Are you as frustrated as I am by the whole discussion of terrorism in U.S. national security discourse? Given the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to protect Americans from terrorists (trillions if you add in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), and the army of academics, policy wonks, think tankers, and consultants who've been studying this matter for the past decade or more, you would think we would have a better idea of how well we are doing. And given the stakes involved, by this time you'd think that some serious cost-benefit analysis would be applied to the problem of counterterrorism: Hard-nosed people would be asking whether it really makes sense to spend all that money hardening the United States and chasing terrorists with drones and special operations forces, especially if most terrorists aren't focused on the United States and don't have the capability to do much damage to us.
I raise this question because our leaders don't seem to be able to get their stories straight on this one. A good case can be made that the "war on terror" is mostly won -- in the sense that we've defanged the most dangerous anti-American types -- and that what's left are various copycats in various places that ultimately don't matter that much to the United States and are best dealt with by local authorities. If this view is correct, then President Barack Obama was right to suggest that the "war on terror" is over and to try to shift our attention back to other foreign-policy priorities. To say that is not to say the danger is zero -- indeed, there will be terrorist attacks in the future - it is just to say that it's more of a tragic nuisance than a Major Threat.
But now we're being told by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, that the terrorist threat is back and worse than it was a few years ago. In particular, they point to the growing jihadi role in places like Syria and to self-congratulatory statements from al Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri. The implication, as this New York Times story makes clear, is that the United States needs to get more directly involved in defeating this ever-expanding set of terrorist copycats.
I understand that terrorist groups like al Qaeda do operate in secret (to the extent that they can), and that gauging the actual level of the threat they pose is not an exact science. And I recognize that risk-averse politicians prefer to err on the side of caution. If you issue lots of scary warnings and nothing happens, you can take credit for having been prudent. But if you tell people the danger isn't that great and then an attack takes place, you sound naïve, credulous, and insufficiently devoted to national security. So when in doubt, politicians are inclined to oversell the danger.
Still, it really is important to get this right: Just how serious is the threat, some 12 years after the 9/11 attacks? In terms of the direct harm to Americans in the United States, the danger appears to be quite modest. So why are Feinstein and Rogers so animated by this latest set of developments? And doesn't Boston's defiant and resolute reaction to the city's marathon bombing in April suggest that the American population isn't nearly as querulous as politicians fear: If you explain to them that there is no such thing as 100 percent security, they don't go all wobbly. Instead, they display precisely the sort of calm resolution that causes terrorist campaigns to fail.
It is even more important to figure out how best to respond. If Islamic extremists using terrorist methods are trying to gain power in various countries, does it make sense for the United States to insert itself in these conflicts and inevitably invite their attention? Or is the country better off remaining aloof or just backing local authorities (if it can find any who seem reasonably competent)?
My larger concern is that we have also created a vast counterterrorism industry that has a vested interest in continuing this campaign. Those in the industry are the most prominent and visible experts, but fighting terrorists is also a meal ticket for many of them and self-interest might naturally incline them to hype the threat. The danger is that the United States will devote too much effort and energy to chasing relatively weak and obscure bad guys in various not-very-important places (see under: Afghanistan, Pakistan's frontier provinces, Somalia, etc., etc.,) while other problems get short shrift.
But like I said at the start, mostly I'm frustrated by the lack of consensus at this point in the campaign. And you should be too.
Photo: Zach Klein/Flickr
As I promised in my last post, today I want to offer a somewhat different view of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. I've been traveling for the past 10 days, giving talks at several venues in the United Kingdom and attending the World Economic Forum's meeting of Global Agenda Councils in Abu Dhabi. There was a lot of discussion of America's evolving role in the world at these meetings, and I intend to revisit some of those issues in subsequent posts. But for now, a few thoughts on the Middle East, which is in the news big time these days.
For me, any discussion of U.S. strategy has to begin by acknowledging America's remarkably favorable international position in the world. In the endless quest to identify and neutralize new threats -- both real and imagined -- Americans often forget just how secure the United States is, especially compared with other states. As I've noted many times before, the United States is blessed with a large population, abundant resources, fertile land, navigable rivers, and a technologically sophisticated economy that encourages innovation. These core sources of American power are highly robust, which means that U.S. security and prosperity depend more on what happens at home than on anything that might happen abroad.
Furthermore, the United States has no serious rivals in the Western Hemisphere. It is protected -- still! -- by two vast oceans. As the French ambassador to the United States said in 1910: "The United States was blessed among nations. On the north, she had a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east, fish, and on the west, fish." Today, the United States possesses the world's most capable conventional military forces and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, giving Washington a deterrent power that others can only envy. Indeed, the main reason the United States can roam around concerning itself with other countries' business (and interfering in various ways) is because it doesn't have to worry about defending itself against foreign invasions, blockades, and the like.
One consequence of this favorable position, by the way, is that the country routinely blows minor threats out of all proportion. I mean: Iran has a defense budget of about $10 billion (less than 1/50th of what the United States spends on national security), yet we manage to convince ourselves that Iran is a Very Serious Threat to U.S. vital interests. Ditto the constant fretting about minor-league powers like Syria, North Korea, Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya, and other so-called "rogue states."
When we talk about U.S. strategy in the Middle East, therefore, we need to start by recognizing that the United States is in very good shape, and a lot of what happens in that part of the world may not matter very much to the country in the long run. Put differently, no matter what happens there, the United States can almost certainly adjust and adapt and be just fine.
So what are U.S. interests in the Middle East? I'd say the United States has three strategic interests and two moral interests. The three strategic interests are 1) keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; 2) minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and 3) inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The two moral interests are 1) promotion of human rights and participatory government, and 2) helping ensure Israel's survival.
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
After President Barack Obama was re-elected last year, I wrote that I didn't expect him to devote much attention to foreign affairs and that we should not expect any major breakthroughs in that arena. In light of recent events (e.g., Syria, the relaunching of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, etc.), does my position need rethinking?
Yes and no.
It is true that the Syria business has forced Obama to spend more time on foreign affairs than he probably wanted to, but let's not forget that what happens in Syria is not that important in the larger scheme of things. Yes, it is obviously important to the people of Syria and to some of their immediate neighbors, but Syria itself is just not that powerful or influential. No matter what happens in Syria -- a victory for Bashar al-Assad's thugs, the removal of all the chemical weapons, a complete rebel triumph, the establishment of genuine democracy, or the creation of an Islamist state, etc. -- the broader trajectory of world politics isn't going to change very much. So even if the deal in Geneva works out as well as one might hope, and even if I gave Obama & Co. full credit for the deal (which they don't deserve), I wouldn't score it as a "major" foreign-policy achievement.
Now for some more bad news. Right now, it doesn't look like the main currents of the so-called "Arab Spring" are going to turn out well either, at least not in the short term. Given that Obama pushed for greater openness throughout the region, having to tacitly support a military coup and crackdown in Egypt hardly seems like a big win for U.S. policy. Similarly, the resumption of "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians is not a success unless it actually gets all the way to the finish line and produces a viable Palestinian state. How many of you would bet $5 on that outcome? Instead, as Ian Lustick laid out clearly in the New York Times yesterday, what we have is a "peace process" that does far more harm than good. Actually achieving a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a major achievement, but is the talks are far, far more likely to end in another ignominious failure.
So where might a genuine foreign-policy accomplishment be found? The obvious place is the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Iran is a potentially powerful and influential state (though not the looming danger that threat-mongers often depict), and a positive relationship between Tehran and Washington would benefit both countries. Indeed, even having a more normal sort of rivalry -- including diplomatic recognition -- would make it easier to deal with the various areas of friction that might remain. That is why people like Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat Thomas Pickering see the present moment as a golden opportunity to explore a fundamentally different relationship with Tehran.
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
I am having a fabulous visit to Brazil, lecturing at FGV in Rio earlier today and flying down to Sao Paulo this afternoon. I also managed to do some interesting sightseeing in Rio, including a visit to a community ecopark in a Rio favela ("shantytown") where local activists are reclaiming vacant land from drug gangs. Truly inspiring.
There has been hardly any time to catch up on news or do serious blogging, but I will have reflections when I return. In the meantime, here are a couple of resources you can use for background on the ever-evolving situation in Syria.[[LATEST]]
•First, the Project on Defense Alternatives has this website, full of useful commentary.
•Second, my colleagues at the Belfer Center have put up this collection of resources.
You had better get busy and read them, because the situation will probably have changed in another 48 hours.
And by the way, isn't it interesting to think about how much time, energy, political capital, presidential attention, press coverage, etc. the Syrian affair has burned up over the past few weeks? There's something seriously maladjusted with U.S. foreign policy when an event like this commands so much attention, especially when there really aren't truly vital interests involved and when the best moral course isn't obvious either. (Unfortunately, just intervening because Bashar al-Assad is a thug and his forces used chemical weapons isn't necessarily the most moral thing to do, because it might make a bad situation worse and lead to greater human suffering.) Yet Syria has managed to take over the U.S. foreign-policy agenda for a time. Learning to keep U.S. interests in somewhat greater perspective would be a real advance, but ADHD seems to be a chronic component of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus.
Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
I don't know how the Syria business is going to turn out, and neither do you. But I think everyone ought to take a deep breath and ratchet down their forecasts of how deep, significant, and meaningful this event is.
On one side, advocates of military strikes have been using increasingly overheated rhetoric over the past week, employing the familiar tropes and arguments that hawks have relied on ever since World War II. Comparisons to Hitler and the Holocaust? Check. Obligatory reference to Munich? Got it. Lurid warnings about a loss of American "credibility"? Uh-huh. Repeated attempts to portray opponents of a military strike as "isolationists" or worse? Roger.
This approach makes it appear that what is at stake in the Syria debate is nothing less than America's Future Role in the World. If the United States doesn't act, so the argument runs, this one decision heralds a progressive retreat of the United States from its global responsibilities (whatever those are), its steady decline as a great power, and the onset of a new era of global anarchy. But if the United States can just find the will to send some cruise missiles into Syria, then all those terrible things can be avoided and American leadership will be restored (until the next time it is hanging by a hair, of course -- probably a few months from now).[[LATEST]]
Dire warnings can be just as lurid on the other side. Opponents warn that bombing Bashar al-Assad's forces will start the United States down a slippery slope to a major ground-force commitment (it might, but it's unlikely). They suggest that attacking Assad will bring al Qaeda extremists to power (a possibility, but far from certain). Or they believe it will just reinforce America's tendency to use force first and do diplomacy later, a tendency that has gotten the United States into trouble repeatedly over the past two decades. And some more overwrought doves worry that attacking yet another Middle Eastern country will further intensify Islamic radicalism and produce a lot of nasty blowback down the road.
I remain opposed to military intervention because I do not think it will advance U.S. strategic or moral interests, and because I do not believe we have a magic formula for solving the Syrian civil war. But I also believe that both sides in this debate need to take a deep breath and to stop portraying this moment as an all-important fork in the road that will shape world events for decades to come.
In fact, what happens in Syria is not going to affect America's overall position in the world very much. Syria is a small and weak country, and what happens there isn't going to alter the global balance of power in any significant way. It's not even clear it will alter the regional balance all that much. (Israel will remain the region's strongest power no matter what happens in Damascus.) America's global position will be determined primarily by the state of the U.S. economy and by what happens in places like China, the European Union, India, Turkey, and Brazil in the years ahead.
To be more specific: If America's economic recovery continues and if the advent of hydraulic fracking and cheaper energy gives the U.S. economy an additional boost, then America will remain the world's No. 1 power no matter what happens to Assad, the Free Syrian Army, or the al-Nusra Front. If China's economy hits a wall, if Brazil, Turkey, and India hit economic headwinds, and if the EU remains hampered by its various economic woes, then the United States will be in relatively good shape whether it bombs Damascus or not.
Ditto "American engagement." Contrary to what people like Bill Keller seem to think, the United States is not becoming "isolationist." Opposition to the Syrian adventure stems from the fact that U.S. strategic interests are not deeply engaged (here the American people have got this one right), and moral considerations do not mandate intervention because we might easily make things worse and increase the level of human suffering. But comparisons to World War II are deeply misleading: Assad is a thug and a war criminal, but he's not genocidal or bent on world domination, and Syria is not a great power like Germany was. No matter what happens in Syria, the United States will remain the single most formidable international actor, and other countries aren't going to lose sight of that reality in the years ahead. I'd even bet that the pivot to Asia continues no matter who is elected the next U.S. president, unless China slips badly and doesn't seem like an emerging threat anymore.
Instead of becoming "isolationist," the American people seem to be returning to a realistic degree of prudence. To oppose a military response in Syria because it won't make Americans more secure and may not help the Syrians very much isn't cowardly, irresponsible, or feckless; you might just call it common sense.
Postscript: There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity today, based on a Russian proposal to take control of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. If the U.S. goal is merely to reinforce the "red line" against chemical weapons use, then it has little choice but to take the deal and spin it as a great success for "tough" U.S. diplomacy. But it is likely to take some time to work out the procedures and actually secure the weapons, and there's always the risk that Russia would renege (or Assad would cheat) so as to retain a chemical weapons option in extremis. More importantly, this arrangement doesn't by itself get us much closer to settling the war, which should be our primary objective. To do that, the United States is going to have to engage with Russia and Iran, and we might even have to agree to leave Assad in power for a while. That's not a very satisfying outcome, perhaps, but it is one that would save a lot of lives.
Thumbnail image: The Keep Calm-o-Matic (www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-dont-bomb-syria-1)
The Honorable Joseph Kennedy III
Dear Representative Kennedy:
I am a resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, and I voted for you with enthusiasm during your election campaign last year. I am writing to encourage you to oppose the proposed resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. The Washington Post currently scores you as "undecided" on the resolution; I urge you to get off the fence and make your opposition publicly known.
A U.S. attack on Syria is unwise for several reasons. First, the United States has no vital strategic interests there. Bashar al-Assad's government is clearly a brutal dictatorship, but neither Democratic nor Republican presidents have cared about that before now. Instead, presidents from both parties have cooperated with the Assad regime whenever it seemed advisable to do so. More importantly, helping to topple the regime is likely to turn Syria into a failed state, igniting a struggle for power among competing sectarian factions. Some of these factions are deeply hostile to America and sympathetic to al Qaeda, which means that U.S. intervention could help bring some of our worst enemies to power.
Second, the moral case for intervention is not compelling either. Yes, the Syrian people are suffering greatly, but U.S. airstrikes will not alter that situation and could easily make it worse. Indeed, recent scholarly research on civil wars shows that outside intervention tends to increase civilian killings and doesn't shorten the length of wars. If we are interested in reducing human suffering, therefore, we should eschew airstrikes and increase our relief aid to Syrian refugees instead.[[LATEST]]
The likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not justify war either. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by conventional arms; that a small percentage of the dead were killed by weapons that happen to be banned is not by itself a reason to get directly involved. Nor is it necessary to bomb Syria to "defend the norm" against these weapons. Chemical weapons have only been used a handful of times over the past 80 years, mostly because they are less effective than conventional arms in most battlefield situations. The United States did not punish the other governments that violated this norm, and it is not obvious why this most recent violation calls for a major military response on our part.
Supporters of a new Middle East war claim that we must act because our "credibility" is at stake. We have heard such arguments many, many times in the past; they are the inevitable refuge whenever someone is trying to bolster a weak case for war. The United States has used military force dozens of times over the past several decades, and President Barack Obama himself escalated the war in Afghanistan and ordered dozens of drone strikes and special forces operations in several countries over the past four-plus years. No one seriously doubts U.S. power or our willingness to use it when our vital interests are genuinely engaged. If we refrain from using force when vital interests are not involved or when doing so would only make things worse, it says nothing about our willingness to use force when it is truly necessary and when it can achieve clear and well-defined objectives.
Lastly, wise leaders do not go to war without robust international and domestic support. Neither is present in this case. U.S. public opinion opposes military intervention in this case, and few foreign countries favor a U.S. military response at this time. You will undoubtedly face pressure from organized special-interest groups that now favor war, but these groups are neither representative of broader public opinion or the opinions of most of your constituents here in Massachusetts.
Back in 2002, I had the privilege of speaking with your great-uncle, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, on several occasions regarding the proposed war with Iraq. I opposed that war, as did he, and I supported his efforts to craft an approach that would have prevented that act of folly. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would be equally opposed to this ill-advised approach to the Syrian tragedy.
For all these reasons, I encourage you to be a "profile in courage" and to come out strongly against the proposed resolution when it comes to the congressional floor
Stephen M. Walt
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Who is this imposter who has the gall to call himself "John Kerry?" The real John Kerry is an intelligent liberal, indeed something of a hero for having the courage to not only vigorously oppose the Vietnam War -- the last U.S. war fought in the name of "credibility" -- but to openly charge that the U.S. was committing "war crimes" there. Surely this can't be the same fellow who is not only leading the charge for the U.S. to plunge into yet another unnecessary and unwise war, but whose rhetoric is increasingly bizarre.
Now he fears that if we don't go to war in Syria, we will lose our "credibility?" Credibility to do what? Stupidly intervene in yet another civil war in a country of little importance to vital U.S. interests, in which we not only lack "vital interests" at stake, but in which, if we had, we wouldn't know which side to support, and in which we have no idea whether our intervention will save innocent lives or put them still further into danger?
If that wasn't bad enough, now "John Kerry" accuses opponents of an attack on Syria of advocating "armchair isolationism." What? First of all, to oppose the war in Syria does not make one "isolationist," or even "anti-war," as opposed to opposing this specific war. The opposite of "isolationism" usually is defined as "internationalism." By such reasoning, then, this must mean that "internationalists" favor going to war with everyone.
Moreover, the United States would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of isolationism to at least partly balance what ought to be called "mindless interventionism." After all, the problem with U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II -- and even more so since the end of the Cold War -- has not exactly been a refusal to get into foreign wars.
Finally, the very concept of an "armchair isolationist" is incoherent. Apparently Kerry has confused the term with that of the common one, "armchair warrior." That is a coherent and, indeed, powerful concept. It refers, of course, to someone who wants other people to go to war while he sits safely at home. Now try making sense of "armchair isolationism."
Jerome Slater is a University Research Scholar and professor of political science (emeritus) at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He blogs at jeromeslater.com, where this article is cross-posted.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Some wise words from the late Dorothy Sayers, from the 1942 short story "Talboys." In the story, one of Lord Peter Wimsey's sons is accused of stealing peaches from a neighboring farmer. Lord Peter investigates and clears his son of the crime, while fending off the well-intentioned but naive interference of a nosy governess. Along the way he offers his son, Bredon, the following advice:
"I'll tell you a secret, Bredon. Grown-up people don't always know everything, though they try to pretend they do. That is called 'prestige,' and is responsible for most of the wars that devastate the continent of Europe."
Or the Middle East, one might add. I don't mean to make light of the tragedy that has been unfolding in Syria, but Sayers's observation -- in the voice of Lord Peter -- has always struck me as of considerable relevance to contemporary foreign policy-making, especially in the credibility-obsessed USA.
Thumbnail image from Amazon.com ("Lord Peter : The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories")
Remember the Powell doctrine? Elaborated by Colin Powell back in 1990, during his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it consisted of a series of questions identifying the conditions that should be met before committing U.S. military forces to battle. The questions were:
1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
For Powell, each question had to be answered in the affirmative before a decision to use military force was made. If these conditions were met, however, Powell (and other military officers of his generation) believed that the United States should then use sufficient force to achieve decisive victory.[[LATEST]]
Like the closely related "Weinberger doctrine" (named for Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger), these guidelines were designed to ensure that the United States did not stumble into pointless wars whose costs far outweighed the benefits. Powell understood that civilians often had idealistic or quixotic ideas about improving the world with U.S. military power and that they were often too quick to employ it without thinking through the broader strategic implications. One might think of the Powell doctrine as a checklist designed to curb the well-intentioned but naive desire for global do-gooding that has inspired American liberal interventionists for decades.
The Powell doctrine also rests on a decidedly realist vision of U.S. security and grand strategy. Powell's eight questions implicitly recognize that the United States is an extraordinarily secure country and one that rarely needs to rush into war to keep itself safe. It is a vision of U.S. strategy that does not shrink from using force, but only if vital national security interests are at stake. If they are, then the United States should defend those interests by taking the gloves off and doing whatever it takes. But most of the time vital interests are not at stake, and the United States can and should rely on "other nonviolent policy means." It is a doctrine designed to husband U.S. power and keep the country's powder dry, so that when America does have to go to war, it can do so with ample domestic and international support and with military forces that have not been ground down and degraded by endless interventions in arenas of little strategic importance.
What do we learn if we apply Powell's principles to the current debate on Syria? Just ask and answer the questions, giving the administration the benefit of the doubt. The results are not pretty.
1. Vital national interests at stake? Hardly. The United States hasn't cared who governed Syria since 1970, and it did business with Bashar al-Assad's regime whenever doing so suited it. If it didn't matter who ran Syria for the past 40-plus years, why does it suddenly matter so much now? Nor is defending the norm against chemical weapons a "vital" interest, given that other states have used them in the past and they are not true weapons of mass destruction anyway.
2. Clear obtainable objective? Nope. If you can figure out what the Obama administration's actual objective is -- defend the chemical weapons norm? reinforce U.S. credibility? weaken the regime a little but not a lot? send a warning to Iran?, etc. -- you have a better microscope than I do.
3. Costs and risks analyzed fully and frankly? Well, maybe. I'm sure people in the administration have talked about them, though it is hard to know how "fully" the risks and costs have been weighed. But let's be generous and give the administration this one.
4. Other nonviolent policy options exhausted? Hardly. As I've noted before, there has been a dearth of imaginative diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict ever since it began. Oddly, the administration seems to have thought this whole issue wasn't important enough to warrant energetic diplomacy, but it is important enough to go to war. And there in a nutshell is a lot of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy these days.
5. Plausible exit strategy to avoid entanglement? Not that I can see. Barack Obama, John Kerry, et al. seem to recognize the danger of a quagmire here, so their "exit strategy" consists of limiting the U.S. attack to airstrikes and cruise missiles and maybe some increased aid to the rebels. In other words, they are preemptively "exiting" by not getting very far in. But that also means that intervention won't accomplish much, and it still creates the danger of a slippery slope. If the action they are now contemplating doesn't do the job, what then? If credibility is your concern, won't those fears increase if the United States takes action and Assad remains defiant?
6. Have the consequences been fully considered? It's hard to believe they have. Whacking Assad's forces won't do that much to restate any "red lines" against chemical weapons use, and as noted above, that's a pretty modest objective in any case. But military action might also help bring down the regime, thereby turning Syria into a failed state, fueling a bitter struggle among competing ethnic, sectarian, and extremist groups, and creating an ideal breeding and training ground for jihadists. It may also undercut the moderate forces who are currently ascendant in Iran, derail any chance of a diplomatic deal with them (which is a far more important goal), and even reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Is there any evidence that Obama, Kerry, Rice & Co. have thought all these things through?
7. Support from the American people? No, no, and no. Surveys show overwhelming public opposition to military action in Syria. Obama can boost those numbers with some saber-rattling and threat-inflation (now under way), but the American people are going to remain skeptical. I suspect Congress will eventually go along -- for a variety of reasons -- but right now the idea of going to war in Syria is even less popular than Congress itself (which is saying something). Bottom line: This criterion is nowhere near being met.
8. Genuine and broad international support? Not really. The British Parliament has already voted against military action, and Germany has made it clear that it's not playing either. Russia and China are of course dead set against. America's got the French (oh boy!), the Saudis, and (quietly) the Israelis, along with the usual coalition of the cowed, coerced, or co-opted. But it's a far cry from the support the United States had in the first Gulf War or when it initially entered Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. This is not the sort of "genuine and broad" support that General Powell had in mind.
I draw two conclusions from this exercise. First, the case for military action in Syria remains weak, and the fact that the United States is barreling headlong toward that outcome anyway is a powerful indictment of its foreign policy and national security establishment. Second, Colin Powell was really onto something when he laid out this framework, and the United States would be in much better shape today had that framework guided U.S. military responses for the past 20 years.
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images
I'm attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association this week, so I don't have much time to blog. I'd love to write about something besides Syria, but it's hard to avoid such an obvious issue right now. Here are a few further thoughts to add to my previous posts on the subject.
First, it looks like Barack Obama's administration has painted itself into something of a corner (though to be fair, a lot of inside-the-Beltway hawks were wielding their own paintbrushes too). With the administration having made a number of unequivocal statements about the Assad government's responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks, it is going to be hard for it to do nothing and not get accused of being wishy-washy at best and pusillanimous at worst.
But there are several problems. It's still not clear what positive objectives a limited use of force would accomplish. It won't tip the balance inside Syria or drive Bashar al-Assad from power. It's not even clear that punitive strikes would do much to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use, as any leader contemplating the use of these weapons in the future is probably going to be in pretty dire straits and might not care if some foreign power might retaliate. Moreover, the American people are clearly not interested in getting into this war, and Obama and the Dems could pay a big price if retaliation goes awry in any way. Indeed, as Conor Friedersdorf writes in a brilliant piece on the Atlantic's website, this is another elite-driven intervention led by inside-the-Beltway politicos who are addicted to using American power even when vital U.S. interests aren't at stake.
Perhaps what bothers me most is how little imagination we seem to be showing in dealing with this deeply troubling situation. Everyone seems to be viewing this as a vexing problem that just has to be managed, instead of asking whether the crisis might be an opportunity for creative and potentially game-changing diplomacy.
To be specific: Why not use the crisis over chemical weapons as an opportunity to launch a new diplomatic initiative? Start by referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council, and let everyone on the Security Council see the intelligence that lies behind U.S. suspicions. And as Sean Kay has proposed, for good measure we could ask the Security Council to refer the issue of possible war crimes to the International Criminal Court. But most importantly, before launching punitive strikes that probably won't accomplish anything positive, the United States could invite the European Union, Russia, China, Turkey and -- wait for it -- Iran to a diplomatic conference on Syria.
What would that accomplish? Plenty. Including Iran would satisfy its long-standing desire to be recognized as a regional stakeholder (which it is, no matter how much the United States tries to pretend otherwise). America would giving Iran the chance to play a constructive role, much as Iran did back in 2002 and 2003 over Afghanistan. Doing so would also help ensure that the crisis in Syria didn't interfere with the more important task of negotiating an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Inviting Iran into the picture would also be a way of rewarding the moderate stance the President Hasan Rouhani has taken since his election and his own public condemnation of any use of chemical weapons.
This route is obviously unlikely to yield an agreement that removes Assad from power, at least not anytime soon. My guess is that the most one could hope for is an agreement that imposed a cease-fire, acknowledged the de facto partition of Syrian territory into government and opposition zones, began negotiations on some sort of power-sharing arrangement, and maybe got outside powers to reduce their support for their various clients. But might this approach also begin to weaken the political support Assad has been getting from Russia, China, and Iran? They can't enjoy being the main protectors of a larcenous regime that has been killing lots of innocent people, and they might be looking for a way to distance themselves provided their own interests are protected.
As with all diplomatic initiatives, the idea sketched above might fail. But I doubt it would do any harm to try it, and it would certainly make the United States look less trigger-happy. That would be a positive outcome all by itself.
Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
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.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
I was participating in an exchange on an email listserv the other day, and one of the participants -- Brendan Green, a visiting professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas -- made an intriguing observation. With his permission, I reproduce a slightly edited version here:
"Pre-2011, if you said that Mubarak would fall, that Egypt would experience a mass political mobilization that destroyed its political order several times over, that the streets of Cairo would run red with blood; that 100,000 would die in Syria, that the Levant would be aflame; that the entire region would start to conduct much of its politics on sectarian grounds, and that there would be no end in sight, I think most people would have told you the proposed situation would be disastrous for American interests. Certainly it would be disastrous for American influence in the region. And yet, are we really worse off that we were in 2010? By what metric?"
Green also argued that a similar principle applied in reverse-that anti-Americanism in the region depended less on our specific actions and more on the mere fact of American size and prominence, which made us a useful foil for jihadi ideologists no matter what U.S. policy actually is. In other words: we're damned if we do a lot in the region and damned if we don't. And then he concluded:
"At best, it appears like we are arguing over whether a nickel of American policy is going to buy us four or six cents worth of American interests. To me, the most compelling arguments for or against our policy are moral arguments. There seems to be an excellent case that shooting your citizens is appalling and we shouldn't give money to those who appall us, at least not without an excellent reason. There also seems to be an excellent case that other people's problems are none of our business, and that we should simply write "Hic Dragones" on this part of the map while investing heavily in hydraulic fracking and other sources of energy independence. But those sort of arguments seem off limits in the mainstream foreign policy community."
Though I have some reservations about Green's second point -- i.e., there is a lot of survey evidence suggesting that "what we do" does have a big impact on perceptions of the United States, especially in the Middle East -- I thought his basic comment was brilliant. If something as momentous, turbulent, and bloody as the "Arab Spring" can erupt and fester for several years, and yet have hardly any observable impact on the life expectancy or economic well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans, what does that tell you about the true scope of "vital U.S. interests?"
Green's closing comment is also well-worth pondering: if genuine "vital interests" (as opposed to our assorted preferences and discretionary desiderata) are few in number, why do so few people in the foreign policy establishment see it this way? Could it be that endlessly expanding the sphere of "vital interests" is just a good way for ambitious policy wonks to give themselves something to do?
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
If you're anything like me, you find it hard to keep up with the Niagara of events and information with which you're deluged every day. It used to be a challenge just to keep track of a half-dozen or so professional journals in my field/subfield; now there's that plus online pubs, bloggers, twitter feeds, and the various books I'm reading in the course of my research. Not to mention reviewing manuscripts, writing tenure letters, and other professional responsibilities. And then there are the "events, dear boy, events" in the real world that we all try to comprehend.
So today, a few short takes on things I wish I had time to comment on at greater length.
1. Iran. I've blogged about this a lot over the past five years, but isn't it crashingly obvious that we have a golden opportunity to explore a real rapprochement with Iran? Frankly, if we don't pursue that possibility energetically, creatively and sincerely, it will be the most revealing example of foreign policy incompetence that I can imagine.
2. Putin, Snowden and the aborted summit. I can understand why the Obama administration was annoyed with Russia for not turning over Snowden, but did they really expect Moscow to passively fall in line? Would we have turned over someone who had sent similar secrets about the KGB to the Guardian and then somehow gotten themselves to Dulles Airport? I rather doubt it. The best reason to cancel the summit, however, was the fact that nothing was likely to be achieved there.
3. More good news on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks: Netanyahu gets them off on positive note by expanding government subsidies to settlements in the occupied territories. Next step: John Kerry and Martin Indyk will hint -- ever, ever, so gently -- that this decision was "not helpful."
4. The Ride of the Valkyries: I find it interesting that some of the most hawkish voices on Syria have been women (e.g., Anne-Marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton). This doesn't necessarily contradict Micah Zenko's observation that women are generally less disposed to using force (or at least drones), but it's still curious. My hypothesis: it has nothing to do with gender, but instead reflects their lack of knowledge about military operations and a tendency to downplay the unintended consequences of military action. (And no: John McCain's support for aggressive action doesn't contradict my point, because McCain's own operational knowledge seems pretty paltry and his past military judgments have been questionable).
5. The sequester: There's no doubt in my mind that the sequester is a terrible way to try to trim defense spending. But given the entrenched interests that fight like tigers to preserve every defense nickel, I'm not sure there was any other way to do it. And I console myself with the thought that the U.S. will still be spending vastly more than any other single country on national security. Now if we could just connect that process to a rethinking of our overseas commitments (cue The Impossible Dream).
6. America the Skittish (Round 2). The terror plot alert that shut down 19 US diplomatic facilities was certainly conveniently timed, wasn't it? Just when Congress was starting to show some backbone on the issue of NSA spying, we get a report of some new "chatter" (or maybe an Al Qaeda "conference call") that justified a vaguely scary new alert. But what really bugs me is the message that this sends: that the mighty United States can be spooked into closing its doors with remarkable ease. We want to run the world, it seems, but we want to be able to do it without taking any risks at all. And it makes me question (once again) the effectiveness of the whole "war on terror." If we've been pursuing the right policies for the past twelve years, why are these guys still so dangerous?
7. "The New Newt" (2013 version). Newt Gingrich isn't an important politician anymore, as his lackluster performance in the last GOP primary season proved. But he's still a world-class egomaniac, and like many politicians, he can't stop seeking the spotlight. He grabbed it again this week by suggesting that the neoconservative foreign policy that he used to champion might have been ... well ... stupid, and that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz might have some good ideas on that subject. This event is interesting because Gingrich is nothing if not an opportunistic weathervane, and it tells you that he thinks that calls for a more restrained foreign and military policy would find a lot of takers out there in the body politic. As I suggested once before, all it will take to launch a serious debate on this issue is an articulate champion who isn't saddled with a lot of unrelated baggage. Rand Paul may or may not be that person (and I fervently hope Ted Cruz isn't) but he/she is bound to show up eventually.
8. The Death of IR theory: Noah Smith and Paul Krugman had some interesting blog posts up on the "death of theory" in economics. This is as good an excuse as any to remind folks that John Mearsheimer and I have written an article on similar trends in international relations, which will be out in the European Journal of IR next month. Plus, stay tuned for an upcoming symposium on the broader topic of the future of IR theory at Duck of Minerva website.
9. Anarchy, the State, and Dystopia. If nothing else, the events in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo remind us all that the only thing worse than a bad state is no effective state at all. For insightful commentary, see Robert Kaplan's reflections on the late Samuel Huntington's best book, Political Order in Changing Societies.
10. I'm off to California tomorrow for a family wedding (congratulations, Lindsay and Bobby!), so blogging will be light-to-nonexistent through the weekend. But you've got the rest of FP (and a zillion other bloggers) to tide you over, and nobody's commentary is indispensable.
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
I'm in Oslo to give a seminar and a public lecture at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, and I'm looking forward to hearing how world politics looks from a Nordic perspective. I haven't been to Norway since 2009, when my visit coincided with the Norwegian Nobel Committee's surprising (and with the passage of time, disappointing) decision to award U.S. President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he'd barely finished arranging the furniture in the Oval Office.
It was probably the only time the prize was given to someone in anticipation of he or she might accomplish, and I suspect the prize committee does not look back on that decision with great pride. Obama has shown many virtues as president, but actively promoting peace hasn't been one of them. As in some other areas, he talks a better game than he delivers.
Consider Syria, for example. A few weeks ago I posted an entry suggesting Obama is a "buck-passer" whose foreign policy is most clearly defined by his effort to shift costs onto others wherever possible. I still think that characterization is accurate, but my friend Alan Berger (formerly of the Boston Globe) has gone me one better. In a brilliant piece published two days ago in the Globe, Berger suggests that Obama may be playing a very hard-nosed and quintessentially realist game in Syria. Obama recognizes the dangers of deep U.S. involvement, but he also recognizes the potential gains from a long war run on the cheap. Specifically, the civil war in Syria is draining Iranian resources and tarnishing Iran's and Hezbollah's image as staunch and principled resisters of American imperialism and/or Zionism. Backing Bashar al-Assad isn't helping Russia's or China's global image much either. So why not let it continue to burn, especially if you can get the Qataris and Saudis to foot most of the bill? Obama's reluctance to intervene more energetically also defuses the usual accusations about U.S. imperialism; by playing hard to get, Obama's approach actually gets other countries to start pleading for more U.S. involvement.
The downside is that it is imposing a frightful cost on the Syrian people and could easily lead to the formation of a failed state there. But a fractured and quarreling Middle East is something that the United States can deal with -- among other things, it will make a number of states even more eager for U.S. help -- provided that Washington doesn't send ground troops to try to occupy, govern, and reorganize the region. Been there, done that (badly).
Berger doesn't claim that this strategy is a conscious ploy on Obama's part, and it is hard to feel good about a policy that helps prolong the suffering of so many people. And the history of both Lebanon and Afghanistan warns that letting a country burn for years can have far-reaching consequences. But Berger's interpretation of Obama's Syria policy supports the idea that the president has a pretty strong realpolitik gene. And as the president's policies have shown, when forced to choose between peace and the chance to undermine an adversary at low cost, political leaders normally choose the latter course.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others will be guest-blogging:
is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished.... at an appalling toll in lives lost.…
For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
I think this is wrong and does realism a disservice.
There is a case to be made that if realists endorsed the broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East, a realist thing to do would be to engage in a variant of a "bait and bleed" proxy war without regard for the human cost in order to cause headaches for Iran and Hezbollah. Except I don't know any realists who endorse the broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East, which ought to pose a problem for Drezner's argument.
There's a Vietnam analogy here. As John Mearsheimer has pointed out a thousand times, essentially all realists except Henry Kissinger opposed the Vietnam War, and essentially all realists except Kissinger opposed the Iraq war. Why? Not because they were peacenik hippies, but rather because they disagreed with the theory on which the war was based: in Vietnam, the domino theory; and in Iraq, both the Saddam-can't-be-deterred theory and especially the democratic domino theory. As ever, there is an enormous difference between Beltway realism and actual realism. The Beltway foreign-policy community might deploy realist tactics, but it does not listen to realists on strategy.
As John Schuessler and Sebastian Rosato have argued, at the strategic level, realists wouldn't have us pay terribly much attention to who rules Syria, or Hezbollah, or even Iran. In their view, realism
would advise the US to balance against other great powers and to take a relaxed attitude toward minor powers. The exception would be when a minor power is situated in a strategically important region of the world, in which case it would prescribe vigilant containment. These injunctions are similar to those that fall under the rubric of "offshore balancing," a grand strategy favored by many realists.
They include Iran as being situated in a strategically important region of the world and advise containing Tehran should it acquire a nuclear weapon. So I don't think it's right to read realists as advising Washington to fuel the Syrian civil war in the hopes of bleeding Hezbollah and Iran white.
It's this sort of operationally realist but strategically grandiose foreign policy that has given realism a bad name. Sometimes, in the name of conservatism and defraying the costs of war, realists advise deeply cynical policies that force those costs onto others. But in a similar spirit of conservatism, and indeed ethics, they tend to define the national interest in such a way that a profoundly secure country like the United States doesn't have to do terrible things across the globe all the time. But for some reason, realism winds up taking the blame for the humanitarian cost, rather than the ambitious, non-realist strategy.
At any rate, if realism counsels the approach Dan identifies, one would expect realists to have been advocating it. I haven't heard any. Have you?Justin Logan is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others will be guest-blogging:
There are clear indicators that, in his second term, President Barack Obama is trying to shift American foreign policy toward a more "realist-leaning" direction. He has, so far, resisted the pull to intervene in Syria; his administration has begun significant ground-force reductions in Europe and has embraced the so-called "pivot" toward Asia. His choices of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to lead the State Department and Pentagon, respectively, suggest a desire to ensure that the voices of restraint are at the table when major policies are discussed.
Yet Obama has also just appointed Susan Rice as his national security advisor and Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations -- two strong advocates of humanitarian intervention abroad. This week, former President Bill Clinton announced his support for neoconservative advocate Sen. John McCain's arguments that America should be more involved in Syria. Close Hillary Clinton advisor in the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has been one of the strongest public advocates of a robust American intervention there. At the core of this worldview is a basic belief that American values at home face an existential threat abroad if the country fails to use its power to stop humanitarian crisis and spread democracy. With the White House now promising direct military aid to the rebels in Syria, the United States appears to risk again being on a slippery slope toward escalating intervention in yet another war with dubious national interests, little clear objective, and no defined end state.
The case for a new, robustly articulated foreign policy guided primarily by realism is strong. First, America's rise to global power largely resulted from realist-leaning restraint. While over the first 150 years of the nation's existence its commitments and overseas interests grew, there was always a degree of reserve that rejected overstretch. This helped the United States maintain and preserve its resources and focus on the long-term economic growth that eventually made it the world's greatest superpower. Second, the most dramatic gains America made after World War II and during the Cold War were advanced when policies guided by restraint were preferred, i.e. building rules in the United Nations to share great-power decision-making, the original concept of George Kennan's geographic containment of the Soviet Union, Dwight Eisenhower's refusal to be dragged into what he called "brush-fire wars," Richard Nixon's abandonment of ideological judgment that allowed for outreach to China, and Ronald Reagan's repeated statements, even at the height of his tough anti-Soviet worldview, that he wanted to negotiate with the Soviets and that he would work with Mikhail Gorbachev. President George H.W. Bush's decision to not march on to Baghdad and instead pursue containment via sanctions and weapons inspectors, we now know successfully disarmed Iraq and constrained Iran simultaneously. Each of these presidents had variations and contradictions on specific policies, but overall, the worldview was guided by realist restraint and produced major gains for America's global position. Also, third, on the biggest strategic miscalculation in American history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, realists consistently warned about risks and dangers -- and they were right. For decades now, contemporary realists like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Steve Walt, and more have cautioned against the pitfalls of overstretch in American foreign policy.
In 1992, however, the United States began to reject and unravel what had proved to work so well. A draft defense planning guidance done that year set out a goal of global primacy for the United States. It talked of enlarging NATO into Central and Eastern Europe and sustaining massive peacetime defense budgets to ensure no peer competitor would ever challenge the United States' global position, and it noted that America might act unilaterally when collective action was not possible. The draft was rejected by George H.W. Bush's White House, and a watered-down version went forward. It was described, however, by historian John Lewis Gaddis as reflecting "American hegemony, a doctrine in which the United States would seek to maintain a position that it came out of the Cold War with, in which there were no obvious or plausible challengers to the United States. That was considered quite shocking in 1992 -- so shocking, in fact, that the first Bush administration disavowed it."
Bill Clinton's administration also rejected, it seemed, this concept at first. It was first ambitious on United Nations peacekeeping, but after a disastrous experience in Somalia, it worked to stay out of Rwanda and the Balkans (initially). Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff set the tone, telling reporters, "We don't have the influence. We don't have the inclination to use military force. We certainly don't have the money to bring to bear the kind of pressure which will produce positive results anytime soon." He was, however, quickly disavowed by his bosses, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who said: "Some say -- and I'm sure you've heard this said -- that our nation is on a course of decline, that we can no longer afford to lead.… And certainly, it is true that the United States faces many challenges unlike our nation has ever felt before in our history. But to me that means that we must be more engaged internationally, not less; more ardent in the promotion of democracy, not less; and more inspired in our leadership, not less."
By 1995, the Clinton administration appeared to have embraced many of the major assumptions of the previously rejected 1992 defense planning guidance, including the option of unilateral military force, though preferring collective action. The new view embraced "assertive multilateralism" generated by the strong advocacy of Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and then secretary of state, who saw the world in black-and-white images via her sense of the dangers of appeasement of brutality, as was the case in Munich before World War II. Her worldview also embraced using American power to spread values, advance human rights, and spread democracy -- it was at core a liberal interventionist policy.
Albright chastised Colin Powell for his preference on restrained use of American military power. She would justify American interventionism on a sense that: "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future." Official Clinton policy embraced a new National Security Strategy published in 1995 that explicitly linked spreading democracy abroad to American national security. Realist concerns were brushed aside. Kosovo -- now a war championed as a model but, in reality, one that America and NATO almost failed to win -- set the tone. After the war, President Clinton said: "Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background, or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it." Clinton also, in 1998, signed the "Iraq Liberation Act," which was referenced by the following administration of George W. Bush as having laid the formal premise for regime change in Iraq.
Since 1992, the tools of American foreign policy have been put in the service of "assertive multilateralism" (now characterized as "responsibility to protect," or for neoconservative advocacy like the invasion of Iraq). Obama's first term embraced continuity in this worldview. He appointed a foreign-policy team that included no prominent early opponents of the Iraq invasion and ran a national security process on Afghanistan in 2009 that only seriously debated variations on escalation. Libya, in 2011, came to reflect a dangerous result -- embracing the foreign-policy agenda of liberal intervention but trying to avoid the high costs of responsibilities that come with the decision to intervene. Now he must reconcile this dilemma in Syria. This is not to say that the basic concepts behind a liberal foreign policy are bad ideas, but the record from Vietnam to Iraq and now Afghanistan is not a good one. Indeed, most success stories involve nonmilitary actions -- like the Marshall Plan and the Helsinki Accords. A realist approach to spreading democracy abroad begins with setting the best example for freedom and progress at home and aligning appropriate tools to shape foreign-policy outcomes abroad.
It is difficult to know what message Obama is sending in having now set up a foreign-policy team that, while more diverse in worldview than that of his first administration, is also potentially at odds with itself. Worst of all worlds is that the president might be tempted to sustain the primacy goals of American global engagement, but on the cheap. Deep cuts in capabilities combined with a continued overambitious worldview are a recipe for near-term disaster and a continued drain on American power. A realist worldview can avoid this via tough choices to realign the scale of America's global role -- and associated budgets.
Even if he wants to shift the sails and embrace a new era of realist restraint, Obama might find this very difficult to do. He would be reversing 20 years of American foreign-policy priorities embraced by both political parties and now deeply entrenched in America's national security establishment and budgets. It would, however, be in the national interest to lead the nation into a discussion of new national security priorities and embrace what most polling shows Americans already get -- that there are limits to American power overseas and it is time to realign foreign-policy priorities. Realism will offer the president a good guide -- if he embraces and implements it.
Sean Kay is Robson professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University and an associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Permit me to indulge today in a bit of speculation, for which I don't have a lot of hard evidence. As I read this article yesterday on Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, I began to wonder whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn't more substantial than I have previously thought. And then I did a bit of web surfing and found this story, which seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here's my chain of reasoning:
1. The Syrian conflict has become a proxy fight between the opposition and its various allies (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Turkey, etc.) and Bashar al-Assad's regime and its various outsider supporters (Iran, Russia, Hezbollah).
2. For Washington, this war has become a golden opportunity to inflict a strategic defeat on Iran and its various local allies and thus shift the regional balance of power in a pro-American direction.
3. Israel's calculations are more complicated, given that it had a good working relationship with the Assad regime and is concerned about a failed state emerging next door. But on balance, a conflict that undermines Iran, further divides the Arab/Islamic world, and distracts people from the continued colonization of the West Bank is a net plus. So Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't object if the United States gets more deeply engaged.
4. Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama's administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn't very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no "no-fly zones," and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
5. Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don't cost too much and don't attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don't know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved "blowback" from the Syrian conflict, but I haven't seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
6. In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks' demands for airstrikes, "no-fly zones," or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
To repeat: The above analysis is mostly speculative on my part. I have no concrete evidence that the full scenario sketched above is correct, and I don't know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is. But that's what troubles me: I don't like not knowing what my government is doing, allegedly to make me safer or to advance someone's idea of the "national interest." And if you're an American, neither should you. If the United States is now orchestrating a lot of arms shipments, trying to pick winners among the opposition, sending intelligence information to various militias, and generally meddling in a very complicated and uncertain conflict, don't you think the president owes us a more complete account of what America's public servants are or are not doing, and why?
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Guest post by Daryl G. Press and Jennifer Lind
With reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, many U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have called for U.S. military intervention there. They quote President Obama's previous statements referring to chemical weapons use as an unacceptable crossing of a "red line." This is unsurprising: Every time analysts and leaders call for war, they warn that inaction will jeopardize America's credibility. What is more surprising, however, is how little evidence there is for this view.
What has actually transpired in Syria remains unclear (especially with a new claim that Syria rebels may have used nerve gas), but the possibility that Syria crossed the administration's "red line" has brought calls for U.S. military action. "The credibility of the United States is on the line," declared Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "not just with Syria, but with Iran, North Korea, and all of our enemies and friends who are watching closely to see whether the president backs up his words with action." (Many others have made similar arguments, for example here and here.)
To be sure, for a country like the United States -- which seeks to assure allies and deter adversaries around the globe -- credibility is a precious asset. Credibility -- the belief held by others that a country will carry out its threats and promises -- is the difference between deterring attacks and having to wage war to repel them.
But how do countries build credibility? Those who favor intervention in Syria assert that credibility comes from having a reputation for keeping commitments. The "smoking gun" evidence for this view can allegedly be found in a 1939 speech in which Adolf Hitler explained to his generals why he felt emboldened to invade Poland. He dismissed French and British threats, mocking them for their concessions at the Munich Conference: "Our enemies are worms," he scoffed, "I saw them at Munich."
Hitler's quote, and the so-called "Munich Analogy," has come to embody the danger of breaking commitments and featured prominently in U.S. decisions to defend South Korea in 1950 and later to fight (and stay) in Vietnam. Since then, the fear of losing credibility helped propel the United States into conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya.
The problem is that there's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility. Jonathan Mercer, in his book Reputation and International Politics, examined a series of crises leading up to World War I and found that backing down did not cause one's adversaries to discount one's credibility.
In another book, Daryl Press examined a series of Cold War crises between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From 1958 to 1961, Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly threatened to cut off NATO's access to West Berlin. Each time, the deadlines passed and Khrushchev failed to carry out his threats.
If backing down damages credibility, Khrushchev's credibility should have been plummeting, but the deliberations of American and British leaders show that his credibility steadily grew throughout this period. And a year after the 1961 Berlin confrontation, when the same American decision-makers confronted Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they took his threats very seriously. Senior U.S. leaders were convinced that Khrushchev would respond to any forceful U.S. act against Cuba with an immediate Soviet attack against Berlin. Four years of backing down had not damaged Soviet credibility in the least.
Documents from American and British archives reveal that when NATO leaders tried to assess the credibility of Soviet threats, they didn't focus on the past. Instead, they looked at Khrushchev's current threat and the current circumstances and asked themselves two simple questions. Can he do it? And would it serve his interests?
In the eyes of the Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy governments, Soviet credibility was growing -- despite Khrushchev's bluster -- simply because Soviet power was expanding. Power and interests in the here-and-now determine credibility, not what one did in different circumstances in the past.
Even the canonical case for reputational arguments -- Hitler's dismissal of French and British threats in 1939 -- shows that credibility stems from power and interests. When Hitler told his generals why the British and French would not oppose him when he invaded Poland, he listed seven reasons, every one of which was about the balance of power. The "worms" quote was a throwaway line after a detailed analysis of the balance of military power and Poland's indefensibility.
Advocates of intervention in Syria worry that a failure to act will embolden U.S. adversaries around the world. But if Kim Jong Un is trying to figure out whether or not the United States would defend South Korea, he will notice that Washington and Seoul have been allies for more than six decades, and that with the rise of China, the United States is increasing its focus on East Asia. The notion that Kim would interpret U.S. reluctance to stop a humanitarian disaster in Syria as a green light to conquer a major U.S. ally strains credulity.
Similarly, leaders in Tehran assessing U.S. threats to strike their nuclear facilities will weigh America's clear interest in nuclear nonproliferation against the real limitations of airstrikes against Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities. American reluctance to support various extremist rebels in Syria is unlikely to enter into Iran's calculus.
As the civil war in Syria unfolds, the United States may eventually decide to intervene. U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts might make the case (which we disagree with) to join the fighting in order to stop the humanitarian disaster, to contain regional instability, or to secure U.S. influence with the post-Assad Syrian government. But the case for U.S. military intervention should not rest on a bogus theory about signaling resolve to Khamenei and Kim. American credibility lies elsewhere.
Daryl G. Press is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. Jennifer Lind is an associate professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @profLind.
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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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Does the possibility (likelihood?) that Syrian government forces have used sarin gas strengthen the case for military intervention or at least great U.S. involvement?
Pro-intervention hawks like Sen. John McCain certainly think so and have been quick to remind everyone that President Obama called chemical weapons use a "red line." But McCain has been a vocal advocate of greater U.S. action for quite some time, which suggests that the use of chemical weapons hasn't really altered his thinking at all. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that far more sensible commentators -- such as former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh -- also view these reports as an additional reason to topple Assad sooner rather than later.
But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad's forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It's been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it's been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It's not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.
The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad's forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.
This is not an open-and-shut issue, and there are obvious points to make on the other side. Obama did suggest that chemical weapons use might be a "red line," in what was a fairly transparent attempt to deter Assad from going down that road. So one might argue that Washington would incur some loss of credibility if it does not respond now. Although I think we routinely exaggerate concerns about our credibility, that doesn't mean that it is of no concern at all. Nonetheless, Obama's prior statements do not require any particular response, and the administration certainly shouldn't do something unwise simply because it feels it has to do something.
One might also argue that chemical weapons are a form of WMD and that allowing Assad to get away with their use will undercut the existing taboo against these weapons. There's a case for that point of view, but I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.
Like Senator McCain, I find my position on this issue unchanged by the revelations about possible chemical weapons use. I still see Syria as a tragically vexing policy question. It is heart-wrenching to see what is happening there and the instinct to "do something" is understandable, but the downsides to direct or indirect military involvement remain formidable. I certainly think we should be doing more to help refugees and to minimize the destabilizing effects of the carnage on Syria's neighbors. I am all in favor of continued diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to end their support for Assad, and the chemical weapons report may provide additional leverage on that point. (See here for some useful thoughts along those lines). But I hope that Obama doesn't allow himself to be bullied into doing a lot more simply because of these reports, unless he is convinced that doing more now reduce the risks later on.
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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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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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Forces loyal to beleaguered Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad have reportedly begun firing Scud missiles at rebel groups. The New York Times' Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt call this a "significant escalation" in the fighting, but it's not at all clear why this is the case. In particular, this usage reflects the widespread but often unjustified tendency to view the introduction of any new weapon as a form of "escalation," even if doesn't involve an increase in lethality, war aims, or geographic scope.
In his book, War: Controlling Escalation, the late Richard Smoke pointed out that the term “escalation” has many meanings in strategic discourse. Sometimes it refers to the aims of war, at other times to the means being used, and in some cases to the scope of the conflict. When we talk about a conflict escalating, therefore, we usually mean it has crossed some strategically significant threshold and entered a qualitatively new phase. Thus, conflicts escalate when the original combatants adopt decidedly larger war aims, when a new category of targets (e.g., cities, civilians, etc.) are deliberately attacked, when other states join in the fighting, or when significantly more lethal means (e.g., WMD) are employed.
What constitutes a significant threshold is somewhat arbitrary, however. In this case, Assad’s aims haven’t changed and there’s no sign as yet that the Scuds are being used to attack a new set of targets. Instead, Assad’s forces appear to be using a different weapon to pursue the same ends (i.e., the defeat of the rebel forces and the retention of power). But given that the Scuds are armed with conventional high explosive, why assume that the use of different delivery system is itself a case of “escalation?” If Assad began using cavalry, hot air balloons, chariots, or pikes, would we call it “escalation?” I doubt it. Gordon and Schmitt’s use of this term implicitly assumes that the mere use of any type of ballistic missile is by definition a “higher” level of war, even if they don’t threaten or kill as many people as other weapons do.
The Scud is a tactical-range ballistic missile, originally developed by the Soviet Union. It carries a rather modest payload of roughly 900-1000 kilograms; enough to do lots of damage but not a form of WMD unless equipped with a chemical or nuclear warhead. The most modern version, the Scud-D, reportedly has a circular error probability of 50 meters (in theory); earlier versions are much less accurate.
There’s no question that Assad’s forces can probably use Scuds against various rebel targets with some effectiveness, and using missiles of this sort might help them avoid MANPADS (shoulder-fired rocket launchers) or other missile defenses that are now showing up in rebel hands. But using the term “escalation” implies that the Syrian government has somehow taken the conflict to a new level. This does not appear to be the case -- at least not yet -- because Scuds aren’t significantly more lethal than the other means -- such as artillery fire -- that Assad has already been using against the Syrian people.
What worries me, of course, is that careless use of language will convince people that the war is rising rapidly up some sort of “escalation ladder” and strengthen the chorus of voices demanding that the United States get more heavily involved. Reasonable people can disagree about that point, but the mere fact that Assad has now used Scuds is largely irrelevant. This decision may be a sign of growing desperation on his part; if so, I hope that some creative diplomacy can convince him to blow town before the entire country is destroyed. But unless he puts chemical warheads on top of them or starts attacking a new category of targets, the fact that Scuds are involved is not in fact very significant.
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Where is the Middle East headed? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.
That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.
But lately I'm wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I -- to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement -- and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since.
Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.
Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora's box when you start rearranging borders. There's also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don't think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.
That's why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don't think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects.
The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria's ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.
And then there's Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan's economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river.
To repeat: I'm not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I'd bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.
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Today we learn that Iran is resupplying the Assad regime in Syria via Iraqi airspace. Hardly surprising, for two reasons. First, Syria is a key Iranian ally, so naturally Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power. Second, the al-Maliki government is not nearly as anti-Iranian as Saddam Hussein was, and in some ways is sympathetic to Tehran's position.
All of which reminds us what dunderheads the neocons were when they dreamed up the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. Of course, all those liberal hawks who eventually went along with the idea were nearly as foolish.
No, this is not nostalgia for Saddam Hussein. He was a thug and tyrant with as much blood on his hands as Assad, and I don't mourn either his ouster or his passing. But the negative consequences have been enormous, in lives and money and in geopolitical position, as this latest revelation makes clear.
Effective strategy requires thinking more than one move ahead, and not basing momentous decisions on worst-case assumptions about the risks of inaction and best-case forecasts about the benefits that war will bring. It was obvious at the time that destroying Iraq would tilt the balance of power in the Gulf in Iran's favor, and there was no good reason to expect it to produce the pro-American tilt that the neocons promised. So America ended up replacing an anti-Iranian government in Baghdad with one that is at least partially attuned to Tehran's wishes, with the bill for the operation being footed by the U.S. taxpayer.
This issue might not matter that much had we really learned from the experience, and if the people who got us into that foolish war had been put out to pasture. But as I've noted before, failure doesn't have any real consequences in America's foreign policy community, which is why the architects of the Iraq war still have safe sinecures at D.C. think-tanks, still have prominent platforms on FOX News and other major media outlets, and still have trusted positions advising the Romney campaign. Of course, the Democrats who backed the war haven't suffered any career penalties either, which may help you understand why things haven't improved as much as some of us hoped they would back in 2008.
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Where is the Middle East headed? Where will it be a decade or two hence? Although most commentary tends to obsess about recent events (Will Assad fall? Was Hezbollah for the bombing in Bulgaria? Will there be war with Iran? Is the two-state solution really dead? etc.) today, I want to step back and ask what the larger implications of these various events might be. Here are three scenarios for the Middle East, judged largely from the perspective of U.S. interests:
1. The Good: The optimistic scenario for the Middle East runs something like this: Although the road may be bumpy for awhile, the various upheavals now subsumed under the heading “Arab spring” mark the end of a long period of regional stagnation. In this view, the Arab world has languished for decades under the bankrupt leadership of a series of autocrats who were better at clinging to power than in developing their societies. Education, scientific competence, economic development and human rights have all suffered as a result. These circumstances have also fueled anti-Americanism and intensified regional tensions, as various entrenched elites have used the bogeyman of “Western imperialism,” Israel’s presence and occupation, and the sufferings of the Palestinians to distract their populations from their own failings.
But in this scenario, that era is coming to an end. Assad will fall the same way Qaddafi did, and his departure will deal a body blow to the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas), which is the last stubborn remnant of anti-Western opposition in the region. Weak and isolated, Iran will have no choice but to bow before the West’s demands, and the clerical regime itself will be living on borrowed time. As political change ushers in more responsive and accountable governments throughout the region, the long pent-up energies of these societies will be unleashed and broad-based economic development will begin.
Equally important, the flowering of democracy (or something closer to it) will reduce the current frictions between the United States and some of these societies, as citizens focus on getting educated and getting rich, instead of worrying about red herrings like the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, or the U.S. military presence in the region. Islam may play a somewhat larger role in political life, but it will be mostly moderate and benign.
This view is consistent with the traditional liberal view of international relations, which tends to dominate how U.S. policymakers think about foreign policy. Liberal theories of IR argue that foreign policy behavior is heavily influenced by societal preferences and regime type, by economic interdependence, and by the creation of powerful global institutions. They tend to assume that human beings mostly care about material prosperity. As Middle East countries become more like us, so the argument runs, conflicts of interest will diminish, anti-Americanism will fade, and interest in obtaining WMD will decline. And once these states become more democratic and fully enmeshed in the world economy, they will drop their outdated objections to Israel and all will be well.
Notice also that this view implies that neoconservatives’ program for “regional transformation” was the right idea all along; the problem was that the people who tried to implement it were incompetent and their chosen instrument -- military power and direct U.S. intervention -- was simply the wrong tool. Obama’s embrace of the “Arab spring” has been cautious and not always consistent (see under: Bahrain), but it was directed at essentially the same goal and his approach has proven to be far more effective. On balance, he has positioned the United States on the progressive side of change and confined the U.S. role to helping local forces win their battles.
In effect, the administration is betting that the arc of history will bend in a direction that leads to more participatory politics, to greater gender equality and human rights, and to a dramatic reduction in both regional tensions and anti-Americanism over time. It may take a couple of decades for this hopeful vision to be realized, and because massive social change is always messy, there are bound to be some rocky moments along the way. But all Americans need to do is stay the course, use their still-considerable power to nudge these societies in the right direction, and manage the inevitable turbulence for a little while longer.
In many ways, it would be nice if this hopeful future came to fruition, although it would probably consign the Palestinians to another generation or two of impoverished statelessness. Alas, this is not the only scenario one can envision.
2. The Bad: In this version of the future, the political changes unleashed by the “Arab spring” continue to roll forward, and attempts to reimpose the old order (as Egypt’s military seems to be attempting) ultimately fail. Moreover, the emergence of more participatory politics and greater openness do in fact generate many of the positive features described above: education expands, economic development accelerates, and national unity is ultimately strengthened in many of these societies. In short, social and political mobilization continues and deepens, and governments manage to create more open and effective institutions.
But in this scenario, these shifts do not transform the Middle East into a region of calm Kantian liberals, or some Middle Eastern version of the EU. As political dynamism returns to the region, this scenario envisions more and more governments that are both increasingly responsive to popular sentiment and increasingly capable of advancing their national interests (as defined by popular beliefs) on the world stage. And because some of those sentiments are at odds with long-standing U.S. policies, the emergence of a more politically mobilized and capable Arab world might turn out to be a real headache for Washington.
Recent history offers several cautionary warnings. Turkey under the AKP has enjoyed impressive economic growth in recent years -- in sharp contrast to the military governments that preceded it -- but it has also become a less compliant ally of the United States and increasingly an independent force in the region. U.S. and Turkish interests are often compatible but not always, and that is likely to be true of a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Or consider what has happened to China. If Mao had lived forever, China would still be saddled with a dysfunctional command economy. Embracing capitalism has lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty, but it has also given Beijing the capacity to challenge U.S. leadership on a host of issues, and may one day make it a true “peer competitor.” From a selfishly American perspective, therefore, it might have been better of the “four modernizations” had never occurred and China had remained weak and economically backward. By the same logic, Arab inefficiency is one of the main reasons why the United States and Israel have been able to dominate the Middle East for the past four decades, and we should not blindly assume that a more capable and competent Arab world would also be a more compliant one.
The “good” scenario assumes that the emergence of more participatory, quasi-democratic politics will eventually eliminate the existing conflicts of interest within the region and with the United States. But there are good reasons to question that optimistic belief. Sunni vs. Shiite divisions have been around for centuries and are likely to persist. Palestinians will still press for statehood (or for full voting rights), and politically mobilized Arab publics will continue to back them, in part because this might be an issue that democratic politicians exploit to make themselves more popular at home, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was done. A democratic Syrian government will still want the Golan Heights back, and a fully democratic Iran might want nuclear weapons as much as the Shah did or as much as democratic (and nuclear-armed) Israel does.
In this view, in short, we ought to be careful what we wish for. Autocrats like Hosni Mubarak and monarchs like King Hussein or King Abdullah of Jordan could ignore popular sentiment and align closely with Washington, but this may not be so easy for governments that have to depend on popular support. The assumption that progressive political change in the Arab world is a good thing for the United States rests on the belief that “all good things go together": political change will eventually foster economic development and attenuate existing political disputes. Unfortunately, history also reminds us that as states grow richer and stronger, they often grow more assertive and they start defining their interests in broader terms. This could be big trouble for Washington, given how unpopular U.S. policies have been and how deeply rooted these attitudes seem to be.
3. The Ugly: There is a third scenario, and it is the one we have already seen in Iraq and Lebanon and may now be seeing in Syria. In this version of the future, the Arab spring succeeds in overturning a number of bankrupt orders but does not lead to stable and progressive governance in some of them. Instead, we get weak and divided orders where sectarian quarrels are rife, extremism is rewarded, al Qaeda finds new followers, and those who are adept at violence are advantaged.
Needless to say, this bleak forecast implies that the region will remain messy and divided for many years to come. An economic renaissance will not occur, because political instability will discourage investment and tourism and force local populations to squander time and resources on fighting rather than building. Outside powers will be tempted to intervene in various ways, which will lead to tit-for-tat retaliations and raise the risk of broader regional conflicts. Given that the Gulf region will remain a key source of global energy supplies (no matter how much natural gas the U.S. eventually obtains from hydraulic fracking), continued regional instability could have far-reaching and harmful effects on the world economy.
This scenario isn’t good news for the United States either. It might be smart for the United States to remain aloof from the carnage, but that will be difficult given our interventionist tendencies and the pressure we’ll face from regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. And if the past is any guide, we can’t expect Russia or China or the Europeans to help us quiet things down; they’d rather hand Uncle Sam the burden of managing yet another regional cauldron. So not only would this scenario mean lots of trouble for people in the Middle East, it's bound to be a big headache for the United States too.
Which of these scenarios do I think is most likely? I lean towards the second, because I don’t think the Arab spring is reversible and because I don’t think that protracted instability in places like Syria will prove all that contagious. But that’s really no more than a hunch.
Of course, these three scenarios are not the only ones one can imagine. But they do help put the current turmoil into perspective, and they help us identify the underlying logic on which current U.S. policy is based. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted if the first scenario is the one we get. I’ll also be more than a little surprised.
I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT:
Nasser Rabbat writes:
The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over in Tunisia and Libya, and are poised to wrestle power from a recalcitrant army in Egypt. The secularists, assumed to be the natural allies of the West, are weak and divided. In Tunisia and Egypt, they garnered fewer votes in the elections than predicted. In Libya, they retreated from the National Transitional Council, leaving the Islamists to occupy its most powerful positions. In Syria, still struggling against a belligerent and criminal regime that is proving hard to nudge, the secularists in the opposition are constantly bickering, whereas the Islamists are organized and goal-oriented. Arab secularism, the events seem to suggest, is a spent force. The United States and other Western governments, claiming to be responding to the realities on the ground, are engaging the Islamic parties as the defining new paradigm of Arab politics.
Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no. To begin with, the record of the West in the Arab world is patently not pro-secularist. Indeed, if we are to limit our assessment to the regimes that have been consistently backed by the U.S. in the last fifty years, we will find on the top of the list Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Morocco, all avowedly Islamic regimes, at least in their claims to legitimacy or their application of Islamic law. Conversely, some of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. have been the secular regimes of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, though their secularism proved skin-deep and opportunistic. Moreover, when the United States decided to avenge the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated as they were by an extremist Islamist militancy, its most decisive act was to destroy the secular regime of Iraq. Eight years later, when the Americans finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind not only a flagrantly sectarian regime, but also a political class composed largely of religious movements umbilically linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Nor does history show much Western support for the budding secular tendencies in the early twentieth century, which coincided with the colonization of most of the Arab world. Pragmatism may explain why colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, preferred to deal with traditional leaders. They had political influence, economic clout, and a wide base of clients. That they adhered to conservative forms of piety added to their usefulness: They understood the mechanisms of religious authority and could manipulate them to appease potential popular unrest. The few Arab secularists, on the other hand, even though thoroughly westernized and belonging to the social elite, were seen as troublemakers. Having been profoundly influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment, they formulated strong demands for liberation, democratization, and modernization. Many clashed with the colonial authorities and paid a heavy price of imprisonment or exile.
Independence, when it finally came, fell smack at the height of the Cold War. The West, which was eventually reduced to the United States, was seeking to build alliances of nations committed to countering the Communist threat. Conservative regimes, such as those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were obviously the most promising allies. So the West supported them regardless of their religious agendas. When military regimes came to power in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq after the defeat of these countries in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they first toyed with accepting Western tutelage. Their subsequent turning to the USSR as a patron more sympathetic to their national causes, however, did not translate into espousing communism or rejecting religion. Ungodly these military regimes certainly were, but they were not secular. They neither believed in nor practiced the separation of religion and politics. They in fact heavily relied on religious symbolism to frame the image of their one inspired despot and his family or clan. This was the case of Anwar al-Sadat after Camp David and his successor Hosni Mubarak, as well as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Fundamentalism and its defiant social expressions actually grew under their watch, even if they had been relentlessly suppressing all Islamic political organizations, or any other political activism for that matter.
Secularists had no place in such a system. Those who dared to speak out against it found themselves dismissed from their jobs, jailed, or forced to leave their countries. Some, who persisted in their criticism of the dictators or of the rigid views of the growing Islamist extremists, like the journalists Salim al-Lawzi and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem in Kuwait, Farag Foda in Egypt, and Mohammed Taha in Sudan, were assassinated. Others, unable to cobble together a political structure to unite them like the Islamists had, channeled their political activism into more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Secularism, already accused of elitism because of the social background of its proponents, became even more rarefied as it migrated either away from the pulse of the street and into the confines of academia and art or out of the country altogether.
The 2011 uprisings seemed at first to bring secularism back to the forefront as a vociferous political force. Fueled by a new breed of activists -- young, globally networked, and unbothered by considerations of class, religion or gender -- the uprisings wielded the same principles that earlier Arab secularists have advocated. But like those earlier Arab secularists, the youth did not translate their secularist rallying cries into framers of political parties able to compete for the post-revolutionary governments. Some movements, notably the 6th of April Movement in Egypt, simply declared after the fall of Mubarak's regime that it had no plan to become a political party, then lived to regret that impulsive decision. The prominent and reasonably popular candidate for the presidency in Egypt, Mohammad el-Baradei, withdrew from the race before it began, citing as a reason the reprehensible way politics was conducted by his detractors. The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.
Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.
In February 2011, after the victory of the Egyptian revolution in which they played no significant role, some of the most famous Islamic preachers gloated that the next government will be Islamic. Secularism, they contended, should be put to rest because it reigned for fifty years and failed. But true secularism has never had a chance to rule in the modern Arab world, except perhaps in Tunisia under al-Habib Bourguiba (1957-87). Otherwise, religion was always enshrined in the fiat constitutions of all the Arab kingdoms and republics, even those that were ferociously hunting down Islamists. Moreover, Arab rulers who hid behind secular masks, whether they were civilian or military, never separated religion from their politics. Many enlisted docile forms of religion and compliant sheiks as parts of their arsenal of control. In that, they were following in the footsteps of a long tradition of inglorious religion-based rule in the Arab world, which did not really end until the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. It is thus more accurate to question what Islamic rule of the kind imagined by the vocal Islamist organizations will bring that was not tried before during the long centuries of what they themselves believe was an Arab decline.
Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at MIT.
What to do, what to do about Syria? Hardly anyone is confident that the Annan mission will resolve the struggle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. Today I want to offer a more-or-less realpolitik approach to the problem, though I am not at all certain it would work or even that it would make sense to try. Consider it an effort to think outside the box.
As I've noted before, the central problem here is that there doesn't seem to be a genuine "compromise" option available that would leave Assad & Co. in place yet guarantee the safety of the opposition and their ability to organize politically. Neither side trusts the other at all, and neither can credibly commit not to try to eliminate their rivals if they get the chance. This creates the growing risk of a long and grinding confrontation and/or civil war. In this scenario I think outside powers would eventually get involved and Assad would eventually lose, but Syria would be in very bad shape when it was all over.
This latter outcome is not in anyone's interest, and certainly not ours. Our interests are best served if Assad leaves sooner rather than later, before all-out war occurs and before the entire Syrian state collapses. So the question is: Is there anyway to convince Assad and his closest associates to leave? I don't have a surefire way to do it, but one big step in the right direction would be for Russia to shift is position and stop protecting him. In other words, what if Moscow made it clear that they were willing to grant Assad et al asylum if they left, but were not willing to help keep them in power any longer?
Recall that it was the withdrawal of Russian support that eventually convinced Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the 2000 war in Kosovo. The circumstances in Syria are quite different, but the logic is the same: If Assad knew he'd lost Moscow's backing, and his associates figured this out too, they might start looking for any reasonably safe exit.
If you're still with me, then the question becomes: How could the U.S. and others convince newly "re-elected" Russian president Vladimir Putin to follow this path? I'm not sure we could, but one option would be by telling Putin that we would let him take full credit for resolving this confrontation. Putin and other Russian leaders have consistently opposed the emergence of a world order where Washington gets to determine which regimes survive and which regimes fall. For this reason, an overt attempt at Libya-style "regime change" is bound to upset them and encourage them to dig in their heels. But what if we made it clear that we were willing to let them take the lead (for example, by hosting an international conference to address the issue) and eager to let them have all the credit if they were able to ease Assad out. As Harry Truman once noted, "it's amazing what you can achieve if you don't care who gets the credit."
Now comes the tricky part. I doubt Putin would buy this sort of deal unless he got some sweeteners, and unless he thought that Russian interests would suffer if they continued their present course. In other words, the carrot of diplomatic credit might have to accompanied by some additional carrots, as well as the subtle hint of a stick. As for additional carrots, I'd happily toss in concessions on European missile defense, which is a costly boondoggle we ought to be ditching anyway. As for sticks, I think we'd have to try to convince Russia that outside intervention is going to happen sooner or later, and that once it does, Assad is going to be toast no matter what Moscow does. So they can either watch a regime they've backed for 40 plus years go down the tubes -- thereby reminding the world of their growing geopolitical impotence -- or they can get with us and get the credit for resolving a thorny problem, thereby allowing Putin to reaffirm Russia's importance on the world stage. There's bound to be a certain element of Kabuki theater in all this, but that's hardly unheard of in modern diplomacy. The risk, however, is that we have to threaten to intervene ourselves, and Moscow might call our bluff in the hopes of luring us back into a nice Iraq-style quagmire.
Like I said: I see this as a bit of a hail Mary, and I'm sure that readers will be able to poke a lot of holes in the idea. Go right ahead, but please offer up your own suggestions too.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
What should we do about Syria? By "we," I don't mean just the United States. Rather, I mean that wonderfully ambivalent phrase the "international community," and especially those states with a clear stake in the outcome (i.e., Syria's immediate neighbors, its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian allies, and its various adversaries, including the United States).
Reading two pieces that appeared today helps clarify the basic dilemma. The first piece, by economist Paul Collier of Oxford, argues that the Assad regime is living on borrowed time, having "crossed a red line" of international acceptance. He advocates ramping up the pressure by arming the opposition forces, in order to encourage Syrian army leaders and other Baath officials to defect. (The piece is in the Financial Times, and is firewalled on their site).
A second piece by Asli Bali of UCLA and Aziz Rana of Cornell, warns of the perils of this approach. While highly critical of Assad, they emphasize the danger of prolonged civil war and point out that a significant number of Syrians still worry as much about internal instability and sectarian violence as they do about Assad's brutalities. Accordingly, Bani and Rana favor an inclusive diplomatic process that avoids isolating Assad completely, in order to head off a destructive civil war.
One could make a crude realist case for Collier's approach, if you believed that the strategic benefits of ousting Assad were worth the human costs to Syrian civilians. One might argue that toppling Assad would eliminate a key Iranian ally and deal a crippling blow to Hezbollah, thereby advancing broader U.S. interests in the region. In this optimistic scenario, grateful Syrians would seek friendly relations with their Western benefactors, including Washington. Notice that this view assumes that the transition is swift, that few civilians die in the fighting, and that forming a new government is fairly easy.
But a sophisticated realist would be skeptical of a grand scheme like this. Realists understand that force is a crude instrument that usually generates lots of unintended consequences, and trying to exploit the Syrian crisis to shape the regional balance of power could backfire in all sorts of unpredictable ways. If one gives Assad & co. no choice but to fight to the end, we're likely to get a protracted civil conflict. Some officers may defect, but plenty of others won't and will do whatever it takes to try to hold on. In these circumstances, groups and individuals who are adept at using violence tend to come to the fore, and politics inside Syria will tend toward the extreme.
Nor should we assume that a post-Assad Syria will be a compliant client state governed by pro-Western elites who are grateful for our help. The Syrian opposition may despise Assad -- and with good reason -- but it is hardly unified. Moreover, a post-Assad government will still have security concerns and interests to pursue (such as the return of the Golan Heights). Our experiences with Iraq and Libya also belie Collier's blithe assumption that reconstituting a new Syrian government will be easy. The composition of a post-Assad state in Syria is anyone's guess, but there are plenty of contenders for power who are wary of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. A post-Assad Syria would still be buffeted by its neighbors and other interested parties, especially if outsider powers are supporting different factions. And the greater the level of force needed to topple him, the harder it will be to put Syria back together afterward.
And as Bali and Rana emphasize, even well-intentioned humanitarian intervention can have the unintended consequence of putting more Syrian lives at risk. Thus, for both strategic and moral reasons, the international community should concentrate on stopping what is now a slowly escalating civil war, instead of trying to escalate it. This may not be a morally heroic stance, but it is realistic.
Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.