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September 16, 2013

Seeing the Mideast Through a Cold War Lens Will End Badly for America

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While I took issue with Andrew Sullivan's idea that Vladimir Putin now "owned" the mess in Syria, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin evidently took the idea to heart and is terrified at the prospect. According to Tobin, it's quite possible that Putin could end up "owning" the Middle East with damaging results for the U.S. around the world:

The guiding principle of Russian foreign policy is twofold: annoy, humiliate, and defeat the United States every chance they get and thereby help rebuild the lost Soviet empire whose fall Putin still mourns. Russian adventurism in Syria won’t stop there. It will extend into Asia and cause havoc and diminish American influence there and everywhere else.

I think Tobin is utterly wrong in his premise that a loss of influence in one area of the world will lead to a loss everywhere (an argument that should have been put to bed after it was thoroughly discredited during the Cold War), but just for the sake of argument, let's accept that his framing is correct. Does it therefore make sense to overthrow Assad? Not even close.

First, let's look at the lay of the land. Russia has one client -- a regime that is battered by a civil war and that looks to be battling a fierce insurgency for years. It has a second, tepid ally in Iran. The U.S., on the other hand, can count on all the other major countries in the region. It's a chessboard that looks distinctly favorable to the U.S. even if Assad stays in power.

Second, for all of Tobin's breathless talk about "Brezhnev-era" diplomacy and Putin's scheme to reconstitute the Soviet empire (!), there is no chance whatsoever that Russia can re-assemble anything remotely like the Soviet Union again. It will never reclaim Central or Eastern Europe. Central Asia is independent and is as likely to tilt toward China as it is toward Russia. Ukraine, Russia's best hope for a pliable neighboring client, is also balking at Russian overtures, despite the election of Viktor Yanukovych, who was widely seen as in Putin's pocket. As Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn noted recently, Russia's entire geopolitcal strategy for its near abroad is collapsing. The idea that saving Assad's bacon is an important building block in restoring Russian power makes sense only if you ignore almost every other development in Russia's Putin-era foreign policy. (It also ignores the strong evidence that Russia is in pretty bad shape domestically, too.)

Then there's the history. The last time the U.S. aided rebel groups to blunt the advance of Russian power, in Afghanistan, it ended in a transnational jihadist movement that killed thousands of Americans. Back then, the U.S. had the benefit of not knowing the danger of Islamic radicalism. Back then, Russia was a legitimate national security threat that warranted such risk taking. Today, there is no such excuse. Russia is hardly a large enough "threat" to the U.S. to warrant stoking a jihadist whirlwind in Syria just to give them a black eye.

(AP Photo)

July 30, 2013

The Obama Administration Encircles China

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President Obama's "pivot" to Asia has been overshadowed by events in the Middle East, but as John Reed reports, that hasn't stopped the administration from implementing a policy of military encirclement around China:

The United States Air Force will dramatically expand its military presence across the Pacific this year, sending jets to Thailand, India, Singapore, and Australia, according to the service's top general in the region.

For a major chunk of America's military community, the so-called "pivot to Asia" might seem like nothing more than an empty catchphrase, especially with the Middle East once again in flames. But for the Air Force at least, the shift is very real. And the idea behind its pivot is simple: ring China with U.S. and allied forces, just like the West did to the Soviet Union, back in the Cold War.


What kind of reaction will this encirclement provoke in China?

One way to answer this is to flip the question: If China began using bases in Central America to station offensive air power, would the U.S. sit idly by?

The administration seems to be banking on a deterrent effect -- that the Chinese will see the constellation of forces arrayed against them and relent on some of their territorial claims and acquiesce, however begrudgingly, to American military dominance in their backyard. This is a high-risk roll of the dice, to say the least.

(AP Photo)

May 6, 2013

The Great Foreign Policy Paradox: Terrorists Are Starfish

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Motivational speakers are fond of telling a slightly corny, yet morally correct, story about a girl flinging starfish back into the ocean after a storm washed thousands of them onto a beach. The point of the story is that one person, while probably incapable of changing the world, can make a substantial difference in the lives of those whom they touch.

Unfortunately for motivational speakers, starfish may not be the most lovable example. To fishermen and marine biologists, starfish are an incredible nuisance. They eat oysters and clams, and they even destroy coral reef ecosystems, including the beloved Great Barrier Reef. To get rid of them, fishermen would chop them up and throw them back into the water.

The trouble with this strategy is that starfish can regenerate. A bisected starfish isn't a dead starfish: It's now two starfish. (And a starfish cut into five pieces turns into five starfish!)

In the world today, civilized societies are the fishermen, and terrorists are the starfish. If we leave the terrorists alone, they will destroy our global ecosystem; if we attack them, they multiply. This is the great paradox of foreign policy.

This paradox has received a lot of attention recently in regard to our drone campaign. Writing in The Atlantic, Hassan Abbas concludes that we simply don't know if drones are creating more terrorists than they kill.

Which is why the recent testimony of Yemeni writer Farea Al-Muslimi before the Senate is so troubling. He claims that drone strikes are terrifying his fellow countrymen and turning public opinion against the United States. Jihadists prey upon the poor, the angry and the fearful -- using their poisonous ideology to convert them into extremists.

This is largely what happened in Chechnya, the ancestral homeland of the Boston bombers. The Economist explains:

The nationalist cause that inspired Chechen fighters 20 years ago is now an Islamic one. Yet this mutation has as much do with Russia’s ruthless actions in the region as with the global spread of Islamist fundamentalism.

The article concludes that "suppression alone is unlikely to bring greater security to Russia."

Any marine biologist would have known that.

(Image: Starfish via TheMargue/Wikimedia Commons)

March 20, 2013

President Obama Claims U.S. Alliance to Israel Is "Eternal"

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President Obama, speaking in Israel today:

“So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place. That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago. That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.”

While President Obama credits "strong national security interests" with the initial U.S. recognition of Israel, the reality was more complicated. In fact, President Truman's State Department and Defense Department, his key national security advisers, objected to the move. (Allis and Ronald Radosh have a nice background on Truman's recognition of Israel here.)

What's important about the president's remarks today, though, is less the strategic history than his assertion that the U.S. and Israel have an "eternal alliance."

I suspect we're going to see a lot of debate centered around that phrase in the coming days.

Andrew Sullivan, for instance, contrasts Obama's rhetoric with George Washington's famed warning to avoid entangling alliances:

The concept of an “eternal”, and “unbreakable” alliance with any other single country is a statement George Washington would have regarded as deeply corrosive of foreign policy and domestic governance. To declare it in the language of the foreign country has even deeper resonance. It is now the governing principle of both political parties – and the primary reason we may once again be headed to war with unforeseeable consequences in the Middle East.

Rick Moran, meanwhile, doubts Obama's sincerity:

If Iran gives him half a chance, he will sell out Netanyahu and the Jewish state.

Uri Friedman sees more subtle language at work:

See what he did there? Change "your" to "our" and a host of furious no-stronger-allies would be knocking on Washington's door. But, as Obama's speechwriters are well aware, it's probably fair to say that Israel received a visit from its closest partner today.

(AP Photo)

March 19, 2013

What Pundits and Politicans Mean When They Say "Neo-Isolationism"

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Michael Hirsh says that there's a new monster stalking the nation's capital: neo-isolationism. Here's his evidence:

Perhaps nothing more vividly illustrates this dramatic transformation in U.S. foreign policy than the reversal of roles on the world stage of the United States and France. A decade ago, in the months before the Iraq invasion, the French played the role of chief challengers to the Bush administration and were derided as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” in the colorful tabloid phrase of the time. Today, it is France that is taking the lead in intervention, prodding the U.S. forward in Libya, Syria and Mali.

To a degree that the American public may not even be aware of, the U.S. military is now playing a supporting role to the French, with logistical aid and airlift in Mali, much as it did in Libya. In addition, Washington is only slowly coming around to the hawkish French view of Syria's stalemate: Autocrat Bashar al-Assad won’t be moved to negotiate unless the rebels can change the military balance with Western arms. A senior Western diplomat says America’s reluctance to intervene today, even in a humanitarian crisis as bloody as Syria’s, is not unlike where Washington was at the beginning of the Bosnia crisis of the early 1990s, when then-President Clinton was criticized for his hesitation (he eventually came around to supporting NATO strikes and empowered an aggressive U.S. diplomat, the late Richard Holbrooke, to take the lead from the Europeans in negotiations).

So ... the evidence that America has turned isolationist is that it has intervened in two countries (in the past several months) but on a more limited basis and not as fast as some people would like.

With all due respect to Hirsh, this is rather thin beer.

In fact, the "neo-isolationist" meme would be farcical and embarrassing if it wasn't so pernicious. As Daniel Larison notes, there are no isolationists in any meaningful sense of that term operating in American politics today. Even the more ardent non-interventionists still endorse trade and diplomacy. Many realists support the U.S. maintaining some international power projection capabilities as well.

So the term "isolationist" is really a short-hand for someone who opposes a particular war or intervention. It would be helpful if Hirsh and others chronicling Washington's foreign policy debate would be more specific here: There may indeed be a greater scrutiny with respect to the costs and benefits of putting U.S. boots on the ground in various parts of the world, but that's a far cry from "isolationism." Conflating it as such plays into the hands of demagogues.

(AP Photo)

March 12, 2013

U.S. Think Tank Concerned That No One Thinks America Is Great Anymore

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Senator Leiberman is going to the American Enterprise Institute to do battle with the dark (and non-existent) forces of neo-isolationism. In making the announcement, AEI's President Arthur Brooks made the following observation:

"Senator Joseph Lieberman's knowledge, deep commitment and vision for American greatness is all too rare in Washington."[Emphasis mine.]

The idea of American greatness is "rare" in Washington? What Washington is Brooks referring to? The notion of American exceptionalism is one of the most rigid orthodoxies around. Kishore Mahbubani addressed this point at a recent Asia Society event with a telling anecdote: as he moderated a panel on American power with U.S. politicians and policy-makers, he discovered that "no senior American figure can have words coming out of his or her mouth" acknowledging even the possibility that America could be number two in the world.

Needless to say, the idea that America in general and Washington's political class in particular is suffering from an insufficient dose of self-flattery doesn't pass the laugh test.

(AP Photo)

March 6, 2013

Kerry's Magic Words Will Keep Arms from Falling into Jihadist Hands

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Secretary of State John Kerry has a plan to stop Gulf state weapons from ending up in jihadist's hands in Syria:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the Obama administration supported efforts by Middle Eastern nations to send arms to the opposition in Syria, and had had discussions with foreign officials to emphasize that those arms should go to moderate forces rather than to extremists.

“We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred and by whom,” Mr. Kerry said after a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, which has been involved in arming the Syrian opposition. “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition.”

Mr. Kerry’s comments were the most direct public affirmation to date that the Obama administration was supporting efforts to arm the Syrian resistance, provided that the arms are sent by other nations and that care is taken to direct them to factions the United States supports. [Emphasis mine.]

It's been discussed and emphasized. Is anyone else reassured by that?

(AP Photo)

March 5, 2013

Americans Are Ignorant About Their Military Might

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America has not faced a military equal for decades now. The U.S. routinely outspends all of its potential rivals combined and while it doesn't boast the largest nuclear arsenal in the world in numeric terms, it's generally considered qualitatively superior to Russia's nuclear stockpile.

Yet a surprisingly large number of Americans don't seem to grasp their country's military superiority.

According to Gallup, fully 47 percent of Americans think that the U.S. is merely one of several leading military powers. The 50 percent who answered correctly that the U.S. is the leading military power represents an all-time low for the figure:

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Daniel Larison takes a stab at explaining why so many people don't understand America's relative military standing:

When the U.S. fights major foreign wars, the well-publicized exercise of U.S. military power–no matter how unnecessary or self-defeating–drives the public perception that the “U.S. is number one” up and drives the other result down. When the U.S. concludes these wars or is perceived to be in the process of bringing them to a conclusion, we seem to see the reverse. A related explanation is that concluding wars, withdrawing forces from other countries, and considering the possibility of reduced military spending provoke hawkish warnings of American “decline.” That leads to a different sort of alarmism about the dangers to the world that could result from this so-called “decline.”

Robert Golan-Vilella adds more:

One reason is the habitual tendency of U.S. policy makers to exaggerate threats and dangers around the world, as Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen chronicled in their Foreign Affairs essay “Clear and Present Safety” last year. With leaders constantly stressing how dangerous and threatening the world is, it’s no wonder that the U.S. public believes a number of mistaken things about global affairs—and that many of them involve either overstating threats or understating Washington’s own power. For example, a 2010 CNN poll found that 71 percent of Americans believe that Iran currently has nuclear weapons. A separate CNN poll in 2012 indicated that Americans believe that the threat from Iran is on par with the danger presented by the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. These latest results from Gallup appear to be part of the same story.

(AP Photo)

February 26, 2013

Top House Democrat Wants to Arm Syrian Rebels

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) thinks it's a good idea to dump weapons into Syria. Engel evidently believes the U.S. has a "choice" between brokering a peace deal with Russia and Assad, or precipitating the Assad regime's violent collapse.

Engel does not offer any evidence to support the proposition that arming the rebels will produce an outcome amenable to American interests -- this is now apparently simply assumed on faith.

In other Syrian news, the Saudis are reportedly funneling infantry weapons from Croatia into Syria. Not to worry though: they're only giving those weapons to "secular" and "nationalists" groups -- and not jihadists. According to an unnamed CIA official, the rebellion against Assad remains "fragmented" and "operationally incoherent."

Maybe someone should tell Rep. Engel.

February 25, 2013

Americans Think the World Thinks Better of Them

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Americans are increasingly satisfied with how their country is viewed in the world, according to Gallup's U.S. Global Status Index.

The country's satisfaction with its global status is the highest it's been since 2006, but the index itself (which is based on three questions pertaining to America's global status) shows key variations. While Americans are happier with their country's perception in the world, they have consistently lost faith in the proposition that other leaders respect President Obama -- although the current president still rates significantly higher on this score than his predecessor during the depths of the Iraq war.

Americans on the whole are also still largely unsatisfied with their position in the world. What's a superpower to do?

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(AP Photo)

February 22, 2013

Can the U.S. Bring Order to an Unruly World?

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Patrick Doherty is worried about the current trajectory of global politics:

Abroad, Washington's post-Cold War pattern of episodic adventurism and incremental crisis management only creates further uncertainty, and rising powers will not lead. Other major economies have little appetite for altering the global order and hence are doubling down on the old system, exacerbating trade imbalances and driving record resource extraction. As commodity prices rise, global powers are hedging ever more aggressively -- stockpiling resources and increasingly becoming entangled in conflicts in resource-rich areas. As the global economy falters, unrest rises and the great unresolved conflicts of the 20th century -- the Middle East, South Asia, North Korea, Taiwan -- grow increasingly enmeshed in the power dynamics of this new era.

Simply put, the current U.S. and international order is unsustainable, and myriad disruptions signal that it is now in a process of collapse. Until the United States implements a new grand strategy, the country will face even more rapid degradation of domestic and global conditions.


Doherty goes on to outline his view of what a workable U.S. strategy should be and I encourage you to read it in full. But here I just want to put in a kind word for "incremental crisis management."

It's very popular in foreign policy punditry circles to call for a grand strategy, or complain that a given administration lacks one (or lacks a good one). I've done it myself. But there is also something to be said for "incremental crisis management," particularly when the alternative is untenable, as I suspect Doherty's might be.

Any global strategy advanced by Washington is going to encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of variables that cannot be predicted or adequately controlled for. A year before 9/11, almost no serious "grand strategist" would have argued for the complete realignment of the U.S. national security bureaucracy to chase some guys in a cave in Afghanistan. (The Bush administration spurned the poor guy who proposed a more vigorous effort against al-Qaeda in the pre-9/11 months.)

In other words, efforts at concocting a very elaborate grand strategy are one unexpected crisis away from being rendered laughably obsolete.

But incremental crisis management has something going for it, particularly in the world that Doherty describes. Translated from bureaucratic speak, it simply means responding to events as they occur in a manner that may not "solve" a problem, but does enough to mitigate the worst harm to the United States. In other words, it's about being flexible and not having a rigid template. In a world that is being beset by a series of challenges -- some envisioned, others not -- with the global distribution of power and influence in flux, it's not a bad idea. In such an instance, a new global order will emerge on an ad-hoc basis -- which it is likely to do anyway, no matter what strategy Washington pursues.

(AP Photo)

February 20, 2013

Americans Don't Want Their Government Spreading Democracy (But Do Want it Fighting Terrorism)

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What do Americans want their government to be doing abroad? According to a new survey from Gallup, the answer is resoundingly "preventing future acts of international terrorism." What ranked as the least important priority (from the choices given)? "Helping other countries build democracies."

Here's the full list:

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Gallup has polled these priorities five times since 2001 and found only a slight variation in Americans' stated preferences. The issue of securing of energy supplies has shifted steadily up the priority scale since 2003.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2013

Why Hagel Is Generating Such Sound and Fury

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Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan make the case that one reason Hagel's nomination has become such a hot potato is because he symbolizes the Obama administration's pivot away from the Middle East. Here's how Marshall puts it:

Let’s start with what we might incompletely call the Bush/neoconservative approach. It is a belligerent unilateralism, a vision based on an abundantly powerful and yet deeply endangered America, and — very significantly — one that sees almost all the big issues and future security of the country emanating out of the zone of conflict stretching from North Africa into Pakistan. In other words, it’s about oil, Islam, the Middle East and Israel.

The people around Obama have a different take on goals, threats and tactics. It’s not just that we can’t continue — either in security or fiscal terms — with open-ended occupations of Middle Eastern countries or hapless efforts to ‘transform the region’. It’s that the Middle East is fundamentally more yesterday’s news than tomorrow’s and that we need to be in the business of making it more yesterday rather than less.

There are multiple lines of attack against Hagel, so I don't know if there's really one meta answer for why his nomination has generated such controversy. Still, Marshall makes an interesting point.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2013

Five Things Americans Fear the Most

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What do Americans fear most? When it comes to America's international security interests, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are deemed most threatening, according to a new survey from Gallup. Americans were giving a list of nine developments and asked to rank them from more to less critical. Here are the top five threats Americans say are most critical:

1. The nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea (tied for first)
2. International terrorism
3. Islamic fundamentalism
4. The economic power of China
5. The military power of China

The poll was conducted before North Korea's most recent nuclear test.

Other issues that had previously ranked higher -- such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions between India-Pakistan -- have declined.

Here's a look at the full list of Gallup's results:

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(AP Photo)

February 14, 2013

Has Obama Lost Pakistan?

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In his State of the Union address earlier this week, President Barack Obama had this to say about U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the (mostly) Muslim world:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

One place left unmentioned in the president's address was Pakistan, where a recent Gallup poll indicates that disapproval of U.S. leadership is at an all-time high:

With President Barack Obama's first term characterized by strained relations between Pakistan and the U.S., more than nine in 10 Pakistanis (92%) disapprove of U.S. leadership and 4% approve, the lowest approval rating Pakistanis have ever given.
Pakistanis now more than at any other time in the past three years feel threatened by interaction with the West, according to a May 12-June 6, 2012, survey. A majority (55%) say interaction between Muslim and Western societies is "more of a threat," up significantly from 39% in 2011. This sharp increase is observed at a time of heightened Pakistani concerns regarding U.S. encroachment on Pakistani sovereignty, including an intensified number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, as well as the aforementioned May 2011 killing of bin Laden by the United States military.

Enlisting "values" in the fight against terrorism is all well and good, but values projection isn't a direct marketing campaign. American values are understood abroad not through rhetoric, but through policy. While drones are certainly a more cost efficient, and less invasive, form of interventionism, they are a form of intervention nonetheless. The president came into office hoping for a reset with the Muslim world, but the "Muslim world" isn't a place; it's a concept comprised of many different sects, regions, languages, nationalities and interests. As it turns out, matters of sovereignty, national identity, regional supremacy and patriotism matter to Muslims, too. (Shocking, I know!)

Over 10 percent of the world's Muslim population resides in restive, nuclear-armed Pakistan. There's certainly no panacea for fighting fringe organizations like al-Qaeda, but if President Obama is so concerned about Muslim extremism, then he might want to stop alienating the places where most of the world's Muslims happen to live.

February 13, 2013

Restrainers vs. Shapers in U.S. Foreign Policy

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Thomas Wright argues that the "new debate" among Democrats in foreign policy is a divide between "shapers" who want America to play an activist role abroad and "restrainers" who don't. Wright sees a short-term win for the restrainers, with a caveat:

Restraint is an idea that seems to fit the moment. Americans are tired of war and feel more constrained after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, over time, the realization will set in that staying out also shapes the world -- and probably in a way that is detrimental to America's interests. It creates a vacuum filled by others. It fuels uncertainty. And it exacerbates crises.

Larison isn't buying it:

Armed foreign intervention, providing military supplies to one side in a conflict, and imposing sanctions on another country create their own kinds of uncertainty and exacerbate the crises they are meant to address, and they do so in ways that directly involve the U.S. and impose longer-term obligations on it. Toppling regimes creates vacuums that are filled by others, and that has been true even when the U.S. has had over a hundred thousand soldiers occupying another country. The reason that restraint often makes more sense than interference is that it is quite unusual to find cases where interfering would benefit the U.S. and the country in question more than it costs both. The impulse to “shape” events in other countries is misguided in principle and frequently destructive in practice. Put bluntly, the “shapers” in both parties have had their turn for the last twelve years, and they aren’t likely to get another one for a while.

The frustrating thing about Wright's overview of the debate is that it's focused solely on military questions, as if that is the only way in which the United States can or should exercise "influence" in the world. I think it's true that there is a constituency, in both parties, that wants to see the U.S. less militarily engaged around the world, but that is manifestly not the same thing as being "restrained" when it comes to economic engagement or traditional diplomacy.

(AP Photo)

February 8, 2013

"Everyone Is Happy with the Status Quo on Iran"

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After committing himself to Iran blogging autopilot, Drezner argues that the status quo will endure because most of the major players, with the exception of Israel, are happy with it:

The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons. Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat.

I don't think this status quo is sustainable at all and the U.S. may not be all that happy with it if they thought through the implications. Put simply, the U.S. is on a similar course with Iran as it was with Iraq in the 1990s. That containment regime took a brutal toll on innocent Iraqis and helped fuel terrorism against the United States. It then culminated in a costly war because many people became convinced that the status quo was intolerably threatening.

Iran is on the same trajectory, only it may not take a decade to crumble, given Israel's repeated warnings about taking preemptive action. U.S. sanctions may or may not dissuade the ruling elite to permanently forswear nuclear weapons, but it will eventually devastate life for ordinary Iranians. Worse, the U.S. is empowering Sunni Gulf allies who are in turn helping to "contain" Iran by whipping up Sunni jihadist forces around the region. These forces pose a much more direct threat than Iran since, by their very nature, they cannot be contained and have a proven capacity to do large scale damage inside America. They are instruments of instability and they're already at work in Syria, right next door to Iran.

I think in the short-term, the rinse/repeat quality of the Iranian containment regime justifies autopilot, but I think it's likely to unravel much sooner than we think.

(AP Photo)

Why Neoconservatives Get Their Way (On Many Things)

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Daniel Larison thinks Robert Kagan is wrong to suggest that Senator Rand Paul is not a "true" foreign policy dissenter because then he "would have the temerity to declare that a nuclear Iran, although unfortunate, is nevertheless tolerable and that the military option ought not to be on the table." According to Larison, that's not the way politics works:

Kagan knows very well why Sen. Paul doesn’t take a more unconventional line on Iran policy. We have seen it on display for the last seven weeks in the panic over Hagel’s nomination and we have seen it over the last six years as Sen. Paul’s father has been written off as a “fringe” figure because he takes exactly the position on Iran that Kagan describes. Obviously, Kagan isn’t interested in having a “true dissenter” in the debate, and he hates them when they appear.

While I think Larison is right about the practical results, I wonder if Kagan doesn't have a point. It all goes back to the Overton window. For the uninitiated, here's the theory:

The Overton window is a means of visualizing which ideas define that range of acceptance by where they fall in it. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public so that the window either “moves” or expands to encompass them. Opponents of current policies, or similar ones currently within the window, likewise seek to convince people that these should be considered unacceptable.

Kagan and his fellow advocates both within government and in think tanks and journalistic institutions have had a fair degree of success in moving this window in their direction. Whenever a civil war breaks out in countries within or adjacent to regional interests of the United States, there is an implicit expectation that Washington "do something." By defining America's sphere of interest so broadly (Kagan, remember, believes the U.S. should exercise hegemony over the very Earth itself) they have succeeded in moving the policy debate onto grounds that are already favorable, even if they don't get every war or intervention they desire.

The problem is that the Overton window does not move back in a direction of less intervention through nuanced critiques of the most extreme position. Believe me, I wish it did. Instead, it needs to move using the same kind of stridency and demagoguery that pushed it in its original direction. So while I personally wouldn't agree with categorically ruling out the use of force against Iran no matter what, opponents of preventative war are going to have to make some politically risky declarations if they expect the consensus to start to move in their direction.

(AP Photo)

February 6, 2013

Rand Paul Foreign Policy Speech

U.S. Senator Rand Paul is scheduled to outline a "constitutionally conservative" foreign policy in a speech at the Heritage Foundation this morning. For a preview of the speech, be sure to check out Daniel Larison's recent interview with the senator.

You can watch the speech here, below the jump, at 11 a.m. ET.

Continue reading "Rand Paul Foreign Policy Speech" »

February 4, 2013

The Case for Maintaining U.S. Aid to Egypt

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Ken Sofer argues that cutting U.S. aid to Egypt now would be too harsh:

While Egypt’s progress under President Muhammad Morsi towards an open, democratic state has been frustrating and often ineptly managed, the United States needs to remain engaged in efforts to influence the political and economic transition in Egypt, as well as bolster security in one of our most important allies. Both actions will require continued support for a full range of U.S. policy tools — including the annual security and economic assistance the U.S. has delivered since 1979 — and a more robust diplomatic engagement with the multiple centers of power that have emerged in Egypt during the past two years.

U.S. assistance and support for Egypt must be reformed in the long run to reflect new realities, but ending aid to Egypt is a blunt tool that should be reserved for red lines in the relationship, such as a coup d’état, a sharp authoritarian turn, or Egypt reneging on its treaty obligations with Israel. As incoming Secretary of State John Kerry recently stressed, now is not the time to rashly cut off support to Egypt. Clearly, Egypt’s people and leaders will determine its trajectory, but the United States can play a positive role in shaping outcomes.

Can the U.S. really play a positive role? Presumably Sofer means that we can continue to identify and work with liberal factions inside Egypt to bolster their capacity to peacefully organize while exerting pressure on the Brotherhood to adhere to the peace treaty with Israel and govern according to Egypt's constitution. None of these things are necessarily bad ideas, but are they sufficient? And if they fail, what will the U.S. have gained? Having meddled in Egypt's political transition and failed to secure our preferred outcome, we will simply have made more enemies, wasted billions of dollars and provided significant weaponry to a hostile force.

Events across the entire are very fluid right now. I think the notion that Washington can harness these turbulent forces to "shape outcomes" to its liking is, at best, optimistic.

(AP Photo)

Hagel's Retreat Exposes Myth of "Bipartisan Consensus" on U.S. Foreign Policy

The one criticism that seems to have stuck on Chuck Hagel is the charge that his views were outside the "mainstream" consensus arrived at by that bastion of foreign policy understanding, the U.S. Congress.

This consensus is treated as if it simply reflects a self-evident reality about U.S. interests, or portrayed as the result of careful, bipartisan deliberation. The Hagel hearings exploded that myth.

Instead, we saw first hand that the bipartisan consensus is sustained because policymakers with career ambitions can't really afford to deviate from it without risk to their career. It's an incentive structure that selects for conformity. Hagel's "safe" approach to the hearing, where he choose to mostly elide (or bumble) tough questions rather than address his critics head on, will only entrench this dynamic. Even if he survives the confirmation process, any current or future foreign policy wonk with high career ambitions who watched the Hagel hearings must have absorbed the message: much better to play it safe.

Update: Larison adds more:

One thing I would add to this is that the conformity that is being demanded of politicians and officials doesn’t have much of anything to do with an informed understanding of the relevant issues. As Scott pointed out in his post last week, adhering to the consensus view seems to require flat-out rejection of weighing different policy options. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a person has reached the “right” conclusion at the end of his deliberation. Evidently, the process of reaching that conclusion must not involve entertaining or considering anything besides the “right” answer, and if it has that becomes grounds for suspicion. It’s not just that the consensus view isn’t the product of careful deliberation, but that careful deliberation itself is taken as a sign of possibly unacceptable deviationism.

January 31, 2013

Why Is the U.S. "Leading from Behind?"

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Victor Davis Hanson offers up every possible explanation but the right one:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Democratic and Republican administrations ensured the free commerce, travel, and communications essential for the globalization boom.

Such peacekeeping assumed that there would always pop up a Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden who would threaten the regional or international order. In response, the United States — often clumsily, with mixed results, and to international criticism — would either contain or eliminate the threat. Names changed, but evil remained — and as a result of U.S. vigilance the world largely prospered.

This bipartisan activist policy is coming to a close with the new “lead from behind” policy of the Obama administration. Perhaps America now believes that the United Nations has a better record of preventing or stopping wars — or that the history of the United States suggests we have more often caused rather than solved problems, or that with pressing social needs at home we can no longer afford an activist profile abroad at a time of near financial insolvency.

How about a more plausible explanation: that the U.S. is slowly coming around to the idea that it has to set priorities about when and where it intervenes and that regional powers are more than capable of handling these policing duties? (And, to the extent they're not, it's because life under the U.S. defense umbrella has hollowed out their military capacity -- a dynamic that can only be reversed if it's clear the U.S. taxpayer won't be continually on the hook for their defense.)

And isn't it ironic that at a time of "near fiscal insolvency" the supposedly "conservative" position is to retain an "activist profile abroad" at all costs? Slash big government at home to sustain big government abroad. No cognitive dissonance there!

(AP Photo)

January 28, 2013

Obama's Promise: A "Surgical Strike" Against Iran

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Israel's outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak said the Obama administration presented Israel with "quite sophisticated" plans for a "surgical" operation against Iran's nuclear program.

One question that arises is whether the Obama administration went through this exercise as a means of mollifying Netanyahu to delay a strike, without any real intention of following through, or whether the administration made more concrete assurances to buy more time for sanctions and negotiations. Either way, as Barak states at the end of the interview, the U.S. has put its credibility on the line with the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, the idea that any strike against Iran would be "surgical" is a misnomer, one designed to soften the public's expectations for what a military campaign against Iran would entail. Such a mission may be conceived of as a limited and targeted strike, but if Iran were to retaliate, all bets would be off and things could get messy very quickly.

January 24, 2013

Rand Paul Is Not a Conspiracy Theorist

Hayes Brown thinks Senator Rand Paul is indulging in conspiracy theory mongering because he asked Secretary Clinton about the possibility that the U.S. used its consulate in Libya to funnel weapons into Turkey and eventually Syria:

Paul’s inquiry about Turkey seems less odd if you’re familiar with Glenn Beck-inspired conspiracy theories that have been circulating among right-wing websites since the attacks in Libya.

The theory goes that Ambassador Chris Stevens — who was killed during the attack — was deeply involved in the CIA project of gathering loose arms in Libya in the aftermath of Moammar Qaddafi’s downfall. Stevens then facilitated the movement of those arms from Libya to Turkey, where they then went on to Syria. The secrecy involved in moving those weapons under the table is part of why the Obama administration covered up the truth of the attack, according to the theory, which even Fox News has helped spread.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it will not be providing arms to the rebels in Syria, which this theory claims to counter. While the CIA was involved with helping round up the loose arms that were rampant in Libya, there is no evidence that Stevens or the State Department was involved in the operation, nor that the arms were then shipped to Syria.

Look, I do not traffic in "Glenn Beck-inspired conspiracy theories" but this dismissal is just a wee bit threadbare. Is it a self-evidently crackpot idea that the U.S. government would secretly funnel weapons to insurgents in other parts of the world? Um, no. It was a fairly standard American practice throughout the Cold War. In fact, the Obama administration is arming multiple "allies" in both Africa and the Middle East as we speak. It is "coordinating" with Gulf state allies to provide arms to Syria's rebels in their quest to overthrow the Assad regime. Is it really that much of a stretch to think that the U.S. is quietly getting arms to the Syrian rebels directly as well?

The only evidence Hayes musters to dispute the theory is that the Obama administration said it isn't. And we all know that no U.S. administration would lie about this kind of thing.

Seriously, I have no idea what happened in Benghazi any more than Hayes does. I'm not very interested in what the administration's talking points were, or should have been. But if the U.S. was using Libya to smuggle weapons into Syria, it's something the American people should know about.

January 21, 2013

Neoconservatism as a Communist Show Trial

Daniel Larison catches Jennifer Rubin demanding re-education for Chuck Hagel:

The language of inquisitors crops up throughout the post. Rubin describes recent reports about Hagel’s views in terms of his supposed “serial recantation,” she insists that he must “renounce” his past views, and later implies that he must express remorse for them. Hagel is supposed to prove the sincerity of his “conversion,” and he must prove that he has “the emotional commitment to these views” that the hard-liners require. At one point, she states that this is necessary because “we expect the defendant to recognize and accept full responsibility for his misdeeds.” In this case, Hagel’s “misdeeds” amount to questioning hard-line policies and nothing more. Applying such absolutist, religious terms to policy differences is twisted, and it is proof of the fanaticism of Hagel’s critics.

It is not enough if Hagel ceases to support a policy that Rubin considers mistaken, and it is certainly not enough that Hagel correct the distortions of his record that his critics have circulated. According to this fanatical view, he is obliged to confess his wrongdoing and beg mercy of the people hounding him.

Do Mali Terrorists Intend to Attack the United States?

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The Obama administration has been slow to hop on the Mali intervention bandwagon and some reporting from the Los Angeles Times indicates why:

Militants in Mali, "if left unaddressed, ... will obtain capability to match their intent — that being to extend their reach and control and to attack American interests," Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview.

But many of Obama's top aides say it is unclear whether the Mali insurgents, who include members of the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threaten the U.S.

Those aides also worry about being drawn into a messy and possibly long-running conflict against an elusive enemy in Mali, a vast landlocked country abutting the Sahara desert, just as U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan.

"No one here is questioning the threat that AQIM poses regionally," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations. "The question we all need to ask is, what threat do they pose to the U.S. homeland? The answer so far has been none."

It's hard to know just what kind of aims and "intent" AQIM has, since different leaders may have a different conception of their mission. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, AQIM is more of a regional outfit and to the extent that it wants to target foreign countries, France and Spain top the list. Although as this CFR backgrounder makes clear, that picture may be changing with possible links between AQIM and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Still, the Pentagon risks setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy if it ends up quickly diving into a war in Mali. AQIM will have regional aims up until the minute U.S. bombs start falling on their heads. At that moment, they will no doubt broaden their sights.

(AP Photo)

January 18, 2013

What the Hagel Debate Is Really About: The Wisdom of Preventative War

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Robert Satloff identifies a real, substantive issue in the Hagel debate amid the tawdry smear campaign:

Even supporters of Hagel’s nomination must admit that it is nearly impossible to find any support in his record for the idea of “prevention” that undergirds the strategy toward Iran. This concept, which has been publicly embraced by Obama, means that the United States should deter Iran not from using a bomb but, rather, from acquiring one — preventing Tehran peacefully, if possible; through military means, if necessary.

While Hagel has not specifically repudiated prevention, he has criticized key elements of the policy. He has expressed skepticismthat the United States should threaten Iran militarily; he has suggested that U.S. muscle-flexing in the Persian Gulf sours the possibility for a negotiated settlement with Iran; and he has been critical of the military option to delay or destroy the Iranian nuclear program.

In this context, the looming fight over Hagel’s confirmation has obscured the strategic repercussion of the nomination.

As Satloff notes, it's odd for an administration that has publicly embraced the idea of the preventative war to nominate a defense secretary who has been skeptical of the idea. That is, unless President Obama isn't committed to a preventative war or Hagel is willing to swallow his reservations and salute when/if the time comes.

Unfortunately, what's not going to happen during the Hagel confirmation hearings is an actual debate about the wisdom of preventative wars and specifically the wisdom of a preventative war against Iran. Hagel will have to toe the administration's line, which is that a preventative war is fully on the table if Iran doesn't knuckle under, and whatever misgivings everyone thinks he has will have to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

(AP Photo)

January 15, 2013

Mali Makes the Case for Non-Interventionists

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There's been a lot of nonsense talk of late about a potential American "retreat" from the world -- a return to the dreaded "isolationism" of the 1930s. In reality, most of those making the case for a more restrained foreign policy don't want a worldwide "retreat" but simply less meddling in countries whose dynamics the West doesn't understand and can't direct.

Fortunately (or rather, unfortunately) the Western war in Mali is serving as Exhibit A for the non-interventionist case. First, the New York Times' Adam Nossiter explains how the Mali rebellion benefited from the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya:

Well, when Gadhafi fell, his extensive arsenals in the south of Libya were left totally unguarded, unprotected by the Western forces that brought him down. Gadhafi had fighting for him a number of ethnic nomad fighters from Mali, the Tuaregs. And so when Gadhafi fell, these Tuaregs returned to Mali, where their group had been conducting a rebellion for almost 60 years against the Malian state.

They took with them a lot of the weapons that were in Gadhafi's arsenal. So for the first time in their long history of rebellion against Mali, they were properly armed and equipped thanks to Moammar Gadhafi. And it was those weapons that allowed these nomadic rebels to crush the Malian army in January, February and March of 2012.

Al-Qaida was already installed in the desert and they made a sort of tactical alliance with these nomadic rebels. But the al-Qaida forces, being tougher, took the upper hand, and so now they're the ones in control.

Now, the rebellion in Mali had raged long before the Western intervention in Libya and even without Western help, the forces battling Gaddafi may have prevailed -- or may have provoked enough disorder and lawlessness that these weapons could have slipped from Libya into Mali. Still, the Western intervention clearly accelerated the disintegration of the Gaddafi regime and poured jet-fuel on the fires simmering in Mali. And that has now led to... another intervention.

And it gets worse:

But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials.

“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.

Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against. [Emphasis added.]

It bears repeating that Mali's rebels would be fighting with or without American interference and the rebellion against Gaddafi may have resulted in the eventual collapse of his regime and a southern flood of weapons. But what is unmistakably clear is that American (and Western) efforts have not only failed to improve things, they've likely made the situation considerably worse. Will Congress question the Obama administration over this?

(AP Photo)

January 11, 2013

Come Home America ... to Cliches

Fred Hiatt is worried that the U.S. is poised to "retreat" from the world:

Those who argue for a more vigorous international role are sometimes caricatured as war-loving and unilateralist when, in fact, an activist stance has been favored by Democrats from Harry Truman to Madeleine Albright and Republicans from Richard Nixon to Colin Powell. It would be no fairer to label them all bellicose neocons than to call Obama a pure isolationist.

So if this more "vigorous" international role isn't a constant reach for military force, what is it? Hiatt explains, kind of:

But there are risks to withdrawal as well as to engagement. Only a few years after the United States turned its back on Rwanda, our leaders felt compelled to apologize and ask themselves how they could have let genocide happen. When America last turned its back on Afghanistan, two decades ago, civil war followed, with al-Qaeda close behind. Clinton responded with cruise missile attacks, the 1990s’ equivalent of drone strikes. America learned on 9/11 how inadequate that response had been.

These are two examples (the only ones he cites) where a "vigorous" response is clearly a militarized one. So this is, in fact, exactly what critics of this style of "internationalism" are objecting too. (They should also object to self-styled "internationalists" whose preferred interaction with the world focuses almost exclusively on bombing parts of it.)

Kevin Drum also brings up a vital point: the kinds of interventions that the Hiatt's of the world are urging on the U.S. are the kind that we do badly -- not because Washington is somehow uniquely incompetent but because nation building is extremely hard and resource-intensive. Yet this never seems to figure into Hiatt's calculus.

For the record, I don't see the nomination of either Chuck Hagel or John Kerry as tipping a massive U.S. retreat from the world. I'd venture a guess that almost all U.S. military bases abroad not currently slated for closure or consolidation will still be in operation when they leave. The U.S. will still retain a wide network of ambassadors, will still participate and lead most international organizations, will continue to engage in trade negotiations and will still use lethal force against al-Qaeda in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. There may be a stronger reluctance to start large scale wars with countries absent a clear casus beli, but that's not a "retreat" in any meaningful sense of the word.

January 4, 2013

"Stirring the Pot" and American Exceptionalism

Daniel Larison highlights this passage from Danielle Pletka's overview of the GOP's foreign policy post 2012:

But there’s a deeper difference here as well. Republicans are more willing to upset the global status quo. Not always, to be sure. [bold mine-DL] President Dwight Eisenhower stood by with only murmurs of protest as the people of Hungary were trampled in 1956; President George H.W. Bush did the same decades later after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But Reagan stirred the pot and worked with like-minded allies to oust communist dictators. Republicans today, I have little doubt, will be more supportive in the event of an Israeli military strike on Iran, more willing to heed the counsel of military commanders in Afghanistan about the timeline for victory and withdrawal, and less willing to show flexibility in the face of Russia’s slide back to authoritarianism.

In the simplest terms, values are what divide us from them and them from us. There are those who believe that American values form a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world -- that because U.S. democracy is among the world's most durable and just, the United States has an obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society. That is what Republicans have stood for abroad and the distinction they must now again draw with their Democratic counterparts.

There are plenty, many on the left, who oppose the idea of American moral leadership. This is not because they are unpatriotic, self-hating commies (to coin a phrase). Rather, it is because they believe in neither the uniqueness of the American experience nor the superiority of the American system.

One could, I think, quite easily believe the reverse: that America's experience is unique and therefore trying to replicate it throughout the globe by force and coercion is a fool's errand. Believing that America is an exceptional country is not a mandate for a global revolution, even if the most vocal proponents of the idea believe it is.

Then there's the question of whether America's ostensibly conservative political party should endorse "stirring the pot" as a positive foreign policy objective. This kind of attitude -- a revolutionary self-confidence that Washington can work wonders beyond its shores (while, incidentally, abjectly failing at home) -- seems more reactionary than conservative. What's needed is a political party with the wisdom to discern which pots need to be stirred when.

January 3, 2013

A War in Asia Is Worse than Islamic Terrorism

Clifford May argues that Stratfor's Robert Kaplan is wrong to worry about Asia's brewing nationalism:

Similarly, in Asia, Kaplan sees China, Japan, and other nations “rediscovering nationalism,” undermining the notion that “we live in a post-national age.” He adds: “The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map.” True, but is the revival of such nationalistic sentiment really a crisis or even a major problem? Meanwhile, much more significant, Islamists are offering an alternative to both the old nationalist and the newer post-nationalist models.

It seems self-evident to me that Asia's disputes are considerably more worrisome. Islamists may be offering alternative models to discredited pan-Arab movements, but it doesn't mean the countries they lead (or could lead, if they take power) have much in the way of power or influence on a global scale. We know that when militant Islamist groups take power, the country in question tends to fail (see Afghanistan, Iran, etc.). Egypt's Brotherhood may offer an alternative to Taliban-style militancy, but then it will be stripped of the elements that make it dangerous to Western interests. Islamist governments of the kind May fears produce dysfunction, not global power.

The principle threat Islamism poses to the West is sporadic terrorism. There are some worst-case scenarios which could see sweeping upheaval across the Mideast that deposes the Saudi monarchy and plunges the global energy market into a major crisis. There's also the possibility that terror networks in Syria and Iraq could disrupt regional energy resources. That's clearly a danger, but one that carries the seeds of its own solution -- i.e., the more terrorism disrupts Middle East energy supplies, the faster the globe will transition away from Middle East energy. (A smart political class would be trying to head this off now, by reducing the use of oil -- not just producing more of it domestically -- but that's an argument for another day.)

Switching to Asia, the dynamics are just as combustible but the players far more important. It touches on two U.S. treaty allies, South Korea and Japan. It implicates three of the largest economies in the world (China, Japan, and the United States) as well as major maritime trade routes. The potential for conflict is rife, since unlike the Middle East where every country knows who owns what oil field (for the most part), Asia's untapped resources lie in contested waters. There's just as much history and bad blood among the major players in Asia as there is among the Mideast's various rivals (if not more), but unlike the Mideast, Asian states have advanced militaries.

So I think Kaplan has it right: we should be more concerned with Asia's brewing conflicts than Islamism.

December 31, 2012

Why Hagel Should Not Tell Obama to Go to Hell

Terry Michael thinks that Chuck Hagel should prefer a pose of ideological purity to becoming secretary of defense:

Assuming his nomination isn't proactively yanked by the president, here's the question that Hagel first needs to answer: Should he allow himself to be used as a pawn in Barack Obama’s continuing deflection of presidential responsibility?

Tempting as it may be to get inside the tent, Hagel should decline. Given Obama's uninspiring track record, he won't have a major impact on policy. Far more likely, he'll serve as a prop for a president who asserts the right to kill even American citizens without judicial oversight and to send manned and unmanned planes anywhere he chooses.

This doesn't sound very persuasive. Ultimately, if people sympathetic to Hagel's views on various matters want their arguments to prevail, they're going to need to wield positions of authority. That will naturally entail some compromises and deviations from time to time, but that's inevitable. An ideological purity that never translates into policy outcomes isn't worth much.

Update: Larison adds more:

What makes Terry Michael’s argument even less persuasive than Scoblete allows is that Hagel would have virtually no influence as an outside critic demanding that Obama “bring the troops home now.” There is no guarantee that a Secretary Hagel would move the administration in the right direction on many things, but he will likely be a brake on military spending and future military action instead of a goad to both. The chances are good that he would be an advocate for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan as quickly and completely as possible, and he stands a much better chance of making that happen if he is inside the administration than if he remains outside it.

December 21, 2012

Character Assassination Isn't an Argument

One of the striking things about the argument over Mr Hagel, who was a Republican senator for Nebraska for 12 years, is the nastiness of the arguments over foreign policy within the Republican Party. The disputes within the party over taxes and immigration are so prominent that it is easy to lose sight of the fierce disagreements between its realist and neo-conservative wings. The same sort of personal animus was evident when the Romney campaign announced that Bob Zoellick, the former World Bank boss and realist standard-bearer, would be in charge of foreign policy personnel in the event of an election victory, prompting howls of disapproval from neo-conservatives. If Mr Romney had won the election, the infighting would have been fierce. -- Geoff Dyer

I think we need to distinguish between "howls of disapproval" and "nasty smears." It's perfectly fine for neocons to argue (even howl) that Hagel is unfit to be defense secretary because he's soft on Iran or whatnot, but to call him an anti-Semite is character assassination.

December 18, 2012

The Real Hagel Debate

Ever since former Senator Chuck Hagel's name has been floated as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense, critics have been attacking his supposed lack of support (even "animus") for Israel. Bill Kristol went so far as to say a Hagel nomination would be a referendum on "who has Israel's back."

More relevant, I think, are the issues Josh Rogin zeroes in on:

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, rumored to be in contention for the job of defense secretary, has a long record of opposing sanctions on countries including Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Cuba.

Hagel, who serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's intelligence advisory board, throughout his career has publicly supported the idea of engaging with rogue regimes and focusing on diplomacy before punitive measures. While in Congress, he voted against several sanctions measures and argued vociferously against their effectiveness.

Hagel's stance on sanctions puts him outside of the current consensus of his Senate colleagues -- even outside the public position of the Obama administration, which has touted its harsh sanctions against Iran and has mostly maintained the panoply of economic shackles on Cuba, North Korea and Syria. His preference for engagement over confrontation is also at odds with President Obama's pledge to deny Iran a nuclear weapon no matter what.

The trouble for Hagel's critics is that the sanctions regimes against all of these countries have failed to produce the desired outcome. Iran and North Korea continue to advance their nuclear programs and missile programs, respectively. The Castros still rule Cuba. Assad remains in power in Syria and if he falls (or when he falls) no one will believe it was because the U.S. slapped sanctions on the ruling regime.

But that doesn't mean Hagel's supporters are going to have an easy time of it. In none of the above cases is it clear that engagement would work miracles (and to be fair, Hagel has said as much). The problem with most proponents of engagement is that it's difficult to claim on one hand that the U.S. has "vital" interests in a region or particular outcome and then whirl around and say the only way you'll pursue those interests is through dialogue. As I wrote in 2008:

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

The politics have clearly shifted a bit since I wrote this, but there is still an environment of irrationality and demagoguery that hangs over these issues that makes it difficult to make the case for engagement unless you're willing to concede that the U.S. really doesn't have a vital stake in the outcome -- something Hagel (or any high office holder) is unlikely to do.

Hagel's position on sanctions also cuts directly against Washington's self-professed identity as moral arbiter of the globe. As Michael Rubin unwittingly demonstrates in his attack on Hagel, sanctions serve, in part, as a kind of moral affirmation for those in the U.S. foreign policy community who believe the purpose of U.S. power is the uplift of the human soul. In this view, you are morally suspect if you are unwilling to endorse collective punishment and subject literally millions of people to economic misery and hardship in the attempt to coerce a handful of people in a regime to change course.

It's also important to remember that Hagel's views on engagement and sanctions are just one question that needs to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Equally, if not more important, are his views on the kind of military the U.S. should field in the future and America's global defense posture. Where does he believe future defense dollars should be allocated? What kind of military would he want to build?

December 10, 2012

The Obama Administration's 'Benign Neglect' of Israel

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Peter Beinert outlines his view of the Obama administration's second term approach to Israel:

So instead of confronting Netanyahu directly, Team Obama has hit upon a different strategy: stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once America stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course. “The tide of global opinion is moving [against Israel],” notes one senior administration official. And in that environment, America’s “standing back” is actually “doing something.”

Administration officials are quick to note that this new approach does not mean America won’t help protect Israel militarily through anti-missile defense systems like the much-heralded Iron Dome. And they add that the U.S. will strongly resist any Palestinian effort to use its newfound U.N. status to bring lawsuits against Israel at the International Criminal Court. America will also try to prevent further spasms of violence: by maintaining the funding that keeps Mahmoud Abbas afloat in the West Bank and by working with Egypt to restrain Hamas.

What America won’t do, however, unless events on the ground dramatically change, is appoint a big-name envoy (some have suggested Bill Clinton) to relaunch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason: such negotiations would let Netanyahu off the hook. Senior administration officials believe the Israeli leader has no interest in the wrenching compromises necessary to birth a viable Palestinian state. Instead, they believe, he wants the façade of a peace process because it insulates him from international pressure. By refusing to make that charade possible, Obama officials believe, they are forcing Netanyahu to own his rejectionism, and letting an angry world take it from there.

I wouldn't interpret it this way at all.

Consider what the Obama administration is doing: it is still offering Israel the full panoply of material and military aid and support, it is still going to orient its regional diplomacy around making the Mideast safer for Israel and it is going to impede any Palestinian attempts to leverage international bodies to Israel's disadvantage. In exchange for this, the administration is not going to push Netanyahu to do anything. Instead, it's simply going to refrain from defending Israel rhetorically from European criticisms.

If you were Netanyahu, wouldn't you take that deal?

Moreover, the "facade of the peace process" was never for the benefit of Netanyahu -- or Israel, for that matter. It was a means for the United States to offset the negative regional response to U.S. aid to Israel. Dropping this facade isn't going to materially harm Israel, and I doubt it will do any damage to the U.S., either. It has long been understood in the region that U.S. aid to Israel is unconditional, so the new administration policy isn't a sharp break with the past. Indeed, it seems like the Obama administration is resetting U.S. policy to what it was under the first term of the Bush administration: there will be a stated desire for a negotiated settlement ending in "two states for two peoples" but little U.S. effort to push the process along.

(AP Photo)

What's the Deal with Qatar?

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There's one thing the revolt against Libya's Gaddafi and the revolt against Syria's Assad have in common: weapons have been provisioned to Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda syndicates by the government of Qatar.

It's difficult to tell whether it's due to incompetence (one person quoted by the Times describes weapons being handed out "like candy" without regard for who's getting one) or whether the government is deliberating seeking out Islamists to empower as a means of expanding its regional influence. But either way, Qatar's actions are bolstering people who may present a direct threat to the United States as failed states emerge in both Libya and Syria.

The U.S. is no passive observer: it has an air base in Qatar, is building a missile defense radar installation there and is ostensibly close to the government. While it probably couldn't stop Qatar outright, it seems odd that the Obama administration is doing nothing besides registering token complaints.

Or maybe not so odd: after all, Qatar is a plank in a regional strategy designed to contain Iran. It is, in fact, a perfect example of how such a strategy is going to end up fueling forces far more hostile to the U.S. and its interests -- and far less deterrable -- than Iran.

(AP Photo)

December 4, 2012

Vogue Editor as UK Ambassador?

Anyone who has paid a few minutes of attention to the news over the past, say, three years, should appreciate that Europe is undergoing monumental upheaval - its most significant since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, naturally, the U.S. is looking to staff its embassies with top-flight talent:

President Barack Obama is considering nominating Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, as his next ambassador to either the U.K. or France as he looks to reward his biggest fundraisers with embassies never out of fashion, according to two people familiar with the matter.

It's a time-honored tradition to dole out ambassadorial positions to donors and Wintour is no less qualified than the other under-qualified people who have held these positions through the years.

Still, it's a nice reminder of how Washington's "meritocracy" works.

November 26, 2012

The Flattering of the Hegemon

Robert Kagan thinks the world wants America:

The recurrent theme at the Sir Bani Yas Forum, hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Chatham House here last weekend, was, Where is the United States? ... It was impressive to see how much desire there is for a more active U.S. role in the Middle East. There was little talk here of America’s decline as the world’s preeminent power. No one is preparing for a Chinese, Indian or Turkish ascendancy. Not even the Europeans claim that the European Union has the will or capacity to take on a bigger role in the region. The United States remains by far the most important player.

What has people concerned and despairing is not American decline but America’s declining interest — the sense that the Obama administration, and the American people, have about washed their hands of the Middle East.

This isn't surprising: it's much like the concept of moral hazard in economics. If the world is always expecting a U.S. bailout, they'll never take it upon themselves to address their own issues.

November 19, 2012

Has Obama's "Light Footprint" Strategy in the Middle East Really Failed?

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David Sanger's piece in the New York Times highlights a lot of what I think is wrong about how foreign policy is discussed in Washington. The piece is anchored around the observation that a lot of things are bad in the Middle East right now (Syria, Iran's nuclear program, a war between Israel and Gaza militants) and that Obama has taken a "light footprint" approach to the region, ergo the light footprint is to blame.

This is dubious on a number of levels.

First, the "light footprint" simply isn't true relative to the baseline of America's presence in the Middle East circa the late 1970s. It is only "light" relative to the occupation of Iraq during the years 2003-2008. The U.S. still retains military bases in Kuwait and Bahrain, conducts regular military exercises in the region and has positioned additional naval power in the Gulf to contain Iran.

So the notion that President Obama has employed a "light footprint" makes almost no sense, unless we're talking about sustaining an occupation force in the region of over 100,000 U.S. troops -- and even then, Sanger's argument is untenable. There were more civilians killed in the Middle East when the U.S. had a "heavy footprint" than under Obama's light one.

Second, it's anchored in an assumption that the Middle East's problems are America's to solve - and that simply putting more effort into it (enlarging our "footprint") will yield the results we desire. This is an assumption that is belied by the history of outside powers- particularly Western powers -- in the Middle East. From the disastrous map-drawing of the victors of World War I to the disastrous intervention in Iraq, foreign powers have always struggled to forge a Mideast more to their liking.

The idea that President Obama's policies are failing presupposes a coherent alternative approach that Sanger doesn't mention (probably because it doesn't exist).

This is not to carry water for President Obama's Middle East policy - it has certainly failed, or disappointed, on a number of fronts. But it is to suggest that the reluctance to get the U.S. deeply involved in the region (any more than it already is) is based on an appreciation that U.S. interests in the region are changing and that the ability to effect positive change is extremely limited.

(AP Photo)

November 16, 2012

Cost of a War with Iran: $3 Trillion

According to a report from the Federation of American Scientists, a U.S. war against Iran could cost the global economy as much as $3 trillion.

The group based its estimates on a series of escalating steps, from sanctions to a blockade to targeted air strikes to a more comprehensive aerial bombing campaign culminating in a ground invasion to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and military bases. Each step gets its own estimated price tag: additional sanctions are expected to cost the world $64 billion while a blockade would cost an estimated $325 billion. More aggressive steps cost into the trillions.

Will these costs stay the hands of policy makers in the U.S. and Israel and Europe?

November 15, 2012

Is Australia Free-riding on the U.S.?

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First Japan announces a reduction in defense spending, and now Australia has announced plans to trim its own defense bill.

This at a time when the U.S. has just bolstered its military commitment to Australia.

Funny how that works.

The Pentagon believes its defense commitments offer "reassurance" to Asian allies living under the shadow of an increasingly powerful China. Yet as we've seen in Europe, such "reassurance" can eventually degenerate into free-riding where allied defense budgets shrink, confident that Uncle Sam is on hand if the going gets rough.

The U.S. can ill afford more debt. If additional U.S. allies decide they'll trim their own defense tabs too as the U.S. "pivots" into the region, the administration may need a rethink.

(AP Photo)

Will Obama's Pivot to Asia "Score Points" with the Chinese?

Lewis Simons writes in praise of President Obama's "pivot" to Asia:

Mr. Obama, by accepting a friendly invitation to visit Southeast Asia, is choosing instead to deal with China as an equal on neutral turf, rather than seek direct confrontation. No threats. Just a show of smart power.

While his gradualist approach certainly will not be cheered by American conservatives, it is a style that is likely to score points among Chinese and other Asians who see a freshly reminted American president approaching them not with a clenched fist but with an open hand. He proposes refurbishing a long-faded American presence on the Asian mainland, competing again for its raw materials, investments and markets. [Emphasis mine]

While some Asian states have clearly welcomed the administration's "pivot," China hasn't been among them (see also here and this study of Chinese reactions to the pivot here).

President Obama isn't approaching China with as clenched a fist as the U.S. could possibly make, but the signs of a containment regime are unmistakable. It appears to be the case that Chinese officials preferred to deal with Obama than with Romney, but that does not mean their minds will be put at ease with respect to U.S. strategy.

That's not a bad thing, per se. The U.S. does need an approach to China that balances the defense of vital security interests with the need to avoid thoughtless provocation. Still, we shouldn't kid ourselves about what's going on. Certainly, the Chinese understand that the "pivot" is aimed at them and not in a manner designed "to score points."

November 12, 2012

America: The Next Energy Superpower?

According to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook report, the U.S. will be the leading energy producer in the world by 2020:

Energy developments in the United States are profound and their effect will be felt well beyond North America – and the energy sector. The recent rebound in US oil and gas production, driven by upstream technologies that are unlocking light tight oil and shale gas resources, is spurring economic activity – with less expensive gas and electricity prices giving industry a competitive edge – and steadily changing the role of North America in global energy trade. By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia until the mid-2020s) and starts to see the impact of new fuel-efficiency measures in transport. The result is a continued fall in US oil imports, to the extent that North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.
If true, the geopolitical consequences of this development are profound. Put simply: it will mean the death of the Carter Doctrine or the idea that the U.S. has to police the Persian Gulf for the sake of its own security. "Energy independence" is a chimera, but the increasing diversification of supply means that no single region can hold the world economy hostage like it used to. U.S. policy should be focused on magnifying this trend - through increased domestic production, greater efficiency and the development of alternative energy technologies.

Not everyone is convinced that the future is so rosy, like Stuart Staniford:

I am less persuaded myself that using a thousand oil rigs to generate an extra one million barrels per day of oil is necessarily a sign of a large and long-term sustainable increase in US oil production (as opposed to, say, frenzied scraping of the bottom of the barrel). But, still, I'm not certain beyond a reasonable doubt just how deep this particular barrel can be scraped.
The greater challenge will be thinking long term: if the IEA is to be believed, Saudi Arabia will soon lose its "swing producer" status. Are they ready for that? And will the U.S. be similarly prepared when it own supplies eventually draw down?

November 8, 2012

Video: Debating Democracy Promotion

RT's CrossTalk hosted an interesting discussion with several U.S. analysts on the topic of U.S. democracy promotion.

November 1, 2012

Does the U.S. Have No Choice But to Go Broke Policing the World?

It would be nice to ignore problems in faraway lands, but in the age of al-Qaeda America simply does not have that option as often as we might wish. Organized and armed terror groups can exploit chaos or even take power themselves; the United States for its own protection cannot allow global jihadis to establish safe havens or to take over national governments.

Obama’s splendid little war in Libya has created serious long term strategic problems for the United States and saddled us with commitments and responsibilities we do not want, do not need but cannot shirk. Every day the news brings more evidence that, like it or not, we’ve got more work to do in the Middle East, and it is exactly the kind of expensive, frustrating and dangerous grunt work that President Obama took office promising to end. - Walter Russell Mead

Here's the problem with this: if Mead's first paragraph is correct (and I don't think it is) then his second paragraph is incorrect. As noted early, Libya's armed uprising against Gaddafi began before Obama's splendid war and even if Gaddafi crushed it, it was likely that pockets of destabilizing resistance would remain in the country - just the kind of pockets al-Qaeda thrives in. (It's also odd for Mead to complain about this, since he wants to duplicate precisely this kind of dynamic in Syria.) Is Mead suggesting that Obama's failure was involving the U.S. in Libya in the first place, or not sending in 300,000 U.S. troops to provide post-war security?

The broader question is: "in the age of al-Qaeda" can the U.S. not afford to look away at problems like Libya and Mali? And by "not look away" I'm assuming Mead means, not send in drones, the CIA and the State Department to wage a covert and/or proxy war against Islamist forces.

Perhaps Washington can, in fact, look away. Not turn a blind eye, but not plunge in guns blazing until there's a clear indication of threat.

Most Islamists movements are piggy-backing on local insurgencies and unrest. They may hate the West, but how many of them share the bin Laden vision of attacking the U.S. homeland? How many of them could attack the U.S. homeland, even if they wanted to? These are tricky questions to answer, but they should be answered before plunging in. The default assumption that every Islamist group is ipso-facto plotting the next 9/11 on U.S. soil is a recipe for expensive over-reach.

The minute the U.S. begins training local proxies, dropping bombs on houses and generally butting into a local fight, it makes enemies and, as Mead notes, takes on a series of expensive and potentially deadly commitments. Sometimes, this can work to our advantage: the campaign in Somalia, where a U.S.-trained African Union force has made substantial gains against al-Shabaab, seems to be a model in this respect. The "blowback" - thus far - has been minimal and militant forces have been on the run.

But just because Islamists have taken up in some deserted corner of the world shouldn't mean the U.S. runs in frantically. The world is filled with chaotic spaces. It is literally impossible for the U.S. to police them all, or to send enough cash and guns to local forces to do the policing for us - even there are even willing locals ready to assist us. The U.S. would go broke faster than stability would return to these areas sufficient to stop a major terrorist attack - which is almost impossible to stop anyway, given how few people are required.

October 16, 2012

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 2, 2012

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.

September 24, 2012

The Use and Abuse of the "Terrorist" Designation

When the Bush administration sought to tie the regime of Saddam Hussein to terrorism, it pointed to the sheltering of the cult/terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK) as one of its transgressions. Last week, the Obama administration decided to pull the group from the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, despite concerns that they're still in the terrorism business. The ostensible reason the group was removed was because they complied with a U.S. request to depart Iraq, but Paul Pillar notes that it sends an unmistakable signal to Iran:

No good will come out of this subversion of the terrorist-group list with regard to conditions in Iran, the behavior or standing of the Iranian regime, the values with which the United States is associated or anything else. The regime in Tehran will tacitly welcome this move (while publicly denouncing it) because it helps to discredit the political opposition in Iran—a fact not lost on members of the Green Movement, who want nothing to do with the MEK. The MEK certainly is not a credible vehicle for regime change in Iran because it has almost no public support there. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime will read the move as another indication that the United States intends only to use subversion and violence against it rather than reaching any deals with it.

Although the list of foreign terrorist organizations unfortunately has come to be regarded as a kind of general-purpose way of bestowing condemnation or acceptance on a group, we should remember that delisting changes nothing about the character of the MEK. It is still a cult. It still has near-zero popular support in Iran. It still has a despicably violent history.


All nations are entitled to double-standards and hypocrisies - in fact, it would be largely impossible to operate in the world without them - but it's odd that an establishment that prides itself on global norm setting would be so cavalier about advertising their own.

September 20, 2012

The Collapse of Washington's Cherished Orthodoxies

Every foreign policy dogma suffers from its own conceits. For neoconservatives, it's the idea that military force and demonstrations of "will" can routinely produce favorable policy outcomes around the world. For the Democratic foreign policy establishment, one guiding conceit is arguably the notion that a more globally popular America will allow a largely identical series of policies to be accepted much more happily. These are generalizations, of course, but I think they largely fit the bill.

Just as the Iraq war exposed the limits of the neoconservative doctrine, the riots engulfing the Middle East have surely revealed the fallacy of the global popularity doctrine. Because, as Richard Wike explains, it's difficult to improve America's image without actually changing American policies:

Why hasn't America's image improved? In part, many Muslims around the world continue to voice the same criticisms of U.S. foreign policy that were common in the Bush years. U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are still widely unpopular. America is still seen as ignoring the interests of other countries. Few think Obama has been even-handed in dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the current administration's increased reliance on drone strikes to target extremists is overwhelmingly unpopular -- more than 80 percent of Jordanians, Egyptians, and Turks oppose the drone campaign.

The opposition to drone strikes points to a broader issue: a widespread distrust of American power. This is especially true when the United States employs hard power, whether it's the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But it is true even for elements of American soft power. Predominantly Muslim nations are generally among the least likely to embrace U.S. popular culture or the spread of American ideas and customs. Only 36 percent of Egyptians like American music, movies, and television, and just 11 percent believe it is good that U.S. ideas and customs are spreading to their country.


September 19, 2012

Is it Time for the U.S. to Turn Away from the Middle East?

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The ongoing protests over the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims" has naturally led to finger pointing and partisan sniping in the United States.

On the left, we have the absurd (and evidently untrue) suggestion from the Obama administration that it was all just outrage over "Innocence." Just a misunderstanding that can be soothed over with more pious homilies. Conservatives have responded by retreating to the usual trope that "strength" will be respected and that it was simply Obama's weakness that initiated the ferocious unrest.

The truth is, the U.S. has a very immature relationship with the Middle East. The left and neoconservative right tend to treat the region as child-like, in need of careful nurturing so that they can flower into their full democratic potential (and be ever grateful as a result). The right, when not indulging in the same democratic do-gooderism, tends to believe that the region is similarly child-like but needs to be cowed with displays of power, the better to "respect" us (translation: submit to policies they find offensive or oppressive). Both sides routinely express shock and outrage when the Mideast responds with displays of anti-Americanism.

Moreover, despite some topical changes, U.S. policy toward the region has been incredibly stable since President Carter: the U.S. takes a deep and abiding interest in keeping Israel secure, anti-American powers down, and corrupt and dictatorial allies in power. All three policies are deeply resented in the region. To a subset of the region, American values aren't that popular either (even a wholesale change in U.S. policy wouldn't stop Salafist rabble rousers from burning flags and marching on embassies at this or that perceived outrage, nor is it likely to stop dedicated jihadists whose radicalism can't be wound down all that quickly).

So the likely U.S. response to Middle Eastern protest, in the short term at least, is going to be more of the same. Conservatives will make vague but insistent demands for "strength" while liberals will talk up the merits of outreach and democratic reforms. Foreign policy experts will double down on the orthodoxy that the Mideast is just too important to be left to chart its own destiny.

I'd prefer to see these events as yet another reminder that the U.S. should be pursuing a policy of gradual disengagement and benign neglect. Over time, if fracking and alternative energy sources ultimately do disperse the concentration of strategic energy wealth around the world, the value of the Middle East to U.S. economic security will plummet (indeed, it was arguably overblown to begin with). That will knock the legs out of the rationale for supporting what dictators and monarchs are able to pull through the Arab Spring. It will also weaken the rationale for attacking countries like Iran, whose principle threat to the U.S. revolves around an ability to spike global oil prices. Washington's ability to secure Israel will suffer a bit with fewer dictators to bribe, but Israel's defensive capabilities can still be sustained offshore - through arms sales and intelligence sharing.

(AP Photo)

September 7, 2012

Is the Arctic the Next South China Sea?

Irvin Studin thinks so:

A similar dynamic to that in the South China Sea may well develop before long in the Arctic, where at least five countries – the US, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark – are scrambling for position as the polar ice melts at ever-accelerating rates. China, while not yet a first-order Arctic player, is very much alive to this situation. It and other big players, including India and the EU, will want in. The ambitions of the actors in this theatre may soon be at odds with the prevailing “Pax Arctica” doctrine that claims, at least publicly, that the international rule of law, prudence and co-operation will govern the judgment and behaviour of all players for the foreseeable future.

In the coming decade or two, once the polar ice has melted, use of the Northwest Passage will reduce travel distances between Asia and Europe by up to 7,000km. The aggregate hydrocarbon potential for countries in the Arctic will be significant – far larger than in the South China Sea. A July 2008 study by the US Geological Survey estimated that total undiscovered, conventional oil and gas resources in the Arctic would include 90bn barrels of oil, 1,669tn cubic feet of natural gas and 44bn barrels of natural gas liquids – all largely offshore.

Control over a number of islands and bodies of water – from the Northwest Passage (claimed by Canada as internal waters) to the Northern Sea Route (claimed by Russia as internal waters), the Beaufort Sea (disputed by Canada and the US), Hans Island (disputed by Denmark and Canada) and the Lomonosov Ridge (disputed by Russia, Denmark and Canada) – is still being negotiated under the aegis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which includes the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

At a minimum, it looks like the early 21st century will be an era when naval power comes back to the fore.

August 7, 2012

What the Arab World Thinks It Knows About America

Mohammed Dajani did a deep dive into the Arab world's understanding of the United States:

In total, just over 1,000 books were collected. This shockingly low number alone says a lot about the poverty of Arab knowledge about America. Of the total, about 25 percent covered U.S. foreign policy, reflecting three dominant themes:

* the United States as policeman of the world, directing global politics to benefit U.S. interests;

* the Israeli lobby as the major force behind U.S. decisionmaking;

* and the United States as waging a war against Islam.

Typically, the authors of these books have never traveled to or studied in the United States, but that has no impact on their immense credibility and wide readership.

Dajani contends that the three major points above represent biased information about the United States. And indeed, the beliefs about the power of the "Israel lobby" or there being a "war on Islam" are spurious. But the first contention - that the United States acts as policeman of the world, directing global politics to benefit U.S. interests - seems pretty straightforward and unobjectionable, not the product of misinformation. Obviously the U.S. doesn't always succeed in directing global politics toward the benefit of its interests, but that's clearly America's grand strategy.

July 12, 2012

U.S. Lifts Sanctions on Burma

The Obama administration formally eased some sanctions on Burma yesterday. Freedom House's Rhonda Mays and Robert Herman argue that the administration needs to go slow:

The waiver will permit business dealings with highly corrupt and opaque companies like the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), whose profits have bankrolled a succession of brutal military governments. The measure will leave untouched the actual laws underlying the sanctions, essentially granting U.S. businesses exemptions that, in theory, could be revoked should Burma's government stall or backslide in the reform process. However, trying to shut the flood gates after investment has begun to pour into the country would be next to impossible, especially given the influence that the business lobby seems to have exerted over the Obama administration's Burma outlook in recent months.

July 11, 2012

Ronald Reagan: Liberal Interventionist?

Gulliver digs up a quote from a 1985 book titled Intervention and the Reagan Doctrine and an old Kenneth Waltz essay (pay walled) that described the administration's view on the budding concept of humanitarian intervention:

Senior officials in the Reagan administration elevated the right to intervene to the level of general principle. As one of them said, we "debated whether we had the right to dictate the form of another country's government. The bottom line was yes, that some rights are more fundamental than the right of nations to nonintervention, like the rights of individual people... [W]e don't have the right to subvert a democratic government but we do have the right against an undemocratic one."

Notes Gulliver:

But still we're left with the inescapable reality that decisions about intervention or nonintervention are made in national capitals on the basis of national interests; thus ever was it so.

Indeed. This is why the U.S. should be wary about making sweeping moral claims when it acts on behalf of its interests.

June 19, 2012

The U.S. Isn't Handing Off the Mideast to China

Niall Ferguson, long a proponent of an imperial role for the U.S., makes this rather shocking (for him) suggestion:

In terms of geopolitics, China today is the world’s supreme free rider. China’s oil consumption has doubled in the past 10 years, while America’s has actually declined. As economist Zhang Jian pointed out in a paper for the Brookings Institution last year, China relies on foreign imports for more than 50 percent of the oil it consumes, and half of this imported oil is from the Middle East. (China’s own reserves account for just 1.2 percent of the global total.)

Moreover, China’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil is set to increase. The International Energy Authority estimates that by 2015 foreign imports will account for between 60 and 70 percent of its total consumption. Most of that imported energy comes through a handful of vital marine bottlenecks: principally, the straits of Hormuz and Malacca and the Suez Canal.

Yet China contributes almost nothing to stability in the oil-producing heartland of the Arabian deserts and barely anything to the free movement of goods through the world’s strategic sea lanes.

Imagine, for a moment, if the Chinese said they would be building naval bases in the Persian Gulf to help stabilize the region and protect their vital sea lanes. Would the U.S. reaction be to celebrate the burden-sharing and use the move as an opportunity to downsize its own commitments? Or would Washington have a collective freak-out about Chinese "assertiveness" and the dangers of being locked out of the Middle East forever?

I'm going with the second option.

Indeed, the reason the U.S. is "pivoting" to Asia is partly because China is beginning to shore up its own sea lane defenses in its immediate neighborhood. The U.S. response hasn't been to celebrate China's assumption of greater responsibility but to complain that China is "destabilizing" the region with its arms buildup and "assertive" foreign policy. If China can't take steps to protect what it views as vital interests in its own neighborhood without provoking howls of protest from the U.S., why do we think they'd be welcome in the Middle East?

If anything, the arguments for a redoubled U.S. commitment to the Middle East are going to grow in direct proportion to China's strategic rise. If China is dependent on Mideast oil and the U.S. is holding the most leverage in the Middle East, we are de-facto arbiters of China's energy security. That's not a position the U.S. is likely to relinquish if a Cold War-style standoff with China starts to take shape.

The flip side to this, and the argument I'm more sympathetic too, is that fobbing off the troublesome region on China (or anyone) would be a very good idea. It's just interesting that Ferguson, of all people, would be advancing it.

May 30, 2012

Measuring Nations in Kardashian Units

Ethan Zuckerman, who runs the Center for Civic Media at MIT, developed a rather ingenius unit of media measurement - the "Kardashian" - which, as Zuckerman explains, is "the amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day," and approximated by using Google Insight to measure how many people are searching for her.

So, with a hat-tip to Kevin Mack, I thought we could apply this measurement to see how some newsworthy countries stack up against Ms. Kardashian. The results are below.

Continue reading "Measuring Nations in Kardashian Units" »

May 3, 2012

The 'Core' of Realism Is Betrayal?

Michael Rubin claims that the 'core' of realism is the betrayal of dissidents:

But the betrayal of dissidents is simply the bread-and-butter both of realists and the UN’s breed of internationalists, both philosophies to which Obama aspires... Realists will always find an excuse to ignore dissidents and dismiss their fight for freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, what these realists see as sophistication not only is amoral, but actively undercuts long-term U.S. security.

It's true that realists are reluctant to take up the cause of dissidents in other countries and that this does not always redound to American glory. But this is because realists recognize that the world is not an ideal place and that the concerns of dissidents, however legitimate, always have to be weighed against U.S. interests and America's capability to actually effect the change these dissidents want to see. If all that was required to change China's human rights record was more U.S. hectoring and lecturing, it would have happened already.

Do realists always strike the right balance? Of course not. But Rubin's formulation elevates the unfortunate trade-off that can result from a realist approach as somehow the central, animating principle. In fact, it would be like saying that mass civilian death, torture and population displacements are the "core" of neoconservatism since that is what their policy produced in Iraq and would likely produce if U.S. "leadership" were exercised in places like Syria. But I wouldn't argue that such maladies are neoconservatism's "core" - since I don't believe neoconservatives are bloodthirsty sadists. Though, if I were a neoconservative, I certainly would be careful about throwing charges of "amorality" around.

April 26, 2012

Did Marco Rubio Give a Serious Foreign Policy Speech?

I listened to Marco Rubio's speech yesterday and while I thought it was an effective recitation of the neoconservative worldview, I didn't think there was much else to it. Then I see Time's Michael Crowley describe it as "learned and substantive" and it got me thinking if we actually listened to the same speech. It's not a matter of ideological disagreements or even a matter of policy disagreements but the fact that in key areas the speech lacked substance. Take Syria, which I think provides the best example.

Here's Rubio:

The goal of preventing a dominant Iran is so important that every regional policy we adopt should be crafted with that overriding goal in mind. The current situation in Syria is an example of such an approach. The fall of Assad would be a significant blow to Iran’s ambitions. On those grounds alone, we should be seeking to help the people of Syria bring him down.

But on the Foreign Relations committee, I have noticed that some members are so concerned about the challenges of a post-Assad Syria that they have lost sight of the advantages of it.

First, Iran would lose its ally and see its influence and ability to cause trouble in the region correspondingly reduced. But Hezbollah would lose its most important ally too, along with its weapons supplier. And the prospects for a more stable, peaceful and freer Lebanon would improve.

Second, the security of our ally, the strongest and most enduring democracy in the region, Israel, with whom we are bound by the strongest ties of mutual interest and shared values and affection would improve as well. And so would the prospects for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors improve.

Finally, the nations in the region see Syria as a test of our continued willingness to lead in the Middle East. If we prove unwilling to provide leadership, they will conclude that we are no longer a reliable security partner, and will decide to take matters into their own hands. And that means a regional arms race, the constant threat of armed conflict, and crippling fuel prices here at home due to instability. The most powerful and influential nation in the world cannot ask smaller, more vulnerable nations to take risks while we stand on the sidelines. We have to lead because the rewards for effective leadership are so great.

Forming and leading a coalition with Turkey and the Arab League nations to assist the opposition, by creating a safe haven and equipping the opposition with food, medicine, communications tools and potentially weapons, will not only weaken Iran, it will ultimately increase our ability to influence the political environment of a post-Assad Syria.

Crowley thinks this is a "reasoned argument" but it's literally the opposite. There are simply no reasons given for why anyone should believe that any of the positive outcomes Rubio lists would actually occur if the U.S. followed his advice. Rubio treats as self-evident assertions that actually need to be supported with evidence and argument. For instance: what about the balance of forces inside Syria gives him hope that a post-Assad regime would be friendly to U.S. and Israeli interests? Why does he believe the opposition would listen to the U.S. following Assad's overthrow - or that it would be even possible to stand up a government rather than have the country collapse into a civil war? Why, in short, does Rubio believe what he believes about U.S. involvement in Syria's uprising?

There is literally no "reason" given for us to believe that any of the beneficial outcomes listed by Rubio would actually occur. Doesn't the U.S. deserve more?

April 12, 2012

Does NATO Still Serve American Interests?

Stanley Sloan makes the case:

Most would agree that the most vital American interest is defense of the homeland and protection of its citizens. An active alliance with America’s leading partners would seem to address that vital interest, even if the United States does not currently face threats of a truly existential nature. Having allies dedicated to considering an attack on one as an attack on all, as provided in the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, is not a bad insurance policy – one on which the United States collected after 9/11....

The main strategic value of America’s European allies, however, is in the capabilities that the Europeans bring to the table, as they did in the case of Libya. Granted, European military resources have shrunk over the years, and the Libya “model” may or may not work for some other contingency. But as European allies reallocate resources as part of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is in the interest of the United States that they do so in ways that enhance their ability to assist the United States in dealing with future security challenges. NATO consultations can facilitate such an outcome.

I think Sloan was closer to the mark in the first graf: While it's difficult to see the U.S. entering into any conflict where it is the weaker power and thus actually in need of European help, a defensive alliance with mostly like-minded countries does provide something of an "insurance policy." In fact, as powers like China and Brazil pull more weight globally, having an alliance such as NATO ensures that the Euro-Atlantic region is firmly defended. It also makes economic sense for indebted Europe (and America) to leverage the alliance to achieve cost-savings in defense.

But this really isn't the case for NATO today, as Sloan makes clear. Rather, it's to have a set of allies to provide the U.S. with some additional capabilities (and legitimacy) for its international adventurism.

The insurance policy metaphor is apt. We would typically describe a person as insane if they deliberately hurt themselves just to luxuriate in the fact that they have medical insurance. By using the utterly unnecessary Libyan intervention as an example of NATO's worth, supporters of the alliance are chopping off their fingers, rushing to the ER and then waving the bandaged stumps around as proof of how important good medical coverage is.

To my mind, the case for NATO is actually closer to auto insurance - something that is important to have but that you try never to draw on unless something serious happens.

March 30, 2012

Domestic Political Bias in International Relations

Sometimes coincidences surprise me. Today two blog posts crossed my desk that spoke to each other and the wider world. At the Monkey Cage they are publicizing a new book by Clifford Bob on transnational advocacy networks. The description that the Monkey Cage quotes from Bob describes the work in these fairly neutral terms:

International activism is no longer the preserve of the left, if it ever was. More specifically, the book focuses on conflicts over gay rights and gun rights at the UN and in Brazil, Sweden, and Romania...

I have not read the book yet, but if the above quote is accurate this is a very interesting take on a popular topic. Almost all investigation from Keck and Sikkink to Charli Carpenter have focused almost exclusively on the uses by left, or left-leaning transnational actors. Logic dictates that there should be conservative transnational actors as well, and a study of them would be illustrative.

However, if you click through to the description that the University Press gives of the book, it includes this line:

He investigates the 'Baptist-burqa' network of conservative believers attacking gay rights, and the global gun coalition blasting efforts to control firearms.

This description makes the book seem less like an evenhanded evaluation of competing interests' uses of trans-national advocacy networks and more like a pathologization of alternate viewpoints, or perhaps an evaluation of enemy tactics. As if to verify this concern, over on Science Blog there was this gem:

Over the last several decades, there’s been an effort among those who define themselves as conservatives to clearly identify what it means to be a conservative,” Gauchat said. “For whatever reason, this appears to involve opposing science and universities and what is perceived as the ‘liberal culture.’ So, self-identified conservatives seem to lump these groups together and rally around the notion that what makes ‘us’ conservatives is that we don’t agree with ‘them.’

"For whatever reason" that he cannot possibly imagine. All kidding aside, unnecessary partisanship in scholarship only serves to hurt our understanding of the world we live in. Pathologizing opposition makes us leap to false conclusions, ignore important areas of study, and alienate people who might otherwise be interested in the areas studied. This is most critical in international relations where there are so many factors to take into account that a failure to do so can egregiously alter our world view.

Based upon his own description, it doesn't sound like Bob is trying to be a partisan and instead come at a serious question from a new direction. If that is the case he needs to get on the phone and get the official description changed to reflect the reality of his work.

March 28, 2012

Who Is America's #1 Geopolitical Foe?

We know Mitt Romney thinks it's Russia and now the White House is on record giving al-Qaeda the dubious honor, but neither of these answers seems all that satisfying. Romney's answer, redolent of the Cold War, at least has the benefit of anointing a bona-fide geopolitical heavyweight. The White House's response has the benefit of identifying a group that is actually implacably hostile to the U.S., even if its power is negligible.

So who should get the top spot? China, like Russia, has geopolitical clout but isn't hostile to the U.S. across the board in the manner of an al-Qaeda. Beyond China, countries like Iran or North Korea (or even Pakistan) could earn a nod for their hostility to U.S. regional aims, but again, not for their power or geopolitical weight.

Even conducting this thought experiment usefully illustrates the fact that the U.S. is actually in a pretty nice geopolitical position in 2012: it has very few implacable enemies and none that are very powerful. There are very powerful states that, on certain issues, play a spoiler role, but the era of straight-up great power antagonism is gone. As James Joyner pointed out, the entire notion of the U.S. having a "number one geopolitical foe" is an "outmoded concept."

At least for now.

March 20, 2012

Glenn Greenwald, Meet Robert Pape

I promise I'm not starting a series ... but this from Glenn Greenwald caught my eye:

Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivated U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to allegedly kill 16 Afghans, including 9 children: he was drunk, he was experiencing financial stress, he was passed over for a promotion, he had a traumatic brain injury, he had marital problems, he suffered from the stresses of four tours of duty, he “saw his buddy’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,” etc.

Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivates Muslims to kill Americans: they are primitive, fanatically religious, hateful Terrorists.

Even when Muslims who engage in such acts toward Americans clearly and repeatedly explain that they did it in response to American acts of domination, aggression, violence and civilian-killing in their countries, and even when the violence is confined to soldiers who are part of a foreign army that has invaded and occupied their country, the only cognizable motive is one of primitive, hateful evil. It is an act of Evil Terrorism, and that is all there is to say about it.

I'm not sure which Western media outlets Greenwald reads, but I think this is just a wee bit overstated. First, there's Greenwald's own prodigious output, which routinely contextualizes most acts of violence directed against the United States as being something other than evil. Second, there is the aforementioned Robert Pape, whose work rather directly refutes Greenwald's premise that we never read about other motives for terrorism besides irrational, hateful evil (he's even got a book - and a database!).

But wait, there's more.

There is a Republican presidential nominee who has staked a large portion of his foreign policy platform on the notion that U.S. military action in the Muslim world is inciting terrorism. There's former head of the bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, writing in the obscure journal the Washington Post, on how the true motivations for al-Qaeda include U.S. support for Arab dictatorships. A few weeks after 9/11, Fareed Zakaria had a cover story in Newsweek offering a very nuanced take on the root causes of Islamic terrorism.

At this point, I'd say any casual reader with an interest in foreign or defense policy, or any viewer who tuned into one of the GOP debates on foreign policy, has at least been exposed to the notion that "primitive, hateful evil" is not the sole, or even decisive, motivation behind acts of terrorism.

March 1, 2012

Saudi Arabia and 9/11

For more than a decade, questions have lingered about the possible role of the Saudi government in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, even as the royal kingdom has made itself a crucial counterterrorism partner in the eyes of American diplomats.

Now, in sworn statements that seem likely to reignite the debate, two former senators who were privy to top secret information on the Saudis’ activities say they believe that the Saudi government might have played a direct role in the terrorist attacks. - New York Times

Here's a prediction: it won't reignite any debate. People may get hung up on the fact that large numbers of Americans were killed on 9/11 but the prevailing attitude in Washington is that that matters less than geopolitical orientation. Iraq played no role in 9/11 and had an infinitely smaller role in fomenting the kind of jihadism that bin Laden embraced than Saudi Arabia. But the aftermath of 9/11 did not see a diligent search for Saudi linkages. What it did see was an effort to rope Saddam Hussein into the equation, because he, not Saudi Arabia, was the geopolitical problem child. And it worked.

Today, that problem child is Iran and I suspect no amount of Saudi complicity in 9/11 (if there was any at all) short of green-lighting the attack itself would change Washington's Middle East calculus at this point.

February 23, 2012

Bibi & Obama: Beyond Personality

David Makovsky explains how President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu can improve their relationship:

How can Obama and Netanyahu win each other's trust? The two sides should come to a more precise understanding of U.S. thresholds for the Iranian nuclear program and American responses should they be breached, as well as an agreement on a timetable for giving up on sanctions so their Iran clocks are synchronized. In other words, the two sides need to agree on red lines that might trigger action. Israel will probably seek some guarantees from the United States before agreeing to forgo a pre-emptive strike that might not succeed.

It may turn out that such guarantees are impossible, given the mistrust between the two parties and the ever-changing regional circumstances. Whatever the mechanism, there is no doubt that the U.S.-Israel relationship could benefit greatly from a common approach toward the Iran nuclear program at this tumultuous time.

I don't think such guarentees would break down over issues of trust but over issues of threat perception. Ultimately, it's impossible to form a "common approach" when the strategic interests are divergent - as they are in this case. Up to a point, both the U.S. and Israel want Iran to abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons capability but it's clear that the Israelis feel this way because they believe Iran would pose an existential threat to their security, while the U.S. feels this way because it wants to prevent a regional arms race and blunt any Iranian bid for hegemony. If what senior military and intelligence officials in the U.S. say about Iran is true, then it's clear there's a limit to how far we're willing to go with Iran. Israel, I suspect, has no real limit because it feels the stakes are higher.

Ultimately, the U.S. and Israel can't synchronize their positions because they're different positions - not because Netanyahu and Obama can't get along.

February 7, 2012

Preemption and International Law

Mario Loyola wants international law to enshrine a doctrine of preventative war:

The right of early preemption against threats like Iran’s nuclear program must become an international norm of general acceptance if preemptive threats are to have any deterrent value. Current norms — and the diplomatic strategies derived from them — have only incentivized Iran to sprint toward nuclear weapons. The strategy of increasingly onerous sanctions may be painful for Iran, but it implies that military strikes are off the table as long as further sanctions are in prospect. Thus, starting with the first Security Council sanctions in 2006, Iran knew that it had several risk-free years ahead of it to develop WMD.

The only principle that can justify early preemption against a WMD threat is one that calls on dangerous regimes to be transparent in their dispositions. What you could call “regime transparency” is the key. This is the cardinal principle that was all along missing in the Bush administration’s justification for war against Iraq. The burden of proof should have been on Saddam to demonstrate the non-threatening nature of his weapons programs. In the long run, such a burden could be met only by a regime that was itself essentially transparent, in which the business of government was conducted in an orderly and law-abiding way.

I don't see how this is a practical or desirable standard. Enshrining the doctrine of preventative war around inherently subjective and conditional terms such as "dangerous" or "non-transparent regimes" seems to open the door to all kinds of questions: dangerous to whom? How dangerous? What constitutes a lack of transparency? And so on. What, in other words, stops Russia from claiming the right to attack Georgia preemptively if it purchases U.S. military equipment? What is the normative case against China attacking Taiwan or Iran attacking Saudi Arabia if these states increase their lethality through U.S. arms purchases?

Obviously, you can embrace a policy that states that only the United States has the prerogative to attack other countries on a preemptive basis, but I highly doubt many countries would be interested in enshrining that as "international" law.

Loyola bases his argument on the existence of nuclear weapons:

The “general principle” for preemptive self-defense is that you can preempt an “imminent attack” but nothing more. That rule is ridiculous, and will sooner or later prove suicidal. Because of the instantly deliverable nature of nuclear weapons, waiting for firm intelligence of an imminent threat is a reckless game of chicken in which the claimed right of preemption is triggered only when it is almost too late to make any difference.

But what's new here? Nuclear weapons have been "instantly deliverable" for many decades now. The U.S. has been able to deal with this unfortunate reality rather well, as the record of nuclear wars and nuclear attacks since 1946 seems to suggest.

December 27, 2011

Keeping NATO Relevant

Via Larison, Kori Schake's piece on why NATO is worth saving serves up an interesting meditation on how an alliance ostensibly formed for defensive purposes is being warped to serve the needs of intervention:

The big risk is not whether the alliance can win whatever wars it chooses to fight. It can. The risk is that NATO will choose not to fight, that its members will withdraw into their own narrowly defined interests, close to home.

But notice how this concern stands in contrast to NATO's original intention, as described by Schake:

NATO’s membership has more than doubled to 28 countries since its inception in 1949, but its basic principle remains the same: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Many Washington policymakers want to keep NATO in business to provide some kind of multilateral imprimatur on their various international adventures, but European defense budgets point pretty clearly to another reality - Europe itself is not facing any serious military threats and many European countries are scaling back their defense budgets (a trend accelerated by the Eurozone crisis). The great irony is that NATO could remain relevant in this era or austerity by actually serving as a conduit to collective defense - allowing member states to enjoy cost-savings by eliminating duplicate capacities. But instead it's being torn apart by those who insist it fight wars of choice - not wars of self-defense.


December 22, 2011

Maintaining Leverage Over Egypt

Andrew Exum argues that American leverage in the Middle East shouldn't be traded away so lightly:

The principle problem is one that has been in my head watching more violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Egypt: the very source of U.S. leverage against the regimes in Bahrain and Egypt is that which links the United States to the abuses of the regime in the first place. So if you want to take a "moral" stand against the abuses of the regime in Bahrain and remove the Fifth Fleet, congratulations! You can feel good about yourself for about 24 hours -- or until the time you realize that you have just lost the ability to schedule a same-day meeting with the Crown Prince to press him on the behavior of Bahrain's security forces. Your leverage, such as it was, has just evaporated. The same is true in Egypt. It would feel good, amidst these violent clashes between the Army and protesters, to cut aid to the Egyptian Army. But in doing so, you also reduce your own leverage over the behavior of the Army itself.

But all of this begs an important question - leverage for what? The idea is that the U.S. invests in places like Bahrain and Egypt because it needs or wants something in return. During the Cold War, it was keeping these states out of the Soviet orbit. In the 1990s and beyond, it was ensuring these states remained friendly with Israel and accommodative to U.S. military power in the region. Today, what? What is it that U.S. policy requires from Egypt and Bahrain that necessitates supporting these regimes during these brutal crack downs?

December 13, 2011

Is COIN Dead?

Trefor Moss agrees with a growing number of analysts that counter-insurgency is on the way out:

These are probably very good reasons for reorienting NATO and the U.S. military away from COIN – but not, it seems to me, the best or most obvious one. COIN should be abandoned because it’s time to accept that it simply hasn’t worked.

Counterinsurgency was always a paradoxical idea that involved the simultaneous waging of war and peace on the same country: you shoot the bad guys and build schools for the good guys. Afghanistan, though, was always resistant to these neat distinctions. The bad guys didn’t always seem so bad, and we were never quite sure if the good guys were really on our side.

Even so, politicians, military commanders and think tankers often maintained that the problem in Afghanistan wasn’t COIN itself, but rather the inadequacy of the doctrine’s implementation. In theory, yes, counterinsurgency could have delivered in Afghanistan – if there’d been a million more troops and a trillion more dollars. Or if the terrain hadn’t been so impenetrable, or the tribal politics so inscrutable. Or if Karzai hadn’t been Karzai, and Pakistan hadn’t been Pakistan...

COIN was wreathed in so much hype that for a long time there was a general, uncritical acceptance that it was the right and only way. But in the end, Afghanistan left counterinsurgency looking like intellectual naivete: a smart idea on paper that was utterly unworkable in real world conditions.

Another important aspect of the counter-insurgency debate is not whether or not it worked or "could work" if adequately-resourced, but whether the U.S. should really put itself into a position where it needs to suppress an insurgency in the first place.

Put another way, if the U.S. had to do Afghanistan over again, would it have been better to apply the approach used at the early outset of the war (special forces and air power) without any commitment to reconstruction, nation building or political reform?

Libya is a bit instructive in this regard. Post war Libya is quite unstable - with armed militia groups holding out against what is nominally the governing authority in the country. It may yet collapse into a full-blown civil or tribal war. But the U.S. accomplished the goal of killing Gaddafi and running his family out of power and won't be stuck with large numbers of troops in the country and billions of dollars on the line should things get ugly.

The entire recourse to counter-insurgency, then, was indicative of a larger and more important failure in American strategy - the imposition of goals for Afghanistan that were far too broad and ambitious given the nature of the conflict the U.S. found itself in after 9/11. COIN is very much like asking whether we can clean up a mess after we've made one - a good question, but better to figure out how not to make the mess in the first place.

December 12, 2011

On Practicing What One Preaches

Imagine if the US government, with no notice or warning, raided a small but popular magazine's offices over a Thanksgiving weekend, seized the company's printing presses, and told the world that the magazine was a criminal enterprise with a giant banner on their building. Then imagine that it never arrested anyone, never let a trial happen, and filed everything about the case under seal, not even letting the magazine's lawyers talk to the judge presiding over the case. And it continued to deny any due process at all for over a year, before finally just handing everything back to the magazine and pretending nothing happened. I expect most people would be outraged. I expect that nearly all of you would say that's a classic case of prior restraint, a massive First Amendment violation, and exactly the kind of thing that does not, or should not, happen in the United States.

But, in a story that's been in the making for over a year, and which we're exposing to the public for the first time now, this is exactly the scenario that has played out over the past year -- with the only difference being that, rather than "a printing press" and a "magazine," the story involved "a domain" and a "blog." - Mike Masnick

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries not to restrict Internet freedom in a speech in The Hague, The Netherlands, on Thursday.

"After all, the right to express one’s views, practice one’s faith, peacefully assemble with others to pursue political or social change — these are all rights to which all human beings are entitled, whether they choose to exercise them in a city square or an Internet chat room," Clinton said. "And just as we have worked together since the last century to secure these rights in the material world, we must work together in this century to secure them in cyberspace." - The Hill

Indeed.

November 29, 2011

Why the Secret War Stays Secret

Roger Cohen is concerned about President Obama's proclivity for covert war:

So why am I uneasy? Because these legally borderline, undercover options — cyberwar, drone killings, executions and strange explosions at military bases — invite repayment in kind, undermine the American commitment to the rule of law, and make allies uneasy.

Obama could have done more in the realm of explanation. Of course he does not want to say much about secret operations. Still, as the U.S. military prepares to depart from Iraq (leaving a handful of embassy guards), and the war in Afghanistan enters its last act, he owes the American people, U.S. allies and the world a speech that sets out why America will not again embark on this kind of inconclusive war and has instead adopted a new doctrine that has replaced fighting terror with killing terrorists. (He might also explain why Guantánamo is still open.)

But it's clear why Obama does not do this. Consider Cohen's obvious assertion - that covert war invites repayment in kind. Washington has, to a remarkable degree, ring-fenced this idea from polite discussion. (Exhibit A - this Bob Schieffer interview with Ron Paul.) Common sense dictates that a sustained bombing campaign in places like Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia - or a sustained campaign of assassination and sabotage in places like Iran - will provoke a response. Even if the policy is justified on the grounds of an imminent threat (and in some discrete cases I think it is), it's obvious that people not associated with al-Qaeda or Iran's nuclear program will resent, perhaps violently, having their country bombed or assaulted from afar.

Staying silent about these activities not only preserves operational secrecy but inhibits a real debate about the costs and benefits of covert war so that the next time a terrorist does manage to do something awful his (or her) justifications can be reduced to banalities like a "hatred of freedom." Consider the curious assertion from the administration's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan that absolutely no civilians have been killed by American drone strikes since Obama took office. It is a dubious claim, to put it mildly, but sustaining this illusion is critical to shielding Washington from any culpability for its action.

November 22, 2011

GOP National Security Debate Live Blog

RealClearWorld will be cosponsoring a live blog with the American Enterprise Institute during this evening's Republican national security debate.

Be sure to join us tonight as foreign policy experts analyze the debate and answer your questions.

Scheduled participants include:

Carl Cannon, Washington Editor, RealClearPolitics
Daniel Larison, Contributing Editor, The American Conservative
Greg Scoblete, Editor, RealClearWorld
Jeremy Lott, Editor, RealClearBooks
James Joyner, Managing Editor, Atlantic Council
Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Justin Logan, Director of Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute
Richard Cleary, Research Assistant, American Enterprise Institute
Sally McNamara, Senior Policy Analyst for European Affairs, Heritage Foundation

October 28, 2011

Can Exceptionalism Guide U.S. Foreign Policy?

Writing in National Review, Marion Smith takes issue with Stephen Walt's take-down of America's exceptionalism. In it, Smith offers proof of why the U.S. is uniquely virtuous among nations:

How about the American commitment to end European imperialism in North America, leading to the Monroe Doctrine? Secretary of State John Quincy Adams worked so that neither Spain nor France reclaimed their revolting colonies in Latin America. At the same time, America rebuffed British attempts to secure an imperial foothold in North America through an Anglo-American military alliance. Despite America’s military weakness, Adams — the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine — believed it would be “more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly” and reject an alliance, rather than appear to “come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” By championing the cause of the newly independent Latin American republics in Europe, and being the first established nation to recognize the new nations, a young U.S. advanced its principles abroad, promoting a new system of “justice” for one-third of the globe.

Of all the places to defend morality in American foreign policy, Latin America (!) following the Monroe Doctrine would be about the last place I'd start. That aside, Smith offers some forward-looking guidance:

Rejecting the source of our goodness — our true principles — will dash any hopes for future greatness. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” In the 21st century, Americans need to learn from the examples of our earlier statesmen who prudently applied our exceptional principles to the constantly changing circumstances of international affairs.

So what would this mean in the case of, say, Bahrain, where the government has murdered its own citizens and jailed doctors who cared for wounded protesters? The Obama administration had signaled it would go ahead and sell them U.S. weapons anyway, but has now held that up pending a State Department review on human rights. Is forgoing that sale the exceptional thing to do?

October 3, 2011

Interventionism

Alexander Downes has a good piece studying the history of regime change and whether it works. You really should read in full but I'll pull out this:

Regime change is nothing new to the United States. Since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the United States has been the world’s foremost practitioner. Of the roughly one hundred cases of externally imposed regime change in that period, the United States has been responsible for more than twenty. These are only the “successful” attempts.

Talk about exceptionalism! And you would think with all this practice we'd have gotten it down by now...

September 29, 2011

U.S. at Cross-Purposes in the Middle East

Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby have a long essay on America's fading position in the new Middle East:

Taken together, these trends have called into question a number of strategic concepts on which American diplomacy in the Middle East has rested for decades:

• that a prosperous and democratic Turkey, anchored in the West, would, by example, draw other Muslim countries westward;

• that the failures of fascism, communism, and Shia theocracy, coupled with the enticements and pressures of a global economy, would in time lead the region, with Western help, to realign toward a liberal future in the broader community of nations;

• that the peace Israel reached with Egypt and Jordan would in time radiate outward into peace with other Arab states, and thus minimize the prospects of a major regional war;

• that the world community would prevent states in the region from getting nuclear weapons; and

• that regional divisions and American strength would prevent forces hostile to the US from dominating the region.

I think what's evident from the above checklist of regional priorities is that they had failure baked in. The U.S. has had a mixed track record when it comes to preventing a major regional war - there was one almost every decade since 1970 - and two of them involved the United States. Nor is it clear why Washington expected that the Middle East would, with "Western help," realign to a "liberal future" as it simultaneously stopped hostile states from dominating the region and prevented them from acquiring nuclear weapons. "Western help" was (and is) directed toward illiberal states in the region as a bulwark against "forces hostile to the United States." The process of doing one thing undermines the other.

Put in more concrete terms: is there anyone who sincerely believes that you can support the Saudi monarchy to check Iran while simultaneously "helping" that same monarchy dissolve itself in the name of Western liberalism? It's sounds like a self-evidently absurd position and yet, it's being held up as something Obama has failed to do...

September 22, 2011

NATO in the Old Age Home?

Elizabeth Pond:

NATO won't be dismantled. Instead, it will move to an old people's home. Sure, member-state officials will drop by Brussels now and then to pat auntie on the head, but they won't expect her to do any heavy lifting.

This pungent metaphor was coined by veteran U.S. diplomat Robert Blackwill at the conference that kicks off the transatlanticists' high season each fall. Surprisingly, virtually everyone at the Geneva palaver of the International Institute for Strategic Studies last weekend agreed.

Americans across the political spectrum blame the decay of history's longest alliance on the free-riding Europeans' slashing their defense budgets after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reciprocally, Europeans blame the decay on American hyperpower hubris in starting the Iraq war and failing to end the Afghan expedition before the quagmire—thus overextending the West, incubating America's present war fatigue, and giving the last laugh to Iran in the Mideast and China around the globe.

The truth is that the existential threat to Europe is located in the balance sheets of their national banks and the southern states of the Eurozone. And that is something that the U.S. and NATO, for all their military might, are unable to save them from.

September 21, 2011

The Strategic Case for Israel

Rick Perry did indeed give a more strategic argument on behalf of Israel during his speech yesterday, saying "Israel’s security is critical to America’s security."

Daniel Larison says it ain't so:

If we went through all of the allies deemed “critical” to our security, we would find that a large number of them could be fairly described as “a very small country that simply isn’t very important.” Indeed, many of our allies have become our allies because they hope to enhance their security at U.S. expense, and oddly enough many Americans have convinced themselves that it is imperative that we cooperate. These alliances and patron-client relationships often make sense for the other party, but very few of them make sense for the U.S. any longer.
I think the key phrase here is "any longer." It made sense to stack up a series of dependencies in the Cold War, when there was a reasonable chance of an all-out war with the Soviet Union. In today's world, the odds of a major great power war have diminished and where there is a heightened chance, it's in Asia, not the Middle East. Of course, the Middle East would be important in such an instance, since its natural resources would fuel the belligerents, but that doesn't mean a Cold War-era template should do the heavy lifting of protecting America's interests.

See also Andrew Exum.

September 15, 2011

Don't Play Ahmadinejad's UN Game

rsz_iran91511.jpg

The 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly convened this week in New York City.

Libya’s ousted Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution Muammar Gaddafi dare not show his face due to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant upon his head for crimes against humanity. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez cannot attend either because of ongoing chemotherapy. But Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intends to be there.

We will no longer be entertained and infuriated by scenes of Chavez sarcastically speaking about satanic sulfur in 2006 or Gaddafi disdainfully chucking the UN charter over his shoulder in 2009. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad plans on yanking the West’s chain yet again. He will distribute a book on alleged atrocities committed against Iran and Iranians by American, British and Soviet forces during World War II, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reports:

Ahmadinejad will go to New York late this week, taking 1000 English copies of Documents on the Occupation of Iran during World War II. Iran’s occupation by the Allies during World War II is an international issue. This book contains many documents referring to the abuses inflicted by the Allies against the Iranian people.

The five-volume work is to be presented as evidence at the UN General Assembly, a parallel story in the Tehran Times notes:

to demand compensation from the Allies for violation of Iran’s neutrality during that world conflict.

So even though his comrades from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party cannot be there, Iran’s chief executive will do his best to incite American, British and Russian emotions – and he is well accomplished at provoking negative responses. But unlike Alice, officials in Washington, London and Moscow should not respond in anger. Paying no attention to his theatrics will deny Iran’s president the pleasure he seeks.

Let’s not give Ahmadinejad a tale to spin for Chavez when he flys to Caracas after the New York visit.

(AP Photo)

September 6, 2011

Here's the Obama Doctrine

Obama's Libya policy may not amount to a doctrine, but it did establish two principles. Last March, Obama explained that we must intervene when there's a risk of massacres or genocide, but we can never do so alone unless Americans are directly at risk.

At face value, I find this borderline repugnant. America shouldn't be the world's policeman, but neither should we make it a matter of principle to say we won't stop genocide when and where we can simply because no one will join our posse. - Jonah Goldberg

I doubt that the Libyan war established the principles that Goldberg claims here. But I do think the war established a principle, and a very important one at that: the U.S. will no longer be an occupying power.

The Libyan war, combined with the Obama administration's lethal expansion of special forces and drone attacks in Somalia and Yemen, drive this point home. The U.S. will continue to wage what can only be called a "war" on terror, but one that is far more asymmetrical and under the radar. This is almost certainly for the good. While drone campaigns will undoubtedly radicalize some (especially if they're used hyper-aggressively), they're far less radicalizing than a large scale troop presence in a foreign country.

August 29, 2011

Neoconservatism RIP?

Peter Beinart pens an obituary for neoconservatism:

Post-9/11, neoconservatism posited that jihadist terrorism was the greatest foreign-policy threat of our age, a threat on par with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. And it insisted that the only way to defeat that threat was to remake the Middle East through military force.

Today, by contrast, it is increasingly obvious that the real successor to German fascism and Soviet communism is not Al Qaeda, whose mud-hut totalitarianism repels the vast majority of Muslims. It is China’s authoritarian capitalism, the first nondemocratic ideology since the 1930s to challenge the idea that democracy is the political system best able to promote shared prosperity. And not only is Al Qaeda sliding into irrelevance, its demise is being hastened by exactly the narrowly targeted policies that neoconservatives derided.

I think this is something of a misreading. Before 9/11, and almost immediately thereafter, neoconservatives identified Iraq as a major threat. During the 1990s, they were also actively stumping for a more confrontational approach to China - something that has resumed as the war against al-Qaeda has moved further to the margins. And let's not forget Iran. In other words, neoconservatism doesn't rise or fall on a particular set of enemies, it's a way of thinking of the world and America's role in it (which, incidentally, has an endless capacity to identify enemies abroad). Agree or disagree with it, it's not going anywhere.

I do think Beinart is correct when he writes that: "Post-9/11 neoconservatism was a doctrine that rejected limits. Now that limits are becoming, painfully, the centerpiece of American political debate, it’s no longer a plausible vision of America’s relationship to the world."

August 19, 2011

Why America Is Losing

Stephen Walt declares the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq "lost" and offers a rationale:

More broadly, these wars were lost because there is an enormous difference between defeating a third-rate conventional army (which is what Saddam had) and governing a restive, deeply-divided, and well-armed population with a long-standing aversion to all forms of foreign interference. There was no way to "win" either war without creating effective local institutions that could actually run the place (so that we could leave), but that was the one thing we did not know how to do. Not only did we not know who to put in charge, but once we backed anybody, their legitimacy automatically declined. And so did our leverage over them, as people like President Karzai understood that our prestige was now on the line and we could not afford to let him fail.

This is very true, but it also underscores a point I have tried to make repeatedly since these wars began. Namely, that Washington defined the terms of victory, and those terms were inflated and untenable. There was no reason for the U.S. to "lose" the war in Afghanistan after toppling the Taliban and routing al-Qaeda, but by staying and constantly moving the goal-posts in the direction Walt describes above, a "loss" became baked-in.

But it also reflects where and how wars are fought today. The U.S. was able to "create" or rather, rebuild, institutions in Japan and Germany because both were functioning, coherent states before they were defeated. They also suffered unimaginable devastation. The U.S. was (thankfully) not going to fire bomb Iraqi cities or drop atomic bombs on Kandahar. Nor was it "at war" with Afghanistan or Iraq before invading and occupying either country. At best, it was at "war" with regimes that only partially represented their countries or sub-national movements that had taken root in those countries.

What's more troubling about both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is not that the U.S. was defeated in its over-reaching ambitions but that large segments of its foreign policy making class choose to paper over this (because they were complicit) or are in a mad-rush to find the next arena for their adventurism.

August 10, 2011

Government Activism

Jennifer Rubin wants some:

Deeply regrettable.

That’s actually one way to describe the peculiar mix of indifference and incompetence that characterizes President Obama’s foreign policy. Why didn’t we call for Assad’s ouster months ago? Why didn’t we take charge in Libya, short-circuiting Moammar Gaddafi’s reign of terror? Why were we mute during the 2009 Green Revolution? When Russian operatives set off bombs in Georgia? When China arrested more high-profile dissidents? It is a long and ignominious record of indifference and appeasement, mixed with pompous pronouncements of our good intentions.

So we'd replace pompous pronouncements of our good intentions with pompous pronouncements of our outrage. Where would that get us?

August 8, 2011

Decline of the American Empire?

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Stephen Walt wonders when it was the U.S. empire started to decline. His answer: the first Gulf War. Here's the rationale:

Unfortunately, the smashing victory in the first Gulf War also set in train an unfortunate series of subsequent events. For starters, Saddam Hussein was now firmly identified as the World's Worst Human Being, even though the United States had been happy to back him during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. More importantly, the war left the United States committed to enforcing "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq.

But even worse, the Clinton administration entered office in 1993 and proceeded to adopt a strategy of "dual containment." Until that moment, the United States had acted as an "offshore balancer" in the Persian Gulf, and we had carefully refrained from deploying large air or ground force units there on a permanent basis.

I think if we're going to pin the blame for a deepening U.S. role in the Middle East on anything it wouldn't be the Gulf War but the Carter Doctrine - that was what put the U.S. on the path toward an interventionist posture in the region. The Gulf War and the dual containment that followed were in many ways the logical heir to that doctrine.

But I'm not convinced that the Gulf War is really responsible, per se, for U.S. decline, mostly because "decline" is more of a relative phenomena (although we certainly haven't helped ourselves of late). That being the case, I'd argue that Deng Xiaoping's market-oriented reforms in China, which kicked off three decades of economic growth, have probably played a much more significant role in the narrowing of the power gap than America's post-Gulf War blunders.

(AP Photo)

August 1, 2011

Whither Exceptionalism

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It's taken as a given in many quarters of Washington's foreign policy establishment that one critical role the U.S. should play internationally is patiently mentoring the world in the ways of government and freedom. Now that we have edged within a hair's breath of a self-imposed default, I wonder - will the enthusiasm for American exceptionalism wane among America's foreign policy commentariat? Even if - as looks likely as of this writing - a deal is hammered out, the U.S. has not covered itself or its political institutions in glory...

(AP Photo)

July 20, 2011

Containing Pakistan

David Rothkopf thinks the U.S. should form an alliance with India to contain Pakistan:

Pakistan is America's ally, of course. We say it all the time. Unfortunately, Pakistan also harbors our enemies, supports our enemies, tolerates the intolerable by our enemies, and is therefore also our enemy. Not all of Pakistan, of course. Just some of the most influential of its elites and institutions as well as substantial cross-sections of its population.

Pakistan therefore has no one to blame for the steady deepening of the security ties between the United States and India than itself. As containing the problems within Pakistan through cooperation with the Pakistanis looks increasingly difficult, it is only natural that the United States should simultaneously develop a Plan B approach. That approach is containment and it necessarily must involve a partnership with India.

I think a tighter partnership with India is very much in America's interests, but not because it's going to somehow squeeze Pakistan into abandoning its support for militant groups. In fact, if the U.S. is frustrated with Pakistan's behavior now, it beggars belief that we'll somehow get more cooperation out of them by teaming up with an arch-enemy. Nor is it clear how this will "contain" Pakistan since the use of militant proxies is almost impossible to stop.

What would potentially solve, or at least mitigate, Pakistan's support for militant groups would be a change in the dynamic between itself and India, and to the extent that greater U.S. ties to India could encourage a rapprochement there it's all for the better. But that's unlikely to happen, given how India views outside interference on the Kashmir issue.

July 14, 2011

The Arab Spring and U.S. Interests

Aaron David Miller reflects on the impact the "Arab Spring" will have on U.S. interests in the Middle East:

Democracy, or whatever strange hybrid of popular government, weak institutions, and elite control replaces the autocrats, will be a double-edged sword. And American policies, already marked by contradiction and challenge, won’t escape its cutting edge. The gaps separating American values, interests, and policies could actually grow, and the space available to the United States to pursue its policies—from Iran to Gaza to the Arab-Israeli peace process—could contract. The growing influence of Arab public opinion on the actions of Arab governments and the absence of strong leaders will make it much tougher for the United States to pursue its traditional policies. For America, the Arab Spring may well prove to be more an Arab Winter.

I used to agree with this sentiment, but now I'm not so sure. Consider what American policies in the region currently are:

1. Supporting Israel's military superiority: This can and will continue no matter who is in charge of the various states currently in tumult. Indeed, if democratic governments do take hold in the region and shift away from a "cold peace" with Israel, U.S. commitments would only strengthen. Certain facets of U.S. policy toward sustaining Israel's preeminence - such as bribing Egypt - might be constrained, but certainly not derailed (and let's not forget that Egypt is badly in need of money).

2. Ensuring the "free flow" of oil: U.S. forces stationed in the region ostensibly for this purpose are in countries where either the "Arab Spring" has been crushed (Bahrain) or never flowered in the first place (Kuwait and Qatar). Newly empowered democracies in Egypt and Tunisia might protest this basing, but could they really end it?

3. Containing Iran: This is as much a Saudi interest as an American one, and as long as the Saudis swing their sizable checkbook behind the effort it's sure to have a few takers.

4. Striking al-Qaeda: This is perhaps the most vulnerable of America's interests, since weaker governments and reformed intelligence services might have qualms about torturing people on America's behalf or simply be overwhelmed with other responsibilities to cater to Washington's requests. Still, if the U.S. can keep tight with Jordan and Saudi intelligence the impact could be manageable.

In other words, the major American policies in the region that inflame regional public opinion are also fairly well insulated from that opinion. They may be altered at the margins, but probably won't be completely derailed.

July 12, 2011

A Realist Turn

Daniel Trombly thinks that realism's current vogue is a false spring:

To be blunt, anybody hoping for realism and restraint in American foreign policy is setting themselves up for failure if they put their trust in the inherent wisdom of the mass public to provide a sound guide for foreign policy. It is true that after serious disasters in American foreign policy or prolonged wars, the public does tend to tack a seemingly “realist” course in foreign policy matters. However, a “realist’ inclination that only evinces itself in a politically meaningful way after enough time has passed for thousands of lives have been lost or billions of dollars spent is not a very useful constraint on the interventionist tendencies of the US government.

I'm not sure how much of this supposed realist turn is driven by public opinion or by politicians angling to differentiate themselves.

July 5, 2011

No, We Don't Need Nation Building

It's somewhat disingenuous of Max Boot to equate a desire not to engage in nation building with "isolationism" but I'd prefer to focus on this part of his recent op-ed:

Since the U.S. left Somalia, tail between our legs, it has become a haven for terrorists and pirates. Now an Islamist movement modeled on the Taliban, known as the Shabab, threatens to take over the country. If this were to happen, it would replicate the disaster that struck Afghanistan in the 1990s — another example of what happens when the U.S. refuses to help build a viable state in a country desperately in need of one.

If you want yet another example of how costly our aversion to nation-building has been, look no further than Iraq. The Bush administration associated nation-building with the hated policies of the Clinton administration and refused to prepare for it. The result was that Iraq fell apart after U.S. troops had toppled its existing regime.

What's fascinating about Boot's argument is where it begins - after the U.S. has intervened in Somalia and Iraq. What these two interventions have in common is not simply that the U.S. failed in its efforts at nation building but that neither were necessary at all. Understanding why the U.S. fails at nation building misses the point - it's like complaining that you're not good at plumbing after you've dismantled your sprinkler system and left hoses spewing water everywhere. If you know you don't know what you're doing - and what you're trying to "fix" isn't all that vital - don't do it! Why is this so hard to understand?

UPDATE: Larison pounces as well.

June 24, 2011

The Tea Party Divide Grows

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For my part in our brief interview with House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) today, I asked whether the era of the Republican hawk is over, or just on hiatus till after the next election. He had an interesting response.

"Conservative Republicans have a three legged stool: defense, fiscal responsibility and social issues. Right now the stool is a little out of balance because fiscal matters are dominating everything, because of the economic shape we're in," McKeon said. "And when the Chairman of Joint Chiefs comes and tells us our most important defense need is our economic stability, that gets a lot of people thinking that's all we should be talking about, to the point where some of them are saying 'Defense should be on the table, Defense should be cut.'"

This fits, of course, into larger concerns Republicans have about the increasing divide between the Washington foreign policy elite and the base of the party - not just the Tea Party, but other fiscal and social conservatives as well. While several Tea Party favorites maintain a generally hawkish stance on Afghanistan and other fronts, their attitude toward Libya has been frustration and disagreement from day one. A recent letter signed by a roster of former George W. Bush appointees and neoconservatives on the issue contains little in the way of anyone who seems to have a firm connection with the right's base. (A chat with an average member of the Tea Party does not typically reveal a high approval rating for William Kristol and Karl Rove, in case anyone was curious.)

When it came time to vote today, McKeon was with the majority of Republicans, but on the opposite side from 89 of his members who successfully blocked an attempt to approve limited funding for NATO/U.S. efforts in Libya. Included in opposition are several darlings of the Tea Party, such as Michele Bachmann, Allen West and several other freshmen.

The question is whether this divide between the neoconservative foreign policy elites and the more conventionally conservative voting base on the right will grow to affect other areas of national security policy as well, beyond just things branded as "Obama's war." Without respected and serious go-betweens who don't have prior bad blood with the base, it's hard to see how McKeon's stool will be rebalanced.

(AP Photo)

June 16, 2011

The American Interest

Glenn Greenwald claims to be shocked that the Obama administration would priviledge American companies over those from other countries:

Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton hosted a meeting of top executives from a wide array of corporations -- Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Halliburton, GE, Chevron, Lockheed Martin, Citigroup, Occidental Petroleum, etc. etc. -- to plot how to exploit "economic opportunities in the new Iraq." And one WikiLeaks "diplomatic" cable after the next reveals constant government efforts to promote the interests of Western corporations in the developing world. Nonetheless, the very notion that the U.S. wages wars not for humanitarian or freedom-spreading purposes, but rather to exploit the resources of other nations for its own large corporations, is deeply "irresponsible" and unSerious. As usual, the ideas stigmatized with the most potent taboos are the ones that are the most obviously true.

Really? I think it's just the opposite. There's no real stigma around the idea that the U.S. seeks to maximize its economic advantage or energy security through foreign policy. What else is it supposed to be doing?

It's true, as Greenwald notes, that there is often a taboo around discussing this so blatantly and crassly at the political level. Presidents are expected to engage in ritualistic paeans to universal human rights and paint the U.S. in the best light possible. But outside of some soaring presidential rhetoric, is the idea that the U.S. would seek to advantage its commercial interests when dealing overseas a "taboo?"

Hardly.

Remember Secretary of State James Baker's rationale for the first Gulf War? "Jobs, jobs, jobs."

It was obvious from the start that one of the primary reasons the West took such an active interest in Libya's humanitarian crisis was because of its oil. There has been no shortage of articles dealing with Libya's oil, its impact on the war or the role it has played in motivating countries like Great Britain to intervene in Libya's civil war. This is hardly hush-hush.

(Mind you, I don't think it was wise for the U.S. to intervene in Libya - no matter how much oil the country has - nor do I think the military should be used to tee-up preferential resource contracts for U.S. corporations.)

June 15, 2011

Is There a GOP Shift on Foreign Policy?

The hawkish consensus on national security that has dominated Republican foreign policy for the last decade is giving way to a more nuanced view, with some presidential candidates expressing a desire to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible and suggesting that the United States has overreached in Libya.

The shift, while incremental so far, appears to mark a separation from a post-Sept. 11 posture in which Republicans were largely united in supporting an aggressive use of American power around the world. A new debate over the costs and benefits of deploying the military reflects the length of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the difficulty of building functional governments and the financial burden at home in a time of extreme fiscal pressure.

The evolution also highlights a renewed streak of isolationism among Republicans, which has been influenced by the rise of the Tea Party movement and a growing sense that the United States can no longer afford to intervene in clashes everywhere. - Jeff Zeleny

I very much doubt there's any kind of shift occurring. First, vague declarations on the campaign trail have no meaningful relation to how a candidate would govern if he or she were elected. Second, we've seen this movie before. In 2000, then-candidate Bush promised a "humble" foreign policy that would eschew nation building. We all know how that turned out.

The fact of the matter is that any significant "shift" in GOP foreign policy won't happen at the level of presidential hopefuls angling for the limelight. It will occur when the bureaucrats and policy-makers that would staff a future Republican administration turn meaningfully from the doctrines and orthodoxies that have shaped "Republican" foreign policy in the past. Is there evidence that such a shift is occurring? I don't see it ... do you?

Religion and Foreign Policy

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When one writes an article on foreign policy and religion one should be prepared to demonstrate more than a passing knowledge of either. Furthermore, one might wish to avoid using a sexual reference as a title. This piece by Molly Worthen fails on all accounts.

First, Worthen fails, as many scholars do, to distinguish between Mormonism generally and any given church. For the record, Mormonism includes varying cultural and religious traditions across the United States and world that accepts the Book of Mormon as scripture. There are many religious organizations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints being by far the largest, and the one to which Mitt Romney and John Huntsman belong. However, Mormon culture and traditions may have significantly different policy recommendations than the organization of the LDS Church.

Secondly, Worthen does not go beyond a very cursory examination of any Mormon doctrine, or culture which may impact foreign policy. Does she intend to imply that Romney might be pro-France because he was a missionary there, or that Huntsman might somehow favor Taiwan? Furthermore, Mormon scriptures have a great deal of political content, and not one is cited throughout the article (for example the extensive discussion of war in Alma 43-62).

Third, Worthen does not address foreign policy at all within her article. Indeed, it reads like a term paper on Mormon’s adapted for a foreign policy audience. The brief discussion of the Mormon version of American Exceptionalism is interesting, but American Exceptionalism is an assumption, not a policy, and has informed everyone from JFK to George W. Bush. Her sense that Mormons tend to be pragmatic even appears to me to be correct, but pragmatism is also an approach rather than a policy.

Finally, Worthen introduces extremely spurious information. She informs us that “Rumor has it that the CIA and FBI treat the Mormon faith as a de facto background check and recruit more heavily on the campus of Brigham Young University than almost anywhere else” - an assertion preposterous on the face of it. Moreover, apparently, "today's most famous Mormon guru [is] Glenn Beck,” as if a talk show host has sway either within the church or the foreign policy community.

Presidential elections and foreign policy are far too important to treat so lightly. While some may argue that it is unimportant what a person’s religion is, I believe that this is a topic worthy of discussion, if for no other reason than people do have concerns about it. Nevertheless, one must approach this topic carefully and responsibly.

It is not as though there is not abundant information on the topic readily available to the public. Speaking on the LDS Church, it has made all of its scriptures, statements and nearly all of its publications available online. Additionally, many scholars study LDS and Mormon culture in a political context including Harold Bloom and Armand Mauss. Furthermore, the LDS Church operates a university with a respected political science department, which includes Valerie Hudson who has written on both LDS religion and foreign policy! Finally, there are a variety of public figures in the recent past who could be looked to for inspiration including, but certainly not limited to Mo Udall, Ezra Taft Benson, J. Reuben Clark, and of course Brent Scowcroft.

(AP Photo)

June 8, 2011

U.S. Interests After the Arab Spring

After America’s withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the constraint to our strategic reach produced by the revolution in Egypt, a new definition of American leadership and America’s national interest is inescapable. - Henry Kissinger

One would think this would be the case, but is it? Few of the leading Republican candidates at the moment have engaged seriously with this question, content to recycle bromides defending the existing orthodoxy. The Obama administration has blithely set about digging another hole for the U.S. in Libya. Any attempt to argue for a narrower set of American interests in the Greater Middle East are met with cries of "isolationism." This is not an environment conducive to a sober reappraisal of U.S. interest in the Middle East.

June 6, 2011

A New Russian-U.S. Arms Race?

Richard Lourie argues that the U.S. and Russia may be heading towards a new arms race:

On May 20, Russia’s top generals made what Time magazine called “a startling admission of weakness.” In their opinion, by 2015 the NATO missile defense system would neutralize both Russia’s ICBMs and its submarine-based ballistic missiles. That could be devastating for Russia because, as defense analyst Ruslan Pukhov points out, for “relatively little expense, Russia’s nuclear forces support the country’s status as a great power, provide a military deterrent to other major powers and enable it to maintain moderately sized conventional forces.”

But Pukhov also demonstrates that the generals are wrong about the 2015 date — or were just making noises as part of the bargaining process. Russia’s nuclear arsenal will not be significantly stymied by the system NATO wants to put in place. But once in place, that system could provide an excellent base for a more elaborate system that could indeed neutralize Russia as a nuclear power. Since Russia has no leverage over the United States and NATO, its only choice would be to upgrade its own heavy, ground-based multistage missiles. In other words, Russia and the United States, without in the least meaning to, may be backing into a new arms race.

June 3, 2011

Paul Ryan's Imagination

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Representative Paul Ryan offers what the Weekly Standard's Michael Warren calls an "embrace of American Exceptionalism" during a foreign policy speech. It includes this rather odd warning:

A world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place, a place where we have less influence, and a place where our citizens face more dangers and fewer opportunities. Take a moment and imagine a world led by China or by Russia.

While we're at it, we can imagine a world led by elves and wizards because that's just about as likely to happen as a world "led" by China or Russia.

Neither China nor Russia is interested - let alone capable - of "leading" the world. Russia can barely tame the very weak and often thoroughly corrupt countries directly on its border. At the height of Soviet power (and, more importantly, at the height of Communism's ideological appeal), it couldn't rule the world.

Similarly, China has not shown any inclination that it wishes to dominate the global system the way the United States does. Not even the more alarmist projections about its military capabilities claim it is seeking global power projection as a prelude to global dominance. Besides, China has made a tidy profit lending the United States money while we burnish our global leadership in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Places where, incidentally, the U.S. sacrifices blood and treasure and China gets mineral and oil rights. Talk about exceptionalism!

Global leadership is not a prize that other countries are aspiring to. At worst, nations are looking to beef up their capacity to exert regional influence or raise the cost of American interference. We should argue about when and where that posses a threat to the United States - not about fantasy stories of Chinese or Russian global domination.

(AP Photo)

May 26, 2011

It's Not the 1930s

Victor Davis Hanson is concerned:

But if America abrogates the preeminent leadership position it has held for the last 65 years, wouldn’t the world look a lot like it did in the pre-American days of the 1930s? Then, a Depression-era United States was just one of many powers, and was reluctant to assert leadership abroad.

In other words, the post-American world could look a lot like the rather terrifying pre-American version of seven decades past. Why in the world would we wish to return to it?


The trouble with these kinds of formulations is that they're hopelessly vague - what, in specific terms, does it mean to "abrogate the preeminent leadership position" and why is this something we're concerned with at the moment? Then there's this:
The so-called international community cared as much in the 1930s about rising, aggressive totalitarian states in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia as it does today about ascendant China or Iran.
This essentially refutes Hanson's premise about a "terrifying" post-American world right there. It is absurd to compare Iran to any of those rising powers in the 1930s and while China has the potential to shake things up globally, the idea that their rise is going unnoticed, or unchecked, is simply erroneous. In the 1930s, the U.S. had no military presence in Europe to contain Germany. In 2011, the U.S. has defense treaties with two of China's immediate neighbors and has military bases surrounding the country.

Obviously, things can go very badly abroad without having to rise to the level of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but it behooves us to keep some perspective.

May 25, 2011

Staying in Iraq

Frederick Kagan has a new report (pdf) out making the case for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2012. Here's what's in it for the United States:

A long-term strategic military partnership also benefits the United States. It would deter serious Iranian adventurism in Iraq and help Baghdad resist Iranian pressure to conform to Tehran's policies aimed at excluding the United States and its allies from a region of vital interest to the West.

In other words we must stay in Iraq to ensure that we can stay in Iraq.

While Kagan devotes the majority of the report to arguing why U.S. forces should stay within Iraq, he doesn't devote any space to arguing how the U.S. should go about convincing the Iraqi government. And indeed, Kagan admits that the Maliki government is "of two minds" about letting the U.S. retain a military presence in his country after the Status of Forces Agreement expires. One theme Kagan does stress is that Iraq should allow U.S. troops to stay in the country to keep Iraq free of foreign interference. This, for instance, was apparently written without irony:

If Maliki allows the United States to leave Iraq, he is effectively declaring his intent to fall in line with Tehran’s wishes, to subordinate Iraq’s foreign policy to the Persians, and, possibly, to consolidate his own power as a sort of modern Persian satrap in Baghdad. If Iraq’s leaders allow themselves to be daunted by fear of Maliki or Iran, they will be betraying their people, who have shed so much blood to establish a safe, independent, multiethnic, multisectarian, unitary Iraqi state with representative institutions of government. Maliki and Iraq’s other leaders contemplating such a course should beware the persistent dangers of the Arab Spring to would-be autocrats and those who appear to place control of their countries in the hands of foreigners.

Replace "Persian" with "American" and you can make the exact same argument from the standpoint of Iraqi nationalism. Kagan's entire argument is that Iraq's value to the United States hinges, in great measure, on how it can be used to defenestrate Iran. In other words, both the Americans and the Iranians are attempting to use Iraq in much the same way - as a springboard to enhance their power.

May 17, 2011

Why Is American Foreign Policy Militarized?

James Joyner had a good piece in the Atlantic last week asking why perpetual war became an American ideology:

The passionate zeal of the liberal interventionists and neoconservatives satisfies an emotional hunger that has been a part of our political system since the emotion-laden days of the Cold War, when the public first came to view U.S. foreign policy as a tool of good to be deployed against evil. Both ideologies use the language of morality and appeal to our shared humanity. People want to do something about tragedy and it's easy to persuade them that doing the right thing will be worthwhile. Realists may often be right, but they are rarely convincing.

I think that's right, but something's missing. I don't think we can explain the post-Cold War interventionist streak in U.S. foreign policy in just ideological terms, although I think the notion of "American leadership" has played an important role in pushing the U.S. in this direction. As Joyner notes, the disappearance of the Soviet Union left the U.S. without a competitor to push back against various foreign adventures, but I think there's more to it. When it comes to national security policy, Washington has engaged in the same kind of corporate book-cooking that would make Goldman Sachs proud. In other words, America has done a lot of "off balance sheet" accounting in the national security realm, all in an effort to shield the voter and tax payer from the true costs of various policy pursuits.

First, there is the sidelining of Congress in decisions of war and peace (a sidelining which they have all too enthusiastically consented to). Rather than a serious debate, the executive branch positions interventions as a fait accompli. No one takes seriously the idea that Congress should "declare war" before troops are dispersed. Second, there's a refusal to pay for wars by raising taxes. During the Bush years, we ran a guns and butter economy, with generous social spending and tax cuts, all while prosecuting two major ground wars. Third, there has been a refusal to resource counter-insurgency efforts by expanding the Army through conscription. There are good arguments against a draft, but surely one reason Washington has assiduously avoided the subject, despite the strain on manpower, is that it would make an interventionist foreign policy much harder to sustain.

May 14, 2011

Rumsfeld on WikiLeaks

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Stepping aside from the ongoing back and forth blasts between Sen. John McCain and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey on waterboarding, it's time for another Bush-era official to offer his take on the policies of the time. So Donald Rumsfeld talks WikiLeaks with vindicated verve in today's Washington Post. An excerpt:

The documents should also disprove some myths that have dogged Guantanamo and the reputations of those who honorably serve there. The classified record, for example, confirms that three detainees who died in 2006 were suicides — not, as some have irresponsibly alleged, victims of brutal interrogations. The documents chronicle the lengths to which military guards accommodated Muslim religious sensibilities: sounding a call to prayer five times a day, providing halal meals and touching Korans only with gloves — not flushing them down toilets, as was falsely alleged by one U.S. magazine. There was no policy of mistreatment, much less torture.

The release of this classified information has compromised intelligence sources and methods, risking lives. The documents indicate, for example, that some al-Qaeda members turned and revealed large quantities of information about their colleagues. The cooperation of one Yemeni informant — since released — who fingered dozens of fellow detainees as members of al-Qaeda is now public, making him vulnerable to retribution.

Rumsfeld, one of the original co-sponsors of the Freedom of Information Act, has to smile at the results. In my recent interview with him - full transcript to come - Rumsfeld emphasized that with the release of his detailed documentation tied to his book project, he was interested not in revisionist history, but in putting out the truth about what happened for future historians to study and consider. Rumsfeld again:

Julian Assange hoped that his latest gamble with the lives of intelligence professionals, military personnel and terrorist informants would embarrass the U.S. government and inhibit its ability to strike our enemies. But the WikiLeaks documents, coupled with what we know about how bin Laden’s hiding place was discovered, may be among the clearest vindications yet of the Bush administration’s policies in the struggle to protect America and the free world from more terrorist attacks. They may prove the strongest arguments for keeping open the invaluable asset that is Guantanamo Bay.

(AP Photo)

May 12, 2011

Oil and Terror

When I first joined the Navy, our military footprint in the Middle East consisted of a one-star admiral and three ships. We now have multiple three- and four-star generals, and 150,000 men and women of the armed forces are deployed at great expense to our blood and treasure.

It is no coincidence that as our nation’s reliance on oil has grown, so has our military presence in this area, which is rich in oil and ripe with volatility.

Reforming our energy policy will take time and political will, but the stakes to our national security are too high not to act. It took nearly a decade to find bin Laden. Let’s start our next attack on Al Qaeda right now — working to end our oil dependence. - Dennis Blair

Transforming America's energy economy in the way Blair states is the work of decades. It will do nothing about al-Qaeda or radical recruitment in the short and medium-term. Indeed, this energy independence argument has little to do with U.S. national security - oil wealth will flow to terrorists so long as their are people who need oil and terrorists who need money. American dollars can easily be substituted with Chinese yuan in this regard.

This is actually an argument about whether or not the U.S. should sustain a large military footprint in the Middle East. I'd agree that such a large military footprint in the Mideast is counter-productive and should be reduced, but we don't need to go on a crash course to reduce oil consumption to do that - it could be done in relatively short order for far less money than transforming America's energy economy.

May 11, 2011

Can the U.S. Senate Do Foreign Policy?

Jennifer Rubin thinks she's found a "forceful, clear and unequivocal support for a robust American presence in the world" in the words of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. So what did Rubio say? This:

I think we’ve taken too long. I think the fact that the administration continues to hold out hope that somehow Assad is going to be a reformer is not the right way to go. I intend, along with a couple of my colleagues this week, to introduce a resolution here in the Senate to act on this issue. And my hope is that this policy will move quickly on voicing support for those on the ground there in Syria who are trying, in a peaceful way, to bring about change to their country. And I think the world has to be so disappointed, I think, that this administration has not been more forceful in speaking out on behalf of freedom and democracy throughout the region, including places like Bahrain.”

Voice support. I hope Assad has braced himself for that.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg reports on two other GOP foreign policy poobahs:

Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman had passed through a few weeks earlier, to see King Abdullah II. Their visit, I quickly learned, was simultaneously a source of bemusement and irritation for the Jordanian government. The two senators, of course, advocate an assertive foreign policy, and both are associated with neoconservative striving for robust and quick democratization of the Middle East. “They came in and said that Jordan should open up its political space for more parties, and be more aggressive about democratization within the parameters of a constitutional monarchy,” a senior Jordanian official told me. “And then they said, ‘But whatever you do, don’t allow the Muslim Brotherhood to gain more power.’ So they want us to be open and closed at the same time.”

So on the one hand we have a foreign policy of empty declarations. On the other, an incoherent and contradictory set of recommendations. Still, foreign policy is usually an executive branch endeavor anyway. So how is the Senate doing exercising its core, constitutional functions? Josh Rogin reports:

In just over a week, 60 days will have passed since the war in Libya began. But Congress has no plans to exercise its rights under the War Powers Act to either approve or stop the administration’s use of U.S. military forces to fight the army of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 allows the president to commit U.S. forces for 60 days without the explicit authorization of Congress, with another 30 days allowed for the withdrawal of those forces.

“The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to a declaration of war, a specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” the law states.

But the administration won’t be immediately pressed to follow the law if nobody in Congress intends to enforce it.

I suppose things were worse when American politicians shot each other, but it's discouraging nonetheless.

[Hat tip: Larison]

May 9, 2011

In Isolation

Jennifer Rubin strikes out at "isolationists" in the Republican party:

In sum, there are substantive and political reasons for Republicans to resist the temptation to abandon modern conservatism’s foreign policy (one that is grounded in moral values as well as a canny assessment of the danger of inaction). Whether they will do so depends in large part on the quality of the candidates and the strength of their arguments. If the internationalists are not forceful and effective in debunking the isolationists, as well as successful at the primary ballot boxes, the country and the party will suffer.

As Larison notes, there are no isolationists among Republican presidential contenders, so the charge that the party is trending "isolationist" is silly. What Rubin is really concerned about is that a future Republican nominee might say that he or she is less inclined to intervene in other countries and might seek to recoup some budgetary savings from the defense department. But there's no reason to believe they'd be sincere in this regard. It's useful to remember that, on the intervention side at least, this was how President George W. Bush presented himself to voters in 2000.

May 4, 2011

Should Obama Have Captured bin Laden?

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This morning, both John Yoo and Michael Barone hit on the same points I hit on Sunday in more thorough detail. Barone essentially outlines the framework of a political attack on Obama for moving away from his prior promises, but I think, as Barone seems to, that such an attack would be blunted by the fact that Obama ended up closer to the country's center. Only the leftward side of his base dislikes these moves with any intensity, and it's doubtful they'd cast a vote for anyone other than him in 2012.

Besides making the same point, Yoo makes the interesting argument that one side-effect of Obama's embrace of the Bush-era policies he once opposed is a greater willingness to kill terrorists as opposed to capturing and interrogating them. He outlines an argument for why Obama should've considered a capture instead of a kill:

Mr. Obama's policies now differ from their Bush counterparts mainly on the issue of interrogation. As Sunday's operation put so vividly on display, Mr. Obama would rather kill al Qaeda leaders—whether by drones or special ops teams—than wade through the difficult questions raised by their detention. This may have dissuaded Mr. Obama from sending a more robust force to attempt a capture.

Early reports are conflicted, but it appears that bin Laden was not armed. He did not have a large retinue of bodyguards—only three other people, the two couriers and bin Laden's adult son, were killed. Special forces units using nonlethal weaponry might have taken bin Laden alive, as with other senior al Qaeda leaders before him.

If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands. Some claim that bin Laden had become a symbol, or that al Qaeda had devolved into a decentralized terrorist network with more active franchises in Yemen or Somalia. Nevertheless, bin Laden was still issuing instructions and funds to a broad terrorist network and would have known where and how to find other key al Qaeda players. His capture, like Saddam Hussein's in December 2003, would have provided invaluable intelligence and been an even greater example of U.S. military prowess than his death.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said Monday that the SEAL team had orders to take bin Laden alive, "if he didn't present any threat," though he correctly dismissed this possibility as "remote." This is hard to take seriously. No one could have expected bin Laden to surrender without a fight. And capturing him alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for ordering the mission that killed bin Laden. But he should also recognize that he succeeded despite his urge to disavow Bush administration policies. Perhaps one day he will acknowledge his predecessor's role in making this week's dramatic success possible. More importantly, he should end the criminal investigation of CIA agents and restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden.

Yoo's argument is probably the best that can be made, philosophically, on this point. But there's little question in my mind that Obama made the right decision. Osama bin Laden is more valuable to the future interests of the United States - and as a statement about our approach to enemies - not as a captured target, legal controversy and living symbol, but as a corpse in the bottom of the sea.

(AP Photo)

Palin on Foreign Policy

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I've criticized the Republican 2012 field on numerous occasions for their lack of foreign policy heft and a profound unwillingness to weigh in on difficult decisions they would have to make as Commander in Chief. It's only fair, then, to share one potential candidate's attempt to frame a coherent approach to foreign policy in the public square - in this case, Sarah Palin in a speech in Colorado this week. Here's the relevant portion:

There’s a lesson here then for the effective use of force, as opposed to sending our troops on missions that are ill-defined. And it can be argued that our involvement elsewhere, say in Libya, is an example of a lack of clarity. See, these are deadly serious questions that we must ask ourselves when we contemplate sending Americans into harm’s way. Our men and women in uniform deserve a clear understanding of U.S. positions on such a crucial decision. I believe our criteria before we send our young men and women—America’s finest—into harm’s way should be spelled out clearly when it comes to the use of our military force. I can tell you what I believe that criteria should be in five points. First, we should only commit our forces when clear and vital American interests are at stake. Period.

Second, if we have to fight, we fight to win. To do that, we use overwhelming force. We only send our troops into war with the objective to defeat the enemy as quickly as possible. We do not stretch out our military with open-ended and ill-defined missions. Nation building is a nice idea in theory, but it is not the main purpose of our armed forces. We use our military to win wars.

And third, we must have clearly defined goals and objectives before sending troops into harm’s way. If you can’t explain the mission to the American people clearly and concisely, then our sons and daughters should not be sent into battle. Period.

Fourth, American soldiers must never be put under foreign command. We will fight side by side with our allies, but American soldiers must remain under the care and the command of American officers.

Fifth, sending in our armed forces should be the last resort. We don’t go looking for dragons to slay. However, we will encourage the forces of freedom around the world who are sincerely fighting for the empowerment of the individual. When it makes sense, when it’s appropriate, we will provide them with material support to help them win their own freedom.

We are not indifferent to the cause of human rights or the desire for freedom. We are always on the side of both. But we can’t fight every war. We can’t undo every injustice around the world. But with strength and clarity in those five points, we’ll make for a safer, more prosperous, more peaceful world because as the U.S. leads by example, as we support freedom across the globe, we’re going to prove that free and healthy countries don’t wage war on other free and healthy countries. The stronger we are, the stronger and more peaceful the world will be under our example.

Some of these principles may sound familiar. A few of them were first expressed back in 1984 in President Reagan’s cabinet. They were designed to help us sharply define when and how we should use force, and they served us well in the Reagan years. Times are much different now, but I believe that by updating these time-tested principles to address the unique and changing circumstances and threats that we face today, they will serve us well now and into the future. Remember, Reagan liked to keep it simple, yet profound. Remember what he would say to the enemy? He’d say, “we win, you lose.”

It's not sophisticated, and it's more passion than policy, closer to campaign rhetoric than thorough commentary. But this expression of a framework from Palin is a vast improvement over the stated remarks from other candidates thus far. It is unacceptable, a year and a half before election day, for serious individuals to still mark foreign policy as "TBD."

A side note: the mission that killed bin Laden ended up hinging on an area where Palin explicitly parted ways with John McCain during the 2008 campaign, siding with Obama on the question of sending a unilateral mission into Pakistan. Obama's major vindication on this is also a minor vindication of Palin on the point, who was slammed internally by McCain campaign staff at the time for expressing this view.

(AP Photo)

May 2, 2011

After bin Laden

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In an effort to organize my own thoughts on the killing of Osama bin Laden, I find myself returning over and over again to Peter Beinart's take on the terror mastermind's demise:

President Obama now has his best chance since taking office to acknowledge some simple, long-overdue truths. Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem. We do not face, as we did in the 1930s, a totalitarian foe with global ideological appeal. We face competitors who, in varying ways, have imported aspects of our democratic capitalist ideology, and are beating us at our own game.

Bin Laden was a monster and a distraction. It is good that he is dead, partly because the bereaved deserve justice, but also because his shadow kept us from seeing clearly the larger challenges we face. The war on terror is over; Al Qaeda lost. Now for the really hard stuff; let’s hope we haven’t deferred it too long.

The competitor Beinart alludes to, I'm assuming, is China, and I can't help but wonder if bin Laden's death marks the end of an epoch in American foreign policy. Terrorism obviously isn't going anywhere; it existed prior to 9/11, and it will continue to exist long after. The so-called Global War on Terrorism was less a global understanding than a kind of framework for How The World Works According to Washington. The American military has been and will for the foreseeable future remain the preeminent power on earth, but to justify and rationalize that hegemony there must be rules; a kind of flowchart or S.O.P. to help the Beltway make sense of American power.

The War on Terrorism provided Washington's pundits and policymakers with a handy paradigm, much as the Cold War did throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Will this change? Will a symbolic death lead to a more substantive reappraisal of American policy? Keep in mind that bin Laden's arguably symbolic termination precedes an actual drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan later this year. So while the generals - and the bloggers, and the pundits, and the pols and the wonks - continue to fight and feud over the last war - will we employ 'COIN' or 'Offshore Balancing' in our next indefinite military campaign? - I can't help but think that the American public has already moved on.

And who can possibly blame them? My own gripe with the War on Terrorism, specifically the Afghan mission, was the apparent indefiniteness of the mission. In a decade full of 'surges' and small accomplishments, rarely has there been as decisive and certain an action as bin Laden's killing. This man attacked us, and now he's dead. Seems simple enough.

That's why I can understand last night's displays of revelry and pure emotion in Washington, New York and elsewhere. After nearly ten years of color codes, TSA molestations and frequent condescension from the intelligentsia, the American people finally got a cut and dry result - a mission truly accomplished.

But where to from here for American foreign policy? For all the shortcomings and confusion that came with the GWOT, it was, at the very least, a doctrine premised on national defense. But if, getting back to Beinart's point, the War on Terror is to be replaced by a doctrine of counter-declinism, deficit hawkishness and Chinese containment, then I fear we may be headed toward an even uglier foreign policy paradigm.

China has gradually crept onto the American radar screen, and Beijing, for its own part, has been a busy bee.

With bin Laden now dead, and U.S. withdrawal (kind of) underway in the Near East, is China the next in line to consume America's imagination and energy? And will Washington follow? What happens, in other words, when one distracted giant finally opens its eyes, only to find another right in front of it?

Update: Evan Osnos gives a rather appropriate take on Chinese reactions to bin Laden's killing.

(AP Photo)

April 20, 2011

Marco Rubio on U.S. Foreign Policy

“There is no replacement for America in the world,” Rubio says. “If America withdraws from the world stage, it will create a vacuum, and that vacuum will not be filled by someone better than us.” - Marco Rubio

I think this sentiment is worth unpacking a bit. First, it's simply not the case that any country could step in to whatever void it is Rubio thinks we'd be creating. There is no country even remotely close to possessing the kind of global force projection or influence that the United States wields. So even if the U.S. "withdrew" from the world stage there isn't even any state capable - much less interested - in filling that void on a global basis. Regionally, it's certainly possible you'd see unfriendly states wield more local influence, but in most regions of the world, the U.S. has very strong and capable allies that will also exert their influence.

And second, what does it even mean to "withdraw" from the world? Not trade with it? Not conduct diplomacy? Not pursue terrorist threats? Who is advocating these things?

April 14, 2011

The Libya Farce

It might be worth pointing out that the thing that has driven Libya to the point where it is in danger of becoming a failed state is the military intervention that did just enough to fracture the country into two parts. Where was all this concern about the Somalification of Libya a month ago when people were calling for turning it into another Somalia by attacking Libya? Escalating the Libyan war and toppling Gaddafi isn’t going to make the Somalification of Libya less likely, but will in all likelihood guarantee the disintegration of whatever political order remains. The U.S. and NATO are in their current predicament because too few people in charge of making decisions paid attention to unintended consequences and worst-case scenarios. Now would be a good time to fix that bad habit. - Daniel Larison

As further evidence of that lack of foresight, now Britain and France are whining that other NATO states haven't taken some of the burden of the Libyan air war off their shoulders now that a stalemate is clearly in the making. But as the U.S. found with its own boondoggle in Iraq, allies aren't keen on being dragged into wars not of their own making with little to no relevance to their own security or interests.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress can't quite clear the calendar to discuss Libya:

The Senate probably won't be debating the Libya war anytime soon. Top senators on both sides of the aisle are still negotiating over language for a resolution to express the Senate's view on the U.S. involvement in Libya, while the budget battle pushes the intervention to the back burner.

Congress was upset with President Barack Obama last month for committing U.S. forces to the international military intervention in Libya without seeking congressional consent or even really telling Congress about it in advance. But now, almost a month after the attack began, the appetite in the Senate for holding a full-fledged Libya debate on the floor, much less passing a resolution, just isn't there.

"I don't know if there will be time" to debate a resolution before senators leave town for a two-week recess next week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.

Is it any surprise that the executive branch doesn't really take Congress seriously when it comes to matters of war and peace?

April 13, 2011

Tea Partiers, 2012 and Foreign Policy

Today I asked Steve Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute, a brilliant fellow and a Reagan scholar, about his thoughts on the potential 2012 field on the daily Coffee & Markets podcast (the question is around the 14th minute). Hayward gives an interesting answer:

Foreign policy was a more salient issue in the sixties and seventies and into the eighties - with the end of the Cold War it's much less so. We're back to almost a pre-World War II model in terms of the weight of foreign policy in electoral politics I think. Reagan, you remember, grew up with the Cold War, and he got a lot of his interest in politics right after World War II - and the Cold War and the communists in Hollywood and so forth. And then in the sixties, during the flashpoint over Vietnam, he was commenting a lot on the Vietnam War.

What's different today is that although we have the post-9/11 world of terrorism, and now three kinetic military actions overseas or whatever they call them now, and although that's going on - and I think this shows in the polls too - and people are concerned about terrorism, it doesn't fix the public's mind in the way the Cold War did, the way things were going in the end of the 1970s, with detente and arms control and the weakness of Jimmy Carter on foreign policy.

It's harder to have a clear view on this if you're an opposition candidate getting ready to run against a president whose foreign policy is opaque at best. That's an interesting question, but we live in different times, and it's harder to make out if you're a candidate right now.

I think Hayward's take is an accurate diagnosis of the politics of this issue, but it doesn't make me any more confident about the ability of the candidates involved thus far in the 2012 stakes, particularly when compared to the president they most admire.

April 8, 2011

Foreign Policy in 2012, Ctd.

Greg Scoblete has an interesting response to my criticism of Mitch Daniels and other Republicans. My basic point in my original post was that Newt Gingrich's opinion on Libya at least has the advantage of getting into specific policy details - while his fellow 2012 candidates are speaking either in neo-isolationist platitudes (Barbour), knee-jerk anti-Obamaisms (Bachmann), or dodging the question entirely (Romney).

I singled out Daniels for particular criticism because while he's clearly forming a niche as the 2012 cycle's wonkish candidate, with a significant base of intellectual support (not a proven winning strategy, but that's beside the point), he also seems loathe to allow for any expression of public thought on foreign policy issues, and has studiously avoided making comments on Egypt and Libya.

Greg, on the other hand, points out that Daniels is merely prioritizing the interests of his day job above the interests of the 2012 political cycle, and that it's better to engage in such activity than to share vacuous platitudes about the country's foreign policy challenges.

This is a perfectly valid response. It hearkens back to an older era of political engagement when politicians weren't expected to have opinions on everything under the sun, and I certainly think that era was healthier on a number of counts. "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt," as the saying goes.

But I would suggest that in this era, Daniels' lack of offerings on this topic are of greater concern. And contra Greg's post, Daniels actually has spoken out on other foreign policy issues in the recent past, albeit in small ways.

Continue reading "Foreign Policy in 2012, Ctd." »

Rothkopf on Ryan's Budget

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David Rothkopf lays into House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's budget plan for a number of reasons, but on one criticism in particular I found his argument both ill-informed and inaccurate:

As White House Budget Director Jack Lew has accurately observed, a "budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations." Thus, Ryan's budget -- which clearly has been vetted carefully by his fellow Republican leaders -- can be seen as a manifestation of Republican views on everything from how we should treat our parents to what America's role should be in the world. I'll leave it to others to continue the debate on health care. Instead, I would just like to point out that according to the summary of the budget in today's Washington Post, Ryan is proposing spending $27 billion less than the administration's figure of $63 billion on international affairs -- the portion of the budget covering diplomacy and U.S. foreign assistance programs. That 43 percent whack is by far the most draconian of all Ryan's cuts when measured in terms of the contrast between the White House's and Ryan's 2012 proposals.

While I can't blame Rothkopf for this mistake, the graphic he refers to is simply not an accurate picture of Ryan's budget. It compared numbers from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for Obama to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for Ryan - different methodologies, different evaluators - and that's just a completely unfair comparison. (The Post has since updated their graphic, which shows a smaller whack.) And while Rothkopf paints these numbers in severe terms in his lengthy post, the reality is that Ryan's proposal is really just a rewind to 2007. (pdf)

Keep in mind that spending on international affairs (categorized as Function 150) is up 65 percent in real terms over the last decade (staffing at places like USAID is up 76 percent over the same period), and Ryan's proposal meets the funding requests from President Obama for the State Department on anti-terrorism efforts (categorized as Function 970). A combination of these two functions under Ryan's proposal adds up to $41 billion for international affairs - that's just an 11 percent cut from the $46 billion in HR 1.

Keep in mind that much of the increased international affairs spending over the past decade was driven by President Bush's efforts on global health (PEPFAR, Global Fund), developing a new model for foreign assistance (Millennium Challenge Corporation), and the inevitable result of fighting two wars. We can debate what those numbers should be going forward, but in a time of economic belt-tightening, most Americans believe they shouldn't climb forever. As on many counts, Ryan's cuts are actually far more modest and pragmatic than those of his fellow conservatives - Tea Party hero Rand Paul's budget proposal involves cutting nearly all international affairs spending and all foreign aid.

In this context, a three year rewind is hardly the severe cut Rothkopf suggests. And the fact that Rothkopf gets these numbers wrong, then proceeds to frame Ryan's decision to take them back to 2007 levels with a scare-tactic title of "Death panels for diplomacy: Why does Paul Ryan hate American leadership?", indicates the level of seriousness, intelligence, and fairmindedness he brings to such debates.

(AP Photo)

April 7, 2011

In Praise of Rhetorical Restraint

In a post below, Ben Domenech argues that it is "profoundly disturbing" that Governor Mitch Daniels didn't offer an opinion on Libya, or a variety of other foreign policy matters over the past several months. Writes Domenech:

This is fine if one is interested in staying a provincial governor, but it is an unacceptable dodge from anyone interested in being Commander in Chief.

This has to concern anyone on the right who thinks the presidency demands an intelligent and sophisticated foreign policy approach if the mistakes of the Obama presidency are to be avoided.

I beg to differ. In fact, I'd argue it's closer to the opposite. The fact of the matter is that most Republican statements on any foreign policy issue at this stage of the game are vacuous platitudes and talking points crafted by advisers (this would go for the Democrats too were they in pre-primary mode). Many candidates never evolve positions that would rise above that level even during the campaign.

An "intelligent and sophisticated" person would not, in my view, formulate serious foreign policy positions in a matter of weeks in response to media demands that he or she say something profound. Given the gravity and magnitude and pace of change in the Middle East, I think it speaks rather poorly of a candidate to articulate sweeping policy doctrines or give definitive answers on matters of war and peace - particularly when they have a rather important day job that would, presumably, require much of their attention. I would think the people of Indiana might take some comfort in the fact that their governor is focusing on his job rather than a country he has no control over - a country that could also, incidentally, be in a completely difference place in six weeks, let alone six months.

Domenech rightly decries the vacuity of most of the potential 2012 presidential candidates positions on Libya, but this is symptomatic of a glib political culture (one that, again, is not a Republican phenomena but a bipartisan one). Standing aloof from that, at least at this stage, isn't a bad thing, in my view.

The 2012 Republicans and Libya

Scott Conroy's piece at RealClearPolitics on Newt Gingrich includes a reference to a video the former speaker claims justifies his position shifts on Libya. I've criticized Gingrich in the past for shifting on this, so it's only fair to include the counter-argument.

I'll admit I rarely watch the programs he's featured on in this video, so given a fuller context, I see how the shift is tied to Obama's remarks on March 3 - at least according to Gingrich's exploratory committee:

Gingrich said at that time that he could not support using the U.S military for a strictly humanitarian intervention. His message has been clear and consistent. Prior to March 3rd, he would not have intervened but used other means to defeat the dictator, but after the president’s March 3rd statement, he said that only reason to use our military force was to get rid of Qadaffi. He has maintained that position.

Regardless of what you think of Gingrich's shift - and there's no question there was a shift, it's just a question of whether it was a policy inconsistency, or a response to shifting facts on the ground and at the White House - it's worth noting that Gingrich is virtually alone in offering an intelligent commentary on the Libya situation among the potential Republican candidates for 2012. This may be one more example - there are many in the past on domestic politics - of Gingrich being penalized for being too much of a policy wonk, too specific in his arguments where others stick to pat generalities.

The statements from most of his potential foes are nearly all simple negatives: don't use ground troops, don't cater to the United Nations or the Arab League, don't do whatever it is Obama is doing. Tim Pawlenty did exactly this, though at least he has the excuse of doing it first. Mike Huckabee talked in vague terms about a need for an American presence, but does not specify how that will stop any of the killing of citizens he of course deplores. Haley Barbour embarked on what the Wall Street Journal tagged as a "glib trope to the isolationist left." Michele Bachmann gave a response which was just as isolationist, again without offering a solution. All of these individuals are actively engaging the national media - it's absurd that Mitt Romney, by all accounts the Republican frontrunner, thinks he can give a speech slamming Obama's foreign policy and then deliberately avoid reporters' questions on the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day.

Perhaps worst of all, it is profoundly disturbing that Mitch Daniels, a darling of the intellectual right, has as far as I can tell been completely silent on the matter - just as he has been nearly entirely silent on every foreign policy issue over the past several months. His comment in response to a question on Egypt in January was simply jaw-dropping: "I don't have a lot to say about it. I'm just a provincial governor out here." This is fine if one is interested in staying a provincial governor, but it is an unacceptable dodge from anyone interested in becoming Commander in Chief.

This has to concern anyone on the right who thinks the presidency demands an intelligent and sophisticated foreign policy approach if the mistakes of the Obama presidency are to be avoided. It's one of the reasons someone like John Bolton is likely to embark on a quixotic run, simply to ensure there's someone who understands the world outside our borders on stage in Iowa. Rather than just a litany of bullet points, perhaps Barbour, Daniels, Romney and others can just say "pass" and cede their time to candidates who are actually paying attention to the matter. Unfortunately, they won't be able to do this if they ever sit in the Oval Office.

March 29, 2011

Rolling Stone and "War Porn"

About a month ago, I shared some serious qualms I had about the veracity of a story by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone on the PSYOP front. This month, RS is back again with more questionable coverage of the front, as Joshua Foust points out:

Reading the Rolling Stone piece, a reader walks away thinking that the killing of civilians is widespread and not at all limited to the troops associated with the “kill team.” The article paints the killings as the inevitable consequence of low morale and a rejection of counterinsurgency, and worse – it implies that murder is, in some way, a fact of being a soldier.

These sorts of implications, however, are difficult to square with the truth. Attention was first shed on the killings by fellow soldiers disgusted at the “kill team’s” alleged actions. Army rules — and U.S. law — considers such actions grievous crimes and stipulates immediate and harsh punishment for them. While the Army bureaucracy was slow to move — sadly, all too common regardless of the issue, whether an illegal killing, a problem with healthcare or even adapting to a rural insurgency in a war most people had forgotten about — that doesn’t automatically mean there is a cover up. Incompetence is a far more reasonable explanation than malice.

The point is, this is starting to turn into "war porn" - pairing shock video and images designed to create buzz. But the effect is to turn all combat deaths into murder (something that the RS author might believe, but most people don't), and murder exploited to sell magazines. Foust again:

There is a term for the sort of journalism Rolling Stone is engaging in here: war porn. In 2005, George Zornick wrote of the growing trend of many people both in and out of the military treating images of the war — weapons, death, combat and so on — in the same way one would treat pornography. The people posting these images, Zornick explained, “appear to regard the combat photos with sadistic glee, and pathological wisecracks follow almost every post.”

Continue reading "Rolling Stone and "War Porn"" »

March 24, 2011

Gingrich's Flip Flop on Libya

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Newt Gingrich is doing himself no favors with this flip flop on Libya, but it's an instructive moment for other Republicans on the problem with being reflexively anti-Obama. Here's the situation:

On March 7, the former Speaker of the House and likely 2012 presidential candidate told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren that his response to Libya would be swift and unilateral. “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening,” he said.

“I mean, the idea that we’re confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is,” he continued. “They were very quick to jump on Mubarak, who was their ally for 30 years, and they were confused about getting rid of Gaddafi. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.”

Now that Obama has taken that step and established a no-fly zone in conjunction with UN allies, Gingrich has changed tacks.

“I would not have intervened,” he told Matt Lauer on The Today Show Wednesday. “I think there are a lot of other ways to affect Gaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region that we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces.”

He criticized Obama for changing the designated purpose of the mission. “The president said on March 3, ‘Gaddafi has to go.’ Well they’re now saying this is a humanitarian intervention, which is nonsense. If this is not designed to get rid of Gaddafi, then this makes no sense at all.”

“This is about as badly run as any foreign operation we’ve seen in our lifetime,” he added.

Gingrich’s spokesperson Rick Tyler, explained that this was not the flip-flop that it might seem. Rather, he said, Gingrich’s response changed because Obama’s proposed mission had changed. “The Speaker has been consistent,” he told The Daily Caller. “The president has changed his mind.”

Gingrich explains his position further in a Facebook post, but I have a hard time seeing this as anything other than a flubbed situation. It's one thing to say "I support an NFZ right now, and not later, because later is too late," but that doesn't seem to be Gingrich's argument on the Today Show. Instead, the criticism seems to have shifted simply because "the president changed his mind."

I basically agree with Gingrich's latter position, as I understand it: Removing Gaddafi has to be the focus of any mission in Libya (with the U.S. in either an active or supporting role), and that a coalition-based "humanitarian involvement" is just another pointless, vague and demanding enterprise which has little promise of long term success. But if he only arrived at this position primarily because Obama shifted his own view, that's a rather dubious path to figuring out foreign policy.

(AP Photo)

March 19, 2011

Elliott Abrams on Foreign Policy and the Tea Party

My interview with Elliott Abrams a few months back is now available here. Here's an excerpt from the initial transcript concerning Abrams' thoughts on the Tea Party, Defense spending and the challenge of isolationism, which strikes me as particularly relevant given the current foreign policy debates on the right:

Domenech: America’s presence around the world is going to be something that is likely to be more of an issue within the new Congress. There seem to be so many members who are willing to put defense spending on the gradation of cuts. And I wondered what your thoughts area about that generally and about some of the different pushbacks that exist within both the conservative movements against this new view. Who do you think has the right of it and which direction should we go?

Abrams: It’s a very interesting question. I was very struck during the 2010 campaigns at the role that Sarah Palin played on this question. In many of her speeches, to Tea Party audiences, she said, "don’t cut the Defense budget, cut everything else, but we don’t want to cut the defense budget."

I have no doubt that there is fraud and waste in the Pentagon. It’s inconceivable that there shouldn’t be. It’s a government agency. There are going to be plenty of inefficiencies, but fundamentally, I think that it is a mistake at this juncture to be cutting the Defense budget, which is not so large, compared to various times in the past.

I think we missed one great opportunity and it was a terrible mistake. And that is, when the Obama administration started to spend its TARP money, the president was looking for shovel ready projects. It is now clear, at the end of two years of Obama, that he didn’t find too many. And I think the administration has acknowledged this. Well, there were a lot in the Pentagon. And the administration, for ideological reasons, did not want to spend the money on Defense related matters, and that was a huge mistake, both in terms of the economy because there were shovel ready projects that would have created employment and in terms of national defense.

This is going to be a very interesting debate within the Republican Party. I don’t see much isolationism, I have to say. I see one or two people, I mean, one associates this with Senator Rand Paul and that’s probably an unfair charge to make against him to say isolationist. You’d have to define the term and he’s not asking that we stop trading with foreign countries. I agree with the view that we do not have a revenue problem in the federal government, we have a spending problem and the solution to the problem is to stop the amazing amounts of red ink. We are likely to have an inflation problem soon enough.

But it seems to me that if you look at the world that we face, this would be a very inopportune moment to start doing what unfortunately the British have now had to do and dramatically cut back on their global role.

Continue reading "Elliott Abrams on Foreign Policy and the Tea Party" »

Fantasies

Perhaps the Obama administration has cleverly figured out a way to bring about the neoisolationist fantasy of the 1990s: making the rest of the world shoulder the load of global policeman. Many of the critiques of U.S. military intervention over the past twenty years have been critiques of U.S. involvement, not military intervention, per se. The cases in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on were deemed not to be in our interest. Perhaps they required military intervention, but let someone else bear the costs.

The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations tried this, but were never able to get the rest of the world to handle matters satisfactorily. The United States was "indispensable," Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded. If we did not lead and shoulder the leader's load it would not get done, whatever it was that needed doing (the East Timor exception that proved the rule notwithstanding). - Peter Feaver

Again, it's not clear if this is what the Obama administration is doing, but if so, rather than deride it as a "neoisolationist fantasy"* the president should get significant credit. The U.S. has no interests at stake in Libya's civil war, so it makes no sense to "bear the leader's load" in Feaver's words. But European and Middle Eastern countries do have a stake in the conflict. If going along with a UN Resolution and offering some intelligence and logistical support galvanizes these countries to take the lead and bear the majority of the costs ... that's a good thing! Military intervention may not be the best way for those countries to safeguard those interests, but they are in a better position to judge that than the U.S.

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* I understand why Feaver uses the word fantasy here - it is something of a fantasy to expect others not to free ride on the U.S. when Washington has proven so profligate with its global leadership. But I don't quite understand what is "neoisolationist" about the proposition that nations with a larger stake in an outcome should bear a correspondingly larger share of the costs. It seems rather like common sense.

March 17, 2011

What's the UN Got To Do With It?

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The Obama administration is evidently not willing to wage war against Libya without the imprimatur of the United Nations:

The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-flight zone.

Administration officials — who have been debating a no-flight zone for weeks — concluded that such a step now would be “too little, too late” for rebels who have been pushed back to Benghazi. That suggests more aggressive measures, which some military analysts have called a no-drive zone, to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from moving tanks and artillery into Benghazi.

The United States is insisting that any military action would have to be carried out by an international coalition, including Libya’s Arab neighbors.

This doesn't make much sense to me. If the administration believes that waging war against Gaddafi is in America's national interest, then it should do so irrespective of UN sanction. If the administration does not believe that waging war against Gaddafi is in America's interest, it should not do so anyway simply because the UN has authorized it. Having the UN Security Council authorize punitive measures against Gaddafi's regime doesn't suddenly transform the conflict from a peripheral interest to a central one.

(AP Photo)

March 9, 2011

An Iraq Syndrome?

Bloody wars beget caution. As after Korea, as after Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans battle-averse. In 2005 John Mueller, a professor of political science at the Ohio State University, predicted in Foreign Affairs that an “Iraq syndrome” would eventually make America more sceptical of unilateral military action, especially in places that presented no direct threat to it, and less inclined to dismiss Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners as wimps. - Lexington

It has always puzzled me why much of the Washington foreign policy community saw the "Vietnam Syndrome" as a bad thing, as if the U.S. had curled up into a geopolitical fetal position, unwilling to use force even to protect vital interests (not true: when push came to shove we ejected Saddam from Kuwait). But to the extent that a "Vietnam Syndrome" prevented policymakers from blundering into an unnecessary conflict, so much the better, I would argue.

The trouble is, of course, that the definition of a "necessary" conflict is quite elastic. If the Iraq war has made at least some cross-section of elite opinion more wary about plunging American power into a Middle Eastern country about which it knows next to nothing, it should be regarded as a good thing.

March 4, 2011

Libya & the CNN Effect

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Paul Miller makes a very important point:

The administration looks to me like it is being driven by the CNN effect. Libya is in the headlines, dramatic events are afoot, so the administration believes it must do something, it must act, probably to demonstrate resolve, or exercise leadership. It isn't leadership to let the media drive your foreign policy. If the exact same thing were happening right now in Equatorial Guinea, no one would care and we would not be contemplating a no-fly zone.

The administration is blundering into an unnecessary crisis, setting unrealistic expectations about our ability to drive events in Libya, and exposing itself to the dangers of unplanned escalation and mission creep. If we're to have a grand strategy centered on building the liberal democratic peace -- which is not a terrible idea -- it should start from more considered reflection, not lurching overreaction to a crisis over which we have little control.

It's worth pointing out that the administration is being goaded into this course of action by U.S. lawmakers too, not just journalists. But Miller is right: no core U.S. interests are at risk in Libya. The administration is going to be criticized no matter what it does, but far better to be assailed for inaction (or as I prefer to describe it, restraint), then to act recklessly.

(AP Photo)

March 3, 2011

Making Up Reasons

Diplomats say NATO won't act to stop Moammar Gaddafi from bombing his own citizens unless the U.N. Security Council passes an authorizing resolution -- and Russia and China will not allow that. Pentagon officials are meanwhile warning that any no-fly operation would require preemptive attacks on Libyan air defenses. At a Senate hearing Tuesday Gen. James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, called the potential mission "challenging" and added, "it would be a military operation -- it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Those comments exasperated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a former Navy pilot who, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), just returned from a tour of the Middle East. "We spend $500 billion on defense, and we can't take down Libyan air defenses?" he asked incredulously in an interview he and Lieberman gave to me and The Post's Fred Hiatt. "You tell those Libyan pilots that there is a no-fly zone, and they are not going to fly."

"I think they [in the Obama administration] are making up reasons" not to act, McCain added. "You will always have people who will find out the reasons why you can't do it. But I don't recall Ronald Reagan asking anyone's permission to get Cuba out of Grenada, or responding to the killings of American soldiers.." - Jackson Diehl

This is a very odd way to describe what's happening. A top military official tells a Senate panel that bombing Libya is an act of war and not something to be entered into lightly (a message also conveyed by Secretary Gates to British Prime Minister David Cameron), and Senator McCain thinks this is the geopolitical equivalent of calling out of work sick with a "stomach bug."

I don't believe anyone in the Obama administration is arguing that establishing a no-fly zone is some kind of technical or logistical impossibility - they're saying, to borrow a phrase, that it wouldn't be prudent. Senator McCain's counter-argument consists of saying the words "Ronald Reagan" and making an unsubstantiated assertion of how Libya will behave after it gets bombed.

March 2, 2011

The U.S. and Terror

Following up on yesterday's post, Larison puts terror and U.S. foreign policy in context:

It isn’t that the threat is huge. The threat isn’t huge. What matters is that it is avoidable. When calculating the costs and benefits of U.S. policies, it becomes important then to consider whether these policies are doing enough to serve the national interest that they merit the risk of incurring regular attacks on Americans at home and around the world. Whether the threat is relatively large or small, there is no reason to expose the United States to needless dangers. The threat is nowhere near as dire as warmongers make it out to be, but it is much greater than it has to be, and the threat exists in no small part because the people demagoguing and exaggerating the threat frequently prevail in seting policy.

And apropos of this, via Yglesias, some new research on U.S. foreign policy and terrorism:

Applied to the US case, our theory predicts that more anti-American terrorism emanates from countries that receive more US military aid and arms transfers and in which more American military personnel are stationed, all relative to the country’s own military capacity. Estimations from a directed country dyad sample over the period 1978 to 2005 support the predictions of our theory for both terrorist incidents involving Americans and terrorist killings of Americans as dependent variables. These results are robust to a wide range of changes to the empirical research design.

America's Allies Want America's Nukes

By Elbridge Colby

The FT reports today that the White House has disavowed the reported statement by Gary Samore, NSC non-proliferation czar, that the United States would redeploy shorter-range nuclear weapons to South Korea if Seoul requested them. (Cold War-era U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Peninsula in 1991.) The story is interesting on a number of levels, not least because this is a fairly anemic denial: it states only that Washington “has no plans or intention” to redeploy them, has the effect of signaling to Pyongyang, Beijing, Tokyo and others that such a move is not beyond the pale. This is doubly so because it comes on top of earlier murmurs from Seoul seeking consideration of redeployment.

Just as interesting, though, is how the story reflects what has been a dormant but looks to be a reemerging dynamic: the push by U.S. allies to gain more visible and, to some, more credible manifestations of a U.S. nuclear commitment. Ultimately, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, whether it is on the ground in South Korea or somewhere thousands of miles away on a submarine or ICBM. But there has long been a perception that “forward-deployed” or “theater” weapons (including not only ground-based but also forward-deployed aerial and sea-based systems) have some value in demonstrating a specific commitment to the countries or areas in which they are deployed. So, back in the Cold War, NATO allies pushed for Washington to maintain nuclear weapons in Europe, weapons that were viewed as more credible for the defense of Europe and essential to linking European and U.S. security.

Today, U.S. allies in Northeast Asia worry about North Korea and the Chinese military build-up. In the Middle East they worry about Iran’s weapons program and regional ambitions. And in Eastern Europe there is concern about Russia’s continued truculence, as well as some reports that have unnerved capitals in the former Soviet Empire. Assuming these disturbing trends don’t all halt and reverse themselves, watch for allies to signal interest and maybe eventually push Washington to put some nuclear forces back to the front.
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Elbridge Colby has served in several national security positions with the U.S. Government, most recently with the Department of Defense working on the follow-on to the START Treaty and as an expert adviser to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission. The views expressed here are his own.

March 1, 2011

Terrorism: A Small - Or Huge - Threat?

Cato's Malou Innocent makes the case that U.S. policy is driving radical recruitment:

As a 2006 Government Accountability Office report noted, "U.S. foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiments among Muslim populations." A 2004 Pentagon Defense Science Board report observed, "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather, they hate our policies."

At times it takes humor to shed light on such weighty and controversial issues. Writing about the motivation of Islamist radicals, American comedian Bill Maher once opined, "They hate us because we don't know why they hate us."

For far too long, politicians and pundits have danced around these uncomfortable truths. But it is well past time for American leaders to thoroughly explore the notion that U.S. policies contribute directly to radicalization. Reigning in the West's interventionist foreign policy will not eliminate the number of people and organizations that seek to commit terrorist attacks, but will certainly diminish it..

In this respect, terrorism can no longer be attributed to ignorance and poverty—conditions that exist in foreign conflict zones, but in and of themselves do not generate attacks against the West. Viewing poverty and underdevelopment as an underlying cause of extremism makes the mistake of stereotyping terrorists and their grievances. It also commits the error of ignoring the unintended consequences of past actions and very real dangers right within our borders.

I'm of the mind that, in general, a less interventionist foreign policy would serve American interests well in part because it would serve to reduce the terror threat. But sometimes I think that those advocating a less interventionist policy lean too heavily on that rationale. So in the spirit of subjecting our beliefs to scrutiny, it is worth asking if terrorism should cause a major rethink of where and when the U.S. intervenes in a foreign country. Sticking just with Cato analysts, Benjamin Friedman has argued that the threat from terrorism is in fact rather small and manageable (or as Stephen Walt, another non-interventionist, put it, more people are at mortal risk from nut allergies and bathtub drownings) and that hysteria over the threat is usually far more damaging than the threat itself:

It’s been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn’t managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn’t settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies’ failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent — no one would call Mohammed Atta that — or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason. They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

So is radicalization a major issue that warrants the U.S. to think twice before pursuing a preferred policy, or is it a small threat that doesn't warrant sweeping government changes? It seems to me you can't argue that on the one hand, the threat from terrorism is rather small and manageable, and on the other that it is so grave that we need to make major changes to American foreign policy.

February 28, 2011

China's Nuclear Ambitions

Philip Dorling reports that China has its eyes on bulking up its nuclear forces:

Top Chinese officials have declared that there can be no limit to the expansion of Beijing's nuclear arsenal amid growing regional fears that it will eventually equal that of the United States with profound consequences for the strategic balance in Asia.

Records of secret US-China defence consultations, leaked to WikiLeaks and provided to Asia Sentinel, have revealed that US diplomats have repeatedly failed to persuade the rising Asian superpower to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and Chinese officials have privately acknowledged a desire for military advantage underpins continuing secrecy.

The basic argument under-pinning the Obama administration's push to eliminate nuclear weapons is that unless the U.S. takes the lead in delegitimizing them by slashing its own arsenal, other states will naturally seek to build up their own forces. Well, the U.S. has committed to cut its nuclear arsenal and both China and Pakistan have recently indicated that their nuclear arsenals will expand.

That's not to say that the U.S. can't afford to trim its nuclear arsenal, it can. But the idea that doing so and showing "leadership" on this issue is having a demonstration effect on problem states seems unfounded. In fact, especially with respect to China's nuclear forces, the only way to prevent further nuclear weapons states from appearing is for the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to use nuclear weapons to defend her allies in Asia.

Can America Shape the Middle East?

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With the Middle East in flux, many commentators have started arguing that now is a propitious moment to begin remaking the region so that it conforms to Western universal values. The latest entry in the genre is Kenneth Pollack:

But how the Egyptian revolution defines the new Middle East is still an open question. A great many people will try to use it to impose their visions. It is a moment when the United States can and must enter the fray. It is vital that we take the lead in helping shape how Middle Easterners see the Egyptian revolution.

It is also an opportunity for the United States to overcome our past mistakes, to recognize the real grievances of the people of the region and to reexamine their conflicts and our role in them. The Egyptian revolution and the regional unrest that followed have made it abundantly clear that the vast majority of Muslim Middle Easterners want to live in modernizing, democratizing, developing nations. They want prosperity, they want pluralism and they want the better lives that we in the West enjoy.

The struggle in the new Middle East must be defined as one between nations that are moving in the right direction and nations that are not; between those that are embracing economic liberalization, educational reform, democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties, and those that are not. Viewed through this prism, the new Egypt, the new Iraq and the new Palestinian Authority are clearly in one camp. Iran and Syria — the region's two most authoritarian regimes and America's two greatest remaining adversaries there — are in the other.

It's interesting, when you think about it. The Mideast has long vexed the United States. We have been unable, and generally unwilling, to moderate its corrupt rulers, to solve its intractable conflicts and have been drawn into a "policing" role that has seen us wage wars and station military forces in the region - and with serious global consequences.

This current wave of unrest is an occasion to pause and reflect on U.S. policy and it has generally elicited two kinds of reactions. The first is Pollack's, and it's basically an argument for the status quo - but better! We'll keep meddling and interfering, but this time, we'll back the right player. The past failures can be swept away and the region can be made anew, just as Eastern Europe was brought into the fold following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This narrative, I suspect, is almost certainly going to the be one adopted by the Obama administration, as it continues to put the U.S. in the middle of the region's affairs and accords with the Iranian containment strategy the administration has put in place.

The second reaction, and one I'm obviously more sympathetic too, is Peter Beinert's argument that now is a good time to "get out" - that 400 million people aren't clay to be "shaped," and that those who can confidently declare what the "vast majority" of the Muslim Middle East desires don't really know anything of the sort.

(AP Photo)

February 25, 2011

Hastings, Caldwell and PSYOP Kerfuffle

Freelancer Michael Hastings, whose take-down of Gen. Stanley McChrystal garnered him a recent Polk award, has a piece in Rolling Stone this week that was tearing up certain portions of the blogosphere this week. It's headlined by a bold and attention grabbing claim: that a "runaway general" deployed "psy-ops" on U.S. Senators.

After a 10-story tall headline like that, the story itself is decidedly disappointing, and in some cases undercuts its case by making claims far beyond what the facts in evidence indicate.

(An aside: PSYOP is the proper abbreviation, as it is itself plural. Yet Hastings and a host of other journalists who reported on his story seem dedicated to the use of "psy-ops," a term that I've previously only heard from Hollywood. But this is Rolling Stone we're talking about.)

Hastings' target in this story is Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is the commander of NATO training for police and soldiers in Afghanistan. Caldwell has a reputation for being a superior commander and a smart, focused leader - he's widely credited for re-energizing the training side of the mission, and is viewed as an up-and-coming general. The case against him is leveled by Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, who claims he was assigned by Caldwell and his staff to "conduct an IO [information operations] campaign against" visiting U.S. senators on CODEL (Congressional Delegation) visits to garner more support for their efforts.

Continue reading "Hastings, Caldwell and PSYOP Kerfuffle" »

February 24, 2011

Should U.S. Pursue Primacy or an "Open Door"

Thomas Barnett ponders the difference:

The pursuit of primacy as a grand strategy is completely un-American in both its conception and execution. In fact, the Bush-Cheney neocons brought us far closer to an ideological coup d'état than any previous foreign policy scandals of note, including the secret wars of Nixon and Reagan. America's clear and succinct grand strategy, first enunciated by Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt when the U.S. was coming of age as a great power, has been the "open door." Primacy was never its prize or its purpose.

Instead, the goal was to end Europe's corrupt colonialism through the extension of our model of multinationalism based on states united, economies integrated and security provided for collectively. In this model, no one state is allowed primacy over the union's other members. Conversely, no one state's economic success is viewed as a zero-sum loss by the others, for all find ultimate benefit in the shared economic connectivity....

If the "2.0 revolutions" of North Africa tell us anything, it's that America remains firmly on the side of the transformational future, unlike China and the rest of the authoritarian ranks. More to the point, America cannot be the world's most-consistent revisionist power and, at the same time, the keeper of any empire. Indeed, when it comes to the great empires of the 20th century, America played a profound role in dismantling all of them. On this score, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong combined can't hold a candle to Franklin Roosevelt.

I think this is a point that very frequently gets over-looked in the debates about American military spending and role in the world: the post Cold War defense build-up and global posture was in response to the rise of the Soviet Union and collapse of power centers in Asia and Europe. That posture and the over-sized military that sustains it was never meant to be an end in itself.

February 23, 2011

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

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Bill Kristol wants President Obama to take action in the Middle East:

What exactly to do in each case is complicated; it depends on difficult judgments of facts on the ground. It might be that if more analysts and commentators spent more time trying to figure out what could be done, and less time thinking up clever analogies that allegedly show how things are destined to turn out, or finding ever more reasons any effort on our part is doomed to fail, we might learn that we have more ways to affect events than we now think.

But at such moments we can't depend on analysts and commentators. This is a time when one looks, necessarily, to the president. So far, one looks in vain. What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration's response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual.

It seems to me that if you're going to demand action but casually glide over the specifics of what you want done - it's complicated, you see - then you don't have much grounds to criticize. That's not to say there aren't grounds to criticize the administration's handling of the situation, but vague calls to "do something" aren't very convincing.

(AP Photo)

February 22, 2011

Senor and Martinez Respond

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Last week, I offered a critique of an Washington Post op-ed by Dan Senor and Roman Martinez in response to Donald Rumsfeld's book Known and Unknown. Senor and Martinez were kind enough to reach out on Friday to share their views, which are included in the following email. I encourage you to read their message in full, and then I'll share a few thoughts in response:

Continue reading "Senor and Martinez Respond" »

February 19, 2011

Debating American Power

For your weekend wonkery, an interesting discussion with Joseph Nye and Gideon Rachman on American power in the 21st century.

February 16, 2011

Are All Revolutions Good Revolutions?

As other dominoes teeter in the wake of Egypt's recent revolution, U.S. officials should be prepared to respond to a rather dangerous assumption that seems to be taking hold in the media: "all revolutions are now good revolutions."

One bit of knowledge that has emerged from the Egypt storyline is a greater awareness in the West when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood as an active global force, one that is not limited in its influence to the boundaries of Arab nation states. While it's true that they're more active in places like Jordan, where the New York Times estimates they have the support of roughly 25 percent of the population (one reason why King Abdullah II met with them recently), and it's also true that the brotherhood in one nation is not necessarily as radical as it is elsewhere, the overall impact beyond the Middle East has to raise concerns.

The possibility that Brotherhood-backed political leaders will attempt to turn the Egyptian experience into a global rallying cry for revolution certainly bears watching. As we re-evaluate the Cairo Effect in light of Egypt's revolution, one question is whether the United States has devoted too much attention to our engagement with the Islamic world on the Middle East, creating a negative effect in other parts of that sphere. It's possible that President Obama's speech in Cairo had the effect of sending the message that the Arab world is the primary focus of our contacts with Muslims - a message that is unfortunate to say the least, considering that the effect here is hardly limited to the Arab world. Egypt creates an opportunity for opposition political leaders in other Muslim nations to grab hold of the revolutionary experience and deploy it as a talking point in their efforts; even if they inhabit a far more open, transparent, and democratic political system.

Speaking from New York last week, Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim tried to do exactly this on CNN, following on his argument in the Wall Street Journal. This line sticks out to me as particularly notable on these lines - and it's consistent with the CNN interview:

The bogeyman of Islamism, the oft-cited scapegoat of Middle Eastern dictators to justify their tyranny, must therefore be reconsidered or junked altogether. The U.S., too, should learn a lesson about the myth that secular tyrants and dictators are its best bet against Islamists. Revolutions, be they secular or religious, are born of a universal desire for autonomy.

The WSJ piece is actually quite good on a number of points, but this line sticks in one's craw. It is particularly concerning to hear such rhetoric go without response - particularly given the possibility that Anwar speaks as someone who received financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood - as it tends to suggest that all political change must come in the form of take-to-the-streets revolt, not as peaceful and gradual reforms.

Continue reading "Are All Revolutions Good Revolutions?" »

Russia & Japan Tensions

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In the last few months, Russia and Japan have been trading barbs over the Kuril Islands. This follows heightened tension between Japan and China over the Senkaku Island chain. These territorial dust-ups leads J.E. Dyer to issue the following warning:

Keeping our foreign-policy thinking on autopilot leaves our spokesmen giving narrowly conceived, legalistic responses that are inadequate to a changing situation. America’s core ally in the Far East is under real territorial pressure from both Russia and China — and the reflexive assumption that any given situation will stabilize itself, with little or no inconvenience to the U.S., is increasingly outdated.

If we're speaking about 'reflexive assumptions,' lets discuss Dyer's. I'll state up front that my knowledge of both the Kuril and Senkaku disputes is pretty topical and I couldn't weigh in definitely on which country has the stronger claim (hit the links above for the Wiki-versions of both disputes). But Dyer isn't litigating the cases either, just simply assuming that the U.S. must stand with Japan. Clearly the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan, but that does not mean that the U.S. should defend Japanese claims that have no merit.

(Photo of Kuril Islands via Wikipedia Commons)

February 10, 2011

Reagan's Cold War Education

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One of the most fascinating interviews I've ever seen Brian Lamb conduct - and there are many on C-SPAN's Booknotes - was with Kiron Skinner concerning her book, Reagan in His Own Hand. The entire interview is here, and it's well worth your time to watch it. Skinner, whose expertise as an academic is on the history of the Cold War, famously discovered an incredible archive of material written in Reagan's own hand of more than a thousand radio broadcasts, mostly delivered from 1975 to 1979, which were broadcas all around the country. Reagan would give brief three minute overviews and anecdotes, many of them very specific, with some real insight on world affairs, domestic policy and more.

Skinner's book led to a massive reconsideration of Reagan as a historical thinker when it was released - she describes him as a one man think tank, and the comparison seems apt. Yet this is not to suggest Reagan was right about everything - Skinner highlights mistakes that he made or inconsistencies with later policies, particularly toward the engagement of dictators in Africa and elsewhere.

Yet as you step back and take a measure of this time, what's intriguing about these broadcasts is that together they depict a candidate who uses his time in the wilderness - post governorship, rejected by his party in 1976, before the 1980 election and the change it brought - to better himself not just in learning about the country but also in learning about foreign policy, and in sharing what he learned with a rapt audience in unedited fashion.

The vast majority of these radio addresses focus on the world as a whole. Reagan talks not just about Communism but also about defense and intelligence policy, outreach to the Third World, treaties, diplomacy and human rights issues. He does a series on the B-52 bomber and Salt II, and hints at the policy that would later come to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative in his criticism of the Carter administration's policies. He even devotes two commentaries to the intricacies of NSC-68, a report declassified in 1975 which sounded the alarm on the Soviet's military buildup to President Truman.

By 1976, Reagan had already succeeded as a sports broadcaster, actor, corporate spokesman, union leader and two-term governor. He had learned to adapt to the realities of the modern media, to dodge and parry in debate, to educate himself on key policy matters and to communicate them in winning fashion. Yet in the course of these radio broadcasts, you see Reagan clearly setting himself apart on matters of foreign policy, defense and the Cold War - casting off the Nixon/Kissinger approach and speaking with conviction of taking a different path.

(Quick aside: My favorite moment of the 1976 impromptu remarks Reagan gave after Ford was nominated is a shot of Kissinger in the audience, ignoring the speech entirely.)

There's a contrast here, of course - one you might have seen coming. The fans of the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, have made an art out of Reagan comparisons, particularly after a speech she gave last weekend at the Reagan Ranch. For my own part, by any measure other than name identification and a shared political party, this seems like so much thin ice. There is a key difference here, and nowhere do you see it more pronounced than on foreign policy. This difference has nothing to do with intelligence, in my view - it has to do with commitment and humility.

Continue reading "Reagan's Cold War Education" »

February 7, 2011

Democracy Promotion a Low U.S. Priority

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According to Pew Research promoting democracy abroad is not afforded a high priority by the American public. Not a big surprise.

What is a bit surprising is the meme that's taken hold that somehow the protests in Egypt "prove" Bush was right about the importance of democracy promotion in the Middle East. It's surprising because, despite a few speeches, the Bush administration didn't do much to further democracy in the Middle East. (Did they condition aid to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. on that basis?) It's also strange because the Bush administration's true foreign policy legacy was the notion that the U.S. was justified in preemptively attacking countries on the basis of perceived threat, whether or not the threat had fully materialized. If the administration had a "big idea" with momentous consequences for its foreign policy, that was it.

Democracy as such only entered into the public discussion in a big way when the administration was casting about for a rational to continue nation-building in Iraq. It's true that, rhetorically, the administration did diagnose many of the ills that plagued the Middle East and occasionally took some blame upon itself for those ills. But giving a speech about the importance of democracy rather pales in comparison to invading a country on the basis of preemptive defense. If Bush administration officials are looking for vindication for their boss' foreign policy doctrine as it was practiced as opposed to how it was preached, it won't be found in Tahir Square but wherever those stockpiles of WMD went hiding.

January 27, 2011

Is It All About U.S.?

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Blake Hounshell believes that American vanity leads Americans to believe that U.S. policies regarding the Middle East have a great deal to do with the current movements in Egypt:

It's not about us. Indeed, what's been refreshing about the events in Tunisia and Egypt has been that very little of it has anything to do with the United States. For the most part, the demonstrators aren't chanting anti-American slogans; they're calling on their own corrupt, sclerotic rulers to stand aside. And that's a very healthy phenomenon.

This seems to be quite true of the populace at large, but I doubt it will be true of the success or failure of the overall movement. The key to success of the uprising in Tunisia was the defection of the police and army from Ben Ali. Whether or not the Army supports Mubarak or not could definitely hinge on what signals the United States sends. It is for this reason that the U.S. is playing it particularly cagey when in the Middle East.

In a very uncomfortable interview on Al Jazeera English, P.J. Crowley tried very hard to show tepid support for Mubarak, while at the same time looking supportive of democracy. I for one never thought I would see the day when Al Jazeera seemed like more of a champion of democracy than the U.S. State Department. Perhaps more telling is the report from STRATFOR that the Egyptian Chief of Staff is currently in Washington D.C. discussing the Army's position vis-a-vis Mubarak.

(AP Photo)

January 25, 2011

The True Declinists

Despite episodic outbreaks of anti-Americanism, the U.S. continues to be seen by most countries as relatively benign in its interactions with other powers. And despite the current economic downturn, the consensus view that free markets, open societies, and democratic institutions provide the surest path to peace and prosperity has remained extremely durable. This “transnational liberalism” inclines national elites to see a broad confluence of interests with the United States and reduces their tendency to try and counterbalance American power. As the guarantor of the international world economy and a provider of security and stability through its alliance system, the United States provides global public goods that others cannot. (This explains why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that in his travels he has not found many anti-American governments.) Accepting the new conventional wisdom of the end of U.S. primacy could make this order dysfunctional. [emphasis mine]

But assertions of American decline can cut two ways. If seen as a fait accompli, they can predispose decisionmakers to pursue policies that actually accelerate decline; if seen as a challenge, they can spark leaders to pursue courses of action that renew American economic vitality. Declinism is what historian Marvin Meyers described years ago as a “persuasion”—a “matched set of attitudes, beliefs, projected actions: a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment.”....

If declinism has grown more aggressive, it has also touched off an equal and opposite reaction. Anti-declinism, too, can be broken down into different tendencies. Economic revivalists, for instance, believe that the U.S. economic travail is overstated and that declinists undervalue the historically demonstrated resilience of America’s economy. Soft power advocates see the attractiveness of the American political and economic model and its cultural influence as mitigating decline. Structural positionists tend to stress the advantages of America’s geopolitical location, its alliance relationships, and the resulting demands by others that the United States provide leadership in solving international problems. Benign hegemonists combine several of these elements by stressing the attractiveness of American ideology, the willingness of others to follow its lead, and the global leadership role of the United States as a moral imperative. - Eric Edelman

I think this is a somewhat odd way to look at the question. You can't discount psychological or ideological elements to this discussion of course, but it's fundamentally about policy outcomes. We had, for instance, in the previous administration what you would certainly call an "anti-declinist" world view - people who would vigorously dispute the idea that America was declining, or that it shouldn't be the preeminent power. And it was under their watch that the fundamentals of American power declined rather sharply. So, yes, we can identify and bemoan "psychological" declinism among various pundits or academics, but it's more important to identify politicians and policy-makers whose ideas, when put into practice, led to a material decline in America's power.

It's also not the case that non-interventionists uniformly want to see America "decline" in any meaningful sense of the word (do they want America's economy to implode or the country to be invaded or dominated by another power?). I suspect that non-interventionists (maybe a better term is "less-interventionists") believe the way the U.S. can sustain economic and military primacy is to exercise U.S. power more prudently and to be careful about writing checks the body politic can't cash.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is Edelmen's contention that changes in U.S. foreign policy would actually put the structure of the international order at risk. Obviously, that's a significant charge since that world order, for all its flaws, is still one that basically serves America's interests very well. But would this actually happen? It is, again, worth asking what would destroy that order if, say, the United States had decided not to invade and occupy Iraq or had continued consolidating and paring back forces from Western Europe. Is this the stuff of upending the international system?

January 24, 2011

China, America & the Middle East

Yiyi Chen, a professor at the Shanghai Jiaotong University and an adviser on Middle East affairs to the Beijing government, told The Media Line that Beijing in no hurry to significantly increase its role in the region. Right now, its focus is on studying the region and its problems carefully before deepening its involvement.

“The Western way isn’t the only way. The U.S. way has its value, but apparently it hasn’t solved the crises and conflicts of the region,” Chen said. “China has experienced the problem of foreign cultures and foreign value systems trying to impose their views on others ...We don’t have a view that we want to impose on the countries of the region.”

China’s growing economic and political clout hasn’t yet made itself felt in the Middle East, even as it has become the largest importer of the region’s oil, buying just over a tenth of the Gulf’s output and a quarter of Iran’s. But Beijing is starting to exercise unprecedented influence on critical issues, most notably by objecting efforts by the West to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. - David Rosenberg

From an American perspective, there's two ways to look at this. First, one can be enraged (or bemused) at how China is free-riding on America's provision of Persian Gulf security. While the American taxpayer and U.S. military bear the costs of keeping the region (relatively) stable, China bears none of those costs but enjoys all the benefits. The second way to view this is that the U.S. has China by the proverbial short hairs should relations deteriorate between the two great powers. With so much U.S. military power in the Gulf, it would be easy to disrupt energy shipments to China, but hard for China to inflict such a blow on the U.S.

What's interesting is Chinese thinking on the matter - insofar as Chen is a representative example. For the moment at least it looks like China is happy playing an "off-shore" role, which means the first interpretation mentioned above (free-rider) is perhaps a more accurate description of what's going on. Of course, China could very well want to play a more overt role in the region and simply lack the capacity or opportunity.

January 17, 2011

Tunisia, Iraq & U.S. Democracy Promotion

Via Larison, Jennifer Rubin asks:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?

I think the provisional answer is nothing:

Ben Wedeman, probably the best TV reporter employed by an American channel (he works for CNN) when it comes to the Arab world, is in Tunis and had this to say about Ben Ali's stunning fall yesterday, the WikiLeaks theory, and the public fury that amounted to the first succesful Arab revolt in a long time: "No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It's all about unemployment, corruption, oppression."

Of course, it's quite possible that individuals were inspired by Iraq, but from all the reporting I've read thus far the major catalysts for the "Jasmine Revolution" had little to do with Iraq and its example. Rubin, parodoxically, helps explains why Iraq and the Bush administration's freedom agenda had little impact:

What should the U.S. do? Schanzer said he is concerned that "this administration will let an opportunity slip through its fingers." We should, he said, be setting out our clear expectations that Tunisia should not "lapse back into authoritarianism" and must not embrace an government run by, or sympathetic to, Islamists. He said that during the Bush administration, officials on the ground and in Washington would be saying "we expect this" -- meaning democratization, free elections. Schanzer noted that we have quite a lot of leverage in Tunisia: "It is pro-West and a small country." And we don't put at risk any major asset in Tunisia by being firm in our expectations (e.g. Tunisia doesn't control the Suez Canal, as does Hosni Mubarak).

In other words, when the region heard "freedom agenda" what it meant was that the U.S. dictated terms.

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country's revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it's not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge "what we expect" makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we're talking about.

If, however, we don't actually know what's best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

UPDATE:
Dan Murphy at CS Monitor weighs in:

One question in Ms. Rubin's column does have a clear answer however. "How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?" she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: "Little to nothing."

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin's piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word "democracy" had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, "That's democracy," a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. "No thanks."

U.S. Focused on Domestic Issues

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans rank terrorism as the 7th most important priority for the federal government, behind a host of domestic issues. The war in Afghanistan comes in at number 10. Iraq, a distant 14th.

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January 12, 2011

Q&A With Julian Assange

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Remember him? The New Statesman conducted an interview with the Wikileaks founder and has posted some excerpts:

The "technological enemy" of WikiLeaks is not the US - but China, according to Assange.

"China is the worst offender," when it comes to censorship, says the controversial whistleblower. "China has aggressive and sophisticated interception technology that places itself between every reader inside China and every information source outside China. We've been fighting a running battle to make sure we can get information through, and there are now all sorts of ways Chinese readers can get on to our site."

(AP Photo)

Playing the Middle East

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Stephen Kinzer imagines U.S. foreign policy doing a 180:

One could be a "power triangle" linking the US with Turkey and Iran. These two countries make intriguing partners for two reasons. First, their societies have long experience with democracy – although for reasons having to do in part with foreign intervention, Iran has not managed to produce a government worthy of its vibrant society. Second, these two countries share many security interests with the west. Projecting Turkey's example as a counter-balance to Islamic radicalism should be a vital priority. As for Iran, it has unique ability to stabilise Iraq, can also do much to help calm Afghanistan, and is a bitter enemy of radical Sunni movements like al-Qaida and the Taliban. Contrast this alignment of interests to the dubious logic of western partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, so-called allies who also support some of the west's most violent enemies.

I think the point about close ties with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is well taken. When you look at the trajectory of America's post 9-11 foreign policy, the regimes most directly implicated in that slaughter were (with the exception of the Taliban) embraced by Washington, while those with very little to do with international terrorism of the al-Qaeda variety (Iran and Iraq) were made the object of our ire.

That said, and leaving aside the rather dubious assertion that Iran could stabilize Iraq (aren't they just as likely to destabilize Iraq's Sunni minority?) I think Kinzer is making much the same mistake he's decrying. Trying to play one set of Middle Eastern regimes of another set is a mug's game.

(AP Photo)

January 11, 2011

Treating China Like Russia

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Richard Weitz argues in the Diplomat that the Obama administration's approach to China is much like the Clinton administration's approach to Russia:

Yet these policies should be seen less as an effort to contain China and more as a return to the kind of shaping and hedging policies that the Bill Clinton administration pursued on many security issues, especially relations with Russia. The principle behind this approach is that it will help shape the targeted actor’s choices so that it will pursue policies helpful to the United States and its allies. In the case of China, these policies would include not threatening to use force against other countries, moderating its trade and climate polices and generally embracing and supporting the existing international institutions and the global status quo. On the flip side, if these shaping policies fail, then the United States aims to be in a good position, thanks to its strategic hedging, to resist disruptive Chinese policies until China abandons them.

I don't think the two circumstances are really analogous. Clinton was able to "shape" Russia's choices regarding its immediate security environment because Russia was very weak and consumed with internal problems and the U.S. was not. And the end result of American policy toward Russia through the Clinton administration and into the Bush era was a sharp deterioration in relations between the two countries (a deterioration for which both nations share blame) and a war between Russia and her neighbor - not exactly an ideal we should be shooting for with China.

Furthermore, Weitz argues that the U.S. should try to shape China's choices to avoid a "destabilizing" arms race in Asia. But it's too late - arms purchases in Asia are on the rise and probably won't decline for some time. So has it destabilized Asia? Not yet and when you consider the environment, would Weitz prefer that all of China's neighbors were poorly armed and unable to defend themselves? It seems to me that that's an environment ripe for destabilization and Chinese adventurism. An Asia that's armed to the teeth is one in which China is not invading anyone.

(AP Photo)

January 10, 2011

Global Responsibilities vs. Bond Vigilantes

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James Joyner examines Secretary Gates' defense budget:

Again, this is hardly "austerity" in the sense the rest of the NATO Allies are experiencing. But that's a reflection of not only greater financial resources here but of the responsibilities that come with being a global superpower.

Further, let me again re-emphasize that Gates is not pretending that these are deep cuts. Or "cuts" at all. Rather, he's recognizing that the era of unlimited growth in the American defense budget are over, at least for a while, and acting accordingly.

I think this reality - taken together with an obvious unwillingness on the part of the political establishment to tackle entitlement spending - means that some form of bond market-provoked crash austerity program of the likes that is currently roiling Greece and Ireland has now become more likely for the U.S. over the medium term. But at least we'll have met our "global responsibilities."

(AP Photo)

December 28, 2010

The Jonathan Pollard Boomlet

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Another presidency, another push for the release of spy Jonathan Pollard. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have ignored the entreaties over the years, and I have a hard time seeing why this situation is any different. The current boomlet for Pollard is being advanced by a collection of respectable people - Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, former George W. Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey and of course Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - but it seems to have little basis in any actual changed information on Pollard's espionage activities in the service of Israel, South Africa and Pakistan.

Martin Peretz, who exists as a figure of permanent controversy (and loving every minute of it!), has come out solidly against the idea of release, writing that President Obama would be "encouraging the kind of ideological blackmail" that we have seen in Middle Eastern politics for decades. Peretz maintains that supporters of Pollard are unintentionally giving Obama an opportunity to offer a small victory to Israel's right wing in exchange for "squeez[ing] Israel on its real security interests which are to guarantee a peace with the Palestinians who do not really want peace."

This may or may not be true. But what is true is that Pollard handed over to Israel secrets which were traded to, or otherwise obtained by, the Soviet Union. As former FBI and Navy lawyer M.E. Bowman writes at the U.S. Intelligence Studies journal Intelligencer, in a piece anyone advocating for Pollard's release really ought to read, Pollard leaked "the daily report from the Navy’s Sixth Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facility (FOSIF) in Rota, Spain, a top-secret document filed every morning reporting all that had occurred in the Middle East during the previous twenty-four hours, as recorded by the NSA’s most sophisticated monitoring devices." He also handed over "the TOP SECRET NSA RAISIN manual which lists the physical parameters of every known signal, notes how we collect signals around the world, and lists all the known communications links then used by the Soviet Union."

Typically, this sort of verified espionage ends the conversation about clemency of any kind. So why does Pollard keep popping up as a candidate for such consideration? Bowman leads off his piece by addressing the question of why Pollard's defenders have received so little in terms of public push back:

There have been few rebuttals of this escalation of calls for Pollard’s release. Mainly because so few were cognizant of the scope of Pollard’s disclosures, or the misuses of those disclosures, and the damage they did to our own operations and sources; and even fewer, of the policy implications of these unauthorized releases to a foreign power. Finally, when a plea agreement was reached, it was no longer necessary to litigate issues that could have exposed the scope of Pollard’s treachery – and the exposure of classified systems.

This explanation makes sense. Of course, it will do little to stop the push by Pollard's supporters. Let's see if Obama will ignore them, as Bowman advises, or if he'll use the opportunity to his advantage, as Peretz fears.

(AP Photo)

What Dominates al-Qaeda Propaganda?

Thomas Joscelyn does a keyword search through 34 translated speeches:

To illustrate this point, consider the results of some basic keyword searches. Guantanamo is mentioned a mere 7 times in the 34 messages we reviewed. (Again, all 7 of those references appear in just 3 of the 34 messages.)

By way of comparison, all of the following keywords are mentioned far more frequently: Israel/Israeli/Israelis (98 mentions), Jew/Jews (129), Zionist(s) (94), Palestine/Palestinian (200), Gaza (131), and Crusader(s) (322). (Note: Zionist is often paired with Crusader in al Qaeda’s rhetoric.)

Naturally, al Qaeda’s leaders also focus on the wars in Afghanistan (333 mentions) and Iraq (157). Pakistan (331), which is home to the jihadist hydra, is featured prominently, too. Al Qaeda has designs on each of these three nations and implores willing recruits to fight America and her allies there. Keywords related to other jihadist hotspots also feature more prominently than Gitmo, including Somalia (67 mentions), Yemen (18) and Chechnya (15).

December 24, 2010

Balancing China

One argument made by proponents of the U.S. foreign policy status quo is that absent a strong American presence in key regions of the world, democratic allies will wilt under the oppressive influence of autocratic powers. But if we have learned anything in 2010 is that precisely the opposite happens, at least in Asia. China's "assertive" behavior hasn't precipitated a bout of regional appeasement but has instead catalyzed regional states to bulk up their defenses. As Barbara Demick reports:

Chinese behavior in the South China Sea has reversed the alliances of the Vietnam War, with Hanoi now edging toward the United States as it seeks protection. Vietnam is investing in submarines and long-range combat aircraft because of dozens of incidents over the last year in which Chinese vessels have harassed its fishing and oil ships. China's territorial claim to 1 million square miles of the sea has also unnerved Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, pushing them closer to the U.S.

Japan, too, recently announced that its new defense strategy will not entail becoming a satellite state of communist China but instead will be revamped to reflect China's emergence. Arms purchases in Asia are on the rise.

None of this is to suggest that the U.S. should "disengage" from Asia. But it is a telling reminder that if the U.S. were to disengage from, say, Europe, the result wouldn't be the collapse of Western Civilization.

December 23, 2010

Polling American Exceptionalism

Gallup has a new poll out gaging American attitudes toward exceptionalism:


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There are some other interesting data points as well:

Three-quarters of those who believe the U.S. is exceptional (62% of all Americans) also believe the U.S. is currently at risk of losing its unique character.

The poll does not delve into possible reasons why Americans think the United States' stature is at risk....

One of the extensions of the belief in American exceptionalism is the notion that, because of its status, the United States has an obligation to be the leading nation in world affairs. Americans generally endorse this position, as 66% say the United States has "a special responsibility to be the leading nation in world affairs." Republicans, Democrats, and independents generally agree, with fairly modest differences among party supporters.

December 21, 2010

The Failure of Realism

Realists often hold a simplistic view of great-power relations, asserting that any humanitarian pressure on Russia or China will cause the whole edifice of global order to crumble. This precludes the possibility of a mature relationship with other nations in which America both stands for its values and pursues common interests. - Michael Gerson

The trouble with this advice is that the U.S. will only apply its values selectively. For all the neoconservative sanctimony on this subject, human rights and democracy, et. al. are really only issues if the country's geo-political orientation is disagreeable. If you're aligned with the U.S., you're free to treat women like chattel slaves and crucify people.

Now, you can argue that that's clever statecraft - to hold up a set of "values" as universal and argue that they must anchor American foreign policy when dealing with competitors, while shamelessly carving out exceptions for ruthless but properly behaved "allies." But is that a foreign policy that actually respects American values? I'd say not.

UPDATE: Stephen Walt has some good thoughts on the matter as well.

December 18, 2010

Protecting American Allies

In urging Senators to vote down the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, Sarah Palin suggests the treaty would put U.S. allies at risk:

There are many other problems with the treaty, including the limitation on the U.S. ability to convert nuclear systems to conventional systems and the lack of restriction on Russian sea launched cruise missiles. In addition, the recent reports that Russia moved tactical nuclear weapons (which are not covered by New START) closer to our NATO allies, demonstrate that the Obama administration has failed to convince Russia to act in a manner that does not threaten our allies.

Presumably if the treaty left American allies exposed to Russian predations, we'd see a huge outcry from our European friends. But that hasn't happened. In fact, just the opposite: Europe's foreign ministers have all signed onto an op-ed urging ratification.

December 16, 2010

Is the U.S. Behind Iranian Terror?

Reza Aslan wonders if the U.S. isn't playing a role in terror attacks inside Iran:

In 2007, ABC News cited U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources as saying American officials had been secretly advising and encouraging Jundullah militants to carry out attacks against targets inside Iran. The following year, in 2008, Seymour Hersh’s shocking New Yorker investigation revealed that the Bush administration had been funding covert operations inside Iran designed to destabilize the country’s leadership since 2005. According to Hersh, these covert activities included support for Baluchi groups such as Jundullah. That same year, Pakistan's former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Baig, claimed to have firsthand knowledge that the United States was providing training facilities to Jundullah militants in Pakistan and southeastern Iran, specifically to sow unrest between the two neighboring countries.
Obviously the U.S. is no stranger to this kind of stuff (see Afghanistan circa 1980) but two caveats are in order. First, the sources quoted above are the long and short of Aslan's evidence that the U.S. is behind these attacks. Second, I'd like to think - really, really would like to think - that American policy makers wouldn't be so short-sighted as to fund a Sunni militant group in Pakistan (!) simply to knock off a few Revolutionary Guardsmen.

Update: This 2007 Daily Telegraph article reports that it's not a well-kept secret that the U.S. is using the group to stir up trouble in Iran:

Funding for their separatist causes comes directly from the CIA's classified budget but is now "no great secret", according to one former high-ranking CIA official in Washington who spoke anonymously to The Sunday Telegraph.

His claims were backed by Fred Burton, a former US state department counter-terrorism agent, who said: "The latest attacks inside Iran fall in line with US efforts to supply and train Iran's ethnic minorities to destabilise the Iranian regime."

Again, skepticism is warranted, but still you'd have to marvel at the incredible absurdity of such a policy, should it exist.

(AP Photo)

Quadrennial Diplomacy & Development Review

The State Department has released its first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy & Development Review (pdf), patterned after similar reviews in the Pentagon. The idea behind the review is to push and reform America's "civilian power." Josh Rogin has a good overview of the plan and some of the challenges it faces.

December 15, 2010

Understanding Foreign Aid

Two weeks ago I linked to a survey that found that most Americans didn't know how much money the federal government spent on foreign aid. According to Xavier Marquez, the same cannot be said for Europeans, who knew (in 1999 at least) with an "uncanny" degree of accuracy how much their governments devoted to foreign aid.

[Hat tip: Monkey Cage]

December 13, 2010

Despair or Optimism in Afghanistan?

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Max Boot says the president shouldn't listen to the "counsel of despair" coming from weak-willed elites. What I would like to know is how Boot and other proponents of staying the course in Afghanistan care to address this:

General Ashfaq Kiyani, Pakistan's army chief, has launched a diplomatic offensive to persuade the United States, Britain and President Karzai to back the deal which would offer government posts to Taliban leaders prepared to renounce al-Qaeda.

It amounts to a direct challenge to Nato's current strategy to intensify the war against the Taliban-led insurgency in the hope of persuading its "reconcilable elements" to negotiate a peace.

Under General Kiyani's plan however, the insurgency's most feared faction, the "Haqqani Network" could play a role in a new 'broad-based government'.

Boot suggests that the Taliban will be more amenable to peace talks if Petraeus is given more time to bloody them and stabilize Afghanistan. But if Pakistan is sheltering and in some sense directing the insurgency, how can that plan possibly work? Giving Petreaus "more time" isn't suddenly going to change the geopolitics of the dispute or Pakistan's motivations for using Afghanistan as strategic depth against India.

(AP Photo)

Can America Walk Away from the Middle East?

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Thomas Friedman says America should wash her hands of the peace process and cut aid to both the Israelis and Palestinians until they're ready to be serious about peace. Blake Hounshell says the U.S. can't just walk away:

But unfortunately, it's not so easy to just walk away. Not only has the United States given billions in military and economic aid to Israel over the last three decades -- and provided Israel diplomatic cover at the United Nations and other fora -- it has also propped up the Palestinian Authority while Arab leaders have broken promise after promise to help. U.S. bases dot the region, and U.S. troops are currently occupying two Muslim countries. American money goes to build settlements in the West Bank.

Seems like all the more reason to begin searching for another strategy. Hounshell argues that rather than pull back, the U.S. should double down and "propose" its own solution (and then what?) or do something really clever and unseat Netanyahu to put in the supposedly more pliable Livni. At which point, the Obama administration, Arab world, Palestinian Authority and Israel will make peace.

Sound plausible?

Of course it isn't. In fact, sustaining the peace process and America's broad and increasingly untenable definition of its interests in the Middle East is just as unrealistic as the notion that we can simply pull up stumps and leave tomorrow. I think even the most earnest proponent of "off-shore balancing" or non-interventionism understands that changes to American policy couldn't happen instantly. But there is a vital question of trajectory. For thirty years - since the Carter Doctrine - the U.S. has taken a path of deepening involvement in Middle Easttern affairs. It was a slow but steady accumulation of interests, military bases, commitments and a sense among Washington elites that concepts like "American prestige" had become inseparable from whether or not it could keep its arms wrapped around this unwieldy bundle.

In an era where the great power competition that compelled the Carter Doctrine is over and one in which America is menaced by a transnational radicalism, sustaining or even deepening our ownership of various Middle Eastern conflicts seems lethally counter-productive. That American commitments can't be unwound overnight is no argument against the proposition that we should at least get started.

(AP Photo)

December 9, 2010

A Realist Case for Israel, Ctd.

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In the past I've noted with some skepticism whether there was a 'realist' case for the U.S.-Israeli alliance in its current form. But Stephen Walt, unintentionally, I think, actually makes one:

It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.

Leave aside whether this characterization is accurate and focus instead on why a realist - of all people - should care. The United States supports states with far more egregious human rights records than anything sketched above. A realist is supposed to give less weight to a state's internal flaws and focus instead on its geopolitical orientation, right?

Update: Larison demurs:

...I would say that a realist wouldn’t worry as much about Israel’s “internal flaws” if they were simply internal. We have other allies that still occupy territory seized during wartime decades ago, but the rest of them are not client states to the same degree that Israel is and the rest of them do not receive such generous aid. It is because of the extent of the relationship and the complications it creates for the U.S. with most other countries in the region that the realist cares about the implications for U.S. interests if the two-state solution is indeed beyond saving.

It is also the realist’s concern that much of the rest of the world claims to see the resolution of this conflict as a high priority, and it is the realist’s concern that much of the rest of the world focuses, fairly or not, on Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories more than it does on the worse internal repressions of numerous dictatorships. My preference would be to acknowledge that both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-Israel relationship are vastly less strategically important than most people claim that they are, but a realist has to work with the world as it is rather than how one would like it to be.

(AP Photo)

December 6, 2010

The False Stability of Empire

Robert Kaplan pens an ode to what he sees as a fading American Imperium:

If the Cold War was an epoch of relative stability, guaranteed by a tacit understanding among empires, we now have one waning empire, that of the United States, trying to bring order amid a world of rising and sometimes hostile powers.

It's a useful conceit to pretend that the Cold War was an era of global stability, but unless we're defining 'stability' as the absence of a war between U.S. and Russia, the Cold War was anything but stable. China fought a war against India and had serious border skirmishes with Moscow. India fought several wars against Pakistan. Two civil wars - one in Korea and one in Vietnam - drew in the United States at the cost of 100,000 American lives and scores more wounded. Tens of millions of people died during Mao's reign of terror. Iran and Iraq fought a war which claimed about one million lives. Israel, too, fought several wars and Lebanon was ripped apart by a civil war (which also drew the U.S. in briefly, with disastrous results).

There is every reason to worry about instability and the potential for violence around the world today. But it has always been thus. America helped stabilize and secure Europe and portions of Asia because the societies it was protecting had been utterly shattered and broken and had no one else to turn to besides the Soviet Union - an unappealing option. But even in Europe there was terrorism, and around the world there was a pervasive worry about subversive Soviet efforts.

Today's international environment, as Kaplan eludes to, is quite different. American power is waning in large part because other powers are growing. That is a combustible mix, to be sure, and it might presage a more violent age than the one that past. But trying to sustain a Cold War sense of imperial mission is not going to fix that, and it would likely lead the U.S. into future costly conflicts that would only serve to hasten her relative decline. In fact, I suspect much of what lies behind this Cold War nostalgia is a pining for an intellectual coherence to American strategy that has been largely missing since the Soviet Union collapsed.

December 2, 2010

America's Foreign Policy 'Oblivion'

Pew Research's Andrew Kohut claims Americans are tuned out to foreign policy:

It is hard to recall a time when foreign policy issues played so diminished a role in the American public's thinking. Midterm election exit polls found only 8 percent of voters saying that a foreign policy issue was a voting consideration for them, and more generally, national polls show just 11 percent citing a foreign policy issue as the most important problem facing the nation. This is the lowest registration of international concerns since immediately before the 9/11 attacks.

November 30, 2010

Power & Expectations

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Politico's Ben Smith writes that American power ain't what it used to be:

"The impression is of the world's superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden," wrote Sir Simon Jenkins in the left-leaning Guardian, one of the publications that were given the documents.

And while his assessment of the documents themselves may be too harsh, the massive leak drives home yet again the limits of any American ability to control events around the world.

I think the problem here is the view that the U.S. - or any country - can "control events around the world." Shape? Yes, to a degree. Influence? Sure. Control? Not really. That's a rather grandiose claim and one that, as David Shorr notes, infects too much popular discourse about foreign policy - leading to unrealistic expectations. Like this:

It is certainly true that Obama inherited many of his foreign policy challenges. Iran was pursuing nukes back when he was in the Illinois state Senate, and North Korea has been crazy since before he was born. But Obama insisted that his would be the better way. Engagement, dialogue, kumbaya would all win the day.

And yet they keep losing. A month after his inauguration, the North Koreans tested a ballistic missile. Since then, they've revealed yet another nuclear program and attacked South Korea just weeks after Obama's embarrassing failure to win a trade deal from Seoul during an official visit. Meanwhile, according to WikiLeaks and other sources, the North Koreans have been selling ballistic missiles to the Iranians.

One of the very early and obvious problems with Obama's foreign policy argument dating back to the campaign was that, rather than state the obvious - that some international problems are inherently difficult and "solutions" to them are often impossible to find - he tried to sell alternatives to Republican hawkishness as more effective. As I wrote two years ago:

Any debate about national security is rooted in a perception of American interests. Yet the Obama campaign has not focused much attention on defining what America’s fundamental security interests are – but on how best to manage them. On issues such as Iran and North Korea, the signature difference between the two parties is not over the extent to which these nations represent uniquely American problems (as opposed to regional ones), but the tools with which they propose to “solve” them....

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

Thus, the baseline for judging the Obama administration remains unreasonable - he hasn't talked Kim Jong-Il out of booze and porn! - and more modest but respectable achievements (imposing sanctions on Iran, improving ties in South Asia) look paltry in comparison. That's not to say the administration has done everything right or that breakthroughs are impossible, just that the talk of American decline often rests on an unrealistic view of what America could achieve even at the apex of her power.

(AP Photo)

Does WikiLeaks Confirm Linkage?

There's many in U.S. foreign policy circles who believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the key to making America's life a lot easier - both in the Middle East and with the broader war on terror. Since the conflict is "linked" to the region's ills and to the broader threat of terrorism, it's imperative for the U.S. to try and solve it. Jennifer Rubin thinks the WikiLeak cables prove that "linkage" theory is bunk:

Recall that the Obama team over and over again has made the argument that progress on the Palestinian conflict was essential to obtaining the help of the Arab states in confronting Iran’s nuclear threat. We know that this is simply and completely false.

The documents show that the Arab states were hounding the administration to take action against Iran. The King of Bahrain urged Obama to rec0gnize that the danger of letting the Iranian nuclear program come to fruition was worse than the fallout from stopping it....

In short, there is zero evidence that the Palestinian non-peace talks were essential to obtaining the assistance of the Arab states on Iran.

Matt Duss argues that the case for linkage is more modest than Rubin claims, highlighting this quote from Dennis Ross as being the crux of the "real" linkage argument:

Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges… It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances.

He then notes several cables showing how Arab states, aside from asking for military action against Iran, were also privately urging on peace talks and arguing that a resolution to the conflict would help them and help stabilize the Middle East.

Much of this debate hinges on what you think the real linkage argument consists of - the more sweeping one that Rubin thinks is debunked by the cables, or the more modest one that Duss believes is bolstered by them.

But even accepting that the "modest" linkage argument is the real one, I'm not sure how this helps the administration. Bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like an awful lot of work for such a small payout.

November 27, 2010

The Next WikiLeak

Via Mike Allen:

ADMINISTRATION PREPARES FOR WIKIDUMP OF STATE DEPT. CABLES, possibly Sunday – Could be seven times the October release – Jim Miklaszewski, on “NBC Nightly News”: “U.S. officials tell NBC News that the upcoming document release from the website WikiLeaks contains top secret information so damaging it could threaten Senate ratification of the START nuclear arms control treaty with the Russians. According to the officials, the information contained in classified State Department cables reveals secrets behind the START negotiations and embarrassing claims against Russian leadership – information that could provide ammunition to Republican opponents of the treaty on Capitol Hill. …. There’s also serious concern that some of the leaks could threaten U.S. counterterrorism operations on two fronts, Afghanistan and Yemen. In Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has already come under fire for Afghan corruption and questions about his mental stability, U.S. officials say the secret cables reveal new and even more embarrassing claims about his personality and private life. Perhaps more troublesome, the leaks reportedly include top secret information about U.S. military and intelligence operations against al Qaeda in Yemen and some critical dispatches about Yemen’s President Saleh.”

November 17, 2010

The Will to Power

What does it mean for global order when the world figures out that the U.S. president is someone who's willing to take no for an answer?

The answer is that the United States becomes Europe. Except on a handful of topics, like trade and foreign aid, the foreign policy of the European Union, and that of most of its constituent states, amounts to a kind of diplomatic air guitar: furious motion, considerable imagination, but neither sound nor effect. When a European leader issues a stern demarche toward, say, Burma or Russia, nobody notices. And nobody cares.

If the U.S. were to become another Europe—not out of diminished power, but out of a diminished will to assert its power—there would surely never be another Iraq war. That prospect would probably delight some readers of this column. It would also probably mean more fondness for the U.S. in some quarters where it is now often suspected. Vancouver, say, or the Parisian left bank. And that would gladden hearts from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side. - Bret Stephens

There's a few points to make here. The first, and most obvious is that it is because of Iraq that U.S. power (let alone "will") has taken the kind of hit that Stephens finds so objectionable. Champions of that war - far more than the Obama administration - are responsible for any declines in American power. I can't speak for the Parisian left bank, but for someone who wishes to see the U.S. retain its power long into the future, avoiding peripheral wars of choice that degenerate into trillion dollar boondoggles seems to be a prerequisite.

But what of Stephens' core charge - that Obama has embraced "multipolarity" as the organizing principle of the world and is thus ceding the globe to disorder and insecurity as the U.S. pursues a "European" foreign policy? First, it rests on fantasied rendering of American power and second, a caricature of the current administration.

Stephens would have us forget the years 2004-08, but none of the Bush administration's various diktats were met with sharp salutes and dutiful obedience from international miscreants like Iran and North Korea. The U.S. took "no" for an answer from all the same corners that the Obama administration is taking "no" from - not because of incompetence or lack of will, but because their objectives were difficult and because they had dug themselves a deep hole in Iraq.

As for the Obama administration, it's not clear that they've become "European" in their foreign policy outlook - if by European Stephens means dovish. They've escalated both the wars in Afghanistan and the aerial war inside Pakistan and they are extending America's counter-terrorism campaign inside Yemen. This may be insufficiently robust for Stephens but any honest reading of the record wouldn't confuse this with "European" passivity (incidentally that charge is somewhat slanderous in its own right considering how many Europeans are dying alongside Americans inside Afghanistan).

November 9, 2010

China and the U.S. Navy

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Alvin Felzenberg and Alexander Gray make the case for bolstering the U.S. Navy to contain China:

Actions such as these suggest that the people formulating current U.S. military posture may have forgotten a vital lesson of the Cold War: that perception can often be just as important as reality. It was America’s unprecedented investments in rebuilding and protecting Western Europe through the Marshall Plan and deterring an outside threat against it through NATO that demonstrated to the Soviet Union America’s commitment to defending the West against aggression. But for the perception that the U.S. was willing to go to war to protect democratic countries on that continent, the history of the last half-century would have been the story of either the loss of freedom through accommodation to Soviet aggression, or war.

The trouble with this version of Cold War history is that it leaves out a rather important fact: the U.S. fought two massive wars - at a cost of over 100,000 lives - to sustain the "perception" that we were willing to stand up to Soviet Communism. Are the authors suggesting that the U.S. embark on similar endeavors to impress upon the Chinese leadership our seriousness?

They continue:

Absent an overwhelming superiority in naval strength to back up trade and other negotiated agreements, President Obama’s efforts to re-engage in Asia will be worthless. China respects power and will adjust its foreign policy to the realization that the interests of America and its allies are both immutable and capable of being defended. That is the true path to an enduring peace.

I think it's correct for the U.S. to sustain a good deal of military power in Asia, of which the Navy plays a huge role. But this kind of advice really, really falls apart without a clear definition as to the American interests that are supposed to be "immutable." It's particularly important to spell out which of our allies' interests we are expected to treat as immutable and worthy of dying for.

(AP Photo)

American Leadership

David Schorr thinks that, contrary to my assertion, American leadership really does stand between a civilized world order and Hobbesian chaos:

Check my logic here:

1. The biggest items on the agenda -- disequilibrium in the global economy, climate change, and nuclear proliferation -- are on a negative trend line, stemming directly for a shortfall in international cooperation.

2. These items are high on the agenda because the stakes are high and the consequences dire.

3. Diplomatic and political impetus from the United States is a critical factor in spurring a more serious collective international response. We don't have all the answers, but we're taking the questions seriously; if America pulls back, things will continue along their downward slide.

Chaos? Economic imbalances will eventually go completely out of balance. Ten nuclear-armed nations becomes 12, 15, 20... Violent political predators from Sudan to Zimbabwe go unchecked. Oh, and remind me what happens when the global average temperature reaches four plus degrees over pre-industrial levels? I don't think chaos overstates the case.

The real point is that the United States cannot by itself ward off this Hobbesian future. This is an appeal to other governments to join Washington as global leaders who step up to their responsibilities to deal with these challenges.


Jacksonians & Afghanistan

Michael Gerson sees "Jacksonian" Republicans making trouble for President Obama's foreign policy:

Even without a developed tea party foreign policy, the center of gravity on Capitol Hill is likely to shift in a Jacksonian direction. Historian Walter Russell Mead describes this potent, populist foreign policy tradition as "an instinct rather than an ideology." Today's Jacksonians believe in a strong military, assertively employed to defend American interests. They are skeptical of international law and international institutions, which are viewed as threats to American sovereignty and freedom of action. Jacksonians are generally dismissive of idealistic global objectives, such as a world free from nuclear weapons. Instead, they are heavily armed realists, convinced that America operates in an irredeemably hostile world. In particular, according to Mead, Jacksonians believe in wars that end with the unconditional surrender of an enemy, instead of "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations."

But then he writes:

But the largest test case will be Afghanistan. Here Obama faces a rare challenge. His base of support for the Afghan War lies mainly in the opposing party, making Republican attitudes toward the war decisive. As Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of American troops approaches, any hint of civilian-military divisions on strategy could dramatically erode Republican support. Jacksonians like to win wars. But if Obama appears reluctant, they could easily turn against a war the president does not seem determined to win.

This doesn't make sense. In the prior graf, Gerson insists Jacksonians don't like "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations." That's precisely what we're doing in Afghanistan. If anything, a spike in Jacksonian sentiment would lead to an erosion in support for an open-ended commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan, which is what the conservative defense establishment believes is necessary to secure American interests.

Indeed, a Jacksonian turn in the GOP would probably horrify Gerson who, along with his former boss, President Bush, is a purveyor of "idealistic global objectives" such as ridding the world of tyranny.

November 8, 2010

American Exceptionalism

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Andrew Ferguson argues that Republicans should cloth themselves - ala Marco Rubio - in the language of American exceptionalism. Daniel Larison isn't so sure:

If all that Americanists meant by American exceptionalism was that our political values and constitution are distinctively ours, I wouldn’t object. The trouble is that this is not all that they mean by it. They clearly mean to say that America is not simply unique and has distinctive political values, but that America is markedly superior to and significantly different from all other nations in terms of economic dynamism and political freedom. That is partly what Marco Rubio means by it, and from the praise he heaps on Rubio I assume this is what Ferguson thinks American exceptionalism means.

There was a time when this was true, or at least partly true, but over the last half century America and “the rest of the world” have changed enough that we cannot claim to be the most free or most economically dynamic country in the world. If all that Rubio wanted to say was that the U.S. ought to be the most free and most economically dynamic country, and that he believes that current policies are preventing that from happening, he could say that. Instead, he subscribes to the claim that America is the “greatest nation in all of human history.” Unless this is being measured in the crudest terms of global power, I’m not sure how one would substantiate such a claim, and even then I’m not sure that the claim would hold up.

We track a lot of global rankings and lists around here and it’s hard to identify many that place the U.S. at the top. It’s not the best place to start a business, not the most entrepreneurial, doesn’t have the best health outcomes, isn’t the least corrupt, isn’t the most prosperous, and on and on.

That's not to say America is unexceptional - it has the world's largest economy and the world's most potent military. It has helped create and lead a number of global institutions that have shaped the world's economic and security policy. It has played an undeniably unique role in world affairs since 1945. And, as Larison notes, it has a distinct and estimable constitution and set of political values.

But this is really kind of besides the point, I think. The purpose of the exceptionalist rhetoric is to serve as campaign agitprop. Indeed, Ferguson notes at the end of his piece, it "sounds like a campaign theme." The unstated but clearly intentional purpose of which is to cast opposing policies into the realm of the un-American, or even anti-American. The other purpose - one advanced more by intellectuals than politicians - is to safeguard the idea that because America is uniquely superior to the rest of mankind, its global role as guardian and protector of the world must be safe-guarded.

This view may actually collide with the politicians intent on restoring America's economic health by paring back some American military commitments and spending. But for now, the two seem to be co-existing just fine.

(AP Photo)

November 3, 2010

Will Congress Support America's Wars?

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Kori Schake believes the Obama administration will find at least some support for its war policies in the newly empowered GOP:

But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday's bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.

I'm not so sure that's the case. The war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular with a majority of Americans for years now, including independents. Support for the war in Afghanistan is similarly declining and there's no indication that independents would welcome a presidential commitment to never leave the country victory.

Indeed, while the conservative defense establishment remains enthusiastic about the prospect of transferring more American wealth to Hamid Karzai and his various hangers-on, any serious effort to repair the American balance sheet will have to take a cold, hard look at the scope of the commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps that's why the GOP's Pledge to America eschewed any high-sounding rhetoric about winning in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

Foreign Policy and the Midterms

Daniel Larison and Marc Lynch have batted around some of the possible foreign policy implications of the GOP takeover of the house: the holding up of Ambassadors to Turkey and Egypt, spiking the New START arms control treaty and the possibility of an "Iranian Liberation Act." All plausible outcomes, but I think the most immediate and pressing foreign policy implication will stem from domestic politics:

As Republicans prepare to assert new authority in the U.S. Congress following the midterm elections Tuesday, the United States’ allies overseas are concerned that the political upheaval in Washington may pose fresh challenges to the global economy.

Despite pledges to curb government spending and the huge U.S. budget deficit, Republicans are expected to address anxiety over unemployment and flagging growth by pushing hardest for an extension of the income tax cuts for everyone, including the rich that were passed during the presidency of George W. Bush — a move that would add to the deficit and, by extension, further weaken the U.S. dollar.

Somehow I doubt that the GOP, including its supposedly fiscally conservative Tea Party candidates, will cut government spending in any meaningful sense. If Republicans didn't curb spending when they controlled all the levers of government (indeed, they increased it) it's rather a stretch to think they'll take an ax to the deficit this time around, particularly when at least some of those cuts will have to come from the Pentagon. This isn't inevitable - President Clinton and the Republican Congress were able to balance the budget and even produce a surplus. Will we have a repeat of that performance? I'm doubtful.

Which means that the persistent weakness of the U.S. economy and the U.S. dollar will continue to erode American strength internationally.

November 2, 2010

Can Obama "Go Small?"

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If he's smart on this one (and I think he is), the president will keep his head, his rhetoric, and his ambitions small. He isn't going to find much solace and refuge in the world of Hamid Karzai, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Hamas and Hezbollah. He can't (and won't) withdraw from this world, but he now also knows he can't remake it either. Gone are the transformational ambitions of nation-building, grand bargains, and comprehensive peace. What's left are more in the way of downsized transactions: managing, not resolving conflict; contracting, not expanding the U.S. role in them; and just plain getting by, or in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, getting out. - Aaron David Miller

There's some indication that Miller is onto something. It can be found in an admission in this piece by C.M. Sennott from the State Department's Anne Marie Slaughter: "What's unique about this approach is that it starts with domestic strategy ... We have to rebuild our own foundation ... We believe passing health care legislation is as important as prosecuting the war in Afghanistan."

The administration has talked itself into rhetorical knots a bit - proclaiming at every turn that it is still devoted to the Cold War-era ideal of American global leadership while subsequently trying to define that leadership down. Unfortunately, the administration can't "go small" (in Miller's words) if it continues to endorse the idea that only America stands between an orderly world and Hobbesian chaos.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Policy in Asia-Pacific

As Secretary Clinton continues her swing through the Pacific Islands, it's worth checking out this testimony from Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs on U.S. policy toward the region:

The U.S. defense relationships in the Asia-Pacific, which form a north-south arc from Japan and South Korea to Australia, depends on our strong relationship with the FAS, which along with Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the smaller U.S. territories comprise an invaluable east-west strategic security zone that spans almost the entire width of the Pacific Ocean. The Freely Associated States contribute to U.S. defense through the U.S. Army base on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands that houses the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense test site, an important asset within the Department of Defense. Furthermore, the FAS’ proximity to Guam is important to US defense interests as the United States has a vital interest in maintaining the ability to deny any hostile forces access to sea lanes that protect our forward-presence in Guam and beyond. Our relationships with the FAS allow the United States to guard its long-term defense interests in the region.

Moreover, while the FAS do not maintain their own military forces, under the terms of our Compacts their citizens are eligible to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. Micronesians, Marshallese and Palauans volunteer to serve in the U.S. military at a rate higher than in any individual U.S. state. We are grateful for their sacrifices and dedication to promoting peace and fighting terrorism.

November 1, 2010

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: GOP Powerbroker?

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Last week, Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy published a top ten list of the new Republican powerbrokers in the wake of tomorrow's anticipated U.S. election. I could spend time quibbling with the list - many of the powerbrokers he lists are not new at all, and given that the U.S. Senate is unlikely to change hands, it is hard to see how Sens. Lugar, Kyl, or McCain have any different roles on Wednesday than they do today. But that's beside the point.

If there is one Republican on the list who stands out as someone who will actually, in Rogin's words, "stand between Obama and the world," it is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Ros-Lehtinen, who stands to take over the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was born in Havana, and her views on Cuba mark a significant departure from the administration's approach. The Miami Herald thinks her rise to the chairmanship effectively ends any talk of easing in relations with the current Cuban regime, and they're likely right:

Her ascendancy could also spell doom for Berman's bill on foreign-aid reform. She argues often for more vetting of foreign aid in the hope of finding cuts, and she has also introduced legislation to cut U.S. funding for the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority. She is also highly skeptical of the civilian nuclear agreements that the Obama administration is negotiating with Vietnam and Jordan. A vocal critic of what she sees as the Obama team's cool approach to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ros-Lehtinen could use the committee as a sounding board for those who want changes in the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peace.

Her actual voting and co-sponsorship record on a host of issues is quite moderate, even liberal by current Republican Party standards. But Ros-Lehtinen has already earned a reputation as a tough operator, and when it comes to clashes with the White House's views, I expect she'll prove to be the kind of politician who doesn't back away from public confrontation on the issues.

(AP Photo)

October 29, 2010

Normalizing History

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Judah Grunstein argues that we're emerging from an anamolous historical period into what could be dubbed the "normalization" of history, saying this is particularly evident with Turkey and China:

With all the discussion these days about U.S. and Western primacy and relative decline, it's worth considering what a normalization of history represents to the rest of the planet. For Turkey, it means deep ties with both the U.S. and Europe on one hand, and with China -- as well as Iran and Syria -- on the other.

There are still a lot of caveats. China is operating under many constraints, including suspicions over its strategic and commercial intentions, but also the almost-universal fear among its trading partners of being overwhelmed by trade imbalances. But other South-South networks are emerging, with Turkey simply representing an early adapter in this process. That means that while the U.S. will continue to possess a disproportionate amount of power for the foreseeable future, we will find it increasingly difficult to wield that power effectively in order to translate it into influence.

The question is how American exceptionalism will adapt to the new normal that the rest of the world is busy preparing for. Recently we've done a good job of exploiting China's mistakes, particularly in Asia. But we should be putting more energy into exploring how to capitalize on Turkey's successes.

I think you can see the vague contours of this adaption in some of the Obama administration's policies: the fitful attempt to unwind America's entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the effort to set relations with Russia on a more cooperative track, and the push to boost America's presence in Asia (with a corresponding "drift" away from Europe).

(AP Photo)

October 27, 2010

A Kissinger for Obama

Raoul Heinrichs hopes for one:

With his foreign policy foundering, Obama should have taken the time to find his Kissinger, an adviser with an intuitive understanding of American interests and priorities, a realistic appreciation for the scope and limits of power, and sensitivity to the consequences that actions might be expected to produce.

It's become a very American thing, especially in the post-Cold War era, to conceive of the world in terms of a succession of universal problems to which the US must offer a solution. Yet this approach hasn't worked. It's been costly, ineffectual and indiscriminate. By systematically overestimating the willingness of others to acquiesce to American solutions, it has also engendered in US foreign policy a debilitating level of incoherence.

October 26, 2010

Losing Europe to Russia?

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John Vinocur wonders if the U.S. is "losing" Europe to Russia. The framing of the question is a bit odd, because it presupposes that Russia is strong enough to "win" Europe away from the United States. What's really at issue is Europe's willingness to chart a slightly more independent course:

Rather, Germany and France, meeting with Russia in Deauville, northern France, last week, signaled that they planned to make such three-cornered get-togethers on international foreign policy and security matters routine, and even extend them to inviting other “partners” — pointing, according to diplomats from two countries, to Turkey becoming a future participant....

As for the Obama administration stamping its foot, what it came down to was a senior U.S. official saying: “Since when, I wonder, is European security no longer an issue of American concern, but something for Europe and Russia to resolve? After being at the center of European security for 70 years, it’s strange to hear that it’s no longer a matter of U.S. concern.”

Needless to say that Washington does not believe in "spheres of influence" or the ability of a great power to have a say in another country's foreign policy decisions. No sir.

(AP Photo)

October 21, 2010

Who Killed the Monroe Doctrine? America

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Investors Business Daily is outraged that Russia is helping Venezuela develop nuclear technology, demanding that someone remind Russia of the Monroe Doctrine.

Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn't have any leg to stand on with respect to the Monroe Doctrine given how it's become a bi-partisan staple of foreign policy establishment dogma that the U.S. does not recognize "spheres of influence." It would be self-evidently absurd for the U.S. to protest Russia's dalliances in Venezuela (a little under 2,000 miles from the U.S. border) when the U.S. is pushing to admit countries that border Russia into NATO.

That said, should we be dusting off the concept of 'spheres of influence' in an era of emerging great powers? Ted Galen Carpenter argues that we should:

Russia needs to find a graceful way out of its increasingly cozy relationship with Chavez, and the United States needs to stop talking about deploying missile defenses or expanding NATO eastward. Washington and Moscow must acknowledge that the concept of spheres of influence is alive and well, and that gratuitous violations of that concept will negate any prospect for a reset in relations.

U.S. leaders must also comprehend that cordial relations with China require a willingness to accept that East Asia’s rapidly rising great power will seek to establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and the recent spat with Japan over disputed islets in another body of water are signs of that process. China’s growing power and assertiveness means that the United States will need to tread softly regarding such territorial disputes, as well as the even more sensitive Taiwan issue, if Washington wants to avoid nasty confrontations with Beijing.

While I think avoiding nasty confrontations should be a key goal, I'm not sure how affording China a 'sphere of influence' would work in practice. China's prospective 'sphere' encompasses major economic powerhouses like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and some weaker Southeast Asian states. Unlike, say, Russia, where the U.S. ties to countries like Georgia or even Ukraine were historically relatively weak and economically negligible, American ties to Japan and South Korea are anything but.

(AP Photo)

October 19, 2010

Britain's Defense Cuts

David Cameron's coalition announced plans to pare back defense spending as part of a wide-ranging effort to eliminate the country's deficit. The video above provides a good overview of both the strategic rationale behind Cameron's defense review and the possible pitfalls of how Britain is arraying her military forces.

The U.S. reaction to this is horror:

While Cameron pledges to safeguard funding for British forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. has already raised worries that cuts could leave its key ally unable to take on a major role in military missions in the future.

"This is not a time where you can forget about defense or you don't reinvest your savings as best you can in defense," said Jim Townsend, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. "This is not a time where you can slacken in the need to keep strong and to invest in your military."

Last week, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus visited London for talks and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a stop in Europe to emphasize that NATO members must be able to make "appropriate contributions," despite pressures on national budgets.

And if they don't? If I you were a NATO member looking at crippling debt loads and the urgent need to slash government expenditures and you knew you had the world's most powerful military obligated by treaty to ride to your rescue, where would you make cuts?

There's apparently some worry that the U.S. will "give up" on Britain now that she's proposed to build aircraft carriers without aircraft (seriously) but that strikes me as misunderstanding what the alliance was about.

October 18, 2010

The Great Game 2.0

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the foreign policy of Imperial Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but what little I know of it makes me dubious of this argument from Thomas Barnett and, by extension, Robert Kaplan:

Where do Afghanistan and Pakistan fit into this "new Great Game," as Kaplan dubs it? They stand between, on the one hand, India and China and, on the other, all the energy that pair of rising behemoths needs to access in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. So the current effort in Afghanistan is not a case of America imposing globalization's connectivity on places where it was never meant to go. Instead, it represents -- like in Iraq -- another situation where the U.S. is making dangerous places just safe enough for Asian powers to access much-needed energy and mineral resources.

As I understood it, Britain waged its "Great Game" against Russia for influence in Central Asia and the outskirts of the Ottaman Empire because Britain wanted to protect the trade routes it had between England and India. In other words, there was a clear strategic rationale for why Britain played the Great Game and the aim was to benefit Britain. Barnett argues that the U.S. should continue nation building in Afghanistan on behalf of India and China. But what's in it for the United States?

Barnett argues that we'd be a "stabilizer" between two rising powers, but one has to wonder how much of a role Western troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan should really play in that balancing effort.

The Benefits of Off-Shore Balancing

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By Robert Pape

Robert A. Pape is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. He currently serves as Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. This analysis first appeared on the CPOST blog.

Kori Schake, a valuable participant in our Capitol Hill conference on “Cutting the Fuse,” raises a number of important issues with the policy of off-shore balancing. I am delighted to respond and believe our exchange is an example of thoughtful thinking about how to move beyond the War on Terror.

Schake is right that U.S. policy makers are well-meaning; sending our ground troops overseas to advance our interests. But she overlooks how our ground forces often - and inadvertently - produce the opposite of what they intend: more anti-American terrorists than they kill. In 2000, before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 20 suicide attacks around the world and one (against the USS Cole) was anti-American. In the last 12 months, by comparison, 300 suicide attacks have occurred and over 270 were anti-American. We simply must face the reality - no matter how well-intentioned, our current war on terror is not serving American interests.

Schake is also right that, once we know that nearly all suicide terrorism occurs in response to military occupations by democracies, it is perfectly reasonable to ask "why some occupations and not others?" And, this has been a core element of my research, as readers will see in Chapter 1 of Cutting the Fuse and in my 2008 article in the American Political Science Review, among other publications.

In a nutshell, two factors matter.

The first is social distance between occupier and occupied, because the wider the social distance, the more the occupied community may fear losing its way of life. Although other differences may matter, research shows that occupations are especially likely to escalate to suicide terrorism when there is a difference between the predominant religion of the occupier and the predominant relation of the occupied.

Religious difference matters not because some religions are predisposed to suicide attack - indeed, there are religious differences even in purely secular suicide attack campaigns, such as the LTTE (Hindu) against the Sinhalese (Buddhists).

Rather, religious differences matter because it enables terrorist leaders to claim that the occupier is motivated by a religious agenda that can scare both secular and religious members of a local community – which is why bin Laden never misses an opportunity to describe U.S. occupiers as “Crusaders” – motivated by a Christian agenda to convert Muslims to Christianity, steal Muslim oil and resources, and change the local population’s way of life whether they liked it or not.

This first factor of religious difference explains why some occupations escalate to suicide terrorism, but not others – not only in recent times, but also in the past – such as why the Japanese started kamikaze attacks in October 1944 to defend their home islands from U.S. occupation, while the Germans did not.

The second factor is prior rebellion. Suicide terrorism is typically a strategy of last resort, often used by weak actors when other, non-suicide methods of resistance to occupation fail. This is why we see suicide attack campaigns so often evolve from ordinary terrorist or guerrilla campaigns, as in the cases of Israel and Palestine, the PKK in Turkey, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, etc. So, if the South Koreans ever began to resist American military presence in a serious way, this would be more worrisome than it may at first appear.

On the next issue she raises, Schake is simply wrong that “an offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground.” As readers will see in throughout my book, working with local allies is a core element of off-shore balancing. And, America has used the strategy of off-shore balancing to great benefit numerous times and often in concert with local allies - in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s, in 1990 to kick Saddam out of Kuwait and in 2001 to topple the Taliban (it controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and 50 U.S. troops, U.S. air and naval power, and U.S. economic and political support for the Northern Alliance kicked them and al-Qaeda out of the country!).

Finally, I agree that replacing mass boots with mass drones would be a mistake - since vast numbers of air strikes could inflict more than enough collateral damage to incite terrorism in response - which is exactly what Cutting the Fuse explains, and it's also why off-shore balancing means responding with stand-off military forces against significant size terrorist camps like Tarnak Farms (a military base larger than the Pentagon), and not every third ranking cadre in individual houses in Quetta, where more selective or even non-military means may well be more effective.

I hope Ms. Schake will have an opportunity to read Cutting the Fuse and to consider the research behind it. Governor Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton - both heads of the 9/11 Commission - have, as did Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in Economics) and Adm. Gary Roughhead (the current Chief of Naval Operations). They too raised the issues Schake did (and more), and found convincing answers in the book.

(AP Photo)

October 15, 2010

The Limits of Denialism

Kori Schake isn't impressed with Robert Pape's research that shows that suicide terrorism is closely tied to the presence of foreign military forces:

To say that attacks occur where U.S. forces are deployed is to say no more than Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Pape's approach ignores the context in which deployment and stationing of U.S. forces occurs. We send troops to advance our interests, protect our allies, and contest the political and geographic space that groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating in. Of course the attacks will stop if we cede those political objectives. But the troops are not the point, the political objectives are the point.

Nowhere does this analysis grapple with the question of whether sending troops into places like Saudi Arabia was a good idea. Schake seems to operate under the assumption that if it's American policy, it must be right. But American policy can be wrong. Stationing troops in Saudi Arabia to contain Saddam Hussein was, I'd argue, a costly mistake. One that, as Pape's thesis demonstrates, provoked terrorism.

And indeed, America's political objectives in the Middle East are a part of our current problem: when you support autocratic governments and those that use their oil wealth to propagate a virulent strain of Islam you shouldn't be surprised when people resent your interference or fall under the sway of radical teachings. You can argue that these are the costs we have to endure to secure our interests and you can argue that this phenomena is exacerbated by religious fundamentalism that even U.S. policy changes couldn't completely mitigate, but you can't pretend this dynamic doesn't exist.

Schake continues:

The second important context Pape glosses over is that suicide attacks do not occur wherever in the world U.S. troops are deployed. Troops stationed in Germany, Japan, or South Korea are not at risk of suicide attacks from the people of those countries. This is not just about U.S. troops, but also about the societies we are operating in. It is about a radical and violent interpretation of Islam that we are using military force to contest.

Pape is not arguing that U.S. troops provoke suicide terrorist campaigns wherever they land, but that suicide terrorist campaigns cannot be explained without the presence of foreign (not simply American) military forces operating on territory the terrorists prize. Schake argues that the difference in treatment toward the U.S. from Japan and Korea on the one hand and the Middle East on the other is "about the societies we're operating in." And that's true: Different societies, with different histories, cultures and geopolitical contexts, react differently to the presence of foreign troops on their soil. But shouldn't American policy be alert to these differences and calibrated accordingly?

October 14, 2010

Friendship and International Affairs

Writing at The Public Discourse, Carson Holloway suggests we examine the softer side of international relationships among nation-states:

Modern individualism and egalitarianism both misunderstand the nature of solidarity or friendship among human beings and hence among nations. In their elevation of self-interest, both individualism and political realism tend to miss completely the role of friendship in human affairs. While it is true that self-interest is a powerful force, it is not the sole motive of human action. Men and nations sometimes do, and often should, act on the basis of friendship, or a sense of commitment to others that they view as “other selves,” to use a term Aristotle applied to friendship. Conversely, the cosmopolitanism of modern egalitarianism and idealism, while understanding the importance of human solidarity, mistakenly believes it can be extended to all human beings or nations indiscriminately. While it is true in some cosmic sense that all individuals and all nations are of equal value and dignity, it is not the case that that equal dignity is equally entrusted to all other men or nations.

I am skeptical of this approach. While Holloway attempts to articulate idealism and realism in terms of egalitarianism and individualism, there's an error here in applying the way things work within the domestic arena of politics. You can't simply assign the same rules to how "friendships" are conducted within societies with shared values and experiences and apply it to the international arena. By its very nature, the globe is anarchical and lacks common shared experiences or values across cultural and geographic boundaries -- while a society is possible in such a system, a "community" is not.

To think otherwise is to adopt a simplistic view of the interests of nation-states, one which applies too much knowledge from the domestic sphere to interactions at the higher level -- these are horses of a different color. One might as well apply lessons learned from Facebook interaction (which would suggest France is out shopping again, Germany is focused on the day's football match, and lord knows where Italy is, or with whom).

Nation-states cannot be "friends," at least in the ways Holloway defines such friendship. They can have common interests, shared goals, and traditional attachments, but friendship overrules none of these. The lesson we should take from the experience of Lord Palmerston and others is that it is difficult just for nation-states to have interests which approach permanence -- focusing on that is challenging enough.

Myths, Facts and Defense Spending

Today on Capitol Hill, representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative will gather to present a brief on the subject of Defending Defense: Setting the Record Straight on US Military Spending, which will reportedly "separate myth from fact in the current defense-spending debate."

As I've noted in the past, the push to make defense spending off limits is all about convincing the incoming wave of small government populists who are about to descend on Congress to leave defense pork off the cutting list. Cato President Ed Crane responded to the Wall Street Journal oped kicking off this project (authored on behalf of AEI's Arthur Brooks, Heritage's Ed Feulner, and FPI's Bill Kristol) with the point: "Rather than Congress constantly writing a blank check, the process of military budgeting should begin with a discussion about security necessities and their costs." But one doesn't need to be a libertarian or be opposed America's efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan to think that the massive waste and inefficiencies of the defense budget need to be curtailed.

When listening to Heritage's Mackenzie Eaglen, former advisor to Sen. Susan Collins, and John Noonan, a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard, defend this viewpoint, I simply don't find their arguments convincing. I can't see the conservative justification for the view that defense spending needs to be placed off-limits for cutbacks, nor why the Tea Party movement should view this argument with anything but skepticism. In Noonan's interview here, he names a number of expanding and changing missions (soft power, cyber-security, two wars overseas), but then reverts to the standard two "big money" arguments: "the Air Force has old planes and we should make new ones", and "the Navy has the smallest fleet since World War I." Of course, neither of those things really impact the "new" missions for the United States military.

Deterrence is important. But just having more carriers and fighters isn't the answer. The United States already outnumbers the next 20 navies combined, most of which are our allies. The point is not the size of the fleet, but the capabilities. China and Russia have been achieving a good deal of technological success when it comes to anti-carrier low-flying missiles. The more such technology progresses, the less our ability to stick a carrier between China and Taiwan matters. Deterrence depends on spending money wisely, investing it with a mind toward proper priorities, and without a cap on the pocketbook, there's no incentive for making those decisions.

I have yet to hear one suggestion on expanding the defense budget from the groups involved in this effort that focuses on what the United States is doing right now. Next-war-itis has been a problem within the military acquisition process since the Cold War -- to the benefit of many suppliers -- and it's a "Myth of the Next" approach Sec. Gates rejected when he slashed the Army's Future Combat Systems while massively expanding the MRAPs budget.

Yet there's a more fundamental problem here: a question of conservative hypocrisy. Today, writing in Politico, Feulner and Sen. Jim DeMint hail the arrival of the Tea Parties as an enduring force in American politics. They note the disgust of these small government populists with the establishment forces of both parties. That frustration didn't come from nowhere, of course: it came from years of being ignored when it comes to matters of policy. It came from seeing the dilution of principle in favor of power. And it came from seeing their elected officials make small government promises and then defending bloated pork.

Those conservatives who claim that defense spending should be off-limits at Capitol Hill meetings of Washington, D.C. think tanks aren't going to find an eager audience with these new anti-establishment populists. And that, in my judgment, is a fact.

Suicide Terrorism & the U.S. Military

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and former Air Force lecturer, will present findings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that argue that the majority of suicide terrorism around the world since 1980 has had a common cause: military occupation.

Pape and his team of researchers draw on data produced by a six-year study of suicide terrorist attacks around the world that was partially funded by the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. They have compiled the terrorism statistics in a publicly available database comprising some 10,000 records on some 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks, dating back to the first suicide terrorism attack of modern times — the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 241 U.S. Marines.

"We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns, ... and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100 percent of the terrorist campaign," Pape said in an interview last week on his findings. - Laura Rozen

It's always struck me as a bit odd that the U.S. is willing to blithely assume huge costs in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the name of fighting terrorism while resolutely refusing to consider reducing our military footprint in the Middle East for fear of the costs. Perhaps Pape's research will help balance the ledger a bit.

October 12, 2010

Obama & Eisenhower

Will Inboden has an interesting post comparing the two:

While both presidents commissioned major strategic reviews upon taking office, Eisenhower's "Project Solarium" assessed the U.S. grand strategy for the entire global Cold War, in contrast to Obama's strategic review(s) of just one theater: Afghanistan-Pakistan. An accurate analogy would be if the Obama White House had done such a strategic review of the entire Global War on Terror (other than just giving it a new acronym). The Obama administration instead largely adopted wholesale the Bush administration's strategic framework for the war on jihadist terrorism: pre-emptive attacks, holding states accountable for terrorist actions, renditions, law-of-war detainees, support for reformist and peaceful Muslim leaders, and promoting governance and development as long-term antidotes to Islamist ideology.

I'm not sure if the Obama administration has embraced the "holding states accountable" paradigm (and in truth, President Bush didn't either, as such a standard would have plunged the U.S. into many more ground wars) but in general, the administration has indeed refrained from a wholesale overview of American strategy with respect to Islamic terrorism. But why?

October 11, 2010

Network Power

One thing I've always felt missing in a lot of the think pieces on the Obama administration's grand strategy (or lack thereof) is any attention to Anne Marie Slaughter - the former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and now Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Specifically, how Slaughter's view of America's "network power" relates to the administration's policies. Joseph Nye's Project Syndicate piece today does a good job at explaining what it's about:

Much of the work of global governance will rely on formal and informal networks. Network organizations (such as the G-20) are used for setting agendas, building consensus, coordinating policy, exchanging knowledge, and establishing norms. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department, argues, “the power that flows from this type of connectivity is not the power to impose outcomes. Networks are not directed and controlled as much as they are managed and orchestrated. Multiple players are integrated into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In other words, the network provides power to achieve preferred outcomes with other players rather than over them.

Slaughter herself detailed the idea more fully in a piece for Foreign Affairs (sadly behind a subscriber wall).

It's hard to tell in the day-to-day scrum of policymaking if this is in fact what the Obama administration is actually working towards. On some issues, like the peace process, the administration isn't harnessing any networks but is shouldering the burden alone. But I think you could make the case that "network power" is a decent explanatory framework for the administration's response to the international financial crisis (expanding the G-7 to the G-20) and some of its moves in Asia. And it's certainly a significant, if unstated, theme running through many of Secretary Clinton's major speeches on American foreign policy.

October 8, 2010

Wilson Rides Again

The Heritage Foundation is launching a new initiative to "apply America's first principles" to foreign affairs. Julia Shaw gives us a preview:

The principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence are the standards by which all governments (not just America’s government) should be instituted and are to be judged. America is the only nation explicitly founded upon the principles of human equality and natural rights, but these principles are applicable to all men and all times, as Lincoln said. What do these truths mean for our international relationships?

Well, let's see, it would mean the end of a lot of them for starters. It would also throw a rather large monkey-wrench into America's counter-terrorism policy, which entails an expansion of executive authority into things like assassinating American citizens on the basis of secret evidence, that I don't think the Founding Fathers would have been down with.

October 7, 2010

Should Britain Give Up Her Nukes?

Robert Farley makes the case:

The debate currently taking place in London matters for Washington, and U.S. defense officials have already expressed concern about the extent of British defense cuts. However, since taking office, President Barack Obama has made global nuclear abolition a central focus of his nonproliferation agenda, both rhetorically and in policy. A decision by the United Kingdom to forego the replacement of Trident and to eschew any other nuclear delivery system would advance this goal enormously. No major nuclear power has ever given up its weapons, despite the formal requirement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work towards abolition. In the context of growing concern about nuclear proliferation, abolition of British nuclear weapons might provide an important symbol of commitment to Global Zero. However, there's no guarantee that a British policy shift would bring about a change in behavior in North Korea, Iran, or any other nuclear aspirant.

Just as important, however, is the money that would be saved from foregoing Trident replacement, which could be spent in other areas.

Yes, but what if Britain decides to eliminate its nuclear deterrent and a new U.S. president assumes office with a dimmer view toward such Utopian optimistic plans for "global zero?" Efforts to slash their arsenal to curry favor with the U.S. would then fall rather flat.

Defense Spending & American Interests

Amidst the useful back-and-forth over the issue of U.S. defense spending lies a more substantive issue: what America's role should be in the world. As Stephen Walt argues, it's hard to talk about the defense budget without situating the conservation in a discussion about American strategy:

Although it is mind-boggling to realize that five percent of the world's population (the United States) now spends more on defense than the other 95 percent put together, this situation is hard to avoid when you see threats emerging virtually everywhere and when you think all of them are best met by an ambitious and highly interventionst foreign policy. If Americans want to be able to go anywhere and do anything, then they are going to have keep spending lots of money...

October 6, 2010

Tea Parties vs. Defense Pork

John Noonan of The Weekly Standard and The Foreign Policy Initiative has responded to my piece on RealClearWorld from Monday which questioned whether Bill Kristol was a good messenger to the Tea Party movement. He also recorded a podcast today on the same subject.

Noonan writes:

Domenech nails it on message -a strong national defense is an inherently conservative principle- but whiffs on the messengers.

Though various conservative organizations occasionally swim against fiscal conservative currents, Heritage, AEI, and FPI remain trusted proponents of conservative principles. The focus, therefore, should not be on the messengers – but rather the messaging.

Three major think-tanks unifying behind a single rallying call, handled “Defending Defense,” should be eye-opening. Such an alliance should not be interpreted as old-school Washington establishmentarians manning the bulwarks against a new, popular conservative grassroots movement, but rather a plea for the Tea Party to acknowledge the dilapidated condition of the US military, which is facing unheard of budget cuts and historically low spending during a time of a tough, protracted war against Islamic extremism.

I think the inherent problem here is that Noonan doesn't really answer the question. I warned that Tea Partiers won't take what Kristol and others tell them all that seriously because they are viewed as a DC insiders, a concern that is in no way allayed by saying "Tea Partiers should take it seriously that three DC thinktanks all agree about this important thing." It's not like these organizations have some wellspring of goodwill built up within this populist movement.

I don't think Noonan's viewpoint is entirely off-base, but they need a better response than that -- otherwise, expect the kind of response he got from the comment section: Tea Party movement types sick of hearing lectures on what they ought to believe from the old guard and the establishment.

Yet there's no reason to think that Tea Partiers are extreme libertarians on Defense spending. These folks don't want to raze the Pentagon. What they're most angry about is waste -- what they consider to be waste of their hard-earned tax dollars on bailouts, stimulus packages, and more. And this is likely to be their view on Defense spending as well.

Any reasonable observer can look at the Defense budget priorities and see that there is plenty of waste, spread across the bloated projects that have been more about providing military pork barrel spending across the country than serving our national defense needs (witness, for example, the ludicrous continuation of C-17 purchasing). For years, companies have played the same game of scare tactics, pork promises, and flag-waving to pull in political support -- but consistent fiscal conservatives should be in favor of responsible spending, which drives the branches to be more efficient in how they spend, at least forcing them to choose between their pet projects.

No matter who the messenger is, Tea Partiers shouldn't listen to those who suggest it undercuts our troops to end bloated corporate welfare which has for too long disguised itself as military funding. In an era when entitlement spending will put even more pressure on other budget line-items, it's about time that Defense started spending smart.

October 3, 2010

The Tea Party and the Defense Budget

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Consider this weekend's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Bill Kristol, Ed Feulner and Arthur Brooks the latest entry in the continuing uncertainty among Washington insiders as to the foreign policy beliefs of the Tea Party movement. The trio write in defense of Defense spending, not just against the cuts currently planned under Secretary Gates, but against the perception on the part of deficit hawk Tea Party voters that the military is one big drag on the United States' debt picture:

Defense spending has increased at a much lower rate than domestic spending in recent years and is not the cause of soaring deficits. Even as the United States has fought two wars, the core defense budget has increased by approximately $220 billion since 2001, about a tenth as much as the government devotes each year to "mandatory" spending: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, lesser entitlements such as food stamps and cash assistance, and interest payments on the debt. These expenditures continue automatically, year after year, without congressional debate.

We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget. But anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform.

In my view, Secretary Gates isn't seeking cuts aimed at men and women in uniform, but at technology which serves no purpose within a broken procurement process that is out of touch with the demands of the real world. But assume I am wrong, and that the Kristol et al. argument is an accurate critique: if that's the case, this has to be considered a case of right message, wrong messengers. While Brooks has no quarrel with the Tea Partiers, Feulner's organization endorsed TARP, and Kristol is perhaps the poster child of the kind of insider-ism which Tea Partiers are soundly rejecting.

A longtime critic of any cuts in Defense spending, Kristol's brand of "national greatness conservatism" (he and David Brooks unveiled the phrase in a 1997 piece in the WSJ) arguably ruled in the White House and in Republican circles for much of the past decade. Today, these "big government" views are anathema to the Tea Party, and Kristol's declarations of support and membership always appear to be paired with a trite tsk-tsk-ing at the people who make up this populist movement, with critiques often leveled at Tea Party darlings such as Rand Paul and Christine O'Donnell. Does it really make sense to trot out Kristol - a man whose opinion is politely disregarded at best by this populist upheaval on the right - on behalf of these views?

Of course, I doubt Kristol and others have anything to worry about. The best source for data on leaders within the Tea Party movement is the research provided by the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based group which found that Defense issues rate very high in importance among Tea Partiers. While Budget/Economy/Jobs categories are obviously the highest, Defense is high as well - and it's doubtful that indication of concern could in any way be interpreted as a call for cutbacks. But for those who are concerned that this populist movement will turn against the Defense budget after this election, I'd suggest they get to work on finding a better spokesperson than Bill Kristol to take this message to the Tea Parties.

(AP Photo)

September 30, 2010

Setting Priorities

Elbridge Colby joins the Pletka/Donnelly pile-on, offering his take on what a "conservative" foreign policy would look like:

Pletka and Donnelly have offered an ambitious vision of what the United States' purpose in the world should be. It is magnificent, perhaps, but it cannot be called conservative. In an age in which we must get our fiscal house in order, restore the sources of American prosperity, and face swiftly rising powers whose future courses are uncertain -- above all China -- a conservative foreign policy would focus relentlessly on investing our strategic effort, money, and time to serve our long-term vital interests most effectively. Distinguishing what is important from what is not and making the corresponding tough choices about commitments, spending, and our focus abroad is the heart of a conservative foreign policy. This is the essence of strategy. By contrast, confusing our own future with the fate of freedom in every corner of the world is an invitation to waste, disillusionment, and, quite possibly, disaster.

Well said.

September 27, 2010

Is Petraeus Making Blowback Respectable?

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One of the arguments that runs through the Obama administration's Afghan strategy debate (as recounted by Bob Woodward) is the idea, advanced by the U.S. military, that killing Afghans in pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is counterproductive without a broader effort to assuage their grievances and improve their country :

At the Nov. 11 meeting in which Obama expressed his frustration, Petraeus cited the war game as evidence that the hybrid option would not work.

It would alienate the Afghan people whom U.S. forces should be protecting, he said. "You start going out tromping around, disrupting the enemy, and you're making a lot of enemies. . . . So what have you accomplished?"

This makes sense. If you're just dropping bombs and assassinating people in a country without regard for much else, they're going to be resentful and seek retaliation. But why is this understanding never advanced to the strategic level? The terrorist threat to the U.S. is global. If we're so solicitous of Afghan civilians that we're willing to risk over 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops and invest billions of dollars into the country to guard against blow back, shouldn't we be considering the ramifications of U.S. policies elsewhere?

(AP Photo)

Defending Freedom

Daniel Larison offers some further thoughts on the freedom and defense spending debate:

Not only did a host of other factors contribute to the end of the USSR, but in most important respects it was overwhelmingly the political action of the peoples of eastern Europe and the USSR that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet system. This isn’t meant to diminish the real successes of containment policy in western Europe and Asia, but we do need to acknowledge that policies that provided effective defense for our allies also effectively did very little to advance the freedom the hundreds of millions of people under Soviet control. That wasn’t the purpose of containment, and neither was it the main purpose of the military build-up in the ’80s.

Besides, to the extent that our military build-up showed leaders in the USSR that their economic and political model could not compete and thus contributed to the collapse, it is not something that can be readily repeated today and it is not something that needs to be repeated. Even if one wants to maintain that the build-up in the ’80s was imperative to “winning” the Cold War, there is no comparable competing state today, nor is there likely to be one for a long time. What Pletka and Donnelly are calling for is the ability to project power around the world in ways that have no connection with the advance of political freedom abroad. They are arguing for a “robust” American role in a post-Cold War world where it is not needed. Indeed, it is less necessary today than it was ten or twenty years ago, and it will become increasingly outdated and unnecessary as more regional powers begin assuming responsibility for their parts of the world.

September 24, 2010

Defense Spending and Freedom, Ctd.

Responding to my assertion that there's no correlation between U.S. defense spending and global freedom James Joyner (and Dave) called me out - arguing that the demise of the Soviet Union proves that indeed there is.

That's true, and I concede the point - up to a point. First, the U.S. defense build-up had an impact on the Soviet Union's ability to compete with the U.S. and helped hasten their end - but a host of other factors contributed to that end as well, as Joyner admits. If the Carter and Reagan administrations didn't initiate a defense build-up but the Soviet Union was still battered by falling oil prices and the Afghan insurgency (not to mention the accumulated rot of the Soviet system) would they still have fell? I'd argue that they would have, although, yes, it was useful to give them a push.

But to make the argument that global freedom hangs in the balance unless we transfer even more U.S. wealth to the Pentagon shouldn't the casual links be a bit tighter? And shouldn't there be more than one example?

Still, as I said, I'd certainly concede that the 1980s defense build-up did play a role in cracking the Soviet Union which in turn helped liberate Eastern Europe. I wonder, though, what relevance this has for 2010's strategic debates. Indeed it seems to put the Pletka/Donnelly argument in a worse light. The U.S. doesn't face a conventional military challenge on par with the Soviet Union and if you don't think spending billions of dollars in nation building and counter-insurgency is a sensible counter-terrorism policy, it's hard for me to see the point of declaring any and all defense cuts verboten, much less an intolerable threat to our very freedom, or the freedom of others.

Defense Spending and Freedom

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If I'm reading this op-ed from Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly correctly it sounds like they don't want the Republican party (or the Tea Party) to cut defense spending. Which is fine, so far as it goes. But they also seem to insist that the desire not to cut defense spending is somehow tied to protecting "freedom" at home and abroad.

Is there a correlation between U.S. defense spending and global freedom? There doesn't appear to be: in the period 1990-2000, as U.S. defense budgets fell, the number of countries ranked "free" by Freedom House grew slightly. Since 2000, as defense budgets grew, the number of countries ranked "free" stayed pretty much the same - the trend lines toward greater global freedom had actually turned negative during the years 2006-2009.

In other words, if you want to make an argument for why the U.S. should continue to devote plus or minus X amount of dollars to defense expenditures, I don't think "freedom" has much to do with the case one way or the other.

(AP Photo)

September 23, 2010

The GOP Pledge and Iran

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Picking up on Greg's post, it seems as though the GOP's "Pledge to America" is rather slim on foreign policy altogether. As an American voter, I actually find this appealing; domestic politics should be the focus of the 2010 elections, and kudos to the Republicans - if this leaked version of the party's 2010 electoral strategy is accurate - for making those issues their central focus.

That said, the foreign policy news junkie in me is somewhat disappointed in the dearth of red meat offered in this plan. It also begs a question: with all of the huffing and puffing we have heard - and indeed continue to hear - from conservatives about Obama's "appeasement" of Iran, are these same critics thus satisfied by a short and simple pledge to enforce "tough sanctions against Iran"?

I believe this demonstrates just how easy it is to be one of the two main political parties on the outs in the United States. Ideological rigidity, or, in the specific case of Iran, radical statements about preparing for a regime change, make for good soundbites and exchanges on the Sunday morning shows, but they don't resemble, as far as I can tell, the actual Republican plan for governance regarding the Islamic Republic - and that's a good thing.

All this could change, of course, in 2012 . . .

(AP Photo)

September 21, 2010

A Third Way?

There seems to be two emerging themes to America's post-recession national security debate. The first, typified by the Obama administration, is that the U.S. must continue to do everything globally but on a tighter budget and with help from allies. Secretary Clinton rebuffed advocates of restraint in her recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Which of our great challenges today can be placed on the back burner? Are we going to tell our grandchildren that we failed to stop climate change because our plate was just too full? Or nuclear proliferation? That we gave up on democracy and human rights? That is not what Americans do.

In other words, whatever the administration says about husbanding American resources and rebuilding on the home front, they're still committed, at least rhetorically, to over-stretch.

Then there is the conservative counter-thrust, which is to argue that America must continue to do everything (and more, like bombing Iran) but on a bigger budget - deficits and economic constraints be damned. Hence the continued outrage at Secretary Gates' efforts to redirect the growth of defense spending (which actually won't result in cuts to the defense budget, but in an internal shift in how resources are spent).

Reading this Seth Cropsey piece* on the U.S. Navy reinforced my view that there is a third way - that a constrained U.S. has to do better at picking its spots. This means focusing investment where it will yield the biggest returns and where the international system, and American interests, are most at risk.

Right now, the two poles in the debate oscillate around the worst of all possible worlds. The Obama administration evinces a kind of schizophrenic attitude - paying lip service to the idea that the U.S. needs to shore up its domestic position but insisting it can do so while sustaining America's post-Cold War posture as if nothing has changed (and spare us the talk of allies "doing more" - since when?). The administration's critics, meanwhile, are on red-alert for any hint of walking back any commitment, anywhere.

(*Cropsey himself doesn't appear to be in this third way camp, he insists that the U.S. has to be strong everywhere for the sake of "great power prestige" - I don't know about you, but it gives me a warm feeling to know my tax dollars go to making Washington bureaucrats feel prestigious. But Cropsey, whose piece makes the pitch for a strong navy, reinforces the point that the U.S. has become too focused on land wars and counter-insurgency. Neither will do much good to deter China, should the need arise.)

September 20, 2010

Linkage, Containment and the 'Shia Crescent'

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Linkage - the idea that there is a direct correlation between the Mideast peace process and the successful isolation of the Islamic Republic - has been the source of much debate in recent months in pundit and policy making circles, especially as Iran has eclipsed Israel's other security concerns in the Middle East.

Arab sheikdoms and autocrats, or so the argument goes, would naturally fall in line behind any U.S.-Israeli security regime in the region, as most of these actors - once pressed on the matter behind closed doors - would readily list Iran as their top regional concern, much as the Israelis already do. There's plenty of reason to believe that such a model for isolating Iran might emerge, evidenced more recently by the goody bags of weapons systems being doled out throughout the region.

But one of the pitfalls in creating such a regional dynamic, whereby the United States essentially guarantees the security and stability of the surrounding autocrats and monarchs, is what we're witnessing this week in Bahrain and Kuwait. When America's top diplomat calls Iran an emerging Junta, and the West repeatedly calls Tehran a regional threat, it gives the region's other not-democracies - you know, the friendly ones - carte blanche to suppress and discriminate against their Shia minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, majorities.

This certainly isn't breaking news, and Iran is by no means innocent of fanning the flames of sectarian division; and Secretary Clinton is, by the way, probably correct in her assessment of the Iranian leadership. But I question whether or not pandering to what are very old ethnic and religious differences is the best way to foster a 'cold' containment in the Middle East, or if it will only backfire and solidify Iran's place as champion of the global anti-American.

(AP Photo)

Bolton for President

I read recently that former UN Ambassador John Bolton was contemplating a presidential run, presumably on the theory that he could hammer President Obama over national security and foreign policy issues. And why not, it's a free country.

But there's some bad news in this Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey of U.S. attitudes toward foreign policy. Specifically, there's not much evidence that America supports the kind of militaristic, unilateralism espoused by Bolton. Nor, as Matt Duss points out, is there overwhelming support for military action against Iran.

September 14, 2010

Turkey and the Freedom Agenda

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There's been some interesting reactions to Turkey's recent constitutional referendum.

The first is Commentary's J.E. Dyer who laments the constitutional reforms, suggesting that any moves to weaken Turkey's secular military removes a useful "check" against Islamism, despite the fact that this "check" is often exercised via anti-democratic coups.

The second reaction is Thomas Barnett, whose piece in World Politics Review ran on the front page yesterday afternoon, arguing that Turkey is an ideal strategic partner for the U.S. in the Muslim world:

If America could be magically granted its ideal Muslim strategic partner, what would we ask for? Would we want a country that fell in line with every U.S. foreign policy stance? Not if the regime was to have any credibility with the Islamic world. No, ideally, the government would be just Islamist enough to be seen as preserving the nation's religious and cultural identity, even as it aggressively modernized its society and connected its economy to the larger world. It would have an activist foreign policy that emphasized diplomacy, multilateralism and regional stability, while also maintaining sufficient independence from America to demonstrate that it was not Washington's proxy, but rather a confident great power navigating the currents of history. In sum, it would serve as an example to its co-religionists of how a Muslim state can progressively improve itself amid globalization's deepening embrace -- while remaining a Muslim state.

I seem to recall during the Bush-era that "spreading freedom" in the Greater Middle East was supposed to be the great calling of our times. Yet many of the same proponents of the freedom agenda are now raising alarm bells about creeping Islamism in Turkey. So what was going to happen if the Bush administration's freedom agenda actually succeeded in places like Saudi Arabia, or Egypt? Would the Middle East have become secular, more hospitable to Israel and more reliably supportive of Washington's foreign policy goals?

(AP Photo)