The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).
Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window.
All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week.
Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.
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A new Pew survey of public opinion shows approval of the Supreme Court at an "all time low." I think these numbers are a warning sign for the U.S. military. What's more, I am pretty sure the senior military leadership understands that falling public respect for the Supreme Court could portend a similar fate for them, if they are not careful.
For the past several decades, the Supreme Court has vied with the U.S. military for the honor of being the public institution in which Americans have the greatest trust and confidence. The military has usually had first place, but the Supreme Court was near the top as well. The bottom feeders were Congress and, of course, the media.
The military was not always held in high esteem, however, and the climb to the top coincided with the Reagan years. There were many reasons for the high public respect for the military, as David King explained, including a string of remarkable operational successes, a focused campaign of outreach to the public, and the elite's desire to get beyond the poison of the Vietnam era.
One important reason, which bears on the Supreme Court numbers, was that the public viewed the military as non-partisan and functional, as distinct from the institutions paralyzed by partisanship (Congress) or unacknowledged bias (media). This reputation for being above politics is what the military shared with the Supreme Court, until the latter started to lose that reputation.
As the latest Pew poll survey shows, public attitudes toward the Supreme Court are increasingly filtered through the lens of partisanship. The enormously controversial decision to uphold Obamacare may have looked to many like just another act of a partisan institution, not much different from a party-line vote in Congress. Conservative partisans lost a lot of respect for the institution; liberal partisans, while glad that they won, began to worry that an institution operating along partisan lines could turn on them.
So far, the public still views the military as relatively "above politics," but a study I did last fall with James Golby and Kyle Dropp shows that beneath the surface there is a strong partisan tilt shaping public views of the military. This is precisely the slippery slope down which the Supreme Court has slid.
Today's military leaders understand the importance of staying out of partisan politics, but the fight over the sequester -- and the painful defense cuts that appear inevitable in any "sequester fix" -- will make it harder and harder for the military to stay pure in both appearance and reality.
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As a former U.S. official with substantial experience in Venezuela, I was not surprised, but still outraged to hear the temporary new leader of that country, Nicolas Maduro, accuse the United States of murdering his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. I feel obliged to set the record straight, not because I care about what Maduro thinks, but because if not challenged, Maduro's latest falsehood will become another urban legend circulating the globe on the Internet.
Predictably, in two dozen interviews I gave to international press in the 48 hours following Chávez's death, two journalists, one from the BBC and one from the U.S. Spanish-language CNN channel, questioned me about Maduro's accusation, implying it was credible that the United States had "inoculated Chávez with the cancer" that killed him. I replied, of course, that the United States had nothing to do with his death.
Despite the hostility that characterized the U.S. relationship with Chávez, it is not only false to accuse the United States of killing Chávez, but the truth is that we likely prevented his assassination on more than one occasion. Since, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, I played a part in at least one of those instances, I feel compelled to defend our country once again from the calumnies of our foes and their acolytes by relating just one such incident. While everything herein is the best of my recollection, contemporary State Department records will substantiate the facts.
On a routine day in 2002, my secretary called me to the phone: "Ambassador Shapiro needs to talk to you on ‘secure,'" the encrypted U.S. government telephone network by which sensitive conversations are conducted. Charles Shapiro was our ambassador to Venezuela, and receiving calls from him and other ambassadors on "secure" was also routine. Weeks before, Charles and I had communicated often via secure phone for days as we attempted to manage the U.S. response to Chávez's removal from the presidency by his own people, and his subsequent return.
"Have you seen the report on the latest conspiracy to kill Chávez?," Shapiro asked.
I replied: "Yes, I did. Is this one real"?
This article is cross-posted from Foreign Policy's main site. Read the rest of the article here.
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President Obama is being rightly praised for his meaningful speech in Israel. He poignantly and powerfully made the case that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is (as Daniel Levy summarized it) necessary, just, and possible. He had an awful lot of ground to make up with Israelis, and the attitudes he advanced in his speech went a considerable way toward repairing the damage wrought by his earlier attitudes and policies.
One of the most striking departures from past practice was the president's effort to assure Israelis that they have -- and will continue to have -- American support for their security and democracy. The administration seems belatedly to have come to the recognition that Israelis are more likely to make the brave choices required for a peace agreement if they are confident of our support. This is exactly the opposite of the position the administration has taken on Iraq and Afghanistan. In both those cases, the president's policies have been predicated on the belief that those societies and leaders would not make the hard choices required of them unless the United States threatened them with abandonment. Thus, the timelines for military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan have created self-fulfilling prophesies of governments working against our interests because they believe we are working against theirs.
It is theoretically possible that societies scarred by authoritarian repression and civil war would make the brave and monumental choices in those circumstances, but I have a difficult time dredging up examples of any that have. And the president clearly doesn't think that the established democracy of Israel would do so. Let us hope President Obama's acknowledgement of the need for supporting states making difficult compromises portends a change in policy more generally rather than being sui generis to Israel.
Another context in which words matter is what our enemies hear. The late, great Ernest May, a Harvard historian and a member of the 9/11 Commission, paralleled the Wehrmacht attack on France in 1940 to the al Qaeda attack on the United States. In both cases, the enemy used open-source knowledge of the society to identify and exploit known weaknesses. I could not help thinking of this watching the pathetic parade of civilian and military defense leaders proclaim all the destruction and incapacity incurred by a 2 percent cut in federal spending -- despite the fact that the United States will retain 45 percent of global defense spending.
On this, the day he relinquishes command, it seems fitting to praise General James Mattis as the only military leader who used the opportunity of Congressional budget testimony to issue a growling threat to our enemies. Mattis emphasized that even with spending cuts, sequestration, and a continuing resolution, he had under his command the military power to destroy anyone who would challenge the United States, its interests, and allies. Let us hope our defense leaders start thinking about how their tales of woe sound in Pyongyang and Tehran.
There is some evidence that happy day may be approaching in the form of Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's volte-face in Seoul this week. Carter had previously and repeatedly testified that sequestration would be incredibly destructive to our military, making the defense strategy -- the pivot to Asia -- unexecutable. Sent to Seoul to reassure our South Korean allies, Carter now insisted that budget cuts would have no affect on neither our willingness nor our ability to carry out our defense strategy. Nor would budget restrictions diminish our ability to deter North Korea or fight alongside South Korea. "We'll ensure all of our resources will be available to our alliance," he said.
Despite having invented the 24-hour news cycle, the permanent political campaign, Madison Avenue advertising, Hollywood iconography, and been at the forefront of globalization, the United States still tends to have our domestic debates as though we are talking only to ourselves, as though we can segregate what we say domestically from what is heard internationally. We cannot. Words matter, and very often our enemies take our words more seriously than we do ourselves. It's high time our leaders start factoring that more carefully into their policy statements as well as their policy prescriptions.
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President Obama is a nonpareil speaker. Yesterday he may have given the greatest speech of his career. Addressing an audience of young Israelis -- that country's future -- he made it clear that he understood the depth of Israeli emotion about its historical past and difficult present. At the same time, he implicitly conveyed the very important message that Israelis could, indeed should, trust him, that he does indeed "have their back.
Obama said the usual things about America's security relationship with Israel. He rightly took pride in the joint American-Israeli venture to develop the Iron Dome defense system that saved thousands of Israeli lives in the face of the rocket onslaught that Hamas launched from Gaza. He demanded that Hezbollah be treated as a terrorist organization, that Hamas accept Israel's right to exist, and that Assad relinquish his vicious grip on Syria. He again asserted that the United States would never tolerate a nuclear Iran, though he skirted the issue of whether Washington and Jerusalem share the same red lines that should prompt a military attack on that country.
Far more important, however, were the symbolic sentiments that Obama voiced in his speech and that marked this, his first trip to Israel as president. Prior to his speech he had visited the Shrine of the Book to underscore his recognition that Israel is not some by-product of the Holocaust, as so many anti-Semites (who would probably have applauded the Holocaust had they had the chance) continue to allege. Rather, he told his youthful audience, Israel is the Jewish homeland, as it has been for millenia. Referring to the Jewish holiday that begins Monday night, Obama said, "Passover ... is a story about finding freedom in your own land."
Obama's visit to Theodore Herzl's grave, unprecedented for an American president because of its political connotations, also added credibility to what he would later say in his speech: "While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland." Those italicized words were lifted virtually intact from Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah," which means "the hope."
Yet Obama did not hesitate to tackle the thorny question of peace with the Palestinians. He did so in terms that were both powerful and moving. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said, "look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day ... Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." In other words, they too have a Hatikvah of their own.
Now comes the hard part. Obama's soaring speeches tend to fall flatly to earth when he attempts to implement them. He needs to exploit Bibi Netanyahu's political vulnerability to a cabinet that was not of his choosing and pressure the Israeli prime minister to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith. And even if Obama made it clear to the Palestinian Authority's leaders that they should negotiate without preconditions, he must somehow get Netanyahu to put a stop to settlement construction outside that narrow band of territory that everyone concedes will become part of Israel in any peace agreement.
At the same time, Obama must move a reluctant and politically exhausted Abu Mazen to relinquish the demands that have broken past deals that were almost consummated by previous American presidents, in particular, the absolute right of return to pre-1967 Israel for all Palestinians claiming to have lived there. As a first step, perhaps Obama can persuade the two sides to accept an understanding along the following lines: Israel stops settlement construction outside very limited areas like the Eztion Bloc, and the Palestinians finally accept Israel for what it is, a Jewish State.
Maybe John Kerry, Obama's designated hitter for the peace process, can deliver an initial deal along these lines or perhaps some other set of parameters. But deliver he must. The president was awarded a Nobel Prize on the basis of his speeches. It will take something more than a beautiful address beautifully delivered to make any headway between two cynical, embittered, resentful peoples, neither of which can escape the tentacles of their respective histories.
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Another BRICS summit brings another round of angst in the West over the new world the rising powers seek to build without us. The combined weight of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa is indeed breathtaking. Each is subcontinental in scope; together they represent nearly every region; their combined GDPs may surpass those of the G7 within two decades; as a group they have contributed more to global growth over the past five years than the West; and between them they boast nearly half the world's population.
Moreover, the BRICS possess complementary advantages: China is a manufacturing superpower; India is the world's largest democracy, with a deeper well of human capital than any other; Russia is a potential "energy superpower," according to the U.S. National Intelligence Council; Brazil dominates a region lacking any great power competitor; and South Africa represents a continent that has grown faster than Asia over the past decade. An alliance among these behemoths could indeed change history in ways that diminish the West.
Except that nearly all of the BRICS covet a special relationship with the United States, have development aspirations that can only be achieved with Western technology and investment, have security concerns they do not want to put at risk through confrontation with Washington, and quietly understand that strategic and economic rivalries within their grouping may be more salient than the ties that bind them together.
There will be several ghosts in the room at the BRICS summit: America, which India, China, and Russia have identified as more important to their interests than other rising powers; Indonesia, whose demographic and economic weight gives it a stronger claim to membership than South Africa; and Mexico, whose dynamic economy is more integrated with the world than Brazil's and wonders who appointed a Portuguese-speaking nation to represent Latin America.
Ironically, it may be the cleavages within the BRICS club that more accurately hint at the future of the global order: tensions between China and Brazil on trade, between China and India on security, and between China and Russia on status. These issues highlight the continuing difficulty Beijing will have in staking its claim to global leadership. Such leadership requires followers, and every BRIC country is reluctant to become one.
As my GMF colleague Dan Kliman puts it: "Talk of a new international order anchored by the BRICS is just that - talk. The two largest emerging powers in BRICS - Brazil and India - desire modifications to the current order; they do not seek to scrap it. Without geopolitical or ideological mortar, the BRICS summit remains less than the sum of its parts."
The BRICS countries may posture, but their strategic interests by and large lie in working more closely with the West rather than forming an alternative block that seeks to overthrow the existing world order. Indeed, the largest of the BRICS tried just such a strategy in another era -- and failed. India's experiment with non-alignment during the Cold War was a recipe for keeping Indians poor and shutting their country out of premier global clubs like the U.N. Security Council. We know how Moscow's quest to mount a Soviet ideological and material challenge to the West ended. And China long ago abandoned its Maoist zeal for world revolution. The country's biggest trading partners today are the European Union and the United States, and its leaders understand that the nature of China's relationship with the United States will be the main external determinant of China's ability to become a truly global power.
Power is diffusing across the international system, and the BRICS grouping is a reflection of that. But we should not let the occasional rising-powers summit lead us to lose sight of the main reality of a more multipolar world -- that in the race for influence in the 21st century, the United States remains in pole position.
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I wrote here a while back when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected that we should give him a chance. I said this for several reasons, among them: 1) he and a majority of his party are of a new generation that has turned its back on the old patron-client system that characterizes so much of the developing world, and 2) he knows that to lift the half of the population that still lives in poverty and suffers from massive economic inequality he must increase economic growth, which is possible only if monopolies are smashed and foreign investment welcomed. He's off to a good start, bringing his party with him and building coalitions with the center-right PAN and others.
Three of his administration's actions demonstrate my optimism.
First, like the last PRI president before him, Carlos Salinas, Peña Nieto has shown his resolve and ability to put reform and the public above his cronies by having the head of the national teachers' union arrested on corruption charges (see here and here). No matter that she helped him get elected -- she opposed his reform to strengthen the hand of the state to hire and fire teachers at the expense of the union's overweening power. It is easy to be cynical and say that she was arrested for being a political opponent. Maybe that is exactly what happened. But maybe the president doesn't care who was or was not a supporter of his campaign for the presidency -- corruption is in his sights. In the end, if she is truly corrupt and found guilty, Mexico is better for it no matter what motivated the arrest. With his act he wins respect and not a little fear from the caciques of other sectors who might oppose his reforms and try to take Mexico backwards. We should remember that Mexico is not yet Switzerland or Sweden and is still an evolving democracy. Think Chicago, or Louisiana before Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Second, he is taking on the richest man in the world -- Carlos Slim, who has for decades controlled telecoms in Mexico. Slim controls 80 percent of the country's fixed lines and 70 percent of its mobile phones. The reform the president has put forward (see here and here) would give the government the right to break up monopolies that constitute 50 percent of a market and to make it easier for foreigners to invest.
And finally, the really big prize: reform of the nationalized oil sector. This is the third rail of Mexican politics after Salinas in the late 1980s reformed the communal land system. Peña Nieto leads a party that for decades led with the cry "the oil is ours!" as it nationalized and ran the industry. While the state hasn't run the industry into the ground as Chavez did, it has never lived up to its potential as a key funder of the government and for the last eight years has seen its production capacity drop. The problems stem largely from keeping significant foreign investment and technology out of the industry. The president means to change all that and got a good start at it by getting his party to vote in favor of the reform that now moves to Congress.
While it is unlikely that the leftist parties will support Peña Nieto's reforms -- and certainly not the oil industry reform -- the center-right PAN should and supporters of Mexico, free trade and the free market definitely should. U.S. policy should be to congratulate Peña Nieto and his party and to encourage Mexico to open itself further by these reforms. These are hopeful days for Mexico.
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Yesterday, I testified on Syria at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Near East and South and Central Asia. The topic of the hearing was Syria's humanitarian crisis, but I made the case that we could not successfully address the humanitarian crisis without a successful policy to resolve the conflict which gives rise to it. I proposed a strategy comprising three pillars -- people, funding, and military support -- each of which should have an element focused on the regime and one focused on the opposition. Among other things, I suggested that we channel more support through the opposition, that we provide arms to the opposition, make the case in NATO for strikes on regime military assets.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.