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.
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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.
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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.
If you want to see just how ill informed and morally bankrupt an "establishment" political voice can be, check out David Broder's op-ed column in this Sunday's Washington Post. Broder argues that President Obama's prospects will remain bleak if the economy doesn't improve, and that the President cannot count on the business cycle to do that for him. So after reminding his readers that World War II helped end the Great Depression, Broder offers Obama the following advice:
With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history."
I haven't read such an ill informed and morally bankrupt piece of "analysis" in quite some time (which is saying something). For starters, on what basis does Broder believe that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world?" The United States spends over $700 billion on defense each year; Iran spends a mere $10 billion. That amount is less than Greece, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, or Taiwan. As I've noted previously, Iran has no meaningful power-projection capabilities, and its main "weapon" is the ability to modest amounts of money and arms to groups like Hezbollah. This behavior is clearly a problem, but Iran is not an existential threat to anyone. And if Iran were to get a few nuclear weapons at some point in the future -- which is by no means a certainty -- it could neither use them nor give them to terrorists without inviting devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation.
The Council on Foreign Relations is not the first place I look for outside-the-box thinking, but can be a useful weather-vane marking shifting attitudes within the establishment. And on that score, two articles in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs merit your attention.
The first article, entitled "American Profligacy and American Power," is by former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and Council President Richard Haass. It is telling indictment of past policy errors that have undermined American power, and it is refreshing that Altman and Haass outline the strategic implications clearly. Some money quotations, with my emphasis added:
One way or the other, by action or reaction, there will be a profound shift in U.S. fiscal policy if the U.S. government continues to overspend. Deficits will be cut sharply through a combination of big spending cuts, tax increases, and, quite possibly, re-imposed budget rules. No category of spending or taxpayers will be spared."
But the impact of the United States' skyrocketing debt will not be limited to the behavior of markets or central bankers. Federal spending will decrease once the inevitable fiscal adjustment occurs, and defense spending will go down with it. …
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One of the silliest things ever written was F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement that, "There are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald obviously wasn't around to witness the lives of Oliver North, Elliot Spitzer, G. Gordon Liddy, Elliott Abrams, or Madonna's entire career. I'm even betting Tiger Woods manages a pretty successful second act after his own embarrassing melodrama.
If Fitzgerald were alive today and studying the United States' Middle East policy, he'd never have written such a silly line. I refer to Laura Rozen's latest Politico column, entitled "On the Mideast: Waiting for Superman." Rozen suggests that the Obama administration is thinking about bringing former Clinton-era official Martin Indyk into the government to jump-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks. She also speculates about the possibility of using former president Bill Clinton as some sort of a special envoy, an idea that has been recently advanced by New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
Waiting for Superman? More like Waiting for Godot.
There's little doubt that the Obama's administration's handling of Mideast affairs has been an embarrassing failure, but it is hard to see how these personnel moves would help. Nothing personal, but didn't these guys have the chance to produce an Israel-Palestinian peace in the 1990s -- when conditions were a lot more favorable -- and didn't their efforts end in near-total failure? (That goes for Dennis Ross too, who is already a key player on this issue in the current administration, and who seems to be repeating his past mistakes.) Clinton, Indyk, and Ross were handed a golden opportunity with the Oslo Peace Accords back in 1993, and they spent the rest of the 1990s squandering it. They had plenty of help from the Israelis and Palestinians, but the U.S. record during that decade is hardly one that inspires confidence.
Let's also not forget that Indyk was the chief architect of "dual containment," a remarkably foolish policy that achieved the neat trick of putting the United States at odds with two countries (Iran and Iraq) that also hated each other. It also forced the United States to keep large air and ground forces in the Persian Gulf, thereby contributing to the rise of al Qaeda. And as both Ken Pollock and Trita Parsi have shown, a primary motive for dual containment was reassuring Israel about Iran, so that it would be more forthcoming in the peace discussions. Gee, that worked out great, didn't it?
As for the former president, it's clear he recognizes the value that a peace deal would bring, and I don't question his sincerity on this issue. But his own track record isn't encouraging either. The number of Israeli settlers more than doubled during his eight years as president, and he didn't lift a finger to stop it. Moreover, he persuaded Yasser Arafat to go to the hastily-prepared Camp David summit by promising Arafat that he would not be blamed if the talks didn't succeed. But when the talks collapsed, Clinton walked out to the microphones and put all the blame squarely on Arafat, in violation of his earlier promise and contrary to the available evidence. (Arafat was partly to blame for Camp David's failure, but so were the United States and Israel.) That act of political vengeance contributed greatly to the myth that Israel has "no partner" for peace, a belief that has undermined all subsequent efforts to end this tragic conflict.
When it comes to the United States' Middle East policy, in short, there are an infinite number of "second acts." In a country of 300 million people, you'd think we could find a few fresh faces to handle these issues, instead of retreads who have been tried and found wanting. Instead, we keep recycling the same people (mostly for domestic political reasons), who adopt more-or-less the same negotiating strategy, yet somehow we expect a different, happier ending. And so we get the same familiar melodrama, and like any tragedy, the play always ends badly.
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George Orwell once wrote: "In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." I thought of that line as I tried to sort through my reaction to the latest set of releases by Wikileaks, consisting primarily of detailed action reports from Iraq. My question is: Are we better off having an organization exploiting the viral potential of the internet in order to make public information that government officials would prefer to keep secret?
On the one hand, it doesn't thrill me to see individuals inside the national security bureaucracy take the classification process into their own hands and decide to leak large quantities of information. As much as I admire the courage of a whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg, government agencies can't operate without a certain degree of discipline and there's always the danger that someone will leak material that isn't just political embarrassing but actually contains information that might put us at greater risk. There's also the obvious concern that leaked information might expose people who have been helping us in places like Iraq or Afghanistan (although Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged that earlier Wikileaks releases did not in fact compromises sensitive information or methods). Still, I think some secrets need to be kept, and that belief makes it hard for me to see Wikileaks' activities as an unalloyed good.
But several other considerations override these concerns, and lead me to conclude that, on balance, Wikileaks is performing a valuable service. To begin with, official outrage at Wikileaks' activities is more than a little disingenuous given the frequency that top officials leak classified information when it suits their political purposes. If former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal can successfully tie a president's hands by leaking a confidential report calling for more troops, then why shouldn't others use Wikileaks to share information that they believe the public ought to know? And as long as senior officials try to advance their political agendas by sharing inside information with sympathetic journalists in off-the-record "background" briefings, it is hard for me to feel outrage when their subordinates decide that the information to which they are privy deserves a wider audience.
Furthermore, we live in an age of "universal deceit," when it is hard to trust anything someone in the national security world tells you. From the very moment that the Iraq War was conceived, for example, top U.S. officials deployed a vast array of disinformation and deceit -- supposedly based on top-secret intelligence information -- to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein posed a mortal threat to U.S. national security. Nor were they the first leaders to lie to the American public. And the lies continued well in to the war, as former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmayer makes clear here. (H/T to Glenn Greenwald, whose own posts on this topic are well worth reading).
As Eric Alterman and John Mearsheimer have both documented, it is clear from the historical record that all governments lie for a wide variety of reasons. But unless you're willing to believe that the people in charge are always right and that their lies are therefore justified (and if you think that, you haven't been paying attention), you ought to be in favor of any mechanism that brought more facts to light.
It is also increasingly clear that the U.S. taxpayer is funding a vast array of clandestine activities of which they are only dimly aware, and whose value they have been asked to take almost entirely on faith. If some of these activities are misguided, then not only will we get stuck with the bill, but we are paying for activities that could be making us less secure.
Furthermore, if we have no idea what our government (or that growing army of private contractors) are really up to, then Americans won't understand why other countries may not like us very much. If we don't know about all the bad stuff we're doing, we'll think they hate us for "what we are" instead of "what we do." As I've noted before, Arab or Muslim hostility to the United States really shouldn't be a mystery, given the policies that the United States has adopted towards many of these societies over the past several decades. Do you really expect Iraqis to be grateful that the U.S. invaded their country and set off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and millions became refugees?
The Founding Fathers thought that separation of powers and an independent press would ensure accountability, and but it's not as if Congress were performing rigorous oversight over all these activities, engaging in spirited debates over the merits of military intervention, or forcing either this administration or the last one to justify what it is doing overseas. The mainstream media hasn't exactly covered itself with glory over the past decade either, despite some isolated bright spots that subsequently disappeared down the memory hole. And lord knows that few, if any, of the architects of our recent foreign-policy debacles have been held accountable in any meaningful way.
Realist that I am, I believe that human beings are more likely to misbehave if they think they can shield what they are doing from public view. For that reason, I also believe that democratic societies are more likely to adopt better policies when information is plentiful and when government officials cannot determine which facts are available to the public and which are not. Because its primary function is to make more information available on issues that concern us all, I therefore conclude that what Wikileaks is doing is on balance a good thing.
Given the great power at the United States' disposal, I want the people running foreign and defense policy to know that what they are doing might be exposed to public scrutiny. I want them to think twice about whether the policies they are pursuing are defensible on either moral or practical grounds. I wish we'd known the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, or that we'd known the truth about Saddam's WMD (and his non-existent links to al Qaeda) before we invaded. And I'm glad we're finding out more about the Iraq War now, because that knowledge might help us avoid similar quagmires in the future. And if our elected officials, their appointed representatives, and a politicized and co-opted media won't tell us what we have a right to know, then I guess I'm glad that Wikileaks will.
Postscript: Contrary to FP colleague Peter Feaver's view, I don't think the documents offer that much help to defenders of the so-called "surge." No one denies that violence went down after the surge began, and those who discount the impact of the surge concede that the additional troops and new tactics played some role in that development. The new releases also confirm that changes within Iraqi society were also critical; i.e., violence also declined because Iraqis were war-weary and because prior ethnic cleansing had eliminated the mixed-sectarian neighborhoods where much of the prior violence had occurred.
The new releases also confirm that Iran was meddling in Iraq and backing some of the insurgents. This is not news, of course, and Iran's behavior was hardly surprising, given its obvious interest in trying to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq. Moreover, the U.S. is hardly in a position to accuse anyone of "interfering" in Iraq, given what we started in 2003. But this not-very-stunning "revelation" doesn't mean the surge was a success, because it didn't end Iranian influence in Iraq any more than it led to political reconciliation among the various Iraqi factions (who still can't manage to form a government). Once the United States had dismantled Saddam's Ba'thist and predominantly Sunni regime, Iraq's Shi'ites were bound to be more powerful and Iran's influence was bound to increase. (Too bad the Bush administration didn't think about that possibility before the war!) The surge didn't reverse that trend, and so the new revelations don't demonstrate that it was anything more than a tactical success whose long-term achievements remain very much in doubt.
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I'd like to believe that the United States and its (remaining) allies have got their act together and turned a corner in Afghanistan. Really. That's more-or-less what New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall told us in a front-page piece yesterday, and it was the key theme of retired general Jack Keane's appearance on Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago.
It would obviously be better for nearly everyone if the Taliban were routed, if order and security were restored in Afghanistan, and if the United States could extricate itself from this costly and seemingly open-ended commitment. But there are at least two good reasons to view these upbeat reports with some skepticism.
First, U.S. commanders have emphasized in the past that this conflict is largely one of perceptions. If everyone thinks we're winning, so the argument runs, then fence-straddlers in Afghanistan will tilt our way and popular support in the United States will remain high enough to keep us in the war. If everyone thinks we're losing, by contrast, momentum will swing the other way, more Afghans will gravitate toward the Taliban, and support back here will evaporate. Unfortunately, this situation means we can't really believe anything that our military leaders tell us about the progress of the war, because they have an obvious incentive to spin an upbeat story to reporters, or to people like Charlie Rose.
Second, as critics of the war have repeatedly pointed out, defeating the Taliban on the battlefield is nearly impossible as long as they can go to ground in local areas or flee across the border into Pakistan. And Gall's story in the Times makes it clear that this is precisely what is happening now. This is undoubtedly why the Obama administration is making yet another effort to get Pakistan to do more on its side of the border, and dangling a fat new military aid package as inducement. And at the same time, we're supposedly supporting negotiations with certain Taliban leaders, and we might even be willing to back some sort of deal.
So let me tell you what I think is going to happen. The United States is going to spend the next few months trying to clear out or kill as many Taliban as we can find, accompanied by a lot of optimistic reports about how well we are doing. This won't be about a "hearts and minds" approach or even a long-term strategy of nation-building; it will be about creating the appearance of momentum and success. At the same time, we're going to try to shepherd a political process that can be sold as "peace deal" between the Karzai government and some moderate Taliban. If we're really lucky and offer big enough bribes (oops, I mean foreign aid), we might get Pakistan to pretend to be on board too. And then Obama will claim "the Afghan surge worked" sometime in the latter half of 2011, and begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
As our numbers fall, the Taliban will regroup, Pakistan will help rearm them covertly, and the struggle for power in Afghanistan will resume. Afghanistan's fate will once again be primarily in the hands of the Afghan people and the nearby neighbors who meddle there for their own reasons. I don't know who will win, but it actually won't matter very much for U.S. national security interests.
There are ample historical precedents for this sort of outcome. The Soviet Union concocted a peace deal before they withdrew in 1988, but their chosen successor, Najibullah, didn't last long once they had left. (Notice, however, that their enemies in Afghanistan didn't "follow them home" either). The United States achieved "peace with honor" in the 1973 Vietnam peace accords, but then Saigon fell two years later. No matter; the United States ended up winning the Cold War anyway. And then there's Iraq,where the 2007 "surge" was hailed as a great military victory but is now unraveling. In each case, the peace deal was mostly a fig leaf designed to let a great power get out of a costly war without admitting it had been beaten.
Petraeus & Co. are trying to pull off something similar here, and it may well be the best that can be made of a bad situation. But there is a subtle, long-term danger in this sort of sleight-of-hand. If we tell ourselves we won and then get out, we will end up learning the wrong lessons from the whole experience. By portraying the Iraqi and Afghan "surges" as victories, we fool ourselves into thinking that this sort of war is something we are good at fighting, that the benefits of doing so are worth the costs, and that all it takes to win this sort of war is the right commander, the right weapons, and the right Field Manual. And if we indulge in this familiar form of historical amnesia, we'll be more likely to make similar errors down the road.
Update: According to McClatchey, those recent stories about the United States facilitating peace talks between Taliban leaders and the Karzai government are part of an elaborate "psychological operation" designed to sow dissension within Taliban ranks. I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, it suggests that the U.S. military is either still hoping for a decisive victory over the Taliban (which would make negotiations unnecessary), or it thinks that the Taliban has to be weakened a lot more before negotiations are likely to work. I think the latter is more likely, but it still leaves open the possibility of "declaring victory" and getting out, starting next summer. We'll see.
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Am I the only person who was struck by the almost complete absence of discussion of foreign policy issues in Peter Baker's article "Education of a President" in Sunday's New York Times Magazine?
I'm not knocking Baker, who clearly talked to plenty of people and had a lengthy conversation with Obama himself. What is striking is how the various insiders he interviewed -- including the president -- seem to be focusing primarily on domestic issues and on the usual inside-the-Beltway matters of partisan politics.
At one level that makes sense, insofar as the state of the U.S. economy is undoubtedly the most important factor shaping their political fortunes. Moreover, Obama and his team clearly have to worry about what the GOP (aka "Grand Obstructionist Party") will do after November. With less than a month to go before the mid-terms, a certain preoccupation with domestic issues and partisan politics is to be expected. And it's not as if they have a lot of foreign policy accomplishments to crow about.
Nonetheless, I would love to know what Obama and his team have learned about foreign policy in the months since he took the oath of office. Which initial preconceptions does the president now question? Which members of his team have worked out well, and whose judgment has he learned not to trust? Ditto for the foreign leaders with whom he's dealt: whose stock has risen, and whose has fallen? Is Bob Woodward's portrait of simmering civil-military tensions even partly accurate (I'd say it is), and how does Obama plan to deal with it going forward? Which international problems now loom larger in his mind, and which issues does he think ought to get less attention?
Other presidents facing this sort of sophomore slump have often made significant shifts in their foreign policy priorities, and sometimes with considerable success. Bill Clinton stumbled badly in his first two years (remember the debacle in Somalia, and the rift with Japan?), but replaced some key people and gradually found his footing. George W. Bush blundered badly throughout his first term, but did a bit better once he ditched Rumsfeld and most of the neocons. So I hope Baker returns to the subject at some point in the future, but with an eye toward the education that Obama has been getting in the foreign policy domain.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week, Laura Rozen of Politico reported that Mideast envoy George Mitchell's chief of staff, Mara Rudman, was resigning to take a job with USAID. Her article suggested that it was a sign of friction in Clinton's Middle East team, and for all I know that's correct. But the real problem isn't "friction" inside Obama's team; the problem is that nobody there seems to have any idea what they are doing.
I used to think that the 2000 Camp David Summit was the most ill-prepared and mishandled peace discussion in Middle East history -- which is saying something -- but I'm beginning to think that Obama and his team are making a serious try at breaking that dubious record. First they raise expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, then undercut their own credibility by retreating steadiliy in the face of Israeli intransigence, until they end up literally begging and bribing Netanyahu to continue a settlement slowdown (not freeze) for a mere two months.
Question: Is this how a smart great power behaves?
Answer: Not if it wants to get anything done or be taken seriously.
Rudman's departure, however, is essentially meaningless. There is no evidence that anyone in the Obama team is committed to doing what it takes to actually get a meaningful deal, and so there won't be one. Full stop. You'd have to fire the whole lot of them and start over, and appoint people who were willing to get really mad when they were repeatedly diddled by a client state, and who didn't think that the best way to negotiate was to give one side a lot of goodies up front (in exchange for very little), while expecting the other side to accept a lot of promises to be redeemed at some unspecified point down the road (and maybe never).
Unfortunately, the odds that Obama will clean house and bring in a new team are about the same as the odds of my sprouting wings and flying to the moon. And the result, as I've said before, will be not "two states" but one, with all the attendant difficulties that this outcome will produce for all concerned. So I guess Rudman should be congratulated for having the good sense to abandon this charade. My question remains: Why hasn't George Mitchell done the same?
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Today I want to call your attention to two on-line debates, each dealing with an important issue on contemporary world affairs.
The first is an extremely interesting back-and-forth between Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, on the question of whether President Obama was correct in authorizing the CIA to kill several U.S. citizens (including Anwar al-Awlaki) who is believed to be actively aiding al Qaeda in Yemen. You can read the various posts here, here, here, and here, and each links to useful comments from other people as well.
One sign of the quality of their exchange is that I found my own views shifting back and forth as I read each one. In the end I think Greenwald has the better of the argument -- at least so far -- but that may well be because it's closer to my own prior views. I don't really believe Obama's decision puts us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but I do think there is a genuine danger in allowing any president the authority to order the killing of a U.S. citizen without due process.
I am also deeply leery of the increasingly widespread use of the "state secrets" doctrine to defend executive actions from public scrutiny, simply because I do not trust people not to abuse their authority in the absence of accountability. Moreover, the "state secrets" doctrine is a powerful tool for threat-mongering ("trust me, if you knew what we know, you'd be really, really scared"), and keeping people terrified is a good way to get them to go along with all sorts of foreign policy foolishness.
But read their exchange and make up your own mind. And kudos to both of them for conducting it in a spirited but civil fashion. (UPDATE: Sullivan has a new reply to Greenwald and others here.
The second debate I can't resist plugging is a Bloggingheads conversation I did last week with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. The topic is "AfPak Dilemmas" and it is mostly a discussion about conditions in the region and the proper course for U.S. policy. Peter and I have different views about the nature of the challenge we face in Central Asia, and about the merits of continued military involvement there. Those disagreements are clear in our conversation, but we had an excellent exchange of views and some of you may find it enlightening.
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Assuming China continues to grow economically (which seems like a fairly safe bet), how will this trend affect strategic alignments in Asia? I've posted on this topic before (see here), but I've been thinking about it again in light of some recent developments and after reading some recent scholarship on the topic.
Structural realism gives a straightforward answer to the question: As China becomes more powerful, other Asian states will move to balance it by devoting more of their own wealth to national security and by forging closer security ties with each other and with powerful external actors like the United States.
This is essentially a pure "balance-of power" explanation, but as some of you probably know, I think that is not the best way to explain why alliances form. In the near-to-medium term, the extent to which Asian states balance against China will depend not just on Chinese power, but on the level of threat that these states perceive. The level of threat, in turn will be affected not just by China's aggregate capabilities (i.e., its GDP, defense spending, etc.) but also by 1) Geography, 2) Offensive military capabilities, and 3) Its perceived intentions.
To be more specific, states that are closer to China are likely to be more worried than states that lie some distance away. In particular, states that border directly on China -- such as Vietnam -- have to fear China's rising power more than states who are separated by water (such as Indonesia) because it is inherently more difficult to project power over oceans. (Taiwan is something of a special case, given the tangled history of cross-strait relations and its relative proximity).
Furthermore, the level of threat that China poses will depend in part of how it chooses to mobilize its growing economic might. If it builds military capabilities that are primarily designed to defend its own territory, China's neighbors will feel less threatened and be less inclined to balance against it. By contrast, if China develops the power projection capabilities that are typical of most great powers (i.e., large naval and air forces, long-range missiles, amphibious capabilities, etc.), then others in the region will worry about what those capabilities might be used for and they will be more likely to join forces with each other (and the United States) to protect their own interests and autonomy.
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Back in 2007, a couple of political scientists wrote the following:
One might think that U.S. generosity would give Washington considerable leverage over Israel's conduct, but this has not been the case. When dealing with Israel, in fact, U.S. leaders can usually elicit cooperation only by offering additional carrots (increased assistance) rather than employing sticks (threats to withhold aid)." (pp. 37-38)
They offered several examples to illustrate this phenomenon, and quoted Israeli leader Shimon Peres saying that: "As to the question of U.S. pressure on Israel, I would say they handled us more with a carrot than with a stick."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Yesterday the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama administration has offered Israel a generous package of new benefits if it will just extend the settlement freeze for another two months. The source for the report was David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a key organization in the Israel lobby. Makovsky is also a co-author with Obama Middle East advisor Dennis Ross, so presumably he has accurate knowledge about this latest initiative, which is said to take the form of a personal letter from Obama to Netanyahu.
Assuming this report is true, it marks a new low in U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Just consider the message that Obama's team is sending the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu has been giving Obama the finger ever since the Cairo speech in June 2009, but instead of being punished for it, he's getting rewarded for being so difficult. So why should any rational person expect Bibi's position to change if this is what happens when he digs in his heels?
Although failure to achieve a two-state solution is ultimately much more of a problem for Israel than for the United States, we have been reduced to begging them and bribing to stop building settlements -- please ... please ... pretty please? ... and then only for a mere 60 days.
Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably craven fashion, it's just plain stupid. How will this latest bribe change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in two months? Remember that there isn't even a genuine freeze right now, only a slowdown, which means that a deal will be just a little bit harder in two months than it is today. Does Obama think his bargaining position will be stronger after the midterm elections? And if construction resumes, what then?
Back when direct talks were announced, I said they wouldn't go anywhere, and I've made it clear in the past that I think this situation is a brewing tragedy for all concerned. And then I said I hoped the Obama administration would prove me wrong. Looks like there's little danger of that, alas.
P.S. Haaretz has reported that Netanyahu is not inclined to accept the administration's offer, which leaves us right where we started. That is to say, with little hope that this latest round of talks will lead anywhere. The real question is: When will the United States try a different approach?
UPDATE: Ha'aretz now reports that the White House is denying that any letter was sent outlining the conditions originally identified by Makovsky, thought it does not say that the information was not conveyed in some other way. If the entire report is bogus then new puzzles arise: where did Makovsky get these ideas? Was it a trial balloon? An attempt to make policy via leaks? An attempt to show that Netanyahu was being really stubborn? I have no idea, but unless the whole thing was just a hallucination on Makovsky's part (and that's hard to believe), then it reinforces the idea that the Obama Middle East team is improvising wildly and/or not on the same page.
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I'm sure most of you are "shocked, shocked" to hear that the Israeli government rejected U.S. requests that it extend the so-called freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Never mind that it wasn't a real freeze (i.e., it didn't stop existing projects or the expulsion of more Palestinians from East Jerusalem, etc.); the partial halt in new authorizations did have a certain symbolic value. By refusing to extend it, the Netanyahu government has shown that it cares more about continuing the 43-years-and-counting process of colonization than it does about achieving a final peace deal.
At this point, Obama's Middle East team will try to come up with some sort of face-saving maneuver to keep the negotiations alive. Translated: they need a fig leaf to conceal how badly they've bungled this issue. Because putting serious pressure on Israel is anathema (especially in an election year), they will have to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the table even as construction resumes, so that he can watch the bulldozers make a "viable state" impossible while the talk, talk, talk continues. They may succeed in keeping the charade going, but it will be a pyrrhic victory that changes nothing.
Two key points should be kept in mind as you watch this diplomatic train wreck.
First, one of the great myths of Middle East diplomacy is the old cliché that "the United States can't want it more than the parties do." This excuse for inaction is trotted out whenever the United States fails to exercise the enormous potential leverage at its disposal, and it's just plain silly. There's no reason why the United States can't want a settlement more than Israel or the Palestinians do, particularly if the two sides are so mired in dysfunctional politics or old Likudnik dreams that they need to be pushed hard to make a deal. Unfortunately, this conflict isn't just about them; it's also about us. And when U.S. interests are at stake, we can want a solution just as much -- and maybe even more -- than they do.
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I won't be posting anything today, because I'll be speaking at a conference at the Palestine Center in Washington. The topic is "Blogging Israel-Palestine," and my fellow panelists are Jerome Slater of SUNY-Buffalo, Adam Horowitz of Mondoweiss, and M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America. The event goes from 11 to 2:15 EDT, and I'm told you can watch it here.
Back in 2005, I wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times on the value of having a reputation for competence. My inspiration was the lame U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina, and I argued that one ingredient in U.S. global influence was other states' perceptions that Americans knew what they were doing, would deliver as promised, and would get the job done. The Marshall Plan, the moon landing, and other straightforward displays of competence reinforced America's material power and made other leaders more inclined to listen to our advice. By contrast, repeated blunders lead other states to doubt our wisdom or our capacity to deliver, and make them more inclined to tune us out. You can read it here.
I was reminded of that piece this morning, when I read about all the problems India has experienced trying to prepare for next week's Commonwealth Games. The obvious contrast is with the Beijing Olympics, which were intended to demonstrate Chinese efficiency and competence, and clearly did just that. By coincidence, Tom Friedman picked up on the same theme is his column today, and made some invidious comparisons with America's current situation.
How competent do we look these days? Although the United States is still an attractive society in many respects, one doesn't get the sense that others are dazzled by how competent we are. The 2008 economic meltdown made Wall Street look inept or corrupt (or both), and the endless partisan squabbling in Washington isn't going to impress foreign audiences either. And as I've harped on before, our foreign policy record in recent years is mostly a litany of failures, and I don't expect it to improve much in the near future.
A big part of the problem, however, is that the United States has chosen to do a few things that are very difficult, and where failure is to be expected. Like nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to occupy and govern foreign societies that are rife with internal divisions, where there is a well-founded hatred of foreign intruders, wouldn't be easy for anyone. Indeed, trying to create a political system there based on our historical experience rather than theirs has got to be one of more ambitious -- if not utterly misguided -- objectives that Washington could have picked.
You don't see the Chinese trying to do anything silly like that, which may be one reason they are looking more competent these days. (I'm not saying they actually are, however, because China's own development plans have some significant downsides too). But no matter how much we try to spin the story ("the surge worked!") our dismal record in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the United States look like it doesn't really know what it is doing. Why should anyone follow the U.S. lead anymore, if this is where it gets you?
The solution is not to retreat into isolationism and cede the initiative to others. Rather, the solution is to remind ourselves what American power is good for, and avoid taking on tasks for which it is ill-suited. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale aggression, and thus good at ensuring stability in key regions. (That assumes, of course, that we aren't using that same power to destabilize certain regions on purpose). We are sometimes good at brokering peace deals -- as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans -- when we use our power judiciously and fairly. And we've often done a pretty fair job -- in concert with others -- at encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy. The United States is not very good at governing foreign societies, especially when the local inhabitants don't want us there and when we have little understanding of how they work. And if we keep trying to do this sort of thing, we're likely to look inept far more often than we look effective.
In short, regaining an aura of competence isn't just about trying harder, or restoring the work ethic and "can do" attitude that we associate (rightly or wrongly) with earlier eras. It also entails picking the right goals and not squandering time, money and lives on fool's errands.
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The Obama administration is about to propose the sale of more than $60 billion worth of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia. Apart from providing an obvious boost to the U.S. defense industry, the clear purpose here is to send a message to Iran. As an unnamed U.S. official stated a few days ago, "We want Iran to understand that its nuclear program is not getting them leverage over their neighbors, that they are not getting an advantage. . . We want the Iranians to know that every time they think they will gain, they will actually lose." In short, the sale is "mainly intended as a building block for Middle East regional defenses to box in Iran."
I get all that, although it seems like an awful lot of weaponry to "contain" a country whose entire defense budget, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is only $10 billion.
But my real question is this: if our primary goal is to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, then might this new initiative be counter-productive? Doesn't it just give Iran an even bigger incentive to get a nuclear deterrent of its own? Think about it: if you had a bad relationship with the world's most powerful country, if you knew (or just suspected) that it was still backing anti-government forces in your country, if its president kept telling people that "all options were still on the table," and if that same powerful country were now about to sell billions of dollars of weapons to your neighbors, wouldn't you think seriously about obtaining some way to enhance your own security? And that's hard to do with purely conventional means, because your economy is a lot smaller and is already constrained by economic sanctions. Hmmm....so what are your other options?
Of course, it's possible that Iran's leaders have already made that decision, and if so then these moves won't have much effect on their calculations. And I'm all for maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Gulf. But if we are still hoping to convince Iran that it would be better off without some sort of nuclear weapons capability (even if only of a "latent" sort), this move strikes me as a step in the wrong direction.
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Over the past twenty months, progressives, realists, and even some sensible conservatives have been disappointed by various aspects of the Obama administration's foreign and defense policy. Convinced that his election would mark a dramatic departure from the Bush administration's many missteps, they have been surprised and dismayed by Obama's increased reliance on drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere, his decisions to escalate the war in Afghanistan (not just once but twice), the retreat on Guantanamo, the Justice Department's use of dubious secrecy laws to shield torturers and deny victims the ability to sue them, the slow-motion reassessment of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the timid retreat from the lofty principles enunciated in his 2009 Cairo speech, and the unwillingness to consider anything more than trivial redutions in the bloated national security apparatus.
I share many of these concerns, but I don't really blame Obama. The buck may stop in the Oval Office, but it's not like he can simply wave a magic wand (or give another speech) and get the rest of the government to fall into line. Instead, the fact that U.S. foreign and defense policy hasn't changed very much reflects the powerful structural forces that inhibit any president's freedom of action. Or to put it more simply: he's trapped. Even if Obama wanted to chart a fundamentally different course (and I'm not at all sure that he does), he wouldn't be able to pull it off.
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As we all know by now, President Obama and General Petraeus hope to win the war in Afghanistan through a strategy of escalated counterinsurgency warfare. Yesterday, I suggested that they ought to be thinking about a Plan B in case (or when) their approach fails. With splendid timing, on Wednesday the New America Foundation will provide that Plan B, in a report entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." (You can watch a press conference on the report at 12 noon on Wednesday here, or read study director Steve Clemons' summary here.)
Full disclosure: I was a member of the Study Group, so you won't be surprised to hear that I agree with most of its contents. But don't let that stop you from reading the report and pondering its arguments carefully.
To whet your appetite, here are the Study Group's five main recommendations:
But wait, there's more! The Study Group also identified eleven important "myths" in the current debate on Afghanistan. Here they are (I've omitted the Group's assessment of what the reality on each one is):
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know why I think a lot of these claims are mistaken. If you want to know what the realities are, read the full Study Group report. And kudos to Steve Clemons and the other members of the Study Group for providing the administration with an alternative approach. We're going to need one.
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Last week I offered up "Ten reasons why wars last too long," which tried to explain why it was hard for leaders to recognize they are in a losing war and difficult for them to simply "cut their losses" and disengage.
Coincidentally, last week Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University published a smart piece entitled "How do long wars become so long?" in The New Republic. TNR dropped off my "must-read" list a long time ago, but Sestanovich's piece is excellent and well worth a look. He argues that many "long wars" begin with a half-hearted, desultory effort (as in Vietnam in the early 1960s, or Afghanistan from 2003-2007), often because U.S. leaders have more pressing priorities. When it becomes clear that things aren't going well, however, presidents and their advisors normally conclude that they haven't given the war their best shot and tend to assume that a serious effort will turn the tide.
Thus, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, who also served as U.S. Ambassador in South Vietnam, explained the decision to escalate in 1965 by saying "we had not exhausted our alternatives." In his view, the United States still had "vast resources" to bring to bear -- and new strategies to try -- "before we thought of quitting."
This problem was the sixth point in my list of ten reasons, but Sestanovich offers an important amendment in his own piece. By the time the U.S. gets serious about these local conflicts, the situation has often deteriorated so badly that even a major effort may not succeed, or at least not quickly. But while the public will let them take "their best shot," it will expect that shot to succeed in fairly short order. Thus, presidents do not get an infinite number of "do-overs." Even if the military keeps coming up with clever new strategies, the public won't support a lengthy campaign that isn't producing visible and positive results.
The obvious implication is that Obama and General Petraeus have a few more months to show tangible results of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. And if I were them, I'd be thinking about a Plan B. I'll have more to say on that point tomorrow.
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Is the Kabul Bank "too big to fail?" Worried depositors have withdrawn several hundred million dollars over the past few days, raising serious doubts about the bank's solvency. Its CEO, Khalilullah Frozi, reportedly said that "If this goes on, we won't survive," adding that "if people lose trust in the banks, there will be a revolution in the financial system."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai says that his government will guarantee the
security of all deposits, and a White House spokesman said the U.S. government
"are taking no steps" to prop up the bank. But this is kind of a
meaningless distinction, however, insofar as the entire Afghan government is
being propped up by outside aid, much of it coming from the American taxpayer. And
could the United States simply stand by and let the Afghan financial system
collapse completely? Need I mention that trying to create a modern financial
system was yet another task that the United States took on when it decided to
try to build a modern state in Afghanistan?
Juan Cole is pretty angry about the whole situation, and it's easy to understand why. I'd put it this way. According to most experts on counterinsurgency -- including commanding Gen. David Petraeus -- winning this sort of war requires a reliable and legitimate local partner. If Juan is right, then this is just more evidence that the U.S. doesn't have such a partner in Afghanistan and isn't likely to get one anytime soon. And if that's the case, and if we really believe what we claim to about the nature of COIN warfare -- then what the heck do we think we are doing trying to "nation-build" there?
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.