While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others are guest-blogging. The following guest post is from Yale University's Jolyon Howorth:
NATO's future is once again up for grabs. The fall of the Berlin Wall robbed the alliance of the enemy against which it had initially mobilized. Ever since, it has been in search of a new role. It has published three successive "strategic concepts" in a bid to explain its purpose. It has experimented with geographical expansion and with crisis management. It has dabbled in disaster relief and helped police the Olympic Games. It has engaged in multiple partnerships. And it has launched three major military operations: in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, and in Libya. None of these proved to be straightforward, and all of them exacerbated internal tensions. There remains widespread uncertainty as to what the alliance is actually for.
Americans and Europeans have differed sharply over NATO's purpose. The traditional U.S. view has envisaged a "global alliance," an association, around NATO, of the world's main democracies, linked by shared values and a joint commitment to preserve them. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, this became the "League of Democracies" promoted by then-candidate John McCain. The global alliance idea implies European payback for 40 years of American protection. An alliance initially forged to guarantee U.S. commitment to European security would morph into one designed to encourage European commitment to American global strategy. The Europeans, for the most part, have rejected that notion.
European member states having borders (or historical involvement) with Russia value, above all, the North Atlantic Treaty's Article 5, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Thus Latvians, for instance, can believe that if Moscow cut up rough, Uncle Sam would step up to the plate. Belief is reassuring. Other Europeans feel a debt of gratitude to the United States and believe that shared values require shared commitments. But after the generally unsatisfactory experience of Kosovo and the bitterly divisive experience of Afghanistan, Europeans are in no hurry to repeat the experience of far-flung adventures. So what is NATO for, post-Afghanistan?
The Libyan crisis in 2011, followed by events in Mali, offer a way forward. In Libya, the United States claimed to be "leading from behind." President Barack Obama set the administration's face firmly against high-profile military missions, especially in Muslim countries. The U.S. position was that Libya was the responsibility of the Europeans. But the European Union's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) proved inadequate to the task. There was neither the political will nor the military capacity to tackle the Libyan crisis. Eventually, the Libyan mission fell to NATO. Despite the mantra of "leading from behind," the mission depended crucially on U.S. military inputs. But the model was established. Leadership of the mission was assumed by France and Britain, with the United States supplying key "enablers."
This past January, we saw a repeat of this model in Mali, where France took overall responsibility for Operation Serval, driving Islamist insurgents north into the Sahara desert, with key enabling support from the United States.
What do these examples tell us about the future of European security arrangements? Ever since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been urging the Europeans to assume responsibility for their own regional security. That is why the EU member states, in 1999, launched their CSDP project, which has subsequently carried out almost 30 overseas missions, some of them militarily significant, like the ongoing anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa. The "Greater European area," for whose stability the EU might reasonably assume responsibility, covers the entire eastern and southern neighborhoods, the latter extending from the Red Sea, through the Sahel, to the Atlantic.
For 15 years, CSDP strove to remain "autonomous" of NATO. The idea was for Europe to develop its own strategic culture, based on a judicious mix of soft and hard power, and not simply replicate the muscular profile of the U.S. military. This has severe limitations. Most EU missions have been overwhelmingly advisory and civilian in nature (police missions, border control missions, security-sector reform missions). When real crises have arisen (the Balkans in the 1990s and North Africa in the 2010s), the EU has proved unequal to the task. Meanwhile, NATO continues to exist alongside CSDP. Both struggle to define their purpose and their mutual relationship.
The answer is progressively to move closer together and even, eventually, to merge. The merged entity would progressively assume responsibility, in conjunction with other regional actors (Russia, Turkey, the Arab League), for the "Greater European area."
NATO is like a bicycle that has only ever been ridden by the United States, with the Europeans bundled behind in the baby seat. Now the United States is urging the Europeans to learn to ride the bicycle themselves. The European response has been that they prefer to design their own, rather different, bicycle. It is smaller, slower, and fitted with large training wheels. It is useful for the sorts of missions CSDP has undertaken, but simply inadequate for serious crisis-management tasks. The Europeans need, sooner or later, to master the adult bike. In Libya, the message from the United States was: "Look, you have to acquire the confidence to ride a big bike. Just try. We will supply some large training wheels (air-to-air refueling, logistics, intelligence), and we'll follow along behind to steady you if you start to wobble. But you must do the pedaling, and you must hold the handlebars."
This is the way forward. The Europeans can become autonomous via NATO. Once they have mastered the adult bike, the United States can progressively fit smaller and smaller training wheels. And eventually, perhaps, there will be no need for any at all. The United States and the European Union would finally become true partners and allies in a world of power transition.
Jolyon Howorth has been visiting professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University since 2002. He is professor emeritus of European politics at the University of Bath in Britain.
By dadblunders [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I've been in France for the past three days, attending a conference on "The Internet and International Politics." I plan on blogging about that event later this week, but first a few comments about the surprising victory of Hasan Rowhani as the next president of Iran.
I suspect that almost everyone will interpret his election as a vindication of whatever position they held before any votes were cast. Hard-liners who have pushed for ever-tighter sanctions and threats of war will claim that the election is a sign that ordinary Iranians are saying uncle and want the government to do whatever is necessary to end Iran's isolation and encourage economic recovery. So naturally the hawks will call for more of the same. Alternatively, those who have called for engaging Iran and who have defended the legitimacy of the Iranian republic will see this surprising result as evidence that there is real democracy there, however truncated or constrained. And they will of course see this as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
Perhaps the only person who will be seriously disappointed by the outcome is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bound to miss the less-than-competent and reliably cartoonish figure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad's irresponsible and offensive comments about Israel and the Holocaust made it easy to demonize the entire country and helped keep the idea of preventive war on the front burner. Rowhani is hardly a softie on the nuclear question or on regional security issues, but he's likely to be much harder to portray as a bloodthirsty Persian version of Hitler.
Rowhani's election also presents the kind of political opening that Barack Obama's administration hoped would emerge from the last Iranian presidential election, way back in 2009. Having extended a (very) tentative hand of friendship when he first took office, Obama was undoubtedly crossing his fingers for Ahmadinejad to lose and be replaced by a more moderate figure. The hope was that a more moderate president in Tehran would respond positively to Obama's overtures and that Ahmadinejad's departure would reduce domestic opposition to a less confrontational approach to Tehran. Instead, we got the contested election of 2009 and a harsh government crackdown against the Green Movement, developments that made it harder for both the United States and Iran to pursue an alternative course.
Although Rowhani's election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal.
Given the calcified layers of mistrust between these Iran and the United States -- dating back for decades now -- achieving a deal on the nuclear question and a broader improvement of relations will require both patience and political courage by both sides. Iran is not -- repeat not -- going to give up possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle, so the United States will have to accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power. Iran will have to accept strict limits on its program and will have to find ways to reassure its neighbors and the United States about its nuclear and regional ambitions.
Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.
And then there's the supreme leader, whose views and preferences remain something of a mystery. But not a complete mystery, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly said he would judge the Obama administration not by its words but by its deeds. This is a perfectly sensible position, of course, and it is also how the United States ought to judge Iran. But that means that if U.S. policy doesn't change, and if it keeps making the same demands and employing the same tools (i.e., sanctions), we can be confident that nothing will change. And Obama's decision last week to send small arms to the rebels in Syria is hardly a step likely to make Iran feel better about Washington's regional objectives.
I could be wrong about all this, of course, but so far no one has ever lost money betting on Iran and America's seemingly infinite capacity to misread the other and thereby maintain their mostly irrational and counterproductive enmity. As is so often the case these days, I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
You gotta give U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry credit for persistence -- or maybe just perverseness -- in his efforts to restart the Middle East "peace process." Given the complete failure of the past two decades of peace-processing, you might also wonder why he's bothering. My guess is that he does realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still a significant problem for the United States, as well as a source of continued human suffering. The fighting in Syria and the continued struggles in Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere may command more attention these days, but the situation in Israel/Palestine remains a potent source of anti-Americanism and a constant headache for every president. Plus, Kerry is an ambitious guy, and who wouldn't like to be the hero who finally managed to put this century-old conflict to rest?
News reports suggest that Kerry is trying to advance this goal by employing a time-honored tool of Middle East diplomacy: bribery. No, I don't mean direct under-the-table payoffs to key leaders (although the United States has done plenty of that in the past and I wouldn't rule it out here). Instead, I mean offering the various parties big economic incentives to lure them back to the table. Back in the 1970s, for example, Henry Kissinger got Israel to withdraw from the Sinai by promising it enormous military aid packages and assorted other concessions. Jimmy Carter did the same thing when he brokered that Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, and U.S. largesse also greased the subsequent peace deal between Israel and Jordan in 1994. When domestic politics make it impossible to use sticks, carrots are all you have left.
This time around, Kerry has reportedly assembled a $4 billion investment package for the Palestinian Authority, designed to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and demonstrate to the Palestinians the benefits of peace. Presumably all they need to do is agree to resume negotiations and the money will flow; the investment is supposedly not linked to a final-status agreement. This approach is also a familiar American tendency at work: The United States is happy if the parties are talking, even if they are simultaneously taking steps that are "not helpful" and if they never get to the finish line.
The real question is: Should Abbas & Co. take the money and resume discussions?
Of course they should, but not because it will produce an agreement. Any talks that do resume are going to lead nowhere, and the Palestinians might as well get paid for engaging in an otherwise meaningless activity. The talks are meaningless because Israel is not going to agree to a viable Palestinian state, and certainly not one based on the 1967 borders. Remember that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's entire career has been based on opposition to a Palestinian state and that the official platform of his Likud party "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river." Netanyahu is under no domestic pressure to cut a deal either; on the contrary, he'd be in political hot water if he tried.
Ever since the Oslo Accords, the basic Israeli strategy has been to negotiate endlessly while continuing to expand settlements, with the number of settlers more than doubling since 1993. Even then Prime Minister Ehud Barak's supposedly "generous" offer at Camp David in 2000 fell well short of an acceptable deal, as his own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later acknowledged. Netanyahu now leads the most right-wing government in Israel's history, and his government would collapse if he were to agree to allow the Palestinians anything more than a handful of disconnected bantustans under complete Israeli control. That's why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to resume the negotiations; he knows that talks merely provide a cover for further colonization.
But acknowledging that reality could also be
liberating. Given that negotiations are
pointless and that more and more people know it, the Palestinians should simply take
the money that Kerry has assembled and agree to the charade, while making it
clear that they will not settle for less than the Clinton parameters. They can also hint that if a viable and sovereign
state is not in the cards, then they will begin to campaign for full civil and political rights within the "Greater Israel" that now exists.
That's not the outcome Kerry has in mind, and it's not likely to materialize anytime soon. But neither will a final-status agreement, no matter how often Kerry drops in for a visit and how many dollar bills he waves.
Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
Many people believe that the United States is incapable of bold and ambitious responses to contemporary policy problems, largely because its political institutions aren't designed to act decisively. In this view, the United States is saddled with a federal system where government power is divided, with multiple veto points and various "checks and balances" that help prevent excessive concentrations of power. Add to that free speech, an intermittently vigorous press corps, a vast array of interest groups, and a degree of political partisanship, and you have a recipe for gridlock.
Or so it is said. There is a grain of truth in this caricature: the men who designed the U.S. Constitution were wary of centralized power (and standing armies!), and it is not at all surprising that they designed a system that seems to make radical change difficult. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule, and the exceptions themselves are instructive.
For example, during World War II the Manhattan Project assembled much of the world's most eminent scientific talent in a crash program that produced an atomic bomb in less than five years. Moreover, at its peak the Project was consuming ten percent (!) of the electricity produced in the entire United States, and its facilities contained more floor space than the entire U.S. auto industry. Despite this vast effort, only a handful of Americans were even aware of the project until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
More recently, the 9/11 attacks produced a similarly rapid and far-reaching U.S. response, whose full dimensions are still not completely known by the U.S. public. In addition to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent lame-brained decision to invade Iraq, the United States also passed the Patriot Act and launched a wide-ranging global effort to track down and kill as many al Qaeda members as it could find. In the process, it has created a large infrastructure of government and contractor agencies and shifted the CIA's focus away from intelligence gathering and toward a global effort to eradicate al Qaeda and its affiliates through mostly lethal means.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the U.S. system of government is quite capable of swift and ambitious policy initiatives when the public and key officials are really scared (as we were in 1941 and after 9/11). One might add the response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950 and to Sputnik's launch back in 1957. And this tendency in turn helps explain why threat-inflation is such a common tool within the foreign policy establishment. When Americans are feeling safe and secure, gridlock prevails. But when they are frightened, politicians are both able to launch big initiatives and motivated to do so by the fear that the public will punish them if they don't do enough to defend the nation.
The other important lesson is that big and bold initiatives are far easier when they are kept secret. Nobody knew about the Manhattan Project, and to this day nobody knows the full extent of what our national security machinery has been up to do since 9/11. Books like Mark Mazzetti's new The Way of the Knife and the Washington Post's important articles on "Top Secret America" have peeled back the veil to a degree, but there are undoubtedly many things being done in America's name (and with U.S. tax dollars) about which taxpayers are still unaware.
The danger is two-fold. First, if secrecy makes it easier to do big things, then policymakers will be tempted to make many issues as secret as possible. Classification will run amok, not to keep valuable information from our enemies but mostly from citizens who might object. And with secrecy comes a greater danger that foolish policies won't be adequately debated or scrutinized. This problem is widespread in authoritarian regimes where dissent is squelched and open debate is impossible, but it can also happen in democracies if the circle of decision is tiny and the public is kept in the dark.
The second danger stemming from popular ignorance is blowback. If Americans don't know what their government is doing (or has done), they won't fully understand why other societies view the United States as they do. In particular, Americans won't understand why others are sometimes angry at the United States, and they will tend to interpret anger or resistance as evidence of some sort of primordial or culturally-based hatred. The result is a familiar spiral of conflict, where each side sees its own actions as fully justified by the other's supposedly innate hostility. And I'd argue that spiral dynamics are at the heart of a number of difficult foreign policy challenges, especially in our dealings with the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, unwinding spirals is not easy, and all the more so if a country still doesn't understand exactly why others are ticked off.
Addendum: By a strange coincidence, my colleague Larry Summers has published a column in today's Financial Times, making a somewhat similar argument about the ability of the U.S. government to act more decisively than many people often believe. You can find his views here.
Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons
On several occasions I've commented on how I thought the U.S. approach to Iran was difficult to fathom at best. For some reason, U.S. leaders seem to believe that constantly threatening Iran and ratcheting up economic sanctions will eventually force Tehran to say "Uncle" and give us everything we want, or it will lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the clerics, dismantle their nuclear program, and jump warmly into the embrace of a grateful world.
Never mind that this approach is contradictory (how does threatening someone make them less interested in a deterrent?) and imposes enormous human suffering on innocent Iranians. Never mind that the scholarly literature on economic sanctions shows that they are not a very effective instrument of coercion. Pay no attention to the fact that we've been trying this policy for over a decade, without any apparent success.
It is hard to know if Washington really thinks that some day this is going to work or if this just a politically expedient process of kicking the can down the road. You know: the same sort of brilliant statecraft that has led the mighty United States to maintain an economic embargo on Cuba for over fifty years. Really brought ol' Fidel to his knees, didn't it?
But you don't have to take my word for it. In a recent speech at a Carnegie Endowment conference, Swedish Foreign Minsiter Carl Bildt offered up some wise words about the role that sanctions should (and should not) play in our policies toward Iran and other difficult regimes. Money quotation:
"There is no doubt that sanctions are and should be part of our toolbox. Preferably and primarily decided upon by the Security Council -- for reasons of legality as well as efficiency.
But sanctions can only work if they are part of an overall policy where the different instruments are clearly geared towards specified objectives.
Sanctions can be part of such a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy.
Sometimes I fear that this rather fundamental distinction is lost."
And as Paul Pillar noted earlier this week, it's not even clear what the United States and its allies are actually trying to accomplish with their Iran policy, which is why Iranians often wonder if we actually want an agreement at all. He recommends the following approach:
"The P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it."
Assuming, of course, that we really do want a deal. But if you don't really know what your objective is and you are misusing the various diplomatic and other tools at your disposal, then it is hard to see how you could ever achieve anything that might look like "success." Sadly, neither Bildt nor Pillar are likely to be in a position to implement a more promising approach.
ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images
How much should the United States do to address the threat from North Korea, especially in light of its recent blustering? None of the broader strategic options look very attractive. Trying to bribe Pyongyang toward normalcy hasn't worked in the past, but imposing additional sanctions and issuing direct military threats risks unwanted escalation. And nobody really wants to see North Korea collapse, at least not suddenly or soon. Although it is easy (and commonplace) to exaggerate the actual threat that North Korea poses (see Stanford's Siegfried Hecker here for a useful corrective to the alarmism), its past behavior and opaque decisionmaking do provide genuine grounds for concern.
According to today's New York Times, U.S. and South Korean officials have developed plans for proportional military responses to any North Korean military action. It sounds like the familiar "tit-for-tat" response analyzed at length by Robert Axelrod and others, and these preparations (and the publicity surrounding them) are clearly intended as a deterrent warning. In essence, Washington and Seoul are telling Pyongyang that it won't get a free pass if it uses force. That's the right response, I think, because the last thing Kim Jong Un wants right now is a military humiliation that jeopardizes his standing with the rest of the regime.
But there is a larger dimension to this problem that doesn't get enough attention. The North Korea situation is another one of those cases where U.S. interests, though not zero, are a lot smaller than those of our local allies. North Korea does matters to us, but it matters a lot more to South Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. The typical U.S. instinct in such situations is to assume it is Washington's job to deal with the challenge and to get its local allies to go along with whatever response we have in mind. That instinct was in full display back in late March, when the U.S. responded to various North Korean threats by sending a couple of B-2 bombers to conduct a highly publicized mock bombing run.
Given Asia's growing strategic importance and the value of local allies there, the United States cannot appear to indifferent to the problems that North Korea poses. But it is equally important that Washington get its Asian allies to step up and do their fair share too, instead of free-riding on American protection. It's a tricky line to walk: We need to do enough to assure them that we have their back, but not so much to convince them that Uncle Sam will take care of everything. Among other things, exaggerated dependence on U.S. protection enables states like South Korea and Japan to remain aloof from each other, instead of working to resolve their own differences and cooperating to address shared regional security concerns.
I don't know the operational details of the "proportional responses" that the U.S. and South Korea have prepared, but I'd like to see South Korea take the lead in dealing with any North Korean military provocation, in consultation with Washington and with firm U.S. backing. South Korea is far wealthier than its northern counterpart, and its military forces are much more capable. North Korea may have the world's fourth largest military in terms of personnel, but South Korea's forces are far better equipped and better trained and would win a conventional war if one were to occur. (Among other things, the South Korean defense budget is about twice as large as North Korea's entire GDP). Consistent with the terms of our mutual defense treaty, the United States should stand willing to help South Korea in the event of direct provocation. But encouraging those whose interests are most directly affected to lead is a smart long-term strategy. The United States won't get the help it wants from its Asian allies if we insist on doing most of the work ourselves.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
I'll be flying to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, and I'm looking forward to our panel on "Powers in History and Contemporary World Politics." The general theme of the papers on this panel is how status quo or declining powers can deal with rising or revisionist powers, and each seeks to identify circumstances that can make shifting power relations easier or harder to manage. Hmmm ... I wonder if this topic is of any contemporary relevance?
Among other things, this also means that blogging will be sparse to non-existent for the next few days. I leave it to the People in Charge to keep matters with North Korea, Pakistan, Mali, Cyprus, Iran, etc. etc., under control until next week. You wouldn't want to have a big international crisis while all the IR scholars are busy with all of this, would you?
When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.
Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.
If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:
"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."
The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran's business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran's nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.
If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.
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Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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You know the old joke about administrators who have three boxes on their desks: one says "In," another says "Out," and the third says "Too Hard." There are a lot of problems out there in the world that seem to fit that latter box, vexing challenges that seem to have been around forever. Ambitious policymakers and idealistic academics often think up clever ways to address them, but most of the time these schemes go nowhere.
What are my Top Ten Intractable Problems? They will undoubtedly be solved someday, but nobody knows when. Pay attention: There will be a quiz at the end.
#1. Cyprus: The Greek/Turkish division over Cyprus is a legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as Cyprus was the main place where the Greek and Turkish populations weren't forcibly separated after the war between Greece and Turkey that lasted from 1919 until 1921. The conflict has been with us in various forms ever since, and despite some near misses, it is still unresolved today. Any guesses on when it will get settled? I have no idea.
#2. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: This one's been around since 1947, or 1936, or 1919 or even the 1890s ... pick whatever date you want. Who's willing to bet it will get settled soon? Warning: Nobody's lost money being pessimistic in the past.
#3. The Korean Peninsula: There is no peace treaty ending the Korean War, and the Korean people are still divided between two countries. Germany was divided for a long time too, and one suspects that Korean reunification will happen some day. But when?
#4. Kashmir: High on anyone's list of dangerous and intractable conflicts is the long-running dispute over Kashmir, which has helped keep India and Pakistan at odds with each other for sixty-five years by now. Is a solution in sight? Not that I can see.
#5. UN Security Council Reform: Everybody knows that the current structure of the UNSC makes little sense, and the current membership of the P-5 is especially anachronistic. But past efforts to devise a better structure have been stymied by rival ambitions. We all agree it ought to be changed, but nobody can agree on who the new members should be. Result: even more gridlock than in the US Congress.
#6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC was badly governed back when it was called Zaire, and then it suffered through more than fifteen years of incessant internal warfare and repeated foreign interventions. There have been a few efforts to rebuild a more effective central state, but the country remains a desperately weak black hole in the center of Africa. How long will this continue? No one knows.
#7. The Cuba Embargo: The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba since 1961 intended to bring down the Castro regime. This monument to domestic lobbying and diplomatic rigidity has been a complete failure, yet may continue as long as anyone named Castro is in power and maybe beyond that.
#8. The European Union: Until relatively recently, the EU was a great
success story, but now it looks like one of those soap operas where the players
lurch from crisis to crisis without either divorcing or reconciling. Will the Euro survive? Will the UK leave? Will right-wing fascism return? Will Berlusconi apologize to
Merkel? Will Turkey ever become a member? Stay
tuned for the next exciting episode of "As the Continent Turns..."
#9. Climate Change: Except for a few flat-earthers like Senator Jim Inhofe, we know now that human activity is altering the earth's climate ... and not in a good way. But there are major conflicts of interest between the key players, as well as huge intergenerational equity problems. And how do you convince politicians to impose big sacrifices on their constituents today, in order to benefit people who aren't even alive? Will a solution be reached? Probably, but I wouldn't hold my breath. And that's just one of the big environmental issues that mankind is facing.
#10. The Former Soviet Fragments: Lastly, what about all the remnants of the former Soviet empire? Some of these fragments have become effective states, but there are still a lot of unresolved conflicts lying around. Think of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nadgorno-Karabakh, the potential for further unrest in Chechnya, or the breakaway provinces of S. Osetia and Abkhazia, who are recognized by Russia, each other, and hardly anyone else. It hardly seems likely that these entities could be around for very long, but stranger things have happened in the past.
And now for your quiz.
First, which of these conflicts will be the first to be resolved? (My bet is #7, because neither Fidel nor Raul are going to live forever. But they can always designate a successor to try to keep the regime going.)
Second, what are the most important unresolved disputes that I've missed?
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The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.
This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."
FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.
Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.
And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?
This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?"
Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.
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I attended a seminar yesterday on Mexico's illegal drug enterprises, which offered a pretty grim assessment of the challenge these organizations pose to Mexico and the United States. And then I read Hugh Roberts's op-ed in today's Financial Times, which argued that outside interference in the Sahel has mostly made things worse and will continue to do so in the future.
Which sparked the following question: why is the United States getting hot and bothered about the events in Mali (troubling though they are), while the problems caused by the violent drug organizations in Mexico fly mostly below the radar? As I learned at yesterday's seminar, the drug war in Mexico was never mentioned during the presidential debates, even though over 60,000 Mexicans have been murdered over the past six years and even though this violence has killed several hundred Americans in recent years too. Prominent senators like John McCain keep harping about violence in Syria and the need for greater U.S. involvement; why doesn't violence that is closer to home and that affects Americans more directly get equal or greater attention? To say nothing of the effects that Mexican meth and other drugs have on the United States itself.
It's a serious question: why do some fairly distant and minor threats get lots of play in our discourse and command big-ticket policy responses, while more imminent threats get downplayed? Here are some possible reasons.
First, direct and deliberate threats to attack the U.S. or Americans abroad generate more attention than threats that might kill even more people inadvertently. Groups like al Qaeda deliberately target Americans (and others); by contrast, drug gangs mostly want to make money and the harm they do to others is a by-product of their criminal activities. You know: it's just business. An understandable, if not entirely rational, reason to see them as less threatening.
A corollary reason is the fear of "Islamism" and the impact of the al Qaeda brand. We wouldn't be nearly as worried about "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" if it had stuck to its original name ("the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat"). No matter what your actual agenda is, putting on the al Qaeda label is a good way to guarantee you get a lot of attention from Uncle Sam.
Second, we are more likely to respond to threats when we think there is a simple, cheap, and obvious military response. This is partly because the U.S. military is well-funded, omnipresent, and good at blowing things up, which gives presidents more confidence that they might actually accomplish something they can brag about later. By contrast, we ignore or downplay problems when we know in advance that we don't know how to fix them. Trying to address the drug violence in Mexico in a serious way would require the United States to do more to reduce our society's appetite for drugs, or make the trade less lucrative by decriminalizing it (ok for pot, big problem for meth). And we can't just subcontract the response to the military, because our relationship with Mexico also involves lots of other agencies (State, Justice, INS, DHS, etc., etc.). If you're a politician and you don't have any answers, you won't bring up the issue yourself and you'll hope to God that nobody else does either.
Third, some threats get attention because somebody has done a good job of marketing on their behalf. I get several unsolicited emails a day from various Syrian rebel groups, each of them providing information designed to encourage greater U.S. participation. This is of course nothing new: the government of Kuwait hired a PR firm to make the case for U.S. action in the first Gulf War, and the British government waged an aggressive propaganda campaign to foster U.S. involvement in World War I. Threat assessment is never as apolitical as the Ideal Strategist would like; sometimes it comes down to which side has better threat-mongerers.
Fourth, we hyper-ventilate over Mali and downplay Mexico because the latter is close by and we have lot of positive relations there that could get disrupted if we went all-out after the drug lords. Sending drones and special forces into places like Yemen or Mali doesn't threaten a lot of other vital relations with those countries (e.g., US trade with Yemen in 2012 was only $500 million), but interfering in Mexico could jeopardize our $450 billion-plus trade relationship and cause other political problems, especially given the prior history of U.S. interference there.
All of which reminds us that there's a big error term in how great powers (and especially the United States) identify and prioritize threats. We'd like to think it was based on rational assessment of cost, benefits, risks, and opportunities, but that seems to be true only in the most crude sense. U.S. leaders did (eventually) recognize the geopolitical threats posed by Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union, just as we now worry about what a rising China might portend for the future. But at the margin, our ability to prioritize lesser threats properly is pretty paltry. How else to explain why we get in a lather when North Korea tests a missile -- something we've done hundreds of times -- while downplaying more immediate problems much closer to home?
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I was in Beijing earlier this week, attending a conference on Sino-American relations. The conference was jointly sponsored by Beijing University and Harvard, and featured a number of prominent Chinese and American academics (and a few former policymakers). Our Chinese hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the absence of clean air didn't prevent the other participants from making lots of interesting presentations. (For another summary of the proceedings, check out Alan Alexandroff's account here).
The panel on which I spoke was focused on how the United States and China could cooperate to enhance international security. I made five basic points and thought I'd pass them along to you.
1. Positive and Negative Forms of Security Cooperation. In theory (I argued), there are two broad forms that Sino-American security cooperation could take. The first type consists of positive acts of collaboration, such as counterterrorism measures or anti-piracy operations (as in the Gulf of Aden). One can also imagine more ambitious sorts of cooperation, as when the two states jointly approve U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. One could even imagine situations where China and the United States might join forces to halt some deep civil conflict, although that is obviously less likely.
The second type of security cooperation is essentially negative: Each side seeks to enhance its mutual security by limiting or restraining its activities in some important realm. Traditional arms control is an obvious example of this sort of cooperation, as was the U.S.-Soviet "Incidents at Sea" agreement. Sino-American agreement on a naval "code of conduct" or a ban on cyberattacks would be of this type as well.
In short, it is not hard to think of various ways that Washington and Beijing could cooperate to reduce the risk of international conflict. But is significant cooperation likely, and what factors might make it more or less probable?
2. Prospects for Cooperation. Unfortunately, the probability that two states will engage in significant acts of security cooperation -- and especially of the positive sort noted above -- is largely determined by the level of amity or trust between them. If they have generally positive relations, cooperation is fairly easy. If there is a lot of mutual suspicion, however, positive acts of cooperation will be hard to sustain because both sides may fear that the other is gaining some sort of advantage. Paradoxically: Security cooperation is easiest when it is least important and hardest when it would be most valuable. Welcome to the wonderful world of international relations!
3. Rival Grand Strategies. The main barrier to extensive Sino-American cooperation to enhance global security is the tension between their respective grand strategies. China's central strategic aim is to continue to grow economically, gradually acquire greater economic and military power, and eventually reduce or eliminate the U.S. security role in Asia. Not by conquest or force necessarily, but by co-opting or cowing neighboring states into distancing themselves from the United States. The reason is easy to fathom: Just as U.S. leaders wanted to expel the European great powers from the Western Hemisphere (see under: Monroe Doctrine), China's leaders believe they will be more secure in the long run if the United States does not have a large military presence near their borders and does not have close security ties with their neighbors.
The United States, by contrast, wants to stay in Asia in order to keep China from establishing a dominant position there. Since the U.S. became a great power, a core principle of its grand strategy was to prevent any single power from dominating either Europe or Asia. That's why the United States opposed Germany in World War I, fought Germany and Japan in World War II, and worked to contain the Soviet Union in the Cold War. If no single power dominates Europe or Asia, the states there will worry mostly about each other, and none are able to focus solely on the United States or do much to interfere over in the Western Hemisphere. Accordingly, the U.S. will want to stay in Asia, to backstop its allies there and prevent Beijing from dominating the region.
4. Will the U.S. and China Act with Restraint? If the United States and China each pursue their respective grand strategies energetically, conflicts of interest will be numerous and intense, and we will see lots of trouble down the road. In this sort of world, there won't be much security cooperation between the two sides, and there will be a very intense security competition in Asia itself, with each side trying to cultivate allies of its own and trying simultaneously to undermine the opposing coalition. But if the two states pursue their strategies in a restrained, even lazy, fashion, they'll find it easier to reach common ground on some issues and might even engage in positive acts of collaboration on occasion.
Alas, I don't think the latter outcome is likely. Restraint is not something the United States does very well, and the recent "pivot" to Asia is probably a harbinger of more to come. Fiscal constraints will put some limits on what the United States can do, but you can bet that the Pentagon sees a coming conflict with China as a major force driver and will push hard for an assertive approach and the preservation of our current "forward presence." Similarly, China's own level of restraint has declined as its relative power has grown, and Deng Xiaoping's strategy of the "peaceful rise" has been gradually giving way to a more assertive nationalism. If China's economic growth rate does not slow significantly, I wouldn't expect a lot of restraint on either side. (FWIW, I think a slowdown is nearly inevitable, which will create big problems for the Chinese leadership but might dampen tensions somewhat.)
5. Stability for the Long Term. Unfortunately, managing Sino-American relations over the long term will be even harder. If Chinese leaders are consistently smart, judicious, farsighted, clear-eyed, and wise, and if their American counterparts consistently exhibit similar qualities, then the two governments may be able to manage their future relations without serious trouble. But the history of both countries suggests that there is very little chance that these idyllic circumstances will prevail every year for the next several decades. Sooner or later, we are bound to get a cadre of foolish, impetuous, or incompetent leaders in one capital or the other, or maybe even both at the same time. If "wise leadership" is the prerequisite for managing Sino-American rivalry over the long haul, in short, history suggests one ought to worry. A lot.
The bottom line is that Washington and Beijing have an obvious interest in taking steps now that might make their relationship easier to manage in the future. In particular, establishing rules of the road for naval activity (similar to the earlier Incidents at Sea agreement) might reduce the danger of an unintended clash on the high seas. Reaching an understanding on the use of unmanned drones or cyberattacks would help too. Military-to-military contacts and other forms of elite exchange would be a good idea as well, so that elites in both societies know the people with whom they are dealing personally and are less likely to misread or misinterpret what they may do while in official positions. None of these steps makes rivalry disappear, but together they could help keep it from boiling over.
And that just might be the greatest contribution that these two states could make to international peace and security over the next 25 years.
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I'm the farthest thing from an expert on Mali and I'm still catching up on events there after my Asia trip, so what follows is tentative and should be taken with appropriate skepticism. Based on what I've read so far, however, here are my initial comments and queries.
1. Remember Libya? NATO intervention in Libya is hardly the only reason that there is trouble today in Mali, but it's not irrelevant either. Why? Because arms flows from Qaddafi's collapsing state fueled the Tuareg insurgency in northern Mali and contributed to the collapse of the central government. Qaddafi's ouster is still worthy of celebration on its own terms, but the effects on Mali remind us that even positive developments in one place can have negative repercussions elsewhere. And if events continue deteriorate in Mali, the net benefit of NATO's decision to go for regime change in Libya will look dicier.
2. What is the U.S. national interest? What exactly is the U.S. "strategic interest" in Mali? It's not natural resources, despite what you sometimes hear. It's not "counter-terrorism" per se, unless you believe that all extremists have to be hounded into submission no matter where they are located, what their aims and capabilities are, and what it would cost to subdue them. More than anything else, the Western lurch into Mali shows the recurring tendency for great powers (or even medium powers like France) to get involved in places first and then define them as "vital interests" later. In other words, a place becomes "strategic" or "vital" if some great power gets engaged there, no matter where it is located, what its resources or capabilities are, or how its present or future ondition might actually affect the livelihood or security of the intervening power. Put differently: if Mali can be seen as a vital interest, then anywhere can.
3. What has the United States been up to there? Ever since the opening of Africa Command, the United States military has been actively partnering with various regimes, conducting drone strikes and special operations (in a few places) and training activities (in many). What's worrisome is that the imbroglio in Mali occurred even though the U.S. military has had an active training mission there for some time. Unfortunately, that effort apparently failed to produce either a fully loyal fighting force or a fully effective one. Some individuals who received U.S. training have now joined the rebel forces, and the troops that remained to the government haven't fought very well against them. Which raises the question of whether Africa Command's overall approach to building a more stable Africa is working. I'd like to know if the Pentagon understood that its efforts in Mali weren't going very well before this latest round of trouble began; that's certainly not the impression one gets from Africa Command's website.
4. The "Safe Haven" Myth Lives! Perhaps not surprisingly, the justification for military intervention is similar to the one that Barack Obama offered for escalation in Afghanistan in 2009: it's the need to prevent Mali from becoming a "safe haven" that could be used to organize attacks elsewhere (i.e., on France itself). But is there any real evidence that the extremists in Mali are plotting to attack France, the United States, or anyone else? Even if they were, is there good evidence that they have the will and the skill to carry out such activities, or that the consequences of a successful attack would be greater than the costs of French (and other) efforts to root them out? And is it possible that intervention in Mali might actually focus the extremists' attention on the intervenors, instead of the central government? These questions do not necessarily add up to a hard-and-fast rejection of intervention, but they should give us pause.
5. Is popular support sufficient justification? Press reports (including Drezner here) suggest that there is considerable popular support for Western intervention among Mali's population. If true, this aspect of the case is simultaneously: a) not surprising, b) reassuring, and c) not dispositive. If the local population were strongly opposed, then intervention would be a fool's errand. But the mere fact that the local population wants well-armed outsiders to protect them does not by itself mean that it is in the outsiders' interest to provide this service. And populations who are initially grateful for foreign intervention have an unfortunate tendency to change their minds over time, particularly if the conflict escalates and if the foreigners overstay their welcome.
To repeat: I'm just getting up to speed on this conflict and the above is preliminary. Frankly, I hope the issue is resolved quickly and that I don't need to learn more about it. Why? Because I usually end up learning a lot about global problems when they prove to be enduring, protracted and difficult and when they are accompanied by lots of blunders. For our sake, France's sake, and most of all the sake of Mali's people, I hope this turns out to be a very short-lived affair. I'll bet President Hollande wants that even more than I do.
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I'm in Singapore today for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and I'm enjoying the chance to catch up with my colleagues there. I've been fortunate to be associated with this institution for over a decade, and my friends there have taught me a great deal about Asian politics in general and Southeast Asia in particular. It is also interesting to see how other schools view the challenges of preparing students for careers in international affairs, and especially the need to adapt to a rapidly changing information environment. Jet lag aside, I'm having a fine time.
This trip is also an opportunity to gauge local reaction to the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. And by a fortuitous coincidence, today's email contained an advance copy of a new roundtable in the journal Asia Policy, on "Regional Perspectives on U.S. Rebalancing." The roundtable features contributions from experts from several regional countries (including RSIS Dean Barry Desker), and it's well worth reading.
Of course, I liked the symposium because there's a lot of realist thought embedded within it, and because it reinforced my belief that managing alliance relations in Asia is going to be a real challenge for the United States. Although balance of threat theory suggests that China's rise will encourage strong balancing impulses by most of its neighbors, that process will not necessarily be smooth or without significant bumps and disruptions. Most of the essays in this collection make it clear that local states welcome America's increased attention to the region, but they are also worried that this trend could disrupt the strong economic ties that now exist between these states and the PRC and generally enflame regional rivalries.
Managing these relations will require U.S. strategists and diplomats to have a deep and nuanced understanding of local conditions and the ability to act with a certain degree of subtlety (which is not always America's long suit). As Chaesung Chun of South Korea notes:
"The most serious concern for South Korea regarding the United States' rebalancing strategy is how deeply U.S. policymakers understand the fundamentals of East Asian international relations. Populations in this region are living in different periods in a contracted time span: traditional, modern transitional, modern, and postmodern transitional. The sources of conflict among East Asian countries come from the traditional strategic culture, the legacy of imperialism, the persistent logic of balance of power, and the so-called post-Westphalian order emerging from global governance."
Or as India's C. Raja Mohan observes in his contribution to the roundtable:
"Washington should attempt to bring a measure of sophistication to the articulation of the Asian pivot. Central to this is the proposition that the United States must not be seen as working "on" Asia, following a predetermined plan crafted in Washington, but rather as working "with" the Asian powers in devising a supple approach to balancing China's power. By adopting this strategy, the United States could profitably encourage a number of security initiatives among Asian powers without having to put itself in the political lead on every single initiative in the region. This adjustment will not be easy, however, given the political style of the United States, where a noisy internal debate complicates the pursuit of a more nuanced approach to the articulation and execution of rebalancing."
My own view is that the competition for influence between Beijing and Washington will hinge in good part on which of the two major powers does a better job of convincing other Asian states that it is the more reasonable. If China is seen by its neighbors as constantly seeking to gain advantages for itself and willing to throw its increasing weight around, then its neighbors' tendency to balance with the United States will only increase. By contrast, if it is the United States that is seen by the locals as excessively confrontational and insensitive to local concerns, then these states will be inclined to keep their distance and governments are likely to face popular opposition to any overt effort to "contain" China.
The United States won the Cold War for many reasons, but one of them was the fact that our key allies in Europe and Asia thought we were less aggressive and more benevolent than the Soviet Union was. The USSR was much weaker, but it was close to many of these states, it had obviously revisionist intentions, and it seemed like a pretty nasty country by comparison. The United States and China are both going to be pretty powerful states in the decades ahead, and great power competition in Asia in the 21st century may be determined as much by perceptions of benevolence as by relative size of GDP or specific military balances (though those factors are not irrelevant).
In short, Leo Durocher got it exactly wrong: in international politics, "nice guys (often) finish first."
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What's going on in Egypt? The short answer is: precisely what we should have expected. What is happening is obviously disturbing, but it is also a completely predictable and probably protracted struggle for power. And unless the "Arab spring" is quite atypical, the political revolutions that began two years ago are going to take years to work out.
To summarize a passage from my 1996 book Revolution and War:
"Revolutions are usually (invariably?) characterized by violence. Even when the old regime collapses quickly, there is likely to be a violent struggle afterwards. The issues at stake are enormous, because the process of redefining a political community places everyone's future at risk. Until a new order is firmly established, no one is safe from exclusion and the temptation to use force to enhance one's position is difficult to resist. The possibility that winners will take all and losers will lose everything heightens the level of suspicion and insecurity. Fears of plots and conspiracies abound. Disagreements over specific policies can become life-or-death struggles . . . and achieving consensus on what new rules and institutions should govern the society is likely to be a difficult and prolonged process. In sum, revolutions are deadly serious contests for extremely high stakes." [pp. 20-21]
The history of modern revolutions confirms this view. The American Revolution was comparatively benign (though it did involve both a war of independence and the persecution and expulsion of the defeated loyalists), but more than a decade passed from the signing of the original Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. The original Articles of Confederation (1783) proved wholly inadequate, and the fight over the new Constitutions was protracted and sometimes bitter. Nor should we forget that the Founding Fathers sometimes saw each other as near-treasonous, and disputes between different factions were even more contentious than the partisan wrangling we observe today.
The French Revolution was equally protracted: it began in 1789, but Louis XVI was not deposed until 1792 and revolutionary France was convulsed by recurring struggles for power and several distinct governments and constitutions before Napoleon Bonaparte finally seized power in 1799 and eventually declared himself Emperor. By this standard, Egypt has a very long way to go.
The Russian Revolution was also a prolonged process: the Romanov dynasty was initially replaced by Kerensky's Provisional Government in March 1917, which was then ousted by the Bolshevik coup in November. But the Bolsheviks had to fight and win a protracted civil war and repel several foreign interventions before they consolidated their hold on power, a process not completed until the mid-1920s. Infighting among the Soviet leaders continued until Stalin was able to eliminate his various rivals and emerge supreme in the early 1930s.
The revolutions in Turkey, Mexico, China, and Iran were also violent and uncertain affairs, and in each case it took years before the final form of the new regime was reasonably well-established. Mao Zedong famously said that "a revolution is not a dinner party," and one might merely add that they are rarely, if ever, short.
There are several lessons to take from this quick history. First, unless the old guard somehow manages to regain full power quickly (thereby cutting off the revolutionary process), what is happening in Egypt (and elsewhere) will take a long time to work itself out. You cannot dismantle the rules and institutions of a political order and create new ones overnight. Even if you try, the various groups that have been mobilized through this process won't just nod and accept them, especially the new rules favor some groups more than others. What you get instead, of course, is a protracted struggle for power whose outcome is often highly contingent.
Second, outside powers can influence this process, but they cannot do so predictably. In fact, the more extensive and heavy-handed outside interference is, the more likely it is to backfire. In the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, for example, outside interference helped radicalize the revolution, allowed hardliners to use nationalism and foreign threats as a pretext to crush more moderate forces, thereby producing precisely the outcome that the external powers opposed. It follows that outsiders (to include the United States) need to show enormous patience and a very light touch when dealing with these turbulent situations.
Third, the central theme of my earlier book was the revolutions tend to increase security competition and increase the risk of war. Among other things, they do this by 1) altering the balance of power, 2) creating fears of contagion, 3) encouraging spirals of suspicion, 4) bringing inexperienced elites to power, and 5) creating apparent "windows of opportunity" or necessity. Revolutions do not make war inevitable, but they do make it more likely. And one could argue that we are now in the early stages of just this sort of process, with a proxy war going on in Syria, continued strife in Gaza, and as-yet unresolved political contestation in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and several other places.
Put these three together, and one has to hope that US Middle East policy will be in the hands of people who are smart, sensible, prudent, even-handed, and above all, realistic. Or as Talleyrand recommended: "surtout, pas trop de zele." But how likely is that?
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I'm in Dubai for meetings of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Councils, which provide some of the background information and agenda setting for Davos and other WEF activities. I've been assigned to the group assessing "geopolitical risks" for 2013, so I'll be spending the next two days trying to figure out where dire things might happen in the next year (and where they won't).
Dubai itself is sort of like Disneyland-on-steroids, and I won't try to embellish on all the other descriptions of the place. But as I rode in my taxi to the hotel last night, I was also struck by the thought that the UAE (of which Dubai is a part) and other states like Qatar and Brunei, might be something of a realist anomaly. The puzzle is this: How is it possible for very small, very rich, yet militarily weak countries to retain their independence? Why haven't rapacious great powers or greedy neighbors gobbled these countries up long ago, and seized all that valuable oil and gas for themselves? If the world is as dog-eat-dog as realists depict, why are these states still in business?
There are several possible explanations. The most obvious is that these states have enjoyed great power protection for a long time, originally from Great Britain and subsequently from the United States. Their rulers have accommodated their protectors in most ways, in exchange for implicit or explicit security guarantees. In short, realism does explain a lot of why these states have survived: It was in the interests of some powerful countries to keep them safe and secure.
But why didn't Britain or the United States take these places over and keep all that oil wealth for themselves? Simple. It turned out to be easier to let local elites run these societies, instead of turning them into sullen and resentful colonies. In the British case, moreover, the emergence of the Gulf as a major oil-producing center coincided with Britain's imperial decline, signified by the Suez debacle in 1956 and the decision to withdraw military forces east of Suez in 1967. So Britain was in no position to take these places over anyway.
The United States has never been a very enthusiastic colonial power, and U.S. leaders wisely preferred to exercise influence indirectly and keep U.S. ground forces out of the region. As the experiments with "dual containment" in the 1990s (which helped fuel the rise of al Qaeda) and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed, getting too heavily engaged trying to run the region directly is not something the United States is very good at. Nor was it necessary.
A second reason for the peculiar stability of the Gulf is the absence of a regional great power with the capacity to absorb the others, which in turn makes it possible for balance-of-power politics to work. The Shah of Iran did some minor muscle-flexing and territorial expansion in his day, but he never made a grab for any of his oil-rich neighbors. Saddam Hussein is the exception that proves the rule, and look what happened to him. Moreover, the militarily weak but oil-rich Gulf states all understand that trying to gain more wealth at someone else's expense was both unnecessary and bad for business.
The third reason why these states retain their independence is the norm of sovereignty. It may be an accident of geology that the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and others ended up with so much wealth underneath their soil, but once a country's government and borders have been recognized by others, the status quo takes on a life of its own and efforts to overturn it face an uphill fight. Saddam Hussein tried to convince the world that Kuwait was Iraq's "19th province" in order to make his invasion seem more legitimate, but nobody bought the argument and his invasion was seen as naked aggression. Because altering borders via force has become less and less legitimate over time, states can be really rich and really vulnerable and still be somewhat protected.
Finally, small countries like Dubai enhance their security by making themselves more valuable to others as independent entities than they would be as colonies. Dubai has established itself is a financial center, entrepot, cultural oasis, and diplomatic hub, which is precisely why the WEF is here this week. It has close ties with the West, but still has formal and informal dealings with others, including states such as Iran. In the broadest sense, the global community is probably better off with a few countries occupying this sort of niche, just as Switzerland did for decades, and that means that most countries would rather have it be independent than out of business.
Which is not to say that security in the Gulf is guaranteed, or that realism can't account for these states' survival (see #s 1 and 2 above). Given the diplomatic stalemate with Iran, in fact, it's easy to imagine scenarios where the present Gulf order would come under significant strain. But I'm betting it won't, if only because hardly anybody really has much interest in that happening. Now if only one could be confident that sensible self-interest would always prevail....
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Now that the election is over we can get back to thinking about the future, and that includes thinking about China under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a provocative piece suggesting that Xi's close ties with the Chinese military will make him a "force to contend with." The article also quoted a a Chinese academic, Jin Canrong, saying that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power. In his words: "China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China." U.S. elites won't like it, he says, but "they will have to accept it."
Well, count me as one member of the U.S. elite that would like to see China shoulder more burdens (emphasis on that last word). Instead of focusing lots of effort on confronting China directly, a smarter strategy would be to saddle China with the same sort of burdens that U.S. elites have so eagerly taken on in recent years. How about letting Bejing try to fix Afghanistan, or encouraging them handle a post-Assad mess in Syria? Or perhaps China can show its diplomatic mettle by dealing with the Somali pirates, global narcotics traffickers, and the recurring crises in Sudan. Not to mention North Korea.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should helping China gain lots of influence in places that are of vital strategic importance, though we ought to recognize that we won't be able to prevent China from gaining influence as its power rises. Rather, I'm saying that smart great powers pass the buck to others when they can (including their allies) and try to maneuver potential adversaries into taking on costly burdens that bring few benefits. During the Cold War, the U.S. wisely invested in rebuilding and protecting the industrial areas of Europe and Japan, and wisely forged close ties with a number of Persian Gulf oil producers. It erred by squandering resources on a lot of minor conflicts in the developing world; fortunately for Americans, the Soviet Union followed suit and wasted money it didn't have on its own feckless clients and profitless quagmires (e.g., Afghanistan).
The lesson for today is obvious: the outcome of a future Sino-American rivalry will be partly based on which country manages its economy best (because that it is the ultimate source of national power). It will also depend on which state can elicit useful support from other important countries. But it will also be affected by which nation gets stuck defending allies that aren't worth much and which one gets bogged down trying to solve intractable and costly problems in places that ultimately don't matter very much in geopolitical terms. Winning the competition to stick others with costly burdens requires more brains than brawn, and a capacity to spot a quagmire before you're in it. The United States used to be pretty good at that, and it's a skill we would do well to rediscover in the years ahead.
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Where is the Middle East headed? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.
That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.
But lately I'm wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I -- to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement -- and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since.
Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.
Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora's box when you start rearranging borders. There's also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don't think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.
That's why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don't think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects.
The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria's ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.
And then there's Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan's economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river.
To repeat: I'm not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I'd bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.
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I'm back from Japan after a very enjoyable trip, and catching up on developments elsewhere. A few quick comments on recent events elsewhere.
On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for a more forceful international response, but the case for military intervention remains weak. Not because anybody condones the Assad regime's behavior, but simply because outside intervention could easily make things worse. Regrettably, not every foreign policy challenge has a ready solution, and sometimes "standing there" is still better than "doing something."
Russia continues to be Assad's primary protector, and it will be interesting to see if Obama and Putin can make any progress toward agreement during their meeting at the G20 summit. As I've written previously, Russia is the key to a political settlement, but only if a way can be found to preserve Russian interests and give them lots of credit for helping resolve the crisis. Russia's amoral stance has elicited a lot of condemnation thus far, but we shouldn't be surprised or overly outraged by what Moscow is doing. Syria is Russia's only remaining Middle East client and Russia is simply trying to protect its own position there. More broadly, Russia has long sought to prevent the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States and its allies -- i.e., one where Washington gets to decide who governs in key regions -- and backing Assad is one way for Russia to remind everyone that Washington isn't all-powerful. I suspect Putin isn't happy about what Assad is doing, just as the Obama administration wasn't happy about the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain. But when strategic interests are involved, moral niceties tend to be overlooked.
On Egypt: I'm not that surprised that Egypt's military leaders are trying to reverse the revolution/reform movement that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. Step 1 was getting Egyptian courts to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature; step 2 was the announcement that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would supervise the drafting of a new constitution. There are reports that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi has won the presidential election; if so, you can count on the SCAF to write a constitution that diminishes the president's powers. But I will be surprised if this effort to roll back the clock succeeds, because the SCAF has no solution for Egypt's debilitating economic and political stagnation and younger Egyptians aren't going to acquiesce in this reversal for long. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog, once free and fair elections become the norm, it becomes increasingly difficult for unelected military rulers to retain the same level of influence. If we take a longer view, the Egyptian revolution is likely to continue.
Speaking of which, I wonder how American neoconservatives will react to SCAF's efforts to reverse or retard Egypt's move toward democracy? Neocons have long portrayed themselves as vigorous proponents of liberty and democracy, and they are usually quick to demand forceful U.S. action against any non-democratic regimes they don't like. So presumably they will now call for the United States to use cut off all aid to Egypt until the Egyptian generals allow full democracy to re-emerge. But don't hold your breath.
On Iran: Negotiations resume tomorrow between Iran and the P5+1. We may see some progress, but I don't expect a breakthrough. The key questions are: 1) are the P5+1 are willing to concede Iran's right to enrich uranium at low levels and under strict safeguards? and 2) will the United States continue to demand that Iran dismantle its underground enrichment plant at Fordow? These two demands are deal-breakers: Iran has made it clear for years that it won't give up the right to enrich, and insisting that they dismantle Fordow is asking them to leave their program vulnerable so that we (or the Israelis) can attack it whenever we want.
Think about this for a second. What sensible government would ever agree to something like that? Imagine how the United States would have reacted if the Soviet Union had demanded that we leave our ICBMs above ground and completely exposed to a surprise attack, and had further demanded that we give them the locations of all our ballistic missile submarines, so that the USSR could attack them too if they ever felt they needed to. We would have rejected such a silly request in a nanosecond. Demanding that Iran dismantle Fordow is similar; would any government spend a lot of money hardening its enrichment capability only to give it up, especially when the United States and others have already done various things to try to damage or destroy their other nuclear facilities? If the P5+1 aren't willing to compromise on those two issues, it shows we're not serious about a genuine diplomatic deal.
The Obama administration is caught between two fires: They understand that military action is foolish and counterproductive (i.e., such action will just convince Iran to redouble its efforts to gain an effective deterrent), but they also understand that a realistic compromise would expose Obama to (bogus) charges of appeasement from Israel and from hardliners in the Israel lobby. That's not an appealing prospect in an election year, especially when the election promises to be close. So they can't go to war, but they can't make a deal either, at least not between now and November. And that means that the real issue is whether the various parties can find enough common ground to keep the negotiations limping along until then.
I've been in Tokyo for two days, and this morning I read in the Japan Times that Japan has fallen to fifth place in the global "peace index" put out by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace. I just want to make it clear that my presence here had nothing to do with this change: The shift in Japan's ranking reportedly reflected the upgrading of its missile defenses and a loosening of arms export constraints.
Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada occupied the top four spots (beating out Japan) and the three lowest rated countries were Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Syria tumbled from 116th to 147th (no big surprise there), and overall the Middle East/North Africa has replaced Sub-Saharan Africa as the world's least peaceful region. The United States, by the way, ranked 88th, but our president does have a Nobel Peace Prize.
As for my trip, I've been having a very enjoyable visit, and my hosts have been especially gracious in arranging an interesting schedule of meetings and events. I had an lengthy meeting with a group of Japanese scholars yesterday morning and delivered a lecture on the impact of the Israel lobby on Obama's Middle East policy yesterday afternoon. Today I'll meet with a group of journalists and then head off to Kyoto, partly to sight-see but also to meet with some academics there.
My conversations have alternated between discussions of Middle East events and exchanges about the U.S. "pivot" to Asia. With respect to the former, I think it's safe to say that my Japanese interlocutors are politely baffled by U.S. policy. (But aren't we all?) And it is not just an idle issue for them, because what the U.S. does in the Middle East affects Japanese interests both directly (via energy costs), and indirectly (the more time and attention we devote to Middle Eastern affairs, the less time and attention U.S. leaders can devote to events in East Asia). This wouldn't be a big problem if the United States were doing a great job of keeping the Middle East quiet and stable, but it's pretty hard to defend our track record over the past decade.
With respect to Asia, I was struck (though not surprised) by the continued concerns that several people voiced about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to Asia. I can understand why the Japanese (and other U.S. partners) fret about this, and I can even understand why they bring this up when talking to Americans. But as I told my Japanese colleagues, their concerns are misplaced and could become a dangerous source of friction within America's Asian alliances. In fact, the United States has gone to enormous lengths over the past five decades to reassure its allies around the world about its credibility, even though most of these allies need us far more than we need them. The United States spends a much larger share of its GDP on defense than its Asian allies do. It maintains a substantial military presence in Asia, even though U.S. security is not directly at risk there. So the idea that U.S. credibility is seriously in question is just plain wrong, and it won't help our relations with these states if they keep complaining about it, because it will make Americans wonder if they are being asked to do more for Asia than our Asian allies are willing to do for themselves.
A further implication is that a successful U.S. security policy in Asia will depend less on specific military capabilities than on effective diplomacy. Military power isn't irrelevant, of course, but the United States will have plenty of forces to bring to bear in Asia if they are needed for many years to come. But Asia is an exceedingly complicated strategic environment, and there are lots of cross-cutting interests that could interfere with a collective effort to maintain a stable political-military order there. To navigate these issues successfully and to avoid being exploited, the United States will need to pay a lot of attention to the region. It will need a cadre of regional experts with deep knowledge of these countries and their elites, and it will need to devote a lot of time and energy to managing these relations over time.
Which is yet another reason why the United States pays a price when it gets bogged down in fruitless conflicts in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, when it engages in half-hearted and unsuccessful efforts to advance a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, or when it gets trapped in a counter-productively hardline policy toward Iran. Diplomatic resources, political capital, and presidential time are not infinite resources, and shouldn't be invested unless we're serious about making them pay off.
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Robert Kelley has done a series of interesting posts on his own blog (cross-posted to Duck of Minerva) exploring options for U.S. retrenchment and offering a template for thinking about U.S. alliance commitments. Consider what follows a set of variations on the theme he began.
Kelley asks: if U.S. leaders tried to pursue a policy of partial retrenchment, what alliances commitments might they choose to limit or terminate, and which allies would still be considered important? Framing the question this way acknowledges that there may be some reputational issues involved in downgrading a long-standing security partnership, even if its original strategic rationale has diminished or even disappeared. But what if we let our imaginations really run free and frame the puzzle a bit differently? What if we were starting from scratch, and doing a "zero-based" assessment of U.S. alliance options? If historical ties weren't an issue, what features would you look for in a strategic partner and how might America's future alliance portfolio differ from its current set of arrangements?
So here's my quick list of the qualities we ought to look for, notwithstanding some obvious tensions and tradeoffs between them. As you'd expect, I lean heavily on more-or-less realist considerations, and less on shared "values" or domestic political similarities.
1. Power: Up to a point, you want allies that are strong and capable so that they don't need a lot of protection from the United States and so they can make a real contribution to any necessary effort at collective defense. One of the reasons the US won the Cold War is that our alliance system contained a lot of wealthy and relatively powerful states, while the Soviet alliance system contained a lot of relatively weak and not-very-powerful clients. One can't take this logic too far (i.e., "concerts of great powers" usually don't work well because the strongest states are too worried about each other to be close allies), but on the whole, you'd prefer allies that can actually do something for you. (One might argue that this strengthens the case for NATO and the U.S.-Japan relationship, but not if these states continue to let their defense capabilities atrophy.)
2. Position: There are some allies who are valuable not because they have a lot of capabilities, but because they happen to sit in an especially valuable piece of real estate. Think Oman, or Singapore, for example, which sit right next to critical strategic waterways. If you define your interests in global terms, then you're going to need some allies in these places.
3. Political stability: On balance, you'd like to have allies whose governments are stable and legitimate, so that they can make effective decisions and so that you don't have to constantly worry that they might be overthrown. Unstable allies encourage adversaries to meddle in the hope of undermining them, or forcing you to spend a lot of time worrying about your allies' nternal political health.
This is not necessarily an argument for democracy, by the way, because a democracy that rests on unstable coalitions or where there are sharp divisions about foreign policy can be a pretty troublesome partner. For that matter, there's no guarantee that public opinion will always support the alliance (which is why some Americans worry about how Arab spring may ultimately affect U.S. relations with some traditional Middle East partners). But on the whole, a stable and legitimate ally is preferable to an unstable or fragile one.
4. Popularity: An ally that has few conflicts with other states, and that has a positive image in the world is less trouble than an ally that is unpopular or a pariah. The reason is obvious: if you join forces with a state that other countries resent or despite, you immediately pay a diplomatic price for your association and you may end up gaining more enemies than friends. Other things being equal, this is not smart. America's "special relationship" with Israel illustrates this problem perfectly, just as China pays a price for doing business with Sudan and that Russia is losing prestige by continuing to support the Assad regime in Syria. This concern can be ignored if the price is not too high or if other benefits are large, but on the whole, you want to be friends with countries that have lots of other friends too.
5. Pliability: The ideal ally is also easily influenced: you'd like to have partners who will do what you want at most of the time. In simple terms, you want allies whose interests are mostly compatible with your own (duh!). An ally that refuses to help when times are tough, that has to be constantly badgered into contributing its fair share, or that takes independent actions even when it knows that this will cause trouble for its partners, is more of a headache than an ally that usually does what you want. (This problem explains why U.S. relations with Pakistan are in such bad shape: both sides are deeply disappointed by what the other is doing). No two states have identical interests, of course, and any alliance will exhibit occasional strains. But on the whole, you want allies that are genuinely working with you, instead of at cross-purposes.
6. Potential impact: Finally, sometimes states form an alliance simply what happens to some other state could have an enormous effect on what happens to them. Neither Canada nor Mexico are major military powers, for example, and neither controls key strategic chokepoints. But their proximity to the United States also means that what happens there could have an enormous impact on U.S. security. To take this one step further: if either country were ever to align with a power that was hostile to the United States, the potential impact on American security would be enormous. So the United States has a powerful interest in keeping Canada and Mexico close, despite their relative military weakness.
As I suggested above, there are some interesting tradeoffs between these different criteria (which is one reason why diplomacy and grand strategy can't be reduced to a simple checklist or cookbook). You want strong allies, for example, but the more capable an ally is the less pliable it is likely to be. The United States generally likes allying with democracies, but democratic governments don't always act the way Washington wants (see under: Turkey). Ideally, you want you allies that are popular and do not have a lot of enemies (because that makes it harder to help protect them), but if they have a few enemies they will be more interested in your help and more willing to defer to your wishes.
So if we were really doing a "zero-based" alliance portfolio, what implications might one draw from this set of criteria? If one could really start from scratch, I doubt we'd give security guarantees to Taiwan, even in a period when we're worrying about the Asian balance of power. It's too small, and will be increasingly difficult to protect over time. But most of America's other Asian allies would still be valuable, and we'd probably be courting them today even if we didn't already have strong ties. As noted, one could make a case for NATO as a limited security partnership, but I doubt we'd try to build an elaborate multilateral institution in 2012 if it didn't already exist.
The United States would still need allies to maintain a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, but it's not entirely clear we'd pick the same allies we currently have. I can make a reasonable case for a normal relationship with Israel (though not the current special relationship): it's a strong country in a critical region and it shares some values with the US (though that rationale is eroding rapidly). The problem is that unconditional support for Israel damages US standing in lots of other places. India is an easy case on realist grounds, though it's also a country that has significant internal problems and lots of troublesome neighbors, which means there's the danger of getting sucked into its problems. And as Stephen Kinzer argues in his book Reset, if we were starting from scratch, one can actually make a fairly good case for a closer strategic realtionship with ... (drum roll) ... Iran.
Of course, nations don't get to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch (at least not very often), and so my speculations today are, well, somewhat unrealistic. Nonetheless, it is worth asking this sort of question from time to time, if only to force ourselves to think about possibilities that seem totally at odds with present circumstances. After all, just because things are one way today doesn't mean they have to stay that way forever. And they won't.
I'm about halfway through Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism, and I'm finding it a fascinating read so far. There's lots that's familiar, of course, but Beinart is a fluid writer and his effort to reconcile liberal and Zionist ideals is admirable and courageous.
As one would predict, his book has received the usual harsh treatment from those who cannot bear to have anyone criticize Israel or the behavior of major "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States. By all means read the critiques -- which are often unconsciously revealing -- but make sure you also read Jerome Slater's superb review of Beinart on his own blog here. Slater's essay is the most insightful that I've seen so far, and he also shows just how intellectually bankrupt most of Beinart's critics are. In particular, some of the most prominent reviews simply ignored what Beinart actually says, preferring to lambaste strawmen of their own creation. Slater doesn't agree with everything Beinart says, but at least he's addressing what Beinart actually wrote.
I'll offer my own reactions once I've finished the book.
The remainder of my trip to Turkey sparked some further thoughts, including some qualifications to my last post. To wit:
1. I previously described the conference I attended -- the Istanbul World Political Forum -- as an illustration of Turkey's emphasis on "soft power." By creating a Davos-like annual meeting oriented towards issues central to emerging economies, the organizers sought to display Turkey's growing importance as a political player. I still think that's right, but my conversations with other attendees suggest that the IWPF will need to raise its game in the years ahead if they want to reap the full benefits. The panels were interesting and well-attended, and there were a number of informative speakers, but I also heard a lot of complaints about the overall level of organization of the operation. Some speakers didn't know which panels they would appear on until the last minute, and the format of some sessions wasn't clear until you showed up. I also heard complaints about haphazard travel arrangements, although in my own case the bookings worked well after some initial glitches. Putting on an event like this isn't easy, but if the Turkish government and the other sponsors hope to use these forums as a way of demonstrating their efficiency, competence, and managerial ability, they've got a ways to go.
2. One of the more vivid impressions I took from the conference was the prevailing wariness -- if not outright suspicion -- with which the United States was viewed by many of the attendees. Virtually any statement that cast even mild doubt about U.S. policy (on Iran, Middle East peace, past interventions, Iraq, etc.) drew spontaneous approval from the audience, even if the statements weren't especially provocative, penetrating, or anti-American. For example, in the panel on a possible war with Iran, I suggested that if the U.S. wanted to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, it might make sense to stop threatening Tehran with regime change. The audience immediately burst into loud applause. Similar statements by journalist and professor Stephen Kinzer and Juergen Chrobog of the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt elicited much the same response. And most of the questions (or diatribes) from the audience were either explicitly or implicitly critical of the U.S. position. I had a similar experience in my other panel as well.
I wish some U.S. government officials had been there to observe this phenomenon, because it drove home to me the degree to which U.S. policy is regarded by many is inherently myopic, selfish, and illegitimate. (And the positive bump produced by Obama's election in 2008 is long gone). It's not a deep hatred of Americans themselves, but rather a simmering resentment of America's global role. And I think many Americans just don't get this, especially when they spend all their time talking to their counterparts (i.e., the global 1 percent) in other countries.
3. The trip also highlighted for me the ambiguities of Turkey's internal politics under the AKP. I've been trying to figure out where Turkey is headed for a number of years now, and I still don't consider myself anything like an expert on political developments there. But several incidents on this trip underscored the deep tensions that still persist and may be getting worse.
On the one hand, the AKP has done an impressive job of stimulating economic growth, reforming ordinary criminal justice practice, encouraging some forms of democratic participation, and emphasizing higher education. I would also give them high marks for their overall handling of foreign policy. The much-ballyhooed "zero problems" strategy trumpeted by Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davatoglu has hit some rough spots in the past couple of years (most visibly over Syria), but it's still a smart aspiration, even if it has proven more difficult to implement in practice. And I still think the U.S. has an important interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey going forward; to see this, just imagine how much more difficult our dealings with this region would be if Ankara and Washington were really at odds.
But on the other hand, AKP rule has been heavy-handed in a variety of disturbing ways, most notably in the protracted detention of the so-called Ergenekon suspects and in its various efforts to manipulate or intimidate the Turkish press. The AKP hasn't been anywhere near as brutal as some previous military governments (among other things, Turkey's overall human rights record is vastly better than in some earlier eras, but there are still a lot of disturbing elements. While I was at the conference, three different people came up to tell me privately that "things were really bad here," and that the United States had to do more to pressure the AKP. It was clear after a few minutes of conversation that these speakers were secularists from the old order (i.e., they are part of a class that has been losing power), but it was nonetheless striking to hear their concerns. At a minimum, it suggested to me that that AKP has done a much better job of clipping the wings of the old guard than it has of reconciling them to the realities of the new Turkey.
Given Turkey's turbulent past, this lingering animosity is not that surprising. But it does not bode well for the future, especially if the economic prosperity on which the AKP's popularity rests begins to flag. And as I said on one panel, the continued deterioration of domestic freedoms in Turkey is bound to be exploited by groups who are worried about Turkey's foreign policy direction, thereby damaging U.S.-Turkish relations in ways that both countries would soon regret.
4. Adding it all up, I'd argue that we are witnessing an important shift in world politics whose broader implications are worrisome for the United States. Political participation is broadening and deepening in more and more countries, and even if the results fall far short of some ideal vision of democracy (let alone the imperfect U.S. version of that ideal), these states are going to be increasingly sensitive to popular sentiment. Unfortunately, U.S. policy towards many parts of the world has depended more on cushy deals with oligarchs, dictators, and plutocrats, and past U.S. actions (most of them undertaken for various Cold War/anti-communist reasons) have left a toxic legacy that most Americans do not fully appreciate. Add to that our frequent resort to military force since the Cold War ended, our enthusiastic use of sanctions despite the human costs to ordinary citizens, and our insistence that there are really two sets of rules in world politics (the U.S. can violate other states' sovereignty whenever we want, but weaker states who object to this get demonized and/or threatened with more of the same). The result is a world where many people would like to take us down several pegs, and where it can be costly for political leaders to be openly supportive of U.S. initiatives (see under: Pakistan).
America is still very powerful, and plenty of governments still understand that some of our strategic interests overlap. But we're entering a world were fewer and fewer governments are going to be reflexively deferential to the United States, for the simple reason that they pay attention to popular sentiment and their own national interests aren't in fact identical to ours. If we expect governments in these countries to be as supine as some of their predecessors, we had better get used to disappointment. What will be needed is a lot more nuance, flexibility, and diplomatic skill, as well as a greater sense of humility and restraint. I only hope that we are better at displaying these qualities in the future than we've been in the recent past.
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The conference I'm attending has been pretty interesting, although as much for the atmospherics and side conversations as for the formal presentations. Here with a few quick thoughts before I head off for the second day.
In some ways this event -- the Istanbul World Political Forum -- is like a smaller-scale DAVOS, but with an emphasis on issues like global justice, emerging powers (e.g., Turkey), and (obviously) the Arab spring. The plenary session featured speeches by an Egyptian activist, the president of Libya, and a British MP, and there was a lot of rhetoric about the need for a new world order (which nobody quite defined). My first panel -- on a "A New Just and Global Order" didn't involve formal presentations (though we all had them ready), but instead was a discussion led by a moderator. The other participants were Gideon Levy of Ha'aretz and Professor Paul Taylor of the London School of Economics, and a lot of our discussion revolved around possible connections between the financial crisis, the Arab spring, and the need to adapt existing institutions (or create new ones) that better reflected the underlying balances of power in the world.
I emphasized that the U.S. was not disappearing as the world's most powerful country, but that it was going to have make strategic choices and wasn't going to interfere as often in the future as it had in the past. I also suggested that global institutions were likely to evolve, but that this would lag behind the shifts in the balance of power, in part because agreement on how to build new institutions or revise old ones was going to be elusive. Perhaps the most interesting thread in our conversation was the importance of each nation "coming to terms with its past," which can only happen when there is freedom of thought and discourse and a willingness by scholars and journalists and other thought leaders to take advantage of that freedom to hold policymakers accountable.
I was also struck again by how Turkey is becoming a poster child for my colleague Joe Nye's concept of "soft power." Turkey's growing stature obviously rests on certain "hard power" elements (economic growth, a large population, substantial military power, a key geographic location, etc.), but it is greatly enhanced by being perceived as a successful embodiment of Islamic democracy. And this conference -- which is merely one of many that the Turkish government seems to be sponsoring these days, is a very smart illustration of "soft power." There's no explicit or overt agenda, and in fact a fairly wide range of views represented by the attendees -- but the key point is that they are able to get lots of people from various countries to show up, converse, and generally have an interesting time. Organizing international forums isn't that expensive, and by bringing lots of people from all over the world to Istanbul, Turkey undoubtedly generates a positive impression and builds connections with various people who might have some influence back in their home countries.
If they keep doing this for a decade or more, then over time there will be a growing cadre of people who are familiar with Turkish policy, and some of them will be favorably inclined to the Turkish point of view. It won't work with everyone, and it's nothing so crass as "buying influence" (i.e., we're not getting paid to attend). Rather, it's more a matter of simply creating a positive impression. Just contrast this with countries who remain largely cut off from regular exchange with others (North Korea, Zimbabwe, etc.) and you can see how this degree of openness could be a nice supplement to Turkey's rising economic clout. And the cost for Turkey is probably trivial compared with purchasing an advanced fighter plane or equipping an armored division.
I've also been struck by the number of students in attendance, and especially by the range of countries they represent. For example, I had a fascinating conversation last night with two students from Kazakhstan, both studying politics at a Turkish university and obviously very familiar with contemporary thinking about foreign policy and democratic theory. Another sign of globalization, as well as the rapid growth of higher education here.
Finally, I flew here on Turkish Airlines via John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The flight was fine, but the on-the-ground experience in JFK was one of the more miserable I've had in the past decade. And I couldn't help but wonder -- and not for the first time -- how this affects how non-Americans view the U.S. when they arrive here. So I have the following modest proposal to offer: Every U.S. congressperson should be forced to fly through JFK on their own (i.e., with no staff to help), and to go through the normal TSA procedure (no VIP lines). And then they should be flown to a really first class airport in some foreign country (say, in Singapore, or Munich), so that they can see just how decrepit U.S. transportation infrastructure has become. And a few hours interacting with the Keystone Cops at JFK's TSA checkpoints would be instructive for them too. I'd like them to have those experiences in mind the next time they have to vote on some expensive nation-building project far away.
MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
My papers are graded and final grades submitted, so I'm off to Istanbul this afternoon to attend the Istanbul World Political Forum. I'll be speaking on two panels -- one on "A New and Just Global Order?" and another on "Can the Cold War Between Israel and Iran Turn to Hot War?" -- and I'm looking forward to hearing what my hosts and the other attendees think about Syria, the U.S. election, China, the Euro crisis, and a host of other issues. It's a very full schedule and there won't be a lot of time for blogging, but I will try to post something if I get a moment and the jet lag isn't too bad.
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What to do, what to do about Syria? Hardly anyone is confident that the Annan mission will resolve the struggle between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. Today I want to offer a more-or-less realpolitik approach to the problem, though I am not at all certain it would work or even that it would make sense to try. Consider it an effort to think outside the box.
As I've noted before, the central problem here is that there doesn't seem to be a genuine "compromise" option available that would leave Assad & Co. in place yet guarantee the safety of the opposition and their ability to organize politically. Neither side trusts the other at all, and neither can credibly commit not to try to eliminate their rivals if they get the chance. This creates the growing risk of a long and grinding confrontation and/or civil war. In this scenario I think outside powers would eventually get involved and Assad would eventually lose, but Syria would be in very bad shape when it was all over.
This latter outcome is not in anyone's interest, and certainly not ours. Our interests are best served if Assad leaves sooner rather than later, before all-out war occurs and before the entire Syrian state collapses. So the question is: Is there anyway to convince Assad and his closest associates to leave? I don't have a surefire way to do it, but one big step in the right direction would be for Russia to shift is position and stop protecting him. In other words, what if Moscow made it clear that they were willing to grant Assad et al asylum if they left, but were not willing to help keep them in power any longer?
Recall that it was the withdrawal of Russian support that eventually convinced Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the 2000 war in Kosovo. The circumstances in Syria are quite different, but the logic is the same: If Assad knew he'd lost Moscow's backing, and his associates figured this out too, they might start looking for any reasonably safe exit.
If you're still with me, then the question becomes: How could the U.S. and others convince newly "re-elected" Russian president Vladimir Putin to follow this path? I'm not sure we could, but one option would be by telling Putin that we would let him take full credit for resolving this confrontation. Putin and other Russian leaders have consistently opposed the emergence of a world order where Washington gets to determine which regimes survive and which regimes fall. For this reason, an overt attempt at Libya-style "regime change" is bound to upset them and encourage them to dig in their heels. But what if we made it clear that we were willing to let them take the lead (for example, by hosting an international conference to address the issue) and eager to let them have all the credit if they were able to ease Assad out. As Harry Truman once noted, "it's amazing what you can achieve if you don't care who gets the credit."
Now comes the tricky part. I doubt Putin would buy this sort of deal unless he got some sweeteners, and unless he thought that Russian interests would suffer if they continued their present course. In other words, the carrot of diplomatic credit might have to accompanied by some additional carrots, as well as the subtle hint of a stick. As for additional carrots, I'd happily toss in concessions on European missile defense, which is a costly boondoggle we ought to be ditching anyway. As for sticks, I think we'd have to try to convince Russia that outside intervention is going to happen sooner or later, and that once it does, Assad is going to be toast no matter what Moscow does. So they can either watch a regime they've backed for 40 plus years go down the tubes -- thereby reminding the world of their growing geopolitical impotence -- or they can get with us and get the credit for resolving a thorny problem, thereby allowing Putin to reaffirm Russia's importance on the world stage. There's bound to be a certain element of Kabuki theater in all this, but that's hardly unheard of in modern diplomacy. The risk, however, is that we have to threaten to intervene ourselves, and Moscow might call our bluff in the hopes of luring us back into a nice Iraq-style quagmire.
Like I said: I see this as a bit of a hail Mary, and I'm sure that readers will be able to poke a lot of holes in the idea. Go right ahead, but please offer up your own suggestions too.
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Just a heads-up: I was part of a "Room for Debate" symposium at the New York Times website here. There's a nice exchange of views, and regular readers of this blog won't be surprised by my forecast that if China keeps growing economically, a serious security competition between the U.S. and China is nearly inevitable. War is not inevitable, in my view, assuming we get reasonably mature and competent leaders in Washington and Beijing. So cast those ballots carefully come November (and every four years after that).
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
What should we make of yesterday's Taliban/Haqqani network assault on Kabul and several other Afghan locations, a series of attacks that Taliban sources described as the opening of a new "spring offensive?" I'm not entirely sure, because the evidence can be interpreted in several different ways.
On the one hand, the fact that the Taliban/Haqqanis could stage such an extensive and well-coordinated assault suggests that U.S./NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. Note that the main attack occurred in Kabul, a part of Afghanistan that was supposedly increasingly secure. Ironically, the attack occurred exactly one day after the New York Times published a cautiously upbeat op-ed by Ian Livingston and Michael O'Hanlon which said "Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide." Gee, that must make residents of Kabul feel much better.
Of course, it is possible that this assault was an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered Taliban/Haqqani network, designed to show they were still a potent force despite our protracted efforts to destroy them. But absent definitive intelligence about the movement's actual strength, there's no way to tell if this attack is a sign of enemy resiliency or a last throw of the dice designed to rescue their failing fortunes.
One could also see this event as a sign of progress in a different way. This version might concede that the Taliban/Haqqanis were able to infiltrate Kabul, but then emphasize that they failed to do as much damage as one might have expected and were eventually rounded up and/or killed by Afghan government units. Instead of killing dozens, as occurred when terrorist struck Mumbai, it was the Taliban/Haqqanis who ended up dying in large numbers. The "half-full" version of this story would trumpet it as a sign that our efforts to create effective Afghan security forces are succeeding, and that is of course precisely how it is being spun by U.S. officials.
I'd like to believe this version story -- really -- and I certainly don't have definitive evidence to impugn it. But I think one has to take the upbeat testimony of U.S. officials with many grains of salt, because one would naturally expect them to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort. (By the same logic, I don't accept Taliban claims at face value either). Case in point: U.S. and Afghan officials are emphasizing that the bad guys were rounded up or killed by government forces operating mostly on their own, but the Times also reports that the Afghans were aided by "a small number of embedded training teams" and by "helicopter air support." So we still don't quite know whether the Afghans could have handled this by themselves.
I'm also skeptical because successfully quelling this particular attack doesn't mean all that much by itself. Look at it this way: if an anti-American terrorist group managed to infiltrate dozens of fighters into Washington D.C. and several other cities, took over a bunch of buildings and shot up some others, would we be reassured by the fact that government forces eventually subdued them and only a few people were killed? Especially if we knew that the perpetrating organization was still in existence and still had additional cadres it could send at softer targets? I doubt it. Instead, we'd be wondering how they were able to stage the attack in the first place, and asking why the FBI or other authorities had let us down again. Thus, even a fairly rosy interpretation of the event raises questions about how well the war is ultimately going.
Last but not least, while it's important to think through the different interpretations and implications of these attacks, we should not lose sight of the larger strategic issue. In the end, the question to ask is not whether the U.S. and NATO (and the Karzai government) are "winning" or "losing." Rather, the real question is whether trying to win is worth the cost, including the opportunity costs. Yesterday's events may have some bearing on that larger issue, but do not provide a definitive answer one way or the other. It is good news that the Taliban attacks mostly failed, but by itself, that news does not tell you that "staying the course" is the right thing to do.
JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.