Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
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If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
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I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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One of the great successes of the Obama administration has been its ability to divert attention from the wars the United States is still fighting, such as Afghanistan. Given Obama's decision to escalate and extend that war is looking worse and worse with time, you can understand why they are doing this. It's possible that sending more troops bought Obama time and is making it easier to get out now; the problem is that we ended up squandering more lives and money without getting a significantly better outcome.
My real fear is that this is merely a preamble to telling ourselves a lot of self-serving myths about that war. Count on it: Our exit from Afghanistan will be accompanied by a lot of feel-good stories about the U.S./NATO effort there designed to convince Americans that the surge "worked" and that we really did give it our all. If things go south later on, that will be the Afghans' fault, not ours, and so it won't be necessary to learn any lessons from our mistakes.
But two recent news stories suggest a very different read. The first, from Saturday's New York Times, offered an account of the farewell gathering for the deparating French Ambassador in Kabul, Bernard Bajolet. According to the Times, Bajolet told the attendees:
"That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West's investment in it, would come to little."
And then there was this passage:
"At his farewell party, Mr. Bajolet wound up his realpolitik with a brisk analysis of what Afghanistan's government needed to do: cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant. It must increase its revenues instead of letting politicians divert them, he said."
Think about that statement as you read the second story (from today's Times) describing the millions of dollars of slush funds that the CIA has paid to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But instead of purchasing Karzai's loyalty or enhancing U.S. influence, the money merely contributed to the endemic corruption that has marred the NATO effort from day one. As the Times reported:
"The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan," one American official said, "was the United States."
There you have it: The French ambassador (and everyone else) says the Afghan government needs to reduce corruption, yet a key element of the U.S. effort there has been contributing to that problem. I wonder if H.R. McMaster, the general who was assigned to head up NATO's anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan, knew what the CIA baksheesh office was up to. If so, he'll be in a great position to write a sequel to his earlier book on the U.S. failure in Vietnam.
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Does the possibility (likelihood?) that Syrian government forces have used sarin gas strengthen the case for military intervention or at least great U.S. involvement?
Pro-intervention hawks like Sen. John McCain certainly think so and have been quick to remind everyone that President Obama called chemical weapons use a "red line." But McCain has been a vocal advocate of greater U.S. action for quite some time, which suggests that the use of chemical weapons hasn't really altered his thinking at all. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that far more sensible commentators -- such as former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh -- also view these reports as an additional reason to topple Assad sooner rather than later.
But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad's forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It's been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it's been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It's not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.
The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad's forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.
This is not an open-and-shut issue, and there are obvious points to make on the other side. Obama did suggest that chemical weapons use might be a "red line," in what was a fairly transparent attempt to deter Assad from going down that road. So one might argue that Washington would incur some loss of credibility if it does not respond now. Although I think we routinely exaggerate concerns about our credibility, that doesn't mean that it is of no concern at all. Nonetheless, Obama's prior statements do not require any particular response, and the administration certainly shouldn't do something unwise simply because it feels it has to do something.
One might also argue that chemical weapons are a form of WMD and that allowing Assad to get away with their use will undercut the existing taboo against these weapons. There's a case for that point of view, but I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.
Like Senator McCain, I find my position on this issue unchanged by the revelations about possible chemical weapons use. I still see Syria as a tragically vexing policy question. It is heart-wrenching to see what is happening there and the instinct to "do something" is understandable, but the downsides to direct or indirect military involvement remain formidable. I certainly think we should be doing more to help refugees and to minimize the destabilizing effects of the carnage on Syria's neighbors. I am all in favor of continued diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to end their support for Assad, and the chemical weapons report may provide additional leverage on that point. (See here for some useful thoughts along those lines). But I hope that Obama doesn't allow himself to be bullied into doing a lot more simply because of these reports, unless he is convinced that doing more now reduce the risks later on.
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One of the cool things about being as powerful and fortunate as the United States is that you get to preach to other countries about how they ought to behave. In that spirit, the U.S. State Department puts out a human rights report every year, and basically wags its finger at countries that don't measure up. Of course, the report tends to go easy on close allies, but it's still a useful document. Among other things, it provides data that scholars interested in human rights can use to test their ideas about the causes of violations and the policies that might alleviate them.
But as you might expect, the world isn't just sitting around and passively accepting report cards from Washington anymore. Case in point: China has just released its own human rights report on the United States, and it makes for rather interesting reading. It's hardly an objective assessment of life in America, of course, but much of the information contained within it is factually accurate. The incidence of gun violence and crime in the U.S. is far above the level of other industrial democracies, and having the world's highest incarceration rate is not exactly consistent with being the "Land of the Free."
China's point is that the United States is being pretty hypocritical in singling out other countries, and maybe we ought to remove the log in our own eye before we start telling everyone else what to do. Add to this the recent bipartisan report confirming that Bush-era officials authorized the widespread use of torture and the fact that none of them has ever been indicted or prosecuted, and American hypocrisy on this score looks even more damning.
The Chinese report may not be objective, and the fact that U.S. leaders authorized torture does not mean Washington hasn't done plenty of morally admirable things too. But this gap between America's professed ideals and its actual behavior matters. Not just in moral terms, but in terms of power and global influence too. Smaller and weaker states are more likely to tolerate American primacy if they think the United States is a generally good society and led by individuals who are not just ruthlessly self-interested. They will be more willing to tolerate the asymmetry of power in America's favor if they think that power is used for the greater good. The more that others view the United States as hypocritical, self-absorbed, and indifferent to others, the more likely they are to ignore U.S. advice and to secretly welcome those moments when the U.S. gets taken down a peg or two.
The 9/11 attacks produced an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the United States ("nous sommes toutes Americains" headlined Le Monde), and we've seen a similar reaction in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But such expressions of solidarity tend to be fleeting and especially when U.S. behavior gives opponents an easy way to heighten dissatisfaction with America's global role. What's going on here is a struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the wider world, and it would be foolish to believe that we will win that struggle just because we're the "good guys." That may be how we see ourselves, but Americans are only 5 percent of the world's population, and plenty of other people around the world have a rather different view.
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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.
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On several occasions I've commented on how I thought the U.S. approach to Iran was difficult to fathom at best. For some reason, U.S. leaders seem to believe that constantly threatening Iran and ratcheting up economic sanctions will eventually force Tehran to say "Uncle" and give us everything we want, or it will lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the clerics, dismantle their nuclear program, and jump warmly into the embrace of a grateful world.
Never mind that this approach is contradictory (how does threatening someone make them less interested in a deterrent?) and imposes enormous human suffering on innocent Iranians. Never mind that the scholarly literature on economic sanctions shows that they are not a very effective instrument of coercion. Pay no attention to the fact that we've been trying this policy for over a decade, without any apparent success.
It is hard to know if Washington really thinks that some day this is going to work or if this just a politically expedient process of kicking the can down the road. You know: the same sort of brilliant statecraft that has led the mighty United States to maintain an economic embargo on Cuba for over fifty years. Really brought ol' Fidel to his knees, didn't it?
But you don't have to take my word for it. In a recent speech at a Carnegie Endowment conference, Swedish Foreign Minsiter Carl Bildt offered up some wise words about the role that sanctions should (and should not) play in our policies toward Iran and other difficult regimes. Money quotation:
"There is no doubt that sanctions are and should be part of our toolbox. Preferably and primarily decided upon by the Security Council -- for reasons of legality as well as efficiency.
But sanctions can only work if they are part of an overall policy where the different instruments are clearly geared towards specified objectives.
Sanctions can be part of such a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy.
Sometimes I fear that this rather fundamental distinction is lost."
And as Paul Pillar noted earlier this week, it's not even clear what the United States and its allies are actually trying to accomplish with their Iran policy, which is why Iranians often wonder if we actually want an agreement at all. He recommends the following approach:
"The P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it."
Assuming, of course, that we really do want a deal. But if you don't really know what your objective is and you are misusing the various diplomatic and other tools at your disposal, then it is hard to see how you could ever achieve anything that might look like "success." Sadly, neither Bildt nor Pillar are likely to be in a position to implement a more promising approach.
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As Hillary Clinton showed, one of the tasks of the secretary of state is to take on unpleasant duties that the president doesn't want to bother with. John Kerry gets to play that role now, and we saw it in action in the Middle East over the past week or so. Here's how Kerry justified a new U.S. effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a goal that took him to Israel on three separate occasions:
"I am intensely focused on this issue and the region because it is vital really to American interests and regional interests to try and advance the peace process and because this festering absence of peace is used by groups everywhere to recruit and encourage extremism ... Both sides mistrust each other deeply and there are reasons that mistrust has built up ... I am convinced that we can break that down."
An intriguing side note is the idea that Kerry and Obama want to revive the Saudi/Arab League peace initiative, first put forward back in 2002 and reiterated in 2007. That proposal offered Israel full peace and diplomatic recognition if it returned to the 1967 borders and agreed to the formation of a viable Palestinian state. The original proposal was far from perfect and there were lots of details that would have had to be settled via negotiation, but it was a promising start that Israel and the Bush administration foolishly ignored.
So what are the odds that this new U.S. effort will succeed? Short answer: slim to none. Obama was badly burned by this issue during his first term, and he's not going to waste time or political capital on it unless he is very, very confident that he can get across the finish line. He knows that a final deal will involve knocking heads with Netanyahu and defying the hardline elements of the Israel lobby here at home, and he's not going to do either of those things unless he can really, truly pull off a final status deal. He's willing to let his secretary of state run around and do what he can accomplish, but Obama himself has got other things to do.
So the real question is whether Kerry can pull off a miracle and get the parties close enough to an agreement to convince Obama to re-engage. To succeed, Kerry needs to be able to come into the Oval Office and say, "Mr. President, we are really, really, really close. Here are the terms I've gotten each side to accept, and both are ready to sign on the dotted line. There are just one or two teeny-tiny sticking points, but if you get involved and provide a final nudge, we can finally end this long and tragic conflict. I am 99 percent confident you can do it."
The key to this scenario is that the Israelis and Palestinians really do have to be that close to an agreement. And the problem is that there's hardly any reason to expect that to happen, unless the Netanyahu government changes its position significantly. (Israel has to do more compromising than the Palestinians because the latter doesn't have much more to give up, having already agreed to no more than 22 percent of the territory and to an unfavorable division of Jerusalem.) Remember that Netanyahu opposed the Oslo agreement in 1993 and his own vision of a "Palestinian state" is nothing more than disconnected Bantustans under de facto Israeli control. Even the most compromised and compliant Palestinian leader is not going to agree to that. But key members of Netanyahu's new coalition would never go along with anything more generous.
Similarly, a meaningful final status agreement will depend on getting Hamas to go along, and they aren't going to agree to even a long-term truce (hudna) for anything less than a sovereign state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza. To make matters worse, the civil war in Syria and the turmoil in countries like Egypt is going to make Israelis even more skittish about major compromises, for understandable reasons. Result: stalemate.
So even if Kerry revives the Arab League initiative (possibly modified to accommodate Israeli preferences), I don't see how he can get the two parties close enough to a deal to convince Obama to take the leap.
Instead, what we will see is Kabuki diplomacy: a Potemkin peace process that burns up time and jet fuel and makes it look like the United States still cares about this issue and is still in some sense interested in the Palestinians' fate. What we are not going to see is real diplomatic progress, let alone a final peace agreement. And after twenty-plus years of post-Oslo failure, a flurry of meaningless diplomatic activity isn't going to fool anyone anymore.
Unless, of course, the parties prove me wrong. I hope they do, but nobody ever lost money betting the other way.
UPDATE: When I wrote this post yesterday, I really didn't know that the Netanyahu government was going to immediately trash Kerry's proposals. See Ha'aretz here and Larry Derfner of +972 here. But I can't say I'm surprised, and at this point, you shouldn't be either.
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How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.
According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.
But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.
Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.
I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.
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The United States has lofty global ambitions, and its leaders still like to describe the country as the "leader of the free world," the "indispensable nation," and various other self-congratulatory labels. Yet it doesn't always marry these ambitions to a set of policies and practices that would help it achieve them.
Case in point: the well-sourced rumor that the Obama administration is about to appoint Caroline Kennedy to serve as our next ambassador to Japan. The obvious question: Is this an appointment that demonstrates a serious engagement with the complex problems the United States is now facing in Asia?
My concerns have nothing to do with Ms. Kennedy herself, of course. I've had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions and thought she was smart, well-informed, and engaging. But she's neither a diplomat nor an experienced politician, and she's certainly not an expert on East Asia. Unless I've missed something, she doesn't speak Japanese and has no academic or professional background in foreign affairs. Compared with some other former U.S. ambassadors to Japan (e.g., Mike Mansfield, Walter Mondale, Michael Armacost, or Tom Foley), she's a political neophyte.
True, she comes from a prominent political dynasty, and she was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. So one might argue that she'll have a direct line to the White House and that her appointment is a way to signal to Japan that the U.S. is taking the relationship seriously.
It would be nice to think so, but what does that matter if she doesn't have the background necessary to give the White House or State Department independent advice or the experience necessary to convince Japanese officials to follow the U.S. lead? In case you hadn't noticed, politics in Asia are becoming more and more important, and managing our Asian alliances is going to be very tricky in the years ahead. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others are looking for clear signs of U.S. leadership, which means we need the most qualified and skilled people we can find in key diplomatic positions. We don't want ambassadors who are just reciting talking points prepared by others; we need ambassadors throughout Asia who have extensive knowledge of the region's history and the complicated economic and security landscape there. And, yes, it would be nice if they could read and speak the language.
Assuming the rumors are true, this case is just the most recent manifestation of America's overreliance on political appointments throughout our foreign policy system, and especially the diplomatic service. In fact, the United States is the only major power that routinely appoints amateurs to ambassadorial rank, even though the Foreign Service Act of 1980 explicitly recommends against this practice. Money quotation:
"[P]ositions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service. . . [Ambassadors] should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including ... useful knowledge of the language ... and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country. . . . Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor."
Yet despite this strong and sensible recommendation, roughly 30 percent of all U.S. ambassadors are political appointees rather than trained professional diplomats. This practice is completely bipartisan, by the way, and it's one of the many reasons why U.S. diplomacy is often ineffective.
The bottom line: International politics is a highly competitive enterprise, and if you want to succeed at it, you need to be ruthless about picking the best people to do the job. The New York Yankees don't put someone in centerfield just because they purchased a lot of advertising from the team's owners or have been renting a luxury box at Yankee Stadium, and the U.S. government shouldn't appoint amateurs -- no matter how smart, likeable, public-minded and well-connected they are -- to key diplomatic posts either.
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A couple of years ago I devoted a couple of blog posts to arguing that allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the military made good strategic sense. My logic was straightforward: We want to attract the best people to military service and any sort of artificial restriction (such as banning gays, or any other social group) inevitably reduces the talent pool from which the country can draw. The result would be a weaker military than we would otherwise have. I'm certain my posts had exactly zero impact on President Obama's subsequent decision to end "don't ask, don't tell," but I was certainly happy when he did.
I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have any firm views on how the Supreme Court is going to handle the issue of gay marriage that is now before it. But I do think a parallel argument can be made about the effect of allowing gay marriage on U.S. foreign policy and national security. Specifically, permitting gay people to marry in the United States would have positive effects on both.
First, ending discrimination against gay couples is going to make the United States a more attractive place for gay people to live, especially when compared to societies that do not permit gay marriage or that actively discriminate (and in some cases, criminalize) being gay. Accordingly, some number of gay people are going to seek to emigrate to the United States, just as some gay Americans are now choosing to live abroad so that their relationships can be legally recognized and protected. The United States has long benefited from its attractiveness as a place to live and work, especially by attracting talented people who are being persecuted elsewhere. The United States would have gained greatly had someone like Alan Turing had known he could find a welcoming home here.
Permitting gay marriage isn't going to cause a flood of gay foreigners to flood our shores, but at the margin, it will make the United States a more attractive destination for some. Which would be to our overall benefit.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, legalizing gay marriage would reinforce America's public commitment to individual liberty and freedom, and its parallel commitment to non-discrimination. More than anything else, that commitment is America's global brand. In this country, the government doesn't tell you where to live, doesn't tell you what job to pursue, doesn't tell you what God to worship, and doesn't tell you who to fall in love with. At the same time, the government also says that you should not discriminate against those who happen to be different from you in some way. Instead, you are supposed to treat them as individuals and to expect the same in return.
But in most parts of the United States, the government does tell you that if you are in love with someone of your own gender, you aren't eligible for the same recognition and benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy. That's not as punishing a policy as slavery or Jim Crow or some of the other forms of discrimination that our country has practiced (and gradually abandoned), but it is still a source of considerable unhappiness for many gay couples and it is fundamentally at odds with our normal claim to privilege individual freedom of choice over category distinctions.
This enduring commitment to individual freedom and choice, and this fundamental hostility to the idea that some groups are better or worse than others, is central to what the United States stands for as a society. In other countries, ethnic and sectarian differences abound and sometimes explode in violence. Similar things have happened here, and racial, religious, or ethnic tensions still exist in many places, but our abiding commitment to individual freedom is like a solvent that continually works to erode the idea that you can judge someone merely by knowing what social group they are from. Martin Luther King dreamt that his children "would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." And the same logic applies to sexual preference. In America, we should judge all people by their own individual characters, not by the gender they happen to prefer as lovers and partners.
Like those who once opposed interracial marriage or gays serving in the military, opponents of gay marriage have manufactured a bunch of bogus arguments about how allowing gays to marry would either damage children or undermine the institution of marriage itself. These arguments are pretty preposterous on their face. If anything, extending the right to marry to gay couples only reinforces the idea that stable, loving relationships between committed partners are a solid bedrock for society, as well as a profound source of long-term happiness. That's the main reason why opinion on this issue has shifted so rapidly in recent years. As homosexuality lost its stigma and straight Americans had more and more openly gay friends, the idea that married gay couples were some sort of subversive threat to society seemed increasingly ludicrous. As it should.
In American jurisprudence, the courts often look to whether the state has a "compelling interest" in regulating or interfering in some domain of activity. In this case, I'd argue that to the extent the state has an interest in this matter, that interest lies overwhelming in extending the privileges (and obligations) of marriage to all Americans. Not just because it is consistent with our commitment to liberty and to equality under the law, but also because it will be good for our global image, national cohesion, and even our long-term strength and prosperity.
So if you're still having trouble backing gay marriage on the simple grounds of fairness, you might consider supporting it on the basis of national security instead.
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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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I didn't realize this at first, but what Barack Obama was really doing in the Middle East last week was setting up a test of competing IR theories.
As we've come to expect, the centerpiece of Obama's trip was a beautifully crafted speech to a select group of Israeli students. It's really what he does best: offer a cloud of rhetoric designed to seduce, cajole, and convince. Remember back in 2009, when he gave great speeches in Istanbul, Prague, Cairo, and Oslo, and then failed to follow through on any of them? Having been reelected, it's back to the 2009 playbook.
This time around, he went to great lengths to convey his deep affection and regard for Israel and his commitment to Zionism. He told Israelis that the U.S.-Israel relationship was "eternal" (a pledge no mortal can actually make), and offered up the usual bromides about keeping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. A lot of that stuff was just pandering to the Israel lobby, but he played his part effectively, and the Israeli reaction has been quite positive.
Obama also offered rhetorical support for Palestinian aspirations, and his speech went further than any of his predecessors. He spoke openly of their "right to self-determination and justice" and invited his Israeli listeners "to look at the world through their eyes." He also told them "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer" and said "Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." He reiterated his call for direct negotiations -- though he no longer suggests that Israel stop building more settlements -- and he called upon his youthful audience to "create the change that you want to see."
But that's all he did. He did not say that a Palestinian state would have to be fully sovereign (i.e., entitled to have its defense forces). He did not give any indication of where he thought the borders of such a state might lie, or whether illegal settlements like Ariel (whose presence cuts the West Bank in two) would have to be abandoned. He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans). On the contrary, his every move and phrase made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States providing generous and unconditional support to the vastly stronger of the two parties. He made no mention of a special envoy or an "Obama plan." In short, he did not announce a single concrete policy initiative designed to advance the vision of "two states for two peoples" that he first laid out in the almost-forgotten Cairo speech of June 2009.
And therein lies the test of competing theories. There is a broad school of thought in international relations -- often labeled "social constructivism" -- which maintains that discourse can be of tremendous importance in shaping the conduct of states. In this view, how leaders talk and how intellectuals write gradually shapes how we all think, and over time these discursive activities can exert a tremendous influence on norms, identities, and perceptions of what is right and what is possible.
It is this view of the world that President Obama was channeling during his trip. By telling Israelis that he loved them and by telling both Israelis and Palestinians that the latter had just as much right to a state as the former, he was hoping to mold hearts and minds and convince them -- through logic and reason -- to end their century-old conflict. And make no mistake: He was saying that peace would require a powerful and increasingly wealthy Israel to make generous concessions, because the Palestinians have hardly anything more to give up. As Churchill put it, "in victory, magnanimity."
Discourse does matter in some circumstances, of course, and perhaps Obama's words will prompt some deep soul-searching within the Israeli political establishment. But there is another broad family of IR theories -- the realist family -- and it maintains that what matters most in politics is power and how it is applied. In this view, national leaders often say lots of things they don't really mean, or they say things they mean but then fail to follow through on because doing so would be politically costly. From this perspective, words sometimes inspire and may change a few minds on occasion, but they are rarely enough to overcome deep and bitter conflicts. No matter how well-written or delivered, a speech cannot divert whole societies from a well-established course of action. Policies in motion tend to remain in motion; to change the trajectory of a deeply-entrenched set of initiatives requires the application of political forces of equal momentum.
For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel's creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama's eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.
Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won't take long before Obama's visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors. All of them claimed to oppose the occupation, but none of them ever did a damn thing to end it. And one of Obama's successors will eventually have to confront the cold fact that two states are no longer a realistic possibility. What will he or she say then?
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If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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I know many foreign policy mavens are obsessed with Obama's trip to Israel, and we are already seeing an explosion of punditry attempting to tell us What It All Means. Because I don't think the trip will accomplish anything worth remembering, I've decided to refrain from commenting unless something surprising or significant occurs. So far, nada.
Instead, I gave an interview to The European (an online publication in Germany) offering a post-mortem on Iraq and its implications for transatlantic relations. You can read it here.
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Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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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
President Obama is about to leave for the Middle East -- including his first trip to Israel as president -- and he's getting the usual advice from all corners on what to do while he's there. Here are a few things you might want to read and a comment you may want to ponder.
You can start with Ben Birnbaum's piece in the New Republic on the disappearing two-state solution. It's well-reported, fair-minded, and certainly won't make you optimistic about the prospects for a deal. Birnbaum can't quite admit that the 2SS might be dead already, and its worth remembering that a peace process that is always on life support but never really ends gives Israel the diplomatic cover to keep expanding control over the West Bank. Nonetheless, it is an intelligent and sobering piece, and its publication in the post-Peretz TNR is significant in itself.
Then, follow that up by re-reading the Boston Study Group's Two States for Two Peoples: If not now, when?, along with a new introduction, available here. The Boston Study Group is an informal collective of colleagues with extensive background on these issues, and I've been privileged to be a member of the group for the past several years. The new introduction reminds Obama that he has a chance to reinvigorate the quest for peace and urges him to take the leap. I'm not optimistic that he will, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong in this case.
Finally, take a quick look at Jerry Haber's discussion of "Who is a Liberal Zionist?" available at Open Zion and Jerry's own blog. It's a fascinating discussion of the tensions between liberal values and Zionism, and he nicely skewers the contradictions common to many liberal Zionists. His analysis will be all the more relevant if the two-state solution ultimately fails and the world ends up with some sort of de facto one-state outcome, which is where we are headed if there is no change of course.
And now my comment. Obama's trip is bound to generate more discussion about how to get the peace process started again, along with the usual back-and-forths about which side is more responsible for the current impasse and the familiar debates about what an appropriate solution might be. And a lot of defenders of Israel will repeatedly remind us that they oppose the occupation and are in favor of two states.
But here's the litmus test you should use: How many of them are in favor of the United States using the leverage at its disposal to bring the occupation to an end and obtain a two-state outcome? In other words, how many of them favor the United States using both carrots and sticks with both sides in order to achieve the outcome that they claim to favor? How many of them would openly back Obama if he did just that? The United States has steadfastly refused to use its leverage evenhandedly in the past, and the result after twenty-plus years of "peace processing" has been abject failure. Not only is failure bad for Israelis and Palestinians alike, it doesn't exactly do wonders for America's credibility as an effective mediator. Yet you rarely hear advocates of a two-state solution calling for the U.S. to try a different approach.
And don't forget that the Palestinians are already under tremendous pressure -- stateless, under occupation, dependent on outside aid, and watching the territory in dispute disappear as settlements expand. At this point, there's little to be gained by squeezing them even harder. If you genuinely believe in "two states for two peoples," then you ought to be openly calling for the United States to act like a true global power and knock some heads together. And anyone who claims to oppose the occupation and support the 2SS while insisting that the United States must back Israel no matter what it does is either delusional or disingenuous.
JIM WATSON/AFP/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
The ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is generating a variety of post-mortems and reflections from many of the participants in the pre-war debate. Andrew Sullivan has been especially forthright in acknowledging his own errors during that time and has a lively thread up and running probing what some famous people like Bill Clinton had to say on the matter a decade or so ago.
Going to war is a fateful decision for any country, but it is now clear that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment performed abysmally during the run-up to the war. Top officials in the Bush administration told several important lies to bolster the case for war, such as the claim that there was no doubt Iraq had WMD -- indeed, they said they knew where they were - -and the charge that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda.
The majority of prominent Democrats and plenty of card-carrying liberals backed the war as well. Indeed, almost all of the top foreign policy officials in Obama's first term were vocal supporters of the invasion, with the president himself being a notable exception. Denizens of the usual Washington think-tanks -- including supposedly "moderate" organizations like Brookings and bipartisan organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations -- were also filled with pro-war cheerleaders. The same was true of the New York Times and Washington Post, whose editors and reporters swallowed the Bush team's sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. All in all, the decision to invade was taken with a degree of carelessness and callowness unworthy of any country with pretensions to global leadership. And one should never forget that this reckless decision cost more than $1 trillion and led to thousands of American battlefield casualties and many ruined lives. Of course, the Iraqi people have suffered even more over the past decade.
But not everyone thought invading Iraq was a good idea. In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, "War with Iraq is Not in America's National Interest." You can read the original ad here. It is striking how accurate its warnings were. At the risk of sounding like I am bragging, I was one of the signatories, although I certainly take no pleasure in having anticipated the trouble ahead. It would have been better for the United States, not to mention Iraq, if the hawks had been proven right. Sadly, this was not to be.
As the ten-year anniversary nears, I want to call attention to the other people who signed the ad and helped pay for its publication. Some of them are no longer with us, but their prescience and their willingness to resist the stampede for war should not go unremembered. Here are the other signatories, with their professional affiliations at the time.
Robert Art, Brandeis
Richard Betts, Columbia
Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia
Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky
Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas
Alexander L. George, Stanford
Charles Glaser, University of Chicago
Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State
George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky
Robert Jervis, Columbia
Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh
Carl Kaysen, MIT
Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington
Deborah Larson, UCLA
Jack S. Levy, Rutgers
Peter Liberman, Queen's College
John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
Steven E. Miller, Harvard University
Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern
Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago
Barry R. Posen, MIT
Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley
George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland
Richard Rosecrance, UCLA
Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland
Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State
Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina
Jack L. Snyder, Columbia
Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland
Stephen Van Evera, MIT
Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia
Cindy Williams, MIT
It is worth noting that none of the signatories on this list has held a government position since then, and my guess is that none is likely to do so in the future. Instead, it is mostly people who backed the war who have occupied key policymaking positions in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Even today, a reputation for hawkishness is a prerequisite for being taken seriously in Washington.
Policymakers and pundits love to disparage "ivory-tower" academics for being aloof, out-of-touch, or insufficiently sensitive to how the real world works. Sometimes those charges are valid. But in this case -- and many others -- it was the "experts" inside-the-Beltway who got it tragically wrong and the academics who got it right.
Postscript: A subsequent effort to critique the Bush administration's handling of the war -- organized under the aegis of "Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy" -- produced an open letter signed by 851 people. The text is here; an account of this group's activities can be found here.
Mario Tama/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 suspect a lot of people would like to believe Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defense shows that Obama has broken the back of the Israel lobby and will now move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for us, better for Israel, better for the Palestinians, and maybe even better for the entire region.
Don't count on it.
It is of course a very good thing that the Senate confirmed Hagel. He had excellent credentials for the job, had done nothing to disqualify himself, and to have been denied the post on the basis of the lobby's slander would have been truly disheartening. And there's no question that the antics of the Emergency Committee for Israel (note: for Israel, not the U.S.), the Washington Free Beacon, Elliot Abrams, Ted Cruz, Jennifer Rubin, et al. ultimately did more harm to themselves than to Hagel. They revealed both their preference for innuendo over facts and their belief that support for Israel matters more than any other aspect of U.S. defense policy. As I've noted before, their behavior merely confirmed what some of us have been saying for a very long time, and they did so center-stage with the spotlight on. Very gratifying indeed.
But it would be a huge mistake to conclude that the lobby's clout has been broken and that Obama will now be free to chart a new course. For starters, the behavior of several senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee shows that they are still mightily beholden to groups like AIPAC and extremist Christian Zionists, not to mention some unrepentant neoconservatives. Chuck Hagel was about as bulletproof a candidate as one could ask for (decorated war hero, defense and intelligence expert, successful businessman, respected ex-senator, etc.) and that didn't stop these zealots from unloading the SIOP against him. The fact that they ultimately failed is important, but so is the fact that they could even make an issue of it. The lobby failed to stop Ronald Reagan from selling AWACs to Saudi Arabia in 1981, but they made him work really, really hard to get the deal through and he never took them on again.
One should also remember that Obama has basically been caving in to the lobby ever since 2009, which tells you something about its clout. It's true that he doesn't have to run for reelection again. But most of those Congressmen do, and they aren't going to back him up if he tries to play hardball with Netanyahu. The annual aid package to Israel will be approved like clockwork, which means Obama won't have many levers to use if he needs to push both sides toward a peace deal.
And that's why I previously argued that you aren't going to see a big Middle East peace push during the second term. Sure, Obama might let John Kerry see what he can accomplish. But Netanyahu will just stiff him, and Obama won't do anything about it. The Palestinians are still divided and too weak to negotiate a fair deal, and conditions throughout the region are hardly propitious for compromise. If Obama is looking for a legacy, in short, the Middle East is not the place to find it. And I suspect he knows that.
Which is not to say that there isn't good news here. The pro-peace, pro-two state lobby J Street's support for Hagel was vindicated, and that's likely to win them greater access going forward. (I mean, who really wants to be in the company of the smear artists who went after Hagel?) Hagel's confirmation and the lobby's defeat diminishes the push for war with Iran -- which is a good thing -- and might encourage the administration to formulate a negotiating strategy toward Tehran that has some prospect of success (as opposed to the dead-on-arrival offers we've been making so far). And it certainly doesn't hurt for politicians in Washington to be reminded that the lobby doesn't win every time.
But the bottom line is that no powerful interest group disappears after a single defeat. Even when a lobby doesn't get its way, it can gain a partial victory by making the winning side pay a price, and by reminding everyone that it can still make trouble. And that was the lobby's real strategy here. They probably knew that Hagel was likely to be confirmed, for the simple reason that he was a well-qualifed candidate whose patriotism was beyond question. Their aim instead was to deter future administration from nominating people who weren't lobby-certified, and to discourage ambitious young foreign policy professionals from doing or saying anything that might put the lobby's crosshairs on them.
In short, so long as opportunistic rabble-rousers like Ted Cruz believe that pandering to the lobby is the smart political play, Capitol Hill will remain supine, the executive branch will be constrained, and U.S. Middle East policy will be about as successful as its been for the last couple of decades.
AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON
If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.
This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.
As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation. States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you.
Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:
"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."
Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.
The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.
And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?
It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).
So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).
Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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Today is Hillary Rodham Clinton's last day as Secretary of State. She's been receiving mostly accolades for her service, including considerable praise from President Obama in a recent joint televised interview. But with the exception of the mean-spirited and highly partisan grilling she got from a congressional committee over Benghazi, most of the interviews I've seen have been pretty gentle affairs. I've sufficient respect for Secretary Clinton's talents and intellect that I'd like to see her take a swing at a few fastballs.
In that spirit, here are my Top Ten Tough Questions for Secretary Clinton:
#1. You have said that your "biggest regret" during your four years of service was the loss of four American lives during the Benghazi attack. It was a painful event, to be sure, and your regret is understandable, but aren't there many other events and decisions whose negative consequences were much greater? Shouldn't we be focusing more on the loss of American, NATO, and local lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or our inability to bring other conflicts to an end, and not on this one unhappy occurrence?
#2. You have been widely praised for your tireless travels, logging more miles than any Secretary of State in our nation's history. It's easy to understand why getting out of Washington, DC is so tempting, but is all that travel really necessary or desirable in an era when modern communications would allow you to speak face-to-face to virtually any world leader anytime you want? Videolinks would even permit you to give speeches and answer questions anywhere in the world, but without having to go there in person. Looking back, do you think you might have had more influence had you stayed home a bit more?
#3. You have been justly praised for being a great team player in this administration, something that many people did not anticipate when you were nominated. At the same time, the Obama White House and NSC has held the reins on a lot of key foreign policy issues. What foreign policy problems do you wish you had been given greater authority to handle on your own?
#4. As Secretary, one of your major initiatives was the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, eventually released in 2010. It created a bit of buzz when it was released, but it seems to have largely disappeared from the scene. What concrete and tangible impact has this report had on the conduct of American diplomacy or on specific policy initiatives in key areas?
#5. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama appointed "special envoys" to handle thorny foreign policy areas like Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and North Korea. One of these envoys was the late Richard Holbrooke, a close personal friend of yours. For various reasons, none of these special envoys seem to have accomplished very much. What lessons should we draw from this failed experiment? And did having all these independent operators diminish your authority and ability to craft an overall foreign policy strategy?
#6. U.S. military forces are now organized in various regional combatant commands, each under a designated regional "commander-in-chief" or CINC. These regional CINCs have a vast array of military, intelligence, and other assets at their disposal, and the resources they can bring to bear far exceed those of the State Department. For this reason, foreign governments often pay as much or more attention to the CINCs as they do to the U.S. ambassador, for the simple reason that the CinCs can do more for or against them. Here's my question: if you were an ambitious young person who wanted to make a mark on U.S. foreign policy, why go to a nice four-year college and then join the Foreign Service? Wouldn't it make more sense to go to West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs and try to become a senior military leader instead?
#7. One of your signature issues has been the advancement and empowerment of women, and your efforts on this issue have won you enormous praise both here in the United States and in many other countries. Given your strong convictions on this issue, are you sorry that you are being succeeded by a wealthy white male, that the Pentagon will also be led by another white male, and that there are hardly any women in top foreign policy jobs in Obama's second-term team? Did you ever raise this issue with the President, and if so, what did he say?
#8. You have made it clear that you strongly support former Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination as Secretary of Defense. What did you think of the Senate Armed Services' Committee grilling of him yesterday? Was it appropriate for them to talk incessantly about Israel, and to ignore most of the key problems that he will face as SecDef? Why do you think the Senators -- including your successor, Kirsten Gillibrand -- acted in this way, and what do you think foreign governments thought as they watched the circus?
#9. What is one aspect of world politics and America's global role that you believe most Americans do not understand? If you could magically change one thing that most Americans believe about the rest of the world and its relationship with us, what would it be?
#10. What do you regard as your single greatest achievement as Secretary of State? And if you could have one "do-over" -- apart from Benghazi -- what would it be?
Secretary Clinton is a seasoned pol by this point, and I'm sure she'd find a way to dodge some of those queries. But what if we put her on truth serum first...?
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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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Here's a little fantasy for you to ponder: what if one of our senior foreign policy officials accidentally swallowed some sodium pentothal (aka "truth serum") before some public hearing or press conference, and started speaking the truth about one of those issues where prevarication, political correctness, and obfuscation normally prevail? You know: what if they started saying in public all those things that they probably believe in private? What sorts of "inconvenient truths" might suddenly get revealed?
In that spirit, here's my Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit.
#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons." U.S. presidents have talked about disarmament since the beginning of the nuclear age. According to the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty, we're formally committed to "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." It has even become fashionable for retired foreign policy experts like George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger to call for eliminating nuclear weapons too (even though they would have strenuously opposed such actions while in office) and of course Barack Obama made some speeches about it early in his presidency. And now some folks are trying to make a big deal about Chuck Hagel's involvement with Global Zero, a respectable international campaign to get rid of nuclear weapons.
But let's get serious for a minute. Although the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile sharply since the end of the Cold War, it still has thousands either on active deployment or in reserve. Nobody in power is seriously advocating getting rid of all of them anytime soon, and even modest reductions (such as those stipulated by the most recent arms control treaty with Russia) are politically controversial. U.S. leaders have to pay lip service to the goal of total disarmament, and a few of them might privately favor it, but they understand that these weapons are the ultimate deterrent and that the United States isn't going to give them all up until it is confident that there is no conceivable scenario in which it might want them. Which means: not in my lifetime, or yours.
#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights." Presidents, diplomats, and other politicians talk about human rights all the time, and both Congress and the Executive Branch often bully small countries over their human rights performance, especially when we have other differences with them). But when human rights concerns conflict with other interests, our ethical concerns take a back seat nearly every time. Most Americans didn't care when the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqis (many of them children), and none of the senior officials who authorized torture during the Bush administration has faced indictment or even serious investigation (Just imagine how much we'd be howling if we suspected some foreign government had been waterboarding captive Americans!). The United States has plenty of allies whose human rights performance ranges from questionable to awful, and we continue to trade and invest in China despite its own lax human rights standards. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. government is totally indifferent to such concerns, of course; what I'm saying is that we are rarely willing to do very much or pay significant costs in order to advance human rights, unless our strategic interests run parallel. Like most countries, in short, we talk a better game on human rights than we actually deliver. But you're not going to hear many American politicians admit it.
#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution." For official Washington insiders, the politically-correct answer to any question about the Israel-Palestine conflict is that we favor a two-state solution based on negotiations between the two parties, preferably done under U.S. auspices. Never mind that there's not much support for creating a viable Palestinian state in Israel (surveys in Israel sometimes show slim majorities in favor of a 2SS, but support drops sharply when you spell out the details of what a viable state would mean). Never mind that the Palestinians are too weak and divided to negotiate properly, and the failure of the long Oslo process has diminished Fatah's legitimacy and strengthened the more hardline Hamas. Never mind that the latest Israeli election, while it weakened Netanyahu, did not strengthen the peace camp at all. And never mind that the United States has had twenty-plus years to pull of the deal and has blown it every time, mostly because it never acted like a genuine mediator. But nobody in official-dom is going to say this out loud, because they have no idea what U.S. policy would be once the 2SS was kaput.
#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can." Most U.S. leaders like to talk about global partnerships and the need to work with allies, and they try not to speak too glowingly about American dominance. But make no mistake: U.S. leaders have long recognized that being stronger than everyone else was desirable, and nobody ever runs for president vowing to "make America #2." That's why U.S. leaders have always been ambivalent about European unity: they want Europe to be sufficiently unified so that it doesn't become a source of trouble, but they don't want it to cohere into a super-state that might be powerful enough to stand up to Washington.
The problem, of course, is that openly proclaiming global primacy irritates other governments and makes them look for ways to keep Washington in check. That's why the first Bush administration had to disavow an early draft of the 1992 Defense Guidance; it was way too explicit in laying out these familiar aims. But dropping that draft didn't alter the ambition, and despite what you might think, neither Clinton, Bush Jr., or Obama has abandoned the basic goal of keeping the United States #1. Whether their policies advanced that goal is another question.
#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it." Everyone knows that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a failure since the early 1960s -- that's half a century, folks -- but it never changes because the stakes don't seem worth it and it would tick off a handful of influential people in Florida. Everyone knows the foreign policy side of the "war on drugs" has been no more successful than the anti-drug campaign here at home, but you didn't hear Kerry say that during his hearings last week and you won't hear Hagel (or anyone else) say that either. Everyone knows that most U.S. allies around the world have been free-riding for decades and taking advantage of our protection to pursue their own interests, but saying so out loud wouldn't be ... well, diplomatic. More and more insiders know that the Afghan war is a loser, but we're going to pretend it's a victory because that makes it getting out politically feasible. It's obvious that our basic approach to Iran's nuclear program has been misguided, and that we've spent the last two decades giving Iran more reasons to want a nuclear deterrent and digging ourselves into an deeper diplomatic hole. But don't expect officials to acknowledge that simple fact, and certainly not in public.
Like I said, this is just an idle fantasy. I don't really want to see what Kerry or Hagel or McDonough or Lew or others would be like on truth serum (though I sometimes wonder if somebody is slipping a smidge to Biden every now and then). But it is kinda fun to imagine what they might blurt out in an idle moment, especially if the normal inhibitions and constraints were removed. What would you expect them to say?
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I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.