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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Barack Obama has received lots of advice on what he should say in his second inaugural. Unlike some commentators, I hope he doesn't use it as an opportunity to articulate a new grand strategy. George Bush tried that approach, and his second inaugural was a grandiose embarrassment.
At his best, Obama has a rare ability to convey painful truths to the American people and help us consider them in a new light. That is what he did in his famous Philadelphia speech on race, and his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. In that spirit, here's my fantasy about what he might tell the American people tomorrow. It's high time they heard it.
My fellow Americans:
The United States is a country of great ideals -- of liberty, equality, opportunity, and democracy -- truths that our Founding Fathers held to be "self-evident." These principles have inspired us from the start, and given us standards by which to judge our achievements and to reveal where we have fallen short.
Yet there is another set of truths that has guided us no less than these principles, truths that we are usually reluctant to acknowledge, even to ourselves. It is those neglected but important realities that I shall speak of today.
In addition to being a country of lofty ideals, America is also a land whose best leaders have been imbued from the beginning with a deep sense of realism about the world in which we live and the ways we must make our way through it. America's best moments have come when our ideals were tempered by a clear sense of what was in America's national interest and what our capabilities would allow us to do. In those moments, we also understood what lay beyond our reach.
As realists, the Founding Fathers understood that men (and women) are not angels, so they labored to devise a political system that could serve the governed without turning into tyranny. Because they recognized the central role of power and the inevitable frailties of all human beings, they wisely devised a system of checks and balances that has helped safeguard our liberties for well over two centuries.
As realists, our early leaders understood that our fledgling Republic was unlikely to thrive if it was surrounded and beset by powerful rivals. So they set themselves the task of continental expansion and economic growth, and, at the same time, they committed our young nation to driving the European great powers from the Western hemisphere. Over the next century, the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny made the United States supreme among its immediate neighbors, transforming the 13 original colonies into the most secure great power in history. But let us never forget that these achievements were borne on the backs of the original inhabitants of this continent, and that America's rise to great power was accompanied by the sufferings of millions.
As realists, we Americans understand the dangers that would arise if other great powers came to dominate their regions of the world in the same way that the United States dominates the Western hemisphere. So our leaders took the United States into both World Wars, not just to defeat aggressive dictators but also to uphold the balance of power in Eurasia. And our greatest presidents understood that success in both war and peace sometimes requires painful compromises. Franklin Roosevelt had no illusions about the evils of communism, but he also knew that allying with the Soviet Union during World War II was necessary to defeat the greater evil of Nazi Germany. In his words, "to cross that bridge I would hold hands with the devil."
Realism also guided the United States to victory in the long Cold War. Instead of withdrawing from Europe and Asia when World War II was over, America forged alliances with key powers in both regions to contain the communist threat. Some of our partners did not share all of our ideals, but American leaders understood that these ideals would not long survive were the Soviet Union to prevail. At the same time, U.S. leaders understood that trying to roll back communism by force of arms was far too dangerous in a nuclear age, and that the best approach was to patiently wait for the Soviet empire to self-destruct.
Even today, as we strive to advance our core ideals both at home and abroad, we must be guided not only by our hopes and dreams, but also by a clear-eyed sense of what is necessary and a hard-headed recognition of what is possible. As realists, we now know that whole societies cannot be remade overnight, and especially not by military occupation. As realists, we understand that our ideals and our interests will sometimes conflict, and that sometimes we must do what we must rather than what we might wish. As realists, we understand that climate change is not a problem we can wish away, and that addressing it may require significant sacrifices. And as realists, we understand that states will be drawn to us if we are strong but not aggressive, and that they will distance themselves if we use our power unwisely and too often.
Realism also reminds us that our success as a nation is not measured by military power alone; because our military prowess depends on a strong economy and a loyal and well-educated population. Realists also know that states are as likely to err by exaggerating dangers they face as by paying them insufficient heed. We are neither stronger nor safer as a nation when we squander money on senseless wars or on unnecessary weapons, and when we forgo opportunities to resolve disputes with diplomacy.
Finally, realism reminds us that no country has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. We are justly proud of America's many achievements, but we must also be ready to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. Indeed, perhaps our greatest strength as a people has been our willingness to learn from the past, to discard outmoded or unjust beliefs and policies, and to move forward with alacrity and audacity.
Make no mistake: America is, and always has been, an exceptional nation. Our citizens have come here from every corner of the world, and America has woven men and women of every race, creed, and religion into a resilient whole cloth. Our power is unmatched and our potential for good is enormous. We have the capacity to build an even better America and to help forge a safer and more just world. But our success in pursuit of these grand goals will require much more than lofty visions and pious principles. It will also require us to pursue those goals with an abiding sense of humility, the humility that a realistic approach to life and politics teaches. If we follow that path, then we shall surely succeed.
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I was in Beijing earlier this week, attending a conference on Sino-American relations. The conference was jointly sponsored by Beijing University and Harvard, and featured a number of prominent Chinese and American academics (and a few former policymakers). Our Chinese hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the absence of clean air didn't prevent the other participants from making lots of interesting presentations. (For another summary of the proceedings, check out Alan Alexandroff's account here).
The panel on which I spoke was focused on how the United States and China could cooperate to enhance international security. I made five basic points and thought I'd pass them along to you.
1. Positive and Negative Forms of Security Cooperation. In theory (I argued), there are two broad forms that Sino-American security cooperation could take. The first type consists of positive acts of collaboration, such as counterterrorism measures or anti-piracy operations (as in the Gulf of Aden). One can also imagine more ambitious sorts of cooperation, as when the two states jointly approve U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. One could even imagine situations where China and the United States might join forces to halt some deep civil conflict, although that is obviously less likely.
The second type of security cooperation is essentially negative: Each side seeks to enhance its mutual security by limiting or restraining its activities in some important realm. Traditional arms control is an obvious example of this sort of cooperation, as was the U.S.-Soviet "Incidents at Sea" agreement. Sino-American agreement on a naval "code of conduct" or a ban on cyberattacks would be of this type as well.
In short, it is not hard to think of various ways that Washington and Beijing could cooperate to reduce the risk of international conflict. But is significant cooperation likely, and what factors might make it more or less probable?
2. Prospects for Cooperation. Unfortunately, the probability that two states will engage in significant acts of security cooperation -- and especially of the positive sort noted above -- is largely determined by the level of amity or trust between them. If they have generally positive relations, cooperation is fairly easy. If there is a lot of mutual suspicion, however, positive acts of cooperation will be hard to sustain because both sides may fear that the other is gaining some sort of advantage. Paradoxically: Security cooperation is easiest when it is least important and hardest when it would be most valuable. Welcome to the wonderful world of international relations!
3. Rival Grand Strategies. The main barrier to extensive Sino-American cooperation to enhance global security is the tension between their respective grand strategies. China's central strategic aim is to continue to grow economically, gradually acquire greater economic and military power, and eventually reduce or eliminate the U.S. security role in Asia. Not by conquest or force necessarily, but by co-opting or cowing neighboring states into distancing themselves from the United States. The reason is easy to fathom: Just as U.S. leaders wanted to expel the European great powers from the Western Hemisphere (see under: Monroe Doctrine), China's leaders believe they will be more secure in the long run if the United States does not have a large military presence near their borders and does not have close security ties with their neighbors.
The United States, by contrast, wants to stay in Asia in order to keep China from establishing a dominant position there. Since the U.S. became a great power, a core principle of its grand strategy was to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia. That's why the United States opposed Germany in World War I, fought Germany and Japan in World War II, and worked to contain the Soviet Union in the Cold War. If no single power dominates Europe or Asia, the states there will worry mostly about each other, and none are able to focus solely on the United States or do much to interfere over in the Western Hemisphere. Accordingly, the U.S. will want to stay in Asia, to backstop its allies there and prevent Beijing from dominating the region.
4. Will the U.S. and China Act with Restraint? If the United States and China each pursue their respective grand strategies energetically, conflicts of interest will be numerous and intense, and we will see lots of trouble down the road. In this sort of world, there won't be much security cooperation between the two sides, and there will be a very intense security competition in Asia itself, with each side trying to cultivate allies of its own and trying simultaneously to undermine the opposing coalition. But if the two states pursue their strategies in a restrained, even lazy, fashion, they'll find it easier to reach common ground on some issues and might even engage in positive acts of collaboration on occasion.
Alas, I don't think the latter outcome is likely. Restraint is not something the United States does very well, and the recent "pivot" to Asia is probably a harbinger of more to come. Fiscal constraints will put some limits on what the United States can do, but you can bet that the Pentagon sees a coming conflict with China as a major force driver and will push hard for an assertive approach and the preservation of our current "forward presence." Similarly, China's own level of restraint has declined as its relative power has grown, and Deng Xiaoping's strategy of the "peaceful rise" has been gradually giving way to a more assertive nationalism. If China's economic growth rate does not slow significantly, I wouldn't expect a lot of restraint on either side. (FWIW, I think a slowdown is nearly inevitable, which will create big problems for the Chinese leadership but might dampen tensions somewhat.)
5. Stability for the Long Term. Unfortunately, managing Sino-American relations over the long term will be even harder. If Chinese leaders are consistently smart, judicious, farsighted, clear-eyed, and wise, and if their American counterparts consistently exhibit similar qualities, then the two governments may be able to manage their future relations without serious trouble. But the history of both countries suggests that there is very little chance that these idyllic circumstances will prevail every year for the next several decades. Sooner or later, we are bound to get a cadre of foolish, impetuous, or incompetent leaders in one capital or the other, or maybe even both at the same time. If "wise leadership" is the prerequisite for managing Sino-American rivalry over the long haul, in short, history suggests one ought to worry. A lot.
The bottom line is that Washington and Beijing have an obvious interest in taking steps now that might make their relationship easier to manage in the future. In particular, establishing rules of the road for naval activity (similar to the earlier Incidents at Sea agreement) might reduce the danger of an unintended clash on the high seas. Reaching an understanding on the use of unmanned drones or cyberattacks would help too. Military-to-military contacts and other forms of elite exchange would be a good idea as well, so that elites in both societies know the people with whom they are dealing personally and are less likely to misread or misinterpret what they may do while in official positions. None of these steps makes rivalry disappear, but together they could help keep it from boiling over.
And that just might be the greatest contribution that these two states could make to international peace and security over the next 25 years.
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Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has the opportunity to make a principled stand in favor of reasoned discourse about American foreign policy. All he needs to do is insist that one of his employees -- senior fellow Elliott Abrams -- issue a public apology to Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel.
Why does Abrams owe Hagel a public apology? Not because he opposes Hagel's candidacy, which is his right. Rather, Abrams owes Hagel an apology because he falsely accused him of being an anti-Semite. The charge wasn't something Abrams just blurted out in an ill-considered moment: He first made the accusation in writing in the neoconservative journal the Weekly Standard (where accusing people of anti-Semitism is a well-developed practice) and then repeated it in an interview with National Public Radio.
As Ali Gharib of the Daily Beast and others have documented, these charges are baseless. Not only have prominent Israelis leapt to Hagel's defense against these smears, but so have important American Jewish leaders and some of Hagel's longtime Jewish friends from Nebraska. Abrams knows all this, of course, but that has not led him to retract his earlier calumnies against a distinguished public servant and decorated soldier.
Why does Haass need to take firm stand on this issue? Because making false accusations of anti-Semitism is an odious tactic that runs contrary to how one should behave in a great democracy like the United States. Not only have such smear tactics done great damage to innocent individuals' careers, but they also have a chilling effect on public debate about important foreign-policy issues. Promoting intelligent discourse about American foreign policy is the CFR's main raison d'être, which is why its leadership should not tolerate an employee who engages in this reprehensible behavior.
Given the long and tragic history of anti-Semitism, it is imperative that we remain on guard against it. Indeed, one can understand why some people err on the side of caution when questions about anti-Semitism are raised. But the assault on Hagel has nothing to do with protecting Jews from bigotry. On the contrary, it is a politically motivated smear campaign conducted by a small number of extremist neoconservatives who disagree with Hagel's views on foreign policy and are also trying to enforce the crumbling taboo against open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy, especially as it relates to Israel. To do this, Abrams and his allies have slandered Hagel with a hateful and false charge. In a fairer world, their campaign would have no impact on Hagel's reputation and instead discredit them.
Unfortunately, making false charges of anti-Semitism has become a risk-free activity that carries virtually no penalty and may even win the accuser support in some circles. Small wonder that hard-line defenders of Israel use this charge so promiscuously: They pay no price for doing so while their targets invariably pay dearly, even when the targets are innocent. So long as this is the case, why should anyone expect such slanders to stop?
Abrams is obviously free to oppose Hagel's nomination and to marshal legitimate arguments against his candidacy. And Haass -- who is a strong and vocal supporter of Hagel's candidacy -- should certainly not try to force anyone at the council to agree with him and support Hagel. But what Abrams should not be permitted to do under CFR's aegis is make unsubstantiated insinuations about Hagel's supposed "problem with Jews." That is the rankest form of McCarthyism and is antithetical to everything the council represents.
So as president of an organization that aims to foster open and respectful debate about foreign policy and improve America's standing in the world, Haass now has the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to make a stand for reasoned, rational discourse. To his credit, he has distanced himself and the council from Abrams's remarks, telling an interviewer that these insinuations of anti-Semitism were "over the line." But he needs to go further and tell Abrams to issue a public apology to Hagel. If Abrams refuses, Haass should fire him.
If Haass doesn't do that, he will have allowed Abrams's behavior to tarnish CFR's reputation, and he will have helped stymie open and honest debate about American foreign policy. Needless to say, that is exactly the opposite of what the president of the Council on Foreign Relations is supposed to be doing.
Richard Haass has made important contributions to U.S. foreign policy through his writings, his own public service, and his leadership at CFR. By doing the right thing now, he has the chance to make another one. And all Abrams has to do is admit he was wrong and say he is sorry.
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The war of words about the nomination of Chuck Hagel will undoubtedly continue for some time, even though his confirmation by the Senate looks overwhelmingly likely at this point. I'm standing by my earlier comments on the case, but here are a couple of additional thoughts on what it does and doesn't mean.
First, as I noted a week or so ago, I don't think Hagel's appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It's been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama's national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home. To the extent that he used the sword overseas, it was through limited, surgical means like special forces and drones and not big U.S. deployments. (The Afghan surge is the exception, of course, but I think Obama learned his lesson on that one).
That's the general approach he wanted Gates and Panetta to pursue, and that's the same strategy that he's chosen Hagel to continue. Given Hagel's basic world-view, experience, and savvy, he's an excellent choice. There won't be war with Iran, there will be defense cuts, and there will be an earnest effort to get allies in key areas to do more for the collective defense. There won't be a big push for Israel-Palestinian peace (too many obstacles, too many other things to do). Bottom line: the appointment of Hagel (and Kerry and Brennan) signals no big change in policy direction.
Second, the real question with the fight over Hagel is whether it is the beginning of a thaw in foreign policy discourse inside the American establishment. Until the Hagel case, ambitious foreign policy wannabes understood that one either had to be completely silent about the "special relationship" with Israel or one had to be an open and vocal supporter. The merest hint that you had independent thoughts on this matter would make you slightly suspect at best or provoke overt accusations that you were an anti-semite, effectively derailing any political ambitions you might have had. The result was an absurdly truncated debate in Washington, where one couldn't even talk about the role of the Israel lobby without getting smeared. Indeed, one couldn't even ask if unconditional U.S. support for Israel was in Israel's best interest, let alone America's, despite the growing evidence that its settlement policy was threatening its long-term future.
By making such ludicrous charges about Hagel, however, neoconservatives and other extremists made it clear just how nasty, factually ignorant, and narrow-minded they are, and how much they believed that the commitment to Israel ought to trump other foreign policy priorities. And it wasn't just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. The attacks on Hagel triggered a long-overdue reaction from a remarkably wide circle -- including many staunch defenders of Israel -- who were clearly disgusted by the smear tactics and aren't willing to quail before them anymore.
Furthemore, as Peter Beinart noted yesterday, Hagel's appointment might also dilute the perceived need for policy wonks to seem hawkish and bellicose even when skepticism about the use of force is called for. While no dove, Hagel has been intelligently critical of sending young men and women into harm's way without a clear strategy and compelling national interest. His appointment might open up foreign policy debate to a much wider range of views, instead of the narrow-minded bellicosity that has prevailed since 9/11 (if not before).
It's too soon to tell how far-reaching this shift might be. No doubt Hagel's opponents will try to make him express his undying fidelity to Israel during his hearings, in an effort to restore the previous political orthodoxy. But it's a losing cause, especially when Israel itself is about to elect the most right-wing government in its history and when Americans of many political stripes are beginning to understand that the "special relationship" may in fact have become a form of assisted suicide. For the record, I hope that's not the case. Avoiding it will require the United States to be able to speak more honestly on this entire subject, and I hope the Hagel affair opens the door to a far more open, fact-based, and smear-free debate on the entire subject of U.S. foreign and defense policy, including our perenially hamstrung approach to the greater Middle East.
Unrelated note: I will be traveling in Asia for the next eight days, and blogging will be hit-or-miss while I'm away. Next stop: Singapore.
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If you'd like to start 2013 by sinking your teeth into the debate on U.S. grand strategy, I recommend you start with two pieces in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Both are by good friends of mine, and together they nicely limn the contours of a useful debate on America's global role. It's also worth noting that there are realists on both sides of this particular exchange, which reminds us that agreement on fundamental principles doesn't necessarily yield agreement on policy conclusions.
The first piece is Barry Posen's "Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy," and the second is Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth's "Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement." (A longer version of the B, I & W argument can be found in the latest issue of International Security; Posen's argument is outlined at length in a forthcoming book.)
Dedicated readers of this blog know that I am largely in agreement with Posen's position, so I'm going to focus today on what I find lacking in B, I & W. Like all of their work, it's vigorously argued and the longer version is richly documented. But all those footnotes cannot save it from some serious weaknesses.
First, B, I, & W straw-man their target by lumping together a group of strategic thinkers whose differences are at least as significant as their points of agreement. The "proponents of retrenchment" that they criticize range from libertarian isolationists who want to bring virtually all US forces home to "offshore balancers" like Posen who support a robust but less extravagant defense budget and favor not isolationism but merely more limited forms of international engagement. Needless to say, there is a world of difference in these views (even if both are broadly in favor of doing less), and so many of B, I & W's broad-brush charges miss their mark.
Second, there is something deeply puzzling about B, I & W's devotion to what Ikenberry used to called "liberal hegemony," and what he and his co-authors now prefer to call "deep engagement." B, I & W argue that deep engagement has been America's grand strategy since World War II and they believe it was the optimal strategy for the bipolar Cold War, when the United States faced a global threat from a major great-power rival. Not only was the USSR a formidable military power, but it was also an ideological rival whose Marxist-Leninist principles once commanded millions of loyal followers around the world.
Here's the puzzle: the Soviet Union disappeared in 1992, and no rival of equal capacity has yet emerged. Yet somehow "deep engagement" is still the optimal strategy in these radically different geopolitical circumstances. It's possible that U.S. leaders in the late 1940s hit on the ideal grand strategy for any and all structural conditions, but it is surely odd that an event as significant as the Soviet collapse can have so few implications for how America deals with the other 190-plus countries around the globe.
Third, B, I, & W give "deep engagement" full credit for nearly all the good things that have occurred internationally since 1945 (great power peace, globalization, non-proliferation, expansion of trade, etc.), even though the direct connection between the strategy and these developments remains contested. More importantly, they absolve the strategy from most if not all of the negative developments that also took place during this period. They recognize the events like the Indochina War and the 2003 war in Iraq were costly blunders, but they regard them as deviations from "deep engagement" rather than as a likely consequence of a strategy that sees the entire world as of critical importance and the remaking of other societies along liberal lines as highly desirable if not strategically essential.
The problem, of course, is that U.S. leaders can only sell deep engagement by convincing Americans that the nation's security will be fatally compromised if they do not get busy managing the entire globe. Because the United States is in fact quite secure from direct attack and/or conquest, the only way to do that is by ceaseless threat-mongering, as has been done in the United States ever since the Truman Doctrine, the first Committee on the Present Danger and the alarmist rhetoric of NSC-68. Unfortunately, threat-mongering requires people in the national security establishment to exaggerate U.S. interests more-or-less constantly and to conjure up half-baked ideas like the domino theory to keep people nervous. And once a country has talked itself into a properly paranoid frame of mind, it inevitably stumbles into various quagmires, as the United States did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Again, such debacles are not deviations from "deep engagement"; they are a nearly inevitable consequence of it.
Fourth, B, I, & W largely ignore the issue of opportunity cost. Advocates of restraint like Posen (and myself) are not saying that the United States cannot afford to intervene in lots of overseas venues, they are saying that the United States would be better off with a smaller set of commitments and a more equitable division of labor between itself and its principal allies. If the United States were not spending more than more of the world combined on "deep engagement," it could invest more in infrastructure here at home, lower taxes, balance budgets more easily, provide more generous health or welfare benefits, or do whatever combination of the above the public embraced.
Fifth, B, I, & W argue that deep engagement works because hardly anybody is actively trying to balance American power. In their view, most of the world likes this strategy, and is eager for Washington to continue along the same path. On the one hand, this isn't that surprising: why shouldn't NATO countries or Japan prefer a world where they can spend 1-2% of GDP on defense while Uncle Sucker shoulders the main burden? More importantly, advocates of restraint believe doing somewhat less would encourage present allies to bear a fairer share of the burden, and also discourage some of them from adventurist behavior encouraged by excessive confidence in U.S. protection (which Posen terms "reckless driving"). If the U.S. played hard-to-get on occasion, it would discover that some of its allies would do more both to secure their own interests and to remain eligible for future U.S. help. Instead of bending over backwards to convince the rest of the world that the United States is 100 percent reliable, U.S. leaders should be encouraging other states to bend over backwards to convince us that they are worth supporting.
Moreover, even if most of the world isn't balancing U.S. power, the parts that are remain troublesome. For instance, "deep engagement" in the Middle East has produced some pretty vigorous balancing behavior, in the form of Iraq and Iran's nuclear programs, Tehran's support for groups such as Hezbollah, and the virulent anti-Americanism of Al Qaeda. Indeed, the more deeply engaged we became in the region (especially with the onset of "dual containment" following the first Gulf War), the more local resistance we faced. Ditto our "deep engagement" in Iraq and Afghanistan. And given that those two wars may have cost upwards of $3 trillion, it seems clear that at least a few people have "balanced" against the United States with a certain amount of success.
Sixth, reading B, I, & W, one would hardly know that the nuclear revolution had even occurred. Nuclear weapons are not very useful as instruments of coercion, but they do make their possessors largely unconquerable and thus reduce overall security requirements considerably. Because the United States has a second-strike capability sufficient to devastate any country foolish enough to attack us, the core security of the United States is not in serious question. The presence of nuclear weapons in the hands of eight other countries also makes a conventional great power war like World War I or World War II exceedingly unlikely. Yet despite this fundamental shift in the global strategic environment, B, I & W believe the United States must remain "deeply engaged" in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in order to prevent a replay of the first half of the 20th century.
To repeat: most of the strategists who reject "deep engagement/liberal hegemony" do not call for isolationism, a retreat to Fortress America, or a slash-and-burn approach to defense spending. On the contrary: they favor continued U.S. engagement, albeit in a more restrained, highly selective, and strategically sustainable way. They believe the United States should seek to maintain favorable balances of power in key regions, but that it does not need to provide all the military muscle itself and certainly should not try to dictate or control the political evolution of these areas with military force. They believe this approach would preserve core U.S. interests at an acceptable cost, and would be far better suited to the current distribution of global power.
"Deep engagement" might have been a good strategy for the Cold War, though even that proposition is debatable. But as you may have noticed, the Cold War is now over. Isn't it about time that U.S. grand strategy caught up with that fact?
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Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on the manufactured controversy about Senator Chuck Hagel's fitness for the post of secretary of defense. But I do encourage you to read the more recent comments by Andrew Sullivan, Robert Wright, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Avishai, all of whom make clear that Hagel is perfectly qualified for the position and that the people who are now trying to smear him deserve the same contempt with which former Senator Joseph McCarthy and other narrow-minded bullies are now viewed.
Three aspects of the affair do merit brief comment, however. First, I'm baffled by the Obama administration's handling of the whole business. What in God's name were they trying to accomplish by floating Hagel's name as the leading candidate without either a formal nomination or a vigorous defense? This lame-brained strategy gave Hagel's enemies in the Israel lobby time to rally their forces and turn what would have been a routine appointment into a cause célèbre. If Obama backs down to these smear artists now, he'll confirm the widespread suspicion that he's got no backbone and he'll lose clout both at home and abroad. If he goes ahead with the appointment (as he should), he'll have to spend a bit of political capital and it will be a distraction from other pressing issues. And all this could have been avoided had the White House just kept quiet until it was ready to announce its nominee. So whatever the outcome, this episode hardly reflects well on the political savvy of Obama's inner circle.
Second, let's not lose sight of what is at stake here. Contrary to what some suggest, the choice of SecDef isn't going to make any difference in U.S. policy toward Israel or the "peace process." Policy on those issues will be set by the White House and Congress, with AIPAC et al. breathing down both their necks. The Israeli government has no interest in a two-state solution, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to persuade Israel to rethink its present course, and the United States is incapable of mounting the sort of sustained pressure that might force both sides to compromise. Which means the two-state solution is dead, and it won't matter whether Hagel gets the nod or not. The $3-4 billion annual aid package won't be affected, and I'll bet the United States continues to wield its U.N. Security Council veto whenever it is asked.
This appointment could affect U.S. policy toward Iran, insofar as Hagel's been skeptical about the wisdom of using military force in the past. He's hardly a dove or an appeaser, of course; he just recognizes that military force may not be a very good way to deal with this problem. (Well, duh.) If Obama wants to pursue diplomacy instead of preventive war -- and he should -- the combination of Hagel at Defense and Kerry at State would give him two respected, articulate, and persuasive voices to help him make that case. But if Obama were to decide that force was a good idea, neither Kerry nor Hagel would stand in his way. So in terms of overall Middle East policy in the next couple of years, this appointment may matter less than most people think.
The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free. Given America's track record in the region in recent decades, you'd think a more open debate on U.S. policy would be just what the country needs, both for its own sake and for Israel's. But because the case for the current "special relationship" of unconditional support is so weak, the last thing that hardliners like Bill Kristol or Elliot Abrams want is an open debate on that subject. If Hagel gets appointed, it means other people in Washington might realize they could say what they really think without fear that their careers will be destroyed. And once that happens, who knows where it might lead? It might even lead to a Middle East policy that actually worked! We wouldn't want that now, would we?
At this point, if Obama picks someone other than Hagel, he won't just be sticking a knife in the back of a dedicated public servant who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Obama will also be sending an unmistakable signal to future politicians, to young foreign policy wonks eager to rise in the Establishment, and to anyone who might hope to get appointed to an important position after 2016. He will be telling them that they either have to remain completely silent on the subject of U.S. Middle East policy or mouth whatever talking points they get from AIPAC, the Weekly Standard, or the rest of the Israel lobby, even though it is palpably obvious that the policies these groups have defended for years have been a disaster for the United States and Israel alike.
Instead of having a robust and open discourse about U.S. Middle East policy inside official Washington, we will continue to have the current stilted, one-sided, and deeply dishonest discussion of our actions and interests in the region. And the long list of U.S. failures -- the Oslo process, the settlements, the Iraq War, the rise of al Qaeda, etc. -- will get longer still.
Over to you, Mr. President.
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I suppose I could be flattered that William Kristol is trying to use my endorsement to derail Senator Chuck Hagel's candidacy to be the next secretary of defense. But in fact I'm disgusted, because Kristol's predictable hatchet job depends on the false charge that my co-author John Mearsheimer and I are "Israel-haters." It is, to be blunt, a shameful lie. It is also a revealing glimpse into how Kristol thinks and operates.
Here's Kristol's problem: Hagel is a decorated Vietnam veteran who was wounded twice in the service of his country. Instead of helping cause wars from the sidelines like Bill does, Hagel fought with bravery on the battlefield. He's also a Republican with ample experience in national security and intelligence matters whose judgment President Obama respects. Hagel has been quite supportive of Israel throughout his public career, and his views on many Middle East topics are similar to those of prominent Israeli officials. But he hasn't been as slavishly devoted to Israel as fanatics like Kristol would like, and he's skeptical about the merits of a war with Iran (as are many Israeli experts). Hagel also said openly he "was a United States senator, not an Israeli senator," and that his primary responsibility is to serve the American national interest, not Israel's. This statement would disqualify him were he in the running to be Israel's minister of defense, but it is precisely what you'd expect a loyal American to say.
Well, if you're Bill Kristol and you can't find any legitimate grounds to oppose Hagel, what do you do? You smear him. You try to convince people that Hagel's perfectly sensible views are really a manifestation of some sort of hidden anti-Semitism. Since Hagel has never done or said anything to support such a vicious charge, you have to use the well-known McCarthyite tactic of guilt-by-association. How? Point out that yours truly blogged that his nomination would be a "smart move."
See how it works? Someone who has previously been falsely smeared as anti-Israel thinks Hagel would be a good choice, so Hagel must be a nasty piece of work too. Of course, the charges against me are equally baseless -- and I'll bet Kristol knows that quite well -- but factual accuracy is not his concern. The sad fact is that if someone displays the slightest degree of independent thought on the subject of U.S.-Israel relations, they'll get falsely smeared. And then if that person says anything favorable about anyone else, that statement will be used to smear the others too. The goal, of course, is to silence or marginalize anyone who doesn't fully support the current "special relationship" and prevent a full and open debate about its merits.
President Obama hasn't shown a lot of backbone on this issue in the past, and it's possible that Kristol and the other hardliners who are now spewing falsehoods about Hagel will get the White House to blink. It's also possible that Obama will prefer a less traditional defense and foreign policy team and will opt for somebody else for that reason. The rumors about Hagel may even have been a clever White House ploy to provoke Kristol and the other neocons into their usual frenzy, thereby exposing their monomania about Israel once again and discrediting future efforts to oppose a more sensible U.S. policy in the region.
But what this incident really reveals is how desperate Kristol & Co. are becoming. Having conceived, cheer-led, and then bungled the disastrous Iraq war, their credentials as foreign policy "experts" are forever tarnished. They've used the "anti-Semitism/Israel-hater" charge so often and so inaccurately that it is losing its power to silence or deter, and defending the "special relationship" will be more and more difficult as Israel drifts rightward and hopes for a two-state solution fade into oblivion.
These trends will force Kristol and those who share his views to use even more despicable tactics to defend an untenable status quo. So I wouldn't expect them to abandon the art of the smear anytime soon. At this point, what else have they got?
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A thought struck me as I was reading the obits of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Several accounts highlighted Brubeck's role as a cultural ambassador, through his participation in various goodwill tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. A number of other prominent jazz artists -- including luminaries like Louis Armstrong -- were featured in these tours, which were intended to show off the appealing sides of American culture in the context of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. This was a Bambi-meets-Godzilla competition, btw, with the Soviets in the role of Bambi. I like Shostakovich and respect the Bolshoi, but Soviet mass culture was outmatched when pitted against the likes of Satchmo.
But here's my question: why isn't the United States doing similar things today? The State Department still sponsors tours by U.S. artists -- go here for a bit more information -- but you hardly ever hear about them and it's not like we're sending "A-list" musicians out to display the vibrancy of American cultural life. Celebrities and musicians are more likely to do good will tours to entertain U.S. troops in places like Iraq, but the sort of tours that Brubeck and others did in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have become a minor endeavor at best.
The problem, I suspect, isn't a lack of interest in cultural diplomacy or even lack of funding. Instead, I think this is an consequence of globalization. Today, someone in Senegal or Indonesia who wants to hear American jazz (or hip-hop, or blues, or whatever) just needs an internet connection. The same is true in reverse, of course; I can download an extraordinary array of world music just sitting here in my study at home. And that goes for videos of performances too, whether we're talking music or dance or in some cases even theatre. Plus, top artists tour the world on their own in order to make money; they don't need to go as part of some official U.S. government sponsored tour. And given the unpopularity of U.S. foreign policy in some parts of the world, official sponsorship is probably the last thing some artists would want.
But there may some exceptions to that rule, in the sense that are a few countries where artistic exchanges might open things up in ways that diplomats cannot. Iran isn't likely to welcome Madonna, Christina Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake, perhaps, but have we thought about an artistic exchange with some slightly less edgy U.S. performers? If table tennis could help thaw relations with Mao's China, maybe jazz, acoustic blues, or even classical music could begin to break the ice with Tehran. Iran's has a large under-thirty population that is by all accounts hungry for greater access to world culture, so this sort of exchange would build good will with the populations that will be rising to positions of influence in the future. Plus, Iran has plenty of gifted performers who might find a ready audience here. And you can send a delegation of American musicians without violating UN sanctions or having to answer a lot of thorny questions about nuclear enrichment.
Update: In response to this post, Hishaam Aidi of Columbia University and the Open Society Institute sent me this piece, which takes a critical view of the State Department's more recent efforts to use hip-hop artists as a form of cultural outreach. Well worth reading, and my thanks to Hishaam for sending it to me.
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If you wanted a clear sense of just how intellectually bankrupt mainstream thinking on U.S. Middle East policy is, I invite you to check out Robert Satloff's latest missive here. His basic thesis is straightforward: The situation in the Middle East is getting worse -- big time. But the good news, you'll be pleased to hear, is that the United States has an obvious response: It should "strengthen ties with Israel." Whew! Problem solved.
First, it is hardly surprising that Satloff favors this course, because he works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and that organization -- which was spun out of AIPAC a couple of decades ago -- is a key part of the Israel lobby. It is impossible to imagine any circumstances under which a WINEP honcho would recommend reducing U.S. ties with Israel, or even using U.S. leverage to get Israel to alter its conduct in some way. At bottom, this piece is simply a crude attempt to exploit the current turmoil to reiterate the same old line.
Second, Satloff is saying the United States should continue the same course it has followed at least the past thirty years, even though this policy has cost billions of dollars, made the United States wildly unpopular in most of the region, contributed to its terrorism problem, and allowed Israel to continue building settlements, thereby facilitating the slow-motion suicide of a democratic Jewish state. He repeats the standard AIPAC talking point about Israel being a great strategic asset, but that canard has become less and less convincing over time. And let's not forget that Israel is itself a major source of instability in the region: launching wars against Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, against Gaza in 2008-2009 and 2012, and repeatedly threatening to attack Iran.
Finally, it is laughable to think that strengthening ties with Israel even more would alleviate current regional tensions or advance U.S. interests. To take but one example, Satloff says we should deny Hamas any sort of political victory and strengthen more moderate forces. Okay, but Israel's latest pummeling of Gaza did exactly the opposite and yet Obama backed them to the hilt. But you didn't hear Satloff calling for Israel to stop or recommending that the United States distance itself from Netanyahu's latest war.
To be clear: Israel is not the reason there is violence in Syria or political turmoil in Egypt or elsewhere. Nonetheless, doubling down on the "special relationship" isn't going to alleviate those problems or give the United States more influence in any of these turbulent places. In fact, when the United States votes against the U.N. resolution on Palestinian statehood and turns a blind eye to the daily abuses of Palestinian rights, we look hypocritical in the eyes of the world and our influence declines even more. When Israel announces a new round of settlements and the United States says it is opposed but does absolutely nothing, Washington looks feckless and incompetent. How is that good for the United States?
In short, Satloff's prescription isn't in America's interests. It's not even in Israel's interest, although he probably thinks it is. But as long as this sort of thinking is the default condition in D.C., don't expect anything to change for the better.
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A frequent topic here has been America's position in the world and its future prospects. Today, my colleague Ali Wyne weighs in with his own upbeat take on why Americans should be fairly optimistic heading into 2013:
Ali Wyne writes:
With just over a month to go before New Year’s Day, Americans are divided. Following President Obama’s reelection on November 6th, USA Today that a “changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday -- not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago.” A Gallup poll taken shortly after the election found that while 94 percent of Democrats think that the United States will be better off four years from now (vs. just 4 percent who think that it will be worse off), only 11 percent of Republicans think so (86 percent think that it will be worse off). Some who belong to the 86 percent appear to be not just dispirited, but appalled: notable reactions include “America died,” “[w]hat happened on Nov. 6th was suicide by voter,” and “on November 6, 2012, America elected to end modern civilization.”
But leaving aside the partisan divides that are inevitably highlighted in the run-up to and aftermath of an election, Americans on the whole appear to be more pessimistic than usual about their country’s domestic condition and global role. to a mid-2012 poll by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, for example, 66 percent think that the U.S. economy is on the wrong track, and 63 percent think that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. Furthermore, several polls indicate that Americans regard the United States as a declining power. I cited some of them in an article for Zócalo Public Square this April, and corroborating ones have been conducted since then. According to a mid-2012 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, only 24 percent of Americans think that the United States “plays a more important and powerful role” “as a world leader” today than it did ten years ago; 43 percent think that its role is “less important and powerful.” In 2002, those figures were, respectively, 55 percent and 17 percent. Furthermore, whereas Americans judged the United States to be considerably more influential than China a decade earlier (9.1 vs. 6.8 on a ten-point scale), they predict that the two countries’ influence will essentially be equal ten years hence (8.1 vs. 7.8).
Despite feeling the blues, Americans of all stripes can still find reasons to give thanks as they celebrate the holidays and look forward to 2013.
First, the United States has endured far more trying times, dating back to its inception. As historians including David McCullough and John Ferling have documented, America’s victory in its war of independence was far from certain; in fact, in his farewell address to the Continental army in 1783, George Washington himself called it “little short of a standing miracle.” Furthermore, the United States bounced back -- indeed, emerged stronger -- after many events that may well have been judged fatal to its prospects for global leadership by the standards of some contemporary declinists: the Civil War, World War I, and the Great Depression come to mind readily.
Second, America’s economic picture is not entirely bleak. True, four years after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent, and growth continues to sputter along at less than 1.5 percent per year. More alarming, the debt is over $16 trillion and growing rapidly. On the other side of the ledger, however, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) -- at $14.83 trillion -- accounted for a little over one-fifth of gross world product (GWP) last year. As of the second quarter of this year, 62 percent of the world’s allocated foreign-exchange reserves were dollar-denominated. According to QS, 31 of the world’s top 100 universities are in the United States; furthermore, the Institute for International Education found that there were a record 764,495 international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2011-12 academic year, marking the sixth consecutive year that that figure has increased.
Looking forward, there are reasons to be upbeat, even bullish, about the U.S. economy. Its demographic outlook, for example, continues to be favorable; thus, it is expected to remain the world’s third most populous country in 2050, after India and China. Furthermore, rapidly growing indigenous supplies of tight oil and shale gas could enable the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign energy and potentially even create new bases of employment in its energy sector; according to the International Energy Agency, it could become “all but [energy] self-sufficient in net terms by 2035” and become “a net oil exporter by around 2030.” Further down the pike, breakthroughs in a host of fields -- ranging from digital fabrication to “big data” -- could inject new dynamism into the U.S. economy; citing its recent strides in telecommunications and energy, John Gapper observes that despite its “economic problems” and “worries about its comparative decline,” the United States is using its “amazing, enduring capacity to reinvent itself through technology.” The existence of such opportunities -- in demographics, energy, and innovation -- does not, of course, entail the promise of their realization; it does, however, suggest that the current unemployment-growth-debt triad need not become a “new normal.”
Third, America’s relative decline is not as concerning as it might appear at first glance. It largely stems, after all, from actions that it has taken (many of which it can avoid repeating, such as conducting another large-scale ground war), actions that it has not taken (many of which it can still take, such as reaching a budget deal along the lines of what the Simpson-Bowles commission and numerous other task forces have proposed), and the growth of other countries (a phenomenon that benefits the United States, as Europe and Asia’s postwar recoveries benefited it over a half century earlier). Relative decline, furthermore, does not nullify its mixture of hard and soft assets. The United States remains the only country that can project military power globally. Less discussed, it continues to underpin -- albeit under growing duress -- a liberal international order. While the rules and arrangements that form that system are evolving, the system itself does not yet face a coherent alternative -- in part because many countries that bristle at its reach nonetheless continue to benefit from it. China, America’s putative superpower replacement, is perhaps the most compelling example. It welcomes U.S. decline, but wants that phenomenon to occur gradually, not rapidly. In the interim, in fact, as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil grows, it will likely become more dependent on stable and open global commons, which U.S. military power plays an important role in preserving.
If one believes that the United States was once able to dominate the course of international affairs, and evaluates its role in the world according to its ability to continue doing so, then it has indeed been declining -- absolutely and precipitously. In reality, while shocks (such as the global financial crisis) and surprises (such as the “Arab Spring”) may play a growing role in determining U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never been able to exercise hegemony. Even after World War II, despite accounting for over a third of GWP and having “an overwhelming preponderance in nuclear weapons,” Joseph Nye observes that it “was unable to prevent the ‘loss’ of China, ‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.”
There is no question that the Obama administration will confront a daunting foreign-policy inbox come January 20, 2013, arguably one of unprecedented complexity: a partial inventory of its imperatives would include stabilizing America’s relationship with China, whose GDP is likely to be the world’s largest within the decade, and whose defense spending could conceivably be the world’s largest before the middle of the century; helping the European Union stay afloat; responding to the changing strategic contours of the Middle East and North Africa; and reinforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It would be simplistic, however, to adduce difficulty in dealing with a challenging world as evidence that the United States is a declining, even impotent, actor. As Stephen Walt argues,
[i]f all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy….[Americans should] be grateful for the country’s good fortune….most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary…That’s another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do.
If overestimating one’s influence and minimizing the urgency of one’s challenges can sow hubris, underestimating the former and minimizing one’s ability to respond to the latter can produce distress. Rather than fretting over the prospect of decline, Americans should strategize about how their country can adjust to the power shifts that are afoot -- and be thankful that the United States is better equipped than most to do so.
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Now that the dust has settled in Gaza, permit me a brief comment on the way the conflict was covered here in the United States. I normally leave media commentary to people like Glenn Greenwald, Brad DeLong, or Jon Stewart, who do a terrific job of puncturing the foibles of mainstream reporting and commentary. But occasionally an article strikes me as so symptomatic of What's Wrong with American Journalism that I can't resist a few words of my own.
Case in point: Helene Cooper and Mark Landler's New York Times article from a few days ago. The title of the piece was "Obama, Showing Support for Israel, Gains New Leverage Over Netanyahu," and the article suggested that the combination of Obama's reelection, Netanyahu's support for Romney during the campaign, the Gaza fighting, and the upcoming Israeli election would suddenly give Obama a lot of new-found influence over the Israeli leader.
There were two fundamental problems with this piece. The first is that it is almost certainly wrong. Netanyahu is going to get re-elected anyway, so he hardly needs to curry favor with Obama. In fact, quarreling with Obama has increased Netanyahu's popularity in the past, so where's the alleged leverage going to come from? Over the past four years, Obama has backed Israel over the Goldstone Report, the attack on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara, and the Palestinian statehood resolution at the UN. He's also stopped trying to get Israel to halt settlement building. Obama was already re-elected when the latest round of fighting broke out, yet the administration reflexively defended Israel's right to pummel Gaza as much as it wanted. If you're looking for signs of new-found leverage, in short, they're mighty hard to detect.
Do Cooper and Landler think Netanyahu will be so grateful for all this support that he'll suddenly abandon his life-long dream of Greater Israel? Or do they think Obama will be so empowered by re-election that he'll put the rest of his agenda on the back-burner and devote months or years of effort to the elusive grail of Israeli-Palestinian peace? After pandering to the Israel lobby throughout the 2012 election, does Obama now think it is irrelevant to his political calculations? Hardly. We might see another half-hearted effort at pointless peace processing (akin to the Bush administration's token gesture at Annapolis), but who really believes Obama will be able to get Netanyahu to make the concessions necessary to achieve a genuine two-state solution, especially given all the other obstacles to progress that now exist?
The second problem with the article were the sources on which Cooper and Landler relied. The article quotes four people: Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, and Robert Malley. All four are former U.S. officials with long experience working on U.S. Middle East policy, and mainstream reporters like Cooper and Landler consult them all the time. There are some differences among the four, but all share a powerful attachment to Israel and both Ross and Indyk have worked for key organizations in the Israel lobby. All four men have been closely connected to the post-Oslo "peace process," which is another way of saying that they have a lengthy track record of failure. I know Washington is a pretty incestuous hothouse, but are these really the only names that Cooper and Landler have in their smart phones?
I've no objection to Cooper and Landler getting quotations from Miller, Indyk, Ross, or Malley, of course, but Americans would be far better informed if reporters from the Times got outside the familiar Beltway bubble on occasion. So as a public service, here's a list of some other people that Cooper, Landler and their associates could call when they're looking for fresh thinking on this very old topic.
1. Yousef Munayyer, The Jerusalem Center
2. Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies
3. Noam Sheizaf, +972 Magazine, Israel.
4. Matt Duss, Center for American Progress
5. Mitchell Plitnick (formerly Jewish Voice for Peace and B'tselem)
6. Jerome Slater, SUNY-Buffalo
7. Sanam Anderlini, International Civil Society Action Network & MIT.
8. Charles Manekin, University of Maryland/The Magnes Zionist
9. Sara Roy, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University
10. M.J. Rosenberg (formerly AIPAC, congressional staff, and
Media Matters for America).
11. Henry Siegman US/Middle East Project and University of London
I could go on, but at least that's a start. And if reporters need some former U.S. government officials to make the story sound authoritative, why not try Chas Freeman of the Middle East Policy Council or William Quandt at the University of Virginia?
My point is not that any of the above names have a monopoly on wisdom or truth; it's just that they are less likely to rehash the same-old, same-old thinking that has kept U.S. Middle East policy stuck on the hamster-wheel for the past two decades or more.
Should Susan Rice be America's next secretary of state? That's not my decision, of course, and it's not yours either, unless you happen to be President Obama or a member of the Senate. But I think the recent debate on her possible nomination has missed the real issue.
Thus far, the debate has focused almost entirely on Rice's appearances on five Sunday talk shows back on September 16, where she offered a vigorous defense of the administration's handling of the Benghazi incident. Although some of her statements turned out to be inaccurate, it is now clear that she was dutifully repeating the talking points that she had been given. No scandal there; that's what loyal subordinates do.
The harshest thing one might say about Rice's performance in these shows is that she might have hedged or qualified her remarks more than she did. Even so, she did say -- repeatedly -- that her comments were based on the "best information" available at the time, and she made it clear that the investigation into these events was still proceeding and that a "definitive" account was not yet ready. But the overall impression she left was one of certainty rather than doubt, and this left her at least somewhat vulnerable to the (false) charge that she had misled her interviewers and the viewing public.
So the Benghazi business offers no basis to oppose Rice's appointment, and even a critic like Sen. Lindsay Graham now seems to agree. My concern is rather different: I fear that unlike Hillary Clinton, Rice is too much of an Obama insider and too dependent on the president's patronage to be an ideal Secretary of State. As a result, her appointment will reinforce the growing lack of intellectual diversity within the administration.
Recall that when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, she had been First Lady for eight years, a U.S. Senator, and a presidential candidate who came close to winning her party's nomination. She had independent stature of her own, which is why Obama had to accommodate a number of her personnel requests in order to get her to take the job. And some of those appointments involved people with strong personalities and policy views of their own. Moreover, although Clinton proved to be a terrific team player, her independent stature allowed her to speak freely and enhanced her policy clout. Obama could never entirely ignore Clinton's views, because she could go public with her disagreements or even threaten to resign if she were adamantly opposed to a particular initiative. That she never did so (as far as we know) shows that Obama understood this situation from the very beginning.
Rice, by contrast, has no independent power base. She did serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Clinton administration (to no great distinction), but signed up early with Obama and was a key foreign policy advisor during the 2008 campaign. She obviously has Obama's confidence, but her current ascendancy depends solely on the president's backing. Maintaining his personal support will be critical to her effectiveness, which makes her much less likely to tell him things he doesn't want to hear or that cut against the thrust of existing policy. Although Rice has the reputation of being a forceful advocate with sharp elbows, her relationship to the president runs the risk of making her more of a courtier than a counselor. And if she stumbles, Obama will be blamed for having pushed her appointment in the face of skeptics.
To be sure, an administration at war with itself wouldn't be very effective, and one could argue that a unified team will do a better job than one where there's lots of backbiting. It's a question of balance, and my sense is that the administration's world-view is getting narrower over time. Realists like Robert Gates have been gone for some time, and Clinton will be gone soon. James Jones left the NSC years ago, and independent thinkers like the late Richard Holbrooke are no longer with us. Instead of vigorous and creative debate and a willingness to rethink past decisions or priorities, we're likely to get groupthink and a tendency to circle the wagons and defend past decisions (just as Rice did on those TV shows).
The narrowing of world-views is a familiar second-term phenomenon, as the first team leaves the stage and the survivors are those who have managed to adapt themselves to the emerging policy consensus and maintain their standing with the president himself. Instead of the "team of rivals" that people saw at the beginning of his presidency, what we have instead is a cocoon of confidantes. The only thing that might introduce some fresh foreign policy thinking into the Obama White House is a forceful set of Cabinet officials with their own power bases, but that's not what Rice is likely to provide at State. Obama already knows what she thinks, after all.
If Obama does nominate her and I were a Senator, however, I'd vote to confirm. Not with great enthusiasm or with high expectations, but there's nothing in the record to warrant rejection. And who knows? Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.
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Has AIPAC lost its mojo? Does Obama's reelection prove that the Israel lobby is getting weaker, and that he can return to Middle East peacemaking with new confidence and resolve? It's no secret that Obama has a frosty relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, fueling GOP hopes that Israel would be a wedge issue that would attract lots of Jewish voters and donors. At least one prominent hardline Zionist, Sheldon Adelson, spent tens of millions of dollars trying to buy the election for Romney, and he got bupkis for all that cash. So now that Obama's got a second term, will he blithely ignore AIPAC et al and pursue an even-handed approach to the Middle East peace process?
Don't bet on it. For starters, the election didn't show that the traditional "status quo lobby" was substantially weaker. Why? Because Obama caved to these groups a long time ago, and there was hardly any daylight between him and Romney on this issue. As the Obama campaign repeatedly emphasized, they had been extraordinarily supportive of Israel from Day One: providing increased levels of military aid, expanding various forms of security cooperation (including joint operations against Iran), and providing diplomatic cover in the United Nations and elsewhere. Obama dropped his early insistence on a settlement freeze and eventually gave up on the peace process. The only thing that Netanyahu didn't get from Obama was a war against Iran, and plenty of top Israeli officials didn't think that was a very good idea either. Given that there wasn't much difference between Obama and Romney on Israel, therefore, American Jewry stuck with its long-standing liberal preferences and voted overwhelmingly for Obama and the Democrats.
But the election is over, and the second term beckons. Won't Obama be tempted to secure a legacy as a peacemaker (remember that Nobel Prize?), and go back to his original vision of "two states for two peoples?" I don't think so. Conditions in the region aren't propitious: Israel continues to drift rightward, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to be reelected, and the tumult of the Arab spring is bound to make everyone more cautious (and with good reason). The Palestinian Authority is less and less popular, and even if he wanted to, Mahmoud Abbas could never persuade his followers to accept the one-sided Bantustan arrangement that is Netanyahu's idea of a "Palestinian state." Obama doesn't have to run for re-election again but Congressional Dems do, and they'll put the same pressure on him in 2014 that they did in 2010 if he tries to force Netanyahu to abandon his vision of "greater Israel." The bottom line: No U.S. pressure on Israel, and thus no chance for a deal.
If you're Barack Obama, in short, this just doesn't look like a smart place to invest a lot of time, effort, and political capital. Plus, my hunch is that he's going to try to secure his legacy by "nation-building" here at home, not by pursuing the elusive grail of Middle East peace. For that matter, if he decides to spend any political capital in that part of the world, it will be on Iran, not Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, Congress will reflexively vote the aid package and sign whatever goofy letters and resolutions that AIPAC dreams up. Politicians and policy wonks will continue to pay homage to the "special relationship," lest they come under fire from the lobby and its various watchdogs and smear artists.
Which is not to say that nothing has changed, as Steve Rosen argues here. Public discourse on this topic is more open than it used to be, some journalists have become largely immune to intimidation, and the role of the lobby in stifling peace efforts and promoting a military approach to Iran is now plain for all to see. J Street has been more equivocal than some of us might have hoped, but it can take some pride in helping escort Islamophobes from office and getting some pro-peace candidates elected. Writers like Peter Beinart have bravely spoken truth to those with closed minds and closed eyes, and even some stalwart defenders of Israel seem increasingly troubled by where it's headed.
But I don't see a sea-change; at least not yet. AIPAC and its allies don't get everything they want, of course, but they can still put real limits on what the president and his advisors are willing to try. We still have not reached the point where politicians are willing to openly acknowledge that a normal relationship would be better for both countries than the current special relationship of unconditional U.S. support. You didn't hear Obama, Romney, or any other major candidate say anything like that in 2012, which tells you that fear of the lobby remains a potent political force. That's not good for us, but it's even worse for Israelis and Palestinians. Which is why I'd be delighted if the next four years proves me wrong.
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Now that the election is over we can get back to thinking about the future, and that includes thinking about China under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a provocative piece suggesting that Xi's close ties with the Chinese military will make him a "force to contend with." The article also quoted a a Chinese academic, Jin Canrong, saying that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power. In his words: "China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China." U.S. elites won't like it, he says, but "they will have to accept it."
Well, count me as one member of the U.S. elite that would like to see China shoulder more burdens (emphasis on that last word). Instead of focusing lots of effort on confronting China directly, a smarter strategy would be to saddle China with the same sort of burdens that U.S. elites have so eagerly taken on in recent years. How about letting Bejing try to fix Afghanistan, or encouraging them handle a post-Assad mess in Syria? Or perhaps China can show its diplomatic mettle by dealing with the Somali pirates, global narcotics traffickers, and the recurring crises in Sudan. Not to mention North Korea.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should helping China gain lots of influence in places that are of vital strategic importance, though we ought to recognize that we won't be able to prevent China from gaining influence as its power rises. Rather, I'm saying that smart great powers pass the buck to others when they can (including their allies) and try to maneuver potential adversaries into taking on costly burdens that bring few benefits. During the Cold War, the U.S. wisely invested in rebuilding and protecting the industrial areas of Europe and Japan, and wisely forged close ties with a number of Persian Gulf oil producers. It erred by squandering resources on a lot of minor conflicts in the developing world; fortunately for Americans, the Soviet Union followed suit and wasted money it didn't have on its own feckless clients and profitless quagmires (e.g., Afghanistan).
The lesson for today is obvious: the outcome of a future Sino-American rivalry will be partly based on which country manages its economy best (because that it is the ultimate source of national power). It will also depend on which state can elicit useful support from other important countries. But it will also be affected by which nation gets stuck defending allies that aren't worth much and which one gets bogged down trying to solve intractable and costly problems in places that ultimately don't matter very much in geopolitical terms. Winning the competition to stick others with costly burdens requires more brains than brawn, and a capacity to spot a quagmire before you're in it. The United States used to be pretty good at that, and it's a skill we would do well to rediscover in the years ahead.
HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
Today we're all obsessed with -- and exhausted by -- the U.S. election. There's a lot wrong with America's political institutions -- starting with the absurd Electoral College -- but right up there with the EC is the ridiculous length of the campaign season itself. No other modern democracy spends at least twenty-five percent of a presidential term determining who the next president will be, and this feature both inflates the cost of elections (thereby increasing the clout of well-heeled donors and lobbies) and distracts us all from the broader issues of the moment. All that's keeping us going now is the knowledge that it will soon be over.
Unlike my FP colleague Dan Drezner, I'm not going to offer a lengthy election endorsement. If you've been reading this blog and can't tell who I'm voting for, you haven't been paying attention. I've been disappointed by some of Obama's foreign policy decisions -- most notably his caving on the Middle East peace process and his decision to escalate in Afghanistan -- but I didn't expect a lot of dramatic foreign policy successes during the first term anyway. Unlike Dan (and Rosa Brooks), I don't think a better process would have made that much difference: Once you had populated the administration with the usual Democratic party wonks, you were going to get the usual post-Clintonian Democratic party foreign policy. Not realism, in other words, but good old-fashioned liberal interventionism suitably sobered by the Iraq debacle and the financial crisis. Obama has scored some limited successes, has avoided big disasters (like an attack on Iran) and has for the most part dealt with friends and foes in a sensible way. In the absence of a better alternative -- and such an alternative is clearly absent -- he gets my vote.
What makes it easy is looking at the other side. The Romney campaign's critique of Obama's foreign policy is about as factually accurate as its fairy budget proposals. It's also schizophrenic: The Romney campaign wants you to think Obama has been too hard on our allies and too easy on our foes, yet in the third debate Romney agreed with almost all of Obama's policies. Moreover, his campaign's reliance on a bunch of neoconservative retreads tells you he's either craven or a bad judge of talent, and neither is an especially appealing quality for a future leader. If you're still undecided, all you need to do is contrast Obama's pitch-perfect foreign tour in 2008 with the gaffe and pander-filled Romney tour last summer. On foreign policy grounds, therefore, this decision is a no-brainer.
Is it too early to talk about the foreign policy and national security agenda that will face the next president? No matter who wins on November 6, the feature that is going to dominate U.S. national security planning over the next four years is constraint. Even if we avoid going off the sequestration cliff, there is going to be considerable pressure on the defense budget. Forget all those promises that Romney made about ramping up defense spending, expanding the Navy, etc. If he does beat Obama and has to face reality (as opposed to his Etch-a-Sketch approach to campaigning) he'll figure out that budget math is real and unforgiving. And given the budget picture these days, that means limits.
Of course, foreign policy and national security tends to produce a lot of surprises; it's probably the least predictable part of a president's agenda. Remember that George W. Bush was totally blindsided by 9/11, an event that shaped almost everything he subsequently did in foreign and defense policy. Barack Obama didn't see the Arab spring coming, yet he's had to devote a lot of time and attention to figuring out what to do (or not to do) in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. No list of agenda items will cover all the possible topics, and it's a safe bet the next president will get to deal with something that hardly anybody anticipated.
That said, what do I see as some obvious items that the next president will have to address? Obviously, he'll have to manage the withdrawal from Afghanistan, keep relations with China on an even keel, cultivate reasonable ties with Mexico and other neighbors in the western hemisphere, and hope that the Eurozone mess doesn't get worse. But here's my list of the items that might take up even more of his time.
#1: Managing America's Asian Alliances
No matter how much you hear about the importance of cooperating with China, a serious rivalry is almost inevitable. I don't expect a shooting war -- and certainly not in the next four years -- instead, the key element of that rivalry will be a competition for influence in Asia. The United States is already trying to shore up ties with Japan, Korea, India, and various Southeast Asian nations, and China is going to try to limit with this process where it can.
As I've noted before, leading this alliance is going to be much harder than managing NATO was during the Cold War. The geographic distances are much larger, which makes it easier for allies to shirk responsibilities when trouble occurs a long ways away. Relations among some of our Asian partners aren't that good, as the collapse of a South Korean-Japanese agreement on intelligence sharing earlier this year illustrated. Furthermore, our NATO partners had minimal economic ties to the former Soviet Union, while our Asian allies are tightly linked to China's economy and are going to want to keep those ties intact if they can. We can also expect big debates on burden-sharing: the United States will want the allies to bear as much of the burden as possible, while they will want to keep free-riding as much as they have in the past.
In short, maintaining a secure position in Asia will require a lot of expertise and adroit diplomacy, which is not always America's long suit. The next president will need a good team, and will have to devote some of his own time, attention, and political capital to the problem.
#2: Dealing with the Arab Spring.
The Arab world is in midst of vast and unpredictable upheaval, which is likely to produce governments that are more responsive to popular sentiment than their predecessors were. They may not be perfect democracies, but rulers will worry a lot more about popular opinion than their predecessors did. But this process will take time -- measured in years, not months. As we've already seen in Libya and Syria, these events raise vexing national security questions for the United States. Are these events an opportunity to diminish Iran's influence, strike a blow for democracy, and further marginalize anti-American forces? Or is the collapse of the old order undermining traditional U.S. friends and allowing anti-American sentiment (and Islamic extremists) a greater voice in the region's politics? What if Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Kurds get drawn into the vortex?
Given what is already occurring, Obama or Romney will have to spend a lot of time worrying about this part of the world. But as Obama has already discovered (and Romney would quickly learn) they won't have a lot of leverage over these events, and not a lot of appealing policy options. What they'll have instead is a serious headache.
#3: Beyond the Two-State Solution.
The next president may also have to face up to the fact that there isn't going to be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and begin to think seriously about what an alternative U.S. policy should be. Obama has already learned that trying to pursue the 2SS is "just really hard," and Romney famously told a group of fat cat GOP donors that he didn't think that goal was achievable.
I've always seen the 2SS as the best outcome given where we were, but it is no longer realistic to expect it to happen. The Israeli right has no interest in it, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to put meaningful pressure on them, and the United States is too compromised by the Israel lobby to be an effective mediator. The "two-state solution" has become a fig leaf for politicians to hide behind, while realities on the ground make it less and less likely by the day.
But sooner or later, it will be obvious to everyone that it simply isn't going to happen. As I've argued before, that epiphany raises all sorts of awkward questions: In particular, what outcome should a liberal democracy like the United States favor if "two states for two peoples" is impossible? Do we abandon our commitment to "one person, one vote" and endorse permanent apartheid? Do we abandon our deep commitment to a Jewish state and support a one-state democracy for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine? Or do we quietly encourage ethnic cleansing?
No matter who the next president is, I'm sure they will try to avoid those awkward questions for as long as they can. But they may not be able to do so forever without looking like they are living in fantasyland.
#4: Living with a Nuclear-Capable Iran:
No matter who wins, I suspect we'll see a new push for some sort of diplomatic deal with Iran. It's been reported (and denied) that Obama intends to do this after the election, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Romney administration made at least a gesture in this direction. But my guess that the United States is going to gradually adjust itself to a nuclear-capable (but not nuclear armed) Iran.
Here's why. I don't think Iran will cross any overt "red lines" in the next four years, meaning that it isn't going to try to fabricate or test a nuclear weapon or start enriching uranium to 90%. They won't do this because that is the one step that might trigger a U.S. attack. Absent such a move by Iran, I don't think either Israel or the United States will conduct a preventive strike. Israel doesn't have the capability to conduct a strategically meaningful attack, and most of the U.S. national security establishment thinks an attack would be foolish. I can't rule out war, however, because countries sometimes do stupid things and there are prominent voices who are still pushing it, but I'm betting that cooler heads prevail.
So the next president will be facing an Iran that is nuclear capable (meaning it has the theoretical capacity to build a bomb if it chooses to do so). Even if we don't reach a formal diplomatic deal (i.e., one that permitted Iran to enrich uranium to low levels and gradually reduced economic sanctions), he'll probably deal with it exactly the same way we dealt with other nuclear powers: i.e., via containment and deterrence. Note: this step will also mean negotiating security arrangements with key U.S. allies in a period where regional politics are going to be quite volatile (see #2 above). In short, plenty for the next president to do on this issue, too.
#5: What sort of country are we becoming?
Finally, the next president needs to do some hard thinking about the kind of country the United States is becoming. The United States has fought four wars since 1990, and is currently conducting drone strikes and special operations in a half a dozen countries. We are deeply worried about cyber-war and cyber-security, but we are also using these weapons for offensive purposes in ways that we would regard as wholly illegitimate if someone did it to us.
In the same way, American experts now discuss "preventive war" in remarkably casual terms, as if it were just one of many strategic options. They seem to forget that by definition, preventive war means attacking countries that have not attacked us and are not about to do so. "Preventive war" was what Japan did to us at Pearl Harbor, and ambitious young policy wonks now prescribe it without much self-reflection and seemingly unaware that real human lives are at stake.
Instead of the citizen army that we relied upon in World War I, World War II, and Korea, we now have a professional military that receives enormous deference from politicians, pundits, academics, and the public. U.S. politicians rarely have military experience -- Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Romney never served, and neither have any of their children -- and this fact inevitably affects their relations with the military establishment. Neither Obama nor Romney said a critical word about the military during any of their debates, even though the quality of military leadership and advice in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been deficient. U.S. politicians rarely talk about peace anymore; instead, they try to sound tough-minded and ever-willing to use force.
Since 9/11, we have created a vast array of intelligence and counter-terrorist organizations whose activities are largely hidden from the citizens who are paying for them and who will bear the consequences if their actions are misguided. Both common sense and much history teaches us that lack of transparency and accountability usually breeds bad behavior, and we may one day be shocked when we find out what's been done in our country's name over the past decade.
Who will play watchdog? Not most academics, who are too busy with ivory-tower exercises and for the most part discomfited by national security issues. Not the mainstream media, which depends on cozy relations with those in power. Not the DC think tanks funded by the defense industry and employing would-be or former officials eager to preserve their career options (and consulting businesses).
So, in addition to all those other challenges, I hope the next president will start unwinding some of the practices we adopted in the aftermath of 9/11, and move us back to being a country that is slower to anger, more interested in diplomacy, and not quite as trigger happy. But I wouldn't bet on it, becuase he'll be too busy dealing with the rest of his agenda, plus the inevitable surprises that will rise up to bite him.
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
As expected, the debate on Monday night was long on posturing and short on specifics. I thought Romney did a good job of sounding like a less well-informed Obama, while trying to suggest that he'd implement Obama's foreign policy better than Obama has. For his part, Obama showed a command of the issues worthy of a commander-in-chief, and worthy of someone who has done a good job of implementing President George W. Bush's second term foreign policy agenda.
But Romney's sudden lunge toward moderation raises the following obvious question, which Bob Schieffer (and the president) didn't ask:
"Governor, you maintain that you're a tough-minded, smart manager who knows how to pick good people. If so, why are you taking foreign policy advice from all those discredited neoconservative retreads? There are some sensible voices in your foreign policy brain trust, but also an awful lot of people who played key roles getting us into Iraq and generally screwing up our entire international position. Why in God's name are you listening to them?"
To be fair, an awful lot of supposedly sensible Democrats supported the war too, including a lot of senior officials in the Obama administration. But they didn't dream up the war or work overtime to sell it from 1998 onward. They just went along with the idea because they thought it was politically expedient, they couldn't imagine how it might go south, or they were convinced that Saddam was a Very Bad Man and that it was our duty to "liberate" the Iraqi people from him. They were right about Saddam's character, of course, but occupying the entire country turned out to be a pretty stupid way of dealing with him.
Nonetheless, the unsinkable resiliency of the neoconservative movement remains impressive. Indeed, there is a certain genius to neoconservatism, which one must grant a certain grudging respect. Unlike their liberal interventionist counterparts, who are always looking for consensus and eager to compromise, the neocons are both remarkably uncompromising and notoriously unrepentant. They don't look back, if only because staring at their record of consistent failure would be depressing. So they always look forward, confident that their fellow citizens won't remember the past and can be bamboozled into heeding their advice once again.
The success of neoconservatism can be traced to three key strategems. The first and most obvious element is their relentless championing of America as the model for the entire world, from which our duty to export democracy supposedly follows. Never mind that neocons aren't very consistent in applying that principle (e.g., you don't hear many of them talking about using American power to advance the democratic rights of Palestinians), and they routinely forget that their favorite tool -- military force -- is usually a very bad way to spread democracy. But their brand of jingoistic rhetoric resonates with America's deep political traditions and helps them portray their critics as insufficiently devoted to America's liberal/Wilsonian ideals.
Second, and more importantly, neoconservatives understand the efficacy of taking extreme positions and sticking to them. By recommending policies that are at the very edge of what is acceptable (and sometimes a bit beyond it), neoconservatives seek to gradually drag the consensus in their direction. Just look at the slow-motion march toward preventive war against Iran, where constant pressure from the right (and the Israel lobby) has forced even a sensible leader like President Obama to constantly reiterate his willingness to use military force if it becomes necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such threats merely increase Iran's interest in some sort of deterrent, of course, but strategic consistency is less important than making sure Washington takes a tough line.
Interestingly enough, this tactic has some grounding in behavioral economics. In a justifiably famous experiment reported in the Journal of Marketing Research, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky showed that consumer choices were powerfully influenced by "framing effects," and in particular, by the set of choices that the test subjects were given. When the subjects were offered a choice between a cheap camera with relatively few features and a more expensive camera with lots of them, their choices divided more-or-less evenly between the two. But when a similar group was given the same two options plus a third -- an even more expensive camera with even more features -- the percentage that preferred the middle choice rose dramatically. Why? Because being presented with the option of a really expensive camera made choosing the second most expensive seem less extravagant: It became the sensible "compromise" choice.
And that's the genius of neoconservatism's frequently outlandish policy recommendations. They are always calling for the United States to spend excessive amounts of money on defense, to threaten potential enemies with dire consequences if they don't bend to our will, and to use force against just about anyone that the neocons don't like (and it's a long list). No president -- not even George W. Bush -- has done everything the neocons wanted, but by constantly pushing for more, it makes doing at least part of what they want seem like a sensible, moderate course. And as we saw after 9/11, every now and then the stars may line up and the neocons will get what they're pushing for (See under: Iraq). Too bad it never works out well when they do.
Neoconservatism's final strand of twisted genius is its imperviousness to contrary evidence. Because most of their prescriptions are so extreme, they can explain away failure by claiming that the country just didn't follow their advice with sufficient enthusiasm. If we lost in Iraq, that's because Bush didn't attack Iran and Syria too, or it's because Obama decided to withdraw before the job was really done. (Such claims are mostly nonsense, of course, but who cares?) If Afghanistan turned into a costly quagmire on Bush's watch, it's because Clinton and Bush refused to ramp up defense spending as much as the neocons wanted. If we now headed for the exit with little show for our effort, it's because we didn't send a big enough Afghan surge in 2009-2010. For neocons, policy failure can always be explained by saying that feckless politicians just didn't go as far as the neocons demanded, which means their advice can never be fully discredited.
To be sure, neoconservatives are not the only people who employ the latter tactic. Liberal economist Paul Krugman famously argues that Obama's stimulus package failed to produce the desired results because wasn't big or bold enough; the difference between Krugman and most neocons is that Krugman may well be right. By contrast, there's hardly any evidence to suggest that the United States would be better off if it had done all of the things that neoconservatives advised; all we can say with confidence is that the country would now be poorer, less popular around the world, and more American soldiers would now be dead or grievously wounded.
In this sense, neoconservatives are like someone who is constantly telling you to jump off a twenty story building, and promising that if you do, you'll fly. If you decide to be prudent and jump from the 10th floor instead, and find yourself plummeting toward earth, they'll just say you failed because you didn't follow their advice to the letter.
In the end, one can only admire the esprit de corps and resolve that has kept neoconservatism alive and well despite its manifold failures. Of course, it helps to have lots of supporters with deep pockets who are willing to pay to keep them ensconced in safe sinecures at AEI or the Council on Foreign Relations. And I suppose it also helps that presidential candidates often know very little about foreign policy, and thus can't tell the difference between a smart strategist and a snake oil salesman.
Which brings us back where we started. If Mitt Romney is such a good judge of character and policy advice, and really a moderate at heart, what's he doing with all those neocons?
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight's debate? Before I get to that question, let's start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:
1. America's role in the world
2. Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan?*
3. Red lines -- Israel and Iran?*
4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism
5. The rise of China and tomorrow's world
Well, if I were European or Latin American I'd be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn't even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what's striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.
Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren't going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I'll bet it doesn't rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There's no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we've been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it's not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.
In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn't do was promise to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. So Romney doesn't have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).
Indeed, when it comes to substance, what's Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it's hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.
Given that he doesn't have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn't love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney's actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama's. And the one genuine difference -- Romney's pledge to ramp up defense spending -- can't be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we'll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight's debate, complete with pious references to America's special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we're lucky, neither of them will try to sing.
Second, it won't be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren't going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn't want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don't think so.
Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there's not a snowball's chance that he'd really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China's best friend and China's main rival at the same time.
Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.
So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here's my top-ten list of questions that I don't expect to hear tomorrow night.
Mr. President, Governor Romney:
1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?
2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?
3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity -- as we do here in the United States -- or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?
4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?
(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking. But won't lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)
5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush's claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?
6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?
7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?
8. The United States has the world's strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.
Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn't it make sense for Iran too? And won't threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?
(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?
And finally, an individual question for each candidate:
9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain's management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?
10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?
I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don't you?
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
There are two must-read articles in today's press: Pankaj Mishra's "America's Inevitable Retreat from the Middle East" in the New York Times, and Edward Luce's cautionary "An American recovery? Don't believe the hype" in the Financial Times.
Mishra does an excellent job of tracing why U.S. involvement in the Middle East is likely to decline in the years ahead. Not only has the United States pursued policies that have alienated most of the people in this region, but it can no longer count on compliant dictators and monarchs to do our bidding. Instead, governments of all types are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment, which bodes ill for U.S. efforts to shape the region's future.
But is this a bad thing? The problems that the Middle East is going to face in the years ahead -- social unrest, youth unemployment, contentious domestic politics, poorly developed institutions, etc. -- are by their very nature difficult for outsiders to fix. In fact, as we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, extensive and direct efforts to mold the politics of millions of people whose traditions differ from ours are likely to fail, and especially when most of the people are angry about our past policies. And as you've probably noticed, even our more well-intentioned failures tend to be very expensive. Luce's slightly gloomy prognosis just reinforces this point: A sluggish U.S. recovery will inevitably limit what the United States can do, and if we keep wasting lives and money on fool's errands, recovery will be delayed even more.
One should not overstate these trends, of course. Richard Nixon used to complain that the United States was becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant," which was wrong then and is wrong today. The United States is going to be the world's most powerful country for quite some time to come; it just won't have the same sort of influence it once enjoyed. The real question is how it will adjust to a slightly more modest role, and what strategies it will adopt going forward. To respond intelligently, the United States will have to overcome the psychological barrier of a somewhat reduced role, and to figure out how to take advantage of America's enduring strengths instead of constantly doing things that undermine them.
And that brings me to my main complaint with Mishra's article: his use of the word "retreat." If Americans view a reduced role as a "retreat" -- with all its defeatist implications -- they will be more likely to face a domestic backlash from neocons and other hardliners shouting "appeasement" and demanding increased defense spending and a renewed commitment to knocking heads together. Framing this trend as a "retreat," therefore, will delay the necessary adjustments and squander additional resources.
By contrast, if this trend is seen as a farsighted and voluntary adjustment to new conditions and strategic priorities, then the risk of backlash will be reduced and the shift won’t have much if any effect on America’s perceived credibility elsewhere. In this sense, the idea of a strategic "pivot" to Asia was smart rhetoric. We aren't being driven out of the Middle East; we're just choosing to assign resources where they can do us the most good.
More broadly, the key to making these adjustment lies in convincing Americans to think about their global role differently. Instead of harping on our "global responsibilities," Americans ought to focus instead on their national interests. The litmus test of any foreign policy commitment is not what it will do for others, but rather what it will do for us. (Doing both is perfectly ok by me, but first things first).
America's current global posture and its strategic toolbox were developed during the Cold War, when the main challenge was a well-armed and easily identifiable great power adversary. In that environment, it made sense for the United States to secure what George Kennan called the "key centers of industrial power." The U.S. achieved this goal through an active leadership role in NATO, its bilateral treaty relations in Asia, and its various security commitments in the Persian Gulf. The effort that the United States and Soviet Union expended in places like Indochina or Afghanistan was mostly wasted (and at great cost to these societies). Fortunately for us, we had a lot more resources to waste.
Times have changed. The United States may face a new peer competitor in the not-too distant future, but right now most security problems arise from regional rivalries, failng states, and local quagmires. In these circumstances, the main strategic objective should be to stay out of the quicksand. Better still, we could try to stick potential rivals with the burden of trying to solve intractable problems. Passing the buck to others isn't some sort of inglorious retreat; it's actually a smart strategy that will leaves the United States better prepared to deal with more serious challenges when they arise.
The esteemed CEO here at FP Inc., David Rothkopf, thinks Benjamin Netanyahu has finally killed off the Israel lobby. This step was probably unnecessary, however, because Rothkopf also thinks the lobby never existed or if it did, had very little influence.
Rothkopf is surely right in saying that Netanyahu has overplayed his hand in recent months. He is also correct to remind readers that AIPAC and the other key organizations in the lobby do not get everything they want. (No serious person ever said it did, of course.) His attempt to slay the supposed "myth" of the Israel lobby is unconvincing, however, as it rests mostly on misrepresenting what others have said and ignores the overwhelming evidence that groups like AIPAC, some other organizations, and a few individuals are in fact an important force in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. But his article deserves to be read carefully anyway, because it provides a primer on how Israel's defenders are now trying to hide the elephant in the room.
Step 1: Always portray discussions of the lobby's influence in the most extreme and easily ridiculed form. The first ploy is to suggest that people who write about the lobby think it is "all-powerful," that it "controls" U.S. foreign policy, or that it is responsible for every single problem in the Middle East. Use phrases like "Super K-streeters" to lampoon the idea that there is in fact a well-organized interest group trying to reinforce the "special relationship" on a daily basis. Or use words like "conspiracy" or "cabal" to hint that anyone who talks about the lobby is really just channeling discredited and venal anti-Jewish stereotypes.
A variation on this tactic is to suggest that such writers also see the lobby as a single monolithic organization, or that they believe "all Jews think alike." Pay no attention to the fact that serious scholars and journalists who do write about the lobby's influence have rejected all of these views; in fact, they've said the exact opposite. In short, start by erecting a straw man and then attack it.
Step 2: State or imply that anyone who writes critically about the Israel lobby is an anti-semite or a self-hating Jew. This is of course an old stratagem designed to silence anyone who thinks about raising the subject. It's not as effective as it used to be, because it was been used so widely and so inappropriately in the past, but it's still a key part of the playbook. As Rothkopf writes in this most recent piece, the Israel lobby "is just a boogie-man cooked up to serve the nasty agenda of people all too eager to sacrifice the truth on the altar of their prejudices." There's really nothing to see here, folks, and if you think you do see something, you must be a bigot.
Step 3. Studiously ignore all of the politicians and commentators who have openly testified to the lobby's influence. Such as the following well-known Israel-haters:
Bill Clinton: AIPAC is "stunningly effective. . . better than anyone at lobbying in this town."
Jeffrey Goldberg: AIPAC is a "leviathan among lobbies."
Rep. Lee Hamilton: "There's no lobby group that matches it . . . they're in a class by themselves."
Sen. Harry Reid: "I can't think of a policy organization in the country as well-organized and respected as AIPAC."
Rep. Newt Gingrich: "AIPAC is the most effective general interest group . . . . across the entire planet."
Sen. Barry Goldwater: "I was never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby. . .It's the most influential crowd in Congress and America by far."
Sen. Fritz Hollings: "You can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here [on Capitol Hill]."
Alan Dershowitz: "My generation of Jews . . .became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy."
Aaron David Miller: "Today you cannot be successful in American politics and not be good on Israel. And AIPAC plays a key role in making that happen."
Step 4: Focus attention on those occasional moments when Israel and the lobby don't get their way, and ignore all the other times that they do. Rothkopf's main piece of evidence that the lobby is a minor force is Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to get the United States to commit itself to a preventive war on Israel's behalf. That is one hell of an ask, of course, and sometimes when you demand the moon you don't get it. As Matt Duss tweeted yesterday, by this logic, the cancellation of the F-22 proves that there's no defense lobby either.
Netanyahu may not get his war with Iran, but he and his predecessors still get a lot of other things that no other country receives: $3 to 4 billion in aid each year for country that now ranks 27th in the world in per capita income, reliable diplomatic protection (including an endless stream of U.N. security council vetoes that place us at odds with our other democratic allies), plus a parade of prominent politicians delivering pandering speeches at the annual AIPAC policy conference and the opportunity to address joint sessions of Congress more often than any other world leaders. But wait, there's more! You also get the United States turning a blind eye toward Israel's nuclear program, and U.S. officials offering only the mildest of complaints when Israel builds another settlement, bombs Gaza, or kills an American peace activist. Does anyone seriously believe that the political clout of AIPAC and other "pro-Israel" organizations (including a few Christian Zionist groups) has nothing to do with all this?
I agree with Rothkopf that Netanyahu overplayed his hand badly, and that this incident does reveal both the limits of the lobby's power and (perhaps) some diminution of its influence overall. The declining influence may also be due to the fact that it is becoming harder to justify the special relationship after forty-plus years of occupation, and when Israel's own political order is moving in worrisome directions. It is also harder to defend that relationship when the costs to the United States -- in terms of rising anti-Americanism and declining influence in the region -- are more apparent. The special relationship isn't the only reason for those trends, but it is surely one of them, as former U.S. CENTCOM commanders have repeatedly said.
But there's another factor at work, which is not incompatible with this view, and that is the fact we are now getting a much more open discussion of these issues. Why? Because those of us who have been done serious research on the Israel lobby have presented an accurate and nuanced view of the lobby's influence and its limits and the negative impact of that influence on the United States and Israel. All someone has to do is read these works to see that they were not the bigoted screeds that Rothkopf and other critics described. And once people showed what was going on, others could see it and start to talk about it too. Netanyahu's humiliating smackdown of Obama over the settlement question and the two-state solution made this even more apparent to anyone with eyes, as Peter Beinart has documented quite convincingly, and his more recent antics over Iran just drove the point home.
Facts are stubborn things, and no amount of dust-kicking and hand-waving can prevent more and more people -- including Jews like Peter Beinart and M.J. Rosenberg and philo-semites like Andrew Sullivan and me -- from pointing them out. If AIPAC and its allies are in fact beginning to lose some of their clout, the recent emergence of a somewhat more open discourse on this question is at least partially responsible.
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I hardly ever watch network news, but I happened to stumble across this appalling report on NBC's "Rock Center" last night. In this clip, reporter Richard Engel blames this week's anti-American violence on "conspiracy theories" that Arab populations have been fed over the years by their rulers, including the idea that the United States and Israel are colluding to control the Middle East.
It's no secret there are conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East (as there are here in the good old USA: Remember the "birthers?") I've heard them every time I've lectured in the region and done my best to debunk them. But by attributing Arab and Muslim anger solely to these ideas, Engel's report paints a picture of the United States (and by implication, Israel) as wholly blameless. In his telling, the U.S. has had nothing but good intentions for the past century, but the intended beneficiaries of our generosity don't get it solely because they've been misled by their leaders.
In short, Operation Cast Lead never happened, Lebanon wasn't invaded in 1982 or bombed relentlessly for a month in 2006, the United States has never turned a blind eye towards repeated human rights violations by every single one of its Middle Eastern allies, drones either don't exist or never killed an innocent victim, the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was just a little misunderstanding, and the Palestinians ought to be grateful to us for what they've been left after forty-plus years of occupation. To say this in no way absolves governments in the region for responsibility for many of their current difficulties, but Americans do themselves no favors by ignoring our own contribution to the region's ills.
In short, you want to get some idea of why most Americans have no idea why we are unpopular in the region, this example of sanitized "analysis" is illuminating, though not in the way that Engel and NBC intended.
What's the biggest mistake the United States has made since the end of the Cold War? Invading Iraq? Helping screw up the Israel-Palestine peace process? Missing the warning signs for 9/11, and then overreacting to the actual level of danger that Al Qaeda really posed? Not recognizing we had a bubble economy and a corrupt financial industry until after the 2007 meltdown?
Those are all worthy candidates, and I'm sure readers can think of others. But today I want to propose another persistent error, which lies at the heart of many of the missed opportunities or sins of commission that we made since the Berlin Wall came down. It is in essence a conceptual mistake: a failure to realize just how much the world changed when the Soviet Union collapsed, and a concomitant failure to adjust our basic approach to foreign policy appropriately.
I call this error the "credibility fetish." U.S. leaders have continued to believe that our security depends on convincing both allies and adversaries that we are steadfast, loyal, reliable, etc., and that our security guarantees are iron-clad. It is a formula that reinforces diplomatic rigidity, because it requires us to keep doing things to keep allies happy and issuing threats (or in some cases, taking actions) to convince foes that we are serious. And while it might have made some degree of sense during the Cold War, it is increasingly counterproductive today.
One could argue that credibility did matter during the Cold War. The United States did face a serious peer competitor in those days, and the Soviet Union did have impressive military capabilities. Although a direct Soviet attack on vital U.S. interests was always unlikely, one could at least imagine certain events that might have shifted the global balance of power dramatically. For example, had the Soviet Union been able to conquer Western Europe or the Persian Gulf and incorporate these assets into its larger empire, it would have had serious consequences for the United States. Accordingly, U.S. leaders worked hard to make sure that the U.S. commitment to NATO was credible, and we did similar things to bolster U.S. credibility in Asia and the Gulf.
Of course, we probably overstated the importance of "credibility" even then. Sloppy analogies like the infamous "domino theory" helped convince Americans that we had to fight in places that didn't matter (e.g., Vietnam) in order to convince everyone that we'd also be willing to fight in places that did. We also managed to convince ourselves that credible nuclear deterrence depended on having a mythical ability to "prevail" in an all-out nuclear exchange, even though winning would have had little meaning once a few dozen missiles had been fired.
Nonetheless, in the rigid, bipolar context of the Cold War, it made sense for the United States to pay some attention to its credibility as an alliance leader and security provider. But today, the United States faces no peer competitor, and it is hard to think of any single event that would provoke a rapid and decisive shift in the global balance of power. Instead of a clear geopolitical rival, we face a group of medium powers: some of them friendly (Germany, the UK, Japan, etc.) and some of them partly antagonistic (Russia, China). Yet Russia is economically linked to our NATO allies, and China is a major U.S. trading partner and has been a major financier of U.S. debt. This not your parents' Cold War. There are also influential regional powers such as Turkey, India, or Brazil, with whom the U.S. relationship is mixed: We agree on some issues and are at odds on others. And then there are clients who depend on U.S. protection (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Taiwan, etc.) but whose behavior often creates serious headaches for whoever is in the White House.
As distinguished diplomat Chas Freeman recently commented, "the complexity and dynamism of the new order place a premium on diplomatic agility. Stolid constancy and loyalty to pre-existing alliance relationship are not the self-evident virtues they once were. We should not be surprised that erstwhile allies put their own interest ahead of ours and act accordingly. Where it is to our long-term advantage, we should do the same."
What might this mean in practice? As I've noted repeatedly, it means beginning by recognizing that the United States is both very powerful and very secure, and that there's hardly anything that could happen in the international system that would alter the global balance of power overnight. The balance is shifting, to be sure, but these adjustments will take place over the course of decades. Weaker states who would like U.S. protection need it a lot more than we need them, which means our "credibility" is more their problem than ours. Which in turn means that if other states want our help, they should be willing to do a lot to convince us to provide it.
Instead of obsessing about our own "credibility," in short, and bending over backwards to convince the Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, Afghans, Israelis, Saudis, and others that we will do whatever it takes to protect them, we ought to be asking them what they are going to do for themselves, and also for us. And instead of spending all our time trying to scare the bejeezus out of countries like Iran (which merely reinforces their interest in getting some sort of deterrent), we ought to be reminding them over and over that we have a lot to offer and are open to better relations, even if the clerical regime remains in power and maybe even if -- horrors! -- it retains possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle (under IAEA safeguards). If nothing else, adopting a less confrontational posture is bound to complicate their own calculations.
This is not an argument for Bush-style unilateralism, or for a retreat to Fortress America. Rather, it is a call for greater imagination and flexibility in how we deal with friends and foes alike. I'm not saying that we should strive for zero credibility, of course; I'm merely saying that we'd be better off if other states understood that our credibility was more conditional. In other words, allies need to be reminded that our help is conditional on their compliance with our interests (at least to some degree) and adversaries should also be reminded that our opposition is equally conditional on what they do. In both cases we also need to recognize that we are rarely going to get other states to do everything we want. Above all, it is a call to recognize that our geopolitical position, military power, and underlying economic strength give us the luxury of being agile in precisely the way that Freeman depicts.
Of course, some present U.S. allies would be alarmed by the course I'm suggesting, because it would affect the sweetheart deals they've been enjoying for years. They'll tell us they are losing confidence in our leadership, and they'll threaten to go neutral, or maybe even align with our adversaries. Where possible, they will enlist Americans who are sympathetic to their plight to pressure on U.S. politicians to offer new assurances. In most cases, however, such threats don't need to be taken seriously. And we just have to patiently explain to them that we're not necessarily abandoning them, we are merely 1) making our support more conditional on their cooperation with us on things we care about, and 2) remaining open to improving relations with other countries, including some countries that some of our current allies might have doubts about. I know: It's a radical position: we are simply going to pursue the American national interest, instead of letting our allies around the world define it for us.
The bottom line is that the United States is in a terrific position to play realpolitik on a global scale, precisely because it needs alliance partners less than most of its partners do. And even when allies are of considerable value to us, we still have the most leverage in nearly every case. As soon as we start obsessing about our credibility, however, we hand that leverage back to our weaker partners and we constrain our ability to pursue meaningful diplomatic solutions to existing conflicts. Fetishizing credibility, in short, is one of the reasons American diplomacy has achieved relatively little since the end of the Cold War.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.