A few idle questions occurred to me this morning, and I thought I'd share them with you.
1. If NATO didn't exist, would the United States and Europe bother to create it? Why?
2. Is it possible that the Obama administration is just telling Israeli and Saudi leaders what they want to hear, and then doing what they think is in the U.S. interest? Wouldn't it be nice to think so?
3. Chuck Hagel is really upset that US defense spending is going down. My question: how many of you Americans out there are now worried about foreign attack as a result?
4. Perhaps the most fundamental question in politics is the classic "who guards the guardians?" In other words, how does one create institutions powerful enough to protect the state, without having them take over? Modern version: how do you keep super-secret agencies like the NSA from overstepping their boundaries? (If your answer is "Congressional oversight" you haven't been paying attention.)
5. Will a rising China continue to tolerate the U.S. security role in Asia, or will it gradually try to convince other Asian states to distance themselves from Washington? The answer to that question will tell us a lot about global politics over the next few decades.
6. How many people at AIPAC, Christians United for Israel, JINSA, the Presidents' Conference or the Saudi embassy are sitting around thinking: "how the heck do we stop a deal with Iran yet not get blamed for derailing it?"
7. Is the finance industry inherently corrupt? Every few months we hear about another big financial firm being indicted for something, and eventually paying a big fine. Yet the leaders of this industry are still respected public figures (and big-time political contributors). Seems to me if leading firms in an industry are more-or-less constantly being caught cheating, there's something fundamentally wrong with the way the whole sector is run.
8. If Toronto mayor Rob Ford has to resign in the wake of his admission that he used crack cocaine, which Canadian university will be first to offer him a visiting professorship?
9. Have ANY of the people who led the charge for NATO intervention in Libya expressed second thoughts about the results? Just asking.
10. Hawks and doves can both get their countries into big trouble. Hawks do it by getting you into unnecessary and protracted wars; doves by being too trusting and leaving you vulnerable. Yet being hawkish tends to pay off better professionally, at least in the United States. Why?
I have other questions too, but I'll stop there. Maybe some of you have answers!
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One of the hardest things for a great power to do is reverse course when it's made a strategic blunder, especially when it involves a war. Fred Ikle wrote a whole book about this problem -- the classic Every War Must End -- where he described many of political obstacles that getting in the way of cutting one's losses and either making peace or just getting out. You know some of the reasons: politicians don't like to admit they screwed up, the fallacy of "sunk costs" continues to drive policy, the military doesn't like admitting defeat, etc. And even when the decision to end a war is made, it usually takes longer to get out than it should.
Case in point: Afghanistan. I don't know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn't going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn't going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to "surge" there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.
Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave. The corrupt Karzai government has been giving us a hard time about the terms under which the residual force would operate, however, and insisting that we accept their terms if we wanted to stay.
But instead of seizing this free gift and saying "da khoday pa amaan" ("goodbye" in Pashto), Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials have done a full-court press to persuade Karzai & Co. to let us keep pouring resources into this bottomless pit. To do that, reports the New York Times, U.S. officials "are planning a more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are not squandered or pilfered."
I have two comments. First, if you've read any of the reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), you'd know that vast sums of money have been squandered already. It therefore beggars belief that we're going to do a better job of monitoring Afghan spending of our aid programs with a smaller force. Bottom line: a lot of the money spent in the future is just going to disappear.
Second, this whole enterprise looks like a can-kicking, face-saving operation, precisely the sort of long, drawn-out end that Ikle and others have described. In this regard, it is revealing to read what retired general David Barno, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2003-05, told the Times we are going to get for this extra effort (my emphasis):
"The most important thing we can do is keep writing checks so the Afghan National Security Forces can remain funded - fuel, food, weapons, salaries. . . If that continues, they will be at least able to maintain a stalemate with the Taliban, and that is enough to keep the state up and running."
That's right: more than ten years of war, and we've managed to create a corrupt central government that cannot defeat the Taliban (who aren't getting $4 billion a year in US aid, by the way). The government can manage a stalemate, but only if Uncle Sucker keeps thousands of troops there and keeps the money flowing. . . presumably forever.
I don't quite know how to describe this policy, but I sure wouldn't use the word "strategy."
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Thomas Friedman had a mostly sensible column in yesterday's New York Times, in which he endorsed the crazy, dangerous, irrational, doesn't-make-any-sense-at-all idea of seriously negotiating with Iran. Not only did he correctly note that Iran might see a nuclear capability (if not nuclear weapons) as insurance against regime change (i.e., the same reason that other nuclear-armed states got them), but he also made a useful comparison between Iran today and the People's Republic of China. Here's his big question:
But how much of their "nuclear insurance" [is Iran] ready to give up to be free of sanctions? Are they ready to sacrifice a single powerful weapon to become again a powerful country -- to be more like a China, a half-friend, half-enemy, half-trading partner, half-geo-political rival to America, rather than a full-time opponent?
This analogy is even more illuminating than Friedman thinks, because back when China was first developing its own nuclear capability, it was described in virtually the same terms that hard-liners now apply to Iran. For example, here's then Secretary of State Dean Rusk testifying to the Senate Subcommittee on Far Eastern Affairs in 1966:
[The Chinese communists] are now developing nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.… But such weapons need not serve a defensive role. They can be used directly by Peking to try to intimidate its neighbors, or in efforts to blackmail Asian countries into breaking defense alliances with the United States, or in an attempt to create a nuclear "balance" in Asia in which Peking's potentially almost unlimited conventional forces might be used with increased effect. These weapons can ultimately be employed to attack Peking's Asian neighbors and, in time, even the United States.
Rusk noted that such attacks would be "mad and suicidal," but then went on to say:
Peking's present state of mind is a combination of aggressive arrogance and obsessions of its own making.… I would be inclined … to advance the view that a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding, and hostile as that of communist China is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal.… They seem to be immune to agreement or persuasion by anyone, including their own allies.
Sound familiar? The language and arguments advanced by Rusk regarding Maoist China are strikingly similar to the way hawks have described Iran for years. Like China back then, Iran is said to want nuclear weapons for various offensive purposes. And like China back then, the fact that any use of such weapons would be suicidal can be of no comfort to us, because we are supposedly dealing with people who are irrational and whose view of life "itself is unreal." Remember when neoconservative historian Bernard Lewis warned of an imminent Iranian attack on Aug. 22, 2006, based on his belief that Iran was infused with a "culture of martyrdom" and that Aug. 22 corresponded to a supposedly significant date on the Islamic calendar? (I may have missed something, but I'm pretty sure that this date passed without incident.)
The second lesson, of course, is that Rusk was dead wrong. China tested nuclear weapons and eventually built a modest nuclear arsenal, but it didn't try to blackmail, invade, or intimidate anyone. In fact, the acquisition of nuclear weapons did almost nothing to increase China's international influence. What did increase China's global stature were the post-Mao economic reforms (the "Four Modernizations"), which unleashed three decades of rapid economic growth.
And that's the third lesson too. The nuclear issue has dominated U.S. policy toward Iran for more than a decade, and while it is not a trivial problem, it's probably not the most important one either. Iran is not going to give up control over the full fuel cycle (meaning it will insist on keeping some enrichment and reprocessing capabilities), though it may agree to some limits and to intrusive inspections. If we demand more than that, there won't be a deal. Put differently, any deal that Teheran will accept is still going to leave it with the ability to produce a bomb if it ever decides it needs to; we are mostly going to be negotiating over the length of time it would take them to do so and thus how much warning we are likely to get.
But over the long term, what really matters is Iran's overall power potential and not whether it has a latent nuclear capability, a few weapons hidden away, or a fully developed arsenal akin to the ones that Israel, India, and Pakistan already possess. Iran has a large, relatively young population, considerable oil and gas, a lot of well-educated people, and considerable economic potential. As with communist China, sooner or later the leaders who have mismanaged Iran's economy will lose their grip or change their policies, and the sanctions imposed by the West will be lifted. At that point, Iran is likely to take off rapidly. So the real question is whether a more powerful Iran will be eager to be a "half-friend" to the United States -- which is how Friedman now describes China -- or will it be angry and resentful and looking to push us out of the region entirely? That depends at least in part on us.
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By all indications, Iran's new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hasan Rouhani was elected, they began describing him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and suggesting that nothing had changed. Then, after Rouhani unleashed a wave of conciliatory actions, skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by proposing a new set of deal-breaking conditions, and other Israeli officials suggested that time had already run out and that further diplomacy was a waste of time.
Given that these are the same people and organizations that have been pushing for military action against Iran for some time, it is hardly surprising that they pooh-pooh the prospect of diplomacy now. But notice that their core position is fundamentally contradictory: They have been saying for years that only sustained outside pressure will get Iran to "say uncle." So the United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions and made repeated threats to use force. Surprise, surprise: Iran's new leaders are now saying they want a deal, precisely the response that this pressure was supposed to produce. If the hawks were consistent, they would at a minimum recommend that we explore the possibility carefully. Instead, they are trying to make sure that the United States continues to demand complete Iranian capitulation (or maybe even regime change). This tells you all you need to know about their sincerity and why Barack Obama shouldn't pay them the slightest attention.
In fact, the United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere? Political scientist Robert Jervis explored this issue in depth in The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) and drew a nice distinction between "signals" (i.e., actions that contain no inherent credibility) and "indices," which he defined as "statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct."
More recently, this basic idea was resurrected in economics (and borrowed by IR scholars) in the notion of a "costly signal." Unlike "cheap talk," a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn't really mean it. A classic example was Anwar Sadat's 1977 offer to fly to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli Knesset in search of a peace deal. Because this move was obviously a risky step for Sadat (who was condemned throughout the Arab world), his Israeli counterparts had good reason to believe that his desire for peace was genuine.
So should we take Rouhani's overtures seriously? I think we should. As noted above, the possibility that Iran is genuinely interested in a deal is inherently credible, because we have in fact been squeezing the Iranians quite hard. To repeat: Isn't what they are now doing exactly what we've been trying to achieve? Equally important is that Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show "heroic flexibility," thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran's leaders to reverse course on a whim.
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I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on Syria or to the piece I put up today as part of a New York Times "Room for Debate" exchange. But America's slow-motion entry into the Syrian bloodletting does illustrate how hard it is for the United States to stay out of these nasty little wars, even when it is not obvious what using force will accomplish, when it is clear that doing a little now will create pressure to do more later, when there is little public support for getting in, and when it is hard to identify a clear or vital U.S. interest at stake.
Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria -- and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad's forces have used chemical weapons -- or so he believes -- but as I've noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad's forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there's a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.
What is most striking about this affair is how Obama seems to have been dragged, reluctantly, into doing something that he clearly didn't want to do. He probably knows bombing Syria won't solve anything or move us closer to a political settlement. But he's been facing a constant drumbeat of pressure from liberal interventionists and other hawks, as well as the disjointed Syrian opposition and some of our allies in the region. He foolishly drew a "red line" a few months back, so now he's getting taunted with the old canard about the need to "restore U.S. credibility." This last argument is especially silly: If being willing to use force was the litmus test of a president's credibility, Obama is in no danger whatsoever. Or has everyone just forgotten about his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya, and all those drone strikes?
More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didn't go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward "doing something" because he feels he simply can't afford not to.
Sad, but also revealing.
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What the heck were British officials thinking when they detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow Airport? As you can read about here, they kept him in custody for nine hours and confiscated a bunch of computer equipment, thumb drives, and the like. They did so under the auspices of Britain’s Terrorism Act of 2000, which authorizes detentions of persons suspected of being “involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."
As you’d expect, this foolish yet chilling act of official intimidation is being rightly condemned by Greenwald himself, and by commentators like Andrew Sullivan here. But I’m intrigued by the question of motivation: what did the British government hope to accomplish by doing this? I don’t know, but here are some possibilities that occurred to me.
First, it’s possible that this was just an act of overzealous low-level counter-terror bureaucrats, operating without official approval. But this explanation seems very unlikely: why would low-level functionaries single out Miranda (who was just transiting through Heathrow on his way back to Rio) and detain him for nine hours, all the while questioning him about his partner’s reporting on the NSA? And for that matter, how did he get on a watch list that would allow the British authorities to pluck him out from the thousands of people who stream through that airport every day? So I think we can rule out pure bureaucratic politics or low-level blundering as the explanation here.
Second, perhaps British officials were genuinely worried that Miranda (and by association, Greenwald and Laura Poitras) might be actively engaged in terrorism. But this is daft: whatever you think of Greenwald’s politics and journalistic activities, there isn’t the slightest basis for suspecting that he or his associates have ever endorsed or supported terrorism in any way. If British officials genuinely harbored such suspicions, we ought to be really worried about the quality of thinking inside these organizations.
Third, maybe they suspected that Miranda was transporting more of the information provided by Edward Snowden, information that had yet to be made public. In this version, they stopped him and seized the thumb drives, etc., to prevent another round of juicy revelations in the Guardian. Yet this account makes no sense either, because it assumes that Greenwald and Poitras aren’t smart enough to have made copies of any material that Miranda might have had on his person. If that was the goal, then detaining and harassing him accomplished nothing.
Fourth, maybe this was intended primarily as an act of intimidation: the British government was letting Greenwald know that they can harass his partner if he keeps releasing more materials that are….um….embarrassing to Britain’s U.S. ally. It sends the clear message to Greenwald that he's being watched, and those near to him are too. Greenwald himself believes that this was the motivation for the UK government’s action, and he may well be right. But if so, then it was also a completely lame-brained act on Britain’s part: you don’t need a triple-digit IQ to figure out that Greenwald is not the sort of person who can be intimidated in this fashion. On the contrary, his entire career as a blogger, writer, and journalist has been driven by the desire to expose and challenging abuses of power, and making him the personal object of this sort of abuse is hardly going to make him cease writing and go back to being a corporate lawyer. So if that was the goal, somebody in the UK counter-terror operation either hasn’t been paying attention, isn't very bright, or both.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that this was an act of petty bureaucratic vengeance. It was the outraged bleat of a transnational national security apparatus that is used to having its own way and generally disdainful of genuine oversight. In both the United States and the UK, as well as lots of other countries, the broad national security/intelligence bureaucracies are accustomed to acting with enormous latitude and autonomy. They get to decide what is secret and what is not, and they get to decide when it is ok to leak something to reporters and when it is preferable to prosecute someone for leaking or reporting. Most of the people doing these things undoubtedly believe that it is for the good of the nation; it just has the ancillary benefit of insulating them from annoying questions or criticisms from the rest of us.
They’re ticked off at people like Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, Assange, etc., because they just aren’t playing ball. And these critics and leakers have in fact released a lot of material that has punctured various myths about what officialdom is really doing. And officialdom is probably worried that if the veil of secrecy gets torn back further, ordinary citizens might be disturbed by what they learn and might start demanding that things change. Indeed, Snowden’s revelations about the NSA have already provoked movement for reform, and it would hardly be surprising if a few people in the vast world of intelligence and counterterrorism decided it was time for some payback.
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About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the election of new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. I said it was precisely the sort of opportunity that Barack Obama's administration had been looking for back in 2009, but I was pretty sure the United States and Iran would find a way to squander it. Here's one paragraph from that post, dated June 17, 2013:
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
It's a bit too soon to say, "I told you so," but so far my initial prediction is on track. Although Rouhani has appointed a series of moderate officials (many associated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), softened Iranian rhetoric about Israel somewhat, and pledged to seek the path of "détente," we still have little idea how the Obama administration intends to respond. I'm not even sure who is taking the lead in figuring that out. In the meantime, hawks in the United States -- led by the always-helpful lobbyists at AIPAC -- are already doing everything they can to derail a possible rapprochement.
Unfortunately, they can always count on the help of a timorous and craven Congress, including a number of prominent "progressive" Democrats. Just last week, the House passed H.R. 850, an AIPAC-sponsored resolution tightening sanctions for the umpteenth time. The bill was called the "Nuclear Iran Prevention Act," but as Paul Pillar blogged on National Interest's website, a more honest title would be the "Nuclear Iran Promotion Act." The vote was 400-20 (with 378 co-sponsors!), and I'm sorry to say that my own representative, Joe Kennedy III, wasn't exactly a "profile in courage" on this issue. Of course, he had plenty of company.
And now 76 supine Senators are sending Obama one of those stern AIPAC-drafted letters warning him to keep up the pressure. Negotiating with Iran is OK, they concede, provided that any discussions are backed up by the constant threat of military force. Never mind that the United States has been threatening force and conducting various forms of covert action against Iran for years, and Iran hasn't said "uncle" yet. Never mind that Congress has repeatedly called for regime change in Tehran (now there's a confidence-building measure!), and Iran has responded by building more centrifuges. Never mind that Iran has said all along that it won't be bullied into concessions. Never mind the obvious fact that threats of military force are a pretty silly way to convince a much weaker country that it doesn't need some sort of deterrent. And please ignore the fact that America's key allies in Europe and even conservative publications like the Economist are urging the Obama administration to seize this and give Rouhani a serious chance. So is Bloomberg News.
I'm still fairly confident that Obama and the White House have little or no interest in another Middle East war. The State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence services aren't pushing for a war that could only delay but not eliminate Iran's nuclear potential either. And I'm 100 percent sure that the United States should engage Iran's new government seriously and patiently to see whether a deal can be struck. I even suspect that most of the senators and representatives who voted for or signed those silly but dangerous documents last week know all this too. But nobody ever went broke betting on the spinelessness of elected representatives in Congress, especially on just about anything concerning the Middle East.
According to Thom Shanker of the New York Times, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "looking for a few good ideas." Translated: The Defense Department is under a lot of budget pressure (from the sequester and from broader fiscal realities), so he's looking for smart ways to cut the budget without jeopardizing U.S. security.
If Hagel is really looking for some "outside-the-box" thinking on this important issue, then I've got three suggestions for him. First, he won't make real progress without examining the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy: What America's real interests are, what are the different ways it can advance or protect them, and what are the costs, benefits, and trade-offs among different commitments? Trying to maintain all U.S. present commitments on a shoestring makes it much more likely that the country will in fact defend nothing very well.
Second, in addition to directing the Defense Department bureaucracy and the uniformed services to work hard on it, he ought to convene a "Team B" of outside experts to brainstorm the problem too. And if he needs new ideas, he ought to populate that Team B with knowledgeable people whose views aren't warped by long service inside the Washington bubble or by years spent inside the Pentagon itself. Instead, this group should be composed mostly of people who don't work for defense contractors and who don't depend on Defense Department consulting contracts for their livelihoods. I'd also exclude people at think tanks that receive a lot of defense-industry dollars and anyone who has ever spoken at the Aspen Security Forum. (I'm not dissing any of these organizations, by the way; I'm just saying that it's not where I'd look to find alternatives to the conventional wisdom).
In short, I'd be looking for smart academics and independent thinkers, like MIT's Barry Posen or Cindy Williams, Dartmouth College's Daryl Press, or the Cato Institute's Christopher Preble. Throw in Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives. A creative, thoughtful journalist like James Fallows and an iconoclast like Michael Lind would be good additions too. Hagel should also encourage this group to consult with insiders or seasoned Washington veterans -- such as Brent Scowcroft, Steve Clemons, Colin Powell, Gordon Adams (an FP columnist), etc. -- to make sure that their recommendations aren't just pie in the sky.
The point is not that such people would necessarily come up with the best ideas; the purpose of this sort of exercise is to ensure that a wide range of possibilities gets considered and that well-worn shibboleths get challenged.
Third, Hagel should remind everyone involved in this process who they are working for. The name of the organization in question is the "U.S. Department of Defense." It is not the "Department of Imperial Power Projection," "Department of World Order Maintenance," the "Department of Democracy Promotion," or the "Department of Regime Change and Global Pest Control." My dictionary defines "defense" as "the action of resisting attack," and the focus of its efforts ought to be on that fundamental goal. Weaning the United States away from the belief that its security is enhanced by constantly searching for monsters to destroy in faraway lands (a task the country has been doing rather badly in recent years) would be a major achievement. But it's not one the United States is likely to accomplish if the task is left solely to the usual experts and the existing institutions.
Last Friday I posted an entry on America's "one-sided" war on terrorism, arguing that the country has focused enormous efforts on deterring, thwarting, or killing suspected terrorists and hardly any effort on removing the incentives or grievances that might make someone join a terrorist organization. The very same day, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution posted an article on the Daily Beast, arguing that various al Qaeda affiliates are making a significant comeback in places like Iraq and Syria.
Precisely my point. Undoubtedly, some pundits will interpret Riedel's article as evidence that the United States should have been even more aggressive and should have stayed in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever for as long as it took. This argument overlooks the tremendous costs of these operations -- including their degrading effects on Army performance and morale -- as well as their inherently self-defeating character. Given that opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activity -- especially suicide bombings -- maintaining an extensive military footprint in the Arab and Islamic world is a recipe for endless war. Even more limited operations like drone strikes have been tactically effective but are strategically questionable, precisely because they give jihadi recruiters a constant pool of angry locals from which to draw and vindicate their claims that the United States is unalterably addicted to violent interference in their societies.
Indeed, the real lesson of Riedel's article is that much of the so-called "war on terror" has been misguided to the point of foolishness. It was both smart and necessary to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but letting Osama bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora was a massive command failure. It was dumb to take on the task of nation-building in Afghanistan, and even dumber to invade Iraq in 2003. It was both immoral and counterproductive to torture captured terrorists (it tarnished America's image and didn't yield better intelligence) and obtuse not to rethink other aspects of the United States' Middle East policy. The post-9/11 TSA regime has been a colossal waste of resources that has added little to Americans' overall level of security. And vacuuming up gazillions of bytes of email and phone records merely proved that government agencies operating in secret will invariably grow like Topsy, without making Americans significantly safer. As Riedel suggests, none of these activities has prevented al Qaeda and its copycats from making a comeback.
What is needed is a much more fundamental rethinking of the entire anti-terrorism campaign. As I suggested last week, part of that rethink means asking whether the United States needs to do a lot more to discredit jihadi narratives, instead of persisting with policies that make the extremists' charges sound plausible to their audiences. A second part is to keep the jihadi threat in better perspective: They are a challenge, but not a mortal threat to Americans' way of life unless the country reacts to them in ways that cause more damage to its well-being and its values than they do. Sadly, a rational ranking of costs, benefits, and threats seems to be something that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is largely incapable of these days.
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After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. national security establishment started focusing on the various ways that "international terrorism" might pose a threat to U.S. interests or the United States itself. Unsurprisingly, experts began to dream up all sorts of frightening scenarios and worry about all sorts of far-fetched scenarios. I remember this period well, and I recall sitting through seminars and workshops at which lots of very smart and creative people were imagining various nasty things that groups like al Qaeda might try to do. Hijack gas trucks and blow up the Lincoln Tunnel? Take over the Mall of America and create carnage on a big shopping day? Commandeer a supertanker and smash it into the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge? Wait until summer and then set forest fires all over the American West? The list of conceivable dangers was infinitely long, but if you sat in enough of those seminars, you could easily become convinced that it was only a matter of time before somebody did something really nasty to you or your loved ones.
Imagination is one thing, but disciplined risk assessment is another. It's easy to dream up bad things that could conceivably happen, but intelligent public policy should rest on a more careful and sustained appraisal of how likely those various scary things are. And that's why I suggest you read Keir Lieber and Daryl Press's recent article in the journal International Security on "Why States Won't Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists."
The fear that nuclear-armed states would hand weapons to terrorists has been a staple of U.S. threat-mongering ever since 9/11. It was a key part of the justification for invading Iraq in 2003, and it forms part of the constant drumbeat for military action against Iran. But it never made much sense for two reasons. First, a nuclear-armed state has little incentive to give up control over weapons it has labored long and hard to acquire, for what could the state possibly gain from doing so? Second, a state giving nuclear weapons to terrorists could never be sure that those weapons would not be traced back to it and thereby invite devastating retaliation.
Lieber and Press examine the historical record and show that it is almost impossible to conduct a major terrorist operation and not be blamed for it. Here's the abstract for their article:
Many experts consider nuclear terrorism the single greatest threat to U.S. security. The fear that a state might transfer nuclear materials to terrorists was a core justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, more recently, for a strike against Iran's nuclear program. The logical basis for this concern is sound: if a state could orchestrate an anonymous nuclear terror attack, it could destroy an enemy yet avoid retaliation. But how likely is it that the perpetrators of nuclear terrorism could remain anonymous?
Data culled from a decade of terrorist incidents reveal that attribution is very likely after high-casualty terror attacks. Attribution rates are even higher for attacks on the U.S. homeland or the territory of a major U.S. ally -- 97 percent for incidents in which ten or more people were killed. Moreover, tracing a terrorist group that used a nuclear weapon to its state sponsor would not be difficult, because few countries sponsor terror; few terror groups have multiple sponsors; and only one country that sponsors terrorism, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons or enough material to manufacture them. If leaders understand these facts, they will be as reluctant to give weapons to terrorists as they are to use them directly; both actions would invite devastating retaliation.
I might add that this is the kind of important, nonpartisan, policy-relevant work that more social scientists ought to be doing. It is also important to disseminate these findings widely, so that 1) U.S. policymakers won't keep chasing phantom dangers, 2) the leaders of nuclear-armed states understand that their arsenals are good for deterrence and not much else, and 3) said leaders also understand the need to keep whatever weapons they might have under very reliable control.
Perhaps it's just the summer doldrums or the various small setbacks that second-term presidents routinely suffer. But it's hard to avoid the impression that the Obama administration's foreign policy is running out of gas, despite the arrival of a new secretary of state, a new secretary of defense, and a new national security advisor.
On Egypt, U.S. policy is neither hard-nosed realist nor a principled defense of democracy. Indeed, I can't quite figure out what the U.S. policy is except that the Egyptian generals are still going to get the customary U.S. baksheesh and the United States will do its best to nudge them into something it can plausibly defend as kinda, sorta democratic. On Syria, I'm glad the United States hasn't gone the Full McCain (defined as a blindfolded dive into a shark-infested pool), but it would be nice if someone explained to the world what U.S. policy is. On Iran, the arrival of a new, more moderate president -- something the administration was positively panting for back in 2009 -- seems to have elicited the most timid of policy responses. Instead of a serious diplomatic initiative, Americans just get to hear more lectures from Prime Minister-Who-Cries-Wolf Netanyahu, who seems to think the United States owes his country another Middle East war. (And while I'm at it, when did CBS News' Bob Schieffer forget how to ask serious questions? If he plans on retiring anytime soon, a second career hosting paid infomercials beckons).
Maybe I'm being too harsh. The transatlantic trade talks seem to have survived Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency spying in Europe, though it will be a long slog before a deal is reached. Despite the sequester, the U.S. military (especially the Special Forces) is busy partnering with foreign militaries around the world. (But am I the only person worrying that the most extensive U.S. connection to a lot of countries seems to be through their generals?). The foreign-policy bureaucracy in Washington is still busy churning out talking points for the next set of summit(s), principals' meetings, or visits from foreign dignitaries. Of course, the vast, top-secret intelligence and counterterrorism empire created after the 9/11 attacks is continuing to burn up $billions, collect gazilla-bytes of data, and Keep Us Safe against a wildly overstated threat.
Of course, compared with the challenges that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Dilma Rousseff, Xi Jinping, Manmohan Singh, François Hollande, and David Cameron are facing these days, I'll bet the view from the White House looks pretty good. But think back to where Obama started back in 2009. Remember that dizzying array of initiatives he launched back then? The Cairo speech, heralding "two states" for "two peoples"? Gone, baby, gone. The Prague speech on nuclear disarmament? There has been some modest progress, perhaps, but nothing you'd call a breakthrough. Climate change? Obama's latest set of initiatives was a step in the right direction, but mostly it proved he's still very good at making a speech. And don't get me started about Afghanistan: I'm glad the United States is finally going to get out, but it's with a whimper, not a bang (or a victory).
I know what you're thinking. Isn't he always complaining that the United States is trying to do too much in international affairs? And didn't I recently label Obama a "buck-passer" and suggest that this isn't such a bad approach for this particular period of U.S. foreign policy? So if the United States is "running on empty" these days, why am I not rejoicing?
Here's why. I'm certainly pleased that the United States isn't doing foolish things like invading Syria or bombing Iran. But that doesn't mean there aren't other areas where greater energy, effort, and focus are needed. What I don't see is a clear sense of what the administration is trying to accomplish in the time it has left in office, or a well-developed strategy for reaching those goals (whatever they might be). Barack Obama's administration had lots of good instincts from the very beginning, but it never developed a clear set of strategic priorities (i.e., what steps would bring the American people the greatest benefits in terms of security and prosperity) or a well-articulated program of initiatives designed to accomplish those ends. And surely we know by now that a really well-crafted Obama speech is not by itself a policy or a strategy; at best it can be one element of the PR campaign.
So I'd like some reporter with more access than I have to ask the president, Susan Rice, or maybe John Kerry the following question: What are the two most important foreign-policy objectives that you intend to achieve by the time you leave office in January 2017? Follow-up: How are you going to use American power and influence to ensure you succeed?
Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Smart statecraft is sometimes opportunistic. No government can anticipate every twist and turn in global politics; the question is whether it can seize the moment when one arrives and advance the national interest in new, unexpected circumstances.
So it is with the recent ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This is an opportunity for the United States to do something it should have done a long time ago -- namely, end its unjustified military aid packages to Egypt and Israel. Robert Wright and Andrew Sullivan have raised this issue in different ways over the past week; here I want to explore the connection between the two aid programs.
In essence, the current level of U.S. aid to Egypt and Israel is a bribe dating back to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel demanded a long-term aid commitment in exchange for withdrawing from the Sinai, which it had occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt got the money as a reward for making peace and realigning with the West. The United States made a bunch of other commitments as part of this deal, and it has been locked in ever since, which is why recent events provide a tempting opportunity to restore U.S. freedom of action.
Let's start with Egypt. U.S. law prohibits the U.S. government from providing aid to any government that has taken power as the result of a military coup. Unless you torture the English language to the breaking point, this is precisely what has just happened in Egypt. So if you believe in the rule of law, the United States ought to be terminating its aid program.
But as Robert Wright tweeted on July 8, it would make a lot more sense to convert the current military aid program into something more useful, such as food aid. The last thing Egypt needs is more high-priced toys for its generals, like F-22s or tanks or even armored personnel carriers. Nobody is threatening to invade Egypt, and most of these weapons aren't all that useful for keeping public order. What Egypt needs is more-effective government, less corruption, economic growth, lower food prices, more reliable water and energy supplies, etc., etc. -- not more sophisticated or well-armed conventional military forces. The coup is an opportunity to end an aid program that outlived its usefulness a long time ago, and the United States ought to seize it.
Now for Israel. At this point there's no valid strategic reason for Israel to receive $3 billion to $4 billion in U.S. aid each year (most of it in various forms of military assistance). Israel isn't a poor country; its per capita income is nearly $30,000 per year, and it ranks in the world's top 30 countries on that indicator. Israel is far and away the dominant military power in the region, and its regional superiority would only increase if the United States stopped subsidizing Egypt's armed forces. Remember that Israel won the 1948, 1956, and 1967 Middle East wars, and each of these took place before the U.S. government was providing it with lots of military assistance. Egypt and Syria launched a stunningly successful surprise attack in October 1973, yet Israel eventually won that war too. And this was back in the bad old days when Israel's Arab adversaries were getting lots of help from the Soviet Union. Israel's various neighbors are much weaker today than they used to be (just look at the condition that Syria and Iraq are now in), and Israel also has the ultimate deterrent in the form of more than a hundred nuclear weapons. And as President Barack Obama learned during his first term, it's not like the United States gets any diplomatic leverage from giving Israel all that money. Bottom line: The case for continued U.S. military assistance is laughably weak.
So instead of military aid that Israel doesn't need and that serves only as an indirect subsidy for the settlements the United States opposes, the United States should offer Israel an equivalent amount of aid, provided it agrees to use the money to begin dismantling settlements in the West Bank and allowing the Palestinians to create a viable state of their own on these lands. That would be consistent with the stated U.S. objective of "two states for two peoples," and this shift in policy might actually get Netanyahu & Co. to pay serious attention to Secretary of State John Kerry the next time he pops in for a visit. (I don't think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would take the money and do this, by the way, but that's another issue).
In short, the events in Cairo are a perfect opportunity to wean these two dependencies off the U.S. dole or to convert U.S. assistance into something from which these two societies could actually benefit. This shift would also do wonders for the America's image in the region, which has taken a beating over the years for being too supportive of an expansionist Israel and too supportive of unpopular Arab dictatorships.
But we all know that a sensible response like this is about as likely as snow on the pyramids. The United States' Middle East policy isn't driven by rational calculations of the national interest or by a desire to make the United States stronger, more secure, or more prosperous. It's not even driven by moral considerations, given that the United States still provides generous support to governments that routinely commit serious human rights abuses or deny political rights to millions of people. Instead, it's driven mostly by domestic politics, especially the political power of AIPAC and the rest of the Israel lobby. And that's why the phrase "sensible U.S. Middle East policy" has become an oxymoron. The results, both for the United States and for the various peoples in the region, speak for themselves.
EPA/ABED AL HAFIZ HASHLAMOUN
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.
While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others are guest-blogging. The following guest post is from Yale University's Jolyon Howorth:
NATO's future is once again up for grabs. The fall of the Berlin Wall robbed the alliance of the enemy against which it had initially mobilized. Ever since, it has been in search of a new role. It has published three successive "strategic concepts" in a bid to explain its purpose. It has experimented with geographical expansion and with crisis management. It has dabbled in disaster relief and helped police the Olympic Games. It has engaged in multiple partnerships. And it has launched three major military operations: in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, and in Libya. None of these proved to be straightforward, and all of them exacerbated internal tensions. There remains widespread uncertainty as to what the alliance is actually for.
Americans and Europeans have differed sharply over NATO's purpose. The traditional U.S. view has envisaged a "global alliance," an association, around NATO, of the world's main democracies, linked by shared values and a joint commitment to preserve them. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, this became the "League of Democracies" promoted by then-candidate John McCain. The global alliance idea implies European payback for 40 years of American protection. An alliance initially forged to guarantee U.S. commitment to European security would morph into one designed to encourage European commitment to American global strategy. The Europeans, for the most part, have rejected that notion.
European member states having borders (or historical involvement) with Russia value, above all, the North Atlantic Treaty's Article 5, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus Latvians, for instance, can believe that if Moscow cut up rough, Uncle Sam would step up to the plate. Belief is reassuring. Other Europeans feel a debt of gratitude to the United States and believe that shared values require shared commitments. But after the generally unsatisfactory experience of Kosovo and the bitterly divisive experience of Afghanistan, Europeans are in no hurry to repeat the experience of far-flung adventures. So what is NATO for, post-Afghanistan?
The Libyan crisis in 2011, followed by events in Mali, offer a way forward. In Libya, the United States claimed to be "leading from behind." President Barack Obama set the administration's face firmly against high-profile military missions, especially in Muslim countries. The U.S. position was that Libya was the responsibility of the Europeans. But the European Union's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) proved inadequate to the task. There was neither the political will nor the military capacity to tackle the Libyan crisis. Eventually, the Libyan mission fell to NATO. Despite the mantra of "leading from behind," the mission depended crucially on U.S. military inputs. But the model was established. Leadership of the mission was assumed by France and Britain, with the United States supplying key "enablers."
This past January, we saw a repeat of this model in Mali, where France took overall responsibility for Operation Serval, driving Islamist insurgents north into the Sahara desert, with key enabling support from the United States.
What do these examples tell us about the future of European security arrangements? Ever since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been urging the Europeans to assume responsibility for their own regional security. That is why the EU member states, in 1999, launched their CSDP project, which has subsequently carried out almost 30 overseas missions, some of them militarily significant, like the ongoing anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa. The "Greater European area," for whose stability the EU might reasonably assume responsibility, covers the entire eastern and southern neighborhoods, the latter extending from the Red Sea, through the Sahel, to the Atlantic.
For 15 years, CSDP strove to remain "autonomous" of NATO. The idea was for Europe to develop its own strategic culture, based on a judicious mix of soft and hard power, and not simply replicate the muscular profile of the U.S. military. This has severe limitations. Most EU missions have been overwhelmingly advisory and civilian in nature (police missions, border control missions, security-sector reform missions). When real crises have arisen (the Balkans in the 1990s and North Africa in the 2010s), the EU has proved unequal to the task. Meanwhile, NATO continues to exist alongside CSDP. Both struggle to define their purpose and their mutual relationship.
The answer is progressively to move closer together and even, eventually, to merge. The merged entity would progressively assume responsibility, in conjunction with other regional actors (Russia, Turkey, the Arab League), for the "Greater European area."
NATO is like a bicycle that has only ever been ridden by the United States, with the Europeans bundled behind in the baby seat. Now the United States is urging the Europeans to learn to ride the bicycle themselves. The European response has been that they prefer to design their own, rather different, bicycle. It is smaller, slower, and fitted with large training wheels. It is useful for the sorts of missions CSDP has undertaken, but simply inadequate for serious crisis-management tasks. The Europeans need, sooner or later, to master the adult bike. In Libya, the message from the United States was: "Look, you have to acquire the confidence to ride a big bike. Just try. We will supply some large training wheels (air-to-air refueling, logistics, intelligence), and we'll follow along behind to steady you if you start to wobble. But you must do the pedaling, and you must hold the handlebars."
This is the way forward. The Europeans can become autonomous via NATO. Once they have mastered the adult bike, the United States can progressively fit smaller and smaller training wheels. And eventually, perhaps, there will be no need for any at all. The United States and the European Union would finally become true partners and allies in a world of power transition.
Jolyon Howorth has been visiting professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University since 2002. He is professor emeritus of European politics at the University of Bath in Britain.
By dadblunders [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
You might think that you don't need to worry about the secret U.S. government programs to collect phone and Internet information on ordinary Americans, a program that is not quite so secret after last week's revelations. There are over 300 million Americans, after all, and the vast majority of their online and cell-phone communications have nothing to do with national security and are unlikely to attract any scrutiny. We are still some ways from Big Brother, "Minority Report," or "The Adjustment Bureau," and maybe we can trust the nameless, largely anonymous army of defense contractors and government employees (by one source numbering more than 800,000) to handle all that data responsibly. Yeah, right.
In fact, you should be worried, but not because most of you are likely to have your privacy violated and be publicly exposed. If you're an ordinary citizen who never does anything to attract any particular attention, you probably don't need to be concerned. Even if your Internet and phone records contain information you'd rather not be made public (an online flirtation, the time you emailed a friend to bring over some pot, or maybe some peculiar porn habits), there's safety in numbers, and you'll probably never be exposed.
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?
My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Vigorous debate on key issues is essential to a healthy democracy, and it is essential that outsiders be able to scrutinize and challenge what public officials are up to. People who work for the federal, state, and local governments aren't privileged overlords to whom we owe obeisance; in a democracy, they are public servants who work for us. Right now, however, there are hundreds of thousands of public servants (including private contractors with fat government contracts) who are busy collecting information about every one of us. Citizens don't have similar resources to devote to watching what our elected and appointment officials are doing, so we must rely on journalists, academics, and other independent voices to ferret out wrongdoing, government malfeasance, corruption, or just plain honest mistakes. But if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before -- and via completely legal means -- then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.
In short, the real reason you should be worried about these revelations of government surveillance is not that you're likely to be tracked, prosecuted, or exposed. You should be worried because it is another step in the process of making our vibrant, contentious, and most of all free-minded citizenry into a nation of sheep.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Sullivan has offered a measured response to the Guardian's revelations about a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to collect metadata about ordinary Americans' phone calls. You can read his whole comment here, but the sentences that caught my eye were these:
"This kind of technology is one of the US' only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence."
There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in "competitive advantages" against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They're vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.
Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the "consequences of its absence" could be "terrible." This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism -- even of the sort suffered on 9/11 -- is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren't secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from "jihadi terrorism." The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don't have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don't seem to be crying out for a "Patriot Act" to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.
Terrorism often succeeds when its targets overreact, thereby confirming the extremists' narrative and helping tilt opinion toward their cause. Thus, a key lesson in dealing with these (modest) dangers is not to exaggerate them or attribute to enemies advantages that they do not possess. I suspect Sullivan knows this, even if he briefly forgot it when writing his otherwise thoughtful post.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, President Obama is hoping to establish a genuine personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter's visit to the United States this week. Hence the nature of the visit: an informal, in-depth, and deliberately casual event outside Washington, intended to give the two leaders the chance to get past the official talking points and really get to know each other.
It's easy to understand why Obama thinks one-on-one diplomacy is the best way to handle the delicate Sino-American relationship. Most politicians have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, as well as a certain faith in their innate ability to get on good terms with others and get them to do what they want. Although he's been criticized of late for lacking the "schmooze factor," Obama's whole career has been based on his ability to charm people, starting with the Democratic Party insiders who backed his campaign early and winning over the millions of voters who've now elected him twice. No doubt he's hoping to work a little of the same magic with Xi.
More importantly, given all the potential frictions between a rising China and a reigning U.S., what else is he going to do? Neither Obama nor Xi can alter the core interests of the two countries, or wish away the various issues where those interests already conflict or are likely to do so in the future. The best they can achieve is a better understanding of each other's red lines and resolve and some agreement on those issues where national interests overlap. In this way, each can hope to keep things from getting worse and at the margin make relations a bit warmer. In this sense, personal summitry of the sort being practiced this weekend is the only card either can play.
But even if Obama is successful this weekend, this effort is unlikely to prevent Sino-American rivalry from intensifying in the future. The basic problem is that the two state's core grand strategies are at odds, and good rapport between these two particular leaders won't prevent those tensions from re-emerging down the road.
Today, the United States has a dominant position in the Western hemisphere and faces no serious rivals nearby. As I've observed before, this basic level of territorial security is what allows the United States to roam around the world trying to shape events in far-flung places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, the Korean Peninsula, and the Balkans, and to concern itself with issues that are of often of secondary importance (like Libya or even Syria). Moreover, the United States also has a major security presence in East Asia -- China's home region -- and is planning on bolstering that presence in the years ahead. Despite the missteps of recent years, current geopolitical realities still favor the United States.
By contrast, China faces a decidedly unfavorable regional environment. Its relations with India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and several other neighbors are wary at best, and many nearby countries have close security ties or formal alliances with the United States (Imagine how we would feel if Canada were allied with China and Chinese warships had a base in Acapulco). Unlike the autarkic Soviet Union, China is also increasingly dependent on foreign trade to supply with raw materials, energy, and export markets, and this trade must travel through various ocean straits and choke points that leave it vulnerable to blockade. Moreover, its growing dependence on outside resources means that China's interests are increasingly global in nature; in the future, it will not be just a land power worrying mostly about events close to home.
Here's the rub: as long as the United States retains a significant military presence in Asia and a network of Asian allies, Beijing will have to worry a lot about security in its own region and it won't be able to interfere as often or as effectively in other parts of the world. And as long as this is the case, the United States will have a freer hand in the other places that it cares about.
But if China continues to rise economically, develops more military power, and uses its growing clout to slowly push the United States out of Asia, then the conditions that currently favor the United States will be gone. If China manages to create a "sphere of deference" in Asia and eventually convinces most Asian states to distance themselves from Washington, then it won't have to worry as much about its immediate neighborhood and it will be free to take a more active role elsewhere. China's geopolitical position would be more like the United States: it would be a regional hegemon that was increasingly free to intervene overseas when it felt that its interests required it to do so. And that might even include a more active role in the Western hemisphere, thereby forcing the United States to pay more attention to matters closer to home.
In short, the struggle for hegemony in Asia will be a crucial pivot point for the 21st century: if it goes one way, the United States will preserve much of the freedom of action that it has enjoyed since 1945. But if it goes the other way, the United States will be sharing the world stage with a peer competitor with a larger population, a larger economy (in absolute terms), and the same capacity to shape events around the world that the United States has long been accustomed to.
At the most basic level, this is why the United States is "pivoting" to Asia: to try to prevent China from establishing a dominant position there. It is this fundamental incompatibility between strategic objectives that will fuel Sino-American rivalry in the future, no matter how well Obama and Xi (or their successors) get on this weekend. And with so much potentially at stake for both countries, you can easily see why intense competition is likely.
Of course, this pessimistic scenario will not arise if Chinese economic growth stalls, or if internal problems force China's leaders to concentrate on domestic matters. Nor am I predicting a future war between the United States and China, or even a competition as nasty and intense as the Soviet-American "Cold War." After all, there are powerful economic incentives for both sides to keep the competition within bounds, and there isn't the same level of ideological animosity that gave the Cold War its particular Manichean character. And there's some comfort in the realist argument that bipolar worlds tend to be both tense but also stable. But the tension between U.S. and Chinese grand strategies is bound to generate recurring frictions, and is likely to generate an intense competition for allies and influence, especially in Asia.
Nothing in international politics is inevitable, of course, and sometimes enlightened statecraft can overcome structural pressures. If U.S. leaders are consistently wise, far-sighted, judicious, calm, and resolute -- not just now but for the next forty years -- and if their Chinese counterparts are equally sensible, restrained and smart, then it is entirely possible that the two governments will navigate the future diplomatic rapids with skill and aplomb. But seriously: how likely is that optimistic scenario? Based on what we know of each country's history, can we be confident that both countries can go for thirty or forty years without eventually choosing a leader or two who aren't especially wise, astute, sensible, or restrained? For this reason, relying on personal rapport to manage relations between the world's two most powerful countries seems like a pretty weak reed to me.
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If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka "terrorism"), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly. I am beginning to wonder if our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind.
Don't get me wrong: The speed with which the Tsarnaev brothers were identified was remarkable, and citizens at the scene of the bombing showed resolution and humanity in helping the victims. Here in Boston, a great many people worked with energy, courage, and effectiveness to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. And one can only feel a sense of heartache and tragedy when reading about each of the victims, senselessly murdered.
It's the larger response to the tragedy that worries me. Although politicians from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick offered up the usual defiant statements about America's toughness and resilience in the face of terror, the overall reaction to the attacks was anything but. Public officials shut down the entire city of Boston and several surrounding suburbs for most of the day, at an estimated cost of roughly $300 million. What did this accomplish? It showed that a 19 year-old amateur could paralyze an entire American metropolis. As numerous commentators have already pointed out, a city-wide lockdown is not what public officials have done in countless other manhunts, such as the search for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles. And Dorner was a former Navy reservist who had killed four people and who was at least as "armed and dangerous" as the Tsarnaevs. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the attitude that tamed the West, stopped the Third Reich, or won the Cold War.
The media frenzy that accompanied these events was equally disturbing. If terrorists "want a lot of people watching," then that's precisely what the American media gave them. It is probably unrealistic to hope that today's hydra-headed and commercially voracious media would respond to an event like this with even a modicum of restraint, but the feeding frenzy that CNN, Fox, and many other outlets engaged in must have been deeply gratifying to America's enemies. Television networks have learned not to train their cameras on the lunkheads who sometimes jump out of the bleachers and race across a baseball field. In a perfect world, these same organizations would act with similar wisdom when terrorists strike. In particular they would tell the public what it needed to know for the sake of safety, but they would spare us the round-the-clock, obsessive-compulsive, and error-ridden blather that merely gives extremists the publicity they seek.
As Boston shut down and the world watched, fourteen Americans were killed and more than 200 were injured in a factory explosion in Texas. Those people are just as dead as the four victims in Boston, yet their story is already fading to the back pages of the major papers. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaevs remain the Big Story and got profiled on 60 Minutes last night. As I write this, the death toll from last week's earthquake in China nears 200 -- with thousands injured -- but it barely rates a passing glance. And the week before the Marathon bombing, those courageous members of our bought-and-paid-for Senate rejected the very mildest of efforts to reduce the danger from guns, even though firearms kill over 30,000 Americans every year. As Michael Cohen noted in the Guardian, we fear that which scares us, but not the things that actually threaten us.
What is it about terrorism that terrorizes? Is the disproportionate attention it receives due to its seemingly random nature? The sense that it could strike any of us without warning? That explanation seems unlikely, given that other equally random dangers pose a greater risk. Is it because terrorism is the product of human volition, an explicit act of malevolence? This may have something to do with our tendency to overreact, yet other equally heinous acts don't seem to transfix society in the same way.
Or was it the intrusion of an act of wanton violence into an event -- the Boston Marathon -- that is supposed to be celebratory and fun? Or do we react viscerally to terrorism because such acts force us to think -- however reluctantly -- about the rage, animosity, and alienation that others feel towards us?
I don't know. But I cannot help but think that our political leaders have been letting us down ever since 9/11. Instead of teaching Americans that that actual risk from terrorism was minimal, they have kept us disrobing in security lines, obsessing over every bizarre jihadi utterance, and constantly fretting about the Next Big One. An entire industry of "terrorism experts" has arisen to keep us on the edge of our seats, even though many other dangers pose a far greater risk. The result of this obsession has been catastrophic: a failed effort to nation-build in Afghanistan, a wholly misbegotten war in Iraq, and an enormous distraction from any number of other issues -- education, climate, energy, the economy -- whose mismanagement will ultimately claim far more lives and create far more immiseration than those two misguided and angry young brothers did.
I do not mean to trivialize what happened last week. Four innocent people died, and many more were grievously hurt. Finding the persons responsible was necessary, and I'm as happy as anyone else that they are no longer at large. But the brutal reality of human existence is that it is fragile, and there are no guarantees. Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur. The grossly disproportionate reaction to the Marathon attacks tells me that our political system is increasingly incapable of weighing dangers intelligently and allocating resources in a sensible manner. Unless we get better at evaluating dangers and responding to them appropriately, we are going to focus too much time and attention on a few bad things because they happen to be particularly vivid, and not enough on the problems on which many more lives ultimately depend.
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I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I've been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.
As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects' origins doesn't tell you what their motives were. Let's assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects' origins are little more than guesses.
Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn't appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn't try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.
But as I suggested a couple of days ago, that observation doesn't change our situation very much. Given the nature of destructive technology -- in this case, fairly primitive bombs -- and the fact that there will always be a few people with a destructive agenda of some kind, there are always going to be senseless acts of violence. Governments and society at large can and should take reasonable measures to reduce that risk -- and yes, a saner approach to gun regulation would help -- but 100 percent safety isn't possible. Fortunately, the odds that any of us will ever experience a direct encounter with this sort of violence are still vanishingly small. Even if you're a police officer or a soldier, the odds are in your favor. For the rest of us, we are still remarkably safe by historic standards. And Americans are much, much safer than people in many other places.
And remember, four people have now died in Boston (not counting the dead suspect), but some fifteen people died in Texas when a fertilizer plant blew up. The world is not foolproof. Bad things do happen. That bedrock reality is not even interesting; what matters is that we recognize dangers for what they are, calibrate them properly, and respond to them intelligently.
P.S.: Continued kudos to the law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem, who identified the suspects with remarkable speed and have handled an extremely difficult situation with calm but decisive measures. Cable TV? Not so much.
Update: As I've watched today's events and pondered further, I've become convinced that public officials in Boston erred by locking down the City and most surrounding suburbs for an entire day. There may be a good explanation for this decision, but it hasn't been provided yet. The economic cost has been enormous (by one estimate about $1 billion), and it sets a worrisome precedent if a 19 year old fugitive can paralyze an entire metropolitan region. We didn't shut down DC when the snipers were operating there, and we didn't shut down Los Angeles when a renegade and heavily armed police officer was a fugitive. This response also belies our insistence that we're tough and we won't be intimidated. On the contrary: we look skittish and scared. I suspect public officials were deathly afraid of further violence, and of being blamed later for not taking precautions. We'll see. But I worry that potential copycats will be inspired rather than deterred by the combination of media frenzy and governmental overreaction.
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I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday's attack at the Boston Marathon -- to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb.
For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday's events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction -- and especially nuclear weapons -- then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism's web through no fault of their own.
Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday's events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice.
There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday's race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.
But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.
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How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.
According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.
But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.
Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.
I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.
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If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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I've been thinking this week about U.S. defense spending and grand strategy. It's increasingly clear that while the sequester may be an accounting and planning nightmare for Pentagon officials, it's not going to leave the United States naked and defenseless before its enemies. How could it? Even after the 9 percent budget cut mandated by the sequester, the United States is still going to spend at least four times more than the number two military power (China). Moreover, the United States is in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position -- with friendly countries on both borders and no great power rivals nearby -- and it has thousands of nuclear weapons to deter attack. As I've noted before, this remarkably high level of basic territorial security is why foreign policy mavens in the United States can devote their time to worrying about and meddling in far-flung backwaters.
Nonetheless, a reduced defense budget is bound to have some effects. How should Americans think about it? Here are three quick ideas.
First, one wrong way to respond is to engage in threat inflation. This was the Pentagon's reflexive answer as the sequester approached. Top military leaders began shouting that the sky was about to fall and that sequestration was going to turn the United States, as former SecDef Leon Panetta put it, into "a second rate power." The commandant of the Marine Corps, James Amos, said the sequester would have a "devastating impact" on military readiness and create "unacceptable levels of risk." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, told Congress a year ago that "in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now."
In a rare moment of sanity, Congress didn't fall for these scare tactics. And my guess is that this sort of alarmism won't work well in the future either, because Al Qaeda is on the ropes, China isn't a peer competitor yet, and even a healthier U.S. economy is going to face fiscal pressures -- an aging population, deferred maintenance on U.S. infrastructure, etc. -- that will be hard for the Pentagon to tilt against.
Second, an equally bad response would be to assume the U.S. military can and should try to perform every one of its current missions as its capabilities decline. Not only is that unfair to the men and women in uniform, it's also bad strategy. Even if you believe that we've been spending more than we needed to in recent years, there ought to be some correspondence between capabilities and commitments. If you spend less and have to trim force structure and other capabilities, the missions you are committed to perform ought to shrink too, which, in turn, means rethinking how the U.S. uses its power around the world and being more selective in identifying and setting priorities.
Third, the right way to think about this issue is to focus more attention on interests -- both our own and those of our allies. For the past fifty years or more, America's overarching power made it possible to expand our definition of "interests" almost without limit. And as the world's most powerful country, we assumed it was our right and responsibility to do most of the heavy lifting in various trouble spots. That tendency increased even more after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving us without a peer competitor and in a position of (nearly) unchallenged primacy. Our Foreign Policy Mandarins readily embraced this role, as it gave them lots of missions to perform and allowed them to strut around the world telling other countries what to do. U.S. officials began to describe the United States as the "indispensable nation" and assumed that the solution to most (all?) global problems had to be "Made in America."
Today, having been chastened by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis and facing the prospect of a serious, long-term competition with China that is in its early stages, it behooves American strategic planners to move from a power-centered perspective to one that focuses more closely on interests. Specifically, when problems arise in particular areas, our first question should not be "what can we do about this?" but rather "who has the greatest interest in this problem?" And if there are other states that share our basic outlook and have a greater interest in the issue, then we should let them take the lead and bear the burden of addressing it, with the United States playing a back-up role when appropriate.
IR theorists have a term for this -- "buck-passing." It may not sound heroic, but it's often a superb strategy. If you can get others to pay the price and bear the burden, then you can often get the results you want at very low cost. And as the United States learned in both world wars, keeping one's powder dry while others rush to war sometimes puts you in an excellent position to win the peace. It is hardly fool-proof, of course, but the good news is that America's remarkably favorable geostrategic position gives us a greater opportunity to pursue this approach at relatively little risk.
One can see the seeds of this new approach in the Obama administration's response to events in Libya, Mali, and Syria. Instead of placing the United States in the vanguard -- which invariably generates concern, resentment, and free-riding -- Washington has let countries with a greater interest in the outcome take the lead. It has not been entirely aloof, of course -- especially in the Libyan case -- but it has kept its commitments appropriately modest. Not only does that keep us out of additional costly quagmires, but it also keeps us from pouring gasoline on conflicts that might in fact get worse if we do. Far from being a sign of strategic impotence, one might think of it instead as a sign of good judgment.
This is not isolationism. Instead, think of it as "playing hard to get." American power is still enormous and a great asset for others, which means they should be willing to go a long way to accommodate us in order to be able to obtain it. The only way to get others -- including our allies -- to do more to address common security problems is for the United States to do less, especially in those areas where others have a greater stake in the issue than we do. If Uncle Sucker insists on doing it all, others will be happy to let us while they stand around carping about heavy-handed American interference.
The challenge going forward lies in striking the right balance between engagement and independence -- doing just enough so that others know they can count on us if needed but not so much that those with a greater stake take advantage of our overweening ambition. By the way, that will be primarily a task of intelligence and diplomacy, not military strategy. And while the sequester is a pretty stupid way to trim defense spending (i.e., Panetta was right to call it a "goofy meataxe"), it might have a silver lining. If it accelerates the process of rethinking our overall grand strategy, then the net effect might be quite salutary.
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You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
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I don't usually like to repeat myself (or at least not too often), but the antics of Senators Inhofe, Cruz, McCain, Graham, et al. really do exemplify the irresponsibility of today's GOP, as well as the extraordinary margin of security that Americans enjoy.
(See in particular point #2 in my last post).
Only in a country that was largely safe from serious harm could senior elected officials engage in the fact-free McCarthyism of Sen. Ted Cruz, who keeps inventing inane accusations that Chuck Hagel -- a decorated war veteran -- has somehow been bought off by foreign powers. I suspect Cruz has been watching too many episodes of Homeland back to back.
Only in a country that was really safe could someone like Sen. Lindsay Graham keep threatening to leave the Pentagon leaderless so that he can get more "answers" about Benghazi, even after the secretary of state and a bunch of other officials have testified at length on that tragic matter. And what exactly does Benghazi have to do with Hagel's fitness for office anyway, given that he wasn't in the Obama administration when our consulate was attacked?
Only in a country that was very, very secure could a senator like James Inhofe invoke a crackpot interpretation of the Old Testament to justify U.S. support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank without having his constiuents hound him from office for endangering the United States and Israel alike. Remember, Inhofe is defending an occupation that many Israelis -- including several former prime ministers -- believe threatens Israel's long-term future. With "friends" like Senator Inhofe, Israel doesn't need enemies (it has those in abundance already). But because America is so secure, he can say silly things like this and not be seen as endangering the country.
I'm pretty sure Hagel will be confirmed, as he should be. And I hope every one of the senators who voted against him get peppered by questions from their constituents about why they behaved so shamefully ... from start to finish.
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The flap over Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense -- brought to you, like so many other foolish things, by hardliners in the Israel lobby -- has been a distraction from the real questions that the next secretary of defense ought to be ready to address. I happen to think Hagel is a good choice for the position, but he shouldn't get a free ride when he testifies tomorrow. In that spirit, here are the Ten Questions I'd Ask Chuck Hagel on Thursday.
1. On China: "Do you think China's rising power poses a serious threat to U.S. interests? If its power continues to rise, should the United States continue to strengthen its Asian alliances and move more military forces to Asia? What other steps should the United States take now to protect its geopolitical interests in Asia, and how can we avoid a new Cold War there?"
2. On Taiwan: "As China's naval, air, and missile capabilities increase, defending Taiwan will become increasingly difficult. If at some point defending Taiwan is no longer militarily feasible, what should the United States do?"
3. On cyberwar: "Are you worried that America's use of cyberwarfare capabilities -- such as the famous STUXNET attack on Iran -- is setting a dangerous precedent for others? Given our growing dependence on computer networks, shouldn't we be actively pursuing some sort of a global regime to limit this danger, instead of assuming we will always be better at it than others?
Bonus follow-up on drones: "Same question: are we setting an equally dangerous precedent here? And do you agree with critics who say that current drone strikes are often counterproductive because they create as many extremists as they take out?"
#4. On nuclear weapons: "If it were solely up to you, sir, how many nuclear weapons would you maintain in the U.S. stockpile, even if other states did not reduce their arsenals at all?"
#5: On U.S.-Japanese relations: "The U.S.-Japanese security treaty is decidedly one-sided. As MIT professor Barry Posen points out, the treaty commits us to defending Japan while Japan promises to help. Shouldn't this arrangement be reversed? Why should America be more committed to defending Japan than the Japanese are? As secretary of defense, what will you do to produce a more equitable sharing of burdens between the U.S. and its wealthiest allies?"
#6: On torture: "Are you comfortable with how the Obama administration dealt with the previous use of torture by U.S. personnel? Do you think the officials who authorized torture and other war crimes should have been prosecuted?"
#7: On Iraq and Afghanistan: "In the past decade, the United States has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in two major conflicts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from the obvious lesson that we should not start foolish wars, what other lessons should the U.S. military be learning from these twin failures?"
#8: On the global military footprint: "The United States has hundreds of bases and other military facilities in every continent of the world; no other country comes even close. In the absence of a serious peer competitor, does our security really depend on this enormous global footprint? Which facilities could we do without?"
Bonus follow-up: "Defense experts also agree that America's basing structure at home is inefficient. As Secretary, are there any bases you would close or consolidate?
#9: On rape in the U.S. armed forces: "President Obama has recently authorized the deployment of women in combat roles. Yet sexual harassment and rape have reached epidemic proportions within the U.S. military, with over 3000 incidents per year being reported. What do you intend to do about this?"
#10: On veterans' benefits: "The United States should pay its soldiers a fair wage and stand by its veterans. Yet a number of budget experts now believe that ever-escalating benefit packages threaten our ability to maintain an effective defense. Do you think our current approach to military compensation is about right, or does it need to be fundamentally rethought? If the latter, how?"
If anybody asks him a few questions like that, they might even forget about some of those other issues, and the Senators might learn something useful about his qualifications and judgment.
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Here's a little fantasy for you to ponder: what if one of our senior foreign policy officials accidentally swallowed some sodium pentothal (aka "truth serum") before some public hearing or press conference, and started speaking the truth about one of those issues where prevarication, political correctness, and obfuscation normally prevail? You know: what if they started saying in public all those things that they probably believe in private? What sorts of "inconvenient truths" might suddenly get revealed?
In that spirit, here's my Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit.
#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons." U.S. presidents have talked about disarmament since the beginning of the nuclear age. According to the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, we're formally committed to "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." It has even become fashionable for retired foreign policy experts like George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger to call for eliminating nuclear weapons too (even though they would have strenuously opposed such actions while in office) and of course Barack Obama made some speeches about it early in his presidency. And now some folks are trying to make a big deal about Chuck Hagel's involvement with Global Zero, a respectable international campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons.
But let's get serious for a minute. Although the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile sharply since the end of the Cold War, it still has thousands either on active deployment or in reserve. Nobody in power is seriously advocating getting rid of all of them anytime soon, and even modest reductions (such as those stipulated by the most recent arms control treaty with Russia) are politically controversial. U.S. leaders have to pay lip service to the goal of total disarmament, and a few of them might privately favor it, but they understand that these weapons are the ultimate deterrent and that the United States isn't going to give them all up until it is confident that there is no conceivable scenario in which it might want them. Which means: not in my lifetime, or yours.
#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights." Presidents, diplomats, and other politicians talk about human rights all the time, and both Congress and the Executive Branch often bully small countries over their human rights performance, especially when we have other differences with them). But when human rights concerns conflict with other interests, our ethical concerns take a back seat nearly every time. Most Americans didn't care when the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis (many of them children), and none of the senior officials who authorized torture during the Bush administration has faced indictment or even serious investigation (Just imagine how much we'd be howling if we suspected some foreign government had been waterboarding captive Americans!). The United States has plenty of allies whose human rights performance ranges from questionable to awful, and we continue to trade and invest in China despite its own lax human rights standards. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. government is totally indifferent to such concerns, of course; what I'm saying is that we are rarely willing to do very much or pay significant costs in order to advance human rights, unless our strategic interests run parallel. Like most countries, in short, we talk a better game on human rights than we actually deliver. But you're not going to hear many American politicians admit it.
#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution." For official Washington insiders, the politically-correct answer to any question about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that we favor a two-state solution based on negotiations between the two parties, preferably done under U.S. auspices. Never mind that there's not much support for creating a viable Palestinian state in Israel (surveys in Israel sometimes show slim majorities in favor of a 2SS, but support drops sharply when you spell out the details of what a viable state would mean). Never mind that the Palestinians are too weak and divided to negotiate properly, and the failure of the long Oslo process has diminished Fatah's legitimacy and strengthened the more hardline Hamas. Never mind that the latest Israeli election, while it weakened Netanyahu, did not strengthen the peace camp at all. And never mind that the United States has had twenty-plus years to pull of the deal and has blown it every time, mostly because it never acted like a genuine mediator. But nobody in official-dom is going to say this out loud, because they have no idea what U.S. policy would be once the 2SS was kaput.
#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can." Most U.S. leaders like to talk about global partnerships and the need to work with allies, and they try not to speak too glowingly about American dominance. But make no mistake: U.S. leaders have long recognized that being stronger than everyone else was desirable, and nobody ever runs for president vowing to "make America #2." That's why U.S. leaders have always been ambivalent about European unity: they want Europe to be sufficiently unified so that it doesn't become a source of trouble, but they don't want it to cohere into a super-state that might be powerful enough to stand up to Washington.
The problem, of course, is that openly proclaiming global primacy irritates other governments and makes them look for ways to keep Washington in check. That's why the first Bush administration had to disavow an early draft of the 1992 Defense Guidance; it was way too explicit in laying out these familiar aims. But dropping that draft didn't alter the ambition, and despite what you might think, neither Clinton, Bush Jr., or Obama has abandoned the basic goal of keeping the United States #1. Whether their policies advanced that goal is another question.
#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it." Everyone knows that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a failure since the early 1960s -- that's half a century, folks -- but it never changes because the stakes don't seem worth it and it would tick off a handful of influential people in Florida. Everyone knows the foreign policy side of the "war on drugs" has been no more successful than the anti-drug campaign here at home, but you didn't hear Kerry say that during his hearings last week and you won't hear Hagel (or anyone else) say that either. Everyone knows that most U.S. allies around the world have been free-riding for decades and taking advantage of our protection to pursue their own interests, but saying so out loud wouldn't be ... well, diplomatic. More and more insiders know that the Afghan war is a loser, but we're going to pretend it's a victory because that makes it getting out politically feasible. It's obvious that our basic approach to Iran's nuclear program has been misguided, and that we've spent the last two decades giving Iran more reasons to want a nuclear deterrent and digging ourselves into an deeper diplomatic hole. But don't expect officials to acknowledge that simple fact, and certainly not in public.
Like I said, this is just an idle fantasy. I don't really want to see what Kerry or Hagel or McDonough or Lew or others would be like on truth serum (though I sometimes wonder if somebody is slipping a smidge to Biden every now and then). But it is kinda fun to imagine what they might blurt out in an idle moment, especially if the normal inhibitions and constraints were removed. What would you expect them to say?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.