After the latest demonstration of Syria thumbing its nose at the Annan plan, Walter Russell Mead decided to go on a rhetorical bender against the United Nations:
The reality is that the UN today is less prestigious and influential than it was in the 1940s and 1950s. There used to be a time when General Assembly votes actually meant something. Newspapers used to report its resolutions on the front page. And the Security Council, on those rare occasions during the Cold War when it could actually agree on something, was seen as laying down the basic principles along which an issue would be resolved.
Now, this kind of rant is a rite of passage for a foreign policy pundit. I mean, there's no way you make it into the Council on Foreign Relations -- or Twitter Fight Club -- without at least one good, solid bashing of UN fecklessness.
That said, Mead's rant has this whiff of ... well, let's say erroneous assertion about it. Hayes Brown fisks Mead's blog post thoroughly and effectively, but I want to focus just on the above paragraph, because it makes such little sense.
First of all, exactly when did General Assembly votes ever mean anything? The only time during Mead's halcyon Cold War days of the UN in which the General Assembly mattered was the "Zionism = racism" resolution in 1975. I don't think making news because of an assinine statement really qualifies as "meaning something." The General Assembly was besotted with the New International Economic Order during the 1970s as well -- and, thankfully, these affirmations didn't amount to much either.
Second, Mead is correct that during the Cold War, Security Council agreeement made the front pages -- but that because it was just so friggin' rare. The Security Council was essentially in a state of permanent deadlock from the Korean War to the height of perestroika. Economic sanctions were approved a grand total of twice; the Security Council has imposed them juuuuust a wee bit more in recent years.
Sanctions are for sissies, though -- what about the blue helmets? Well, if Wikipedia is correct, UN peacekeepers were dispatched on thirteen missions during the Cold War era. Which happens to be exactly the same number of times UN peacekeepers have been approved since George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech -- a period that is only one-fourth as long as the Cold War. There are, by the way, 16 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions. I can bash aspects of the United Nations as well as the next commentator, but this is not an organization that even remotely resembles its Cold War state of decrepitude.
Look, the effectiveness of the United Nations as an instrument of statecraft is entirely a function of the current state of great power politics. This means that it was close to useless during the Cold War, pretty damn useful during the heyday of U.S. unipolarity, and now somewhere in between with the growth of the BRICs. The United Nations is to the great powers as Michael Clayton was to his law firm.
If great power gridlock grows, the United Nations will likely grow more dysfunctional. But we're a looooooooooong way from the Cold War. And Mead should know that.
Hey, remember how the new Al Qaeda was going to be more networked and more capable of inspiring home-grown terrorism? Remember how today's threat enviroment was supposed to be worse than the Cold War?
Bear these points in mind when considering two news items that crossed my screen today. In the first, courtesy of Micah Zenko, a Pentagon official suggests that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. overrestimated Al Qaeda's capabilities:
With the benefit of more than a decade of hindsight, America may have misjudged the true threat posed by al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, a top Pentagon official said Tuesday.
“Al-Qaida wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11,” said Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.
“Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11,” Sheehan told a room full of special operators in Washington who were attending an annual Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict Planning Conference.
“Everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 and said, ‘When is the next attack?’ And it didn’t come, partly because al-Qaida wasn’t that capable. They didn’t have other units here in the U.S. … Really, they didn’t have the capability to conduct a second attack.”
The true limitations of al-Qaida are one of two key reasons that America has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2001.
“The other reason is that we actually responded … and crushed al-Qaida immediately after 9/11, and continually for the last 10 years,” Sheehan said. “We are better than we often give ourselves credit for. We have a very polarized political system and it’s very difficult for anybody to actually give credit or receive credit for how good we are.”
Well, sure, Al Qaeda abroad has been weakened, but this homegrown thing, I mean, that's probably a really big-- hey, what is Scott Shane reporting about in the New York Times?
A feared wave of homegrown terrorism by radicalized Muslim Americans has not materialized, with plots and arrests dropping sharply over the two years since an unusual peak in 2009, according to a new study by a North Carolina research group.
The study, to be released on Wednesday, found that 20 Muslim Americans were charged in violent plots or attacks in 2011, down from 26 in 2010 and a spike of 47 in 2009.
Charles Kurzman, the author of the report for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, called terrorism by Muslim Americans "a minuscule threat to public safety." Of about 14,000 murders in the United States last year, not a single one resulted from Islamic extremism, said Mr. Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina (emphasis added).
Digging a wee bit into the actual report -- and read the whole thing, it ain't long -- I'll just reprint the closing two paragraphs below:
Repeated alerts by government officials may be issued as a precaution, even when the underlying threat is uncertain. Officials may be concerned about how they would look if an attack did take place and subsequent investigations showed that officials had failed to warn the public. But a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.
This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion. (emphasis added)
Now, I'm sure that the reason for this lull is that Al Qaeda's remaining assets in the United States are focusing their energies on getting all turkeys to become halal or something. That said, I'm going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago. Oh, and that I don't need to listen to Representative Peter King when he opens his mouth on national security issues.
I see the Eurasia Group has published their top ten risks for 2012. Given arguments by some about proliferating security risks and the necessity for bombing Iran, I'm assuming that it's going to be a pretty threatening year security-wise, right?
The most important macro theme for 2012: The world’s key political decision-makers will be focused heavily on questions of domestic economic stability at the expense of international security concerns at a moment when politics is having unprecedented impact on the global economy. This conflation of global politics and markets defines the formal end of the 9/11 era, a moment when decision-makers sought to isolate globalization from international security concerns....
The war on terror is being subsumed by fears for the global economic balance. This is not a conventional or unconventional weapons threat. It’s not a balance of terror or an individual terrorist. The new nightmares are of spiraling deficits, the eurozone crisis, and economic relations with China. These have become the primary risks to national security, though there are clearly other ongoing security concerns for the US.
But... but... Al Qaeda and Iran! Iran and Al Qaeda!! Surely these are important multidimensional threats, yes?
Say, what's in this Newsweek story by Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau?
Is it still too soon to write al Qaeda’s obituary? Over the past two years, the group’s ranks have been ravaged by America’s unmanned-aerial-vehicle attacks and by a steady exodus of demoralized jihadis fleeing Pakistan’s tribal areas. When Newsweek interviewed Hanif (his nom de guerre) for our Sept. 13, 2010, cover story, “Inside Al Qaeda,” he estimated that the group had roughly 130 Arabs in Waziristan, along with dozens more Chechens, Turks, Tajiks, even recruits from Western Europe. But little more than a year later, he estimates there are no more than 40 to 60 al Qaeda operatives of any nationality on either side of the border. “Al Qaeda was once full of great jihadis, but no one is active and planning opera-tions anymore,” he complains. “Those who remain are just trying to survive.”....
[B]y all accounts, al Qaeda has been practically wiped out in its former Afghan and Pakistani strongholds. Although America has suspended its drone attacks inside Pakistan since mid-November—the program’s longest hiatus in three years—the respite seems to have come too late for bin Laden’s old associates. “The drone attacks may have ended, but only after the near ending of al Qaeda in the tribal areas,” says a senior Taliban intelligence officer who has been in contact with surviving members of the group. “As far as I can tell, the operational command of al Qaeda has almost been eliminated.” Hanif’s uncle, a Taliban operative, tells Newsweek he’s been in contact with a few al Qaeda members who have taken refuge outside the tribal areas. “All of al Qaeda’s assets who had a strategic vision have been eliminated,” they’ve told him.
Well, surely Iran is on the rise, right? Right?
Iran’s ailing currency took a steep slide Monday, losing 12 percent against foreign currencies after President Obama on Saturday signed a bill that places the Islamic republic’s central bank under unilateral sanctions.
The currency, which economists say was held artificially high for years against the dollar and the euro, has lost about 35 percent of its value since September. Its exchange rate hovered at 16,800 rials to the dollar, marking a record low. The currency was trading at about 10,500 rials to the U.S. dollar in late December 2010.
The slide Monday came as Iran tested a domestically produced cruise missile during continuing naval drills near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, sending a message to the West that the country would not tolerate increased sanctions against its profitable oil industry.
But in Tehran, people said they were bleeding money....
"It is clear that there is lack of cohesion within the government on how to fix this,” said a prominent Iranian economist, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The market has lost all confidence in a solution.”
Look, I'm not saying that these actors are not threats. Test-firing cruise missiles sounds a wee bit disconcerting. But let's get real here -- these are supposed to be the actors that, combined, create a more threatening environment than the Cold War? That dog won't hunt.
It's time to admit that I'm getting old. I feel the aches and pains from workouts a bit more keenly. I have to Google acronyms I see on Twitter all the time. No matter how hard I try, I just don't feel comfortable wearing an untucked shirt with a blazer. Only now am I discovering Alison Brie, which makes me way behind the curve. Most importantly, however, I find myself reading threat assessments made by junior international relations scholars and shaking my head at these young-security-kids-with-their-having-no-memory-of-the-Cold-War.
To explain where I'm coming from, here's what I wrote a little more than a year ago:
Terrorism and piracy are certainly security concerns -- but they don't compare to the Cold War. A nuclear Iran is a major regional headache, but it's not the Cold War. A generation from now, maybe China poses as serious a threat as the Cold War Soviet Union. Maybe. That's a generation away, however....
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
I'll stand by that statement, and I'm not the only one here at FP to believe it. Over the past week, however, I'm seeing some
young whippersnappers junior scholars evince a different estimate of threats to U.S. national security.
Over at Shadow Government, Paul Miller has a four-part series -- count 'em, one, two, three, four -- of blog posts arguing that the world is a more dangerous place now than before. He sums up his argument in this concluding section:
Essentially, the United States thus faces two great families of threats today: first, the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, of which there are at least twice as many as there were during the Cold War; second, the aggregate consequences of state failure and the rise of non-state actors in much of the world, which is a wholly new development since the Cold War. On both counts, the world is more dangerous than it was before 1989. Essentially take the Cold War, add in several more players with nukes, and then throw in radicalized Islam, rampant state failure, and the global economic recession, and you have today.
I recognize that the world doesn't feel as dangerous as it did during the Cold War. During the Cold War we all knew about the threat and lived with a constant awareness-usually shoved to the back of ours minds to preserve our sanity-that we might die an instantaneous firey death at any moment. We no longer feel that way.
Our feelings are wrong. The Cold War engaged our emotions more because it was simple, easily understood, and, as an ideological contest, demanded we take sides and laid claim to our loyalties. Today's environment is more complex and many-sided and so it is harder to feel the threat the same way we used to. Nonetheless, the danger is real.
Meh. Actually, meh squared.
To be fair to Miller, I do think he is getting at something that has changed over time during the post-Cold War era. First, the threat envorinment does seem higher now than twenty years ago, as the Soviet Union was about to collapse. China is more economically powerful, Russia is more revanchist, North, Korea, Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, the barriers to entry for non-state actors to wreak havoc has gone up. The likelihood of a conventional great power war is lower, but the likelihood of a serious attack on American soil seems higher than in late 1991. So in terms of trend, it does feel like the world is less safe.
What's also changed, however, is the tight coupling of the Cold War security environment (ironically, just as the security environment has become more loosely coupled, the global political economy has become more tightly coupled). Because the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were such implacable adversaries and because they knew it, the possibility of a small dispute -- Berlin, Cuba, a downed Korean airliner -- escalating very quickly was ever-present. The possibility of an accident triggering all-out nuclear war was also higher than was realized at the time. The current threat environment is more loosely interconnected, in that a small conflict seems less likely to immediately ramp up into another Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, the events of the past year support that point. Saudi Arabia essentially invaded Bahrain, and Iran did.... very little about it. The United States deployed special forces into the heart of Pakistan's military complex. The aftermath of that is undeniably uglier, but it's not we-are-at-DEFCON-ONE kind of ugly. Miller might be more accurate in saying that there is a greater chance of a security dust-up in today's complex threat environment, but there's a much lower likelihood of those dust-ups spiraling out of control.
In Miller's calculations, it seems that any country with a nuclear weapon constitutes an equal level of threat. But that's dubious on multiple grounds. First, none of the emerging nuclear states have anywhere close to a second-strike capability. If they were to use their nukes against the United States, I think they know that there's an excellent chance that they don't survive the counterstrike. Second, the counter Miller provides is that these authoritarian leaders are extra-super-crazy. I'm not going to defend either the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Kim the Younger, but are these leaders more crazy than either Mao or Stalin or Kim Jong Il? Those are three of the worst leaders in history -- and none of them came close to using nuclear weapons. Finally, the Pakistan case is instructive -- even after getting nukes, and even after getting very cozy with radical terrorist groups, that country has refrained from escalating hostilities with India to the point of another general war.
As for the non-state threats, they are disturbing, but I'd posit that on this front the United States really is safer now than it was a decade ago. The only organization capable of launching a coordinated terrorist strike against the United States is now a husk of its former self. Indeed, I'd wager that Miller's emotions, or his memory of 9/11, are getting in the way of dispassionate analysis.
In essence, Miller conflates the number of possible threats with a greater magnitude of threats. I agree that there are more independent threats to the United States out there at present, but combined, they don't stack up to the Soviet threat. To put it another way, I prefer avoiding a swarm of mosquitoes to one really ravenous bear.
In related exaggerated threat analysis, Matthew Kroenig argues in Foreign Affairs that an airstrike on Iran might be the best of a bad set of options in dealing with Iran. This has set poor Stephen Walt around the bend in response, as op-eds advocating an attack on Iran are wont to do.
I've generally found both sides of the "attack Iran" debate to be equally dyspeptic, but in this case I do find Kroenig's logic to be a bit odd. Here's his arguments for why a nuclear Iran is bad and containment is more problematic than a military attack:
Some states in the region are doubting U.S. resolve to stop the program and are shifting their allegiances to Tehran. Others have begun to discuss launching their own nuclear initiatives to counter a possible Iranian bomb. For those nations and the United States itself, the threat will only continue to grow as Tehran moves closer to its goal. A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies -- other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War -- secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.
These security threats would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack (emphasis added).
OK, first, exactly who is bandwagoning with Iran? Seriously, who? Kroenig provides no evidence, and I'm scratching my head to think of any data points. The SCAF regime in Egypt has been a bit more friendly, but Turkey's distancing is far more significant and debilitating for Tehran's grand strategy. Iran's sole Arab ally is in serious trouble, and its own economy is faltering badly. The notion that time is on Iran 's side seems badly off.
Second, Kroenig presume that a nuclear Iran would be more aggressive in the region and more likely to have a nuclear exchange with Iran. I will again point to India/Pakistan. Despite similar religious divides, and despite the presence of pliable non-state actors, those two countries have successfully kept a nuclear peace. Kroenig might have an argument that Israel/Iran is different, but it's not in this essay. Indeed, the bolded section contradicts Kroenig's own argument -- if Iran is not prepared to use its nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that it will escalate crises to the point where its bluff is called. If Kroenig's own scholarship suggests that America's nuclear superiority would still be an effective deterrent, then I'm not sure why he portrays the Iran threat in such menacing terms.
There's more, but this post is long enough anyway. Both Kroenig and Miller are correct to highlight current threats. But, to put it gently, until all of these threats, combined, can cause this to happen in under an hour, I'm sleeping soundly.
Am I missing anything?
whored mingled enough with the magazine world to understand that publishing "best/worst" lists are fun and engaging. Some choices will be universally acknowledged, others will provoke controversy and debate, and so forth. Lists are always going to engage the readers. It's almost impossible to get them wrong.
I bring this up because The Atlantic's list of the best and worst foreign policy presidents of the past century is really, really wrong.
Democracy Arsenal's Michael Cohen cobbled together the list. Here are his criteria:
After reaching out to host of historians, foreign policy experts, academics and various think tankers here's one stab at answering a question which, in many respects, has no right answer. How you choose the best and worst foreign policy President depends in large measure on what values inform your vision of what a good foreign policy looks like. If you're a foreign policy idealist, Wilson would seem pretty good; a foreign policy realist; you might cast a vote for George H.W Bush or even Richard Nixon. If you prefer your presidents to talk tough, Harry Truman might be your man; if you prefer a more modest and less partisan figure, Dwight Eisenhower might float your boat.
As my list suggests, I tend to lean toward the more restrained, pragmatic realists who are suspicious about the use of force. Conversely, I'm more wary of not only the idealistic and ideologically driven presidents, but also those who use foreign policy, most destructively, as a tool of domestic politics.
OK, fair enough. Here's his list:
The Five Best Presidents: 1) FDR; 2) Dwight Eisenhower; 3) George H.W. Bush; 4) Ronald Reagan; 5) John F. Kennedy
The Five Worst Presidents: 1) LBJ; 2) Jimmy Carter; 3) Woodrow Wilson; 4) Harry Truman; 5) Richard Nixon.
I'll let Tom Ricks rebut the JFK assessment on his own blog. I'll let my readers make other objections -- and there are many ones to make -- with most of he list. My problem is with the assessment of Harry Truman as, somehow, one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century.
Here's Cohen's explanation -- let's do this by paragraph, shall we?
Harry Truman has in the nearly 50 years since he left the White House grown significantly in the estimation of both the public and many historians. To be sure, he deserves enormous credit for protecting and stabilizing Western Europe with the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO. These are signal achievements but as historians from Robert Dallek and Walter Lafeber to Fredrik Logevall have suggested there is a pretty significant downside to Truman's presidency as well.
One must stop here or a second and admire Cohen's ability to glom most of Truman's foreign policy accomplishments into a single sentence. That takes some doing. One could have at least noted that in the span of five years Truman and his foreign policy advisors created pragmatic institutions that not only withstood the Cold War but prospered even after it ended. Nope, nothing on that point. That takes some serious doing.
OK, let's move onto Truman's alleged defects:
First there was Korea. An impulsive response to a cross-border attack that re-shaped American foreign policy. It was the final nail in the coffin of the more modest containment strategy proposed by George Kennan and by default enshrined the notion that the US had a responsibility to contain Communism wherever it showed its fangs. But while the decision to go to war can be considered a debatable one; the failure in rein in Douglas MacArthur's push to the Yalu River, which triggered a Chinese intervention is a disaster that can't be washed away (even by Truman's later decision to fire the general). Considering that more than 20 million North Koreans continue to live in terrible hardship today because of that decision only compounds the mistake (emphasis added).
Why yes, that's so true. Had Truman not decided to respond in force in Korea, there wouldn't be 20 million North Koreans living in terrible hardship -- there would be at least 60 million Koreans living in terrible hardship.
Seriously, this line of reasoning makes no sense to me. I understand but strongly disagree with the logic that intervening in Korea was a mistake. I understand and kinda agree with the contention that crossing the 38th parallel was exceedingly costly in terms of blood and treasure. I simply can't understand, however, the argument that had the U.S. not made that push, North Korea would have evolved differently. Would Kim-Il Sung have abandoned juche if MacArthur hadn't tried for the Yalu?
Speaking of MacArthur, you can't acknowledge Truman's failure to rein him in without also acknowledging that by firing MacArthur, Truman cemented civilian control over the military just as the size of the U.S. military was reaching a new high.
Beyond Korea, the Truman Doctrine and its declaration that it was the "policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" laid the groundwork for the limitless definition of US national interests that unfolded over the next 60 years. As Kennan would later note, it was one thing to contain Communism in Europe (a goal on which Truman succeeded). It was quite another to broaden that goal to the rest of the world. There is, as a result, a straight line between Truman's foreign policy choices and the war in Vietnam.
Right, this is why Eisenhower felt compelled to intervene in Vietnam during Dien Bien Phu -- oh, wait, as Cohen points out in his Eisenhower write-up, he did the exact opposite of that. I don't buy straight-line arguments that take two decades to play out.
Then there was Truman's use of anti-Communist rhetoric for political advantage that turned what might have been a balance of power, geo-political clash into an ideological one. This, of course, also helped to politicize the Cold War in the United States and heightened the issue of anti-Communism. Indeed, few Presidents more flagrantly used foreign policy as a political punching bag as frequently as Truman.
I'd be more charitable towards this point if Cohen hadn't also said that Eisenhower "used Cold War fears to push for national highway system and more money for higher education, two smart national security investments." When is using foreign policy fears at home good and when is it bad, exactly? Based on Cohen's list, I can't tell.
Finally, ask yourself a counter-factual: how would the Cold War have unfolded if FDR had lived out his fourth term, rather than having the inexperienced Truman become the leader of the Free World? It's not hard to imagine that the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, so deftly handled by FDR during WWII, would have been minimized and a less militarist and dangerous conflict might have emerged. At the very least, as Robert Dallek points out even if superpower, ideological conflict between the US and Soviet Union was inevitable, Truman never really sought to find an alternative (emphasis added).
Again, I'm not sure what to make of this. First, Cohen acknowledged that FDR "sold out the Eastern Europe countries at Yalta." Does he believe that FDR would have somehow been able to repulse Stalin in Iran, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere without a Cold War -- or do those countries not matter?
Second, if the bipolar distribution of power made superpower conflict inevitable, why exactly should Truman be blamed for not dickering around with alternatives that would have crashed and burned? According to this logic, Truman is one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century because he failed to pursue unfeasible options. I'm sorry, but clearly I don't get it.
In his blog post explaining the list, Cohen acknowledges that:
I'm probably far too generous to John F. Kennedy, who makes the best list, and far too harsh to Richard Nixon, who makes the worst list. This is a pretty fair critique and if I had my druthers I'd put both men somewhere in the middle, but the need for editorial symmetry was too strong!
Fair enough -- but I'm sorry, listing Harry Truman as one of the five-worst foreign policy presidents is absurd.
Am, I missing anything?
There are many things that confuse me in life -- Manhattan parking rituals, the proliferation of rotaries in Massachusetts, the appeal of most reality television, and so forth. I think I'm going to have to add the Russian spy ring to this list.
Less than a week after Russian President Dmitri Medevedev's burger date with U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has busted eight Russkies in an espionage ring so heinous, they've been charged with.... "conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government."
Um.... so, in other words, the Russians are accused of some combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff?
Seriously, this story is the most bizarre foreign policy/international relations episode I've seen since the Sandy-Berger-let's-stuff--classified-documents-down-my-pants episode.
Here are the list of things that confuse me about this case:
1) What, exactly, were the Russian agents allegedly trying to do? According to the New York Times:
The suspects were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics, prosecutors say. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others. But the charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring — which included five couples — actually managed to collect.
Let's ask a more basic question -- is there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the interwebs?
2) Why were the arrests made now? Back to the Times:
After years of F.B.I. surveillance, investigators decided to make the arrests last weekend, just days after an upbeat visit to President Obama by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, one administration official said. Mr. Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said.
Based on the actual charges, there's no justification for the timing -- this is chump change. One is forced to assume that the FBI and DOJ know that other stuff is going on but can't prove it. Which is fine if you're willing to make that assumption.
I normally think the Russians are being paranoid when they start devising conspiracies, but in this case, I have at least some sympathy.
3. Anyone else gonna re-watch No Way Out? Because this sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie.
Seriously, I call on informed readers of this blog to offer some enlightenment on this episode, because it makes almost no sense to me.
SHIRLEY SHEPARD/AFP/Getty Images
While I'm ISAing, check out my article "Uncle Sam vs the Dragon" in the latest issue of The Spectator (U.K.). It compares the recent Sino-American contretemps to the Cold War. I argue that there actually are some decent parallels, but not necessarily the ones you'd expect. My closing graf:
In the Cold War, moments of brinksmanship caused both countries to back away from the precipice. It is possible that, as tensions between China and America mount, nervous chauvinism — in the form of economic nationalism, bureaucratic rivalries or Congressional stupidity — might trigger a cascade of misguided actions and cause a damaging conflict. We can hope that politicians in Beijing and Washington will learn the right lessons from history. But we can expect plenty more tension as Uncle Sam and the Dragon settle down together.
It occurs to me, however, that the Fall of the Wall is one of those rare Good News Events in which people remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened. For a multitude of cognitive reasons, I think most of these transcendent events -- the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, the 9/11 attacks -- are calamitous events. Beyond the fall of the Wall, I can only think of the Moon landing as a similar good new focal point.
So, my question to readers -- what were you doing when you heard the Berlin Wall had been breached? What was your reaction?
I'll go first -- I was a senior in college, and found out when I was in the coffee shop. My first thought was a profound desire to get on a plane and go to Berlin -- I had been there six months earlier, and here was no inkling of what was going to happen.
My second thought was unadulterated joy -- because the Cold War had been so omnipresent for my entire life, and it looked like it was headed for the dustbin.
What about you?
Your humble blogger's all-time favorite historian, Mary Elise Sarotte, has just published her magnum opus, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, about the fall of the Brelin Wall and the year of diplomacy that led to a renunified Germany ensconced within NATO and the European Union.
In the Washington Post yesterday, Sarotte recounts the precise manner in which the Berlin Wall fell. Turns out that a botched press conference played a rather significant role:
That night at 6, Guenter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo who served as its spokesman, was scheduled to hold a news conference. Shortly before it began, he received a piece of paper with an update on the regulations and a suggestion that he mention them publicly. He had not been involved in discussions about the rules and did not have time to read the document carefully before starting.
His hour-long news conference was so tedious that Tom Brokaw, who was there, remembered being "bored." But in the final minutes, an Italian journalist's question about travel spurred Schabowski's memory. He tried to summarize the new regulations but became confused, and his sentences trailed off. "Anyway, today, as far as I know, a decision has been made," he said. "It is a recommendation of the Politburo that has been taken up, that one should from the draft of a travel law, take out a passage. . ."
Among the long-winded clauses, some snippets leapt out: "exit via border crossings" and "possible for every citizen."
Suddenly, every journalist in the room had questions. "When does that go into force?" shouted one. "Immediately?" shouted another. Rattled and mumbling to himself, Schabowski flipped through his papers until he uttered the phrase: "Immediately, right away."
It felt as if "a signal had come from outer space and electrified the room," Brokaw recalled. Some wire journalists rushed out to file reports, but the questions kept coming, among them: "What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?"
Alarmed about what was unfolding, Schabowski concluded with more muddled responses: "The question of travel, of the permeability therefore of the wall from our side, does not yet answer, exclusively, the question of the meaning, of this, let me say it this way, fortified border." Furthermore, "the debate over these questions could be positively influenced if the Federal Republic [of West Germany] and if NATO would commit themselves to and carry out disarmament."
As NATO was unlikely to disarm itself by breakfast, Schabowski clearly did not expect much to happen that night. But it was too late -- by 7:03 p.m., the wires were reporting that the Berlin Wall was open.
Read the rest of the article to find out what happened at Checkpoint Charlie and other guardposts across the Wall that evening. And buy Sarotte's book to discover the rest of the story of German reunification.
The Russian stock market's rise can be traced to positive news on the nationalization of US mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.I'm going to be trying to wrap my head around the concepts in that sentence for the rest of the day.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.