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October 31, 2012

When It Comes to Western Military Interventions, Light Footprints Don't Work

That's the upshot of a new RAND report on Libya (PDF), as Jason Fritz explains:

Light- to no-footprint intervention in support of rebel forces is not a long-term solution for stability.

The U.S. and other NATO involvement in Libya was essentially the provision of air support (with notable exceptions of on-the-ground SOF teams). There are a number of reasons for this approach, much of which is centered around domestic Western politics. But the provision of close and strategic air support to a motley crew of disparate and competitive armed groups is only asking for a disaster. Yes, this method helped bring about the end of the much despised Qaddafi regime, but it is certainly not helping bring about a lasting peace and stability. Much like our initial efforts in Afghanistan, failing to provide the forces necessary in the aftermath of the destruction of a regime creates an environment conducive to warlord-ism and the promise of many years of conflict....

As much as military analysts bemoan the general public's lack of understanding of the effort and violence of a no-fly zone, the longer peace is much harder to accomplish without large numbers of troops on the ground to provide stability after the regime falls. If we are not willing to put troops on the ground before or after our service as a rebel-force air force, then we should seriously contemplate refraining from intervening in the first place. Or at a minimum, not be surprised when our actions do not provide the stability for which we had hoped.

I think framing this as a question between "stability" and "instability" in a situation like Libya isn't the full picture. Once Libya's uprising became an armed revolt, it was an unstable situation. The only way stability was going to be restored was if one side won decisively and enforced its writ upon the whole country. Even a Gaddafi "win" probably wouldn't have been enough: given the tribal nature of Libya there would probably be enough pockets of armed resistance to cause problems.

So while the U.S. intervention clearly didn't (and couldn't) stabilize Libya, that's almost the wrong question. Instead, we really need to ask whether the rebel win, instability or no, has been worse for U.S. interests.

If the U.S. Election Were Held in the UK or Canada

Barack Obama would win:

In the online survey of representative national samples, Canadians prefer Barack Obama to Mitt Romney by a 7-to-1 margin (72% to 10%), while Britons favour the Democrat over the Republican by a 10-to-1 margin (62% to 6%).

Roughly half of respondents in the two countries (49% in Canada, 52% in Britain) think Obama has performed at the level they expected.

One-in-four Canadians (24%) and 18 per cent of Britons believe Obama has performed worse than they expected.

October 30, 2012

Libya and Lying

Mark Steyn waxes outraged over the attack against the U.S. consulate in Bengazhi:

This goes far beyond the instinctive secretiveness to which even democratic governments are prone. The Obama administration created a wholly fictional story line, and devoted its full resources to maintaining it. I understand why Mitt Romney chose not to pursue this line of argument in the final debate. The voters who will determine this election are those who voted for Obama four years ago and this time round either switch to the other fellow or sit on their hands. In electoral terms, it’s probably prudent of Mitt not to rub their faces in their 2008 votes. Nevertheless, when the president and other prominent officials stand by as four Americans die and then abuse their sacrifice as contemptuously as this administration did, decency requires that they be voted out of office as an act of urgent political hygiene.
I've said from the beginning that the administration's conduct with respect to the attack on Benghazi has been condemnable. From the outset, the response was characterized by spin and evasion, mixed with incompetence and, as we are still learning, bad judgement.

Yet it's risible to hear Steyn and others pound the table over the Obama administration's lies while they were quite relaxed during the Bush administration's considerably more egregious untruths over the course of the Iraq war - a conflict that claimed not four, but thousands of American lives (to say nothing of the exaggerations and dubious reasoning that preceded the war). The Bush administration routinley lied about the conduct of the war - where internal reporting indicted a grave and growing insurgency, administration officials went before the public, including the president himself, and gave glowing reports.

Dan Senor, now a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, made this now famous observation to a reporter during the Iraq war: "Off the record, Paris is burning. On the record, peace and stability are returning to Iraq."

If it is a disqualifying offense to lie to Americans about the deaths of four personnel overseas, is it not orders of magnitude more disqualifying to lie about the deaths of hundreds?

Again, none of this excuses the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi attack. It's clear that a mixture of poor decision-making and unpreparedness lead to the deaths of four Americans and that the aftermath has been characterized by typical Washington backside covering, spin and evasion. This should always be egregious and intolerable and it's entirely appropriate to investigate, criticize and embarrass the administration. Indeed, it's desirable.

But Steyn, et al. have zero credibility and absolutely no objective interest in these issues outside of advancing the political fortunes of a particular party.

October 26, 2012

The Amazing Power of American Cheerleading

Kiron Skinner recycles a common criticism against the Obama administration:

President Obama came into office urging a policy of "engagement" with the ayatollahs. By showing our good faith and readiness to negotiate, he aimed to sway them from their path of acquiring nuclear weapons. It was the hopes he invested in engagement that led him to one of the most shameful recent episodes in U.S. foreign policy. Thus, in 2009, when protesters took to the streets of Iran's cities to demonstrate against their country's stolen election, the administration remained silent. President Obama said he did not want to "meddle." In short order, the Iranian protesters were crushed. By failing to offer moral support to those seeking peaceful change in Iran, America retreated from our own principles. A chance to weaken or dislodge Iran's vicious Islamic dictatorship was lost, perhaps for a generation. Meanwhile, Iran has accelerated its nuclear program.arms race, raise the specter of nuclear terrorism, and destabilize the region.

"Moral support" and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee - not regime change.

October 25, 2012

Is Afghanistan a U.S. Win or Loss?

Steven Metz makes the case for the win column, arguing along lines I've long agreed with: when viewed through a narrow prism of striking back at al-Qaeda and running out the Taliban, the U.S. did succeed in Afghanistan. It is only in light of the expanded goals of state building and waging a counter-insurgency that the U.S. has fallen short. Here's Metz:

For a while it appeared that the United States might attain this more ambitious outcome. But American strategy quickly floundered on flawed assumptions: that it was possible to build an Afghan government which shared American priorities and objectives; that it was advisable to build a centralized Afghan state in which the national government controlled all national territory; and that it was possible not only to defeat the Taliban decisively, but to eradicate them. None of these assumptions proved true. The regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had very different priorities and objectives than its American allies. A national government in full control of Afghanistan was an historical rarity unlikely to be recreated. And so long as the Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan, it could not be eradicated.

Joshua Foust isn't buying it:

It is difficult to see how one avoids the conclusion that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has failed. That doesn’t mean it is a defeat, per se, but our original objectives, several times over, have proven impossible to meet. In the aftermath, however, we should be pondering how to manage that failure to avoid defeat. Assisting Afghanistan in the security transition post-withdrawal, encouraging them to reconcile the political elements of the Taliban, and cracking down on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist groups inside Afghanistan all require continued presence, attention, and — yes — even troops. It will be a far cry from the idealist goals President Obama initially came into office with, but it would not be a total defeat somehow redefined as a success.

Managing failure is a far cry from simply declaring success and walking away. By arguing for just that, Metz is doing the war, and the very real challenges it poses to the future security of the region and the U.S., a disservice.

I think Foust is right that "managing failure" is a more accurate description, but his I think his description of what needs to be done reveals why folks like Metz are looking for a way to ease America's exit from the war.

To wit: what if the U.S. can't reconcile "political elements" of the Taliban with a U.S.-aligned government in Kabul? What if Afghan forces cannot stand on their own after 2014? What if "cracking down on Pakistan" doesn't work? Is the U.S. fated to fight a proxy war against Pakistan inside Afghanistan for decades? Why is that in the U.S. interest?

By 2014, the Afghans will have had over another year of training. If they cannot adequately hold their own against the Taliban, what is the rationale for continued investment in U.S. blood and treasure?

What I take Metz to be saying is that, when viewed through the prism of keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism, the U.S. has done just about all it can do in Afghanistan. The threat isn't completely gone, as Foust notes, and waiting around until it is is an unreasonable standard. It doesn't take much for a small group of people to organize a killing spree - no matter where they are.

If the U.S. is reluctant to dump tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Mali, or Yemen, or Somalia to combat jihadists, it makes no sense to sustain such a huge presence in Afghanistan for so long. An abrupt exit and complete cessation of all aid next month would be counter-productive, but Afghanistan has to be relegated to the ranks of countries - like Yemen - that pose a manageable risk to the U.S. and not a fetish object because it just so happened to be where bin Laden found a place to live for few years.

We also, really, need context. The threat that any American will die from terrorism - from Afghanistan or anywhere - is infinitesimal. At a certain point, a basic cost/benefit analysis has to kick in.

October 24, 2012

Letting Go

In the course of a profile of Dan Senor, a senior foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney, Marc Tracy writes:

With a Democratic opponent who is, unusually, strong on national security issues, Republicans have no choice but to spin smaller criticisms into a broader temperamental case about Obama’s supposed lack of toughness. This, in turn, propels the campaign to place extra chips on the Middle East, which in U.S. politics most easily lends itself to Manichean framing. Against that backdrop, Senor’s ideological certitude is more valuable than nuanced analysis. Not that the campaign’s PR apparatus would cop to that. Team Romney apparently believes policy expertise can be earned by working as a partisan foot soldier.

I suspect the Republicans could cobble together some coherent criticisms of the Obama administration's foreign policy if they could just let go of a few cherished orthodoxies. The drone war's potentially radicalizing impact and the president's sweeping claims of executive power in executing that campaign seem ripe for a challenge. And just as the GOP routinely claims that "Obamacare" represents government over-reach, trying to micro-manage the Middle East could quite easily be portrayed as the federal government sticking its nose where it has no business.

October 23, 2012

Whither the Neocons?

During the debate, Mitt Romney rather consciously played down the neocon rhetoric he had been employing previously. Indicative, I think, of how tired and toxic it is on the public stage. In fact, Romney explicitly distanced himself from both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying: "We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us."

Christopher Preble isn't quite buying it:

Questions remain, however. First, is Mitt Romney truly committed to avoiding Iraq-style wars in the future? If so, why did he choose to surround himself with so many of the war’s most fervent advocates? Second, why is he opposed to additional reductions in the Army and Marine Corps, forces that grew specifically to fight the war that was supposed to be a “cakewalk” but that turned out to be something very different? If Mitt Romney doesn’t intend to engage in costly, open-ended nation-building missions abroad, why does he need a conventional military geared for that purpose? And, third, what lessons from the Iraq war inform his conduct of foreign policy? Was Iraq a good idea, poorly executed, or was this a bad idea from the get-go?

One reason that Romney has surrounded himself with pro-Iraq war neocons is because that's largely the GOP policy-making bench these days. While the American people writ large have a dim view of the Iraq war, there are plenty of people in Washington's foreign policy establishment that think it was a great idea, if poorly executed.

That means that, no matter the rhetoric of vote-seeking Romney, the policy proposals generated by a Romney administration are going to be made by the same people who thought invading, occupying and spending $1 trillion on Iraq was a brilliant strategic gambit.

A Bankrupt America Can't Lead, But Is Leadership Bankrupting America?


One area where there was firm agreement between both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in last night's debate was the notion that America must lead the world and, relatedly, that the U.S. could not adequately lead the world with an economy in the doldrums.

Not once did either candidate consider whether U.S. leadership itself had contributed to the poor American balance sheet.

This is a telling myopia.

Consider some of the actions taken in the name of U.S. leadership, such as the war in Iraq and the continued nation building in Afghanistan. Imagine the money "invested" in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 having been diverted to any domestic initiative (name one: tax cuts, research, paying down the debt, infrastructure or simply saved for a rainy day - you know, like a massive financial crisis requiring billions in stimulus to escape from) and it's obvious that dialing back America's interventionist posture would result in cost savings.

There is, obviously, a line at which the cost-savings recouped by retrenchment are outweighed by the costs in insecurity. But it's telling that both candidates seemed to feel a real urgency in fixing the economy just so the U.S. would not have to abandon a leadership role.

(AP Photo)

Your Choice This November: A War with Iran or a War with Iran

Last night's debate reaffirmed a fact that has been evident for several months now: a U.S. preventative war against Iran is almost inevitable barring a diplomatic breakthrough, no matter which candidate wins next month.

Both President Obama and Governor Romney said in no uncertain terms that Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. Romney went further and said that Iran could not have "nuclear capability" - which is untenable since they are signatories to the NPT and are thus legally permitted to have a civilian nuclear program.

Thus we had the bizarre spectacle last night of President Obama hailing the fact that he has unwound two costly wars to focus on "nation building at home" while promising to start a new Middle East war - the costs of which go conveniently unmentioned. Romney, calling himself a man of peace, also indicated that he would start a war if Iran didn't change course, only he set the bar even lower.

At this stage, unless a negotiated settlement is reached or Iran backs down, the U.S. seems to be heading inexorably toward a military confrontation with Iran.

October 22, 2012

Foreign Policy Debate: Setting the Stage


As noted on Friday, there's been a significant shift in the public's perception of which candidate is the most competent on foreign affairs. While Obama retains a lead, it has shrunk considerably over the past few weeks - a result, no doubt, of the Benghazi attack and the president's poor performance in the first debate.

So public opinion on which candidate is better equipped to deal with foreign policy challenges is in play tonight in a way it hasn't been since the campaign began (not that foreign policy is expected to matter all that much this cycle).

As for the specific issues set to be discussed tonight, the Chicago Council has usefully rounded up its polling to get a sense of where Americans stand on issues such as China, Iran, terrorism and America's role in the world. The Council on Foreign Relations has also done a deep dive on the issues and where the candidate's stand here.

The challenge for Romney tonight, I think, is to go a bit beyond the trite sound bites ("peace through strength" and "apology tour") and offer us some real detail on how he would conduct business differently. For President Obama, it's trickier - he will try to paint Mitt Romney as a neocon warmonger while gently eliding the fact that his own policies and rhetoric have put the U.S. on a course to war with Iran.

What we won't see tonight, however, is a debate between two fundamentally different foreign policy worldviews. For all the partisan huffing that must attend an affair like this, both candidates promote rather orthodox foreign policies. They both accept that it is America's obligation to "lead" the world, with such leadership expressed largely in terms of military adventures. Neither men will make the case for any kind of significant reappraisal of U.S. interests in light of the Arab Spring or the rise of powers such as China and Brazil. Both will champion bogus goals like "energy independence." Neither will suggest that the U.S. seek to minimize its global responsibilities in light of its crumbling finances.

In short, the "debate" will likely be a rather narrow one, fought within a consensus about what constitutes U.S. vital interests and America's global role. But who knows - maybe there are some surprises in store.

Remember, you can join us here for a debate live tweet with a host of foreign policy experts representing a nice cross section of views. The page will go live shortly before the debate begins tonight at 9:00 pm ET. Readers can participate as well - check out the instructions here.
(AP Photo)

October 19, 2012

Join RCW for Monday's Foreign Policy Debate!


RealClearWorld will be hosting a debate live tweet on Monday for the final presidential debate.

The lineup will include:

Michael Auslin - Resident Scholar in Foreign & Defense Policy Studies, AEI
Malou Innocent - Foreign Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute
James Joyner - Managing Editor of the Atlantic Council
Harry Kazianis - Editor of The Diplomat
Daniel Larison - Senior Editor at The American Conservative
David Shorr - Blogger at Democracy Arsenal

Plus a full compliment of RealClear staffers, in addition to the World team:

Tom Bevan - Executive Editor, RealClearPolitics
Alex Berezow - Editor, RealClearScience
Joseph Lawler - Editor, RealClearPolicy
Jeremy Lott - Editor, RealClearReligion
Brandon Ott - Editor, RealClearEnergy
Rob Tracinski - Assoc. Editor, RealClearMarkets

For those tweeting along at home, you can ask questions of the panelists and share thoughts with us at @realclearworld using the hashtag #rcwdebate.

Follow the debate analysis using RCW's Twitter aggregator here.

(AP Photo)

Poll Shows Obama Losing Foreign Policy Edge

For several years, President Obama has polled rather well on foreign policy and national security issues, but a new poll from Pew Research shows a fairly sharp reversal:

Ahead of Monday's foreign policy debate between Obama and Romney, 47 percent of voters favor Obama and 43 percent back Romney when asked who could do a better job on foreign policy, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.

"This represents a substantial gain for Romney, who trailed Obama by 15 points on foreign policy issues in September," Pew said.

The October 4-7 poll was carried out about three weeks after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador was killed. Romney has seized on the issue to accuse Obama of failed leadership....

As part of the earlier poll, Romney leads Obama 49 percent to 40 percent in dealing with China's trade policies. Among independent voters, Romney leads 50 percent to 34 percent.

Neither candidate had a clear advantage on the issues of Iran's nuclear program and political instability in countries like Egypt and Libya.

October 18, 2012

Greek Brothel Sponsors Football Team

The wages of austerity:

A Greek amateur team Voukefalas will wear practice shirts emblazoned with the logos of two local brothels, one of which features a suggestively prancing horse.

"Villa Erotica" and "Soula's House of History" (!!) stepped in to plug some of Voukefalas' financial losses, but players also have an additional incentive to perform, as 67-year-old madam Soula Alevirdou has promised them "special time" on the house each time they win.

Dictator Death Tolls: Who Killed the Most?


This grim graphic, via Jesus Diaz, depicts the estimated death tolls for the 20th century's worst dictators. Click on the image for a slightly more legible view.

Partisan Libya Brigades Embarrass Themselves

As noted earlier, there are several legitimate criticisms to be made about how the Obama administration responded to requests for security at the Benghazi consulate and how it responded to the aftermath of the attack. It's perfectly fair - indeed, responsible - to question the administration's competence on Libya and indeed, to question the wisdom of the U.S. intervention in the country in the first place.

Yet Romney partisans appear eager to draw a broader lesson. Here's K.T. McFarland:

But the real problem isn’t the intelligence failures, or security lapses or even the cover up. It’s the policy. Al Qaeda is NOT “on its heels,” as President Obama claimed at the Democratic Convention just five days before the Benghazi attack. Al Qaeda is larger and stronger than ever, and has moved into whole new regions in North Africa and the Middle East. The Benghazi attack was only the beginning.

Al Qaeda’s trademark is to have an escalating series of attacks until they are stopped in their tracks. They watch to see our reaction after each attack and, if we fail to retaliate, they do something even bolder the next time.

This is demonstrably untrue. Al-Qaeda's "trademark" is to strike at targets when the opportunities and their capabilities allow. Following the 9/11 attack, the U.S. struck back about as hard as possible against the group in Afghanistan and yet attacks followed in Madrid, Bali and the UK, not to mention the stream of al-Qaeda linked violence in Iraq and the various foiled plots ever since the U.S. war began in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda doesn't voluntarily stop in its tracks for fear of American reprisals - it is stopped in its tracks by good counter-terrorism (be it drones or police work).

McFarland then digs a deeper hole:

Compare that to Ronald Reagan’s reaction when Col. Qaddafi bombed a Berlin nightclub frequented by American servicemen in 1986. American soldiers were died and injured as a result. Reagan’s reaction? He bombed Qaddafi’s compound a week later. Qaddafi escaped injury, but he got the point. Don’t mess with America.

The big difference here is that al-Qaeda is not a state or ruling regime with fixed assets to defend. Qaddafi "got the message" because he had an interest in living and retaining power. He had, as they say, "a return address." The same message cannot be delivered to a transnational terrorist organization that rules only tiny patches of territory in lawless states.

This is pretty obvious stuff.

The relative strength of al-Qaeda is hard to judge: groups sympathetic to them may be operating in more countries now, but do they have the capacity to pull of another 9/11? Maybe they do - and that would certainly be a damning failure of Obama's counter-terrorism policy - but McFarland hasn't come close to making that case.

UPDATE: Jeffrey Goldberg is making sense:

The embarrassment of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi is not that it happened. America has its victories against terrorism, and its defeats, and the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American security personnel represents one defeat in a long war. The embarrassment is that political culture in America is such that we can't have an adult conversation about the lessons of Benghazi, a conversation that would focus more on understanding al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, on the limitations and imperfections of security, and on shortfalls in our intelligence gathering, than on who said what when in the Rose Garden.


Is China Like a Fat Runner on Crystal Meth?

That's the evocative imagery used by Michael Pettis to describe China's stimulus-induced growth strategy:

It is as if you saw a middle-aged man in terrible physical shape running a marathon, and you predicted that after five or six miles he would be forced to quit. If however he took out a syringe and shot himself up with crystal meth, he would be able to continue running a few more miles, but this doesn’t mean that your analysis and prediction were wrong. It means that in a few more miles he will be worse off than ever (or will have to take an even bigger dose of crystal meth).

That's via Naomi Rovnick who offers some bullish takes on China:

The Beijing government has not announced a major economic stimulus project, as it did in 2009-10. But since the summer, central and local planners have begun propping up GDP with lavish spending on new projects. Industrial production rose 9.2% in September, year on year, after touching a 39-month low in August. So it is likely Chinese manufacturers are seeing the horrific conditions they have been laboring under start to ease.

I would say there are about as many people worried about a crashing (but not collapsing) China as there are about a rising one.

October 17, 2012

Changing Demographics in Israel


Haaretz journalist Akiva Eldar writes (paywalled) that, according to the Israeli government's own figures, non-Jews outnumber Jews in the land under Israeli control:

Amid a dry economic report published yesterday in TheMarker lies an official announcement/acknowledgment of unparalleled importance: The government of Israel confirms that between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River there is no longer a Jewish majority. In other words, in the territory under Israel's jurisdiction a situation of apartheid exists. A Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority...

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (which is subordinate to the Prime Minister's Office ), of the 12 million residents living under Israeli rule, the number of Jews is just under 5.9 million (as of April 25 ). Twelve million minus 5.9 million Jews equals 6.1 million non-Jews. In other words, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, there is a pretty Jewish state as far as its laws and customs, but the reality is not so democratic. Foreign sources report that Jews had already become a minority in the area of the greater Land of Israel several years ago. From now on, it is an official statistic.

There is a significant caveat however: Gaza's 1.5 million citizens are counted as falling under Israeli jurisdiction. I'm not sure it's accurate to describe the Gaza Strip as falling within Israel's jurisdiction - although it is blockaded by Israel. Nevertheless, it sharpens the demographic warning that many peace process devotees have been making that, to quote Paul Pillar, "Israel will be unable to be democratic, controlled by Jews, and embracing all of Palestine. It can be any two of those things, but not all three."

Still, Eldar's use of the term "apartheid" is bound to rile more than illuminate. Peter Beinart, who has been critical of Israeli settlements, rejects the term:

But unlike their brethren in the West Bank, Palestinian Arabs within the green line also enjoy citizenship and the right to vote. They sit in the Knesset and on Israel’s Supreme Court. They maintain their own religious courts and their own, state-funded, Arabic-language schools and media, something religious and ethnic minorities in many other countries do not enjoy. Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. Palestinian Arab citizens have also made dramatic educational and economic gains under Israeli rule. The political scientists Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman note that in 1948, the illiteracy rate among Israel’s Palestinian Arabs was 80 percent. By 1988, it was 15 percent.

UPDATE: Yishia Goldflam argues that Eldar's report elided critical facts:

To summarize, Akiva Eldar took an unsubstantiated figure which appeared in The Marker (12 million residents from the Jordan River to the sea) and attributed this figure to the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bureau of Statistics, two governmental bodies, despite the fact that neither of them mentioned the figure. And, based on these journalistic acrobatics, we have the false headline "The government's acknowledgement that Jews are a minority in this land. . . "

And what about this figure of 12 million? According to the CIA's World Factbook, some 1.7 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, and another 2.3 million live in the West Bank. Another 1.6 million Arabs live in Israel proper (according to the April 25 CBS press release that Eldar cites.) If we count only those Arabs living under Israeli rule (meaning in Israel and the West Bank), we reach 3.8 million. (And this figure does not take into account that the vast majority of the West Bank Palestinian population lives in Area A, or entirely under Palestinian Authority rule.) Moreover, even if we do add in the 1.7 Gaza Palestinians, who clearly do not "liv[e] under Israeli rule," we reach only 5.5 million Arabs -- still less than the 5.9 million Israeli Jews living in Israel, plus Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank.

(AP Photo)

October 16, 2012

Political Honesty: Afghan Pullout Edition

"We are leaving in 2014, period, and in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion," Biden said. "We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's." - Joseph Biden, October 2012
Last week, U.S. and Afghan negotiators met in Kabul to talk about the Bilateral Security Agreement that will govern the extension of U.S. troops past 2014, when President Barack Obama said the combat mission in Afghanistan will end and the U.S. will complete the transition of the entire country to Afghan government control....

Grossman said Tuesday that the point of the upcoming negotiations is to agree on an extension of the U.S. troop presence well past 2014, for the purposes of conducting counterterrorism operations and training and advising the Afghan security forces. - Josh Rogin, October 2012

In other words, when a politican says "we are leaving" it actually means "we are trying to stay."

What's particularly galling about this is that the administration won't actually defend its position on the merits. If leaving a residual force inside Afghanistan is a good idea, let's hear the rationale. While I am skeptical of a large-scale counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, I'm sure I'm not alone in seeing the value in retaining a force to target whatever al-Qaeda elements still remain inside Afghanistan (and over the border in Pakistan).

Instead, we get dishonesty.

If Foreign Policy Wonks Asked the Debate Questions

Joshua Keating tackles the debate questions that need asking.

When a Talking Point Implodes: Chinese Lending Edition

China is about to be replaced as America's biggest creditor by Japan:

China is poised to lose its place as the U.S.’s biggest creditor for the first time since the height of the financial crisis, blunting one of Mitt Romney’s favored attacks in the presidential campaign.

Chinese holdings of Treasuries rose 0.1 percent this year through August to $1.15 trillion, Treasury Department data on international capital flows released today show. Japan, a stronger ally of the U.S., raised its stake by 6 percent to $1.12 trillion, on pace to top the list of foreign creditors by January.

Getting tough on Japan just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Arming Syria's Rebels, Ctd.


Walter Russell Mead responds to my skepticism about arming Syria's rebels:

The worst case for the United States in a post-Assad Syria would be that groups linked to al-Qaeda become dominant players either in the country’s government as a whole or in control of significant regions in a country that fragments. Such groups would be nests of terrorists acting to destabilize not only Syria itself but Iraq, Lebanon, and the wider Middle East. They would certainly be active in Russia and, through extensive ties with the Arab diaspora in Europe, add considerably to the security headaches the West faces....

Aiding the less ugly, less bad guys in the Syrian resistance, and even finding a few actual good guys to support, isn’t about installing a pro-American government in post civil war Syria. It’s about minimizing the prospects for a worst-case scenario—by shortening the era of conflict and so, hopefully, reducing the radicalization of the population and limiting the prospects that Syrian society as a whole will descend into all-out chaotic massacres and civil conflict. And it’s about making sure that other people in Syria, unsavory on other grounds as they may be, who don’t like al-Qaeda type groups and don’t want them to establish a permanent presence in the country, have enough guns and ammunition to get their way.

While I think Mead is right not to oversell his prescription, I fear this may be wishful thinking. First, weapons are fungible. There is no way - short of some of the high-tech and probably implausible solutions sketched here - for the U.S. to only arm the people it wants. Once weapons go into Syria, Washington will have zero control over who gets what, which means the more lethal instruments we pour into the country, the greater the odds anti-American forces will lay their hands on them.

Second, where is the evidence that the introduction of better weaponry will shorten the conflict? I can see the argument for how it might - if the rebels take down more regime planes and helicopters for instance, it might break the will of pro-regime forces to fight. But Assad's survival thus far is indicative that he has more than mere cronies and mercenaries fighting on his behalf. If the regime and its Alawite supporters believe they are fighting for their very survival, they are going to keep on fighting to the bitter end, which means for the rebels to prevail they will have to engage in ethnic cleansing of a sort. So the argument that arming the rebels will shorten the conflict is an assumption - not a fact. It may just intensify the bloodshed and suffering inside Syria without achieving a decisive victory for our side.

Mead argues that arming the "less bad" elements in the Syrian revolt will insulate a future Syrian government from being ruled by al-Qaeda sympathizers or prevent portions of the country from falling under al-Qaeda control. Unfortunately, the minute the protests against Assad became violent, some portions of Syria were going to fall prey to jihadists. This was a legacy of, among other things, Assad's cultivation of jihadist groups and the invasion of Iraq, which cracked western Iraq open to foreign fighters who have funneled themselves into Syria (pdf). Preventing more territory from falling into al-Qaeda's hands means arming a proxy force to fight those groups once Assad falls: once the first Syrian civil war ends, a second battle has to be undertaken to uproot whatever jihadists have taken refuge in the country.

This second phase - arming a post-Assad regime to fight jihadists - makes more sense (it's something the Obama administration is doing in Libya), since custody of American weapons would at least be transferred to a nominal government that is coherent and answerable to us. But that should await the fall of the current regime.

As Mead notes, the U.S. doesn't have any good options and doing nothing is not without risks. But in such an environment I think caution is warranted. Pouring advanced weapons into a country with a disorganized and often anti-American rebellion is a recipe for trouble.

(AP Photo)

How the Sausage of U.S. Foreign Policy Is Made

The State Department has just published 1,000 pages worth of documents relating to the 1970s energy crisis. In it you'll find transcripts of meetings with key principles in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. If nothing else, it provides a good insight into the role energy plays in U.S. foreign policy - particularly at a time of soaring energy prices (in other words, it might be a good primer for current and future policymakers).

CFR's Micah Zenko rounds up some of the choice quotes, including Henry Kissinger calling future National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski a "total whore" and Alan Greenspan an "amateur."

Ironically, over the weekend I listened to Andrew Scott Cooper discuss his book The Oil Kings, which deals with the same subject matter. It's fascinating stuff - it sheds light not just on the challenges the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations faced in the oil realm, but how much back-biting and internal squabbling hindered the U.S. response. Cooper also details how the U.S. completely missed how Iran's troubled economy could force a challenge to the Shah's rule from the clerical establishment.

October 15, 2012

Japan's Noda Takes Hawkish Turn

Speaking at a naval ceremony, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda fired off what some are calling surprisingly hawkish rhetoric:

Surprising even military officials, the address included an expression used in a slogan for naval battles during the Russo-Japan War in the early 20th century. The prime minister also took the unusual step of including in his speech slogans that have been recited by Japanese naval cadets since before World War II.

“The security environment surrounding our nation has become more difficult than ever before,” Mr. Noda told the troops on the destroyer JS Kurama. “We have a neighbor that launches missiles disguised as satellites and engages in nuclear development. We are facing various cases related to territory and sovereignty,” the prime minister said, referring to North Korea, and to territorial disputes with China and South Korea, respectively. The prime minister was wearing a tailcoat, the designated garb for top civilian government officials at formal military ceremonies.

For decades, U.S. foreign policy has been predicated on suppressing signs of Japanese militarism but with China rising and the U.S. drowning in a sea of red ink, it makes sense for front-line states to assume larger security roles. Unfortunately, for all of Japan's bluster, they're not putting their money where Noda's mouth is.

The Future of Energy

The Atlantic Council hosted author and energy expert Daniel Yergin for an interesting discussion about energy and the impact of emerging energy trends on geopolitics in 2030.

America's Mideast 'Allies' Are Arming Jihadists in Syria

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats. - David Sanger

If you want to sum up the folly of Washington's Mideast strategy, this paragraph does a nice job. Here are American "allies" funneling weapons to the same ideological forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and yet the U.S. taxpayer and armed forces are supposed to protect them from an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Can Romney Score Points on Iraq?

Jeremy Herb reports on Iraq's return to the campaign spotlight:

Romney specifically took aim at Obama’s “abrupt” withdrawal from Iraq during a major foreign policy address this week at the Virginia Military Institute.

“In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran,” Romney said.

“And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The president tried — and failed — to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”

In targeting Iraq, Romney is taking on one of the biggest achievements of Obama’s first term.

The president frequently mentions his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq in stump speeches, and the campaign has pushed back aggressively against Romney by saying the Republican nominee would still have troops there.

Iraq is not about to reemerge the major issue it was in 2008, of course.

Even the war in Afghanistan, where 68,000 U.S. troops remain, has played a relatively small role in the 2012 campaign.

But a renewed focus on Iraq this week shows that it will be more than just an applause line for Obama for the campaign’s duration.

Both campaigns think they can score points by using Iraq as a key indictment of their opponent’s larger foreign policy.

This is a strange line of attack for a number of reasons. First, most Americans favored the pullout. Pew Research found a whopping 75 percent in favor when they polled at the end of 2011. As far as public opinion is concerned, Obama is on the right side of the Iraq issue.

Substantively, the Romney charge is a head-scratcher. It's true that the Obama administration tried and failed to secure a deal whereby a residual force would remain in Iraq. Harping on that failure is certainly fair game. In fact, it's bizarre for the Obama administration to brag about the troop pullout when it was clear they worked hard to prevent it. U.S. troops left Iraq in spite of the administration's efforts, not because of them.

But those deals broke down because the Iraqi government refused to provide immunity for U.S. troops that remained in the country. So Romney is essentially saying that the administration should have found a clever way to subvert the wishes of the Iraqi government and impose U.S. troops on Iraq on American terms. That's not a charge someone who is constantly championing "American values" wants to make all that loudly, is it?

October 12, 2012

Scoring the VP Debate


Speaking strictly about the foreign policy sections of last night's VP debate (and not about Biden's near-constant harrumphing), I thought the vice president had the edge, but he was not without his shortcomings. To tick off the list:

Libya: Ryan made some of the strongest points of the night on Libya - not ideological points about the wisdom of the intervention - but on the more basic insistence that the consulate was woefully insecure and that the administration's response to the attack was completely inadequate. As Josh Rogin pointed out, Biden completely contradicted the State Department by insisting that the administration had no idea that the consulate had requested more security - digging the administration even deeper into a mess they should have never created in the first place.

Syria: Biden (and the moderator) essentially forced Ryan into conceding that the major thing a Romney administration would do differently in Syria would be to call Assad bad names. Literally, the big difference Ryan was able to elucidate between his ticket and the Obama administration was that when the Syrian revolt started he would not have called Bashar Assad a reformer. It was extremely obvious that there was no substantive difference in policy between the two camps when it came to America's response. (Incidentally, Biden appeared to suggest that the U.S. was actually arming the rebels - did anyone catch that?)

Afghanistan: Here too, Biden exposed the Romney/Ryan position as little more than baseless carping. Ryan agreed with the 2014 withdrawal but said that more U.S. troops should be in Afghanistan currently fighting and dying rather, as Biden noted, than "trained" Afghans. But while Biden sounded emphatic about a U.S. departure in 2014, the actual agreement between Kabul and Washington leaves open the possibility that small numbers of combat troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 for counter-terrorism missions. Biden's strident insistence that we'd be out of there no matter what was either a signal that the U.S. would not seek to keep troops there beyond the deadline or a misrepresentation of the administration's longer-term strategy.

Iran: Both Ryan and Biden fell victim to their own rhetoric on Iran. For his part, Ryan's insistence that the U.S. had to have "credibility" for the Mullahs to knuckle under was exploded, painfully, when Martha Raddatz asked him if he really expected the U.S. to restore this supposedly lost credibility in two months - or by the time Iran is expected to reach the 90 percent enrichment thresh-hold they are moving toward. As with Syria (and reflecting, I think, the over-reliance on neoconservative advisers) it was clear that the the Romney/Ryan position places an amazing amount of faith in bombastic rhetoric to achieve concrete ends.

Ryan's principle Iran argument was that it took the Obama administration too long to enact crushing sanctions - a point I think Biden dealt with by noting that Iran is actually not building a bomb and that time remains on our side. Ryan was also running away from the very clear implication of his rhetoric: that a vote for Romney/Ryan is a vote for another war in the Mideast.

Yet Biden fell into his own trap on Iran. While trying to tamp down the hysteria about an imminent Iranian weapon, Biden also pointedly noted that the U.S. would stop Iran from getting a bomb no matter what and that "this president doesn't bluff." So even as Biden was trying to paint Ryan as eager for another war in the Mideast, he was explicitly promising that the Obama administration would start one itself if Iran didn't change course.

Stepping back, it was rather disheartening to see, as Larison noted, a foreign policy discussion that omitted extremely important issues like China, Asia and the Eurozone crisis. There's more - a lot more - to U.S. foreign policy than the Middle East, but you would never know it listening to the debate.

(AP Photo)

October 11, 2012

Bad News: Global Food Supply Edition

The last thing the world needs is more bad news, but there's more bad news on the global commodities front:

Wheat rose the most in nearly two weeks after the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its forecast for global stockpiles and said domestic cattle producers would use more of the grain as livestock feed.

Global stockpiles will be 173 million metric tons on May 31, down from 176.71 million estimated on Sept. 12, the USDA said today in a report. World production was forecast at 653.05 million tons, down 0.9 percent from last month. About 315 million bushels in the U.S. will be fed to cattle, up from last month’s prediction of 220 million, the USDA said.

“The wheat crop in Russia is down, Canada is down, Australia is down,” Jason Britt, the president of brokerage Central States Commodities Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri, said by telephone. “There seems to be a trend.”

Meanwhile, the UN is issuing a broader warning:

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome, global wheat production is expected to fall 5.2% in 2012 and yields from many other crops grown to feed animals could be 10% down on last year.

"Populations are growing but production is not keeping up with consumption. Prices for wheat have already risen 25% in 2012, maize 13% and dairy prices rose 7% just last month. Food reserves, [held to provide a buffer against rising prices] are at a critical low level

"It means that food supplies are tight across the board and there is very little room for unexpected events," said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the FAO.

Maybe now would be a good time to re-examine the (insane) policy of burning food to fuel our cars.

The Mess Over the Mess in Libya and Why Republicans Are Barking Up the Wrong Tree


The Obama administration has, as they say, a lot of 'splaining to do over the mounting evidence that they both bungled security at the Benghazi consulate and subsequently played fast-and-loose with the truth of the terrorist attack that killed four Americans there.

One reason, we're told, that the Obama administration has been evasive over the Benghazi attack is that they wished to preserve the image of Libya as a success story - a low cost, bloodless (for America) intervention that deposed a long-despised dictator. If it was revealed that post-war Libya remained chaotic and home to militants sympathetic to al-Qaeda, the entire enterprise would look more dubious. At a minimum, it would be much harder to point to Libya as an unmitigated U.S. success.

But while Republicans have every right to seize on the administration's dissembling, it's very hard for me to find a foreign policy criticism here, outside of banal ones (i.e. that U.S. facilities overseas need better security and that public officials shouldn't lie). Many Republicans - and conservative commentators - supported the intervention in Libya. Moreover, if the GOP platform and Mitt Romney's foreign policy statements are to be believed, Republicans believe Washington needs to be engaged in more direct attacks and subversion of countries in the Mideast.

In other words, if you think the aftermath of the Libyan intervention has been bad for U.S. interests, the Republican answer is to replicate it in more countries.

(AP Photo)

October 10, 2012

Will Arming Syria's Rebels Prevent a Jihadist Takeover?

By doing nothing decisive, we’re ceding ground to be bad guys in the resistance. There is plenty of money going to the extremists, and their networks (not destroyed or ‘back on their heels’) of fighters and funders are working overtime. By not trying to find reliable partners to cooperate with among the rebels and giving them the tools to get the job done, we are ceding ground to al-Qaeda in whatever shape post-Assad Syria takes. - Walter Russell Mead

This is a common lament, both among pro-interventionist Western commentators and among Syrian rebel forces themselves. But how true is it? Let's presume the U.S. arms the rebels - but only the Good Ones Who Share Our Values - and they're able to fight more effectively against Assad's forces. Will the jihadists decide to quit the battlefield? Why would they do that? Are we supposed to assume that the Syrian forces fighting the Assad regime will instantly turn their guns on the jihadists in their midst if and when they succeed in overthrowing Assad? Won't they have bigger fish to fry at that point?

The possibility of jihadist enclaves in Syria is very real and it's reasonable to assume that the longer fighting drags on, the more opportunities there will be for safe havens and terror networks to take root. But these same networks are just as likely to feed on post-war instability and chaos - which is what is likely to attend the downfall of Assad. What's needed to prevent extremists from gaining traction inside Syria is not American weapons but some plan to actually achieve internal security inside the country. Short of that, arming the rebels may have some merit, but it's not likely to prevent al-Qaeda and its cohorts from taking root in the country.

October 9, 2012

Is Romney's Foreign Policy Vision Simply Obama 2.0?

Spencer Ackerman makes the case:

But more often than not, Romney accepts the policy framework that Obama created. On Iran, he’ll propose “new sanctions” and to “tighten the sanctions we currently have,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Iran policy (along with cyberattacks). On Afghanistan, he “will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Afghanistan policy. On Libya, Romney will “support the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Libya policy. Perhaps most surprisingly, Romney will recommit to negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine, which was a cornerstone of Obama’s Mideast policy before it crumbled into dust.

The differences Romney outlines from Obama tend to shrink under scrutiny. To confront Iran, Romney will pledge to “restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf.” But Obama has kept two carrier strike groups off Iran’s shores for at least a year, an increase from the Bush administration, along with an additional naval surge of minesweepers, gunboats and commandos. On Syria, Romney says he’ll “identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need.” But the CIA is on the Turkey-Syrian border trying to sort out which Syrian rebels are worth funneling foreign weapons to — a difficult proposition at best — and, as the New York Times‘ David Sanger points out, Romney stops short of promising American weapons to the rebels. Romney doesn’t like Obama’s 2014 timetable for ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan (a “politically timed retreat,” Romney calls it), but, again, he’ll say he’ll stick to it while “evaluat[ing] conditions on the ground,” something less than a pledge to stay longer. But since Obama isn’t leaving Afghanistan after 2014, either, finding distinctions on Afghanistan is like counting angels on the head of a pin.

Most incoming administrations talk loudly about the foreign policy failures of their predecessors while preserving most of the substance of those policies. President Obama has been no exception.

This reflects the fact that there is a basic consensus among policymakers about most of the contours of U.S. foreign policy. This kind of bipartisan uniformity does have its merits: it prevents wild and erratic swings in behavior which could be unnerving and potentially destabilizing. But it also has the effect of calcifying some counterproductive policies as well.

October 8, 2012

Mitt Romney on the Middle East

After a fairly poorly received Wall Street Journal op-ed on foreign policy, Mitt Romney's speech today was a good opportunity to flesh out in specific terms what a Romney foreign policy would look like. While he clocked in with a considerably higher word count, questions remain.

What's clear, thematically at least, is that a Romney administration would be deeply committed to social engineering in the Middle East. What's unclear is why, exactly, anyone should have any faith he would do a good job of it.

Throughout the speech are repeated assertions that the U.S. will partner with countries and political forces that "share our values" without any explanation of who those people are, how we determine their relative strength inside a given society and what kind of aid the U.S. taxpayer is expected to provide.

How on Earth can anyone trust a President Romney to "shape events" in the Middle East if he does not offer some proof that he grasps the nuances and intricacies of the societies he's proposing to shepherd into the glorious light of pro-Western democracy? One would think, after the visible nation building failures in Iraq and Afghanistan (failures that many of Romney's senior foreign policy advisers were directly complicit in), that the burden of proof would be on those arguing for a "transformational" foreign policy in the region.

The repeated insistence that the U.S. work with people who "share our values" also winds up undermining one of the rare moments of policy specificity in the speech, on Syria:

I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran-rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.

So is it more important that the U.S. support Syrians because they share our values (and again, how do we know) or that they will deal a strategic defeat to Iran? What if these rebels don't share our values but yet oppose Iran? Which is more important? Romney gives us no indication how he would square that circle. Instead, he offers us only the most optimistic scenario - that Syria's rebellion can be aided at no risk to the U.S. It is also simply untrue to insist that the U.S. can dump weapons into Syria and then - magically - make sure only the "good guys" get them. Weapons are fungible and events in Syria are chaotic and fluid. Once weapons go in, it's difficult to believe the U.S. will be able to control who gets what.

But it was Romney's position on Afghanistan that was the most curious:

And in Afghanistan, I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war - and to potential attacks here at home - is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.
So essentially Romney, like Obama, will remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014 but he will be doing so out of high ideals as opposed to Obama's politically triangulated decision. But how does Romney's commitment to the security of the nation differ materially from Obama in Afghanistan? How will it manifest itself in the American draw down? Is Romney suggesting that if U.S. commanders tell him that they want to stay to 2020 or 2040, he would have no objection?

Americans Cool to an Israeli Strike on Iran

The Brookings Institution has released some new poll findings (pdf) on U.S. views on the Mideast (summarized neatly in the infographic below). Among the questions asked was American views on a possible Israeli strike on Iran. The response:

A slight majority favors taking a neutral stance toward the possibility of Israel carrying out such a strike, though more favor discouraging than encouraging Israel from this course. Respondents evaluated three arguments for encouraging Israel, staying neutral, or discouraging Israel from attacking Iran.

Interestingly, once again Americans told pollsters that they favored enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria - but not bombing Syria (as Brian Haggerty exhaustively documented, you cannot have a no-fly zone without extensive bombing inside Syria). Hit the jump for details on how Americans feel about aid to Egypt and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.


Asia Not Knuckling Under to China


The latest report on arms sales in Asia confirm a trend that has been evident for a while - far from being cowed by a rising China, many Asian states are bulking up their military capabilities:

Indonesia is buying submarines from South Korea and coastal radar systems from China and the United States. Vietnam is getting submarines and combat jets from Russia, while Singapore - the world's fifth-largest weapons importer - is adding to its sophisticated arsenal.

Wary of China and flush with economic success, Southeast Asia is ramping up spending on military hardware to protect the shipping lanes, ports and maritime boundaries that are vital to the flow of exports and energy.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, fuelled by the promise of rich oil and gas deposits, have prompted Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei to try to offset China's growing naval power.

Even for those away from that fray, maritime security has been a major focus for Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

There's a much greater appetite for regional powers to police the commons than many advocates of huge U.S. defense budgets let on, and almost all of those powers are friendly to Washington. Seems like a perfect environment for the U.S. to do some off-shore balancing. (It also makes the "Who Needs a Navy?" argument look a bit facile.)

(AP Photo)

October 5, 2012

Does the U.S. Need a Navy?

John Quiggin isn't so sure:

According to Wikipedia, the Navy’s budget is around $150 billion a year. What does it deliver for that money? The US hasn’t engaged in naval warfare on any significant scale since 1945, a period during which the other arms of its military have fought five major wars, and lots of smaller ones. The record in those wars, including an outright defeat in Vietnam, a status quo ante ceasefire in Korea, and highly equivocal outcomes in the two Iraq wars and Afghanistan casts plenty of doubt on the idea of that US military as a whole is a “high-performing agency”, and raises the question of why so much of the budget has been allocated to an armed force that does hardly any actual fighting.

Sounds a bit too harsh to me.

October 3, 2012

Why Won't Obama Intervene in Syria?

Jeffrey Goldberg is frustrated with President Obama's seeming lack of a coherent policy in the Middle East, particularly with respect to Syria:

Could Obama simply be avoiding a messy foreign entanglement during his bid for re-election? If this were true, it would make him guilty of criminal negligence. Is he the sort of man who would deny innocent and endangered people help simply because greater engagement could complicate his re-election chances? I truly doubt it.

Here’s another possible explanation: Perhaps Obama isn’t quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is. Of course, he has had his successes. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but Osama bin Laden is dead (killed, apparently, by Obama, who used only a salad fork and a No. 2 pencil). And, despite Republican assertions to the contrary, he has done far more to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions than his predecessor, George W. Bush, ever did.

Yet Obama’s record in the Middle East suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty.

Syria is the most obvious example. Assad is a prime supporter of terrorism (as opposed to Qaddafi, who had retired from terrorism sponsorship by the time his people rose up against him), and his regime represents Iran’s only meaningful Arab ally. The overriding concern of the Obama administration in the Middle East is the defanging of Iran. Nothing would isolate Iran -- and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah -- more than the removal of the Assad regime and its replacement by a government drawn from Syria’s Sunni majority. Ensuring that Muslim extremists don’t dominate the next Syrian government is another compelling reason to increase U.S. involvement.

I have no idea why the administration is withholding the aid Goldberg is demanding - or even if they are (would it surprise anyone to learn several years hence that the administration's support for Syria's uprising was more robust than is being publicly reported today?). What I do know is that there's something Goldberg fails to note: that the consequence of stepped-up U.S. aid could create a situation far worse for American interests than the current, bloody insurgency.

What might that be? How about a large-scale civil war in Syria that cracks the door even wider for al-Qaeda to set up yet another regional base (you know, like the one that blossomed in Iraq after the U.S. fought the last war Goldberg urged on Washington)? Or perhaps a war that slips Syria's borders (it's already leaking out) and ignites a wider conflagration, drawing the U.S. in at great cost in blood and treasure. Both could happen without a U.S. intervention, of course, but pouring on the gasoline isn't likely to help put out the fire.

Even under the best of circumstances, the U.S. would have trouble consolidating a new government in Syria - one capable of respecting minorities (or at least not slaughtering them, as happened in Iraq), providing security for the country and - importantly - towing the U.S./Gulf state line on vital regional issues. It seems that absent some clear strategy for a Syrian end-game, any intervention would be grossly irresponsible - and even a good strategy could crumble apart once it meets on-the-ground realities in Syria.

Interestingly, Goldberg concludes his piece with perhaps the best explanation for why the administration has been reluctant to dive into yet another regional war:

The Middle East is a misery for American presidents. Very few, including Obama, have managed to shape events there in ways that benefit the U.S.

Amazingly, this failure never seems to deter American pundits.

Negotiating with the Taliban: Hopeless?


Spencer Ackerman writes that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is rapidly collapsing absent a new-found willingness to negotiate with the Taliban:

Without a settlement with the Taliban, there is no hope of ending an insurgency that withstood the U.S. troop surge of 2010-2012. The U.S. will either have to rely on an Afghan security force that has killed more than 50 U.S. and NATO troops this year alone, or end up prolonging its costly commitment to Afghanistan.

According to The New York Times, U.S. officials have given up on their on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban, and are punting negotiations over to the Afghans after the major U.S. drawdown in 2014. It’s entirely possible that’s a negotiating tactic to compel the Taliban to come to terms. But if the U.S. isn’t bluffing, writes the Times, “one of the cornerstones of [its] strategy to end the war” has crumbled.

Even the most earnest U.S. negotiating effort is bound to hit upon a major American disadvantage: at some point, U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan, while the Taliban remain. The U.S. is trying to paper over this dynamic with promises to never leave but how believable are those pledges? The U.S. and NATO presence is going to be scaled back after 2014, and given that the surge of U.S. forces wasn't able to blunt the Taliban's momentum, it's hard to imagine fewer forces would do any better. What incentive does the Taliban have to make major concessions - or honor them once Western forces are dramatically drawn down?

That leaves the U.S. with very little leverage to negotiate with. Perhaps the only remaining, credible threat would be to make clear that harboring international terrorists on Afghan soil is a U.S. red line that would invite air strikes and special forces attacks - the kind that swiftly collapsed the Taliban regime and drove them out of the country in 2001/2. Ultimately, preventing Afghan territory from serving as a base for global terror strikes is the only "vital" U.S. interest in the country anyway.

(AP Photo)

October 2, 2012

Preparing for China's Collapse

China's been something of a 2012 campaign punching bag, but Tyler Roylance wonders if the candidates are missing an important angle when it comes to the rising power:

Like generals preparing for the last war instead of the next one, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, have built their China-related campaign rhetoric around the notion that the Chinese are out to steal American jobs by manipulating exchange rates and heavily subsidizing their booming export industries. But this story of rapid, state-led economic growth is increasingly a thing of the past. As China's economy slows, the real concern for the next U.S. administration should be the potential fallout from a hard landing, including social unrest and political ferment.

Indeed. It's probably not good form to muse openly about a U.S. response to a Chinese "hard landing" - particularly one that unseats the Communist party - but hopefully it's something everyone is thinking carefully about.

The Decline and Fall of France?

They don't call him "Dr. Doom" for nothing:

Nouriel Roubini says France is on the cusp right now and poses the question in a recent note to clients: “A core or periphery country?”

Roubini says that France is currently on “honeymoon” with French investors who have cut their holdings of PIIGS debt and rotated into French sovereign debt due to a “home bias.”

However, according to Roubini, “many problems are brewing in France” at the moment, and there are a few reasons for serious concern if you’re holding French bonds.

Matt Gurney is a bit more optimistic:

It could happen. Empires have collapsed before. Only our hubris would lead us to think that our generation is somehow special or different. But is Mr. Roubini’s prediction the most likely outcome? Probably not. Unless we re-imagine the place of France (and other European nations of comparable stature) so that we’re not comparing it to failed states in the Middle East and Africa, but to other nations within Europe.

If we consider the European Union as its own economic system, we end up with core and peripheral countries there, too. Germany, clearly, would be the core country, and Greece the peripheral country. The others would be grouped between them, with rather more Greeces than Germanies in the lot. And given France’s economic, political and social problems, while it has thus far avoided the kind of major problems that are rocking the so-called PIIGS — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — it could rapidly join their ranks. Leaving us, with, what? The PIFIGS? The FIGPIS (pronounced “fig pies”)?

That would bruise the legendary French ego, but would be in some ways a recognition of the inevitable.

Making America's Job Tougher

Stephen Walt has a good piece on U.S. power and relative decline that's well worth reading, but I wanted to highlight this contention:

If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.

I don't know how "relatively easy" running America's foreign policy would be - it seems like a tough job under the best of circumstances (even bloggers, omnipotent as they are, have their limitations). Still, Walt's point is one that really needs to be internalized when listening to presidential candidates (and presidents) talk about foreign policy. There is an expectation that U.S. foreign policy is mostly about "solving" problems when in fact it's usually more about managing them. There are some times when "kicking the can down the road" can be irresponsible, but there are other problems (say, like North Korea) where ending your administration without a major catastrophe is something to be content with.

October 1, 2012

Mitt Romney's Mideast Vision


The U.S. faces a number of critical challenges in the Middle East now that the autocratic pillars of stability have fallen in the face of popular protest. Should the U.S. continue to give aid to Egypt, even though the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to towing the American line is tenuous? Should the U.S. fund liberal/pro-Western forces in Egypt with the aim of having them take power in a future election (and if so, are these forces representative of the society as a whole)? Or should the U.S. seek a coup that restores Egypt's military to power? Should the U.S. use military force to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, or stand in the way of Israel's attempt to do the same?

These are just some of the questions that will bedevil any administration come 2013.

So when Mitt Romney published an op-ed titled "A New Course for the Middle East" it was naturally of interest. Here, as best I can tell, is the governor's answer to the questions outlined above:

In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values.

This means restoring our credibility with Iran. When we say an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability—and the regional instability that comes with it—is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us.

It means placing no daylight between the United States and Israel. And it means using the full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression. The dignity of work and the ability to steer the course of their lives are the best alternatives to extremism.

This is not a 'coherent strategy' but a series of nostrums. They're fine nostrums, as far it goes, but it doesn't begin to address the actual issues the U.S. faces in the Middle East.

The Romney campaign appears to be gearing up to slam the Obama administration for its failure to reach out across the ocean and "shape events" in the Middle East to Washington's liking. But without any substantive alternative, why should anyone take them seriously? Simply establishing that the Obama administration has made a hash of things in the region shouldn't be enough to persuade people that you would - by default - do a better job.

(AP Photo)

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