While I've been busy blogging for the past two years, my co-author and friend John Mearsheimer has been busy writing books and articles. I'd be doing both you and him a disservice if I didn't take a moment to shine a spotlight on two of his recent works.
The first is a big article in the latest issue of The National Interest, entitled "Imperial by Design." The article offers a compelling explanation for America's recent foreign policy failures, which he traces to the excesses and errors of the Clinton-era "liberal imperialists" and Bush-era neoconservatives. (Not surprisingly, Obama seems to be following the former's blueprint in most respects). Both groups sought to use American power to shape the world in our image, although Clinton did so rather gingerly while Bush & Co. did so with reckless abandon. This ambitious and largely bipartisan attempt to manage the entire globe ultimately led to two losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a costly squandering of American power. Mearsheimer proposes a return to the earlier U.S. strategy of "offshore balancing," a strategy that would protect America's core interests at far less cost and generate less anti-American extremism. Ideally, this article ought to begin a long-overdue debate on the fundamentals of American grand strategy, but I'm not at all sure that it will. At this point there are too many people inside-the-Beltway with a vested interest in a global military footprint, and little interest in examining its do footprint, and little interest in examining the downside to this posture.
By Michael Desch
The title of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars is ambiguous: Is he referring to the two on-going wars the United States is waging in Iraq or Afghanistan? But only Afghanistan can fairly be called "Obama's war," and Iraq gets very short shrift here. Why then the plural
Like Woodward's previous series of books Bush at War, Obama's Wars is as much, if not more, about the political war at home as it is about the war in Afghanistan itself. Of course, every war involves lots of domestic debate and struggle, and bureaucratic politics hardly wane when the balloon goes up, but the United States' most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been notable in that they have sparked more civil-military conflict on the home front than we've seen since the Vietnam War.
Low-intensity conflict between the Obama administration and the key elements of the U.S.
military charged with conducting the war in Afghanistan (ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen) is such a constant theme in Woodward's account that the president feels the need in his valedictory interview to deny that civil-military conflict over the strategy and force-levels of the Afghanistan war is as bad as it had been during the Vietnam War (p. 377).
If civil-military relations aren't that bad, then why even mention them? The answer is clear: The Iraq and Afghan wars have seriously frayed the fabric civil-military in the United States, perhaps not yet at the level of the Vietnam War, but certainly heading in that direction.
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Apart from a brief post praising New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's forthright stance on the Muslim community center controversy, I haven't said much about this issue. I had naively assumed that Bloomberg's eloquent remarks defending the project -- and reaffirming the indispensable principle of religious freedom -- would pretty much end the controversy, but I underestimated the willingness of various right-wing politicians to exploit our worst xenophobic instincts, and some key Democrats' congenital inability to fight for the principles in which they claim to believe. Silly me.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what is going on here: All you really need to do is look at how the critics of the community center project keep describing it. In their rhetoric it is always the "Mosque at Ground Zero," a label that conjures up mental images of a soaring minaret on the site of the 9/11 attacks. Never mind that the building in question isn't primarily a mosque (it's a community center that will house an array of activities, including a gym, pool, auditorium, and oh yes, a prayer room). Never mind that it isn't at "Ground Zero": it's two blocks away and will not even be visible from the site. (And exactly why does it matter if it was?) You know that someone is engaged in demagoguery when they keep using demonstrably false but alarmist phrases over and over again.
What I don't understand is why critics of this project don't realize where this form of intolerance can lead. As a host of commentators have already noted, critics of the project are in effect holding American Muslims -- and in this particular case, a moderate Muslim cleric who has been a noted advocate of interfaith tolerance -- responsible for a heinous act that they did not commit and that they have repeatedly condemned. It is a view of surpassing ignorance, and precisely the same sort of prejudice that was once practiced against Catholics, against Jews, and against any number of other religious minorities. Virtually all religious traditions have committed violent and unseemly acts in recent memory, and we would not hold Protestants, Catholics, or Jews responsible for the heinous acts of a few of their adherents.
And don't these critics realize that religious intolerance is a monster that, once unleashed, may be impossible to control? If you can rally the mob against any religious minority now, then you may make it easier for someone else to rally a different mob against you should the balance of political power change at some point down the road.
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I'm back from my mini-break and digging out emails and correspondence, so I don't have an extended commentary today.
One piece in my mailbox did catch my eye, however, from the June 2010 issue of Perspectives on Politics. For those of you who aren't political scientists, PoP is a relatively new journal, founded eight years ago by the American Political Science Association. It was created in part in response to a bottom-up protest movement within the discipline known as the "Perestroika" movement ("Perestroika" was the pseudonym of the anonymous list-server who got it started). Although primarily motivated by a desire to defend methodological pluralism, one of the movement's related concerns was the "cult of irrelevance" within academic political science. In my judgment PoP has, been a partial corrective to that tendency, and it often features articles that engage big political issues from an academic perspective.
In any case, the current issue has a provocative article by Lawrence Mead on "Scholasticism in Political Science." Mead argues that academic writings about politics are increasingly "scholastic," which he defines as being increasingly specialized, preoccupied with methods, non-empirical, and primarily oriented to other academic literature instead of engaging real-world issues. In his words:
Today's political scientists often address very narrow questions and they are often preoccupied with method and past literature ... Scholars are focusing more on themselves, less on the real world. ... Research questions are getting smaller and data-gathering is contracting. Inquiry is becoming obscurantist and ingrown."
This sort of complaint is hardly new, of course. Hans Morgenthau offered a similar critique way back in the 1950s, when he warned of a political science "that is neither hated nor respected, but treated with indifference as an innocuous pastime, is likely to have retreated into a sphere that lies beyond the positive or negative interests of society. The retreat into the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical -- in short, the politically irrelevant -- is the unmistakable sign of a 'non-controversial' political science which has neither friends nor enemies because it has no relevance for the great political issues in which society has a stake. History and methodology, in particular, become the protective armor which shields political science from contact with the political reality of the contemporary world. Political science, then, resembles what Tolsoi said modern history has become: 'a deaf many answering questions which no one has asked him.'" (Dilemmas of Politics, 1958, p. 31).
Morgenthau's Olympian denunciation was offered without a lot of supporting evidence, but Mead's warning is accompanied by an analysis of every article published in 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2007 in the American Political Science Review. You might get different results if you looked at different journals (i.e., the "scholasticism" of the APSR was one of the complaints of the original "Perestroikans"), but Mead's complaints are consistent with a lot of my own impressions of how the field is evolving. As Mead shows, the issue isn't method per se; it's the tendency of many scholars to ask smaller, less significant, and less controversial questions and to produce what he describes as "analyses of jewel-like precision that ... generate only minor findings and arouse little interest beyond specialists." This is accompanied by an aversion to topics that might make a scholar visible outside the academy -- or god forbid, controversial -- because that might screw up your shot at tenure or get your criticized in print.
This tendency is not universally true, of course, and I'd argue that the willingness of younger scholars to take up blogging as a form of public engagement is a prominent counter-tendency. Could it be that younger scholars are just as bored producing "scholasticist" works as many of us are reading them, and that they find blogging far more fulfilling than adding another (largely) unread article to the catalog of academic journals. And if that's the case, what does it tell us about the priorities and values of contemporary academe?
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Sometimes I get the impression that the layout staff at the New York Times is sending me a message. On today's front page, for instance, there are two stories side-by-side that nicely illuminate some of what's wrong with contemporary American politics. The first headline is "Millions Being Spent to Sway Democrats on Health Care Bill," and the article details how drug companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are showering dollars to try to derail the latest attempt to give Americans better health care. The second headline (in the print edition) is "Repair Costs Daunting as Water Lines Crumble," and the article describes how the sewer and water systems in Washington, D.C. -- the nation's capital -- are deteriorating after decades of neglect.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen: Corporations have millions of dollars to spend on political advertising (and the Supreme Court recently made it even easier for them to sway politicians), while our national infrastructure crumbles and state and local governments flirt with bankruptcy. And don't get me started on the misplaced priorities that have us spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, while Mexico faces a rising drug war right next door.
All this suggests a political system that is badly out of whack. And maybe that's what the Times was trying to tell me.
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Lots of ink will be spilled and plenty of pixels will be generated in response to yesterday’s special Senate election here in Massachusetts, and I don’t have any deep and novel insights to offer. After all, this is a blog about foreign policy, not domestic politics, and foreign policy appears to have played little or no role in the outcome.
I also think it is a mistake to read too much into an outcome that could easily have gone the other way for reasons that have nothing to do with the issues and structural forces at work (i.e., had Coakley bothered to campaign in a serious way). The other reason to take a deep breath and relax is the pendulum-like nature of American politics: remember how cool and popular George Bush looked in that flight suit on "Mission Accomplished" day? Remember how hapelss he appeared a couple of years later? One other observation: this election also preserved the surprising and dubious tendency for "liberal" Massachusetts to not elect women to high office. What's up with that?
That said, I think there are two important lessons that Dems should draw from yesterday’s result, and especially any Dems who happen to live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The first lesson is the politics didn’t stop on Inauguration Day. The Obama administration ran a great campaign, and did an excellent job of framing issues and defining their candidate throughout 2008. Once in office, however, they turned immediately from politics to policy -- and there is a difference -- while the GOP did exactly the reverse. Instead of continuing to frame issues and establish a clear narrative about what they were accomplishing, the Dems have let the GOP attack machine construct a wholly fictitious but effective narrative that clearly helped Brown in Massachusetts. (Again, the fact that Coakley offered no clear story of her own was a huge liability too.)
The second lesson, and one I’ve harped about before, is about the dangers of trying to do too much, and without a clear strategy. In retrospect, Obama and the Dems would have been better off had they attempted a lot less in the past year, and gotten some of it done a lot quicker. Did Obama really need to jet off to Europe to try to get the Olympics for Chicago, or show up at a climate change summit that wasn’t going to yield an agreement? Was it a good idea to raise everyone’s expectations about Middle East peace, when your team hadn't thought through its strategy and when you didn’t have the political courage to do what was necessary to bring it about? Why talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons when everyone knows that isn’t going to happen for decades? And why betray your own base by doubling down in Afghanistan, largely in the hope of deflecting GOP criticism?
Back last spring, when Obama seemed to be launching a new initiative every other day, political theorist and former Clinton advisor William Galston warned that "If he's right, our traditional notion of the limits of the possible -- the idea that Washington can only handle so much at one time -- will be blown to smithereens. If he's wrong, he may be cruising for a bruising on a lot of things." I think it is way too soon to write the Obama presidency off, but he took a few lumps yesterday. The real question is his administration’s learning curve, and whether he starts replacing the people who’ve given him bad advice over the past year.
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Late empires are known for several things: a self-obsessed, self-serving governing class, small over-reaching wars that bankrupt the Treasury, debt that balloons until retreat from global power becomes not a choice but a necessity, and a polity unable to address reasonably any of these questions -- or how the increasing corruption of the media enables them all.
Obama is, in some ways, a test-case.
He was elected on a clear platform of reform and change; and yet the only real achievement Washington has allowed him so far is a massive stimulus package to prevent a Second Great Depression (and even on that emergency measure, no Republicans would support him). On that he succeeded. But that wasn't reform; it was a crash landing after one of the worst administrations in America's history.
Real reform -- tackling health care costs and access, finding a way to head off massive changes in the world's climate, ending torture as the lynchpin of the war on terror, getting out of Iraq, preventing an Israeli-led Third World War in the Middle East, and reforming entitlements and defense spending to prevent 21st century America from becoming 17th Century Spain: these are being resisted by those who have power and do not want to relinquish it -- except to their own families and cronies.
Nepotism is part of the problem; media corruption is also part; the total uselessness of the Democratic party and the nihilism of the Republicans doesn't help. But something is rotten in America at this moment in time; and those of us who supported Obama to try and change this decay and decline should use this fall to get off our butts and fight for change."
Wish I'd said that. And it makes me wonder: would Obama agree with the above (meaning he is a reluctant prisoner of well-entrenched interests), or is he is part of the problem too?
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Am I the only person who sees a parallel between the furor over the Scottish decision to release convicted Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, and the heated debate over whether to investigate possible criminal misconduct during the Bush administration "torture regime?"
With respect to the former, many people are upset by the decision to release al-Megrahi -- who has terminal prostate cancer and only a few months to live -- because they do not think an act of mercy was warranted in his case. Fair enough; reasonable people can legitimately disagree about whether the dying man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing deserves any form of clemency. But the real anger stems from the suspicion that al-Megrahi's release was part of some larger deal, and that British officials traded the release for commercial or political advantages. In other words, opponents of the decision to release him are incensed because they believe government officials let broader political or business considerations interfere with an important issue of criminal justice.
Yet those who oppose an open-ended investigation into what the Bush administration did -- which might eventually lead to the prosecution of top officials -- are doing the same thing for which British officials are being criticized: they are saying that politics should outweigh the requirements of law and justice. In essence, they are saying that broader political considerations should trump the normal operations of the criminal justice system. Yet I suspect most of the people making this argument would be outraged if it turned out that the British government decided to release al Megrahi in part to cultivate Libyan business or secure other political advantages.
For a country that claims to revere the "rule of law," this really isn't a hard issue conceptually. Attorney General Holder's task is to determine whether laws may have been broken, and whether an investigation of the alleged wrongdoing is warranted. Once that investigation has been conducted, he then has decide if he has a strong enough case to warrant prosecution. If he thinks he does, the case goes forward, and defendants get their day in court. Politics isn't supposed to have anything to do with this process (though a sensible prosecutor would probably be especially reluctant to bring a weak case against prominent senior officials). Finally, if any defendants are found guilty, the president could then step in and issue a pardon, if he felt that doing so was in the best interests of the nation.
Note that it is still possible to criticize and debate every aspect of this process, but not by invoking partisanship, political expediency, or the need to "look forward rather than backward." People can disagree about whether there is enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant further investigation (though I think the recent revelations make it hard to make the case that there is simply no basis for a further investigation). If AG Holder decides to indict anyone, or if he declines to do so, people will undoubtedly disagree about what he should have done so based on the available evidence. And if the cases go to trial we can argue about them too. If the defendants are acquitted, people will say the case should never have been brought; if convicted, some will claim they were railroaded. If people are convicted and the president pardons them, no doubt there would be heated discussions about whether this was appropriate or not.
But the key point is that if you genuinely believe in the rule of law, you can't invoke political expediency as a guide to whether possible crimes should be investigated and prosecuted. And the fact that the Attorney-General has decided to go forward should be seen as very positive sign, because it shows that he is willing to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities even if it is politically inconvenient for the president who appointed him. I have no doubt that the president would prefer to "look forward," because an investigation and/or prosecution will drive both the CIA and the right-wing media types crazy and because he's got enough alligators to wrestle with already. But he also promised us that he would end the politicization of the Department of Justice that his predecessor practiced, and Holder's decision, however inconvenient for Obama, is a reassuring sign that there is still life in the U.S. Constitution.
Am I being -- shall we say, unrealistic -- to stress the rule of law as opposed to the naked exercise of political power? Hardly. Realists have a rather dim view of human nature, which is why we like legitimate, well-ordered governments in which laws and checks and balances exist to keep human frailties in check. The Founding Fathers had a lot of realist instincts, so they constructed a variety of essentially liberal institutions to try to address and contain our worst instincts. Domestic politics in a well-ordered society is a lot nicer than life in the international system, which conspicuously lacks strong institutions and where the rule of law is weak. And that's why we ought to defend the rule of law in this case (and others), and try hard to keep politics out of the discussion.
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I'm no expert on health care, so I don't have strong views on how to reform the current U.S. system. But watching the lies, chicanery, and sheer wing-nuttery of the "debate" on health care reform (along with the birther controversy, the revelations about "The Family," and various other manifestations of what Richard Hofstader called the "paranoid style" of American politics) led me to wonder about possible foreign policy implications.
Here's my question: What impression do people in other countries get when they observe the divorced-from-reality nature of contemporary American political discourse? American pundits like to talk about how "irrational" our adversaries are (usually when they are trying to scare us into spending more on weapons or launching preventive wars), but do they ever stop to think about how goofy and irrational we appear to be to others? And I don't just mean the buffoons on talk radio and Fox News; I'm talking about Senators, Congresspersons, and other prominent politicos. When I see some of these folks in action, even a realist like me begins to question the validity of the "rational actor" assumption.
The United States doesn't have a monopoly on extremist politicians, of course, but it is a lot more powerful. No wonder unpolarity makes even our allies nervous.
We're on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes. If Obama is mostly successful, then the epistemological skepticism natural to conservatives will have been discredited...If they mostly fail, then liberalism will suffer a grievous blow, and conservatives will be called upon to restore order and sanity."
Such shamelessly partisan pseudo-intellectualism is Brooks's stock-in-trade, but where he's been the past eight years? George W. Bush and the GOP conservatives inherited a strong economy and a budget surplus, and a country whose international image was mostly favorable. And then they squandered them all with a thoroughness that almost seems deliberate. There was no "epistemological modesty" involved when Bush placed loyalty above competence and let lobbyists and other special interests loose in Washington, or when he launched a foolish and ill-planned war in an attempt to transform the entire Middle East. And let us not forget that Brooks himself was an enthusiastic supporter of these policies; I guess he forgot his Burke back when his party was in power.
The result of these "conservative" policies, as we all know to our sorrow, is the most serious combination of domestic and foreign policy challenges to face America in decades. But if Obama fails to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, it is "liberalism" that will have failed. Huh?
I was thinking about two former American government employees this weekend, and how the differences between them tell us a lot about why the United States is in so much trouble today.
The first person is Eugene Kranz, the legendary NASA flight director immortalized in the film Apollo 13. I watched a rerun of the film on Friday night, and was struck again by his remarkable leadership of the team that improvised the astronauts' rescue after an in-flight explosion crippled their spacecraft and placed their lives in peril. Many readers probably remember the moment in the film when Kranz tells his colleagues: "Failure is not an option." This line may have been apocryphal, but when I survey the landscape of problems we face at home and abroad, I wish we had more people like Kranz in key leadership positions.
Yes I know, it's just a movie, but Ed Harris's portrayal is consistent with what we know about Kranz himself. Above all, Kranz was a leader who took full responsibility for his actions. Here's what he told his colleagues after the tragic fire on the launching pad of Apollo 1, a fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee:
Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we... Not one of us stood up and said, 'Dammit, stop!'...We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. ... From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: 'Tough' and 'Competent.' Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do...Competent means we will never take anything for granted...When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write 'Tough and Competent' on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control."
That is the kind of attitude that lands men on the moon, builds a healthy economy, and when necessary, wins wars.
Now compare that frank and honest statement with the behavior of another former government employee: Richard Perle. In a recent article in The National Interest and a public appearance at the Nixon Center, Perle has tried to sell the story that neither he nor his fellow neoconservatives had any significant influence on the foreign policy of the Bush administration, and especially the decision to invade Iraq. Specifically, he denounces the supposedly "false claim that the decision to remove Saddam, and Bush policies generally, were made or significantly influenced by a few neoconservative 'ideologues.'" He suggests that no one has ever documented this claim, either conveniently ignoring the many books and articles that did exactly that, or misrepresenting what these works actually say.
Given that Iraq turned into a debacle that the United States is having trouble escaping, it is hardly surprising that Perle is denying his role now. But that's not what he said back when the war looked more promising. In an interview with journalist George Packer, recounted in the latter's book The Assassins' Gate, Perle described the key role that the neoconservatives played in making the Iraq War happen.
If Bush had staffed his administration with a group of people selected by Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker, which might well have happened, then it could have been different, because they would not have carried into the ideas that the people who wound up in important positions brought to it."
The "people who wound up in important positions" were key neoconservatives like Douglas Feith, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and others, who had been openly calling for regime change in Iraq since the late 1990s and who used their positions in the Bush administration to make the case for war after 9/11, aided by a chorus of sympathetic pundits at places like the American Enterprise Institute, and the Weekly Standard. The neocons were hardly some secret cabal or conspiracy, as they were making their case loudly and in public, and no serious scholar claims that they "bamboozled" Bush and Cheney into a war. Rather, numerous accounts have documented that they had been openly pushing for war since 1998 and they continued to do so after 9/11. As neoconservative pundit Robert Kagan later admitted, he and his fellow neoconservatives were successful in part because they had a "ready-made approach to the world" that seemed to provide an answer to the challenges the U.S. faced after 9/11.
The bottom line is simple: Richard Perle is lying. What is disturbing about this case is is not that a former official is trying to falsify the record in such a brazen fashion; Perle is hardly the first policymaker to kick up dust about his record and he certainly won't be the last. The real cause for concern is that there are hardly any consequences for the critical role that Perle and the neoconservatives played for their pivotal role in causing one of the great foreign policy disasters in American history. If somebody can help engineer a foolish war and remain a respected Washington insider -- as is the case with Perle -- what harm is likely to befall them if they lie about it later?
Let's keep a few facts in mind. Perle and his neoconservative buddies helped develop and sell a policy that has left over 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead and more than 30,000 wounded, was directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and will end up costing the United States more than a trillion dollars. Yet instead of having the integrity and courage to acknowlege his role and admit his mistakes -- as an honest man like Gene Kranz would -- Perle now offers us a squid's ink cloud of lies and prevarications. Although his absurd claims have been promptly and properly challenged, does anyone seriously think he will pay a larger price? The National Interest was all-too-willing to publish his rewriting of the historical record, and no doubt prestigious organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations will be happy to give him a platform at future meetings. Look for him on the Lehrer Newshour and CNN too; heck, he could even end up with his own show on Fox News.
Let's face it: there is little or no accountability in Washington, where being wrong means never having to say you're sorry; indeed, you don't even have to admit responsibility for past mistakes, no matter how serious. It's just the American taxpayer who ends up footing the bill, along with the soldiers who fought and died for these blunders.
As Frank Rich and others have figured out, we are in trouble today because we have allowed a culture of corruption and dishonesty to permeate our institutions and pollute our public discourse. Until that changes -- until our public institutions contain a lot more truth-tellers like Gene Kranz and fewer liars like Richard Perle -- we are not going to know where we stand, where we are headed, or whom to trust.
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Yesterday's New York Times contained three interesting items that deserve to be read together. Taken as a whole, they tell you a lot about the fundamental challenge facing Barack Obama.
The first item was Frank Rich's op-ed column, a jeremiad about Washington's insider culture. Rich nicely describes a world where out-of-touch elites with the right connections continue to enjoy ready access to power. Rich focuses his attention on Tom Daschle's fall from grace and the prominent role of economic advisors "who are either alumni of the financial bubble's insiders club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe." His broader point, however, is that Washington is infused with a culture of non-accountability and intellectual incest that helps explain why so many policy initiatives are ill-conceived or ineptly executed, or both.
The second article was a page 1 profile of special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who is now Obama's point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke is a long-time Washington insider who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and was the driving force behind the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian civil war. (He was also managing editor of Foreign Policy back in the 1970s). Since 2001, he has been vice-chairman of Perseus LLC, a Manhattan-based private equity firm. According to the article, "During the Bush years, Perseus was Mr. Holbrooke's base, providing him with what friends say was a relatively undemanding job and lavish compensation as he bounced from topic to topic, almost as if seeking a problem tough enough to rivet all of his attention." Unfortunately, one of the topics he landed on was the invasion of Iraq, which he strongly supported. Holbrooke said Colin Powell's infamous U.N. Security Council speech "documenting" Iraq's fictitious WMD programs (an episode Powell later recalled as the "lowest moment of his life") was "a masterful job of diplomacy." While critical of the Bush administration's pre-war diplomacy, Holbrooke nonetheless argued that Saddam Hussein "was the most dangerous governmental leader in the world," and that the United States had "a legitimate right to take action."
Which brings us to item No. 3 (also on page 1): an unflattering article describing how Afghan President Hamid Karzai has gone from being Washington's best hope for success to being regarded as a weak and ineffective leader of what may be the most corrupt regime in the world. Buried in the article is a telling sentence: "Many Afghans and Western officials here believe that it was the Iraq war, more than any other factor, that deprived Mr. Karzai of the resources he needed to help the Afghan state stand on its own and to prevent the resurgence of the Taliban." That's right: the same Iraq war that Holbrooke backed.
Put these three separate articles together, and you get a good sense of how U.S. policy gets made. Powerful people with the right connections rise to important roles in government. When not in power, they land lucrative jobs that still leave them with lots of time to engage in public life, spending most of it hobnobbing with other people with similar backgrounds, advantages, and world-views, while building the connections they will need to get back into power later on. (Holbrooke apparently spent some of his Perseus earnings hosting an annual dinner for Hillary Clinton, replete with a set of A-list guests). And then the political wheel turns, and they return to public life, eager to solve the very problems they helped create.
Like most elites, the current policy establishment is a forgiving culture that cherishes conventional wisdom and rarely punishes anyone for being wrong -- even about big things -- provided that they know the right people. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it exactly wrong: for at least some American lives, there's no end to second chances.
My point here isn't to single out Ambassador Holbrooke, who is talented and tenacious and has some genuine accomplishments to his credit, and who is hardly a poster child for the adage "to get along, go along." In fact, given our current circumstances, I wish we had a few more Holbrookes to put to work on our current challenges.
My aim is simply to highlight Obama's basic dilemma. He has huge problems to solve and not a lot of time to do it. So he needs to work with the institutions and individuals that are currently entrenched in the Washington-New York nexus. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, "you go to work with the government you have." But it is those same institutions and individuals who created the mess we're in. If Obama tackles that dysfunctional power structure head-on it will go to the mattresses to defend itself, thereby making it harder to address the immediate problems we face. But if he doesn't establish new ways of doing the public's business, the old problems will persist and derail his efforts anyway. I don't see an obvious way out of this box, so I'm hoping the President is a lot smarter than me.
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
How can we tell if change has really come to Washington, and how will we know that Obama is really governing well?
Ironically, one indicator is how many of his own appointees he ends up firing in his first couple of years in office. I'm not talking about a case like Tom Daschle -- who hadn't even unpacked his office and got tripped up for failing to pay all his taxes -- I'm talking about letting people go because they aren't performing well once in office.
You might think that having to fire people is a sign of poor leadership, and the GOP is bound to spin it that way. But in fact, being willing to let people go will be a reassuring sign that Obama is focused first and foremost on results.
Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I'm not hoping for failure. In fact, I hope Obama and his team turn out to be the most inspired, dedicated and successful public servants we've ever seen. But I'm a realist, and I don't expect perfection. So I'll be worried if all the new appointees are in place a year or two from now and I'll be reassured if a few heads have rolled.
Here's why. Even when you assemble an experienced team with glittering resumes, some appointees inevitably turn out to be not very good at their jobs. This happens in every administration, as people who previously held mid-level jobs move up and take on more demanding responsibilities, as some officials take charge of unfamiliar policy areas, and as some fresh faces get handed big assignments. Inevitably, some appointees will perform well while others turn out to be in over their heads. There's no great mystery here: lots of companies pick the wrong CEO even though they looked great on paper, and universities sometimes appoint presidents or deans who seem ideal when they're hired and are disappointing once in office. Plenty of head coaches and top draft choices don't live up to expectations either.
This problem will be particularly serious for the Obama administration, because they have inherited an array of nearly-unprecedented challenges. In addition to lengthy list of foreign policy problems, (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Darfur, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, climate change, etc.), the new team has a big to-do list here at home (health care, infrastructure, education, etc.) and an economy that is uncharted waters. Indeed, on that last item -- the economy -- nobody is quite sure what to do.
This means that the failure rate is bound to be even higher for Obama's team than it would be for an administration dealing with more normal circumstances. It's a bit like what happens when a country goes to war after a long era of peace. They often discover that their top commanders are better at managing budgets than winning on the battlefield, and so they spend the first couple of years burning through a lot of generals until they find a few who can actually fight and win. Look at Abraham Lincoln, who went through six different top generals (McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and Meade) before he finally found Ulysses S. Grant.
Obviously, too high a turnover rate can be worrisome, too. It takes time to find replacements and get them up to speed, and having to let people go is distracting and erodes political capital. It is always tempting for a President to reward loyalty, and to hang on to trusted subordinates even when they aren't living up to expectations. But it's a mistake, and especially when there is so much that needs to be done and needs to be done well. And if we need to be reminded of that fact, just remember the last eight years. The Bush administration consistently prized loyalty more than competence, which is why Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales kept their jobs as long as they did and why Condoleezza Rice got promoted to Secretary of State after a dismal performance as National Security Advisor, with predictably mediocre results.
Given our current circumstances, priority must be placed on finding people who can do their jobs not just adequately but outstandingly. I'm confident that some of Obama's appointees will do just that, but I am equally sure that some of them won't. I've got no idea who will fall in each category, but I hope Obama is ruthless about weeding out the folks who don't measure up. That would be change we could believe in.
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The New York Times reports that President Obama will appoint former Senator George Mitchell as his chief envoy on Israel-Palestine. According to Jewish Week, ADL national director Abraham Foxman thinks Mitchell is an inappropriate choice because he is "fair," and has been "meticulously even-handed." As Matt Yglesias points out, fairness is a quality that we normally prize in an envoy.
Foxman says this approach is wrong because our policy hasn't been "even-handed" in the past. But has he noticed that our long-standing policy of one-sided support hasn't been working out so well for the United States, or for Israel? Experienced Middle East diplomats like Aaron David Miller and former Ambassador Dan Kurtzer understand that our mediation efforts will fail if we act like Israel's lawyer, and make it clear that we need envoys who are seen as credible by both sides. To repeat myself: it's time to redefine what being "pro-Israel" means. I think Obama may get this, even if Foxman doesn't.
I was thinking about all the people who will soon be moving into their new jobs in the Obama administration, and recalled the opening lines of Richard N. Haass's book The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur:
You have just had your second cup of coffee. Your pencils are sharpened; your legal pad is at the ready. You may figured out how to log onto your new computer and done so. You glance at your watch; too soon to start thinking about lunch. You want to succeeed; but you are not quite sure what it will take. To be honest, you are not quite sure how to define success.
So to all the new appointees: Good luck!
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.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.