Rep. Barbara Lee and her allies have proposed a new department of peace-building, complete with a new cabinet secretary and a mission to build peace and stop violence form the schoolyards of the United States to war-torn lands around the globe. This idea is born of the naiveté and nonsensical bent of some on the left to try to wish away realities they find unpleasant. Congress-watchers rightly might wonder how serious she and her allies are or how they find enough staff to help craft such ideas.
But more interesting is to ponder how people who make it to Congress and into academia can be so confused about fundamental issues like human nature, historical reality, and common sense as they relate to the international system. (Since I can't begin to imagine what Lee's Democrats have in mind for pacifying the entire domestic scene by means of her new initiative, I'll focus mainly on the global context.) I think they make two mistakes: One, they don't understand human nature, and two, they misdiagnose what peace is.
Generally speaking, people divide into two camps regarding the question of why human beings suffer conflict. On one side, some ground their understanding of the nature of conflict in either the Augustinian doctrine of original sin or a Hobbesian theory of scarcity. These folks tend to be pessimists when it comes to human nature and society. We (I'm in this camp) don't think you can eliminate conflict or make peace the norm, but you can work to protect the law-abiding from the law-breaker and punish the latter when he succeeds. On the other side, a view grounded in French enlightenment thinking, some believe that with the right amount of education and wise government effort, you can eliminate the impulse for violence and make violence and conflict the exception rather than the rule. So you have the age-old dichotomy between the realist and the idealist.
Suffice to say history has born out whose theory is the more valid, and the public in almost any country and over time generally adopts the more pessimistic view and elects leaders accordingly.
But the other confusion perpetuated by Rep. Lee and her friends is how they misunderstand what peace is. Peace is not the absence of conflict. There was considerable peace behind the Iron Curtain, and there is now considerable peace in North Korea and Cuba, but only the most cynical would refer to that circumstance as a desirable peace equal to the peace of a constitutional democracy or a peace shared by a group of states bound by a treaty like NATO. There is "peace" in North Korea and Cuba and there was peace behind the Iron Curtain because a brutal communist dictatorship has or had its boot on the neck of the populace. I don't think that is what the congresswoman is after.
Peace between nation-states goes beyond the absence of conflict because peace is about agreement over shared principles and norms. When people in a community, a state, or the world find themselves at peace, it is because they have built peace on the foundation of values they mutually believe to be good and right and worth adhering to. Culture is key, and while a shared democratic culture is not absolutely necessary to establish peace, it is arguably the surest means and most stable foundation for it. The Concert of Europe ultimately failed for several reasons, but one reason was the danger of the ever-present risk of foolish or evil autocrats fouling up the mutual understanding and goals. Democratic culture works better if for no other reason than that there are usually more pressures to remain at peace so that the commerce, comforts, and progress of the daily lives of the sovereign voters can continue.
And when the peace of a community of democracies like NATO or a sovereign democratic state is threatened by those who demonstrate - unchecked -- the proclivity to do violence that is rooted in human nature, the democracies look to their departments of state and defense and other agencies to protect, prevent, and punish.
Rep. Lee's proposal is unwieldy, unworkable and unnecessary. We have numerous "departments of peace-building" already: We have families, religious institutions, and voluntary associations that teach peace; we have institutions of law and order and justice to aid that teaching but also to do the protecting and preventing and punishing domestically; and we have cabinet officers with departments to deal with the disturbers globally. Let's not spin out new laws and bureaucracies when we have what we need in place already. And let's not seek utopia and thereby make the perfect the enemy of the good.
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I have been ruminating on the closing lines in Peter Feaver's post below, suggesting that "Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda." I worry that Peter is correct.
The similarities are striking. A president dogmatically focused on his domestic agenda who willfully disregards systemic and appalling bloodshed in a faraway land. A president haunted by the disappointments of recent U.S. interventions (in Clinton's case, Somalia; in Obama's case, Iraq and Afghanistan) who misapplies the "lessons" of this history into paralysis and inaction. A situation where the costs of action initially appear daunting -- until they are weighed against the costs of inaction, which turn out to be even more damaging.
In several ways, however, Obama's passivity on Syria is even worse than Clinton's passivity on Rwanda. First, the Assad regime in Syria also embodies a number of strategic equities that Rwanda did not, including possessing a large stock of chemical weapons, being the main regional ally for Iran, being a state sponsor of terrorism, and now being a breeding ground for jihadists, many of whom harbor hostile intentions toward the United States. Bringing this regime to an end is a fundamental American interest and should be seen as such even by those not moved to moral outrage at the over 70,000 Syrians (and perhaps many more) murdered by their own government. Second, the Rwandan genocide took place over three months -- time enough for the U.S. to have acted, to be sure, but still a relatively narrow window. But the bloodshed in Syria has been occurring for almost two years now. Third, many foreign policy experts in the Democratic party (including many currently serving in the Obama Administration) realize that the president's policy is a failure -- and those not in government are saying so publicly. Or in the case of courageous voices like Anne Marie Slaughter have been saying so for a long time now.
Yet at this point all we get are carefully crafted leaks from the administration on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with skeptical Syrian rebel leaders that consideration is being given to supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, such as body armor. This would have been helpful two years ago when the first peaceful protests began. But it is pathetically insufficient in the face of Assad's Scud missile attacks on civilian populations.
As I and many others have pointed out before, one perverse irony of the Obama administration's neglect of Syria is that now, two years into the war, the costs of action are much higher and the options much fewer. Many of the downside risks that purportedly deterred greater American support for the rebels 18 months ago -- such as sectarian strife, radicalization, regional instability, and resentment towards the United States -- have now come to pass anyway, in part because of American inaction. Yet this does not mean that even at this point nothing can or should be done.
In the crucible of policymaking, officials should ask themselves more often how they will look back on the decisions they made while in power. Former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that one of his biggest regrets was not intervening in Rwanda. As Obama and the senior members of his national security team consider the memoirs they will inevitably write and the speeches they will invariably give after leaving office, they might reflect now on what they will later say about their greatest regrets. At or near the top of that list will likely be "Syria." So why not do something about it now, before Syria becomes permanently mentioned in historical ignominy alongside Rwanda?
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Obama supporters are becoming some of the most interesting critics of Obama foreign policy. There has always been a vibrant Republican critique of the President, and for years there has been a far-left fringe-Democrat bill of particulars as well. But in recent months some of the most trenchant of the critiques have come from center-left Democrats, echoing (usually without acknowledging it) the long-standing arguments made by Republicans.
I have noted this phenomenon before, calling attention to the complaints of otherwise ardent Obama supporters: see David Rothkopf, David Ignatius, Rosa Brooks, or Tom Ricks. Since then there have been more: Rachel Kleinfeld's blunt deconstruction of the President's policies on Syria; Bob Woodward's correction of the record on Obama's attempt to disassociate himself from the sequester; and David Brooks' uncharacteristic lament about Obama's irresponsibility alongside his customary critique of Republican irresponsibility.
To be sure, other loyal Obama supporters have pushed back. Ezra Klein tried and so far failed to beat Woodward back on the sequester issue. Klein had more success in getting David Brooks to recant. (The Klein-Brooks exchange is doubly revealing, since Brooks acknowledged up front that his original column was hyperbolic, but neither he nor Klein expressed any interest in exploring the ways the hyperbole distorted the role of Republicans. They only focused on correcting alleged distortions regarding Obama.)
Yet there does seem to be a turning of the tide, a return to something closer to the even-handed and candid assessment of Obama's strengths and weaknesses that has been missing in the mainstream media. The moment is ripe for a Big Think attempt to stitch the critiques together and, if sneak-previews are a reliable indication of what is to come, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation may win the intellectual sweepstakes. Like the other recent critics, Nasr has been a supporter of President Obama -- he held an advisory position at the State Department in the first term, working for the late Richard Holbrooke. According to early reviews by Richard Cohen and by Roger Cohen, much of the book appears to be score-settling, defending Holbrooke's uneven performance as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and blaming policy failures on backstabbing by White House officials.
However, Nasr goes beyond that to make an overarching claim that President Obama has subordinated foreign policy and national security to domestic partisan politics. Thus, regardless of the issue -- how to win in Afghanistan, how to stop the Syrian civil war, how to manage the post-Qaddafi mess in Libya -- Nasr claims that Obama interprets the American national interest through the parochial lens of Obama's own partisan political interests. The line between foreign policy and domestic politics has been erased.
This is not a new critique. Republicans have leveled it at Obama before. It was a staple of Democratic criticism of President George W. Bush -- including, ironically, then-State Senator Barack Obama in his famous speech against the Iraq war. And it was a staple of criticism of President Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the reported thesis of Nasr's book prompted me to dig through my archives to find one of the more obscure publications of my professional career: "The Domestication of Foreign Policy," published in the American Foreign Policy Interests back in 1998. In that long-forgotten piece, I took as my point of departure Aaron Wildavsky's "two president's thesis" -- the idea that presidents could conduct foreign policy in a way very different from how they conduct domestic policy because of the greater role of domestic political considerations in the latter area -- and argued that President Clinton had presided over the death of the thesis. All the constraints of domestic politics, and thus all of the domestic political approaches and orientations, applied with equal force under Clinton whether the issue was domestic or foreign policy. What foreign policy pundits considered contradictory in Clinton's foreign policy was merely the side-effect of this domestication process.
I attributed this to deep causes -- the absence of an urgent existential threat and the rise of media and public opinion influences -- and also to proximate causes. The deep causes still apply, but what is striking is how much the proximate causes echo between Clinton's first term and Obama's current situation:
Clinton evolved in the second term, with a more forceful and, in some ways, more successful foreign policy in the second term than he was credited with in the first. But it is the first term mark that provides the apples-to-apples comparison with Obama. All of these apply with equal if not greater force to the Obama Administration. Only on one proximate cause of the domestication of foreign policy does Obama differ markedly from Clinton's first term: Clinton engaged promiscuously (compared with Bush 41's caution) but Obama has been even more cautious about global engagement than Bush 41, far more than Bush 43 or Clinton. This is because Obama learned a lesson that eluded Clinton in his first term: Public opinion frowns on engagements that are well-intentioned but fail.
What remains to be seen is whether the public also frowns on non-engagements that are well-meant but fail. Rwanda was that for Clinton, and it looms much larger today in the reckoning than it did as it was unfolding. Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda. The growing voices of once-friendly critics indicate that at least some influential members of his own team think so.
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Mike Green's interesting post on the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe illustrates an important but oft-ignored principle of foreign policy: It takes two to tango. Too often, analysts focus on just one of the players, usually the president, and score the resulting foreign policy for good or ill based solely on that perspective. But as U.S.-Japan relations dramatize, the same president can have greater or lesser success pursuing much the same lines of policy with the same country depending on who is the counterpart. The Bush administration had fraught relations with France and Germany under Chirac and Schroeder respectively and most of the mainstream U.S. media laid the blame at President George W. Bush's feet. Yet the same Bush had excellent and cooperative relations with France and Germany under Sarkozy and Merkel. Likewise, Bush had excellent relations with Japan under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and for a while looked set to reprise that with Abe. Relations with Japan have suffered during Obama's tenure, but this is as much due to the problems inside Japan as to specific failings of the Obama administration.
Now, with Abe back in power, Green makes a compelling case that there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to regain lost ground. Abe's "Japan is Back" speech was an ironic double-joke that was not lost on insiders. First, it was an obvious homage to Green's own "Japan is Back" article in Foreign Affairs, which analyzed Abe's foreign policy the last time Abe was in power. Second, it was a gesture to the oft-repeated boast by Obama administration officials that the United States was "back in Asia." Of course, Abe and his team knew what team Obama has been reluctant to admit: The United States never left Asia, and Obama inherited a strong Asia strategy with bipartisan support and significant momentum behind it and and upon which, after some stumbles, they have managed to build with new initiatives.
But perhaps Abe and his team are worried by what they might consider drift in Obama's Asia strategy. The much-ballyhooed Asia pivot has been looking more and more like an Asian pirouette of late. Secretary of State John Kerry has bent over backwards to underscore the differences between him and his predecessor, and the easiest contrast to draw thus far has been his prioritization of Europe and the Middle East over Asia. The top Asia hands have left government, and the departure of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in particular deprives the administration of someone whose stature in the region could compensate for the unintended side-effects of a perception that Kerry is preoccupied with other regions. Campbell spoke to my program at Duke last week and argued persuasively that the Obama administration should redouble its efforts in Asia in the second term and somewhat less persuasively that they will.
In Abe, the Obama Administration has a promising Asian partner. Will they hear the music and dance?
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In 2007, I published a review essay in Foreign Affairs explaining how then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was compensating for Japan's relative economic decline by reducing anachronistic constraints on the Japanese self-defense forces and aligning more closely with other maritime democracies, beginning with the U.S.-Japan alliance. Unfortunately for Japan -- and the shelf life of my piece -- Abe abruptly resigned a few months later after a sudden wave of missteps, political bad luck, and failing health. Over the next five years Japan suffered through multiple leadership transitions, with two Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers and three Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) prime ministers all stumbling at the starting line because they were unable to make any headway with Japan's stagnant economy. Abe, meanwhile, kept a low profile.
But as China upped the pressure on Japan over the contested Senkaku Islands, the LDP turned to the hawkish former prime minister last year to help them retake the government and restore Japan's self-confidence. Learning from his past errors, Abe has focused his early months on jump-starting the economy through "Abenomics" -- a combination of quantitative easing, stimulus spending, and promises of structural reform to increase productivity. Thus far it has worked: The markets and business confidence are up and Abe is the first prime minister in memory to see his personal support rate actually rise in office (now at 75% in some polls). In an energetic speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday, he declared to the audience that "Japan is back."
Abe's return seemed initially to confuse the Obama administration. His values-based, balance of power approach resonated much more with George W. Bush's second inaugural than the minimalist and risk-averse foreign policy vision President Obama has put forth for his second term. The administration also appeared spooked by Abe's intemperate campaign comments about the need to revisit Japan's previous official apologies to China and Korea. Numerous stories emerged before his visit to Washington citing unnamed senior U.S. officials promising to publicly shame Japan if the Abe administration went too far with historical revisionism. The pattern looked eerily reminiscent of what happened between the Obama administration and Bibi Netanyahu in the first term. For its part, the Japanese side was equally uncertain about seeming wobbliness in U.S. declaratory policy on the Senkaku issue since Hillary Clinton's departure and by John Kerry's promise in his confirmation hearings to "grow the rebalance towards Beijing" (it did not help that Chinese official editorials praised Kerry for having the wisdom not to "meddle" in Far Eastern affairs the way his predecessor had).
In the end, though, the Abe-Obama summit on Feb. 22 was a success for both sides. Since coming to office, Abe has moderated his stance on history issues and was firm but gracious towards China and especially South Korea in his CSIS speech. In the Oval Office press availability, President Obama reaffirmed that Japan is the "central foundation" of U.S. security policy toward the Pacific (though he sounded like he was searching for a teleprompter when he said it). The two leaders echoed each other on the need for a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution to deal with North Korea's recent nuclear test and there was little outward sign of frustration over the usual irritants on Okinawa base realignment. Even on the trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), where expectations were low, there was much more substance than met the eye. In a skillfully worded joint statement on Japan's possible participation in TPP, the U.S. side reaffirmed its position that all sectors had to be on the table and Abe restated the LDP campaign pledge that Japan would not commit to opening all sectors. That little piece of kabuki now allows Abe to state that he will seek to protect the rice market in negotiations and the administration to claim that all sectors will indeed be subject to negotiation. The Japanese delegation had a quiet spring in their step after the summit and were keen to move on TPP in a matter of weeks, slowing down mainly to accommodate the administration's need to line up support on its side (though Abe will have his own challenges within the LDP, to be sure). While the U.S. press was generally confused by the language on TPP, Congressional opponents of free trade knew what the joint statement meant right away, expressing their alarm within hours of the bilateral summit.
Abe has a lot to deliver still, and he knows it. "Abenomics" will run out of steam without real deregulation and reform (hence the Japanese business community and bureaucracy's enthusiasm for TPP as an action-forcing agreement). He also has to win the Upper House election scheduled for July, since failure to control both houses of the Diet has done in every prime minister since Koizumi. But Abe has begun to build up a head of steam. I have sat across the table from the last six Japanese prime ministers, and I always watch the faces of the political aides and senior bureaucrats behind them. I haven't seen such confident expressions since Koizumi was in the job.
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Floating policy trial balloons is longstanding Washington custom. Not so common is when that balloon gets blasted out of the sky by the "senior official" leaker's own administration. That's what happened last week when the Boston Globe reported that, "High-level U.S. diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism."
Yet the ink was barely dry on that report before both the White House and State Department utterly repudiated (here and here) any notion that Cuba would soon be de-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
As I have written in this space before, de-listing Cuba has been a long-sought goal of a die-hard cadre of critics of the United States' Cuba policy. Why? Well, it seems that the Castro regime, which was born in terrorist violence, aided and abetted it across four continents over three decades, and whose training camps produced such international luminaries as Carlos the Jackal, is upset that it continues to be listed as a state-sponsor of terrorism. And, what's more, Washington policymakers ought to be vexed by that, because it is an "obstacle" to normalized relations.
It turns out that the Globe report was simple mischief-making by some apparently inconsequential U.S. official, clearly meant to provide succor to the de-listing campaign. As was noted deeper in the story, "U.S. officials emphasized that there has not been a formal assessment concluding that Cuba should be removed from the terrorism list and said serious obstacles remain to a better relationship, especially the imprisonment of [development worker Alan] Gross."
Still, since the subject has been raised, it's worthwhile to examine just what it has taken for other countries to be removed from the state sponsors list. In 2007, Libya was de-listed after Muammar al-Qaddafi terminated his WMD program and renounced terrorism by severing ties with radical groups, closing training camps, and extraditing terrorism suspects. He also accepted responsibility for the Pan Am 103 bombing and paid compensation to the victims.
In 2008, in a controversial decision, the Bush administration de-listed North Korea for progress that was being made on ending the country's nuclear program.
Clearly, removal from the list usually follows some pro-active, game-changing actions by a country. What pro-active measures has Cuba ever adopted? The answer is none. Just being too broke to support terrorism anymore hardly merits any action on the U.S. part.
Moreover, according to the law, before de-listing, an administration must not only certify to Congress that a country has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period, but that it has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.
In Cuba's case, even if relevant U.S. agencies can conclude that the Castro regime has not provided material support for a terrorist act in the last six months -- that is, apart from its terrorizing of its own people, which continues apace -- where is the regime's public renouncement of its past support for international terrorism and assurance that it will not support any acts in the future?
Is even that too much to demand? Of course, it is. The Castro regime will not issue any such statement because it doesn't believe it has done anything wrong since 1959. They maintain that they are the victims of U.S. policy and are deserving of all the concessions, without any quid pro quo. The regime can no more renounce terrorism than renounce their totalitarian state -- and that is why they belong on the terrorism list until they give the U.S. government a real reason to be taken off.
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Shadow Government is pleased to run thus post from guest-blogger, Mark Kennedy, a former member of congress and former key advisor on trade issues in the Bush Administration. He is currently Director of the Graduate School of Political management at George Washington University.
President Obama's surprise announcement in his State of the Union address that he plans to start talks on a free trade deal between the United States and the European Union could serve as a boon to the nation's economy or a bust for the nation's competitiveness. Though reaching any sort of deal will be difficult, leaders in the United States should avoid a proposal that could make American markets more like their European counterparts and should instead seek a plan that helps introduce the best of the American labor markets to the EU in order to boost growth on both sides of the Atlantic.
A successful free trade agreement (FTA) will achieve the following: expand U.S./EU trade, renew the Atlantic political/economic alliance, improve competitiveness in both markets, and set a benchmark for future trade accords.
In order to walk across the finish line together, the United States and the EU must effectively resolve their differences on two key economic policies.
The EU has several long-standing regulations preventing many U.S. agricultural products from coming to market. America has long argued that European demonization of genetically modified (GMO) crops as "Frankenfood" is not grounded in science. With the pressing need to meet the nutritional needs of a growing planet, the potential of GMO crops should not be set aside so quickly.
The United States' previous treatment of food controversies in free trade agreements can serve as a benchmark in this respect. The terms of the South Korean free trade agreement provided a timeline for when U.S. beef would gain access to Korean markets. A similar time-delayed structure with the EU would allow for officials to adjudicate the safety of American agriculture and for producers to make adjustments necessary to compete in a more open market. Allowing scare tactics to dominate what should be an economic and scientific debate is a loser for consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.
A common stumbling block for free trade agreements concern the differences between nations' labor regulations. American labor unions often balk at FTAs with the countries from the developing world because they fear that their members will be unable to compete with the emerging market's low-wage employees. This time around the shoe is on the other foot.
According to the World Economic Forum's 2012-13 Global Competitiveness Report, the United States' approach to labor flexibility is among the best in the world. EU nations tend to take a more populist and protectionist approach, which can limit productivity and harm young workers. Those protectionist policies have lead to high youth unemployment and unrest in EU nations like Greece and Spain. A final deal should recognize that and center labor arrangements around the idea that a growing economy can provide more job security than government rules.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned at a press conference recently that the EU would not compromise on its "basic legislation" in trade talks.
Rather than approaching these trade discussions in a defensive posture, leaders on both sides should aggressively pursue outcomes that would be highly beneficial to their citizens and the world:
It is critical that those who support lower economic barriers stay engaged in support of a joint accord, but one that fosters openness rather than protectionism. A successful deal will expand Atlantic trade, strengthen the Atlantic alliance, improve competitiveness on both continents, and set a standard that stimulates expanded trade agreements with other regions
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It is customary for beltway types to snicker when a senior official in the government indicates that he or she is stepping away from power in order to "spend more time with my family." I think that attitude is unfortunate and regret having done my fair share of snickering in the past. The truth is that service at the highest-most levels of government can be exceptionally demanding, and it is usually the family that pays the biggest price. So I now have a rule of thumb that presumes any such claim is true unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
That is how I reacted to the news that will General Allen turn down a possible assignment to be SACEUR. General Allen's explanation -- that after multiple combat tours he needs to spend more time with an ailing wife -- rings true to me. And after checking with some people who are in a better position to know, I am even more confident of this judgment.
Some critics have charged that General Allen was forced to step away, raising questions about a growing politicization of the military engendered by a hyper-partisan White House. The White House did do something like that with respect to General James Mattis, so the allegation was not wildly implausible. But in Allen's case, I do not think it was correct.
The Obama Administration has enough real civil-military challenges to manage. It does not need to be distracted by fake ones. General Allen's departure should not become such a distraction.
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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.