I'm just back from Southeast Asia, and a combination of accumulated email, looming deadlines, and jet lag will keep me from offering a lengthy account of the trip. Suffice it to say that I had a terrific time, with the highlight being my first visit to Vietnam. I gave lectures there on "China's Rise and America's Asian Alliances" and "Opportunities and Challenges in 2011" at the VNR500 Forum 2011 (a conference of the "top 500" Vietnamese companies), at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and at the Vietnamese Diplomatic Academy in Hanoi. I did an online interview with Vietnam.net, an important online newspaper in Vietnam, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials, mostly from the Foreign Affairs and Information ministries.
My impressions? First, there's clearly a tremendous amount of energy in Vietnam and lots of signs of economic potential. In addition to a wide array of restaurants, shops, and small enterprises, there are a growing number of industrial enterprises and (to me, at least) surprisingly modern "downtown" sections in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam's growth potential remains limited by underperforming state-owned enterprises, corruption, and significant infrastructure challenges. But assuming those impediments can be overcome, I'd be bullish about its economic future (and it hasn't been doing all that badly in recent years, growing at about 7 percent).
Second, my visit coincided with the Party Congress, and though I'm hardly expert, I gather the results are something of a mixed bag. The new party secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, represents the old guard, which means that rapid reforms are less likely. On the other hand, I gather that reform elements are more numerous in the Central Committee and other party institutions, and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, supports closer ties with the United States.
Which was another theme of my visit. The Vietnamese don't appear to have any hard feelings toward the United States (I didn't catch the slightest hint of any lingering resentments from the war), and it's probably noteworthy that virtually all the visitors at the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City were Westerners. This lack of resentment isn't all that surprising; as they see it, they beat us fair and square. Instead, the audiences at my talks (which included a fair number of students and intellectuals) and the officials with whom I met all sounded eager for closer ties with the United States. As I noted earlier, they were mostly concerned that the United States might cut some deal with China that would leave them isolated.
And China is a major long-term concern. That's hardly surprising either; all you have to do is look at a map and know a little bit about Sino-Vietnamese history. They have no desire for an open confrontation with Beijing, and Vietnam has a lot of important economic ties with China that could give the Chinese leverage in the future. But they are also under no illusions about the dangers of Chinese dominance (Vietnam was ruled by China for several hundred years), and I didn't sense much danger that Vietnam will bandwagon with Beijing. In that regard, the people with whom I spoke were clearly reassured and pleased by the tougher line the United States has taken regarding territorial issues in places like the South China Sea. So if Sino-American rivalry intensifies (as I expect it will), Vietnam will be an important U.S. ally.
All in all, it was a fascinating trip, and I'll be digesting my impressions for some time to come. And now it's time to catch up on what's been happening in the rest of the world; but first, I have to dig out the driveway.
I normally like a lot of Anthony Shadid's reporting, but one odd line leapt out of this story, which I read online in Hanoi this morning. He was discussing the turbulent political situation in Lebanon, and offered this unremarkable observation:
It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched -- seemingly helplessly -- as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control."
Shadid is obviously right, but the observation itself is banal in at least two senses. First, even a country as powerful as the United States doesn't "control" an awful lot of events in world politics, and especially the internal maneuverings and struggles of a country like Lebanon. And the sooner that Americans dispense with the notion that we can reliably control events in far-away places, the better off we'll be.
Second, it is hardly surprising that the United States has steadily lost influence (note: not control) in the Middle East. We're hamstrung by the "special relationship" with Israel, which reduces our freedom of maneuvers, makes our rhetoric about justice and democracy and human rights look hypocritical, and angers millions of people around the Arab and Islamic world. We foolishly invaded Iraq and then bungled the job, which made us look both aggressive and incompetent. We continue to follow a failed policy toward Iran, which only seems to make Ahmadinejad stronger. And we help prop up authoritarian regimes that are deeply unpopular, favoring democracy only when the candidates we like win.
And then we wonder why we aren't able to "control" political events in Lebanon, and we're surprised that more honest brokers are acquiring greater influence? The mere fact that this trend seems surprising is itself quite eloquent testimony to the brain-dead nature of our Middle East diplomacy.
The only good news in this sorry tale is that the United States does not really have to "control" the Middle East. Our only vital strategic interest there is to ensure that oil continues to flow to world markets, and reliable access to oil only requires that the region not be controlled by a single hostile power. We don't have to control it; we just need to make sure that nobody else does. Our inability to dictate events in places like Lebanon may be inconvenient, but it's neither especially surprising nor even all that worrisome. But if you'd like the United States to have more genuine and lasting influence, then you'd better come up with an approach to the region that looks rather different than the one we've been following for as long as I can remember.
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I don't know what President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao will say to each other during their summit meeting this week. But based on my conversations and discussions in Vietnam this week, I think I know one thing that Obama should not say.
I have given several lectures since my arrival here, and met with a number of Vietnamese officials. One theme that has come up repeatedly is the fear that the United States and China will reach some sort of great power condominium. at the expense of the weaker powers in the region. There is clearly considerable concern that the United States will "do a deal" with China, in effect granting it a free hand in its neighborhood in exchange for concessions elsewhere.
I've tried to explain to my audiences here that this is very unlikely. Realism tells you that the two most powerful states in the international system tend to be very wary of each other, and find it difficult (though of course not impossible) to cooperate, particularly on core issues of national security. Some sort of "G-2" condominium would be difficult to negotiate and hard to sustain, because both sides would worry that the other was getting the better part of the deal.
The immediate problem, however, is that both China and the United States have some incentives to make the summit a success, and to mask or minimize differences under a veil of flattering diplomatic language. Moreover, China's neighbors are somewhat ambivalent themselves: they don't want to be dominated by China, but they also don't want a "Cold War" in the region. This situations gives the United States and China reasons to "act nice," even if both are aware of some significant underlying differences, and it may tempt the Obama administration to remain silent on some key areas of disagreement, such as China's territorial claims.
So President Obama needs to be careful. His normal instinct, as we've seen repeatedly, is to play the role of conciliator, to avoid setting clear red lines, and to look for whatever deals he can get. My guess is that his advisors will also be encouraging him to avoid any sort of confrontational language, and Secretary of State Clinton has already emphasized the U.S. desire for "real action, on real issues." If the United States and China can make progress on currency issues, North Korea, and climate change, then they can view the summit as a success and other states in Asia will not be overly alarmed.
But he also needs to avoid giving the impression that all the United States cares about is a good relationship with China, and he certainly does not want to convey the idea that Beijing and Washington are getting together to divide up the world, or that the United States is ready to make any concessions on China's territorial claims in the South China sea or elsewhere. People here in Southeast Asia are watching the summit very closely, and they will probably over-interpret the normal diplomatic niceties in any case. They will also be alert to issues that aren't mentioned, and will be worried if the two leaders appear to be getting along too well.
Lastly, bear in mind that this is just one meeting. No matter what gets said by either side, or what agreements they do or do not reach, this meeting is not going to determine the future of Sino-American relations or the future of the U.S. position in Asia. There are enduring structural features -- both economic and strategic -- that will exert lasting effects on how those features of contemporary world politics evolve, and it would be a mistake to put too much weight on just one meeting. But I still hope the president chooses his words with great care, and keeps that smile of his in check.
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I did a short interview with Al Jazeera's station in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, focused primarily on Secretary of Defense Gates' visit to China. For those of you who didn't catch it (which I assume is just about everyone), I thought I'd pass along what I said.
They asked me three questions. Here's what they asked, and more-or-less what I replied.
1. Is there a new Cold War between the United and China?
In my opinion, no. There is growing concern about the relationship in both countries, and I think there is likely to be a rising security competition between the two, especially in Asia. But it's a far cry from the Cold War struggle between the United States and Soviet Union. That was really a battle to the death, where both states actively wanted to bring the other down. Nothing like that is occurring between the United States and China these days. The Cold War was also an intense ideological competition, where each side saw the other's political system as not merely different, but as the embodiment of evil. There are some differences in values between the United States and China, but it's not at nearly the same level as the Cold War. Lastly, the United States and USSR did not interact very much: trade and investment were quite low and there wasn't a lot of personal or cultural exchange between the two states. Again, the situation with China and the United States today is very different: there is a lot of trade and investments, thousands of students going back and forth every year, and and fairly high degree of elite engagement too. So while there is an emerging rivalry that I expect to become more intense, it isn't what I'd call a "Cold War."
2. Is President Obama's Asia policy a
On balance, yes. Despite having allowed itself to get distracted by events elsewhere, I think the administration has done a fairly good job. President Obama's trip to Asia last year was quite successful. The security partnership with India is deepening, and the United States has managed relations with traditional allies such as Japan well. It has backed South Korea effectively in its delicate relationship with North Korea, and restored closer ties with Indonesia. Relations with Singapore are strong, and Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have made it clear that the United States intends to remain closely engaged in Asia for many years to come. Overall, they've done much better in East Asia than they have in Central Asia (Afghanistant/Pakistan) or the Middle East.
3. What are China's aims?
China's objectives are not really that hard to understand. First, they want to continue to grow economically, because doing so is critical to the welfare of the Chinese people and to the stability and legitimacy of the government. Second, like any other country, China wants to maximize its security. It doesn't want to be vulnerable to events elsewhere, or to pressure from other major powers. This means it wants reliable access to raw materials, to energy, and to the world markets on which its prosperity increasingly depends. Over the long term, that means it would like to reduce the American role in Asia, because its leaders will feel they are safer if there isn't any major military adversary with a strong position in Asia. Americans wouldn't be happy is some world power had an array of alliances in the Western hemisphere; by the same logic, Beijing cannot be delighted by America's close ties with many Asian countries (not to mention Taiwan). This view isn't a sign of innate Chinese expansionism or aggressiveness; for a realist, it's how any great power would view this situation. Whether Beijing will achieve its various aims, of course, is another matter.
Postscript: I'm off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), so my next post will be from there.
I spent a half-hour yesterday on Warren Olney's KCRW radio show To the Point, discussing defense spending and deficit reduction. The other participants were Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker (the political writer I'm most jealous of because he writes so damn well), William Hartung of the New America Foundation, and Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council and a committed member of the "Tea Party" movement. If you're interested, you can get a link to the entire broadcast here.
The main topic of discussion was whether efforts at deficit reduction are going to include taking a major whack at defense spending. The general view on the panel was that you can't make serious efforts at deficit reduction without cutting DOD, if only because it occupies such a large percentage (i.e., more than half) of federal discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion then focused on what the new Congress would actually do and why there is still such resistance to trimming America's very large defense outlays.
For me, however, the most interesting part was listening to the Tea Party representative, Chris Littleton. His views were easily the most extreme of the group and bordered on what would normally be disparaged as "isolationism." He articulated this view very well, I thought, and was particularly good at countering the claim that such views are unpatriotic. He also acknowledged that Tea Partiers are far from unified on this issue: Some favor more hawkish defense policies while others believe the United States is badly overextended, should get out of the business of policing the world, and sharply cut back defense spending as part of an overall effort to shrink the size of government. (He would obviously place himself in the latter group).
As readers of this blog probably know, I also think U.S. defense spending is excessive and that our foreign policy should be more restrained. I don't go nearly as far as Littleton did, however, and I think the Tea Party's basic idea that the United States should drastically shrink the public sector is a Very Bad Idea. If we followed its prescriptions, we would quickly learn that all sorts of public services (good public schools, museums, snow removal, safety nets, police and fire, etc.) make life a lot better for all of us and that life without them would be pretty grim indeed.
But I came away from the conversation with a new appreciation for what the Tea Party may -- repeat, may -- bring to the national debate on foreign policy. Right now, there is still an overwhelming consensus inside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment for continuing to run the world, a consensus that includes liberal interventionists of the Madeleine ("Indispensable Nation") Albright variety and virtually all neoconservatives. And as I've noted before, there is significant imbalance of power inside Washington, generally favoring those who want to do more overseas. The result is that the United States tries to do more than it should, finds it much harder to set clear priorities, and tends to miss opportunities to "pass the buck" to others. If the rise of the Tea Party creates some significant domestic opposition to that tendency and helps generate a more lively public debate on fundamental issues of grand strategy, the country as a whole may end up with policies that make a lot more sense in the long run. It won't be Mr. Littleton's agenda, but it also won't be the outdated strategy we've been following since the end of the Cold War.
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It's a New Year, and there's more news from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No surprise: It's not good. Over the weekend a 36-year-old Palestinian woman, Jawahar Abu Rahmah, died after inhaling tear gas fired at a demonstration at Bilin in the occupied territories. For eyewitness accounts and useful commentary, check out the Israeli website +972mag here.
Please note that Abu Rahmah wasn't a suicide bomber, wasn't firing rockets, and wasn't demanding an end to the Jewish state. She posed no direct threat to Israel's security at all. Instead, along with other courageous Israeli and Palestinian activists, she was merely protesting the illegal construction of Israel's "security fence" (aka "apartheid wall") near the village of Bilin. According to the New York Times, Israel's High Court declared in 2007 that "the barrier at Bilin should be rerouted to take in less of the village's agricultural land. That work has still not been completed." It is also worth noting that she was the second member of her family to die in this way; her brother Bassem was hit in the chest and killed by an Israeli tear-gas canister in 2009. (The tear gas, by the way, is manufactured right here in the United States).
Meanwhile, back in America, a number of prominent commentators are beginning to figure out that the Zionist dream is becoming a nightmare. First came Peter Beinart's important piece in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. Then, in the past couple of weeks, New Yorker editor David Remnick has given several interviews condemning the occupation in unusually blunt terms. Even die-hard defenders like Marty Peretz and Jeffrey Goldberg have expressed concerns about Israel's trajectory, wondering if it will remain a democracy.
These are hopeful signs because progress is only possible if we take an unsentimental look at the situation there. And the central point is that Israel's problems are not due to a handful of extremist rabbis, authoritarian tendencies among the recent Russian immigrants, or even the growing percentage of haredim. The core problem remains the occupation itself, which is a project that every Israeli government since 1967 has endorsed and supported. It is by now deeply embedded in the Israeli political establishment, which is why it will be so hard -- and maybe impossible -- to end. Among other things, that is why I have so much admiration for those courageous Israelis who understand where this course is leading and who are doing what they can to save their country from itself. (And yes, this unhappy situation affects America too, as even the Weekly Standard seemed to acknowledge indirectly last week).
Finally, in a bizarre bit of CYA diplomacy, the Israeli press is reporting that unnamed U.S. officials are now blaming the failure of the latest peace negotiations on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to the reports, Barak "charmed" U.S. officials into thinking that he could persuade Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze and other compromises, but then Barak failed to deliver as promised. "See: It's not really our fault; we just got hoodwinked by that wily fellow Barak."
In fact, if this report is even remotely accurate, it is yet another display of diplomatic incompetence on the part of Obama's Middle East team. Ehud Barak is hardly an unknown figure, and nobody who dealt with him during his earlier tenure as prime minister should have accepted his blandishments at face value now. When it comes to the peace process, in fact, Barak is a serial blunderer who repeatedly drove Bill Clinton and his Middle East team crazy with his high-handed and mercurial tactics. Even Dennis Ross, who is rarely critical of Israeli officials, expressed considerable exasperation with Barak in his memoir of those years. So what does it say when these same people get taken in by him yet again?
All of which leads me to the following suggestion for U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Given the sorry track record of the past two decades, we ought to establish a simple litmus test for future members of any presidential Middle East team. We just ask if they have any prior government service on this issue, and if the answer is yes, then they are automatically disqualified from serving again. I don't care if you're Protestant, Muslim, Coptic, Catholic, Quaker, Jewish, or Zoroastrian, or if you're a Republican, a Democrat, a realist, a neoconservative, or for that matter a La Follette Progressive. I don't care if you worked for AIPAC, for WINEP, for ATFP, or even for JVP. The rule is simple and clear: If you were directly associated with any of our past (failed) efforts, we thank you for your prior service, but we aren't going to use you again. None of us would go back to the same orthopedist after he or she bungled a knee operation, and we shouldn't keep reusing the same diplomats who have conspicuously failed to deliver in the past.
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This is the time of year when pundits (and party-goers) get asked to offer predictions for the New Year. I'm going to resist the temptation, because as Yogi Berra warned, "prediction is really hard, especially about the future." He was right.
In 1849, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "war is on its last legs, and universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism." In 1911, British scholar G.P. Gooch wrote that "even a successful conflict between states can bring no material gain. We can now look forward with something like confidence to the time when war between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel, and when the peacemakers shall be called the children of God." And we all know about the famous forecast that humanity had reached the "end of history," or the claim that globalization would eventually force other states to copy America's farsighted combination of markets, financial innovation, and "rule of law" if they wanted to enjoy economic prosperity. Yeah, right.
But it's not just these optimistic forecasts that turn out to be off-base; fortunately, some pretty pessimistic predictions did not pan out either. In 1950, a smart guy named Albert Einstein warned that "unless we are able, in the near future, to abolish the mutual fear of military aggression, we are doomed." In 1961, physicist and novelist C.P. Snow predicted that "The nuclear arms race is accelerating: within at the most ten years, some of these bombs are going off. I am saying this as responsibly as I can. That is the certainty." The late Herman Kahn, another physicist and self-proclaimed futurologist, offered a similar forecast at about the same time, declaring that "unless we have more serious and sober thought we are not going to reach the year 2000 -- or even 1965 -- without a cataclysm."
These failed forecasts might lead you to conclude that you simply shouldn't listen to predictions by physicists, but even a good realist like Hans Morgenthau got it badly wrong at times. In 1979, Morgenthau predicted that "the world is moving ineluctably toward a third world war -- a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it. The international system is simply too unstable to survive for long." All I can say is that I'm glad he was wrong.
For a longer list of failed predictions about war and peace, check out the appendix to John Mueller's Quiet Cataclysm, which was my source for the quotations offered above. I'm not saying that scholars, pundits, and prognosticators don't get it right from time to time, but trying to offer specific predictions for the next year or so strikes me as a harmless but not very serious exercise. Social scientists can forecast certain broad trends, and our theories can certainly identify recurring tendencies that can help us anticipate broad features of the emerging strategic landscape. But the combination of human imagination, agency, contingency, and unanticipated consequences generally plays havoc with efforts at crystal ball-gazing.
Case in point: at a New Year's Eve party two years ago, I predicted that at least one country would leave the eurozone within the next year. I was clearly wrong about the specifics, but not about the general problems that the euro would face. Which merely goes to show that you can be broadly right but still be precisely wrong.
In any case, I'm not going to offer any predictions this year (at least not until I've had a glass or two of champagne). Instead, I'm taking the social scientist's normal cop-out and will look in the rearview mirror instead. And instead of just gazing back at 2010, here's my Top Ten Global Events of the past decade, in no particular order of importance:
1. January 2001: The inauguration of President Gore (oops, I mean Bush). The contested U.S. presidential election in 2000 proved even more momentous than we realized at the time, because it brought George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a gaggle of neoconservatives to power. I'm not saying Al Gore would have made a great foreign-policy president, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job than Bush and Co. All in all, a hell of a way to start a decade.
2. 9/11. No surprise here, of course. 9/11 altered the course of U.S. foreign policy as dramatically as Pearl Harbor in 1941, and mostly for the worse, and because the United States is so powerful, its response to 9/11 had far-reaching implications all over the world. As horrific as that day was, the real damage came in the form of self-inflicted wounds (such as the invasion of Iraq) that proved even more costly than al Qaeda's original attack.
3. The Beijing Olympics. I pick this as a symbol of China's emergence as a major player in global politics, which is of course precisely what the Chinese government intended. One could also argue that it marked the end of China's self-effacing strategy of a "peaceful rise," and the beginning of a more self-assertive approach to advancing Chinese national interests. In other words, they're starting to act a lot like the great powers of the past, which implies increased great-power security competition in the decades ahead.
4. The Crash Heard 'Round the World. When the history of the 21st century is written, the financial meltdown that began in 2007 is bound to receive plenty of scrutiny. Unless, the same institutions whose greedy machinations helped produce it -- and who are still largely in place -- manage to generate something even worse in the years to come.
The news that various Afghan and Pakistani insurgent groups are coordinating their activities more extensively is neither surprising nor encouraging. This outcome is exactly what balance of power theory (or if you prefer, balance of threat theory) would predict: as the United States increases its military presence and escalates the level of violence, its various opponents put aside their differences for the moment in order to deal with the more imminent danger.
This pattern of behavior has a long-tradition in Afghan internal politics, as my former student Fotini Christia showed in a terrific Ph.D. thesis a few years back. It's also a phenomenon we've seen in earlier foreign interventions. The various mujaheddin warlords put aside their various quarrels in order to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, just as China, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam set aside their mutual fears and rivalries when the United States was fighting in Indochina.
Once the Soviets withdrew, of course, divisions within Afghan society re-emerged and made the place nearly ungovernable before the emergence of the Taliban. Something similar happened in Indochina: as soon as the United States withdrew from Vietnam, rivalries between the various communist nations and the Khmer Rouge eventually led to a Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea and a short border war between China and Vietnam. It was our presence that held them together and our departure that allowed long-standing resentments to burst forth anew.
The obvious lesson is that there is little danger of some sort of powerful jihadi monolith emerging in Central Asia. It is our war effort there that is leading these groups to make common cause with each other, and the longer the war goes on, the more we can expect them to cooperate. Because our strategic interests in Central Asia are very limited (i.e., we just don't want people organizing attacks on American soil from there) our real objective should be to reduce the U.S. presence, play "divide-and-conquer," and let the natural centrifugal tendencies in this region reassert themselves. That's not necessarily the "heroic" play (which is why our commanders aren't embracing it), but wouldn't it make more sense than giving a set of un-natural allies more reason to work together?
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Like most residents of New England, I've spent the past day digging out from a major snowstorm. Unlike most of my neighbors, I've also spent many hours grading the take-home final from my course. It occurred to me that some of you might like to know what we asked our students, and what some of them had to say about it.
The exam was in two parts, and the first part consisted of the following hypothetical question:
Q1: "Due to an unexpected movement of tectonic plates, the United States and China have switched geographic locations. The United States is now located in East Asia; sharing borders with Russia, North Korea, India, Mongolia, Vietnam, etc., and is much closer to Japan, while China is now located in North America, in-between Canada and Mexico. Assume that all other features of the two societies are unchanged (i.e., each state faces this new situation with the same populations they have today, along with the same natural resource endowments, military capabilities, economic systems, political institutions, etc.).
The question: how would this development affect contemporary international relations? Your answer should draw upon the theoretical material covered in this course (e.g., realism, liberalism, constructivism, etc.) but feel free to add your own ideas as well."
Students were given 1250 words (5-6 pages) to address this question, and most of them did pretty well with it. The question is obviously designed to get them to think through what different theories tell you about how geography would affect relations between states. For instance: would US relations with India and Japan deteriorate if the US were located nearby, or would shared democratic values dampen potential rivalries? Would China try to establish regional hegemony in the Western hemisphere, and would states like Canada, Mexico or Brazil try to contain it? Or would they "bandwagon" with China as they have done with the United States? Would the United States have to curtail its global ambitions in order to deal with security problems closer to home -- such as Pakistan, North Korea, Burma, or Russia -- or would it feel compelled to use force against a threatening neighbor like North Korea? There's no single "right answer" to this sort of question; what I'm looking for is a clear, logically consistent, and well-argued set of predictions.
Not surprisingly, many of the papers argued that switching places would be a tremendous benefit to China. In particular, students clearly recognized that the United States enjoys some enormous geographic advantages. In addition to being wealthier and more powerful than any of the other major powers, the United States is protected by two enormous oceanic moats and has no great powers in its immediate neighborhood. Moving from East Asia to the Western hemisphere would put China in this same favorable position, and place the United States in a much more problematic location in East Asia.
But what was really interesting was an implication that some (though hardly all) students drew from this line of argument. A number of them argued that China would be so secure in the Western hemisphere that it could focus even more attention on economic development, and not worry very much about military or security developments elsewhere. It would want to defend its own territory, and it would worry about securing energy supplies from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, and elsewhere, but otherwise it would be sitting pretty and could remain aloof from lots of other security issues. The United States, by contrast, would be facing all sorts of challenges over in Asia and would have to try to deal with all of them.
An obvious question, therefore, is: why doesn't this same logic apply to the United States today? Instead of devoting trillions of dollars to transforming the Middle East, trying to bring Afghanistan into the 20th century (or is it the 19th?) and generally interfering all over the world, the United States could almost certainly do a lot less on the world stage and devote some of those resources to balancing budgets and fixing things here at home. It's called nation-building, but we'd be building our nation and our future, not somebody else's.
What some of our students have intuitively grasped (and not because we told them), is that there is in fact a very powerful case for a much more limited U.S. military posture overseas. Indeed, given the existence of nuclear weapons, there is even a cogent case to be made for something approaching isolationism, as laid out by people like the late Eric Nordlinger, by the CATO Institute's Chris Preble, or the team of Gholz, Press, and Sapolsky. I don't go quite that far myself (i.e., I'm an offshore balancer, not an isolationist), but I recognize that there is a serious case for the latter position. And because this view does have a certain appeal, the current foreign-policy establishment has to do a lot of threat-mongering and engage in a lot of ideological oversell in order to get Americans to keep paying for foreign wars and sending their sons and daughters out to garrison the globe. It also helps to portray anybody who advocates doing less as some sort of idealistic pacifist or naive appeaser.
But this debate is beginning to open up. When states and local governments are facing bankruptcy, when military adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan yield not victory but at best only prolonged and costly draws, and when there is in fact no ideologically motivated great power adversary out there trying to "bury us," then continuing to try to manage the whole goddamn planet isn't just foolish, it's unconscionable. It will probably take another decade for this reality to work its way through our hidebound national-security establishment, but the winds of change are already apparent. And not a moment too soon.
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There was a brief flap last week when the Nixon Library released a tape of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the former president. At one point, Kissinger says "the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."
A number of pundits have already explored what these disturbing remarks tell us about Kissinger himself and his relationship with Nixon, but Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who is now a columnist for the Washington Post, has decided that the real culprit is the entire "realist" approach to foreign policy. Not only does he consider realism to be a "sadly limited view of power, discounting American ideological advantages in global ideological struggles," he claims that "repeated doses of foreign policy realism can deaden the conscience."
Such statements tell us two things: 1) Gerson hasn't read many (any?) realists, and 2) Gerson hasn't spent much time reflecting on the morality of his own government service. If he had, perhaps his own conscience would be a bit more troubled.
For starters, to use Henry Kissinger as a stand-in for all realists is bogus and intellectually lazy. Most academic realists thought the Vietnam War a foolish waste of U.S. resources, for example, yet Kissinger prosecuted that war with enthusiasm during his tenure as national security advisor and secretary of state. Similarly, most contemporary realists opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Kissinger supported it (as did Gerson). Before indicting an entire school of thought on foreign policy, therefore, you'd think Gerson would have spent some time familiarizing himself with what realists actually wrote.
Furthermore, Gerson is wrong to claim that realists are indifferent to moral concerns. (See here for a thoughtful discussion of this issue). Realists emphasize the role of hard power and are generally skeptical of idealistic crusades, but not because they think morality has no place in human affairs. Indeed, most realists that I know are deeply moral individuals who wish that humans (and states) behaved in a more ethical fashion; unfortunately, history makes it abundantly clear that bad behavior is commonplace and that prudent leaders have to take that possibility into account.
While I've been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I'd be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn't take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works.
The first is a big article in the latest issue of The National Interest, entitled "Imperial by Design." The article offers a compelling explanation for America's recent foreign policy failures, which he traces to the excesses and errors of the Clinton-era "liberal imperialists" and Bush-era neoconservatives. (Not surprisingly, Obama seems to be following the former's blueprint in most respects). Both groups sought to use American power to shape the world in our image, although Clinton did so rather gingerly while Bush & Co. did so with reckless abandon. This ambitious and largely bipartisan attempt to manage the entire globe ultimately led to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a costly squandering of American power. Mearsheimer proposes a return to the earlier U.S. strategy of "offshore balancing," a strategy that would protect America's core interests at far less cost and generate less anti-American extremism. Ideally, this article ought to begin a long-overdue debate on the fundamentals of American grand strategy, but I'm not at all sure that it will. At this point there are too many people inside-the-Beltway with a vested interest in a global military footprint, and little interest in examining its do footprint, and little interest in examining the downside to this posture.
Perhaps you noticed the following two headlines from today's New York Times (print edition; the online headline is different):
Those two stories tell you a lot about the situation in Central Asia, especially when read in the context of the latest strategy review. Surprise, surprise: that review reaffirmed virtually all of the Obama administration's justifications for continuing the war, and offered just enough upbeat assessments to support a continued effort. At the same time, it provides just enough prophylactic pessimism to appear "realistic."
But what's missing in all this role-playing was a clear and convincing statement of costs and benefits. For all the talk of defeating al Qaeda (which isn't in Afghanistan any more), or preventing "safe havens," the administration scrupulously avoided the question of whether the money spent, lives lost, and presidential time consumed is worth it in terms of advancing core American interests. While parsing the evidence that it is making progress, the administration carefully avoids the question of whether the resources devoted to achieving something that might be defined as "success" are worth spending. Similarly, it avoids asking whether the costs of disengagement would be all that significant; it simply assumes that getting out would lead to catastrophe. So it just repeats the usual affirmations that "we must...." and "we will...." while avoiding the far more important issue of whether we should. Our German allies appear to have asked themselves that question, and come up with a different answer.
And the news that the United States intends to expand the war even further into Pakistan is especially worrisome. On the one hand, it suggests that the administration has figured out that it cannot ever win in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban have a safe haven across the border (and the tacit or active support of some key elements in the Pakistani military). But as Anatol Lieven notes in The Nation, unleashing additional violence in Pakistan could have long-term destabilizing consequences that would be far more significant than whatever ultimately happens in Afghanistan.
And it is hard not to see echoes of Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia in 1970, in a failed attempt to eradicate Viet Cong bases there. The two situations are hardly identical, but both illustrate the tendency for wars to expand in both the scope and extent of violence, especially when they aren't going well. You send more troops, but that doesn't turn things around. So you send a few more, and you widen the war to new areas. But that doesn't work either, so you decide you have to alter the rules of engagement, use more missiles, bombs, or drones, or whatever. Maybe that will work, but it's looking more and more like the strategic equivalent of the Hail Mary pass. And so we have the bizarre situation where the president who won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office has now escalated the war twice, expanded the use of drones, and now intends to widen the war in Pakistan even more.
Let's not forget that the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 also helped destabilize that country, and helped usher in the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. I'm not predicting a similar outcome here, but that example is a cruel reminder that military force is a crude instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to anticipate in advance.
Decades from now, historians will look back and wonder how the United States allowed itself to get bogged down in a long and costly war to determine the political fate of landlocked country whose entire gross national product is about a quarter the size of the New York city budget. And when they reflect on the fact that the United States did this even after a major financial collapse and in the face of persistent budget deficits and macroeconomic imbalances, they will shake their heads in amazement.
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While the demonization of Julian Assange continues apace, the following thought occurred to me (it probably occurred to you already). Suppose a reporter like David Sanger or Helene Cooper of the New York Times had been given a confidential diplomatic cable by a disgruntled government employee (or "unnamed senior official"). Suppose it was one of the juicier cables recently released by Wikileaks. Suppose further that Sanger or Cooper had written a story based on that leaked information, and then put the text of the cable up on the Times website so that readers could see for themselves that the story was based on accurate information. Would anyone be condemning them? I doubt it. Whoever actually leaked the cable might be prosecuted or condemned, but the journalists who published the material would probably be praised, and their colleagues would just be jealous that somebody else got a juicy scoop.
So if one leaked cable is just normal media fodder, how about two or three? What about a dozen? What's the magic number of leaks that turns someone from an enterprising journalist into the Greatest Threat to our foreign policy since Daniel Ellsberg? In fact, hardly anyone seems to be criticizing the Times or Guardian for having a field day with the materials that Wikileaks provided to them (which is still just a small fraction of the total it says it has), and nobody seems to hounding the editors of these publications or scouring the penal code to find some way to prosecute them.
I don't know if the sex crime charges against Assange in Sweden have any merit, and I have no idea what sort of person he really is (see Robert Wright here for a thoughtful reflection on the latter issue). I also find it interesting that the overwrought U.S. reaction to the whole business seems to be reinforcing various anti-American stereotypes. But the more I think about it, the less obvious it is to me why the man is being pilloried for doing wholesale what establishment journalists do on a retail basis all the time.
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Keeping up with Jeffrey Goldberg's errors is like trying to dam the Gulf Stream, and responding to his repeated smears is a mug's game. I suppose I could quote a bunch of snarky comments about him too, and we could have a nasty blogosopheric food fight for the entertainment of our readers. But I prefer to focus on the issues, instead of the name-calling that is J.G.'s stock-in-trade.
His latest silly sally is to chide me for my saying that there is no meaningful "Arab lobby" in Washington. As evidence, he points out that various Arab states have paid a lot of money to various public relations firms, in a rather transparent attempt to gain some influence in Washington. The question to ask is whether these activities produce "meaningful" influence on key foreign policy issues, especially when you compare them with the lobbying groups on the other side.
Once you ask that question, of course, his case collapses. Let's look at the vast influence that the "Arab lobby" has wielded in recent years.
1. It is undoubtedly the all-powerful Arab lobby that ensures that Israel gets $3-4 billion in economic and military aid each year, even when it does things that the United States opposes, like building settlements. And were it not for the Arab lobby, the United States would be putting a lot of pressure on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and come clean about its nuclear arsenal.
2. It was the vaunted Arab lobby that convinced President Bush to delay a U.N. ceasefire resolution during the Lebanon War of 2006, so that Israel could try to finish off Hezbollah and continue bombing civilian areas in Lebanon. Pressure from the Arab lobby also convinced Congress to pass a resolution backing Israel to the hilt, and to remove language from the original draft that called for both sides to "protect civilian life and infrastructure."
3. When Ambassador Charles Freeman was nominated to chair the National Intelligence Council in 2009, the vast Arab lobby promptly launched a successful smear campaign to deny him the post, running roughshod over his outnumbered and powerless defenders at the New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, and Washington Post.
4. When Obama asked Israel to implement a settlement freeze in 2009, the Arab lobby promptly swung into action and drafted open letters warning the President not to put any pressure on Israel. These resolutions passed overwhelmingly in both Houses, another sign of the Arab lobby's political clout.
5. When Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008, the Arab lobby was there to prevent the U.S. from interfering. And when the Goldstone Report raised the issue of possible Israeli war crimes in that war, the Arab Lobby no doubt called the Obama administration and told it to condemn the report, which it promptly did.
The good news is that the Obama administration has withdrawn its humiliating attempt to bribe Israel into accepting a 90-day extension of the (partial) settlement freeze. Not only was this negotiating ploy one of the more degrading moments in the annals of U.S. diplomacy, it also had scant chance of success. To their credit, Obama's Middle East teams finally figured this out -- a few weeks later than most observers -- and pulled the plug on the deal.
The bad news, however, is that it's not clear what their next move is. Everyone now realizes that the United States cannot play the role of a fair-minded mediator in this conflict, and the early hopes that Obama would adopt a smarter approach have been repeatedly dashed.
This situation isn't good for anyone -- not the United States, not Israel, and not the Palestinians. It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.
This failure will further complicate our efforts elsewhere in the region. As former President Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, solving the Israel-Palestine problem "will take about half the impetus in the whole world -- not just the region, the whole world -- for terror away. . . It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done." It is also clear from the recent WikiLeaks releases that our Arab partners want the United States to do something about Iran, but they remain deeply concerned by the Palestinian issue and they recognize that progress on Israel-Palestine would go a long way to reducing Iran's regional influence.
Unfortunately, there's little reason to expect any sort of breakthrough, which means that local forces and dynamics are going to be exerting greater weight. When others believe that the United States is in charge of the "peace process" and leading it in a positive direction, they sit back and let Uncle Sam do the work. But now that Obama's team has failed, local actors will take matters into their own hands and U.S. influence is likely to diminish further. Why wait for Washington to deliver a deal when it is obvious that it can't?
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the events of the past two years have done a lot to clarify both where we are and where we are headed. One can take no joy from that, because the current path is bound to produce more needless suffering in the short to medium term, and maybe beyond. But dispelling the myths and illusions that have obscured our vision is of some value, and in this case, one didn't even need WikiLeaks to figure out what's going on.
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For years a number of political scientists have been complaining about the propensity for scholars to study topics that are of little real-world value or of interest only to a handful of fellow scholars. We've come to call this the "cult of irrelevance." At the same time, many academics cloud their analyses in obscure jargon or a fog of methodological "sophistication," and rarely bother to offer up translations for the busy policy-maker. To make matters worse, although academics defend the institution of tenure fiercely, most of them do not use the protection it affords to pursue topics that might be politically controversial.
These unfortunate tendencies are not universal, however, and a number of us have tried to address the broader issue in various ways. You can read about the general subject here, here, here, or here. In that spirit, I'm also happy to pass on the news that a group of political scientists have organized a week-long summer institute designed to tackle the problem head-on. Under the guidance of Bruce Jentleson of Duke, Steve Weber of UC-Berkeley, and James Goldgeier of George Washington, a new International Summer Policy Institute will "deliver an intensive curriculum designed to teach participants how to develop and articulate their research for a policy audience, what policymakers are looking for when they look to IR scholarship, whom to target when sharing research, and which tools and avenues of dissemination are appropriate." The Institute is part of a larger effort to "bridge the gap" between academia and policy, and you can find out more about its activities here.
Needless to say, I think this is a worthy enterprise. Together with efforts like the Tobin Project, it may encourage more academics to focus their research efforts on policy-relevant topics and teach them how to communicate their results in ways that policymakers will find more accessible. The point here, by the way, is not to "dumb down" scholarship or to imitate the plethora of partisan think tanks now located inside the Beltway. Academic scholars should be independent researchers first and foremost, and seekers of truth above all. But the topics that they choose to address can be chosen to illuminate important policy issues more directly, and devoting some time to figuring out how to communicate their results more broadly would surely be a good thing.
What is also needed is a change in academic practice, including the criteria that are used to make key hiring and promotion decisions. The standards by which we assess scholarly value are not divinely ordained or established by natural law; they are in fact "socially constructed" by the discipline itself. In other words, we collectively decide what sorts of work to valorize and what sorts of achievement to reward. If university departments placed greater weight on teaching, on contributions to applied public policy, on public outreach, and on a more diverse range of publishing venues -- including journals of opinion, trade publishers and maybe even blogs--then individual scholars would quickly adapt to these new incentives and we would attract a somewhat different group of scholars over time. If university departments routinely stopped the "tenure clock" for younger academics who wanted to do a year of public service, that would enable them to gain valuable real-world experience without short-changing their long-term academic futures. It would also send the message that academia shouldn't cut itself off from the real world. And it probably wouldn't hurt if deans, department chairs, and university presidents welcomed controversy, encouraged intellectual diversity, and defended the slaying of sacred cows. As I've said before, academics really shouldn't count it a great achievement when students have no interest in their classes, and when people outside the ivory tower have no interest in what we have to say.
Americans like to think the United States is different (i.e., "better") than other countries. The idea that the United States is "exceptional," a "shining city on a hill," or destined by Providence to play a special role in world history, is a popular theme among politicians and widely embraced by ordinary U.S. citizens. As Karen Tumulty pointed out in an interesting Washington Post piece last week, the idea of "American exceptionalism" has also become yet another stick that conservatives are using to beat up President Obama, because he supposedly doesn't think we're all that unique. (In fact, like most politicians, Obama has praised America's "exceptional" qualities throughout his career).
Every country has certain unique features and interests, of course, but the idea that any state is truly "exceptional" is sharply at odds with a realist view of international politics. Realism depicts international politics as an anarchic realm, where no agency or institution exists to protect states from each other. As a result, states must ultimately rely on their own resources and strategies to survive. It is, in other words, a "self-help" world, and this situation forces all states -- and especially the major powers -- to compete with each other, sometimes ruthlessly. Although realists acknowledge that domestic politics sometimes matters and that there are important differences between different great powers (and different leaders), the most important difference between states is their relative power.
This view obviously over-simplifies a lot, but it also helps us guard against seeing any state as either uniquely virtuous or immune to folly. Because it is a competitive world, even highly principled leaders will end up doing some pretty unprincipled things when they can get away with it, and even cruel despots may be forced to constrain their evil impulses if they are confronted by resolute opposition. In a competitive order, nice people sometimes have to act nasty, and nasty people are sometimes forced to behave better than one might otherwise expect.
This world-view helps insulate realists from the sort of myopic hyperpatriotism that leads others to see their own conduct as moral and justified, yet to see others as evil or aggressive when they do exactly the same thing. To take an obvious example: realists don't think it is all that surprising that Iran might be interested in a nuclear capability, and don't immediately assume that its enrichment program is a sign that Tehran has evil intentions. After all, the United States is vastly wealthier, far more secure, and has a much larger conventional military force than Iran does, yet U.S. leaders still think they need several thousand nuclear weapons in order to be truly safe. Yet we don't think we're evil or aggressive by spending billions on a large nuclear arsenal; we're just being prudent.
This perspective also makes realists inherently skeptical about claims to American exceptionalism: we understand that U.S. leaders aren't always nicer or wiser or more moral than other policymakers. Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, drone strikes, preventive war, etc., may all be regrettable, but realists don't find them surprising, because we know that states will do lots of bad things when they are a) really scared, and b) think they can get away with it.
The real difference between the United States and virtually all other countries is that the United States has been unusually secure for much of its history, and very powerful for six decades or more. Realist theory tells you that when a state is really powerful, it will be less constrained by the power of others and it will be able to indulge all sorts of foreign policy whims. It can decide that it has "vital" interests on every continent; it can declare itself to be "indispensable" to almost every important issue, and it can convince itself that it really knows what is good for everyone else in the world. If you're wrong, it may not matter that much in the short term. If you are really powerful, in short, you can do a lot of stupid things for a long time. Even when those blunders are costly, the damage will add up slowly and demands for reform may be ignored. Look at how long it took General Motors to finally go bankrupt: it was obvious for decades that foreign automakers were eating GM's lunch, yet its management never took the steps that might have keep it competitive.
None of this is to say that the United States doesn't have certain unique and admirable traits. On balance, I'd argue that its role on the world stage has been positive one, and other governments (or leaders) might have acted in far worse ways had they been in a similar position of primacy. But realism is a good antidote to the jingoistic self-congratulation that pervades our political discourse, as well as the powerful tendency to see our own conduct as highly principled, while condemning others when they act in much the same way. Of course, that's not unique to Americans either.
In my last post I suggested that the United States and China start talking about how they would handle the collapse of the North Korean government. I should emphasize that I was not suggesting that the United States and China try to topple the North Korean regime. Beijing has zero interest in that happening right now, and we've already got more problems on our plate than we can handle.
My first point was that the North Korean regime could collapse no matter what we do (though nobody can predict when), and that it would be a good thing to have discussed how to respond in advance. My second point was that merely having such a conversation might have a sobering effect on Pyongyang, although I confess that I'm not entirely sure of that either.
I am pleased to report, however, that some people have started to think about what we should do in the event that North Korea really does start to go down the tubes. Specifically, USC's Korean Studies Institute sponsored a workshop on this topic earlier this year, and you can read a summary of their deliberations here. Kudos to the organizers, David Kang and Victor Cha, for trying to look down the road, and to help us get ready for a potentially thorny problem before it actually occurs.
As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I've been reading some of the latest releases and I've read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven't seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they've changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it's hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.
Please note that I am not arguing that there isn't useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.
Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one's they've seen. Until we've had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.
Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing. Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn't allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There's also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.
But let's get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I'm willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn't be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It's mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I'm not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.
And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell's cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it's hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel's concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I've read or the news accounts I've seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order.
Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents -- it's my own Rorschach, I guess -- is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems. South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don't agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.
You'd expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Fifth, the big story in the early releases -- at least as highlighted in the Times -- seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don't actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.
But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I've heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.
Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn't going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy's deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings -- and this include foreign policy-makers -- are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed. If you have to keep something secret, that's often a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all.
And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don't mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I'm sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I'm also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.
But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There's an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don't write if you can talk; don't talk if you can nod; don't nod if you can wink." Somehow, I'm not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.
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My colleague and friend (and brother-in-law) Christopher Stone sent me an email over the weekend, and I thought I should share it with you. His message read as follows:
I was reading EM Forster's Two Cheers for Democracy on the plane out to LA yesterday, and I came across an extraordinary little essay that seems to me to point to important elements of our politics today.
The essay is called "Post-Munich," and it is a reflection, written in 1939, on the curious political psychology that gripped England after Chamberlain made his deal with Hitler. He describes the country as in a strange double-state: still deeply fearful, and yet simultaneously distractible by the routines of life promised through the deal. Here is what Forster writes:
'This state of being half-frightened and half-thinking about something else at the same time is the state of many English people today. It is worth examining, partly because it is interesting, partly because, like all mixed states, it can be improved by thought.'
Forster goes on to describe why it is so hard to break free and face what needs to be done:
'We are urged. . . to face facts, and we ought to. But we can only face them by being double-faced. The facts lie in opposite directions, and no exhortation will group them into a single field. No slogan works. All is lost if the totalitarians destroy us. But all is equally lost if we have nothing left to lose.'
'Sensitive people are having a particularly humiliating time just now. Looking at the international scene, they see, with a clearness denied to politicians, that if Fascism wins we are done for, and that we must become Fascist to win. There seems no escape from this hideous dilemma and those who face it most honestly often go jumpy.'
Back to Chris:
If you just substitute terrorists for totalitarians and terrorism for fascism, you have a pretty good picture of our politics today. But here's the important question this raises in my mind:
Why, I ask myself, does the United States today seem like England after Munich? The Taliban are not Hitler. I think it is because we have indulged this same appeasement, but with ourselves. We are on both sides of the bargain: we are the world's threatening tyrant, and we are the world's best hope for freedom. And rather than fight out that battle, we have decided we can have it both ways. We have walked up to the fundamental choice that we face about our role in the world, and we have made a Munich pact with ourselves instead of choosing liberty and democracy for all. The point here is that it is as unstable and unholy a pact as Munich. It will come undone, and it should come undone. But then the real choice and the real peril will confront us."
My reaction: I reproduced his email because I think Chris is on to something (just as Forster was back in 1939). Americans think we ought to be managing the whole world, but we shouldn't have to pay taxes or sacrifice our way of life in order to do it. We use our military machine to kill literally tens of thousands of Muslims in different countries, and then we are surprised when a handful of them get mad and try (usually not every effectively) to hit us back. But then we docilely submit to all sorts of degrading and costly procedures at airports, because we demand to be protected from threats whose origins we've been refusing to talk about honestly for years. We are constantly warned about grave dangers, secret plots, impending confrontations, slow-motion crises, etc., and we are told that these often hypothetical scenarios justify compromising liberties here at home and engaging in practices (torture, targeted assassinations, preventive missile strikes at suspected terrorists, etc.) that we would roundly condemn if anyone else did them. We think it is an outrage when North Korea shells a South Korean island and kills four people, (correct), yet it is just "business as usual" when one of our drones hits some innocent civilians in Pakistan or Yemen. We have disdain for our politics and our politicians, but instead of questioning the institutions and practices that fuel this dysfunction, we indulge in fairy tales about so-called leaders who will somehow lead us out of the darkness.
If I am reading Chris right, the lesson here is that the United States cannot be a republic and an empire, because the latter inevitably ends up corrupting the former. This is the central point raised by the late Chalmers Johnson (who passed away last week), by Andrew Bacevich, and by a number of other thoughtful people. It is an issue that gets raised in various corners of the blogosphere, but hardly ever in the mainstream press and certainly not at most of the think tanks and talk shops inside the Beltway, most of whom are devoted custodians of energetic international activism. And until that debate starts happening in a serious way, we will continue to stumble about, simultaneously bearing the weight of the world and being afraid of our own shadow.
How should we respond to North Korea's latest bit of infuriating behavior? So far, the Obama administration's decision to send a US carrier for joint naval exercises with South Korea strikes me as about right. Overreacting would just give North Korea what they usually want-i.e., more attention than they deserve-but a purely verbal statement of support would have been seen as too modest by South Korea and our other Asian allies.
At the same time, we want to let Seoul take the lead in responding to this attack (while letting them know that we have their back), because we want our Asian allies to start taking more responsibility for their own security. South Korea is far wealthier and stronger than the North (which has a large but poorly trained and equipped army), and there's little danger of escalation if South Korea chooses to retaliate in a measured way. A real war on the Korean Peninsula would almost certainly bring about the final death knell of the North Korean regime, and somehow I don't think Kim & Co. have a death-wish.
But there's another step that I'd consider. Specifically, I'd try to initiate some quiet discussions with China on how to deal with the whole thorny issue of a post-Kim environment and the prospect of reunification. We're already asking China to intercede, but I'd go further and push them to talk about what our two countries will do in the event that the Pyongyang regime begins to unravel and reunification suddenly begins to look like a real possibility. One of the reasons China keeps protecting North Korea is their legitimate concern that the collapse of the Kim regime would cause enormous headaches for them. Among other things, they worry about a massive influx of refugees, the emergence of a major public health crisis just across the border, the security of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, and the possibility that a reunified Korea would remain allied with the United States, thereby putting a traditional U.S. ally right next door. Because China doesn't want any of those things to happen, it doesn't want the Kim dynasty to disappear. And this situation gives Pyongyang some leverage.
Yet even though I don't think North Korea is on the verge of collapsing, there are two good reasons to start some quiet conversations about what we would do it if did. First, North Korea might implode at some point in the future, and it would be nice to have thought about how we should respond and to have discussed this problem with China in advance. The second reason, and the one more relevant to today's concerns, is that news of these conversations would inevitably leak, and Pyongyang would undoubtedly be deeply concerned if they thought that Beijing was having serious conversations with Washington about the implications of a post-Kim world.
Of course, it is possible that China would just stiff us on this issue, either refusing to discuss the matter or using the conversations as an opportunity to back up Pyongyang once again. But at this point they may be growing tired of North Korea's unpredictable antics, and the steps outlined above would be a subtle and low-cost way for them to show it. And if they refused to help on this issue, it will undercut their attempts to portray themselves as an increasingly responsible "stakeholder" in the East Asian security environment.
The writer who pens the "Democracy in America" blog at The Economist has taken mild issue with my post from earlier this week on the negative consequences of America's extraordinarily secure international position. It's a thoughtful comment and well worth reading.
I had argued that the national security debate in this country tends to be irresponsible in good part because the United States is so secure. As a result, politicians and pundits can take all sorts of foolish positions (such as opposing the innocuous New START treaty) for partisan political reasons. The "Democracy in America" blogger concedes that point, but argues that many GOP positions also reflect the lingering effects of various pernicious ideas, many of them arising from U.S. neoconservatives.
Of course, the truth is that we're both right. I'd be the last person to downplay the damage that neoconservative ideas have done to U.S. interests, and they continue to exert far more influence on U.S. foreign policy than is healthy for our republic. But one of the things that allow bad ideas to flourish and endure in the United States is our extraordinary power and built-in security, which insulates most Americans from the direct effects of foreign policy blunders. And because there is little or no accountability in American public life, architects of disaster rarely suffer any personal consequences themselves. Instead of being marginalized in our policy discourse, the people who drove us off the cliff in Iraq and elsewhere just returned to the usual think tanks and inside-the-Beltway sinecures, where they continue to peddle the same familiar nostrums and await the opportunity to return to power and screw things up some more.
I've been trying to figure what I think of the latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the most part I agree with FP colleague Marc Lynch -- it's hard to see how this is going to lead anywhere. Even if you get a 90-day extension of the partial freeze on settlement building, nobody thinks you can get a viable final-status agreement in that time period. The best you could hope for is some sort of agreement on borders, but even there I'd be pretty pessimistic.
But let me put aside my usual skepticism and ask a different question: What can the Obama team do to maximize the chances of tangible progress? They've already given Israel a lot of carrots up front: a promise of F-35 aircraft, a pledge to never, ever, ever raise the issue of a settlement freeze again, and a guarantee that we will keep defending Israel in the United Nations, and probably a bunch of other goodies too. Plus, we agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the deal, even though this is a major irritant on the Palestinian side. All told, Netanyahu got a pretty big reward for being recalcitrant. At first glance, there's not much to stop him for halting some (but not all) settlement building, digging in his heels for 90 days, and then going back to business-as-usual.
Here's the rub: given the power of the Israel lobby, it's unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would be able to put any overt pressure on Israel. Congress will make sure that Israel gets its annual aid package, and die-hard defenders like Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) will make it impossible for Obama to use the leverage that is potentially at his disposal. And as noted above, those same forces will make sure that the United States continues veto any unfavorable resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and deflects international efforts to raise question about Israel's nuclear program.
So what's a president to do? Obama and his team have a huge incentive to make this latest gamble pay off. Obama has been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech (which can't be pleasant), George Mitchell is probably worried his long career as a public servant will end in abject failure, and I'll bet Middle East advisor Dennis Ross would like to prove that he's not really "Israel's lawyer" after all. And surely everybody on the team knows that another cave-in will completely derail any hope of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Islamic world. But given that overt pressure is out, what cards do Mitchell, Ross, Clinton, and Obama have to play?
Here's my suggestion: assuming direct talks do resume under U.S. auspices, tell the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that the United States is going to keep a very careful record of who did and said what, and the United States will not hesitate to go public in the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions. Unlike Camp David 2000, where nothing was written down and no maps were exchanged (at Israel's insistence), this time we are going to prevent anybody from doing a lot of spin-control after the fact. In other words, the United States tells everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change, and if either side refuses to play ball, we are going to expose their recalcitrance in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, this declaration can't be a bluff: if the talks bog down, the administration has to be prepared to go public.
And remember: The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all made it clear a viable state for the Palestinians is the only alternative that the United States can get behind. It is what the original U.N. partition plan in 1947 called for, and all the other alternatives (binational democracy, ethnic cleansing, or permanent apartheid) are either impractical or directly at odds with U.S. values.
This approach might actually work, because public discourse on this subject has begun to open up and it is increasingly difficult to spin a one-sided story. (See here for a recent example.) Moreover, many Israelis are growing worried about what they see as a growing international campaign to "delegitimize" their country. The best way to counter that alleged campaign is to end the occupation and establish internationally recognized borders. By contrast, if Israel is seen as the main obstacle to peace, international criticism is bound to increase. Given these concerns, a threat to make the negotiating process public might actually have some bite to it.
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So far, the big news from the NATO Summit in Lisbon is that the United States is trying to change the "sell by" date in Afghanistan. Instead of July 2011, the new deadline for victory is going to be sometime in 2014. Right.
In policy terms, this is called "kicking the can down the road." At that point, I'm betting we'll declare victory and get out, via the same sort of blue-smoke-and-mirrors ("the surge worked") that we used in Iraq. Except that as with Iraq, there will still be thousands of U.S. troops there and we will still be spending billions of dollars trying to create a workable Afghan state. This is good news for corrupt Afghans, but not the U.S. taxpayer or, in the longer term, the U.S. military.
I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
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McClatchy news service reports that the Obama administration is starting to back away from the president's July 2011 timeline for a de-escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Instead, "the administration hopes to introduce a timeline that calls for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014."
Assuming the report is accurate, it shouldn't be a surprise. I don't know anyone who thought the U.S. could turn things around in eighteen months, and that particular deadline was little more than a piece of political sleight-of-hand designed to make escalation look like a temporary step. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan was the right one (I think it wasn't), but Obama's straddle on this issue is one reason why some of his most enthusiastic supporters have become disenchanted.
Of course, there's a long tradition of presidents telling the American people that some new military mission won't take long and won't cost that much. Nixon told us he has a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War (he didn't) and Bill Clinton said U.S. troops would only be in Bosnia for 12 months (it was more like nine years). President George W. Bush and his advisors said that the occupation of Iraq would be brief and pay for itself yet we are still there today. And now Obama has done essentially same thing: selling an increased committed by suggesting that it is only temporary, and then backing away from his own self-imposed deadline.
This report also suggests that the war is not going as well as we're being told. We may be achieving some successes on the battlefield, but as with Iraq, the real challenge is political. Success requires building some sort of effective and legitimate governing authority in Afghanistan, and achieving some sort of political reconciliation among various contending groups. If this goal means building a strong, centralized Afghan state (something that has never existed before) then we are talking about an effort that will take years, costs tens of billions of additional dollars, and could still fail. It also requires rooting out corruption in the Karzai government, but the news on that front is hardly encouraging. Al Qaeda's leaders are no longer in Afghanistan and they don't need safe havens there in order to threaten the U.S., so it is no longer even clear why we are engaged in a massive effort at social engineering in this country. Or as I've said before: if the situation in Afghanistan were exactly what it is today, but no U.S. forces were present, would Obama have ordered 100,000-plus troops to go there?
I don't think so, but he'll keep them there for the rest of his presidency (whether he gets one or two terms), and he or his successor could end up facing essentially the same choice in 2014 that he is facing today. Barring a new approach from the United States, does anyone think it will be any easier to change course then?
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With one caveat, I'll give Obama's team credit for the deft endorsement of India becoming a permanent member (with veto powers) of the U.N. Security Council. It was a smart move because it appealed to India's sense of national pride, and because it didn't cost the United States much. Washington's opinion on this issue matters somewhat, but it doesn't get to determine the composition of the SC by itself and so Obama's endorsement of Indian membership was a bit of cheap talk that nonetheless managed to delight his Indian hosts. If it helped convince the Indian government to back the U.S. position at the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul, then that's a pretty smart deal.
In fact, reforming the U.N. Security Council would be a major undertaking, and it's not going to happen anytime soon. Other P-5 members will be wary of having their own influence and status diluted by the addition of new members, and China wouldn't be thrilled either. There are also plenty of other aspirants -- Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, etc. -- who would be more than a little irritated if India got in and they didn't.
So the only real objection to Obama's endorsement is that it might annoy these countries (and Pakistan, of course, which has already expressed its opposition to the idea). My caveat, therefore, is to wonder whether the good will won in India is outweighed by irritation in other quarters. I'd bet not, if only because SC reform is not exactly a burning issue on anybody's agenda.
The other issue that is becoming clearer, however, is the fundamental strategic contradiction in America's South Asia policy. On the one hand, because we are deeply mired in a war in Afghanistan, and because the Taliban and other extremist groups operate in and out of Pakistan, we have to try to work with the Pakistani government despite its many problems and our growing unpopularity in that country. At the same time, there are larger strategic imperatives pushing the United States to move closer to India. Indeed, Obama even referred to U.S.-Indian strategic partnership as an "indispensable" feature of the 21st century. But a deeper U.S. partnership with India drives Pakistan crazy, encourages some parts of the Pakistani government to hedge bets by backing the Taliban, complicating the U.S. effort to make progress in Afghanistan. One can even imagine some Pakistanis wanting to prolong the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, precisely because our military presence there makes us more dependent on them and thus gives Islamabad some degree of influence and leverage over us.
Notice, however, that this problem would diminish significantly if the United States were not stuck in a costly counter-insurgency and nation-building exercise in Central Asia. If we weren't trying to build a effective centralized state in Afghanistan, while simultaneously attacking militants in Pakistan's fronteir provinces, then we would be free to move closer to India without facing potential blowback elsewhere. And if we weren't constantly interfering in Pakistan too, we might actually discover that they resented us less. In other words, if we were acting more like an offshore balancer, and less like an post-colonial nation-builder, it would be a lot easier to design a less tortured South Asia strategy. Add that to your list of reasons to find a new way forward in our Afghan misadventure.
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
I am swamped with teaching, travel and some writing deadlines the next two weeks, so my blogging output will probably be sparse. Sadly, this pindown coincides with Obama's big Asian trip, and I regret not being able to comment at length. Given that I think the United States' strategic attention ought to be shifting toward Asia, the trip is long overdue and I'm mostly glad Obama is taking it.
But like Frank Rich, one does wonder about the timing of this particular journey. In his column yesterday, Rich complained that blowing town right after last week's "shellacking" in the midterms sent exactly the wrong message, especially when India is a country that Americans tend to associate with outsourcing and lost jobs. (There's even a new sitcom exploiting that idea.)
My concern is somewhat different. As the United States works to shore up existing alliances in Asia and to strengthen or forge some new ones, it will have to do a fair bit of hard bargaining. Even if there are strong geopolitical forces pushing states like India and the United States together, there are also lingering differences over specific policy issues (such as Afghanistan and Kashmir). Moreover, even close alliance partners will want to get others to do most of the heavy lifting, which usually means some tough negotiating.
My fear, therefore, is that a weakened president with a weak economy will be too eager to make deals while he's on the road. Despite our current woes, Obama should not be so desperate for symbolic foreign policy "achievements" that he ends up looking or sounding like a supplicant. Our Asian partners still need us more than we need them, and the United States hardly needs to be begging them to cooperate with us.
JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images
I'm sure you political junkies out there are busy chewing over last night's election results, and I admit I spent a bit too much time last night reading 538.com and monitoring what was happening in various races. I like a three-ring circus as much as anyone, and it's hard to take one's eyes off a train-wreck too.
Of course, the really critical race to watch was for the County Board of DeKalb County, Illinois. The race in District 6 pitted incumbent Republican Steve Walt against Democrat Bob Brown, but somehow this important contest escaped the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and hot-shot election analysts like Nate Silver. So I can't confirm that my namesake won, but surely the outcome of that race must mean something.
But I digress. Truth be told, I'm with all of those people -- such as FP colleague Dan Drezner -- who said this election is neither about foreign policy nor likely to affect foreign policy very much. A few points to keep in mind as you digest the final tallies.
First and foremost is America's parlous economic condition: if the economy doesn't improve, we'll be pinching pennies across the board and our international clout will decline accordingly. As other great powers have discovered to their sorrow, it is damn hard to run the world when you owe lots of people money and your debts keep piling up and you're stuck in costly wars. Is divided government means gridlock then this problem could get worse-- as Paul Krugman has warned -- but the midterm results didn't create it.
Second, does Obama have the will and/or skill to extricate us from the war in Afghanistan, and does he have to keep a lot of U.S. troops in Iraq to keep it from spiraling back into large-scale sectarian violence? If he can't get out of these costly quagmires, then his ability to make bold initiatives elsewhere will be limited.
Third, does he write off the Middle East peace process as a lost cause, does he try a "new" (?!) team, or does he finally bite the bullet and say what he thinks a final status agreement ought to look like? Does he commit himself to ramming a peace deal through, even at the risk of being a one-term president like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush? (It is no accident, by the way, that former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami once wrote that Carter and the elder Bush had done more to help the cause of peace than any other U.S. presidents, and incurred the wrath of the lobby in the process). And do any of the local leaders show a little daring and imagination, and actually do something that might make peace more likely?
Fourth, now's the time when initial appointees start jumping ship, and it will be interesting to see who follows former National Security Advisor James Jones out the door. Pay special attention to appointees from academia, because most universities don't allow faculty to be on leave for more than two years, and the clock is ticking. Given how little Obama has accomplished in foreign policy so far, a fresh team might be just what he needs.
Finally, do real or potential rivals make things easier by committing some blunders of their own (as China did by overplaying its recent dispute with Japan), or are other states able to take advantage of our current discomfiture in smart ways? If the former, so much the better for us; if the latter, look out.
Those are the sort of things that will determine how U.S. foreign policy gets conducted over the next two years, and not which party gets to wield the gavel in all those committee meetings in Congress.
UPDATE #1: Through the magic of Google, I can now report that Dekalb County defied national trends, and Democrat Bob Brown has defeated Steve Walt for the District 6 seat on the Dekalb Country board. I can only hope this result does not herald a national trend against people who are interested in politics and happen to be named Steve Walt.
UPDATE #2: The most depressing analysis of last night's events that I've seen thus far is from John Judis here (h/t Andrew Sullivan), and I am sorry to say that I also find it quite convincing. It dovetails with my point about our economic condition being the single most critical element shaping our foreign policy, and really does make me wonder about the future.
It's Election Day, and I'm about to go out and vote, but first a few belated comments on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's failed attempt to blow up cargo planes by shipping fairly sophisticated bombs to fictitious locations in the United States. What lessons did I draw from last week's event?
First, this incident reminds us about the perils of instant analysis. Initial news reports suggested that the targets were synagogues or Jewish community centers in Chicago, leading various pundits to speculate that this was either another sign of al Qaeda's deeply rooted anti-Semitism, or perhaps a bizarre attempt to send a message about the influence of Chicago-based politicos like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But The New York Times reports today that the addresses on the bombs were outdated and that investigators now believe that the bombs were intended to destroy the planes, not targets on the ground.
Whatever the target may have been, the more obvious point is that these groups are still hoping to make Americans pay a price for our policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are angry about our close ties with Saudi Arabia, by the drone attacks the United States is conducting in Yemen and Pakistan, and by our unstinting support for Israel. And even though AQAP's main target appears to be the Saudi regime, America's unpopularity throughout the region makes attacking the United States a useful recruiting tool.
Second, this latest episode reinforced my belief that winning in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient for eliminating the terrorist threat in general and al Qaeda or its clones in particular. There is little or no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and in the unlikely event that we defeated the Taliban completely, it wouldn't eliminate the groups that already exist in Pakistan, Yemen and assorted other places. At this point, in fact, our costly attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan may be a distraction from the broader global effort to deal with terrorism itself. And if that's the case, then what are we doing there?
Third, the big lesson is that this plot was thwarted not by drones or airstrikes or special operations forces, but by good old-fashioned intelligence and police work, largely conducted by the Saudi intelligence services. Because AQAP seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime, the Saudis are highly motivated, and they also seem to have done a good job of infiltrating the organization and passing the information on to us in time to thwart the attack.
One might also infer that responding to 9/11 with a "global war on terror" was a bad idea all along, because wars and occupations create conditions in which terrorist organizations can more easily thrive. Osama and his imitators are not heroic warriors and don't deserve to be treated as such, even rhetorically. Instead, they are criminals who believe the murder of innocents is justified in order to advance a fanciful fundamentalist cause. They are best defeated by intelligence sharing and patient police work, and where appropriate, by addressing some of the underlying conditions and grievances that give rise to such movements in the first place. Toppling individual governments or waging costly counterinsurgency campaigns in one or two countries cannot eliminate a global phenomenon like this one; indeed, such actions are likely to make it worse.
Lastly, although we can all be glad that this latest attack was foiled, it is hard for me to believe that one of them won't eventually succeed. It is impossible to inspect every single package in the global shipping system, and terrorist organizations are bound to learn more about how to exploit vulnerabilities in existing (or future) security procedures. We should take all reasonable measures to prevent them from succeeding, but we also ought to recognize that perfect security is probably not achievable. And remaining resolute in the face of that reality ought to be part of our counter-terrorist response too.
In short, although the bomb plots remind us that the terrorist danger is still with us, it also says a lot about the best way to deal with it. And one obvious step is not to go into conniptions every time a plot like this gets exposed. On that score, kudos to Jewish community figures in Chicago, who responded to the initial (and false) reports that synagogues had been targeted with an admirable degree of aplomb.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.