Andrew Sullivan has offered a measured response to the Guardian's revelations about a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to collect metadata about ordinary Americans' phone calls. You can read his whole comment here, but the sentences that caught my eye were these:
"This kind of technology is one of the US' only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence."
There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in "competitive advantages" against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They're vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.
Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the "consequences of its absence" could be "terrible." This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism -- even of the sort suffered on 9/11 -- is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren't secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from "jihadi terrorism." The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don't have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don't seem to be crying out for a "Patriot Act" to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.
Terrorism often succeeds when its targets overreact, thereby confirming the extremists' narrative and helping tilt opinion toward their cause. Thus, a key lesson in dealing with these (modest) dangers is not to exaggerate them or attribute to enemies advantages that they do not possess. I suspect Sullivan knows this, even if he briefly forgot it when writing his otherwise thoughtful post.
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If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
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I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
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The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka "terrorism"), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly. I am beginning to wonder if our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind.
Don't get me wrong: The speed with which the Tsarnaev brothers were identified was remarkable, and citizens at the scene of the bombing showed resolution and humanity in helping the victims. Here in Boston, a great many people worked with energy, courage, and effectiveness to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. And one can only feel a sense of heartache and tragedy when reading about each of the victims, senselessly murdered.
It's the larger response to the tragedy that worries me. Although politicians from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick offered up the usual defiant statements about America's toughness and resilience in the face of terror, the overall reaction to the attacks was anything but. Public officials shut down the entire city of Boston and several surrounding suburbs for most of the day, at an estimated cost of roughly $300 million. What did this accomplish? It showed that a 19 year-old amateur could paralyze an entire American metropolis. As numerous commentators have already pointed out, a city-wide lockdown is not what public officials have done in countless other manhunts, such as the search for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles. And Dorner was a former Navy reservist who had killed four people and who was at least as "armed and dangerous" as the Tsarnaevs. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the attitude that tamed the West, stopped the Third Reich, or won the Cold War.
The media frenzy that accompanied these events was equally disturbing. If terrorists "want a lot of people watching," then that's precisely what the American media gave them. It is probably unrealistic to hope that today's hydra-headed and commercially voracious media would respond to an event like this with even a modicum of restraint, but the feeding frenzy that CNN, Fox, and many other outlets engaged in must have been deeply gratifying to America's enemies. Television networks have learned not to train their cameras on the lunkheads who sometimes jump out of the bleachers and race across a baseball field. In a perfect world, these same organizations would act with similar wisdom when terrorists strike. In particular they would tell the public what it needed to know for the sake of safety, but they would spare us the round-the-clock, obsessive-compulsive, and error-ridden blather that merely gives extremists the publicity they seek.
As Boston shut down and the world watched, fourteen Americans were killed and more than 200 were injured in a factory explosion in Texas. Those people are just as dead as the four victims in Boston, yet their story is already fading to the back pages of the major papers. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaevs remain the Big Story and got profiled on 60 Minutes last night. As I write this, the death toll from last week's earthquake in China nears 200 -- with thousands injured -- but it barely rates a passing glance. And the week before the Marathon bombing, those courageous members of our bought-and-paid-for Senate rejected the very mildest of efforts to reduce the danger from guns, even though firearms kill over 30,000 Americans every year. As Michael Cohen noted in the Guardian, we fear that which scares us, but not the things that actually threaten us.
What is it about terrorism that terrorizes? Is the disproportionate attention it receives due to its seemingly random nature? The sense that it could strike any of us without warning? That explanation seems unlikely, given that other equally random dangers pose a greater risk. Is it because terrorism is the product of human volition, an explicit act of malevolence? This may have something to do with our tendency to overreact, yet other equally heinous acts don't seem to transfix society in the same way.
Or was it the intrusion of an act of wanton violence into an event -- the Boston Marathon -- that is supposed to be celebratory and fun? Or do we react viscerally to terrorism because such acts force us to think -- however reluctantly -- about the rage, animosity, and alienation that others feel towards us?
I don't know. But I cannot help but think that our political leaders have been letting us down ever since 9/11. Instead of teaching Americans that that actual risk from terrorism was minimal, they have kept us disrobing in security lines, obsessing over every bizarre jihadi utterance, and constantly fretting about the Next Big One. An entire industry of "terrorism experts" has arisen to keep us on the edge of our seats, even though many other dangers pose a far greater risk. The result of this obsession has been catastrophic: a failed effort to nation-build in Afghanistan, a wholly misbegotten war in Iraq, and an enormous distraction from any number of other issues -- education, climate, energy, the economy -- whose mismanagement will ultimately claim far more lives and create far more immiseration than those two misguided and angry young brothers did.
I do not mean to trivialize what happened last week. Four innocent people died, and many more were grievously hurt. Finding the persons responsible was necessary, and I'm as happy as anyone else that they are no longer at large. But the brutal reality of human existence is that it is fragile, and there are no guarantees. Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur. The grossly disproportionate reaction to the Marathon attacks tells me that our political system is increasingly incapable of weighing dangers intelligently and allocating resources in a sensible manner. Unless we get better at evaluating dangers and responding to them appropriately, we are going to focus too much time and attention on a few bad things because they happen to be particularly vivid, and not enough on the problems on which many more lives ultimately depend.
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I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I've been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.
As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects' origins doesn't tell you what their motives were. Let's assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects' origins are little more than guesses.
Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn't appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn't try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.
But as I suggested a couple of days ago, that observation doesn't change our situation very much. Given the nature of destructive technology -- in this case, fairly primitive bombs -- and the fact that there will always be a few people with a destructive agenda of some kind, there are always going to be senseless acts of violence. Governments and society at large can and should take reasonable measures to reduce that risk -- and yes, a saner approach to gun regulation would help -- but 100 percent safety isn't possible. Fortunately, the odds that any of us will ever experience a direct encounter with this sort of violence are still vanishingly small. Even if you're a police officer or a soldier, the odds are in your favor. For the rest of us, we are still remarkably safe by historic standards. And Americans are much, much safer than people in many other places.
And remember, four people have now died in Boston (not counting the dead suspect), but some fifteen people died in Texas when a fertilizer plant blew up. The world is not foolproof. Bad things do happen. That bedrock reality is not even interesting; what matters is that we recognize dangers for what they are, calibrate them properly, and respond to them intelligently.
P.S.: Continued kudos to the law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem, who identified the suspects with remarkable speed and have handled an extremely difficult situation with calm but decisive measures. Cable TV? Not so much.
Update: As I've watched today's events and pondered further, I've become convinced that public officials in Boston erred by locking down the City and most surrounding suburbs for an entire day. There may be a good explanation for this decision, but it hasn't been provided yet. The economic cost has been enormous (by one estimate about $1 billion), and it sets a worrisome precedent if a 19 year old fugitive can paralyze an entire metropolitan region. We didn't shut down DC when the snipers were operating there, and we didn't shut down Los Angeles when a renegade and heavily armed police officer was a fugitive. This response also belies our insistence that we're tough and we won't be intimidated. On the contrary: we look skittish and scared. I suspect public officials were deathly afraid of further violence, and of being blamed later for not taking precautions. We'll see. But I worry that potential copycats will be inspired rather than deterred by the combination of media frenzy and governmental overreaction.
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I do not know what I would say to any of the victims of yesterday's attack at the Boston Marathon -- to the families of the three people who have died or to those whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the blast. For them, this is simply a tragic moment of ill-fortune, to have been in the wrong place when some evildoer planted a senseless bomb.
For the rest of us, however, there are already lessons to be drawn. For me, the most important thing to remember is that such events, however vivid, shocking, and tragic, do not in fact pose a mortal threat to our society and our freedoms, unless we let them. For as horrible as yesterday's events were, Americans are not in fact at greater risk than they were before. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence on American soil in the past, and there will be in the future. Yet the odds that any American will in fact be affected by terrorist violence of any sort remains astronomically small. And so long as future incidents do not involve weapons of mass destruction -- and especially nuclear weapons -- then their impact will be limited to a few unlucky individuals who tragically happen to caught in terrorism's web through no fault of their own.
Thus far, the response to this outrage has been encouraging. For the most part, people have refrained from ill-informed speculation about responsibility. Boston and Massachusetts officials responded intelligently, swiftly, and calmly to yesterday's events, and ordinary citizens at the scene reacted in ways that makes one proud of our common humanity. If the perpetrators were seeking to sow confusion and panic or trigger some sort of massive over-reaction, they failed. I am confident we will eventually find out who did this and that they will eventually be brought to justice.
There are now over 7 billion human beings on this planet, and roughly 313 million citizens here in America. It is inevitable that a tiny handful of these individuals will be driven by their own beliefs or demons to commit deliberate acts of violence against innocent people. And there is no reasonable way to prevent a few of those individuals from getting their hands on the materials needed to make a bomb. It has happened in Northern Ireland, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Istanbul, in Bali, at abortion clinics here in the United States. It has happened in the Moscow subway, in Madrid, and in Oklahoma City. Sometimes a political group is responsible; sometimes it is just an angry and warped individual. It happened yesterday, as well as throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
We should by all means adopt prudent security procedures -- as Massachusetts officials did before yesterday's race -- and revise and update those procedures in light of experience. And when we do know what motivated this particular attack, we should consider if there was anything that we might have done to prevent the perpetrators from embarking on their evil course. We should be brave and honest enough to ask if this was some sort of warped response to something we had done and consider whether what we had done was appropriate or not. To ask that question in no way justifies the slaughter of innocents, but understanding a criminal's motivations might be part of making such events less likely in the future.
But we are never going to return to some sort of peaceful Arcadia where America -- or the rest of the world -- is totally immune from senseless acts of violence like this one. There is no perfect defense and there never will be. And so our larger task is to build a resilient society that comes together when these tragedies occur, understands that the ultimate danger is limited, and that refuses to bend in the face of a sudden, shocking, and cowardly attack.
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I hadn't even finished my morning coffee, but one didn't have to be fully awake to detect a bit of tension between these two headlines in today's New York Times:
The first story details the various reasons why the long and costly U.S. effort to train Afghan security forces is mostly failing (illiteracy, desertion, corruption, etc.). The second story suggests we've learned little from that experience, and that U.S. leaders again think the way to achieve our aims in Libya is to get U.S. military officers in there to teach Libyans how to be good soldiers. Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that this is something we know how to do, particularly in these contexts.
I know, I know: Libya is not Afghanistan, and training a small elite force is a lot easier than trying to build an entire national army from scratch. But we're going to face some similar problems (i.e., diversion of funds or weapons by corrupt Libyans, mistrust among the Libyans we're trying to recruit and train, infiltration by extremists with the wrong agendas, etc.). And some Libyans are bound to suspect that the real purpose of the training effort is to cement American influence (which, in a way, it is). There's also the danger that we'll succeed, and end up creating the nucleus of a new authoritarian regime.
But as you may have noticed, concerns like that rarely stop us from meddling in other societies. I hope this new effort works, but our recent track record doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.
If you're one of those people who still thinks it would be a good idea to attack Iran, you might spend a moment or two reflecting on the past week of events in the Middle East. If a stupid and amateurish video can ignite violent anti-American protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, just imagine what a joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran would do.
And don't be misled by the fact that a few Arab leaders are also worried about Iran's nuclear program. Some of them are, though they aren't going on the American airwaves to demand "red lines" and set the stage for preventive war. More importantly, surveys of Arab opinion suggest that these publics aren't that worried about Iran's nuclear potential, which they rightly see as a counter to America's military dominance and to Israel's already-existing stockpile of nuclear weapons. If the United States and/or Israel decides to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, it's going to be seen in the region as the latest manifestation of Western hostility to Islam, as well as another sign that we are actively trying to dominate the region. Public sentiment will be overwhelmingly against us, and current governments will have little choice but to go along with it.
There are big problems throughout the Middle East these days: civil war in Syria, low-level violence in Iraq, pervasive instability in Yemen, armed militias in Libya, uncertainty in Egypt, slow-motion ethnic cleansing on the West Bank, and a host of others. But no set of problems is so great that we couldn't make them a lot worse.
According to yesterday's New York Times, assorted "senior American officials" are upset that adversaries like al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Somali pirates are not simply rolling over and dying. Instead, these foes are proving to be "resilient," "adaptable," and "flexible." These same U.S. officials are also worried that the United States isn't demonstrating the same grit, as supposedly revealed by high military suicide rates, increased reports of PTSD, etc. According to Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, these developments
"raise concerns that the United States is losing ground in the New Darwinism of security threats, in which an agile enemy evolves in new ways to blunt America's vast technological prowess with clever homemade bombs and anti-American propaganda that helps supply a steady stream of fighters."
Or as Shanker and Schmitt put it (cue the scary music): "Have we become America the brittle?"
This sort of pop sociology is not very illuminating, especially when there's no evidence presented to support the various officials' gloomy pronouncements. In fact, the glass looks more than half-full. Let's start by remembering that the Somali pirates and al Qaeda have been doing pretty badly of late. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden is down sharply, Osama bin Laden is dead, and his movement's popularity is lower than ever. Whatever silly dreams he might have had about restoring the caliphate have proven to be just hollow fantasies. And as John Mueller and Mark Stewart showed in an article I linked to a few weeks ago, the actual record of post-9/11 plots against the United States suggests that these supposedly "agile" and "resilient" conspirators are mostly bumbling incompetents. In fact, Lehman Bros. might be the only major world organization that had a worse decade than al Qaeda did.
Second, and more importantly, the degree of battle fatigue that the United States might be experiencing has less to do with the "war on terror" per se and more to do with our decision to take our eye off the ball and do a lot of other things instead. The single most costly thing the United States has done since 9/11 -- in terms of both lives and money and strain on our forces -- was invading Iraq, but Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. (Repeat after me: Nothing.) Similarly, the United States invaded Afghanistan to catch bin Laden and oust the Taliban, but that mission eventually morphed into a much more ambitious and ill-defined campaign of nation-building that has not -- ahem -- gone very well. If U.S. military forces are stretched thin, tired, or showing signs of strain, it is because U.S. leaders made bad strategic choices. Even so, I'd argue that U.S. forces have held up remarkably well over a long and inherently difficult campaign.
As for the rest of the country, I'm not even sure how one would measure national "resiliency," but I don't see many signs that the country as a whole is curling into the fetal position. Americans are tired of fighting losing wars, especially when they don't believe there are vital interests at stake. But that's not a sign that we've lost our collective determination; it's actually a sign that the American people are pretty good at cost-benefit analysis and know a bad bet when they see one.
In fact, I think there's something quite different going on. The United States is very secure by almost any standard, and most countries in the world would be delighted to be as safe as we are. For this reason, most Americans don't worry very much about foreign policy, and the only way you can motivate them to support the sort of activist foreign policy that we've become accustomed to since 1945 is to constantly exaggerate external threats. Americans have to be convinced that their personal safety and well-being are going to be directly affected by what happens in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, or some other far-flung region, or they won't be willing to pay the costs of mucking about in these various places. Threat-mongering also depends on constantly overstating our adversaries' capabilities and denigrating our own. So senior officials tell sympathetic journalists that our foes are "resilient" and clever and resourceful, etc., while bemoaning our alleged lack of fortitude. The good news is that it's not true; if anything, Americans have been too willing to "pay any price and bear any burden" for quite some time.
One more thing: To the extent some of our adversaries do seem more willing to fight us than we are to fight them, that has a lot to do with where these wars are being waged. If somebody ever invaded the United States, I'm confident Americans would fight like tigers to throw them out. I'll bet it would be child's play to organize tough, well-armed, and resilient insurgencies against any foreign occupier of American soil. Nationalism and other forms of local identity are very powerful forces in the modern world, which is why groups like the Taliban or the Haqqani network or al Qaeda's various local copycats are able to attract local recruits and are hard for foreign occupiers to eradicate. You don't have to agree with anything these groups do or stand for to recognize that we're on their home turf, and it is hardly surprising that they care more about what happens there than we do.
Lastly, Shanker and Schmitt conclude their piece by saying that "the best weapon against terror is refusing to be terrorized. That starts with giving Americans timely, accurate information about potential threats." I agree, but assuming I'm reading them correctly, I'd draw a somewhat different conclusion. The best way to keep Americans from being "terrorized" is to remind them that the risk is extremely low -- though not zero -- and to explain further that most anti-American terrorism in the world today is largely a reaction to things the United States has been doing overseas. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey noted in 2002 that "antipathy toward the United States is shaped more by what it does in the international arena than by what it stands for politically and economically." Similarly, a 1997 study by Defense Science Board found "a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and increased terrorist attacks on the United States."
Nothing has changed much since then. The connection between U.S. foreign policy and anti-American terrorism does not necessarily mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong or misguided; perhaps terrorism is just part of the price we must pay to keep doing all these things. That's a separate issue, about which reasonable people can disagree (and do). But let's at least be realistic enough to acknowledge the connection.
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Remember how the London Olympics were supposedly left vulnerable to terrorists after the security firm hired for the games admitted that it couldn't supply enough manpower? This "humiliating shambles" forced the British government to call in 3,500 security personnel of its own, and led GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to utter some tactless remarks about Britain's alleged mismanagement during his official "Foot-in-Mouth" foreign tour last month.
Well, surprise, surprise. Not only was there no terrorist attack, the Games themselves came off rather well. There were the inevitable minor glitches, of course, but no disasters and some quite impressive organizational achievements. And of course, athletes from around the world delivered inspiring, impressive, heroic, and sometimes disappointing performances, which is what the Games are all about.
Two lessons might be drawn from this event. The first is that the head-long rush to privatize everything -- including the provision of security -- has some obvious downsides. When markets and private firms fail, it is the state that has to come to the rescue. It was true after the 2007-08 financial crisis, it's true in the ongoing euro-mess, and it was true in the Olympics. Bear that in mind when Romney and new VP nominee Paul Ryan tout the virtues of shrinking government, especially the need to privatize Social Security and Medicare.
The second lesson is that we continue to over-react to the "terrorist threat." Here I recommend you read John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart's The Terrorism Delusion: America's Overwrought Response to September 11, in the latest issue of International Security. Mueller and Stewart analyze 50 cases of supposed "Islamic terrorist plots" against the United States, and show how virtually all of the perpetrators were (in their words) "incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish." They quote former Glenn Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats saying "we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are," noting further that al Qaeda's "capabilities are far inferior to its desires."
Further, Mueller and Stewart estimate that expenditures on domestic homeland security (i.e., not counting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) have increased by more than $1 trillion since 9/11, even though the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, they estimate that for these expenditures to be cost-effective "they would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year." Finally, they worry that this exaggerated sense of danger has now been "internalized": even when politicians and "terrorism experts" aren't hyping the danger, the public still sees the threat as large and imminent. As they conclude:
... Americans seems to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril. Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic that generated it ... This extraordinarily exaggerated and essentially delusional response may prove to be perpetual."
Which is another way of saying that you should be prepared to keep standing in those pleasant and efficient TSA lines for the rest of your life, and to keep paying for far-flung foreign interventions designed to "root out" those nasty jihadis.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is pulling the plug on the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, which it was funding as part of its broader development and public diplomacy efforts. The reason given was alleged fraud in the handling of funds, although the Pakistani producer responsible for the program denies any malfeasance. Bottom line: another upbeat moment on the increasngly fraught U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
I'm glad to hear that State's money managers are keeping a watchful eye on expenditures, but the whole theory behind this initiative seems dubious to me. Apparently the idea was that if you got Pakistani tots acquainted with cute Muppets like Elmo (the only character transplanted from the U.S. version), they'd develop a greater love of learning, a better sense of social tolerance, and they might even grow up with a more favorable image of the United States.
I'm not one to deny the power of television, but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. The Pakistani version of Sesame Street (known locally as Sim Sim Hamara) may have been popular with kiddies (I don't know) and may even have encouraged some basic literacy and tolerance. But such programs are also justified by the desire to improve the U.S. image in places where it could use some polishing. And if that is the case, as Peter Van Buren notes here, then canceling the program could negate whatever benefits were previously gained by funding it.
More broadly, the assumption underlying most efforts at public diplomacy seems to be the belief that anti-Americanism around the world is a failure of marketing. If we just do a better job of selling what we do around the world (or if we get to them young enough, with clever characters like Elmo or Cookie Monster), then Pakistanis won't mind our launching drone strikes on their territory and will give us a free pass when we kill a bunch of border guards by accident.
The core problem, needless to say, is that a successful public diplomacy effort needs to start with a good product. Defending America's dominant world role isn't impossible, but it's not primarily a question of "spin," propaganda, cultural exchange, or better children's TV programming. If U.S. foreign policy is consistently insensitive to others' interests, and if our actions are seen by others as making things worse instead of better, then no amount of clever public diplomacy is going to convince them that Washington is really acting selflessly on behalf of all mankind.
Ironically, Obama's first term offers a potent illustration of both the potential and the limits of public diplomacy. In his first year, the percentage of people with a favorable image of the U.S. rose dramatically in most of the world, and even improved slightly in the Middle East (where the U.S. image is especially poor). But while Obama and the U.S. remain fairly popular in Europe, his subsequent policies have produced a profound slide in a number of key areas, including Pakistan. Other societies don't always have a fully accurate view of what the United States is doing and why, but they aren't completely ignorant or ill-informed either. Sorry to sound like Oscar the Grouch, but bringing Sesame Street to Islamabad wasn't going to fix that problem, even if all the money had been spent as intended.
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Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
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Which university is more likely to defend academia's basic commitment to sharing ideas and knowledge in an open and unconstrained way, West Point or Yale? You'd probably think it would be Yale, that well-known bastion of tweedy academics and liberal values. How wrong you'd be.
As West Point faculty member Gian Gentile outlines in a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, former U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has been teaching a course at Yale's Jackson Institute of Global Affairs on strategy and leadership. Nothing wrong with that: Plenty of universities (including my own) hire practitioners to share insights from the real world with students. And I've got no problem having a former general teach a course. But in a shocking departure from normal academic practices, Yale requires students taking the course to sign a non-disclosure form, pledging that they will not divulge what is said in the course to outsiders. In other words, McChrystal is teaching an "off-the-record" course.
This restriction is so contrary to the normal practice of universities that it is hard to know where to begin. Academic institutions exist to pursue knowledge, to teach what we know to our students, and to instill in them an appreciation for free and open inquiry. The whole principle of academic freedom rests on the idea that knowledge is best advanced by allowing ideas to blossom and to be shared without restriction. In this way, good ideas can be validated and retained and bad ideas or conjectures can be scrutinized and eventually excluded. By telling students in McChrystal's class that they cannot share what they learn with others, Yale is artificially constraining the normal give-and-take of ideas. There may be vigorous discussions inside that particular classroom, but the rest of Yale (and the larger world) won't know about them. Secrecy of any kind is fundamentally at odds with the principles that universities stand for, yet here Yale has enshrined it in one of their courses.
A commitment to free and open discussion also keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on the identity or the supposed prestige of the faculty member leading the course. Giving McChrystal a special exemption immediately tells Yale students that the general is a "Very Important Person" who gets to be treated differently from other members of the faculty. Again, that's not how universities are supposed to work: People taking my courses aren't supposed to accept what I tell them because I am the professor and they are mere students. They are supposed to accept what I tell them only if I've successfully convinced them it is useful and makes sense. And they are free -- even encouraged -- to disagree with me, especially if they have good reason to do so and can make their objections stick. And I want them to talk about my courses outside of class; maybe someone they know will point out a new way to think about an issue or identify a mistake I've made. But if I made my students sign a non-disclosure form, I would limit their capacity to hold me accountable.
Requiring students to sign a non-disclosure form also sends the subtle but unmistakable signal that the instructor is imparting secret knowledge that is too hot or potentially controversial to be shared with the outside world. I can easily imagine students lapping this up -- we all like thinking we're getting info that others aren't privy to -- but this is just not how universities are supposed to work.
Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn't blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times. But that argument won't wash: If McChrystal really believes what he's teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn't be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, "Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won't find out about in books. Trust me." He should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading). If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That's the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want. What's General McChrystal so afraid of?
Yale's abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment). The country has been at war for over a decade, and there's an inevitable tendency for civilians to start treating those who've been fighting these wars with kid gloves. This tendency is not healthy, however, because the professional military has its own interests and world view -- as such, it is not necessarily the best judge of what is in the overall interests of the nation. National security is a topic that affects all Americans, and it is more likely to be openly and intelligently debated when we don't give any of the participants (and especially not those with particular interests in the subject) a free pass.
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Note: In response to my previous post on the hazards of the new Atrocities Prevention Board, Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action offers the following alternative view. I'm not persuaded, but it is a thoughtful and intelligent rejoinder that I wanted to share with you. Take it away, Andrew....
Andrew Miller writes:
Stephen Walt's skepticism of the recently-announced Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is understandable. New bureaucracies often create more problems than they solve. But, the APB is a worthwhile (albeit, modest) attempt to improve the government's mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. A close look at the board shows that it has the potential to both avert atrocities and lessen the likelihood of humanitarian interventions -- outcomes that realists, of course, can welcome with open arms.
The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don't get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn't even a side-show for policymakers; it was a "no show" in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake.
The APB, as a standing body with senior officials (assistant secretaries and above), would be well-positioned to avoid such bloodshed becoming a "no-show". In tandem with the board, the president has vowed to set up "alert channels" that allow lower-level officials to raise red flags about potential atrocities. The APB could serve as a conduit in processing these warnings and ultimately getting them to the Oval Office if warranted.
Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda? Simply put: No.
As the board's title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.
Given the board's interagency make-up, it can leverage these preventive tools rather than relying on the military to resolve crises. The APB will have representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Treasure, Justice, Homeland Security, among others, with the White House's director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power chairing the group. This broad representation will help make the military less of a go-to institution for dealing with atrocities as has been the case since the end of the Cold War.
It is fair to ask, what happens if preventive action fails? Or, as Walt puts it, "how likely is it that [the APB] will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens?" While the APB will probably recommend taking serious mitigating steps, there is a wide range of measures short of a large-scale military operation. Even Power, whom the National Interest has dubbed "Interventionista", stresses measures beyond "sending in the Marines." In her book A Problem from Hell, she lays out a host of policies that the Clinton administration could have taken during Rwanda: frequently denouncing the slaughter, beefing up the United Nations peacekeeper force there, jamming belligerent radio broadcasts used to coordinate attacks, threatening to prosecute the perpetrators, etc.
These are the sorts of measures that the APB will rely upon. In fact, the Obama administration has already used them to help end last year's bloodshed in Ivory Coast. Atrocities broke out there when opposition forces tried to unseat incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo who had lost the country's November 2010 elections. The administration subsequently slapped sanctions on the main perpetrators, backed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in-country, and ultimately supported a French troop deployment. Tensions in Ivory Coast remain today, but the mass killings have stopped.
The APB would not have made intervention in Ivory Coast any more likely. Walt accurately states that there are "good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts." Even if the APB had advocated for U.S. troops, there is little reason to believe that Obama would have deployed them to a place of negligible U.S. interests. (Perhaps the only effect Ivorian instability had on Americans was a rise in chocolate prices.) In other words, the president's strategic calculus on Ivory Coast was set, and the APB would not have changed that -- a good thing from the realist point of view.
Finally, Walt raises the uncomfortable reality of the United States' spotty human rights record. He argues that past U.S. misdeeds make the APB just another example of American "smug self-congratulation." If one takes a victim's perspective, however, this smugness seems less relevant. Srebrenica's Muslims, for example, surely would have appreciated American help in July 1995 regardless of U.S. sanctions on Iraq at the time. In the same vein, would the United States want to end its fight against human trafficking (modern-day slavery in many respects) given its pre-1860s history? Most realists (presumably Walt included) would say, no.
As this blog has made clear, realists are not divorced from morality. Like anybody else, they don't want to see Rwandan rivers choked with bodies or emaciated Bosnians behind barbed wire. They also don't want to see the United States' national security imperiled by military overstretch. The APB is a modest step toward reaching both ends.
Andrew C. Miller is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.
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Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but the new "strategic partnership" agreement between the United States and Afghanistan strikes me as little more than a fig leaf designed to make a U.S. withdrawal (which I support) look like a mutually agreed-upon "victory." It is already being spun as a signal to the Taliban, Iran, and Pakistan that the United States remains committed, and the agreement will undoubtedly be used as "evidence" that the 2009 surge is a success and that's now ok for the US to bring its forces home.
I have no problem with cosmetic gestures that facilitate doing the right thing, but let's be clear about the limited significance of the agreement itself. Although the final text of the agreement has not been made public (which itself makes one wonder both what it says and what it doesn't say), the New York Times account says that there is no specific agreement on the magnitude of future U.S. aid. Indeed, it describes the agreement as "more symbolic than substantive." We're told that Washington has pledged to support Afghanistan for another ten years, but the actual aid amounts are unspecified and will have to be voted each year by Congress. Long-term U.S. support may also be conditional on reduced corruption and Afghan reforms, but given their track record to date, it is hard to believe that the Afghans will make much progress on that front.
Ten years is a pretty long time, and a lot will happen -- including three U.S. presidential elections -- between now and 2022. The Obama and Karzai governments can make whatever promises they want to each other, but those agreements will have to be carried out by their successors and both sides can always renege by claiming that "conditions have changed." I'm not saying that the agreement is worthless, but in the end the two states will abide by its terms only if it is in their respective interest to do so. Given the volatile nature of politics throughout Central Asia, it would be folly to assume that a deal hatched now will remain in force for ten years.
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I'm in California to deliver a keynote talk at the Stanford U.S-Russia Forum (or SURF). My topic will be the end of the "American Era" and its implications for U.S.-Russian relations. The Forum is a student-run event, and it will be fun to spend some time interacting with students at my alma mater. The closing dinner will be at the Faculty Club, which will be an exercise in further nostalgia, since I worked there as a waiter and bartender back in the 1970s. (And no, I am not going to divulge the drinking habits of the faculty back then).
Getting here involved flying, of course, which in turn means another enjoyable encounter with the Transportation Security Administration. The lines and pointless interference at Logan Airport were no worse than usual yesterday, but one TSA employee did manage to add a new wrinkle of misery to the experience. As we all stood in line like obedient sheep, he recited the usual litany about removing belts, shoes, liquids, emptying pockets, etc. At the same time, he also kept up a loud, non-stop monologue of unfunny, mildly sexist, and occasionally offensive jokes, to an entirely captive audience of travelers. No doubt he thought he was providing an amusing diversion, but he didn't seem to notice that no one was laughing. And given the ever-present threat of a strip-search, nobody was going to tell this loudmouth in a uniform to just zip it. So in addition to the degrading inconvenience of the security checkpoints themselves, they've now added noise pollution.
For more on the sheer pointlessness and inefficiency of the current security regime at airports, check out Bruce Schneier's rant here (h/t to Dave Clemente of Chatham House). One does wonder what it will take before the world adopts a saner approach to this problem, one which recognizes that perfect security isn't possible to achieve, and trying to get there has enormous downsides.
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What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.
On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.
Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.
One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.
I'd like to believe this version story -- really -- and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.
I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.
Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.
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I hope to post later today on another issue, but in the meantime, here's a link to my contribution to a New York Times' "Room for Debate" forum on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The question was whether we should get out sooner or get out later. As you can read, I favor the former. Money quote:
"Afghanistan is not a vital United States interest. President Obama had said that we must prevent Al Qaeda from establishing safe havens there, but Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda already has better safe havens elsewhere. Victory in Afghanistan will not eliminate Al Qaeda, and leaving won’t make it more dangerous. If it makes no difference whether we win or lose, why fight on?"
I would only add that I don't think most Americans have any idea what the conflict in Afghanistan has really been like, or what U.S. soldiers and commanders really did and really thought. We will learn more with the passage of time, and I suspect it won't be pretty.
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Will China hold together? I'd say yes. But as scholars and pundits debate China's future, a critical issue is whether the government will face powerful internal challenges of the sort that eventually helped bring down the USSR. One piece of that puzzle is whether minority groups such as China's restive Uighur population in Xinjiang province will pose a significant threat to internal stability.
I know very little about this issue, but I found this brief commentary by Arabinda Acharya and Wang Zhihao, two researchers at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, to be rather eye-opening. Factoid #1: Acharya and Wang point out that China is one of the few countries in the world that spends more on domestic security than it does on defense, a fact that reflects the CCP's long-term concern about internal order.
Equally interesting was their reminder about the dearth of reliable information on the true situation in Xinjiang. Money quotation:
"The Xinjiang situation is also characterized by a lack of facts. Accounts of events come mainly from two sources: state-sponsored media and overseas Uighur activists who claim to have sources within the region. Reporting by these two entities however cannot be independently verified, due to China's ban on the presence of outside media in the region. Therefore, it has become difficult to determine where facts end and embellishment begins.
State media attributes the incidents to rioters or terrorists belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) also going by the name Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Beijing also accuses overseas Uighur organizations especially the World Uighur Congress for inciting unrests in Xinjiang. Uighur activist groups however, claim that the protests are acts of the local Uighur lashing out at Beijing's "systematic oppression." These incidents nevertheless, are being exploited to garner international support for resisting what is being termed as "state oppression" in Xinjiang. As the facts continue to be obfuscated, it has become difficult to distinguish protests against specific grievances by local Uighur from organized acts of terrorism."
As we've seen in many other contexts, the dearth of reliable information is exacerbated by the contending parties' incentives to misrepresent what is really going on, making it extremely difficult for outsiders to judge either the threat of instability or the appropriateness of the government's counter-measures. And insofar as internal instability poses a significant threat to China's continued economic expansion, it means that outsiders will find it even more difficult to forecast its trajectory with confidence.
For their part, Acharya and Wang offer a fairly sanguine forecast, opining that "Fortunately for China, the situation in Xinjiang is not and does not portend to be a problem of massive proportions." Nonetheless, they warn that overly harsh measures could fuel greater Uighur resistance, and they conclude that "Beijing would do well to temper its actions with appropriate sensitivity to overall issues involved rather than attempt to crush all dissent with mere force."
Good advice, I suspect, but it will be interesting to see if China's leaders can follow this prescription for subtlety, especially internal discontent increases.
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If you are someone who is inclined to favor hawkish responses to foreign policy problems, then your choice for president should be Barack Obama. Not because Obama is especially hawkish himself, or interested in prolonging costly and failed commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. For that matter, his administration is making a modest and fiscally necessary effort to slow the steady rise in Pentagon spending, and they seem to understand that war with Iran is a Very Bad Idea. (It is of course no accident that military action there is being promoted by the same folks who thought invading Iraq was a Very Good Idea. But I digress.)
So why should hawks vote for Obama? As Glenn Greenwald and Greg Sargent have argued most forcefully, it's because Obama can do hawkish things as a Democrat that a Republican could not (or at least not without facing lots of trouble on the home front). It's the flipside of the old "Nixon Goes to China" meme: Obama can do hawkish things without facing (much) criticism from the left, because he still retains their sympathy and because liberals and non-interventionists don't have a credible alternative (sorry, Ron Paul supporters). If someone like John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or George W. Bush had spent the past few years escalating drone attacks, sending Special Forces into other countries to kill people without the local government's permission, prosecuting alleged leakers with great enthusiasm, and ratcheting up sanctions against Iran, without providing much information about exactly why and how we were doing all this, I suspect a lot of Democrats would have raised a stink about some of it. But not when it is the nice Mr. Obama that is doing these things.
The key to making this work, as Andrew Bacevich suggests here, is to insulate the vast majority of the American population from the effects of this effort. Obama understands that there's no stomach for big, costly, and inconclusive wars like Iraq and Afghanistan (he's right, and there's also little to be gained from them). But he and his advisors are betting that the American people will tolerate active efforts to hunt down and kill perceived bad guys, provided that the costs are low and occur far away and mostly out-of-sight. And it is in this context that one has to view recent proposals to give U.S. Special Forces greater presence, autonomy, and capability, an idea that remains controversial within military circles.
In other words, we are engaged in a grand strategic experiment: can the United States make itself more secure by dispatching troops and drones to various corners of the world, with the explicit mission of killing anyone we think might be a "terrorist?" At first glance, this approach certainly looks better than the debacle in Iraq, and it consistent with the "laser-like focus on Al Qaeda" that some of us recommended way back in 2001. But it is not without its own dangers, of which the following strike me as especially paramount.
The first danger lies in the secrecy with which these activities are now shrouded. We don't really know who is being targeted for attack, or what the error rates are. Is it really true that U.S. forces have targeted not just suspected terrorist but also the people who seek to provide medical or rescue assistance after an attack, on the assumption that the rescuers are in cahoots with original targets? How often do we make honest mistakes? How reliable is the information on which targeting is being conducted?
The second danger -- "blowback" -- follows from the first. What if we end up creating more new terrorists than we kill? What if aggressive efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda in Pakistan ends up destabilizing the nuclear-armed Pakistani state and convinces lots of people there that the United States is inherently hostile? Are we going to understand that such hostility didn't emerge solely because these people "hate our values," but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countrymen was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error? The less we know about what U.S. forces are doing, the harder it will be for us to understand why some people don't like us that much.
A third danger is imitation. There is every reason to assume that other states, as well as some non-state actors, will decide to follow us down this particular path. The United States used to say that it opposed "targeted assassinations," but now we we are legimitizing this practice and others are bound to get into the act too. Similarly, by paying less and less attention to the old norm of sovereignty, we are making it more difficult to object when other states start interfering in each other's internal affairs. If we can send drones and/or special forces into any country we choose, why can't other states violate national borders in order to advance some policy objective of their own? What are we going to say then?
Fourth, is this a temporary expedient or a slippery slope? A case can be made that Obama's approach is a smart response to the dangers posed by Al Qaeda and its progeny, and that his policies reflect a temporary necessity. In this view, groups like Al Qaeda arose in a particular historical and political context, and they are gradually being attrited by an increasingly precise and effective strategy. If you believe this, then you might also believe that eventually the war on terror will be won, and that eventually we will be able to ratchet back these activities, shut down Guantanamo, rescind the Patriot Act, get rid of those demeaning scanners at airports, and cut back or quit those drone strikes. One could even argue that what we are really seeing is a last flurry of activity as we exit Iraq, prepare to exit Afghanistan, and start pivoting toward East Asia.
I'd like to believe that, but as Bacevich suggests, it is at least as likely that we have entered a new phase in American strategy from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. The problem is that we have these new capabilities (i.e., drones), and Obama and Bush have established the precedent of a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to warfare that keeps most of what we are doing in the dark. My fear is that future presidents are going to find those capabilities and that precedent very hard to resist. When hammers (drones?) are cheap, it's tempting to buy a lot of them and you'll tend to see a world full of nails. Drug lords in Mexico causing trouble? Let's just take 'em out. Tired of Hugo Chavez and his shenanigans? We've got an app for that. Sickened by the carnage in Syria? Let's give Assad and his underlings the same treatment we gave Ghaddafi. And so on. But most actions generate unintended consequences, and I suspect that trying to be the global policeman -- or in the minds of some, the global vigilante -- on the cheap may be a decision we'll eventually regret.
Harry How/Getty Images
Last week the Washington Institute of Near East Policy released a brief report entitled "Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States." Such an event is not exactly headline news, insofar as the report is precisely the sort of analysis that you'd expect a "pro-Israel" think tank like WINEP to promote. What is slightly more interesting are the study's authors: Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe. Blackwill was formerly U.S. Ambassador to India (and a former colleague of mine here at the Kennedy School); Slocombe is a long-time Washington insider perhaps best known for helping mismanage the occupation of Iraq.
Their report checks in at a modest 17 pages of large type, and it offers few arguments that experienced Middle East mavens haven't heard before. It's tempting to disregard it, except that it illustrates many of the misconceptions that still permeate discussion of the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. Mideast policy. I will take the bait, therefore, and offer a brief critique.
Blackwill and Slocombe (hereafter B&S) begin by rehearsing the familiar claim that the United States and Israel are bound together by shared values, and by America's "moral responsibility" to defend the Jewish state. But they argue that there is a third justification, which they maintain is "too often ignored." That justification is the idea that Israel and the United States have common strategic interests and that Israel is a major asset for helping the United States achieve them. They offer the usual list of benefits (e.g., intelligence sharing, military technology, counter-terrorism expertise, counter-proliferation activities, etc.), in order to show what a valuable asset Israel really is. They then argue that the costs of U.S. support are not very significant, mostly because support for Israel does not preclude close cooperation with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. They conclude by calling for increased collaboration with Israel, as a means of advancing U.S. national interests.
So what's wrong with this picture?
For starters, Blackwill and Slocombe do not consider whether the alleged benefits of U.S.-Israeli cooperation require the unprecedented "special relationship" that now exists between the two countries. The real debate is not whether the United States should cooperate with Israel or support Israel's existence: even prominent critics of U.S. policy (including myself and John Mearsheimer) agree that the United States should support Israel's existence (within the pre-1967 borders) and should come to its aid if its survival were ever in jeopardy. Rather, the real debate is whether the United States should have a special relationship with Israel, in which the United States gives Israel generous economic, military, and diplomatic support no matter what it does, and where U.S. politicians cannot offer the mildest criticism of Israel's conduct without facing a torrent of abuse and political pressure from the Israel lobby.
Today, Israel is the only country in the world that mainstream U.S. politicians (and most members of the foreign-policy establishment) cannot openly criticize. It is the only country in the world that U.S. presidents cannot pressure in any meaningful way. The United States does not have this sort of relationship with any other country in the world -- not with Great Britain, or Japan, or South Korea, or Canada, or France, or Denmark. But it does with Israel, which is a key reason why Israel's settlements have been expanding for more than forty years, even though every president since Lyndon Johnson has formally opposed such actions. The "special relationship" is also a major reason why the Oslo process failed, and why Barack Obama's efforts to achieve a viable "two-state solution" have foundered. (B/S wrongly state that the United States and Israel share a common desire for a two-state solution; Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is formally opposed to a Palestinian state, and Israel's current government has made it clear that the only "Palestinian state" that it would countenance would be a set of disconnected, unviable Bantustans under permanent Israeli control.)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Unless the Obama administration (and in particular, Attorney General Eric
Holder), has more smoking gun evidence than they've revealed so far, they are
in danger of a diplomatic gaffe on a par with Colin Powell's famous U.N.
Security Council briefing about Iraq's supposed WMD programs, a briefing now
known to have been a series of fabrications and fairy tales.
The problem is that the harder one looks at the allegations about Manour Ababasiar, the fishier the whole business seems. There's no question that Iran has relied upon assassination as a foreign policy tool in the past, but it boggles the mind to imagine that they would use someone as unreliable and possibly unhinged as Ababsiar. I won't rehash the many questions that can and should be raised about this whole business; for compelling skeptical dissections, see Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Tony Karon, and John Glaser.
As I said yesterday, I don't know what actually happened here, and I remain open to the possibility that there really was some sort of officially-sanctioned Iranian plot to assassinate foreign ambassadors here on U.S. soil. But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.
Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they
would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh
U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they
would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like
Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't
you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?
Hence the growing skepticism, including the possibility that this might be some sort of "false flag" operation by whatever groups or countries might benefit from further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations. If the Obama administration can't back up their allegations in a convincing way, they are going to face a diplomatic backlash and they are going to look like the Keystone Cops. They could even face a situation where rightwing war-mongers seize on their initial accusations to clamor for harsh action (a development that has already begun), while moderates at home and abroad lose confidence in the administration's competence, credibility, and basic honesty.
So my advice to Holder & Co. is this: you better show us what you've got, and it had better be good.
Photo courtesy of Nueces County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images
For the record: I don't know if there was a genuine Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Let me repeat that: I don't know. And neither do you. All we know is that the U.S. government claims to have uncovered such a plot, involving an Iranian-American used-car salesman who allegedly was getting direction from some part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This dangerous criminal mastermind reportedly thought he was paying a Mexican drug cartel to conduct the actual attacks, when he was in fact dealing with an undercover DEA agent.
As I said, none of us really know what was going on here, but several features ought to be kept in mind. First, the Iranian government is by all accounts a contentious and unruly body, and it is possible that some rogue element of the Revolutionary Guards came up with this cockamamie but obviously despicable scheme. Whether Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad had anything to do with it, of course, is another matter entirely.
Second, the FBI doesn't have a terrific track record in identifying and documenting this sort of conspiracy, and we'd be fools to take their accusations at face value. There is sometimes a fine line between uncovering a real terrorist plot and subtly encouraging one, as in the famous case of the "Miami Seven," whose plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago appears to have been largely inspired by the undercover agent who eventually exposed them. Until we know a lot more about the actual time line and evidence behind these latest accusations, a certain skepticism is warranted. And I wouldn't be surprised if the government eventually reveals that the evidence of direct Iranian involvement is based on intercepted signals intelligence, which it will then claim it cannot make public without compromising sources and/or methods. In other words, just trust us...
Third, before we leap to the conclusion that this is more evidence of how heinous Iran's revolutionary leadership is, let's pause to remember that the United States and some of our allies have done similar things in the past. We tried to bomb Muammar al-Qaddafi's tent back in the 1980s, and the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro and a few other foreign leaders back in the 1960s. And the United States has certainly backed various groups that used assassination and other forms of terrorism to advance their political aims, such as the Nicaraguan contras. Some of you might think that these efforts were justified; my point is simply that we aren't wholly innocent in this regard. That doesn't justify what Iran is accused of doing, but it might temper our own moral outrage a bit.
Lord knows there's plenty of grounds for concern about various Iranian actions (including their reliance on murder and/or sabotage on several occasions in the past), and no shortage of conflicts of interest between Tehran and Washington. But this story is sufficiently bizarre -- would a real Iranian agent actually try to hire a drug cartel to do his dirty work? -- and the potential consequences are sufficiently grave that we really ought to wait until we know more before drawing any conclusions at all.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
If memory serves, one of the lessons of Roger Fisher's little book International Conflict for Beginners was "settle conflicts early and often." This isn't always possible, of course, but his basic insight was that unresolved conflicts are dangerous precisely because they provide opportunities that extremists can exploit, they harden perceptions and images on both sides, and most importantly, they can always get worse. So when a promising opportunity to settle a conflict arises, wise leaders should pursue them energetically.
I thought of that insight when I heard about the attack in Israel yesterday, which left eight Israelis dead and some thirty wounded. The perpetrators are reportedly Gazans who took advantage of Egypt's present turmoil to cross the lightly guarded Egyptian-Israeli border, and the killings themselves are a reprehensible act that will bring no good to anyone. Just as Operation Cast Lead was both immoral and strategically foolish, this latest act of violence -- though on a smaller scale -- was equally misguided and morally bankrupt.
However one sees this situation, a key point to keep in mind is that this sort of thing isn't going to stop as long as the occupation and the siege of Gaza persists, and as long as one people has a state of their own and the other does not. If the situation were magically reversed and a million-plus Israelis were being kept in the same condition as the Gazans, I'd be astonished if some of them didn't try to take up arms against whomever was oppressing them. And I'll bet Commentary magazine would think that such actions would be perfectly okay. That thought-experiment doesn't justify the murder of innocents, mind you, but it may help us understand where such deplorable actions come from.
The usual response by partisans of each side is to blame the other for all the trouble, but in reality there is plenty of blame to go around. Israel's occupation is illegal, unjustified, and relies on brutal coercion to continue, and its current government is more interested in expanding settlements than in pursuing reasonable opportunities for genuine peace. The Palestinian people have been repeatedly betrayed by their own leaders' blunders, by supposedly sympathetic Arab states that have frequently sought to exploit their plight (or worse), and by extremists who seem to think killing a few more Israelis will somehow advance their quest for statehood. In truth, both sides have done a good job of "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity," which is one reason why the conflict remains unresolved to this day.
In such a situation, one might hope that outside powers would use their influence to bring the conflict to a close, out of their own self-interest. It is hardly good for the United States to be perennially distracted by this issue, or to have its regional image tarnished and its diplomacy complicated by its one-sided position. Nearly twenty years ago, the Oslo agreements seemed to provide an opportunity to end the conflict once-and-for-all, except that the United States proved to be a hopelessly inept steward of the "peace process." And as Fisher might have warned, it's just gotten worse. Remember that Hamas did not have a lot of popular support when the Oslo process began, but its popularity increased when Oslo failed to deliver and Fatah's corruption became more apparent. Meanwhile, Israeli politics has drifted steadily rightward, making any sort of territorial compromise less and less likely. Given where we are today, wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a "do-over" of the 1990s? Alas, that sort of replay is a mere fantasy.
To repeat: yesterday's attack was morally wrong and strategically foolish. But until more people start thinking outside the box on this one -- and demanding that political leaders think differently too -- you can be confident that we'll see more of the same -- by both sides -- in the future. And the danger of a larger explosion will grow.
Today is the 21st anniversary of a key date in world history. On this date in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a train of events that would have fateful consequences for Saddam himself, but also for the United States. Indeed, one could argue that this invasion was the first step in a train of events that did enormous damage to the United States and its position in the world.
Of course, we all know what happened in the first Gulf War. After a brief period of vacillation (and a vigorous public debate on different options), the first Bush administration assembled a large and diverse international coalition and quickly mobilized an impressive array of military power (most of it American). It got approval from the U.N. Security Council for the use of force. Although a number of prominent hawks predicted that the war would be long and bloody, the U.S.-led coalition routed the third-rate Iraqi forces and destroyed much of Saddam's military machine. We then imposed an intrusive sanctions regime that dismantled Iraqi's WMD programs and left it a hollow shell. Despite hard-line pressure to "go to Baghdad," Bush & Co. wisely chose not to occupy the country. They understood what Bush's son did not: Trying to occupy and reorder the politics of a deeply divided Arab country is a fool's errand.
Unfortunately, the smashing victory in the first Gulf War also set in train an unfortunate series of subsequent events. For starters, Saddam Hussein was now firmly identified as the World's Worst Human Being, even though the United States had been happy to back him during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. More importantly, the war left the United States committed to enforcing "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq.
But even worse, the Clinton administration entered office in 1993 and proceeded to adopt a strategy of "dual containment." Until that moment, the United States had acted as an "offshore balancer" in the Persian Gulf, and we had carefully refrained from deploying large air or ground force units there on a permanent basis. We had backed the Shah of Iran since the 1940s, and then switched sides and tilted toward Iraq during the 1980s. Our goal was to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, and we cleverly played competing powers off against each other for several decades.
With dual containment, however, the United States had committed itself to containing two different countries -- Iran and Iraq -- who hated each other, which in turn forced us to keep lots of airplanes and troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We did this, as both Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi have documented, because Israel wanted us to do it, and U.S. officials foolishly believed that doing so would make Israel more compliant during the Oslo peace process. But in addition to costing a lot more money, keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for the long term also fueled the rise of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was deeply offended by the presence of "infidel" troops on Saudi territory, and so the foolish strategy of dual containment played no small role in causing our terrorism problem. It also helped derail several attempts to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Dual containment, in short, was a colossal blunder.
But no strategy is so bad that somebody else can't make it worse. And that is precisely what George W. Bush did after 9/11. Under the influence of neoconservatives who had opposed dual containment because they thought it didn't go far enough, Bush adopted a new strategy of "regional transformation." Instead of preserving a regional balance of power, or containing Iraq and Iran simultaneously, the United States was now going to use its military power to topple regimes across the Middle East and turn those countries into pro-American democracies. This was social engineering on a scale never seen before. The American public and the Congress were unenthusiastic, if not suspicious, about this grand enterprise, which forced the Bush administration to wage a massive deception campaign to get them on board for what was supposed to be the first step in this wildly ambitious scheme. The chicanery worked, and the United States launched its unnecessary war on Iraq in March 2003.
Not only did "Mission Accomplished" soon become a costly quagmire, but wrecking Iraq -- which is what we did -- destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and improved Iran's geopolitical position. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources away from the war in Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to re-emerge as a formidable fighting force. Thus, Bush's decision to topple Saddam in 2003 led directly to two losing wars, not just one. And these wars were enormously expensive to boot. Combined with Bush's tax cuts and other fiscal irresponsibilities, this strategic incompetence caused the federal deficit to balloon to dangerous levels and helped bring about the fiscal impasse that we will be dealing with for years to come.
Obviously, none of these outcomes were inevitable back in 1990. Had cooler heads and smarter strategists been in charge after the first Gulf War, we might have taken advantage of that victory to foster a more secure and stable order throughout the Middle East. In particular, we would have pulled our military forces out of the region and gone back to offshore balancing. After all, Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 did not force the United States to choose "dual containment." Nor did it make it inevitable that we would bungle the Oslo peace process, pay insufficient attention to al Qaeda's intentions, or drink the neocons' Kool-Aid and gallop off on their foolish misadventure in Iraq. But when future historians search for the moment when the "American Empire" reached its pinnacle and began its descent, the war that began 21 years ago would be a good place to start.
MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images
I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. Go here for a peek at The Life I Could Have Had if I Had Talent.
Along the way I've been reflecting more on the shooting/bombing in Norway and the debates that have surfaced since last weekend. One of the striking features of Anders Breivik's worldview (which is shared by some of the Islamophobe ideologues who influenced his thinking) is the idea that he is defending some fixed and sacred notion of the "Christian West," which is supposedly under siege by an aggressive alien culture.
There are plenty of problems with this worldview (among other things, it greatly overstates the actual size of the immigrant influx in places like Norway, whose Muslim minority is less than 4 percent of the population). In addition, such paranoia also rests on a wholly romanticized vision of what the "Christian West" really is, and it ignores the fact that what we now think of as "Western civilization" has changed dramatically over time, partly in response to influences from abroad. For starters, Christianity itself is an import to Europe -- it was invented by dissident Jews in Roman Palestine and eventually spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. I'll bet there were Norse pagans who were just as upset when the Christians showed up as Breivik is today.
Moreover, even Christian Europe is hardly a fixed cultural or political entity. The history of Western Europe (itself an artificial geographic construct) featured bitter religious wars, the Inquisition, patriarchy of the worst sort, slavery, the divine right of kings, the goofy idea of "noble birth," colonialism, and a whole lot of other dubious baggage. Fundamentalists like Breivik pick and choose among the many different elements of Western culture in order to construct a romanticized vision that they now believe is under "threat." This approach is not that different from Osama bin Laden's desire to restore the old Muslim Caliphate; each of these extremists is trying to preserve (or restore) an idealized vision of some pure and sacred past, based on a remarkably narrow reading of history.
In fact, any living, breathing society is driven partly by its "inner life," but also inevitably shaped by outside forces. Indeed, as Juan Cole notes in a recent post, most societies benefit greatly from immigration, especially if they have strong social institutions (as Norway does) and the confidence to assimilate new arrivals into the existing order while allowing that order to itself be shaped over time. What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A quick footnote to the tragic events in Norway. Although as Greenwald points out, various unreliable sources were quick to assume that the attacks was the work of al Qaeda or some other Islamist group, there was in fact good reason to suspect from the start that right-wing extremists were really to blame. As I noted back in February, a 2010 study to Europol had shown that the vast majority of "terrorist" incidents in Europe were the work of European anarchist groups, and only a tiny fraction had anything to do with Islam. Here's what I said back then:
In 2009, there were fewer than 300 terrorist incidents in Europe, a 33 percent decline from the previous year. The vast majority of these incidents (237 out of 294) were conducted by indigenous European separatist groups, with another forty or so attributed to leftists and/or anarchists. According to the report, a grand total of one (1) attack was conducted by Islamists. Put differently, Islamist groups were responsible for a whopping 0.34 percent of all terrorist incidents in Europe in 2009. In addition, the report notes, ‘the number of arrests relating to Islamist terrorism (110) decreased by 41 percent compared to 2008, which continues the trend of a steady decrease since 2006.'''
So if journalists and right-wing bloggers had been paying attention, they might have guessed that it was far more likely that a European was responsible. But they didn't, which tell you a lot about their mind-set and motivations.
Moreover, as Matt Yglesias observes over on his blog, the attacks in Norway also cast doubt on the whole "safe haven" argument that has been used to justify our protracted, costly, and counter-productive effort to reorder political and social relations throughout Central Asia. Norway was far better governed than Afghanistan or Pakistan is likely to be in our lifetimes, yet that didn't prevent a local extremist from perpetrating a horrific crime, inspired at least in part by the hyperventilating hatred disseminated by prominent rightwing Islamophobes here in the United States. Put differently, the United States could stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the next century, and it would still be unable to guarantee that this territory didn't contain some hostile cells of extremists bent on attacking the United States or its allies. And even if we could, we obviously couldn't be sure that bad guys weren't in Yemen or Oslo or Bakersfield or Des Moines or Portland or Key West, or anywhere else.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
As soon as the shocking and tragic news from Norway hit the airwaves, it was entirely predictable that various right-wing Islamophobes would type first and think later. They were so eager to exploit the tragedy to peddle their pre-existing policy preferences that they blindly assumed the acts had to have been perpetrated by al Qaeda, by its various clones, or by some other radical Muslim group.
This is the sort of bias one expects from an ideologue like Jennifer Rubin (who gets taken to task for her rush-to-judgment by James Fallows here). Sadly, it is also not out of character for the supposedly respectable Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page has been a reliable source of threat-mongering and distortion for years. Even as Norwegian officials were cautioning that they had no reason to suspect Islamist groups, the Journal was plunging ahead with an editorial entitled "Terror in Oslo," which drew the following utterly bogus conclusion:
Norway certainly did not buy itself much grace from the jihadis for staying out of the Iraq war, or for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's demand that Israel open its borders with Gaza, or for his calls for a Palestinian unity government between Fatah and its terrorist cousin Hamas.
Norway can do all this and more, but in jihadist eyes it will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to these ideals Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price."
Given that remarkable statement, the Journal's editors must have been deeply disappointed to learn that the person who was actually charged in the case, Anders Behring Breivik, was not in fact a jihadi, a critic of Israel, or even a Muslim. Instead, he is a right-wing Norwegian Islamophobe who is reportedly obsessed with the dangers of multi-culturalism and a contributor to extremist websites like Jihad Watch and Atlas Shrugs. In other words, he's the sort of person who might well subscribe to the Wall Street Journal not for its coverage of the business world, but for its predictably hardline editorial "insight."
As I write this (Saturday noon EDT), the editorial has still not been removed from the WSJ website and no apology or retraction has been issued. The Journal and its editors are obviously free to continue to sow the seeds of hatred and paranoia, but the rest of us are equally free to view them with appropriate contempt. And let us also take time to reflect on Norway's sorrow, and to remember that hatred and violence can erupt from many directions.
UPDATE: Obviously aware of the egg on its face, the Journal has posted a rewritten version of the editorial on its website here. Note the marked absence of any apology for its initial rush-to-judgment. You can find a fascimile of the original editorial here. And for an interesting commentary suggesting that right-wing hate-mongering websites might have contributed to the murderous mind-set behind the attack, see Paul Woodward's War in Context here.
I did say that I was "going off the grid" for ten days or so, but reading the New York Times remains a morning ritual for the household and I still have access to my email. And yesterday they combined to make a brief post imperative.
The first item was an email announcement from the Hudson Institute, inviting me (and probably hundreds of other people) to attend a luncheon briefing on "The Political Situation in Kyrgyzstan: Implications for the United States." The first sentence of the announcement informed me that "the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security." As my teen-aged daughter would say: "OMG!" Did you know that your safety and security depends on the political situation in.... Kyrgyztan?" Yes, I know that the air base at Manas is a critical transit point for logistics flowing into Afghanistan, but otherwise Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country of about 5 million people without significant strategic resources, and I daresay few Americans could find it on a map (or have any reason to want to). It is only important if you think Afghanistan's fate is important, and readers here know that I think we've greatly exaggerated the real stakes there. (And if we're heading for the exits there, as President Obama has said, then Kyrgyzstan's strategic value is a stock you ought to short.)
I'm not trying to make fun of the Hudson Institute here, but the idea that we have "critical" interests in Kyrgystan just illustrates the poverty of American strategic thinking these days. Even now, in the wake of the various setbacks and mis-steps of the past decade, the central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin' world is a "vital" U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to. And Beltway briefings like this one just reinforce this mind-set, by constantly hammering home the idea that we are terribly vulnerable to events in a far-flung countries a world away. I'm not saying that events in Kyrgyzstan might not affect the safety and prosperity of American a tiny little bit, but the essence of strategy is setting priorities and distinguishing trivial stakes from the truly important. And somehow I just don't think Kyrgyzstan's fate merits words like "vital" or "critical."
And then I read David Greenberg's op-ed in yesterday's Times, on the "isolationist" roots within the Republican Party. Greenberg is a historian, and his brief account of isolationist strands within the GOP is perfectly sensible. But he uses this narrative to cast doubt on the growing number of people who believe that the United States is over-committed (a group, one might add, that includes the out-going Secretary of Defense), but who are hardly "isolationists."
In particular, Greenberg ends his piece by warning that "following the path of isolationism today won't serve America well." He may or may not be correct in that judgment, though his op-ed offers no arguments or evidence to support this particular conclusion. More importantly, Greenberg falls into the familiar trap of assuming that those who are now calling for a more restrained, selective, and above all realistic foreign policy are "isolationists." There may be a few people in contemporary foreign policy discourse who deserve that label, but it simply doesn't apply to most serious critics of today's over-extension.
In particular, critics of our over-committed and overly-militarized foreign policy recognize that the world is interconnected, that the United States cannot wall itself off from that world, and that defending long-term U.S. interests occasionally requires the application of the many diverse elements of American power. People like Andrew Bacevich, Barry Posen, Paul Pillar, Lawrence Wilkerson, Chas Freeman, the late Chalmers Johnson, and many others are not reflexive doves, naïve pacifists, or fatuous one-worlders. On the contrary, they are hard-headed experts who support American engagement in the world, just not in the mindlessly hubristic fashion that has become the self-defeating norm of the past several decades and the default condition of foreign policy thinking in D.C.
What realists (and other advocates of greater "restraint") also recognize is that 5 percent of the world's population cannot dictate how the other 95 percent should live their lives. They also know that trying to impose our preferences on others by various coercive means (e.g., military force, economic sanctions, etc.) is helping sap our economic vitality and turning more and more people against us. Advocates of a more restrained foreign policy understand that other major powers will just free-ride if we insist on doing everything ourselves, and that other client states will engage in what Posen has called "reckless driving" if they know that the United States will back them now matter what they do.
In short, the isolationsists of a by-gone era have little to do with today's advocates of restraint, and it is serious error to conflate the two. In particular, applying the discredited label of "isolationist" to those who now question our present "strategy" will make it harder to formulate a grand strategy that is consistent with our present resources, less likely to provoke unnecessary resentment or resistance, cognizant of our many political advantages, and focused (as foreign policy should be) on our long-term vitality and security as a nation.
UPDATE: In my original post, I mistakenly equated libertarians with isolationists. This was careless, insofar as some important analysts who favor more limited government (such as Chris Preble of the CATO Institute), are clearly not "isolationist" in the proper sense of that term. I regret the error, and have corrected the text above to eliminate the conflation.
All told, this has not been a good month for war criminals, international terrorists, and tyrannical despots. To be specific: Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, Ratko Mladic has been captured in Serbia, Muammar Qaddafi's forces are gradually wilting (and it's hard to imagine that the Qaddafi family will ever be regarded as legitimate again), and the protests against the Assad regime in Syria continue despite repeated acts of repression.
Which tells you why it's nice to be the leader(s) of a great power. When you're the head of a relatively weak group like Al Qaeda, you have to stay hidden and hope you don't get found. If you're a fugitive from justice from a weak country like Serbia, you don't have much choice but to hide out. And if you're the ruler of an oil-rich but otherwise weak country like Libya, you have to worry that stronger powers might suddenly decide that it's time to overthrow you.
But if you're the leader of a great power like the United States (or some others), you can order the illegal invasion of other countries, torture suspected terrorists, conduct drone attacks and targeted assassinations on the territory of other sovereign nations, and cause -- directly or indirectly -- the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. And when you leave office, nobody will investigate you for possible war crimes, or interfere with your leisure time (though you might have to alter your travel plans occasionally). You can kick back, write your memoirs, and make the occasional snarky speech criticizing your successors. Being the dominant world power has certain downsides to it, but it's pretty easy to understand why nobody ever campaigns for president saying their goal is to make America #2.
I just worry that we'll keep doing things that will take us there anyway.
Damian Strohmeyer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.