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?
Hey, remember how the new Al Qaeda was going to be more networked and more capable of inspiring home-grown terrorism? Remember how today's threat enviroment was supposed to be worse than the Cold War?
Bear these points in mind when considering two news items that crossed my screen today. In the first, courtesy of Micah Zenko, a Pentagon official suggests that maybe, just maybe, the U.S. overrestimated Al Qaeda's capabilities:
With the benefit of more than a decade of hindsight, America may have misjudged the true threat posed by al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, a top Pentagon official said Tuesday.
“Al-Qaida wasn’t as good as we thought they were on 9/11,” said Michael A. Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.
“Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn’t that good looked really great on 9/11,” Sheehan told a room full of special operators in Washington who were attending an annual Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict Planning Conference.
“Everyone looked to the skies every day after 9/11 and said, ‘When is the next attack?’ And it didn’t come, partly because al-Qaida wasn’t that capable. They didn’t have other units here in the U.S. … Really, they didn’t have the capability to conduct a second attack.”
The true limitations of al-Qaida are one of two key reasons that America has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 2001.
“The other reason is that we actually responded … and crushed al-Qaida immediately after 9/11, and continually for the last 10 years,” Sheehan said. “We are better than we often give ourselves credit for. We have a very polarized political system and it’s very difficult for anybody to actually give credit or receive credit for how good we are.”
Well, sure, Al Qaeda abroad has been weakened, but this homegrown thing, I mean, that's probably a really big-- hey, what is Scott Shane reporting about in the New York Times?
A feared wave of homegrown terrorism by radicalized Muslim Americans has not materialized, with plots and arrests dropping sharply over the two years since an unusual peak in 2009, according to a new study by a North Carolina research group.
The study, to be released on Wednesday, found that 20 Muslim Americans were charged in violent plots or attacks in 2011, down from 26 in 2010 and a spike of 47 in 2009.
Charles Kurzman, the author of the report for the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, called terrorism by Muslim Americans "a minuscule threat to public safety." Of about 14,000 murders in the United States last year, not a single one resulted from Islamic extremism, said Mr. Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina (emphasis added).
Digging a wee bit into the actual report -- and read the whole thing, it ain't long -- I'll just reprint the closing two paragraphs below:
Repeated alerts by government officials may be issued as a precaution, even when the underlying threat is uncertain. Officials may be concerned about how they would look if an attack did take place and subsequent investigations showed that officials had failed to warn the public. But a byproduct of these alerts is a sense of heightened tension that is out of proportion to the actual number of terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11.
This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion. (emphasis added)
Now, I'm sure that the reason for this lull is that Al Qaeda's remaining assets in the United States are focusing their energies on getting all turkeys to become halal or something. That said, I'm going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago. Oh, and that I don't need to listen to Representative Peter King when he opens his mouth on national security issues.
In the Boston Review, Natasha Bahrami and Trita Parsi take a long look at the economic sanctions literature and conclude that the ever-more-stringent sanctions regime won't lead to a democratic transition in Iran. One can quibble with their review (they don't cite Nikolai Marinov's work, for example), but they do state the current state of play on Iran rather cleanly:
The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.
That sums up the situation rather neatly -- the problem is that these goals are somewhat incompatible. If the aim if to negotiate a deal on the nuclear program, then Iran's regime has to be persuaded that the United States is not trying to topple the regime. If the administration keeps up the ambiguity regarding the purpose of sanctions, then Iran's current regime has zero incentive to negotiate. In that case, the only way sanctions work is via regime collapse.
Based on Robert Worth's front-pager in the New York Times on the effect of sanctions in Tehran, however, it looks like the negotiation option might already be closed off. The effect of the sanctions put in place (and the ones that will kick in over the summer) are, well, a mixed bag:
Already, the last round of sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank has begun inflicting unprecedented damage on Iran’s private sector, traders and analysts say, making it so hard to transfer money abroad that even affluent businessmen are sometimes forced to board planes carrying suitcases full of American dollars.
Yet this economic burden is falling largely on the middle class, raising the prospect of more resentment against the West and complicating the effort to deter Iran’s nuclear program -- a central priority for the Obama administration in this election year…
The rising economic panic has illustrated -- and possibly intensified -- the bitter divisions within Iran’s political elite. A number of insiders, including members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have begun openly criticizing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent weeks. One of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aides indirectly accused Ayatollah Khamenei of needlessly antagonizing the West in ways that pushed down the rial’s value, the latest sign of a rift between the president and the supreme leader that is helping to define the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March 2.
“They criticize Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader by name now; it’s not like before,” said Javad, the 45-year-old manager of a travel agency in north Tehran…
Ordinary Iranians complain that the sanctions are hurting them, while those at the top are unscathed, or even benefit. Many wealthy Iranians made huge profits in recent weeks by buying dollars at the government rate (available to insiders) and then selling them for almost twice as many rials on the soaring black market. Some analysts and opposition political figures contend that Mr. Ahmadinejad deliberately worsened the currency crisis so that his cronies could generate profits this way…
Many Iranians are also skeptical about the Western preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program. “The economic pressure will not push Iran to a nuclear settlement,” said Kayhan Barzegar, the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, who has taught in the United States. “The nuclear file is a nationalistic issue; it’s too late for Iran to backtrack. Domestic politics will react negatively to any negotiation — candidates in the elections will say: you sold the nuclear program!”…
[T]he businessman also noted that when Iran last suffered similar privations, in the 1980s, the economy was far smaller, and the revolutionary zeal for self-sacrifice far greater. Iran’s leadership was also far more unified than it is today.
“The question is, when this panic translates into a real diminution in the living standard, will Iranians be willing to take it?” the businessman said. “That’s when these guys will really be in trouble.”
The above report suggests that the sanctions themselves have effectively eliminated the more modest goal of negotiating on the nuclear program. The primary effect of the sanctions to date has been to exacerbated divisions within Iran's regime. Because of these divisons, there's no point to negotiation -- at this point, the United States could ever be sure that the entire Iranian state could credibly commit to any bargain (for advocates of negotiation, it should be noted that this was already a problem; the sanctions just bring it into high relief). The economic effect of the sanctions has also accentuated Iran's nationalist pride in the nuclear program among the middle class.
It's still possible for the sanctions to work. Those that are imposed multilaterally tend to take a longer time to have a policy effect. The target state will first try to break the multilateral coalition apart -- and only after that policy fails will they consider concessions. Recent reportage suggest that Iran was not expecting this kind of multilateral pressure -- and so it's possible that Tehran will reconsider.
That said, the sanctions policy is pushing the United States into a policy cul-de-sac where the only way out is through regime change. In the abstract, that might sound great, but in reality, pushing for that option could be both messy and expensive.
In my experience, pundits tend to be risk-averse in calling out a very rich person on their economic or financial analyses. There's a couple of intuitive logics at work here:
1) Most pundits don't know much about economics, and so are leery of entering those waters;
2) The really rich person likely became really rich because they demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the markets -- therefore, who is the low-six-figure-or-less-earning pundit to challenge such high-yielding wisdom;
3) Most pundits refuse to admit that they don't understand something that reads like gobbledgook, because they're afraid this makes them look like an idiot.
Well, your humble blogger has never been afraid of looking like an idiot... which brings me to PIMCO's Bill Gross. I'll occasionally read his monthly newsletter when a link to it pops up in my Twitter feed. Every time, I'm amazed at the florid, rambling, not-really-related-to-his-main-point way he opens these little essays. Sometimes I find the analysis afterwards useful, sometimes I find it eerily similar to what someone says after spending too much time with Tom Friedman. I gather he's had better years as an analyst than he did in 2011, but everyone has down years and bad predictions.
Here's the thing, though -- I can't understand a word of his latest Financial Times column: Here's how it opens:
Isaac Newton may have conceptualised the effects of gravity when that mythical apple fell on his head, but could he have imagined Neil Armstrong’s hop-skip-and-jumping on the moon, or the trapping of light inside a black hole? Probably not. Likewise, the deceased economic maestro of the 21st century – Hyman Minsky – probably couldn’t have conceived how his monetary theories could be altered by zero-based money.
Things get a little clearer towards the end of the op-ed... but not much. His February 2012 newsletter appears to be an expanded version of this op-ed (plus the usual wacky opening), so let's go there to see what he's trying to say:
[W]hen rational or irrational fear persuades an investor to be more concerned about the return of her money than on her money then liquidity can be trapped in a mattress, a bank account or a five basis point Treasury bill. But that commonsensical observation is well known to Fed policymakers, economic historians and certainly citizens on Main Street.
What perhaps is not so often recognized is that liquidity can be trapped by the “price” of credit, in addition to its “risk.” Capitalism depends on risk-taking in several forms. Developers, homeowners, entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes epitomize the riskiness of business building via equity and credit risk extension. But modern capitalism is dependent as well on maturity extension in credit markets. No venture, aside from one financed with 100% owners’ capital, could survive on credit or loans that matured or were callable overnight. Buildings, utilities and homes require 20- and 30-year loan commitments to smooth and justify their returns. Because this is so, lenders require a yield premium, expressed as a positively sloped yield curve, to make the extended loan. A flat yield curve, in contrast, is a disincentive for lenders to lend unless there is sufficient downside room for yields to fall and provide bond market capital gains. This nominal or even real interest rate “margin” is why prior cyclical periods of curve flatness or even inversion have been successfully followed by economic expansions. Intermediate and long rates – even though flat and equal to a short-term policy rate – have had room to fall, and credit therefore has not been trapped by “price.”
Even if nodding in agreement, an observer might immediately comment that today’s yield curve is anything but flat and that might be true. Most short to intermediate Treasury yields, however, are dangerously close to the zero-bound which imply little if any room to fall: no margin, no air underneath those bond yields and therefore limited, if any, price appreciation. What incentive does a bank have to buy two-year Treasuries at 20 basis points when they can park overnight reserves with the Fed at 25? What incentives do investment managers or even individual investors have to take price risk with a five-, 10- or 30-year Treasury when there are multiples of downside price risk compared to appreciation? At 75 basis points, a five-year Treasury can only rationally appreciate by two more points, but theoretically can go down by an unlimited amount. Duration risk and flatness at the zero-bound, to make the simple point, can freeze and trap liquidity by convincing investors to hold cash as opposed to extend credit (emplases in original).
And... sorry, I still don't get it. I get why zero interest rates are bad for bondholders like PIMCO. I get that flat yield curves + high amounts of economic uncertainty = cash hoarding. What I don't get is that:
A) Gross himself acknowledges that the yield curve ain't flat;
B) Low interest rates allow for private-sector deleveraging, which is a prelude to stimulating market demand;
C) Low interest rates prevent today's government binge from being even more expensive than it would be in normal times (by keeping financing costs down);
D) If uncertainty is decreasing -- and that appears to be the case with the U.S. economy -- then low interest rates should spur greater entrepreneurial investments.
So, at the risk of threatening my status in the International Brotherhood of Serious Global Political Econmy Bloggers That Talk Seriously About Economics, I hereby ask my commenters to explain Bill Gross' concerns to me. Because I don't get it -- and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm not the only one.
Based on his prior scholarly and advocacy work, it's safe to say that Bob Pape has not been a huge fan of U.S. military interventions. In Bombing to Win, he argued that the coercive effect of air power had been wildly overstated. In Dying to Win, he argued that the presence of foreign troops and bases are most likely to inspire suicide terrorism. Pape was a foreign policy advisor to Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, which evinced a foreign policy based on non-interventionism. There's been some more-than-mild disagreements with Pape's scholarly conclusions, but to date he's articulated a very clear and consistent message warning about the risks of foreign interventions.
Which is why his New York Times op-ed today is so damn surprising. His basic argument:
A new standard for humanitarian intervention is needed. If a continuing government-sponsored campaign of mass homicide — in which thousands have died and many thousands more are likely to die — is occurring, a coalition of countries, sanctioned by major international and regional institutions, should intervene to stop it, as long as they have a viable plan, with minimal risk of casualties for the interveners....
Limited military force to stop campaigns of state-sanctioned homicide is more pragmatic than waiting for irrefutable evidence of “genocide.” It will not work in every case, but it will save large numbers of lives. It also promotes restraint in cases where humanitarian intervention would be high-risk or used as a pretext for imperial designs.
As the world’s sole military superpower, the United States will be at the center of many future debates over humanitarian action. Rather than hewing to the old standard of intervening only after genocide has been proved, the emerging new standard would allow for meaningful and low-risk military action before the killing gets out of control.
This is quite the conclusion coming from Pape, and, at a minimum, is hard to square with some of his prior work (though, it should be noted, it is consistent with what he wrote in April 2011). I wonder how it applies to Syria.... oh, here's the relevant paragraphs:
Syria is, I admit, a tough case. It is a borderline example of a government’s engaging in mass killings of its citizens. The main obstacle to intervention is the absence of a viable, low-casualty military solution. Unlike Libya, where much of the coastal core of the population lived under rebel control, the opposition to Syria’s dictatorial president Bashar al-Assad, has not achieved sustained control of any major population area. So air power alone would probably not be sufficient to blunt the Assad loyalists entrenched in cities, and a heavy ground campaign would probably face stiff and bloody resistance.
If a large region broke away from the regime en masse, international humanitarian intervention could well become viable. Until then, sadly, Syria is not another Libya. A mass-homicide campaign is under way there, but a means to stop it without unacceptable loss of life is not yet available.
I'm not sure how keen I am on military intervention into Syria right now, but if one employs Pape's own criteria, then these paragraphs seem like some serious hand-waving. First, it's not a "borderline example" of atrocities. The UN estimated more than 5000 dead back in December -- that meets the "thousands have died" criteria, and if the status quo persists, thousands more are going to die.
Second, one could argue that Assad's ability to repress has been severely compromised. If it's really true that Assad's forces no longer control half the country -- and that's a big if -- then creating an enclave would be easier than Pape suggests.
Again, I'm not suggesting that the United States should do this -- there would be a lot of policy externalities and second-order effects to consider. What I'm suggesting is that Pape's sudden embrace of humanitarian intervention -- and subsequent rejection of that option in Syria -- is just damn puzzling.
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?
As both the unrest and crackdown in Syria continue to get worse, Russia has steadfastly stood by the side of the Assad regime. Matters are coming to a head in Turtle Bay, however, as James Blitz and Roula Khalaf and Charles Clover report for the Financial Times:
Britain, France and the US will be making their most forceful push yet for a political transition in Syria at the UN Security Council this week, lending support to an Arab plan that they hope will overcome Russian opposition....
Paris and London said on Monday that they had the support of 10 out 15 Security Council members, which would mean a resolution can be put to a vote. But it remains unclear how Russia, which last year vetoed a much milder resolution, will vote....
French and British diplomats argue that Russia can no longer block a UN resolution. “We’re trying to convince the Russians that they can’t stay in their posture of opposition to a resolution while there is this much killing on the ground,” said a French official.
The State Department said Hillary Clinton had been trying to call Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, for the past 24 hours to discuss Syria, but he had been “unavailable.” The Syrian regime in recent days had “just let loose in horrific ways against innocents," said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department (emphasis added).
This is a serious humanitarian crisis and a brewing confrontation between permanent members U.N. Security Council…and yet, there's something I find very amusing about Lavrov's efforts to duck Clinton's calls. In the old days of the 20th century, one could imagine this kind of lying low gambit being easier to pull this off. Not any more.
Still, in honor of Lavrov's efforts to play hide and seek, your humble blogger suggests a contest for readers: Proffer your own version of Lavrov's outgoing voicemail message. If you're Lavrov, representing the interests of the Russian Federation, what would you want Hillary Clinton to listen to as she tried to reach you? Could the outgoing message itself constitute part of Lavrov's pushback?
To get the ball rolling, here's my effort:
Hello, you've reached Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation. I'm away from my phone right now, coordinating an investigation into serious human rights abuses that have occurred in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the past year. If you wait for the "reset" beep and leave me your name and number, however, I'll be sure to get back to you about how this stuff might need to be raised at the next U.N. Security Council meeting.
Try it yourself -- it's easy and fun!
The term "inflection point" has become one of those overused bits of meaningless jargon in political discourse. I'm rather more fond of the notion of a "focal point" -- that is to say, an event or cluster of events in which everyone that cares about a particular problem focuses on the same set of stylized facts -- after which, they conclude that, gee, maybe the status quo set of policies ain't working so well and there should be a new status quo.
The fall of 2008 was one such focal point, during which there was remarkable consensus that a Keynesian boost in public spending was the only way to avert another Great Depression. At the fiirst G-20 leaders summit in Washington, there was consensus on expansionary fiscal policy. Oh, sure, there were grumblings about "crass Keynesianism," but even Germany reluctantly went along.
The Greek sovereign debt crisis was another such focal point. Greek profligacy seemed to be a synecdoche for excessive government borrowing and lax fiscal discipline. With the global economy seemingly still in the doldrums, a lot of Europrean governments climbed on the "expansionary austerity" bandwagon. By the Toronto G-20 summit in June 2010, the consensus had switched from Keynesian stimulus to fiscal rectitude. Oh, sure there were mutterings about "short-term austerity makes no macroeconomic sense whatsoever in a slack economy" but even Barack Obama started talking about slashing government spending.
Are we at another focal point? Consider the following:
1) According to the New York Times' Stephen Castle, European leaders now seem to recognize that austerity on its own ain't working:
Bowing to mounting evidence that austerity alone cannot solve the debt crisis, European leaders are expected to conclude this week that what the debt-laden, sclerotic countries of the Continent need are a dose of economic growth.
A draft of the European Union summit meeting communiqué calls for ‘‘growth-friendly consolidation and job-friendly growth,’’ an indication that European leaders have come to realize that austerity measures, like those being put in countries like Greece and Italy, risk stoking a recession and plunging fragile economies into a downward spiral.
2) The data is starting to come in on governments that have embraced austerity whole-heartedly, and it's pretty grim. Cue Paul Krugman on Great Britain:
Last week the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a British think tank, released a startling chart comparing the current slump with past recessions and recoveries. It turns out that by one important measure — changes in real G.D.P. since the recession began — Britain is doing worse this time than it did during the Great Depression. Four years into the Depression, British G.D.P. had regained its previous peak; four years after the Great Recession began, Britain is nowhere close to regaining its lost ground.
Nor is Britain unique. Italy is also doing worse than it did in the 1930s — and with Spain clearly headed for a double-dip recession, that makes three of Europe’s big five economies members of the worse-than club. Yes, there are some caveats and complications. But this nonetheless represents a stunning failure of policy.
And it’s a failure, in particular, of the austerity doctrine that has dominated elite policy discussion both in Europe and, to a large extent, in the United States for the past two years.
3) Even commentators who would be tempermentally sympathetic with austerity are starting to
bash Germany question whether it's a solution. Consider Walter Russell Mead:
It takes some truly talented screw ups to come up with a worse plan for Greece than the one the Greeks have developed for themselves, but the Germans have risen to occasion in fine form....
Deep reform is needed if Greece is to stay in the euro, and so far the Greek political establishment — firmly backed by public opinion — is digging in its heels. Much whining, much talk, many promises and precious little action seems to be the favored Greek approach to the crisis. On the other hand, the austerity policies the Germans favor are hopelessly biased in favor of German banking interests and are aimed more at the preservation of the reputations of German politicians than at helping Greece.
The German political establishment seems willing to destroy Europe to avoid telling German voters the truth about how stupid it has been.
[UPDATE: For exhibit B of this trend, see this Niall Ferguson interview with Henry Blodget. My favorite part of the interview is this quotation: "I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn't actually thought hard enough about my own work.... My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago."]
4) U.S. 4th quarter data reveals that, consistent with GOP criticisms, the government has been the real drag on the U.S. economy. Not quite consistent with GOP criticisms: the reason why the government is dragging down the U.S. economy. Cue Mark Thoma:
[P]remature austerity -- cutting spending before the economy is ready for it -- is taking a toll on the recovery. The fall in government spending reduced fourth-quarter growth by 0.93 percent; if government spending had remained constant, GDP growth would have been 3.7 percent, rather than 2.8 percent.
This is the opposite of what the government should be doing to support the recovery. We need a temporary increase in government spending to increase demand and employment through, for example, building infrastructure. That would help to get us out of the deep hole we are in. Instead, the government seems to be trying to make it harder to escape.
We do need to address our long-run budget problems once the economy is healthy enough to withstand the tax increases and program cuts that will be required. But the idea of "expansionary" austerity has failed. Austerity in the short-term simply makes it harder for the economy to recover and delays the day when you can finally address budget issues without harming the economy. The lesson is that government needs to support the recovery, not oppose it through a false promise that contraction of one sector in the economy will be expansionary.
5) Central banks are acting more gung-ho on expansionary monetary policy. The unspoken quid pro quo in Europe seems to the that the ECB will expand its balance sheet and turn on the monetary taps in return for some kind of fiscal compact. The U.S. Federal Reserve announced a zero-interest rate policy for the next three years. Even China is showing (halting) signs that its reverted back to monetary easing.
Given that the United States has been the country to move the slowest on austerity, and given that the United States is doing the best job among the OECD economies (an admittedly low bar) of restoring confidence among investors and paying down non-governmental debt, have we reached another focal point?
One could argue that Krugman and Thoma are just biased in favor of Keynesianism, that Greece and the other Club Med countries haven't really embraced austerity, that the Euromess is dragging down British economic growth, and that the long-term numbers on developed country debt are really very scary. There are some large grains of truth in many of those statements.
It doesn't necessarily matter, however. Greece was not a genuine harbinger of the fiscal problems of large markets -- but it was a useful hook for austerity advocates to spread their gospel. What matters now is not whether these perceptions about the failure of austerity are 100% accurate, but whether they are accurate enough to become the new conventional wisdom.
What do you think?
My recent post on the overstatement of American decline has probably been my most popular single non-zombie item since moving the blog to Foreign Policy. It has also attracted some useful observations on Michael Beckley's International Security essay in particular -- see Phil Arena and Erik Voeten for some trenchant criticisms.
My FP co-blogger Steve Walt has also weighed in, however, arguing that obsessing about the Sino-American comparison misses some larger points about the decline of American influence:
The United States remains very powerful -- especially when compared with some putative opponents like Iran -- but its capacity to lead security and economic orders in every corner of the world has been diminished by failures in Iraq (and eventually, Afghanistan), by the burden of debt accumulated over the past decade, by the economic melt-down in 2007-2008, and by the emergence of somewhat stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. One might also point to eroding national infrastructure and an educational system that impresses hardly anyone. Moreover, five decades of misguided policies have badly tarnished America's image in many parts of the world, and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. The erosion of authoritarian rule in the Arab world will force new governments to pay more attention to popular sentiment -- which is generally hostile to the broad thrust of U.S. policy in the region -- and the United States will be less able to rely on close relations with tame monarchs or military dictators henceforth. If it the United States remains far and away the world's strongest state, its ability to get its way in world affairs is declining.
All this may seem like a hair-splitting, but there's an important issue at stake. Posing the question in the usual way ("Is the U.S. Still #1?", "Who's bigger?", "Is China Catching Up?" etc.,) focuses attention primarily on bilateral comparisons and distracts us from thinking about the broader environment in which both the United States and China will have to operate. The danger, of course, is that repeated assurances that America is still on top will encourage foreign policy mandarins to believe that they can continue to make the same blunders they have in the recent past, and discourage them from making the strategic choices that will preserve U.S. primacy, enhance U.S. influence, and incidentally, produce a healthier society here at home.
I disagree with Steve on multiple points here, so let's be thorough and go through them one at at time.
First, I'd argue that developing accurate assessments about the power balance between China and the United States is actually super-important. Miserceptions about a rising China or a declining United States can lead to a) toxic political rhetoric in Washington, which leads to b) rhetorical blowback, which leads to c) stupid foreign policy miscalculations. As I wrote about a year ago:
Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power -- to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic.
The discussion of China in the GOP presidential campaign, as well as Obama's mercantilist State of the Union address, strongly suggest that political assessments and political rhetoric about Chinese power need a strong jolt of sobriety. Walt is concerned that an overestimation of American power will lead to stupid foreign policy decisions, but I'd wager that an overestimation of Chinese power would lead to equally stupid foreign policy decisions.
As for Walt's assertions about the decline of American influence... well, I must take issue with several of them. First, the notion that the United States was able to exercise power more easily during the Cold War seems a bit off. As Robert Kagan points out in The New Republic:
And of course it is true that the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then it never could. Much of today’s impressions about declining American influence are based on a nostalgic fallacy: that there was once a time when the United States could shape the whole world to suit its desires, and could get other nations to do what it wanted them to do, and, as the political scientist Stephen M. Walt put it, “manage the politics, economics and security arrangements for nearly the entire globe.”
If we are to gauge America’s relative position today, it is important to recognize that this image of the past is an illusion. There never was such a time. We tend to think back on the early years of the Cold War as a moment of complete American global dominance. They were nothing of the sort. The United States did accomplish extraordinary things in that era: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods economic system all shaped the world we know today. Yet for every great achievement in the early Cold War, there was at least one equally monumental setback.
During the Truman years, there was the triumph of the Communist Revolution in China in 1949, which American officials regarded as a disaster for American interests in the region and which did indeed prove costly; if nothing else, it was a major factor in spurring North Korea to attack the South in 1950. But as Dean Acheson concluded, “the ominous result of the civil war in China” had proved “beyond the control of the ... United States,” the product of “forces which this country tried to influence but could not.” A year later came the unanticipated and unprepared-for North Korean attack on South Korea, and America’s intervention, which, after more than 35,000 American dead and almost 100,000 wounded, left the situation almost exactly as it had been before the war. In 1949, there came perhaps the worst news of all: the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb and the end of the nuclear monopoly on which American military strategy and defense budgeting had been predicated.
Kagan's essay is getting some attention in high places, so I'll be very curious to hear Walt's take on it.
It Walt overestimates America's influence during the Cold War, he also underestimates American influence now. The funny thing about the "stronger and independent actors in Brazil, Turkey, India, and elsewhere" is that they're siding with the United States on multiple important issues. Coordination between Turkey and the United States on the Arab Spring has increased over time, and their policy positions on Iran are converging more than diverging. Brazil has turned a cold shoulder to Iran and has been warier about China's currency manipulation and rising influence in Latin America. India seems perfectly comfortable to be a partner in America's Pacific Rim pivot, as are Australia, Japan and South Korea.
This is perfectly consistent with Walt's own balance-of-threat theory, by the way. The actors that seem to be generating the most anxiety among the rising developing countries are the ones that seem to be exhibiting the most aggressive regional intentions -- namely, China and Iran. Indeed, even countries with strong historical resentments against the United States are now trying to find creative ways to bind themselves to Washington. Will these countries always march in lockstep with the United States? Of course not -- but as Walt would surely acknowledge, America's NATO allies were not always on the same page with the United States on myriad Cold War issues.
It seems that Walt's primary concern is that without better domestic policies, the United States might fritter away its great power advantages. I'm sympathetic to that argument -- I'd also take the bold position that I'd like to see improvements in American education and infrastructure as well. One of the points I was making in my original post, however was that even absent grand initiatives from Washington, the United States economy was finding ways to heal itself. Indeed, compared to either Europe or China, one could argue that the United States has adjusted to the post-2008 environment the best. This is not so much praise for Washington as an indictment of rigidities in Brussels and Beijing. Still, power and influence are relative measures, and I see little evidence to support Walt's pessimism.
Am I missing anything?
One could argue that the job of ambassador has been made obsolete by macrotrends in technology and politics. Oh, sure, maybe traditional envoys from great powers still play an important role in smaller countries that don't normally capture much attention in major capitals. Among the great powers, however, one could posit that ambassadors are superfluous. In a world in which heads of government and foreign ministers have multiple direct means of communication, in which you can't go a week without some big global summit, and in which leaders are wary of confiding with ambassadors because
they'll quit and then run for head of government that's just another press leak waiting to happen, what can ambassadors really do? Will we see the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, or even Anatoly Dobrynin ever again?
Probably not, but even in the 21st century, great power ambassadors to other great powers still serve a purpose. In the case of American ambassadors to Russia and China, they can excel at getting under the skin of their host country governments. Gary Locke seems to be doing that pretty well in China, in no small part by being an ethnic Chinese politician that doesn't seem to be behaving like Chinese politicians.
In the case of Russia, there's the new ambassador Michael McFaul, who before this was in Obama's National Security Council and one of the architects o the "reset" policy, and before that was a professor of political science at Stanford (full disclosure: Mike's first year at Stanford as a professor was my last there as a grad student, and he's been a friend to me ever since).
In the annals of American diplomacy, few honeymoons have been shorter than the one granted to Michael A. McFaul, who arrived in Russia on Jan. 14 as the new American ambassador.
Toward the end of the ambassador’s second full day at work, a commentator on state-controlled Channel 1 suggested during a prime-time newscast that Mr. McFaul was sent to Moscow to foment revolution. A columnist for the newspaper Izvestia chimed in the next day, saying his appointment signaled a return to the 18th century, when “an ambassador’s participation in intrigues and court conspiracies was ordinary business.”....
Mr. McFaul, 48, has arrived in a city churning with conjecture and paranoia. The public attack illustrates how edgy the Kremlin is about the protest movement that has taken shape, turning Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s re-election campaign into a nerve-racking test for the government. It also reveals how fragile relations are between Washington and Mr. Putin’s government, which has repeatedly accused the State Department of orchestrating the demonstrations.
If the blast of venom that greeted Mr. McFaul was intended as a warning to maintain a low profile in his new role, he seems unlikely to comply. At the end of his first week, he was exuberant, saying his goal was to “destroy cold war stereotypes,” especially misstatements about the United States’ intentions in Russia.
“I know I’m just going to go in full force, I’ve got nothing to hide, and we feel very confident in our policy and in selling our policy,” said Mr. McFaul, a native of Bozeman, Mont., who spent much of his career in academia. He does not need to fret over his next diplomatic posting, he added, because there will not be one.
“I ain’t going nowhere else,” he said, with a big smile. “This is it. I am not a career diplomat. And so I am here to do that in a very, very aggressive way.”
As someone who spent a short stint in DC, I recognize the sentiment McFaul expressed in that last paragraph. The exit option is one of the greatest assets an academic has if they enter the foreign policymaking world. Of course, that option can also encourage policymakers to stray way outside the reservation, so it kind of depends upon which academic has been appointed. In the case of McFaul, I'm very confident he will use this power for the forces of good.
Let's face it, there's a general anxiety about the future of America. There's Tom Friedman's column today, which my doctors have now forbade me from critiquing in order to keep my blood pressure down. Books suggesting the United States is kowtowing to China are forthcoming. The Economist recently observed on the highlights of a sobering survey of Harvard Business School graduates, which contained the following:
Fully 71% of the businesspeople polled expected America’s competitiveness to decline over the next three years. (National competitiveness is a slippery concept: countries do not compete in the same way that firms do. But the businessfolk in question answered some clearer questions, too.) Some 45% said that American firms will find it harder to compete in the global economy. A startling 64% said that American firms will find it harder to pay high wages and benefits.
Intriguingly, the Harvard alumni were gloomy about where America is headed, rather than how it is now. Some 57% felt that today the business environment in America is somewhat or much better than the global average; only 15% said it was worse. But when asked to compare its prospects with those of other industrialised economies, only 9% felt that America was pulling ahead; some 21% said it was falling behind. A striking 66% expected America to lose ground to Brazil, India and China; only 8% thought it would pull away from them.
This would seem to jibe with popular laments about why Apple can't make its products domestically. There are a lot of reasons, but a significant one is the lack of necessary skills for higher-end manufacturing. This is in no small part because American students shy away from the training necessary to do these kind of jobs even if they originally think they want to be engineers. Why? Because American college students don't like doing homework.
So, America is doomed, right?
To be honest, this sounds like a lot of pious baloney. As Michael Beckley points out in a new article in International Security, "The United States is not in decline; in fact, it is now wealthier, more innovative, and more militarily powerful compared to China than it was in 1991." The whole article is worth a read, and a good cautionary tale on the dangers of overestimating the ease of national catch-up:
The widespread misperception that China is catching up to the United States stems from a number of analytical flaws, the most common of which is the tendency to draw conclusions about the U.S.-China power balance from data that compare China only to its former self. For example, many studies note that the growth rates of China’s per capita income, value added in hightechnology industries, and military spending exceed those of the United States and then conclude that China is catching up. This focus on growth rates, however, obscures China’s decline relative to the United States in all of these categories. China’s growth rates are high because its starting point was low. China is rising, but it is not catching up.
What about the future? One could point to the last few months of modestly encouraging economic data, but that's ephemeral. Rather, there are three macrotrends that are worth observing now before (I suspect) they come up in the State of the Union:
1) The United States is successfully deleveraging. As the McKinsey Global Institute notes, the United States is actually doing a relatively good job of slimming down total debt -- i.e., consumer, investor and public debt combined. Sure, public debt has exploded, but as MGI points out, that really is the proper way of doing things after a financial bubble:
The deleveraging processes in Sweden and Finland in the 1990s offer relevant lessons today. Both endured credit bubbles and collapses, followed by recession, debt reduction, and eventually a return to robust economic growth. Their experiences and other historical examples show two distinct phases of deleveraging. In the first phase, lasting several years, households, corporations, and financial institutions reduce debt significantly. While this happens, economic growth is negative or minimal and government debt rises. In the second phase of deleveraging, GDP growth rebounds and then government debt is gradually reduced over many years....
As of January 2012, the United States is most closely following the Nordic path towards deleveraging. Debt in the financial sector has fallen back to levels last seen in 2000, before the credit bubble, and the ratio of corporate debt relative to GDP has also fallen. US households have made more progress in debt reduction than other countries, and may have roughly two more years before returning to sustainable levels of debt.
Indeed, the deleveraging is impressive enough for even Paul Krugman to start sounding optimistic:
the economy is depressed, in large part, because of the housing bust, which immediately suggests the possibility of a virtuous circle: an improving economy leads to a surge in home purchases, which leads to more construction, which strengthens the economy further, and so on. And if you squint hard at recent data, it looks as if something like that may be starting: home sales are up, unemployment claims are down, and builders’ confidence is rising.
Furthermore, the chances for a virtuous circle have been rising, because we’ve made significant progress on the debt front.
2) Manufacturing is on the mend. Another positive trend, contra the Harvard Business School and the GOP presidential candidates, is in manufacturing. Some analysts have already predicted a revival in that sector, and now the data appears to be backing up that prediction. The Financial Times' Ed Crooks notes:
Plenty of economists and business leaders believe that US manufacturing is entering an upturn that is not just a bounce-back after the recession, but a sign of a longer-term structural improvement. Manufacturing employment has grown faster in the US since the recession than in any other leading developed economy, according to official figures. Productivity growth, subdued wages, the steady decline in the dollar since 2002 and rapid pay inflation in emerging economies have combined to make the US a more attractive location.
“Over the past decade, the US has had some huge gains in productivity, and we have seen unit labour costs actually falling,” says Chad Moutray, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers. “A lot of our members tell us that it sometimes is cheaper to produce in the US, especially because labour costs are lower.”
Now, whether this boom in manufacturing will lead to a corresponding boom in manufacturing employment is much more debatable. Still, as The Atlantic's Adam Davidson concludes: "the still-unfolding story of manufacturing’s transformation is, in many respects, that of our economic age. It’s a story with much good news for the nation as a whole. But it’s also one that is decidedly less inclusive than the story of the 20th century."
Growth in shale oil and gas supplies will make the US virtually self-sufficient in energy by 2030, according to a BP report published on Wednesday.
In a development with enormous geopolitical implications, the country's dependence on oil imports from potentially volatile countries in the Middle East and elsewhere would disappear, BP said, although Britain and western Europe would still need Gulf supplies.
BP's latest energy outlook forecasts a growth in unconventional energy sources, "including US shale oil and gas, Canadian oil sands and Brazilian deepwater, plus a gradual decline in demand, that would see [North America] become almost totally energy self-sufficient" in two decades.
BP's chief executive, Bob Dudley, said: "Our report challenges some long-held beliefs. Significant changes in US supply-and-demand prospects, for example, highlight the likelihood that import dependence in what is today's largest energy importer will decline substantially."
The report said the volume of oil imports in the US would fall below 1990s levels, largely due to rising domestic shale oil production and ethanol replacing crude. The US would also become a net exporter of natural gas.
Note that this will take a while, and doesn't mean that the U.S. will be energy independent. Still, it's quite a trend. Or, rather, trends.
Since the Second World War, the pattern in the global political economy has been for the United States to adjust to systemic shocks better than any potential challenger country. A lot of very smart people have predicted that this time was different -- the United States wouldn't be able to do it again. These trends suggest that maybe, just maybe, that might be wrong.
Am I missing anything?
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."
The New York Times' Roger Cohen files an optimistic column today, arguing that predictions of American decline are premature. I tend to agree with Cohen's sentiment but not his logic because, well, it's God-awful. Here's the key bits:
Perhaps the most successful U.S. chief executive of the past decade is stepping down this month. Samuel Palmisano of I.B.M. has presided over a remarkable transformation of the technology giant, extracting it from the personal computer business and shifting it toward services and software to power a “Smarter Planet.”
In a fascinating interview with my colleague Steve Lohr, Palmisano said the first of the four questions in his guiding business framework was, “Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?” At root, business is still about getting money out of your pocket into mine. By being unsentimental in making I.B.M. unique, Palmisano ensured a lot of money flowed the company’s way.
Profits followed. The stock price surged. Warren Buffett, who knows which way the wind blows, recently acquired a stake of more than 5 percent. I.B.M. has been re-imagined, not least in the way it has shifted from being a U.S. multinational to a global corporation powered by rapid expansion in growth markets like India and China.
The question arises: If an American colossus like I.B.M. can be turned around, can America itself? (emphasis added)
A small aside: if Cohen's logic is correct, then the 2012 election is over and everyone should vote for Mitt Romney. This kind of ruthless turnaround is exactly what Romney did while at Bain. While his track record can be disputed, there's no doubt that he was willing to be ruthless to increase profits. So, whether he knows it or not, Cohen is making the argument that a turnaround specialist like Romney would be just the ticket for the United States, transforming America's political economy into a leaner, more efficient engine for progress.
The thing is -- and this is kind of important -- governments are not corporations. I cannot stress this enough. There's the obvious point that in democracies, legislatures tend to impose a more powerful constraint than shareholders, making it that much harder for leaders to execute the policies they think will be the most efficient.
There's also the deeper point that it's a lot harder for governments to be "unsentimental" when it comes to the provision of public services. It's a lot harder for states to eliminate the functions that are less efficient. Frequently, demand for government services emerges because of the perception that the private sector has fallen down on the job in that area. This means that the government has been tasked with doing the things that are difficult and unprofitable to do. It is precisely because these government outputs are often so hard to measure that Newt Gingrich's claims about Six Sigma sound pretty laughable. Even libertarians who want the government to reduce its operations drastically will acknowledge the political risks and costs of trying to execute this plan.
To be fair, there are some policy dimensions where this analogy holds up better. Cohen implicitly argues that America's willingness to jettison costly and inefficient foreign ventures -- cough, Iraq, cough -- is an example of this kind of turnaround strategy. Fair enough. Even on foreign policy, however, it's hard to execute this kind of ruthless efficiency. Israel is prosperous enough to not need the $3 billion it gets in U.S. aid. Good luck to anyone trying to cut that. Africa is not a vital strategic areas of interest for the United States, but I suspect AFRICOM isn't going anywhere. I've been a big fan of getting the United States out of Central Asia, but critics make a fair point when they observe that the last time the United States tried this gambit, Al Qaeda took advantage of it.
There's been a lot of bragging in the 2012 primary about candidates that have "real world" business experience, and how that translates into an effective ability to govern. That logic is horses**t. Being president is a fundamentally different job than being a CEO -- because countries are not corporations.
It's been a busy week for Iran-watchers. The European Union is mulling a phased-in oil embargo, prompting Iranian officials to label the move as "an economic war" against Iran. Now Iran's Asia customers are trying to diversify away from Iranian oil. These expectations of future cutoffs, combined with pre-existing sanctions, are taking their toll on the Iranian economy in the form of dollar-hoarding and a free-falling national currency. Fareed Zakaria sums up the current state of play nicely:
[T]he real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter -- Syria -- is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington. Last week, Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.…
The Obama administration has put tremendous pressure on Iran on a variety of fronts -- far more pressure than the Bush administration was ever able to muster. This is, in part, because the pressure has been brought to bear, wherever possible, with other countries. The United States does not buy oil from Iran. But European nations, Japan and South Korea do, and if they go along with a new round of sanctions, Iran faces the real prospect of an economic freefall.
Iran's response to these moves has been a mixture of tough talk, empty gestures, backtracking on threats, and an acknowledgment of economic difficulties. It's therefore no wonder that the Washington Post reports, "U.S. officials are increasingly confident that economic and political pressure alone may succeed in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions." Walter Russell Mead observes that, "public opinion in Iran does not seem to be rallying behind its unpopular government as the economic storm intensifies."
At the same time, however, Iran is trying to demonstrate that its uranium enrichment will continue unabated. Trita Parsi argues that overconfidence in the sanctions track will cause the Obama administration to rebuff any negotiated breakthrough on the nuclear issue. This leads to the obvious question: What's the endgame in Iran? Will sanctions "work"?
To get Clintonian, this depends on your definition of "work." One could argue that the current and projected actions taken by the EU and Pacific Rim might have been a wake-up call to Tehran that it's more isolated than it had previously thought. Iran is not merely facing the United States; it's facing a multilateral coalition that's growing stronger, not weaker. Unless potential benefactors like China take proactive steps to function as a "black knight," these sanctions really will cripple Iran's economy. The alienation of Iran's bazaari from the leadership in Tehran would ... let's say complicate the domestic situation in Iran.
That said, I'm skeptical that it will push the current regime toward making a substantive accommodation on its nuclear program. Based on how the leadership has treated domestic unrest, it seems clear that the top leadership is perfectly comfortable following The Dictator's Handbook approach to staying in power. More-powerful sanctions will therefore simply lead to more-powerful crackdowns. If Iranian elites view the nuclear program as the key to preventing outside attempts at forcible regime change, there's no way they'll compromise.
So would negotiation work? I'm skeptical here too. In part the problem is determining whether the Iranians are capable of negotiating in good faith. I don't mean that Tehran will act duplicitously; I mean whether the fractious regime can act in a coherent manner. Its behavior over the past week or two suggests otherwise. So does Zakaria:
The Obama administration seems to have concluded that the Iranian regime is not ready or able to make a strategic reconciliation with the West. The regime is too divided and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority, the Supreme Leader, is too ideologically rigid. So for now Washington wants to build pressure on Iran in the hopes that this will force the regime into serious negotiations at some point.
I suspect the Obama administration's hopes are more ambitious. They want the sanctions to be so crippling that Khamenei's ultimate authority comes under challenge, to the point where factional divisions open up space for a substantive change in the regime.
This might work, but I'd put the odds of this happening at less than 1 in 3. Still, this is the thing about instances in which economic sanctions are deployed. Even if their prospects don't look great, they're usually employed because the other options have even worse odds. For the next, say, six months, pursuing this course of action makes sense. It weakens Iran at a key moment in the Middle East, and it might lead to some positive developments down the road. That said, even if the sanctions work in crippling Iran's economy, they likely won't work at altering Iran's objectionable nuclear policies -- the expectations of future conflict are too great. At that point, the United States is going to need to consider whether it's prepared to pursue a longer-term containment strategy or alter course.
What do you think?
The genesis of this blog post is a bit arcane. In response to news reports about proposed changes in U.S. defense doctrine, Andrew Exum jokingly suggested "replacing the 'Two Wars' strategy with a 'Who Wants Some? You? How About You, Tough Guy?' strategy" on Twitter. This led to other suggested mottos, expressed in YouTube videos, which eventually led to me issuing a grandiose call: suggest the YouTube clip that "best encapsulates American grand strategy."
Yeah, that should bring you up to speed.
Below you will find the
ten eleven suggested clips that resonated the most for me, with some further elaboration by your humble blogger. WARNING: some profanity. Then again, if the profane is offensive to you, it's best that you not think too hard about American foreign policy.
A penetrating critique of the orrery of errors that have befallen American foreign policy as of late. Clearly, the United States is trying to conduct its international affairs in a sea of darkness, lacking crucial information to light the way. Despite the best efforts to get all the components of American power into alignment, it's hard to pull off.
Steve Saideman linked to this scene from Crocodile Dundee:
The new or not so new defense strategy of having enough of a military to fight one war while deterring or spoiling an adversary's plans requires a "bigger knife" not to use but to dissuade challengers.
Such a grand strategy also plays to the U.S.'s current strength -- dominating conventional war through bigger and better weapons. In the video, Croc Dundee is confronted not by one mugger but several (and one can read race into this if one wants, since the mugger was African-American, and most threats to the U.S. are by non-white folks). His big knife spoils the plans of each of them. Sounds like a good use of resources.
I think it works as an example of soft power and American exceptionalism. Via her affirmations Jessica demonstrates that Americans think America is awesome -- and therefore, why the rest of the world will/should want the same things Americans want.
FP's Michael Cohen proffers this climactic speech from Animal House:
Not bad, actually. Note that Bluto's inspiring speech has no appreciable effect on the apathetic Deltas at first. Only when other elites -- like Otter -- indicate their support, does the rest of the country -- I mean, fraternity -- rally around the flag. A subtle exegesis of how elite consensus can drive the mass public into stupid, futile gestures.
An utterly brilliant exposition of the ways in which the best strategy in the world will be subverted by the cowboy who shoots first and asks questons later. Indeed, this clip works on two levels. On the one hand, you can think of it as the struggles that go on within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy to make sure everyone is on the same page -- and the ways in which hawkish actors can unilaterally set the agenda. Or, look at it as an exegesis of how the United States, through its willingness to take immediate aggressive action, can exacerbate tensions among its less powerful allies. This exuberance can breed resentment among America's partners, but often, Washington doesn't care, because, well, at least we ain't chicken.
Hmmm ... I'm intrigued. This appears to be a subtle indictment of the idealpolitik that occasionally governs American foreign policy. After all, Ray is trying to "think of the most harmless thing ... something that could never destroy us." Naturally, this leads to the creation of an entity that causes his paranormal colleagues to be "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought." Think of this as a potential metaphor of both liberal and neoconservative enthusiasm for democracy promotion. Sure, it sounds good in your head, but then you see who winds up doing well in the post-Arab Spring political environment, it's easy to lose the capacity for rational choice.
Ha, I bet you think you've been rickrolled. Think again! Rick Astley smartly presaged one of the central dilemmas of America's post-Cold War foreign policy: how do you get nervous allies to believe that the United States will honor its overseas obligations? You have to
have attractive bleach-blonde back-up singers reassure them that "a full commitment's what I'm thinking of" and that "you'll never get this from any other guy." You have to pledge, repeatedly, that America is "never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down." Furthermore, the United States is "never gonna run around and desert you." This kind of reassurance mechanism, done with the proper tone and in harmony with other voices, can make even the wariest of allies vault over political barriers and do backflips in celebration of their alliances with the United States.
Steven suggests that, at a minimum, this explains public discourse on grand strategy, and he has a point. On the one hand, you have an angry public that appears to be willing to fabricate evidence to justify taking aggressive action. On the other hand, you have elites that reject the absence of any logic to justify action. Instrad, they rely on their own galactically stupid set of axioms to guide their thinking.
Sure, the song is an obvious choice, but as he notes, it was no accident that he chose this version. The joyful version makes light of America's exuberance for all things American. That's not the point of this clip -- it suggests the dark side of American exceptionalism, the burden that the United States faces as it tries to preserve global order in a world gone amok by odd, tacit alliances between terrorists and rogue states.
In less than three seconds, this clip hints at a myriad number of rich textual interpretations. Does the dog represent what happens when force is used, dragging the rest of the country along? Or, perhaps the canine symbolizes the big influence of small allies. Actors that the United States thinks it has under its thumb are actually driving foreign policy more than you would think. Without question, however, critics of the Obama administration would conclude that this clip is the definitive explication of the perils that come with "leading from behind."
Like most of these seemingly short clips, Wueger's submission works on two levels. On the one hand, it demonstrates the ways in which hegemonic power allows some actors to be able to pursue policies that small actors simply cannot. In this comparison, this clip reminds the viewer of the many global public goods that a hegemonic actor might feel obligated to provide. Compare Bus 62 with the U.S. Navy after the 2004 tsunami, for example. On the other hand, hegemonic power can also have unanticipated negative externalities. Sure, Bus 62 simply plows through the barrier. However, it does so without helping the other people stuck in traffic, and, like a boss, nearly plows over the person in the way. A cautionary tale about the uses and possible abuses of power.
OK, readers, what are your suggestions?
I see the Eurasia Group has published their top ten risks for 2012. Given arguments by some about proliferating security risks and the necessity for bombing Iran, I'm assuming that it's going to be a pretty threatening year security-wise, right?
The most important macro theme for 2012: The world’s key political decision-makers will be focused heavily on questions of domestic economic stability at the expense of international security concerns at a moment when politics is having unprecedented impact on the global economy. This conflation of global politics and markets defines the formal end of the 9/11 era, a moment when decision-makers sought to isolate globalization from international security concerns....
The war on terror is being subsumed by fears for the global economic balance. This is not a conventional or unconventional weapons threat. It’s not a balance of terror or an individual terrorist. The new nightmares are of spiraling deficits, the eurozone crisis, and economic relations with China. These have become the primary risks to national security, though there are clearly other ongoing security concerns for the US.
But... but... Al Qaeda and Iran! Iran and Al Qaeda!! Surely these are important multidimensional threats, yes?
Say, what's in this Newsweek story by Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau?
Is it still too soon to write al Qaeda’s obituary? Over the past two years, the group’s ranks have been ravaged by America’s unmanned-aerial-vehicle attacks and by a steady exodus of demoralized jihadis fleeing Pakistan’s tribal areas. When Newsweek interviewed Hanif (his nom de guerre) for our Sept. 13, 2010, cover story, “Inside Al Qaeda,” he estimated that the group had roughly 130 Arabs in Waziristan, along with dozens more Chechens, Turks, Tajiks, even recruits from Western Europe. But little more than a year later, he estimates there are no more than 40 to 60 al Qaeda operatives of any nationality on either side of the border. “Al Qaeda was once full of great jihadis, but no one is active and planning opera-tions anymore,” he complains. “Those who remain are just trying to survive.”....
[B]y all accounts, al Qaeda has been practically wiped out in its former Afghan and Pakistani strongholds. Although America has suspended its drone attacks inside Pakistan since mid-November—the program’s longest hiatus in three years—the respite seems to have come too late for bin Laden’s old associates. “The drone attacks may have ended, but only after the near ending of al Qaeda in the tribal areas,” says a senior Taliban intelligence officer who has been in contact with surviving members of the group. “As far as I can tell, the operational command of al Qaeda has almost been eliminated.” Hanif’s uncle, a Taliban operative, tells Newsweek he’s been in contact with a few al Qaeda members who have taken refuge outside the tribal areas. “All of al Qaeda’s assets who had a strategic vision have been eliminated,” they’ve told him.
Well, surely Iran is on the rise, right? Right?
Iran’s ailing currency took a steep slide Monday, losing 12 percent against foreign currencies after President Obama on Saturday signed a bill that places the Islamic republic’s central bank under unilateral sanctions.
The currency, which economists say was held artificially high for years against the dollar and the euro, has lost about 35 percent of its value since September. Its exchange rate hovered at 16,800 rials to the dollar, marking a record low. The currency was trading at about 10,500 rials to the U.S. dollar in late December 2010.
The slide Monday came as Iran tested a domestically produced cruise missile during continuing naval drills near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, sending a message to the West that the country would not tolerate increased sanctions against its profitable oil industry.
But in Tehran, people said they were bleeding money....
"It is clear that there is lack of cohesion within the government on how to fix this,” said a prominent Iranian economist, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The market has lost all confidence in a solution.”
Look, I'm not saying that these actors are not threats. Test-firing cruise missiles sounds a wee bit disconcerting. But let's get real here -- these are supposed to be the actors that, combined, create a more threatening environment than the Cold War? That dog won't hunt.
It's time to admit that I'm getting old. I feel the aches and pains from workouts a bit more keenly. I have to Google acronyms I see on Twitter all the time. No matter how hard I try, I just don't feel comfortable wearing an untucked shirt with a blazer. Only now am I discovering Alison Brie, which makes me way behind the curve. Most importantly, however, I find myself reading threat assessments made by junior international relations scholars and shaking my head at these young-security-kids-with-their-having-no-memory-of-the-Cold-War.
To explain where I'm coming from, here's what I wrote a little more than a year ago:
Terrorism and piracy are certainly security concerns -- but they don't compare to the Cold War. A nuclear Iran is a major regional headache, but it's not the Cold War. A generation from now, maybe China poses as serious a threat as the Cold War Soviet Union. Maybe. That's a generation away, however....
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
I'll stand by that statement, and I'm not the only one here at FP to believe it. Over the past week, however, I'm seeing some
young whippersnappers junior scholars evince a different estimate of threats to U.S. national security.
Over at Shadow Government, Paul Miller has a four-part series -- count 'em, one, two, three, four -- of blog posts arguing that the world is a more dangerous place now than before. He sums up his argument in this concluding section:
Essentially, the United States thus faces two great families of threats today: first, the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, of which there are at least twice as many as there were during the Cold War; second, the aggregate consequences of state failure and the rise of non-state actors in much of the world, which is a wholly new development since the Cold War. On both counts, the world is more dangerous than it was before 1989. Essentially take the Cold War, add in several more players with nukes, and then throw in radicalized Islam, rampant state failure, and the global economic recession, and you have today.
I recognize that the world doesn't feel as dangerous as it did during the Cold War. During the Cold War we all knew about the threat and lived with a constant awareness-usually shoved to the back of ours minds to preserve our sanity-that we might die an instantaneous firey death at any moment. We no longer feel that way.
Our feelings are wrong. The Cold War engaged our emotions more because it was simple, easily understood, and, as an ideological contest, demanded we take sides and laid claim to our loyalties. Today's environment is more complex and many-sided and so it is harder to feel the threat the same way we used to. Nonetheless, the danger is real.
Meh. Actually, meh squared.
To be fair to Miller, I do think he is getting at something that has changed over time during the post-Cold War era. First, the threat envorinment does seem higher now than twenty years ago, as the Soviet Union was about to collapse. China is more economically powerful, Russia is more revanchist, North, Korea, Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, the barriers to entry for non-state actors to wreak havoc has gone up. The likelihood of a conventional great power war is lower, but the likelihood of a serious attack on American soil seems higher than in late 1991. So in terms of trend, it does feel like the world is less safe.
What's also changed, however, is the tight coupling of the Cold War security environment (ironically, just as the security environment has become more loosely coupled, the global political economy has become more tightly coupled). Because the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were such implacable adversaries and because they knew it, the possibility of a small dispute -- Berlin, Cuba, a downed Korean airliner -- escalating very quickly was ever-present. The possibility of an accident triggering all-out nuclear war was also higher than was realized at the time. The current threat environment is more loosely interconnected, in that a small conflict seems less likely to immediately ramp up into another Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, the events of the past year support that point. Saudi Arabia essentially invaded Bahrain, and Iran did.... very little about it. The United States deployed special forces into the heart of Pakistan's military complex. The aftermath of that is undeniably uglier, but it's not we-are-at-DEFCON-ONE kind of ugly. Miller might be more accurate in saying that there is a greater chance of a security dust-up in today's complex threat environment, but there's a much lower likelihood of those dust-ups spiraling out of control.
In Miller's calculations, it seems that any country with a nuclear weapon constitutes an equal level of threat. But that's dubious on multiple grounds. First, none of the emerging nuclear states have anywhere close to a second-strike capability. If they were to use their nukes against the United States, I think they know that there's an excellent chance that they don't survive the counterstrike. Second, the counter Miller provides is that these authoritarian leaders are extra-super-crazy. I'm not going to defend either the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Kim the Younger, but are these leaders more crazy than either Mao or Stalin or Kim Jong Il? Those are three of the worst leaders in history -- and none of them came close to using nuclear weapons. Finally, the Pakistan case is instructive -- even after getting nukes, and even after getting very cozy with radical terrorist groups, that country has refrained from escalating hostilities with India to the point of another general war.
As for the non-state threats, they are disturbing, but I'd posit that on this front the United States really is safer now than it was a decade ago. The only organization capable of launching a coordinated terrorist strike against the United States is now a husk of its former self. Indeed, I'd wager that Miller's emotions, or his memory of 9/11, are getting in the way of dispassionate analysis.
In essence, Miller conflates the number of possible threats with a greater magnitude of threats. I agree that there are more independent threats to the United States out there at present, but combined, they don't stack up to the Soviet threat. To put it another way, I prefer avoiding a swarm of mosquitoes to one really ravenous bear.
In related exaggerated threat analysis, Matthew Kroenig argues in Foreign Affairs that an airstrike on Iran might be the best of a bad set of options in dealing with Iran. This has set poor Stephen Walt around the bend in response, as op-eds advocating an attack on Iran are wont to do.
I've generally found both sides of the "attack Iran" debate to be equally dyspeptic, but in this case I do find Kroenig's logic to be a bit odd. Here's his arguments for why a nuclear Iran is bad and containment is more problematic than a military attack:
Some states in the region are doubting U.S. resolve to stop the program and are shifting their allegiances to Tehran. Others have begun to discuss launching their own nuclear initiatives to counter a possible Iranian bomb. For those nations and the United States itself, the threat will only continue to grow as Tehran moves closer to its goal. A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies -- other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War -- secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.
These security threats would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack (emphasis added).
OK, first, exactly who is bandwagoning with Iran? Seriously, who? Kroenig provides no evidence, and I'm scratching my head to think of any data points. The SCAF regime in Egypt has been a bit more friendly, but Turkey's distancing is far more significant and debilitating for Tehran's grand strategy. Iran's sole Arab ally is in serious trouble, and its own economy is faltering badly. The notion that time is on Iran 's side seems badly off.
Second, Kroenig presume that a nuclear Iran would be more aggressive in the region and more likely to have a nuclear exchange with Iran. I will again point to India/Pakistan. Despite similar religious divides, and despite the presence of pliable non-state actors, those two countries have successfully kept a nuclear peace. Kroenig might have an argument that Israel/Iran is different, but it's not in this essay. Indeed, the bolded section contradicts Kroenig's own argument -- if Iran is not prepared to use its nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that it will escalate crises to the point where its bluff is called. If Kroenig's own scholarship suggests that America's nuclear superiority would still be an effective deterrent, then I'm not sure why he portrays the Iran threat in such menacing terms.
There's more, but this post is long enough anyway. Both Kroenig and Miller are correct to highlight current threats. But, to put it gently, until all of these threats, combined, can cause this to happen in under an hour, I'm sleeping soundly.
Am I missing anything?
The past decade's worth of American foreign policy debacles has led to some lazy thinking on American empire. Either the United States is using force to advance rapacious economic interests, or Washington is neglecting economic diplomacy because U.S. foreign policy has become too militarized. Right, now, neither argument holds up terribly well.
For example, the Financial Times' Lina Saigol looks at postwar foreign direct investment in Iraq and notes the prominent absence of U.S. and British firms:
After almost nine years, $1tn spent and 4,487 American and 179 British lives lost, theUS is withdrawing from Iraq, leaving the country’s vast economic spoils to nations that neither supported nor participated in the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Turkey, Iran, China, South Korea and Arab states have already invested billions in Iraq, far outpacing their US and UK counterparts in every non-oil sector from transport and telecoms to housing and construction.
This is really a variation of a theme. Take a look at Afghanistan, and the same pattern plays itself out -- significant U.S. military investment, remarkably little follow-on U.S. economic investment, significant investments by others. In short, arguments that the United States uses its military power to advance its economic interests don't hold up well at all -- unless one wants to posit that U.S. elites are really an executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party's economic bourgeoisie.
The overmephasis on military force has been a long-running criticism of American foreign policy. That said, it leads to some lazy analytical habits. Consider this NYT Sunday Review essay by Stephen Glain on the U.S. "pivot" to the Pacific Rim:
With the economy in disarray, President Obama chose a costly instrument in deciding to expand the American military commitment in Asia by deploying a Marine contingent to Australia; the move will only help insulate the Pentagon from meaningful spending cuts and preserve the leading role the military has played in foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks....
Indeed, America’s top diplomat has become the chief civilian advocate for military answers to diplomatic challenges. Speaking in Honolulu last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “a more broadly distributed military presence” in Asia. While in Manila, she appeared on an American warship and reaffirmed the nearly 60-year-old security pact between the United States and the Philippines. She also has endorsed the creation of an American-led regional trade pact that pointedly excludes China for the present, a remarkably petty snub compared to the way her legendary predecessor George C. Marshall offered (without success, in the face of Stalin’s suspicions) to include the Soviet Union in the postwar reconstruction plan that now bears Marshall’s name. And this month she visited Myanmar, where the Obama administration has assiduously worked to neutralize a corrupt and repressive government in favor of democratic reform; in the grander strategic game, this, too, could be read in Beijing as a tactic to weave the country — which has been Beijing’s ally — into an American noose around China.
OK, this argument is confusing on a number of fronts. First, how is ratifying an FTA with South Korea and negotiating a framework agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership an example of an excessive role for the military?
Second, President Obama was quite explicit in saying he would welcome Chinese participation in TPP. However -- like Marshall before him -- Obama is saying this because he's pretty sure China will be unwilling to pay the regulatory coin necessary to join.
During the 1990's, one could argue that U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Rim was too heavily dominated by the Treasury Department. During the 2000's, one could argue that it was too heavily dominated by the Defense Department. Right now, U.S. policy in the region looks like a decent balance of security and economic diplomacy. I suspect that this balance has been so rare for so long that analysts simply aren't used to recognizing it.
Following up on Newt Gingrich and his assessment of threats, I see that the New York Times has a William J. Broad front-pager on Gingrich's obsession with the possibility of adversaries using an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) against the United States:
[I]t is to the risk of an EMP attack that Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly returned. And while the message may play well to hawkish audiences, who might warm to the candidate’s suggestion that the United States engage in pre-emptive military strikes against Iran and North Korea, many nuclear experts dismiss the threat. America’s current missile defense system would thwart such an attack, these experts say, and the nations in question are at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.
The Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that maintains an arsenal of ground-based interceptors ready to fly into space and smash enemy warheads, says that defeating such an attack would be as straightforward as any other defense of the continental United States.
“It doesn’t matter if the target is Chicago or 100 miles over Nebraska,” said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. “For the interceptor, it’s the same thing.” He called the potential damage from a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack “pretty theoretical.”
Yousaf M. Butt, a nuclear physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who last year did a lengthy analysis of EMP for The Space Review, a weekly online journal, said, “If terrorists want to do something serious, they’ll use a weapon of mass destruction — not mass disruption.” He said, “They don’t want to depend on complicated secondary effects in which the physics is not very clear.”
Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, R. C. Hammond, did not respond to e-mails asking for comment. But the candidate, a former history professor and House speaker, has defended his characterizations as accurate. At a forum in Des Moines on Saturday for military veterans, Mr. Gingrich said an electromagnetic pulse attack was one of several pressing national security threats the United States faced. “In theory, a relatively small device over Omaha would knock out about half the electricity generated in the United States,” he told the veterans.
I'm neither a security expert nor a rocket scientist. After reading Broad's article, the Space Review annalysis, the rebuttal to that analysis, and Sharon Winberger's excellent FP write-up from last year, however, I'm reasonably confident that the threat posed by EMP is remote for the near-to-medium future. The scenarios in which an EMP would affect the United States rely on a) rogue states making serious leaps forward in their ballistic missile technology and nuclear engineering; and b) those same actors deciding that it's in their national interest to launch a first strike against a country with a reliable second-strike nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, I can see why Newt Skywalker would be concerned. Most of the taking-EMP-threat seriously essays harp on the devastating effect of such an attack. Surely, Gingrich would argue, even a small possibility of this actually happening justifies at least some investment into countermeasures and preventive actions. Indeed, Gingrich has explicitly made that argument:
Without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying that we would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.... I think it's very important to get people to understand now, before there is a disaster, how truly grave the threat is.*
Fair enough... let's be generous and say there's a 10% chance of this being a real problem over the next two decades. If that's the case, maybe Gingrich is right to bring it up as an underestimated threat.
Here's my question, however. If we're talking about threats to civilization as we know it, isn't there another possibility that has a much higher probability of occurring -- let's say, better than 50% at least -- and a similarly lax amount of preventive action? Like, say, climate change?
As Uri Friedman and Joshua Keating have documented for FP, however, Gingrich's assessment of that threat has changed recently. Last month, on this issue, he said the following:
I actually don't know whether global warming is occurring.... The earth's temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I'm agnostic.
This is fascinating. On the one hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the planet that commands the consensus of an overwhelming majority of experts in the field. On the other hand, you have a long-term cataclysmic threat to the United States that commands nowhere close to the same level of consensus. Based on his rhetoric, Gingrich wants urgent action to be taken on the latter, but not the former. Why?
I'm not bringing this up to suggest that Gingrich is a buffoon. He could plausibly argue that a lot of people are harping on climate change while only Gingrich can call attention to the EMP possibility. It's possible that the costs of preventive action on climate change are much greater than dealing with EMP (though if that includes preventive attacks on Iran and North Korea, I'm dubious).
What I'm wondering is whether there is a partisan divide in assessing threats, as there is in assessing economic principles. I wonder if conservatives are far more likely to focus on threats in which there is a clear agent with a malevolent intent, whereas liberals are more likely to focus on threats that lack agency and are more systemic in nature (climate change, pandemics, nuclear accidents, etc.)
What do you think?
*Incidentally, this is the same logic I used to justify greater research into the threat posed by the living dead. Just saying....
Foreign policy didn't play much of a role at all in last night's GOP debate, but there were a few telling moments about Newt Gingrich's foreign policy worldview -- telling in that they scared the living crap out of your humble blogger.
The foreign policy portion was devoted entirely to Newt Gingrich's description of the Palestinians an "invented people". Gingrich doubled down during the debate, labeling all Palestinians as terrorists. When pushed by Romney on the wisdom of going further rhetorically than Israel's Likud government on this point, Gingrich fell back on the "I'm speaking blunt truths like Reagan when he called the USSR an 'evil empire'" gambit.
This is pretty odd. Last I checked Israel was a democracy, had a healthy amount of free specch, and has a ruling coalition that seems pretty hardline with respect to the Palestinians. I don't think the Israelis need an American candidate to speak truths to them that their government is hiding.
To be honest, however, that wasn't the scariest part of Gingrich's rhetoric. No, the part that set my hair on edge was during the last question on the night, when the candidates were asked what they'd learned from the other candidates.
Gingrich responded by praising Rick Santorum's "consistency and courage on Iran." He then added:
If we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who've had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time. (emphasis added)
Now, this was practically a throwaway clause, but still, how can I put this clearly.... this is f***ing insane. Totally, completely, utterly f***ing insane.
Even a nuclear-armed Iran led by the current regime of nutball theocrats cannot threaten America's survival. I get why the United States is concerned about Iran going nuclear, and I get why Israel is really concerned about Iran going nuclear. The only way that developments in Iran could threaten America's survival, however, would be if the US policy response was so hyperbolic that it ignited a general Middle East war that dragged in Russia and China. Which... come to think of it, wouldn't be entirely out of the question under a President Gingrich.
Gingrich's apocalyptic rhetoric will go down well with many neoconservatives and GOP hawks, but to resuscitate a point I've made before:
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.
Gingrich, as he is fond of pointing out nowadays, is a 68-year old grandfather and trained as a historian. He should know better than to sound as apocalyptic in his foreign policy statements as the very mullahs he lambasts.
As Andrew Sullivan (the only other debate-watcher who picked up on this line) observed, "Wow. Does Gingrich really believe that the US faces an existential threat from Iran? Or is he running for the Likud party?"
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The theme of Western decline was still running through my head as I perused the New York Times website this AM. In his Damascus dispatch today, Neil MacFarquhar dutifully details the Syrian government's position on the cause of the sustained unpleasantness in the country:
Rather than responding to the motivations and demands behind the antigovernment uprising, opponents and political analysts say, the government has stubbornly clung to the narrative that it is besieged by a foreign plot....
Senior government officials — including Mr. Assad — and their supporters reel off a strikingly uniform explanation for the uprisings, blaming foreign agents and denying official responsibility for the violence.
“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Mr. Assad said in an interview with ABC News broadcast on Wednesday. In the interview, Mr. Assad denied ordering a crackdown. “We don’t kill our people,” he said. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
Virtually no one in the Syrian government links the uprisings to the sentiment inspiring revolutions across the Arab world, to a public fed up with the status quo. Instead, they say the United States and Israel, allied with certain quisling Arab governments, are plotting to destroy Syria, to silence its lone, independent Arab voice and to weaken its regional ally, Iran. To achieve this aim, they are arming and financing Muslim fundamentalist mercenaries who enter Syria from abroad, Syrian officials say.
“Syria is one of the last secular regimes in the Arab world, and they are targeting Syria,” said Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential political and media adviser, warning that the West would rue the day that it enabled Islamist regimes.
And then I read David Herszenhorn's update on Vladimir Putin's thinking on the causes behind Russian protests earlier this week:
With opposition groups still furious over parliamentary elections that international observers said were marred by cheating, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of instigating protests by baselessly criticizing the vote as “dishonest and unfair” and he warned that Russia needed to protect against “interference” by foreign governments in its internal affairs.
“I looked at the first reaction of our U.S. partners,” Mr. Putin said in remarks to political allies. “The first thing that the secretary of state did was say that they were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers.”
“She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Mr. Putin continued. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Mr. Putin’s assertions of foreign meddling and his vow to protect Russian “sovereignty” came after three days in which the Russian authorities have moved forcefully to tamp down on efforts to protest the elections, arresting hundreds of demonstrators and deploying legions of pro-Kremlin young people in Moscow to occupy public squares and to chant, beat drums and drown out the opposition.
Wow, I had no idea that the United States was this powerful!! Hillary Clinton is apparently capable of getting thousands of Russians in the streets with just a few sentences.
Now clearly, actual American influence over events in Russia and Syria is pretty limited. Still, if the perception of power is a form of power in and of itself, I wonder if the Secretary of State -- perhaps after consuming too much egg nog at the State Department holiday reception -- would be tempted to give the following address to the diplomatic press corps:
I'd like to take this oppportunity today to admit that the United States, is, in fact, responsible for the nine-month uprising in Syria and the recent unrest in Russia. Oh, hell, who am I kidding -- we're responsible for the entire Arab Spring! It's true, the whole thing started about a year ago, at the Policy Planning Staff's Secret Santa party. One of them said, "hey, you know what would really advance American interests in the Middle East? If we destabilized secular authoritarian despots and empowered Islamist parties across the region! Those parties would really be more likely to back American policies in the region! Oh, and we should start with Egypt too, because of their peace treaty with Israel."
That initiative was sooooo successful that, again, my Foreign Service Officers came up with the brilliant concept of instigating the Occupy Wall Street movement, so we could demonstrate a template for how protests should naturally germinate in other countries. Did you like how some of the policy forces overreacted to those movements? Yeah, that was the State Department's idea too. We were hoping to encourage authoritarian leaders to overreact and crack down -- because without our inspiration, they would never have brutally repressed on their own.
Now, some of you might wonder, "if the United States was really this all powerful, why not target countries that pose even bigger security concerns, like Iran, or China, or even Venezuela?" Well, they're next. Think of the Middle East and Russia as just the out-of-town premieres before a show gets on Broadway. We've been working out the kinks to our methods, and now we think we've really perfected a universally applicable formula to apply to all our enemies in one fell swoop. Remember the baptism scene in The Godfather? Well, Hugo Chavez will wish he was Moe Green when we're through with him.
Happy holidays, authoritarian cabals!!
Ben Smith's story in Politico today focuses on the emergence of a more critical stance on Israel from Media Matters and the Center for American Progress. Or, as neoconservatve Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin interprets it, Smith "blows the cover off the anti-Israel left and the Democrats’ favorite think tank, the Center for American Progress, which harbors many of its shrillest voices."
What's interesting about Smith's story is his evidence for this tonal shift at CAP and Media Matters -- namely, tweets and blog posts.
The daily battle is waged in Media Matters’ emails, on CAP’s blogs, Middle East Progress and ThinkProgress and most of all on Twitter, where a Media Mattters official, MJ Rosenberg, regularly heaps vitriol on those who disagree as “Iraq war neocon liar” (the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg) or having “dual loyalties” to the U.S. and Israel (the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin). And while the Center for American Progress tends to walk a more careful line, warm words for Israel can be hard to find on its blogs....
CAP officials have told angry allies that the bloggers don’t speak for the organization, and senior fellow Brian Katulis – whose work is more standard Clinton-Democrat fare – stressed that in an email.
“I think there are different voices on the Think Progress blog and some individual analysts - and some of that work, especially the blog, is I think aimed at reporting on and reflecting one aspect of the diversity of the views among the broad progressive community,” he said. “But what one blogger or analyst may write isn’t necessarily indicative of what our policy recommendations are for the administration or Congress when I’m doing meetings with our friends in government.”
The director of CAP’s national security program, Ken Gude, also drew a distinction between the blog, which is CAP’s loudest megaphone, and its less confrontational policy work.
“There’s a distinction here that we have between the policy work that we do and the blogging work that we do,” he said. Middle East Progress “is clearly a progressive blog and it does respond to arguments that are made most forcefully by conservatives and it responds in that way.”....
But the fact remains that the Center’s most audible voices on the Middle East aren’t the former Clinton staffers who populate much of the organization, and they come from different foreign policy traditions. Duss, a confrontational presence on Twitter but typically a more careful blogger, places himself in what’s sometimes called the “realist” stream of American foreign policy (emphasis added).
So, to sum up Smith's observations, what's driving this story is that when it comes to Israel, some of CAP and Media Matters analysts are really harsh on Twitter and pretty harsh on the blogs -- but the more substantive, traditional policy work doesn't look like that at all, so it's being overblown.
Rubin is having none of that:
[T]he scandal here is that CAP houses and provides a blog for such sentiments....
CAP is promoting this and is responsible for the venomous output on its blogs.
The excuse that these voices don’t represent CAP’s views and aren’t attributable to CAP is ludicrous....
Imagine if the bloggers were writing about the inferiority of a racial group. They’d be gone in a nanosecond. In fact, those who fancy themselves as respectable think tankers and loyal Democrats are enablers of the scourge of anti-Semitic filth that flows through the hard left. CAP has a choice: Clean out the sewer or be prepared to take the approbation that goes with the association with Israel haters and those who peddle in anti-Semitic tripe.
I don't agree with Rubin's characterizations of the content -- the material in question is not anti-Semitic (though it's problematic and borderline offensive) and CAP ain't "hard left." That said, she raises an interesting and valid point about what, exactly, is the output of a think tank. Is it the more traditional policy analysis? The blogs? The individual Twitter feeds of its denizens? In a Web 2.0 world, I have to wonder if the latter matters at least as much as the former (of course, the significance of tweets, etc., would have to apply to Rubin as well. Her own ombudsman, for example, blasted her for re-tweeing a link to "reprehensible" blog post containing "incendiary rhetoric").
There's a lot to consider here -- how a think tank brands itself, whether policy analysts can freely express themselves without being associated with their day job, and exactly how policy analysis is crafted. If, for example, someone develops a policy position in a path-dependent manner from instant tweet to somewhat-less-instant blog post to a memo/testimony that reifies those original statements, then Web 2.0 really matters. If, however, time leads one to modify or recalibrate the initial response -- as the statement of Duss suggests -- then Web 2.0 still matters, but in a different way. It matters only insomuch as the foreign policy community thinks that tweets and blog posts capture more attention and bandwidth than more conventional forms of policy analysis.
What do you think?
In general, I like the bulk of Politico's coverage of campaigns -- as someone who's not a DC insider, I learn a fair amount from their coverage. Every once in a while, however, Politico betrays a worldview that political process is always more important than substance. As someone who appreciates process, there are still limits on this formulation.
Exhibit A for this is today's Jonathan Martin story on What Went Wrong with the Herman Cain Train. This part stood out:
It was in Milwaukee, of course, where Cain struggled to recall his talking point on Libya and served up what’s bound to be one of the campaign’s enduring YouTube moments.
Cain’s unfamiliarity with major foreign policy events can only be partially attributed to his campaign. The underlying problem — that the candidate was even talking to the editors and reporters of a newspaper in a state that doesn’t figure prominently in the nominating process — was the decision of campaign manager Mark Block (emphasis added).
I'd go off on a rant right here, but Jonathan Bernstein has done it for me:
Um, no: the underlying problem is that a candidate for President of the United States doesn't appear to be willing and/or able to converse about basic foreign policy issues at a level that wouldn't embarrass a strong high school student. That isn't Mark Block's fault.
As I noted before, both Rick Perry and Herman Cain were done in by their own incompetencies -- not their staffs. For Politico not to get that is disturbing.
I have a long essay in The Spectator (U.K.) on the state of foreign policy thinking among the GOP 2012 presidential candidates. Here's me not pulling my punches:
During the 2008 US presidential election cycle, the respected journal Foreign Affairs invited the leading presidential candidates from both parties to outline their views of world politics. All of them responded with essays that, one presumes, they at least read if did not write. This year, ahead of next year’s elections, Foreign Affairs has proffered the same invitation to the leading Republican aspirants. To date, they have all refused or not responded. This parallels the trend of not talking about international affairs in their endless series of presidential debates: mentions of Afghanistan and Iraq are reported to be down 65 per cent from 2008.
One could argue that these candidates are denying Americans an opportunity to understand their thinking about international relations. Having investigated the policy platforms of the Republican field, however, I have concluded that most of them have done Americans a huge favour. The Grand Old Party candidates’ current thinking on foreign affairs is a noxious mixture of cowardice, belligerence, ignorance — and, unfortunately, political savvy.
Read the whole thing. Two additional thoughts.
1) The Spectator left a few things on the cutting-room floow because of space constraints. For example, the essay fails to mention Jon Hunstman. In my original essay, he did get mentioned in a foootnote after I had slammed the field for the umpteenth time, explaining:
To be fair, former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has demonstrated a superior command of foreign policy issues. He's also polling so badly that he failed to qualify for CNN's October 18 debate. Tim Pawlenty was another candidate who bothered to address the Council on Foreign Relations on global matters; he withdrew from the race in August of this year.
The other thing that got excised was my point that foreign policy and national security used to be a very important compnent of presidential elections:
[A]s an international relations specialist, I find the state of the state of the GOP foreign policy debate to be utterly depressing, but as a political scientist, I'm unsurprised. Still, as an American citizen, this state of affairs is disconcerting on multiple levels. We are not that far removed from elections in which foreign affairs and national security were the crucial issues in a campaign. Gerald Ford sabotaged his 1976 campaign when he insisted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry doomed their campaigns by appearing weak and vacillating on national security.
2) I haven't overtly talked about my own personal political beliefs since the blog moved to FP, but this seems to be an appropriate time to bring it up
and then never speak of it again. When I've published essays like this before, I find liberals write "even conservative Dan Drezner..." while conservatives often deploy terms like "academic elitist" or "RINO."
In my case, at this point in time, I believe that last appellation to be entirely fair and accurate. I'm not a Democrat, and I don't think I've become more liberal over time. That said, three things have affected my political loyalties over the past few years. First, I've become more uncertain about various dimensions of GOP ideology over time. It's simply impossible for me to look at the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis and not ponder the myriad ways in which my party has made some categorical errors in judgment. So I'm a bigger fan of the politics of doubt during an era when doubt has been banished in political discourse.
Second, the GOP has undeniably shifted further to the right over the past few years, and while I'm sympathetic to some of these shifts, most of it looks like a mutated version of "cargo cult science" directed at either Ludwig Von Mises or the U.S. Constitution (which, of course, is sacred and inviolate, unless conservatives want to amend it). Sorry, I'm not embracing outdated concepts like the gold standard or repealing the 16th Amendment. Not happening.
Third, David Frum wrote something in New York Magazine that touches on the issues I just discussed, but also articlates something that has been nagging at me for a few years now:
The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can’t work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other: House, Senate, president, each has the power to thwart the others. In prior generations, the system evolved norms and habits to prevent this kind of stonewalling. For example: Theoretically, the party that holds the Senate could refuse to confirm any Cabinet nominees of a president of the other party. Yet until recently, this just “wasn’t done.” In fact, quite a lot of things that theoretically could be done just “weren’t done.” Now old inhibitions have given way. Things that weren’t done suddenly are done.
Also, things that weren't said are now being said. Or, to be more precise, things that use to be said but ignored are now being taken seroiusly by the GOP's leading lights. Newt Gingrich endorses the notion that Obama has a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview. Mitt Romney claims Obama has been apologizing around the world and no longer believes in American exceptionalism. Herman Cain is [Remember your mercy rule!!--ed.].... Herman Cain. There's good, solid partisanship -- a vital necessity in this country -- and then there's unadulterated horses**t. Too much of the GOP's rhetoric on Obama reads like the latter to me.
So for those reasons, I really am a Republican in Name Only at this point. And I say this for the GOP's benefit. The next time someone writes, "even the Republican Dan Drezner has said...." GOP partisans should feel perfectly entitled to link to this post and call me a RINO. Because it's true.
Walter Russell Mead has not been the biggest fan of the current president, so it's worth quoting at length what he said in a recent blog post about Obama's Pacific Rim trip:
The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.
Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast. It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud....
[I]t was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy. They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power. In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.
You know it was a good foreign policy trip when Politico runs the "Obama will soon miss his foreign policy successes as he returns to the Washington mire" storyline upon his return.
The standard line among the press and expert analysts is that the combination of speeches and actions represents a dramatic foreign policy "pivot" to East Asia. This elides some prior speeches that suggested this was under way for some time, but still -- what does it mean?
I'd suggest three things. First, it's an interesting moment to highlight some macro trends that are relatively favorable to the United States. In comparison to, say, China or Europe, the United States looks to be in decent shape. Over the longer term, trends in both energy and manufacturing suggest that the United States will continue a time-honored tradition and emerge from a crisis of its own making in a stronger relative position than before. If the administration is smart, it will marry its recent successes to these longer-term trends as a way of constructing a more optimistic strategic narrative.
Second, China is likely to pursue a more accommodating posture in the short run. As Mead notes, the official Chinese reaction has been muted. The unofficial reaction has ranged from the hyperbolic to the inscrutable. Still, as I've pointed out repeatedly, China's behavior in 2009 and 2010 was a giant honking invitation for the rest of the Pacific Rim to cozy up to the United States. And that's what should worry Beijing. It's not that the United States is interested in maintaining its presence in East Asia -- that interest has not wavered. What has changed is the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated.
Third, while the Obama administration deserves credit for this foreign policy swing -- and for some fun, compare and contrast coverage of this trip with Obama's Pac Rim swing from two years ago -- the "pivot" language is badly misplaced. A pivot implies that the United States will stop paying attention to Europe or the Middle East and start paying attention to East Asia. While I'm sure that's what the Obama administration wants to do, it can't. Europe is imploding, as are multiple countries in the Middle East. The United States can't afford to ignore these regions, since uncertainty there eventually translates into both global and domestic problems. A European financial meltdown or an Egyptian political meltdown will have ramifications that simply can't be ignored.
Talking about a United States "pivot" in foreign policy is meaningless. The US, like an overstuffed couch, is simply too big to pivot.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has just completed writing a long essay on the 2012 candidates and their foreign policy views that will be coming out soon. Readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that it's pretty scathing.
I'm hardly the only person to make this point. When Senator Lindsay Graham is castigating his fellow Republicans, you know there's a problem. FP's own David Rothkopf thinks this is a harbinger of Obama winning re-election. And now the New York Times' Michael Shear reports that the GOP presidential candidates' myriad foreign policy gaffes are starting to embarrass the Republicans' foreign policy wonks:
[T]he embarrassing moments are piling up, and some veteran Republicans are beginning to wonder whether the cumulative effect weakens the party brand, especially in foreign policy and national security, where Republicans have typically dominated Democrats.
“It is an ‘Animal House.’ It’s a food fight,” said Kenneth Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.” ....
[S]ome veterans of past Republican administrations said the candidates’ national security stumbles could have a more lasting impact on how voters perceive the party in the future.
“This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril,” said Peter Feaver, a national security official under President George W. Bush. He compared the foreign policy flubs to reports about safety problems in Toyota vehicles.
“The whole reason you bought a Toyota was so that you didn’t have those problems,” he said. “It cuts directly to the essence of the brand. Republicans should be concerned about this.”
George W. Bush confronted some of the same concerns in his party during his 2000 campaign, especially after he was unable to name the leader of Chechnya, Taiwan, India or Pakistan. But Mr. Bush surrounded himself with veteran Republican foreign policy advisers who helped reassure the doubters.
Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, said that “in the short run, you can do some damage to the so-called brand,” but he said long-term damage would happen only if the party’s presidential nominee made such mistakes.
“The key thing is the nominee,” Mr. Wehner said. “One worries, if you are a Republican, if you get too many statements like this.”
Mr. Wehner said many of the Republican candidates had demonstrated a “pride in ignorance and a lack of knowledge.” But he predicted that voters would not reward those kinds of appeals during the primaries and caucuses.
Peter is a good friend, and I don't like to see him this anguished in print, so let me say that for once I agree with Peter Wehner. Six months from now, when we know who the GOP nominee will be, I suspect a lot of the ignorance on display right now will be forgotten.
I say this because, oddly enough, even before a vote has been cast, the political ecosystem actually seems to be working. Sure, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have had their moments in the sun -- and then the media reported on them, and people actually listened to what they were saying. At which point, they crashed and burned. They didn't only crash and burn because of their foreign policy gaffes -- but I don't think they helped.
I can understand if international observers look at what's been said and gasp in horror at the American process of selecting a major party nominee. In the end, however, the difference between the system now and the system fifty years ago is that nowadays someone like Cain can enter the race. Before, the barriers to entry would have been higher. Now, the barriers to entry are low, but the crucible of the campaign is far more fierce. So people like Cain or Bachmann can enter and then be destroyed.
At this juncture, it looks like Mitt Romney is the most likely nominee, and he's also the candidate who's done the most heavy lifting in thinking about foreign policy. There's a lot of stuff to criticize in his foreign policy views, to be sure -- but that's true of Barack Obama as well. Romney does pass the test of someone whohas some background knowledge about the world, and someone who has actually bothered to think about the subject. Post-primary, that will be the foreign policy brand of the GOP.
[And if it's not Romney?--ed. Then it's Newt Gingrich, who, again, has demonstrated a little knowledge about foreign affairs. Throw in Rick Santorum and Jon Hunstman as wild card candidates yet to have their bubble. Huntsman clearly knows foreign affairs, and that's also been Santorum's strength in the debates.]
Don't worry, Peter -- the wheel is turning.
Tonight's CBS/National Journal debate was the first to be on broadcast television, and was devoted to national security and foreign policy. Out of a sense of duty to you, dear readers, your humble blogger
downed a lot of vodka watched the whole thing, and is ready to offer my grades.
Before talking about the individual candidates, I'll say this -- I've been rather harsh on the GOP 2012 field, and, to be honest, most of them did better than I expected in this debate. I didn't expect much, but still: kudos to the campaign staffers, because everyone seemed better briefed on foreign policy than in past debates (On the other hand, I note that none of the candidates said a single good thing about Barack Obama's foreign policy. I wasn't expecting hosannahs or anything, but the man is polling at 60% approval on this front).
A big fail to CBS and National Journal for having a 90-minute debate that was only aired for 60 minutes on television. The webcasts were bad, with lots of glitches on both sites. As for Major Garrett and Scott Pelley, they did OK, but John Harwood and Maria Bartiromo outclassed them this week.
In alphabetical order:
Michelle Bachmann: She kept her crazy pretty contained for much of the night, but it escaped for two big whoppers. The first was when she said, "The table is being set for a worldwide nuclear war with Israel." The second was when she expressed a desire for the United States to adopt China's welfare system (or lack thereof). Grade: D.
Herman Cain: The worst debate performance of the night. Slow, rambling, evasive, and contradictory. His answer on torture contradicted itself inside of 30 seconds; his Pakistan response was a total dodge. His solution on Iran -- energy independence! -- would be like suggesting that the appropriate response to a rising China would be to move all Americans to Mars. Both activities will take the same length of time. Grade: F.
Newt Gingrich: He had a pretty good answer on Pakistan, and was consistent -- albeit disturbing -- on the assassination of Americans working for Al Qaeda. That said, Gingrich's "I'm smarter than everyone else" schtick wears thin fast. I say this as someone who encounters academics on a daily basis. Gingrich gives off the same insufferable mien of academics who think they're much smarter and more knowledgable than they actually are. Grade: B.
Jon Hunstman: Not surprisingly, the former ambassador gave the clearest and most coherent answers of the evening. He pushed back the others on staying in Afghanistan, and correctly pushed back Romney on taking China to the WTO. If foreign policy was really important to the GOP, he'd be the frontrunner, and it wouldn't be close. Grade: A.
Ron Paul: The contrast between Paul and the rest of the field was magnified during this debate. As someone who thinks that Paul is too dovish at times, I thought he did a very good job, and got quite passionate on questions of torture. Also -- and I think this is a first -- he got through the entire debate without mentioning the Federal Reserve. Grade: A-.
Rick Perry: Compared to his other debate performances, it was OK. Compared to what I'm expecting a commander-in-chief to demonstrate, it was again way below the bar. Perry proposed zero-based budgeting for foreign aid and a lot of other areas of the government; I wonder if he knows that the first president to embrace that idea was Jimmy Carter. Then there were odd word choices. China has to "change their virtues"? He invented the word "forewithal." And he was lucky that the end of the telecast cut off his attempt at an answerr on the euro, because it was not going to go well. Grade: C.
Mitt Romney: Romney has perfected the art of sounding firm and resolute in his first sentence of any response on foreign policy, and then, with the next sentence, inserting enough hedges and qualifications to give himself tremendous wiggle room. He demonstrated decent knowledge for the most part, and had another strong debate. Grade: B+.
Rick Santorum: I can recall quite clearly that Santorum have a decent answer on Pakistan at some point. Beyond that, all I can remember was his whinging about not getting asked enough questions. Grade: C+
Offer your own grades/assessments in the comments.
Apparently the organizers of tomorrow's GOP foreign policy debate asked David Frum to submit ten questions to ask. For the record, no one asked me... sniff.... really I'll be fine... but that doesn't mean I can't offer some of my own. Here would be my top 10 questions:
1) In the last debate, all of you declared that the United States should not help out Italy or other eurozone countries plagued by sovereign debt crises. If these economies received rescue funds from China instead, would that undermine U.S. national security?
2) Many of you on the dias have declared that there should be no daylight between Israel and the United States. Israeli officials have repeatedly and formally requested that Jonathan Pollard's sentence be commuted for spying for Israel. As president, will you accede to this Israeli request?
3) In previous debates, many of you have warned about the dangers of a debased dollar. At the same time, many of you have also complained that China is undervaluing its currency vis-a-vis the dollar to augment its economic growth. Which issue do you believe is more important to America's economic strength?
4) Why should the United States pay any dues to the United Nations? Do you all agree with Governor Perry that the U.S. should reconsider those dues payments?
5) The Doha round of world trade talks has stalled out, and bilateral free-trade agreements have proliferated in recent years. As the president of the world's largest economy, what approach would you favor to promote greater trade liberalization?
6) The United States recently dispatched 100 military advisors to Uganda in an attempt to subdue the Lord's Resistance Army. What criteria would you use, as president, to decide when to use American force for the purpose of humanitarian intervention?
7) Many of you have complained about illegal immigration flows during the campaign, but the hard data suggests that these flows have slowed dramatically over the past few years. What is the appropriate amount of effort to devote to this issue?
8) What steps would you take, as president, to ensure that elements of the Pakistani government cease supporting violent non-state actors in Afghanistan and India?
9) Many of you have criticized the Obama administration for ignoring military advice on troop decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the pre-war debate with respect to Iraq, however, the Bush administration rejected troop estimates from Army Chief of Staff (and now Secretary for Veterans Affairs) Eric Shinseki. When would you be prepared to overrule the advice you receive from the military?
10) Who, in your opinion, was the greatest foreign policy president in American history besides Ronald Reagan, and why?
Commenters are heartily encouraged to offer their foreign policy questions in the comments.
Many of my posts from the past week are about just who is an ally and who is an adversary. This is a nice (albeit belated) segue into the G-20 open mic flap, in which French president Nicolas Sarkozy said what he really thought about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and Barack Obama didn't disagree.
There's obviously going to be much gnashing of teeth about this from the usual suspects, and much caterwauling about said gnashing of teeth from the other usual suspects. So perhaps it's worth stepping back for a second to appreciate the fact that, contra realism, most alliances in recent history are far more long-lasting than a particular leader's term of office. Obviously, certain leaders -- see: Castro, Fidel -- can realign a country from one great power to another. Geopolitical pressures can cause other countries -- see: India -- to realign during critical junctures. Still, these have been the exceptions rather than the rule since 1945.
The Netanyahu/Obama flap is clearly one of clashing ideologies and clashing personalities, but it doesn't really change all that much in the way of the US-Israeli alliance. The defense cooperation between United States and Israel is stronger and larger than ever before, for example. The fundamentals of the alliance remain unchanged. As Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe recently pointed out in their WINEP paper:
[T]he United States and Israel have an impressive list of common national interests; that Israeli actions make substantial direct contributions to these U.S. interests; and that wise policymakers and people concerned with U.S. foreign policy, while never forgetting the irreplaceable values and moral responsibility dimensions of the bilateral relationship, should recognize the benefits Israel provides for U.S. national interests
This argument has drawn criticism from the usual suspects, but it reaffirms my point that alliances rarely rise and fall due to individual leaders.
So think of dust-ups like the open mic gaffe as mild ripples in the flow of friendship between the two countries, while the stock of the alliance remains fundamentally constant.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.