As someone who is pretty friggin' wary about the use of American force in Syria, and as someone who does not shy away from snark in the blogosphere, I found Steve Walt's top ten warning signs of liberal imperialism to be more alienating than endearing.
Part of it is the "liberal imperialism" label -- as I noted when Mearsheimer first coined the term, it obfuscates far more than it reveals. Part of it is the absurdity of claiming that those advocating for intervention in Syria turn a blind eye to U.S. government abuses of civil liberties. Part of it is the post-Arab Spring pooh-poohing of non-Western desires for democracy. And part of it is the abject failure to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are conceptual flaws contained within the realist worldview. Walt's failure to acknowledge fallibility makes the entire post an exercise in elite condescension.
There's a lot of that going around these days -- see, for example, Roger Cohen's New York Review of Books evisceration of Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's new book Going to Tehran. If you read the entire review, it's clear that Cohen sympathizes with large chunks of the Leveretts' argument -- that current U.S. policy toward Iran is blinkered, a ratcheting up of the conflict will accomplish little, so maybe some kind of rapprochement should be attempted. Despite Cohen's sympathies to their logic, however, we get these passages in his review:
The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity.…
The overarching problem is that the Leveretts’ urge to defend the Islamic Republic’s every act destroys their credibility. It makes them implausible critics of US policy at a time when new thinking on Iran is urgently needed and a third US war in the Middle East looms. Going to Tehran could have been a useful book but it is buried in heavy doses of one-sided drivel.…
The Leveretts write:
For most Egyptians and other Middle Easterners, the “main division in the world” is not between democracies and dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated to the United States and countries who exercise genuine independence in policymaking.
On the contrary, everything I have seen and heard in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia over the past two years suggests it is precisely the quest for freedom from despotism that has driven brave people to revolution—the freedom at last to write and say what they like, act to change their lives, and join the modern world. This does not mean they want societies that are secular clones, or lackeys, of the West. But they are saying they do not want to live any longer in cowed societies riven by fear under the sway of an unaccountable authority. Khamenei’s Iran, and his position itself, is on the wrong side of this political tide.…
The Leveretts might have made a strong case for such creative diplomacy. A pity, then, that they see dark conspiracy in every US failing—and no failings on the other side. They blame America’s “imperial turn” and even suggest that President Obama’s “attempt to salvage Washington’s failed drive for regional hegemony could wind up doing more damage to American strategic prospects than George W. Bush’s debacles did.” They blame “liberal imperialists” (John Mearsheimer’s phrase), who, in the Leveretts’s telling, seem to include everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Leslie Gelb and Tom Friedman. They blame the neocons, of course, and they blame the Israel lobby, embodied by institutions like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where, as a note acknowledges, Hillary Mann Leverett once worked (and, as is not mentioned, wrote a paper in 1998 denouncing “Iranian links to international terrorism”).
They also blame the Iranian diaspora. And, in customary egregious style, they write that all four of these groups “use human rights issues as a tool to support American dominance over the Islamic Republic.” In the land of the Kahrizak Detention Center, scene of the worst abuses in 2009, and Evin Prison, human rights are a grave issue involving brutal mistreatment, not a “tool.”
Iran has been widely portrayed in the United States as an incarnation of evil. The Leveretts might have offered a counterbalancing account. Instead they have fallen prey to their own dangerous mythology of a benign Iranian order loved by its citizens. Their book is a disservice to truth and a betrayal of all the brave Iranians who, for more than a century now, have been seeking a political order that provides a genuine reconciliation of freedom, representative government, and faith.
This is the kind of review that makes it very easy to dismiss the entire book -- regardless of the merit of the policy argument.
What is it that causes Walt or the Leveretts (or Paul Krugman, if we're going to go there) to cloak arguments in self-defeating exaggerations and overheated rhetoric? I don't have a definitive answer, but I do have a hypothesis: This one of the lasting legacies of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom altered the landscape in United States foreign policy about the use of force -- but those in the foreign-policy community who argued against the war (and failed to dent either public or elite attitudes) have not caught up with that fact. It's as if, over the past decade, prominent realists have adopted the worst rhetorical tropes of their ideological adversaries.
People who already decry the use of American force in Syria or elsewhere will enjoy Walt's essay and the Leveretts' book -- they're playing to their ideological base. As exercises in persuasion, however, they don't just fail -- they actively harm their cause.
A standard take on how energy affects world politics is Tom Friedman's "First Law of Petropolitics" -- the belief that high energy prices cause energy exporters to act in more belligerent ways. What if the opposite is the case, however?
The Atlantic's Charles Mann has a long, winding cover story on the growth of non-traditional hydrocarbon energy reserves -- shale gas, methane hydrate, and so forth -- and what that could mean for world politics. The good parts version:
Shortfalls in oil revenues thus kick away the sole, unsteady support of the state—a cataclysmic event, especially if it happens suddenly. “Think of Saudi Arabia,” says Daron Acemoglu, the MIT economist and a co-author of Why Nations Fail. “How will the royal family contain both the mullahs and the unemployed youth without a slush fund?” And there is nowhere else to turn, because oil has withered all other industry, Dutch-disease-style. Similar questions could be asked of other petro-states in Africa, the Arab world, and central Asia. A methane-hydrate boom could lead to a southwest-to-northeast arc of instability stretching from Venezuela to Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan to Siberia. It seems fair to say that if autocrats in these places were toppled, most Americans would not mourn. But it seems equally fair to say that they would not necessarily be enthusiastic about their replacements.
Augmenting the instability would be methane hydrate itself, much of which is inconveniently located in areas of disputed sovereignty. “Whenever you find something under the water, you get into struggles over who it belongs to,” says Terry Karl, a Stanford political scientist and the author of the classic The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Think of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she says, over which Britain and Argentina went to war 30 years ago and over which they are threatening to fight again. “One of the real reasons that they are such an issue is the belief that either oil or natural gas is offshore.” Methane-hydrate deposits run like crystalline bands through maritime flash points: the Arctic, and waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia.
In a working paper, Michael Ross and a colleague, Erik Voeten of Georgetown University, argue that the regular global flow of petroleum, the biggest commodity in world trade, is also a powerful stabilizing force. Nations dislike depending on international oil, but they play nice and obey the rules because they don’t want to be cut off. By contrast, countries with plenty of energy reserves feel free to throw their weight around. They are “less likely than other states to sign major treaties or join intergovernmental organizations; and they often defy global norms—on human rights, the expropriation of foreign companies, and the financing of foreign terrorism or rebellions.” The implication is sobering: an energy-independent planet would be a world of fractious, autonomous actors, none beholden to the others, with even less cooperation than exists today.
Voeten's post at the Monkey Cage goes further.
The fact that China and the U.S. both currently rely on oil imports may be an important stabilizing force as it creates a shared interest in stable global oil markets and thus in ensuring that the Oceans are navigable, the Middle East is relatively stable, and that rules and norms whose violations could trigger instability are obeyed. Energy independence has long been thought to free U.S. foreign policy from undesirable constraints. But would the world be more stable if the U.S. had fewer constraints on how it exercises its foreign policy?
As if on cue, the Financial Times' Richard McGregor and Ed Crooks report that the Obama administration is starting to think about how to use the country's new energy bounty in
Although the energy department is the decision maker, the issue is being debated at senior levels in the White House which sees energy exports as giving the US new geopolitical leverage.
In a little-noticed speech in New York in late April, Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser, said the new energy bounty allowed the US “a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals”.
Mr Donilon said increased US and global gas production could break the link between the gas and more expensive oil prices and “weaken control by traditional dominant natural gas suppliers”.
The White House is also promoting gas as an alternative fuel to oil and coal as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions.
All of this has Walter Russell Mead a bit giddy, but let's go back to Mann and Voeten's point. Assuming that the extrapolations pan out -- and it's worth remembering that five years ago those projections looked very different -- will declining energy prices trigger an arc of instability?
Color me a bit skeptical. First, energy is hardly the only resource that imbricates the great powers with the rest of the global economy. The global value chain does that on its own quite nicely, thank you very much, and a glance at the new Trade in Value Added data makes that clear.
Second, if Donilon's speech was any indication of what new energy reserves would mean for U.S. foreign policy, I'd say retrenchment was not in the cards:
[R]educed energy imports do not mean the United States can or should disengage from the Middle East or the world. Global energy markets are part of a deeply interdependent world economy. The United States continues to have an enduring interest in stable supplies of energy and the free flow of commerce everywhere.
We have a set of enduring national security interests in the Middle East, including our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security; our global nonproliferation objectives, including our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; our ongoing national interest in fighting terrorism that threatens our personnel, interests and our homeland; our strong national interest in pursuit of Middle East peace; our historic stabilizing role in protecting regional allies and partners and deterring aggression; and our interest in ensuring the democratic transitions in Yemen, North Africa and ultimately in Syria succeed.
Furthermore, as the FT article suggests, the United States sees the change in natural gas as a way to expand exports into Latin America. This doesn't sound like a county that wants to retreat into autarky.
Third, there is one way in which reduced exports might make life easier for Middle Eastern governments -- in the short term. That region has the highest level of energy intensity in the world, in no small part because gas and oil are cheap and subsidized. Declining demand from elsewhere allows these governments to continue to provide cheap energy at home. From both a climate change perspective and an economic reform perspective, this ain't good news. But it does augment political stability.
Finally, this is a slow-motion change in the global energy picture. North America has moved the furthest down the road on this revolution -- Japan, China and Europe are just starting. So energy exporters have a fair degree of warning about what's coming. This doesn't mean that they'll use the lead time properly. Still, one of the reasons for building up sovereign wealth funds and the like is to insure against the time when the energy fairy disappears.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been pretty quiet about this week's Israeli/Hamas conflict. That's for a bunch of reasons:
1) I've had a few day job papers to bang out;
3) My bar to blogging about Israel and Palestine is whether I can offer anything more insightful than The Onion. It's a disturbingly high bar.
That said, I do think there are a few interesting political science questions that are worth asking after the past week. After all, we've just had an election in this country where it turns out that political science explained an awful goddamned lot. I wonder if some of that knowledge is being imbibed -- in uneven amounts -- in the Middle East.
In particular, I have three questions:
1) Has Bibi Netanyahu been reading Romer and Rosenthal? One of the landmark articles in political science is Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal's paper on the effect of the status quo on political positioning. One of the key takeaways is that in a two candidate race, if Candidate A takes an extreme position on the central policy issue, it allows Candidate B to adopt a policy position that is further away from the median voter and still win.
After reading Ethan Bronner's story in the New York Times on how the Gaza conflict is radicalizing the West Bank away from Fatah and towards Hamas (see also Haaretz), I wonder if Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has figured out the following political jujitsu:
STEP 1: Take actions that radicalize the Palestinian population -- particularly in the West Bank;
STEP 2: Have Fatah look less and less like a credible negotiating partner, have the world acknowledge that Hamas now represents the median Palestinian preference on peace talks;
STEP 3: Have Likus win Israeli election without changing its policy position, which suddenly doesn't look so bad to Israeli voters.
Actually, I'd posit that there's an element of this in the Israeli's right's strategy of the past decade, but it seems to be particularly blatant this time around.
2) Has Hamas been reading Stephen Walt? And if so, which Stephen Walt? No, I don't mean that Stephen Walt. I mean the author of The Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War. I bring this up cause those books would offer contrasting takes on what Hamas would expect the rest of the Middle East to do. It seems pretty clear from the press reportage that Hamas believed that This Time Was Different: the Arab Spring had eliminated authoritarian despots who had used the Palestinian issue as a useful vent for domestic unrest. Newly democratic regimes would -- according to Walt's Revolution and War -- be more likely to identify with Hamas' cause, thereby taking more aggressive action to undermine and isolate Israel. And, indeed, at the rhetorical and symbolic level, this has happened. Libya is sending a "solidarity delegation" to Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled Israel a "terrorist state," and Egypt's Morsi governmment has been pretty plain in blaming Israel for the latest hostilities.
The thing is, my bet would be on Walt's Origins of Alliances playing the larger role here. What's interesting about Arab government's reactions to this Operation Pillar of Defense is that they seem.... an awful lot like how Mubarak et al would have reacted. It would seem that once Islamic movements are charged with running a government, they suddenly start to care about things other than the occupied territories (this appears to be Dennis Ross' take as well, by the way). For example, I'd argue that these negotiations matter far more to the Morsi government than brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
3) Does the Israeli right really want to make U.S. Middle East policy a partisan football? CNN polled Americans on the conflict in Gaza, and just like every other poll on this question, Americans backed Israel pretty strongly. 57% of American sympathize with the Israelis; only 13% side with the Palestinians. But as The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper notes, there's a catch:
CNN's poll director, Keating Holland, finds that there is a great discrepancy in which Americans think the action is justified, however. Of particular note is that only about 40 percent of Democrats believe the self-defense measures are "justified."
"Although most Americans think the Israeli actions are justified, there are key segments of the public who don't necessarily feel that way," Holland tells CNN. "Only four in ten Democrats think the Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, compared to 74% of Republicans and 59% of independents. Support for Israel's military action is 13 points higher among men than among women, and 15 points higher among older Americans than among younger Americans."
Now, you can speculate all you want about the source of this partisan divergence -- *COUGH* Netanyahu gambled on Obama being a one-termer and lost *COUGH* -- but friends of Israel should be disturbed by this growing split. If Israel becomes a partisan issue, it's not really going to help Republicans all that much, because all it will do is mobilize the evangelical vote -- which they've already pocketed. And eventually, Israel will have to face a Democratic president with a base that no longer cares about Israel's security. That's not going to be a good day for Israel.
[Yeah, we still liked the Onion story better--ed. Yeah, me too.]
Your humble blogger enjoyed his time in Mexico City. He particularly enjoyed last night's dinner, at which the most delicious margaritas he had ever consumed were served. It is possible that he should not have enjoyed that last of his many margaritas, however, because he is now extremely cranky and waiting to board his flight back to the United States.
I bring up the crankiness because it's possible I'm overreeacting to the announcded format and topics for Monday night's foreign policy debate. Politico's Mike Allen -- via Dylan Byers -- relays the following:
[H]ere are the topics for the October 22 debate, not necessarily to be brought up in this order:
* America’s role in the world
* Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
* Red Lines – Israel and Iran
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
* The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World...
The format calls for six 15-minute time segments, each of which will focus on one of the topics listed above. The moderator will open each segment with a question. Each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Following the candidates’ responses, the moderator will use the balance of the 15-minute segment to facilitate a discussion on the topic.
So two-thirds of the debate will be about the Greater Middle East. Two-thirds. Schieffer has generously allowed that China and
Tomorrowland the entire Pacific Rim should get fifteen minutes. Here are the following areas and topics that apparently won't be discussed:
1) The eurozone crisis
2) Latin America
5) Foreign economic policy
7) North Korea
Now I get that some of these topics won't come up in a foreign policy debate that lasts only 90 minutes. But I'm also thinking that maybe, just maybe, it would be a better foreign policy debate if they actually talked about, you know, SOMETHING OTHER THAN THE MIDDLE EAST!!!!!!
I'm not saying the Middle East isn't important -- we have lost blood and treasure there, some of it very recently. But I simply do not believe that the region is so important that it should occupy 66.7% of a foreign policy debate.
That could just be the hangover talking. But I seriously doubt it.
Am I mising anything? No, scratch that -- what else is Schieffer missing in his misbegotten list of foreign policy topics?
Your humble blogger was all set to pivot from the U.S. presidential campaign to the state of the global economy when he stumbled across Tom Friedman's column this AM. The headline -- "It's Not Just About Us" -- was beguiling. It suggested the limits of U.S. influence in the region -- a suggestion that is not terribly popular with American foreign policy columnists. The bottom of the first paragraph -- following the de rigeur denunciation of Romney's latest foreign policy speech -- also makes this point:
The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us -- and them.
Okay, so what's our radical approach to a region with countries hostile to Israel, worried about Iran, and vulnerable to takeover by extremists? Friedman elaborates:
How does the U.S. impact a region with so many cross-cutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections, and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles. (To their credit, Romney wants to move in this direction and Obama’s Agency for International Development is already doing so.)
Three things. First, if you're recommending a policy that both presidential candidates are also advocating, then there's nothing new. Second, there's a strong whiff of "it's all about us" by the time the column comes to the end.
Oh, and third: Saudi Arabia. Think about it.
This last point raises an extremely important issue. We're going to have a foreign policy debate in less than two weeks, and based on the news cycle the Middle East is going to dominate it. So it would be good, when either candidate evinces broad, sweeping policy pronouncements on the region, to at least acknowledge the inconsistencies.
So... might I suggest to Bob Schieffer that when he moderates the foreign policy debate, he keep the follow-up questions listed below in case of emergencies?
1) You argue that we should aid conditionality and other measures to require democratization, liberalization, and the promotion of human rights in the Middle East. How exactly would this policy apply to Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf sheikhdoms (including Bahrain, home of the Fifth Fleet), and Israel's role in the occupied territories?
2) Is it possible for the United States to tie itself closer to Israel while still maintaining its popularity with newly empowered Arab populations? If so, how?
3) Why do you believe that economic sanctions will not work against Iran but that aid conditionality will work against newly-democratizing Arab regimes?
So yesterday David Corn at Mother Jones made some waves when he released a video of Mitt Romney loc
king up the Ayn Rand Institute's vote explaining that he had no chance of winning the "47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government."
Well, this morning, the foreign policy shoe dropped from the Romney video. Here's the excerpt of Romney musing about the two-state situation for Israel and Palestine:
I'm torn by two perspectives in this regard. One is the one which I've had for some time, which is that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish. Now why do I say that? Some might say, well, let's let the Palestinians have the West Bank, and have security, and set up a separate nation for the Palestinians. And then come a couple of thorny questions. And I don't have a map here to look at the geography, but the border between Israel and the West Bank is obviously right there, right next to Tel Aviv, which is the financial capital, the industrial capital of Israel, the center of Israel. It's—what the border would be? Maybe seven miles from Tel Aviv to what would be the West Bank…The other side of the West Bank, the other side of what would be this new Palestinian state would either be Syria at one point, or Jordan. And of course the Iranians would want to do through the West Bank exactly what they did through Lebanon, what they did near Gaza. Which is that the Iranians would want to bring missiles and armament into the West Bank and potentially threaten Israel. So Israel of course would have to say, "That can't happen. We've got to keep the Iranians from bringing weaponry into the West Bank." Well, that means that—who? The Israelis are going to patrol the border between Jordan, Syria, and this new Palestinian nation? Well, the Palestinians would say, "Uh, no way! We're an independent country. You can't, you know, guard our border with other Arab nations." And now how about the airport? How about flying into this Palestinian nation? Are we gonna allow military aircraft to come in and weaponry to come in? And if not, who's going to keep it from coming in? Well, the Israelis. Well, the Palestinians are gonna say, "We're not an independent nation if Israel is able to come in and tell us what can land in our airport." These are problems—these are very hard to solve, all right? And I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, "There's just no way." And so what you do is you say, "You move things along the best way you can." You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it. We don't go to war to try and resolve it imminently. On the other hand, I got a call from a former secretary of state. I won't mention which one it was, but this individual said to me, you know, I think there's a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. I said, "Really?" And, you know, his answer was, "Yes, I think there's some prospect." And I didn't delve into it (emphasis added).
Well, I'm tired of Mother Jones having all of the video exclusives!! Here's my exclusive of how one Middle East expert responded to Romney's explanation:
So I'm not a Middle East expert, but I do know a few things:
1) Neither all Palestinians not their leaders in the West Bank are committed to the destruction of Israael;
2) Whatever contours a possible Palestinian state would have, it won't border Syria
3) One of the best critiques that a GOP challenger can make of Barack Obama's administration is that he's made a hash of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. In this video, Romney pretty much revealed that he wouldn't be changing that policy anytime soon.
David Brooks, in responding to the first part of the Romney video, concluded that Romney "really doesn't know much about the country he inhabits." Unfortunately, with this video, Romney has demonstrated that the doesn't know that much about the world he inhabits either.
We've had a week where riots in the Middle East have raged against the United States, NATO's Afghanistan policy seems to be falling apart, and China seems bound and determined to foment crises in the Pacific Rim. A smart presidential candidate could find a lot of material to criticize the Obama administration on foreign policy. Instead we have a GOP nominee that can't manage his own campaign, much less deep thoughts on geopolitics.
So if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna be doing a double face-palm for the rest of today.
In 2012, I've begun to notice that there have been certain instances where events move so rapidly that my blogging about them is futile -- even in the time it takes for me to cogitate and craft a blog post, the situation on the ground changes. This happened with the Chen Guangcheng case, and it happened this week with the rash of protests and violent stormings of U.S. facilities in the Greater Middle East. Now it's certainly possible that I'm losing my fastball, but I think it might be that there are moments when taking a deep breath and stepping back are useful exercises before rendering judgment and analysis.
[Uh, it's been a few days now, so you ready for some judgment and analysis?--ed. Yep. Let's blog this mother!]
The more I think about it, the more bemused I've been by calls for Mitt Romney to give a major speech on foreign policy. Right now, it's the president who needs to deliver a major address. Americans are rightly confused by what the United States is doing in the Middle East, and President Obama had a pretty uneven week. On the one hand, there appears to have been some adroit behind-the-scenes diplomacy on Egypt. On the other hand, there are crisis moments when patience begins to look too much like passivity, and that's beginning to happen to this administration. Sure, there have been times in the past when U.S. embassies and consulates around the world faced even greater threats -- but things still seem pretty uncertain, U.S. lives have been lost, and the only thing that can be said for Barack Obama's leadership this week is that he's not Mitt Romney. Oh, and that the administration's argument that this has been caused by a single stupid Youtube clip is utter horses**t.
The American public is already predisposed towards getting the hell out of the Middle East. Seeing images of consulates burning down, caskets coming home draped in American flags, and Middle East leaders reacting slowly and tepidly to the threat of street mobs will only reinforce this predisposition. Most Americans, facing these images after two long and draining wars in the region, will likely want to reduce the U.S. profile in the Middle East even more.
That would be a mistake, for numerous reasons -- not the least of which is that the U.S. eventually does benefit if these countries manage to transition to genuine electoral democracies. It's telling that in Egypt and Libya it was the losers at the ballot box who created trouble in the streets. A reduction of the U.S. presence in these countries does not necessarily send the best of signals -- just as encouraging the use of deadly force in retaliation wouldn't either.
This strikes me as exactly the kind of "teachable moment" that President Obama used to love. So if I were a foreign policy advisor to president Obama, I'd advise him to deliver a natonally televised speech to the country in which he addressed the following:
1) What measures were being taken to protect U.S. lives at our consulates and embassies across the world;
2) What he thinks the origins of the current conflagrations have been (hint: saying it's a YouTube clip would be a radically incomplete and dishonest answer);
3) Why the United States needs to maintain an active diplomatic, security and commercial presence in the region;
4) What the United States government needs to start doing differently in order to best advance our interests in the region.
Now, obviously, this speech would have to be crafted with an eye towards the region as well -- which is both the beauty and the challenge of it.
Moreover, if I were one of Obama's political advisors, I would sternly warn him against doing this, because the downside risks would be massive. Americans don't care much about foreign policy, and this speech could seem like a distraction from the domestic policy debates of the presidential campaign. Such a speech would have to acknowledge his own administration's foibles and fumbles in the region. The address could easily act as a focal point to trigger another wave of violence and instability.
That said, the U.S. really is stuck in the Middle East -- better to be stuck with full information than with muddling through. Or, at least, full information that we're muddling through.
One of the most frustrating things about Mitt Romney's blunders this week is that they took the pressure off of the Obama administration. When the challenger has set this low of a bar, it's not hard for the administration to claim that they're the adults in the room. Well, it's not enough just to be the adults -- they're the ones in charge, and they're the ones that need to make the case for patience, for persistence, and for diplomatic engagement. Get cracking.
I was trying to cogitate a post on the attacks in Cairo and Benghhazi yesterday inspired by this 13-minute piece of tripe that was consistent with what I've said before about stupid speech acts and the necessity of government tolerance of them.
Fortunately, Marc Ambinder has already written something that is better than anything I can craft on the fly, so I'll just outsource the argument to him. In particular:
We live in a world where American provocateurs can easily arouse the militancy of Muslim extremists who are more ubiquitous than even I would like to admit, or, at the very least, allow bad people to use extant anti-American sentiment to whip crowds into frenzies. In either case, innocent people, including Americans, die.
On Twitter, the first instinct of a lot of Americans was retributive justice. But the U.S. government's sensitivity about the mood of the violent protesters is maddening but necessary. Being aggressive would cause more unnecessary dying.
Those who use the gift of institutionally and legally-protected free speech to exploit and prey upon the vulnerability of certain people to violence ought to be shamed.
At the same time, the people who killed people; protesters, thugs, militants, whomever, are ultimately responsible for their actions. If the U.S. government is going to discourage our own idiots from provoking people, then the governments of Egypt and Libya should act to corral those within their own nations who would storm an embassy on the pretext that a film offends. Well, barely, a film. A piece of anti-Muslim bigotry that was made to make the filmmakers feel good and others feel bad. If, as an American, I feel embarrassed that so many of my fellow Americans are bigots, I would, as an Egypt or a Libyan, be even more horrified that the majority in my country seemed unable to stop (and barely condemn) the even more deplorable violent religious extremism of a minority.
The Arab Spring is incredibly messy and it is hard to see how American values and sensibilities about religious speech will ever take hold in some countries there. That’s incredibly depressing, but I do know this: The barrels of our own guns won't help anything either.
Your humble blogger has fiercely resisted getting drawn into the scrum regarding Niall Ferguson's Newsweek jeremiad against Barack Obama. I kinda already said my piece about Ferguson as a polemicist more than a year ago. The
fact-check critical blowback and Ferguson's response and the response to Ferguson's response have been truly nasty. And I'm supposed to be on vacation. There are beaches very close to where I am typing this. The Official Blog Wife will be unhappy -- and you do not want to see the Official Blog Wife unhappy on vacation.
At the moment, however, I find myself alone next to a computer. And I have noticed that most of the commentary has been directed at Ferguson's discussion of the U.S. economy. The foreign policy section of the essay has been comparatively neglected (though see here), and I was curious to see how it held up to a fact-check. So -- quickly, before the Official Blog Family returns from the beach -- let's dive in!
The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences. The World Bank expects the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent in 2012. China will grow four times faster than that; India three times faster. By 2017, the International Monetary Fund predicts, the GDP of China will overtake that of the United States.
David Frum has already pointed out -- in a defense of Ferguson, mind you -- the ways in which Ferguson's calculatons of the Chinese economy are... er... geopolitically a bit off. By using purchasing power parity rather than market exchange rates, Ferguson is magnifying China's economic power just a wee bit. Or as Frum puts it, "things are not yet quite so dire as Ferguson fears."
Meanwhile, the fiscal train wreck has already initiated a process of steep cuts in the defense budget, at a time when it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place—least of all in the Middle East.
You know, it's a funny coincidence, cause I was just perusing the Institute for Economics and Peace's 2012 Global Peace Index, which measures "the extent to which countries are involved
in ongoing domestic and international conflicts." A key conclusion they draw in the 2012 report? "The average level of peacefulness in 2012 is approximately the same as it was in 2007 (p. 37)." So, actually, it is somewhat clear that the world -- and the United States -- remains comparatively safe and secure.
For me the president’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power. Far from developing a coherent strategy, he believed—perhaps encouraged by the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize—that all he needed to do was to make touchy-feely speeches around the world explaining to foreigners that he was not George W. Bush.
I discussed whether the Obama administration had a grand strategy at length in Foreign Affairs last year. I think Ferguson has half a point here on the "touchy-feely speeches" Obama delivered in his first year -- but his administration has clearly pivoted (get it?) away from that first-year approach
In Tokyo in November 2009, the president gave his boilerplate hug-a-foreigner speech: “In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another ... The United States does not seek to contain China ... On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.” Yet by fall 2011, this approach had been jettisoned in favor of a “pivot” back to the Pacific, including risible deployments of troops to Australia and Singapore. From the vantage point of Beijing, neither approach had credibility.
What evidence is there that the rebalancing strategy hasn't worked and lacks credibility? The initial response to the pivot was pretty positive, and it's safe to say that China noticed it. I'm not saying that no evidence exists, mind you. I'm saying that sheer assertion by Ferguson does not in and of itself constiute evidence.
Believing it was his role to repudiate neoconservatism, Obama completely missed the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy—precisely the wave the neocons had hoped to trigger with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When revolution broke out—first in Iran, then in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria—the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail.
In the case of Iran he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. Ditto Syria. In Libya he was cajoled into intervening. In Egypt he tried to have it both ways, exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, then drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.” The result was a foreign-policy debacle. Not only were Egypt’s elites appalled by what seemed to them a betrayal, but the victors—the Muslim Brotherhood—had nothing to be grateful for. America’s closest Middle Eastern allies—Israel and the Saudis—looked on in amazement.
"This is what happens when you get caught by surprise," an anonymous American official told the New York Times in February 2011. “We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt moves from stability to turmoil? None.”
Man, there's a lot to unpack here. First, I'm calling bulls**t on the Iran claim. Note to Niall: it's never a good idea to use a Jennifer Rubin talking point. Second, I'm pretty sure the administration has been active in Syria -- just not as active as Ferguson would like. Third, it's waaaaay too soon and simplistic describe Egypt as a "foreign-policy debacle."
Regarding the strategic surprise, Ferguson is telling the truth but not the whole truth. Sure, Obama was caught unawares. So was everyone else. I talked to a lot of high-ranking Israeli leaders/thinkers when I visited the country less than six months before the Arab Spring, and not a single person we talked to even hinted at any kind of pan-Arab uprising. Ferguson attends Herzliya regularly, so I'm curious whether he knows any Israelis who picked up on this.
My point here is that Israel has a powerful incentive to monitor everything going on in the Arab world -- and they didn't pick up on the Arab Spring. Does Ferguson seriously believbe a President McCain would have detected it?
Remarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security. Yet the public mistakes his administration’s astonishingly uninhibited use of political assassination for a coherent strategy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the civilian proportion of drone casualties was 16 percent last year. Ask yourself how the liberal media would have behaved if George W. Bush had used drones this way. Yet somehow it is only ever Republican secretaries of state who are accused of committing “war crimes.”
The real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence (as well as antagonizing locals) every time a drone strikes. It symbolizes the administration’s decision to abandon counterinsurgency in favor of a narrow counterterrorism. What that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice was for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.
Ferguson makes some interesting points here, but can we talk about the elephant in the room? Why does Ferguson think Obama polls well on national security? Killing bin Laden, the Libya war, the rebalancing strategy, and the withdrawal from Iraq are commonly cited. Guess which one on that list Ferguson fails to mention.
As for what veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq think, well, Pew polled vets on this very question in the fall of 2011. The results? "While post-9/11 veterans are more supportive than the general public, just one-third (34%) say that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have both been worth fighting." Nevertheless, 96% of them felt proud of their military service. So I'm guessing that they want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan too.
[UPDATE: Damn Pew's deceptive topline results! Looking a bit deeper, I see support for the war in Afghanistan still commands 50% support among post-9/11 veterans. On the other hand, these post-9/11 veterans also overwhelmingly (87%) support the increased use of unmanned drones that Ferguson dislikes so much.]
America under this president is a superpower in retreat, if not retirement. Small wonder 46 percent of Americans—and 63 percent of Chinese—believe that China already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower or eventually will.
I like using survey data to bolster my arguments just as much as the next guy -- but I'm also willing to say quite clearly when the public is wrong about something -- and they're wrong about this. Furthermore, Ferguson knows this perception is wrong. We know from the previous paragraph that he doesn't care for public attitudes when he disagrees with them, but he uses it here. The reason? This time it supports his argument.
My verdict: the foreign policy section isn't as bad as the domestic policy section of Ferguson's article, but it's still sloppy. Ferguson makes a lot of lazy assertions without backing them up with facts. Some of the facts he uses are a bad fit for the arguments he's trying to make. And he values similar data points differently depending on whether they support his argument or not.
There are some good critiques that can be made of the Obama administration's foreign policy, and Ferguson skirts close to some of them. But Romney supporters can do better.
The New Republic wouldn’t be soliciting my take if there was an easy solution to this policy conundrum. Indeed, Syria is such a tough nut to crack that I fear the best approach to the problem is to apply a Sherlock Holmes-style logic to it. When all of the impossible policy choices have been eliminated, only the improbable ones—however unpalatable they might be—are left to mull over.
Read the whole thing: I confess to not being happy with either of my suggested policies (buy off the Russians; arm the Free Syrian Army), but as I conclude, "the sad truth is that there is no good outcome, only different shades of terrible."
For some other policy suggestions, see Daniel Serwer and Caitlin Fitzgerald on the reverting-to-nonviolence option. This argument does have some support in the academic literature -- but I also think this option has been overtaken by events.
On the opposite side of the spectrum. I'd also recommend reading Dan Trombly's extended realpolitik cost-benefit analysis of myriad options and policy contingencies for Syria. His key paragraph:
The much more unpleasant strategic reality is that, whether foreign forces intervene or not, the U.S. receives little reward from hastening Assad’s downfall. An embattled Assad imposes just the same limitations on Syrian and Iranian threats to U.S. interests. Resources will have to be diverted from the proxies Iran supports through Syria to Syria itself as Iran tries to maintain its host’s viability. The loss of Assad’s regime would mean a rapid retrenchment in Iranian support, for sure, but this would likely be replaced by a proxy campaign against Syria’s new government and its foreign backers, or a redeployment of IRGC/QF assets to other theaters, probably against the U.S (if not both). Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.
This is cold -- but in the absence of rapid regime change, it's also spot-on. My only point of disagreement with Trombly is that he thinks supporting/arming/training the FSA is a bad idea, while I think it's a surefire way to achieve his preferred outcome. This wasn't the logic I used in my TNR essay, and it's one I'm reluctant to voice, but there it is.
What do you think?
The AP breathlessly reports that Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow today, which means another six weeks of winter. Based on recent data, I'm wondering if Syria's Bashar al-Assad can say the same thing.
Earlier this week the U.S. intelligence heads testified on Syria, and offered some surprising assessments:
Syrian President Bashar al Assad will not be able to maintain his grip on power in the wake of a wave of opposition that has dragged on for almost a year, America’s top intelligence officials told Congress today.
“I personally believe it’s a question of time before Assad falls,” James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus added, “I generally subscribe to that as well.”
Clapper said “it could be a long time” before the Assad regime falls because of “the protraction of these demonstrations” and a Syrian opposition that remains fragmented. Despite that, Clapper said “I do not see how long he can sustain his rule of Syria.”
Hey, remember how, a year ago, Clapper got into trouble for being honest about the state of affairs in Libya despite his honesty being a political inconvenience? This is precisely why I find his testimony so credible.
Recent facts on the ground buttress Clapper's assessment -- as does the Financial Times' David Gardner's reportage, which is chock-full of interesting facts about the Assad regime's constrained ability to repress:
The [Assad] regime believed it could crush the uprising, which began in mid-March after revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, by the end of April and then in the summer Ramadan Offensive. It failed.
These operations revealed its reliance on two dependable units -- the 4th Armoured Division and the Republican Guard, made up of Alawites, the heterodox Shia minority that forms the backbone of the regime, and commanded by Mr Assad’s volatile younger brother, Maher. Whenever the Assads deployed units with a rank-and-file reflecting Syria’s 70 per cent Sunni majority -- as they had to if their offensives were to cover more than the hot spots of the moment -- defections ensued.
Even more interesting is Gardner's take on the evolving Russian position:
Russian diplomats…despite their rhetoric, have been talking to Syrian opposition figures and, according to the latter, carefully considering the Arab League proposals. As a veteran U.S. diplomat puts it, “there is a squishiness to where they [the Russians] are now”.
Russia does have a commercial interest in Syria, and arms the regime but the value of this depends on whether it will get paid, by a government running out of cash. It is only six years since Moscow had to write off more than $10bn in unpaid Syrian debts from the Soviet era.
Its real interest is in retaining its base facilities at the port of Tartus, its last naval asset in the Mediterranean. For that it will eventually need to reach an understanding with Syria’s future, not hold on to its past. Tartus is a long-term strategic asset. The Assads are no longer a long-term proposition.
This is new and interesting information, and does appear to track multiple reports that the negotiations in Turtle Bay will lead to an actual Security Council resolution on Syria. If Russia cuts a deal with the opposition and removes its veto from multilateral action, how long can Assad hold out?
What do you think? Will Assad be out of power in Syria inside of six weeks or not?
Let's consider and contrast American foreign policy towards Russia and China over the past few years.
With Russia, the Obama administration announced a much-ballyhooed "reset" with the goal of improving bilateral relations. In an effort to advance that goal, the administration reworked missile defense system plans in eastern Europe, creating political headaches for governments in the region to make Moscow happy. The administration took great pains to endorse a Russian proposal on Iran's nuclear program. The administration signed a fresh new arms control treaty and then expended a decent amount of political capital to get NewSTART ratified. Washington conducted some serious behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get Russia into into the WTO. Most recently, the administration appointed a chief architect of the "reset" policy as ambassador to Russia.
With China, the Obama administration (after some idle G-2 talk) has been far more aggressive. The administration has "pivoted" it's foreign policy resources toward the Pacific Rim, with the not-so-subtle signal that China is the focus of this pivot. Washington has poked its nose into the South China Sea dispute, and recently announced a decision to station troops in Australia. It pushed forward a framework trade agreement that pointedly does not include China, while simultaneously calling on that country to let its currency appreciate. The State Department has reached out to one of China's longstanding allies in an effort to coax the nascent democratization in that country into something more long-lasting. This is simply part of a larger theme in which Washington is seemingly bear-hugging any significant country that is concerned about Beijing. The U.S. ambassador to China, when not becoming an online sensation among ordinary Chinese, is busy criticizing Beijing's human rights record.
So, to sum up: the Obama administration has made it something of a priority to improve relations with Russia, while at the same time investing serious amounts of diplomatic capital into various frameworks and initiatives that hedge against a rising China.
Now compare and contrast how Moscow and Beijing are thinking about Washington this week. In Beijing:
China and the United States should cooperate more closely to defuse international crises and ensure friction does not overwhelm shared interests, China's likely next president, Xi Jinping, said on Monday, setting an upbeat tone for his impending visit to Washington.
"No matter what changes affect the international situation, our commitment to developing the Sino-U.S. cooperative partnership should never waver in the face of passing developments," Vice President Xi told a meeting in Beijing.
"In dealing with major and sensitive issues that concern each side's core interests, we must certainly abide by a spirit of mutual respect and handle them prudently, and by no means can we let relations again suffer major interference and ructions."
Xi's mood-setting speech did not unveil new policies or give the precise date for his U.S. visit. But he stressed Beijing's desire for steady relations for his visit and his accession to running the world's second biggest economy after America's.
And now Moscow:
Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned Wednesday that outside encouragement of antigovernment uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to “a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.”
Mr. Lavrov’s annual news conference was largely devoted to a critique of Western policies in Iran and Syria, which he said could lead to a spiral of violence.
His remarks came on the heels of a report on state-controlled television that accused the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who has been in Moscow for less than a week, of working to provoke a revolution here. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, at an impromptu meeting with prominent editors, also unleashed an attack on the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which he said was serving American interests.
Now, it's possible to find other news stories that suggest China might not be handling all aspects of the bilateral relationship with equal aplomb, and its possible that these Russian statements contain more bluster than bite. Still, stepping back, the larger narrative does seem to be that Russia has adopted an angrier and more belligerent posture toward American foreign policy in recent months, while China has responded with more aplomb.
Why? I don't know if there's an easy and accurate explanation. Some neoconservatives might proffer that authoritarians only respond positively to strength, and therefore Russia feels more emboldened than China. I seriously doubt that this is about bandwagoning. Similarly, it could be argued that Russia is more domestically insecure than China, what with the recent protests and all. Again, I seriously doubt this, as it's not like China hasn't experienced some domestic hiccups as well this year.
There are two more compelling explanations, but I honestly don't know if they work either. The first is that Russia and China have different diplomatic styles. Russian diplomats are far more comfortable with being blunt in their assessments of American intentions and actions, whereas Chinese diplomats are more comfortable laying low and not making as much of a public fuss. Furthermore, China has moved down the learning curve, recognizing that its 2009-10 policy of "pissing off as many countries as possible" didn't turn out so well. It's possible that the substance of both countries' approaches toward the United States are not that different -- they just go about it in ways that play very differently in the media.
The second, more realpolitik explanation is that China and Russia are looking into the future, and Beijing is far more sanguine than Moscow. Russia is suffering from institutional dysfunction and demographic decay. It's only great power assets are bountiful natural resources, a huge land mass, and nuclear weapons. China will encounter difficulties in the future, but does not have nearly the same kind of structural stresses as Russia. Beijing is therefore simply less anxious than Moscow about U.S. policy, because it has more hard and soft power resources.
To be honest, I'm not thrilled with either of these explanations. So, dear readers, I put it to you: why is Russia acting more bellicose toward an accommodating policy from the United States, whereas China is reacting calmly toward a more aggressive United States?
This has been an exceedingly weird week with respect to the escalating dispute between Iran and countries not thrilled with Iran's nuclear program. On the one hand, you have the United States going to great lengths to widen and deepen the sanctions regime against Iran and deter Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz. On the other hand, you have U.S. officials contradicting themselves and backtracking from statements made to the Washington Post over the precise purpose of the sanctions. On the third hand, you have signals that Turkey is brokering another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1.
And then, in the last hand, you have... Israel. Some weird s**t has been going down. Following the apparent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took great pains to "categorically deny" U.S. involvment. In a New York Times front-pager, U.S. officials were even more explicit:
The assassination drew an unusually strong condemnation from the White House and the State Department, which disavowed any American complicity. The statements by the United States appeared to reflect serious concern about the growing number of lethal attacks, which some experts believe could backfire by undercutting future negotiations and prompting Iran to redouble what the West suspects is a quest for a nuclear capacity.
“The United States had absolutely nothing to do with this,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to expand the denial beyond Wednesday’s killing, “categorically” denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran.”
“We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Also this week, FP ran a story by Mark Perry describing Israel's "false flag" operation to recruit Pakistani terrorists. In the essay, Perry gets the following quotes from retired U.S. intelligence officials:
There's no question that the U.S. has cooperated with Israel in intelligence-gathering operations against the Iranians, but this was different. No matter what anyone thinks, we're not in the business of assassinating Iranian officials or killing Iranian civilians....
We don't do bang and boom... and we don't do political assassinations.
Contrast this with the Israeli quotes in the NYT story:
The Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on Facebook about the attack, said, “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear,” Israeli news media reported....
A former senior Israeli security official, who would speak of the covert campaign only in general terms and on the condition of anonymity, said the uncertainty about who was responsible was useful. “It’s not enough to guess,” he said. “You can’t prove it, so you can’t retaliate. When it’s very, very clear who’s behind an attack, the world behaves differently.” (emphasis added)
I think the bolded section in the last paragraph suggests some intuition about what is happening. If it's true that ambiguity about who is responsible for covert action is useful, and the United States is categorically denying its role in the assassination part of the covert action, then the Obama administration is openly and clearly signaling to Israel to cut it out.
As to why the United States is doing this, I'd posit one or a combination of the following reasons:
1) Washington might have moral or legal qualms with the assassination dimension of these covert actions;
2) Such assasinations give the Iranian government cover to conduct its own assassinations campaign, which winnows the number of scientists the United States can recruit for its own intelligence;
3) The Obama administration thinks it can topple the regime, but these assassinations will be counterproductive;
4) The Obama administration has been trying to get Iran back to the bargaining table, and this kind of covert action stops that from happening;
5) The Obama administration is fragmented and therefore not entirely certain what it's aims are in Iran, but the policy principals know that what Israel is doing ain't helping.
I'm leaning towards (5) at this point, but I'd entertain other explanations in the comments below.
Developing... in some very bizarre ways.
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has some further reporting that reveals a bit of the current uncertainty and the bureaucratic wrangling that appears to be going on. Some key parts:
U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.
President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.
Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week....
Mr. Panetta and other top officials have privately sought assurances from Israeli leaders in recent weeks that they won't take military action against Iran. But the Israeli response has been noncommittal, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials briefed on the military's planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm.
"Our concern is heightened," a senior U.S. military official said of the probability of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections.
Tehran crossed at least one of Israel's "red lines" earlier this month when it announced it had begun enriching uranium at the Fordow underground nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom.
The planned closing of Israel's nuclear plant near Dimona this month, which was reported in Israeli media, sounded alarms in Washington, where officials feared it meant Israel was repositioning its own nuclear assets to safeguard them against a potential Iranian counterstrike.
Despite the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, U.S. officials have consistently puzzled over Israeli intentions. "It's hard to know what's bluster and what's not with the Israelis," said a former U.S. official.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, this is just peachy:
The IRNA state news agency said Saturday that Iran's Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic letter to the U.S. saying that it has "evidence and reliable information" that the CIA provided "guidance, support and planning" to assassins "directly involved" in Roshan's killing.
The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination....
In the clearest sign yet that Iran is preparing to strike back for Roshan's killing, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, the spokesman for Iran's Joint Armed Forces Staff, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency Saturday as saying that Tehran was "reviewing the punishment" of "behind-the-scene elements" involved in the assassination.
"Iran's response will be a tormenting one for supporters of state terrorism," he said, without elaborating. "The enemies of the Iranian nation, especially the United States, Britain and the Zionist regime, or Israel, have to be held responsible for their activities."
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?
The Washington Post's Liz Sly has been doing some excellent reporting on the ground in Syria, and her latest report suggests that the latest batch of sanctions are starting to hurt Syria badly:
The dramatic decision by Arab states to turn against President Bashar al-Assad could further damage Syria’s economy at a time when it is already unraveling, posing perhaps a graver challenge to Assad’s survival than the country’s nearly-eight-month-old popular uprising, analysts say....
The extent of the damage is difficult to measure, and Syrian government officials say they don’t have indicators. But they do not play down the gravity of the situation.
Syrian Economy Minister Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar said at a conference last month that the economy is in a “state of emergency,” according to comments quoted by the Damascus-based Syria Report. In a recent interview in Damascus, Adib Mayalah, governor of the Central Bank of Syria, described the situation as “very serious” and ticked off the problems the economy is facing.
“Unemployment is rising, imports are falling, and government income is reduced,” he said. “In areas where there are protests, there is no economic activity — so people aren’t paying tax. Because they aren’t working, they are not repaying their loans — so the banks are in difficulty. And all this is weakening the economy.”
Merchants interviewed recently on the streets of Damascus report a 40 to 50 percent fall in business as consumers hoard cash and cease spending on all but the most essential items. Tourism has skidded to a halt, representing a loss of $2 billion a month to an economy worth $59 billion last year, Mayalah said.
“The whole system has been shrinking — and very fast,” said Rateb Shallah, a prominent Damascus businessman. “The sanctions are squeezing us, and it is definitely affecting us quite a bit.
To what extent the downturn is due to the sanctions isn’t clear, however.
Until now, only the United States, the European Union, Canada and Japan have imposed sanctions on Syria, with relatively limited measures mostly targeting individuals and financial services. The most serious measure, a European embargo on oil purchases imposed in August, goes into effect only on Tuesday because Italy sought to ensure that its existing contracts were honored.
But the experience of the oil embargo illustrates the broader crisis of confidence confronting Syria. European nations, which account for a vast majority of Syrian oil exports, immediately halted their purchases, even though they were not required to do so for three more months. And oil pumped since then has gone unsold, despite Syria’s boasts that it would easily find other customers. Syria has curtailed its oil production by more than 25 percent, Mayalah said (emphasis added).
Turkey threatened to cut off supplies of electricity to its neighbor Syria Tuesday, as the Damascus regime found itself under growing pressure from Arab, Turkish, European and North American governments for its ongoing lethal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"We are supplying them (Syria) with electricity at the moment. If they stay on this course, we may be forced to re-examine all of these decisions," Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Tuesday, according to Turkey's semi-official Anatolian Agency....
Observers warn the protest movement in Syria, which struggled peacefully for months, is growing increasingly "weaponized" as more and more Syrian soldiers desert from the armed forces and join the opposition.
There's just a whiff of the Ivory Coast in how things are playing out right now. Effective sanctions + regional cooperation + weaponization of the opposition = eventual dictator downfall. It's not as neat and tidy as that equation, of course, but you get my drift.
There's an interesting irony here. Historically, the leaders of resource-rich economies have had greater leeway make mischief and resist waves of democratization. In the current climate, it would seem that these are the very economies most vulnerable to active economic pressure.
Obviously I'm not expecting an oil embrago on Iran anytime soon -- there are costs to sanctioning a major oil exporter. Still, these events are no doubt disturbing in Tehran and elsewhere.
What do you think? Is Assad doomed?
With Muammar Gaddafi's timely demise, it's becoming harder and harder to argue that Barack Obama's foreign policy is a failure. Of course, this hasn't stopped the GOP's 2012 candidates for president from trying. They dislike Obama so much that they're even saying nice things about France instead.
The GOP field's reluctance to acknowledge any of Obama's foreign policy successes is driving some people a little batty. Here's Kevin Drum:
I understand the left's problem with Obama's national security policy. But the right? What the hell is their problem? Obama has escalated our presence dramatically in Afghanistan; he created a massive drone air force that's all but wiped out al-Qaeda in Pakistan; he killed Osama bin Laden; he approved a multilateral military operation in Libya that ended up killing Muammar Qaddafi; he sent a SEAL team out to kill Somali pirates; he assassinates U.S. citizens in foreign countries who are associated with al-Qaeda; and he's done more to isolate and sanction Iran than George Bush ever did. Crikey. Just how bloodthirsty do they want the guy to be?
Andrew Sullivan offers a similar lament.
Five thoughts. First, it's worth noting that some Republican leaders have been reasonably forthright in giving Obama some hosannahs. John McCain said, " I think the administration deserves great credit." Lindsey Graham went further, excoriating fellow Republicans for sheer bloody-mindedness in opposing Obama's Libya policy. Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate who seems to have thought the most about foreign policy, said "yes, yes, absolutely" Obama deserved some credit for the end of Gaddafi's regime. So, there's that.
Second, through a combination of obstinance and incoherence, the GOP field's criticisms are looking pretty foolish. Simply denying any credit to the Obama administration's foreign policy has become sillier over time. In some cases a singular candidate's criticism remains logically consistent, but contradicts what other candidates say. So, you have candidates like Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman want to see the U.S. retrench (in the case of Paul, quite radically), while Mitt Romney wants a 600-ship navy while Michelle Bachmann wants to see the reestoration of autocracy in Egypt while Herman Cain just wanders from foreign policy misstatement to foreign policy misstatement. Instead of actual criticisms, the field has resorted to
horseshit myths like the famed-but-nonexistent Obama "Apology Tour."
Politico's Josh Gerstein points out that Gaddafi's downfall exposes some of the policy contradictions within the GOP field.
The fact that some in the GOP criticized Obama for leading from behind while others said he is too quick to send U.S. troops abroad suggests a growing lack of foreign policy consensus within the Republican Party, one Democratic foreign policy analyst said.
“The Republican Party right now has attacked both its ‘neo-con’ elite and its ‘traditional-con’ elite,” said Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network. “They sort of don’t know what they think. They don’t listen to their own people…they just don’t have a coherent worldview.”
Third, I suspect that it doesn't matter all that much, and the GOP presidential candidates know it. Herman Cain has managed to vault to co-frontrunner status despite truly astounding levels of ignorance of foreign policy. There's a reason for that -- GOP voters don't care about foreign policy and the president is increasingly unpopular despite his foreign policy prowess.
Fourth, the president's foreign policy approach hasn't been perfect. He's botched the tactics of the Israel/Palestine peace process, hasn't earned all that much from his "reset" with Russia, is pretty damn unpopular in the Middle East, and was slow to realize that his own personal popularity abroad wouldn't translate into concrete policy accomplishments in, say, the G-20 or the U.N. Security Council. Admittedly, the GOP candidates will simplify this into "Israel!! ISRAEL!! ISRAEL!!!!" but Obama is hardly immune to criticism.
Finally, the one thing I wonder is whether the president will be able to use his foreign policy prowess on the campaign trail. I could see Obama articulating some variant of the following in 2012:
As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let's think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America's standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Gaddafi's regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.
Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we're seeing in Congress -- which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I'm not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, mind you, just doing routine things like sublecting my nominees to a floor vote in the Senate. I've achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France.
Reports are flying around the interwebs that the last Gaddafy holdout of Sirte has fallen, and that Gaddafi has been killed -- Blake Hounshell has the grisly photo here. A few scattered thoughts on this:
1) This photo comes on top of numerous reports that Gaddafi was captured or wounded or whatnot. Given past NTC statements and reversals, I'd like to see further confirmaion. In the meantime, as I stated on Twitter this AM, I think we can clarify it this way: Gaddafi has been captured, Qaddafi has been killed, and Khadafy is still at large.*
Readers are invited to suggest the fates of other spellings of the Libyan dictator's name in the comments.
2) Assuming that Gaddafi really is dead, Adam Serwer tweets that how this came to pass "makes a huge difference." Well.... maybe. I suspect it won't matter all that much in Libya -- and to be cold-blooded about it, there are ways in which the spectacle of a capture and trial might have been more problematic. I'm not even sure that Gaddafi's fate affects the new Libyan regime's image and reputation overseas.
The more serious effect might be in how this kind of outcome affects the behavior of other autocrats. As Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans observe in Leaders and International Conflict, the private incentives of leaders profoundly affect their use of force. Simply put, when leaders have expectations of a violent demise if they lose power, they have a more powerful incentive to use force to stay in power. So, congrats to Libya, but this is simply going to harden the hearts of Bashir Assad and others out there determined to stay in power through any means necessary -- including instigating cross-border conflicts.
3) At the risk of seeming like a grump, I'd prefer a situation in which the best news in world politics is something other than "[INSERT SCUMBAG'S NAME HERE] is dead!!" Because for the past six months, these kind of deaths have been the high points.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not sorry bin Laden or Al-Awlaki or Gaddafi have departed the scene. This probably is addition by subtraction. I'd just like it if there were other sources of addition.
What do you think?
*I should probably stop tweeting right now and end on a high note.
Over at The Atlantic, Max Fisher argues that the age of American client states is coming to an end:
The fall of easily controlled dictators across the region (the U.S. has already given up on its man in Yemen) comes at the same time as U.S.-allied democracies and autocracies alike seem increasingly willing to buck Washington's wishes. Last week alone, the U.S. clashed with some of its most important client states. Maybe that's because of America's habit of picking the most troubled states in the most troubled regions as clients (where they're perceived as the most needed), maybe it's because democratic movements are pressuring client states to follow popular domestic will rather than foreign guidance, and maybe it's because the idea of clientalism was doomed from the start....
Whatever the reasons, U.S. client states have been causing Washington more headaches than normal this year, and particularly over the past week. Here are ten of the most closely held U.S. clients, measured in part by foreign assistance (scheduled for fiscal year 2012) and by number of U.S. troops stationed there (according to Department of Defense statistics). Each is labeled with the reason for their strategic importance and with a rough gauge of how much trouble it's been causing the U.S., rated on a scale from "Zero Problems" to "Migraines in Washington." The most extreme cases are labeled "Client Relationship at Risk." Looking over the list of troubled client relationships, it's easy to wonder if the entire Cold War-inspired enterprise could be nearing its end. Maybe Egypt, just as it helped end the centuries of European imperialism in 1956, could make 2011 the year that began the end of clientalism.
Fisher makes an interesting point, but if you look at his list, there's a pretty obvious pattern: the client states causing actual headaches in Washington are in the Greater Middle East. Fisher's examples from Latin America and the Pacific Rim -- Colombia, South Korea and Taiwan -- are relationships that are actually deepening rather than fraying. These also happen to be the most democratic countries on Fisher's list.
The deeper question is whether the trouble with clients is a uniquely American problem, a uniquely Middle East problem, or a more general phenomenon of client-patron relationships. This is really the bailiwick of Dan Nexon, and I expect he'll weigh in on this question soon. Based on China's difficulties with North Korea and the Middle East, I'm inclined to think it's a general phenomenon, however.
As I type this, most of Tripoli is now in the hands of Transitional National Council forces and supporters, two of Muammar Khaddafi's sons are in custody, and the backbone of Khaddafi's military has been broken. TNC forces do not control all of Libya, but they control an ever-increasing amount of it, including all of its oil infrastructuire. The whereabouts of Gaddafi, Khaddafy, and Qaddafi are still unknown, however.
So, six months after a spontaneous protest movement morphed into armed resistance and NATO got involved.... what does this all mean? With events on the ground still evolving, let me suggest the following list of tentative winners and losers from this operation:
1) The people of Libya. I think it's safe to say that an overwhelming majority of Libyans are pretty pleased that they're no longer living under the thumb of the Qaddafi family. Juan Cole has a pretty triumphalist post up about how this is playing out. He's a bit overoptimistic in places, but this point rings true -- appearances to the contrary, this was not a civil war:
It was not, if by that is meant a fight between two big groups within the body politic. There was nothing like the vicious sectarian civilian-on-civilian fighting in Baghdad in 2006. The revolution began as peaceful public protests, and only when the urban crowds were subjected to artillery, tank, mortar and cluster bomb barrages did the revolutionaries begin arming themselves. When fighting began, it was volunteer combatants representing their city quarters taking on trained regular army troops and mercenaries. That is a revolution, not a civil war. Only in a few small pockets of territory, such as Sirte and its environs, did pro-Qaddafi civilians oppose the revolutionaries, but it would be wrong to magnify a handful of skirmishes of that sort into a civil war. Qaddafi’s support was too limited, too thin, and too centered in the professional military, to allow us to speak of a civil war.
Brian Whitaker makes similar points in The Guardian. This fact does not necessarily mean that an armed insurgency won't persist, but even if it does, it would lack domestic political legitimacy.
2) NATO. Quick, was the 1999 Kosovo operation a NATO success or a failure? During the operation, it seemed like a failure, as a) everyone thought it was taking too long; and b) the operation expost the operational gaps between the U.S. and European forces. After Kosovo ended, however, it seemed like a victory... because it was.
This operation parallels the rhythms of the Kosovo intervention, but in many ways represents a bigger victory. The UK and France shouldered a greater share of the burden, there were no casualties in the alliance, and this operation directly led to regime change (whereas Kosovo had only an indirect effect on Serbia). As Blake Hounshell has observed, at the cost of $1 billion, Western involvement was totally worth it.
3) Air power advocates. Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers' New York Times account of the march into Tripoli suggests the ways in which NATO air power played a critical role in aiding TNC forces on the ground. Stepping back, one has to conclude that NATO's air power was a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for Libya to play out the way it did. Despite some neoconservative calls for even heavier intervention, however, Western boots on the ground were not necessary.
4) Tunisia and Egypt. If TNC forces are able to consolidate their hold on Libya and restore some semblance of law and order, that means the return of more than 680,000 Libyan refugees. This would be good not just for Libya proper, but for the countries housing most of these refugees -- namely, Egypt and Tunisia. These countries are attempt their own transition into more representative regimes. Eliminating the socioeconomic pressure of displaced Libyans is an unalloyed good thing for the political development of Libya's neighbors.
5) President Obama. To quote Eli Lake: "President Birth Certificate has done what Reagan and W could not: end Gadhafi's reign and kill bin Laden." It's worth noting that oth operations took more than six months to play out. While he won't necessarily be this blunt about it, Obama can now credibly argue that patience + determinaion = badass military statecraft.
1) Other authoritarian despots, particularly in Africa. I don't want to overstate this -- I'm skeptical that the scenes from Tripoli will lead to spontaneous uprisings in Damascus and elsewhere. Still, this is the kind of event that will always make other despots nervous.
In the case of African authoritarians or quasi-authoritarians, the fall of Khaddafi also leads to the permanent end of a pipeline of cash from Libya to his friends in Africa.
2) U.S. cable news networks. Useless. Totally f$%*ing useless. Seriously, until FOX news started airing live footage from its SkyNews partner, I got vastly more information from my Twitter feed than any of the cable news nets. That's when they were even covering events in Tripoli -- I think it took MSNBC something like five hours to realize there was something worth covering. Yesterday's performance was just embarrassing.
3) Realists. The United States should never have intervened!! It's a civil war!!! Libya is an example of the militarization of American foreign policy!! The U.S. will be drawn into an expensive quagmire that is not a core national interest!! Air power alone will never work!! Many, many other realist cliches!!
Readers are warmly welomed to provide realist rationalizations for why they are still right/will be proven right in the future in the comments.
4) KT McFarland. There has been a lot of stupid American punditry on Libya, but I think McFarland's FoxNews.com essay from last Friday takes the cake as the Dumbest Thing I've Read on Libya in the past month. Thankfully, it's also completely obsolete.
5) President Obama. [Wait, how is he a winner and a loser?!--ed.] On the one hand, Obama certainly wins by insulating himself against foreign policy criticism. On the other hand, foreign policy victories in the bank are quickly forgotten -- just look at the way in which bin Laden's death translated into a transitory blip for Obama's popularity.
In 2012, the only issue any voter cares about is the economy. A successful operation in Libya will mean less news coverage about Libya and even more coverage of the economy … which is not exactly Obama's strong suit at the moment.
So the big Middle East news this AM is that the Obama administration has explicitly called for Syrian leader Bashir Assad to leave power. The White House blog has the full text of Obama's statement. On Assad:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.
The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria. It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement. What the United States will support is an effort to bring about a Syria that is democratic, just, and inclusive for all Syrians. We will support this outcome by pressuring President Assad to get out of the way of this transition, and standing up for the universal rights of the Syrian people along with others in the international community.
As to what the administraion is going to do to, well, you can check out the executive order, or you can believe me when I say that it amounts to a tightening of economic sanctions.
Now, conservatives have been calling for this move for quite some time, while Middle East analysts like FP's Marc Lynch, have been far more pessimistic. Two months ago, Lynch argued:
[T]here's "Expellus Assadum": the magic words by which Obama might declare that Asad must go and somehow make it so. While there's every reason for the U.S. to ratchet up its rhetorical criticism of an increasingly violent and brutal regime, tougher rhetoric isn't going to change the game. The entire course of the Arab upheavals this year demonstrates the limits of American influence and control over events or other regional actors. It most certainly proves that firm Presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance.
Libya should be enough to demonstrate this hard reality. I'm actually optimistic about Libya -- the diplomatic and military trends all clearly favor the rebels, the NTC has come together into an impressive government-in-waiting, and international consensus has remained reasonably strong. But even if Libya ends well, the reality is that it has taken months under nearly the best possible conditions. It isn't just that the President used his magic words. The Libya operation had widespread regional and international support, UN authorization, direct military involvement in a favorable environment for airpower, and an organized and effective opposition on the ground with a viable political leadership. And it has ground on for months.
The idea that invoking "Expellus Assadum" would quickly lead to an endgame in Syria just doesn't make sense. Demanding that Obama say "Assad must go" seems less about Assad and more about either moral posturing or about creating a rhetorical lever for pressuring Washington -- not Damascus -- to do more to deliver on that new commitment. By putting the President's -- and America's -- credibility on the line, however, it might force unwanted escalation into more concrete actions in order to deliver on the demand. So tougher and sharper rhetoric, with constant condemnations of violence, is not just appropriate but essential... but escalating to "Assad must go" at this point is not.
I've already revealed my sober assessment of this kind of policy step on Twitter. That said, I'm a bit more sanguine about this kind of call than Lynch. This strikes me as your classic gut-level foreign policy pronouncement, which, as I argued last month, accomplishes nothing of substance but, "just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options."
I suspect Marc is still haunted by the ways in which this sort of rhetoric about Saddam Hussein in the 1990s laid the political groundwork for Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it's not the 1990's anymore. The United States has three active military operations in the Middle East. There is no public clamor or enthusiasm for yet another military engagement, nor do I see any genuine policy appetite for such a move. Sanctions are already in place. Covert action might be taking place, but that policy option can never be publicly acknowledged. As the New York Times story notes, in calling for Assad to leave the United States is now moving towards the consensus in the region.
When the rest of the policy quiver has been exhausted, sure, why not call for Assad to leave? As a general rule, all else equal, I see no reason why the U.S. government should not express its actual preferences rather than hide behind diplomatese. Or, as Douglas Adams would put it, this rhetorical move counts as "harmless."
What do you think?
Over the past week there's been a lot of foreign policy outputs coming from the gut, particularly with respect to the greater Middle East. Newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been cursing like a PG-rated sailor as of late, saying about the Iraqis, "dammit, make a decision" with respect to a new defense minister. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared that Bashar Assad has "lost legitimacy," which is A) true; and B) not all that helpful a guide for future policy toward Syria. U.S. ambassador to that country Robert Ford took to Facebook to express his ire at the Syrian government. And now we're halting $800 million in military aid to Pakistan, which sounds great but is not necessarily going to make things better.
Do these gestures of frustration accomplish anything? That's hard to say. In terms of concrete outcomes, the likely answer is no -- part of the reason for the venting of frustrations on these issues is that the United States has so little leverage in most of these situations. On the other hand, just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options.
For exhibit A, see Reuel Marc Gerecht's latest on Syria in The Weekly Standard, which opens with, "The administration's policy toward Syria is shaping up to be the greatest missed opportunity of Barack Obama's presidency." The essay goes to great length to
bash realists detail the myriad policy benefits that would come with regime change in Damascus. This is all well and good (though a bit exaggerated), until we get to what the Obama administration should be doing to foment change:
There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing that it isn’t: using the presidential bully pulpit against the Assad regime, deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled), organizing the Western diplomatic community in Damascus to do whatever it can to aid the opposition, offering substantial technical support to the Turks to extend a Wi-Fi-ed broadband as far over the Syrian border as possible, and working with Paris to implement energy sanctions that might severely impair the Assad regime. But the most important thing it could do now is encourage Turkey to stand firm against Syria.
Ideally, we should want to see the Turks establish a buffer zone or safe haven on the Syrian side of the border (Ankara sometimes did this in Iraq to counter nefarious Kurdish activity).
Let's be clear: The Obama administration could be doing everything on that list, and it wouldn't make an iota of difference. The only policy that would matter is if the Turks actually wanted to establish a buffer zone -- except in a later paragraph even Gerecht acknowledges that, "neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu would want to do this."
So, to sum up, Gerecht is really enthusiastic about Syrian regime change, and wants the U.S. to beat its breast a little more and ask "pretty pretty please" for the Turks to do something they view as against their self-interest. This will accomplish … nothing.
If you start seeing gut-level foreign policy, it's usually a sign that every other rational option has failed. And although we hope otherwise, frustration alone rarely leads to policy breakthroughs.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
As the fallout from Dominique Strauss-Kahn and The Chambermaid's Tale continues,
the guy from the Dos Equis commercials French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy is taking quite a beating inside the United States. Lévy -- or BHL for those in the know -- is a longtime friend of Strauss-Kahn -- or DSK for, well, you get the idea. After DSK's arrest, BHL penned the following in the Daily Beast:
I do not know what actually happened Saturday, the day before yesterday, in the room of the now famous Hotel Sofitel in New York.
I do not know—no one knows, because there have been no leaks regarding the declarations of the man in question—if Dominique Strauss-Kahn was guilty of the acts he is accused of committing there, or if, at the time, as was stated, he was having lunch with his daughter [we actually know that, given the timeline, DSK's lunch with his daughter is not an alibi, as even his defenders acknowlege --DWD].
I do not know—but, on the other hand, it would be nice to know, and without delay—how a chambermaid could have walked in alone, contrary to the habitual practice of most of New York’s grand hotels of sending a “cleaning brigade” of two people, into the room of one of the most closely watched figures on the planet....
And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere. Charming, seductive, yes, certainly; a friend to women and, first of all, to his own woman, naturally, but this brutal and violent individual, this wild animal, this primate, obviously no, it’s absurd.
This morning, I hold it against the American judge who, by delivering him to the crowd of photo hounds, pretended to take him for a subject of justice like any other....
I hold it against all those who complacently accept the account of this other young woman, this one French, who pretends to have been the victim of the same kind of attempted rape, who has shut up for eight years but, sensing the golden opportunity, whips out her old dossier and comes to flog it on television.
I do not know the extent to which BHL fact-checked his column -- for example, the French woman he accuses of being opportunistic now actually went public in 2007 only to have herself censored on French television.
I do not know the extent to which BHL is aware that DSK's other sexual indiscretions appear to have a greater element of coercion than had been previously realized.
I do not know why BHL's understanding of "cleaning brigades" is somewhat at odds with the reality of how American hotels actually function.
So, this raises an exceptionally uncomfortable question for some foreign policy commentators. BHL might look like a horse's ass right now, but six or seven weeks ago, he was playing a very different role. According to
BHL himself multiple press reports, Bernard-Henri Lévy was the interlocutor between Libya's rebels and the rest of the world. He therefore played a crucial role in getting French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- and therefore, the West more generally -- to intervene in Libya. This caused some consternation at the time. It would obviously set off even louder alarm bells now.
Given this role, Ben Smith tweets a very valid question: "So if the order of DSK-gate and Libya are reversed... do we go into Libya?"
This touches on some very interesting questions about temporality, causation, correlation and counterfactuals. What are the necessary or sufficient conditions for a policy outcome to occur? Do events have to happen in a particular sequence to reach a particular outcome? Was BHL either a necessary or sufficient condiition for the UN/NATO action in Libya?
My answer would be that Bernard-Henri Lévy's intellectual reputation was neither necessary nor sufficient for Operation Odyssey Dawn to take place. Consider the following:
1) French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been more circumspect than BHL in commenting on DSK, reflecting the general muteness of the French political class on the topic. It seems unlikely that BHL's ardent advocacy would have caused Sarkozy to listen to him any less on Libya.
2) One of the key aspects of the Libya decision was the compressed time frame in which it had to be made. Qaddafi's forces seemed on the verge of retaking the country within a week. Debating whether BHL was an honest broker or not seemed pretty peripheral to the real-time changes on the ground in Libya. It's worth remembering that the Arab League and the UN Security Council acted very quickly by International Organization Standard Time, and I certainly don't think BHL had much of a role to play. On the scale of things, one would have expected the "flickers" of Al Qaeda presence among the Libyan rebels to have acted as a bigger brake, and yet that fact did not derail the policy either.
3) Without in any way diminishing the allegatioons and official charges against DSK, there is a difference between the (mostly) venal sins of BHL and the French political class, and the (mostly) mortal sins of Qaddafi and his family If the Libya decision was happening right now, my hunch is that it would drown out much of the Franco-American contretemps over
American puritanism French misogyny one person's failings.
What do you think?
Ryan Lizza has a 9,000+ word exegesis on the Obama administration's foreign policy decisionmaking in The New Yorker. For anyone who's paid attention to this debate over the past six weeks, there's nothing terribly new -- for those who haven't however, it's a decent summary. The key parts for me:
One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”
In December, 2009, Obama announced that he would draw down U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of his first term. He also promised, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year, that he was “moving toward a more targeted approach” that “dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.”
“The project of the first two years has been to effectively deal with the legacy issues that we inherited, particularly the Iraq war, the Afghan war, and the war against Al Qaeda, while rebalancing our resources and our posture in the world,” Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national-security advisers, said. “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reëstablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.’ ”....
Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.” (emphasis added)
There's something that's really frustrating about the structure of the essay, and then something else that's frustrating about the content. Both of them involve China.
On the structure - despite Lizza's 9,000 words, and despite Obama's stated intention to reorient American foreign policy to be less Middle East-focused, the essay.... is totally focused on the Middle East. I'm not saying that the Middle East is unimportant, but I'd have liked to have read something about how the Obama administration is dealing with the rest of the world. Indeed, Lizzaa notes that Obama visited South America during the opening days of the Libya operation precisely "to show that America has interests in the rest of the world." Despite this effort, the thrust of the article demonstrates its futility during the start of a war. New military conflicts crowd out attention that should be paid to other arenas of foreign policy. It would have been nice to see how the administration's strategy is playing/affecting the rest of the world.
The problem with the content is that bolded section. To tweak Tom Donilon a little bit, I'd characterize it as a "static and one-dimensional assessment" of the U.S. strategic position. It doesn't allow for the possibility that rising states might experience their own dips in national power, or that attitudes towards the United States might improve as a consequence of shifts in U.S. strategy.
Countries make strategic missteps when they overestimate or underestimate their own capabilities. The Bush administration was clearly guilty of overestimation, but there are ways in which the Obama administration is equally guilty of underestimation.
What do you think?
In his column today, Nicholas Kristof gives voice to a sentiment shared by many within the foreign policy community:
In my travels lately, I’ve been trying to explain to Libyans, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Chinese and others the benefits of a democratic system. But if Congressional Republicans actually shut down the government this weekend, they will be making a powerful argument for autocracy. Chinese television will be all over the story.
If a high school student council refused to approve a budget so that student activities had to be canceled — even as student leaders continued to pay themselves stipends — a school board would probably cancel the entire experiment in student democracy. But I can’t imagine high school students acting so immature.
Now, this is the kind of gut-level response that most foreign policy wonks -- myself included -- have when initially confronting the absurdity of a government shutdown. Surely, such a self-inflicted wound would tarnish the brand image of democracy in general and America in particular across the globe.
Is this truthiness actually true, however? I'm beginning to wonder if this hypothesis rests on anything other than sheer assertion. In terms of direct effects, the U.S. military won't be suddenly lay down their arms or anything. As I understand it, the U.S. won't default on debt payments until mid-May, so the financial catastrophe is still six weeks away. So any appreciable effect rests on whether or not American soft power would be dented.
In a brief survey of the interwebs, I could find no research paper that researched whether the 1995/96 government shutdowns had any effect on either American foreign policy or U.S. standing abroad. This jibes with my personal memory of this period, in which very little was written about how the shutdown affected foreign policy. So maybe this gnashing of foreign policy teeth is a bit much.
Of course, this was likely because the previous shutdowns didn't last that long, the longest duration (17 days) took place during the Christmas break, and no big foreign policy crisis was going on during the shutdown. I think it's safe to say that the world is a wee bit
closer to the end of days interesting this time around. That said, no one expects a long stretch of no federal government, so the effect might very well be similar -- which is to say, nonexistent.
In the end, my more analytical take is that the foreign policy effects of a goverment shutdown will depend on how its resolved. If there is little in the way of massive protests, it would signal to the rest of the world the remarkable stability of American civil society. If steps are taken to get a grip on America's mouning debt levels, then the aftermath of the shutdown would not necessarily leave a bad aftertaste.
That said, there might be one residual effect for democratizing nations -- a preference for parliamentary systems of government over presidential systems. As Robert Williams and Esther Jubb observed back in the 1990s:
The world's other advanced industrial democracies, Germany, France, Japan and Britain, manage their budget crises without resorting to the extraordinary shutdown measures which have become a familiar feature of the American budgetary process.
This shutdown thing does seem to be unique to the American presidential system, which might cause newly emerging democracies to embrace other forms of democratic rule. On the whole, however, this is a pretty marginal effect on American foreign policy.
So, on second thought, if any government shutdown is over by the end of April, I think the foreign policy effects would be pretty minimal. But I am very curious to know if there's been any in-depth research on this question.
Over at The National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter blogs that America's militarized focus on the Middle East is providing a huge strategic opening for China:
Members of China’s political elite who are eager for the Middle Kingdom to displace the United States as the world’s leading power probably can’t believe their good fortune. America has so many natural advantages that such a displacement would normally take several generations, if it occurred at all. Yet clumsy, counterproductive U.S. policies may be shortening that time frame dramatically....
Global meddling is also damaging the American brand with respect to political values and even popular culture. That is especially apparent in the Muslim world, where public opinion surveys reveal that positive views of the United States now sometimes languish in the single digits. But America’s popularity has waned even in Europe and other formerly very friendly regions. Even as Washington’s aggressive behavior alienates populations, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, China is cultivating countries in those regions, portraying itself as a less intrusive, more cooperative political and economic partner.
Um, Ted? 2006 called, and it wants the hackneyed geopolitical analysis back.... and sent via MySpace.
Seriously, this blog post reads like it's five years old. It either ignores or elides the following facts:
2) Contrary to Carpenter's claims, the Libya intervention has gone down rather well on the Arab street.
3) China committed a series of foreign policy blunders in 2009 and 2010 that increased regional and global wariness about the Middle Kingdom and (according to China experts who talk to me) forced Beijing to rethink its grand strategy.
4) Chinese authorities are currently occupied with trying to censor news about the Arab revolutions, play hide and seek with its dissidents, get a grip on its real estate bubble, and avoid populist blowback for its Africa investments. I'm not seeing a lot of successful efforts by Beijing to push the "less intrusive" line elsewhere in the globe.
These are pretty important facts that get in the way of Carpenter's analysis. Now, there is a glimmer of truth to this kind of realpolitik argument. Saudi Arabia, for example, is less than thrilled with how the Obama administration is handling the Arab revolutions, and it might cozy up more to Beijing as a result. That said, if we're really witnessing a fouth wave of democratization in the Middle East, does Carpenter seriously think that these regimes will automatically be more sympathetic to China than the United States? That would be the realist argument, but I think this is one of those situaions when realists don't sound terribly grounded in reality.
There are a lot of good critiques that can be levied against American grand strategy and the Obama administration's foreign policy in the Middle East. The notion that China has gained a strategic advantage in recent months ain't one of them.
With all the press leaks about covert operatives, high-level defections, and behind-the-scenes negotiations with top Khaddafi aides, I think it's safe to say that the United States is running quite the little psy-ops campaign on the Libyan dictator [Are you trying to spell his name a different way in each frakkin' post?!--ed. Er, yes. Oh. Ok, then--ed.] That's not to say that these things are only being done to psych out Khaddafi, but I'm assuming that's a large component of what's going on.
In many ways, however, I think the news coming out of the Ivory Coast might be the most effective psychological pressure on the Libyan strongman. The Financial Times' William Wallis reports on the current state of play:
The battle for Ivory Coast’s presidency has reached a critical phase as forces allied to Alassane Ouattara, president-elect, have advanced into the commercial capital Abidjan after a lightning offensive from the north designed to oust incumbent Laurent Gbagbo.
Mr Gbagbo, who refuses to concede defeat in last November’s polls despite near universal recognition of his rival’s victory, looks increasingly isolated as the noose tightens around the city of 4m people.
Reuters quoted a military source in Mr Gbagbo’s camp on Friday confirming an attack overnight on Mr Gbagbo’s residence in Abidjan but said that pro-Gbagbo forces were still putting up resistance at state broadcaster, RTI....
South Africa’s foreign ministry reported that Mr Gbagbo’s army commander and personal friend, General Phillippe Mangou, had fled with his family to the residence of the South African ambassador. In another blow, the head of the gendarmerie reportedly defected to the president’s rival.
Choi Young-jin, the UN envoy to the country, said the police had defected as well. Reuters reported early on Friday that Mr Ouattara’s forces had taken control of the state television station, which then ceased broadcasting, and were attacking Mr Gbagbo’s residence.
There are many ways in which the Ivory Coast is not like Libya, but there are some striking similarities. Like Libya, the Ivory Coast is a single-commodity export economy, making sanctions relatively easy to implement. Like Khaddafi, Gbagbo became an international pariah after rejecting the November election results (well, a pariah to everyone but Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma). The UN and the relevant regional bodies acted swiftly to put Gbagbo under mulilateral economic sanctions. Gbagbo, like Khaddafi, refused to see the handwriting on the wall and took every coercive action possible to maintain his hold on power.
If these reports are accurate, then Gbagbo is on his way out, and the end will not be pretty. That will likely spook those loyal to Khaddafi. True, the Libyan leader controls greater resources, but then again, the Ivory Coast doesn't have NATO getting up in its grill.
This is not the best outcome for the Ivory Coast -- obviously, it would have been better if Gbagbo had acknowledged the election results and set an example for the rest of Africa. Given how things played out, however, Gbagbo's departure from power will be an affirmation of the ways in which multilateral pressure can affect change.
The Ivory Coast is also a reminder that multilateral efforts at coercion -- whether military or economic -- often look ineffective or flawed right up until the moment that they actually work. Which is to say, for all the carping, whinging, bitching and moaning going on about how the Obama administration is handling Libya, none of it will matter if Khaddafi eventually leaves. And the fall of Gbagbo will be one more data point to freak him and his supporters out.
President Obama is scheduled to address the country this evening on Libya, and the odds are pretty good that Ben Rhodes will be writing the bulk of the speech. I'm sure the speech will be interesting, full of false choices for the Obama administration to surmount and the like.
Still, what I'd love to see is Rhodes' first draft -- you know, the one where he just spits out exactly what he thinks Obama is thinking on Libya, warts and all.
Well, fortunately, due to your humble blogger's vast
and imaginary network of sources inside the Beltway, I have secured a copy of that first draft of the speech, reprinted below for your edification:
FIRST NOTES/DRAFT OF POTUS LIBYA SPEECH
By Benjamin Rhodes
I'm addressing you, my fellow Americans, because my administration's message on our
war limited humanitarian interventionkinetic military action in Libya has truly and totally sucked. Seriously, I'm gobsmacked at how f***ing incoherent we've been in communicating our rationale to the foreign policy community and the American public. The bickering within my administration and within the international coalition has not helped -- sweet Jesus, multilateralism can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes. No wonder public support has been relatively anemic (although there's also the fact that I'm launching another war when all Americans care about right now is the domestic economy).
How bad is it? I'm getting hit by the neocons for moving without Congressional permission less than a week after I was getting hit by them for not moving quickly enough!! Thank God for Newt Gingrich, or I'd look really bad. Now I'm getting flak from the left on not being consistent with R2P when, in fact, anyone who knows anything about R2P knows that I'm doing the best I can. Seriously, I'm supposed to intervene militarily in Bahrain and Syria too? Sure, right after I send the 82nd Airborne to liberate Tibet. At least I can ignore the criticism from those who went on junkets to Tripoli last year. Hypocrisy sure is a bitch, huh?
What kills me, what absolutely kills me, is that in just ten days, without any boots on the ground, we've accomplished one whole hell of a lot. First off, if we hadn't intervened, the rebels would have been routed in Benghazi, and Khaddafy would be in control of the entire country again. OK, so maybe the "100,000 dead" figure was a bit exaggerated, but surely the fall of Benghazi would have created hundreds of thousands of Libya refugees flowing into Egypt, which is exactly what that country doesn't need right now. Anyone who doesn't realize that the situation in Libya and the situation in Egypt are connected is a f***ing moron (which, since we forgot to mention this fact for an awfully long time, apparently includes my messaging shop).
Now, the situation on the ground looks pretty much like how things looked during the high tide of the Libyan rebellion. So long as our air support continues, that's now the worst-case scenario -- and you know what, that's actually pretty tolerable. It would mean that the rebels would control about 70% of Libya's oil reserves and that the regions of the country most hostile to Khaddafy would be free of his grip. Over time, sanctions will start to hit Khaddafy's resources, the Libya Transitional Council can get its act together, and we can burden-share with NATO a hell of a lot more. The Libyans don't want our boots on the ground any more than we want to have them there -- so further escalation is not in the cards.
All the while -- and remember, this is the worst-case scenario -- the United States will have accomplished two direct deliverables and quite a few positive policy externalities. Directly, we averted a humanitarian disaster and created a buffer in eastern Libya that eases any economic or humanitarian pressure on Egypt (which is where our strategic interest lies).
In many ways, the policy externalities are even bigger. The biggest bonus is that, for once, our hard power is actually augmenting our soft power. Those images on Al Jazeera of Libyans saying thank you to the United States -- that's pure soft power gold. When you compare how the U.S. government has handled the Arab Revolutions to Al Qaeda or Iran, the contrast is pretty stark. What's happened in Libya has helped to obscure our more realpolitik response in, say Bahrain. Oh, and we managed to find a purpose for NATO.
Is this messy? Duh, of course! Could this intervention distract us from The Big Picture? Maybe for the past week and this week, sure, but it's not like Iran or China is really exploiting what's going on in the Middle East -- they're too busy trying to pretend it's not happening domestically. As for North Korea learning that it's a mistake to give up their nukes, I'm pretty sure they'd learned that lesson way back in 2003, thank you very much.
Look, I'd have loved for the messaging to be clearer, and in retrospect it would have been good if we'd had asked Congress for authorization, but this is what happens when you make foreign policy on the fly in a region wracked by revolution. It's not perfect, but if you think about the counterfactuals real hard, I'm fully confident that the benefits massively outweigh the costs of this intervention. So there.
I think it's safe to say that the multilateral coalition implementing Operation Odyssey Dawn have had their share of public spats. This means a lot of hand-holding and negative punditry/negative press stories on the issue.
Of course, this raises the question of whether there's a better alternative or not. As sick as liberals might be of using force in the Middle East, I suspect they're even sicker of doing this unilaterally. Some conservatives seem to get the notion that multilateralism has its advantages -- particularly with generating American support for these kind of missions.
Clearly, there are tradeoffs here. I could weight them very carefully using my own limited understanding, or I could be smart and ask an expert. So, I posed the question to Sarah Kreps, Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University and the author of the now-extremely-trenchant Coalitions of Convenience: United States Military Interventions after the Cold War. Her thoughts on the matter:
Prime Minister Churchill once opined that "there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies-and that is having to fight without them." These words were remarkable coming from a leader who had spent the better part of two years trying to encourage the American military to enter WWII. Given coalition operations in Libya, leaders couldn't be blamed for drawing the same conclusion as Churchill.
On the one hand, coalition operations in Libya are a recipe for disaster. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was crafted in intentionally vague terms in order to minimize opposition. The unintended consequence is that no one can figure out who's in charge, what the goals are, and when they'll leave. Undertaking this as a NATO operation would have been obvious since at least it has a clear decision making apparatus, but member state Turkey opposes the use of military force in Libya. As the Turkish prime minister said in televised speech, "Turkey will never be on the side of pointing the gun at the Libyan people." The alternative to NATO is what Prime Minister David Cameron referred to as an ad hoc "coalition of the willing"-remember Iraq?-with a mishmash of largely British, American, French, Danish military assets. But which of these is taking the lead and how these militaries are being coordinated is a mystery. This violates rule #1 of military operations: unity of command.
On the other hand, the United States already has TWO ongoing wars. Undertaking a third was of questionable merit in my book, but once it decided to use force, it made sense to be able to share the burden with others. President Obama justified the multilateral operation saying that "it means the United States is not bearing all the cost." At the least, going multilaterally will have defrayed the cost for an overstretched American military.
Whether multilateralism makes it more legitimate and exonerates the US from accusations of invading another Muslim country is another story. The initial signs are not encouraging. US marines have already been accused of firing on civilians when they went in to rescue the pilots of the fallen F-15E. Ultimately, events on the ground are likely to determine the legitimacy, not UN and Arab League approval. If the operation is successful, then multilateralism will have seemed like the legitimate, effective choice.
Of course, the first step is to figure out what success looks like. That ambiguity, however, is no fault of the coalition. The US has had some difficulty figuring that out in its "own" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Making that decision by committee will be considerably more difficult. But far preferable, as Churchill might have said, than having to bear the burden of fighting alone.
What do you think?
As I try to sort out all of the implications of Operation Odyssey Dawn, I see two memes that should be thought of in concert. The first one is the striking fact that the United States seemed to be following rather than leading on organizing the U.N. Security Council to take action. The second theme is that Libya is way far down on the list of America's Middle East priorities, so the United States should be wary about the opportunity costs of getting too involved.
Combining these two memes makes me think of my wedding -- and therefore why this aspect of U.S. policy towards Libya might be a good thing.
Let me explain. When my lovely bride and I were planning our nuptials, we were wary of excessive parental interventions on the issues we really cared about -- the vows, the food, the music, the seating arrangements, etc. Of course, these were our parents, so a stonewalling strategy wasn't going to work terribly well either.
Faced with this policy conundrum, we hit upon a brilliant idea -- we had to give them an issue that they cared about fervently but didn't really matter to us all that much. So, we had the Official Blog Moms decide on the favors that would be at every place-setting.
This proved to be a brilliant maneuver. We would receive constant updates and debates about what was under consideration. When receiving all of this information, we would smile, nod, and say, "we trust you to make the right decision." All the while, we took care of the Big Wedding Issues that were of Serious Importance to Us. I think the result was a win-win -- the parents claimed ownership of something they cared about, but we got the wedding we wanted.
What does this have to do with Libya? This issue clearly animates French President Nicolas Sarkozy more than U.S. President Barack Obama (surprisingly, given France's past preferences on these kind of issues). Sarkozy has been receiving plaudits for his leadership. Which is great on two counts. First, it (hopefully) means that after the initial efforts to ensure that Libya's air defenses are neutralized, the United States really can let France and the U.K. take the lead on operational activities.
Second, I share other's concerns that an excessive focus on Libya might distract the top U.S. leadership from Other Really Big Events. What holds for the United States holds for France with even greater force, however. In that sense, then, the more that Sarkozy is obsessed with Libya, the less time he can devote to
overambitious and ultimately futile grand economic designs his pet projects in preparation for the 2011 G-20 summit.
Much like big weddings, many things could go wrong along the way -- but I think pundits need to appreciate the positive second-order effects of letting France be in charge of the chocolate favor--- I mean, the immediate intricacies of enforcing Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya.
What do you think?
Last night a fellow International Studies Association 9isa0 attendee sent me the following request:
Hey, aren't you supposed to be providing pithy commentary on events of the last week for the rest of us ISA survivors? Get on that!
Sigh... it's back to the blogging salt mines. [Welcome back.... now get to work!!!--ed.]
Let's start off with an easy meta-point. So far, 2011 has been one of those years when it seems like a lot has been going on in international affairs -- but is that reality or just perception?
Hey, turns out it's reality:
Propelled by revolution in the Middle East and radiation in Japan, television news coverage of foreign events this year is at the highest level since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 10 years ago, news executives in the United States say....
The busy season for foreign news started in January in Tunisia and quickly spread to Egypt, where networks and newspapers deployed hundreds of journalists. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducts a weekly accounting of news coverage by national outlets, foreign news added up to 45 percent of all coverage from mid-January through mid-March. In the four years that the accounting has been done, foreign news has averaged about 20 percent of coverage....
But despite extensive coverage of Libya and Japan, the television networks have had major blind spots. Last week, none of the broadcast networks had correspondents in Bahrain, where the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet is based, when security forces crushed the protest movement there, nor in Yemen when forces there killed dozens of protesters. The dearth of coverage of Yemen is largely because of its government’s refusal to grant visas to journalists....
So, cui bono? Here we get to a veeeerry interesting detail:
If there is any media beneficiary, it is CNN, a unit of Time Warner, which has the most robust international staff levels of any network based in the United States. CNN has paired its domestic and international channels for hours on end, and last week it scored several rare — though probably fleeting — ratings victories against Fox News.
“This is the time when the judicious investments we’ve made in a proper international infrastructure are paying off,” Mr. Maddox said.
Say, isn't it convenient that CNN had all these assets in place and now gets to use them? Can anyone out there prove that network hasn't played an instigating role in some of these crises?
I didn't think so. I'm gonna start paying very close attention to Anderson Cooper for the rest of 2011. [Yeah, that doesn't sound weird at all!--ed.]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.