It's easy to think of examples where great powers stayed in in some foreign war too long, and with the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that they would have been better off getting out sooner. Examples might include the United States in Vietnam, France in Algeria, Britain and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or Israel in southern Lebanon.
Similarly, it's easy to think of wars when states suffered early setbacks, chose to stay the course anyway, and ultimately succeeded. World Wars I and II, Korea, and the Boer War might be examples of this category, and some would place Iraq in this category too (although I wouldn't).
Finally, I can think of several cases where states chose to get out of trouble quickly when things turned south, and never regretted it. The United States got out of Lebanon after a suicide bomber destoyed the Marine barracks there in 1983 and it withdrew from Somalia in 1993 following the Black Hawk Down incident, and withdrawal didn't have particularly significant strategic consequences in either case. More importantly, staying longer wouldn't have been worth it in any case.
So here's my question: Are there good historical examples where a great power withdrew because a foreign military intervention wasn't going well, and where hindsight shows that the decision to withdraw was a terrible blunder? If there are plenty of examples where states fought too long and got out too late, are there clear-cut cases where states got out too early?
For a case to qualify, you'd have to show that early withdrawal led to all sorts of negative consequences that might otherwise have been avoided. Hawks normally argue that getting out will embolden one's adversaries, undermine one's credibility, or jeopardize one's geopolitical position, but how often does any of these anticipated misfortunes really happen? Or you could argue that the withdrawing state was very close to winning but didn't know it, and that "staying the course" would have worked if they had just held on a little longer.
One possible candidate is U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in 2002-2003, but even that case isn't clear-cut. Many experts now argue that our current troubles there could have been avoided had we kept our eyes on the ball in 2003 and concentrated on building an effective Afghan government, thereby preventing the Taliban from making a comeback. The main problem with this line of argument is that the United States didn't really "withdraw" from Afghanistan (and certainly not because things were going badly). Instead, we just drew down our forces so we could go invade Iraq. Also, it's not obvious that greater effort back then would have produced a markedly different situation today, although it is certainly possible.
In any case, my question still stands: How often has early and rapid strategic withdrawal from a war of choice lead to disastrous results for the withdrawing power? Is staying too long the greater and more common danger? And can anyone think of some good examples?
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I can't figure out who is actually directing U.S. policy toward Iran, but what's striking (and depressing) about it is how utterly unimaginative it seems to be. Ever since last year's presidential election, the United States has been stuck with a policy that might be termed "Bush-lite." We continue to ramp up sanctions that most people know won't work, and we take steps that are likely to reinforce Iranian suspicions and strengthen the clerical regime's hold on power.
To succeed, a foreign-policy initiative needs to have a clear and achievable objective. The strategy also needs to be internally consistent, so that certain policy steps don't undermine others. The latter requirement is especially important when you are trying to unwind a "spiral" of exaggerated hostility, which is the problem we face with Iran. Given the deep-seated animosity on both sides, any sign of inconsistency on our part will be viewed in the worst possible light by Iran. Indeed, a combination of friendly and threatening gestures may be worse than the latter alone because tentative acts of accommodation will be seen as a trick and will reinforce the idea that the other side is irredeemably deceitful and can never be trusted.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration's approach to Iran is neither feasible nor consistent. To begin with, our objective -- to persuade Iran to end all nuclear enrichment -- simply isn't achievable. Both the current government and the leaders of the opposition Green Movement are strongly committed to controlling the full nuclear fuel cycle, and the United States will never get the other major powers to impose the sort of "crippling sanctions" it has been seeking for years now. It's not gonna happen folks, or at least not anytime soon.
We might be able to convince Iran not to develop actual nuclear weapons -- which its leaders claim they don't want to do and have said would be contrary to Islam. I don't know if they really believe this or if an agreement along these lines is possible. I do know that we haven't explored that possibility in any serious way. Instead, the Obama administration has been chasing an impossible dream.
Furthermore, the U.S. approach to Tehran is deeply inconsistent. Obama has made a big play of extending an "open hand" to Tehran, and he reacted in a fairly measured way to the crackdown on the Greens last summer. But at the same time, the administration has been ratcheting up sanctions and engaging in very public attempt to strengthen security ties in the Gulf region. And earlier this week, we learned that Centcom commander General David Petraeus has authorized more extensive special operations in a number of countries in the region, almost certainly including covert activities in Iran.
Just imagine how this looks to the Iranian government. They may be paranoid, but sometimes paranoids have real (and powerful) enemies, and we are doing our best to look like one. How would we feel if some other country announced that it was infiltrating special operations forces into the United States, in order to gather intelligence, collect targeting information, or maybe even build networks of disgruntled Americans who wanted to overthrow our government or maybe just sabotage a few government installations? We'd definitely view it as a threat or even an act of war, and we'd certainly react harshly against whomever we thought was responsible. So when you wonder why oil- and gas-rich Iran might be interested in some sort of nuclear deterrent (even if only a latent capability), think about what you'd do if you were in their shoes.
Third, when Turkey and Brazil launched an independent effort to resurrect the earlier deal for a swap for some of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rushed to condemn it and hastily announced a watered-down set of new sanctions. As I said last week, the Turkey-Brazil deal had real limitations and was at best a small first step toward restarting more serious talks. But trashing it as we did merely conveys that we aren't interested in genuine negotiations, and probably ticked off Turkey and Brazil to no good purpose. The smarter play would have been to welcome the deal cautiously but highlight its limitations, and let the onus for any subsequent failure fall on Iran instead of us.
Why is U.S. policy stuck in this particular rut? In part because this is a hard problem; one doesn't unwind three decades of mutual suspicion by making a speech or two or sending a friendly holiday greeting, and sometimes success requires a lot of perseverance. But I think there are two other problems at work.
The first is the mindset that seems to have taken hold in the Obama administration. As near as I can tell, they believe Iran is dead set on acquiring nuclear weapons and that Iran will lie and cheat and prevaricate long enough to get across the nuclear threshold. Given that assumption, there isn't much point in trying to negotiate any sort of "grand bargain" between Iran and the West, and especially not one that left them with an enrichment capability (even one under strict IAEA safeguards). This view may be correct, but if it is, then our effort to ratchet up sanctions is futile and just makes it more likely that other Iranians will blame us for their sufferings. Here I am in rare (if only partial) agreement with Tom Friedman: Maybe our focus ought to shift from our current obsession with Iran's nuclear program and focus on human rights issues instead (though it is harder for Washington to do that without looking pretty darn hypocritical).
A second explanation is some combination of inside-the-Beltway groupthink and ordinary bureaucratic conservatism. For anyone currently working in Washington, a hard line on Iran and defending our longstanding policy of confrontation is a very safe position to support. No one will accuse you of being a naive appeaser; you'll have plenty of bureaucratic allies, and you'll retain your reputation as a tough and reliable defender of U.S. interests.
By contrast, any government official who proposed taking the threat of force off the table, who publicly admitted that sanctions wouldn't work, who acknowledged that we probably can't stop Iran from getting the bomb if it really wants to, or who recommended a much more far-reaching effort at finding common ground would be taking a significant career risk. And you'd be virtually certain to get smeared by unrepentent neocons and other hawks who favor the use of military force. So there's little incentive for insiders to contemplate -- let alone propose -- a different approach to this issue, even though our current policy is looking more and more like the failed policies of the previous administration.
Although I obviously can't be certain, I don't think there will be an open war with Iran. I think that enough influential people realize just how much trouble this would cause us and that they will continue to resist calls for "kinetic action." (Of course, I also thought that about Iraq back in 2001, and look what happened there.) But U.S.-Iranian relations aren't going to improve much either, and we'll end up devoting more time and effort to this problem than it deserves. But who cares? It's not as if the United States has any other problems on its foreign-policy agenda, right?
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People like me tend to focus on problems, mostly because we are interested in finding ways to address them and thereby improve the human condition. Nonetheless, we should occasionally remind ourselves that all is not doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the world today, and maybe even about the future. The overall level of global violence is at historic lows (despite some tragic conflicts that still defy solution), the world economy has done very well over the past half-century (despite its recent problems) and life expectancy, public health, and education levels have risen dramatically in many parts of the world (though conditions in a few places have deteriorated badly).
So Cassandra-like pessimism may not be appropriate, even for a realist. Nonetheless, I am beginning to wonder if our ability to deal with various global problems is decreasing, mostly due to the deterioration of political institutions at both the global and domestic level. Here are some tentative thoughts in that direction.
One way to think about the current state of world politics is as a ratio of the number of important problems to be solved and our overall "problem-solving capacity." When the ratio of "emerging problems" to "problem-solving capacity" rises, challenges pile up faster than we can deal with them and we end up neglecting some important issues and mishandling others. Something of this sort happened during the 1930s, for example, when a fatal combination of global economic depression, aggressive dictatorships, inadequate institutions, declining empires, and incomplete knowledge overwhelmed leaders around the world and led to a devastating world war.
Human society is not static, which means that new challenges are an inevitable part of the human condition. New problems arise from the growth of societies, from new ideas, from our interactions with the natural world, and even from the unintended consequences of past successes. As a result, policymakers are always going to face new problems, even when the old ones remain unresolved.
Moreover, a key feature of contemporary globalization is that today's problems tend to be more complex and more far-reaching, and tend to spread with greater speed. A volcano in Iceland disrupts air travel in Europe. A failed state in Afghanistan nurtures a terrorist network that eventually strikes on several continents. The Internet doesn't even exist in 1990, but now it empowers democratic forces, facilitates commerce and intellectual exchange, and enable extremists to recruit supporters and transmit tactical advice all around the world. The HIV virus emerges in Africa and eventually infects millions of human beings on every continent. Bankers in America's mortgage industry makes foolish and venal decisions, and a global financial collapse wipes out trillions of dollars of wealth and affects the lives of billions of people, some of them dramatically. Human beings in the developed world burn carbon fuels for a couple of centuries and now poor countries on the other side of the world face the risk of widespread coastal flooding (or worse) in the decades ahead. In short, the numerator of our critical ratio -- i.e., the rate at which big problems are emerging-seems to be rising.
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Robert Gates is by all accounts a pretty smart guy (though he got a few things wrong near the end of the Cold War), and he's been a much better Secretary of Defense than his predecessor (admittedly a low bar to clear). But the intemperate remarks he directed at a NATO meeting two days ago mostly reveals a complete lack of understanding of the theory of collective goods. As we've understood since Olson and Zeckhauser's classic article, multilateral alliances where one state controls a disproportionate share of overall resources inevitably encourage free-riding. Why? Because a powerful state's allies know that it will provide the collective good (in this case, military spending and protection) out of its own self-interest, and the weaker members can therefore spend a smaller percentage of their own wealth and still feel safe.
One implication is that it makes no sense for the stronger power to complain about this situation or expect it to change very much, especially when it keeps insisting on doing the lion's share in places like Afghanistan. The only way to get our European allies to bear a significantly larger share of the collective defense burden would be to reduce our own contribution significantly; nagging them as Gates did hasn't worked in the past and won't work now. Did Gates and the rest of the Obama administration notice that the Europeans didn't exactly leap to follow suit when Obama decided to send an additional 47,000 troops to Afghanistan (17,000 last spring, and 30,000 more beginning last fall)? We pounded the desk and asked for more, and got a mere token response.
Which is precisely what we should have expected. Again, the only reliable way to get Europe to take national security seriously is to stop subsidizing its defense, and a good case can be made that the United States no longer needs to do much of anything to help defend Europe itself. Europe is peaceful, democratic, and loosely united within the EU, and the danger of serious conflict there is remote. So if the United States is feeling over-extended and looking for a place to cut back, Europe seems like an ideal candidate. And it might even lead them to do a bit more on their own.
Just don't expect them to start matching America's bloated defense effort. The EU member states don't face any any significant military threats, and they aren't especially interested in our grand schemes for social engineering in various far-flung places. So it's not clear why they would want a military akin to ours, even if we were no longer protecting them. (Nor is it entirely clear that Washington would like that better, but that's another story.
The real source of Gates' frustration is his desire for our European partners to relieve some of America's current burdens. In other words, he just wants Europe to do what we tell them to I can understand why he thinks that would be desirable, but not why he thinks it will happen.
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Writing earlier this week in the Financial Times, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass made "The Case for Messy Multilateralism." Haass is almost always sensible, and this piece was too. His basic argument is that many global issues are increasingly complex, and trying to negotiate big global treaties or pacts (like Kyoto or the Doha Round) are probably beyond anyone's capacity, due to the enormous number of players involved and their widely diverging interests and capacities. Better to go with more limited agreements (i.e. involving the most powerful or engaged stakeholders), or various "coalitions of the willing." With luck, this flexible and opportunistic approach will produce a gradual evolution in the world's institutional structure (e.g., from G8 to G20, etc.), and allow us to make progress on issues that might otherwise defy solution. You know, the best is the enemy of the good, and all that.
Of course, FP readers will recognize that this idea bears a lot of resemblance to Moisés Naím's earlier argument for "minilateralism," and my minor reservations about that concept apply here too. But one passage in Haass' piece leapt out at me, where he says:
"In many cases it will prove impossible to negotiate international accords that will be approved by national parliaments. Instead, governments would sign up to implementing, as best they can, a series of measures consistent with agreed-upon international norms."
I haven't thought about this notion for very long, but at first read this sounds like a retreat from our usual ideas about democratic accountability, or at least the form that it normally takes here in the United States (i.e., where the Senate has to approve treaties). In essence, Haass seems to be saying that executives need to make an end-run around constitutional limits, by negotiating informal or tacit measures that don't need to be ratified by legislatures. I can see the appeal of that idea, I suppose, but despite my concerns about excessive congressional oversight (read: gridlock), I'm at least as worried by the damage that unconstrained executives can do.
Bottom line: this proposal ought to be read in conjunction with James Fallows' Atlantic cover story (which I'm still digesting) on the need for institutional reform here at home. I've been thinking similar thoughts myself, and I'll share them when they've gelled a bit more. The Burkean conservative in me says: "don't go there," but I have occasional Jacobin moments too.
P.S. I'll be traveling over the next week, so posting will be limited by my schedule and by internet availability. I'm counting on all of you to keep things quiet, ok?
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Should the National Science Foundation stop funding research in political science? Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) thinks so, and the American Political Science Association is predictably upset. I can't say that I think Coburn is right, but I'm finding it hard to get too exercised about it. I say this in part because I think a lot of NSF-funded research has contributed to the "cult of irrelevance" that infects a lot of political science, and because the definition of "science" that has guided the grant-making process is excessively narrow. But I also worry that trying to use federal dollars to encourage more policy-relevant research would end up politicizing academic life in some unfortunate ways.
With respect to the first issue, NSF support has undoubtedly facilitated a lot of useful data collection, especially in the field of American politics, and that the availability of this data has contributed to our knowledge of voting behavior, electoral processes, and other aspects of democratic politics. (See Paul Krugman's blog post for more on this). What's less clear is whether that additional "scientific" knowledge is actually helping real democracies perform better, or helping policymakers devise solutions to real policy problems. And in the field of international relations, I suspect that most of the NSF-funded research has been by-academics-and-for-academics, and hasn't had a discernible impact on important real-world problems.
But I haven't done a comprehensive survey of NSF funding in this field, and it's entirely possible that I missed something important. (The work of Elinor Ostrom, who just received the Nobel Prize, might be a case in point). Here's a suggestion: why doesn't the NSF put a link up on its website, listing all the grants that it has made to political science since 1995 and then listing all the research products that these projects produced, along with hyperlinks to the books or articles? That way, we could easily examine the results and debate if they were useful or not. Or if NSF doesn't want to do that, the APSA could provide this information itself. If the field has a lot of accomplishments to be proud of, surely it won't take long to compile a compelling list. And by the way, it would be interesting to compare the results of NSF-funded projects with research that was either unfunded (i.e., done without outside grants), or funded from other sources.
But please don't just give me a citation count, because all shows is that some academic has managed to get cited by his or her fellow scholars. In other words, incest. Demonstrating real-world value will require some serious process-tracing outside the ivory tower, to show how new knowledge and ideas are actually shaping policy in positive ways.
My other concern has to do with the relationship between government funding and policy-relevance. Much as I would like more academic research to address real-world problems, I worry that it would inevitably become more politicized once the government gets involved. It is hard to imagine how a serious study of counterinsurgency, the global financial crisis, human rights, or counterterrorism policy would not have important implications for current policy debates, and some of that research would be explicitly critical of key government policies. Senator Coburn is eager to cut off political science because he thinks it is wasteful, but other politicians are bound to try to fund projects that conform to their own political prejudices. Or they will go after government-funded research that they think is "unpatriotic," just as politicians once attacked a major RAND study on the dynamics of surrender by suggesting it was encouraging "defeatism." Academics are human, and some of them are bound to start tailoring their topics and their conclusions to fit the perceived preferences of funders. That's ok in the think tank world, but universities really ought to aim for a higher standard. The other danger is that academics will be encouraged to make their research as bland as possible, so that it doesn’t offend anyone. We hardly need more of that.
As I've written elsewhere, political science ought to place more value on its ability to contribute to solving real-world policy problems, but that will require a shift in the norms and standards that the field sets for itself. Ironically, that rethinking might happen faster if the NSF gravy train were smaller, or if academics started to worry that ideas like Coburn's might catch on.
President Obama has decided to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by roughly 17,000 troops over the next few months. The increase will begin with an initial deployment of 8,000 Marines in the next few weeks, to be followed by subsequent deployments of an Army brigade of 4,000 troops and about 5,000 support troops next summer.
This is a fateful decision. Yes, I know; he promised that he would do this during the campaign, but ignoring campaign promises is a time-honored tradition and I can't help feeling like this was one issue where a rethink was called for. Instead of being just another one of George Bush's mishandled legacies, Afghanistan will now become Obama's war. If increasing U.S. forces doesn't work, he will face pressure to do still more, and he will incur the political costs of any subsequent failure.
As other commentators have noted, what's missing in the announcement is a clear statement of U.S. strategy. To begin with, as William Pfaff notes here, it is not clear what our present goal is. Are we trying to bolster President Karzai, and do we still hope to build a stable democracy there? Is our real objective to defeat the Taliban once-and-for-all and eradicate poppy growing while we're at it? Is the objective the long-term delegitimation of the central Asian strains of Islamic extremism, and the encouragement of more moderate forms of Islamic observance? Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already told Congress that we are not trying to create "some kind of Central Asian Valhalla" (which is both realistic and smart), but that still leaves a lot of other possibilities open.
In fact, we have only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a safe haven for groups plotting attacks on American soil or on Americans abroad, as al Qaeda did prior to September 11. It might be nice to achieve some other goals too (such as economic development, better conditions for women, greater political participation, etc.), but these goals are neither vital to U.S. national security nor central to the future of freedom in the United States or elsewhere. Deep down, we don't (or shouldn't) care very much who governs in Afghanistan, provided they don't let anti-American bad guys use their territory to attack us. As I recall, President Bush was even willing to let the Taliban stay in power in 2001 if they had been willing to hand us Osama and his henchmen.
Second, it is not clear what the additional troops are going to do once they get there. In Iraq, we faced a mostly urban-based insurgency, and the so-called "surge" focused primarily on stabilizing Baghdad. By contrast, the Taliban is a rural movement, and an additional 17,000 troops (or even 30,000), won't be enough to provide reliable protection for the Afghan people. And as Juan Cole and Rory Stewart have warned, using U.S. and NATO troops to eradicate opium poppies or to engage in other forms of social engineering is likely to provoke a local backlash and make the Taliban even more popular.
Going forward, here are some critical things to watch:
1. Do the United States and its allies devote more resources to training the Afghan national army, and do these efforts succeed? If so, then we ought to follow the Iraq model and turn the country back to the Afghans as quickly as we can.
2. Is Obama able to persuade our NATO allies to increase their own efforts there, or will they mostly free-ride on Uncle Sam? (And watch out for token deployments intended to signal that the rest of NATO is with us on this one, but that have no real effect on the ground).
3. Can Obama (or more precisely, Richard Holbrooke) get Pakistan to do more to deny safe havens in Pakistan's frontier areas? If not, more U.S. troops on one side of the border won't have much effect. Does the recent ceasefire in the Swat Valley generate a backlash against the extremists who are imposing Shariah (as my FP colleague Thomas Ricks hopes), or do these groups continue to extend their sway?
4. President Karzai is increasingly seen as the weak leader of one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. Was this new commitment of U.S. troops linked to specific changes in Karzai's policies, or did we just do this on our own? My understanding is that the surge in Iraq also involved pressuring Prime Minister Maliki to crack down on both Shiite and Sunni militias (rather than just the latter), a decision that helped reduce violence and may even have enhanced his own legitimacy somewhat. Before we decided to up the ante in Afghanistan, did we get some a clear commitment to reform from Karzai, and do we think he has to backbone to pull it off? If not, we're in trouble. Do the names Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen van Thieu ring any bells?
Given Central Asia's potential to become the bottomless pit of American foreign and military policy, I hope Obama's decision pays off. But it's hard to have much confidence at this stage, until we know what the objective is and why he thinks adding more troops is going to get us there.
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Rounding up my first day at the International Studies Association annual meetings, in beautiful midtown Manhattan:
Began by chairing a panel on the forthcoming book Balance Sheet: The Iraq War and U.S. National Security, edited by John Duffield of Georgia State and Peter Dombrowski of the Naval War College. This collection will be out from Stanford University Press in June, and is an excellent attempt to conduct a scholarly assessment of the war’s impact on U.S. security interests. There are chapters by Steve Simon on the war on terror, Mike O’Hanlon on military readiness, Joe Cirincione on proliferation, Greg Gause on the Middle East region, and Clay Ramsay on public opinion. The editors sum it up in their conclusion and also attempt to wrestle with the obvious counter-factuals: what would have happened if we hadn’t gone in? Or if we had sent more troops from the beginning? Or if Saddam had ‘fessed up, or if the inspectors had continued longer? etc. The basic verdict is that the war has been bad for overall U.S. security interests, but the picture painted is not as consistently grim as some of you might think.
The book is important because Iraq remains a political football, and you can bet that Democrats and Republicans will continue to debate both the original decision and the subsequent conduct of the war, and will do so in an explicitly partisan fashion. The belief that Iraq is a disaster helped propel Obama to the Oval Office, but you can already see the neoconservative architects of the war preparing their own “stab in the back theory.” The core of this version is the argument that “the surge worked, and victory is at hand.” So if anything bad happens subsequently, it is all Obama’s fault (or so the argument will run).
That's why a book this is valuable: academic scholars don’t have pick a side in this fight; their comparative advantage lies in providing as even-handed and fair-minded an assessment as they can. And that’s what this book tries to do. Not the last word on the subject, perhaps, but an important contribution.
Then on to another panel on unipolarity, with several excellent papers. One highlight was University of Chicago Ph.D. student Nuno Monteiro’s paper “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity is Not Peaceful.” His basic argument is that the dominant state in a unipolar system (i.e., the unipole) will be tempted to try to maintain or improve its advantage, and especially to prevent weak states from acquiring a nuclear deterrent, which the weak state could use to constrain the unipolar's actions. Accordingly, the logic of unipolarity will tend to provoke conflicts between the unipolar and any lesser powers who refuse to accept its dominance.
It’s a very creative argument, although one can raise at least two questions. First, if Monteiro’s logic is correct, why didn’t the United States do more to stop North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran from getting a nuclear capability? We did fight a war with Iraq to prevent that from happening, but the argument suggests the U.S. should have fought these other states too. Second, if we have been in a unipolar world for the past fifteen years or so, what are the implications of the economic meltdown? Will economic constraints undermine America's dominant position, and drive us back to multipolarity?
A second highlight was Todd Sechsers’s paper “Goliath’s Curse: Asymmetric Power and Effectiveness of Coercive Threats.” Using a simple bargaining model, Sechser (from the University of Virginia) argues that great powers often fail to get their way when they issue coercive threats (which is surprising at first glance), and that this problem may in fact get worse the more powerful they are. The basic logic here concerns reputation: weak states will worry about giving in to a great power’s demands (even when the demands are fairly minor), because they will fear that the great power will just demand more later. So they resist now, to enhance their reputation for being stubborn and to convince the great power to leave them alone in the future. The core of the problem is that a very powerful state can’t make a credible commitment of restraint; it can’t reassure the weak state that it really, truly, wants just a modest concession, one that the weak state might be willing to grant if it were confident that this would be the only demand. And the bigger and stronger the coercing state is, the harder it is for that state to reassure the weak power that its aims are actually limited.
Sechser illustrates his model with a nice case study of Finland’s refusal to bow to Soviet demands in 1940, a refusal that triggered the Russo-Finnish war. But I kept thinking about the United States and Serbia in 1998-99 and the United States and Iran today. In the latter case, we have issued demands that we think are actually quite reasonable, and we’ve also said we will provide some positive benefits if we get a deal. But what if Iran is still worried that we really do have more ambitious goals (such as regime changfe) and that we will take advantage of any concessions they might make and up our demands later? If that is their view, then making relatively modest demands and offering generous incentives may not work. Paradoxically, his paper implies that we might have a better chance of cutting a deal with Iran if our position in the region were somewhat weaker, because Tehran would be less worried about the long-term implications of giving up its nuclear program. It also implies that great powers like the United States have to think about how they can provide credible reassurances to weak states, as a way of making them more willing to cut a deal.
I've oversimplified both these papers considerably; nonetheless, it was reassuring to see several scholarly projects that are directly relevant to current policy issues. If you know the ISA, this is not something one can always count on at these meetings.
Tomorrow’s highlight: a panel offering a posthumous award to Samuel Huntington for his contributions to international studies. It is a shame that Sam won’t be here to receive it himself, though I’m sure he would have been embarrassed by all the fuss.
My nominee for the silliest comment on the Iraqi provincial elections comes from -- no surprise here -- former UN Ambassador John Bolton. After praising the elections as a vindication of the "surge" and characterizing them as a setback for Iran, Bolton warned that the elections will not "put an end to Iran's ambitions. Tehran appears to believe that its influence in the region is expanding and that its neighbors and the United States have failed to respond effectively. This belief is unsurprising, given the Obama administration’s acquiescent attitude toward Tehran."
Let me get this straight. Obama has been in office for about two weeks, and Iran has already drawn the lesson from that brief period that "its influence is expanding." Has Bolton forgotten about the Bush administration, whose mishandling of Mideast policy failed to slow Iran's nuclear program and strengthened Iran's position in the Gulf, in Lebanon, and possibly in Gaza as well? The neoconservatives who ran our Mideast policy couldn’t have done more to help Iran if they had been on Tehran's payroll.
Better get used to Bolton's line of argument, because we are going to hear it over and over and over. As the new administration wrestles with the mess that Bush & Co. bequeathed them, neoconservative stalwarts will be rewriting history at every opportunity. They will try to portray our position on January 21, 2009, as basically sound, pin every subsequent bit of bad news on Obama, and hope we all forget who we got us into this situation. I have no doubt that Obama and his team will make some mistakes of their own -- and I'll be happy to criticize them when they do -- but let's not forget who dealt them the hand they are being forced to play now.
My take on the elections? They contain some encouraging signs but also some disturbing features, notably the growing accusations of fraud and the fact that exceptional measures had to be taken to prevent violent disruptions. A substantial number of Iraqis seem to be rallying around more secular parties and around Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in particular, which may make it easier for the United States to stick to the withdrawal timetable agreed to in the Status of Forces agreement signed last November. (Don't forget that a majority of Iraqis want us out either immediately or soon, and Maliki's toughminded handling of the SOFA negotiations probably boosted his popularity, even among some Sunnis.) Maliki's Dawa Party and his main coalition partners (the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq) aren't going to be Tehran's lackeys, but as Juan Cole points out (directly contradicting Bolton’s claims), both groups have good relations with Tehran and are viewed much more favorably by Tehran than Saddam ever was.
One aspect of the results give me pause. Iraq's voters appear to have endorsed parties who favor a strong central state, as opposed to those who might favor greater regional autonomy. On the one hand, a unified Iraq is in the U.S. interest, and we want a central government that is strong enough to maintain order after U.S. forces withdraw. But on the other hand, the stronger the central government becomes, the more that the contending groups will want to control it and greater the potential for trouble with Iraq's Kurds, who still want autonomy if not independence. If Iraq's Sunni population thinks it is getting shut out of power again, then prospects for genuine political reconciliation will remain bleak and renewed violence is likely after we are gone. And that has been the $64,000 question ever since the idea of invading Iraq was first proposed: What is the political formula by which Iraq will be governed now that Saddam's brutal dictatorship is gone?
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered a predictably unhelpful response to President Barack Obama's conciliatory message to the Muslim world last week. Ahmadinejad's answer: first the United States has to "apologize" for its opposition to Iran's nuclear program and for a host of other transgressions.
I've got news for him: we've already done so -- at least in part -- and he's not going to get another apology any time soon. Obama may be hoping for a fresh start with Tehran, but he is not going to start the process by apologizing for anything. And he's certainly not going to take any steps that might bolster Ahmadinejad's popularity between now and the Iranian presidential election in June.
Yet Ahmadinejad's statement does raise a broader question: should states apologize at all, even when they've done something they regret?
You might think that realists wouldn't put much stock in apologies; aren't they just meaningless "cheap talk?" Don't realists worry more about balances of power and conflicts of interest, and don't they emphasize that international politics is a rough business where states routinely do nasty things to weaker parties? Given that world-view, what's the point of saying you're sorry?
In fact, even realists think being willing to apologize sometimes matters. But as Dartmouth's Jennifer Lind argues in her book Sorry States: Apologies in World Politics, the act of apology can be tricky too, and can easily backfire.
There are at least three good reasons for states to apologize when they have behaved badly towards others.
First, apologizing to those you have wronged is an acknowledgement of their equal status; it is a recognition that they are of sufficient stature to deserve an expression of regret. Refusing to apologize sends the message that you think the wronged party is too insignificant to warrant any contrition. To do so betrays contempt for the party we have wronged, and treating someone with contempt is bound to fuel a desire for revenge.
Second, far from being "cheap talk," apologies can be a costly signal that conveys a genuine and sincere desire for a new relationship. Why? Because apologizing to a former adversary is politically risky, and only leaders who are genuinely sorry would be willing to run the risks and bear the costs. When a state acknowledges responsibility and expresses regret, it also opens itself up to demands for compensation or various forms of sanction and it may even lend legitimacy to opponents who then try to take advantage of the admission. The fact that there can be genuine costs to an apology explains why mere words still carry genuine meaning to the wronged party.
Third, apologizing tells others that no matter what we may have done in the past, we understand where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie. If a country commits a heinous act and then refuses to apologize for it, others have reason to question whether its leaders are even aware that they have crossed a moral boundary. When someone shows no understanding of where the lines are, there is every reason to think they would cross them again without a second thought. To take an obvious example, had Germany failed to acknowledge the Holocaust and to openly apologize for it, people everywhere would have reason to think that Germans might easily do something similar again. The same logic explains why Pope Benedict's decision to reverse the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying priest is troubling; if the Vatican thinks Holocaust-denial is a minor matter that should take a back seat to the unity of the church, what does that tell us about the priority it places on crimes against humanity?
Even for realists, therefore, apologies can be a necessary tool of diplomacy. Apologizing for past mistakes is sometimes the best -- maybe the only -- way to wipe the slate clean and provide others with some basis for giving a country a second chance. Being a great power may mean that you never have to say you're sorry, but sometimes it is still a good idea.
But not always. Lind's book also shows that the question of apologies is more complicated than the simple picture I just sketched. She points out that states sometimes reconcile in the absence of an official apology -- as France and Germany did after World War II -- especially when former rivals realize that they have powerful strategic reasons to bury the hatchet and move on. Moreover, sometimes the act of extending an apology triggers a domestic backlash that undercuts the very leaders who are trying to promoting reconciliation, reinforcing existing suspicions and frustrating efforts to build a new relationship. In order to balance these conflicting imperatives, states may be better off eschewing efforts to "name and shame" and relying on less accusatory forms of remembrance and regret, such as memorials to victims (on both sides), international commissions to advise on the writing of textbooks and other educational materials, and joint scholarly programs designed to address sensitive historical events.
With respect to the United States and Iran, this is good advice. To build a new relationship, both sides will have to come to terms with the various hostile acts that each has committed over the past fifty-plus years. But no Iranian leader is likely to apologize to the "Great Satan" and no U.S. president could go beyond past expressions of regret without risking a backlash here at home. A better path is to emphasize the interests that the United States and Iran do have in common -- such as a shared desire for a stable and unified Iraq, and a growing concern about the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan -- while addressing the obvious points of contention (e.g., Iran's nuclear program). If we can make progress on the concrete diplomatic issues, we can also begin unofficial efforts to understand how and why U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated in the past. American and Iranian scholars could usefully explore these issues through academic exchanges and then disseminate their findings more broadly, allowing each society to learn from past mistakes but without demanding humiliating expressions of regret that neither is likely to get.
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What's the biggest problem facing the world today? Most people would probably say the downward spiral of the global economy. Over at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Steve Schwartzman, chairman of the Blackstone private equity group, said "Forty percent of the world's wealth was destroyed in last five quarters. It is an almost incomprehensible number." NewsCorp chief Rupert Murdoch warned "the crisis is getting worse” and said that fixing it "will take a long time."
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- whose Likud Party is leading the current polls in Israel -- begs to differ. According to the Associated Press, Netanyahu told the Davos crowd that Iran's nuclear program "ranks far above the global economy as a challenge facing world leaders."
Why? According to Netanyahu, it's because the financial meltdown is reversible if governments and business make the right decisions. But "what is not reversible is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a fanatical radical regime," he said, adding that "we have never had, since the dawn of the nuclear age, nuclear weapons in hands of such a fanatical regime."
There are plenty of good reasons to try to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and it is easy to understand why Israelis are especially concerned about Iran's nuclear program. But Netanyahu's assessment of the relative importance of these two problems is just plain wrong, for at least five reasons.
First, let's be clear about the current state of play. Iran has no nuclear weapons today, and we still don't know for sure if they will ever get them. By contrast, the economic crisis is a reality now. Iran cannot build a bomb today because it has no plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Its centrifuges are producing low-enriched uranium (LEU), but you can’t build a bomb with that. In theory it could enrich its LEU to weapons grade, but its LEU stockpile is under IAEA surveillance and the diversion would be detected (this turns out to be something the IAEA is very good at doing). As William Luers, Thomas Pickering, and Jim Walsh note in a sensible article in the latest New York Review of Books, if Iran wants a bomb, its choices "are to cheat and get caught or to kick the inspectors out." Unless Iran has a secret clandestine enrichment program up and running somewhere (which we’ve found no sign of up till now), it’s hard to see the current situation as anywhere near as serious as our economic problems today.
Second, Netayanhu is wrong to say that the world have never seen such a "fanatical regime" with nuclear weapons. Iran's government has many unsavoury qualities, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said some stupid and offensive things about the Holocaust and about Israel. But "fanatical?" By historic standards Iran's government isn't even in the top rank, and its foreign policy behavior is hardly irrational. Joseph Stalin was an even greater mass murderer than Adolf Hitler, and his successors were ruthless, ideologically-driven men with scant regard for human life. They had a large nuclear arsenal, and yet we managed to wage and win the Cold War against them anyway. Similarly, Mao Zedong was directly responsible for millions of deaths, and he also made a number of shockingly cavalier remarks about nuclear war. Indeed, Secretary of State Dean Rusk once told a Congressional committee that "a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding and hostile as that of Communist China is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal." Yet Mao had the bomb and never used it; indeed, Chinese nuclear weapons policy has been quite circumspect for over forty years.
Third, it is remarkably self-centered for Netanyahu to declare Iran's program to be a greater challenge than the global recession. The economic crisis is already harming many millions of people around the world, and it is likely to have an enduring impact on how millions of people -- even billions -- live their lives. It will lower life expectancy, alter life-opportunities, change demographic patterns, and affect the tenor of politics in many places, probably for the worse. Just look at all the social and political ills spawned by the Great Depression and you get some idea what a protracted global recession might do today. Even if Iran did get nuclear weapons someday, that is mostly a regional problem rather than a global one. Iran's neighbors would have legitimate concerns, but does Netanyahu really think that this is a bigger issue than the world economy for the leaders of Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Norway, Japan, China, Chile, South Africa, or New Zealand?
Fourth, let's not forget that Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own, and Israel's American ally has several thousand of them. If Iran were to acquire a few nuclear weapons someday, it could not use them without triggering its own destruction. Iran's government may support terrorist groups like Islamic Jihad that employ suicide bombers, but Iran's leaders show no signs of being suicidal themselves.
Finally, the more panicked people sound about the prospect of an Iranian arsenal, the more that Iranians might falsely conclude that getting a few bombs might actually give them a lot of leverage. This sort of overheated rhetoric may also convince some Israelis that an Iranian bomb would be an existential threat and convince them to leave, which in turn might give some Iranians an additional reason to pursue that option. Ironically, by portraying a legitimate security concern as an imminent peril, Netanyahu and others of his ilk may in fact be undermining Israel's long-term future.
Netanyahu's remarks may help him win more votes back in Israel, but my guess is that didn't win him much sympathy in Davos. To a sophisticated crowd with a global perspective, I'll bet it sounded like special pleading, which is precisely what it was.
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I'd like to follow up last week's query about the "IR Hall of Fame" with a new "open-mic" question: who are the most underrated scholars in the history of the field?
As I suspect most academics realize, the ivory tower is a less-than-perfect meritocracy. Success and renown are partly a function of one's work, of course, but there are a lot of random elements in the process. Timing matters, picking a "hot topic" for one's early work helps, being plugged into a well-placed network of scholars is a big plus, and sheer good fortune plays a role, too. All this is to say that cream usually rises, but not necessarily as far as it should.
To be clear: by "underrated" I don't necessarily mean people who remained completely obscure despite having done great work. Rather, I would also include individuals who have done excellent work that did attract some attention, but nonetheless never got quite as much attention as it deserved.
My nominee in this category would be John Herz. Among other things, Herz identified the core concept of the "security dilemma" -- which he described as:
A social constellation in which units of power (such as states or nations in international relations) find themselves whenever they exist side by side without higher authority that might impose standards of behavior upon them and thus protect them from attacking each other. In such a condition, a feeling of insecurity, deriving from mutual suspicion and mutual fear, comples these units to compete for ever more power in order to find more security, an effort which proves self-defeating because complete security remains ultimately unobtainable."
Herz also wrote important works contrasting political realism and political idealism, on international law, and on the implications of nuclear weapons for world politics. He's a respected figure in the history of the field, but as Jana Puglierin puts it in the current issue of the British journal International Relations (a special issue devoted to Herz's thought), he "has so far not had the recognition his contribution to theorizing world politics deserves."
So the floor is open: who are the other thinkers who deserve more recognition than they have heretofore received?
Today's post is for all you graduate students, academics, and IR theory mavens out there. I've been finishing an article for the International Studies Association's Compendium Project (a big reference work attempting to cover the whole IR field), and it got me thinking about the enduring classics in the field. So here's my question: how many scholars in the field of international relations have written more than one truly classic works? By a "classic work," I mean a book or article that is a genuine "must-read" in the field when it is published, and that retains that status for a decade or more. We're talking tape-measure home runs here, not singles. One doesn't have to agree with these works to recognize them as seminal contributions. I can think of plenty of scholars who have written one "classic" work, but not that many who have written two.
But let's raise the bar even higher. How many people can you think of who have written more than two "classic" works? Off the top of my head, here are three obvious candidates:
Kenneth Waltz: (1) Man, the State, and War; (2) Theory of International Politics; and (3) "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better "(Adelphi Papers, 1981)
Samuel Huntington: (1) The Soldier and the State, (2) The Third Wave; and (3) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
Robert Jervis: (1) Perception and Misperception in International Politics; (2) The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution; and (3) "Cooperation under the Security Dilemma," (World Politics, 1978).
These names are just the first three that popped into my head and I'm sure there are others, so feel free to chime in with your nominees. Scholars in the field are welcome to nominate themselves, but should expect a high degree of ridicule if you get found out. (Better to call one of your graduate students and have them submit your name instead.)
But seriously: which IR scholars have written more than two "classic" works? Why do their writings deserve to be regarded as "classics?" Bonus points given for convincing arguments justifying controversial suggestions, and for nominations from outside the United States, Canada, and the UK.
In his Inaugural Address, President Obama declared that "We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth." He then outlined a number of ambitious foreign policy goals: forging peace in Afghanistan, lessening the nuclear threat, rolling back the specter of a warming planet, and, of course, defeating terrorism.
As if on cue, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has a new article in the National Interest that casts some cold water on these lofty sentiments. Pape argues that the United States is in "unprecedented decline," and says that "without deliberate action, the fall of American power will be more precipitous with the passage of time." His argument is straightforward: economic power provides the wherewithal to meet global commitments and advance national interests. America's overall share of gross world product is falling while others’ shares are rising; ergo, our current position of primacy is deteriorating rapidly, in part because other states are rising but also because the Bush administration managed to mismanage foreign policy and fiscal policy simultaneously.
I agree that it's important to match ambitions to resources, but I think Pape overstates his case in three ways:
First, his analysis assumes that relatively small changes in a state's overall share of Gross World Product (GWP) will have dramatic effects on its global position. Thus, he sees a shift from 26 percent of GWP to 21 percent of GWP as an enormous decline in America's position, even when the No. 2 power (China) still has only 9 percent. This looks even scarier when expressed in terms of percentages (Pape estimates that the U.S. share of GWP has declined by 32 percent since 1990 while China’s has risen by 144 percent), because percentage increases are greater when one begins from a low starting point. Equatorial Guinea's share of gross world product is growing at an even faster rate than China's, but that hardly means we should see it as our next great peer competitor.
Second, Pape's analysis slights the effects of the current economic downturn on the other major powers. It's true that we're being hammered, but so are potential rivals like Russia and China and the political consequences may be substantially greater for them than for us. At the very least, a bit of skepticism about long-term trends is in order.
Third, Pape's purely structural analysis ignores the impact of geography on the prospects for anti-American balancing. He and I agree that states have engaged in various forms of "soft balancing" over the past fifteen years, in essence seeking to check U.S. unilateralism by coordinating their diplomatic positions in ways that made it costlier for the United States to act alone. Pape now warns that "American relative power is declining to the point where even subsets of major powers acting in concert could produce sufficient military power to stand a reasonable chance of successfully opposing American military policies."
This is unlikely, especially if Pape is right and we really do face a long-term decline in our relative power position. If our power really does decline, then the major powers of Eurasia will have little reason to balance against us. More importantly, states tend to worry more about neighbors than they do about countries that are far away, even when the latter are very powerful. Given this tendency, it is hard to imagine the EU, Russia, China, India or Japan forging a powerful anti-American coalition; instead, some of these states will continue to want close ties with us to protect them from the others.
The real danger isn't anti-American balancing, therefore, it is the ability of other states to successfully "pass the buck" to a United States whose foreign policy elite continue to see America as the "indispensable nation" that has to get its fingers into every global problem. Other great powers have been happy to let Uncle Sam do most of the heavy lifting, while they concentrate on developing their economies (China) or maintaining generous welfare states (Europe). In this sense Pape is right to warn about our tendency toward overcommitment, and especially against any attempt to redress economic decline through increased military spending and even-greater international activism. Obama's challenge is to get other states to contribute more to achieving objectives we share, and that will only happen if we make it clear that we aren't willing or able to do it all ourselves.
Over at the Atlantic web Site, Megan McArdle and Ross Douthat spent part of last week engaged in a lengthy discussion of the situation in Gaza and the role of the Israel lobby, with Andrew Sullivan chiming in briefly. This is one sense gratifying, because John Mearsheimer and I decided to write about the lobby in order to encourage more open discussion of a subject that had become something of a taboo here in the United States, especially in mainstream foreign policy circles.
I won't get into all the details of their exchanges (which included an interesting discussion of various counterfactuals and other examples of ethnic politics), but I did want to raise one question. Although Douthat and McArdle offer a number of critical appraisals of our work on this subject, did anyone else noticed that the discussion of our book never contained any concrete evidence that the participants have actually read it? In his entries, for example, Ross Douthat denounced it as "tendentious, simplistic and wrong" and suggests that we "echo tropes of classical anti-semitism." He's welcome to his opinion and is of course free to express them on his blog, but he has yet to offer a single specific quotation or concrete example from the actual book to buttress his case. So far, his only evidence are references to other people who reviewed the book and didn't like it.
Although more sympathetic to our position, Megan McAardle says that we "tend to assume conspiracy where affinity is a better explanation," even though, as detailed below, we repeatedly rejected any notion of "conspiracy" and instead described the lobby as a normal American interest group, albeit an unusually influential one. So I am beginning to wonder if they have actually read the book.
The problem with relying on other people's opinions is that virtually all of the mainstream critics here in the US misrepresented our arguments badly, frequently accusing us of saying the exact opposite of what we actually wrote. At the risk of boring you, let me offer a few examples:
1. As I pointed out last week, we wrote that the various groups that comprise the Israel lobby are "engaged in good old-fashioned interest group politics, which is as American as apple pie,” and we repeatedly stressed that "lobbying on Israel's behalf is wholly legitimate." Apart from a regrettable tendency to try to silence critics or to smear them as anti-Semites, we even said that the tactics employed by the main groups in the lobby "are reasonable, and simply part of the normal rough-and tumble that is the essence of democratic politics" (pp. 5, 13, 147, 185). In fact, we also expressed the hope that pro-Israel forces in the United States would remain active in politics, but begin to advocate policies that would be better for the U.S. and Israel alike (pp. 352-55). Nonetheless, Jeffrey Goldberg's review in The New Republic called our book “the most sustained attack...against the political enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father Coughlin."
2. We defined the lobby as a "loose coalition of groups and individuals who actively work to move American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction," and we emphasized that our definition "does not mean that every American with favorable attitudes towards Israel is a member of the lobby." Instead, we wrote that to qualify as part of the lobby one had to "actively work" to strengthen and defend the "special relationship" of nearly-unconditional support that now exists between the U.S. and Israel (pp. 5, 113-14). There are therefore plenty of Americans who have favorable attitudes toward Israel who are not part of the "Israel lobby." Yet Walter Russell Mead falsely charged that "Mearsheimer and Walt have come up with a definition of the 'Israel lobby' that covers the waterfront, including everyone from Jimmy Carter and George Soros to Paul Wolfowitz and Tom Delay."
3. We wrote that "the Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy or anything of the sort" and repeated this assertion five times (pp. 5, 13, 112, 114, 131, 150). Nonetheless, Ruth Wisse published an op-ed in the Washington Post saying that "Mearsheimer and Walt allege that a Jewish cabal dictates U.S. policy in the Middle East, helping Israeli interests and hurting U.S. ones."
4. We wrote that "we are not challenging Israel's right to exist or questioning the legitimacy of the Jewish state," adding that we believed "the United States should stand willing to come to Israel's assistance if its survival were in jeopardy." We also wrote that we "support its right to exist, admire Israel's many achievements, [and] want its citizens to lead secure and prosperous lives" (pp. 11-12, 113, 341-342). Nonetheless, former Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich falsely claimed that our book "not only expressed criticism of Israel's policy but also questioned its legitimacy."
5. Leslie Gelb's review of our book in The New York Times referred repeatedly to a "Jewish lobby," even though we never used that phrase ourselves and explicitly argued that it was an inappropriate and misleading term (p. 115). It is inappropriate because many American Jews do not "actively work" to support the special relationship and because some individuals and groups that do actively work in this way (such as the "Christian Zionists") aren't Jewish. Gelb's mischaracterization (and his review's title, "Dual Loyalties,") made it sound like we were directing our criticisms at an entire ethnic group and hinting its members were disloyal, which is of course false.
6. Even David Remnick, whose comment in the New Yorker was one of the more fair-minded mainstream appraisals, said that "Mearsheimer and Walt give you the sense that, if the Israelis and the Palestinians come to terms, bin Laden will return to the family construction business." In fact, we said the opposite. After documenting how the Israel-Palestinian conflict had influenced bin Laden’s attitudes and aided terrorist recruitment, we wrote that “U.S. support for Israel is hardly the only source of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world" and noted that the issue of Palestine was "not their only grievance." As we emphasized, "some Islamic radicals are genuinely upset by what they regard as the West's materialism and venality, its alleged "theft" of Arab oil, its support for corrupt Arab monarchies, [and] its repeated military interventions in the region, etc." (pp. 65-70). We also stated that "Israeli-Palestinian peace is not a wonder drug will solve all the region's problems; it will by itself neither eliminate anti-Semitism in the region nor lead Arab elites to tackle the other problems that afflict their societies" (p. 348).
I could go on, but you get the point. Given this array of misstatements and distortions (most of them in highly visible publications), it is not surprising that other pundits formed a negative impression of the book, which is no doubt what our critics intended.
Here it is perhaps worth mentioning that the book also contains: 1) lengthy and explicit denunciations of the "shameful legacy" of anti-Semitism; 2) a frank discussion of the bogus charge of "dual loyalty," which we describe as a "canard" and an "anti-Semitic slander," adding that “any notion that Jewish Americans are disloyal citizens is wrong” (p. 147); and 3) an acknowledgement that the long history of anti-Semitism makes it understandably hard to discuss this subject in a calm or dispassionate way. We knew full well that we were entering a minefield, and went to considerable lengths to make it clear what we were saying and what we weren't.
Contrary to various other charges, we also wrote that the lobby does not "control" U.S. foreign policy (though it does have considerable influence) and we did not advance a "mono-causal" explanation for U.S. Middle East policy, including the controversial decision to invade Iraq. With respect to the latter, we argue that pressure from the neoconservatives (an influential element of the broader interest group) was a necessary but not sufficient condition for war (a point that many other authors and public figures have made) and we emphasized that the neocons could not cause the war by themselves. America's dominant global position was a crucial contextual factor, 9/11 was a key precipitating event, and it was Bush and Cheney who made the ultimate decision for war. We also make it clear that the war wasn't Israel's idea (they were in fact initially opposed), although key Israeli leaders eventually jumped on board and helped sell it here in the United States. The book's conclusion calls for a more normal relationship between the United States and Israel, which we believe would be better for both countries. And to repeat, we also express the hope that supporters of Israel here in the United States will remain actively engaged in the political process in order to help bring about that much-needed change.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know most of these things about our book if you relied on mainstream reviews in the United States or the recent discussion at the Atlantic web Site. It doesn't have to be that way, of course: it's entirely possible to take issue with some of our arguments while representing them fairly. For an example of how this is done, watch for Jerome Slater's forthcoming essay in the Winter 2009 issue of the scholarly journal Security Studies. Slater agrees with us on some issues and disagrees strongly on others, but the key point is that he does this in a fair-minded way and for the most part portrays our claims accurately.
To step back for a moment, this whole episode illustrates a larger problem with the quality of public discourse here in the United States. Can we expect to address important public policy problems constructively when critics routinely deal with arguments they don’t like in such a misleading fashion, and when prominent pundits seem comfortable lambasting scholarly works they show little sign of having read? If this is the level of "truthiness" that public intellectuals and pundits now aspire to, we are in bigger trouble than I thought, and in ways that go beyond the reaction to any particular book.
To be clear, neither John Mearsheimer nor myself consider our book to be the last word on the subject; that's just not how scholarship works, especially in controversial areas. We welcome open discussion and vigorous debate and we recognize there are aspects of this issue about which reasonable people are bound to disagree. That's fine with us, because lively but fair-minded discussion can help us all figure out where our views might need revision and bring us to a clearer understanding of these difficult issues. But in order to have that sort of exchange, people really do have to read the book first.
In foreign policy, the safest prediction is unpredictability. George W. Bush took office in 2000 condemning "nation-building" and intending to focus on great power politics; then along came 9/11 and he ended up occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill Clinton tried to stay out of the Balkan mess during his first term but eventually found himself sending thousands of soldiers to Bosnia and bombing the Serbs over Kosovo. Bush 41 started out thinking that Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally and ended up having to drive him out of Kuwait. In each case, these presidents devoted considerable time and attention to problems that they never saw coming. So Barack needs to be prepared for the unexpected. We already know what is on his foreign policy "to do" list -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Colombia, Pakistan, etc. -- but he is certain to get blind-sided by something that he's not even thinking about yet. Will it be a governmental meltdown in Mexico? The unexpected death of a key Mideast leader? A run on the dollar? Who knows? I'd love to tell him what the Big Surprise is going to be; alas, nobody's crystal ball is that good. But when it happens -- and it will -- we'll find out just how good a leader he really is.
As Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office, the conventional wisdom is that he faces the greatest challenge of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. It's easy to see why: the U.S. economy is in the most serious slump since the 1930s, and he had been handed a losing war in Iraq and a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. America's global image has fallen to unprecedented lows, and he won't have a lot of discretionary resources to throw at big global problems.
Yet not all is doom-and-gloom, and our current difficulties also present real opportunities if Obama is wise enough to seize them. What's the silver lining here?
First, the Bush administration's disastrous legacy is an obvious asset for Obama, because virtually any change from Bush's approach -- whether in style or in substance -- is likely to win kudos overseas. This benefit won't last if Obama's policies turn out to be more of the same, but for the moment it gives the new team a lot of running room.
Second, Obama is becoming President at a moment of relative peace and stability world-wide. This claim may seem surprising when we think of the past six years in Iraq and Afghanistan or the bad news from Darfur, Gaza, Pakistan, and elsewhere, but the reality is that overall level of global violence has declined sharply since the end of the Cold War. Even more importantly, the risk of major-power conflict is probably lower now than at any time in the past century. According to the Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University, the number of armed conflicts dropped dramatically from 1993 to 2006, and the average lethality of both state-based and non-state based conflicts (measured as number of fatalities per year) has also decreased steadily in recent decades. Although certain regions (e.g., Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa) have seen upticks in violence, the overall global trend is encouraging. The conflicts that are still underway are tragic and will require attention, but most of them do not pose a threat to vital U.S. interests.
Third, the economic problems that have hammered the United States have also affected our major rivals. It is not as if the U.S. economy is in free-fall while potential challengers are soaring. The current downturn also poses problems for China, has put a serious crimp in Moscow's ambitions, and compounded Iran's already-difficult economic situation. We would obviously be better off with a thriving economy, but the current recession is not a short-term threat to America’s core national security interests.
Fourth, Obama is taking office with high levels of support from a population that for the moment seems to have realistic expectations. The American people know we are in trouble and that it will take some time to fix the situation, a message that Obama has reinforced skillfully. The Democrats have solid control of the House and Senate, but their failure to win a veto-proof majority will force them to reach out to a few GOP members in order to advance their program. This reality will temper the far-left wing of the Democratic Party and make it harder for the far-right in the GOP to blame everything on Pelosi, Reid, and the new President.
Taken together, these various factors mean that President Obama has a great deal of latitude in the conduct of foreign policy. As I've written previously, our current circumstances will require the United States to set clearer priorities and stop trying to do everything. The good news is that the American people are likely to support this shift. Many foreign countries will welcome less heavy-handed U.S. leadership, while others will start working harder to keep us happy if we play hard-to-get more often.
Above all, the biggest mistake Obama could make would be to follow too closely in his predecessor's footsteps, or to pay too much attention to the people whose advice helped derail his predecessor. They might be excellent dinner companions, but their policy recommendations have been tried and the results are in.
There are still serious dangers out there, of course, and the conduct of U.S. foreign policy is not going to be easy. Here's one of my lingering worries: in the past, prolonged economic depressions have been fertile breeding grounds for hyper-nationalism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and other social and political pathologies. If similar movements were to re-emerge today, the comparatively low level of global violence that exists now -- especially among the major powers -- would be jeopardized. It follows that getting the U.S. and world economy back on track is a key national security priority, as important as any specific diplomatic initiative.
The Arabs take their cue from Israeli responses," he said. "Deterrence is about how Israelis feel, whether they feel they've won or lost."
No, this is not what deterrence is about. Deterrence is not about how you feel; it's about about how your adversary feels, and about how they calculate the potential gains or losses of whatever actions you are trying to deter. If you think you've won the last round and that this proves that you're stronger and more resolved and yet I still think otherwise, your deterrent threats aren't going to work.
Furthermore, because deterrence depends on both capability and resolve, it might actually be weakened if Israelis feel they've won and say so too loudly. Why? Because Hamas might decide it has to take more aggressive actions to demonstrate that the Israelis are wrong and that it is still capable of resistance.
Finally, there's little reason to think that Israeli perceptions of victory or defeat play a very big role in Hamas' longer-term calculations. At this point in the conflict, I doubt there are very many Palestinians who question whether Israel is both willing and able to deal with them harshly. In addition to imposing a crippling economic blockade on Gaza, Israelis killed over 5,000 Palestinians in the 2nd Intifada (2000-2008), compared with about 1,000 Israeli deaths in that same period. And this was before the Gaza operation began. Given that background, it is hard to believe that proclamations of victory now (which will be made by both sides) will have much effect on their future conduct.
Many supporters of Israel will not criticize its behavior, even when it is engaged in brutal and misguided operations like the recent onslaught on Gaza. In addition to their understandable reluctance to say anything that might aid Israel's enemies, this tendency is based in part on the belief that Israel's political and military leaders are exceptionally smart and thoughtful strategists who understand their threat environment and have a history of success against their adversaries. If so, then it makes little sense for outsiders to second-guess them.
This image of Israeli strategic genius has been nurtured by Israelis over the years and seems to be an article of faith among neoconservatives and other hardline supporters of Israel in the United States. It also fits nicely with the wrongheaded but still popular image of Israel as the perennial David facing a looming Arab Goliath; in this view, only brilliant strategic thinkers could have consistently overcome the supposedly formidable Arab forces arrayed against them.
The idea that Israelis possess some unique strategic acumen undoubtedly reflects a number of past military exploits, including the decisive victories in the 1948 War of Independence, the rapid conquest of the Sinai in 1956, the daredevil capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, the stunning Israeli triumph at the beginning of the 1967 Six Day War, and the intrepid hostage rescue at Entebbe in 1976.
These tactical achievements are part of a larger picture, however, and that picture is not a pretty one. Israel has also lost several wars in the past -- none of them decisively, of course -- and its ability to use force to achieve larger strategic objectives has declined significantly over time. This is why Israelis frequently speak of the need to restore their "deterrent"; they are aware that occasional tactical successes have not led to long-term improvements in their overall security situation. The assault on Gaza is merely the latest illustration of this worrisome tendency.
What does the record show?
Back in 1956, Israel, along with Britain and France, came up with a harebrained scheme to seize the Suez Canal and topple Nasser's regime in Egypt. (This was after an Israeli raid on an Egyptian army camp in Gaza helped convince Nasser to obtain arms from the Soviet Union). Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion initially hoped that Israel would be allowed to conquer and absorb the West Bank, parts of the Sinai, and portions of Lebanon, but Britain and France quickly scotched that idea. The subsequent attack was a military success but a strategic failure: the invaders were forced to disgorge the lands they seized while Nasser's prestige soared at home and across the Arab world, fueling radicalism and intensifying anti-Israel sentiments throughout the region. The episode led Ben-Gurion to conclude that Israel should forego additional attempts to expand its borders -- which is why he opposed taking the West Bank in 1967 -- but his successors did not follow his wise advice.
Ten years later, Israel's aggressive policies toward Syria and Jordan helped precipitate the crisis that led to the Six Day War. The governments of Egypt, Syria, the USSR and the United States also bear considerable blame for that war, though it was Israel's leaders who chose to start it, even though they recognized that their Arab foes knew they were no match for the IDF and did not intend to attack Israel. More importantly, after seizing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip during the war, Israeli leaders decided to start building settlements and eventually incorporate them into a "greater Israel." Thus, 1967 marks the beginning of Israel's settlements project, a decision that even someone as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier has described as "a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions." Remarkably, this momentous decision was never openly debated within the Israeli body politic.
With Israeli forces occupying the Sinai peninsula, Egypt launched the so-called War of Attrition in October 1968 in an attempt to get it back. The result was a draw on the battlefield and the two sides eventually reached a ceasefire agreement in August 1970. The war was a strategic setback for Israel, however, because Egypt and its Soviet patron used the ceasefire to complete a missile shield along the Suez Canal that could protect Egyptian troops if they attacked across the Canal to regain the Sinai. American and Israeli leaders did not recognize this important shift in the balance of power between Israel and Egypt and remained convinced that Egypt had no military options. As a result, they ignored Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace overtures and left him little choice but to use force to try to dislodge Israel from the Sinai. Israel then failed to detect Egypt and Syria's mobilization in early October 1973 and fell victim to one of the most successful surprise attacks in military history. The IDF eventually rallied and triumphed, but the costs were high in a war that might easily have been avoided.
Israel's next major misstep was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The invasion was the brainchild of hawkish Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, who had concocted a grandiose scheme to destroy the PLO and gain a free hand to incorporate the West Bank in "Greater Israel" and turn Jordan into "the" Palestinian state. It was a colossal strategic blunder: the PLO leadership escaped destruction and Israel’s bombardment of Beirut and its complicity in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila were widely and rightly condemned. And after initially being greeted as liberators by the Shiite population of southern Lebanon, Israel's prolonged and heavy-handed occupation helped create Hezbollah, which soon became a formidable adversary as well as an avenue for Iranian influence on Israel's northern border. Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah and eventually withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000, having in effect been driven out by Hezbollah's increasingly effective resistance. Invading Lebanon not only failed to solve Israel’s problem with the Palestinians, it created a new enemy that still bedevils Israel today.
In the late 1980s, Israel helped nurture Hamas -- yes, the same organization that the IDF is bent on destroying today -- as part of its long-standing effort to undermine Yasser Arafat and Fatah and keep the Palestinians divided. This decision backfired too, because Arafat eventually recognized Israel and agreed to negotiate a two-state solution, while Hamas emerged as a new and dangerous adversary that has refused to recognize Israel's existence and to live in peace with the Jewish state.
The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 offered an unprecedented chance to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all, but Israel's leaders failed to seize the moment. Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu all refused to endorse the idea of a Palestinian state -- even Rabin never spoke publicly about allowing the Palestinians to have a state of their own -- and Ehud Barak's belated offer of statehood at the 2000 Camp David summit did not go far enough. As Barak's own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later admitted, "if I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well." Meanwhile, the number of settlers in the West Bank doubled during the Oslo period (1993-2001), and the Israelis built some 250 miles of connector roads in the West Bank. Palestinian leaders and U.S. officials made their own contributions to Oslo's failure, but Israel had clearly squandered what was probably the best opportunity it will ever have to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Barak also derailed a peace treaty with Syria in early 2000 that appeared to be a done deal, at least to President Bill Clinton, who had helped fashion it. But when public opinion polls suggested that the Israeli public might not support the deal, the Israeli Prime Minister got cold feet and the talks collapsed.
More recently, U.S. and Israeli miscalculations have gone hand-in-hand. In the wake of September 11, neoconservatives in the United States, who had been pushing for war against Iraq since early 1998, helped convince President Bush to attack Iraq as part of a larger strategy of "regional transformation." Israeli officials were initially opposed to this scheme because they wanted Washington to go after Iran instead, but once they understood that Iran and Syria were next on the administration's hit list they backed the plan enthusiastically. Indeed, prominent Israelis like Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres helped sell the war in the United States, while Prime Minister Sharon and his chief aides put pressure on Washington to make sure that Bush didn’t lose his nerve and leave Saddam standing. The result? A costly quagmire for the United States and a dramatic improvement in Iran's strategic position. Needless to say, these developments were hardly in Israel's strategic interest.
The next failed effort was then-Prime Minister Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw all of Israel’s settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Although Israel and its supporters in the West portrayed this move as a gesture towards peace, "unilateralism" was in fact part of a larger effort to derail the so-called Road Map, freeze the peace process, and consolidate Israeli control over the West Bank, thereby putting off the prospect of a Palestinian state "indefinitely." The withdrawal was completed successfully, but Sharon's attempt to impose peace terms on the Palestinians failed completely. Fenced in by the Israelis, the Palestinians in Gaza began firing rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli towns and then Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. This event reflected its growing popularity in the face of Fatah’s corruption and Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank, but Jerusalem and Washington refused to accept the election results and decided instead to try to topple Hamas. This was yet another error: Hamas eventually ousted Fatah from Gaza and its popularity has continued to increase.
The Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 revealed the deficiencies of Israel's strategic thinking with particular clarity. A cross-border raid by Hezbollah provoked an Israeli offensive intended to destroy Hezbollah's large missile inventory and compel the Lebanese government to crack down on Hezbollah itself. However worthy these goals might have been, Israel's strategy was doomed to fail. Air strikes could not eliminate Hezbollah's large and well-hidden arsenal and bombing civilian areas in Lebanon merely generated more anger at Israel and raised Hezbollah's standing among the Lebanese population and in the Arab and Islamic world as well. Nor could a belated ground attack fix the problem, as the IDF could hardly accomplish in a few weeks what it had failed to do between 1982 and 2000. Plus, the Israeli offensive was poorly planned and poorly executed. It was equally foolish to think that Lebanon’s fragile central government could rein in Hezbollah; if that were possible, the governing authorities in Beirut would have done so long before. It is no surprise that the Winograd Commission (an official panel of inquiry established to examine Israel’s handling of the war) harshly criticized Israel's leaders for their various strategic errors.
Finally, a similar strategic myopia is apparent in the assault on Gaza. Israeli leaders initially said that their goal was to inflict enough damage on Hamas so it could no longer threaten Israel with rocket attacks. But they now concede that Hamas will neither be destroyed nor disarmed by their attacks, and instead say that more extensive monitoring will prevent rocket parts and other weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. This is a vain hope, however. As I write this, Hamas has not accepted a ceasefire and is still firing rockets; even if it does accept a ceasefire soon, rocket and mortar fire are bound to resume at some point in the future. On top of that, Israel's international image has taken a drubbing, Hamas is probably more popular, and moderate leaders like Mahmoud Abbas have been badly discredited. A two-state solution -- which is essential if Israel wishes to remain Jewish and democratic and to avoid becoming an apartheid state -- is farther away than ever. The IDF performed better in Gaza than it did in Lebanon, largely because Hamas is a less formidable foe than Hezbollah. But this does not matter: the war against Hamas is still a strategic failure. And to have inflicted such carnage on the Palestinians for no lasting strategic gain is especially reprehensible.
In virtually all of these episodes -- and especially those after 1982 -- Israel's superior military power was used in ways that did not improve its long-term strategic position. Given this dismal record, therefore, there is no reason to think that Israel possesses uniquely gifted strategists or a national security establishment that consistently makes smart and far-sighted choices. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Israel is how often the architects of these disasters -- Barak, Olmert, Sharon, and maybe Netanyahu -- are not banished from leadership roles but instead are given another opportunity to repeat their mistakes. Where is the accountability in the Israeli political system?
No country is immune from folly, of course, and Israel's adversaries have committed plenty of reprehensible acts and made plenty of mistakes themselves. Egypt's Nasser played with fire in 1967 and got badly burnt; King Hussein's decision to enter the Six Day War was a catastrophic blunder that cost Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Palestinian leaders badly miscalculated and committed unjustifiable and brutal acts on numerous occasions. Americans made grave mistakes in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq, the French blundered in Indochina and Algeria, the British failed at Suez and Gallipoli, and the Soviets lost badly in Afghanistan. Israel is no different than most powerful states in this regard: sometimes it does things that are admirable and wise, and at other times it pursues policies that are foolish and cruel.
The moral of this story is that there is no reason to think that Israel always has well-conceived strategies for dealing with the problems that it faces. In fact, Israel's strategic judgment seems to have declined steadily since the 1970s -- beginning with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon -- perhaps because unconditional U.S. support has helped insulate Israel from some of the costs of its actions and made it easier for Israel to indulge strategic illusions and ideological pipe-dreams. Given this reality, there is no reason for Israel's friends -- both Jewish and gentile -- to remain silent when it decides to pursue a foolish policy. And given that our "special relationship" with Israel means that the United States is invariably associated with Jerusalem's actions, Americans should not hesitate to raise their voices to criticize Israel when it is acting in ways that are not in the U.S. national interest.
Those who refuse to criticize Israel even when it acts foolishly surely think they are helping the Jewish state. They are wrong. In fact, they are false friends, because their silence, or worse, their cheerleading, merely encourages Israel to continue potentially disastrous courses of action. Israel could use some honest advice these days, and it would make eminently good sense if its closest ally were able to provide it. Ideally, this advice would come from the president, the secretary of state, and prominent members of Congress -- speaking as openly as some politicians in other democracies do. But that's unlikely to happen, because Israel's supporters make it almost impossible for Washington to do anything but reflexively back Israel's actions, whether they make sense or not. And they often do not these days.
Events elsewhere have kept me from paying much attention to the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, but the realist in me has a couple of thoughts. It's obvious that Moscow is using Ukraine's dependence on Russian natural gas as a diplomatic weapon -- no surprise there -- but it's equally clear that Moscow's leverage is reduced by the EU's reliance on gas flowing through Ukrainian pipelines. Whenever Moscow tries to squeeze Kiev, Europe hollers and jumps in, and then the Russians have to lighten up in order to avoid a major fight with the Europeans (an important trading partner). But this problem will ease as soon as EU-Russian pipelines bypassing Ukraine are completed and Russia's ability to pressure Ukraine will perforce increase. As long as the rest of the EU is toasty warm in winter, they aren't going to care much about conditions in Kiev. So if I were Ukrainian, I'd think long and hard about where this one was headed.
Back in December, veteran foreign correspondent William Pfaff asked the right question: how much faith do other states still have in American competence?
Back in 2005, the failed occupation in Iraq and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina led many foreign observers to question whether America's leaders knew what they were doing. The aura of effectiveness matters, because American influence depends in good part on the belief that U.S. leaders (both public and private) are knowledgeable, honest, and above all competent individuals who can figure out what needs to be done and then actually get it implemented. When other governments think U.S. officials can be trusted to make smart choices and deliver them, they are more likely to follow our lead. But if they suspect that our leaders are bunglers, they will keep their own counsel or look elsewhere for guidance.
America's reputation for competence was based on genuine achievements: the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, the moon landings, a broad array of scientific and technical achievements (signified by a steady stream of Nobel Prizes), some remarkable institutions of higher learning, the creation of media and entertainment industry with unprecedented global reach, decades of fairly steady economic growth, a successful melting-pot society, a belated but well-intentioned effort to address the legacy of slavery, and the eventual triumph over the Soviet Union. One might also add iconic examples of accomplishment such as Charles Lindbergh, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jonas Salk, Margaret Mead, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Even when events like Vietnam cast doubt on American wisdom, these setbacks did not damage the larger sense that America was a country that worked pretty well.
Today, however, the drip-drip-drip of bad news and the growing sense that malfeasance and moral rot are widespread risks permanent damage to America's global image. Consider what the past eight years has done to our brand name: the fraud-filled "reconstruction" of Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, the dark scar that is Guantanamo, the feckless performance of Alberto Gonzalez, the corruption conviction of Jack Abramoff, and the failure to capture Osama bin Laden. Add to that the Wall Street meltdown, the Madoff scandal, the Blagojevich follies, and the Big 3 automakers' lame pleas, and you have a picture of America that raises more doubts than hopes.
Of course, like many other factors in international politics, confidence in American competence is a relative concept: it's not as if Japan or the Europeans are making consistently smart choices and executing them well. China's Olympics were undeniably impressive, but then there's the melamine scandal and numerous reports of widespread corruption. I guess there's some dubious comfort to be had from the fact that other states have lots of problems too.
Back home, the election of Barack Obama was an electrifying event that has temporarily restored some hope in American ideals and demonstrated our society's still-remarkable capacity to surprise. But the bleeding will resume if the new team does not demonstrate that it has well-designed strategies for dealing with our current problems, and if they don't quickly demonstrate the ability to put those plans into effect and make them work. And let's be honest: despite their ample experience and glittering resumes, the track records of some of his key appointees do not inspire as much confidence as one might like.
HECTOR MATA/AFP PHOTO/Getty Images
For those of you looking for some foreign policy ideas that are a bit more innovative than, say, Hillary Clinton's recent Senate testimony, the smart people at MIT's Center for International Studies have released an interesting set of memos offering "Advice for President Obama." Some highlights:
The memos contain a lot of outside-the-box but eminently practical advice, and I hope someone on the Obama team takes notice. Maybe the reported new head of Policy Planning?
PAUL J. RICHARDS/Getty Images
A reader writes in from Colombia to suggest a topic: "what is a/the 'realist perspective' on waterboarding?"
My answer: for starters, realism doesn't take a normative or ethical position re waterboarding (or other morally questionable practices). Realism is a positive theory of international politics, not a normative theory, and it is essentially amoral. It explains why international politics is a competitive arena and why states act as they do, but it is mostly silent on whether this behavior is morally acceptable. Put differently, it doesn't purport to tell national leaders the morally correct thing to do. This is not to say that realists do not have moral beliefs of their own (which could include a firm belief that waterboarding was morally wrong). But that's not a conclusion that follows from the premises of realist theory.
Of course, realists aren't surprised when states commit morally dubious acts, whether it is dropping bombs on civilians in wartime (see under Gaza), or torturing suspected terrorists. Realism depicts international politics as a rough business, and in the absence of a central authority that can enforce moral or legal constraints, realists expect most states will be willing to cross these lines on occasion. That's why realists emphasize both the importance of power and the need for prudent statecraft: if you are weak or foolish, other states might do something pretty nasty to you. And a case can be made that following realist principles can also produce more moral outcomes as well.
That said, I think there is a fairly strong realist case against waterboarding. Realism emphasizes that foreign and defense policy should advance the national interest, and that one way to do that is to minimize the number of enemies one faces and maximize the amount of international support one can expect. Using waterboarding and other forms of torture undermines both goals, especially for a country as strong as the United States.
Other countries naturally worry about the concentration of power in American hands, and they will worry all the more if they think that power might be exercised arbitrarily or cruelly, even against suspected bad guys. Relying on waterboarding and other forms of torture also makes the United States look hypocritical; if we are willing to violate our professed principles in this realm, can others count on anything we say in other areas? Torturing people also gives our enemies a powerful rhetorical argument to use against us and makes us seem more like them, which in turn makes it harder for us to rally others to our side. And the real kicker is the likelihood that the information gained through torture is probably not as reliable as information gleaned through other methods, because someone being tortured is likely to say anything that will get the inquisitors to stop. A realist might accept waterboarding as a regrettable necessity if it provided information that was absolutely essential to protecting the country (which is why those who support the use of torture tend to rely on "ticking bomb" scenarios), but a number of experts on interrogation have cast serious doubts on that view.
Note that this last point is not a moral argument against waterboarding; it is the sort of pragmatic argument that flows from realist theory. One could make independent moral arguments against this practice as well.
For what it's worth, I think waterboarding is a bad idea on both grounds.
In today's New York Times, David Sanger reveals that the Bush administration "deflected" an Israeli request last year for bunker-busting bombs, which they reportedly intended to use for a preventive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. An Israeli request for permission to overfly Iraq (whose airspace is controlled by the United States) was also denied. As partial compensation, the United States agreed to closer intelligence cooperation with Israel and informed Jerusalem that it had intensified a covert action campaign to sabotage Iran's nuclear programs.
This episode reveals that once he stopped listening to neoconservatives, President Bush was able to figure out that a preventive strike would be counterproductive. Not only would an Israeli or U.S. attack encourage Iran to retaliate against U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- where we still have our hands full -- it would provide no more than a temporary fix. Just as Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor led Saddam Hussein to redouble his own nuclear efforts, a preventive strike on Iran would have led Tehran to intensify its efforts to acquire a deterrent of its own and to do so in ways that would make it even harder for us to address. According to Sanger, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was especially influential in convincing Bush that an attack would "prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, and drive Iran's nuclear effort out of view."
Sanger also reports that the United States has stepped up covert actions against Iran. This is hardly a revelation, but it may help us understand why Iran is meddling in areas where it knows it can cause trouble for the United States and its allies. As Trita Parsi argues in his excellent book Treacherous Alliance, there is a lot more realpolitik in Iranian foreign policy than most Americans recognize, and many of their actions that we rightly oppose (such as their support for Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad) are motivated as much by a desire to force the United States to recognize Iranian interests as by deep ideological convictions. Among other things, Parsi shows that there was little love lost between the Islamic Republic and the PLO in the 1980s, and that Iran began backing more extreme Palestinian groups only after the United States excluded it from the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference and adopted the policy of "dual containment" in the first years of the Clinton administration.
Some of you may believe that Bush's departure and Obama's arrival means that that the use of force is no longer a serious option, and that the United States is going to pursue a diplomatic approach instead. That hopeful conclusion is almost certainly premature, for at least three reasons.
First, there are still influential voices in Washington who maintain that the United States cannot permit Iran to maintain an independent enrichment capability, and who believe that the United States should use force to prevent this in the event that diplomacy does not succeed. See this recent report, cowritten by neoconservative Michael Rubin and endorsed by a task force whose members included Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a number of other prominent individuals. If Ross ends up as the State Department's special envoy on Iran, as has been rumored, this view will be front-and-center in the new administration. (I have been told that Ross's appointment is not a done deal and that there is opposition to it within the transition team, so we don't yet know just how influential that view is likely to be. But it is unlikely to be wholly absent).
Second, as the United States draws down its presence in Iraq, Iran's ability to retaliate in that area of operations will decline. Opponents of the military option will lose one of the obvious counter-arguments to an attack (though there are plenty of others), and opposition within the uniformed military (which has been deeply skeptical of the military option in the past) may decline.
Third, Obama will almost certainly try the diplomatic route first, just as he promised in the campaign. The question is whether the diplomatic strategy that the administration follows has any realistic chance of succeeding. Specifically, will the Obama administration follow the Bush administration's line and insist that Iran abandon its desire to control the full nuclear fuel cycle? In addition, will it take the threat of military force off the table? Threatening Iran with regime change merely increases its desire for a nuclear deterrent, and they are much less likely to abandon that goal if we are continue to point a gun at their heads. Remember that the deal that eventually convinced Muammar al-Qaddafi to abandon his own WMD programs involved an explicit U.S. assurance that we would not try to overthrow his regime. If the United States won't do this for Tehran, and if we demand full cessation of all enrichment activities, we are not going to get an agreement. At that point, hawks will claim that diplomacy has been tried and found wanting and Obama is going to find it harder to resist a more forceful response.
I had not intended to devote this much space to Middle East issues when FP launched this new site, but events in the region have made that resolution rather hard to keep. Here are a few more "thought experiments" (not mine).
First, over at Mondoweiss, Jerome Slater of SUNY-Buffalo offers his own Swiftian alternative history of the situation. Find it here.
Second, from Israel, Uri Avnery presents a typically sharp-edged set of historical alternatives. I don't have a link to it yet, but here's a short excerpt of a longer column:
NEARLY SEVENTY YEARS ago, in the course of World War II, a heinous crime was committed in the city of Leningrad. For more than a thousand days, a gang of extremists called "the Red Army" held the millions of the town's inhabitants hostage and provoked retaliation from the German Wehrmacht from inside the population centers. The Germans had no alternative but to bomb and shell the population and to impose a total blockade, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands.
Some time before that, a similar crime was committed in England. The Churchill gang hid among the population of London, misusing the millions of citizens as a human shield. The Germans were compelled to send their Luftwaffe and reluctantly reduce the city to ruins. They called it the Blitz.
This is the description that would now appear in the history books if the Germans had won the war.
Absurd? No more than the daily descriptions in our media, which are being repeated ad nauseam: the Hamas terrorists use the inhabitants of Gaza as "hostages" and exploit the women and children as "human shields", they leave us no alternative but to carry out massive bombardments, in which, to our deep sorrow, thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed and injured."
And finally, via e-mail from a correspondent in Florida, yet another thought experiment from a rather different perspective:
Here is an analogy you may find interesting... very real...and a little closer to home.
If after the second World War - all the Germans were evicted from Germany - litteraly [sic] - their population decimated - their people scattered
As the Germans were away (the brandenberg gate still standing there, and the main city is still called Berlin) the French and the Poles then move in and create a country called "FrancoPol".
As the Germans find themselves without a home, always labeled the "The Hitler people" - they are shunned, killed, and scapegoated - even after 1800 years
After @ 1800 years, the Germans realise that the only way to survive, and thrive again, would be to return home to Germany...
So they begin to settle small tracks of land in "FrancoPol"...their lands thrive, and they are happy - their goal is to restore Germany - all of it
The Francopolians are not very happy about seeing the Germans again, they call them "Settlers" and "Occupiers" and begin to kill them...
The Germans begin to fight back, and repell attacks, and yes, begin to "reclaim" more German land - always accused of stealing "francopolian" land
The UN decides to split the land between the Germans and the francopolians - the Germans Accept - the Francopolians dont - and continue to attack them
As the more land comes under German control, the Francopolians do everything they can to destroy this re-born Germany..but to no avail..
As the German people finally return to Berlin, reclaim it, rebuild it, makes it live and thrive again...
Would the Germans be "Occupiers" of Berlin?
Would the Germans be "Colonisers" of Berlin?
Would the Germans be "Usurpers" of Berlin?
Comment by me: There are plenty of obvious ways one could challenge each of these "thought experiments," but I still find them useful spurs to our thinking. This is a subject area where people's views frequently get etched in stone -- and all the more so when violence is raging and the PR machines are working overtime -- and that makes it even more important to look for devices that force us to think more carefully and critically.
Several readers have asked me what I think of Peter Feaver's "realist" defense of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Feaver's logic is admirably straightforward: 1) realism emphasizes evaluating great powers by how they manage relations with other great powers, 2) Bush did relatively well on that front, therefore: 3) Bush had a good foreign policy by "realist" standards. QED.
Not so fast.
First of all, relations with the other great powers weren't a top priority for Bush and his team, especially after 9/11. So even if one accepts Feaver's argument, it amounts to saying that Bush and Co. did better on issues they paid less attention to, while screwing up royally in the areas that they focused on most. I'd agree, but it's not exactly a ringing defense.
Second, as Feaver admits, relations with Russia got worse throughout Bush's two terms, culminating in that nasty little war in Georgia last summer. Part of the problem may have been Bush's decidedly non-realist method of gauging Russian intentions (i.e., looking into Vladimir Putin's soul), but the larger problem was that the administration kept assuming it could trample all over Russian interests and ignore various Russian "red lines" and not pay any diplomatic price for it. (To be fair, this was merely the continuation of the Clinton administration's own approach, but Bush failed to realize that Russia was no longer as hapless as it had been in the Yeltsin era). So they continued to expand NATO (including open support for Ukrainian and Georgian membership), insisted on independence for Kosovo, and started deploying missile defenses in Eastern Europe, a step which Moscow could only see as an attempt to gain some sort of first-strike advantage. Whatever the merits of these various initiatives, it was entirely predictable that Russia would be very, very, annoyed by them and that it would be eager for payback.
Even if Bush did manage to avoid a violent blow-up with Moscow, his approach made it impossible to get Russia's cooperation on several issues that did matter a lot to Washington. Russia didn't support the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, and along with France and Germany, this opposition made it impossible to get a second U.N. Security Council supporting military action. Russia also repeatedly balked on tougher sanctions toward Iran, which made it harder to deal effectively with Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Nor does Bush deserve an "A grade" on relations with India. The new security partnership with India is a positive step that can certainly be justified on realist grounds, but the price Bush paid -- in effect turning a blind eye toward India's nuclear programs and thereby sending a torpedo into the existing non-proliferation regime -- was too high, especially in an era when we were rightly worried about discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states or terrorists. But at least he got a lot of help from India in Iraq, and strong backing from New Delhi on Iran? Oops, my mistake: they stiffed us on Iraq and provided only mild diplomatic support on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Seems that new strategic partnership still has some growing to do. As for China, it has taken advantage of our confrontation with Tehran to quietly enhance its own position in this vital strategic area, and forged a series of new connections in Asia while our attention was focused elsewhere.
Finally, realists would judge a great power's foreign policy not just on how one manages bilateral relations with other great powers, but on whether one’s overall foreign policy has left it in a better position vis-à-vis the other major states, and especially those that might become serious competitors. Here the record is much more worrisome: by mismanaging relations in other places -- most notably the Middle East -- Bush weakened U.S. material power and brought America's global image to new lows. One suspects that Chinese foreign policy elites have found it difficult to contain their glee; their influence has risen not so much because they have played their hand skillfully, but because we've been shooting ourselves in the foot.
Bottom line: even on this narrow "realist" criteria, it's hard to give Bush high marks.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Matt Yglesias says some nice things about my post on the defense budget, but points out that its odd for a realist to emphasize the role of domestic politics in sustaining inflated defense spending. I appreciate the kind words, but it's actually not that odd. Whenever realists like me criticize some aspect of U.S. foreign and defense policy -- and especially when we claim it is being adversely affected by domestic political factors of one sort or another -- somebody is bound to claim we are being inconsistent (and they usually do it a lot less gently than Matt did). After all, realists are supposed to believe that the balance of power is the driving force in shaping foreign policy, and that states always pursue their national interests. So if the United States is doing something that realists think is misguided, doesn’t the very act of voicing criticism invalidate the realists' own core beliefs?
Nice try, but nope. First, most theories of international relations (or foreign policy) are pretty crude instruments, and none of them explains everything that states do. I think realism tells you a lot about how states behave but it hardly explains everything. Second, the "national interest" is itself a contentious concept, which is why we have journals and blogs and talk shows where we can argue about it ad infinitum. Third, realism does tell you that really powerful countries have a larger margin for error and have the luxury of being able to indulge their ideological predilections. Really powerful countries -- e.g., the United States -- can also afford to waste vast resources on excessive military spending, and they can allow assorted special interest groups to wield disproportionate influence even when that imposes costs on the rest of society Just look at the farm bill, or our policy towards Cuba. This problem got worse when we won the Cold War, because the absence of a serious rival made Americans think they could do pretty much whatever they wanted without facing serious costs. Result: Iraq.
Realism also warns that even really powerful states will still pay a price if they lose sight of the national interest and start acting in foolish ways. GM could make crummy cars for a long time and stay in business, but eventually even they had to come begging for a handout. Similarly, the United States can make a lot of mistakes in foreign policy and squander a lot of blood and treasure on ill-considered escapades without jeopardizing its great power status overnight, but that doesn’t mean that doing so is a good idea.
The partial antidote to such follies is a more serious and sustained debate about our role in the world and the best way to protect our vital interests and way of life. Matt has already made his own contribution to that conversation; here are some other places where you can find some fresh ideas:
Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power.
Eugene Jarecki, The American Way of War.
Jeff Legro and Melvin Leffler, eds., To Lead the World: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine.
Project on Defense Alternatives, Forceful Engagement: Rethinking the Role of Military Power in American Global Policy.
John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven, Ethical Realism.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.