Privacy under siege here in the USA. Turmoil in Turkey. A grinding civil war in Syria. Obama and Xi making nice out in California. Bond markets queasy. The fate of the eurozone is still anyone's guess.
With so much going on, it's an awkward time to take a break from blogging, but I'm going to drop (mostly) off the grid starting tomorrow. I'm spending the next two weeks in Europe, attending conferences and seminars in France, Britain, Norway, and Crete. Not exactly a restful trip, but I'm looking forward to it anyway. I may post occasionally when connectivity allows, and I'm hoping a few guest bloggers weigh in while I'm away, but no promises.
If anyone needs to reach me, just contact the NSA. They'll probably know where I am … (just kidding … I think).
You might think that you don't need to worry about the secret U.S. government programs to collect phone and Internet information on ordinary Americans, a program that is not quite so secret after last week's revelations. There are over 300 million Americans, after all, and the vast majority of their online and cell-phone communications have nothing to do with national security and are unlikely to attract any scrutiny. We are still some ways from Big Brother, "Minority Report," or "The Adjustment Bureau," and maybe we can trust the nameless, largely anonymous army of defense contractors and government employees (by one source numbering more than 800,000) to handle all that data responsibly. Yeah, right.
In fact, you should be worried, but not because most of you are likely to have your privacy violated and be publicly exposed. If you're an ordinary citizen who never does anything to attract any particular attention, you probably don't need to be concerned. Even if your Internet and phone records contain information you'd rather not be made public (an online flirtation, the time you emailed a friend to bring over some pot, or maybe some peculiar porn habits), there's safety in numbers, and you'll probably never be exposed.
The real risk to our democracy is what this situation does to potential dissenters, whistle-blowers, investigative journalists, and anyone else who thinks that some aspect of government policy might be boneheaded, unethical, or maybe even illegal. If you are one of those people -- even on just a single issue -- and you decide to go public with your concerns, there's a possibility that someone who doesn't like what you are doing will decide to see what they can find out about you. It doesn't have to be the attorney general either; it might just be some anonymous midlevel bureaucrat or overly zealous defense contractor. Or maybe it will be someone who wants to suck up to their superiors by taking down a critic or who wants to have their own 15 minutes of fame. It really doesn't matter: Unless you've lived an absolutely pristine online and cellular life, you might wake up to discover that some regrettable moment from your past is suddenly being plastered all over the blogosphere or discussed in the New York Times.
Does this danger sound far-fetched? Recall that when former diplomat Joseph Wilson published an op-ed debunking the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein was trying to score uranium from Niger, some government officials decided to punish him by blowing his wife's cover as a CIA agent and destroying her career. Remember that David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director because a low-level FBI agent began investigating his biographer on an unrelated matter and stumbled across their emails. Recall further that long before the Internet age, J. Edgar Hoover helped keep himself in power at the FBI by amassing vast files of dirt on public figures. Given all that and more, is there any reason to believe that this vast trove of data won't eventually be abused for political purposes?
My point is that once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can't be sure that someone inside the government won't take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct -- even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand -- might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information.
Vigorous debate on key issues is essential to a healthy democracy, and it is essential that outsiders be able to scrutinize and challenge what public officials are up to. People who work for the federal, state, and local governments aren't privileged overlords to whom we owe obeisance; in a democracy, they are public servants who work for us. Right now, however, there are hundreds of thousands of public servants (including private contractors with fat government contracts) who are busy collecting information about every one of us. Citizens don't have similar resources to devote to watching what our elected and appointment officials are doing, so we must rely on journalists, academics, and other independent voices to ferret out wrongdoing, government malfeasance, corruption, or just plain honest mistakes. But if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before -- and via completely legal means -- then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.
In short, the real reason you should be worried about these revelations of government surveillance is not that you're likely to be tracked, prosecuted, or exposed. You should be worried because it is another step in the process of making our vibrant, contentious, and most of all free-minded citizenry into a nation of sheep.
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Andrew Sullivan has offered a measured response to the Guardian's revelations about a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to collect metadata about ordinary Americans' phone calls. You can read his whole comment here, but the sentences that caught my eye were these:
"This kind of technology is one of the US' only competitive advantages against Jihadists. Yes, its abuses could be terrible. But so could the consequences of its absence."
There are two obvious counters. First, the United States (and its allies) are hardly lacking in "competitive advantages" against jihadists. On the contrary, they have an enormous number of advantages: They're vastly richer, better-armed, better-educated, and more popular, and their agenda is not advanced primarily by using violence against innocent people. (When the United States does employ violence indiscriminately, it undermines its position.) And for all the flaws in American society and all the mistakes that U.S. and other leaders have made over the past decade or two, they still have a far more appealing political message than the ones offered up by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the various leaders of the Taliban. The United States is still going to be a major world power long after the contemporary jihadi movement is a discredited episode in modern history, even if the country repealed the Patriot Act and stopped all this secret domestic surveillance tomorrow.
Second, after acknowledging the potential for abuse in this government surveillance program, Sullivan warns that the "consequences of its absence" could be "terrible." This claim depends on the belief that jihadism really does pose some sort of horrific threat to American society. This belief is unwarranted, however, provided that dedicated and suicidal jihadists never gain access to nuclear weapons. Conventional terrorism -- even of the sort suffered on 9/11 -- is not a serious threat to the U.S. economy, the American way of life, or even the personal security of the overwhelming majority of Americans, because al Qaeda and its cousins are neither powerful nor skillful enough to do as much damage as they might like. And this would be the case even if the NSA weren't secretly collecting a lot of data about domestic phone traffic. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark Stewart have shown, post-9/11 terrorist plots have been mostly lame and inept, and Americans are at far greater risk from car accidents, bathtub mishaps, and a host of other undramatic dangers than they are from "jihadi terrorism." The Boston bombing in April merely underscores this point: It was a tragedy for the victims but less lethal than the factory explosion that occurred that same week down in Texas. But Americans don't have a secret NSA program to protect them from slipping in the bathtub, and Texans don't seem to be crying out for a "Patriot Act" to impose better industrial safety. Life is back to normal here in Boston (Go Sox!), except for the relatively small number of people whose lives were forever touched by an evil act.
Terrorism often succeeds when its targets overreact, thereby confirming the extremists' narrative and helping tilt opinion toward their cause. Thus, a key lesson in dealing with these (modest) dangers is not to exaggerate them or attribute to enemies advantages that they do not possess. I suspect Sullivan knows this, even if he briefly forgot it when writing his otherwise thoughtful post.
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George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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Today I want to do a shout-out for the just-released report of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk. I was privileged to participate in this council this year, and the report is the product of three days' deliberation and discussion back in November and subsequent discussion and redrafting afterwards. (Kudos to Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group for ably chairing the group).
Our task was to assess geopolitical risks in 2013. You can read the full report for some specific forecasts, but our overarching theme was the increasing vulnerability of elites in virtually every sector. In a globalized and unequal world where information flows almost instantaneously, where economic tides can shift without warning, where masses can mobilize via new media, and where the slightest transgressions can be amplified and repeated in the blogospheric echo-chamber, elites in both the public and private sector can find the ground shifting beneath their feet suddenly and without warning.
"The vulnerability of elites cuts across emerging markets and advanced economies, democracies and authoritarian states, public and private institutions, and a wide array of issues. This is the challenge: as their legitimacy gets called into question, political actors struggle to react to instability, crises and opportunities in the most effective manner. Whether it is the growing disparity of wealth or the evolving flow information, several factors are facilitating pushback against existing policies and institutions and making both governments and some private actors across the globe look increasingly fragile."
Examples? Think of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and (one hopes) Bashar al-Assad. Look at what happened to CIA director David Petraeus or Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Consider how Rupert Murdoch's reputation and clout were tarnished by the phone hacking scandal, and ask yourself where his former editor Rebekah Brooks is now. Similarly, the Jimmy Savile scandal brought down the head of the BBC, showing that the leaders of a powerful and sophisticated news organization cannot control the news cycle.
Given that the annual WEF meeting at Davos is a confab of global elites, I wonder if our report will make any of them feel a bit ... well ... nervous. Some of them should.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
When Andrew Sullivan announced last week that he was taking his uber-blog, The Dish, independent and relying solely on reader subscriptions to fund the operation, the first thing I thought of was...
Not because the announcement made me yearn for a nice IPA, but because it made me wonder whether what is happening to the media environment is in some ways analogous to the extraordinary improvements in brewmaking over the past couple of decades, especially here in North America.
Back in my youth, beer in America was a consistently bland and homogeneous product. Watery lagers predominated, because the big brewing companies all sought to appeal to the median drinker. There just wasn't much difference between Bud, Miller, Schlitz, etc., which is why beer like Coors -- which had even less flavor but was hard to get in much of the country -- could become a fad for awhile. Beer snobs sometimes drank imports like Beck's or Guinness, but the major U.S. brands were boring, conventional, and competing to be more-or-less like each other. Kinda like Detroit's Big Three automakers or the three major TV networks.
Enter the microbrewery revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, enterprising Americans in search of good beer began drawing on artisanal brewing traditions and techniques from Europe, leading to an explosion of small craft breweries whose main selling point was creativity and diversity. Not to mention taste. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, microbrews thrived by presenting unique and interesting products that could actually hold a beer fan's interest. Instead of putting out a cheap product to be swilled in front of the TV or at a football game, microbrewers sought to produce something you could savor, discuss, and get seriously passionate about. No wonder I haven't sipped a Bud in years. Even the Obama White House has caught the bug, producing its own Honey ale in recent years.
So too with blogs. As Sullivan has realized, you don't have to be connected to some big media giant like the New York Times or the Economist in order to have a significant readership. It helps to be part of a well-known brand, of course but it's not essential, especially if you're more interested in appealing to a smaller group of engaged readers than in grabbing as much market share and advertising revenue as you can.
Furthermore, as the diverse set of writers that Sullivan often features on his blog illustrate, those who work primarily in the blogosphere are usually more interesting, provocative, willing to experiment, and well-informed than the mainstream commentators and pundits writing for the big media outlets. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm constantly impressed by how many smart people and good writers now inhabit the internet, and I frequently find myself in awe of how well so many of them use language and how much genuine pleasure one can get from reading them. By contrast, outstanding writing is becoming harder to find in a lot of mainstream media platforms, and its almost an endangered species in the hallowed halls of academe. It's not that they are bad writers, it's just that they are mostly so cautious, predictable, and bland. You know: like PBR.
Given the effectiveness of modern search engines, interested citizens can get lots of information from the web if they're willing do a little bit of dedicated trolling, which in turn makes it harder for governments, interest groups, or big media conglomerates to control discourse anymore. And that's why authoritarian governments in countries like China or Iran have worked so hard to slap restrictions on this free-wheeling environment, lest their own actions and legitimacy get undermined by the unconstrained flow of ideas.
None of this is big news by now, and Sullivan isn't the first blogger to rely solely on reader support. He's just the most visible and prominent, and his experiment reminds us that the information revolution that we are all living through is still in its early stages. But I hope Sullivan's venture succeeds and that others follow his lead. I don't know what the information industries will look like a decade or two into the future, but it's certain to be different than it is today and a lot different than it was when I was a kid. I'm already reconciled to the fact that I'll eventually have to give up my cherished morning newspapers and get almost everything in digitized form. I'll heave a nostalgic sigh when that happens, but in the end I think it will be for the best. Why? Because I also believe that the open exchange of information and ideas eventually leads to greater collective wisdom and better public policies. For this reason, the break-up of big media oligopolies and the proliferation of independent voices is a good thing.
And on that happy note, I think I'll have a beer.
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FP colleague Dan Drezner is clearly feeling generous this holiday season, which is a wonderful thing. Yet at the same time, I miss his normally sharp-elbowed intelligence. To be specific, his recent post is too forgiving of the incestuous relationship between Iraq/Afghan commander David Petraeus and inside-the-Beltway operators Fred and Kimberly Kagan, as well as of the other think-tankers Petraeus "consulted" with during his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To his credit, Dan acknowledges that there are troubling features in this case. It bothers him that Kimberly Kagan hinted that they'd say critical things about the Afghan campaign unless they got more cooperation from the Pentagon, and then penned upbeat stuff once they got what they wanted. Dan also thinks exploiting their relationship with Petraeus for fundraising purposes was "unseemly" (an uncharacteristically timid charge for him.) And he's bothered by the reports that they overstepped their role as consultants and seemed to interfere with the chain of command.
Dan's main defense of the Petraeus/Kagan relationship is that military commanders ought to get outside their own bureaucratic environments on occasion and solicit informed advice from independent experts. It is hard to disagree with this general observation, but the devil is in the details and in this case they are pretty damning.
The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that's exactly what they did.
Here's the basic structure of the situation. If you're a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren't known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.
Next, consider how this looks from the consultants' perspective. If you're an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you're someone who depends on soft money), it's a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let's not forget the role of ego: it's just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.
Your well-scripted tour of the battle zone will probably convince you things are generally okay, of course, but you may still have a few doubts or questions and you may even express them to the commanders who invited you over. But what you won't do is tell them that the entire enterprise is misguided, or return home and write a hard-hitting piece explaining why the strategy is wrong or that the war effort is likely to fail. Because if you did that, it would be the last invitation you'd ever get and you wouldn't be able to play up your insider status anymore. Even worse, powerful people inside the national security bureaucracy might start bad-mouthing you, thereby diminishing your clout in Washington and destroying any hopes you might have had about serving in the government.
To see how well this works, ask yourself: How many of the people who took advantage of Petraeus' hospitality ended up writing critical assessments of his strategy or offered pessimistic forecasts about the prospects for victory? Not Michael O'Hanlon or Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, not Max Boot or Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and certainly not the Kagans. I haven't done a comprehensive survey of everything that Petraeus' various advisors have written since then, but my impression is that virtually all of them remained upbeat about both wars for quite some time and none were critical early on. And it isn't as if there wasn't plenty of evidence that both of these wars were going badly.
Dan and I agree in principle: U.S. government officials and military commanders should sometimes solicit independent outside advice. And I have no problem with academics offering advice if they feel they have something to contribute. But we ought to recognize from the start that these relations are fraught with the potential for corruption and cooptation. Powerful leaders aren't likely to solicit advice from people who aren't already sympathetic to their views, and even scholars with considerable integrity will find it hard to keep their bearings, speak truth to power, and tell the rest of us what's really going on.
I've been too busy to blog much this week, but I thought I"d mention that I've taken the plunge and signed up for Twitter (@StephenWalt). I'll probably use it sparingly, but who knows? Please bear with me until I get the hang of it. Brevity has never been my long suit, so this may take awhile.
I enjoy blogging for Foreign Policy, and one of the strengths of this site is that there's clearly no party line. So permit me to take issue with several items recently posted by my FP colleagues.
1. Over the weekend, Oren Kessler had an interesting piece on the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline Jabotinskyite father Benzion, who passed away last week at the age of 102. I don't doubt that the father-son relationship has a lot to do with Bibi's political predilections, but too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the individual here. Specifically, there is a tendency to blame Israeli expansionism and intransigence on the Likud Party, or on Bibi himself, or even on the divided and fractious nature of Israeli coalition politics. If only Israel had a different PM, so the argument runs, we'd see a turn away from settlement expansion and renewed hope for a two-state solution.
This line of thinking ignores the simple fact that settlement expansion has occurred under every Israeli government since 1967: Labor, Likud, Kadima, unity coalitions, etc. And these activities haven't been mere passive acquiescence: Each of these governments actively backed settlement expansion with subsidies, military protection, and expanded infrastructure. It's true that some Israeli leaders have been more open to some sort of two-state deal (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in particular), but neither leader put a completely acceptable deal on the table and both only got close to doing so when they were lame ducks about to leave office. And both continued to expand settlements while they were supposedly negotiating, which only made attempts to reach a deal harder.
Netanyahu just called for early elections, and he's likely to win a new term. But I'm not sure this development makes much difference, given the obstacles that have already been created to any meaningful form of two-state solution.
2. Dan Drezner has written several smart posts about the "surprising resilience" of Sino-American relations, as demonstrated by how the two governments handled the Chen Guangcheng case. I agree with his assessment of the diplomacy surrounding this particular incident, but I would caution against drawing any long-term conclusions from it. The real issue in Sino-American relations is not how the two governments deal with current bilateral, regional and global issues, but how they will be handled if the balance of power continues to shift. For all the publicity about China's rapid rise, it is still decidedly weaker than the United States is and it has considerable incentive to avoid major tests of strength. What worries realists is not what China might do this year, or even next year, but what a more powerful China might do in the decades ahead.
As I've emphasized before, it is entirely possible that Sino-American relations will continue to be handled in a sensible and mature fashion for many decades to come, if you assume that both sides are led by sensible and mature leaders and never by rabid nationalists, impulsive neoconservatives, or inexperienced officials who like to go with their "gut instincts." But over the longer term, how likely is that?
3. Last week Aaron Miller offered up five "bad ideas" for screwing up the Middle East. Rather than comment on his list (which I did find disappointing), I'll just offer a sixth: consistently placing U.S. Middle East policy in the hands of the same people who've repeatedly failed to achieve peace despite having lots of opportunities, and making reflexive support for the "special relationship" a litmus test for service in the U.S. government.
FP is about to inaugurate a new "comments" system, and it will be interesting to see how this change affects discourse on this site and on others. I don't yet know exactly how the new system is supposed to operate, but I want to use this moment to offer a few comments of my own on the reactions that readers have contributed since I started writing this blog back in 2009.
On the whole, it has been gratifying that some of my posts have elicited a lot of lively discussion. I don't read the comments religiously -- who has the time? -- but when I do, I often find a lot of smart observations and occasionally some useful corrections to things I've written. It's also instructive just to read people scrutinize my ideas from different perspectives, some of them sharply at odds with my own.
What's more disappointing, however, is the level of name-calling and gratuitous spleen that some commenters display. This problem is hardly unique to this site, of course, and plenty of other bloggers and online publications have dealt with this problem too. Unfortunately, anonymity gives people the freedom to write a lot of venomous bilge, and some participants here have leapt to exploit that opportunity.
I welcome pointed arguments, sarcasm, wit, and even the occasional modest dose of snark, but some issues seem to bring out some people's worst instincts on a consistent basis, and reason and civility just run right out the door. The problem is not confined to people who disagree with me, by the way, as I find some readers' attacks on my critics to be equally offensive and/or juvenile. It may be cathartic for the person who's typing, but flame wars do not advance our understanding of difficult issues.
So by all means take issue with me, or with each other, but why not see if you can do it on the basis of logic and evidence, instead of relying on character assassination and name-calling? Or if you do want to call someone out in a direct and personal fashion, drop the cloak of anonymity, sign your real name, and include your email address.
A related gripe is the tendency of some participants to paste lengthy articles from other publications into the "comments" thread. Not only does this clog up FP's servers, it's a disservice to other readers, as it forces them to scroll through a long entry just to get to the next comment. (Hint: because it's so annoying, I suspect this practice doesn't win many converts either.) My view is that readers should feel free to paste in links to articles that support the point they are making, or offer a brief quotation from another source to back up their claims. But as a courtesy to others, commenters would refrain from inserting whole articles from other publications.
Last point: because I don't read every comment, I've refrained from trying to monitor or censor the comments thread. I have deleted a few comments on occasion, either because I judged them to be bigoted, because they were completely off-topic, or because they consisted solely of an excessively long entry "borrowed" from another publication. But I don't have time to do that consistently, and while I take full responsibility for what I write, I bear no responsibility for what all of you write. But I will offer the following unsolicited advice: regardless of what views you espouse, you will win more converts with logic and evidence than you will with invective.
At least I hope so.
In our book on the Israel lobby, John Mearsheimer and I emphasized that it was "wrong -- and objectionable -- to argue that Jews or pro-Israel forces 'control' the media and what [it] says about Israel." Instead, we argued that groups and individuals in the lobby work overtime to monitor what the media says about Israel, and to bring pressure to bear on reporters and editors who said things these groups or individuals didn't like. The lobby didn't "control" the media in a direct or conspiratorial fashion; it just sought to influence media coverage in a variety of sometimes heavy-handed ways, much as some other interest groups do. We documented numerous incidents where media organizations faced pressure to alter their coverage. As a former spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York put it, "Of course, a lot of self-censorship goes on. Journalists, editors, and politicians are going to think twice about criticizing Israel if they know they are going to get thousands of calls in a matter of hours. The Jewish lobby is good at orchestrating pressure." (Note: "Jewish lobby" was his term, not ours). As an anonymous interviewee told journalist Michael Massing, "the pressure from these groups is relentless. Editors would just as soon not touch them."
Discourse about this topic has opened up a lot in recent years, but the same tactics are still on display. Case in point: the warning shots fired at the New York Times' new bureau chief in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren, which began when the ink on the press release announcing her appointment was barely dry.
What was Rudoren's scandalous transgression? She had the temerity to send a pleasant (but hardly effusive) response to a tweet from Ali Abunimah, who is the author of a book advocating one state for Israel and Palestine. Whatever you may think of Abunimah's views (I happen to think he's wrong on that issue), he's not a violent extremist and there's nothing inappropriate about Rudoren responding to him as she did. Rudoren also tweeted some positive things about Peter Beinart's forthcoming book The Crisis of Zionism.
Well, before you could say "hasbara," Rudoren was being chastised by a familiar list of commentators, including Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon, Shmuel Rosner of the Jerusalem Post, and Josh Block, the former AIPAC staffer who recently led a despicable effort to smear the Center for American Progess. And of course Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, self-appointed Supreme Jurisprudent of What is Permissible to Say about Israel, got into the act as well. (Goldberg's sudden interest in fair-minded reporting is especially amusing, given his penchant for making up lies about those with whom he disagrees.)
Rudoren had done nothing wrong, of course. Her job as a reporter is to reach out to a wide variety of interested parties, to describe the situation on the ground as she sees it, and to render intelligent judgments about what she observes. I frankly don't envy her the job given how politicized the issue is. It remains to be seen how good a job she will do, but the obvious purpose of this little exercise in intimidation was to put her on notice. Her critics were sending a message: "If you write things that we don't like (and especially anything that might present Israel in a negative light), then we're going to raise a stink and try to get you to start pulling your punches."
As I've said ad nauseum, this situation is not healthy for the United States or for Israel. If Americans get a one-sided diet of reportage about this conflict, we are going to misunderstand it and we are going to keep making stupid or ill-informed decisions. We're also going to be less capable of giving our Israeli friends sensible advice, which all states need from time to time. Israel's staunchest backers shouldn't want a cheerleader at the Times' Jerusalem bureau; in fact, the more you care about Israel, the more you want someone who'll tell you the truth, even when some of it might not be pleasant to read or hear. Otherwise, you might not find out what's really happening until it is too late.
P.S. Readers here will probably be aware of the tragic death of Times' reporter Anthony Shadid, who suffered a fatal asthma attack while covering the violence in Syria. I don't think I ever met Shadid, and my only experience with him was being on a couple of radio talk shows. His reporting on Middle East affairs was intrepid, insightful, fair-minded, and often eloquent, and his death is a loss for us all. My condolences to his family and to anyone who knew him well.
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Paul Pillar has a great piece up at The National Interest that illuminates just how nutty the present debate about war with Iran really is. And it got me thinking.
If a sensible Martian came down to Earth and looked at the sabre-rattling about Iran, I suspect he/she/it would be completely flummoxed. For our Martian visitor would observe two very capable states -- the United States and Israel -- threatening to attack a country that hardly seems worth the effort. The U.S. and Israel together spend more than $700 billion each year on their national security establishments; Iran spends about $10 billion. The U.S. and Israel have the most advanced military hardware in the world; Iran's weapons are mostly outdated and lack spare parts. The U.S. and Israeli militaries are well-educated and very well-trained; not true of Iran. The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and Israel has several hundred, while Iran has a vast arsenal of … zero. Iran does have a nuclear enrichment program (which is the reason for all the war talk), but the most recent National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that Iran does not presently have an active nuclear weapons program. The United States has several dozen military bases in Iran's immediate vicinity; Iran has exactly none in the Western hemisphere. The United States has powerful allies in every corner of the world; Iran's friends include a handful of minor nonstate actors like Hezbollah or minor-league potentates like Bashar al Assad (who's not looking like an asset these days) or Hugo Chávez.
Moreover, the United States has fought four wars since 1990. It has bombed, invaded or occupied a half dozen countries in that period, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. Israel has been colonizing the West Bank since 1967, it invaded and occupied much of Lebanon from 1982 to 1999, and its armed forces pummeled Lebanon again in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09. Prominent U.S. politicians have repeatedly called for "regime change" in Iran, and U.S. government officials now report that Israel has been murdering civilian scientists in Iran, in cahoots with the MEK, a terrorist organization that is still on the State Department's terrorist "watchlist." Iran's past conduct is far from pure, but it has done nothing remotely similar in recent years.
In fact, given the various threats now facing Tehran, our Martian friend might have trouble explaining why Iran's leaders hadn't gone all-out to get themselves some sort of WMD, merely as a deterrent. And yet it is the United States and Israel that profess themselves to be terribly, terribly worried about the supposed "threat" from Iran, and who are contemplating a preventive war that most observers realize would strengthen Iran's nuclear ambitions and could only delay its program for a couple of years.
Let's be clear: There's nothing to like about the current Iranian regime -- to include its clerical rulers, its buffoonish president, and the various thugs that keep the regime in power -- and I for one am very glad I live here and not there. Nonetheless, our Martian observer might have a lot of trouble figuring out why politicians in Washington and Jerusalem were so scared. In fact, he might very reasonably conclude that both states were losing all sense of perspective, and allowing the worst sort of worst-case analysis to cloud their thinking and cut off useful avenues of diplomatic engagement. And given that the United States likes to think of itself as the "leader of the free world" and is normally expected to exercise sound judgment on a host of complex issues, that possibility is not reassuring.
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In another corner of the vast FP media empire, David Bosco wants to know if "in some secret chamber of [my] heart, [I am] a believer in international law and institutions." He was writing in response to my post earlier this week, where I argued that NATO's decision to conduct "regime change" in Libya under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, even though the resolution did not authorize this act, may have contributed to Russia and China's decision to veto a proposed resolution on Syria. He finds it surprising that a realist such as myself could take the niceties of international law -- and in this case, the text of a Security Council resolution -- so seriously.
In fact, Bosco's query betrays a common misconception about realism, as well as a misunderstanding of my original position. Of course realists "believe in" international law and institutions": they exist, and we'd have to be blind to deny that basic fact. Moreover, realists have long acknowledged that international law and international institutions can be useful tools of statecraft, which states can use to achieve their national interests. In particular, law and institutions can help states coordinate their behavior so as to reap greater gains or avoid various problems (think of the rules that regulate air traffic, some forms of pollution, or global communications), and they can also provide mechanisms to facilitate international trade and to resolve various disputes. Where realists part company with some (but not all) liberal idealists is in their emphasis on the limits of institutions: they cannot force powerful states to act against their own interests and they usually reflect the underlying balance of power in important ways.
Thus, a realist like me isn't surprised when a powerful country like the United States ignores the fine details of a U.N. resolution, and proceeds to undertake unauthorized regime change. Nor are we surprised when the U.S. and some of its allies invaded Iraq without any U.N. authorization at all. It was a surprising decision because it was so stupid, but it was apparent by late 2002 that U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of serial blunderers. Sadly, there was nothing international law or the U.N. could do about that fact.
The central point in my post, however, was not that Russia and China were necessarily upset by the fact that the U.S. and its allies had trod all over the text of Resolution 1973. Rather, they were upset because they didn't like the United States and its allies saying one thing and doing another, and they were upset by the precedent that the Libya case appeared to set. Put differently, they think they got snookered over Libya, and they weren't about to get snookered again. Realists understand that institutions are weak constraints on state behavior (which is why the U.S. could act as it did), but realists also understand that when you take advantage of others, they are going to take notice and make it harder for you to exploit them again. And that appears to be part of the tragic story that is unfolding in Syria.
In short, the puzzle isn't why a realist might point out that we are now paying a price for our earlier high-handedness. The real puzzle is why advocates of intervention are so fond of invoking multilateralism, institutions, and the importance of international law, and then so quick to ignore it when it gets in the way of today's pet project. Realists aren't always right, but at least we're not hypocrites.
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Back in August 2010, I wrote a post warning about the possibility that war with Iran was being "mainstreamed." My concern was the likelihood that incessant talk of war would gradually accustom people to the idea and harden perceptions to the point that eventually even former skeptics would be convinced that war was inevitable and that we might as well get it over with. As I put it back then:
If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
I now wonder if my concerns were understated, and the danger a bit more subtle. It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. Earlier this week, the CIA lost a reconnaissance drone over Iranian territory (whether Iran shot it down or not is disputed). And just as I'd feared, this situation has led smart and normally sober people like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen to endorse this shadowy campaign, on the grounds that it is preferable to all-out war.
I certainly agree that what the United States is doing is better than launching an all-out attack, but I question this approach on three grounds. First, as I've already argued elsewhere, our preoccupation with Iran vastly overstates its capabilities and the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Iran is a minor military power at present, and it has no meaningful power projection capabilities. It has been pursuing some sort of nuclear capability for decades without getting there, which makes one wonder whether Iran intends to ever cross the nuclear weapons threshold. Even if it did, it could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else. Iran's "revolutionary" ideology is old and tired and inspires no one. The "Arab Spring" has underscored Iran's irrelevance as a political force, Iran's Syrian ally is under siege and may yet fall, and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will remove a key source of Iranian-Iraqi solidarity and encourage Arab-Persian differences to reemerge once again. Iran is a problem but a relatively minor one, and it is a sign of our collective strategic myopia that U.S. leaders either cannot figure this out or cannot say so openly.
Second, waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery. Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.
Third, a semi-secret war of this kind raises the inevitable risk of "blowback." The late Chalmers Johnson defined blowback as the unintended consequences of U.S. action abroad, and especially those actions of which the public is largely unaware. When we conduct semi-secret, not-quite wars in other countries, the targets sometime try to hit us back. When they do, many people back home will see their actions as unjustified aggression, and as evidence that our enemies are irrevocably hostile and unremittingly evil.
A case in point is the alleged Iranian plot to get Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Americans immediately concluded that this scheme was a sign of dastardly Iranian perfidy, when it might just as easily have been a harebrained Iranian riposte to what we were already doing. This is not to say that Iran was justified in trying to blow up a building in our nation's capital, but by what logic is peace-loving America justified in doing something similar over in Iran? In short: If the American people don't quite know what their government is up to, they cannot understand or interpret what other states are doing either. We may have good reasons not to like what others are doing, but the bigger danger is that we simply won't understand it, and won't understand our own role in helping bring such actions about.
Lastly, ratcheting up military pressure -- even if done covertly and at a relatively low level -- can only reaffirm deeply rooted Iranian suspicions of the United States and prolong U.S.-Iranian animosity. (The same is true in reverse, of course). I'm under no illusions about the depths of this animosity and the degree of skill, imagination, and patience it would take to unravel it, but doing more of the same is not going to make it any easier. Yes, many Iranians loathe the regime and would like it to go, but that doesn't mean they welcome U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iranian soil. And that is especially true of attacks on the nuclear program, which Iranians of many political persuasions view as an important symbol of national pride.
In short, the "silent campaign" against Iran is not without its own risks and costs. It is preferable to all-out attack, but a silent war and an all-out war are not the only options. The third option is a sustained and patient effort to reengage with Iran, in order to convince Iranian leaders that they are better off not going nuclear and that both sides will be better off if we can gradually work out some of our differences. Such an approach does not require the United States to sacrifice any core interests, nor would it preclude continuing to press Iran on its human rights record and on other matters that trouble us. And maybe it won't work. But as Trita Parsi shows in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice, that alternative approach has never really been tried.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that "offshore balancing" was a grand strategy whose time had come. My evidence at the time was the fact that Tom Friedman of the New York Times, previously an enthusiastic proponent of using American power to police the world and transform the Middle East, was now endorsing some of the key principles of offshore balancing. Now another recovering liberal interventionist, Peter Beinart, has written a column for the Daily Beast arguing that "offshore balancing" is the strategy that the Obama administration has adopted and offering a qualified endorsement of it.
On the one hand, it's gratifying to see another mainstream pundit embrace a strategy that is long overdue. But it is also troublesome that neither Friedman nor Beinart bothered to mention any of the people who have been championing this approach for a decade or more, including Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Robert Pape, Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Porter, and yours truly.
The omission may just be due to carelessness or haste, but it is not without consequences. By ignoring these (mostly) realist scholars who were among the earliest critics of neoconservative excesses (excesses that Beinart and many others once supported) and who have also been the principal advocates of a different approach to American grand strategy, Beinart's essay helps ensure that foreign-policy debates in the U.S. remain confined within rather narrow circles.
As I've observed elsewhere, a striking feature of our contemporary foreign-policy debates is the rather modest role that realists play in policymaking circles or in mainstream commentary. Neoconservatives are still highly influential despite a steady litany of failures, and liberal internationalists dominate the Democratic Party's foreign-policy establishment despite a mixed track record. By contrast, genuine realists remain something of an endangered species inside the Beltway, even though they were once important players in foreign-policy circles and even though "realism" is a respected theoretical perspective within the academic study of international relations. Yet there is no genuine realist writing on a regular basis for any of the major news outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. (If you want to know how marginal realists have become, consider the frightening possibility that this rather modest blog might be the most visible mainstream outlet for more-or-less realist commentary.)
Of course, my point is not that realists get everything right, though our track record is pretty good. My point is that a realist perspective on U.S. foreign policy ought to get more attention than it typically does these days.
Beinart is a smart and independent thinker, and he deserves credit for recognizing where things are now headed and for calling his readers' attention to it. But he doesn't fully grasp some of the essential features of offshore balancing. His (and Obama's) version of this strategy remains highly interventionist; the only difference is that Washington now uses drones, cruise missiles, and special forces instead of large land armies. But we are still violating other states' sovereignty and killing terrorists and civilians in several different places, including some areas that are hardly vital interests. As we are witnessing in Pakistan, this approach is inflaming anti-Americanism, radicalizing the Pakistani diaspora, jeopardizing the overdue effort to leave Afghanistan, and quite possibly making the terrorism problem worse over time. And Obama and Beinart's version of the strategy still assumes that it is America's responsibility to solve security problems in places like Yemen or Central Asia, instead of relying primarily on others to do it.
Beinart also believes one of offshore balancing's limitations is that "it requires abandoning the idea that via nation building the U.S. can remake other societies." Offshore balancers do not see eschewing nation-building as a "limitation" but rather as an acknowledgement that outside intervention and foreign occupation are not good ways to move societies in a positive direction. On the contrary, realists believe that the United States is more likely to move the world in the right direction by offering a powerful and positive example to the world, an example that others admire and seek to emulate over time. Hence their concern that excessive global adventurism has fueled anti-Americanism in many places, inflated the influence of the military-industrial complex, led to torture and other violations of U.S. ideals, and gradually undermined civil liberties back home.
Beinart is also somewhat critical of allying with states that have questionable democratic credentials, which is sometimes necessary to preserve favorable balances of power in key regions. But we should not forget that the United States has done this throughout its history and benefited from many of these partnerships. Alliances with fellow democracies might be preferable (though some of them can cause problems too), but international politics is a contact sport and even powerful states cannot afford to be overly choosy when selecting allies and partners.
Finally, Beinart depicts offshore balancing as a strategy that has been forced upon us largely by fiscal constraints. In his words, "offshore balancing reemerges when the money and bravado have run out." He's correct that our economic woes have pushed the United States towards this more sensible strategy, but that does not mean we should go back on the interventionist warpath if we ever get our fiscal house in order. The interventionist approach that the U.S. followed from 1992 onward -- and especially after 2001 -- was a blunder even when our economy was healthy and the budget was in surplus, because it embroiled us in costly conflicts that were very hard to win and did not advance core U.S. interests anyway. Had we followed more realistic prescriptions after 1992 -- limiting or forgoing NATO expansion, rejecting "dual containment" and "regional transformation" in the Middle East, playing "hard to get" a bit more with key allies, and acting as an evenhanded mediator in the Oslo Process, etc. -- the United States might not have been attacked on 9/11 and would certainly have avoided the costly quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. We might even have achieved the ever-elusive two-state solution in the Middle East, though it is impossible to say that for certain.
The key point is that offshore balancing is the right strategy even when our coffers are full, provided that no peer competitors are threatening to dominate key strategic regions. Even during good times, it makes no sense to take on unnecessary burdens or to allow allies to free-ride on Uncle Sam's hubristic desire to be the "indispensable nation" in almost every corner of the world. In other words, offshore balancing isn't just a strategy for hard times; it is also the best available strategy in a world where the United States is the strongest power, prone to trigger unnecessary antagonism, and vulnerable to being dragged into unnecessary wars.
As I wrote back in 2005 (p. 223):
Offshore balancing is the ideal grand strategy for an era of U.S primacy. It husbands the power on which U.S. primacy depends and minimizes the fear that U.S. power provokes. By setting clear priorities and emphasizing reliance on regional allies, it reduces the danger of being drawn into unnecessary conflicts and encourages other states to do more to help us. Equally important, it takes advantage of America's favorable geopolitical position and exploits the tendency for regional powers to worry more about each other than about the United States. But it is not a passive strategy, and does not preclude using the full range of U.S. power to advance core American interests.
I cannot help but wonder how much better off we would be today had the United States followed this basic blueprint over the past two decades, instead of indulging in a series of misguided interventions around the globe.
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Needless to say, winning an online poll like this doesn't tell you much (anything?) about the relative merits of the different nominated articles. For all I know, I was the only person to mention it on a blog, which might well explain the outcome. I've spent some time reading the other articles in the contest and I commend them to you: there are some pretty interesting and wide-ranging pieces in the group.
Again, my thanks to any of you who voted, and I promise I won't let it go to my head. And I'm even more grateful for the responses to my earlier request for help on things to read on the general topic of policy analysis.
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It's Thanksgiving once again, and it's become something of a ritual for me to record what I'm feeling grateful for each year. For starters, I want to thank the various people who responded to my request for advice on "policy analysis" yesterday, both via the "comments" section and to me directly. I got some very good suggestions, and I appreciate the help. Whether my students will be similarly appreciative remains to be seen.
This year, I'm thankful that the euro hasn't collapsed - yet -- and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't. It's true that the unraveling of the eurozone would be a striking vindication of a broadly realist view of international relations, but it would also produce tremendous human suffering and that's way too big a price to pay to vindicate a theory. So I hope Europe's leaders manage to defy my usual pessimism and navigate through the crisis. If they do, I'll be even more thankful next year.
I'm also grateful that there's been no war with Iran. Whatever the Obama administration's other shortcomings might have been, those at the top seem to have understood the folly and futility of unleashing major military action against Iran. I won't give them high marks for imaginative diplomacy, but at least they haven't done great harm.
I'm also giving thanks that the United States is getting out of Iraq, and I wish I could believe that we will draw the right long-term lessons from the debacle. On that score, it is not a good sign that many of the architects of that war are still taken seriously as foreign policy "experts," and some are even advising GOP candidates. Doesn't say much for our national learning curve, does it? But even if historical amnesia sets in quickly, I'm pleased that we are finally leaving Iraq to its own leaders. Now if we can just draw a similar conclusion about that other exercise in imperial futility ... Afghanistan.
Like nearly everyone, I'm troubled by the continued turmoil in Egypt and by the Assad regime's brutal behavior in Syria. But I'm thankful that the situation in Libya has thus far defied my worst fears and made at least some modest progress toward the establishment of a more legitimate political order. The capture of former heir-apparent (and accused war criminal) Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and former security head Abudullah al-Senussi pretty much eliminates any possibility of a "loyalist" insurgency, which is a good sign too. The country still has a long way to go, but I will be keeping my fingers crossed.
On a purely personal note, I'm thankful for the courageous policy analysts, writers and bloggers who make it easier for me to do this blog. I'm talking about people who seek puncture conventional wisdom, challenge orthodoxies, and rock the boat on occasion. I value them because they are an antidote to the flood of cautious semi-official narratives that dominate most of the writing on foreign policy, and so they help me think outside the box. So heartfelt thanks to Carl Conetta, Phil Weiss, Juan Cole, Gordon Adams, Martin Wolf, Jerry Haber, Uri Avnery, Jim Lobe, Helena Cobban, Glenn Greenwald, M. J. Rosenberg, John Mueller, Andrew Sullivan, Spencer Ackerman, Jerry Slater, Gideon Rachman, and many others too numerous to list or even remember. I don't know a lot of the people just mentioned, and I don't always agree with any of them. Heck, I don't always agree with this guy either. But I'm glad they are doing what they do.
Of course, I cannot omit my annual word of thanks to the whole gang at FP, including the reporters, writers, and bloggers with whom I've occasionally tussled. The editors remain a delight with whom to work, and it's been a pleasure to be part of their team. And because all bloggers ultimately depend on readers, I'm especially grateful for those of you who take the time to read this stuff.
With each passing year, I've become more aware and more appreciative of my own good fortune. It's been a pretty soft gig to be born a white American male in the mid-1950s, in a country enjoying enormous geopolitical advantages and considerable prosperity. I like to think I've done ok with the advantages I was handed, and there's no doubt that the deck was stacked in my favor from the start. And that goes for a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries too.
More broadly, if you compare the era in which most of us have lived to the previous fifty years (1900-1950), there's little question that we've enjoyed a period of comparative benevolence. The first half of the 20th century witnessed two enormously destructive world wars, the worst economic depression in history, and several brutal genocides. The past sixty years has its own share of tragedies, to be sure, but the overall level of violence was much lower, economic growth was fairly steady (until recently), and many of us never had to endure the insecurities, travesties, and sacrifices that earlier generations experienced or that were still common in other parts of the world.
Most Americans ought to be especially grateful for their extraordinary good fortune, and Thanksgiving is an appropriate time for us to reflect upon it. And as I watch Europe teeter on the brink of financial collapse, observe the violent political contestation that is sweeping the Middle East, note the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia, and contemplate the tragicomic follies of our so-called leaders in Washington, I do wonder how long it will last, and whether I will look back with regret at the tranquility we have lost.
But tomorrow, I will give thanks for the good that remains, and think about what can still be done to preserve and extend it.
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I like robust debate as much as the next person, but I'm leery of the tendency for bloggers to get into extended back-and-forths with our fellow commentators. All too often, this can rapidly degenerate into a lot of self-referential posturing and leave readers wondering why the debaters don't get a life. So I'm a bit reluctant to respond to Dan Drezner's reaction to my comment on his upbeat appraisal of Obama's foreign policy. If we're not careful, this response will provoke another rebuttal, leading to a follow-up rejoinder, then to a vigorous reply, followed by a stinging rebuke ... and before long you will all be asleep.
That said, Dan raises a good point at the end of his post, asking about the relationship between my comments about Obama's foreign policy and my recent article in The National Interest. His basic point is that I blamed Obama for his lack of success in my FP piece, whereas in the TNI article I attribute this to deeper structural forces.
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here at all. One can fail (or, more charitably, not achieve success), in at least one of two ways. One source of failure is making bad policy choices; a second source is simply that the task was just too hard given the specific circumstances at hand. (Contrary to what Americans often think, not every problem has an easy solution).
In this case, lack of success is attributable to both problems, depending to a large degree on which issues you're considering. I've argued repeatedly since 2009 that Obama faced enormous constraints in several areas -- consistent with my TNI piece -- and that his foreign policy "to do" list contained an array of hard problems that were likely to defy easy solution. Accordingly, I've argued that he had to be careful not to get overcommitted or distracted by peripheral problems. His lack of success on climate change, global trade, North Korea, or Iraq falls into this category: there just wasn't a magic bullet to aim at those targets. By contrast, his failures on Israel-Palestine or AfPak, and the broad deterioration of the U.S. image in the Arab/Islamic world, are due more to specific choices he made (greatly exacerbated by domestic political constraints both here in the United States and in the relevant foreign countries). And then there are cases like Libya where it's just too soon to tell.
In short, I think Obama was dealt a horrible hand to play, and at a time when broad forces were making it much harder for the United States to wield reliable influence on an array of tough problems. I think he's played some of his cards well (e.g., in East Asia), but he's also misplayed a few rather badly. And the result, as I said in my original piece, is a foreign policy record that doesn't have a lot of meaningful successes so far. It could have been worse, of course (see under: George W. Bush), but it could have been better too.
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Apart from a few brief sojourns at various think tanks, I've spent most of
my professional life in the academic world. Seven of these years were spent
helping run various programs, first as deputy dean of social sciences at the
University of Chicago and later as academic dean here at the Kennedy School. I
have one child in college and another heading there in two years. You can
therefore assume I have a certain professional and personal interest in the
whole business of higher education.
Which is why I find discussions of how technology might transform this whole enterprise quite fascinating. It's hard not to read such articles and wonder how my own job might change in the years ahead, and to reflect on how I think it ought to change. I have not studied this issue in detail, so what follows are some purely impressionistic observations, based mostly on my own experience.
1. I think there's no doubt that the traditional model of the academic lecture is headed the way of the dodo. I say that with a certain wistful regret, because I enjoy lecturing and like to think I'm fairly good at it. But it's hardly an efficient mode of information-transmission, and there are plenty of studies suggesting that students don't learn particularly well in this sort of passive "I-speak-while-you-listen-and- take-notes" experience. Lecturing of the old-fashioned sort can be entertaining and inspirational, but real learning requires students to engage and wrestle with the material instead of just hearing some older person declaim about it.
2. Given that top-flight faculty are among any college or university's scarcest resources, having them stand in front of a handful of students and talk is especially inefficient, and all the more so in basic introductory courses. In other words, you probably don't want Nobel Prize winners teaching basic statistics, Economics 101, or even Intro to Biology -- especially when there may be lots of less renowned people who are actually better at doing that. But you do want students to have the opportunity to interact with the most brilliant minds, to argue with them, to see how they do their work, and to be inspired by their example. And that means creating different sorts of educational experiences (seminars, workshops, mini-courses, etc.) rather than just one.
3. Information technology is making it possible to transmit educational content at almost no cost; you can put course materials on the web and stream lectures to anyone with an internet hookup. This is what MIT is doing now, and it doesn't seem to be discouraging people from wanting to attend full-time and pay full-freight. There are also online teaching programs that might do a better job of teaching basic materials (such as introduction to microeconomics, statistics, calculus, etc.) than that old model of the single lecturer with a chalkboard and a pile of notes. This suggests that we ought to be thinking of ways to use faculty rather differently -- in more interactive and personal modes--where hands-on attention, genuine inspiration, and pedagogical ability can produce big payoffs, while using online tools to deliver basic factual or technical content.
4. I suspect that in the near future we are going to see a lot of experimentation with new forms of higher education, reflecting the fact that these institutions in fact serve many purposes other than merely transmitting knowledge/skills to students. One reason MIT can make its content available for free is that students understand there is a difference between watching lectures online and actually being in the class, being on the campus, and being immersed in the broader in-person environment. In the United States, at least, universities and colleges also provide a relatively safe space for making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. They are environments where young people can meet future spouses of similar class or social backgrounds, have lots of arguments with peers and with their professors, and get a lot of preconceived notions challenged. For many young people (though not all), college is about a lot more than just what they learn in class, which is one reason parents are willing to pay through the nose to make that whole experience possible.
What I'm describing here, of course, is the traditional model of a liberal arts education, and it's hardly the only model out there. Other institutions (e.g., commuter colleges, junior colleges, vocational institutes) serve somewhat different educational functions and are already organized differently. My guess, therefore, is that changes in information technology and the overall globalization of information and education is going to produce an explosion of innovation over the next few years. The traditional four-year university/college won't disappear, but it will be coexisting and competing with a lot of other models.
Lastly, this is going to be a painful process. Universities are filled with brilliant and innovative people -- as individuals -- but they are also incredibly conservative institutions (not politically, but in the sense of being wary of change). As a former Harvard president reportedly said, "trying to change the curriculum is like moving a graveyard." Faculties don't like having to retool and alumni and other stakeholders often have powerful emotional attachments to traditional ways of doing business. And the older and more successful a university is, the more impervious to change it is likely to be.
Plus, coming up with new educational models is hard to do if you're already working pretty hard teaching the existing program. But there's no stopping this sort of Schumpeterian "creative destruction," and I'd hate to be working for the educational equivalent of Polaroid -- a brilliant and innovative company that proved unable to adapt to a rapidly changing technological frontier.
Now if we can just get universities out of the business of running semi-professional athletic teams...
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Ever since John Mearsheimer and I began writing about the Israel lobby, some of our critics have leveled various personal charges against us. These attacks rarely addressed the substance of what we wrote -- a tacit concession that both facts and logic were on our side -- but instead accused us of being anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists. They used these false charges to try to discredit and/or marginalize us, and to distract people from the important issues of U.S. Middle East policy that we had raised.
The latest example of this tactic is a recent blog post from Jeffrey Goldberg, where he accused my co-author of endorsing a book by an alleged Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer. Goldberg has well-established record of making things up about us, and this latest episode is consistent with his usual approach. I asked Professor Mearsheimer if he wanted to respond to Goldberg's sally, and he sent the following reply.
John Mearsheimer writes:
In a certain sense, it is hard not to be impressed by the energy and imagination that Jeffrey Goldberg devotes to smearing Steve Walt and me. Although he clearly disagrees with our views about U.S.-Israel relations and the role of the Israel lobby, he does not bother to engage what we actually wrote in any meaningful way. Indeed, given what he writes about us, I am not even sure he has read our book or related articles. Instead of challenging the arguments and evidence that we presented, his modus operandi is to misrepresent and distort our views, in a transparent attempt to portray us as rabid anti-Semites.
His latest effort along these lines comes in a recent blog post, where he seizes on a dust jacket blurb I wrote for a new book by Gilad Atzmon titled The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics. Here is what I said in my blurb:
Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world. He shows how assimilation and liberalism are making it increasingly difficult for Jews in the Diaspora to maintain a powerful sense of their 'Jewishness.' Panicked Jewish leaders, he argues, have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim. As Atzmon's own case demonstrates, this strategy is not working and is causing many Jews great anguish. The Wandering Who? should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike.
The book, as my blurb makes clear, is an extended meditation on Jewish identity in the Diaspora and how it relates to the Holocaust, Israel, and Zionism. There is no question that the book is provocative, both in terms of its central argument and the overly hot language that Atzmon sometimes uses. But it is also filled with interesting insights that make the reader think long and hard about an important subject. Of course, I do not agree with everything that he says in the book -- what blurber does? -- but I found it thought provoking and likely to be of considerable interest to Jews and non-Jews, which is what I said in my brief comment.
Goldberg maintains that Atzmon is a categorically reprehensible person, and accuses him of being a Holocaust denier and an apologist for Hitler. These are two of the most devastating charges that can be leveled against anyone. According to Goldberg, the mere fact that I blurbed Atzmon's book is decisive evidence that I share Atzmon's supposedly odious views. This indictment of me is captured in the title of Goldberg's piece: "John Mearsheimer Endorses a Hitler Apologist and Holocaust Revisionist."
This charge is so ludicrous that it is hard to know where to start my response. But let me begin by noting that I have taught countless University of Chicago students over the years about the Holocaust and about Hitler's role in it. Nobody who has been in my classes would ever accuse me of being sympathetic to Holocaust deniers or making excuses for what Hitler did to European Jews. Not surprisingly, those loathsome charges have never been leveled against me until Goldberg did so last week.
Equally important, Gilad Atzmon is neither a Holocaust denier nor an apologist for Hitler. Consider the following excerpt from The Wandering Who?
Over at the Belfer Center's "Power and Policy" blog (a relatively new website which is well worth perusing), my colleague Dick Rosecrance has taken issue with my earlier post on Europe, the European Union, and transatlantic relations. Dick is a friend, a highly accomplished scholar, and a great asset to the Kennedy School. His challenge to my analysis is therefore welcome, though I didn't find it convincing.
For starters, Dick begins his sally by misrepresenting my position. Contrary to what he writes, I did not "consign the European Union to the trashheap of history." Indeed, I made it clear that I expected the European Union to remain intact for some time to come. My point was simply that the high points of European influence, EU unity, and transatlantic security cooperation were now behind us, and that U.S. policymakers ought to take these developments into account. I might add that I think U.S.-European relations will be more harmonious if both sides of the Atlantic have more realistic expectations about each other, instead of acting as if we are still in the heyday of the Cold War. And no, I don't think recent events in Libya are going to alter this trajectory.
Dick makes three main assertions in the rest of his response. First, he reminds us that Europe is the largest economic unit on earth, with a combined GDP that is larger than the United States. Its power would be even more impressive, he suggests, if it imitated the early American republic and became politically united. This is undeniably true in theory, just as I would be Wimbledon champ if I could play tennis better than Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic. The problem is that Europe isn't like the early American republic, and a true "United States of Europe" is not going to happen in our lifetimes.
Second, he says that "in today's world, economics largely determines politics." Dick is hardly the only person who believes this, but has he noticed all the ways that politics -- pure and simple -- keeps intruding into economic affairs? Were it not for politics, managing Europe's debt crisis would be relatively simple. Absent politics, we would have had better financial regulation here in the United States and we wouldn't have had that 11th hour melodrama over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. If politics were as irrelevant as he suggests, it wouldn't have been seventeen years since the last successful multilateral trade agreement and the Doha Round would not have been a bust. If the desire for economic efficiency and wealth consistently trumped politics, most of the conflicts that still trouble us would have been resolved long ago.
Third, Dick argues that the United States is going to need Europe to counterbalance a rising China. Note the contradiction here: after telling us that economics dominates politics, he proceeds to justify a grand strategic partnership on pure balance-of-power considerations. If economics were all that mattered, we could just spend our time worrying about global trade and investment and there'd be no need to think about China's relative power at all.
Equally important, there is no reason to think that Europe is going to get into the business of balancing China in a serious way. The separate European nations have few strategic interests in Asia and hardly any capacity to project power there. They are far more likely to see China as a market. If the United States were to go to its NATO allies in 2020 and ask for help preserving maritime access in the South China Sea, it would probably get Gallic shrugs of indifference, pious statements of German pacifism, and elegant expressions of English equivocation, and then the diplomats and trade reps would hop the next flight to Beijing. What the United States won't get is any serious help from Europe.
States balance against threats, and one key component of threat is geographic proximity. If the United States decides to balance China--based on the long-range desire to remain the world's only regional hegemon -- and if it needs allies to help it accomplish that task, the place to find them is Asia, not Europe.
I was in New York City the past two days and left my laptop in my bag for a change. The main purpose of the trip was to pick up my daughter (who was flying home from a language immersion program), but we did manage to sneak in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater. Go here for a peek at The Life I Could Have Had if I Had Talent.
Along the way I've been reflecting more on the shooting/bombing in Norway and the debates that have surfaced since last weekend. One of the striking features of Anders Breivik's worldview (which is shared by some of the Islamophobe ideologues who influenced his thinking) is the idea that he is defending some fixed and sacred notion of the "Christian West," which is supposedly under siege by an aggressive alien culture.
There are plenty of problems with this worldview (among other things, it greatly overstates the actual size of the immigrant influx in places like Norway, whose Muslim minority is less than 4 percent of the population). In addition, such paranoia also rests on a wholly romanticized vision of what the "Christian West" really is, and it ignores the fact that what we now think of as "Western civilization" has changed dramatically over time, partly in response to influences from abroad. For starters, Christianity itself is an import to Europe -- it was invented by dissident Jews in Roman Palestine and eventually spread to the rest of Europe and beyond. I'll bet there were Norse pagans who were just as upset when the Christians showed up as Breivik is today.
Moreover, even Christian Europe is hardly a fixed cultural or political entity. The history of Western Europe (itself an artificial geographic construct) featured bitter religious wars, the Inquisition, patriarchy of the worst sort, slavery, the divine right of kings, the goofy idea of "noble birth," colonialism, and a whole lot of other dubious baggage. Fundamentalists like Breivik pick and choose among the many different elements of Western culture in order to construct a romanticized vision that they now believe is under "threat." This approach is not that different from Osama bin Laden's desire to restore the old Muslim Caliphate; each of these extremists is trying to preserve (or restore) an idealized vision of some pure and sacred past, based on a remarkably narrow reading of history.
In fact, any living, breathing society is driven partly by its "inner life," but also inevitably shaped by outside forces. Indeed, as Juan Cole notes in a recent post, most societies benefit greatly from immigration, especially if they have strong social institutions (as Norway does) and the confidence to assimilate new arrivals into the existing order while allowing that order to itself be shaped over time. What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists.
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A quick footnote to the tragic events in Norway. Although as Greenwald points out, various unreliable sources were quick to assume that the attacks was the work of al Qaeda or some other Islamist group, there was in fact good reason to suspect from the start that right-wing extremists were really to blame. As I noted back in February, a 2010 study to Europol had shown that the vast majority of "terrorist" incidents in Europe were the work of European anarchist groups, and only a tiny fraction had anything to do with Islam. Here's what I said back then:
In 2009, there were fewer than 300 terrorist incidents in Europe, a 33 percent decline from the previous year. The vast majority of these incidents (237 out of 294) were conducted by indigenous European separatist groups, with another forty or so attributed to leftists and/or anarchists. According to the report, a grand total of one (1) attack was conducted by Islamists. Put differently, Islamist groups were responsible for a whopping 0.34 percent of all terrorist incidents in Europe in 2009. In addition, the report notes, ‘the number of arrests relating to Islamist terrorism (110) decreased by 41 percent compared to 2008, which continues the trend of a steady decrease since 2006.'''
So if journalists and right-wing bloggers had been paying attention, they might have guessed that it was far more likely that a European was responsible. But they didn't, which tell you a lot about their mind-set and motivations.
Moreover, as Matt Yglesias observes over on his blog, the attacks in Norway also cast doubt on the whole "safe haven" argument that has been used to justify our protracted, costly, and counter-productive effort to reorder political and social relations throughout Central Asia. Norway was far better governed than Afghanistan or Pakistan is likely to be in our lifetimes, yet that didn't prevent a local extremist from perpetrating a horrific crime, inspired at least in part by the hyperventilating hatred disseminated by prominent rightwing Islamophobes here in the United States. Put differently, the United States could stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the next century, and it would still be unable to guarantee that this territory didn't contain some hostile cells of extremists bent on attacking the United States or its allies. And even if we could, we obviously couldn't be sure that bad guys weren't in Yemen or Oslo or Bakersfield or Des Moines or Portland or Key West, or anywhere else.
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Andrew Sullivan takes me mildly to task for my comments on the Murdoch/NewsCorp scandal, arguing that NewsCorp never had a monopoly on the news in Britain and pointing out that I failed to mention the BBC, which is the world's largest news organization and obviously a looming presence in British media.
Two points. First, I never said nor implied that Murdoch had a monopoly; my main point was it was a problem when "any single company or individual exercises excessive influence in media circles." Judging from the information released thus far, it seems clear that British politicians and public officials were intensely aware of the power that Murdoch & Co. wielded, and did a variety of regrettable things in an attempt to curry favor with them.
Second, Andrew's point about the BBC is well taken, at least in the abstract. A government-sponsored media giant can also skew what citizens know or believe, as state-controlled media in various dictatorships demonstrates. In a democracy, however, these dangers can be ameliorated by regulatory measures designed to insulate state-subsidized media organizations from political pressure. I haven't researched it in detail, but I'd argue that the BBC's record over the years, while far from perfect, has displayed a level of journalistic integrity that far exceeds NewsCorp. And any organization that could bring us both HardTalk and Monty Python can't be all bad.
But I take it that Sullivan and I agree on the main point: For democracy to function well, citizens have to be able to hear lots of competing views, including views that challenge powerful interests and the government. To me that is still the main lesson of the NewsCorp business.
Postscript: By the way, who has been Rupert Murdoch's most effective defender? Not his wife Wendi, who demonstrated superb reflexes and excellent hand-eye coordination when a moron tried to throw a shaving cream pie at Murdoch during his testimony. In fact, it was the pie-thrower himself who did the most to aid Murdoch's cause. Not only did this stupid act (temporarily) turn Murdoch into an object of sympathy, but it has led a raft of reporters and pundits to focus on Murdoch's wife and her entertainingly deft response. In short, all the assailant managed to do was distract us (once again) from the bigger issues. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might even suspect that the pie-thrower had been hired by NewsCorp to stage the attack, but even I don't think they are that far gone.
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The steadily expanding "phone hacking" scandal in Great Britain is a good reminder that understanding politics requires a healthy appreciation of the role of arrogance and stupidity. What began is a seemingly straightforward example of sleazy journalistic practice has grown into a full-blown scandal, and the circle of guilt keeps widening.
Just look at the repercussions so far: 1) the NewsCorp's bid to take over all of British Sky Broadcasting has been scuppered, 2) NewsCorp CEO Rebekah Brooks has resigned and is now under arrest, 3) long-time Murdoch associate and Wall Street Journal publisher Les HInton has also resigned his post, 4) Prime Minister David Cameron has been badly tarnished, and oh yes, 5) the head of Scotland Yard has resigned in the wake of revelations that it had bungled the investigation (which is a charitable way of putting it). The WSJ and FoxNews have been exposed as shills for their boss (Murdoch), which is hardly surprising but is hardly going to help their reputations.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave....
Gallons of ink (or gigabytes of blog posts) have already been devoted to this story, but one broader element has received less attention amidst all the juicy personal stuff. What the scandal really teaches us is the dangers that inevitably arise when any single company or individual exercises excessive influence in media circles. Why? Because a healthy democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry, and media oligarchs can use excessive influence to skew what the public knows or believes in order to advance their own political objectives. If the Murdoch scandal doesn't convince you, just look at how Silvio Berlusconi used his media empire to drive his political career and look where Italy is today.
Furthermore, politicians are likely to accommodate powerful media organizations that are willing to play hardball, punishing politicians they didn't like and rewarding officials who played along. The NewsCorp was a master at this, and it is no wonder David Cameron and even Scotland Yard became compliant.
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Guest-blogging over at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, Jonathan Rauch waxes eloquent about the "coolest (U.S.) war ever": the war of 1812." I'm not going to debate the "coolness" of that particular war (or any war, for that matter), though I've always thought trying to conquer Canada was an act of folly by the young American republic, even though it got lucky and managed to eke out a draw.
But this one line of the post caught my eye:
The other lesson of 1812 is that Americans usually start wars pretty badly but end them pretty well."
Hmmm. Of course, this claim depends a bit on the criteria one uses for judging success, but here's a quick run-down of American wars and how well we started and ended them.
Revolutionary War: Started badly (i.e., the British won most of the early rounds) but ended well (we got a country!)
War of 1812: Started badly (i.e., the British occupied Washington and set fire to the White House) but ended ok.
Mexican-American War: Started well and ended well (if you like land grabs).
Spanish-American War: Started well but ended badly (the United States ends up occupying the Philippines and fighting a bloody counterinsurgency war, featuring widespread atrocities and causing the deaths of several hundred thousand Filipinos. Sound familiar?)
World War I: Started well for the United States (we got in late and on the winning side) but ended badly (i.e., the Paris Peace Conference produced one of the Worst Peace Settlements Ever)
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To what extent should journalists (and perhaps scholars) allow their sense of patriotism to shape what they publish? And more broadly, how should those concerns shape their interactions with government officials? Debate on this issue has been rekindled recently in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA employee who is now under arrest in Pakistan after an incident where he shot and killed two Pakistani assailants.
For competing perspectives on this incident, see Jack Goldsmith here and Glenn Greenwald here. Both writers make useful points and I recommend the whole exchange, but one passage in Goldsmith's post leapt out at me:
For a book I am writing, I interviewed a dozen or so senior American national security journalists to get a sense of when and why they do or don't publish national security secrets. They gave me different answers, but they all agreed that they tried to avoid publishing information that harms U.S. national security with no corresponding public benefit. Some of them expressly ascribed this attitude to "patriotism" or "jingoism" or to being American citizens or working for American publications. This sense of attachment to country is what leads the American press to worry about the implications for U.S. national security of publication, to seek the government's input, to weigh these implications in the balance, and sometimes to self-censor."
Nationalism and patriotism being what they are, I don't expect reporters and commentators (or academics, for that matter) to be able to completely disassociate their personal attachments from what they think or write. But when they do let those biases in -- and especially when they do so explicitly -- then the rest of us are entitled to question their judgment on those matters. More generally, here's what disturbs me about the idea that national security journalists consciously adjust what they say in response to their patriotic feelings.
First, it is a common error to equate "patriotism" or "love of country" with deference to or support for the policies of the government. In fact, the main justification for a free press in a democracy rests on the assumption that it will take a skeptical, even adversarial, attitude towards the government and its policies. Such skepticism is needed given the information advantages that government officials normally possess: they can classify embarrassing materials, leak secrets selectively, and curry favor with sympathetic journalists by offering them unusual levels of "access." The more you dilute the basic confrontational attitude between journalists and officials, the more the vaunted "Fourth Estate" starts to resemble a Xerox machine that just repackages facts, arguments and justifications offered by those in power.
I'm in New York today, to appear at a symposium at the Open Society Institute. We'll be discussing Evgeny Morozov's new book Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and I'm looking forward to hearing how Evgeny and the other panelists view the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. If you're so inclined, you can watch a live-stream of the event here.
I won't be blogging from the road on this (short) trip, but I would also call your attention to Thanassis Cambanis's piece on the case for a more restrained U.S. grand strategy that appeared in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe. Most of his attention is on the recent writings of Barry Posen, John Mearsheimer, and Andrew Bacevich (deservedly so), though he does drop in a brief reference to yours truly. My only question is: Why does he think I'm "ornery"? Acerbic, maybe; judgmental, perhaps; but "ornery"? :-)
Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention to both.
Item No. 1: Steve and several of his associates have sponsored an important open letter, co-signed by an impressive list of former government officials, journalists, and academics. The letter calls for the United States government to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's continued efforts to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The normal U.S. practice is to veto such resolutions, even though the official U.S. government position is that settlement construction is illegal and an obstacle to peace. Given that the peace process itself is going nowhere, however, supporting such a resolution would be an important symbolic act that would signal to the Netanyahu government that it cannot act with impunity. It would also remind the rest of the world that the Obama administration isn't just a lap dog when it comes to these issues and that Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 wasn't just empty rhetoric.
More importantly, voting for this resolution is not an "anti-Israel" act, though it would undoubtedly be seen as such by most groups in the "status quo" lobby. The signatories to the letter were no doubt primarily concerned with advancing U.S. interests, but in this case the long-term interests of the United States and Israel are identical. As many Americans and Israelis now realize, the settlement enterprise has been a costly blunder for Israel. By making a two-state solution more difficult (and maybe impossible), it even threatens Israel's long-term future. Although no government likes open criticism or Security Council censure, backing this resolution is an easy way for the United States to help Israel begin to rethink its present course and strengthen our tarnished credentials as an honest broker.
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There's been a lot of thoughtful reaction already to the appalling shooting in Tucson, much of it focusing on what it says about the polarized state of American politics and the violent and overheated rhetoric that has been a staple of right-wing political discourse over the past decade or so. I don't have anything deeply profound to add to this discussion, but I do want to offer two thoughts.
First, when something horrific like this happens, we can only hope that we learn something from an otherwise awful event. In my course on the causes of war, I tell students that learning valuable lessons from the history of human conflict is a way to make the losses suffered in war worth something; it is a way of at least partly redeeming the sacrifices that others made. The greatest benefit we could derive from the Tucson madness would a lot of genuine soul-searching within our political establishment, and especially among the pundits and media figures who have made hateful and violent rhetoric a key part -- and in some cases, the only distinctive element -- of their discourse. And frankly, I don't know what's worse: when politicians use extreme and demonizing rhetoric to advance a political agenda, or when media figures use hateful and violent rhetoric merely to make a buck. If this tragedy helps delegitimize such behavior, and restore some measure of civility to our political discourse, we will all have gained something from a tragic and senseless event.
Second, those of us who do some or all of our work in the blogosphere should do some soul-searching ourselves. Rhetoric in the blogosphere is a lot more combative and even violent than what you'd typically read in your local newspaper, or what you'd read in a scholarly journal. And this isn't just a monopoly of the political right: You can find some pretty hot language coming from bloggers on the left as well. Bloggers like to use verbs like "demolish," or "eviscerate" when discussing those with whom they disagree, as in "Smith offers a new justification for the war in Afghanistan, and Jones shreds it here." Or we get into heated exchanges that degenerate into name-calling and various forms of character assassination. Sometimes editors make this worse by going for edgy or combative headlines to titillate readers and drive up page-views. Edginess is part of what makes the blogosphere entertaining, I guess, but is it also contributing to the coarsening of our political values and the erosion of any sense of shared identity, humility, and common humanity? And don't get me started about the flame wars that occur in the "comments" sections, where people exploit anonymity to voice all manner of vile accusations.
I've tried to avoid that sort of thing in my own postings, but I suspect you could find a few places where I went further than I should have. So as we mourn the victims, hope for the survivors, and reflect on what this says the state of our country at this moment, let's spend some time looking in the mirror. Words matter, people, and if we are all going to be part of a public conversation, we owe it the society of which we are part to conduct it in a spirited, frank, but civil manner. Or we will reap what we sow.
Postscript: I'm leaving for an extended trip to Southeast Asia today, to attend some meetings at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and to give a series of lectures there and in Vietnam. It's my first visit to the latter country, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity. Blogging will be erratic while I'm on the road, although I'll try to squeeze a few posts in when I can.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.