harbor or flies a plane into the World Trade Center. Then you get a vigorous response, but it wears off as soon as the problem is gone.
Ironically, the surest cure for the self-indulgent insanity of the current Republican Party would be a serious external threat. Ideally, we'd need an external threat that was just large enough to require us to pull together more and keep fringe groups out on the margins where they belong, but one that was not so large as to pose a genuine danger to our security and way of life here at home. Alas, dangers don't always limit themselves to that convenient "not too hot, not too cold" range.
On the whole, I'd rather live in a world where the United States faced relatively few external challenges, so that it could concentrate more of its energy and wealth on improving the lives of U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, a favorable international environment tends to bring out the crazy here at home and might actually do more damage to the country than Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or Nikita Khrushchev ever managed.
Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Honorable Joseph Kennedy III
Dear Representative Kennedy:
I am a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, and I voted for you with enthusiasm during your election campaign last year. I am writing to encourage you to oppose the proposed resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. The Washington Post currently scores you as "undecided" on the resolution; I urge you to get off the fence and make your opposition publicly known.
A U.S. attack on Syria is unwise for several reasons. First, the United States has no vital strategic interests there. Bashar al-Assad's government is clearly a brutal dictatorship, but neither Democratic nor Republican presidents have cared about that before now. Instead, presidents from both parties have cooperated with the Assad regime whenever it seemed advisable to do so. More importantly, helping to topple the regime is likely to turn Syria into a failed state, igniting a struggle for power among competing sectarian factions. Some of these factions are deeply hostile to America and sympathetic to al Qaeda, which means that U.S. intervention could help bring some of our worst enemies to power.
Second, the moral case for intervention is not compelling either. Yes, the Syrian people are suffering greatly, but U.S. airstrikes will not alter that situation and could easily make it worse. Indeed, recent scholarly research on civil wars shows that outside intervention tends to increase civilian killings and doesn't shorten the length of wars. If we are interested in reducing human suffering, therefore, we should eschew airstrikes and increase our relief aid to Syrian refugees instead.[[LATEST]]
The likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not justify war either. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by conventional arms; that a small percentage of the dead were killed by weapons that happen to be banned is not by itself a reason to get directly involved. Nor is it necessary to bomb Syria to "defend the norm" against these weapons. Chemical weapons have only been used a handful of times over the past 80 years, mostly because they are less effective than conventional arms in most battlefield situations. The United States did not punish the other governments that violated this norm, and it is not obvious why this most recent violation calls for a major military response on our part.
Supporters of a new Middle East war claim that we must act because our "credibility" is at stake. We have heard such arguments many, many times in the past; they are the inevitable refuge whenever someone is trying to bolster a weak case for war. The United States has used military force dozens of times over the past several decades, and President Barack Obama himself escalated the war in Afghanistan and ordered dozens of drone strikes and special forces operations in several countries over the past four-plus years. No one seriously doubts U.S. power or our willingness to use it when our vital interests are genuinely engaged. If we refrain from using force when vital interests are not involved or when doing so would only make things worse, it says nothing about our willingness to use force when it is truly necessary and when it can achieve clear and well-defined objectives.
Lastly, wise leaders do not go to war without robust international and domestic support. Neither is present in this case. U.S. public opinion opposes military intervention in this case, and few foreign countries favor a U.S. military response at this time. You will undoubtedly face pressure from organized special-interest groups that now favor war, but these groups are neither representative of broader public opinion or the opinions of most of your constituents here in Massachusetts.
Back in 2002, I had the privilege of speaking with your great-uncle, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, on several occasions regarding the proposed war with Iraq. I opposed that war, as did he, and I supported his efforts to craft an approach that would have prevented that act of folly. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would be equally opposed to this ill-advised approach to the Syrian tragedy.
For all these reasons, I encourage you to be a "profile in courage" and to come out strongly against the proposed resolution when it comes to the congressional floor
Stephen M. Walt
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
What can I possibly add to the torrent of words, videos, tweets, and blogs that have proliferated since the coup in Cairo? Not much, I fear. But for what it may be worth, here's what has been going through my mind since the Egyptian Army stepped in and seized power last week.
First, we still have no idea where Egypt is headed, especially in light of the violence that broke out in the last 24 hours. As Simon Schama noted in the Financial Times, revolutionary upheavals tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with many unexpected twists and turns. The French Revolution proceeded through several distinct phases and abortive constitutions before culminating in Napoleon's coup d'état of 18 Brumaire. The Russian Revolution was equally turbulent, and the Bolsheviks' triumph was never preordained and the resulting Soviet Union did not emerge in its final Stalinist form for years after the storming of the Winter Palace.
Or consider events closer to home. The survival of "these United States" was hardly inevitable following victory in the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution that Americans now venerate wasn't even in place until more than a decade after 1776. As the early republic struggled, I can just imagine a bigoted 18th-century English version of David Brooks sneering that the former colonists lacked the "mental equipment" for self-government.[[LATEST]]
So the first and most important point is the need for patience; this isn't going to get resolved in a week or a month or even a year.
Second, for all the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood in its first experience in office, no one should be pleased by what is now transpiring in Egypt. Under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, the Egyptian military presided over decades of economic and social stagnation and rampant corruption, not to mention torture and widespread human rights abuses. There's no reason to believe the generals know how to restore Egypt's cratering economy or unite its fractious political factions, which is why they were reluctant to take a leading role and will try to turn power back to civilians (at least symbolically) as soon as they can.
But the recent turn toward violence is especially ominous, as it heralds the possibility of a civil war in a country of some 80 million. We are not there yet, but trends are in the wrong direction.
To repeat my first point, the struggle to create a legitimate, pluralist, and minimally competent government in Egypt has a long, long way to go.
Third, Americans should take a deep breath and recognize that Washington's ability to influence these events will be extremely limited. If Egypt's own people do not know where they are headed, if violence escalates, and if none of the contending forces are fully in control, then it would be folly for outsiders to think they can safely steer these events from afar. Moreover, given America's past support for Hosni Mubarak and the widespread Egyptian belief that "Mother America" is secretly pulling strings, any sort of heavy-handed U.S. interference is as likely to backfire as to succeed. If ever a set of events called for "benevolent neglect" and keeping one's distance, this is it.
Fourth, the good news, such as it is, is that vital U.S. interests are not really engaged here. I know that sounds like a radical statement, but it really isn't. Egypt is not a great power or a major oil producer, and there is no remotely plausible path by which the outcome in Egypt would make Americans substantially poorer or less secure at home. The United States would like to see the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty survive, of course, but even the worst Egypt you can imagine would be no match for heavily armed and well-trained Israelis, who beat Egypt soundly every time they fought in the past, and usually under less favorable conditions. Israel has a powerful nuclear deterrent to boot. An end to the peace treaty would not be a good thing, but it is not an existential threat to Israel and still less to the United States.
Indeed, given Egypt's parlous economic condition, whatever sort of government eventually emerges will be in no position to make regional waves. It will be in desperate need of trade, investment, and tourism for many years to come, and it will need good relations with as many countries as possible. Whether governed by the Egyptian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, or some sort of coalition, it will pose little threat to any of its neighbors or to key U.S. interests.
Finally, I continue to believe that the Arab Spring is a watershed from which there is no turning back. I could be wrong -- the revolutions of 1848 ultimately fizzled -- but I do not think the Arab world can or will remain aloof from the broader global trend toward more participatory government. The road will be bumpy, contingent, and uncertain, and there is no guarantee that Western-style liberal democracy will be the end result. But I am still convinced that future Arab governments will be far more sensitive to popular sentiment than most of their predecessors were and that this development will eventually be a positive one.
Just not anytime soon.
I'm not an expert on Turkey and so I don't have much to add to the chorus of commentary about recent events there. My own view of the AKP era in Turkey is mixed: I've been impressed by its economic achievements and by the energy, creativity and acumen of the various foreign policy officials with whom I've had the pleasure of interacting over the past five years or so. In particular, I've often found their views on regional affairs to be insightful and well-informed, though of course not infallible.
But there's also been a worrisome authoritarian undercurrent to the AKP's rule, including assaults on press freedoms, badly-run prosecutions of political opponents and alleged coup plotters, and PM Erdogan's tendency to think that he knows what's best for Turkey's citizens, even when they disagree. And it's always a worrisome sign when a leader blames internal opposition to his policies on "foreign agents" and Twitter.
But let me offer a few (relatively uniformed) thoughts on recent events. The first is that the current upheaval may -- repeat, may -- turn out to be a salutary development in Turkey's political evolution. Turkey's democracy is still a work-in-progress, and both its formal institutions and the guiding norms are in flux. (Remember: Turkey was a politically moribund, economically stagnant, and sometimes brutal military dictatorship not so very long ago). The current backlash against the Erdogan government is a reminder to the AKP that a Parliamentary majority is not a license to impose whatever the ruling party leadership wants; at least not if those same leaders also want a reasonably tranquil society. And if the current tug of war eventually leads Turkey to develop institutions that limit the "tyranny of the majority," it will be a salutary development in the history of Turkish government. Stay tuned.
Second, Americans ought to recognize that their influence over these developments is limited. President Obama reportedly has a good working relationship with Erdogan and can offer constructive advice if asked, and he should make it clear that a continued drift toward authoritarianism will make it harder to maintain close U.S.-Turkish relations in the future. (Yes, I know the U.S. has close ties with other authoritarian governments, but we already expect more from Turkey and Ankara doesn't have lots of oil). I have tried to make this point in my own conversations with Turkish officials, journalists, and scholars, though I doubt my words carried a great deal of weight. Turkey's leaders are likely to follow their own counsel; the big question is whether they will begin to recognize that no leader or party is infallible and that listening to popular sentiment-including the sentiments of those who didn't vote for you -- is almost always a smart political strategy.
As I tweeted yesterday, if I could assign the AKP leadership one book to read, it would be James Scott's Seeing Like a State: Why Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. It's long been one of my favorite books, because it shows how authoritarian governments get into trouble when they adopt ambitious plans for social engineering (often based on some sort of far-reaching "modernist" ideology) and when there are no political mechanisms available to check their ambitions. The results are uniformly disastrous, as the cases of Stalinist collectivized agriculture or Mao's "Great Leap Forward" attest, largely because overly ambitious schemes inevitably generate unintended consequences and tone-deaf authoritarian leaders won't recognize things are going wrong until it is too late. (That can happen in democracies too, by the way, as the Bush administration's sorry experience in Iraq shows all too well).
Turkey under the AKP is a very long way from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, of course, but the lessons of Scott's book are still useful. Democracy is a messy form of government, and as the current state of American and British politics shows, it has its own forms of gridlock and dysfunction. But healthy democracies do tend to be self-correcting (as the 2008 presidential election showed), and so are less likely to drive themselves completely off a cliff. Does anyone know if Seeing Like a State is available in Turkish?
Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
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A couple of years ago I devoted a couple of blog posts to arguing that allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the military made good strategic sense. My logic was straightforward: We want to attract the best people to military service and any sort of artificial restriction (such as banning gays, or any other social group) inevitably reduces the talent pool from which the country can draw. The result would be a weaker military than we would otherwise have. I'm certain my posts had exactly zero impact on President Obama's subsequent decision to end "don't ask, don't tell," but I was certainly happy when he did.
I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have any firm views on how the Supreme Court is going to handle the issue of gay marriage that is now before it. But I do think a parallel argument can be made about the effect of allowing gay marriage on U.S. foreign policy and national security. Specifically, permitting gay people to marry in the United States would have positive effects on both.
First, ending discrimination against gay couples is going to make the United States a more attractive place for gay people to live, especially when compared to societies that do not permit gay marriage or that actively discriminate (and in some cases, criminalize) being gay. Accordingly, some number of gay people are going to seek to emigrate to the United States, just as some gay Americans are now choosing to live abroad so that their relationships can be legally recognized and protected. The United States has long benefited from its attractiveness as a place to live and work, especially by attracting talented people who are being persecuted elsewhere. The United States would have gained greatly had someone like Alan Turing had known he could find a welcoming home here.
Permitting gay marriage isn't going to cause a flood of gay foreigners to flood our shores, but at the margin, it will make the United States a more attractive destination for some. Which would be to our overall benefit.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, legalizing gay marriage would reinforce America's public commitment to individual liberty and freedom, and its parallel commitment to non-discrimination. More than anything else, that commitment is America's global brand. In this country, the government doesn't tell you where to live, doesn't tell you what job to pursue, doesn't tell you what God to worship, and doesn't tell you who to fall in love with. At the same time, the government also says that you should not discriminate against those who happen to be different from you in some way. Instead, you are supposed to treat them as individuals and to expect the same in return.
But in most parts of the United States, the government does tell you that if you are in love with someone of your own gender, you aren't eligible for the same recognition and benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy. That's not as punishing a policy as slavery or Jim Crow or some of the other forms of discrimination that our country has practiced (and gradually abandoned), but it is still a source of considerable unhappiness for many gay couples and it is fundamentally at odds with our normal claim to privilege individual freedom of choice over category distinctions.
This enduring commitment to individual freedom and choice, and this fundamental hostility to the idea that some groups are better or worse than others, is central to what the United States stands for as a society. In other countries, ethnic and sectarian differences abound and sometimes explode in violence. Similar things have happened here, and racial, religious, or ethnic tensions still exist in many places, but our abiding commitment to individual freedom is like a solvent that continually works to erode the idea that you can judge someone merely by knowing what social group they are from. Martin Luther King dreamt that his children "would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And the same logic applies to sexual preference. In America, we should judge all people by their own individual characters, not by the gender they happen to prefer as lovers and partners.
Like those who once opposed interracial marriage or gays serving in the military, opponents of gay marriage have manufactured a bunch of bogus arguments about how allowing gays to marry would either damage children or undermine the institution of marriage itself. These arguments are pretty preposterous on their face. If anything, extending the right to marry to gay couples only reinforces the idea that stable, loving relationships between committed partners are a solid bedrock for society, as well as a profound source of long-term happiness. That's the main reason why opinion on this issue has shifted so rapidly in recent years. As homosexuality lost its stigma and straight Americans had more and more openly gay friends, the idea that married gay couples were some sort of subversive threat to society seemed increasingly ludicrous. As it should.
In American jurisprudence, the courts often look to whether the state has a "compelling interest" in regulating or interfering in some domain of activity. In this case, I'd argue that to the extent the state has an interest in this matter, that interest lies overwhelming in extending the privileges (and obligations) of marriage to all Americans. Not just because it is consistent with our commitment to liberty and to equality under the law, but also because it will be good for our global image, national cohesion, and even our long-term strength and prosperity.
So if you're still having trouble backing gay marriage on the simple grounds of fairness, you might consider supporting it on the basis of national security instead.
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I have a pretty simple question to pose today. Can you think of any major political figures -- and especially within the domain of foreign policy -- whom you admire for their integrity? I'm talking about people who have a well-earned reputation for truth-telling, and for sticking up for what they believe in even if it might be professionally disadvantageous. You know: someone who is at least as interested in doing good as in advancing their own climb up the professional ladder, and who doesn't bend with every prevailing shift in the political winds.
I can think of a few political figures with such saint-like qualities -- Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc. -- but that's a very high bar. I'm also aware that politics is the art of compromise and that political leaders sometimes have to make hard moral judgments in a messy world. So I'm not trying to hold everyone to some other-worldly moral standard. Nor am I suggesting for a moment that my chosen profession is filled with paragons; I've been an academic for far too long to believe that anymore.
Nonetheless, I'm still struck by how rarely you see people in the foreign policy establishment resign on principle or take positions that they know will attract controversy and jeopardize their future prospects. Instead of a world of plain-speaking truth-tellers, we have a culture of spin, of anonymous leakers and finger-in-the-wind politicos who make policy by first asking how it's likely to play in the polls, with influential interest groups, or with their superiors. That's how you get policy paralysis on Gitmo, a "surge to nowhere" in Afghanistan, and a "peace process" in the Middle East that no one in power will admit is a charade.
And to give this issue a contemporary spin, isn't that the real reason to be less than enthusiastic about Susan Rice's candidacy for Secretary of State? Not because she spoke a bit too rashly over Benghazi, but because she's been more interested in her own ascent than in the principles she seeks to uphold. (The same is even more true of many of her critics, of course). How else to explain her accommodating attitude towards African dictators, or the enthusiasm with which she helped smear Richard Goldstone after his famous UN report on Operation Cast Lead was released? No doubt she was following instructions, of course, but I'll bet it never even occurred to her that what she was being asked to do was simply wrong and that maybe she ought to resign instead.
But it's not really fair to single her out: she is just a creature of a larger political culture. During the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Policy Planning chief Richard Haass reportedly had serious doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq, but you didn't see either of them resign in protest and go public with their objections. Instead, it was a few low-level officials like John Brown or Brady Kiesling or British foreign secretary Robin Cook who had the backbone to denounce a war that was both foolish and illegal and resign. Let's not forget that Saint Hillary and John Kerry backed the war too, and Hillary was also an enthusiastic supporter of the foolish Afghan surge back in 2009. Instead, it was courageous young military officers like Paul Yingling and Matthew Hoh who put telling the truth as they saw it ahead of professional advancement and with the predictable professional consequences.
So to repeat the question: can you think of any foreign affairs experts -- to include policymakers, pundits, scholars, wonks et al -- whose basic integrity, honesty, and moral courage you admire? This doesn't have to be people we agree with, by the way, just someone who might be suitable for inclusion in a revised edition of Profiles in Courage. Nominations now open, and all countries and political movements are eligible.
UPDATE: For a related post that raises additional questions about Rice's waffling on Iraq, see Peter Beinart here.
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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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Alex Massie has already offered an incisive takedown of the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to award this year's peace prize to the European Union, but I can't resist the temptation to offer a few comments myself.
First, who exactly gets the award? Do all the citizens of the EU get partial credit? Only full-time employees of the EU Commission? Will I be soon be reading resumes from EU applicants for admission to Harvard, each of them listing "Winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize" among their accomplishments?
Second, who gets to accept the award and make the usual platitudinous speech? EU Council President Herman von Rompuy? Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton? What about EU Commission President Juan Manuel Barosso? All three? I'm sure Tony Blair is already working on his speech, in the hope that maybe he can somehow wrangle his way onto the podium. It would of course be the height of irony if the peace prize announcement raised tensions within the EU, either due to wrangling over who got the spotlight or irritation over what they said. Stay tuned.
Third, this year's award is essentially aspirational, in the same way that the Committee's decision to award the 2009 prize to President Obama was really a hope for the future rather than a reward for past accomplishment. The EU has done more for peace than Obama had at the time he got the award (or since, to be honest), but that's not why it got the prize this year. Instead, the Committee sought to remind Europeans of the benefits of unity at a moment when the prolonged eurocrisis threatens the entire European project. The Committee was telling European leaders: "Please don't make this award look stupid by letting the euro collapse and allowing nationalism to reassert itself in dangerous ways: You'll look really bad, and so will we." A laudable goal, perhaps, but I rather doubt that this award is going to affect the calculations or behavior of the bankers and politicians who hold Europe's future in their hands.
Fourth, the people who should be really ticked off by this award are all the organizations and individuals around the world who have worked tirelessly for peace on a daily basis, often for little reward and at considerable risk to themselves. You can get rich working for defense contractors and can enjoy a comfortable life working for hawkish think tanks, but hardly anyone becomes rich and powerful lobbying for peace. There are literally scores of such grassroots movements in conflict-torn countries around the world, motivated solely by deep-seated moral conviction. The EU has been a positive force in European affairs, but working in the Brussels bureaucracy is a pretty comfortable gig compared to leading demonstrations against a dictator or trying to promote negotiations in some bitter civil conflict. Or what about giving the award to peace theorist Gene Sharp, whose insightful writings on non-violent resistance helped inspire and guide the Arab spring? This year's award was thus a missed opportunity to shine a light on those individuals and groups whose example might inspire the rest of us.
Lastly, the main justificaiton for the award is the EU's contribution to building peace in Europe, a continent that had been torn by war for centuries. Fair enough, but it "didn't do it alone." The EU is one of the reasons why European politics turned peaceful after 1945, but military factors and security institutions mattered at least as much if not more. To be specific, war in Europe was discouraged by Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe and American domination of NATO, and peace was further enhanced by each side's understandable fear of nuclear war. To put it bluntly: France, Germany, Poland, etc., weren't going to fight each other anymore because the United States and Soviet Union wouldn't let them. And a big reason the two superpowers behaved cautiously and reined in their allies was their perennial fear that a conflict in Europe would escalate to a suicidal nuclear war. Not exactly a noble (or Nobel) motive for peace, perhaps, but an effective one.
Indeed, the artificial stability imposed by the Cold War order was one of the background conditions that helped make the European Union possible. Insightful statesmanship and adroit politicking played important roles as well, of course, and the emergence of all-European institutions has surely helped bind the continent together in valuable ways. I’d even argue that the conditions attached to EU membership played a key role in smoothing Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy following communism’s demise. But if you want to understand why there’s been no war in Europe since 1945, you’d want to give as much credit to NATO and nuclear deterrence as you would to the EU itself.
Somehow, I don't think the Nobel Committee will award a peace prize to the bomb or to a military alliance. But it wouldn't be any sillier than the award they just gave.
Here's a strategic puzzle for you: How do you convince the American people to support the kind of wars we seem to be fighting these days, especially when these "wars of choice" aren't about defending U.S. territory or vital overseas interests?
Way back when, the American people enthusiastically backed American entry into World War I (in 1917) and World War II (in 1941). Public opinion had been deeply divided until shortly before the decision to intervene, but in each case Americans eventually recognized a threat to vital interests and from then on supported the raising of vast armies without much complaint.
Similarly, there was a strong bipartisan consensus behind the Cold War strategy of containment, and even debacles such as Vietnam did not erode the U.S. commitment to Europe and its other Asian allies. As realists like Kenneth Waltz and Hans Morgenthau realized, Vietnam (and other interventions in the developing world) were mostly a costly diversion from the main Cold War competition.
Today, however, the United States doesn't face the sort of imminent threat that Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Soviet Russia once posed. China may be a genuine peer competitor someday, but it has a long way to go. The threats we face come from various minor powers -- Serbia, Iraq, Ghaddafi's Libya, North Korea, etc. -- who are occasionally annoying and sometimes say or do objectionable things, but aren't in any position to attack the American homeland directly or threaten the independence of important U.S. allies.
I'd include Iran in that category too, despite all the hype about its nuclear program and its support for groups like Hezbollah. Iran remains a minor military power with very limited capabilities, and groups like Hezbollah are not an existential threat to anyone. By contrast, it should be clear by now that the United States is an existential threat to governments it doesn't like, as Milosevic, Ghaddafi, Noriega, and Saddam Hussein all discovered. And who knows? Maybe Assad will be next to learn this lesson. Whatever its intentions might be, Iran's ability to threaten its neighbors is paltry by comparison.
Add to this the fact that today's strategic challenges mostly arise from within deeply troubled societies that are torn by internal divisions. Sometimes the problem is that no one is in charge (Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.); sometimes the problem is a dictator who is keeping the lid on by ruling with an iron hand. Trying to fix these places cannot be done easily or overnight, which means that anyone who intervenes has got to be prepared to stick around a long time in order to have much hope for success.
But who wants to make a long-term, and therefore costly, commitment when there aren't real vital interests involved? That's our strategic problem in a nutshell: it's easy to get Americans to make sacrifices when there really is a large and hungry wolf at the door, but it's hard to get them to spend hundreds of billions on places that don't really matter that much. Which is mostly where we've been fighting lately.
So if there aren't any looming geopolitical threats, how do you get the United States to take military action? One obvious tactic is threat-inflation: you treat modest military challenges of the sort just described as if they were the reincarnation of Stalin's Russia or the Third Reich. It helps if some of these leaders are loudmouthed clowns like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and if you can count on self-interested allies to make your case for you. That's basically what happened with Iraq, and advocates of war with Iran are operating from the same playbook. Fortunately, thus far the hard sell isn't working.
Next, you can also engage in task-deflation, meaning that you claim that dealing with these various troublemakers can be done cheaply and quickly. Clinton told us in 1996 we'd be in the Balkans for only 12 months; he was off by about nine years. In 2002, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld correctly forecast that a small U.S. force could topple the Taliban, but he failed to realize that creating a stable Afghanistan would take a much larger foreign presence, require more than a decade, and was still likely to fail. The neoconservative geniuses who dreamt up the Iraq War also promised victory would be swift, pay for itself, and would quickly transform the Middle East into a sea of pro-American democracies. Wrong on all counts, alas. Yet even Barack Obama succumbed to this tendency, arguing that a short-term "surge" in Afghanistan would turn the tide and produce a far better outcome in the long run. Doesn't seem to be the case.
In the annals of post-Cold War military intervention, the Panamas and Libyas (maybe) are the exception. Instead of swift and cheap victories, we tend to get long and protracted commitments over relatively minor interests. And once that happens, public support evaporates and you're forced to leave without finishing the job.
Finally, as the New York Times' David Sanger has argued, presidents can try to keep these wars going by engaging in concealment. To the extent that you can, keep the fighting off the front page and don't let the taxpayers who are paying for it know what is really going on. Don't tell them very much about night raids, targeted killings, or the full extent of drone warfare, because they might begin to question the long-term efficacy of these tactics and be concerned that their tax dollars are killing a lot of innocent people by mistake. To do this, of course, you have to prosecute anyone who leaks information about these activities, unless they are a top-level official leaking to a tame journalist or former SEAL or other military figure with patriotic credentials. It also helps to have an all-volunteer force, so that the human costs of the war are confined to a narrow sector of society and so most young people (and their families) don't have to bear any of these costs themselves.
Unfortunately, these various machinations are likely to impose a hefty long-term price. The AVF may be economically efficient, but we are increasingly dependent on a narrow warrior caste instead of relying on a broadly mobilized population. And it is a caste that no politician dares criticize, which erodes and weakens civilian control over the military. It is no longer as clear that the AVF is such an economic bargain either, given the long-term benefits that veterans demand and the cushy arrangements that we have to provide them in the field. To say this is not to denigrate our troops' patriotism or the sacrifices they have made; it is simply to say that wars costs a lot more to fight when you are delivering a lot of creature comforts in a landlocked country like Afghanistan.
Similarly, wars that can only be waged via threat-inflation or by concealing what our troops are really doing inevitably corrupts public discourse and distorts public perceptions of America's real role in the world. We constantly ask ourselves "why do they hate us?" and one reason we don't know the answer is that we may not know what is actually being done in our name in some far-flung corner of the world.
Where does this train of logic leave me? If you can't get public support for low-level but long-term military commitments for relatively minor stakes without threat-inflating, task-deflating, or concealing what you're up to, maybe you shouldn't be doing these things in the first place. Just a thought.
I'm off to Brown University today to deliver a lecture at the Watson Institute on "International Relations and the Public Sphere: Some Personal Reflections." I'm going to be talking about: 1) the contributions that university-based scholars can make to public discourse on global affairs, 2) the reasons why university-based scholars seem to be contributing less than they once did, and 3) some specific measures that could encourage academics to be more fully engaged in public discourse.
For those of you who are interested and don't live in Providence, check the Institute's website for a video here. As an alternative, you can also read my earlier post on this topic here. Or you can take a look at the article on which the talk is based, just published in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Here's a teaser:
"Academic scholars -- including IR theorists -- have at least three useful roles to play in the broader public discourse on international affairs. First, those who have thought longest and hardest about the nature of modern world politics can help their fellow citizens make sense out of our "globalized" world. Ordinary people often know a great deal about local affairs, but understanding what is happening overseas generally requires relying on the knowledge of specialists. For this reason alone, university-based academics should be actively encouraged to write for and speak to broader audiences, instead of engaging solely in a dialogue with each other.
Second, an engaged academic community is an essential counterweight to governmental efforts to manipulate public perceptions. Governments have vastly greater access to information than most (all?) citizens do, especially when it comes to foreign and defense policy, and public officials routinely exploit these information asymmetries to advance their own agendas. Because government officials are fallible, society needs alternative voices to challenge their rationales and suggest different solutions. Academic scholars are protected by tenure and not directly dependent on government support for their livelihoods, so they are uniquely positioned to challenge prevailing narratives and conventional wisdoms. For these reasons, a diverse and engaged academic community is integral to healthy democratic politics.
Third, the scholarly community also offers a useful model of constructive debate. Although scholarly disputes are sometimes heated, they rarely descend to the level of ad hominem attack and character assassination that increasingly characterizes political discourse today. Indeed, academics who use these tactics in a scholarly article would probably discredit themselves rather than their targets. By bringing the norms of academic discourse into the public sphere, academic scholars could help restore some of the civility that has been lost in contemporary public life.
How might these miracles be accomplished? I have no illusions about creating some sort of philosopher kingdom where academics rule, and thirty years at three different universities and three different think tanks have convinced me that such a world would almost certainly not be an improvement. But should academic scholars of international relations really be proud that so few people care about what we have to say?"
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There's a fascinating and worrisome confrontation playing out in the East China Sea, over a group of uninhabited islands called the Senkakus (Chinese name: Diaoyu). Here's where they are, and here's what they look like.
Short version: Japan seized control of the islands following a war with China in 1895. The United States administered them from 1945 to the early 1970s. Japan regained control in 1972, when ownership was reacquired by a private family. Nobody lives there.
Earlier this year, the right-wing mayor of Tokyo said the city government was going to buy the islands to ensure that they remained in Japanese hands. (Had he gone ahead and done so, they would have become the most distant metropolitan suburb in the history of the world). To forestall this step, the Japanese national government bought the islands instead, a step that has provoked some ugly demonstrations in China and raised the possibility of a military confrontation.
This issue is a tricky problem for the United States, because we'll be expected to support our Japanese ally if the dispute escalates. The U.S. position on the whole issue isn't clear, however, and is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan agrees with the PRC and regards the islands (the largest of which is only some 4 square kilometers and is home to moles, birds, and sheep), as part of its territory too.
This whole business got me thinking. In a bygone era, sovereigns used to sell each other territory when it was in their interest to do so, normally when one of them needed cash. Remember the Louisiana Purchase, or the acquisition of Alaska from Russia? If the Japanese government can pay roughly $2 billion to buy the islands from a private family, why can't China pay the same amount (or whatever the market will bear) to obtain them from Japan? After all, the PRC is pretty flush with cash these days, and Japan could use some extra money (although ~$2 billion isn't really that much). Still, why not just view this as a simple matter of business?
The main obstacle to this obvious solution is nationalism. China regards the islands as Chinese territory, so why should they pay Japan in order to get something they think is rightfully theirs? Similarly, some Japanese might regard selling the islands as an affront to their own national pride, or something like that, even though nobody in Japan is likely to live there or even get anywhere near the remote little rocks.
Nonetheless, it would be smart move for Tokyo to offer to sell the islands at roughly the same price they just paid. Think of it this way: Suppose you and a wealthy neighbor disagreed over the boundary line between your property, and suppose further that the municipal records where you lived weren't clear. Both parties think the other's position is unfair, but you might be willing to forego your claim if your wealthy neighbor offered you enough. And he might be willing to do that even if he believed he was purchasing something he already owned, if doing so would be cheaper than litigation and if he wanted to avoid having a nasty relationship with you in perpetuity. Buying out your claim would be smart move on his part, and you might even take the money and invite him over for a beer to celebrate the deal.
Tokyo should offer to sell for another reason. If China refused, it would look like Beijing was spoiling for a fight, and unwilling to solve the matter in a reasonable way. That outcome would be a victory for Japan, because it is in their interest to be seen as the reasonable party in this dispute. Why? Because if China's power continues to rise, a key feature of East Asian diplomacy will be how different actors inside and outside the region perceive the intentions of the various players. China will want to portray the United States and its various regional allies as the main source of confrontation or instability, because that will make other states less likely to join with the United States in balancing China. By contrast, the more that Beijing is perceived as bellicose, ambitious, and prone to throwing its weight around, the easier it will be for the United States to maintain its Asian partnerships and the more that other states in East and Southeast Asia will be inclined to cooperate with each other despite their economic ties to China and their various disputes with each other. The spat over the Senkakus provides both Japan and China with an opportunity to show how reasonable they can be. And by doing so, they give the other side a chance to blow it by being recalcitrant or greedy.
By the way, I'm betting that none of these things will happen: Japan won't offer to sell and if it does, China will refuse to buy. Which is one of the many reasons why I believe security competition in East Asia will continue to increase.
UPDATE: A well-informed commenter called me yesterday and said I had missed a key element in this dispute: China doesn't care about the islands per se; it is more interested in the resources that may exist in their vicinity (oil, gas, fish, etc.) and wants possession in order to extend its "exclusive economic zone." This is a good point, but it is not a barrier to a financial solution to the dispute. If there are valuable resources and China wants them, Japan can just raise the price, or agree to sell in exchange for some cash up front and a percentage of future revenues (say, for the next fifty years or so). In other words, there's in principle no reason this couldn't be handled through a process of bargaining and side payments. But as I said, I still don't think it will get resolved this way.
What's wrong with America? Everyone has their own pet answer to that question -- especially in an election year -- but my nominee today is lack of accountability, especially among political pundits. To be specific: for high-profile public intellectuals, malfeasance of various sorts has virtually no professional consequences.
Consider first the discovery that CNN host Fareed Zakaria had plagiarized an article by the New Yorker's Jill Lepore for one of his Time columns. Both Time and CNN suspended Zakaria temporarily, but eventually concluded that it was an isolated incident and reinstated him.
To his credit, Zakaria (whom I've known for twenty years and regard as a friend), immediately owned up to his mistake and vowed to rethink the professional arrangements that led to his embarrassing blunder. That was the right response, but my larger point is that his error will have no consequences whatsoever for his future career trajectory. None. The whole incident might someday rate a short paragraph in his obituary, but that's about all.
The next example is my Harvard colleague Niall Ferguson's instantly-infamous Newsweek cover story "Hit the Road Barack," which purported to offer a comprehensive indictment of Obama's performance as president. Here the problem wasn't inadvertent plagiarism; it was blatant dishonesty. As a diverse flock of respected commentators quickly pointed out, Ferguson's factually-challenged critique of Obama rested on an array of obvious misrepresentations and sleazy manipulations. Please don't take my word for it: just read James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Brad DeLong, Matthew O'Brian, and Joe Weisenthal. And that's just a partial list.
Unlike Zakaria, who promptly acknowledged his error and apologized, Ferguson responded by quickly doubling down on some of his original arguments. And he did so by selectively quoting a CBO report, deliberately omitting a key sentence that completely altered the meaning of the quotation. See Dylan Byers here.
Misrepresenting sources is normally a cardinal sin for a professional historian, even when writing in a popular venue. But is this likely to have any tangible consequences for Ferguson? Nah. Harvard won't do anything (and given the principle of academic freedom, it shouldn't). Neither will Newsweek, which is probably more worried about staying afloat for another year than it is about fact-checking its cover stories. In this sort of world, what incentive does Ferguson have to get things right?
One could argue that public intellectuals like Ferguson and Zakaria aren't really that important, and that their fates won't make much difference to the life of the nation. That might be true, but the absence of accountability goes far beyond them. Corporate CEOs mismanage companies and escape with lavish golden parachutes. The financial sector misbehaves for a decade and then gets bailed out. A former National Security advisor helps lead the country into a disastrous war, gets promoted to Secretary of State, and later becomes one of the first female members of the Augusta National Golf Club. By this standard, Ferguson and Zakaria's sins are pretty small potatoes.
Nonetheless, it would be better for the United States if there were some tangible sanction for Zakaria's careless error and Ferguson's deliberate dishonesty. In business, making big mistakes hurts the bottom line. In war, getting the facts wrong gets people killed. But in politics and punditry, egregious and/or willful errors carry no penalty, provided their purveyors are sufficiently popular or aligned with well-heeled political interests. Just look at the unsinkable careers of the people who gave us the Iraq war, many of whom could return to power if Mitt Romney wins in November. Absence of accountability is at least part of the reason why our political life is governed not by logic and evidence, but by fact-free fairy tales. And when you base political decisions on flights of fancy, bad results are to be expected.
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I'm just back from a brief trip to Maine, to give a lecture at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. As I have in a couple of other venues, I spoke on the similarities and differences between the earlier campaign for war with Iraq and the current debate over war with Iran. The main similarity, of course, is that the same groups and individuals who pushed hardest for war with Iraq are also in the vanguard of the groups pusshing for war with Iran today. But there are also some critical differences, most notably the fact that the Obama administration isn't staffed by die-hard neoconservatives and Obama isn't as gullible as Bush and Cheney turned out to be. For those of us who believe that war with Iran is neither necessary nor wise, this is good news.
My hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the attendees asked a lot of smart questions, so I had an excellent time. A fair number of the people I met have backgrounds in international affairs (in business, academia, government, intelligence, etc.), and all are obviously engaged by the subject. I didn't hand out a questionnaire so I don't know what everyone in attendance thought, but I was struck by two themes in both the Q & A at my talk and in my private conversations with various members.
First, I detected no support for any sort of war with Iran. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not by us, not by Israel, and not by anybody else. It's possible that some people in the audience would use force as a last resort, but no one in the audience or in private spoke in favor of that option or even asked a question that leaned in that direction. (One retired government official said he believed there would eventually be a war, but he made it clear that he thought that it was a terrible idea). Instead, they were mostly interested in what could be done to prevent a war, and several questions centered on what could be done to improve U.S.-Iranian relations over the longer term. That view, by the way, is more-or-less consistent with recent surveys showing relatively little support for the "military option." This result is especially telling given that Americans also seem to hold quite alarmist views about Iran's nuclear intentions, and given that the war party has been working overtime to hype the threat for years.
Second, I was also struck by the intelligent skepticism that several attendees expressed regarding America's global role. This was a sophisticated group, and most of the people with whom I spoke would be considered "internationalist" in orientation. Yet several also spoke against what they perceived as excessive U.S. interventionism, and one openly complained about the U.S. serving as the "world's policeman." Statements such as these reinforce my sense that a lot of well-informed Americans recognize that trying to run most of the world isn't in America's interest or the world's interest, and that a smarter and more selective approach to global engagement would be easy to sell.
In fact, because the United States is in reality amazingly secure (relative to most other nations) it takes a lot of effort to get us to shoulder all these international burdens. Our leaders and other interested parties have to do a lot of threat-mongering, usually by treating minor powers as if they were looming international dangers. And these minor powers can't be portrayed merely as regimes with whom we have differences; they have to be given scary labels like the "Axis of Evil" or demonized as the Greatest Threat to Human Decency since Hitler (or Stalin, or Saddam, or Genghis Khan or whomever). Advocates of endless intervention also rely on elaborate domino-theory scenarios whereby some obscure setback somewhere eventually leads to a snafu, which triggers a defeat, which in turn provokes a crisis, which then undermines our credibility, which leads allies to defect, and eventually leaves us isolated and vulnerable. Via this sort of logic, victory is necessary in Afghanistan or else someday North Korea will invade and conquer all of North America.
As I said, these impressions aren't based on a scientific survey, and the views expressed above are my own. But the whole trip made me wish that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could spend less time with their advisors and less time cuddling up to fat cat donors with bellicose agendas, and more time talking about foreign policy with well-informed regular citizens. I'll bet they'd discover that what passes for unquestioned truth inside-the-Beltway is much less widely accepted in a lot of other places.
I had a relaxing vacation out on Fire Island, though of course I didn't get quite as much accomplished as I intended. But I did do a lot of reading, and I thought I'd pass a bit of what I learned on to all of you.
I started with Volume 4 of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, which covers the period 1958-1964. In this period Johnson runs half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully) for the 1960 presidential nomination, accepts the vice-presidential nod, and then languishes miserably in a powerless position. He's mostly ignored (if not openly dissed) by Kennedy's inner circle, and thinks his political career is mostly over. But Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 suddenly places him in the Oval office, and Caro offers a vivid description of how LBJ rises to the occasion, gets Kennedy's legislative program moving, and helps the country overcome a major national trauma.
The book is a great read, and Caro has few equals at sketching a character or describing how personalities operate within American institutions. He does have a weakness for stark contrasts and mano-a-mano confrontations (e.g.. he makes much of the blood feud between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy, going back to the early 1950s), but such portraits are part of what make the book difficult to put down.
But for me, a subtler message in the book (possibly overstated for dramatic effect) is that John F. Kennedy wasn't much of a president. He was smart, articulate, charming, and courageous (as his exploits in World War II revealed), and he often had sound political instincts. He had a knack for attracting talented acolytes and inspiring deep loyalty from them, and he knew how to use a gifted advisor/speechwriter like Ted Sorenson to great effect. But his record as a congressman and a senator was unremarkable, and Caro's account shows he didn't achieve much in his three years as president. The main elements of his legislative program were stalled in Congress, and his main foreign policy achievement was managing a crisis over Soviet missiles in Cuba that his own policies (e.g., the attempt to overthrow Castro and an unnecessary nuclear weapons build-up) had helped provoke. We obviously will never know what he might have achieved had he not been assassinated and if he had won a second term, but this book makes it clear that the post-assassination hagiography has little basis in fact.
My next selection was David Kang's "East Asia before the West," which I recommend to anyone with a shaky grasp of East Asian history. It's a slim book that focuses primarily on explaining the Sino-centric trade and tributary order that existed in Asia from roughly 1400 to 1900. Kang's emphasis is on interpreting this history, and demonstrating how this order differed from the Westphalian model that has inspired most contemporary IR theory. In particular, he argues that relative power played a lesser role in relations between China and its principal neighbors (Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) than realist theories might suggest, and that status (defined largely in cultural terms) was in fact of critical importance. Instead of being competing billiard balls interacting on the basis of relative power, Kang depicts these societies as heavily (though not totally) shaped by Chinese cultural ideas (primarily Confucianism). Relations among them reflected norms of deference that reflected not just power but also the degree to which other societies met Chinese cultural standards. He also depicts it as an unusually peaceful order -- at least with respect to state-to-state relations -- with the bulk of violence being directed at rebels, bandits, or nomadic tribes, rather than by governments against each other.
Not surprisingly, I though the book downplays the role of power somewhat. Given how much larger and stronger China was, it's not all that surprising that the lesser states didn't challenge it (and in the rare cases when they did, it didn't go well for them). But it is quite a thoughtful book, and well worth your time.
My last selection (apart from a few novels), was Fredrik Logevall's forthcoming book "Embers of War: The Fall of An Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam." It is a fascinating, beautifully-written, and deeply depressing account of the First Indochina War (i.e., the war between France and the Vietnamese resistance led by Ho Chi Minh), with particular emphasis on the background role played by the United States. Many parts of this story have been told before, but Logevall's account provides much new detail and important new insights. Among other revelations, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower was far more hawkish on Vietnam than is sometimes claimed, and that the U.S. came closer to intervening during the siege of Dienbienphu that I had previously believed.
It is impossible to read the book without being struck by contemporary parallels, and without concluding that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has learned virtually nothing over the past sixty years. Although the French clearly knew more about Vietnamese society than their American counterparts did, officials in both governments were often embarrassingly ill-informed about the actual state of Vietnamese society and opinion. Back in Washington, key decisions were often being made by people (such as Dean Acheson or John Foster Dulles) who had little knowledge of Asian history or society and who were inevitably distracted and shaped by problems elsewhere. And alleged experts like Senator Mike Mansfield (whose opinions were heeded because he had once taught classes in Asian history) were blinded by Cold War ideology and simplistic ideas like the "domino theory." Meanwhile, the American public was chronically misinformed about Asian events by publishers like Henry Luce of Time and Life, and well-organized propaganda campaigns.
Logevall never makes explicit comparisons between the events he describes and more recent counterinsurgencies, but the parallels are quite remarkable. Like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the French forces in Indochina faced enormous logistical difficulties and were frequently vulnerable to ambushes (including what we would know call "improvised explosive devices"). The occupying powers were allied with local elites who were feckless, unreliable, and corrupt, and neither the French nor the United States ever had much leverage over their local clients. The French faced chronic manpower shortages, largely because the war was increasingly unpopular and French politicians could not institute a draft and deploy conscripts there. Instead, they had to rely on legionnaires, troops from their other colonies, or on professional soldiers. Similarly, the Pentagon has always had trouble finding enough troops to run its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course could never contemplate turning to a draft. The French thought that a heroic general (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny) would reverse their fortunes and produce a victory, just as U.S. leaders have occasionally pinned their hopes on the likes of David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal. Both the French and the Americans tried to create local forces who could take over for them; neither effort succeeded to the extent necessary. Massive expenditures and much suffering was justified by baseless fears of falling dominoes, just as today U.S. pundits have somehow managed to turn impoverished Afghanistan into a "vital interest." Finally, Logevall shows that U.S. citizens had very little knowledge of what the United States was actually doing in Indochina -- especially in the period between the signing of the Geneva Accord and the escalation of direct U.S. involvement -- just as we are mostly kept in the dark about the full extent of our involvement in places like Yemen or Pakistan today.
All in all, a pleasant vacation, even if I spent a lot of it reading about unpleasant things and drawing depressing conclusions. Alas, that's an occupational hazard for people in this business, even when we're supposedly taking a break.
Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
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I'm about halfway through Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism, and I'm finding it a fascinating read so far. There's lots that's familiar, of course, but Beinart is a fluid writer and his effort to reconcile liberal and Zionist ideals is admirable and courageous.
As one would predict, his book has received the usual harsh treatment from those who cannot bear to have anyone criticize Israel or the behavior of major "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States. By all means read the critiques -- which are often unconsciously revealing -- but make sure you also read Jerome Slater's superb review of Beinart on his own blog here. Slater's essay is the most insightful that I've seen so far, and he also shows just how intellectually bankrupt most of Beinart's critics are. In particular, some of the most prominent reviews simply ignored what Beinart actually says, preferring to lambaste strawmen of their own creation. Slater doesn't agree with everything Beinart says, but at least he's addressing what Beinart actually wrote.
I'll offer my own reactions once I've finished the book.
A couple of weeks ago, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer made the news by writing a short but sincere apology to the gay community for his earlier support of "reparative therapy" intended to "cure" homosexuality. He now regards the 2003 experiments that seemed to show success for this "treatment" were irredeemably flawed, and he regrets any role he might have played in reinforcing anti-gay stereotypes. Good for him.
Spitzer's recantation got me thinking: Why do we so rarely see foreign policy mavens offer similar apologies for obvious screw-ups? None of us is infallible, but powerful people sometimes make colossal blunders that lead to enormous human suffering. When that happens, it really does merit a mea culpa from those responsible. Yet with a few exceptions, I can't think of very many politicians, pundits, or government officials who have openly acknowledged their errors and apologized for them. Here in the United States, this only seems to happen when sexual indiscretion is involved, or when former officials are at the end of their careers and seeking some sort of absolution.
At this point, don't you think that William Kristol owes his fellow citizens an apology for his repeated war-mongering about Iraq, a war that cost the United States over a trillion dollars, killed thousands of people, and created millions of refugees? Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear George W. Bush and Dick Cheney admit their numerous mistakes and express some regret for them, instead of trying to stonewall the judgment of history? Couldn't a few of the ambitious "visionaries" who created the Euro say they're sorry they didn't listen to the skeptics who warned that Europe lacked the institutional mechanisms needed to make a common currency work? Shouldn't Elliot Abrams show some contrition about his role in fomenting the disastrous Fatah-coup attempt against Hamas, which left the latter in charge in Gaza? And so on. Heck, we're still waiting to hear regrets from the folks who brought us the financial crisis of 2007-2008, although Bernie Madoff did offer up something of an apology for his massive swindle.
Admitting you were wrong really isn't that hard. I've been in this business for nearly three decades, and I've been blogging for three and half years. In that time, I think I've gotten a number of things right, both in my scholarly work and my public commentary. I think I was mostly right about the core causes of alliance formation, right about the general direction NATO was headed after the Cold War, certainly right about the folly of invading Iraq, and right about the harmful impact of the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy. (Does anyone seriously believe that lobby isn't a very powerful force anymore?) And I think my skepticism about Obama's abortive peace efforts in the Middle East and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan have been borne out as well.
But I've been dead wrong on several occasions too. I was overly critical of post-modern IR theory back in the early 1990s, and overly optimistic about the Oslo peace process. I may have recognized the centrifugal tendencies that buffeted NATO following the Soviet breakup, but I also underestimated its staying power. And as I've noted before, I clearly missed the potential for contagion in the Arab spring. I regret every one of those errors, although I don't think very many people suffered as a result.
Of course, academia isn't quite like the policy world. Scholarship advances through vigorous criticism, and no matter how careful we try to be, every academic can look back and see how our earlier work could be improved. No scholar expects to be 100 percent right and all of us (should) understand that our prior work will eventually be overtaken and revised in light of new research. By contrast, people in the policy world or the commentariat can't readily admit mistakes, because their admissions will be seized upon by rivals and used to marginalize them. So instead of honest admissions of error, you mostly get silence, obfuscation, or denial. That's mildly offensive and morally dubious, but the real danger is that it allows serial blunderers to keep influencing policy or public discourse, no matter how many failures they've been associated with in the past.
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In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I argued that America's penchant for counterproductive global interventionism was driven by not one but two imbalances of power. The first was the imbalance of power between the United States and the rest of the world, which made it possible for Washington to throw its weight around without worrying very much about the short-term consequences. If you're a lot stronger than anyone else, it's hard to imagine you could lose to anyone and you're more likely to do something stupid like invading Iraq.
The second imbalance was the disproportionate influence of pro-intervention forces within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As I put it back in 2009:
"America's rise to global primacy was accompanied by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn't just arise spontaneously as America's relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations. These institutions don't always agree on what specific actions the United States ought to take, and they aren't the sort of clandestine capitalist conspiracy depicted by Lyndon Larouche and other fringe groups. But together they stack the deck in favor doing more rather than less."
I went on to describe the DC think tank world (i.e., groups like AEI, Heritage, Brookings, Carnegie, etc.) and the numerous special interest groups that lobby for their own particular causes. And then I noted that:
"By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage. There is the CATO Institute. . . and maybe a few people at the Center for American Progress and the New America Foundation. And there are plenty of peace groups out there with an anti-interventionist agenda. But these groups are hardly a match for the array of forces on the other side."
I mention all this because there seems to be a concerted effort underway to turn one of those organizations -- the CATO Institute -- into another member of the pro-intervention choir. In particular, right-wing industrialists Charles and David Koch (who are long-time CATO supporters) have recently sought to place several new members on CATO's board of directors, and have filed a lawsuit challenging its current governance structure. You can read about this power struggle here and here.
Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because, as CATO Vice-President for Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble lays out in this blog post, the individuals the Kochs are seeking to appoint hold views that are decidedly antithetical to the libertarian, mostly realist, and generally peace-oriented foreign policy perspective that has been CATO's trademark, and which is an increasingly rare perspective in post-Cold War, post 9/11 Washington. Preble also notes that the Koch Foundation helped sponsor an invitation-only seminar series at the American Enterprise Institute last year, whose lineup consisted of a "who's who" of hawkish neo-conservatives (Eliot Cohen, Walter Russell Mead, Eric Edelman, Niall Ferguson, etc.). Each of the speakers was a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which tells you something about where the Kochs are coming from.
It's a free country where just about everything is potentially up for sale, and the Kochs are free to use their money to try to shape public discourse as they see fit. Needless to say, they haven't been exactly shy about doing that, though a commitment to truth doesn't seem to be a high priority of theirs. But if their efforts to transform CATO succeed, we will lose one of the few influential institutions in Washington that consistently calls for a more sensible and restrained foreign and defense policy. I'm not a libertarian and I don't agree with all of CATO's positions on these matters, but a further narrowing of public discourse on foreign policy is not what the country needs right now. So I hope CATO's current management wins this fight, and that the institution remains true to its original vision. We'll be better off as a country if it does.
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Today, permit me a digression into U.S. electoral politics. In the aftermath of Rick Santorum's victories in Alabama and Mississippi, it seems clear that Santorum's best hope for securing the nomination is to get Gingrich to drop out and endorse him. The basic logic, as Andrew Sullivan links to here, is that this step produces a Santorum victory in Illinois and drives a stake in the heart of Romney's chances.
Assuming that this notion is correct, then Santorum ought to do whatever it takes to get Gingrich to drop out and back him. Why not offer to make him the vice-presidential nominee? If Gingrich has any sense of political reality (a proposition I'm not prepared to defend), he must understand by now that he has no chance whatsoever of being the nominee himself. But VP is, as they say, a heartbeat away, and it's actually a job that is suited to Gingrich's peculiar talents (if not his ego). He wouldn't be in charge of anything (which is good) but he would get to make a lot of windy speeches and he'd be available as a sharp-tongued attack dog when needed. Think Spiro Agnew.
This strategy would put two Catholics on the ticket, but that doesn't seem any worse than putting a Mormon at the top. I deplore this sort of religious prejudice myself -- I don't see much difference between venerable, well-established religions and more recent inventions -- but I'm a realist and it's clear that some Americans still think this stuff matters.
A Santorum/Gingrich ticket would probably be a dud in the general election, but so would Santorum/Anybody. But remember, the most important goal in the primary season is to win the nomination. Then worry about what you can do in Round 2. So if Santorum is serious about wanting to be president, he should offer Gingrich whatever it takes. As a registered if not quite loyal Democrat, I hope he does.
Update: The original post was edited slightly in response to a reader's comment and advice from a trusted personal advisor.
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In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):
The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.
This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.
As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.
Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.
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There's a terrific article by Jack Snyder and Erica Borghard in the latest issue of the American Political Science Review, entitled "The Costs of Empty Threats: A Penny, not a Pound." Apart from its substantive contributions, it's also a nice illustration of how social science knowledge accumulates and progresses. Indeed, the article is also an excellent reminder of why we need a diverse array of scholars in our business, employing a variety of methods and theoretical perspectives.
In this piece, Snyder and Borghard challenge a well-known argument in the field of IR and foreign policy: namely, the idea that "domestic audience costs" give democratic states certain bargaining advantages in international disputes. The idea originated in a brief comment in one of Thomas Schelling's books, but the seminal treatment is a widely cited 1994 article by Jim Fearon (then at Chicago, now at Stanford). Fearon argued that democratic leaders who issued threats toward an adversary and then backed down risked paying "audience costs" (i.e., their publics would punish them for making the threat and then retreating). By contrast, authoritarian leaders did not face similar audience costs (because they were not accountable to public opinion), so they could retreat without fear of domestic electoral punishment. Paradoxically, this situation could give democratic leaders a bargaining advantage in crises: Because democratic leaders would worry in advance about the dangers of bluffing and then being forced to retreat, they would only issue public threats if they were serious and not going to back down.
Fearon's argument had considerable prima facie plausibility, and the basic idea has been used to explain a variety of international phenomena, including the so-called democratic peace. But Fearon did not provide systematic evidence to support his argument, and subsequent attempts to conduct empirical tests of the idea have yielded mixed results.
The Snyder/Borghard piece is the most serious attempt to test this conjecture to date. They conducted detailed historical investigations of a series of post-1945 international crises, and in their words, they find "hardly any evidence" that audience costs operate in the manner depicted. Instead:
Audience cost mechanisms are rare because (1) leaders see unambiguously committing threats as imprudent, (2) domestic audiences care more about policy substance than about consistency between the leader's words and deeds, (3) domestic audiences care about their country's reputation for resolve and national honor independent of whether the leader has issued an explicit threat, and (4) authoritarian targets of democratic threats do not perceive audience costs dynamics in the same way that audience costs theorists do.
And for your would-be policymakers out there, their bottom line is well worth emphasizing:
Future leaders of democracies should not come away from their political science classes having gained the impression that democracies can safely get their way in a crisis by publically committing themselves to fight for otherwise unpersuasive objectives.
There's also a broader lesson for the social sciences too. Like all fields of study, social science advances through a process of conjecture, debate, argument, and refinement. Fearon's original article was an important contribution that stimulated lots of creative thinking, and the fact that it may not stand up to careful empirical scrutiny is nothing to regret. We would not know what we now think we know had he not written the original piece (assuming, of course, that Snyder and Borghard's critique stands up to subsequent scrutiny too).
Note further that there was a genuine division of labor involved here, operating over more than a decade. Fearon's original piece was in the rational choice tradition, based on a formal mathematical model and buttressed by some suggestive supporting anecdotes. Snyder and Borghard's article, by contrast, is mostly a careful and sophisticated empirical test using qualitative, "process-tracing" methods, designed to tease out whether "audience costs" played a significant role in key decisions or not. But Snyder and Borghard also identify possible flaws in the original causal logic and identify alternative causal paths to account for the observed results. Thus, neither type of work is either purely "theoretical" or purely "empirical."
For the academy, the moral of this story is that study of international relations would be greatly impoverished if one approach, method, or theoretical perspective came to dominate the field. This would produce an intellectual monoculture where scholars with different strengths were less likely to engage in a productive if competitive interchange, and one where research agendas were set largely by what questions could be studied by the reigning method du jour. In addition to real-world relevance, academic departments ought to prize intellectual, theoretical, and methodological diversity, both because they will be better able to deal with new topics and because different approaches have different strengths and limitations. This is not an argument for an "anything goes" approach to methods; rather, it is an argument against the repeated efforts to impose a single template for what is "good scholarship" on the field.
The pundits I tend to read seem to think Mitt Romney won last night's GOP candidates' debate. I didn't watch it, so I don't have an opinion on that issue. But according to the New York Times coverage, none of the contenders covered themselves with glory on foreign policy, and Romney himself made a statement that suggests he'd have trouble passing International Relations 101.
Specifically, at one point in the debate Romney reportedly said "You don't allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies." He said it in the context of a question about Israel, but notice that he's actually making a much broader claim. Such a statement might be smart campaigning but it's dumb foreign policy, no matter which ally or friend you're referring to.
Why? Because no two states have identical interests. We have good relations with lots of countries around the world -- Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Israel, Colombia, Germany, Poland, Australia, and many, many others -- but that doesn't mean that what's good for them is always good for us and vice versa. When our interests conflict -- as they inevitably will -- it is the task of diplomacy to make our position clear and to try to resolve things in a way that conforms as much as possible to our preferred outcome. In practice, this means "allowing space" (and sometimes a lot more than an inch of it), to exist between us and our friends.
This principle isn't rocket science: the same is true in our personal lives. I've got some wonderful friends, but we don't agree on everything and sometimes we have to sort out disagreements about rules for raising children, which movie we're going to see, or even more fundamental issues of politics. Try taking a vacation with even close friends and you'll probably have at least one or two moments where you're genuinely ticked off at each other. Conflicts between close friends or family members can get especially intense when you think a friend is doing something foolish and you try to get them to change their minds and their behavior. In ordinary life, as in international politics, in short, there's often a lot of airspace between various parties even when some of their other interests and objectives are closely aligned.
Perhaps one shouldn't make too much of a single utterance like this; if pressed, Romney might even acknowledge that he exaggerated for effect. But his statement does betray a typically American belief that the world is divided into good states and bad states. The former are our friends and we're just one big happy democratic family; the latter are evil and our enemies and have little or no good in them. This black-white view is cognitively efficient and makes us feel good about our side; the only problem is that it is dangerous oversimplification of reality. And when your views on foreign policy don't conform to the world as it really is, then the policies you adopt are likely to fail.
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Back in 2009, right after Barack Obama took office, I published the following prediction in the Australian journal American Age:
To be blunt, anyone who expects Obama to produce a dramatic transformation in America's global position is going to be disappointed. There are three reasons why major foreign policy achievements are unlikely. First, the big issue is still the economy, and Obama is going to focus most of his time and political capital there. Success in this area is critical to the rest of his agenda and to his prospects for re-election in 2012. Second, Obama is a pragmatic centrist and his foreign policy team is made up of mainstream liberal internationalists who believe active US leadership is essential to solving most international problems. Although they will undoubtedly try to reverse the excesses of the Bush administration, this group is unlikely to undertake a fundamental rethinking of the US's global role. Third, and most important, there are no easy problems on Obama's foreign policy "to-do" list. Even if he was able to devote his full attention to these issues, it would be difficult to resolve any of them quickly.
I thought of that article and those predictions after two conversations with friends who are both experts in American politics. One is a political scientist and entrepreneur who leans toward the GOP these days, and the other is a political scientist with considerable experience in the Democratic Party establishment. My businessman friend told me bluntly: "Obama is toast. The Republicans could run a scarecrow against him and win." Interestingly, my Democratic party friend was even more outspoken in condemning the president and his advisors, and bluntly called them "a disaster." (As for my own forecasts, I think I was basically right, although Obama did not focus as much on economic matters as I expected and put too much time and capital into the health-care fight. And that is why he's in big trouble now.)
It's still early in the election season, of course, and the GOP field looks none too strong. But there's a lot of solid political science research showing that incumbent presidents have a very tough time when the economy is in the doldrums, and it's hard for me to see how Obama can get things moving again, especially when the GOP leadership has every incentive to thwart his efforts, even if it means keeping Americans out of work for another year or so.
The prospect of a one-term Obama presidency is bound to have important effects on foreign policy too. I'll bet other countries are already starting to think about the possibility, and starting to factor that into their calculations. The obvious implication is that any governments who have serious differences with the Obama administration are going to dig in their heels even more and hope for better after 2012. It's possible that some governments who fear a more hard-line U.S. response under the GOP might be tempted to cut deals while they can, but I don't think that's very likely because they would also have to wonder if a lame-duck administration could deliver on any deal it made. The absurd length of the U.S. presidential campaign season will compound all these problems, by burning up even more of the president's time and attention over the next year or so.
This is obviously speculative and should not be overstated. But now, as in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid." And the bottom line: Expect even less from U.S. foreign policy in the year ahead. Like I said back in 2009: If you thought this administration would produce a major change in our overall global position, get used to disappointment.
One of the distinctive features of American democracy is the permeability of our political institutions. It's an incredibly wide-open system, given First Amendment freedoms, the flood of money that corrupts the electoral process, and a wide array of media organizations and political journals that can be used to disseminate and amplify various views, even when they have no basis in fact.
This situation allows small groups of people to have a profound impact on public attitudes and policy discourse, provided that they are well-organized, well-funded, and stay on message. And if you don't believe me, then take a look at the Center for American Progress's new report Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America. It's a remarkable piece of investigative work, showing how small set of right-wing foundations and individuals have bankrolled the most vocal Islamophobes in contemporary U.S. politics, such as Frank Gaffney, Daniel Pipes, Daniel Horowitz, and Robert Spencer.
Here's an excerpt from the press release:
Following a six-month long investigative research project, the Center for American Progress released a 130-page report today which reveals that more than $42 million from seven foundations over the past decade have helped fan the flames of anti-Muslim hate in America…
Over the past few years, the Islamophobia network (the funders, scholars, grassroots activists, media amplifiers, and political validators) have worked hard to push narratives that Obama might be a Muslim, that mosques are incubators of radicalization, and that "radical Islam" has infiltrated all aspects of American society -- including the conservative movement.
The irony in all this that the extremists examined in this report have gone to great lengths to convince Americans that there is a vast Islamic conspiracy to subvert American democracy, impose sharia law, and destroy the American way of life. Instead, what we are really facing is a well-funded right-wing collaboration to scare the American people with a bogeyman of their own creation, largely to justify more ill-advised policies in the Middle East.
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Over at the Belfer Center's "Power and Policy" blog (a relatively new website which is well worth perusing), my colleague Dick Rosecrance has taken issue with my earlier post on Europe, the European Union, and transatlantic relations. Dick is a friend, a highly accomplished scholar, and a great asset to the Kennedy School. His challenge to my analysis is therefore welcome, though I didn't find it convincing.
For starters, Dick begins his sally by misrepresenting my position. Contrary to what he writes, I did not "consign the European Union to the trashheap of history." Indeed, I made it clear that I expected the European Union to remain intact for some time to come. My point was simply that the high points of European influence, EU unity, and transatlantic security cooperation were now behind us, and that U.S. policymakers ought to take these developments into account. I might add that I think U.S.-European relations will be more harmonious if both sides of the Atlantic have more realistic expectations about each other, instead of acting as if we are still in the heyday of the Cold War. And no, I don't think recent events in Libya are going to alter this trajectory.
Dick makes three main assertions in the rest of his response. First, he reminds us that Europe is the largest economic unit on earth, with a combined GDP that is larger than the United States. Its power would be even more impressive, he suggests, if it imitated the early American republic and became politically united. This is undeniably true in theory, just as I would be Wimbledon champ if I could play tennis better than Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic. The problem is that Europe isn't like the early American republic, and a true "United States of Europe" is not going to happen in our lifetimes.
Second, he says that "in today's world, economics largely determines politics." Dick is hardly the only person who believes this, but has he noticed all the ways that politics -- pure and simple -- keeps intruding into economic affairs? Were it not for politics, managing Europe's debt crisis would be relatively simple. Absent politics, we would have had better financial regulation here in the United States and we wouldn't have had that 11th hour melodrama over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. If politics were as irrelevant as he suggests, it wouldn't have been seventeen years since the last successful multilateral trade agreement and the Doha Round would not have been a bust. If the desire for economic efficiency and wealth consistently trumped politics, most of the conflicts that still trouble us would have been resolved long ago.
Third, Dick argues that the United States is going to need Europe to counterbalance a rising China. Note the contradiction here: after telling us that economics dominates politics, he proceeds to justify a grand strategic partnership on pure balance-of-power considerations. If economics were all that mattered, we could just spend our time worrying about global trade and investment and there'd be no need to think about China's relative power at all.
Equally important, there is no reason to think that Europe is going to get into the business of balancing China in a serious way. The separate European nations have few strategic interests in Asia and hardly any capacity to project power there. They are far more likely to see China as a market. If the United States were to go to its NATO allies in 2020 and ask for help preserving maritime access in the South China Sea, it would probably get Gallic shrugs of indifference, pious statements of German pacifism, and elegant expressions of English equivocation, and then the diplomats and trade reps would hop the next flight to Beijing. What the United States won't get is any serious help from Europe.
States balance against threats, and one key component of threat is geographic proximity. If the United States decides to balance China--based on the long-range desire to remain the world's only regional hegemon -- and if it needs allies to help it accomplish that task, the place to find them is Asia, not Europe.
One of my occasional hobbyhorses on this blog has been the desirability of greater transparency on where research and advocacy organizations (and intellectuals) get their money. It's the old question: cui bono? You can read what I've said in the past here and here. I frankly would welcome a system where think tanks had to publicly disclose all of their sources of support, so that consumers of their work could see exactly who they were beholden to. Lest you think I'm being hypocritical about this, I think university professors ought to do the same with any outside income that they earn.** The reason in both cases is simple: when anyone participates in public discourse on vital issues, outsiders should be aware of potential conflicts of interest and should know exactly who might be paying for it.
Eli Clifton at the Center for American Progress has a revealing post up on the various backers of the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This organization has been in the vanguard of the campaign for war with Iran, reflexively supportive of the Israeli right, and a fertile source of fear-mongering Islamophobia. It will therefore surprise no one that its primary financial backers are also hard-core Zionists, and that the democracy it seems most committed to defending is located far from Washington D.C.
This situation underscores a point that John Mearsheimer and I emphasized in our book: the Israel lobby is not confined to formal "lobbying" organizations like AIPAC. It also includes well-funded think tanks and advocacy organizations that actively work to shape political debate and public discourse in ways intended to reinforce the U.S.-Israel "special relationship" and to persuade policymakers to support policies that these organizations believe (in my view incorrectly) will be beneficial for Israel and the United States.
It bears repeating that there's nothing illegal, conspiratorial, or unethical about what these donors are doing; individuals and foundations in the United States are entitled to fund whatever advocacy organizations they wish. But Clifton's data helps you understand why discourse inside-the-Beltway is so heavily skewed in one direction.
**Postscript: In my own case, in 2010 I received a consulting fee from the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore and speakers' fees from eight other universities (for public lectures). I also received honoraria for presentations at several events sponsored by the Department of Defense and for participating in a colloquium sponsored by the State Department. I was also paid to speak at an Economist magazine conference in Athens and for doing some research work for the New America Foundation. Foreign Policy pays me a modest amount to write this blog, and Cornell University Press pays me to co-edit a book series. And in case some of you are wondering, I didn't receive any money from any individuals, groups, countries, or corporations connected with Middle East politics.
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The steadily expanding "phone hacking" scandal in Great Britain is a good reminder that understanding politics requires a healthy appreciation of the role of arrogance and stupidity. What began is a seemingly straightforward example of sleazy journalistic practice has grown into a full-blown scandal, and the circle of guilt keeps widening.
Just look at the repercussions so far: 1) the NewsCorp's bid to take over all of British Sky Broadcasting has been scuppered, 2) NewsCorp CEO Rebekah Brooks has resigned and is now under arrest, 3) long-time Murdoch associate and Wall Street Journal publisher Les HInton has also resigned his post, 4) Prime Minister David Cameron has been badly tarnished, and oh yes, 5) the head of Scotland Yard has resigned in the wake of revelations that it had bungled the investigation (which is a charitable way of putting it). The WSJ and FoxNews have been exposed as shills for their boss (Murdoch), which is hardly surprising but is hardly going to help their reputations.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave....
Gallons of ink (or gigabytes of blog posts) have already been devoted to this story, but one broader element has received less attention amidst all the juicy personal stuff. What the scandal really teaches us is the dangers that inevitably arise when any single company or individual exercises excessive influence in media circles. Why? Because a healthy democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry, and media oligarchs can use excessive influence to skew what the public knows or believes in order to advance their own political objectives. If the Murdoch scandal doesn't convince you, just look at how Silvio Berlusconi used his media empire to drive his political career and look where Italy is today.
Furthermore, politicians are likely to accommodate powerful media organizations that are willing to play hardball, punishing politicians they didn't like and rewarding officials who played along. The NewsCorp was a master at this, and it is no wonder David Cameron and even Scotland Yard became compliant.
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Responding to E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan wants to know at what point the U.S. political system became "decadent," and he offers up a number of possibilities: the Weiner scandal (E.J. Dionne's nomination), the odd notion that Sarah Palin could be considered a serious candidate for any office above a local Parks and Recreation board, or congressional "assent to torture" in 2006.
I'm glad he (and Dionne) raised the issue, but trying to pinpoint a single moment or cause is probably futile. Corruption and decadence don't occur all at once; it's a progressive disease with no clear tipping point. Part of it lies in the rise of the conservative movement post-Goldwater, when wealthy conservatives began to bankroll think tanks and media organs that were more interested in waging political warfare than getting facts right. Part of it is a pop-media culture that lets an ignorant buffoon like Rush Limbaugh or a bizarre whack-job like Glenn Beck become influential voices in our national debate. Part of it is the culture of non-accountability that is pervasive in official Washington, where the frauds that helped produce the financial crisis of 2007 barely get investigated, or where a deputy secretary of defense can play a key role in causing the Iraq debacle and then get rewarded by being named president of the World Bank, screw that up too, and bail out to a safe sinecure at a D.C. think tank. As L'affaire Weiner demonstrates, in today's America you're more likely to derail your career by sending some lewd and idiotic tweets than by sending thousands of your fellow citizens to their deaths (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis) in an unnecessary war.
What else is to blame? A political order that creates enormous incumbency advantages through gerrymandering. An electoral system that depends on an ocean of campaign contributions, thereby empowering special interest groups with deep pockets and focused agendas. A presidential election cycle that lasts for more than one-fourth of a term, thereby forcing candidates to spend too much time running for election and too little time actually governing. A Senate that spends more time preventing the appointment of needed judges and other government officials than it does debating the wisdom of going to war. And I could go on.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.