Thanks to some intrepid work by Glenn Greenwald and others, we now know a lot more about the secret surveillance that the U.S. government has been doing in recent years. If you're an American, bear in mind that all this has been paid for by your tax dollars. You should also remember that the issue isn't how these capabilities might be used by politicians you happen to like; it's how they might be abused by politicians you despise or might have reason to fear.
I don't have any stunning new insights to offer on this matter, except to reiterate my earlier point -- which you can read at greater length here -- that these developments are directly connected to the broader course of U.S. foreign policy.
Schematic version: One of the main purposes of government is to provide security. Ergo, when people are scared, they are more willing to let public officials take extreme actions in the name of "national security," including: 1) excessive secrecy laws, 2) prosecution of (some) whistle-blowers or leakers (except when authorized by those at the top), 3) preventive or preemptive wars, 4) targeted assassinations of suspected enemies, and 5) extraordinary rendition and/or torture. A population that is really scared will also turn a blind eye to all sorts of other dubious policies, including support for unsavory allies and the creation/maintenance of disproportionately large defense capabilities. Both dictators and democrats have been aware of these realities for centuries and have used public fears to justify any number of questionable actions.
This situation gives those in power an obvious incentive to inflate threats. When no significant dangers are apparent, they will conjure them up; when real dangers do emerge, they will blow them out of all proportion. And having assembled a vast clandestine intelligence apparatus to go trolling for threats in every conceivable location, they can quell skeptics with that familiar trump card: "Ah, but if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me."
And so the circle continues: An exaggerated sense of threat leads to energetic efforts to shape events abroad, even in places of little strategic value. These efforts inevitably provoke backlashes of various kinds, some of which (e.g., 9/11) do genuinely harm Americans. Because it is deemed unpatriotic or worse to even ask what might have led others to want to attack us, officials merely declare that they "hate our freedoms" and launch new efforts to root out enemies. The result is more surveillance, more secrecy, and even more global intervention (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, drone wars, etc.) in an endless attempt to root out all sources of "evil." If this gets expensive, then cheaper ways to do it must be found, but what doesn't stop is the open-ended effort to meddle in other countries. This in turn requires even more energetic efforts to conceal what government officials are up to, both to prevent foreign populations from being fully aware of what the United States is doing and to prevent Americans from connecting the dots or questioning the wisdom of the effort.
As James Madison famously warned:
"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
Madison was a very smart guy.
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Does the possibility (likelihood?) that Syrian government forces have used sarin gas strengthen the case for military intervention or at least great U.S. involvement?
Pro-intervention hawks like Sen. John McCain certainly think so and have been quick to remind everyone that President Obama called chemical weapons use a "red line." But McCain has been a vocal advocate of greater U.S. action for quite some time, which suggests that the use of chemical weapons hasn't really altered his thinking at all. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that far more sensible commentators -- such as former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh -- also view these reports as an additional reason to topple Assad sooner rather than later.
But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad's forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It's been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it's been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It's not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.
The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad's forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.
This is not an open-and-shut issue, and there are obvious points to make on the other side. Obama did suggest that chemical weapons use might be a "red line," in what was a fairly transparent attempt to deter Assad from going down that road. So one might argue that Washington would incur some loss of credibility if it does not respond now. Although I think we routinely exaggerate concerns about our credibility, that doesn't mean that it is of no concern at all. Nonetheless, Obama's prior statements do not require any particular response, and the administration certainly shouldn't do something unwise simply because it feels it has to do something.
One might also argue that chemical weapons are a form of WMD and that allowing Assad to get away with their use will undercut the existing taboo against these weapons. There's a case for that point of view, but I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.
Like Senator McCain, I find my position on this issue unchanged by the revelations about possible chemical weapons use. I still see Syria as a tragically vexing policy question. It is heart-wrenching to see what is happening there and the instinct to "do something" is understandable, but the downsides to direct or indirect military involvement remain formidable. I certainly think we should be doing more to help refugees and to minimize the destabilizing effects of the carnage on Syria's neighbors. I am all in favor of continued diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to end their support for Assad, and the chemical weapons report may provide additional leverage on that point. (See here for some useful thoughts along those lines). But I hope that Obama doesn't allow himself to be bullied into doing a lot more simply because of these reports, unless he is convinced that doing more now reduce the risks later on.
YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images
Many people believe that the United States is incapable of bold and ambitious responses to contemporary policy problems, largely because its political institutions aren't designed to act decisively. In this view, the United States is saddled with a federal system where government power is divided, with multiple veto points and various "checks and balances" that help prevent excessive concentrations of power. Add to that free speech, an intermittently vigorous press corps, a vast array of interest groups, and a degree of political partisanship, and you have a recipe for gridlock.
Or so it is said. There is a grain of truth in this caricature: the men who designed the U.S. Constitution were wary of centralized power (and standing armies!), and it is not at all surprising that they designed a system that seems to make radical change difficult. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule, and the exceptions themselves are instructive.
For example, during World War II the Manhattan Project assembled much of the world's most eminent scientific talent in a crash program that produced an atomic bomb in less than five years. Moreover, at its peak the Project was consuming ten percent (!) of the electricity produced in the entire United States, and its facilities contained more floor space than the entire U.S. auto industry. Despite this vast effort, only a handful of Americans were even aware of the project until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
More recently, the 9/11 attacks produced a similarly rapid and far-reaching U.S. response, whose full dimensions are still not completely known by the U.S. public. In addition to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent lame-brained decision to invade Iraq, the United States also passed the Patriot Act and launched a wide-ranging global effort to track down and kill as many al Qaeda members as it could find. In the process, it has created a large infrastructure of government and contractor agencies and shifted the CIA's focus away from intelligence gathering and toward a global effort to eradicate al Qaeda and its affiliates through mostly lethal means.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the U.S. system of government is quite capable of swift and ambitious policy initiatives when the public and key officials are really scared (as we were in 1941 and after 9/11). One might add the response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950 and to Sputnik's launch back in 1957. And this tendency in turn helps explain why threat-inflation is such a common tool within the foreign policy establishment. When Americans are feeling safe and secure, gridlock prevails. But when they are frightened, politicians are both able to launch big initiatives and motivated to do so by the fear that the public will punish them if they don't do enough to defend the nation.
The other important lesson is that big and bold initiatives are far easier when they are kept secret. Nobody knew about the Manhattan Project, and to this day nobody knows the full extent of what our national security machinery has been up to do since 9/11. Books like Mark Mazzetti's new The Way of the Knife and the Washington Post's important articles on "Top Secret America" have peeled back the veil to a degree, but there are undoubtedly many things being done in America's name (and with U.S. tax dollars) about which taxpayers are still unaware.
The danger is two-fold. First, if secrecy makes it easier to do big things, then policymakers will be tempted to make many issues as secret as possible. Classification will run amok, not to keep valuable information from our enemies but mostly from citizens who might object. And with secrecy comes a greater danger that foolish policies won't be adequately debated or scrutinized. This problem is widespread in authoritarian regimes where dissent is squelched and open debate is impossible, but it can also happen in democracies if the circle of decision is tiny and the public is kept in the dark.
The second danger stemming from popular ignorance is blowback. If Americans don't know what their government is doing (or has done), they won't fully understand why other societies view the United States as they do. In particular, Americans won't understand why others are sometimes angry at the United States, and they will tend to interpret anger or resistance as evidence of some sort of primordial or culturally-based hatred. The result is a familiar spiral of conflict, where each side sees its own actions as fully justified by the other's supposedly innate hostility. And I'd argue that spiral dynamics are at the heart of a number of difficult foreign policy challenges, especially in our dealings with the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, unwinding spirals is not easy, and all the more so if a country still doesn't understand exactly why others are ticked off.
Addendum: By a strange coincidence, my colleague Larry Summers has published a column in today's Financial Times, making a somewhat similar argument about the ability of the U.S. government to act more decisively than many people often believe. You can find his views here.
Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons
When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.
Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.
If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:
"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."
The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran's business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran's nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.
If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.
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Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.
This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined "coercive diplomacy" as the use of military force or military threats "to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it." The book examined three cases of this approach -- the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam -- and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.
I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you're curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I'd go back and look at George's eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:
1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It's clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran's nuclear enrichment program doesn't pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it's not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a "breakout" capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn't entirely clear, despite the tough talk we've heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let's be conservative and score this in the plus column.
2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can't be blackmailed, because they don't want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case.
3. Clarity of American objectives. Having clear and well-understood goals aids coercion, because it lets the target know exactly what is being demanded and tells them what is not being sought. This condition is clearly absent in this case, although in theory it could be clarified through active diplomacy. If you were in Tehran, however, you'd probably be confused about what the U.S. really wants. Is the U.S. seeking to prevent an Iranian bomb? Certainly, but what else? Does Washington secretly share the Israeli goal of denying Iran a theoretical "weapons potential? Is the U.S. not-so-secretly interested in regime change, as some Congressional resolutions clearly state and as many Iranians suspect? And despite the tough talk about rejecting containment, etc., might the U.S. actually be willing to live with some Iranian enrichment, and might the US fall back on containment and deterrence if it had to? Nobody really knows. For the moment, therefore, this condition for successful coercive diplomacy is not met.
4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective. Coercion can be aided if the target becomes convinced time is running out and that it had better cut a deal. The Obama administration has explicitly sought to strengthen this condition by rejecting containment and saying that there is a "finite time limit" for negotiations. And Tehran may believe them. But that effort is undercut by the fact that there is no imminent "red line" (assuming Iran is not actively working on weaponization). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to impose red lines of his own, but he's cried wolf so often on this issue that his warnings may not be believed and his redlines aren't the same as Obama's in any case. Plus, the IDF cannot destroy Iran's nuclear potential on its own. So there are reasons to question whether the requisite urgency is present here. But let's be conservative here too and say that it is.
5. Adequate domestic political support. President Obama clearly has support for his policy of coercive diplomacy. Most Americans don't object to our squeezing Iran, don't mind talking about military force, and overwhelmingly favor diplomacy over war. And that's the rub: There's hardly any serious support for going to war, except among die-hard neoconservatives and the hardline wing of the Israel lobby. The U.S. military isn't pushing it and neither is the State Department, the intelligence services, the oil industry, or anyone else.
In his book, George argued that strong domestic support was especially necessary when pursuing the "strong form" of coercive diplomacy: i.e., the issuing of explicit demands or ultimatums. When domestic support is lacking, presidents have to rely on what he called the "try-and-see" approach: ratcheting up pressure but refraining from making demands with strict time limits. That's why you haven't seen him issue explicit ultimatums: Nobody really wants to have to carry out the implied threat when the deadline is up.
Bottom line: There's "adequate" support here, but barely.
6. Usable military options. Obviously, trying to coerce someone with threats of force won't work if there aren't genuine options that the opponent recognizes. In this case, I'd score it positively but with some important caveats. If we want to, the United States can certainly do a lot of damage to Iran's nuclear facilities (and other assets). In this narrow sense, therefore, Washington has "usable options." But those options come with significant risks, including the very real possibility that it will convince Iran that it has no choice but to go full-bore for a deterrent. And even extensive American air strikes cannot eliminate Iran's ability to build a nuclear weapon. It can always rebuild its enrichment capacity, bury the machinery deeper, etc. Moreover, a preventive war would keep U.S.-Iranian relations in the deep freeze for at least another decade and could easily give the clerical regime a new lease on life. So one might conclude that the U.S. does have "usable" options, but they're aren't especially attractive ones. And Iran knows that.
7. Opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation. Thomas Schelling theorized the coercion (or what he called "compellence") works primarily by playing on the target's fear of what might happen if they do not comply. This criterion is difficult to gauge in advance, however, because opponents are obviously not going to admit publicly that they are worried about what the U.S. might do. On the contrary, they will claim not to fear escalation even if they are secretly quaking in their boots.
One might argue that Iran's infamous 2003 offer to negotiate a settlement -- made shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- shows that Tehran was deeply worried and eager to avoid the same fate that befell Saddam. Maybe so, but the subsequent debacle in Iraq and the U.S. failure in Afghanistan have almost certainly alleviated any fears they might have had back then. Iran's leaders know we aren't going to invade the country and they probably know that air strikes can't bring down their regime. I'm sure they don't want the U.S. to attack, but I doubt their fear is great enough to convince them to run up the white flag and comply with all of our present demands. Score this one on the "minus" side.
8. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. It is hard to coerce someone if they don't know what sort of concessions on their part will bring the pressure to an end. And the more ambiguity there is, the more they will fear a series of open-ended demands or an "agreement" that quickly breaks down amid mutual recriminations. Successful coercive diplomacy requires each side to be confident that there is a deal within sight, one that gives each at least something of what they want and in which each side understands exactly what is expected of the other.
This condition is presently lacking. As my colleague Nicholas Burns likes to emphasize, this gap exists in good part because we haven't had any real contact with Iran for more than thirty years, and we don't have any good sense of what their bottom lines might be. At the same time, it is hard for Iran's negotiators to know what the U.S. (or the P5+1) would be willing to accept either. Among other things, the fact that AIPAC and its lackeys in Congress keep trying to tie Obama's hands in the negotiations actually cripples our ability to conduct serious diplomacy, because Iran can't be sure that Obama could deliver on any offer he might make. If domestic politics here at home make it impossible to offer Iran any meaningful carrots (such as lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and turns the de facto U.S. position into one of demanding complete Iranian capitulation, then there obviously won't be a deal.
So where does this leave us? By my scoring, only four of George's conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are presently met (and remember, I was pretty conservative in evaluating the criteria). Assuming his framework is a useful guide, therefore, it is hard to be confident that military pressure on Iran will yield a positive diplomatic outcome. Which is yet another reason why I think we would be better off taking the threat of force off the table (thereby making it look less like blackmail and reducing Iran's interest in a latent or breakout capacity) and making the acceptable terms of a deal more explicit.
Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
I've been thinking this week about U.S. defense spending and grand strategy. It's increasingly clear that while the sequester may be an accounting and planning nightmare for Pentagon officials, it's not going to leave the United States naked and defenseless before its enemies. How could it? Even after the 9 percent budget cut mandated by the sequester, the United States is still going to spend at least four times more than the number two military power (China). Moreover, the United States is in a remarkably favorable geopolitical position -- with friendly countries on both borders and no great power rivals nearby -- and it has thousands of nuclear weapons to deter attack. As I've noted before, this remarkably high level of basic territorial security is why foreign policy mavens in the United States can devote their time to worrying about and meddling in far-flung backwaters.
Nonetheless, a reduced defense budget is bound to have some effects. How should Americans think about it? Here are three quick ideas.
First, one wrong way to respond is to engage in threat inflation. This was the Pentagon's reflexive answer as the sequester approached. Top military leaders began shouting that the sky was about to fall and that sequestration was going to turn the United States, as former SecDef Leon Panetta put it, into "a second rate power." The commandant of the Marine Corps, James Amos, said the sequester would have a "devastating impact" on military readiness and create "unacceptable levels of risk." The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, told Congress a year ago that "in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now."
In a rare moment of sanity, Congress didn't fall for these scare tactics. And my guess is that this sort of alarmism won't work well in the future either, because Al Qaeda is on the ropes, China isn't a peer competitor yet, and even a healthier U.S. economy is going to face fiscal pressures -- an aging population, deferred maintenance on U.S. infrastructure, etc. -- that will be hard for the Pentagon to tilt against.
Second, an equally bad response would be to assume the U.S. military can and should try to perform every one of its current missions as its capabilities decline. Not only is that unfair to the men and women in uniform, it's also bad strategy. Even if you believe that we've been spending more than we needed to in recent years, there ought to be some correspondence between capabilities and commitments. If you spend less and have to trim force structure and other capabilities, the missions you are committed to perform ought to shrink too, which, in turn, means rethinking how the U.S. uses its power around the world and being more selective in identifying and setting priorities.
Third, the right way to think about this issue is to focus more attention on interests -- both our own and those of our allies. For the past fifty years or more, America's overarching power made it possible to expand our definition of "interests" almost without limit. And as the world's most powerful country, we assumed it was our right and responsibility to do most of the heavy lifting in various trouble spots. That tendency increased even more after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving us without a peer competitor and in a position of (nearly) unchallenged primacy. Our Foreign Policy Mandarins readily embraced this role, as it gave them lots of missions to perform and allowed them to strut around the world telling other countries what to do. U.S. officials began to describe the United States as the "indispensable nation" and assumed that the solution to most (all?) global problems had to be "Made in America."
Today, having been chastened by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis and facing the prospect of a serious, long-term competition with China that is in its early stages, it behooves American strategic planners to move from a power-centered perspective to one that focuses more closely on interests. Specifically, when problems arise in particular areas, our first question should not be "what can we do about this?" but rather "who has the greatest interest in this problem?" And if there are other states that share our basic outlook and have a greater interest in the issue, then we should let them take the lead and bear the burden of addressing it, with the United States playing a back-up role when appropriate.
IR theorists have a term for this -- "buck-passing." It may not sound heroic, but it's often a superb strategy. If you can get others to pay the price and bear the burden, then you can often get the results you want at very low cost. And as the United States learned in both world wars, keeping one's powder dry while others rush to war sometimes puts you in an excellent position to win the peace. It is hardly fool-proof, of course, but the good news is that America's remarkably favorable geostrategic position gives us a greater opportunity to pursue this approach at relatively little risk.
One can see the seeds of this new approach in the Obama administration's response to events in Libya, Mali, and Syria. Instead of placing the United States in the vanguard -- which invariably generates concern, resentment, and free-riding -- Washington has let countries with a greater interest in the outcome take the lead. It has not been entirely aloof, of course -- especially in the Libyan case -- but it has kept its commitments appropriately modest. Not only does that keep us out of additional costly quagmires, but it also keeps us from pouring gasoline on conflicts that might in fact get worse if we do. Far from being a sign of strategic impotence, one might think of it instead as a sign of good judgment.
This is not isolationism. Instead, think of it as "playing hard to get." American power is still enormous and a great asset for others, which means they should be willing to go a long way to accommodate us in order to be able to obtain it. The only way to get others -- including our allies -- to do more to address common security problems is for the United States to do less, especially in those areas where others have a greater stake in the issue than we do. If Uncle Sucker insists on doing it all, others will be happy to let us while they stand around carping about heavy-handed American interference.
The challenge going forward lies in striking the right balance between engagement and independence -- doing just enough so that others know they can count on us if needed but not so much that those with a greater stake take advantage of our overweening ambition. By the way, that will be primarily a task of intelligence and diplomacy, not military strategy. And while the sequester is a pretty stupid way to trim defense spending (i.e., Panetta was right to call it a "goofy meataxe"), it might have a silver lining. If it accelerates the process of rethinking our overall grand strategy, then the net effect might be quite salutary.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Dusty Howell/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Watching the musical chairs taking place in the first months of Obama's second term reminds me of how fundamentally unserious America's approach to foreign affairs really is. Kerry and Hagel are now in, but apparently Biden's star is ascending too, while all sorts of other folks are rotating to new jobs, unpacking their offices, or heading back to private life to pen memoirs. You might think this was a great opportunity for fresh thinking and renewed energy, but what it really reveals is how our approach to staffing foreign affairs may be the worst of all possible worlds.
For starters, the United States has a relatively small civil service. Compared with other countries, a relatively large percentage of top government jobs are held by presidential appointees. The result: top jobs in the State Department and Pentagon are handled not by career foreign service officers or experienced bureaucrats, but by partisan appointees who rarely last more than a couple of years and then return to private life. Not only does this mean tremendous turnover whenever the White House changes hands, it means we are constantly bringing in people who lack experience or who are not up to speed on current issues.
Next, the appointments process itself has gone completely off the rails. Candidates have to go through elaborate vetting procedures that would daunt a saint, and then they also face a Senate confirmation process that is slow, arbitrary, and leaves lots of positions unfilled for months if not years. And sometimes you get an embarrassing circus like the recent Hagel confirmation hearings, which revealed the GOP members of the Armed Services Committee to be spiteful and factually challenged hacks and no doubt confirmed many foreigners' dubious views of America's overall political competence.
Third, we are so afraid that our career diplomats will "go native" or develop "localitis," that we discourage them from developing deep regional expertise and instead rotate them around the globe on a frequent basis. There is something to be said for gaining a global perspective, of course, but it also means that unlike some of our rivals, we won't have many diplomats with deep linguistic expertise or lots of in-depth experience in the societies in which they are operating. Yet we then expect them to hold their own against their local counterparts, or against diplomats from other countries whose knowledge and training in particular areas is more extensive.
To make matters worse, the United States has a four-year presidential term and a campaign cycle that lasts well over a year. This latter period is far longer than the election periods in any other advanced democracy, and the endless parade of primaries and other forms of electoral hoopla eat up lots of bandwith in our national discourse. The result? The country, the incumbent administration, and the president's various rivals are all distracted for more than 25 percent of each president's term, and less able to make hard political choices.
And then there's the question of resources. When there was a Cold War to win, American taxpayers were willing to devote one percent of GDP to non-military international affairs spending (e.g., on development, diplomacy, and things like that). Today, we spend about only 0.2 percent of GDP in this area, which tells you all you need to know about the real priority that Americans place on non-military tools of international influence.
None of this would matter if the United States had a less ambitious foreign policy. But instead, we're trying to be the "indispensable power" on the cheap. The results, I am sorry to say, speak for themselves.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
I don't usually like to repeat myself (or at least not too often), but the antics of Senators Inhofe, Cruz, McCain, Graham, et al. really do exemplify the irresponsibility of today's GOP, as well as the extraordinary margin of security that Americans enjoy.
(See in particular point #2 in my last post).
Only in a country that was largely safe from serious harm could senior elected officials engage in the fact-free McCarthyism of Sen. Ted Cruz, who keeps inventing inane accusations that Chuck Hagel -- a decorated war veteran -- has somehow been bought off by foreign powers. I suspect Cruz has been watching too many episodes of Homeland back to back.
Only in a country that was really safe could someone like Sen. Lindsay Graham keep threatening to leave the Pentagon leaderless so that he can get more "answers" about Benghazi, even after the secretary of state and a bunch of other officials have testified at length on that tragic matter. And what exactly does Benghazi have to do with Hagel's fitness for office anyway, given that he wasn't in the Obama administration when our consulate was attacked?
Only in a country that was very, very secure could a senator like James Inhofe invoke a crackpot interpretation of the Old Testament to justify U.S. support for Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank without having his constiuents hound him from office for endangering the United States and Israel alike. Remember, Inhofe is defending an occupation that many Israelis -- including several former prime ministers -- believe threatens Israel's long-term future. With "friends" like Senator Inhofe, Israel doesn't need enemies (it has those in abundance already). But because America is so secure, he can say silly things like this and not be seen as endangering the country.
I'm pretty sure Hagel will be confirmed, as he should be. And I hope every one of the senators who voted against him get peppered by questions from their constituents about why they behaved so shamefully ... from start to finish.
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In The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007) John Mearsheimer and I wrote:
The bottom line is that AIPAC, which bills itself as ‘America's Pro-Israel lobby' has an almost unchallenged hold on Congress ... Open debate about U.S. policy toward Israel does not occur there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world. (p. 162)
After discussing the lobby's efforts to influence the executive branch, we noted:
There is an even more obvious way to shape an administration's policy: the lobby's goals are served when individuals who share its perspective occupy important positions in the executive branch. . . .[G]roups in the lobby also try to make sure that people who are seen as critical of Israel do not get important foreign policy jobs. (pp. 165-66)
And after a lengthy discussion of the lobby's efforts to police public discourse and smear those who disagree with them with the charge of anti-semitism, we concluded:
The various strategies that groups in the lobby employ ... are mutually reinforcing. If politicians know that it is risky to question Israeli policy or the United States' unyielding support for Israel, then it will be harder for the mainstream media to locate authoritative voices that are willing to disagree with the lobby's views. If public discourse about Israel can be shaped so that most American have generally positive impressions of the Jewish state, then politicians will have even more reason to follow the lobby's lead. Playing the anti-Semitism card stifles discussion even more and allows myths about Israel to survive unchallenged. Although other interest groups employ similar strategies in varying form. most of them can only dream of having the political muscle that pro-Israel organizations have amassed. (p. 196)
I want to thank the Emergency Committee for Israel, Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Service Committee for providing such a compelling vindication of our views. As Rosie Gray amd Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed noted, at yesterday's hearing on Chuck Hagel Israel was mentioned 166 times, and Iran (a problem closely linked to Israel) 144 times. Afghanistan was mentioned only 20 times, and the problem of suicides of U.S. troops only twice. Glad to see that those Senators have their priorities straight. No wonder Mark Twain referred to Congress as "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes."
I am sometimes asked if I have any regrets about publishing our book. As of today, my only regret is that it isn't being published now. After the humiliations that Obama has endured at the hands of the lobby and now the Hagel circus, we'd sell even more copies and we wouldn't face nearly as much ill-informed criticism.
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Today's award for idiotic chutzpah goes to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for complaining that Secretary of State-to be John Kerry and SecDef nominee Chuck Hagel are "less-than-ardent fans of the U.S. military." I kid you not.
The first and most obvious problem with Cruz's remark is that he directed it at two decorated war veterans. Like other GOP chicken hawks, Cruz never served in the military. Apparently his own "ardent" admiration for our armed services wasn't enough to lead him to enlist.
But the second and more important point is that being an "ardent fan" of the military isn't a good position for any public servant. Don't get me wrong: I respect my friends in the armed services and I'm grateful for their service. And I certainly don't think political leaders or pundits should be reflexively hostile to the military either.
But as the Founding Fathers realized from the start, a large, permanent military is at best a necessary evil. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to spend any money at all defending ourselves, and the only reason we do is because the world in which we live is far from perfect. But there's nothing inherently wonderful about spending hundreds of billions each year on military forces, even if the weaponry they possess is dazzling and the skill of our troops is impressive. In other words, the fact that we have a large and powerful military isn't something to celebrate; it's just one of those unfortunate necessities in the dog-eat-dog world of international politics. A big military establishment also turns out to be pretty hard to control, and as Dwight Eisenhower famously warned, the "military-industrial complex" inevitably wields a lot of political power and not always in a good way
For this reason, public servants shouldn't be "ardent fans" of the military (or any other big public program). Instead, they should be intelligent skeptics: aware that such programs are needed but constantly holding them to account and looking for ways to make them more effective. Which is why Americans ought to be glad President Obama nominated Messrs. Kerry and Hagel, and why Senator Cruz's constituents ought to be more than a little embarrassed.
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Should Susan Rice be America's next secretary of state? That's not my decision, of course, and it's not yours either, unless you happen to be President Obama or a member of the Senate. But I think the recent debate on her possible nomination has missed the real issue.
Thus far, the debate has focused almost entirely on Rice's appearances on five Sunday talk shows back on September 16, where she offered a vigorous defense of the administration's handling of the Benghazi incident. Although some of her statements turned out to be inaccurate, it is now clear that she was dutifully repeating the talking points that she had been given. No scandal there; that's what loyal subordinates do.
The harshest thing one might say about Rice's performance in these shows is that she might have hedged or qualified her remarks more than she did. Even so, she did say -- repeatedly -- that her comments were based on the "best information" available at the time, and she made it clear that the investigation into these events was still proceeding and that a "definitive" account was not yet ready. But the overall impression she left was one of certainty rather than doubt, and this left her at least somewhat vulnerable to the (false) charge that she had misled her interviewers and the viewing public.
So the Benghazi business offers no basis to oppose Rice's appointment, and even a critic like Sen. Lindsay Graham now seems to agree. My concern is rather different: I fear that unlike Hillary Clinton, Rice is too much of an Obama insider and too dependent on the president's patronage to be an ideal Secretary of State. As a result, her appointment will reinforce the growing lack of intellectual diversity within the administration.
Recall that when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, she had been First Lady for eight years, a U.S. Senator, and a presidential candidate who came close to winning her party's nomination. She had independent stature of her own, which is why Obama had to accommodate a number of her personnel requests in order to get her to take the job. And some of those appointments involved people with strong personalities and policy views of their own. Moreover, although Clinton proved to be a terrific team player, her independent stature allowed her to speak freely and enhanced her policy clout. Obama could never entirely ignore Clinton's views, because she could go public with her disagreements or even threaten to resign if she were adamantly opposed to a particular initiative. That she never did so (as far as we know) shows that Obama understood this situation from the very beginning.
Rice, by contrast, has no independent power base. She did serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Clinton administration (to no great distinction), but signed up early with Obama and was a key foreign policy advisor during the 2008 campaign. She obviously has Obama's confidence, but her current ascendancy depends solely on the president's backing. Maintaining his personal support will be critical to her effectiveness, which makes her much less likely to tell him things he doesn't want to hear or that cut against the thrust of existing policy. Although Rice has the reputation of being a forceful advocate with sharp elbows, her relationship to the president runs the risk of making her more of a courtier than a counselor. And if she stumbles, Obama will be blamed for having pushed her appointment in the face of skeptics.
To be sure, an administration at war with itself wouldn't be very effective, and one could argue that a unified team will do a better job than one where there's lots of backbiting. It's a question of balance, and my sense is that the administration's world-view is getting narrower over time. Realists like Robert Gates have been gone for some time, and Clinton will be gone soon. James Jones left the NSC years ago, and independent thinkers like the late Richard Holbrooke are no longer with us. Instead of vigorous and creative debate and a willingness to rethink past decisions or priorities, we're likely to get groupthink and a tendency to circle the wagons and defend past decisions (just as Rice did on those TV shows).
The narrowing of world-views is a familiar second-term phenomenon, as the first team leaves the stage and the survivors are those who have managed to adapt themselves to the emerging policy consensus and maintain their standing with the president himself. Instead of the "team of rivals" that people saw at the beginning of his presidency, what we have instead is a cocoon of confidantes. The only thing that might introduce some fresh foreign policy thinking into the Obama White House is a forceful set of Cabinet officials with their own power bases, but that's not what Rice is likely to provide at State. Obama already knows what she thinks, after all.
If Obama does nominate her and I were a Senator, however, I'd vote to confirm. Not with great enthusiasm or with high expectations, but there's nothing in the record to warrant rejection. And who knows? Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.
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Has AIPAC lost its mojo? Does Obama's reelection prove that the Israel lobby is getting weaker, and that he can return to Middle East peacemaking with new confidence and resolve? It's no secret that Obama has a frosty relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, fueling GOP hopes that Israel would be a wedge issue that would attract lots of Jewish voters and donors. At least one prominent hardline Zionist, Sheldon Adelson, spent tens of millions of dollars trying to buy the election for Romney, and he got bupkis for all that cash. So now that Obama's got a second term, will he blithely ignore AIPAC et al and pursue an even-handed approach to the Middle East peace process?
Don't bet on it. For starters, the election didn't show that the traditional "status quo lobby" was substantially weaker. Why? Because Obama caved to these groups a long time ago, and there was hardly any daylight between him and Romney on this issue. As the Obama campaign repeatedly emphasized, they had been extraordinarily supportive of Israel from Day One: providing increased levels of military aid, expanding various forms of security cooperation (including joint operations against Iran), and providing diplomatic cover in the United Nations and elsewhere. Obama dropped his early insistence on a settlement freeze and eventually gave up on the peace process. The only thing that Netanyahu didn't get from Obama was a war against Iran, and plenty of top Israeli officials didn't think that was a very good idea either. Given that there wasn't much difference between Obama and Romney on Israel, therefore, American Jewry stuck with its long-standing liberal preferences and voted overwhelmingly for Obama and the Democrats.
But the election is over, and the second term beckons. Won't Obama be tempted to secure a legacy as a peacemaker (remember that Nobel Prize?), and go back to his original vision of "two states for two peoples?" I don't think so. Conditions in the region aren't propitious: Israel continues to drift rightward, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to be reelected, and the tumult of the Arab spring is bound to make everyone more cautious (and with good reason). The Palestinian Authority is less and less popular, and even if he wanted to, Mahmoud Abbas could never persuade his followers to accept the one-sided Bantustan arrangement that is Netanyahu's idea of a "Palestinian state." Obama doesn't have to run for re-election again but Congressional Dems do, and they'll put the same pressure on him in 2014 that they did in 2010 if he tries to force Netanyahu to abandon his vision of "greater Israel." The bottom line: No U.S. pressure on Israel, and thus no chance for a deal.
If you're Barack Obama, in short, this just doesn't look like a smart place to invest a lot of time, effort, and political capital. Plus, my hunch is that he's going to try to secure his legacy by "nation-building" here at home, not by pursuing the elusive grail of Middle East peace. For that matter, if he decides to spend any political capital in that part of the world, it will be on Iran, not Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, Congress will reflexively vote the aid package and sign whatever goofy letters and resolutions that AIPAC dreams up. Politicians and policy wonks will continue to pay homage to the "special relationship," lest they come under fire from the lobby and its various watchdogs and smear artists.
Which is not to say that nothing has changed, as Steve Rosen argues here. Public discourse on this topic is more open than it used to be, some journalists have become largely immune to intimidation, and the role of the lobby in stifling peace efforts and promoting a military approach to Iran is now plain for all to see. J Street has been more equivocal than some of us might have hoped, but it can take some pride in helping escort Islamophobes from office and getting some pro-peace candidates elected. Writers like Peter Beinart have bravely spoken truth to those with closed minds and closed eyes, and even some stalwart defenders of Israel seem increasingly troubled by where it's headed.
But I don't see a sea-change; at least not yet. AIPAC and its allies don't get everything they want, of course, but they can still put real limits on what the president and his advisors are willing to try. We still have not reached the point where politicians are willing to openly acknowledge that a normal relationship would be better for both countries than the current special relationship of unconditional U.S. support. You didn't hear Obama, Romney, or any other major candidate say anything like that in 2012, which tells you that fear of the lobby remains a potent political force. That's not good for us, but it's even worse for Israelis and Palestinians. Which is why I'd be delighted if the next four years proves me wrong.
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Back in 2002, a group of influential neoconservatives convinced President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that it was a really smart idea to invade Iraq. With help from AIPAC and other groups in the Israel lobby, and an assist from Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the neocons and the Bush administration then persuaded the U.S. Congress to authorize the use of force by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Most of the top figures in the Obama administration (including then-Senators Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton) supported the war.
Given how that foolish adventure turned out (4,500 dead Americans, $1-2 trillion down the drain, etc.), you'd think the last thing the United States would be contemplating is another preventive war in the Middle East. You'd think that the architects of that earlier debacle would have been as badly discredited as George Custer, Neville Chamberlain, or Charles Lindberg, and that only certifiable war-mongers would be paying attention to their strategic advice. And you'd certainly think that Congress would have learned its lesson, and would be subjecting calls for a new war to careful scrutiny and wide-ranging debate.
How wrong you'd be. Case in point: the recent letter that a bipartisan group of 44 senators recently sent President Obama, declaring that, "Iran must come into full cooperation with the IAEA and full compliance with all relevant United National Security Council resolutions, including verifiable suspension of nuclear enrichment." The senators also insist that the "absolute minimum steps that Iran must take immediately are shutting down of the Fordow facility, freezing enrichment above 5 percent, and shipping all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country. And if Iran does not capitulate to our demands, the senators urge Obama "to reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists" (my emphasis).
If you ever wondered why so few Americans have any respect for Congress, here's part of your answer. (To be sure, disrespect for Congress is by now over-determined, given our representatives' dysfunctional behavior on a wide range of issues. But still ... ) As Glenn Greenwald notes, in this case those beating the drums of war include a number of prominent "liberal" Senators, including progressives like Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. And as I pointed out earlier this week, the terms the senators are insisting upon are almost certainly a deal-breaker from Iran's point of view. I'm still convinced that the Obama administration understands war is foolish -- you can go here if you'd like to watch a fuller presentation of my views on this topic -- but as Robert Wright noted a few days ago, he is being boxed in by the pro-war faction -- the usual alliance of Israel, AIPAC, the neocons, and a few Christian Zionists -- and he isn't getting any cover from the supine members of Congress. The result: Negotiations that go nowhere as a "drift" toward war continues.
So what can you do? As it happens, there is an online petition at the Credo/Working Assets website opposing war with Iran. It has garnered over 100,000 signatures so far, including mine. You can sign it yourself by clicking on this link and following the instructions. I'm not saying your signature will stop another foolish war all by itself, but it can't hurt.
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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.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
One important thing to remember about the Annual Festival of Hyperbole (aka the AIPAC Policy Conference) is that the views of the attendees aren't representative of most Americans, let alone American Jewry, and that a lot of the speakers who are there to pay homage don't mean most of what they are saying. At least I hope not. President Obama walked a wobbly tightrope as well as one could have expected; the depressing feature is that he had to perform these sort of acrobatics at all. That's politics, folks.
Next up: Obama and Netanyahu meet at the White House. My basic take is that Netanyahu's view and Obama's view are essentially mirror-images of each other. Netanyahu says Iran is an "existential" threat to Israel, while he sees the Palestinians as just a problem to be managed. So he wants Iran's nuclear program ended, and by force if necessary, while the peace process drags on interminably. By contrast, Obama sees Iran as a problem to be managed through patient diplomacy, but he thinks the Palestinian issue is the real existential threat to Israel's future (and a continued liability for U.S. strategic interests). He'd like to put that one to rest ASAP, except that he's been forced to back down every time he's tried and he knows he can't say much about it between now and November.
Those interested in further reflections on this matter can take a look at this op-ed in the Financial Times, co-authored with John Mearsheimer.
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The drumbeats for war with Iran keep pounding, as you can read about here and here. There are some features of the campaign that are scarily (or maybe comically) reminiscent of 2002-2003 (as Glenn Greenwald documents here), but for now there's one key difference. Back in 2002, the neocon-heavy Bush administration led the charge to sell the invasion of Iraq. Today, by contrast, the case for war is being made primarily by other countries (i.e., Israel), or by assorted think tanks, lobbying groups, and national security commentators in the United States. The Obama administration isn't leading the campaign, having correctly concluded that a war is neither necessary nor wise. In particular, they do not seem to have bought into the rampant threat inflation that forms the core of the hawks' case for war.
But today I want to focus on another remarkable feature of this situation: the absence of any sort of meaningful diplomacy between the United States and the country whose citizens we would be attacking and killing if we were to launch a strike. The United States had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union from 1933 on, including the period when Joseph Stalin was murdering millions. We never broke relations with Moscow during the Cold War, even though the United States and USSR had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other and were waging bloody proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East, and Africa. U.S. and Soviet leaders met repeatedly at summit meetings (some of them contentious), and U.S. and Soviet diplomats interacted more-or-less constantly on matters of mutual concern. The purpose of these various exchanges wasn't appeasement or even accommodation; we talked to them so that we could figure out what they thought, and so that we could explain our positions to them. It was important that each side know what the consequences of different courses of action might be, and sometimes that involved spelling it out for each other.
And what was the result? Not only were the two superpowers occasionally able to cooperate in mutually beneficial ways (i.e., managing crises, reducing nuclear risks, ending wars, etc.) but the United States eventually won the Cold War and presided over the Soviet Union's demise without triggering a direct U.S.-Soviet clash. Indeed, U.S. diplomats did a good job of picking Mikhail Gorbachev's pocket as the USSR imploded, in part because they had established a good working relationship with him. Furthermore, contacts between Russians and Americans seem to have helped thaw communist society, in part by teaching younger Soviet elites that the West was doing better and was not irrevocably hostile.
By contrast, the United States hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran for over three decades. That is a longer hiatus than occurred after either the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 or the communist seizure of power in China in 1949. Only a tiny handful of U.S. officials have direct experience with their Iranian counterparts. Few Americans have extensive dealings with Iranians, save for Iranian exiles who often have their own agendas. We don't have a good sense of where the different Iranian factions are, what they think, or how they might respond to different U.S. policies. Yet we blindly assume that there is no recourse but to sanction and maybe bomb them.
The Obama administration likes to portray itself as having "extended a hand of friendship" to Iran, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. Even now, we seem unable to offer Iran a "yessable" proposition, and we merely repeat our long-standing position it simply comply with our demands. The administration has done a good job of rounding up international support for its position, but isn't it ironic that we've devoted far more time and energy to that task, instead of exploring whether there might be a mutually acceptable solution to the current impasse itself.
The bottom line: I find it bizarre that anyone is seriously contemplating waging war on a country about whom we know so little and with whom we barely engage. And why do we know so little? Because we are too scared, or proud, or politically paralyzed to even talk to them. This is not the behavior one expects of a confident, mature great power: it is the behavior of a government that is either afraid it will get tricked by devious Persians, or that is more worried about domestic criticism than foreign consequences.
Winston Churchill has become something of an iconic figure among U.S. hardliners, including many in the vanguard of the war party. But it was Churchill who famously remarked that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Rather than unleashing the U.S. Air Force, in short, how about unleashing our diplomats instead?
Oh, wait. It's an election year. Never mind.
Today is one of those days when blogging is difficult -- lots
of meetings through the day, office hours for students, and then I take off for
Korea. So no time for extended reflection on anything, except...
I sometimes think the U.S. Congress is working overtime to prove my point about the domestic origins of our screwed-up Middle East policy, and to set a new record for fealty to the Israel lobby. Of course you already saw that those enlightened and courageous patriots up on the Hill have voted to slash our foreign aid budget, except, of course, for the biggest chunk, which happens to go to one of the wealthiest recipients. Translation: Israel will still get its $3 billion per year, even though its per capita income is now 27th in the world and even though lots of other countries and programs are getting their aid totals whacked. Moreover, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now runs down here, they are also targeting the Palestinian Authority because it had the temerity to apply for recognition as a state a week or so ago. Those fiends! How dare they seek a state of their own!
Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a policy that could be better designed to solidify regional resentment and hatred of the United States, and at a moment when local populations are finding their own voice for the first time in decades. And it's equally hard to find an approach to this conflict that is more likely to do long-term harm to Israel itself, by encouraging it to continue the policies that have squandered so much international acceptance and directly contributed to various social and economic problems there. Not to mention the dubious morality of punishing stateless peoples while rewarding the country that is continue to expand its illegal settlements. Talk about hitting the negative policy trifecta: bad for the United States, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Israel too.
Meanwhile, I'm off to Seoul this evening, to attend a conference on regional security issues at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security. It is a very impressive group of American and Korean scholars, including several who know a lot more about these issues than I do. I expect to learn a lot, but mostly I'm interested in figuring out just who worries the South Koreans most: China, North Korea, or us?
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Despite what you might think, I don't have much to say about Tom Friedman's column in the Sunday New York Times, where he openly bemoans the disastrous influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy and puts up in bright lights how bad it is for Israel as well. I'm grateful to Glenn Greenwald and Phil Weiss for pointing out that this is the main point that John Mearsheimer and I have been making for some time in our writings about the lobby.
But I will say this: Friedman's admission reflects the protracted failure of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, going back several decades. That's not news, of course. What has changed in the past few years is that the lobby's operations and its harmful influence are now out in the open for all to see, which makes it almost impossible to make the old arguments that Israel is a "vital strategic asset" or a country that "shares our values" with a straight face, or to convince anyone who's not already in agreement. Not after more than forty years of occupation, not after 9/11, not after the 2006 Lebanon War, not after Operation Cast Lead, not after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, and not after PM Netanyahu's repeated acts of contempt toward the U.S. president.
The United States has backed Israel no matter what it did because AIPAC and the other groups in the lobby have enormous influence inside the Beltway and use that political muscle to defend Israel whenever its government's policies clash with America's interests. But the problem they face now is that almost everyone can see what they are doing and people like Friedman understand that the policies the lobby is promoting are a disaster for the United States and Israel alike. At this point, only hardcore individuals and groups in the lobby and opportunistic fellow-travelers try to kick up dust by blaming our failed Middle East policy on "public opinion" or on the supposed influence of Christian evangelicals. Right: like they were the ones who told Obama to stop pressing Netanyahu if he wanted to get his health care bill passed, and they were the ones holding one-sided Congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes to the UN to get statehood.
The elephant has been in the room for a long time, but now it has the spotlights on it and it's wearing a pink bikini too. It's hard to miss, in short, which is surely why Tom Friedman wrote what he did.
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Just when you think your contempt for Congress could not get any higher, our elected representatives manage to do something to ratchet it up another notch. After congressional shenanigans helped spark a major market sell-off and sparked fears of a double-dip recession, you'd think every single one of them would be heading back to their districts to figure out what their constituents wanted and to try to explain how they were going to help make things better. Or maybe a few of them would even spend the recess taking a crash course in macroeconomics and public finance, so that they could start exercising their public duties more responsibly.
But what did 81 of them decide to do instead? You guessed it: they are off on junkets to Israel, paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC spinoff that has been funding such trips for years. That's right: during the August recess nearly a fifth of the U.S. Congress will visit a single country whose entire population is less than that of New York City.
Such behavior is especially disturbing in light of our current woes; even Greta Van Susteren of Fox News found it appalling (h/t Mondoweiss here and here). But it's not really a new pattern: in recent decades about 10 percent of all Congressional trips overseas have been to Israel, even though it is only one of the nearly 200 countries in the world.
Why do Congresspersons do this, especially at a moment when it is obvious that they ought to be worrying about conditions here at home? Mostly because such junkets burnish a legislator's ‘pro-Israel' credentials and facilitate campaign fundraising. Such trips also expose these visitors to the policy preferences and basic worldview of Israel's leaders, which is of course why AIEF pays for them.
I suppose I ought to be grateful that AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to work overtime to prove me and my co-author right. But there are bigger issues at stake here, which is why I hope that every one of those eighty-plus Congressmen faces a lot of nasty questions from their constituents upon their return.
And in a related story, the Israeli government has just announced a new round of settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem. (For apt commentary, see Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress here.) If you've been wondering why most people have lost faith in U.S. stewardship of the peace process and are turning to other strategies--such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement or the push for a Palestinian state at the UN --well, I think you have your answer. And if "two states for two peoples" is never achieved and Israel ceases to be either a Jewish majority state or a true democracy, you'll know exactly which misguided or feckless Americans helped bring that about.
UPDATE: American taxpayers will be pleased to know that Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges "will not have any adverse effect on America's determination to meet its promise to Israel." Translation: we may be cutting Medicare and Social Security for U.S. citizens, but Israelis--whose country has the 27th highest per capita income in the world--will continue to get generous subsidies from Uncle Sucker.
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I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 -- a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.
What's most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It's obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there's a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush's foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.
That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there's some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren't generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don't want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy.
Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won't decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what's truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.
Except that Washington won't do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we're about to do the same thing if we don't change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn't helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.
What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don't see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant -- Governor Rick Perry of Texas -- seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don't want to tread on anyone's beliefs, but if that isn't a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don't know what is.
Lord knows that I don't have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I'm beginning to wonder.
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Remember the 1990s? Back in those days, the U.S. was recognized as the world's sole superpower. Our economy was booming, we ended the decade with a budget surplus, and there was a widespread sense around the world that the United States really had its act together. True, we had some pretty bitter partisan politics, misguided polices like "dual containment" were helping pave the way for 9/11, and corrupt financiers were busy sowing the seeds for the 2007 meltdown, but most of the world had the impression -- rightly or wrongly -- that the United States knew what it was doing. People like Tom Friedman extolled America's virtues in books like The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing that the rest of the world would have to embrace "DOS.Capitalism 6.0" (in other words, our system), or fall by the wayside. Overall, a powerful aura of competence enhanced U.S. influence and magnified our "hard power."
Fast forward to right now. We are on the brink of a major self-inflicted wound, driven solely by the deep dysfunction that now seems baked into our political system. Why should Pakistanis, Afghanis, Europeans, Chinese, Thais, Mexicans, Venezuelans, or anybody else take our advice on how to govern, when they watch the sorry set of ignorant clowns who are holding the rest of us hostage? If the worst case happens and the United States ends up defaulting, the economic costs will be significant enough. But it is also likely to do considerable damage to America's reputation for being a reasonably well-governed society, and it will accelerate the tendency for people around the world to look elsewhere for guidance. And while all this time and attention has been wasted on the debt ceiling, other problems are festering and will be there to bite us later.
I wonder if all those "patriots" in the Tea Party and the GOP ever thought about that. And if they did, would they even care?
Back in the good old days, American officials used to lecture other countries on how to reform their economies and how to be responsible players in the international economic order. Today, with U.S. credit-worthiness held hostage to a bunch of self-serving flat-earthers in the Republican Party, and with the management of the rest of the economy in the hands of lobbyists, too-big-to-fail banks, and politically-connected financiers or financially-connected politicos, it's to be expected that states like China would start lecturing us. Who can blame them?
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Not that FP has suddenly become joke central, but there's an old joke that runs like this:
An accountant, a social scientist and a lawyer are seated in a room. A guy walks in and asks them: "how much is 2 + 2?" The accountant whips out a calculator, pencils and paper, scribbles for awhile, and then says: "The answer, sir, is 4." The social scientist grabs her laptop, fires it up a few minutes, and then says "Well, as you know this is not an exact science, but I can say with a 95% level of confidence that the answer is between 3 and 5."
The lawyer, meanwhile, gets up, looks under all the chairs, checks in the closet, opens the door to the room and looks both ways down the hall. Then he comes back, sidles up to the guy who asked the question, and whispers:
"I don't care. How much do you want it to be?"
I mention this because I learned that the Obama administration is claiming that it doesn't need congressional authorization for its Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Why? Because what we are doing doesn't amount to "full-blown" hostilities.
Oh, please. Let's start with the definition of "war" itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country." Now, let's see: what are we doing in Libya? What we know is that we've sent cruise missiles, and drones and U.S. aircraft to attack military targets in various places, including several attacks on Qaddafi's own compound. We are continuing to provide targeting information to our NATO allies, who are conducting additional raids on their own. Although U.S. ground troops are not present in force, it's a safe bet that U.S. special forces are operating in various places, probably helping provide some of that targeting info. And of course because the Obama administration isn't telling us everything that it's doing, we have no clear way of knowing exactly how involved we really are.
By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn't matter that we aren't using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn't being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether this war makes strategic sense or not. (I think not, but I can see the merits of the other side's case). They can also disagree about whether outside intervention was necessary to avert an anticipated "bloodbath" in Benghazi, or whether it was really a precipitous decision that may in the end make things worse. But let's not fall for the creative legal sophistry being offered up here. If Obama and his foreign policy team think this war (yes, war) is really in our interest, then they should make their case to the American people and their elected representatives and let the chips fall where they may. I don't have enormous respect for Congress (who could, these days?) but that's how a republic is supposed to operate. And let's not forget that Obama used to think so himself.
Postscript: Lest readers think that I'm ticked off because I'm jet-lagged, or because my trip is not going well, let me just say that I'm feeling perfectly fine, the weather here in Dublin is sensational and my Irish hosts at the IIEA couldn't have been more gracious. I'm just disappointed, but not for the first time.
Jeramy Spivey/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Outgoing SecDef Robert Gates delivered a blunt message to America's NATO allies last week. If they don't start pulling their weight, he warned, the alliance "faces a dim, if not dismal future." In particular, he said that public opinion in the United States will not support our continuing to subsidize European defense in an era where Asia merits greater attention and when the U.S. economy is performing poorly and our fiscal situation is especially parlous. Money quote:
I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending. However, fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon, as even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure. Today, just five of 28 allies -- the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania -- exceed the agreed 2 percent of GDP spending on defense.
Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change."
Well, duh. NATO has been on borrowed time ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, because military alliances form primarily to deal with external threats and they are hard to hold together once the threat is gone. In a sense it is remarkable that NATO has persisted as long as it has, but that was mostly because the United States could afford to subsidize European security and because Washington saw NATO as a useful tool for maximizing U.S. influence in Europe.
The problems the alliance faces today have little to do with European fecklessness, American militarism, or the particular errors of individual leaders. The central problem here is structural: there's just not much of a case for a tightly integrated military alliance anymore, and not much reason for Europe to be armed to the teeth. Although both European and American defense intellectuals have worked tirelessly to invent new rationales for the alliance, none of them have been especially convincing.
Americans want Europe to spend more on defense, so that they can contribute more to our far-flung global projects. But why should they? Europe is peaceful, stable, democratic, and faces no serious external military threats. Its combined GNP exceeds ours, and the European members of NATO spend almost eight times more on defense than Russia does. So where's the threat? The plain truth is that Europe has little reason to invest a lot of money on defense these days, no matter how much Americans implore them to, and so they turn a deaf ear to American entreaties.
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Responding to E.J. Dionne, Andrew Sullivan wants to know at what point the U.S. political system became "decadent," and he offers up a number of possibilities: the Weiner scandal (E.J. Dionne's nomination), the odd notion that Sarah Palin could be considered a serious candidate for any office above a local Parks and Recreation board, or congressional "assent to torture" in 2006.
I'm glad he (and Dionne) raised the issue, but trying to pinpoint a single moment or cause is probably futile. Corruption and decadence don't occur all at once; it's a progressive disease with no clear tipping point. Part of it lies in the rise of the conservative movement post-Goldwater, when wealthy conservatives began to bankroll think tanks and media organs that were more interested in waging political warfare than getting facts right. Part of it is a pop-media culture that lets an ignorant buffoon like Rush Limbaugh or a bizarre whack-job like Glenn Beck become influential voices in our national debate. Part of it is the culture of non-accountability that is pervasive in official Washington, where the frauds that helped produce the financial crisis of 2007 barely get investigated, or where a deputy secretary of defense can play a key role in causing the Iraq debacle and then get rewarded by being named president of the World Bank, screw that up too, and bail out to a safe sinecure at a D.C. think tank. As L'affaire Weiner demonstrates, in today's America you're more likely to derail your career by sending some lewd and idiotic tweets than by sending thousands of your fellow citizens to their deaths (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis) in an unnecessary war.
What else is to blame? A political order that creates enormous incumbency advantages through gerrymandering. An electoral system that depends on an ocean of campaign contributions, thereby empowering special interest groups with deep pockets and focused agendas. A presidential election cycle that lasts for more than one-fourth of a term, thereby forcing candidates to spend too much time running for election and too little time actually governing. A Senate that spends more time preventing the appointment of needed judges and other government officials than it does debating the wisdom of going to war. And I could go on.
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A couple of weeks ago, Americans were treated to a remarkably clear demonstration of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States. First, Barack Obama gave a speech on Middle East policy at the State Department, which tried to position America as a supporter of the Arab spring and reiterated his belief that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The next day, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rejected several of Obama's assertions and lectured him about what "Israel expects" from its great power patron. Then Obama felt it was smart politics to go to AIPAC and clarify his remarks. It was a pretty good speech, but Obama didn't offer any ideas for how his vision of Middle East peace might be realized and he certainly never suggested that -- horrors! -- the United States might use its considerable leverage to push both sides to an agreement. And then Netanyahu received a hero's welcome up on Capitol Hill, getting twenty-nine standing ovations for a defiant speech that made it clear that the only "two-state" solution he's willing to contemplate is one where the Palestinians live in disconnected Bantustans under near-total Israeli control.
Not surprisingly, this display of the lobby's influence made plenty of people uncomfortable, and some of them -- such as M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters offered up some personal tales of their own run-ins with Israel's hardline backers. In response to Rosenberg's sally (and the hoopla surrounding the Netanyahu visit), Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has fallen back on a familiar line of defense. After conceding that there is a lobby and that it does have a lot of influence, he argued that "the most important basis of American support for Israel is not the lobby but the public's overwhelming sympathy for Israel." In other words, AIPAC et al don't really matter that much, and all those standing ovations on Capitol Hill were really just a genuine reflection of public opinion. He also said that John Mearsheimer and I believe the lobby exerts "total control" over U.S. foreign policy, and that we claim groups in the lobby were solely responsible for the invasion of Iraq.
To deal with the last claim first, this straw-man depiction of our argument merely confirms once again that Chait has not in fact read our book. I don't find that surprising, because a careful reading of the book would reveal to him that we weren't anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, had made none of the claims he accuses us of, and had in fact amassed considerable evidence to support the far more nuanced arguments that we did advance. And then he'd have to ponder the fact that virtually everything The New Republic has ever published about us was bogus. So I can easily see why he prefers to repeat the same falsehoods and leave it at that.
But what of his more basic claim that the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel is really a reflection of "the public's overwhelming sympathy?" There are at least three big problems with this assertion.
First, even if it were true that the public had "overwhelming sympathy" for Israel, it does not immediately follow that United States policy would necessarily follow suit. U.S. officials frequently do things that a majority of Americans oppose, if they believe that doing so is in the U.S. interest. A majority of Americans oppose fighting on in Afghanistan, for example, yet the Obama administration chose to escalate that war instead. Similarly, numerous polls show that the American people favor the "public option" in health care, but that's not exactly the policy that health care reform produced. Public opinion is an important factor, of course, but what public officials decide to do almost always reflects a more complex weighting of political factors (including the intensity of public preferences, broader strategic considerations, the weight of organized interests, etc.)
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Mark Twain once described members of Congress as having "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes." Twain's mordant assessment provides a parsimonious explanation for the predictably rapturous reception that Bibi Netanyahu received there yesterday. All one can say about the vast majority of our courageous elected officials is that they aren't genuine friends of Israel, because every burst of applause was another nail in the coffin of the Zionist dream.
Why? Because Netanyahu's central message yesterday was an emphatic rejection of a genuine two-state solution. While professing to be willing to make major sacrifices for the sake of peace, his lengthy list of preconditions made it abundantly clear that he thinks Israel is entitled to rule the Palestinian population in perpetuity-even when it becomes numerically larger than Israel's Jewish citizens -- and that the United States should back this effort no matter what. And even though the only alternatives to a two-state solution are 1) further ethnic cleansing, 2) a binational, one-state democracy, or 3) permanent apartheid, Congress is just fine with that.
It would be both tiresome and fruitless to fisk Netanyahu's speech in its entirety, but you can find intelligent commentary on it here, here, here, and here. And don't miss Lara Friedman's hilarious annotated version here. Among his various applause lines, my personal favorite was the claim that Israel has to keep its settlements because 650,000 people (i.e., about 10 percent of Israel's population) now live in them. (It's not entirely clear where Netanyahu got that number, as most estimates of the settler population put it "only" half a million or so.)
The key point, however, is that the settlements didn't sprout spontaneously, and the settlers themselves didn't just show up by accident. On the contrary, the vast majority of the settlers are there because every Israeli government since 1967 has actively promoted and subsidized the colonization of the West Bank, even though this policy is contrary to international law and at odds with measures such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. Not only does 242 say that Israel should withdraw from territories occupied in the Six Day War (the French version of the official text says "the territories") but it begins by emphasizing "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force." The United States played a key role in drafting the resolution, and then effectively ignored its implications for the next forty years.
Some people still believe that settlement building was just a wacky project undertaken and backed primarily by religious extremists and by rightwing parties like Likud. In fact, colonization of the West Bank began under the Labor-led governments in the 1960s and 1970s, and governments of all stripes have backed it without exception. Read Gershom Gorenberg's Accidental Empire, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land, or Shlomo Gazit's Trapped Fools, and you will learn that settlement building was a deliberate policy designed to "create facts," so that future prime ministers like Netanyahu could claim it was simply impossible for Israel to withdraw. And the location of key settlement blocs like Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim were chosen to secure Israeli control over key aquifers and make it difficult-to-impossible to create a viable Palestinian state.
As I said in my previous post, Israel faces a choice -- a two-state solution or apartheid -- and it is now crystal-clear which one Netanyahu has chosen. I see this situation as genuinely tragic, as he is condemning several more generations to live in bitter conflict and putting his own country's future at risk. That's his privilege, I suppose, but America's blind support for this foolish policy is also a serious threat to U.S. national security. So if your Congressman or Senator was clapping loudly yesterday, you might drop him or her a note and ask why they care more about subsidizing an illegal and unjust occupation than they do about America's long-term welfare and well-being. You'll probably discover that Twain was on to something.
Remember the "unipolar moment?" You know: that period that began when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in an unprecedented position of power. As former President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991, the United States found itself "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world." And both Democratic and Republican administrations tried to do just that: expanding NATO, supposedly spreading democracy, putting "rogue states" in the cross hairs, and sending the U.S. military into action on virtually every continent.
Of course, in the wake of the financial crisis and the self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, things don't look quite so rosy today. China's GDP is likely to overtake America's in the next decade or so, which will mark the first time in over a century that the United States won't have the world's largest economy. China still lags behind the United States on many other indicators of power, so it's far too soon to talk about a fundamental transfer of power from Washington to Beijing. Nonetheless, its steady rise and obviously growing assertiveness are making plenty of people wonder about how the United States should respond.
So let me simplify this issue for you. Boiled down to its essentials, the biggest question facing U.S. leaders over the next decade or so is whether America's global position will be enhanced more by successful foreign-policy initiatives, or by successful policy responses here at home. In other words, will America's long-term security and prosperity be enhanced most by various foreign and defense policy maneuvers, and especially by successful efforts to deal with potentially dangerous situations in various parts of the world? Alternatively, we will be more secure and more prosperous if we do less abroad and use the time and resources to get our house in order here in the United States instead? This is obviously not a simple either/or situation, but the key question is what priority one decides to place on each policy domain.
Those who favor the first position -- i.e., who think our security/prosperity depends mostly on the role we play globally -- tend to think that the United States faces many threats and that our forward presence in various parts of the world is essential for stability in key regions and indispensable for keeping lots of bad guys at bay. If we aren't fighting them in Kandahar, flying drones in Pakistan, helping rebel forces in Libya, providing aid and advice in Colombia, so the argument runs, we'll face rising dangers closer to home. Or sometimes they argue that the United States has a moral responsibility to use its power on behalf of others. This view is most evident among die-hard neoconservatives, but plenty of liberal internationalists still see the United States as the "indispensable nation" that has to shoulder the main burden whenever serious problems arise almost anywhere.
By contrast, people who incline to the second view think that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has a built-in tendency to overstate threats and a real problem setting clear priorities. They see the United States as remarkably secure and insulated from most problems by two enormous oceans, by a formidable nuclear deterrent, and by strong conventional forces that can tip the balance in key regions like the Persian Gulf. In this view, a lot of what we've been doing lately isn't making Americans richer or more secure, and certainly isn't worth the cost. They question whether spending $100 billion a year on Afghanistan makes a substantial contribution to American security and believe that sort of money could be better spent on productivity-enhancing projects here at home. When they read that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is about to lay off 4,000-plus teachers in order to close a budget deficit, they see it as one of the many independent policy decisions whose cumulative effect will be to leave America dumber and therefore weaker in the years ahead.
The second group recognizes that America does have a global role to play, but believes that in the end our power and influence depends far more on having a healthy, highly educated, politically loyal, and energetic society here at home than it does on shaping political outcomes in far-flung corners of the world. And the second group tends to think that we'd be a lot more popular in some parts if we weren't constantly trying to tell others how to live (and blowing things up in order to persuade them).
I've been sketching a pretty crude picture, of course, and the proper answer lies somewhere between these two stark alternatives. But as readers of this blog know, in the present era I think it is pretty clear that it is the home front needs the most attention. We do need an active foreign policy, but the emphasis has to be on setting clear priorities, liquidating commitments that are not vital (and may even be counterproductive), and making it clear to others that the United States is not a philanthropic organization with an infinite bank account and endless tolerance for feckless, fickle, or uncooperative allies. (Pakistan heads that list this week, but it is hardly alone). And at the same time, we need to address the eroding infrastructure, failing schools, world-record incarceration rates, elite corruption, and rising economic inequality from which the United States now suffers, all of which pose a far greater long-term threat to our security and prosperity than groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda do.
But here's the problem. Presidents and their advisors have lots of latitude in foreign policy, and we still have a big defense establishment that gives them lots of options for meddling. Heck, the president can decide it's a good idea to overthrow the government of Libya and get busy doing it, without asking anyone's permission or facing significant political opposition. But given the decentralized nature of the U.S. government, the pervasive influence of special interest lobbies, and the present state of political polarization, trying to implement major domestic reforms is like trying to drag a shipping container through quicksand with a bicycle. So it's no wonder that this administration (like its predecessors) finds it tempting to focus on foreign policy. It ain't easy, but it's a lot more fun than trying to fix what's broken back home.
Closing teaser: Some folks in the DoD seem to have reached similar conclusions to the ones I've expressed here, and a paper by two military officers (writing collectively as "Mr. Y") has been receiving some fawning attention in the press lately. Although I'm sympathetic to some of their ideas, the paper itself is a disappointment. I'll lay out my reasons in a subsequent post.
Was the decision to intervene in Libya justified by the threat of imminent massacres, and possibly even a genocide? And did President Obama have the authority to intervene?
If you're still wondering about either of those questions, I have two suggestions for further reading. The first is an op-ed by Alan Kuperman, which casts further doubt on the likelihood that Qadhafi's forces were about to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent bystanders in Benghazi. Kuperman points out that Qadhafi loyalists did not conduct massacres in any of the cities that they have recaptured, and that the Libyan tyrant's threats to show "no mercy" applied only to rebels. He also notes that the reported casualties are overwhelmingly male, which suggests that it is primarily combatants (i.e., rebels) who are being killed.
Note that Kuperman is no apologist for Qadhafi. He does not deny that Qadhafi is a thuggish ruler, that his loyalists were killing civilians, or that some of their actions constitute war crimes. The question, however, is whether there was an imminent risk of a bloodbath that "would stain the conscience of the world," as Obama put it.
Notice also that although Obama did not use the word genocide himself, both current and previous members of his administration did raise the spectre of a genocide in order to make the case for U.S. action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of Policy Planning in the State Department, tweeted ""The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted." Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ""We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda." The clear implication was that failure to act in Libya would produce hundreds of thousands of deliberate murders (which is what occurred in Rwanda in 1994).
Given that Qadhafi is a heinous ruler of dubious legitimacy, why does this matter? It matters because the case for intervention depends heavily on the magnitude of the humanitarian calamity that we sought to forestall. If the danger really was that grave, then the case for intervention goes up. But if the likely consequences of a Qadhafi victory were regrettable but not that large, then the case for intervention diminishes. And the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.
Second: did Obama exceed his powers when he ordered the use of force? The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion on this issue (perhaps coincidentally, on April 1st), and--surprise, surprise--they've concluded that it was perfectly ok. The OLC makes three arguments: 1) it's not really a war, and the President has broad powers short of war; 2) we're enforcing a Security Council resolution, which gives the President even more authority, in part because he has to uphold the credibility of the Security Council; and 3) the War Powers Resolution permits the President to use force for sixty days without advance approval.
Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School examines the OLC's arguments in the Harvard National Security Journal and finds them wanting on legal and constitutional grounds. More tellingly, he also shows that these justifications are at odds with Obama's own statements before he became President. In 2007, for example, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involves stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." (Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he's not exactly a tyro on these issues). And back when she was a mere Senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "I do not believe that the President can take military action--including any kind of strategic bombing--against Iran without congressional authorization." More strikingly still, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has repeatedly argued--as a scholar--against precisely this sort of expansive interpretation of presidential power. But not this time.
At this point in the history of the republic, it should come as no surprise that people working in the Executive Branch tend to think the President has the power to use military force just about any time the he and his advisors deem it necessary or advisable. It is equally unsurprising that politicians and pundits tend to be hypocritical about this issuet: they think the President ought to have broad powers when they agree with the particular use to which it is being put, and they think those powers ought to be limited when they think the President is doing something foolish or unnecessary.
Reasonable people can disagree about just how much authority the Executive Branch ought to have, just as they can also disagree about the course of action the United States and others should have followed with regard to the situation in Libya. But let's be clear about the long-term effects of the de facto authority we are granting every President. It's a messy world out there, and there will always be some trouble somewhere that people will want Uncle Sam to fix. If you give a single individual the authority to decide when to order the world's mightiest military into battle, without having to consult anyone except his own appointed advisors, then you shouldn't be surprised when that mighty military gets used over and over and over.
There's an interesting story in Politico, where Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) criticizes Obama's handling of the Middle East peace process and then goes out on a limb and predicts a new Middle East peace push. I don't know if he's right or wrong about that, but the Senator indulges in a bit of revisionist history about his past views on the peace process.
In particular, Kerry now says that he never thought it was a good idea to focus on Israel's continually expanding settlements in the West Bank. Money quote:
I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," Kerry told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, organized by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "I think it sort of put the cart ahead of the horse in a way here. The key is to get to the security and borders definition and if you can get the borders definition you've solved the problem of the settlements. But we can't get that discussion right now."
The problem is that this isn't what Kerry was saying and doing back in 2009, when the Obama administration was trying in vain to get a settlement freeze. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Washington that spring, he met personally with Kerry in the latter's capacity as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Here's what Kerry said about his conversation back then:
John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began his remarks following his meeting with Netanyahu by saying, ‘I emphasized to the prime minister the importance of Israel moving forward, especially with respect to the settlements issue.'"
As a good realist, I certainly don't expect politicians to tell the truth all the time. Maybe Kerry was just forgot. Or maybe he really did think focusing on settlements was a mistake, but went along at the time as good team player. But I'm more inclined to think he was in favor of Obama's approach. ... before he was against it.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.