In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):
The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.
This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.
As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.
Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.
Amos BenGershom/GPO via Getty Images
The New York Times reports that the United States is planning to beef up its security ties in the Gulf, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq. On the one hand, this makes sense given global dependence on stable oil exports from the Gulf region and the damage that the war in Iraq has done to the strategic balance there. On the other hand, a large ground or air force presence in the region is precisely the sort of thing that invites accusations of Western "imperialism," and puts the United States in a close embrace with regimes like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain. One could argue that this is one of those places where strategic necessity requires us to compromise the idealistic commitment to democracy, human rights, and other desirable things like that.
There is little question that the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 weakened our strategic position and bolstered Iran's. As the Times story makes clear, some hardliners now complain that Obama's decision to cut our (considerable) losses in Iraq will undermine U.S. interests even more. That's what I'd expect them to say, but there are good reasons to question that judgment (and not just because these same hardliners have been wrong so often in the past). In fact, withdrawal from Iraq could actually bolster our strategic position in other ways, mostly by encouraging greater frictions between Iraq and Iran.
Ever since 2003, the U.S. presence in Iraq has reinforced cooperation between Iran and some significant portions of Iraq's Shiite community, and especially those elements (such as Muktada al Sadr's Mahdi Army) who really wanted the United States to get out. But once we withdraw, then it is far from obvious that the bulk of Iraqis -- including most Iraqi leaders -- will want to become a satrap for Iran. It's true that the Sunni-Shiite divide provides Iran with some avenues of influence in Iraq society, but there's also the enduring division between Arabs and Persians and Iraq's overriding interest in not allowing Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Gulf region. Let's not forget that the two countries fought a brutal and costly war for most of the 1980s, and plenty of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites killed each other during that conflict.
The Indochina war offers an obvious historical analogy. One of the reasons the United States fought there for so long was the familiar domino theory -- the dubious idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would trigger a cascade of falling dominos and undermine the entire US position in Asia (and possibly elsewhere). But when the United States finally got out, the exact opposite thing happened: none of our other Asian allies abandoned us and China and Vietnam had a rapid falling-out that led to war between the two communist states in 1979. And over time, of course, China abandoned Maoism and Vietnam grew more and more interested in better relations with America. And let's not forget that fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash-heap of history. Once we stopped pouring troops and bombs into Indochina, in short, our strategic position began to improve and we could focus on the more serious aspects of Cold War competition.
In short, if you really think Iran is a threat to dominate the Gulf region, and if you also believe that states tend to balance against threatening powers instead of band-wagoning with them, then you should also expect the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to encourage more regional powers--including Iraq--to take actions to limit Iranian power and influence. And that might also include being a bit more favorably inclined toward the United States, despite all the other things we do that tick off people in that part of the world. That could be why we're getting a positive response to these new initiatives, and that's why getting out of Iraq may actually bolster our overall strategic position.
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I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I'm leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don't get a life. So I'm a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner's reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama's foreign policy. If we're not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke ... and before long you will all be asleep.
That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama's foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).
In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you're considering. I've argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas -- consistent with my TNI piece -- and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I've argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn't a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it's just too soon to tell.
In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he's played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he's also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn't have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.
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Today I'd like to bring to your attention two recent
articles on America's role in the world. Although written from somewhat
different perspectives, they reach similar conclusions. This isn't surprising,
as both authors write from an essentially realist perspective.
The first article, entitled "The End of the American Era," is by yours truly, and you can find it in the latest issue of The National Interest. My core argument is that the era when the United States could manage political, economic, and security orders in almost every part of the world simultaneously is a thing of the past, due primarily to the rise of new power centers and several serious self-inflicted wounds. Although the United States will remain the most powerful state in the world for many years, these developments require a different approach to grand strategy. Here's a taste:
Above all, Washington needs to set clear priorities and to adopt a hardheaded and unsentimental approach to preserving our most important interests. When U.S. primacy was at its peak, American leaders could indulge altruistic whims. They didn't have to think clearly about strategy because there was an enormous margin for error; things were likely to work out even if Washington made lots of mistakes. But when budgets are tight, problems have multiplied and other powers are less deferential, it's important to invest U.S. power wisely. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates put it: "We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people . . . a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things." The chief lesson, he emphasized, was the need for "conscious choices" about our missions and means. Instead of trying to be the "indispensable nation" nearly everywhere, the United States will need to figure out how to be the decisive power in the places that matter.
The second article, "The Incapacitation of U.S. Statecraft and Diplomacy," is by Amb. Chas Freeman, and is published in the Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Freeman is one of the country's most incisive and wide-ranging strategic thinkers, and the piece is a tour de force of clear-eyed analysis and sharp writing. Here's how he begins:
The United States has long been the wealthiest and among the most assertive of the world's great powers.1 Over the century since the First World War, the United States' wealth - combined with the global appeal of its constitutional democracy and its unparalleled capacity to project military power to the most distant corners of the world - made it the central actor in defining a succession of ‘world orders'. The challenge to play this role is once again before the United States.
After the Second World War, the United States famously exemplified enlightened
internationalism. In consultation with Europeans, Americans led the way in the creation of successful new institutions, programmes and rules of international behaviour. The result was an ‘American half century' - Pax Americana in the space beyond the Soviet orbit. But the United States' diplomatic response to the challenge to lead global change has often fallen short.2 The current situation is a case in point, involving multiple failures of global governance amid rapid shifts in economic and political power.
In the post-Cold War era, the United States has yet to outline any principles, articulate any vision, or formulate any strategy for the reform of international institutions and practices, fiscal and monetary adjustments, or military retrenchment. So far, the United States has cast itself as the military defender of vested interests in a crumbling status quo rather than as the crafter of a new strategic order or a more effective international system. Why is this so? What might stimulate US strategic repositioning and leadership of the global response to change? What would it take to restore such leadership?
I believe the recommendations in these two articles point the way forward, and the United States is bound to move in this direction eventually. The question is not whether we will move to a smarter and more selective grand strategy; the only interesting question is how soon.
Explanatory Note: A few weeks ago, I offered some comments on John Ikenberry's new book Liberal Leviathan, based on a panel discussion from the September 2011 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. John asked if he could offer a response, and I readily agreed. Here is his reply.
John Ikenberry writes:
I thank Steve for allowing me to share some ideas from my new book, Liberal Leviathan. In an earlier post, Steve offered some thoughtful comments on the book, focusing on my "grand narrative" of America's impact on world politics. I clearly have a more positive view of America's "liberal accomplishment" over the last hundred years than Steve. Steve sees my portrait of the America-led liberal order as normative; it is more ideal than real. Where I see America generating public goods and pushing and pulling states in the direction of an open, rule-based order, Steve sees a profoundly unruly America that has inflicted violence and disorder on the global system. It is not that the United States is unusually malevolent as a great power on the global stage, Steve argues. Indeed that is Steve's point -- the U.S. is just not "exceptional." I have several responses to Steve, but my bottom line is: the U.S. may not be "exceptional," but in world historical terms it is pretty unusual - unusual in finding itself with repeated opportunities to shape world politics (1919, 1945, 1991, and again today), and unusual in the ideas, interests, and strategies that it has brought to these ordering moments. A distinctive sort of global order took shape in the shadow of American postwar power, and -- on balance -- this has been a good thing for the world, at least when compared to past (Soviet, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan) and imagined (China) alternatives.
First, let me say something about the book's argument. At one level, the book is a scholarly work on the theory of international order -- the rise and fall of international orders, the various ways that states have built international order, and the particular character and logic of liberal international order. Liberal international order is order that is open and at least loosely rules-based. The book offers a theoretical account of why powerful states might want to build order with liberal characteristics and I explore the various "versions" of liberal international order that were pursed at historical junctions during the great 200 year arc of the "liberal ascendency." I argue that the United States did build a post-WWII order that might be described as a "liberal hegemonic order." It was a hierarchical order in which the US organized relations around multilateral institutions, open trade, alliances, client states, and so forth. In some parts of the postwar system, the United States pursued crudely imperial or ruthlessly power-political agendas, but in other realms -- and in the core of the overall order - relationships exhibited liberal characteristics (multilateral rules, diffuse reciprocity, open trade, democratic solidarity, etc.). America built a global hierarchy. Some of it was "hierarchy with imperial characteristics" and some of it was "hierarchy with liberal characteristics." The book has a theory to explain why it is one way or the other in various places and times.
I go on to argue that this hegemonic order is in crisis. Importantly, it is not liberal internationalism -- as a logic of order -- that is in crisis. It is America's hegemonic role that is in trouble. There is a global struggle underway over the distribution of rights, privileges, authority, etc. I argue that this is a "crisis of success" in that it is the rise of non-Western developing states and the ongoing intensification of economic and security interdependence that have triggered the crisis and overrun the governance institutions of the old order. This is a bit like Samuel Huntington's famous "development gap" -- a situation in which rapidly mobilizing and expanding social forces and economic transformation, facilitated by the old political institutions, have outpaced and overrun those institutions. That is what has happened to American hegemony. The book ends by asking: what comes next? And I argue that the constituencies for open, rules-based order are expanding, not contracting. The world system may become "less American," but it will not become "less liberal." So that is my argument.
Second, to come back to Steve, I do think that the United States has spearheaded a "liberal accomplishment." Within the parameters of the postwar American-led system "progressive upgrades" in world politics occurred. The world economy was opened up and the "golden era" of trade and growth followed. Germany and Japan were integrated into a collaborative world order. France and Germany found a way to live together. A whole range of developing states -- in East Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe, and Latin America grew, developed, and made democratic transitions. These accomplishments flow from the character of the order. It is an order where the "spoils of modernity" have been widely shared. It is an order where authority and leadership has not been imperial in form but shared in a variety of formal and informal governance institutions. It is an order that is "easy to join and hard to overturn."
As I said, my book seeks to identify and compare the various ways in which great powers have built order. It is, of course, dangerous to try to go beyond this and compare the "performance" of the international orders that have appeared over the ages. But I go ahead and do it. I argue that this postwar order did do a lot of macro-political things rather well - particularly if we use metrics such as wealth creation, provision of physical safety, ideals to guide the struggle for social justice, and so forth. These accomplishments were not all "made in Washington." The U.S. sometimes stood on the wrong side of these accomplishments, supporting -- as it did during the Cold War and in some cases even today -- despots and dictators, defending the rich and ignoring the poor. The global system itself underwent modernization and expansion, and societies - to the extent they could - often made their own way upward.
The United States is a paradox: it has been the country that over the course of the twentieth century made the most sustained efforts to build agreed upon global rules and institutions - but it has also been deeply ambivalent about deferring to the authority of those rules and institutions. The United States has styled itself as the guardian of peace and the status quo, but it has also projected military force, intervened abroad, and manipulated other societies. In this sense, Steve is right - the United States is a normal, not exceptional, great power. But my point is not that the United States is exceptional in the sense that it is more moral or enlightened. My point is that, despite all this, the United States has used its unusual power position to shape, push, and pull the international system in a liberal direction. To be sure, it has done this to advance its own long-term interests. It has tied its power to the creation of a particular type of international order - but it has been motivated by advancing its interests, legitimating its power, protecting its equities. A careful reading of my book will show that the "sources" for America's liberal leadership are not its liberal "values" or "ideational traditions" as such, but its strategic interests.
So, in our debate over America's grand narrative, we are really grappling with the question of whether liberal democracies and the wider world can in fact build sustainable global institutions that bias the flow of world history in a progressive direction. I think that when we look back at the last century we find glimmers of hope. There have been real accomplishments. States have found strategies and practices that facilitate restraint, accommodation, and collective action. This conviction is what makes me a liberal. The era that the world is now entering will surely put my arguments to the test!
I'm back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I'd pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I'm something of a newcomer to many Asian security issues, I learned a lot from the exchanges and am grateful for the opportunity to add a country to my list. My one regret is that I didn't have much time to tour Seoul (let alone the rest of the country), and I only hope I have a chance to go back for longer.
The participants at the conference included a number of prominent Korean scholars and policymakers (the two categories overlap), along with several former or current U.S. officials (Jim Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, and Jeffrey Bader), and prominent academics (John Ikenberry, John Mearsheimer, Victor Cha, and yours truly). Interestingly, the conference also included two well-connected scholars from China, and the whole proceeding was "on-the-record" (and covered by the Korean media). The audience included an impressive number of Korean graduate students, by the way, who asked some excellent questions at the end of each session.
Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the implications of China's rise and North Korea's continued status as a regional trouble-maker. As my last post indicated, South Korea would like to maintain both its extensive economic ties with China and its close security ties with the United States. In other words, they lean economically in one direction and militarily in the other. South Koreans are under no illusions about the implications of China's increasing power, however, and they are eager to preserve the alliance with the United States as a result. Given their strategic location and long history of foreign occupation, this attitude is hardly surprising.
In this regard, the Obama administration's decision to invite South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a state visit this week was a very smart move, and the Free Trade Agreement that is now being considered by Congress is important as a signal of the U.S. commitment (its direct economic benefits is probably modest). We also had the opportunity to meet with President Lee for about an hour after the conference concluded, and I found him to be extremely impressive. We asked him a whole set of challenging questions, and his answers were clear, assured, and for the most part convincing. If he were American, he'd probably mop the floor with the whole set of GOP presidential hopefuls, and I suspect President Obama will enjoy their discussions.
There was of course broad consensus on the challenges posed by North Korea, and a general sense that the United States and South Korea have to take a harder line against provocations like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island. The participants were divided on the issue of reunification, however: some speakers saw reunification as wholly desirable, because they saw North Korea as a dangerous source of regional instability. In this view, reunification under South Korean auspices would be in everyone's interest, including Beijing. Others -- including myself -- were more skeptical about China's willingness to allow the two Koreas to unify. Unification under South Korean auspices would place a key U.S. ally on the Yalu River, and probably encourage an even more lively competition for influence there between Beijing and Washington. The United States could promise not to deploy forces north of the 38th parallel, of course, but why would Beijing take such assurances at face value? And if Beijing insisted that the northern areas of a reunified Korea remain demilitarized, wouldn't Koreans feel that this left have of their newly united country vulnerable to Chinese pressure? All this tells me that reunification is not in the cards anytime soon.
Today is one of those days when blogging is difficult -- lots
of meetings through the day, office hours for students, and then I take off for
Korea. So no time for extended reflection on anything, except...
I sometimes think the U.S. Congress is working overtime to prove my point about the domestic origins of our screwed-up Middle East policy, and to set a new record for fealty to the Israel lobby. Of course you already saw that those enlightened and courageous patriots up on the Hill have voted to slash our foreign aid budget, except, of course, for the biggest chunk, which happens to go to one of the wealthiest recipients. Translation: Israel will still get its $3 billion per year, even though its per capita income is now 27th in the world and even though lots of other countries and programs are getting their aid totals whacked. Moreover, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now runs down here, they are also targeting the Palestinian Authority because it had the temerity to apply for recognition as a state a week or so ago. Those fiends! How dare they seek a state of their own!
Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a policy that could be better designed to solidify regional resentment and hatred of the United States, and at a moment when local populations are finding their own voice for the first time in decades. And it's equally hard to find an approach to this conflict that is more likely to do long-term harm to Israel itself, by encouraging it to continue the policies that have squandered so much international acceptance and directly contributed to various social and economic problems there. Not to mention the dubious morality of punishing stateless peoples while rewarding the country that is continue to expand its illegal settlements. Talk about hitting the negative policy trifecta: bad for the United States, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Israel too.
Meanwhile, I'm off to Seoul this evening, to attend a conference on regional security issues at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security. It is a very impressive group of American and Korean scholars, including several who know a lot more about these issues than I do. I expect to learn a lot, but mostly I'm interested in figuring out just who worries the South Koreans most: China, North Korea, or us?
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Kenneth
Pollack and Ray Takeyh have a rather
bizarre piece calling for the United States to "double down" on
Iran, including direct efforts to destabilize the clerical regime. While
rejecting preventive war -- at least for the moment -- they call for a variety
of new pressures, including the use of Special Forces and other military means
to ramp up the pressure. Although filled with protective caveats, their article
portrays these escalated pressures as something of a last-ditch effort to
convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
Like U.S. policy itself, their article is rife with internal contradictions. As such, it provides a textbook illustration of the stale thinking that has shaped U.S. policy for a couple of decades.
For starters, Pollack and Takeyh admit that their past prescriptions have been a bust. They take credit for what they call the Obama administration's "two track" approach, writing that "the two of us were among the very first to propose this policy." Then they freely admit "it is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has failed." The chutzpah here is impressive: although their own policy recommendations have failed, they think we should continue to respect their insights and follow their advice. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the lack of imagination or accountability that bedevils U.S. policy on this issue.
Second, Pollock and Takeyh present a one-sided narrative of U.S. policy toward Iran that exaggerates the carrots we've supposedly offered and overstates Iranian recalcitrance. They argue that the Obama administration started out with a "passionate determination to emphasize carrots," and claim that "the United States and the international community have offered Iran a path toward a responsible civilian nuclear program ... should it conform to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations." This formulation is at best misleading and at worst simply wrong. Obama & Co. were hardly "passionate" about emphasizing carrots; in reality, the United States made a couple of purely symbolic gestures but quickly reverted to mostly sticks when the symbolism didn't produce immediate Iranian concessions. Moreover, the United States and its allies have never made Iran a concrete offer; the supposed "path" to a deal was merely a list of topics Washington said it was willing to discuss as soon as Iran agreed to give us what we wanted (i.e., an end to nuclear enrichment).
In other words, when Pollack and Takeyh write that the administration was "offering the theocratic leaders a respectful path of out of their predicament," that "respectful path" was defined as complete Iranian acquiescence to Washington's demands. You surrender, and then we'll talk. And contrary to what they write, the issue isn't Iran's willingness to conform to its "NPT obligations," because nuclear enrichment is permissible under the NPT. Rather, the issue is conformity with various U.N. Security Council resolutions arising from a dispute with the IAEA over Iran's reporting of its nuclear activities many years ago. Other states-such as South Korea-also had reporting disputes with the IAEA, but never faced the same level of censure that Iran has.
The point is not that Iran is blameless or that its own negotiating behavior isn't as contentious, deceptive, or as incompetent as ours. Rather, it is that this one-sided narrative makes the Obama administration appear far more reasonable and forthcoming than is in fact the case.
Third, Pollack and Takeyh never confront the inherent contradiction in the "two-track policy" (which, to repeat, they admit has been a failure). This policy is supposed to convince Tehran that the United States is not irrevocably hostile, and that we would really, really like to have a better relationship. It is also designed to convince Tehran that it has no need for a nuclear deterrent, or even a latent nuclear capability that could be used to get a bomb at some point down the road. But while we are supposedly trying to reassure Iran about our intentions, the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions, almost certainly engaging in covert action against the clerical regime, pointedly emphasizing that all options (including the use of force) are "on the table," and making it abundantly clear that we would be perfectly happy if regime change occurred.
It is hard to imagine a policy that is less likely to encourage Iran to compromise, and more likely to fuel Iran's deeply rooted and understandable belief that it is us who cannot be trusted. Whether their perceptions are 100 percent accurate or not is irrelevant; there is clearly some basis for them and policymakers in Washington need to take that basic fact into account. The inconsistent policy prescribed by Pollack and Takeyh (and followed by Washington for many years) is probably the worst possible approach, because our crude attempts to combine half-hearted carrots with tangible sticks merely reinforces Iran's belief that our positive gestures are simply tricks designed to gull them into unwise concessions.
Ironically, Pollack and Takeyh provide telling evidence for this point in their own piece. They quote a speech by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, in which he cautions against cooperation with the United States by "the change of behavior they want. . .and which they don't always emphasize-is in fact a negation of our identity. . .Ours is a fundamental antagonism (my emphasis)." In other words, Khameini believes that our real objective is regime change ("negation of our identity"), which we don't always emphasize. As Pollack and Takeyh's own article makes clear, Khameini he has plenty of good reasons to think so.
Yet despite the protracted failure of this entire approach, Pollack and Takeyh now want us to "double down" on it: ramping up more sanctions, reaching out to the Green movement, possibly inserting Special Forces into Iran (!), and engaging in cyber-warfare and other forms of pressure. Never mind that the leader of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also one of main architects of Iran's current nuclear program (which means that a "Green Revolution" might not end it). The bigger point is that these steps are more likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and make them think harder about the value of some sort of deterrent.
Pollack and Takeyh also fail to see the irony -- or it is hypocrisy? -- in their own prescriptions. They say at the beginning of their piece that the US must "compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors" (my emphasis) Yet with a straight face they then proceed to outline a menu of options designed to violate Iran's sovereignty for as long as it takes to produce the government there that we want. And yet we wonder why Iran's leaders don't see us as especially principled or worthy of trust.
Fourth, their article is also inconsistent about Iran's motivations and our knowledge of them. On the one hand, they portray Iran's leaders as almost impossible to fathom, saying it is "a land that revels in ambiguity, opacity and complexity," and that outsider observers "should be duly humble given our incomplete understanding of Iran's politics or the policies that emerge from them." On the other hand, they outline an ambitious blueprint for additional sticks, apparently confident that they really do know how Iran will react. And once again, the fact that it hasn't conformed to their expectations in the past does not seem to trouble them that much.
In short, there is little reason to think that "doubling down" will do anything more than increase Iran's interest in moving closer to a latent nuclear capacity. It is a recommendation for more of the same policy that has been failing for over a decade. Instead of persisting with a failed policy, the United States ought to be rethinking both the goals it is trying to achieve and the means it is using to reach them. Ending enrichment is not in the cards, but it might be possible to convince Iran not to weaponize. That approach would require ratcheting down the pressure, making concrete offers instead of vague hints, and exercising a lot more patience instead of expecting a quick and decisive breakthrough. But because this approach -- which has never been tried -- is anathema inside the insulated Beltway mind-set, we end up with the endless recyling of failed approaches.
But my real concern goes deeper. It is hard to read this piece without hearkening back to Pollack's The Threatening Storm, the book that convinced many liberals to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. What made that book especially persuasive was Pollack's depiction of himself as a former dove who had oh-so-reluctantly concluded that there was no option but to go to war. Similarly, this article explicitly says that it is not yet time to bomb, and that we have time to try a few more options first. But by falsely portraying the United States has having made numerous generous offers, by dismissing Iran's security concerns as unfounded reflections of innate suspiciousness or radical ideology, and by prescribing a course of action that hasn't worked in the past and is likely to fail now, Pollack and Takeyh may be setting the stage for a future article where they admit that "doubling down" didn't work, and then tell us -- with great reluctance, of course -- that we have no choice but to go to war again.
Iranian President's Office via Getty Images
The pundits I tend to read seem to think Mitt Romney won last night's GOP candidates' debate. I didn't watch it, so I don't have an opinion on that issue. But according to the New York Times coverage, none of the contenders covered themselves with glory on foreign policy, and Romney himself made a statement that suggests he'd have trouble passing International Relations 101.
Specifically, at one point in the debate Romney reportedly said "You don't allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies." He said it in the context of a question about Israel, but notice that he's actually making a much broader claim. Such a statement might be smart campaigning but it's dumb foreign policy, no matter which ally or friend you're referring to.
Why? Because no two states have identical interests. We have good relations with lots of countries around the world -- Great Britain, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Israel, Colombia, Germany, Poland, Australia, and many, many others -- but that doesn't mean that what's good for them is always good for us and vice versa. When our interests conflict -- as they inevitably will -- it is the task of diplomacy to make our position clear and to try to resolve things in a way that conforms as much as possible to our preferred outcome. In practice, this means "allowing space" (and sometimes a lot more than an inch of it), to exist between us and our friends.
This principle isn't rocket science: the same is true in our personal lives. I've got some wonderful friends, but we don't agree on everything and sometimes we have to sort out disagreements about rules for raising children, which movie we're going to see, or even more fundamental issues of politics. Try taking a vacation with even close friends and you'll probably have at least one or two moments where you're genuinely ticked off at each other. Conflicts between close friends or family members can get especially intense when you think a friend is doing something foolish and you try to get them to change their minds and their behavior. In ordinary life, as in international politics, in short, there's often a lot of airspace between various parties even when some of their other interests and objectives are closely aligned.
Perhaps one shouldn't make too much of a single utterance like this; if pressed, Romney might even acknowledge that he exaggerated for effect. But his statement does betray a typically American belief that the world is divided into good states and bad states. The former are our friends and we're just one big happy democratic family; the latter are evil and our enemies and have little or no good in them. This black-white view is cognitively efficient and makes us feel good about our side; the only problem is that it is dangerous oversimplification of reality. And when your views on foreign policy don't conform to the world as it really is, then the policies you adopt are likely to fail.
Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool/Getty Images
Despite what you might think, I don't have much to say about Tom Friedman's column in the Sunday New York Times, where he openly bemoans the disastrous influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy and puts up in bright lights how bad it is for Israel as well. I'm grateful to Glenn Greenwald and Phil Weiss for pointing out that this is the main point that John Mearsheimer and I have been making for some time in our writings about the lobby.
But I will say this: Friedman's admission reflects the protracted failure of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, going back several decades. That's not news, of course. What has changed in the past few years is that the lobby's operations and its harmful influence are now out in the open for all to see, which makes it almost impossible to make the old arguments that Israel is a "vital strategic asset" or a country that "shares our values" with a straight face, or to convince anyone who's not already in agreement. Not after more than forty years of occupation, not after 9/11, not after the 2006 Lebanon War, not after Operation Cast Lead, not after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, and not after PM Netanyahu's repeated acts of contempt toward the U.S. president.
The United States has backed Israel no matter what it did because AIPAC and the other groups in the lobby have enormous influence inside the Beltway and use that political muscle to defend Israel whenever its government's policies clash with America's interests. But the problem they face now is that almost everyone can see what they are doing and people like Friedman understand that the policies the lobby is promoting are a disaster for the United States and Israel alike. At this point, only hardcore individuals and groups in the lobby and opportunistic fellow-travelers try to kick up dust by blaming our failed Middle East policy on "public opinion" or on the supposed influence of Christian evangelicals. Right: like they were the ones who told Obama to stop pressing Netanyahu if he wanted to get his health care bill passed, and they were the ones holding one-sided Congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes to the UN to get statehood.
The elephant has been in the room for a long time, but now it has the spotlights on it and it's wearing a pink bikini too. It's hard to miss, in short, which is surely why Tom Friedman wrote what he did.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Michael C. Desch of Notre Dame offers the following guest post:
There are lots of reasons that President Barack Obama will remain comfortably within the consensus here in the United States and oppose any Palestinian request for recognition of their statehood later this month at the United Nations.
Not opposing the Palestinians' request for U.N. recognition would cut against the grain of U.S. policy toward the region. In a July vote marked by the level of unanimity that is usually only seen in one party "people's democracies," the House of Representatives voted 406 to 6 to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it moves ahead. The president is also up for re-election next year, and given the shaky state of the U.S. economy, the race will be close and he will not want to alienate any potential supporters, including the Israel lobby.
But the problem with our "unwavering" support for the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is that it rests on a questionable assumption: That the Palestinians represent the main obstacle to peace today.
The Palestinians' and the rest of the Arab World's unwillingness to recognize the Jewish state may have been the primary road-block to peace in the past. But since the Arab League's March 2002 Beirut Declaration offering recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and the coming to power in the West Bank of a moderate and effective government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam, Israel now has, Hamas notwithstanding, real partners for peace. Indeed, had the Palestinians focused their struggle for self-determination in the U.N. 40 years ago, we all would have been thrilled.
But it is not clear that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have a partner on the Israeli side. Former head of Israel's secret service the Mossad Meir Dagan, surely no pro-Palestinian dove, has vociferously criticized Netanyahu's lack of vision for failing to offer a credible Israeli peace initiative; a criticism that Netanyahu's ally World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder echoed.
It is the structure of Israel's multi-party democratic political system that gives the roughly 30 percent of the Israeli public unalterably committed to retaining the occupied territories and all of Jerusalem disproportionate influence in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. There are other potential coalition partners for Netanyahu who support the two state solution, including the Centrist Kadima Party, but Obama needs to prod Netanyahu to embrace them.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is backing a plan to keep some 3,000-4,000 U.S. troops in Iraq past the end-of-year deadline, albeit only in a training role. This plan would violate President Obama's pledge to remove all U.S. troops by that time, but it is fewer troops than 14,000-18,000 figure that the military reportedly recommended.
But the real kicker comes later in the article, where the Times reports:
Even as the military reduces its troop strength in Iraq, the C.I.A. will continue to have a major presence in the country, as will security contractors working for the State Department ... "
The administration has already drawn up plans for an extensive expansion of the American Embassy and its operations, bolstered by thousands of paramilitary security contractors. It has also created an Office of Security Cooperation that, like similar ones in countries like Egypt, would be staffed by civilians and military personnel overseeing the training and equipping of Iraq's security forces.
Even without an extension of the deadline after 2011, that office is expected to be one of the largest in the world, with hundreds if not thousands of employees. Officials have previously suggested that keeping American soldiers in this office might not require a new security agreement to replace the expiring one since they would be cover by the same protection offered to diplomats (my emphasis)."
My question is: Whom do we think we are fooling? Surely not the Iraqis, who aren't likely to see much difference between U.S. soldiers and U.S. "paramilitary security contractors." Indeed, the Sadrist movement has already denounced these plans, and is holding a major demonstration in Baghdad today to demand a complete U.S. withdrawal. And we aren't fooling the remaining anti-American extremists in the rest of the region, who believe that the United States is an aggressive imperial power seeking to dominate the region with military force and who will use our remaining presence-no matter how it is camouflaged-as a recruiting tool.
The real answer, I suspect, is that we fooling ourselves. By removing most of the troops, and leaving behind CIA personnel and thousands of contractors, we are pretending to have fulfilled the pledge to leave Iraq. This will make it easier for Obama to claim that he ended an unpopular war and for Americans to think we won some sort of victory. Of course, the fact that the Pentagon still thinks we have to have troops there to "stabilize" the situation underscores how false the latter claim is. But one danger is that we will think we have left Iraq when we really haven't, and so we won't understand why many people there (and in neighboring countries) continue to see the United States as having designs on the region.
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All eyes have been riveted on the endgame in Libya, and I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard. Qaddafi was hard to ignore because his behavior was often peculiar and because he caused a lot of trouble over 40 years of rule. A violent uprising in which NATO has backed one side is bound to command a lot of attention too, and it's only natural for us to spend time trying to figure out what implications, if any, this will have for the broader process of political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Add it all up, and it's hardly a surprise that events in Tripoli have dominated the headlines and taken up a lot of megabytes and pixels here at FP.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind everybody that Libya is not in fact a very important country. It has a very small population (less than 6.5 million, which means that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg governs more people than Qaddafi ever did). Libya does have a lot of oil, but it's not a market-setting swing producer like Saudi Arabia or a major natural gas supplier like Russia. Libya has little industrial capacity or scientific/technological expertise, its military capabilities were always third-rate, and even its nuclear research programs never came anywhere near producing an actual weapon. And Qaddafi's incomprehensible ideology won few, if any converts, apart from those who had little choice but to pretend to embrace it.
Instead, Libya under Qaddafi was mostly significant as a sometime sponsor of terrorism and for Brother Muammar's own bizarre behavior. He was a troublemaker, to be sure, but fortunately he lacked the capability to cause as much trouble as he might have liked.
It is heartwarming to see the rebels triumph, and let's by all means hope that they defy expectations and manage to build a new and reliably democratic Libyan state. But in the larger scheme of the world this revolt is a pretty minor event. In the long term, more good would probably come from 1) getting the United States and Eurozone economies restarted (which would have lots of positive secondary effects), 2) preventing an intense security competition between the United States and China, 3) finding some way to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions, 4) settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5) ensuring that democracy takes firm root in Egypt, or 6) preventing more bloodbaths in South Asia (just to name a few).
I don't mean to be a killjoy here, and nothing I've just said diminishes the achievement of the courageous Libyans who have fought to regain control over their own country and their own lives. But their success won't help us make progress on a lot of other big issues in world politics, and we ought to keep that in mind too.
If memory serves, one of the lessons of Roger Fisher's little book International Conflict for Beginners was "settle conflicts early and often." This isn't always possible, of course, but his basic insight was that unresolved conflicts are dangerous precisely because they provide opportunities that extremists can exploit, they harden perceptions and images on both sides, and most importantly, they can always get worse. So when a promising opportunity to settle a conflict arises, wise leaders should pursue them energetically.
I thought of that insight when I heard about the attack in Israel yesterday, which left eight Israelis dead and some thirty wounded. The perpetrators are reportedly Gazans who took advantage of Egypt's present turmoil to cross the lightly guarded Egyptian-Israeli border, and the killings themselves are a reprehensible act that will bring no good to anyone. Just as Operation Cast Lead was both immoral and strategically foolish, this latest act of violence -- though on a smaller scale -- was equally misguided and morally bankrupt.
However one sees this situation, a key point to keep in mind is that this sort of thing isn't going to stop as long as the occupation and the siege of Gaza persists, and as long as one people has a state of their own and the other does not. If the situation were magically reversed and a million-plus Israelis were being kept in the same condition as the Gazans, I'd be astonished if some of them didn't try to take up arms against whomever was oppressing them. And I'll bet Commentary magazine would think that such actions would be perfectly okay. That thought-experiment doesn't justify the murder of innocents, mind you, but it may help us understand where such deplorable actions come from.
The usual response by partisans of each side is to blame the other for all the trouble, but in reality there is plenty of blame to go around. Israel's occupation is illegal, unjustified, and relies on brutal coercion to continue, and its current government is more interested in expanding settlements than in pursuing reasonable opportunities for genuine peace. The Palestinian people have been repeatedly betrayed by their own leaders' blunders, by supposedly sympathetic Arab states that have frequently sought to exploit their plight (or worse), and by extremists who seem to think killing a few more Israelis will somehow advance their quest for statehood. In truth, both sides have done a good job of "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity," which is one reason why the conflict remains unresolved to this day.
In such a situation, one might hope that outside powers would use their influence to bring the conflict to a close, out of their own self-interest. It is hardly good for the United States to be perennially distracted by this issue, or to have its regional image tarnished and its diplomacy complicated by its one-sided position. Nearly twenty years ago, the Oslo agreements seemed to provide an opportunity to end the conflict once-and-for-all, except that the United States proved to be a hopelessly inept steward of the "peace process." And as Fisher might have warned, it's just gotten worse. Remember that Hamas did not have a lot of popular support when the Oslo process began, but its popularity increased when Oslo failed to deliver and Fatah's corruption became more apparent. Meanwhile, Israeli politics has drifted steadily rightward, making any sort of territorial compromise less and less likely. Given where we are today, wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a "do-over" of the 1990s? Alas, that sort of replay is a mere fantasy.
To repeat: yesterday's attack was morally wrong and strategically foolish. But until more people start thinking outside the box on this one -- and demanding that political leaders think differently too -- you can be confident that we'll see more of the same -- by both sides -- in the future. And the danger of a larger explosion will grow.
I gave a talk in Washington the other day about the future of the EU and transatlantic relations more generally, and I thought FP readers might be interested in what I had to say. Here's a short summary of what I said.
I began with the rather obvious point that the highwater mark of Europe's global influence was past, and argued that it would be of declining strategic importance in the future. The logic is simple: After dominating global politics from roughly 1500 to 1900, Europe's relative weight in world affairs has declined sharply ever since. Europe's population is shrinking and aging, and its share of the world economy is shrinking too. For example, in 1900, Europe plus America produced over 50 percent of the world economy and Asia produced less than 20 percent. Today, however, the ten largest economies in Asia have a combined GDP greater than Europe or the United States, and the Asian G10 will have about 50 percent of gross world product by 2050.
Europe's current fiscal woes are adding to this problem, and forcing European governments to reduce their already modest military capabilities even more. This isn't necessarily a big problem for Europeans, however, because they don't face any significant conventional military threats. But it does mean that Europe's ability to shape events in other parts of the world will continue to decline.
Please note: I am not saying the Europe is becoming completely irrelevant, only that its strategic importance has declined significantly and that this trend will continue.
Second, I also argued that the highwater mark of European unity is also behind us. This is a more controversial claim, and it's entirely possible that I'll be proven wrong here. Nonetheless, there are several obvious reasons why the EU is going to have real trouble going forward.
The EU emerged in the aftermath of World War II. It was partly intended as a mechanism to bind European states together and prevent another European war, but it was also part of a broader Western European effort to create enough economic capacity to balance the Soviet Union. Europeans were not confident that the United States would remain engaged and committed to their defense (and there were good reasons for these doubts), and they understood that economic integration would be necessary to create an adequate counterweight to Soviet power.
As it turned out, the United States did remain committed to Europe, which is why the Europeans never got serious about creating an integrated military capacity. They were willing to give up some sovereignty to Brussels, but not that much. European elites got more ambitious in the 1980s and 1990s, and sought to enhance Europe's role by expanding the size of the EU and by making various institutional reforms, embodied in the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. This broad effort had some positive results -- in particular, the desire for EU membership encouraged East European candidates to adopt democractic reforms and guarantees for minority rights -- but the effort did not lead to a significant deepening in political integration and is now in serious trouble.
Among other things, the Lisbon Treaty sought to give the positions of council president and High Representative for Foreign Affairs greater stature, so that Europe could finally speak with "one voice." Thus far, that effort has been something of a bust. The current incumbents -- Herman von Rompuy of Belgium and Catherine Ashton of Britain -- are not exactly politicians of great prominence or clout, and it is hardly surprising that it is national leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany that have played the leading roles in dealing with Europe's current troubles. As has long been the case, national governments remain where the action is.
Today, European integration is threatened by 1) the lack of an external enemy, which removes a major incentive for deep cooperation, 2) the unwieldy nature of EU decision-making, where 27 countries of very different sizes and wealth have to try to reach agreement by consensus, 3) the misguided decision to create a common currency, but without creating the political and economic institutions needed to support it, and 4) nationalism, which remains a powerful force throughout Europe and has been gathering steam in recent years.
It is possible that these challenges will force the EU member-states to eventually adopt even deeper forms of political integration, as some experts have already advised. One could view the recent Franco-German agreement on coordinating economic policy in this light, except that the steps proposed by Merkel and Sarkozy were extremely modest. I don't think the EU is going to fall apart, but prolonged stagnation and gradual erosion seems likely. Hence my belief that the heyday of European political integration is behind us.
Third, I argued that the glory days of transatlantic security cooperation also lie in the past, and we will see less cooperative and intimate security partnership between Europe and America in the future. Why do I think so?
One obvious reason is the lack of common external enemy. Historically, that is the only reason why the United States was willing to commit troops to Europe, and it is therefore no surprise that America's military presence in Europe has declined steadily ever since the Soviet Union broke up. Simply put: there is no threat to Europe that the Europeans cannot cope with on their own, and thus little role for Americans to play.
In addition, the various imperial adventures that NATO has engaged in since 1992 haven't worked out that well. It was said in the 1990s that NATO had to "go out of area or out of business," which is one reason it started planning for these operations, but most of the missions NATO has taken on since then have been something of a bust. Intervention in the Balkans eventually ended the fighting there, but it took longer and cost more than anyone expected and it's not even clear that it really worked (i.e., if NATO peacekeepers withdrew from Kosovo tomorrow, fighting might start up again quite soon). NATO was divided over the war in Iraq, and ISAF's disjointed effort in Afghanistan just reminds us why Napoleon always said he liked to fight against coalitions. The war in Libya could produce another disappointing result, depending on how it plays out. Transatlantic security cooperation might have received a new lease on life if all these adventures had gone swimmingly; unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. But this raises the obvious question: If the United States isn't needed to protect Europe and there's little positive that the alliance can accomplish anywhere else, then what's it for?
Lastly, transatlantic security cooperation will decline because the United States will be shifting its strategic focus to Asia. The central goal of US grand strategy is to maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere and to prevent other great powers from achieving hegemony in their regions. For the foreseeable future, the only potential regional hegemon is China. There will probably be an intense security competition there, and the United States will therefore be deepening its security ties with a variety of Asian partners. Europe has little role to play in this competition, however, and little or no incentive to get involved. Over time, Asia will get more and more attention from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and Europe will get less.
This trend will be reinforced by demographic and generational changes on both sides of the Atlantic, as the percentage of Americans with strong ancestral connections to Europe declines and as the generation that waged the Cold War leaves the stage. So in addition to shifting strategic interests, some of the social glue that held Europe and America together is likely to weaken as well.
It is important not to overstate this trend -- Europe and America won't become enemies, and I don't think intense security competition is going to break out within Europe anytime soon. Europe and the United States will continue to trade and invest with each other, and we will continue to collaborate on a number of security issues (counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, counter-proliferation, etc.). But Europe won't be America's "go-to" partner in the decades ahead, at least not the way it once was.
This will be a rather different world than the one we've been accustomed to for the past 60 years, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, because it reflects powerful structural forces, there's probably little we can do to prevent it. Instead, the smart response -- for both Americans and Europeans -- is to acknowledge these tendencies and adapt to them, instead of engaging in a futile effort to hold back the tides of history.
Mark Renders/Getty Images
One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.
Two cases in point: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are constantly told that that "the surge worked" in Iraq, and President Obama has to pretend the situation there is tolerable so that he can finally bring the rest of the troops there home. Yet it is increasingly clear that the surge failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation and did not even end the insurgency, and keeping U.S. troops there for the past three years may have accomplished relatively little.
Similarly, we keep getting told that we are going to achieve some sort of "peace with honor" in Afghanistan, even though sending more troops there has not made the Afghan government more effective, has not eliminated the Taliban's ability to conduct violence, and has not increased our leverage in Pakistan. In the end, what happens in Central Asia is going to be determined by Central Asians -- for good or ill -- and not by us.
The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By "lose," I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened. We did get Osama bin Laden -- finally -- but that was the result of more energetic intelligence and counter-terrorism work in Pakistan itself and had nothing to do with the counterinsurgency we are fighting next door. U.S. troops have fought courageously and with dedication, and the American people have supported the effort for many years. But we will still have failed because our objectives were ill-chosen from the start, and because the national leadership (and especially the Bush administration) made some horrendous strategic judgments along the way.
Specifically: invading Iraq was never necessary, because Saddam Hussein had no genuine links to al Qaeda and no WMD, and because he could not have used any WMD that he might one day have produced without facing devastating retaliation. It was a blunder because destroying the Ba'athist state left us in charge of a deeply divided country that we had no idea how to govern. It also destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and enhanced Iran's regional position, which was not exactly a brilliant idea from the American point of view. Invading Iraq also diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, which helped the Taliban to regain lost ground and derailed our early efforts to aid the Karzai government.
President Obama inherited both of these costly wars, and his main error was not to recognize that they were not winnable at an acceptable cost. He's wisely stuck (more-or-less) to the withdrawal plan for Iraq, but he foolishly decided to escalate in Afghanistan, in the hope of creating enough stability to allow us to leave. This move might have been politically adroit, but it just meant squandering more resources in ways that won't affect the final outcome.
If you're like me, your attention this week has been focused on the gyrating stock market. That's not my area of expertise -- though my gut tells me that the wild swings of the past few days are mostly a reflection of uncertainty -- and I won't try to tell you what it means or how you can profit from all this turmoil. (If I had the answer for that, I'd have taken my wife's advice and moved our retirement funds into cash or Treasuries a couple of weeks ago. Oh well.)
Overall, I remain a long-term optimist about America's global position, because the United States still has lots of innate advantages and most of our current problems stem from self-inflicted wounds (stupid wars, threat inflation, a warped tax code, too much money corrupting politics, etc.). Compared with a lot of other countries, however, the United States remains geopolitically secure, wealthy, and technologically advanced. It has excellent higher education and a relatively young and growing population (especially when compared to most of Europe, Russia, or Japan). If we can just get our politics and our strategy right we'll be fine, though I admit that this is a big if.
So instead of brooding about my portfolio, I've been thinking about the Big Uncertainties that are going to shape events in the years to come. It's a subject I've visited before (see my "Five Big Questions" from July 2010), so you can consider this a partial update.
Here are my Five Big Uncertainties for 2011.
1. The World Economy: Meltdown or Malaise? Obviously, a major driver of the near-to-medium term environment will be whether we get another major economic slump. See FP colleague Dan Drezner for the nightmare scenario here, and especially bear in mind the danger that a serious slide would almost certainly lead to even more poisonous politics in lots of different places. (Like any good economist, Dan presents the optimistic scenario here, which tells you why President Kennedy used to complain that he wanted to meet a one-handed economist). The alternative that I foresee, alas, is not a scenario of rapid economic recovery. Instead, the best we can hope for is at least a couple more years of very modest economic growth. But at this point I'd take that in a heartbeat.
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Just when you think your contempt for Congress could not get any higher, our elected representatives manage to do something to ratchet it up another notch. After congressional shenanigans helped spark a major market sell-off and sparked fears of a double-dip recession, you'd think every single one of them would be heading back to their districts to figure out what their constituents wanted and to try to explain how they were going to help make things better. Or maybe a few of them would even spend the recess taking a crash course in macroeconomics and public finance, so that they could start exercising their public duties more responsibly.
But what did 81 of them decide to do instead? You guessed it: they are off on junkets to Israel, paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC spinoff that has been funding such trips for years. That's right: during the August recess nearly a fifth of the U.S. Congress will visit a single country whose entire population is less than that of New York City.
Such behavior is especially disturbing in light of our current woes; even Greta Van Susteren of Fox News found it appalling (h/t Mondoweiss here and here). But it's not really a new pattern: in recent decades about 10 percent of all Congressional trips overseas have been to Israel, even though it is only one of the nearly 200 countries in the world.
Why do Congresspersons do this, especially at a moment when it is obvious that they ought to be worrying about conditions here at home? Mostly because such junkets burnish a legislator's ‘pro-Israel' credentials and facilitate campaign fundraising. Such trips also expose these visitors to the policy preferences and basic worldview of Israel's leaders, which is of course why AIEF pays for them.
I suppose I ought to be grateful that AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to work overtime to prove me and my co-author right. But there are bigger issues at stake here, which is why I hope that every one of those eighty-plus Congressmen faces a lot of nasty questions from their constituents upon their return.
And in a related story, the Israeli government has just announced a new round of settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem. (For apt commentary, see Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress here.) If you've been wondering why most people have lost faith in U.S. stewardship of the peace process and are turning to other strategies--such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement or the push for a Palestinian state at the UN --well, I think you have your answer. And if "two states for two peoples" is never achieved and Israel ceases to be either a Jewish majority state or a true democracy, you'll know exactly which misguided or feckless Americans helped bring that about.
UPDATE: American taxpayers will be pleased to know that Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges "will not have any adverse effect on America's determination to meet its promise to Israel." Translation: we may be cutting Medicare and Social Security for U.S. citizens, but Israelis--whose country has the 27th highest per capita income in the world--will continue to get generous subsidies from Uncle Sucker.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
I have been distracted by personal concerns for the past week, and look what happens. The stock market is on a roller-coaster triggered mostly by political incompetence. There are riots in Great Britain, and large-scale protests are roiling Israel. Syria continues its bloody convulsions, our impulsive war in Libya grinds on, and the euro crisis looks no closer to solution. The United States suffers its single worst day in the long and misguided Afghan campaign. Add it all together, and 2011 is beginning to look like 1968 -- a year that violent upheavals occurred in the United States, France, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. Except that here the troubles are more widespread, more closely connected, and have more potentially far-reaching consequences.
What's most disturbing about all this is the extent to which so many of our current troubles are self-inflicted. It's obvious to any reasonably sane person how to get the U.S. economy back on track, the problem is that there's a dearth of reasonably sane people in positions of responsibility. Some of the seeds of the 2007-08 meltdown were sown during the Clinton administration (as Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make clear in their terrific book Reckless Endangerment), but most of the damage was done by George W. Bush's foolhardy decision to cut taxes, start unnecessary wars, and then fight those wars badly. In short, the United States screwed up big-time between 2000 and 2008. As we all know from our personal lives: when you screw up, you generally have to pay a price.
That means that solving our current problems will not be easy or painless, and we should stop pretending that there's some magic bullet to fire at our current woes. Nonetheless, the basic outlines of what to do are hardly mysterious. We are in a fiscal hole and have a depressed economy, which means we owe lots of people lots of money and aren't generating enough revenues to make people confident that we can get back in the black. We need more revenue, therefore, but we don't want to choke the remaining life out of the U.S. economy.
Accordingly, the best place to get some more revenue is from the wealthiest members of society (who got those big tax cuts from George Bush and made out far better than the rest of America over the past decade or more, and whose consumption won't decline if some loopholes are closed and marginal tax rates rise modestly). I mean, are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett going to lower their thermostats and cancel their summer vacations if we make them pay a bit more?) We also need to trim some entitlements over time, and to cut our bloated defense budget (no matter what new Sec/Def Leon Panetta says). For starters, getting out of Iraq on schedule and out of Afghanistan ASAP would suggest that our leaders really do understand what's truly important and would be a reassuring signal to global markets. In short: a simple combination of entitlement reform, tax reform, and strategic readjustment and we will be on our way to ending the deficit, maintaining our credit rating, and setting the stage for long-term economic recovery.
Except that Washington won't do it. I used to wonder how political paralysis could lead Japan to experience a "lost decade," but we're about to do the same thing if we don't change course. Unfortunately, the GOP is in the hands of leaders who care more about regaining power than they do about the country, and held hostage by know-nothing Tea Party extremists for whom passion is a substitute for reasoning or thought. The White House hasn't helped either: it declared victory too soon on the economic front and thought it could continue "business as usual" in foreign and defense policy, with a better presidential salesman. And for some reason the most gifted presidential "communicator" since Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to take his case to the American people.
What are these people thinking? I scan the political horizon, and I don't see anyone remotely like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, or even Dean Acheson. We are in the midst of the biggest strategic challenge since the end of World War II, but where is our Kennan or Kissinger? Neither of them were infallible, but each had a genuine strategic vision for the United States, its position in the world, and the actions that needed to be taken to preserve vital interests. And make no mistake: what is needed now is a foreign policy that is based on a clear and hard-headed strategy, one that identifies key priorities, writes off liabilities, and marshals the relevant elements of power to preserve what is vital first and foremost. Instead, we get a foreign policy based on wishful thinking, lofty ideals, or an endless list of global projects offered up by policy wonks and special interest groups, along with more bad advice from the people who got us into our present circumstances. And the latest GOP presidential aspirant -- Governor Rick Perry of Texas -- seems to think that all our problems can be solved if we just pray hard enough. I don't want to tread on anyone's beliefs, but if that isn't a sign of desperation and policy bankruptcy, I don't know what is.
Lord knows that I don't have all the answers, but I used to think that at least a few people in positions of responsibility had a few. But at this point I'm beginning to wonder.
Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images
Today is the 21st anniversary of a key date in world history. On this date in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a train of events that would have fateful consequences for Saddam himself, but also for the United States. Indeed, one could argue that this invasion was the first step in a train of events that did enormous damage to the United States and its position in the world.
Of course, we all know what happened in the first Gulf War. After a brief period of vacillation (and a vigorous public debate on different options), the first Bush administration assembled a large and diverse international coalition and quickly mobilized an impressive array of military power (most of it American). It got approval from the U.N. Security Council for the use of force. Although a number of prominent hawks predicted that the war would be long and bloody, the U.S.-led coalition routed the third-rate Iraqi forces and destroyed much of Saddam's military machine. We then imposed an intrusive sanctions regime that dismantled Iraqi's WMD programs and left it a hollow shell. Despite hard-line pressure to "go to Baghdad," Bush & Co. wisely chose not to occupy the country. They understood what Bush's son did not: Trying to occupy and reorder the politics of a deeply divided Arab country is a fool's errand.
Unfortunately, the smashing victory in the first Gulf War also set in train an unfortunate series of subsequent events. For starters, Saddam Hussein was now firmly identified as the World's Worst Human Being, even though the United States had been happy to back him during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. More importantly, the war left the United States committed to enforcing "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq.
But even worse, the Clinton administration entered office in 1993 and proceeded to adopt a strategy of "dual containment." Until that moment, the United States had acted as an "offshore balancer" in the Persian Gulf, and we had carefully refrained from deploying large air or ground force units there on a permanent basis. We had backed the Shah of Iran since the 1940s, and then switched sides and tilted toward Iraq during the 1980s. Our goal was to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, and we cleverly played competing powers off against each other for several decades.
With dual containment, however, the United States had committed itself to containing two different countries -- Iran and Iraq -- who hated each other, which in turn forced us to keep lots of airplanes and troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We did this, as both Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi have documented, because Israel wanted us to do it, and U.S. officials foolishly believed that doing so would make Israel more compliant during the Oslo peace process. But in addition to costing a lot more money, keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for the long term also fueled the rise of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was deeply offended by the presence of "infidel" troops on Saudi territory, and so the foolish strategy of dual containment played no small role in causing our terrorism problem. It also helped derail several attempts to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Dual containment, in short, was a colossal blunder.
But no strategy is so bad that somebody else can't make it worse. And that is precisely what George W. Bush did after 9/11. Under the influence of neoconservatives who had opposed dual containment because they thought it didn't go far enough, Bush adopted a new strategy of "regional transformation." Instead of preserving a regional balance of power, or containing Iraq and Iran simultaneously, the United States was now going to use its military power to topple regimes across the Middle East and turn those countries into pro-American democracies. This was social engineering on a scale never seen before. The American public and the Congress were unenthusiastic, if not suspicious, about this grand enterprise, which forced the Bush administration to wage a massive deception campaign to get them on board for what was supposed to be the first step in this wildly ambitious scheme. The chicanery worked, and the United States launched its unnecessary war on Iraq in March 2003.
Not only did "Mission Accomplished" soon become a costly quagmire, but wrecking Iraq -- which is what we did -- destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and improved Iran's geopolitical position. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources away from the war in Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to re-emerge as a formidable fighting force. Thus, Bush's decision to topple Saddam in 2003 led directly to two losing wars, not just one. And these wars were enormously expensive to boot. Combined with Bush's tax cuts and other fiscal irresponsibilities, this strategic incompetence caused the federal deficit to balloon to dangerous levels and helped bring about the fiscal impasse that we will be dealing with for years to come.
Obviously, none of these outcomes were inevitable back in 1990. Had cooler heads and smarter strategists been in charge after the first Gulf War, we might have taken advantage of that victory to foster a more secure and stable order throughout the Middle East. In particular, we would have pulled our military forces out of the region and gone back to offshore balancing. After all, Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 did not force the United States to choose "dual containment." Nor did it make it inevitable that we would bungle the Oslo peace process, pay insufficient attention to al Qaeda's intentions, or drink the neocons' Kool-Aid and gallop off on their foolish misadventure in Iraq. But when future historians search for the moment when the "American Empire" reached its pinnacle and began its descent, the war that began 21 years ago would be a good place to start.
MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images
One of my occasional hobbyhorses on this blog has been the desirability of greater transparency on where research and advocacy organizations (and intellectuals) get their money. It's the old question: cui bono? You can read what I've said in the past here and here. I frankly would welcome a system where think tanks had to publicly disclose all of their sources of support, so that consumers of their work could see exactly who they were beholden to. Lest you think I'm being hypocritical about this, I think university professors ought to do the same with any outside income that they earn.** The reason in both cases is simple: when anyone participates in public discourse on vital issues, outsiders should be aware of potential conflicts of interest and should know exactly who might be paying for it.
Eli Clifton at the Center for American Progress has a revealing post up on the various backers of the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This organization has been in the vanguard of the campaign for war with Iran, reflexively supportive of the Israeli right, and a fertile source of fear-mongering Islamophobia. It will therefore surprise no one that its primary financial backers are also hard-core Zionists, and that the democracy it seems most committed to defending is located far from Washington D.C.
This situation underscores a point that John Mearsheimer and I emphasized in our book: the Israel lobby is not confined to formal "lobbying" organizations like AIPAC. It also includes well-funded think tanks and advocacy organizations that actively work to shape political debate and public discourse in ways intended to reinforce the U.S.-Israel "special relationship" and to persuade policymakers to support policies that these organizations believe (in my view incorrectly) will be beneficial for Israel and the United States.
It bears repeating that there's nothing illegal, conspiratorial, or unethical about what these donors are doing; individuals and foundations in the United States are entitled to fund whatever advocacy organizations they wish. But Clifton's data helps you understand why discourse inside-the-Beltway is so heavily skewed in one direction.
**Postscript: In my own case, in 2010 I received a consulting fee from the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore and speakers' fees from eight other universities (for public lectures). I also received honoraria for presentations at several events sponsored by the Department of Defense and for participating in a colloquium sponsored by the State Department. I was also paid to speak at an Economist magazine conference in Athens and for doing some research work for the New America Foundation. Foreign Policy pays me a modest amount to write this blog, and Cornell University Press pays me to co-edit a book series. And in case some of you are wondering, I didn't receive any money from any individuals, groups, countries, or corporations connected with Middle East politics.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Vacation is over, and as I took the bus to my office this morning I had a sudden thought: Whatever happened to the war in Libya? You know, the one that used to be on the front pages every day? The one that was critical to preventing a humanitarian bloodbath and to preserving the momentum of the "Arab Spring?" The one that Obama's obedient lawyers claimed didn't involve "hostilities," in a transparent effort to evade the requirements of the War Powers Resolution? Oh, right: that one.
Obviously, the war is still going on, and it sometimes rates a new story buried deep in the middle of the newspaper, but the hopes of a rapid and cheap victory were dashed a long time ago. Assuming NATO continues to back the rebels, they will probably succeed in slowly grinding the Qaddafi family/regime into the ground -- though apparently some European leaders are now saying that negotiations are the way to go, which suggests a less-than-optimal degree of unity among the coalition (h/t Juan Cole). But if Qaddafi does go, then the liberal hawks will give each other high-fives and do their best to obscure the miscalculations and longer-term consequences of this latest whimsical war.
Three thoughts. First, although the main justification for intervention was the fear of a possible "bloodbath" had Qaddafi's forces captured the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, a second rationale was the fear that permitting Qaddafi to triumph would derail the entire Arab Spring. In essence, this was a fear of "reverse contagion": If a kleptocratic dictator like Qaddafi could use force to stay in power in Libya, then other autocrats would be similarly emboldened and the progressive forces that had launched the various upheavals would lose heart. To keep the revolutionary wave moving forward, Qaddafi had to go.
This argument now seems fallacious. There was clearly an element of contagion in the original revolutionary wave, which spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Bahrain and to Syria with remarkable speed. But like other examples of political contagion, the outcomes in each case depended on the constellation of local and external forces in each particular place and not on what was occurring in some other country. The outcome in Egypt is very different from those in Syria or Yemen, for example, and Libya and Bahrain and Morocco are carving their own paths too. In short, what happened in Libya probably had little or no effect on what is occurring elsewhere in the Arab world. To put it bluntly: If we had stayed out and Qaddafi had won outright, I suspect Assad would still be in trouble.
Second, back when NATO first got involved, a number of people made the obvious comparison to the 1999 war in Kosovo. Both wars were launched on impulse, there were no vital strategic interests involved, and both wars were fought "on the cheap" through the use of air power. NATO leaders expected the targets to succumb quickly and were surprised when their adversaries (Milosevic in 1999, Qaddafi today) hung on as long as they did.
But there's another parallel that deserves mention too. Serbia eventually surrendered, and I expect that Qaddafi or his sons will eventually do so too. But in the case of Kosovo, NATO and the U.N. had to send in a peacekeeping force, and they are still there 10 years later. And Kosovo has only about 28 percent of Libya's population and is much smaller geographically (some 10,000 square kilometers, compared with Libya's 1,800,000 sq. km.). So anybody who thinks that NATO, the United Nations, or the vaguely defined "international community" will be done whenever Qaddafi says uncle (or succumbs to a NATO airstrike) should probably lower their expectations and prepare themselves for long-term involvement in a deeply divided country.
Third, this latest little war leads me to think we need a new term. You all know the distinction between "wars of necessity" and "wars of choice." The line between the two is sometimes blurry, but we tend to think of the former as wars where vital strategic interests (and maybe national survival) are at stake, while the latter are wars where there is no immediate or urgent necessity for either strategic or humanitarian grounds, though one can imagine some strategic benefits accruing if all goes as planned. I propose a third category: "wars of whim." These are wars that powerful and wealthy countries fight for the same reasons that some powerful politicians cheat: "because they can."
It's not that the leaders who start these wars can't come up with reasons for what they are doing. Human beings are boundlessly creative, and a powerful state can always devise a rationale for using force. And proponents may even believe it. But the dictionary defines whim as a "sudden or capricious idea, a fancy." A "war of whim" is just that: a war that great powers enter without careful preparation or forethought, without a public debate on its merits or justification, and without thinking through the consequences if one's initial assumptions and hopes are not borne out. Wars of whim aren't likely to bankrupt a nation by themselves or even lead to major strategic reversals. But they are yet another distraction, at a time when world leaders ought to focusing laser-like on a very small number of Very Big Issues (like the economy).
So maybe that's the silver lining: If we're not paying much attention to Libya anymore, doesn't that tell us something about its real importance?
MARCO LONGARI/Getty Images
My vacation is drawing to a close, and as usual, I didn't get as much done as I'd hoped. I did bring my reading list along and I've made some progress on it, but then I got distracted re-reading Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars. It's even more depressing the second time around, insofar as it shows just how difficult it was for Obama and his advisors to get the national security establishment to think "outside the box" on the AfPak problem. And most of the warnings that were issued at the time -- that the "surge" wouldn't work in the absence of effective Afghan partners and genuine help from Pakistan -- seem to have been borne out.
Assuming Woodward's account is accurate, what is most striking is how most of the inside debate is about tactics rather than strategy. There are endless go-rounds about how many troops to send, what mix of counterterrorism vs. counter-insurgency to adopt, what deadlines to impose (or not), and how to try to elicit more cooperation from the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But there's not a lot of discussion of the broader strategic issues: is it a good idea for the United States to be constantly interfering in the lives of some 200 million Muslims in Central Asia? What are the fundamental sources of our terrorism problem, just how serious is it, and is it possible that the problem might diminish if we weren't meddling there (and elsewhere) and if we passed the buck to others and let them bear burdens in non-essential areas? These are strategic issues, and you don't get the sense from Woodward that these got much of an airing.
If you're intrigued by these larger questions, you should definitely read Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent's "Graceful Decline: The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment," from the Spring 2011 issue of International Security. Based on a comprehensive survey of 18 cases of great power decline (defined as situations where a great power's ordinal ranking of share of economic power changes for the worse), MacDonald and Parent show that declining powers are usually able to adjust their strategic commitments without significant harmful consequences. Money quotation:
Faced with diminishing resources, great powers moderate their foreign policy ambitions and offer concessions in areas of lesser strategic value. Contrary to the pessimistic conclusions of critics, retrenchment neither requires aggression nor invites predation. Great powers are able to rebalance their commitments through compromise, rather than conflict. In these ways, states respond to penury the same way they do to plenty: they seek to adopt policies that maximize security given available means. Far from being a hazardous policy, retrenchment can be successful. States that retrench often regain their position in the hierarchy of great powers. Of the fifteen great powers that adopted retrenchment in response to acute relative decline, 40 percent managed to recover their ordinal rank. In contrast, none of the declining powers that failed to retrench recovered their relative position.
If McDonald and Parent are right, it suggests that Obama & Co. erred when they decided to double down in Central Asia. After the debacle in Iraq and the 2007 financial crisis, the United States needed to take bold action to bring its global commitments in line with its resources. Obama wisely kept us on course out of Iraq (though not that quickly), but an ambitious new team of foreign policy wonks wanted their turn at running the world and did relatively little to put U.S. grand strategy on a more sustainable footing. Woodward's account of the debate on Afghanistan suggests that Obama and a few of his advisors understood the need to retrench in a general way (and Obama has repeatedly talked about the greater importance of "nation-building" at home) but they were unable or unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to pull of this adjustment or to impose that consensus on the entire national security establishment.
Retrenchment is going to happen eventually, I'm sure, just not nearly as fast as it should have.
In case you missed it, veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has written a scathing denunciation of U.S. Middle East policy -- and long-time Middle East advisor Dennis Ross -- in Ha'aretz. His bottom line is that Oslo is over, yet the United States is still trying to convince the Palestinian leadership to buy into a diplomatic process that has been a cover for continued settlement building and has manifestly failed to bring them a state. The key passage:
"It would be tough to find a bigger expert than Ross on the myths and illusions related to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For years he has been nurturing the myth that if the United States would only meet his exact specifications, the Israeli right would offer the Arabs extensive concessions.
During the years he headed the American peace team, Israeli settlement construction ramped up. Now Ross, the former chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, is trying to convince the Palestinians to give up on bringing Palestinian independence for a vote in the United Nations in September and recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people -- in other words, as his country, though he was born in San Francisco, more than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed.
If they give up on the U.N. vote, Ross argues, then Netanyahu will be so kind as to negotiate a final-status agreement with them. Has anyone heard anything recently about a construction freeze in the settlements?
Ross is trying to peddle the illusion that the most right-wing government Israel has ever seen will abandon the strategy of eradicating the Oslo approach in favor of fulfilling the hated agreement. In an effort to save his latest boss from choosing between recognizing a Palestinian state at the risk of clashing with the Jewish community and voting against recognition at the risk of damaging U.S. standing in the Arab world, Ross is trying to drag the Palestinians back into the "peace process" trap.
If Obama really intended to justify his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would not have left the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of this whiz at the never-ending management of the conflict."
As Eldar makes clear, Ross has been advising presidents ever since the first Bush administration and played a central role in both the Clinton and Obama administration, and his stewardship of the "peace process" has led exactly nowhere.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
[NOTE: I originally drafted this post on July 3, but the FP staff was on holiday too so it didn't get posted in time for the Fourth. I've updated it and reposted, with appropriate changes of verb tense]
Independence Day is when Americans celebrate their two hundred year-plus experiment with self-government. After two centuries it's not really an experiment anymore, though it certainly feels like we are still making it up as we go along. On July 4th, my family read the Declaration of Independence outloud (an annual ritual) and talked about what we thought it really meant. And across the country, Americans grilled, drank, watched fireworks, and listened to John Philip Sousa, and probably spent a lot of time being grateful that they are not living somewhere else.
But what exactly are we celebrating these days? We are on a sour phase of our history, where hardly anyone seems happy about our condition at home or our position abroad. The economy remains dismal, where only the rich enjoy comfort and security, and our politics gets nastier and more dysfunctional with each passing day. Instead of working together to meet a growing array of challenges, a toxic combination of pundits, poseurs, and provocateurs is choking the life out of political system like so much kudzu. Our leaders continue to give speeches about our global responsibilities, but how many people now believe that America is leading the way to a safer, saner or more just world? We don't bring peace to war-torn lands, we are not doing much to build more effective global institutions, and sometimes it feels like armed drones and special forces have become our primary export.
In such times, it is tempting to descend into world-weary fatalism, and merely chronicle the many ways that America's reality falls short of our Founders' hopes. But I am not going to succumb to that temptation-at least not today. For although the Founding Fathers were in many ways consummate realists--acutely aware of human frailties, mindful of the dangers facing a small, weak and new nation, and ruthless in pursuit of hemispheric dominance--they were also idealists who dreamt big. On Independence Day, we can honor our past by indulging in some dreams of our own.
On this 4th of July, I dreamt of an America at peace, no longer squandering its wealth and power in unnecessary global crusades. I dreamt of an America that knows there are risks in the world, but that does not allow fear to dominate its foreign policy agenda or its domestic discourse. I dreamt of an America that has regained the world's respect, and where others trust our judgment and value our competence. I imagined an America where economic inequality is declining, not growing, and where people are judged, as Martin Luther King put it, by the content of their character and not by their race, religion, or sexual orientation. I thought about an America that is not afraid to talk to its adversaries, because it was confident that it wouldn't get bamboozled and knew that talking is often the best way to persuade others to change. I dreamt of an America that does not torture, and that has the integrity to prosecute anyone who does. I dream of an America that does not lead the world in the number of people in its prisons. Like Woodrow Wilson, I yearned for an America with the "self-restraint of a truly great nation, that knows its own strength and scorns to misuse it." I looked ahead to an America whose first concern is the well-being of all its citizens here at home, instead of trying to tell the rest of the world how to live. And I dreamt of an America where political debate is unfettered but civil, and where those who seek to win arguments by smearing their opponents or distorting their arguments are regarded by their fellow citizens with appropriate contempt.
Do I expect to see this America emerge? Sadly, no (I am a realist, after all). But if we are truly the political descendants of the brave men and women of 1776, then we have to believe in the power of imagination and the ability of human beings to chart a new course. And in that knowledge lies hope.
I hope you all had a pleasant and inspiring Independence Day, and that in the next year we move a bit closer to the ideals we celebrated on Monday.
I did say that I was "going off the grid" for ten days or so, but reading the New York Times remains a morning ritual for the household and I still have access to my email. And yesterday they combined to make a brief post imperative.
The first item was an email announcement from the Hudson Institute, inviting me (and probably hundreds of other people) to attend a luncheon briefing on "The Political Situation in Kyrgyzstan: Implications for the United States." The first sentence of the announcement informed me that "the situation in Kyrgyzstan has a critical bearing on American national security." As my teen-aged daughter would say: "OMG!" Did you know that your safety and security depends on the political situation in.... Kyrgyztan?" Yes, I know that the air base at Manas is a critical transit point for logistics flowing into Afghanistan, but otherwise Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country of about 5 million people without significant strategic resources, and I daresay few Americans could find it on a map (or have any reason to want to). It is only important if you think Afghanistan's fate is important, and readers here know that I think we've greatly exaggerated the real stakes there. (And if we're heading for the exits there, as President Obama has said, then Kyrgyzstan's strategic value is a stock you ought to short.)
I'm not trying to make fun of the Hudson Institute here, but the idea that we have "critical" interests in Kyrgystan just illustrates the poverty of American strategic thinking these days. Even now, in the wake of the various setbacks and mis-steps of the past decade, the central pathology of American strategic discourse is the notion that the entire friggin' world is a "vital" U.S. interest, and that we are therefore both required and entitled to interfere anywhere and anytime we want to. And Beltway briefings like this one just reinforce this mind-set, by constantly hammering home the idea that we are terribly vulnerable to events in a far-flung countries a world away. I'm not saying that events in Kyrgyzstan might not affect the safety and prosperity of American a tiny little bit, but the essence of strategy is setting priorities and distinguishing trivial stakes from the truly important. And somehow I just don't think Kyrgyzstan's fate merits words like "vital" or "critical."
And then I read David Greenberg's op-ed in yesterday's Times, on the "isolationist" roots within the Republican Party. Greenberg is a historian, and his brief account of isolationist strands within the GOP is perfectly sensible. But he uses this narrative to cast doubt on the growing number of people who believe that the United States is over-committed (a group, one might add, that includes the out-going Secretary of Defense), but who are hardly "isolationists."
In particular, Greenberg ends his piece by warning that "following the path of isolationism today won't serve America well." He may or may not be correct in that judgment, though his op-ed offers no arguments or evidence to support this particular conclusion. More importantly, Greenberg falls into the familiar trap of assuming that those who are now calling for a more restrained, selective, and above all realistic foreign policy are "isolationists." There may be a few people in contemporary foreign policy discourse who deserve that label, but it simply doesn't apply to most serious critics of today's over-extension.
In particular, critics of our over-committed and overly-militarized foreign policy recognize that the world is interconnected, that the United States cannot wall itself off from that world, and that defending long-term U.S. interests occasionally requires the application of the many diverse elements of American power. People like Andrew Bacevich, Barry Posen, Paul Pillar, Lawrence Wilkerson, Chas Freeman, the late Chalmers Johnson, and many others are not reflexive doves, naïve pacifists, or fatuous one-worlders. On the contrary, they are hard-headed experts who support American engagement in the world, just not in the mindlessly hubristic fashion that has become the self-defeating norm of the past several decades and the default condition of foreign policy thinking in D.C.
What realists (and other advocates of greater "restraint") also recognize is that 5 percent of the world's population cannot dictate how the other 95 percent should live their lives. They also know that trying to impose our preferences on others by various coercive means (e.g., military force, economic sanctions, etc.) is helping sap our economic vitality and turning more and more people against us. Advocates of a more restrained foreign policy understand that other major powers will just free-ride if we insist on doing everything ourselves, and that other client states will engage in what Posen has called "reckless driving" if they know that the United States will back them now matter what they do.
In short, the isolationsists of a by-gone era have little to do with today's advocates of restraint, and it is serious error to conflate the two. In particular, applying the discredited label of "isolationist" to those who now question our present "strategy" will make it harder to formulate a grand strategy that is consistent with our present resources, less likely to provoke unnecessary resentment or resistance, cognizant of our many political advantages, and focused (as foreign policy should be) on our long-term vitality and security as a nation.
UPDATE: In my original post, I mistakenly equated libertarians with isolationists. This was careless, insofar as some important analysts who favor more limited government (such as Chris Preble of the CATO Institute), are clearly not "isolationist" in the proper sense of that term. I regret the error, and have corrected the text above to eliminate the conflation.
I'm gratified by the number of people who read this blog, and in the unlikely event that some of you are starved for something to do or truly desperate for some form of entertainment, here are links to two recent appearances of mine.
The first is a video of the talk I gave in Dublin last week, on Obama's foreign policy and the twilight of the American era. The video covers the speech itself but not the Q & A, which is unfortunate because some of the questions were excellent. And kudos to the IIEA for getting the link up quickly. There's a summary and analysis of the talk from the Irish Times here.
The second item is the NPR show "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. The topic of the one-hour segment on Monday was "Bringing the Troops Home," and the main theme was the growing chorus of voices calling for significant cuts in defense. The other participants were Chris Preble of the CATO Institute and Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman National Security Project (both of whom were excellent) and on the whole I thought the discussion covered lots of ground fairly well. My central theme was that you can't save much money simply by redeploying U.S. forces; the only way to save real money is to shrink the size of the force (fewer people, weapons, etc.), and be a lot more careful about which wars you choose to fight.
As I've noted before, states don't need to think that clearly about strategy when they have a comfortable surplus, but the need for clear strategy goes up as soon as resources are constrained and/or threats multiply. It's therefore a good thing that we are finally beginning to have a more serious discussion of U.S. grand strategy, and it might even figure signficantly in next year's presidential race. It's just too bad that it took a couple of military debacles and a major financial meltdown to get us there.
Postscript: I was attending an advisory board meeting yesterday and missed the President's speech on Afghanistan. It's a baby step in the right direction, but nothing more. If Obama believes it's time to rebuild America instead of rebuilding Afghanistan, he's certainly doesn't seem to be in any hurry to get to it.
Not that FP has suddenly become joke central, but there's an old joke that runs like this:
An accountant, a social scientist and a lawyer are seated in a room. A guy walks in and asks them: "how much is 2 + 2?" The accountant whips out a calculator, pencils and paper, scribbles for awhile, and then says: "The answer, sir, is 4." The social scientist grabs her laptop, fires it up a few minutes, and then says "Well, as you know this is not an exact science, but I can say with a 95% level of confidence that the answer is between 3 and 5."
The lawyer, meanwhile, gets up, looks under all the chairs, checks in the closet, opens the door to the room and looks both ways down the hall. Then he comes back, sidles up to the guy who asked the question, and whispers:
"I don't care. How much do you want it to be?"
I mention this because I learned that the Obama administration is claiming that it doesn't need congressional authorization for its Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Why? Because what we are doing doesn't amount to "full-blown" hostilities.
Oh, please. Let's start with the definition of "war" itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country." Now, let's see: what are we doing in Libya? What we know is that we've sent cruise missiles, and drones and U.S. aircraft to attack military targets in various places, including several attacks on Qaddafi's own compound. We are continuing to provide targeting information to our NATO allies, who are conducting additional raids on their own. Although U.S. ground troops are not present in force, it's a safe bet that U.S. special forces are operating in various places, probably helping provide some of that targeting info. And of course because the Obama administration isn't telling us everything that it's doing, we have no clear way of knowing exactly how involved we really are.
By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn't matter that we aren't using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn't being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether this war makes strategic sense or not. (I think not, but I can see the merits of the other side's case). They can also disagree about whether outside intervention was necessary to avert an anticipated "bloodbath" in Benghazi, or whether it was really a precipitous decision that may in the end make things worse. But let's not fall for the creative legal sophistry being offered up here. If Obama and his foreign policy team think this war (yes, war) is really in our interest, then they should make their case to the American people and their elected representatives and let the chips fall where they may. I don't have enormous respect for Congress (who could, these days?) but that's how a republic is supposed to operate. And let's not forget that Obama used to think so himself.
Postscript: Lest readers think that I'm ticked off because I'm jet-lagged, or because my trip is not going well, let me just say that I'm feeling perfectly fine, the weather here in Dublin is sensational and my Irish hosts at the IIEA couldn't have been more gracious. I'm just disappointed, but not for the first time.
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Outgoing SecDef Robert Gates delivered a blunt message to America's NATO allies last week. If they don't start pulling their weight, he warned, the alliance "faces a dim, if not dismal future." In particular, he said that public opinion in the United States will not support our continuing to subsidize European defense in an era where Asia merits greater attention and when the U.S. economy is performing poorly and our fiscal situation is especially parlous. Money quote:
I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending. However, fiscal, political and demographic realities make this unlikely to happen anytime soon, as even military stalwarts like the U.K have been forced to ratchet back with major cuts to force structure. Today, just five of 28 allies -- the U.S., U.K., France, Greece, along with Albania -- exceed the agreed 2 percent of GDP spending on defense.
Regrettably, but realistically, this situation is highly unlikely to change."
Well, duh. NATO has been on borrowed time ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, because military alliances form primarily to deal with external threats and they are hard to hold together once the threat is gone. In a sense it is remarkable that NATO has persisted as long as it has, but that was mostly because the United States could afford to subsidize European security and because Washington saw NATO as a useful tool for maximizing U.S. influence in Europe.
The problems the alliance faces today have little to do with European fecklessness, American militarism, or the particular errors of individual leaders. The central problem here is structural: there's just not much of a case for a tightly integrated military alliance anymore, and not much reason for Europe to be armed to the teeth. Although both European and American defense intellectuals have worked tirelessly to invent new rationales for the alliance, none of them have been especially convincing.
Americans want Europe to spend more on defense, so that they can contribute more to our far-flung global projects. But why should they? Europe is peaceful, stable, democratic, and faces no serious external military threats. Its combined GNP exceeds ours, and the European members of NATO spend almost eight times more on defense than Russia does. So where's the threat? The plain truth is that Europe has little reason to invest a lot of money on defense these days, no matter how much Americans implore them to, and so they turn a deaf ear to American entreaties.
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I had the privilege of delivering a keynote speech to the Naval War College's Current Strategy Forum on Wednesday, and you can find a video of the talk here.
The title of my talk was "The Twilight of the American Era," and my central point was that we are nearing the end of the unusual position of primacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of World War II. In 1945, the United States produced about half of gross world product, we were a creditor nation with a trade surplus, and we had the world's largest armed forces and sole possession of atomic weapons. The Soviet Union had a large land army but not much else, and its economy was always decidedly inferior to ours.
This position of primacy allowed the United States to create, maintain, and lead a political-economic-security order in virtually every part of the world, except for the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact itself. Not only did the United States play the leading role in institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and GATT, but we also established a dominant security role in Europe through NATO and in Asia through bilateral treaties with Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and others. In the Middle East, the United States helped create and support Israel and also forged security partnerships with various Arab monarchies, thereby obtaining a predominant role there as well. U.S. hegemony was already well-established in the Western hemisphere, and though the U.S. didn't pay much attention to Africa, it did enough to preserve its modest interests there too.
Over the next forty years, this position of primacy was challenged on several occasions but never seriously threatened. The United States lost the Vietnam War but its Asian alliances held firm, and China eventually moved closer to us in the 1970s. The Shah of Iran fell, but the United States simply created the Rapid Deployment Force and maintained a balance of power in the Gulf. Israel grew ever-stronger and more secure, and Egypt eventually realigned towards us too. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, which allowed the United States to bring the Warsaw Pact into NATO and spread market-based systems throughout the former communist world.
This situation was highly unusual, to say the least. It is rare that any single power-let alone one with only 5 percent of the world's population -- is able to create and maintain a particular political and security order in almost every corner of the world. It was never going to last forever, of course, and three key trends are now combining to bring that era of dominance to an end.
The first trend is the rise of China, which discarded the communist system that had constrained its considerable potential and has now experienced three decades of explosive growth. China's military power is growing steadily, and as I and other realists have noted, this trend will almost certainly lead to serious security competition in Asia, as China seeks to limit the U.S. role and as Washington strives to maintain it.
The second trend is the self-inflicted damage to the U.S. economy, a consequence of the Bush administration's profligacy and the financial crisis of 2007. The United States faces a mountain of debt, the near-certainty of persistent federal deficits, and a dysfunctional political system that cannot seem to make hard choices. This situation does not mean the United States is about to fall from the ranks of the great powers, but the contrast with earlier periods -- and especially the immediate aftermath of World War II -- is stunning. Just look at our tepid response to the Arab spring and compare that with the Marshall Plan, and you get some idea of our diminished clout.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.