The remainder of my trip to Turkey sparked some further thoughts, including some qualifications to my last post. To wit:
1. I previously described the conference I attended -- the Istanbul World Political Forum -- as an illustration of Turkey's emphasis on "soft power." By creating a Davos-like annual meeting oriented towards issues central to emerging economies, the organizers sought to display Turkey's growing importance as a political player. I still think that's right, but my conversations with other attendees suggest that the IWPF will need to raise its game in the years ahead if they want to reap the full benefits. The panels were interesting and well-attended, and there were a number of informative speakers, but I also heard a lot of complaints about the overall level of organization of the operation. Some speakers didn't know which panels they would appear on until the last minute, and the format of some sessions wasn't clear until you showed up. I also heard complaints about haphazard travel arrangements, although in my own case the bookings worked well after some initial glitches. Putting on an event like this isn't easy, but if the Turkish government and the other sponsors hope to use these forums as a way of demonstrating their efficiency, competence, and managerial ability, they've got a ways to go.
2. One of the more vivid impressions I took from the conference was the prevailing wariness -- if not outright suspicion -- with which the United States was viewed by many of the attendees. Virtually any statement that cast even mild doubt about U.S. policy (on Iran, Middle East peace, past interventions, Iraq, etc.) drew spontaneous approval from the audience, even if the statements weren't especially provocative, penetrating, or anti-American. For example, in the panel on a possible war with Iran, I suggested that if the U.S. wanted to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, it might make sense to stop threatening Tehran with regime change. The audience immediately burst into loud applause. Similar statements by journalist and professor Stephen Kinzer and Juergen Chrobog of the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt elicited much the same response. And most of the questions (or diatribes) from the audience were either explicitly or implicitly critical of the U.S. position. I had a similar experience in my other panel as well.
I wish some U.S. government officials had been there to observe this phenomenon, because it drove home to me the degree to which U.S. policy is regarded by many is inherently myopic, selfish, and illegitimate. (And the positive bump produced by Obama's election in 2008 is long gone). It's not a deep hatred of Americans themselves, but rather a simmering resentment of America's global role. And I think many Americans just don't get this, especially when they spend all their time talking to their counterparts (i.e., the global 1 percent) in other countries.
3. The trip also highlighted for me the ambiguities of Turkey's internal politics under the AKP. I've been trying to figure out where Turkey is headed for a number of years now, and I still don't consider myself anything like an expert on political developments there. But several incidents on this trip underscored the deep tensions that still persist and may be getting worse.
On the one hand, the AKP has done an impressive job of stimulating economic growth, reforming ordinary criminal justice practice, encouraging some forms of democratic participation, and emphasizing higher education. I would also give them high marks for their overall handling of foreign policy. The much-ballyhooed "zero problems" strategy trumpeted by Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davatoglu has hit some rough spots in the past couple of years (most visibly over Syria), but it's still a smart aspiration, even if it has proven more difficult to implement in practice. And I still think the U.S. has an important interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey going forward; to see this, just imagine how much more difficult our dealings with this region would be if Ankara and Washington were really at odds.
But on the other hand, AKP rule has been heavy-handed in a variety of disturbing ways, most notably in the protracted detention of the so-called Ergenekon suspects and in its various efforts to manipulate or intimidate the Turkish press. The AKP hasn't been anywhere near as brutal as some previous military governments (among other things, Turkey's overall human rights record is vastly better than in some earlier eras, but there are still a lot of disturbing elements. While I was at the conference, three different people came up to tell me privately that "things were really bad here," and that the United States had to do more to pressure the AKP. It was clear after a few minutes of conversation that these speakers were secularists from the old order (i.e., they are part of a class that has been losing power), but it was nonetheless striking to hear their concerns. At a minimum, it suggested to me that that AKP has done a much better job of clipping the wings of the old guard than it has of reconciling them to the realities of the new Turkey.
Given Turkey's turbulent past, this lingering animosity is not that surprising. But it does not bode well for the future, especially if the economic prosperity on which the AKP's popularity rests begins to flag. And as I said on one panel, the continued deterioration of domestic freedoms in Turkey is bound to be exploited by groups who are worried about Turkey's foreign policy direction, thereby damaging U.S.-Turkish relations in ways that both countries would soon regret.
4. Adding it all up, I'd argue that we are witnessing an important shift in world politics whose broader implications are worrisome for the United States. Political participation is broadening and deepening in more and more countries, and even if the results fall far short of some ideal vision of democracy (let alone the imperfect U.S. version of that ideal), these states are going to be increasingly sensitive to popular sentiment. Unfortunately, U.S. policy towards many parts of the world has depended more on cushy deals with oligarchs, dictators, and plutocrats, and past U.S. actions (most of them undertaken for various Cold War/anti-communist reasons) have left a toxic legacy that most Americans do not fully appreciate. Add to that our frequent resort to military force since the Cold War ended, our enthusiastic use of sanctions despite the human costs to ordinary citizens, and our insistence that there are really two sets of rules in world politics (the U.S. can violate other states' sovereignty whenever we want, but weaker states who object to this get demonized and/or threatened with more of the same). The result is a world where many people would like to take us down several pegs, and where it can be costly for political leaders to be openly supportive of U.S. initiatives (see under: Pakistan).
America is still very powerful, and plenty of governments still understand that some of our strategic interests overlap. But we're entering a world were fewer and fewer governments are going to be reflexively deferential to the United States, for the simple reason that they pay attention to popular sentiment and their own national interests aren't in fact identical to ours. If we expect governments in these countries to be as supine as some of their predecessors, we had better get used to disappointment. What will be needed is a lot more nuance, flexibility, and diplomatic skill, as well as a greater sense of humility and restraint. I only hope that we are better at displaying these qualities in the future than we've been in the recent past.
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I gave a lecture last night at the Cape Ann Forum, on the topic of America's changing position in the world and what it might (should) mean for U.S. grand strategy. My hosts were gracious and the crowd asked plenty of good questions, which is what I've come to expect when I speak to non-academic groups. Indeed, I'm often impressed by how sensible many "ordinary" Americans are about international affairs in general and U.S. foreign policy in particular. And so it was last night.
One of the attendees was iconoclastic journalist Christopher Lydon, who's been a friend for some years now. Chris asked a great question: Why is there so little accountability in contemporary U.S. policy-making, and especially regarding foreign policy? To be more specific: He wanted to know why some of the same people who got us into the Iraq debacle, mismanaged the Afghanistan war, and now clamor for war with Iran are still treated as respected experts, welcomed as pundits, and recruited to advise Presidential campaigns?
I didn't have a particularly good answer for him, but I thought about it more as I drove home. I'm not sure why there seems to be so little accountability in the American establishment these days (though it is true that if you lose $2 billion dollars, it does affect your job security), but here are a few thoughts.
Part of the problem is institutionalized amnesia. The United States is busy all around the world, and if the short-term results of some action look okay then we tend to move on and forget about what we've left behind. We fought a proxy war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and it was a controversial issue at the time, with 40,000 or so Nicaraguan perishing as a result. But eventually the war ended, and we moved on with nary a backward glance. We intervened in the Bosnian civil war, patched together a Rube Goldberg-like structure to govern the place, gave ourselves high-fives, and spend the next fifteen years telling ourselves what a success it was. Except that it wasn't. Really. Last year we helped topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya, rejoiced at the fall of a despised and brutal dictator, and then moved on again, even as Libya descends into chaos. But it's not our problem anymore, unless a contraband MANPAD eventually finds its way to some unfortunate civilian airline somewhere. And if that airliner doesn't have Americans on board, we won't worry about it very much.
Heck, I'll bet if Bush had just pulled all our troops out of Iraq after his "Mission Accomplished" photo op, we'd be hailing it as a great military victory no matter what condition Iraq was in today. ("Hey, we got rid of Saddam for them; it's not our fault if the Iraqis can't run the place...")
A second reason is the incestuous clubbiness of the foreign policy establishment. Mainstream foreign policy organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations thrive by being inclusive: It's not clear what a member in good standing would have to do in order not to be welcome there. This is actually a smart principle up to a point: Because none of us is infallible, you wouldn't want to live in a society where being wrong rendered anyone a pariah for life. But neither does one want a system where conceiving and selling a disastrous war has no consequences at all.
Third, the incestuous relationship between mainstream journalists, policy wonks, and politicos reinforces this problem. All three groups live in a symbiotic relationship with each other, and you wouldn't expect to see many people in this world donning their brass knuckles and saying what they really think about other members of the club. And because their livelihoods and well-being aren't directly affected by catastrophes that happen Far Away, why should they worry about holding people accountable and conducting their relations in a more adversarial fashion? Bad for business, man....
A related reason has to do with career paths in the foreign policy world. I'm well aware that most would-be foreign policy wannabes don't have the luxury of tenure, and a lot of them have to survive on soft money budgets at think tanks or as in-and-outers doing private sector work when their party is out of power. In a world like this, yesterday's adversary is tomorrow's ally, and that means pulling punches and doing a lot of forgiving and forgetting. In most case, a bland conformism is the best route to long-term professional success, which diminishes the tendency to render harsh judgments, even when they are appropriate.
Fifth, as U.S. neoconservatives have long demonstrated, the best defense is sometimes a good offense. No influential political faction in America is more willing to engage in character assassination and combative politics than they are, in sharp contrast to most liberals and even most realists. I'm not talking about spirited debate over the issues -- which is a key part of effective democratic politics -- I'm talking about the tendency to accuse those with whom they disagree of being unpatriotic, morally bankrupt, anti-semitic, or whatever. Their willingness to play hardball intimidates a lot of people, which in turn protects them from a full accounting for their past actions.
Finally, there is obviously less accountability for anyone who has reliable financial backing. It doesn't matter how often people at the Weekly Standard or American Enterprise Institute advocate failed policies, so long as somebody is willing to keep bankrolling them. If you've got the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, or Sheldon Adelson in your corner, you can stay in the game no matter how often you've been wrong about really big and important issues, and no matter how big a price others may have paid for your mistakes.
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A heads-up for readers with time on their hands: I'll be delivering the annual Hisham Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington DC tomorrow at noon. The title of my talk is "Deja Vu All Over Again?: Iraq, Iran, and the Israel Lobby," and I'll be comparing the campaign for war against Iraq and the current campaign for military action against Iran. There are some obvious similarities between these two episodes but also some important differences, for which we can be grateful. The lecture will be live-streamed here.
UPDATE: You can watch a recording of the lecture here.
Will we eventually look back on President Obama's drop-in visit to Kabul as his "Mission Accomplished" moment? He's got a tough re-election battle to fight, the endless war in Central Asia isn't popular, and he wants to remind everyone that he's The Man Who Got Bin Laden. So he pulled a George W. Bush and burned up a lot of jet fuel racing to Kabul for a mostly meaningless photo op and a not-very convincing speech. This sort of posturing may help him get re-elected -- though I doubt it will have much effect -- but it's not going to help his long-term legacy when the U.S. is finally gone and Central Asia is on its own.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I don't put much value in the new U.S.-Afghan "strategic partnership." It has some symbolic value, I guess, and it can provide a fig leaf for our eventual withdrawal. If everything breaks the right way after 2014, it might even provide a general framework that facilitates some additional counter-terrorist activities. But it's merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, it is woefully short on specifics, and other people will be in charge in Kabul and Washington by the time the agreement runs out. If circumstances change in ways that give us reasons to renege (or give Afghan leaders grounds to want a different arrangement), this much-ballyhooed "partnership" won't be worth the pixels it's published with.
All told, nobody came off very well in this little episode. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney sounds both petty and silly trying to minimize Obama's genuine accomplishments against al Qaeda (and especially the elimination of bin Laden himself). But Obama's attempt to turn the Afghan debacle into some kind of strategic triumph isn't much better, as Juan Cole and Ahmed Rashid make clear in separate pieces. All of which is more evidence that our agonizingly long electoral cycle is a major impediment to a smarter foreign policy.
Obama should not forget that the elder President Bush won a far more smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War than we are going to get in Afghanistan, and he went down to defeat in 1992. It's still the economy, stupid, and most voters won't care much about bin Laden's demise when they go to the polls in November, no matter how often the president reminds them about it between now and then. Needless to say, that is precisely what Romney is counting on.
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Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been largely run by a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Both groups favor a highly activist foreign policy intended to spread democracy, defend human rights, prevent proliferation, and maintain American dominance, by force if necessary. Both groups are intensely hostile to so-called "rogue states," comfortable using American power to coerce or overthrow weaker powers, and convinced that America's power and political virtues entitle it to lead the world. The main difference between the two groups is that neoconservatives are hostile to international institutions like the United Nations (which they see as a constraint on America's freedom of action), whereas liberal interventionists believe these institutions can be an important adjunct to American power. Thus, liberal interventionists are just "kinder, gentler neocons," while neocons just "liberal interventionists on steroids."
The liberal/neoconservative alliance is responsible for most of America's major military interventions of the past two decades, as well as other key initiatives like NATO expansion. By contrast, realists have been largely absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights of punditry. That situation got me wondering: What would U.S. foreign policy have been like had realists been running the show for the past two decades? It's obviously impossible to know for sure, but here's my Top Ten List of What Would Have Happened if Realists Had Been in Charge.
#1. No war in Iraq. This one is easy. Realists like Brent Scowcroft played key roles in the first Bush administration, which declined to "go to Baghdad" in 1991 because they understood what a costly quagmire it would be. Realists were in the forefront of opposition to the war in 2003, and our warnings look strikingly prescient, especially when compared to the neocons' confident pre-war forecasts. If realists had been in charge, more than 4,500 Americans would be alive today, more than 30,000 soldiers would not have been wounded, and the country would have saved more than a trillion dollars, which would come in handy these days. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive too, and the balance of power in the Gulf would be more compatible with U.S. interests.
#2: No "Global War on Terror." If realists had been in charge after 9/11, they would have launched a focused effort to destroy al Qaeda. Realists backed the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a realist approach to the post-9/11 threat environment would have focused laser-like on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were a direct threat to the United States. But realists would have treated them like criminals rather than as "enemy combatants" and would not have identified all terrorist groups as enemies of the United States. And as noted above, realists would not have included "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (the infamous "axis of evil") in the broader "war on terror." Needless to say, with realists in charge, the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy calling for preventive war would never have been written.
#3. Staying out of the nation-building business. A third difference follows from the first two. Realists understand that transforming foreign societies is a difficult, costly, and uncertain enterprise that rarely succeeds. It is especially hard to do in poor countries with deep internal divisions, no history of democracy, and a well-established aversion to foreign interference. By avoiding the long-term occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would have had little need to invest in counter-insurgency or "nation-building," and could have focused instead on more serious strategic challenges. Which leads us to #4.
#4. A restrained strategy of "Offshore Balancing." Since the end of the Cold War, prominent realists have called for the United States to adopt a more restrained grand strategy that focuses on maintaining the balance of power in key areas (e.g., Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf) but reduces America's global footprint and keeps the U.S. out of unnecessary trouble elsewhere. Such a strategy would also force U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden and discourage them from either "free-riding" or "reckless driving" (i.e., adventurism encouraged by overconfidence in U.S. support). For instance, realists would never have adopted the Clinton administration's foolish strategy of "dual containment" in the Persian Gulf, or the Bush administration's even more reckless effort at "regional transformation." Instead, realists would have maintained a robust intervention capability but kept it offshore and over-the-horizon, bringing it to bear only when the balance of power broke down (as it did when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). Had we followed this approach from 1992 onward, it is even possible that al Qaeda would never have gotten rolling in a big way or never tried to attack the United States directly.
#5. No NATO expansion. Realists weren't surprised when the United States decided to move NATO eastwards; it's typical of victorious great powers to try to press their advantage. But they were skeptical about the whole idea, fearing (correctly) that it would poison relations with Russia and that the U.S. was taking on commitments that it might not be willing to meet and that would make NATO increasingly unwieldy. A realist approach would have stuck with the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, a much smarter move that enabled many useful forms of security cooperation and kept the door open to a more constructive relationship with Russia. Over time, realists would have pressed Europe to take on the main burden of its own defense, fully aware that Europe faces no security problems at present that it cannot handle on its own.
#6: No Balkan adventures. If realists had been in charge, the United States and its allies would have taken a different approach to the Balkan war in the 1990s. The United States might have stayed out entirely -- as former Secretary of State James Baker seemed to want -- because its vital interests were not at stake. Or it might have pushed for a partition plan for Bosnia, as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, and Stephen Van Evera proposed here and here. What would not have happened was the Rube Goldberg effort to cobble together a multi-ethnic "liberal" democracy in Bosnia (an effort that has largely failed and is likely to unravel if outside forces ever withdraw) or the subsequent ill-conceived war in Kosovo (which inept U.S. diplomacy helped provoke). Reasonable people can disagree about whether the world is better off for the U.S. having intervened, but it's by no means clear that the results were worth the effort.
#7. A normal relationship with Israel. Realists have long been skeptical of the "special relationship" with Israel, and they would have worked to transform it into a normal relationship. The United States would have remained committed to helping Israel were its survival ever threatened, but instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer," Washington would have used its leverage to prevent Israel from endlessly expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories. An even-handed U.S. approach would have taken swift advantage of the opportunity created by the 1993 Oslo Accords, and might well have achieved the elusive two-state solution that U.S. presidents have long sought. At a minimum, realists could hardly have done worse than the various "un-realists" who've mismanaged this relationship for the past 20 years.
#8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons. Realists have long emphasized the defensive advantages conferred by nuclear weapons, and have opposed the excessively large nuclear arsenals built up during the Cold War. Realists appreciate the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and believe complete disarmament is impractical, but they would have been much bolder in reducing the U.S. arsenal and would have focused more attention on securing nuclear materials world-wide. At the same time, realists would have acknowledged the technological futility of strategic missile defense as well as its dubious strategic rationale (i.e., even if missile defenses worked perfectly, an adversary could always deliver a warhead to U.S. territory through covert means, thereby making it harder to know where it came from).
#9. No Libyan intervention. Realists (and some others) were skeptical of the wisdom of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime in Libya. This position wasn't based on any sympathy for Qaddafi or his supporters, but rather on a hard-headed calculation of the interests involved and the potential pitfalls. In particular, realists worried that Qaddafi's fall would lead to a prolonged power vacuum (it has), and that the groups we were supporting were unknown and unreliable. The intervention also set a bad precedent: Not only did the U.S. and its allies run roughshod over the Security Council resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians (but not regime change), but we were toppling an autocrat who had previously succumbed to Western pressure and given up his WMD programs. It's possible that Libya will settle down and become a success story for liberal interventionism, but the jury is still out.
#10. A growing focus on China. Realists focus mostly on power and believe that the anarchic structure of world politics encourages powerful states to compete with each other for security. Not necessarily because they want to, of course, but because powerful states cannot take each other's benevolent intentions for granted. Accordingly, realists are skeptical of the claim that Sino-American rivalry can be avoided by "engaging" China, by fostering tight economic ties, or by enmeshing Beijing in institutions designed and led primarily by the United States. Accordingly, realists would focus on strengthening security ties in Asia (while getting our Asian allies to pull their weight), and work to establish clearer "red lines" with China's leadership. Over time, making it harder for China to translate its economic wealth into military power will be in order as well. Realists don't seek a war with China or regard it as inevitable, but they believe that avoiding it is going to take a lot of careful attention to Asian security issues.
To be sure, both the Bush and Obama administrations have moved in this direction, as exemplified by the "strategic partnership" with India and the recent "pivot" to Asia. These shifts occurred in part because there were a few realists involved (e.g., former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill), and partly because the structural forces were impossible to ignore.
Not all realists would subscribe to every item on this list, of course, and one could add other items to it. For instance, if the EU member-states had been led by realists in recent decades, their ill-fated experiment with the Euro would never have been tried and Europe would be in much better economic shape today. Similarly, realists would have followed a different approach toward Iran, and would almost certainly have tried to follow up on earlier Iranian efforts to improve relations with a "grand bargain" that acknowledged Iran's right to nuclear enrichment but put stringent safeguards in place to discourage weaponization. (That seems to be where we are headed right now, but it remains to be seen if Washington and Tehran have the patience and political will to get there).
As noted above, realists may have wrong about some of these items (e.g., the interventions in the Balkans and in Libya) and it's possible that U.S. leaders ultimately did the right thing in those cases on humanitarian (as opposed to strategic) grounds. I'll concede that possibility, but on the whole, I'd argue that both the United States and some key parts of the world would have been far better off if the United States had used its power in a more realistic fashion. It's too late to avoid the past mistakes, of course, but at least we can try to learn from them.
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I happen to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and so I get various emails announcing upcoming events. Yesterday I received a notice about a not-for-attribution tele-conference with the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. A few hours later, I received the usual invitation to the Council's annual conference in New York. The speaker at the opening session will be General Martin Dempsey (chairman of the Joint Chiefs), and other key events at the conference include a mock NSC meeting focusing on the confrontation with Iran and a dinner reception to be held at the USS Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. The closing event will be a conversation with retired Army general Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
None of this is all that surprising, but am I the only one who sees it as more evidence of the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy? The Pentagon already spends several billion taxpayer dollars each year on public relations; does CFR need to give it another platform from which to purvey its views? More importantly, will any well-known advocates of a more restrained and less militarized global posture be given a chance to lay out their views at the annual meeting? What about experts who think U.S. military leaders were at least partly responsible for the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan?
America's founding fathers were wary of excessive military influence, and by the end of his long career, so was President (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower. They understood that in a free society, powerful institutions should be confronted and held accountable. Since 9/11, however, we've seen a predictable but growing deference to military expertise and advice. Politicians bend over backwards to tell us how much they support "the troops" and hardly anyone in office is willing to challenge military leaders openly. Just read Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, and you get a good sense of how civilian authorities can get rolled by those in uniform.
I favor a strong defense and I enjoy having students and fellows from the armed services here at Harvard. I don't think our military leaders are mindless warmongers (on Iran, for example, they seem a lot more sensible than the more hawkish civilians). And I certainly don't think CFR should cut itself off from the Pentagon entirely, though the danger of that occurring seems remote. But I would like to see more balance in mainstream discourse on foreign and national security policy, including at venerable institutions like CFR. To paraphrase Clemenceau, war is still too important to be left to the generals.
Note: In response to my previous post on the hazards of the new Atrocities Prevention Board, Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action offers the following alternative view. I'm not persuaded, but it is a thoughtful and intelligent rejoinder that I wanted to share with you. Take it away, Andrew....
Andrew Miller writes:
Stephen Walt's skepticism of the recently-announced Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is understandable. New bureaucracies often create more problems than they solve. But, the APB is a worthwhile (albeit, modest) attempt to improve the government's mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. A close look at the board shows that it has the potential to both avert atrocities and lessen the likelihood of humanitarian interventions -- outcomes that realists, of course, can welcome with open arms.
The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don't get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn't even a side-show for policymakers; it was a "no show" in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake.
The APB, as a standing body with senior officials (assistant secretaries and above), would be well-positioned to avoid such bloodshed becoming a "no-show". In tandem with the board, the president has vowed to set up "alert channels" that allow lower-level officials to raise red flags about potential atrocities. The APB could serve as a conduit in processing these warnings and ultimately getting them to the Oval Office if warranted.
Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda? Simply put: No.
As the board's title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.
Given the board's interagency make-up, it can leverage these preventive tools rather than relying on the military to resolve crises. The APB will have representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Treasure, Justice, Homeland Security, among others, with the White House's director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power chairing the group. This broad representation will help make the military less of a go-to institution for dealing with atrocities as has been the case since the end of the Cold War.
It is fair to ask, what happens if preventive action fails? Or, as Walt puts it, "how likely is it that [the APB] will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens?" While the APB will probably recommend taking serious mitigating steps, there is a wide range of measures short of a large-scale military operation. Even Power, whom the National Interest has dubbed "Interventionista", stresses measures beyond "sending in the Marines." In her book A Problem from Hell, she lays out a host of policies that the Clinton administration could have taken during Rwanda: frequently denouncing the slaughter, beefing up the United Nations peacekeeper force there, jamming belligerent radio broadcasts used to coordinate attacks, threatening to prosecute the perpetrators, etc.
These are the sorts of measures that the APB will rely upon. In fact, the Obama administration has already used them to help end last year's bloodshed in Ivory Coast. Atrocities broke out there when opposition forces tried to unseat incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo who had lost the country's November 2010 elections. The administration subsequently slapped sanctions on the main perpetrators, backed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in-country, and ultimately supported a French troop deployment. Tensions in Ivory Coast remain today, but the mass killings have stopped.
The APB would not have made intervention in Ivory Coast any more likely. Walt accurately states that there are "good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts." Even if the APB had advocated for U.S. troops, there is little reason to believe that Obama would have deployed them to a place of negligible U.S. interests. (Perhaps the only effect Ivorian instability had on Americans was a rise in chocolate prices.) In other words, the president's strategic calculus on Ivory Coast was set, and the APB would not have changed that -- a good thing from the realist point of view.
Finally, Walt raises the uncomfortable reality of the United States' spotty human rights record. He argues that past U.S. misdeeds make the APB just another example of American "smug self-congratulation." If one takes a victim's perspective, however, this smugness seems less relevant. Srebrenica's Muslims, for example, surely would have appreciated American help in July 1995 regardless of U.S. sanctions on Iraq at the time. In the same vein, would the United States want to end its fight against human trafficking (modern-day slavery in many respects) given its pre-1860s history? Most realists (presumably Walt included) would say, no.
As this blog has made clear, realists are not divorced from morality. Like anybody else, they don't want to see Rwandan rivers choked with bodies or emaciated Bosnians behind barbed wire. They also don't want to see the United States' national security imperiled by military overstretch. The APB is a modest step toward reaching both ends.
Andrew C. Miller is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.
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I'm in California to deliver a keynote talk at the Stanford U.S-Russia Forum (or SURF). My topic will be the end of the "American Era" and its implications for U.S.-Russian relations. The Forum is a student-run event, and it will be fun to spend some time interacting with students at my alma mater. The closing dinner will be at the Faculty Club, which will be an exercise in further nostalgia, since I worked there as a waiter and bartender back in the 1970s. (And no, I am not going to divulge the drinking habits of the faculty back then).
Getting here involved flying, of course, which in turn means another enjoyable encounter with the Transportation Security Administration. The lines and pointless interference at Logan Airport were no worse than usual yesterday, but one TSA employee did manage to add a new wrinkle of misery to the experience. As we all stood in line like obedient sheep, he recited the usual litany about removing belts, shoes, liquids, emptying pockets, etc. At the same time, he also kept up a loud, non-stop monologue of unfunny, mildly sexist, and occasionally offensive jokes, to an entirely captive audience of travelers. No doubt he thought he was providing an amusing diversion, but he didn't seem to notice that no one was laughing. And given the ever-present threat of a strip-search, nobody was going to tell this loudmouth in a uniform to just zip it. So in addition to the degrading inconvenience of the security checkpoints themselves, they've now added noise pollution.
For more on the sheer pointlessness and inefficiency of the current security regime at airports, check out Bruce Schneier's rant here (h/t to Dave Clemente of Chatham House). One does wonder what it will take before the world adopts a saner approach to this problem, one which recognizes that perfect security isn't possible to achieve, and trying to get there has enormous downsides.
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One of the more pernicious obstacles to rational policy-making is the "ratchet effect": the tendency for policies, once adopted, to acquire a life of their own and to become resistant to change, even when they have ceased to be useful. For example, you can be confident that we will all be wasting time in airport security lines decades from now, long after Osama bin Laden's death. Existing security measures may not pass a simple cost-benefit test, but what political leader would dare relax them?
I thought of this problem as I read a new article by Tom Sauer and Bob van der Zwaan, on the curious persistence of the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe. (The title of the article is "U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe after NATO's Lisbon Summit: Why Their Withdrawal is Desirable and Feasible," and it's in the latest issue of the academic journal International Relations.) Sauer and van der Zwaan examine the various arguments for and against keeping U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. They conclude -- convincingly, in my view -- that there is no good reason to keep them there and plenty of good reasons to remove them.
I have to confess that I hadn't realized the United States still had any tactical nuclear weapons left in Europe. (Sorry about that; I can't keep track of everything). But it turns out we still have a couple of hundred or so weapons stationed there (down from about 500 a decade ago). These are mostly gravity bombs deployed under "dual-key" arrangements: The U.S. has custody of the weapons in peacetime, but custody could in theory be transferred to the various host nations (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey) in the event of war.
But isn't this a rather ludicrous situation, two decades after the Cold War ended? There is no threat of a conventional invasion of Western Europe, and thus no need to "link" the U.S. strategic deterrent to Europe's defense via tactical weapons physically deployed on the continent. (The theories that justified these deployments during the Cold War never made much sense to me either, but that's another story.) It's hard to imagine that these weapons are helping Dutch, German, or Turkish elites sleep soundly at night, or helping reassure their respective populations. If anything, local populations should worry about having these devices on their soil, which is why governments tend not to talk about them. Democracy in action!
In short, these weapons serve no legitimate strategic purpose (which is why the numbers have been declining), but bureaucratic inertia and/or political timidity explain why the United States and NATO haven't bitten the bullet and removed them completely.
As Sauer and van der Zwaan make clear, the benefits of doing so would be considerable. It would reinforce the basic logic of nuclear disarmament, and further "de-legitimize" nuclear weapons as status symbols, thereby contributing to broader nuclear security objectives. It would be consistent with the pledges that the United States made when it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would reduce the threat of nuclear theft and/or nuclear terrorism, a danger intensified by the fact that U.S. nuclear-storage sites in Europe apparently do not meet our own security standards. If it were linked to further reductions of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal, it would increase overall nuclear security even more. It would also save money, which is supposedly a priority these days. And if this step had any impact on the credibility of the U.S. commitment to NATO (which is highly doubtful) it might encourage the Europeans to do more for their own defense, instead of continuing to rely on Uncle Sucker.
In short, there's an overwhelming case for removing these archaic and unnecessary weapons from the European continent. Ideally, we would do this as part of a bilateral deal with Russia, but we ought to do it even if Russia isn't interested. It's an election year, which normally encourages a certain degree of chest-thumping on national security matters, so you shouldn't expect any progress until 2013. But getting rid of these useless devices would be a very smart thing to do, no matter who the next president turns out to be.
And then we should rethink airport security....
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In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I argued that America's penchant for counterproductive global interventionism was driven by not one but two imbalances of power. The first was the imbalance of power between the United States and the rest of the world, which made it possible for Washington to throw its weight around without worrying very much about the short-term consequences. If you're a lot stronger than anyone else, it's hard to imagine you could lose to anyone and you're more likely to do something stupid like invading Iraq.
The second imbalance was the disproportionate influence of pro-intervention forces within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As I put it back in 2009:
"America's rise to global primacy was accompanied by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn't just arise spontaneously as America's relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations. These institutions don't always agree on what specific actions the United States ought to take, and they aren't the sort of clandestine capitalist conspiracy depicted by Lyndon Larouche and other fringe groups. But together they stack the deck in favor doing more rather than less."
I went on to describe the DC think tank world (i.e., groups like AEI, Heritage, Brookings, Carnegie, etc.) and the numerous special interest groups that lobby for their own particular causes. And then I noted that:
"By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage. There is the CATO Institute. . . and maybe a few people at the Center for American Progress and the New America Foundation. And there are plenty of peace groups out there with an anti-interventionist agenda. But these groups are hardly a match for the array of forces on the other side."
I mention all this because there seems to be a concerted effort underway to turn one of those organizations -- the CATO Institute -- into another member of the pro-intervention choir. In particular, right-wing industrialists Charles and David Koch (who are long-time CATO supporters) have recently sought to place several new members on CATO's board of directors, and have filed a lawsuit challenging its current governance structure. You can read about this power struggle here and here.
Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because, as CATO Vice-President for Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble lays out in this blog post, the individuals the Kochs are seeking to appoint hold views that are decidedly antithetical to the libertarian, mostly realist, and generally peace-oriented foreign policy perspective that has been CATO's trademark, and which is an increasingly rare perspective in post-Cold War, post 9/11 Washington. Preble also notes that the Koch Foundation helped sponsor an invitation-only seminar series at the American Enterprise Institute last year, whose lineup consisted of a "who's who" of hawkish neo-conservatives (Eliot Cohen, Walter Russell Mead, Eric Edelman, Niall Ferguson, etc.). Each of the speakers was a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which tells you something about where the Kochs are coming from.
It's a free country where just about everything is potentially up for sale, and the Kochs are free to use their money to try to shape public discourse as they see fit. Needless to say, they haven't been exactly shy about doing that, though a commitment to truth doesn't seem to be a high priority of theirs. But if their efforts to transform CATO succeed, we will lose one of the few influential institutions in Washington that consistently calls for a more sensible and restrained foreign and defense policy. I'm not a libertarian and I don't agree with all of CATO's positions on these matters, but a further narrowing of public discourse on foreign policy is not what the country needs right now. So I hope CATO's current management wins this fight, and that the institution remains true to its original vision. We'll be better off as a country if it does.
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The big event at Harvard yesterday was "A Conversation with Henry Kissinger" at Sanders Theater. The event featured the 89-year old statesman reflecting on his time at Harvard, his career in government, and the future relationship between the United States and China, along with several other topics. He was joined in the discussion by my colleagues Graham Allison (who moderated) and Joseph Nye, and by Jessica Blankshain, a graduate student from the Department of Government.
I won't try to summarize the whole conversation, but instead merely highlight a couple of moments that I found especially interesting. First, at one point Kissinger said he thought the best academic preparation for government service was training in philosophy, political theory, and history. In particular, he argued that training in political theory taught you how to think in a disciplined and rigorous manner, and knowledge of history was essential for grasping the broader political context in which decisions must be made. It was clear that he also sees a grounding in history as essential for understanding how different people see the world, and also for knowing something about the limits of the possible.
I found this observation intriguing because these subjects are not what schools of public policy typically emphasize, even though they are supposedly in the business of preparing students for careers in public service. The canonical curriculum in public policy emphasizes economics and statistics (i.e., regression analysis), sometimes combined with generic training in "public policy analysis" and political institutions. The Kennedy School (where I teach) does require MPP students to take one core course in ethics (which is grounded in political philosophy), but there's no required course in history and each year I feel my students know less and less about that important subject. Instead, they flock to courses on "leadership," as if this quality was something you can learn in a classroom in a semester or two. I would love to have asked Kissinger to elaborate on how aspiring public servants are being trained these days.
After Joe Nye asked him if there were any decisions he made that he wished he could do over (a question that Kissinger mostly evaded), he went on to reflect on how his thinking has changed over time. He noted that he has had lots of time to read and reflect since leaving government service, and he said there were many things about the world that he understood better now than when he was serving in government. He also said he was not as "self-confident" in some of his judgments as he had been when he was younger. But then he said he wasn't sure this greater wisdom would make him a better policymaker. The reason, he said, is that being a policymaker requires a powerful sense of self-confidence, precisely because so many decisions are not clear-cut -- they are 51/49 judgment calls. As he put it, "You don't get rewarded for your doubts." And in those circumstances, a little bit of bravado goes a long way; it might even be a job requirement.
It was entirely predictable, of course, that the event was briefly disrupted by a vocal protester who was quickly escorted from the room. One of the questions asked during the Q and A took a similar approach, reciting a list of Kissinger's alleged crimes and ending with the question "How do you sleep at night?" I understand where such questions come from, but I've also thought this tactic is a remarkably ineffective way to try to make a political point. Disrupting public gatherings is a form of free speech and I wouldn't try to ban it, but my experience is that it is almost always counterproductive. The reason is simple: When someone gets up and starts shouting accusations, it violates our innate sense of courtesy and almost always turns the crowd against the protester and toward the person they are attacking. I like spirited discourse as much as the next person, but I've found that a respectful, well-aimed, and devastating question usually opens more minds and does more damage than passionate denunciations do.
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The killing of 16 Afghan civilians -- nine of them children -- by a rogue U.S. soldier is a tragedy in several senses. First, because of the loss of innocent life. Second, because the alleged perpetrator is likely someone whose psyche and spirit broke under the pressure of a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign. And third, because it was all so unnecessary.
Because Barack Obama has run a generally hawkish foreign policy, his Republican opponents don't have a lot of daylight to exploit on that issue. But if they weren't so preoccupied with sounding tough, they could go after Obama's foolish decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan back in 2009, which remains his biggest foreign policy blunder to date.
A brutal reality is that counterinsurgency campaigns almost always produce atrocities. Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre, and now this. You simply can't place soldiers in the ambiguous environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some of them to crack and go rogue. Even if discipline holds and mental health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism. There isn't a "nice" way to wage a counterinsurgency -- no matter how often we talk about "hearts and minds" -- which is why leaders ought to think long and hard before they order the military to occupy another country and try to remake its society. Or before they decide to escalate a war that is already underway.
And the sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first term. Yes, I know he promised to get out of Iraq and focus on Central Asia, but no president fulfills all his campaign promises (remember how he was going to close Gitmo?) and Obama could have pulled the plug on this failed enterprise at the start. Maybe he didn't for political reasons, or because commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal convinced him they could turn things around. Or maybe he genuinely believed that U.S. national security required an open-ended effort to remake Afghanistan.
Whatever the reason, he was wrong. The sad truth is that the extra effort isn't going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted. That was apparent before this weekend's events, which can only make our futile task even more impossible.
Here's what I wrote about this situation back in November 2009:
"America's odds of winning this war are slim. The Karzai government is corrupt, incompetent and resistant to reform. The Taliban have sanctuaries in Pakistan and can hide among the local populace, making it possible for them simply to outlast us. Pakistan has backed the Afghan Taliban in the past and is not a reliable partner now. Our European allies are war-weary and looking for the exits. The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a U.S. victory."
It didn't take a genius to see this, and I had lots of company in voicing my doubts. It gives me no pleasure to recall it now. Indeed, I wish the critics had been proven wrong and Obama, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al. had been proven right. I concede that the situation in Afghanistan may get worse after we depart, and the more civilians will die at the hands of the Taliban, or as a consequence of renewed civil war. But the brutal fact remains: the United States can't fix that country, it is not a vital U.S. interest that we try, and we should have been gone a long time ago.
One important thing to remember about the Annual Festival of Hyperbole (aka the AIPAC Policy Conference) is that the views of the attendees aren't representative of most Americans, let alone American Jewry, and that a lot of the speakers who are there to pay homage don't mean most of what they are saying. At least I hope not. President Obama walked a wobbly tightrope as well as one could have expected; the depressing feature is that he had to perform these sort of acrobatics at all. That's politics, folks.
Next up: Obama and Netanyahu meet at the White House. My basic take is that Netanyahu's view and Obama's view are essentially mirror-images of each other. Netanyahu says Iran is an "existential" threat to Israel, while he sees the Palestinians as just a problem to be managed. So he wants Iran's nuclear program ended, and by force if necessary, while the peace process drags on interminably. By contrast, Obama sees Iran as a problem to be managed through patient diplomacy, but he thinks the Palestinian issue is the real existential threat to Israel's future (and a continued liability for U.S. strategic interests). He'd like to put that one to rest ASAP, except that he's been forced to back down every time he's tried and he knows he can't say much about it between now and November.
Those interested in further reflections on this matter can take a look at this op-ed in the Financial Times, co-authored with John Mearsheimer.
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One of the nice things about being the world's only superpower is that United States gets to do certain things that it would object to if anybody tried to do them to us. A nice illustration of that tendency is the flap over the Egyptian government's recent decision to prevent employees of several global non-profits (including the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftuing) from leaving the country, amid a broader inquiry into their activities.
In the case of the NRI and IDI, these two groups are non-profit 501(c)3 organizations whose stated goal is to encourage democracy in other countries. They are supposedly "non-partisan"(even though one is labeled "Republican" and the other "Democratic"), and they get the bulk of their funding from the U.S. government (i.e., the State Department, AID, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc.).
IRI and NDI do a lot of fairly innocuous stuff, like teaching people in other countries the nuts and bolts of party organization, campaigning, election best practices, and the like. I don't have a big problem with that, and I agree with Tom Friedman and Mohamed El Dashan that the Egyptian decision to detain these employees is a dangerous bit of diplomatic brinksmanship. Moreover, some of the accusations lodged against these organizations are ridiculous, most notably the claim that they were advancing Zionist or "Jewish" interests. Statements by the Egyptian minister of planning Fayaz Abul Naga, the driving force behind the campaign, have been especially offensive and ill-informed, and tell you that bizarre conspiracy theories remain far too common in that part of the world.
But before we let our outrage overwhelm our judgment, we ought to ask ourselves how these organizations and their activities might look to officials and even some average citizens of other countries. We think that encouraging democracy is an innocuous or even wholly beneficial activity, because we are convinced it is the best form of government and that all societies will be better off if they adopt democratic systems. And maybe we're right. But if efforts to promote democracy destabilize an existing government, leading to political chaos and economic hardship, then you can understand why local authorities and some members of the population might look on this process rather differently.
This problem really shouldn't be all that hard for us to understand. During the Cold War, we thought Soviet support for communist parties in other countries was a dangerous form of subversion that showed just how aggressive those nasty Marxist-Leninists were. Heck, we even went through "Red Scares" in the 1920s and 1950s, based on grossly exaggerated claims that Commies were lurking everywhere. If we can spawn a Joe McCarthy, it shouldn't be hard to understand why ill-informed Egyptian officials might believe goofy conspiracy theories about the NGOs and their supposedly dangerous agenda?
Similarly, just imagine how we would react if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were openly funding a non-profit organization here in the United States, whose stated purpose was to spread the social welfare principles of the Brotherhood in under-served urban communities? If something like that were happening, I'll bet Pamela Geller and her followers would have a collective aneurysm, and people like Representative Peter King (R-NY) would be holding hearings about it on Capitol Hill.
Or what if China began expanding the activities of its various Confucius Institutes beyond language training and cultural exchange, and added courses on "The Superiority of Asian Values," and "The Virtues of One-State Capitalism?" What if some of their employees started reaching out to the Occupy Movement here in the United States, to suggest practical steps that this movement could use to promote greater economic equality? My guess is that Americans might find this more than a little troubling.
Bottom line: if you think promoting democracy is both morally right and strategically desirable in any and all circumstances, then you probably support everything that IRI, NDI and Freedom House do and you're willing to accept the fact that some governments won't like it. But let's at least be honest to admit that even the most innocuous forms of "democracy promotion" are intended to foster slow-motion regime change, and we shouldn't be especially surprised when other governments object.
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The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.
Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.
Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.
What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?
And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.
Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.
In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.
Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.
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Xi Jinping has been to Washington, and is now traipsing across the country. Apart from traffic snarls in Washington and some feel-good stories from Iowa, I wonder how significant the visit was, or whether this sort of tete-a-tete matters as much as we think.
I wasn't present for any of the private discussions, of course, and I have no idea what impression top U.S. officials took away from their exchanges. I know even less about what Xi or his entourage concluded from the exchanges. But here's why I'm inclined to downplay the significance of the visit.
First, as a good realist, I think that the basic state of Sino-American relations will be driven more by balances of power and configurations of interest than by the personalities of individual leaders. As I've noted before, if China continues to grow more powerful, Bejing and Washington will view each other with an increasingly wary eye and are likely to find more issues about which to conflict. A serious security competition -- especially in East Asia -- will be likely (which does not mean that war is inevitable or even likely, by the way). Again assuming China's continued ascent, I'm guessing this will occur no matter who is in power in each country.
The second reason I'm inclined to downplay this week's meeting has to do with timing. Assuming Xi does make it to the top of the Chinese hierarchy, he will only be president for a maximum of ten years. A lot can happen during his tenure, but China's overall power position isn't going overtake America's in that period and I believe the odds of a serious Sino-American quarrel will still be rather low while he is in office. The real test of Sino-American relations will still lie some distance into the future. As a result, what Xi's individual qualities and likely preferences matter somewhat less. (To the extent that they do, I'd argue that what really matters is Xi's ability to manage China's economy and its internal politics, not his views on specific foreign policy issues).
Third, although China remains an authoritarian state, its president is not an absolutist ruler. Whatever Xi's personal tendencies might be, he will be operating within a political system that will inevitably constrain what he's able to do. Again, that's not to say that his own character is irrelevant, only that its impact on actual policy will be warped, limited or shaped by other political forces.
The last reason why I'm inclined to discount the significance of this sort of visit is the fact that nobody can read minds. One can never be sure that you really know what someone else is thinking, especially in the sort of highly-scripted, read-your-talking-points type of sessions that predominate. You may be able to get a pretty good read on other leaders if you spend a lot of time with them (think of Reagan, Shultz and Gorbachev, Kissinger and Sadat, the interlocutors at Camp David in 1978, etc.) but that's not necessarily certain if you're dealing with someone who is a world-class dissimulator. So any impressions formed on this visit can only be provisional, which perforce lowers the value of the various exchanges.
Of course, the relative impact of individual, domestic, and international-structural causes is a long-running issue in the IR field (see under: level of analysis problem, or this classic work). I'm hardly going to resolve it in a single blog post. And to repeat: I'm not suggesting that leaders' personalities and propensities don't matter at all, or that they might not be extremely significant in certain circumstances. But on the whole, the rapt attention paid to high-profile visits of this sort is exaggerated, and especially right now. In other words, the future course of Sino-American relations is going to be determined primarily by enduring structural forces (or conceivably domestic interests), and not by whether Xi Jinping is smart, patient, risk-averse, impetuous, witty, cranky, brilliant, crafty, obtuse, ignorant, well-briefed, or whatever.
None of this is to argue against having top leaders in China and the United States get to know each other a bit better. And nothing will stop journalists (and bloggers!) from writing a lot of stories when they do explaining What It All Means. But in my case, I think it means less than you've been told up till now.
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Paul Pillar has a great piece up at The National Interest that illuminates just how nutty the present debate about war with Iran really is. And it got me thinking.
If a sensible Martian came down to Earth and looked at the sabre-rattling about Iran, I suspect he/she/it would be completely flummoxed. For our Martian visitor would observe two very capable states -- the United States and Israel -- threatening to attack a country that hardly seems worth the effort. The U.S. and Israel together spend more than $700 billion each year on their national security establishments; Iran spends about $10 billion. The U.S. and Israel have the most advanced military hardware in the world; Iran's weapons are mostly outdated and lack spare parts. The U.S. and Israeli militaries are well-educated and very well-trained; not true of Iran. The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and Israel has several hundred, while Iran has a vast arsenal of … zero. Iran does have a nuclear enrichment program (which is the reason for all the war talk), but the most recent National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that Iran does not presently have an active nuclear weapons program. The United States has several dozen military bases in Iran's immediate vicinity; Iran has exactly none in the Western hemisphere. The United States has powerful allies in every corner of the world; Iran's friends include a handful of minor nonstate actors like Hezbollah or minor-league potentates like Bashar al Assad (who's not looking like an asset these days) or Hugo Chávez.
Moreover, the United States has fought four wars since 1990. It has bombed, invaded or occupied a half dozen countries in that period, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. Israel has been colonizing the West Bank since 1967, it invaded and occupied much of Lebanon from 1982 to 1999, and its armed forces pummeled Lebanon again in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09. Prominent U.S. politicians have repeatedly called for "regime change" in Iran, and U.S. government officials now report that Israel has been murdering civilian scientists in Iran, in cahoots with the MEK, a terrorist organization that is still on the State Department's terrorist "watchlist." Iran's past conduct is far from pure, but it has done nothing remotely similar in recent years.
In fact, given the various threats now facing Tehran, our Martian friend might have trouble explaining why Iran's leaders hadn't gone all-out to get themselves some sort of WMD, merely as a deterrent. And yet it is the United States and Israel that profess themselves to be terribly, terribly worried about the supposed "threat" from Iran, and who are contemplating a preventive war that most observers realize would strengthen Iran's nuclear ambitions and could only delay its program for a couple of years.
Let's be clear: There's nothing to like about the current Iranian regime -- to include its clerical rulers, its buffoonish president, and the various thugs that keep the regime in power -- and I for one am very glad I live here and not there. Nonetheless, our Martian observer might have a lot of trouble figuring out why politicians in Washington and Jerusalem were so scared. In fact, he might very reasonably conclude that both states were losing all sense of perspective, and allowing the worst sort of worst-case analysis to cloud their thinking and cut off useful avenues of diplomatic engagement. And given that the United States likes to think of itself as the "leader of the free world" and is normally expected to exercise sound judgment on a host of complex issues, that possibility is not reassuring.
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Did last year's triumph in Libya help stymie efforts to forge an international consensus on Syria?
Some of you will have already seen FP colleagues Marc and Colum Lynch's excellent posts bemoaning the U.N. Security Council's inability to pass a resolution addressing the continuing violence on Syria. The proximate cause was a joint Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed resolution, ostensibly on the grounds that it was one-sided.
I think Marc is right to say that this lapse weakens the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council (SC). I place less weight on the SC than some commentators do, but even I don't think a weak and discredited SC is a good thing. I also agree that this development increases the danger of a prolonged conflict in Syria, and maybe even an internationalized civil war there.
There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.
You'll recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized military action in Libya to protect civilians. The resolution was directly inspired by the fear that Qaddafi loyalists laying siege to the rebel town of Benghazi were about to conduct some sort of massacre there. In response, Res. 1973 authorized member states "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." France, the United States and other foreign powers quickly went beyond this mandate, using airpower and other forms of assistance to help the rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi's forces and oust him from power.
One can argue that this was the right course of action anyway, because getting rid of a thug like Qaddafi was worth it. That's a debate for another day, although I would note in passing that post-Qaddafi Libya remains deeply troubled and the collapse of the regime seems to be fueling conflicts elsewhere. But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong: I shed no tears for Qaddafi or his family and I'd be delighted to see Bashar al-Assad gone in Syria. The Libya precedent is not the only reason why China and Russia dug in their heels, and I think their decision to veto the resolution could be costly for them. But it is both ironic and tragic that some of the most enthusiastic defenders of multilateralism and international law seem all too willing to ignore them when they get in the way of other things they want to do, however laudable the latter goal might be. But a commitment to multilateralism and international law is not something you can invoke when it suits you and ignore when it doesn't, at least not without paying a price. Powerful states like the United States can (and do) act with impunity on occasion, but they shouldn't be surprised when such behavior backfires later on.
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The drumbeats for war with Iran keep pounding, as you can read about here and here. There are some features of the campaign that are scarily (or maybe comically) reminiscent of 2002-2003 (as Glenn Greenwald documents here), but for now there's one key difference. Back in 2002, the neocon-heavy Bush administration led the charge to sell the invasion of Iraq. Today, by contrast, the case for war is being made primarily by other countries (i.e., Israel), or by assorted think tanks, lobbying groups, and national security commentators in the United States. The Obama administration isn't leading the campaign, having correctly concluded that a war is neither necessary nor wise. In particular, they do not seem to have bought into the rampant threat inflation that forms the core of the hawks' case for war.
But today I want to focus on another remarkable feature of this situation: the absence of any sort of meaningful diplomacy between the United States and the country whose citizens we would be attacking and killing if we were to launch a strike. The United States had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union from 1933 on, including the period when Joseph Stalin was murdering millions. We never broke relations with Moscow during the Cold War, even though the United States and USSR had thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at each other and were waging bloody proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East, and Africa. U.S. and Soviet leaders met repeatedly at summit meetings (some of them contentious), and U.S. and Soviet diplomats interacted more-or-less constantly on matters of mutual concern. The purpose of these various exchanges wasn't appeasement or even accommodation; we talked to them so that we could figure out what they thought, and so that we could explain our positions to them. It was important that each side know what the consequences of different courses of action might be, and sometimes that involved spelling it out for each other.
And what was the result? Not only were the two superpowers occasionally able to cooperate in mutually beneficial ways (i.e., managing crises, reducing nuclear risks, ending wars, etc.) but the United States eventually won the Cold War and presided over the Soviet Union's demise without triggering a direct U.S.-Soviet clash. Indeed, U.S. diplomats did a good job of picking Mikhail Gorbachev's pocket as the USSR imploded, in part because they had established a good working relationship with him. Furthermore, contacts between Russians and Americans seem to have helped thaw communist society, in part by teaching younger Soviet elites that the West was doing better and was not irrevocably hostile.
By contrast, the United States hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran for over three decades. That is a longer hiatus than occurred after either the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 or the communist seizure of power in China in 1949. Only a tiny handful of U.S. officials have direct experience with their Iranian counterparts. Few Americans have extensive dealings with Iranians, save for Iranian exiles who often have their own agendas. We don't have a good sense of where the different Iranian factions are, what they think, or how they might respond to different U.S. policies. Yet we blindly assume that there is no recourse but to sanction and maybe bomb them.
The Obama administration likes to portray itself as having "extended a hand of friendship" to Iran, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. Even now, we seem unable to offer Iran a "yessable" proposition, and we merely repeat our long-standing position it simply comply with our demands. The administration has done a good job of rounding up international support for its position, but isn't it ironic that we've devoted far more time and energy to that task, instead of exploring whether there might be a mutually acceptable solution to the current impasse itself.
The bottom line: I find it bizarre that anyone is seriously contemplating waging war on a country about whom we know so little and with whom we barely engage. And why do we know so little? Because we are too scared, or proud, or politically paralyzed to even talk to them. This is not the behavior one expects of a confident, mature great power: it is the behavior of a government that is either afraid it will get tricked by devious Persians, or that is more worried about domestic criticism than foreign consequences.
Winston Churchill has become something of an iconic figure among U.S. hardliners, including many in the vanguard of the war party. But it was Churchill who famously remarked that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." Rather than unleashing the U.S. Air Force, in short, how about unleashing our diplomats instead?
Oh, wait. It's an election year. Never mind.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the U.S. is going to step back from a combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013, and shift over to an "advise and assist role" instead. Assuming he means it, we'll be ending our combat role about a year before all U.S. troops are supposed to be out.
As regular readers know, I've favored a greatly reduced presence in Afghanistan for a long time, simply because I didn't think a COIN/nation-building campaign there was worth the costs, and because I don't think the outcome in Afghanistan makes much difference in the larger struggle against Al Qaeda. (In other words, I reject the "safe haven" justification for the war, largely because Al Qaeda has havens elsewhere and Afghanistan isn't an especially desirable one from their point of view).
But by a strange coincidence, we were discussing an aspect of this problem in my graduate course the very same day that Panetta made his announcement, in the context of a broader discussion on international cooperation. As some of you know, one of the basic principles of the literature on cooperation is that it is facilitated when there is a lengthy "shadow of the future." States are more likely to cooperate today if they anticipate being able to reap the benefits of cooperation far into the future; they will be leery of stiffing potential partners and foregoing that stream of long-term benefits.
What does this insight have to do with Afghanistan? Although I favor getting out as rapidly as possible, we ought to do so with the full knowledge that announcing a certain date (or even an approximate date) will reduce Afghan incentives to cooperate with us now and in the interim, and their incentive to cooperate will decline more and more as the date of withdrawal nears. Once they know that the stream of benefits is finite, they will be less willing to make adjustments or concessions to us in order to keep us in the fight. So by announcing we're leaving, Panetta was tacitly acknowledging that our leverage over the Afghan government is going to erode pretty quickly. Not that it was ever that great, of course.
Notice: This situation is different than trying to encourage greater Afghan cooperation by threatening to leave if they don't shape up, coupled with a credible promise to stay if they do. In this case, continued U.S. help would be conditional on Afghan cooperation and reform. But that's not what we're saying: Instead, we've made an essentially unconditional pledge to end our combat role (and eventually leave completely). In short: We've had enough of this war and are heading home, if not exactly briskly.
As I said, I think this is the right course of action. But actions have consequences, and we should be under no illusions about what it means for our ability to determine outcomes there. Washington still has a few cards to play (i.e., we can still empower different contenders by providing them with money, arms and training), but our long-term influence over decisions there is going to decline rapidly. But unless you're one of those people who thinks it's a good idea for Americans to try to steer the politics of an impoverished, deeply-divided Islamic country in the middle of Central Asia, this development really isn't so bad.
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As co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security, I couldn't be more delighted by the attention that Michael Beckley's article questioning China's rise (and America's supposed decline) is getting. See here, here, and here. But I fear that people who are seizing on Beckley's article to pooh-pooh fears of U.S. decline -- including our own Daniel Drezner -- are mostly asking the wrong question.
As I've noted elsewhere, the issue isn't whether the United States is about to fall the from the ranks of the great powers, or even be equaled (let alone surpassed) by a rising China. The world may be evolving toward a more multipolar structure, for example, but the United States is going to be one of those poles, and almost certainly the strongest of them, for many years to come.
Instead, the real issue is whether developments at home and overseas are making it harder for the United States to exercise the kind of dominant influence that it did for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The United States had a larger share of global GDP in the 1940s and 1950s, and it wasn't running enormous budget deficits. The United States was seen as a reliable defender of human rights, and its support for decolonization after World War II had won it many friends in the developing world. It also had good relations with a variety of monarchies and dictatorships, which it justified as part of the struggle against communism. These features allowed the United States to create and lead combined economic, security and political orders in virtually every corner of the world, except for the portions directly controlled by our communist rivals. And the U.S. and its allies eventually won that struggle too, driving the USSR into exhaustion and watching the triumph of market economies and more participatory forms of government throughout the former communist world.
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
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A few months ago, I offered up Five Reasons Why the U.S. Keeps Fighting All These Wars. One of those reasons was: "Because We Can." In today's guest post, Nuno Monteiro of Yale University offers an extended structural explanation for this tendency, attributing it primarily to the current condition of uni-polarity and the incentives its creates for the United States and for its various weaker adversaries. For the full version of his argument, consult the forthcoming issue of International Security.
Nuno P. Monteiro writes:
Twenty years ago this week, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Two years before, Moscow had dropped its geopolitical ambitions, allowing the Berlin Wall to fall peacefully. The United States had won the Cold War.
Since then, U.S. military power is unmatched. Because enemy airplanes rarely come close to U.S. jets, no active American pilot has achieved the five kills necessary for the honorific title of "ace". Likewise, the U.S. Navy is larger than all the other seventeen high-seas fleets combined. The two most effective non-U.S. land forces (the British and French armies) are roughly the size of the smallest branch of the U.S. military machine, its Marine Corps.
Has this unparalleled power allowed the United States to enjoy the much-touted peace dividend it earned by winning the Cold War? Is the United States better able to impose its will peacefully today than when Stalin blocked Berlin or Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba?
Many seem to think so. Writing in the New York Times a week ago, Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker argued that "war really is going out of style." In what concerns the United States, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The last two decades, less than ten percent of U.S. history, account for more than 25 percent of the nation's total wartime. Between the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Soviet demise, great powers were involved in wars on average one every six years. Since it became the sole superpower, the United States has been at war for more than half the time, or twelve out of twenty two years.
These wars in Kuwait (1991), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (2003-11) all resulted from other states not complying with U.S. demands. When threatened with U.S. military action, Slobodan Milosevic did not fold, the Taliban did not give in, nor did Saddam Hussein roll over. In contrast, the Soviet Union always took U.S. threats seriously. Despite its tremendous might, it refrained from taking West Berlin and withdrew its missiles from Cuba.
Why were U.S. threats heeded by the Soviet bear but now disregarded by secondary powers? Two explanations are commonly offered. The first is that the United States is militarily overextended. The second is that while the Soviets were evil but rational, today's enemies are irrational.
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Christmas is traditionally thought of as a season of peace. Warring nations sometimes declare a Christmas ceasefire, the Pope's Christmas message is ordinarily a call for peace, and around the world churchgoers will hear sermons and offer prayers for an end to violence. Even as we watch the continuing struggles in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Colombia, Somalia, and elsewhere, and even as the world's nations continue to devote more than one-and-a-half trillion dollars each year to preparations for war, billions of people remain united in the hope that such tragic waste will one day end.
This will be my last post before Christmas Day, and though I'm not a believer, today I'm thinking about peace. Realists are often portrayed as grim and gloomy hawks who believe that human beings can never fully overcome the insecurities of the state of nature, but that's a misleading caricature at best. True, realists are mindful of human frailties, convinced that the lack of a central authority in world affairs creates powerful incentives for states to compete, and aware that sometimes this competition leads to the use of force. But realists take no joy in this situation -- as John Mearsheimer emphasizes, this feature of power politics is a tragedy -- and realists are therefore deeply concerned with finding ways to keep these dangerous and destructive tendencies in check. Because realists appreciate the evils that war brings, it is hardly surprising that they have been at the forefront of opposition to foolish wars such as Vietnam or Iraq.
Given all we know about the costs and risks of war -- a lesson that the past decade should have seared into our collective consciousness -- what I find both striking and depressing is the enthusiasm that so many commentators still have for more of the same. We still have a chorus of pundits eager for war with Iran, for example, and there's another well-populated choir convinced that the answers to contemporary global problems are more drone strikes, more energetic use of special forces and covert action, and greater secrecy here at home.
And what is equally striking is that the goal of peace plays a miniscule role in contemporary political discourse. As my colleague Nicholas Burns points out in a must-read column in today's Boston Globe, with the exception of libertarian Ron Paul, none of the current presidential contenders have made peace a central theme in their campaign. It was not always this way: our first president, George Washington, once said that "My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth," and Abraham Lincoln understood that "war at the best is terrible." Woodrow Wilson may have lent his name to the sometimes overweening U.S. effort to spread democratic ideals around the globe, but he also warned his countrymen to exercise the "self-restraint of a truly great nation, which realizes its own power and scorns to misuse it." And let us not forget that Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew as much about war as any American, once remarked that "America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment."
Yet such sentiments seem notably absent in the hearts of those who now seek to be commander-in-chief, including the present incumbent. As Burns observes, even Obama's speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize was mostly a defense of the necessity of force. And today, most of the presidential aspirants seem more interested in convincing voters that they know how to channel their inner Rambo and that they will not hesitate to use force wherever and whenever they deem it necessary. Frankly, I'd be happier thinking that they would hesitate, and think twice -- or even thrice -- before sending the nation to another war.
Part of the problem, as the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, admitted a couple of years ago, is that a reputation for tough-minded hawkishness has become a prerequisite for advancement and credibility in the foreign-policy establishment. Think about it: even though the United States is probably the most secure great power in history, an ambitious up-and-coming policy wonk in D.C. is more likely to advance rapidly if he or she is a vocal proponent of using American power than if he or she is seen as skeptical or even somewhat averse to flexing U.S. military might at every occasion. And God forbid that someone who aspires to rise in Washington gets a reputation for being seriously interested in peace. That might get you a job at AID or at some left-wing think tank, but you aren't going to make a lot of short lists for State, Defense, or the NSC.
This tendency to reward bellicosity pervades our politics, and not in a good way. Look at the venom that pollutes talk radio, and the scorched-earth partisanship (mostly flowing from the GOP) that has paralyzed the legislative branch on a host of vital issues. Read the talk-backs on virtually any political website -- including this one -- and observe how brave commenters, safely cloaked in internet anonymity, devote hours to flinging vile insults at each other. Or consider the ease with which prominent figures here and abroad will condemn whole categories of people -- gays, Muslims, Jews, foreigners -- without having met a single one or taking any time to consider how the world might look from someone else's perspective. When one looks at political discourse -- even in America, this most secure and fortunate of countries -- it requires no great imagination to see why it is so hard to keep humans from fighting.
It is a discouraging picture, to be sure, but this is not the season for despair. For this week, at least, I choose to see the glass as half-full. This Christmas, I will reflect on the possibility that Steve Pinker, John Mueller, and others are right, and that humankind, for all its continued woes, is nonetheless moving away from its very violent past. I shall look for hopeful signs amid the tumult. I shall bask in the comforting embrace of family and friends, and think hard about what I can do better in the months and years ahead. I hope all of you do too. And whether you're someone who tends to nod in agreement when you read this blog, or someone who thinks I've yet to get anything right, may this season and the year to come bring you love, hope ... and peace.
And here, for your enjoyment, are two musical bonuses to accompany the title of this post:
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If you'd like to read a textbook example of war-mongering disguised as "analysis," I recommend Matthew Kroenig's forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs, titled "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option." It is a remarkably poor piece of advocacy, all the more surprising because Kroenig is a smart scholar who has done some good work in the past. It makes one wonder if there's something peculiar in the D.C. water supply.
There is a simple and time-honored formula for making the case for war, especially preventive war. First, you portray the supposed threat as dire and growing, and then try to convince people that if we don't act now, horrible things will happen down the road. (Remember Condi Rice's infamous warnings about Saddam's "mushroom cloud"?) All this step requires is a bit of imagination and a willingness to assume the worst. Second, you have to persuade readers that the costs and risks of going to war aren't that great. If you want to sound sophisticated and balanced, you acknowledge that there are counterarguments and risks involved. But then you do your best to shoot down the objections and emphasize all the ways that those risks can be minimized. In short: In Step 1 you adopt a relentlessly gloomy view of the consequences of inaction; in Step 2 you switch to bulletproof optimism about how the war will play out.
Kroenig's piece follows this blueprint perfectly. He assumes that Iran is hellbent on getting nuclear weapons (not just a latent capability to produce one quickly if needed) and suggests that it is likely to cross the threshold soon. Never mind that Iran has had a nuclear program for decades and still has no weapon, and that both the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb. He further assumes -- without a shred of evidence -- that a nuclear-armed Iran would have far-reaching geopolitical consequences. For example, he says that other states are already "shifting their allegiances to Tehran" but doesn't offer a single example or explain how these alleged shifts have anything to do with Iran's nuclear program.
He also declares, "With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war." Huh? If this bizarre fantasy were true, why couldn't the former Soviet Union do similar things during the Cold War, and why can't other nuclear powers make similar threats today when they don't like a particular American initiative? The simple reason is that threatening nuclear war against the United States is not credible unless one is willing to commit national suicide, and even Kroenig concedes that Tehran is not suicidal. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring attacks on one's own territory (and perhaps the territory of very close allies), but that's about it. They are not good for blackmail, coercive diplomacy, or anything else. And if Kroenig is right in warning that an Iranian nuclear weapon might lead others to develop them too, then Iran would end up being deterred by the United States, by Israel, and by some of its other neighbors too. (As I've noted before, Iran's awareness of this possibility may be one reason why Tehran has thus far stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold.)
Kroenig also declares that a nuclear-armed Iran would force the United States to "deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come." But why? Iran's entire defense budget is only about $10 billion per year (compared with the nearly $700 billion the United States spends on national defense), and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. Thus, contrary to what Kroenig thinks, containing/deterring Iran would not add much to U.S. defense burdens. The Persian Gulf is already an American lake (from a military point of view), and Washington already has thousands of nuclear weapons in its own arsenal. Given how weak Iran really is, containing or deterring them for the foreseeable future will be relatively easy.
The key point is that Kroenig offers up these lurid forecasts in a completely uncritical way. He never asks the probing questions that any security scholar with a Ph.D. should axiomatically raise and examine in a sophisticated manner. Instead, his article is a classic illustration of worst-case analysis, intended to make not going to war seem more dangerous than peace.
When he turns to the case for using force, however, Kroenig offers a consistently upbeat appraisal of how the war would go. (Needless to say, this is not the kind of analysis one would expect from a Georgetown professor.) He knows there are serious objections to his proposed course of action, and he works hard to come up with reasons why these concerns should be not be taken seriously. What if Iran has concealed some of its facilities? Such fears are overblown, he thinks, because our intelligence is really, really good. (Gee, where have we heard that before?) What about facilities that are hardened or defended? Not an insurmountable obstacle, he maintains, and in any case there are plenty of other facilities that are aboveground and vulnerable.
Isn't there a danger of civilian casualties? Well, yes, but "Washington should be able to limit civilian casualties in any campaign." What if Iran escalates by firing missiles at U.S. allies, ordering its proxies to attack Israel, or closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipments? Not to worry, says Kroenig, "None of these outcomes is predetermined," and the United States "could do much to mitigate them." (Of course, none of the scary outcomes that Kroenig says would accompany an Iranian bomb are "predetermined" either.) Doesn't starting a war increase the risk of regional conflict, especially if Iran retaliates and Americans or Israelis die? Maybe, but not if the United States makes its own "redlines" clear in advance and if it takes prudent steps to "manage the confrontation." To do this we have to be willing to "absorb Iranian responses that [fall] short of these redlines" and reassure the mullahs that we aren't trying to overthrow them (!). Bombing another country is a peculiar way to "reassure" them, of course, and it's a bit odd to assume that those wicked Iranians will be cooperative and restrained as the bombs rain down. Won't Iran just reconstitute its nuclear program later, and possibly on a crash basis? It might, but Kroenig says that we would have bought time and that whacking the Iranians really hard right now might convince them to give up the whole idea. Or not.
You see the pattern: When Kroenig is trying to justify the need for war, he depicts an Iran with far-reaching capabilities and dangerously evil intentions in order to convince readers that we have to stop them before it is too late. But when he turns to selling a preventive war, then suddenly Iran's capabilities are rather modest, its leaders are sensible, and the United States can easily deal with any countermeasures that Iran might take. In other words, Kroenig makes the case for war by assuming everything will go south if the United States does not attack and that everything will go swimmingly if it does. This is not fair-minded "analysis"; it is simply a brief for war designed to reach a predetermined conclusion.
And let's be crystal clear about what Kroenig is advocating here. He is openly calling for preventive war against Iran, even though the United States has no authorization from the U.N. Security Council, it is not clear that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, and Iran has not attacked us or any of our allies -- ever. He is therefore openly calling for his country to violate international law. He is calmly advocating a course of action that will inevitably kill a significant number of people, including civilians, some of whom probably despise the clerical regime (and with good reason). And Kroenig is willing to have their deaths on his conscience on the basis of a series of unsupported assertions, almost all of them subject to serious doubt.
Kroenig tries to allay this concern by saying that the main victims of a U.S. attack would be the "military personnel, engineers, scientists, and technicians" working at Iran's nuclear facilities. But even if we assume for the moment that this is true, would he consider Iran justified if it followed a similar course of action, to the limited extent that it could? Suppose a bright young analyst working for Iran's Revolutionary Guards read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs and concluded that there were well-connected people at American universities and in the Department of Defense who were actively planning and advocating war against Iran. Suppose he further concluded that if these plans are allowed to come to fruition, it would pose a grave danger to the Islamic Republic. Iran doesn't have a sophisticated air force or drones capable of attacking the United States, so this bright young analyst recommends that the Revolutionary Guards organize a covert-action team to attack the people who were planning and advocating this war, and to do whatever else they could to sabotage the forces that the United States might use to conduct such an attack. He advises his superiors that appropriate measures be taken to minimize the loss of innocent life and that the attack should focus only on the "military and civilian personnel" who were working directly on planning or advocating war with Iran. From Iran's perspective, this response would be a "preventive strike" designed to forestall an attack from the United States. Does Kroenig think a purely preventive measure of this kind on Iran's part would be acceptable behavior? And if he doesn't, then why does he think it's perfectly OK for us to do far more?
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Back in August 2010, I wrote a post warning about the possibility that war with Iran was being "mainstreamed." My concern was the likelihood that incessant talk of war would gradually accustom people to the idea and harden perceptions to the point that eventually even former skeptics would be convinced that war was inevitable and that we might as well get it over with. As I put it back then:
If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
I now wonder if my concerns were understated, and the danger a bit more subtle. It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. Earlier this week, the CIA lost a reconnaissance drone over Iranian territory (whether Iran shot it down or not is disputed). And just as I'd feared, this situation has led smart and normally sober people like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen to endorse this shadowy campaign, on the grounds that it is preferable to all-out war.
I certainly agree that what the United States is doing is better than launching an all-out attack, but I question this approach on three grounds. First, as I've already argued elsewhere, our preoccupation with Iran vastly overstates its capabilities and the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Iran is a minor military power at present, and it has no meaningful power projection capabilities. It has been pursuing some sort of nuclear capability for decades without getting there, which makes one wonder whether Iran intends to ever cross the nuclear weapons threshold. Even if it did, it could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else. Iran's "revolutionary" ideology is old and tired and inspires no one. The "Arab Spring" has underscored Iran's irrelevance as a political force, Iran's Syrian ally is under siege and may yet fall, and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will remove a key source of Iranian-Iraqi solidarity and encourage Arab-Persian differences to reemerge once again. Iran is a problem but a relatively minor one, and it is a sign of our collective strategic myopia that U.S. leaders either cannot figure this out or cannot say so openly.
Second, waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery. Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.
Third, a semi-secret war of this kind raises the inevitable risk of "blowback." The late Chalmers Johnson defined blowback as the unintended consequences of U.S. action abroad, and especially those actions of which the public is largely unaware. When we conduct semi-secret, not-quite wars in other countries, the targets sometime try to hit us back. When they do, many people back home will see their actions as unjustified aggression, and as evidence that our enemies are irrevocably hostile and unremittingly evil.
A case in point is the alleged Iranian plot to get Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Americans immediately concluded that this scheme was a sign of dastardly Iranian perfidy, when it might just as easily have been a harebrained Iranian riposte to what we were already doing. This is not to say that Iran was justified in trying to blow up a building in our nation's capital, but by what logic is peace-loving America justified in doing something similar over in Iran? In short: If the American people don't quite know what their government is up to, they cannot understand or interpret what other states are doing either. We may have good reasons not to like what others are doing, but the bigger danger is that we simply won't understand it, and won't understand our own role in helping bring such actions about.
Lastly, ratcheting up military pressure -- even if done covertly and at a relatively low level -- can only reaffirm deeply rooted Iranian suspicions of the United States and prolong U.S.-Iranian animosity. (The same is true in reverse, of course). I'm under no illusions about the depths of this animosity and the degree of skill, imagination, and patience it would take to unravel it, but doing more of the same is not going to make it any easier. Yes, many Iranians loathe the regime and would like it to go, but that doesn't mean they welcome U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iranian soil. And that is especially true of attacks on the nuclear program, which Iranians of many political persuasions view as an important symbol of national pride.
In short, the "silent campaign" against Iran is not without its own risks and costs. It is preferable to all-out attack, but a silent war and an all-out war are not the only options. The third option is a sustained and patient effort to reengage with Iran, in order to convince Iranian leaders that they are better off not going nuclear and that both sides will be better off if we can gradually work out some of our differences. Such an approach does not require the United States to sacrifice any core interests, nor would it preclude continuing to press Iran on its human rights record and on other matters that trouble us. And maybe it won't work. But as Trita Parsi shows in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice, that alternative approach has never really been tried.
A perennial preoccupation of U.S. diplomacy has been the perceived need to reassure allies of our reliability. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders worried that any loss of credibility might cause dominoes to fall, lead key allies to "bandwagon" with the Soviet Union, or result in some form of "Finlandization." Such concerns justified fighting so-called "credibility wars" (including Vietnam), where the main concern was not the direct stakes of the contest but rather the need to retain a reputation for resolve and capability. Similar fears also led the United States to deploy thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, as a supposed counter to Soviet missiles targeted against our NATO allies.
The possibility that key allies would abandon us was almost always exaggerated, but U.S. leaders remain overly sensitive to the possibility. So Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the road this past week, telling various U.S. allies that "the United States isn't going anywhere." (He wasn't suggesting we're stuck in a rut, of course, but saying that the imminent withdrawal from Iraq doesn't mean a retreat to isolationism or anything like that.)
There's nothing really wrong with offering up this sort of comforting rhetoric, but I've never really understood why U.S. leaders were so worried about the credibility of our commitments to others. For starters, given our remarkably secure geopolitical position, whether U.S. pledges are credible is first and foremost a problem for those who are dependent on U.S. help. We should therefore take our allies' occasional hints about realignment or neutrality with some skepticism; they have every incentive to try to make us worry about it, but in most cases little incentive to actually do it.
Don't get me wrong: having allies around the world is useful and some attention needs to be paid to preserving intra-alliance solidarity, especially when the ally in question does have important things that we want or need. But an excessive concern for credibility encourages and enables allies to free-ride (something most of them have done for decades), and it can lead Washington to keep pouring resources into shaky endeavors lest allies elsewhere doubt our resolve.
This logic is wrong-headed, because squandering billions on fruitless endeavors (see under: Afghanistan) ultimately leaves one weaker overall and eventually diminishes public support for active engagement abroad. By contrast, liquidating a costly burden enables you to rebuild and regroup and puts you in a better position to respond in places that matter. The real message that Biden and other U.S. representatives should be telling their listeners is that getting out of Iraq (and eventually Afghanistan) is going to improve America's ability to protect its real interests, and that important U.S. allies need not be that concerned.
More importantly, worrying a bit less about our credibility and "playing hard to get" on occasion would have real benefits. If other states were a bit less confident that the United States would come to their aid if asked, they would be willing to do more to ensure that we would. If key U.S. allies are not entirely convinced of U.S. support no matter what they did, they would be less likely to engage in dangerous or provocative acts of their own. Moreover, playing "hard to get" reduces the likelihood that the United States will be perceived as a trigger-happy global policeman. As the cases of the Balkans in the 1990s and the recent Libyan intervention illustrate, when Washington is more reluctant to take on collective burdens, it ends up being appreciated (and less feared) when it finally does get involved. Thus, worrying a bit less about U.S. credibility is a way to get others to do more, and to resent what we do less.
To be clear: I'm not saying the United States should cultivate a reputation for unreliability or capriciousness. It should make commitments that are consistent with its interests and, so long as those interests do not change, it should do its best to fulfill the pledges it has made. But it ought to be hardheaded about this process, and proceed from the clear understanding that most of our allies need us more than we need them (at least most of the time). There will still be hard bargaining on occasion, a need for constructive and empathetic diplomacy, and there is little to be gained from treating our allies with visible disdain. But the United States still holds a lot of high cards, and we should expect allies to spend as much time reassuring us that they are worth the effort as we do reassuring them.
J. Scott Applewhite/AFP/Getty Images
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that "offshore balancing" was a grand strategy whose time had come. My evidence at the time was the fact that Tom Friedman of the New York Times, previously an enthusiastic proponent of using American power to police the world and transform the Middle East, was now endorsing some of the key principles of offshore balancing. Now another recovering liberal interventionist, Peter Beinart, has written a column for the Daily Beast arguing that "offshore balancing" is the strategy that the Obama administration has adopted and offering a qualified endorsement of it.
On the one hand, it's gratifying to see another mainstream pundit embrace a strategy that is long overdue. But it is also troublesome that neither Friedman nor Beinart bothered to mention any of the people who have been championing this approach for a decade or more, including Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Robert Pape, Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Porter, and yours truly.
The omission may just be due to carelessness or haste, but it is not without consequences. By ignoring these (mostly) realist scholars who were among the earliest critics of neoconservative excesses (excesses that Beinart and many others once supported) and who have also been the principal advocates of a different approach to American grand strategy, Beinart's essay helps ensure that foreign-policy debates in the U.S. remain confined within rather narrow circles.
As I've observed elsewhere, a striking feature of our contemporary foreign-policy debates is the rather modest role that realists play in policymaking circles or in mainstream commentary. Neoconservatives are still highly influential despite a steady litany of failures, and liberal internationalists dominate the Democratic Party's foreign-policy establishment despite a mixed track record. By contrast, genuine realists remain something of an endangered species inside the Beltway, even though they were once important players in foreign-policy circles and even though "realism" is a respected theoretical perspective within the academic study of international relations. Yet there is no genuine realist writing on a regular basis for any of the major news outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. (If you want to know how marginal realists have become, consider the frightening possibility that this rather modest blog might be the most visible mainstream outlet for more-or-less realist commentary.)
Of course, my point is not that realists get everything right, though our track record is pretty good. My point is that a realist perspective on U.S. foreign policy ought to get more attention than it typically does these days.
Beinart is a smart and independent thinker, and he deserves credit for recognizing where things are now headed and for calling his readers' attention to it. But he doesn't fully grasp some of the essential features of offshore balancing. His (and Obama's) version of this strategy remains highly interventionist; the only difference is that Washington now uses drones, cruise missiles, and special forces instead of large land armies. But we are still violating other states' sovereignty and killing terrorists and civilians in several different places, including some areas that are hardly vital interests. As we are witnessing in Pakistan, this approach is inflaming anti-Americanism, radicalizing the Pakistani diaspora, jeopardizing the overdue effort to leave Afghanistan, and quite possibly making the terrorism problem worse over time. And Obama and Beinart's version of the strategy still assumes that it is America's responsibility to solve security problems in places like Yemen or Central Asia, instead of relying primarily on others to do it.
Beinart also believes one of offshore balancing's limitations is that "it requires abandoning the idea that via nation building the U.S. can remake other societies." Offshore balancers do not see eschewing nation-building as a "limitation" but rather as an acknowledgement that outside intervention and foreign occupation are not good ways to move societies in a positive direction. On the contrary, realists believe that the United States is more likely to move the world in the right direction by offering a powerful and positive example to the world, an example that others admire and seek to emulate over time. Hence their concern that excessive global adventurism has fueled anti-Americanism in many places, inflated the influence of the military-industrial complex, led to torture and other violations of U.S. ideals, and gradually undermined civil liberties back home.
Beinart is also somewhat critical of allying with states that have questionable democratic credentials, which is sometimes necessary to preserve favorable balances of power in key regions. But we should not forget that the United States has done this throughout its history and benefited from many of these partnerships. Alliances with fellow democracies might be preferable (though some of them can cause problems too), but international politics is a contact sport and even powerful states cannot afford to be overly choosy when selecting allies and partners.
Finally, Beinart depicts offshore balancing as a strategy that has been forced upon us largely by fiscal constraints. In his words, "offshore balancing reemerges when the money and bravado have run out." He's correct that our economic woes have pushed the United States towards this more sensible strategy, but that does not mean we should go back on the interventionist warpath if we ever get our fiscal house in order. The interventionist approach that the U.S. followed from 1992 onward -- and especially after 2001 -- was a blunder even when our economy was healthy and the budget was in surplus, because it embroiled us in costly conflicts that were very hard to win and did not advance core U.S. interests anyway. Had we followed more realistic prescriptions after 1992 -- limiting or forgoing NATO expansion, rejecting "dual containment" and "regional transformation" in the Middle East, playing "hard to get" a bit more with key allies, and acting as an evenhanded mediator in the Oslo Process, etc. -- the United States might not have been attacked on 9/11 and would certainly have avoided the costly quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. We might even have achieved the ever-elusive two-state solution in the Middle East, though it is impossible to say that for certain.
The key point is that offshore balancing is the right strategy even when our coffers are full, provided that no peer competitors are threatening to dominate key strategic regions. Even during good times, it makes no sense to take on unnecessary burdens or to allow allies to free-ride on Uncle Sam's hubristic desire to be the "indispensable nation" in almost every corner of the world. In other words, offshore balancing isn't just a strategy for hard times; it is also the best available strategy in a world where the United States is the strongest power, prone to trigger unnecessary antagonism, and vulnerable to being dragged into unnecessary wars.
As I wrote back in 2005 (p. 223):
Offshore balancing is the ideal grand strategy for an era of U.S primacy. It husbands the power on which U.S. primacy depends and minimizes the fear that U.S. power provokes. By setting clear priorities and emphasizing reliance on regional allies, it reduces the danger of being drawn into unnecessary conflicts and encourages other states to do more to help us. Equally important, it takes advantage of America's favorable geopolitical position and exploits the tendency for regional powers to worry more about each other than about the United States. But it is not a passive strategy, and does not preclude using the full range of U.S. power to advance core American interests.
I cannot help but wonder how much better off we would be today had the United States followed this basic blueprint over the past two decades, instead of indulging in a series of misguided interventions around the globe.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Needless to say, winning an online poll like this doesn't tell you much (anything?) about the relative merits of the different nominated articles. For all I know, I was the only person to mention it on a blog, which might well explain the outcome. I've spent some time reading the other articles in the contest and I commend them to you: there are some pretty interesting and wide-ranging pieces in the group.
Again, my thanks to any of you who voted, and I promise I won't let it go to my head. And I'm even more grateful for the responses to my earlier request for help on things to read on the general topic of policy analysis.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
It's Thanksgiving once again, and it's become something of a ritual for me to record what I'm feeling grateful for each year. For starters, I want to thank the various people who responded to my request for advice on "policy analysis" yesterday, both via the "comments" section and to me directly. I got some very good suggestions, and I appreciate the help. Whether my students will be similarly appreciative remains to be seen.
This year, I'm thankful that the euro hasn't collapsed - yet -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't. It's true that the unraveling of the eurozone would be a striking vindication of a broadly realist view of international relations, but it would also produce tremendous human suffering and that's way too big a price to pay to vindicate a theory. So I hope Europe's leaders manage to defy my usual pessimism and navigate through the crisis. If they do, I'll be even more thankful next year.
I'm also grateful that there's been no war with Iran. Whatever the Obama administration's other shortcomings might have been, those at the top seem to have understood the folly and futility of unleashing major military action against Iran. I won't give them high marks for imaginative diplomacy, but at least they haven't done great harm.
I'm also giving thanks that the United States is getting out of Iraq, and I wish I could believe that we will draw the right long-term lessons from the debacle. On that score, it is not a good sign that many of the architects of that war are still taken seriously as foreign policy "experts," and some are even advising GOP candidates. Doesn't say much for our national learning curve, does it? But even if historical amnesia sets in quickly, I'm pleased that we are finally leaving Iraq to its own leaders. Now if we can just draw a similar conclusion about that other exercise in imperial futility ... Afghanistan.
Like nearly everyone, I'm troubled by the continued turmoil in Egypt and by the Assad regime's brutal behavior in Syria. But I'm thankful that the situation in Libya has thus far defied my worst fears and made at least some modest progress toward the establishment of a more legitimate political order. The capture of former heir-apparent (and accused war criminal) Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and former security head Abudullah al-Senussi pretty much eliminates any possibility of a "loyalist" insurgency, which is a good sign too. The country still has a long way to go, but I will be keeping my fingers crossed.
On a purely personal note, I'm thankful for the courageous policy analysts, writers and bloggers who make it easier for me to do this blog. I'm talking about people who seek puncture conventional wisdom, challenge orthodoxies, and rock the boat on occasion. I value them because they are an antidote to the flood of cautious semi-official narratives that dominate most of the writing on foreign policy, and so they help me think outside the box. So heartfelt thanks to Carl Conetta, Phil Weiss, Juan Cole, Gordon Adams, Martin Wolf, Jerry Haber, Uri Avnery, Jim Lobe, Helena Cobban, Glenn Greenwald, M. J. Rosenberg, John Mueller, Andrew Sullivan, Spencer Ackerman, Jerry Slater, Gideon Rachman, and many others too numerous to list or even remember. I don't know a lot of the people just mentioned, and I don't always agree with any of them. Heck, I don't always agree with this guy either. But I'm glad they are doing what they do.
Of course, I cannot omit my annual word of thanks to the whole gang at FP, including the reporters, writers, and bloggers with whom I've occasionally tussled. The editors remain a delight with whom to work, and it's been a pleasure to be part of their team. And because all bloggers ultimately depend on readers, I'm especially grateful for those of you who take the time to read this stuff.
With each passing year, I've become more aware and more appreciative of my own good fortune. It's been a pretty soft gig to be born a white American male in the mid-1950s, in a country enjoying enormous geopolitical advantages and considerable prosperity. I like to think I've done ok with the advantages I was handed, and there's no doubt that the deck was stacked in my favor from the start. And that goes for a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries too.
More broadly, if you compare the era in which most of us have lived to the previous fifty years (1900-1950), there's little question that we've enjoyed a period of comparative benevolence. The first half of the 20th century witnessed two enormously destructive world wars, the worst economic depression in history, and several brutal genocides. The past sixty years has its own share of tragedies, to be sure, but the overall level of violence was much lower, economic growth was fairly steady (until recently), and many of us never had to endure the insecurities, travesties, and sacrifices that earlier generations experienced or that were still common in other parts of the world.
Most Americans ought to be especially grateful for their extraordinary good fortune, and Thanksgiving is an appropriate time for us to reflect upon it. And as I watch Europe teeter on the brink of financial collapse, observe the violent political contestation that is sweeping the Middle East, note the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia, and contemplate the tragicomic follies of our so-called leaders in Washington, I do wonder how long it will last, and whether I will look back with regret at the tranquility we have lost.
But tomorrow, I will give thanks for the good that remains, and think about what can still be done to preserve and extend it.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
There's a must-read
op-ed in today's New York Times by
Yan Xuetong, the dean of the School of Modern International Relations as
Tsinghua University. Writing as a self-described "realist," Yan
acknowledges that the emerging Sino-American competition is a zero-sum game (an
idea deemed politically incorrect by many inside-the-Beltway), and plainly states
that "competition between the United States and China is inevitable."
He approvingly quotes past Chinese sages as emphasizing that "the key to
international influence was political power."
Part of the novelty in Yan's essay is his emphasis on political morality. Power is critical, he says, but "the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership." Accordingly, the future struggle between the United States and China will be won by the government that best demonstrates what he terms "humane authority," which is material power fused with moral principle. In his words, "states relying on military or economic power without concern for morally informed leadership are bound to fail." Even more interestingly, he says the essential "humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad."
There's a lot of wisdom in this essay, as well as a subtle warning. On the one hand, Yan offers a neat summary of America's current advantages over China: our model of governance, tarnished though it is, is still more attractive than Chinese-style authoritarianism. America's past efforts to stabilize key regions have won it a large array of allies around the world, although these ties have been weakened by a decade of folly and misplaced aggression. U.S. society remains far more open to talented immigrants, such as AIDs researcher David Ho, journalist Fareed Zakaria, the late General John Shalikashvili, or former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and State Madeleine Albright. Yan offers a set of prescriptions clearly intended for Chinese readers: the country must assume more global responsibilities, open itself up to talented individuals from overseas, and "develop more high-quality diplomatic relationships."
But on the other hand, Yan also believes China "needs to create additional regional security arrangements with surrounding countries," and says its leaders "must play a larger role on the world stage and offer more security protection and economic support to less powerful countries." These words sound innocuous, but they actually reflect China's understandable desire to create a sphere of influence in key areas, and especially in East and Southeast Asia. Why should countries like South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or Indonesia maintain security ties with the United States, if Beijing is willing to offer beneficial economic ties and "protection?"
This is what all great powers tend to do as they grow stronger: they extend "protection" to weaker states in their vicinity in order to make sure that those states adopt foreign policies that do not threaten the larger power's interests. ("Hmmmm. Nice country you've got there. Would hate to see anything happen to it.") This doesn't mean China wants to conquer its neighbors or incorporate them into a formal empire, because that would be hard to do in an era of nationalism and wouldn't be worth the effort. Instead, the long-term goal is merely to ensure that its weaker neighbors defer to Chinese interests on key issues, including the future role of the United States in the region.
And as I outlined last week, that is why Sino-American competition in the years ahead is going to be primarily a competition for allies. Yan maintains that "there is little danger of military clashes" and that "neither China nor America needs proxy wars to protect its strategic interests." He's right in theory -- neither state needs such things and both would do well to avoid them -- but that is no guarantee that they won't happen anyway.
And to bring this full circle: that is why the latest episode of Congressional dysfunction -- the failure of the inaptly named "supercommittee" -- is so worrisome. The United States possesses the basic ingredients needed to more than hold its own in a future competition with China -- a competition that is already underway -- were it not for our growing talent for podiatric marksmanship (i.e., shooting ourselves in the foot). Whether the issue is the GOP's stalwart effort to protect the super-wealthy, the bipartisan commitment to throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan, or the gradual hollowing out of the essential sinews of an advanced society (schools, roads, power grids, transport hubs, etc.), it is clear that our problem is not a rising China. On the contrary, the real problem is a befuddled and aimless political class, comprised of men and women lacking knowledge, accountability, political courage, or any genuine commitment to the common weal. What they've got in spades is personal ambition, but not much else. If "morally informed leadership" is a prerequisite for success, then we are in big trouble.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.