During his press conference in Turkey following the G20 summit earlier this month, Barack Obama sounded like an intellectually arrogant instructor presiding over a seminar in U.S. foreign policy. Professor Obama invited the reporters to take part in a discussion over a proposed case study, “How to Defeat ISIS.” This is my preferred option, he seemed to be saying, analyzing the costs and the benefits of his policy while becoming impatient with lazy students who failed to do their homework. “Why do I have to repeat myself?” he appeared to ask.
The Obama lecture of course came before Turkey attacked a Russian plane on its border with Syria, creating the possibility of a wider conflict between larger powers. Obama must now end the seminar and exercise real leadership, calling upon other members of the wealthy G20 nations—especially Western Europe—to help police their own backyard.
While Obama has tried to cut the costs of upholding Pax Americana in the Middle East using a reactive and often ineffective policy, neither he nor any leading Democratic or Republican figure has come up with a proposal to replace the Middle East strategy adopted after the Cold War. That strategy, which was pursued by several administrations, was based on the assumption that when considering interests and values, it is the obligation of the United States to secure the balance of power in the Middle East. But from the Iraq War to the Syrian civil war, as well as through the Arab Spring, that policy ended up with outcomes that were harmful to U.S. interests and not aligned with its values.
Trying to fill the intellectual vacuum in Washington at the end of the Cold War, I once tried to draw the outlines of an alternative U.S. strategy of “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East, in which I also made a special effort to respond to skeptics who posed the following question: If America ceased to play the role of the hegemon in the region, who was going to protect Western interests in the Middle East? For example, who would secure access to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf, contain regional and outside aggressors, or manage the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”?
What about our European allies?
After all, unlike that of the U.S., European economies are actually dependent on energy imports from the Middle East. And because of their geographical proximity to the region and the growing Arab immigrant population in their countries, Europeans tend to be more sensitive than the Americans to threats of instability in the region.
Yet, as I pointed out in 2003, “Despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat, U.S. presidents, including George Bush the elder to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush have operated on one assumption: That the United States should continue to maintain its hegemonic position in the Middle East — while simultaneously minimizing the role of the Europeans.”
And I argued 10 years later that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the reduction of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East would make sense only as part of a new U.S. strategy that must encourage regional powers to operate under the assumption that the United States would not be there to micromanage the balance of power in the region, and should also “provide incentives for Washington’s European allies to protect their interests in a region that is after all in their strategic backyard.”
Those who noted that the Europeans didn’t have the diplomatic influence and military power to dictate strategic outcomes in the Middle East usually dismissed these arguments. Only the Americans have the resources “to do the job” in the Middle East.
But then these counter arguments only helped to highlight the vicious circle created when the Europeans get a free ride on American protection in the Middle East. By doing the job themselves, Americans are failing to provide incentives to the Europeans to build their militaries so that they could take care of their interests in the Middle East, which leaves the Americans no choice but to continue doing the job.
The end result has been that the United States pursuing policies, like the war in Iraq, that have destabilized the region in the way that proved to been detrimental to the interests of the European states. The collapse of Iraq and Syria and the ensuing Islamic radicalization that has been affecting their Arab immigrant population, not only ignited acts of terrorism in Europe like the recent one in Paris, but also helped create a new flood of immigrants from the region into Europe. In short, U.S. policies in the Middle East impacted on core French and German national interests.
Against this backdrop, the notion that the terror attack in Paris reflected a lack of American leadership in the Middle East and that the United States needs to now “do something” (such as deploy more troops into the Middle East) doesn’t make a lot of sense. (Especially considering that this country’s Muslim population has been mostly integrated into society and Muslim immigrants are not fleeing in droves into the United States.)
Imagine a scenario under which a radical Mexican movement, calling for the return of California and Texas to Mexico, took over part of Mexico’s territory, infiltrated the Hispanic immigrant population in the U.S., and launched acts of terror in this country while igniting a flood of hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants into the country? Would Americans be waiting for the Europeans to “do something” and project their leadership in Central America?
Let’s face the facts. ISIS is not the Soviet Union or even Saddam’s Iraq. France, with or even without the assistance of Germany and other European countries, and in cooperation with Russia and regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, has the military capacity to devastate (if not to destroy) ISIS forces in the Levant and Mesopotamia. That could mean the deployment of tens of thousands of European troops to the region where they will have to fight and could indeed suffer a lot of casualties.
As military expert Michael Shurkin put it, the French might not be able to defeat ISIS, but “based on their history, whatever they do in addition to the recent airstrikes, they are likely to act in a measured way and think first. They might act quietly, so quietly we might never hear of it. But one thing is certain: If the French are determined to hurt someone, they will.”
In any case, the presence of European boots on the ground is in the interest of France, Germany, and other European countries. There is no reason why the U.S.—which is facing other critical challenges at home and abroad—should do the job for them.
In fact, direct European military intervention in the Middle East as part of a war against ISIS—with the United States providing indirect assistance in intelligence and logistical support—could become the first step in the process of American “constructive disengagement” from the region. An exhausted and ineffective hegemon, the United States must incentivize its wealthy partners to start taking care of the interests in their strategic backyard.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.
It has become a media ritual in Washington. A few months after a president takes office, pundits start debating whether the new White House occupant has a foreign-policy “doctrine.”
This preoccupation is another example of either the increasing sophistication of American journalists or of the intellectual pretensions of our pundits—not unlike their use of the term “narrative,” once employed mainly by literary scholars, or their frequent references to a professional economist’s favorite, “moral hazard.”
What pundits really have in mind when they ask whether this or that president has a foreign-policy doctrine is whether he has, well, a foreign policy. But it’s not clear what political scientist Colin Dueck means when he discusses the foreign-policy doctrine of President Obama: he seems to be using the terms “doctrine” and “grand strategy” interchangeably, as in the title of this book, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today. This confusion is evident from the first sentence, where Dueck suggests that every modern American president “has a foreign policy doctrine” and then goes on to critique the grand strategy of President Obama. So what is it: doctrine or grand strategy?
We’re not engaged in semantic nitpicking here, but recalling some basic stuff we studied—and in the case of Dueck and yours truly, have taught—in Foreign Policy 101.
In general, adding “doctrine” to the name of the president assumes that he made a series of decisions and statements that amounted to a coherent foreign policy and reflected a certain view of the international system—like President Harry Truman’s doctrine, which he announced to Congress on March 12, 1947, when he pledged to contain Soviet threats to Greece and Turkey and asked Congress to appropriate financial and military aid to those countries. That address was seen as the basis of American foreign policy during the Cold War, which assumed that Washington would provide support for other nations imperiled by Soviet communism.
Most of the presidential doctrines that followed—like those named after Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan—were variations on the Truman Doctrine and responded to the perceived Soviet threat during the Cold War. The Nixon Doctrine referred to a statement that President Nixon made during a press conference in Guam on July 25, 1969, when he tried to explain his decision to start a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, asserting that “the United States would assist in the defense and developments of allies and friends” but would not “undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” Both the Eisenhower and the Carter Doctrines focused specifically on the protection of U.S. interests in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in the face of Soviet aggression, while the Reagan Doctrine asserted the commitment by the Reagan administration to overwhelm the global influence of the Soviet Union.
A grand strategy comprises the “purposeful employment of all instruments of power available to a security community,” according to British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart. For example: the grand strategy of the Roman Empire and the U.S. grand strategy during World War II or the Cold War.
Grand strategy consists not only of military means but also diplomatic and economic instruments of power. Think of a grand strategy as a basic color (green) and a foreign-policy doctrine as a shade of that basic color (lime green). Hence containment was the central component of American grand strategy during the Cold War, and the coherence and consistency of each of the presidential doctrines reflected their reliance on that grand strategy.
What Dueck fails to recognize is that since the end of the Cold War, Republican and Democratic presidents, Congress, and the rest of Washington have not been able to come up with a coherent U.S. grand strategy to replace the one that was pursued during confrontation with the Soviet Union. And that lack of a grand strategy explains why none of the three post-Cold War presidents has been able to draw the outlines of a consistent foreign-policy doctrine. Instead, Washington under these presidents has been pursuing a series of ad hoc responses to foreign threats and crises that pundits like Dueck have been mislabeling as doctrines.
The main goal of these three presidents has been to maintain the global status quo and allow the United States to sustain its global primacy. And they embraced an outdated version of the Cold War grand strategy that committed them to containing potential challengers to U.S. primacy.
One can and should critique the foreign policy pursued by President Obama. Dueck actually does a good job pointing out the White House’s incoherent responses to the so-called Arab Spring, including the decision to support the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the messy regime change in Libya and mishandling of the civil war in Syria, and the mismanagement of relations with Russia and China.
Where Dueck goes wrong is to assume that Obama, or for that matter Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, has operated on the basis of a reasoned doctrine that was grounded in well thought-out grand strategy.
It’s true that Bush and his aides did try to introduce what was supposed to be a grand strategy in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that included elements of a doctrine, such as pre-emptive action and democracy promotion. But Bush eventually retreated back to the same kind of non-doctrine pursued earlier by Clinton and later by Obama: one of muddling through, adapting to a very complicated international system where problems are not susceptible to black-and-white solutions and neat answers, or doctrines.
Indeed, when it comes to foreign affairs all policymakers are muddling through these days, creating policy through incremental adjustments. Which is why some of the criticism that Dueck directs at Obama also applies to policies pursued by Bush during his second term. Consider their approaches to Iraq (setting a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops), Iran (refraining from using military force to end its nuclear program), Israel/Palestine (trying but failing to make peace), Russia (diplomatic responses to its military aggression in Georgia and Ukraine), and China (diplomatic and economic engagement); and recall that the pragmatic Secretary of Defense Robert Gates helped both presidents adjust to changing realities.
Dueck still insists that there was no continuity, and after outlining different strategies embraced by various American presidents—retrenchment, regime change, accommodation, offshore balancing—he argues that there is in fact an Obama Doctrine, a grand strategy of “retrenchment and accommodation” that the White House has been pursuing in order to “allow the president to focus on securing liberal policy legacies at home.” According to Dueck, international powers like China, Russia, and Iran—as well as ISIS—have interpreted the Obama Doctrine as one of U.S. disengagement from the world, creating a power vacuum that they are eager to fill.
But then Dueck qualifies his own thesis by noting that even during the Cold War the United States never followed only one strategy at a time—even Truman didn’t always follow the rules of his own doctrine—and that the norm has been “hybrid” strategies that “vary by time and place, and combine the advantages (or disadvantages) of pure strategic types.” Those hybrid strategies evolved at a time when all presidents endorsed the Cold War’s grand strategy of containment.
So perhaps there is more to Obama’s foreign policy than retrenchment and accommodation, as Dueck himself admits: an exercise in regime change in Libya; escalation of the use of drones for targeted killings; the hunting down and elimination of Osama bin Laden (a less accommodating policy vis-à-vis Pakistan than that of Obama’s predecessor); the employment of economic sanctions against Russia; containing Beijing through a U.S. “pivot” toward East Asia and a regional free-trade area that excludes China; providing military assistance to the Iraqis and other players fighting the Islamic State; a determined diplomatic effort aimed at freezing Iran’s nuclear military program.
But according to the caricature of the president and his foreign policy that Dueck draws, “Obama does not really believe that conflict is at the essence of world politics,” and he subscribes to the notion that “genuine and over-arching international cooperation is possible”—as though presidents cannot be both tough and accommodating in pursuing foreign policy.
You see, reflecting “a style he seems to have first fully developed as a community organizer in Chicago,” Obama believes that promoting international cooperation can be achieved “through the mutual accommodation of interests and led by American example.”
And what is exactly wrong with that? It sounds very much like the kind of policy that was advocated by President Reagan, who at one point during his presidency sounded like he was ready to nuke the “evil empire” and at another point seemed to be seeking to work out with the Soviets a scheme to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
The closest that Obama came to enunciating a “doctrine” was at the start of his second term in office, when he a delivered a commencement speech at West Point that aimed to lay out pieces of his foreign policy vision and challenge the policies of his predecessor, which were based on the assumption that the United States had the right and the obligation to take unilateral preemptive action.
In that context, President Obama’s proposal to invest more in “nation building” at home than abroad was aimed at countering President Bush’s expansive and expensive foreign policy. The change had less to do with the requirements of Obama’s liberal domestic reforms, which included a health-care program once advocated by Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation.
In his West Point speech, President Obama essentially argued that he would re-embrace the foreign policy principles that have guided all U.S. presidents in the post-1945 era except his Republican predecessor.
“When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher,” the president told the graduating cadets at West Point. “In such circumstances, we should not go it alone,” he stressed. “Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”
This set of principles—more judicious use of military force and greater reliance on diplomacy and alliances—didn’t qualify as a full-blown doctrine but did serve to distinguish his policies from those of his predecessor. Indeed, Obama spent most of his first term in office trying to clean up the mess that President Bush had made in Iraq and the Middle East and repair relationships with governments around the world.
Dueck is right to say that President Obama’s foreign-policy record hasn’t been a success story. But at a time when the international system was going through major changes and the American public was opposed to new military deployments, his efforts to resolve some crises through diplomatic means—in Syria, Ukraine, and Iran—seem to be a cost-effective way of protecting U.S. interests. The best criticism of these policies is that they may have lacked a strategic coherence at a time when the United States needed to develop a new grand strategy.
Dueck doesn’t buy that, maintaining that Republicans need to come up with an alternative to the Obama Doctrine that reflects what he calls “Conservative Realism.” But what Dueck advocates is essentially nothing more than a strategy aimed at protecting the status quo, the “preservation of American primacy” through a “forward military presence on the Eurasian continent.” Ironically, that is exactly the strategy that President Obama and his two predecessors have been pursuing since 1992.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.
When Vladimir Putin sat down with Charlie Rose of “60 Minutes” last Sunday, there was something refreshing about the Russian president’s encounter with the American media. A world leader discussed the Middle East by using terms of Realpolitik such as the “national interest.” There was little if any of the Wilsonian globaloney favored by members of our foreign policy establishment—Democrats and Republicans alike—who seem to share the belief that the only thing missing from the region today is American “leadership.”
As Rose recycled all the clichés of the editorial page of the Washington Post (which he even quoted during the interview), he inquired whether the Russian leader agreed that the lack of U.S. leadership in the Middle East had helped create a “strategic vacuum,” one that Moscow was now trying to fill. Putin replied by recalling that the last time the United States had tried to project its leadership in the region—by ousting Saddam Hussein and “liberating” Iraq (he apropos also mentioned Gaddafi and Libya)—things had not turned out so well. It did indeed create a huge void, which in addition to strengthening Iran, ignited a bloody civil war that spilled over into Syria, destabilizing the entire region.
Meanwhile, on other channels and programs, you can watch critics of President Obama’s Syria policy (including presidential candidate Marco Rubio) bemoan Russia’s involvement there. These parrots on speed go on and on about how he should have retained more U.S. troops in Iraq and provided assistance to “moderate” Syrian insurgents. The subtext of all these arguments—as well as the suggestion that Obama could have negotiated a “better” Iran nuclear deal—is that all these proposed policies would not have worked, and that the United States would have eventually been forced to deploy a large number of ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, topple Assad in Syria, and end Iran’s nuclear program.
And as everyone knows, the majority of Americans do not want the United States to be drawn into a new war in the Middle East. The public does not care about achieving goals that do not seem to be in line with the nation’s strategic and economic interests.
There is also an element of retro-strategic thinking, if not nostalgia for the Cold War, in the spectacle of American politicians and pundits warning us of Russian expansion into the Middle East. Last time I stepped back to look at world events, it seemed clear that we do not have a bi-polar international system, and that Moscow is not trying to export communism into the Middle East or harm the interests of the United States and its regional allies. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, it is the United States that has been trying to export its universal ideology of liberal democracy into the Middle East and oust regimes that used to be clients of the Soviet Union, including in Iraq and Syria.
When Rose pestered Putin repeatedly about why he was providing support to the ruthless and bloody Baath regime in Damascus, the Russian President reminded viewers that once upon a time, Washington provided assistance to the ruthless and bloody Baath regime in Baghdad. That was when Saddam Hussein was fighting the Ayatollahs in Iran (he could have mentioned our alliance with the Saudis who are planning to “crucify” a young human rights activist in the coming days).
You do not have to be a great strategic thinker—or an ardent Russophile who wants to recreate the Byzantine Empire—to agree that Russia has legitimate national security interests to protect in the Middle East. After all, the Greater Middle East is in Russia’s strategic backyard and the current chaos in the region could spill over in the form of growing radicalization of its Muslim population. There is also the prospect of a regional war that could affect not only Russian interests, but also those of Germany and other European countries.
It should be noted that Russia is also helping the members of the Alawite minority in Syria, as well the endangered Christian communities under threat of being annihilated by the forces of the murderous Islamic State. Isn’t that also a U.S. interest?
Unlike during the Cold War, relations between Moscow and U.S. allies in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel—are quite friendly. Putin was the first world leader that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met since his re-election early this year.
Many American policymakers have been programmed under the influence of the great ideological struggles of the 20th century, and view the international system as an arena where Good (the United States) fights Evil. So it is difficult for them to accept that the pursuit of U.S. interests sometimes requires partnering with those who do not share our dreams and aspirations. Not so long ago, we allied with Stalin to fight Hitler, and then partnered with Mao and Jihadists in Afghanistan to battle the Soviets. From that perspective, Putin does not look like Satan Incarnate.
Moreover, the notion that Russian military intervention in Syria amounts to a great win for the Russians (and therefore a big loss for Americans), assumes that Putin might actually succeed there. Yet the idea that Russia will bring stability, peace and prosperity to Syria—and turn average Syrians into Russia’s best friends—runs contrary to the historic American and Soviet experience in the Middle East. The American misadventure in Iraq and attempt to remake the region, not to mention the close to half-century Israeli rule over the Palestinians, suggest that no one is going to come out as a winner from Russia’s new intervention in the Levant.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
In early 1993 then-Foreign Affairs managing editor Fareed Zakaria asked me to write a commentary for the magazine based on a policy analysis that I had published as a research fellow at the Cato Institute. In the policy analysis, I challenged the thesis that Islam was replacing communism as the top ideological challenge to the West while at the same time, Iran was supposedly emerging to replace the Soviet Union as a leading global strategic threat to the United States.
My subsequent Foreign Affairs article, “What Green Peril?” drew a lot of attention at the time but was displaced as a foreign policy Big Think piece by another Foreign Affairs essay, “The Clash of Civilizations,” in which the renowned political thinker Samuel Huntington contended that political Islam, together with other civilizational entities, would pose long-term perils to U.S. global interests.
In any case, the arguments I had stated in my earlier Foreign Affairs piece continued to haunt me through the years, first, in the aftermath of 9/11 when some of my critics, especially on the political right, suggested that my thesis was now overrun by events that supposedly demonstrated that the notion of Green Peril was not a figment of imagination of frustrated Cold Warriors.
More recently, I contended that the failures of American democracy promotion and “nation building” project in Iraq, as well as those of the Arab Spring, to deliver on liberal-democratic promises made it obvious that the values of the Enlightenment project were not compatible with those of contemporary Islam. I was then criticized by some on the left for bashing Islam, if not exhibiting—Allah Forbid!—a certain level of Islamophobia that seemed to contradict the positions I laid out in “What Green Peril?”
But in fact, as I revisited my old Foreign Affairs piece, I discovered that my main thesis remains basically intact. If anything, 9/11 and the ensuing “war on terror” coupled with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only strengthened it by demonstrating that the United States and the West were facing neither an ideological challenge nor a strategic threat from a unified and monolithic Islamic ideological bloc a la the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War.
First, contrary to the neoconservative axiom embraced by the second President Bush, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were not part of a grand strategy advanced by a global Islamofascist alliance of states and movements intent on defeating American interests and Western values.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath make it clear that there is neither a cohesive Iraqi nation nor a united Arab people, but it also exposed the deep sectarian, ethnic, and even tribal divisions in the Arab Middle East and the entire Muslim world, especially between Sunnis and Shiites. These tend to override in many cases the traditional opposition among Arabs and Muslims to American and Western intervention in the Middle East.
To use the historical analogy of the Cold War, it took us quite a while to discover that the Soviet Bloc was not homogenous; that the Vietnamese, Koreans, and even Cubans were driven by nationalist sentiments as opposed to communist ideology; and that the Chinese and the Russians hated each other more than either despised the United States.
But it didn’t take us longer than a Baghdad minute to find out that there were actually no ties between Iraq’s Baath regime and al-Qaeda; that Saddam Hussein was a secular leader who represented the interests of the Sunni minority in Iraq and counterbalanced Shiite Iran—as opposed to the secular Baath regime in Syria that represented the interests of the Shiite minority and was allied with theocratic Iran; that the Kurds were also Muslims but supported the United States, as did theocratic Sunni Saudi Arabia. We discovered all of this and much more in the first two or three years of America’s war against so-called Islamofascism.
As I pointed out in my Foreign Affairs piece and subsequent articles published after 9/11 and the Iraq War, the Muslim Middle East is a mosaic of ethnic, sectarian, and tribal groups and regional players that are driven—including in their attitudes towards the United States—mainly by interests and not ideology. This is true whether it was communism during the Cold War or Islamism today, although secular and religious ideologies can help mobilize public support and provide a sense of legitimacy to those in power as well as to those who oppose them.
Hence, the United States wasn’t becoming a target for attacks by some Muslims because its values were not compatible with theirs—which would require a major ideological effort to promote American values in the Middle East—but as a result of specific policies that the United States was promoting in the region, including an alliance with the ruling regimes, but support for Israel, etc.
We may conclude that those policies do advance U.S. interests and continue to pursue them, but we shouldn’t be surprised if and when we experience the inevitable “blowback” in response. And we certainly shouldn’t assume that converting our Muslim opponents to our secular and liberal values would change their attitudes towards us, even setting aside the impracticability of such a plan.
Indeed, one could even make the argument that American ideological “victory” in the Cold War, followed by Russia’s adoption of electoral democracy and China’s embrace of capitalism, failed to change the fact that the United States experiences geostrategic tensions with those powers that reflect incompatible national interests.
That became even more obvious during the so-called Arab Spring, when not unlike during the short life span of the so-called Freedom Agenda, American pundits and officials adopted a narrative that reflected their wishful thinking, and assumed that American power and ideas can help remake the Middle East. Under W. it would involve the use of American military to achieve “regime change,” while under Obama—with the exception of the deposing of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi—it would be achieved through an alliance with the young Arabs with Facebook accounts and “moderate” anti-government insurgents.
But as I pointed out in TAC,
In reality, the so-called Arab Spring consists of a mishmash of anti-government demonstrations triggered in most cases by police over-reaction and fuelled by economic hard times (Tunisia and Egypt), ethnic and religious tensions (Syria and Bahrain) and tribal rivalries (Libya and Yemen) as well as by growing public perception that the global hegemon – the United States – that was helping keep ruling regimes in place is losing its power.
From that perspective, there wasn’t much difference between the grand narratives that Bush II and Obama applied to the broader Middle East, both of which seemed to be based on the expectation of a linear progression towards liberal democracy in the Muslim world.
The main difference had to do with the means to achieving those goals, with the Republican president’s preferred modus operandi being a mix of force and persuasion, and his Democratic successor seemingly counting on diplomacy and the power of his personality and rhetoric to win the minds and hearts of Muslims everywhere.
In some respect, these contrasting attitudes have been recycled in recent months against the backdrop of terrorist acts in Europe and elsewhere perpetrated by either Muslim “lone wolves” or by those with links to radical Islamic groups. Conservatives seem to be trying to revive the post-9/11 notion of a global Islamic threat that the Islamic State supposedly represents, which would require once again the use of American military force to defeat it. At the same time, President Obama and many liberals assume that Muslims are just “like us” and that if they would be provided with the right incentives and opportunities, they would end up rejecting anti-Western radicalism and terrorism.
Conservatives once again seem to overlook the reality in the Muslim world where many Muslims not only reject the Islamic State’s ideology and methods, but in the cases of the Kurds, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Saudis, are willing to use their own forces to fight it. President Obama seems to get it and to recognize that a wider American military in the Middle East only creates disincentives for these regional players to do just that.
But President Obama may be deluding himself if he thinks that the relative success of Muslim immigrants to integrate in American society suggest that what took place under the very unique political and economic conditions of this country could be replicated in Europe or in the Middle East when the “root causes” of Muslim radicalism are eliminated.
But political Islam, especially in its more radical manifestation, remains a powerful political and ideological force and represents a set of values that on many levels—freedom of expression is just one example—isn’t compatible with contemporary Western beliefs, especially in their postmodern incarnations. Hence while in Europe and the United States we are debating the issue of same-sex-marriage, in the Muslim world homosexuality isn’t only illegal but also can be subject to harsh punishment, including death.
There is nothing “Islamophobic” in admitting that wide civilizational differences exist today between the West and the Muslim world, or in concluding that they won’t be bridged anytime soon. Nor is it Islamophobic to acknowledge that a certain “cultural segregation” may be inevitable when dealing with Muslim government and societies, including Muslims who want to immigrate to the West and are not willing to adhere to the standards of conduct, like free press, women’s rights, and religious freedom, that are practiced in America and Europe.
At the same time, it’s time for us to abandon the various crusades to liberalize and democratize, reform and remake the Muslim world, and time to base our policies on considerations of national interests, which should exhibit a certain benign neglect and a hands-off approach to the crises that will continue to plague the Middle East in the coming years. It’s a mess out there, but we turn it into a “Peril” only when we think that we have the power and the knowledge to change it.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
A college professor teaching a course on theories of international relations would not find it hard to prepare for his or her students an anthology of articles or book chapters written by authors representing the major schools of thought in the field. That would hold true for realism or idealism (in their traditional of “neo” versions), liberalism (including “neo” and “post”), or Marxism, or the various alternative approaches such a post-structuralism and post-modernism, as well as efforts to apply feminism or green theory.
So it’s not surprising that our enterprising IR professor, recognizing the extent to which a school of thought known as neoconservatism has shaped American foreign policy in recent decades—even transforming it in a dramatic way through the Iraq War and the Freedom Agenda—would also search for a major work written by a leading neoconservative thinker that could provide the students with a serious and coherent overview of the neoconservative theory of international relations in its most updated version.
Here I have the realist John Mearsheimer, the neo-realist Fareed Zakaria, the idealist Samantha Power, the liberal John Ikenbeary, the Marxist Noam Chomsky, and such works as The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, The End of History, or The Clash of Civilizations. So where is our Great Neoconservative Foreign Policy Thinker and his or her magnum opus?
A historian of American intellectual thought would probably conclude that once there were actually serious neoconservative thinkers like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glaser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Irving Kristol who published original and ground-breaking works on social and economic policy, some of which have become classics in the field.
But when it comes to the field of international relations, neoconservatism has failed to produce any great thinkers, and will instead be remembered for its many pundits and operators, or policy entrepreneurs, who did affect the debate and the crafting of American foreign policy but who have never been able to ground the policies they advanced in any consistent and systemic theoretical framework that could stand the test of time.
One could make the argument that these neoconservative policy entrepreneurs were just a bunch of guys who, during the Cold War, seemed to agree that Washington wasn’t tough enough towards the Soviet Union or friendly enough towards Israel, and since the Cold War ended have been arguing that America needs to establish global dominance (Pax Americana) and control the Middle East, culminating with their push for ousting Saddam Hussein, for occupying Iraq, and for remaking the Middle East. Their policy recommendations came first, and only then did they tried to articulate the reasons why American policymakers should embrace them.
Some of these foreign policy entrepreneurs, like Robert Kagan or Charles Krauthammer, may have been more articulate than others, but much of what they and other neoconservatives have had to say and write about foreign policy has been quite predictable, calling for the exertion of U.S. military power abroad in search of monsters to destroy. And their work was never aimed not at discovering a great new idea in international relations, but rather at providing intellectual ammunition to political allies fighting the “war of ideas” in Washington’s think tanks and green rooms, while maligning political enemies, more often than not as “isolationists”.
From that perspective, Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder fits the bill as another lightweight neoconservative foreign policy tome with quite a lot of intellectual pretension, if not arrogance, that could have been condensed into a short magazine article or even into an op-ed piece (saving at least this reader some time).
Devoid of any new ideas, America in Retreat recycles old clichés in a confused and misleading way as part of an effort to revive and advance the neoconservative agenda at a time when it seemed (at least for a while) to be in decline, while at the same time bashing and trying to marginalize current and potential enemies of the cause. In this case, those enemies are the supposedly emerging “isolationist” wing in the Republican Party and the conservative movement, and its presumptive leader and potential presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul.
Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning deputy page editor of the Wall Street Journal has been promoting these and similar themes in his Global View column in the newspaper, and he tends to employ the same kind of literary devices in the book as in his column, starting with the Great Spin.
According to Stephens, America is retreating from the world. It is abandoning Iraq; withdrawing from Afghanistan; refusing to topple Syria’s Assad; tolerating Russia’s aggression in Ukraine; allowing China to bully its neighbors. These and other examples of weakness and appeasement amount to a rejection of America’s traditional role as the world’s policeman.
Until recently, the view that “we should not be the world’s policeman,” which Stephens equates with “isolationism”, was held mainly by the political left and “found a home in the fringes of the right, particularly among small-government libertarians and latter-day Father Coughlin such as Pat Buchanan.”
But now “isolationism” is gathering support among members of “the mainstream of the conservative movement,” with the upshot being that foreign policy in the United States “is now cutting across traditional divides.” It is no longer “a story of (mostly) Republican hawks versus (mostly) Democratic doves.” According to Stephens, it is now an argument between neoisolationists and internationalists, with “an increasing number of Tea Party and libertarian-leaning Republicans like Senator Rand Paul” joining Democrats and liberals in espousing this neoisolationist creed.
The idealist and moralistic President Barack Obama and his Retreat Doctrine, which “begins as form of prophylactic defense against supposedly inevitable failure, then proceeds to an acquiescence to a world hostile to American interests, values, and long-term security” are supposedly responsible for the “isolationist” drift in Washington and around the country. Since Obama came to office, the global political and economic order have apparently crumbled, creating the conditions for instability and chaos everywhere.
The result is that without the United States playing the role of the world’s policeman, we should expect the Coming Global Disorder, as revisionist powers (Russia, China, Iran) exploit the strategic vacuum being created in “de-Americanized world.” Former U.S. allies that cannot count anymore on American protection (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan) are tempted to take matters in their own hand, to “freelance” when they fear that their security is at stake. And “free radicals,” ranging from jihadists with WMDs to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, “take advantage of the open architecture of the modern world to attack the foundations of the free world.”
The problem with this Great Spin is that it is ahistorical and has nothing to do with reality. Accounting for 42.6 percent of global military spending (as compared to 5.2 percent for China, 3.0 percent from Britain, and 2.2 percent for India) while continuing to maintain its military presence in every corner of the world, Washington, operating with clear bipartisan support, including by Paul, remains committed to activist global interventionist policies.
What Stephens dubs “retreat” and “neoisolationism” are nothing more than a return to normalcy, to the sources of traditional American foreign policy as practiced by Republican and Democratic Presidents since World War II. It was President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors who abandoned those principles and decided to launch a costly unilateralist military adventure and war of choice—coupled with a ideological crusade to impose American values worldwide—that ran contrary to U.S. interests and traditions.
In fact, American presidents have never tried to impose a Pax Americana or to embrace the role of the world’s policeman, except perhaps in the Western Hemisphere, but have rather sought to work with its allies in order to protect their common interests, as it did during the Cold War when it shared global power with the Soviet Union, but never considered, for example, deploying military troops to assist freedom fighters.
From that perspective, President Obama, with initial strong support from the American public as well as the backing of many realists on the political right, has decided to abandon the reckless and un-American foreign policy pursued by his predecessor (especially during W.’s first term in office) and to adopt a similar strategy of adjustment and retrenchment that was pursued by Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford—and orchestrated by Henry Kissinger—against the backdrop of the expected U.S. military withdrawal from Vietnam.
Like in the case of Nixon, President Obama’s policies included reassessing U.S. global interests, reducing defense spending, shifting more security responsibilities to allies, and reaching diplomatic deals with adversaries, all while continuing to project and sometime use American military power abroad.
In a way, the cry of betrayal sounded by Japan and other allies in Asia in the face of American withdrawal from Vietnam and the diplomatic opening to China recalls a similar irritation on the part of Saudi Arabia and Israel as President Obama was taking steps to readjust U.S. policy in the Middle East to changing strategic realities, steps such as launching diplomatic negotiations with Iran. What Stephens describes as neoisolationism is the pursuit of nuanced Realpolitik policies.
But in Stephens’ foreign policy universe there is no place for nuance, only crude binarism. His two villains, the alleged critics of his imaginary Pax Americana President Obama and Senator Paul, are compared to two historical figures and former presidential candidates, Democratic Vice President Henry Wallace and Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio.
In Stephens’ narrative, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a straight ideological line leading from Wallace (an early critic of U.S. Cold War policies) to Obama, and from Taft (who opposed U.S. entry into World War II) to Paul—with all the four being opponents of Pax Americana and exhibiting those “isolationist”—old and neo—tendencies. But these faulty historical analogies are based on the assumption that al-Qaeda, Saddam’s Iraq, and Iran pose the same level of threat that Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union did, and disregards the differences between the idealist Wallace and the more realist Taft (who by the way were also strong supporters of Zionism and Israel).
More annoying is the way that Stephens deals with his Iraq problem: his failure to resolve the dissonance between his suggestion that his ideological mates, including President Bush, are deep inside actually hardcore realists and the reality of the ambitious Wilsonian Freedom Agenda that Bush and the neoconservatives promoted after 9/11.
In order to resolve this cognitive dissonance, Stephens, in an exercise of mislabeling and historical revisionism, contends that, well, you see, there were actually two Bush Doctrines. There was the Realpolitik Bush-Cheney doctrine that was seeking to “uphold, defend and improve world order, not transform and improve human society” and only wanted to prevent Saddam Hussein from having access to WMDs. And then there was Bush Doctrine II that “promised to work toward the elimination of dictatorships the world over” and that Bush embraced only after it was discovered that there were no WMDs in Iraq.
But anyone who followed the debate in Washington before and after the Iraq War recognizes that the Freedom Agenda and the Wilsonian fantasy of turning Iraq and the Arab World into thriving liberal democracies while disregarding the political and cultural realities of Mesopotamia and the rest of the region, was an integral part of the drive to intervene in Iraq. It had very little to do with Realpolitik, and if anything, ended up harming U.S. (and Israeli) strategic interests by strengthening the power of Iran and its regional satellites.
Stephens doesn’t even try to confront the strategic catastrophe that the neoconservative agenda has created in the Middle East, and instead suggests that it is Obama that has been trying to advance a Bush Doctrine II in the Middle East by embracing the Arab Spring and abandoning Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. This is a legitimate criticism, but not a very credible one coming from Stephens, who now calls for using military power to depose Syria’s Assad and provide support to his opponents.
But then, America in Retreat, like other neoconservative foreign policy literature, isn’t supposed to make sense since it’s not based on any clear elucidation of how the world works and how to deal with it other than arguing for the need to show “resolve” and militarily threaten anyone who doesn’t share America’s values and interests (as defined by Stephens and Co).
In fact, by the time the book came out, many of its assumptions had already been overrun by events like the emergence of ISIS that actually played into the hands of the pro-interventionists in Washington, or the plunge in oil prices that weakened revisionist powers like Iran and Russia. Actually, much of what the book argues has not been overrun by reality; it never corresponded to it in the first place.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
Reflecting on the close historical relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, we tend to recall the personal bonds between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill—who was the first to use the phrase “Special Relationship” in a speech in 1946; the comradeship between the conservative giants Ronald Reagan and Margret Thatcher; and more recently, the military adventure in Mesopotamia that brought together George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
And then there was “the remarkable friendship” between John F. Kennedy and Harold Macmillan, as British-American author Christopher Sandford describes the relationship between one of the most famous American presidents and one of the less well-known British prime ministers in his new book, Harold and Jack.
There is no denying that FDR and Churchill were the West’s co-leaders in the alliance that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. Or that Reagan and Thatcher both presided over historic free-market reforms in the 1980s and worked together to end the Cold War. And while Blair may have been ridiculed as Bush’s “poodle,” it’s difficult to imagine a history of the Iraq War without the former British PM being portrayed as American president’s leading partner in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. But Harold—who?—and Jack?
At times there is a hint of historical revisionism in Sandford’s work. He creates the impression that through some sort of osmosis that developed during the brief three years of their relationship, Macmillan ended up acquiring some of the global power, if not grandeur, of JFK; and that, like Churchill, Thatcher, and Blair, Harold Macmillan ensured that the special relationship remained special.
When we recall the two dramatic international crises of the 1960s that could have triggered a third world war between the United States and the Soviet Union—the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile episode in 1962—scenes from old newsreels bring to mind the roles performed by President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and other advisors: the game of chicken that Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev played in Berlin, the late-night deliberations of the members of JFK’s Executive Committee (EXCOMM) of the National Security Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the secret rendezvous between Bobby and Soviet emissaries. Does anyone see a Harold in those pictures?
In a kind of literary photoshopping, Sandford attempts to place Macmillan at the fore of these historical narratives about the days that shook the world, suggesting that Harold was an integral part of these cinematic black-and-white scenes from the 1960s. Forget Jack and Bobby. It’s the Kennedy-Macmillan team—Jack and Harold—who turn out to be “The Men Who Saved the World,” as the title of one of the book’s chapters puts it.
But while Sandford, after conducting extensive research into the private communications between the two leaders (including birthday greetings), does an excellent job in providing us a lively account of the personal ties between Kennedy and Macmillan, he fails to substantiate his thesis that this friendship had any major impact on the strategic relationship between the United States and the Union Kingdom—or for that matter on the outcome of the crises in Berlin and Cuba.
Indeed, there is something contrived in Sandford’s attempt to elevate Macmillan’s role in these and other events. At times, it seems that he gets lost in his own narrative and crashes into the inevitable cognitive dissonance. Personal ties don’t always make a difference when it comes to national interests.
In fact, Sandford’s account of the Cuban missile crisis suggests that Macmillan’s role in the drama was “passive” and “supine” and that Britain, which had an arsenal of Soviet nuclear missiles pointed at it, had become “a wholly-owned subsidiary [of] American interests,” as then Labour leader Huge Gaitskell described it.
Hence while the White House decided to send the legendary ex-Secretary of State Dean Acheson to brief French President Charles de Gaulle on U.S. strategy in the crisis, it assigned U.S. ambassador to London David Bruce to deal with Macmillan, with Jack exchanging messages with Harold—“schmoozing” would probably be the appropriate term—and the British PM serving only as friendly sounding-board to the American president.
In fact, Kennedy didn’t consult Macmillan for the first five days of the crisis, and while he had promised that he would send him the text of his televised address to the nation, the draft arrived just seven hours before the president delivered it. “I can’t honestly think of anything said from London that changed US action—it was chiefly reassurance to JFK,” admitted British ambassador, and Jack’s pal, David Ormsby-Gore.
There was certainly nothing very Churchillian in the way Macmillan operated during the earlier Berlin crisis, when he tended to press Kennedy to be conciliatory towards Khrushchev while the American president, according to Sandford, reacted “more robustly” to the Soviet moves. Macmillan’s performance during the crisis demonstrated that “Britain may have played the role of a branch of office of the US headquarters when it came to Berlin and to other pressing foreign policy issues,” Sandford concludes, adding that under Macmillan Britain nevertheless proved to be “an unusually, well-informed and outspoken subordinate.”
Indeed, the personal closeness between the two heads of government could not reverse the changing realities of the relationship between their nations since the end of World War II, as Britain entered an age of decline, losing its status as a great power, while the United States emerged as one of the two global superpowers of the new age. What was once imagined to be an equal partnership between two leading world powers was looking more and more like a relationship between a global hegemon and its mostly subservient sidekick across the Atlantic.
Macmillan, who had served as foreign secretary and chancellor of the exchequer under Churchill’s successor as prime minister, Anthony Eden, was able to observe closely the erosion in Britain’s global power and its growing economic and military dependence on the United States. Reflecting the changes in the balance of power, President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles (known for his animosity towards the Brits), forced Britain and its allies France and Israel to end their military operation against Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956, in part by threatening to sell some of the U.S. government’s sterling bond holdings—imagine the Chinese threatening to sell their U.S. dollar assets today—and by denying the Brits financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
After Eden resigned as prime minister in 1957, Macmillan succeeded him in office and recognized the need to readjust Britain’s goals according to the altered realities of international power, with a policy of diplomatic military retrenchment. As Macmillan summarized it, the main lesson of Suez was that Britain should “not again be allowed to find [itself] on the wrong side of a major policy dispute” with Washington.
The British Empire was no more, and Macmillan wanted to ensure that as its sun set what remained of its international-security role in the Middle East and elsewhere passed to the Americans and that Britain could rely on its former colony across the Atlantic as a protector of last resort. So no more British challenges to American hegemony, like the costly Suez Crisis.
From this perspective, Macmillan’s main contribution was his success in choreographing Britain’s decline as a great power. Britain, as he feared, was coming to be little more, in Sandford’s words, than “an offshore 51st State and subordinate vassal to American interests.” Macmillan was doing his best to make sure that no one would notice: he advanced a narrative under which it appeared as though Great Britain was guiding the United States in the same way that the Greeks had the Romans, his favorite historical analogy.
Macmillan had hoped to reshape the Special Relationship by promoting a plan to form an “Atlantic Community” based on the partnership between the United States and continental Europe, with Britain serving as a bridge of sort between the two entities. The problem was that neither the Americans nor the Europeans were in need of the British “bridge” and regarded it in some respects an irritating obstacle to improving their direct relations.
In fact, Kennedy and his advisors as well as French President de Gaulle, the driving force behind European unity, concluded that there was a contradiction between Macmillan’s goal of achieving “equivalence” of policy between London and Washington and his ambition to have Britain in the European Economic Community (EEC)—the forerunner to the European Union—while at the same time maintaining Britain’s role as an independent global power.
The contradiction was exposed during a major breakdown in U.S.-British relations. The Skybolt Crisis was named after the American Skybolt missile system that President Eisenhower had promised to sell to the Brits to help them build an independent nuclear program but which Kennedy’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, decided to cancel because he didn’t want Britain to have such nuclear-arms independence. As McNamara put it, “limited nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent.”
In addition to concerns over nuclear proliferation, the Americans were worried about a repeat of Suez. With its own nuclear weapons, London would feel secure to act independently but would not be able to deter Soviet attacks, forcing the United States to intervene to protect Britain.
In responding to the Skybolt controversy, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who served as one of Kennedy’s foreign-policy advisors, caused a stir when he challenged the strategic significance of Great Britain to the United States during a West Point address in 1962, arguing that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”
Indeed, he ridiculed Britain’s quest to play a power role based on the Special Relationship with the United States and being the head of the British Commonwealth, which “has no political structure, or unity, or strength and enjoys a fragile and precarious economic relationship” with Britain itself. Acheson urged the UK to adjust to the changing international system under which she was becoming a second-rate power by joining the evolving European economic and political union instead of trying to continue pursuing the Special Relationship with Washington.
The crisis was eventually resolved when Macmillan and Kennedy met in the Bahamas on December 22, 1962, and concluded on an agreement under which the United States would provide the British with a supply of nuclear-capable Polaris missiles which would be part of a “multilateral force” within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and could be used independently only when “supreme national interests” were involved.
The crisis and its outcome demonstrated to de Gaulle—who was trying to chart a strategic course for French-led Europe independent from both the United States and the Soviet Union—that Britain remained an American outpost, which was one of the reasons he decided to veto British membership in the EEC.
At the same time, U.S. officials were dismayed that the Nassau Agreement meant “their having to attune American policy to a Great Britain that was semi-detached from the rest of Europe,” according to Sandford, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk touting the “policy advantages of moving away from a ‘special relationship’ and towards a monolithic ‘system of … strict non-favoritism’ to America’s NATO allies.”
Sandford contends that Kennedy’s decision to sell Polaris as a replacement for the cancelled Skybolt reflected his personal commitment to saving the Special Relationship. “Only Kennedy himself consistently saw the trans-Atlantic partners as bound together by more powerful ties of shared history and friendship,” Sandford concludes—perhaps with too much certainty—based on his examination of the relationship between the two countries and the friendship between their leaders that lasted less than three years.
Macmillan was forced to resign from office in October 1963, in the aftermath of the sex scandal involving his defense minister, John Profumo. A month later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald.
That the Special Relationship has survived in one form or another after Harold and Jack were not around, and despite all the dramatic changes in the global balance of power since then, points perhaps to the persistence of myths, in this case, Macmillan’s characterization of “the Special Relationship” as being between “our Greece” and “their Rome.” Perhaps, as the late Christopher Hitchens suggested, “it will be a splendid thing if, showing that countries can after all learn from history, the United States decided to become less Roman, and the British decided to become more Greek, and both rediscovered republican virtues in a world without conquerors.”
Public opinion is volatile, shifting erratically in response to the most recent developments at home and abroad, argued American political philosopher Walter Lippmann as he studied the American public’s attitudes on issues of war and peace during the first part of the 20th century.
Analyzing the dramatic shifts in American opinion toward possible U.S. intervention in the war in Europe in the early 1940s—from an isolationist mood to a pro-war sentiments—Lippmann observed that the public tended to be “too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiations or too intransigent.”
Not unlike George Kennan and other proponents of a Realpolitik approach to international relations, Lippmann concluded that the domain of foreign policy making should be in the hands of an educated and skilled elite—what we now refer to as the Foreign Policy Establishment—and that the masses should not be allowed to intrude into the business of managing U.S. relationship with the rest of the world.
When it comes to foreign policy, the job of the Best and the Brightest, and that included the elite press to which Lippmann belonged, should be to “educate”—read: manipulate—the public to support the decisions by the government to go to war or to make peace.
Anyone who examined the recent dramatic shifts in the American public attitudes towards military intervention abroad would have to concur with Lippmann’s observations about the volatility of American public opinion.
Indeed, the proverbial Man from Mars who only a year ago would return from a visit to the United States concluding that American people were exhausted of fighting never-ending wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, would clearly be surprised to discover during a more recent excursion to this country that Americans are now in a warmongering mood.
Even more amazing has been the transformation of the America public’s attitudes towards President Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda. For more than four years, it seemed that the views on war and peace shared by the Democratic White House occupant who had run for office in 2008 blasting President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, were aligned with those of the general public. And that the bellicose interventionist positions of leading Republicans like Sen. John McCain have become quite passé and so out of touch of the let’s-mind-our-business sentiments of a clear majority of Americans. Sen. Rand Paul, with his skepticism about the cost-effectiveness of U.S. military interventions, was riding high as the Republican alternative to McCain.
It would be an exaggeration to describe Obama as an antiwar president. His rhetoric and occasionally his policies—the decision to use force to oust Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi comes to mind—reflected the liberal internationalist and pro-humanitarian intervention views of leading Democrats, including those serving in his administration.
But in many ways, President Obama’s earlier decision not to use military force against the regime of Syria’s Bashar Assad and to embrace a deal advanced by Russia to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons was seen at the time as almost historic. The White House rejecting pressures from both the members of the foreign policy establishment, not to mention the McCain Republicans, as well as from allies abroad, including the Europeans, the Saudis, and the Israelis, to deploy U.S. military power—while enjoying the support of most Americans for the decision.
But that was then. As Americans (or some of them) are preparing to cast their ballots in the midterm elections, one of the most intriguing findings observed by pollsters has been that the reason why many voters would support Republicans candidates on Election Day was that the perception that President Obama was “weak” on foreign policy and that the GOP would prove to be more effective in responding to foreign threats, including the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a more assertive foreign policy being pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even the Ebola epidemic.
The conventional wisdom has been that the images of the beheading of two American journalists by an ISIS executioner as well as those of the numerous atrocities committed by the group may have brought about the dramatic changes in public attitudes.
Indeed, such changes don’t have to be triggered by traumatic events as the attack on Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The botched attempt by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 to rescue the 52 diplomats held captive at the American Embassy in Tehran, and the ensuing humiliating public debacle which damaged U.S. global prestige, played a major role in stirring the political backlash against Carter.
The beheading of the two journalists that was seen as part of a ineffectual response by the Obama administration to the rise of ISIS has made it easier for McCain Republicans and the rest of Washington’s warrior class to “Carterize” Obama. That both presidents had also to deal with aggressive moves by Moscow—then in Afghanistan, now in Ukraine—not to mention their miserable economic record is helping to perpetuate the Obama-is-Carter analogy.
It would be interesting to speculate what would have happened if President Obama—or for that matter, Senator Paul in the context of the debate among Republicans and conservatives—would have signaled earlier on a complete break with the reigning foreign policy consensus instead of offering a few attempts at modifying it.
For example, neither of the two has called for a reassessment of American policy in the Middle East, in terms of our engagement there and our strategic commitments. Why are we there and should we continue to be there? That the United States should continue to be involved there was accepted as a given by both Obama and Paul, with the debate centering only on the means available to maintain U.S. role there. To give aid to the Syrian rebels or not? Boots on the ground in Iraq or not? To revive or not to revive the “peace process?”
At the end of the day, without a reexamination of the U.S. role in the Middle East (or in Eastern Europe or in East Asia), foreign policy inertia sets in as American engagement—including the media coverage that follows it—helps create the conditions for more escalation, including American casualties, provoking more belligerent attitudes among Americans.
So it’s not surprising that the demand in the market of Republican politics will be now for an assertive foreign policy figure a la Ronald Reagan. And yes, I know that in reality Reagan was more accommodative on foreign policy issues than either critics or supporters give him credit. But the fact remains that his message when he ran for office was very hawkish.
That doesn’t mean that we should expect a resurgence of the neoconservative/ Wilsonian school of thought. Most Americans, including members of the foreign policy establishment, have given up on the idea of nation building in, and exporting democracy to, the Middle East. So my guess is that we are going to see more of President Bush I’s Realpolitik types in any Republican administration, and less of President Bush II’s crusaders. But the hopes for the kind of a new foreign policy that some libertarians and conservatives were yearning for have been dashed.
During Israel’s recent war with Hamas, which took place at the same time as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was conducing its barbaric campaign in Mesopotamia and the Levant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped to score a few points with Americans and other Westerners by equating the Palestinian Islamist movement ruling the Gaza Strip with the radical Sunni forces leading a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
But if the communist regimes and movements didn’t constitute a monolithic bloc during the Cold War, the West isn’t facing a unified Islamist force today. There are various shades of green, ranging from the quasi-medieval ISIS terrorists to the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites.
Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that promotes a nationalist and Islamist Palestinian agenda, and while it’s not exactly “like” ISIS, it does represent the way Islam is being utilized now an identity and as a political-military force: Arab Sunnis fighting Shi’ites and Westerners in Iraq and Syria; Arab Sunnis combating Jews in Israel/Palestine.
And in both cases, these Islamist groups, reflecting the religious fanaticism of their members, including a willingness to die as suicide bombers for their cause, pose a major challenge to Western leaders and publics in an age dominated by the secular and non-ideological middle-class consumer who wants to live—not to die—for his or her country.
To put it differently, Western leaders are reluctant to send their citizens to fight individuals and groups who subscribe to a set of values and a code of behavior that seem to originate in an atavistically pre-modern age. Deploying ground troops to occupy Arab lands is not only costly in terms of blood and treasure directly expended, it’s also not cost-effective if you conclude that it would be close to impossible to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Muhammad (in his many sectarian and tribal shapes) will always beat Locke in the war of ideas.
To employ the terms President Barack Obama used in his televised address on Wednesday, we may have the power to “crush” these guys, but you probably don’t the capability and will to entirely “destroy” them.
In a way, the decisions of then-Prime Minister Israel Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli troops unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and of President Obama to end the American occupation of Iraq in 2011—and to refrain from re-invading these areas again—reflect similar calculations.
Both Israel in the Gaza Strip and the United States in Iraq had the military resources to continue occupying these respective Arab territories. But the Israeli and American publics were not willing to pay the costs in terms of human lives of maintaining a military presence in the midst of a hostile Arab population (which in Gaza had elected Hamas and in Baghdad brought to power an Islamist Shi’ite leader).
When one considers the angry reactions by the Israelis to the launching of missiles by Hamas into Israel and by the Americans to the beheading of the two U.S. journalists by ISIS, it’s important to recall that both decisions—to pull out from Gaza and from Iraq—enjoyed wide public support. The assumption was that military power would serve as a deterrent against potential aggressors in the future and that the Israelis and the Americans could control the situation on the ground through some sort of remote control.
One of the most astounding turning points in the recent Israel-Hamas war was the decision by the Israeli government—the most nationalist in the country’s history—not to fully re-invade the Gaza Strip despite repeated pledges by Prime Minister Netanyahu to destroy Hamas’s “terrorist infrastructure.”
The reason that there was no Israeli version of Sherman’s March to the Sea in Gaza—or for that matter, no World War II-like calls for Hamas’s “unconditional surrender”—was due not only to the high costs of such a campaign but also the conclusion by Israeli leaders and generals that in the Gaza Strip—unlike in the post-Civil War South or in post-WWII Germany—the defeated and conquered population would not be ready under any conditions to be co-opted into some Israeli post-war settlement, even one that included outside financial reconstruction assistance.
Why? For the same reason that the population of Gaza would probably re-elect Hamas if elections were held there today. For the same reason that the American invasion of Iraq and the Freedom Agenda resulted in the rise to power of sectarian forces and not liberal groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. For the same reason that the Muslim Brotherhood and not the young Facebook revolutionaries ended up winning the first free elections in Egypt—and that the military eventually returned to power in Cairo.
East is East, and West is West, and there is no reason to believe that the twain shall meet anytime soon. Much of the Arab World is moving in the Islamist direction and rejects the notion of Western hegemony both as a value system and as a set of political goals. Arabs are willing to cooperate with the United States when it comes to advancing their military and economic interests. But that’s about it.
Most Israelis have given up by now on the notion that they will be able to reach a Kantian “peace” with the Palestinians—like the one that exists between Germany and France or the United States—in the near future, especially as Islamist groups like Hamas, which at best are willing to accept the idea of short-term coexistence with Israel, are gaining the upper hand in Palestine and elsewhere.
And now the Israeli modus operandi that became obvious during the war in Gaza—using Israel’s technological edge and superior air power to “crush” Hamas (a term that Netanyahu used quite frequently during the military campaign) while cooperating with local partners (Egypt, in the case of Israel) to pressure and isolate the enemy and create a more favorable balance of power—may become the model for American military operations on Iraq and Syria in the coming years.
So if you cannot—or are not willing to—defeat them, then “crush” them with drones, missiles, and air power, and try through ad-hoc cooperation with the occasional partner (the Jordanians), proxy (the Kurds), and even rival (Iran) to put pressure on the enemy du jour (al-Qaeda; ISIS). In the make-believe world of spin and media, in the meantime, try to market the outcome of your policies as military wins and pretend that all of this will create the conditions for a diplomatic solution. At best, it will tilt the balance of power in your favor; at a minimum, it will help maintain the status quo and contain the perceived threat.
Notwithstanding all the fancy rhetoric, this is the Obama “strategy” to fight ISIS: no grand designs for democracy-promotion or nation-building, not even the expectation that the Middle East is entering into an age of freedom, prosperity, and peace under American leadership. Just a lot of “crushing” to do: the defeating is being left to the Iraqis, the Kurds, the Turks, and the Saudis.
But as Israel’s war against Hamas has demonstrated, such a policy carries a lot of risks, ranging from the inevitable collateral damage to innocent civilians to the possibility of a soldier or pilot falling into enemy hands or terrorist attacks against your military or civilians, possibly even the homeland.
And when that happens, the pressure grows to do more “somethings,” including the deployment of ground troops with the aim of forcing the enemy to surrender. And before you know it, a war that wasn’t supposed to be a war becomes real.
Foreign-policy experts and pundits in Washington are up in arms, ready to go to war—that is, send someone else to fight in the Middle East—and cannot believe that President Obama is resisting their call to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) by expanding U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets from Iraq to Syria.
Even worse from the perspective of the warmongers has been Obama’s admission that he doesn’t even have a plan. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said during a White House news conference, in what was seen as a message of sorts to the op-ed writers, cable-news talking heads, and blogosphere warriors.
“Folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at,” he said. “The suggestions seems to have been we’re about to go full-scale on some elaborate strategy for defeating ISIS and the suggestion has been we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow with Congress still out of town, they’ll be left in the dark. That’s not going to happen.” Ouch!
As expected, the response to the president’s comments from Washington’s gung-ho press has been devastating, ranging from the suggestions that Obama made a “gaffe” to accusations that he was failing to project leadership and stand up to America’s enemies in the aftermath of the horrific beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS.
The Washington Post‘s veteran national security correspondent Karen DeYoung, a long-time proponent of U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, published a front-page story that quoted numerous unnamed sources in Washington and the Middle East bashing Obama for his no-strategy comments and calling on Washington to go to war.
“When a superpower, the superpower, is reluctant in developing policy, it’s not only about leadership, it’s about having a coherent approach to crises,” DeYoung quoted a Middle Eastern official as saying, before turning to another who stated that, “The ball is in the U.S. court.”
In case you were wondering why the proverbial ball was not in the courts of such regional military powers as happen to be the neighbors of Iraq and Syria, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, DeYoung explained that all the Middle Eastern officials she interviewed, “expressed an eagerness to follow the U.S. lead in Syria, including, in some cases, possible participation in airstrikes against the Islamic State, should that be Obama’s decision.” That’s nice.
And apropos of U.S. military intervention in Syria, these same Middle Eastern officials have repeatedly expressed concern to DeYoung over the past three years of Syria’s civil war “at what they’ve seen as administration reluctance to assert strong leadership in support of moderate rebels battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
This is the same Assad who regards ISIS as a major threat to Syria—where the militant Sunni radicals already control some territory—and to the alliance of secular Alawites, Kurds, and Christians that he leads. As for “moderate rebels,” how about members of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria that is fighting both Assad and ISIS? They also happen to be U.S. terrorist list. And in any case, isn’t there a danger that arms supplied to the Syrian rebels could fall into the hands of ISIS, in the same way that American weapons that had been supplied to the Iraqi army are now part of ISIS’s arsenal?
The “strategy” that Obama’s critics are daydreaming about seems to be based on the illusion that American military action is bound to create incentives for collective action on the part of regional players who supposedly regard ISIS as a common threat. If you bomb Syria, the members of this alliance-in-the-making will come together and defeat ISIS.
What’s wrong with this picture? The fact is that, like an amoeba that takes different shapes and forms as it reproduces and replicates itself, ISIS has evolved as an extension of radical Sunni groups, including al-Qaeda, that emerged in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq and, later on, to the Iran-backed Shi’ite government in Baghdad, as well as growing out of the insurgent groups fighting Assad in Syria.
The group, or some of its members in different incarnations, have received direct and indirect assistance from the Saudis (who are opposed to the Shi’ite government in Baghdad as well as to the Alawite regime in Damascus) and the Turks (who were friendly with Assad before they became his enemy). And let’s not forget that ISIS has adopted Saudi Arabia’s strain of Wahhabi Islam, not to mention the Saudi’s favorite form of execution, beheading.
As long as such regional actors think they can safely fuel the fire, they will. But they’re started to get burned, and only that may to change their behavior. The real threat that ISIS poses now to its former benefactors in Riyadh and Ankara is not so much its challenge to the Enlightenment project as the challenge to the region’s political status quo that would result from carving up Iraq and Syria and the creation of an ISIS-led “Caliphate.” This also amounts to a direct threat to the rulers in Baghdad and Syria and their partners in Tehran, but ironically doesn’t come as such bad news to the Kurds, who desire the establishment of an independent state and could probably co-exist with the ISIS Caliphate if it would them alone.
President Obama, to his credit, recognizes this complex reality and as leader of a status-quo power is willing to provide some limited assistance to the regional players if and when they get their act together, contain ISIS, and secure the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq. (This could actually prove to be bad news for the pro-partition Kurds.) This would require a stable central government in Baghdad and isn’t going to work if the Assad regime collapses. In fact, it might require some cooperation with Assad and his Iranian patrons, who are regarded by our online warriors as targets for regime changes.
So when former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proved to be an obstacle to the establishment of an all-inclusive government, Obama refrained from taking unilateral action against him and instead allowed the Iranians, with the support of the Saudis, to choreograph his replacement by another Shi’ite figure. And much of the American military power so far deployed has been utilized to avoid a humanitarian crisis and defeat of the Kurdish forces. These limited steps make sense in the context of U.S. interests. A wider American military intervention, including the deployment of ground troops, would only provide disincentives to the regional players to act responsibly and use their own resources as part of an ad hoc partnership to defeat ISIS. It may not be a grand strategy, but it sends a clear message to the regional powers and their cheerleaders in Washington that the United States is not going to do their job for them.
The headline, “U.S. Embassy Prepares for Possible Evacuation as Militants Take Control in Iraq,” brought back the depressing memories of the fall of Saigon almost 40 years ago, and the humiliating images of the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel from the U.S. Embassy there on April 30, 1975. But even if the al-Qaeda renegades affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) don’t take over Baghdad, and U.S. helicopters don’t have to evacuate the American civilian and military personnel in the city, what is taking place in Iraq now has all the makings of the crushing grand finale of the American military intervention in Southeast Asia.
Now, like then, there are those who contend that things would have turned quite differently if only the United States had not withdrawn its troops so hastily from Southeast Asia/the Middle East; if only Washington had provided more military assistance to the regime in Saigon/Baghdad; if only the leader of South Vietnam/Iraq would not have been so corrupt and so incompetent; if only the government in Saigon/Baghdad was more democratic and inclusive; if only the American president had been able to mobilize more public support for “staying the course.” Or as the saying goes, “If my grandma had wheels, she was a motorcycle.”
Even more infuriating is (as it probably was to the war critics in 1975) to have to listen to the politicians and pundits who led this country into a mortifying military fiasco insisting that they were right, that their script made for a hit movie; it’s the producers in Washington who messed everything up.
Before we forget what really happened, as the likes of John McCain will insist that the decision to go to war in Iraq is now “ancient history” and that, in any case, all the world’s intelligence services were sure that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s), let’s recall that before American troops landed on the shores of the Euphrates:
- Iraq was a stable and secular country where women and Christians enjoyed civil rights, the Kurds (following the first Gulf War) had a modicum of political autonomy. It would have been nice to have a user-friendlier Saddam Hussein. But all things considered, Washington could co-exist with him.
- Iraq served as the main strategic counter-balancing power in the Persian Gulf (following the Iran-Iraq War when Washington made sure that neither side would win). Iraq and Iran were two players that we didn’t like very much. But the strategic stalemate in the Persian Gulf served American interests.
- Iraq wasn’t the headquarters of al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In fact, both in terms of interests and ideology, al-Qaeda posed a threat to the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad. In short, Washington and Baghdad faced a common enemy.
We know what then happened: The ousting of Saddam and the invasion of Iraq resulted in the collapse of the fragile strategic balance of power in the Persian Gulf, and strengthened the power of Iran. It led to the coming to power of a theocratic regime in Baghdad that is allied with Tehran, and ignited a bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that is spilling now to the rest of the Middle East. And lest we forget, there were the high costs in life, treasure, military strength, and diplomatic credibility for the United States.
Now an al-Qaeda that had never set a foot in Iraq and Syria before the American invasion may be getting close to gaining strength in those two countries, and could soon even take power in Baghdad.
The “Iraq Conflict now poses ‘Existential Threat’ to the United States,” according to John McCain, who had made the same argument before he called for invading Iraq. Sisyphus of Greek mythology was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again; Sisyphus was depicted by Albert Camus as a symbol of the absurd. He didn’t know McCain.
McCain also believes that America could have won the Vietnam War. And who knows? If that would have happened, the United States and Vietnam could now be close trade partners and its government would have been establishing close military ties with Washington. But wait a minute. Isn’t that what is happening these days as the United States and Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia are looking towards Washington as a counter-balance to Chinese military and economic power in the region?
In fact, contrary to the nightmare scenarios that followed the American evacuation of Saigon, the world-as-we-knew-it didn’t come to an end, the barbarians didn’t storm the gates, and the Reds didn’t take over Asia and the rest of the world. Through cautious and thoughtful diplomacy, the United States took steps to cut its losses and rebuild its military and economic power, including in Asia. At the center of these efforts, was the opening to China that helped to create the basis for diplomatic and economic cooperation in the region and to restructure its balance of power in terms that were favorable to the United States.
If anything, American military withdrawal created incentives for the pro-Western nations in the region to strengthen their military and economic cooperation through the newly established Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam ended-up ousting the murderous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, then went to war with China in 1979, which like the Iraq-Iran War ensured that neither of them emerged as victors. Then the Cold War ended and America won!
Which brings us back to Iraq and the Middle East. Not unlike what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, what is seen now as an American defeat could actually help Washington to rebuild its position in the world, including in the Middle East, if it pursues the same kind of intelligent and realist policies that were embraced by American administrations at that time.
Instead of fantasizing about new U.S. interventions in the Middle East, the United States needs to realign its position in the region by engaging Iran and providing incentives for Tehran, Ankara, and Riyadh to take the lead in bringing stability to Iraq and Syria. These three regional powers—and the United States—have a common interest in averting the disintegration of these two countries, and in ensuring that the conflicts there don’t degenerate into a wider Sunni-Shiite War. The possibility that ISIS forces come to power in Baghdad poses a threat to all of them and should encourage them to use their military and diplomatic power to prevent that from happening. They should take a lead in that effort with the United States providing some indirect assistance.
Creating the conditions for the evolution of such a strategy could eventually lead to the maintenance of the territorial status-quo while at the same time help shape decentralized federal systems in Iraq and Syria that would provide political autonomy to the various ethnic and religious groups. Washington can only help; it cannot make that happen on its own.
I watched President Barack Obama’s address to the graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday, then read and re-read the transcript of the speech that outlined his foreign policy doctrine. I was reminded of why I voted for him twice and not for his Republican presidential rivals.
Just imagine what the current situation would be if John McCain or Mitt Romney, not Obama, occupied the White House. My guess is that U.S. troops would still be engaged in combat in Iraq on the side of the theocratic and pro-Iran regime in Baghdad, and that the Republican president would have refrained from declaring, as Obama did on Wednesday, that U.S. forces Afghanistan would fall to zero at the end of 2016 even if the situation in that country remained unstable. And you don’t have to be a psychic to imagine President McCain reliving the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as he sends an ultimatum to Iran to dispose of its nuclear program and U.S. aircraft carriers move towards the Strait of Hormuz. And then consider the image of President Romney, consulting with his neoconservative foreign policy aides (Robert Kagan? John Bolton?) and with former Vice President Dick Cheney on devising a strategy of “regime change” in Damascus, and working together with our Polish and Japanese allies in preparation for cold or hot wars with Russia and China.
Some critics of Obama’s foreign policy agenda assert that all the president has done by ending the U.S. military presences in Iraq and Afghanistan is prove that he is not George W. Bush. In a political system where two major political parties fight over control of policy, however, Obama is contrasting his vision of foreign policy and national security with that of a Republican opposition that still remains committed to the interventionist approach set by its neoconservative ideologues and many of its activists and donors. I don’t detect any major difference between the policies they are advocating and those pursued by W in his first term (recall that many of them criticized President Bush for being too “soft” on foreign policy during his second term). Just browse through the critique of Obama’s address in the editorial and op-ed pages of the neoconic Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and you can get an idea of what the majority of the Republican lawmakers and presidential contenders are thinking. They charge that “President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries” (WP), and that he “has somehow managed to combine the worst features of isolationism and multilateralism” (John Bolton in the WSJ).
One of the main criticisms of the president’s speech and policies has been that he was setting a “false choice” between direct military interventions and doing nothing in response to international crises. Hey, we are not calling for sending U.S. troops to Syria or Ukraine, contend the McCains of the world. We just think that Washington needs to “do something” to demonstrate its resolve and stand up to Assad, Putin, and the Ayatollahs.
But for McCain and his buddies in Congress and the media, “doing something” means taking steps that would almost inevitably lead to diplomatic and military escalation. Declaring a “no fly” zone by the United States and the “international community” in Syria would have triggered Syrian responses, like firing at American warplanes, that would have led eventually to direct military intervention in the civil war in Syria (which is exactly what happened in Libya). Similarly, challenging Russian annexation of Crimea by strengthening military ties with Ukraine would have made it impossible to de-escalate the crisis with Russia (which happened under Obama’s policies), while refusing to negotiate with Iran would have left Washington no choice but to consider the military option in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
And then, of course, there are the suggestions—never made explicitly but implied in code words (“we need to pledge robust security commitment”)—that the United States should have maintained its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to prevent al-Qaeda and the Taliban from coming to power. This from the same guys who promoted the American invasion of Iraq, which in turn helped al-Qaeda expand its presence in Iraq and slowed down the military operations to fight it and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The neoconservatives and the Republican critics read opinion polls and recognize that a clear majority of the American people rejects their hyper-interventionist foreign policy approach. But they cannot criticize the voters, so they instead press the president to “do something” and project “leadership” in a way that would create the conditions for more regimes changes and more wars. And when he doesn’t buy their advice they bash him as a weak president who engages in, well, “appeasement.”
I have described President Obama in TAC in the past as a “Republican realist” and compared him to President George H.W. Bush. His West Point speech hasn’t changed my views. In fact, in his address and its anti-militarist tone and skepticism about global intervention, he sounded to me more like President Dwight Eisenhower, who also helped end another costly U.S-led war and resisted pressures to use military force in places like Hungary and Vietnam.
As I have pointed out in the past, Obama didn’t run for president as an antiwar candidate in the mode of Ralph Nader or Ron Paul. This explains why anti-interventionists on the political left and right have been critical of his policies like the intervention in Libya and the use of drones, not to mention the expansion of the national security state during his term in office. I certainly wasn’t impressed in particular with his call to engage in democracy promotion worldwide (assuming that he is serious about doing that).
But Rand Paul, who is supposedly trying to market himself as a sensible foreign policy realist, rejecting accusations that he is an “isolationist,” needs to explain if and in what ways he would respond to the crises in Syria, Iran, and Russia, differently than Obama. Ironically, he may have to prepare himself to run as an antiwar campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016, just as Obama did in 2008.
Apparently recognizing that the American Unipolar Moment may be over, and that the international system is gradually taking a multipolar form, some pundits have been warning us that the day will soon come in which we will all be experiencing American Empire nostalgia. “If and when American power declines, the institutions and norms American power has supported will decline, too,” or “they may collapse altogether as we transition into another kind of world order, or into disorder,” wrote leading neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan. “Or we may discover then that the United States was essential to keeping the present world order together and that the alternative to American power was not peace and harmony but chaos and catastrophe—which was what the world looked like right before the American order came into being,” Kagan warned.
More recently, Kagan and others have blasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy at home and abroad for its alleged failure to stand up to U.S. adversaries in Damascus, Moscow, and Beijing. They sound even more agitated as they raise the specter of global disorder that would supposedly follow the deterioration of American power. “Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse,” concluded The Economist magazine in a long essay which warned that “America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends,” maintaining that “American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.”
These and similar arguments forecasting the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It unless the United States takes steps to depose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and to force Russia’s Vladimir Putin to end Russian intervention in Ukraine, to defend American allies in East Asia in their territorial disputes with China and to end Iran’s nuclear program, to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace and to… (the list is long), are based on intellectually contradictory, if not dishonest assumptions.
When they refer to the good old days of a global stability guaranteed by American hegemony, the critics are presumably not referring to the Cold War era, but the period following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and what was celebrated as the defeat of the Soviet Union. That golden age of American military supremacy securing global peace is supposedly coming to an end because President Barack Obama was “pondering the limits of American power, out loud,” and projecting “the perception of growing American timidity” to use American military power in the Middle East and elsewhere,” as The Economist put it. This “timidity,” in turn, sends the wrong message to bad guys around the world and encourages them to challenge the power of America and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East; Poland and the Baltic states in Eastern Europe; Japan and Korea in East Asia), eventually leading to new military conflicts. It might leave the Americas no other choice but to distance themselves from the United States and take unilateral steps to protect themselves, or in the worst case scenario, make deals with the Assads and the Putins of the world. The Economist even warns that in a post-American world, Israel could end up gravitating to India and China.
Yet consider the following application of such thinking back to the supposed period of the Pax Americana: The United States emerged as the victorious and undisputed global power in the aftermath of the Cold War, and yet a tin-pot dictator by the name of Saddam Hussein was willing to invade Kuwait and defy the only remaining superpower and its freshly established new world order. So the United States had no choice but to come to the aid of its allies in the Persian Gulf and use its military power to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It followed the first Gulf War with the enunciation of a “dual containment” strategy vis-à-vis both Iraq and Iran that included the deployment of U.S. troops in the region. Read More…
The front page story in the Wall Street Journal yesterday (“Americans Want to Pull Back from World Stage, Poll Finds”) points to an intriguing contrast between the sentiments of the American people and their elites when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. While Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been urging in unison that Washington “do something” about Ukraine—the debate only being about the level of American intervention—nearly half of those surveyed in the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll “want the U.S. to be less active in the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for active engagement—an anti-interventionist current that sweeps across party lines,” reports the Journal.
Indeed, reading the editorial and op-ed pages in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other leading newspapers, one gets the impression that our pundits treat the notion that the United States should increase its role in world affairs—whether it’s regarding the tensions in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, or the island disputes in the South and East China Seas—as an axiom of sorts, while the attitudes of the American people run exactly in the opposite direction. The new poll findings “portray a public weary of foreign entanglements,” according to the Journal. The 47 percent of respondents who called for a less active role in world affairs “marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997, and 1995.” This anti-interventionist mood of the American people (to the Journal’s credit, it refrained from tagging it as “isolationist”) has been identified in several other opinion polls conducted in recent months.
Last year the Pew Research Center detected a record 53 percent of Americans stating that the United States “should mind its own business internationally” and allow other countries to get along as best as they can (that compared with 41 percent in 1995, and 20 percent in 1964). These views were endorsed by majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Other polls point to a consensus among Americans regarding U.S. policy in Ukraine and Syria, with clear majorities rejecting Washington’s conventional wisdom that these crises are central to U.S. national interests, and opposing American military intervention in them.
As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points out in Politico, “there is little appetite across the American political spectrum to get deeply involved with difficult problems that are not easily seen as critically important to U.S. interests.” So while Republican lawmakers attack President Obama for not getting tough enough with Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, Republican voters are as reluctant as Democrats to get the United States involved in Syria and Ukraine. “There are interesting distinctions when you break down these views by country,” reports Kohut. “With respect to Ukraine, just 45 percent of Republicans said the United States should take a firm stand against Russian actions there compared with 35 percent of Democrats. On Syria, on other hand, more Democrats (43 percent) than Republicans (34 percent) favored airstrikes to force Assad to give up his chemical weapons,” which explains why Republicans lawmakers were ready to vote against authorizing President Obama to use military force against Assad.
The Journal suggests that growing anti-interventionist sentiment around the country may explain the ascent of Sen. Rand Paul as a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. But here is an interesting paradox: Much of the noise on foreign policy coming out of the GOP, including from other potential presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio and Governor Christie, has been taking the form of attacks on Obama for resisting the Washington pressure to intervene, and in particular for the suggestion (raised by an unnamed source in the New Yorker) that the United States should “lead from behind.” In a way, John (“bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain—and not Rand Paul—is seen by the media (and supposedly the public) as the Republican voice on foreign policy.
If anything, Senator Paul, whose foreign policy views are more in line with Republican voters’ sentiments, seems to be playing defense on issues like Ukraine, trying to demonstrate to the neoconservative pundits and hawkish GOP operators that he is not an “isolationist.” He pledged in a recent op-ed in Time magazine that, “If I were President, I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it,” even as he insisted that, “Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less” and voted against recent legislation that would send financial assistance to Ukraine.
Senator Paul probably thinks that this kind of “balanced” approach on Ukraine and other foreign policy issues will not antagonize the members of the powerful interventionist of his party while at the same time, helping to market himself to the anti-interventionist Republican voters as a “sensible” guy when it comes to U.S. role in the world. But more likely, if he follows this strategy, Senator Paul will not gain the approval of either side. He will never be able to win the support of those Republican pro-interventionist strategists and pundits who continue to dominate the foreign policy discourse in the party. But he will also fail in outlining a coherent message that stresses the need to reduce the military role that the United States is playing today in world affairs, and fail to clearly establish himself as an alternative to the likes of John McCain, or for that matter, Hillary Clinton.
Instead of continuing to play catch-up on foreign policy with McCain and other Republican adversaries, Paul should take a lesson from President Obama, who during a press conference in the Philippines this week blasted McCain and his other foreign policy critics who he described as operating “in an office in Washington or New York” and who seemed to be “eager to use military force.”
Here is an idea: Paul could convene a series of public forums around the country to discuss the United States’s role in the world, in which he could have a dialogue with “regular” Americans in places like Iowa and New Hampshire on how the U.S. should respond to the crises in Ukraine or Syria. Such forums could bring together Republican and Democratic speakers as well as political scientists and historians from local colleges, and could conclude with the attendees voting for or against proposed resolutions.
My guess is that the anti-interventionist sentiments the polls have been finding nationally would be echoed by participants in these public forums, and could provide Paul with political momentum as he prepares for the 2016 presidential race. It’s worth a try.
In his study of “how Europe went to war in 1914,” The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark challenges the conventional wisdom that Austria-Hungary was an empire in decline heading toward an inevitable downfall. He argues instead that during the last pre-World War I decade, the Habsburg Empire had gone “through a phase of economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity” as well as experimenting with “a slow and unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights.” He argues that could have created the conditions for a process of political reform and devolution of power, perhaps even to the evolution of a federalized system.
Clark recalls that many of the activists and the intellectuals who, carried by the euphoria of national independence, had celebrated the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungary after the Great War admitted in later years that they were wrong. He quotes Hungarian writer Mihály Babits who, as he reflected in 1939 on the collapse of the monarchy, wrote: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return for the what we once hated: We are now independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”
While director Wes Anderson’s latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not pre-occupied with such issues as the sources of imperial decay, the rise of nationalism and other political elements that brought about the collapse of Austro-Hungary, the movie does convey a certain nostalgic longing for that empire’s bygone era, meshed with a certain melancholic sentimentalism shared by those who missed it.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is actually not set in pre-WWI Habsburg at all, but in a resort town in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka. It centers around the mythical concierge, M. Gustave H. (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) who works at the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel during the pre-WWII years. None of the characters in the movie mention the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked WWI, or the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; for that matter, there are no references to Adolph Hitler and the rise of Nazism.
But in its soft color shades, decorative architectural style, and charming pastry stores, the fictional Zubrowka looks as though it was carved out of Austria-Hungary’s finest days, while the sense of decadence and darkness and foreboding evil conveys the horrors of the approaching World War II. And Anderson himself made it clear in interviews with journalists that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, indeed, a bittersweet tribute to the bygone era of pre-WWI Vienna.
The movie opens and closes with scenes of a hotel that has been transformed from a monument to the majestic into what looks like charmless and crumbling guesthouse, where the current owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recalls through long flashbacks the days in which he worked as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under the legendary Gustave. An educated and well-mannered concierge, Gustave exudes Old World temperament and seems to be unable to adjust to the realities of a crumbling civilizational order, as dandy aristocrats and classy ladies leave the stage and the well-mannered gentleman who headed the local police force (Edward Norton) is replaced by a ruthless Nazi-like militia leader.
Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” is the way Zero remembers his mentor. The two are embroiled in the theft of an artwork that becomes the central plot of the film involving a set of characters that you would meet in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Read More…
The counterintuitive argument that Putin should be considered a hero of American conservatives probably originated with the founder of this magazine who asked last year whether in “the culture war for mankind’s future,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was “one of us,” speculating that the former member of the Soviet Communist Party and ex-KGB agent was, well, a paleoconservative.
Other conservative-leaning pundits perpetuated the meme. Matt Drudge called Putin the “leader of the free world,” while Victor Davis Hanson, who in what sounded like a bizarre S&M fantasy, ruminated that “Putin is almost Milton’s Satan–as if, in his seductive evil, he yearns for clarity, perhaps even a smackdown, if not just for himself, for us as well.”
More recently, the British Spectator magazine published a big “think” piece suggesting that Putin actually hopes to become the “the leader of global social conservatism.” The Daily Show even ran a spoof titled, “Better Off Red,” which portrayed Russia as the new “conservative paradise.”
While Putin’s anti-gay tirades on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi may help explain why some American conservatives are fond of a foreign politician who is supposedly rallying against Western secularism and decadence, the crisis in Ukraine, like the one in Syria, has highlighted the policy differences between non-interventionist conservatives and their neoconservative opponents, with the former urging Washington not to intervene in “somebody’s else civil war” and the latter warning of the challenge to U.S. security interests by a resurgent Russia.
There is no denying that Russia under Putin has been flexing its diplomatic and military muscle in service of its strategic interests, which is basically what great powers, including China, India, and lest we forget, the United States, are supposed to do. In that context, the idea that Putin is a new Stalin bent on aggressive expansion of Russian power sounds a bit phony when it’s articulated by Americans who applauded the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I explained in the National Interest, Russian opposition to Western and Arab efforts to depose Syria’s Assad should not have been interpreted as a reflection of anti-American attitudes but as the continuation of the traditional Russian policy of maintaining influence in the Middle East, as well as being derived from concerns that “the Christians in the former Byzantine province, including a large Orthodox community, would be persecuted if Muslim fundamentalists came to power.”
In fact, as part of this policy, the Russians have also strengthened ties with Israel and have floated the idea of a trilateral strategic and economic nexus of Israel, Greece, and Turkey aimed at containing Turkish pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, a policy that should have precipitated at least a mild form of cognitive dissonance among pro-Israeli neoconservatives.
Similarly, by exerting influence on developments in Ukraine, the Russians are protecting their interests in a country that has always been a part of their strategic sphere of influence and is a home to a population with which they share common linguistic and religious ties. One can, of course, criticize Russian conduct in both Syria and Ukraine, but when neoconservative and liberal analysts advance the idea that Russia’s moves are a part of a Cold War strategy, they may be actually projecting their own ambition to amplify the current disagreement with Moscow into a global strategic confrontation.
At the same time, the thesis promoted by Owen Matthews in the Spectator that “Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world—this time as a champion of conservative values,” is no less absurd than the assumption that we are about to resume the Cold War with Moscow. If the latter is a neoconservative dream, the former is a paleoconservative fantasy.
That Putin has formed a political alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and has been exploiting nationalist and religious sentiments to mobilize support from the Russian electorate makes a lot of political sense, and is not so different from the GOP using its alliance with Christian Evangelicals and former southern segregationists. It is not a sign, however, that the Russian President is transforming Russia into a some sort of universal model for conservatives.
If anything, there is something very Russian and even provincial about Putin, which explains why he is very popular among those who belong to the equivalent of the red states in Russia, and why most of us find his mannerisms very odd, in the same way, I suppose, that many Europeans (or for that matter, many coastal Americans) couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to have a beer with the unsophisticated but very American George W. Bush.
So Putin is opposed to same-sex marriage. So what? Why should that make Putin’s Russia more of a natural ally of traditional conservatives in the United States and Europe than those Islamic fundamentalists, who are also staunch opponents of gay marriage, abortion, feminism, and secular elements?
Indeed, the Catholic magazine Crisis recently published an article proposing just that, that Muslims should be regarded as the “natural allies” of Catholics and other traditional conservatives. The irony is that Putin is now allied with the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria that is battling Islamic fundamentalists backed by Saudi Arabia, which has remained a great ally of the United States in the Middle East, under both liberal and conservative presidents.
From that perspective, the idea that Putin should become the Patron Saint of American conservatives makes as much sense as having Turkish Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan, a proponent of teaching creationism, play that role. If anything, unlike Putin, Erdogan has remained happily married to his first wife, and presides over a country that with all its problems is much less corrupt, and certainly more committed to free market principles than Russia, with its statist and static economy controlled by Putin’s political cronies and crime syndicates.
The bottom line is that Putin is first and foremost an autocratic right-wing nationalist who not unlike the fascist-communist clique ruling Beijing could care less if other countries embrace his political model or not, as long as Russian interests—and his—are being served.
You could have probably said the same thing about the communists who ruled Russia in the last century. They enunciated their commitment to the idea of the international solidarity of the socialist parties, but at the end of the day, the national interests of Russia took precedence over any universal principles, just as they do now.
Putin, contrary to the fantasies of some paleoconservatives in the West, doesn’t even pretend to speak for the world’s conservatives, traditionalist or otherwise. Hence it was weird to hear Western critics of the European Union (EU) applaud Russia’s attempts to sabotage an agreement between Kiev and Brussels, suggesting that Putin was trying to defend the national sovereignty of Ukraine against the expanding power of the Eurocrats.
But it is ridiculous to portray Putin as an ally of the Euroskeptics battling the creation of European super-state, when what he really wants is to tie Ukraine to his own Eurasian economic community that will be ruled from Moscow by his own political apparatchiks instead of Brussels’. Putin’s super-state for poor people, if you will.
All things considered, it’s not surprising that many Ukrainians prefer closer ties with the EU than with the Russia’s Eurasian bloc. And no one can blame the Germans, French, Poles, and Brits, who learned the hard way not to trust the Russians, for trying to counter Moscow’s policy moves in Ukraine. That has nothing to do with the secular direction of the EU. Even if the EU were transformed into a Europe of Nations, and Jean-Marie Le Pen was leading France, the French would still be trying to work together with other Europeans countries and seeking support for the United States in forming a common front vis-à-vis Russia.
So while the developments in Ukraine don’t have a direct effect on U.S. interests, they deserve more attention from Washington than the latest bloodshed in the Levant. Preventing a great power from emerging as a dominant power in Europe and a threat to its neighbors is a vital American interest and should be recognized as such by any astute foreign policy thinker. Whether that great power opposes or favors gay rights is beside the point.
That doesn’t mean that Putin’s Russia should be considered a threat to the United States or a potential rival, or that we need to demonize what is an old and proud civilization. But conservatives certainly shouldn’t get too sentimental over Uncle Vlad or act as apologists for a leader who doesn’t share their dreams and aspirations. Ronald Reagan’s “Trust and Verify” still remains the best advice when dealing with Russian leaders whose souls we will never be able to read, no matter how long we look into their eyes.
As an exposition of the principles that guide his policy on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—as well as one day perhaps as president—Rand Paul’s recent presentation at the Center for the National Interest made a lot of sense to those who have criticized Washington’s global strategy of recent years.
His commitment to protect the national interest and the distinction he made à la George F. Kennan between “vital” and “peripheral” interests certainly appeal to a realist like myself, as do his cautionary notes about the need to embrace diplomacy before deploying force and the importance of respecting the interests of nations with whom we do not share the same values.
It was nice to get to know Senator Paul’s worldview. But here is the main problem I had with his address: Where is the policy beef, Senator? Provide us with the links between your worldview and the policies you would support and pursue.
Let’s put it in concrete terms: What exactly are the “vital” national interests of the United States as opposed to the “peripheral” ones, here in early 2014? What is the U.S. role in the world today? Do developments taking place in the Middle East and/or East Asia and/or South Asia affect core U.S. national interests, and why? If they do, what should we do about it? Should we maintain our current troop deployment, or cut it, and why would that action strengthen American national security? Should Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Israel be regarded as allies of the United States? If so, should we use our military protect to defend them from threats to their security?
Despite the promises of liberal internationalist elites, religious fundamentalism, ethnic identity, and the old notion of nationalism have proved more resilient than unrelenting global democratic progress, not only in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya, but even in the advanced industrialized nations of the European Union.
Meanwhile, as the latest Pew Research opinion polls suggested, a majority of Americans have no interest in making the world safe for democracy and would prefer the United States to “mind its own business.” The American people are largely indifferent to the Freedom Agenda, and what they want, to paraphrase what Stalin once said about socialism, is liberal democracy in one country, the United States.
But after the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and in the throes of continuing political unrest in Ukraine, liberal internationalism seems to be coming back to life. It’s as though we’re back where it all started, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, followed by the downfall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, with the sense that in spite of many setbacks, universal liberal democracy is once again on the march.
“The true surprise—and one that should inspire democrats around the world—is the spontaneous and spirited resistance of Ukrainian civil society” to what Chrystia Freeland described in the New York Times recently as the “thuggish leadership” of Ukraine and “Moscow’s ferocious intervention” in that country’s affairs. A “new, well-educated, well travelled, comprehensively wired generation has matured” in Ukraine, and these “young Ukrainians know the difference between democratic capitalism and state capitalism and they know which one they want,” Freeland concluded.
But didn’t we hear the same sort of arguments during the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004? Those who are depicted today as proponents of state capitalism were bashed then as “remnants of the communist elite” or “former communist party bosses” and today’s friendly yuppies, as Freeland portrays them, were hailed as democratic activists. But then the current “thuggish” president Viktor Yanukovych came to power through open and democratic elections.
The American media tend to downplay the ethnic and regional strains underlying the political tensions at the core of the color revolutions, not to mention the Arab spring. Recall that President George W. Bush was not even aware of the historical conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq when he set out to establish democracy there, and that it took some time for the press and official Washington to understand that what was happening in Iraq has less to do with the struggle for democracy and more with sectarian fighting.
Hence while there is no doubt that the current political tensions in Ukraine give expression to cultural frictions between young urbane professionals and aging conservative politicians, bureaucrats, and their business cronies, it’s also a reflection of historical antagonism and the conflicting sense of national identity among Ukrainian speakers in the Western and Central parts of the country and Russian speakers in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
So it was not surprising that during recent elections voters in the Western and Central Ukrainian provinces voted mostly for political parties (Our Ukraine, Batkivshchyna) and presidential candidates (Viktor Yuschenko, Yulia Tymoshenko) with pro-Western platforms, while voters in the Southern and Eastern areas voted for parties (CPU, Party of Regions) and presidential candidates (Viktor Yanukovych) more oriented toward Russia. And both sides look toward outside powers (the U.S. and EU on one side; Russia on the other side) to support for policies that are rooted to some extent in historical-cultural experiences. Read More…
While vacationing on the shores of the Mediterranean this summer, I was able to keep an eye on the shores of the Potomac by reading the “hottest” book in Washington, Mark Leibovich’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral. It provides a very depressing, yet hilarious account of how my neighbors in Bethesda, Maryland, and other residents of the Greater Washington area spend their long days and nights getting rich at the nexus of big politics, big media, and big money.
Government officials, lawmakers, journalists, and the many, many lobbyists, lawyers, political strategists, and PR professionals who comprise this book’s cast of characters seem to be drowning in the millions of dollars that interest groups and big corporations spend on purchasing their services to win media exposure, peddle influence, buy votes, and shape legislation and policy in the most powerful city in the world.
There is nothing new about the notion of political corruption in Washington. What is new—and actually quite astounding—is how big, how ugly, and, yes, how outright corrupt it has all become, especially when it comes to the amount of money passed between politicians and lobbyists every day. What was once done behind closed doors, thanks to a sense of shame, is now regarded as legitimate, if not respectable.
Written against the backdrop of the financial meltdown, the ensuing Great Recession, and the election of President Barack Obama, much of Leibovich’s book focuses on how these guys and gals drive policy making and the legislative process on economic issues: Wall Street regulation, budget battles, and the like. Unfortunately, there is almost no discussion of the role that the power players and the media in “this town” have in determining U.S. national-security and foreign policy.
As someone who has worked and spent time in Washington from the First Gulf War through W.’s military misadventures in Mesopotamia and the Hindu-Kush, I read the book trying to figure out how Leibovich could have integrated a discussion of foreign policy into his narrative. He could have told how the small elite in “this town” that made a mess of the American economy has also been dragging the American people into costly and never-ending military interventions around the world.
So I enjoyed reading Conor Friedersdorf do just that in the Atlantic recently, when he described how an “insular Beltway elite” has been driving the push for military intervention in Syria at a time when public opinion polls make it clear that a large majority of Americans are opposed.
Friedersdorf does a good job detailing how hawkish journalists and “experts” have succeeded in setting the policy and legislative agenda so that any challenge to the idea of attacking Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is marginalized within Washington, and how that creates powerful pressure on the White House and Congress to “do something.”
Yet my own experience in Washington suggests that the interventionist syndrome in Washington reflects more than just an insider urge to use U.S. military power in the service of an ideological agenda. It goes beyond the foreign-policy agendas and political-ideological biases of the neoconservatives and liberal-interventionist crowd, trying to advance American interests and/or values as they see fit.
Politics and ideology do play a role, certainly. The progressive-era ideas that take for granted the need for the American government to fight evil at home and abroad have become a policy axiom among our political and intellectual elites, who have been programmed to respond with an activist approach whenever this or that Bad Guy rears his ugly head in the world. They all seem to agree that we have an obligation to fight monsters here, there, and everywhere.
Following in Leibovich’s footsteps, though, perhaps we should apply his main thesis to the debate over foreign policy and national security. What drives political players in Washington today has less to do with the partisan fights between Republicans and Democrats, or the ideological struggles between conservatives and liberals, and more to do with the personal and institutional interests of the powerful men and women who rule this city. These are the people who use their position to advance their own interests, to gain fame and make money.
Ask yourself why there is this continual effort by the Beltway insiders and journalists to elevate foreign policy and national security to the top of the agenda. Could it be because they believe a “player” in Washington has a better chance of drawing public and media attention, of gaining recognition, and of accumulating power when he or she is dealing with matters of war and peace as opposed to, say, the makeup of the next budget?
After all, we remember the names of the American presidents—and the men and women who advised them and the journalists who covered them—who led the nation into war or otherwise operated during those “interesting times” when “the fate of humanity was hanging in the balance.”
Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the kind of foreign-policy template that officials, lawmakers, and journalists hope will define their experience in Washington. They fantasize about being “present at the creation,” of taking part in a great historical event as all the world waits and watches. These kinds of foreign-policy crises, especially if they are followed by wars, have become a political and financial goldmine for the players participating in this global drama, covering it as journalists, or explaining it as experts.
Think about the ways our involvement in the Middle East and the so-called war on terror has helped advance the careers of government officials through bigger budgets, new departments, and more exposure and influence. Not to mention how these crises have enriched outside contractors and businesses, sent war correspondents to new assignments, and opened new avenues for TV face time and think-tank fellowships for the experts.
Let’s not forget the huge advances policymakers and their aides receive to write their memoirs describing how they saved America, Western civilization, and the world, and how such high-stress experience qualifies them for corporate boards and speaking engagements at all the best investment banks.
The good news is that even if you actually messed things up by leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq, or wrote columns predicting that said war would be a great success, your friends in this town have a tendency to forgive and forget. Don’t worry. You’ll still receive those big consulting contracts, be invited to appear as an analyst on cable news shows, or get to write columns for our leading newspapers. Someone else will pay for the mistakes you made in Iraq, and those you’re trying to make in Syria.
As President Obama replaced members of his foreign policy and national security team at the start of his second term, I made the case here that the selection of liberal-internationalist heavyweights Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and John Kerry as chief diplomats signaled a “willingness on the part of the White House to reassess its strategy in Syria and to allow Power more influence in drawing up an activist approach that would resemble the U.S. military interventions in the former Yugoslavia under President Bill Clinton and more recently in Libya under Obama”:
[W]e might see such a change in policy if and when Srebrenica-like atrocities are committed in Syria and broadcast around the world, which is very likely scenario. Under these conditions, I find it difficult to believe that President Obama would be able to resist the pressure to “do something” with Power providing him with the intellectual ammunition to support an assertive military intervention in Syria.
Indeed, against the backdrop of planned U.S. military strikes against Syria in retaliation for that regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, it seems that America will almost inevitably be dragged into civil war. As retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni told the Washington Post, “The one thing we should learn is that you can’t get a little bit pregnant.”
Even a “surgical” American strike in Syria would induce regional and international momentum, with targets of the U.S. pledging retaliation and rebel forces lobbying for greater American involvement: “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things,” Zinni added. “It will suck you in.”
Interestingly enough, liberal-internationalists and neoconservatives are comparing the Syrian conflict to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, with both groups proposing that the same model of American-led “humanitarian intervention” against Serbia strongman Slobodan Milošević be applied against Syrian dictator Bashir Assad as sectarian warfare devours the Levant.
U.S. military intervention in the former Yugoslavia is often remembered as the first “good war” in the post-Cold War era, having been fought in the name of universal values and not hardcore American national interests. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives make the argument that intervention worked in Yugoslavia. It deprived Milošević of military victories against the Croats and Muslim Bosnians and later against the Albanians in Kosovo, and helped produce a diplomatic agreement, the Dayton Accords, which brought about independent Bosnia and Kosovo.
But as I recently noted in the National Interest, “the problem is that while the civil war in Yugoslavia could be seen as the last stage in a post–Cold War historical epoch that culminated with the Balkans joining a stable and prosperous Europe, the situation in the Levant today is very different.” Instead, the region resembles the Balkans after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and on the eve of the Great War, “a mishmash of intermingling nationalities and ethnic and religious groups, which serve as proxies of powerful regional and global players that they also manipulate and draw into their bloody conflicts.”
The accords that brought an end to the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were achieved only after the Serbs lost the war and they, the Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars agreed to form separate territorial enclaves, as part of the process promised to bring them into the European Union (EU).
Even under the best-case-scenario, however, Washington and its allies are not in a position to engineer such a peace in the Levant. America is no longer savoring a post-Cold War “Unipolar Moment” in terms of military and economic power.
What hasn’t changed is that liberal-internationalists and their neoconservative foreign policy soul-mates are once again intent on pressing a reluctant U.S. president to intervene in a war where American interests will only be marginally affected by the outcome.
This reality, and the recognition that the major players in the Syrian civil war don’t share American democratic-liberal values and would challenge American interests if they were to win out, has led renowned realist strategic thinker Edward Luttwak to suggest that Washington adopt a strategy of “indefinite draw” in Syria. As Luttwak argues:
By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.
What sounds like a neat, if not cynical proposition, which recalls Henry Kissinger’s quip on the Iran-Iraq war, “It’s too bad they both can’t lose,” assumes that either side is capable of either decisively winning or being forced into a draw, which is eventually what happened in the Iran-Iraq War.
But in Syria it will be impossible for any outside player to impose its preferred outcome, even if it is prolonged stalemate. Where the boundaries among local, national, regional, and international conflicts are blurred, any move by the United States is bound to result in counter-efforts by unsatisfied players, which would quickly form alliances with the same players previously aligned with the United States. “Unintended consequences” are the norm here, not the exception to the rule.
As Middle East historian L. Carl Brown described the region, “Just as with the tilt of the kaleidoscope, the many tiny pieces of colored glass all move to form a new configuration, so any diplomatic initiative in the Middle East sets a realignment of the players.” Even experienced imperial powers like Britain and France lost when they tried to play that game. There is no reason to believe that the American experience will be different.
Nothing gets our journalists and intellectuals into an orgasmic state of mind quicker than the shared sentiment that they are living history and in some way drawing the narrative outline of a new historical epoch. We inhabit a 24/7 media environment that requires bloggers to produce instant narratives every hour of the day and night. So every meaningless statement by a low-level politician or official, every neighborhood fight in a faraway province or diplomatic contretemps between two mini-states, tends to be given profound meaning, signifying that we are on the verge of major historical changes.
And when something really important does happen—the resignation of a leader, mass demonstrations, a military conflict—we are told the world will never be the same: America will become an empire, or perhaps find itself in the dustbin of history; we are entering an age of global anarchy, or may witness the birth of a New World Order; the Arab World will explode and Egypt will become “like Iran,” or the Middle East is actually entering the liberal-democratic age and Egypt will become “like Turkey”; it’s the Arab Spring, or maybe it’s the Arab Winter.
Never mind that the middle class in Turkey is split between traditionalists and secularists, not unlike the divisions between conservatives and liberals in Russia; or that most members of the middle class in China are going out to shop and not to demonstrate; or that the protesters in Rio were just protesting the rise in bus fares and were not calling a revolution against the ruling Workers Revolutionary Party.
Our experts, long insistent that “democracy” would and should sweep the planet quite soon, have found themselves trapped in cognitive dissonance as unexpected events unfold in those two famous squares—Taskim in Istanbul and Tahrir in Cairo.
Recall that these pundits led us to believe that holding free and open elections in Egypt and other Arab countries would mark the start of a new epoch in which the region’s people would join the West. But something not-so-funny happened on the way to the ballot box, first in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon (following George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”), then in Egypt and Tunisia (in the aftermath of the Arab Spring): the people voted in Islamist parties with more than 50 shades of illiberalism.
So the autocrats fell, and the winners were Islamists—ranging from the relatively good ones (Turkey) to the really bad ones (anti-Assad Islamists in Syria with a taste for human flesh). For a while, proponents of the democracy-is-winning narrative tried to resolve the cognitive dissonance through intellectual acrobatics, for example by comparing Islamist parties to the Christian-Democratic parties in the West.
Yet two years after the overthrow of Mubarak, here were demonstrators in Tahrir Square again, demanding the ouster of an elected leader and urging the military to do the ousting. And so the notion that Egypt had gone through a democratic revolution aimed at removing the military from power—the same military that is now being applauded as the savior of the nation by many of the same people who had denounced it two years ago—was revealed as nonsense.
Call it Tahrir Square Syndrome. Indeed, in the fantastical universe of our experts, the people oust the autocrats (with direct or indirect American support) in order to allow free elections, which supposedly equal democracy—unless the people elect the bad guys, which then leaves the people no choice but to oust the elected bad guys and return the autocrats to power (with direct or indirect American support) and have another open election in which the people will elect the good guys. Or not.
What Westerners have yet to realize is that what has been happening in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is not part of a new historical epoch driven by the quest for liberal democracy but is first and foremost a struggle for power, as I pointed out here in the aftermath of the first Tahrir Square demonstrations two years ago.
What happened in Egypt last week was not a military coup for one simple reason: the military has not been out of power since the 1952 revolution—when it abolished the old political system—and that includes the period after the generals removed President Hosni Mubarak from office. Contrary to the conventional Western narrative, the protesters failed to ignite a full-blown revolution two years ago.
Mass protests may indeed reflect political anxiety and anti-government sentiments among some members of the population. But to translate a media event in which “the whole world is watching” into significant political change, you need more than thousands, or even millions, of protestors. To achieve a real overhaul of the political and economic system you need a unified and well-organized movement that is willing to work with other political forces to achieve a set of coherent and realistic goals.
The protests that swept European capitals in 1848 and the student demonstrations of the 1960s couldn’t transform the status quo because the leaders of these movements failed to reach out to other segments of their nations, including members of the middle class, workers, and peasants. In fact, not only did the students marching in Paris and Chicago in 1968 fail to achieve their goals, but they also triggered powerful counter-revolutionary forces that made it possible for Charles de Gaulle to get re-elected by a huge margin in France and for Richard Nixon to win the race for the White House. Similarly, the so-called revolutions of 1848 ended up strengthening Europe’s autocracies and created conditions for the rise of illiberal nationalist forces.
In New York and London, viewers of al Jazeera and CNN watched the demonstrators in Tahrir Square two years ago and were impressed by young, liberal, secular types with Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, articulating in perfect English their hopes for a democratic and liberal future. But when Mubarak was deposed, the only substantive change was the military allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take part in an open election.
Like the military and the security apparatus (the Mukhabarat), the Muslim Brotherhood was and is a viable political force. Established 80 years ago, the Brotherhood has strong roots in Egyptian society—name recognition, if you will—in addition to effective organizational skills, neither of which has been possessed by proponents of Western ideologies: liberals, socialists, or communists. President Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated elected government probably should have tried to strike a deal with the military under which Egypt could have been ruled through a political condominium consisting of the Islamists and the Generals.
But with the taste of power comes the hunger for more power. Morsi and his partners in the Muslim Brotherhood fantasized that they were really in charge—and discovered to their chagrin that such was not the case. The military is now re-asserting the authority it never lost, and any elected or unelected government now will be under the direct and indirect control of the generals.
That could certainly produce a powerful and perhaps violent backlash from Egypt’s Islamists. But the military and security forces would be able to suppress a counter-counter revolution. The only question is whether that would drive the country into a long, low-intensity civil war or whether political stability could be re-established with a minimum of bloodshed.
Unlike Turkey, where an assertive middle class has emerged in recent years, liberal and secular forces remain an urban minority in Egypt and are unlikely to win and maintain power without the military’s support. Western observers who are already coming up with instant mega-narratives—that liberal secularists have won in Egypt or that political Islam is dead in the region—shouldn’t be surprised if reality bites them once again.