We are quite possibly observing the unraveling of the Turkish government's well-laid plans to reinvent the country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like all imperious politicians, is reaping what he has been sowing for 10 years. Beset by two weeks of protests that are about far more than his government's plans to raze a green space, he first became more imperious -- and violent -- but then finally succumbed to the pressure to meet with representatives of the protesters; this meeting has so far resolved nothing. Like a father surprised that his teenager has a will of his own (apologies to the Turks -- I mean no offense by my analogy), Erdogan is reeling as he watches his reputation and that of his country and its booming economy teeter on the edge of political self-destruction. Maybe it is too soon to write his epitaph (rural and more religious voters will shore him up for a good while), but there is a price to be paid for 10 years of slowly grinding down civil society, the press, the opposition, and minority groups. There is a price to pay for offending young and modern Turks by introducing measures to Islamize the nation with the building of mosques in places designed to provoke the secularists and measures to restrict their consumption of alcohol. As one female protester said in a recent news report, "We don't want to be Iran." One really big price he's paying is that his actions are ensuring that he'll fail to be the rising leader he wants to be in both the Middle East and Europe (leader of the former and embraced by the latter).
He's learning that Turks are people like everyone else. Human nature being what it is, they, too, get tired of being treated as subjects and children, especially when they are educated, getting wealthier, and are more connected than ever to the West and the world generally. Enjoying self-governance for a couple of decades now (ironically, only under Erdogan's AKP government have they truly been enjoying democracy without a military godfather to shepherd them), they have reacted to the seemingly innocuous plan to raze Gezi Park with a fury that has caught up all their frustrations and grievances. Sure, Gezi Park is the last green space in Istanbul, and you don't have to be an environmentalist to be angry over that. But combine that with years of imperious edicts and lectures, and you get an explosion. It reminds one of the spark that blew the powder keg in Paris in 1789, or in Lexington and Concord in 1775, or in any number of places where citizens had had enough and took action.
What is really happening, it seems now, is that modern and secular Turks -- and there are millions of them, especially in the cities -- have taken to the streets all over the country in reaction to years of Erdogan's paternalistic and imperious attitude and actions. How much of their frustration is over the immediate grievances like the park, the alcohol restrictions, and the mosque being built in Taksim Square, versus the greater threats to their liberties such as the ongoing horrendous treatment of the press and opposition groups, is hard to know. But serious reactions to pent-up grievances have historically become revolutions, and in that reaction people begin to listen to the intellectuals and various and assorted critics of the government who have been calling on their fellow citizens all along to wake up and smell the tyranny.
Erdogan has a choice to make, and so do Europe and the United States, especially those of us who have hoped for Turkey to take its place among the community of authentic democracies. Erdogan has to decide whether the Turkish experiment with democracy was all along, at least under him, nothing more than a "train ride where you get off when you reach your stop" or if he truly wants it to be the model Islamic-majority democratic republic. The West has to decide whether it will stand by silently and watch this emerging democracy crumble, proving to all the naysayers that Islamic countries really can't achieve and maintain democratic governance. Only seven years ago I joined over 600 democracy activists as a representative of George W. Bush's administration in Istanbul for the fourth assembly of the World Movement for Democracy. Hopes were high then because of the pleasant surprise of being able to gather in an Islamic and former military dictatorship to celebrate and promote democracy. Those hopes are taking a battering now.
I would echo fellow Shadow blogger Mark Kennedy's suggestion that Barack Obama call Erdogan and privately encourage him to pull back from the abyss. It is more urgent than ever. But I doubt Erdogan would listen. For that matter, I doubt the Obama White House is listening to this advice given his staff's vigorous efforts to remember what they knew and when they knew it.
As for those of us who believe that democratic freedom and human rights are never defeated as long as their supporters keep faith, we should welcome this turn of events in Turkey, dangerous and nerve-wracking though it is. It is always a good thing when tyrants (even elected ones) are vexed by brave protesters, for it demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit, not to mention the truth of our ideas.
The president's speech at the National Defense University was most unsatisfying for anyone hoping that at long last Obama would articulate what his purpose is in being commander-in-chief while terrorists continue their efforts to kill and maim Americans and our allies.
Both Peter Feaver (here) and Tom Mahnken (here) have offered incisive comments and I don't intend to belabor their excellent points other than to note that I think this speech is a defining moment in a way for which the administration was not hoping. Rather than turn a page and finally say what he believes and what he will pursue about the greatest challenge we face today, the president muddied the waters so much that clarity in his final term now seems impossible. The speech -- long-planned and expected by supporters and critics alike -- demonstrates that the administration's policy is incoherent because it sends two different messages.
On the one hand, after largely keeping in place the Bush policies designed to prosecute a global war on terror, Obama now says we cannot pursue terrorists everywhere in an unlimited fashion -- implying that that is what George W. Bush did -- and so he is also implying that the global war on terror is over because it was never a realistic approach. But on the other hand, he acknowledges that terrorists are still hatching their plots and working their will all over the world, and so we must combat them and he will do so. He can't have it both ways. If terrorists still operate, and they do, and he said so (even if he suggests inaccurately that al Qaeda is on the wane), and if they still operate all over the world and here at home, and they do, and he said so, then we are in a global war on terror. He should say so. To say otherwise is absurd.
Adding to the confusion is the president's announcement at NDU of policy changes he will seek: reducing the incidence of drone strikes and closing Guantanamo. It is hard to believe that suddenly the drone strikes are no longer useful when they have essentially been this administration's signature policy in fighting terror. And it is hard to believe that trying to close a secure prison that allows for interrogations when you still have no detailed plan that can pass muster with Congress is a serious policy. But maybe these new policies are motivated more by a desire to improve on his and the U.S. popularity ratings around the world that are currently lower than in the Bush era.
I do not say the administration is incompetent; I have worked with a number of them over the years in government, and so have we all at Shadow Government. But being smart and well-credentialed does not necessarily mean one will produce rational and coherent foreign policy. To do that, the head policymaker must eschew politics and have clear and precise goals; he must have a well-thought-out vision and mission of what is to be achieved. And he must formulate and articulate a strategy that puts money and other resources into the effort. The president has never done these things seriously and much less as a package. He's only made it worse with a speech that sends a confused message: The global war on terror is over but we will keep fighting terrorists who are active all over the globe.
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Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won just short of a majority in May 11's violence-plagued elections -- Pakistan's first successful democratic transition from one full term to another. But on May 19, he secured that majority when more than a sufficient number of independents joined his party. He needed 137 seats for a majority and he has 142. Soon to be prime minister for an unprecedented third time, he is now free to pursue his campaign agenda, governing a nation that chose to humiliate the incumbents (the Pakistan People's Party -- PPP -- of the late Benazir Bhutto) and return him to the highest office.
Pakistan is now led again by this most interesting politician. He has been on both sides of the democracy-dictatorship divide, getting his start in politics by joining Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq's military government in the 1980s in order to get back his family's steel business, which had been nationalized by Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the 1970s. (Zia had overthrown the elder Bhutto in 1977.) When democracy returned after Zia's death in 1988, Sharif led his party to victory and was twice prime minister; always the blood feud continued between him and Benazir Bhutto (he even managed to co-opt Bhutto's younger brother into an alliance against her). The saying "live by the sword, die by the sword" applies to his life: When he tried to tame the military in his second term, he himself was overthrown by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a 1999 coup and was almost executed but for the intervention of Bill Clinton's administration. He and the Clintons, especially the former secretary of state, maintain a close relationship. Always a conservative Muslim who has supported the Islamization of Pakistan, he has nevertheless been a staunch proponent of privatization and industrialization, his goal being to make Pakistan the "South Korea" of the subcontinent.
Throughout this history, of which I have provided only a cursory glance, Sharif has been a man the United States wanted to count on and work with. His economic outlook makes him relatively more attractive as a leader whose policies have the best chance of stabilizing Pakistan by solving the grinding poverty affecting most Pakistanis. The major alternative, the PPP, has never governed well in large part because its legacy is statism and corruption. And while Sharif's foreign policies have worried U.S. officials, such as his close relationships with the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as his sometimes reckless policies regarding his country's nuclear capabilities, he has nevertheless tried to improve relations with India because of his belief that, in addition to democracy, only through trade can Pakistan solve its economic problems.
Over the last several months, analysts offered varying views on Sharif's potential return to power, with many worried by his overtures to terrorists and the seemingly unsolvable problems Pakistan faces. After Sharif's victory, the ever insightful Walter Russell Mead offered a rather negative outlook. But I'm more hopeful.
During this last campaign, Sharif won over his critics who used to be frightened by his former talk of a "caliphate" and his past association with military government. He did this by showing himself to have learned patience (months in a military prison waiting to die can have that affect apparently) and by articulating an agenda that would transform Pakistan's economic and foreign policies. He advocates economic liberalization and promises a crackdown on corruption. He insists that a better relationship with India is paramount. And he has made clear that the military will submit to civilian control. It seems the military is listening as the country's top general called on him at his home after the election -- an unprecedented move. Importantly, he takes the helm again when Pakistan is more democratic, and this augurs well for his new administration to have the backing he needs. Turnout in this election was historic, with more young, female, and liberal voters supporting him in huge numbers. They have changed their view of him because apparently they believe he has changed; it helps that he resisted calls to ally with the military and oust the flailing PPP during its tenure. They certainly had other choices that represented change, but they opted for a man they have known for over a generation who said what they wanted to hear about governance and economic and foreign policies.
Of course the jury is still out, and this is Pakistan, after all; it is in a terrible neighborhood, and it's got a bad track record. And Sharif could have just succeeded in a massively cynical campaign to dupe voters and once in office will resume the project of Islamization and use a heavy hand against his opponents. But even if these were to be his goals -- and that doesn't seem likely -- this is not the Pakistan of 20, 10, or even five years ago. It is more democratic, and its youth, its women, and its voters in general are more demanding of government. In short, the country is progressing toward democratic maturity and apparently so is its new leader. Let us hope that Secretary of State John Kerry, who like Clinton has a good relationship with Sharif, can get a foreign-policy success with Pakistan.
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The debate about the Obama administration's lack of a Syria policy points to an overriding concern: the president's lack of a grand strategy for foreign policy. Indeed, as Israel takes the lead in Syria, I think the Obama administration may not even regard having a strategy as important.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama was forgiven in most quarters for not having a grand strategy. He was new to the national scene, and all the talk was about the economy. When he did talk about foreign policy, he said he'd get us out of Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan and then get out, pursue international agreements on climate change, talk more to our enemies through a series of "resets," and close Guantánamo, implying that the war on terror was ill-founded and no longer necessary. I suppose one can argue that getting us out of wars is a strategy, but to leave it at that assumes that the only threats we face are being bogged down in wars and that if we'd quit the international scene, all would be well. That is no grand strategy no matter what Ron Paul says.
As a candidate in 2012, President Obama had the good luck to be opposed by a man with no foreign policy experience and who did not articulate very well what he'd do on those issues, so the president just doubled down on the tactics of his first four years. Add to all that the voters' consistent lack of interest in foreign policy unless there is a crisis, and the president got to sidestep these issues for the most part.
But thoughtful observers and analysts wonder now in the fifth year of the Obama presidency what the he and his team intend to do about the myriad problems besetting the globe: wars, lower level conflicts, and a continuing terrorist threat that erupted again most visibly and most recently in Boston and Benghazi. Whether Obama is a realist or not has been discussed on this site (by Stephen Walt and by yours truly, among others), but trying to put a theoretical label on the president's foreign policy approach does not tell us what he is trying to accomplish and why. Calling him a realist, an idealist, or anything else does not tell us what to expect from him as commander in chief. It might tell us how he intends to accomplish goals, but we don't know what the goals are. After five years in office, we still have no grand strategy from the president. Comparing him to his predecessors reveals a stark deficit of strategic thinking and intentionality.
As grand strategists, some of Obama's predecessors were stellar, others mediocre, but all operated strategically. Truman, Ike, Nixon, and Ford sought to contain communism. Carter wanted to do that, too, but also focus on human rights. Reagan determined to defeat communism while ensuring that the United States remained and grew more prominent as a beacon of liberty, the last best hope of mankind. Bush 41 and Clinton's foreign policy was largely about managing the fall and transformation of the Soviet Union and its former satellites -- and they acted determinedly to make the United States the catalyst for a boom in international trade. But terrorism was a growing and deadly threat for Clinton and his policy regarding it looks more like a holding game than a well-thought out plan to defeat it.
Enter Bush 43, who stated very clearly and repeatedly that the mission of this presidency was first and foremost to keep the United States safe by defeating terrorists and ending their effort to shape global politics. Importantly, to achieve this aim he intended also for the United States to be more than a beacon of freedom, to do what Reagan did regarding Lech Walesa's Solidarity but to do it on steroids: support democrats all around the world with both moral and material support as a means to defeat terrorism and all other threats to the peace.
Agree or disagree with the policy, George W. Bush had one, and it amounted to a grand strategy. It was carefully crafted internally, and all agencies played a role in it -- especially the primary departments and agencies that conduct foreign policy, including the development agency USAID and foreign assistance programs in other departments. For eight years, and especially after the 2004 inaugural address and the articulation of the freedom agenda, the goals were announced, the means to achieve them were devised, and the resulting policies and programs were implemented. That is, the Bush administration pursued ideas, funding, and assessment mechanisms and did so using both an executive branch and a Capitol Hill strategy. A grand strategy, if you will. The Bush Center at the president's recently inaugurated library tells the story, at least in terms of what the public saw and experienced over eight years. President Bush's former staff can fill in many of the details of how it all was planned and enacted.
These comments are not meant to be political shots taken at the Obama administration by a former Bush official keen to score points. Truly, this is a worrisome situation that the United States faces. Not since we became a great power, and indeed a superpower, have we been led by a president who has no clear goals for securing the people and interests of the United States from the many manifest and latent threats. He stated in his 2012 campaign that al Qaeda is on the run (but it is not); he treats North Korea, Iran, Syria, and the larger Middle East as distractions from his domestic agenda to be paid attention to only when he absolutely has to (but these are existential threats to US allies and serious ones for us); and he has no agenda to expand trade (but we need it given the global economic situation). He and his team appear to be so focused on the domestic front and to not follow the path of securing U.S. interests that Bush put us on, that one can arguably conclude that not only doesn't he have a grand strategy, he doesn't want one.
As the leader of the free world, such an approach is not a valid option. We can discuss the economy as a national security matter all we want to, but that does not free the president from his duty to anticipate threats from abroad and devise a grand strategy, along with the Congress, to deal with them. We currently face rogue states that are building nuclear weapons and a Middle East in flames, threats that in their severity rival the Cold War. Perhaps these threats are worse because we are not dealing with what Jeanne Kirkpatrick called the steely-eyed realists in the Kremlin but fanatical regimes whose apocalyptic imaginings could well overtake their reason.
It is time for President Obama to do the job his predecessors did before him: trying to shape the world to fit our interests. I'd settle for a bad strategy; at least it would demonstrate the willingness and ability to have one.
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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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Elliott Abrams' new book, Tested by Zion, recounts the Bush administration's efforts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contains two things any such insider's account must. First, a well-researched narrative that answers the "who, what, where, and when" questions. It does that very well. But if it is to be useful to policymakers, students and the well-informed reader, it should do something else -- it should explain the "why." The book does this very well because it does not shy away from describing the actors' motives and actions in terms of their own statements and the commentaries of close observers. If readers want to know why the "peace process" has failed repeatedly, this book goes a long way toward explaining its sad outcome. I will let the book speak for itself, but for my part, it confirms much of what I have seen and experienced over the years: The fault lies largely with the Palestinian Arab leadership and the ill-advised attachment of some in the U.S. State Department to diplomacy for diplomacy's sake.
Abrams does not portray President George W. Bush as perfect, nor for that matter does he portray himself, Condoleezza Rice, or Steve Hadley as above the human tendency to make mistakes or to misunderstand facts or context. And while he sympathizes with Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders, he does not consider them perfect. Their flaws and mistakes are revealed here as well. Neither does he count all Palestinian leaders as hopelessly wicked or weak. In my view, Arafat counts as the former and Mahmoud Abbas as the latter, and Abrams' work makes it hard to escape these conclusions. Abrams shows that the majority of the blame for failure to get to peace lies squarely on the shoulders of those Arabs who continually fail to show 1) a sufficient combination of humanitarian impulse toward "the other" and 2) courage to risk their own positions and comfort. Ariel Sharon was willing, but Mahmoud Abbas and those around him were either unwilling or unable to do it and to this day will not or cannot. It doesn't help that other Arab leaders have refused to do their part. It is revealing and depressing to see leaders given the chance to improve the lives of millions who have lived under oppression and been used as pawns squander that chance because they either hate too much or lack the courage to risk their own well-being.
Abrams' treatment of the State Department will cause a lot of bureaucrats and foreign service officers to scowl and complain. He relays in detail the problem the White House faced at the beginning of the Bush administration -- and continuing through the Rice years when she moved to State -- with an agency that wanted to continue to encourage endless dialog between the parties and various other countries when that had never worked before -- unless there were two parties at the negotiating table truly seeking peace. We have as examples only Sadat and Begin regarding Egypt, and Hussein and Rabin regarding Jordan. This endless dialog approach was taken by the Clinton administration with Arafat leading the Palestinian side. It is the most recent failure not because of lack of will on the part of Israel or the United States, but because Arafat had no interest in peace and did nothing to prepare his countrymen for responsible self-government. Just ask President Clinton, or Arafat's widow. So the burden is on State to explain how their preferred modus operandi of talks for the sake of talks would have made any sense in the Bush administration. Instead, the administration pursued a bold plan when it called for a two state solution founded upon the twin goals of an end to terrorism and the building of democracy. Further into the process, when Sharon tried to restart progress on everyone's agreed to plan, the road map, these same diplomats and bureaucrats -- as well as many Israelis, Arabs and Europeans -- decried the "unilateralism" of Israel voluntarily and unilaterally leaving territory in Gaza and the West Bank, territory Sharon understood it could not hold indefinitely as a practical or moral matter.
What did Sharon want in exchange? Nothing but respect and a reciprocation of good will and support. But rather than praise and support a decision that jump-started the peace process that had hit a roadblock in Arafat, many found it Machiavellian. What a shame that in this bizarre world of the Middle East "peace process" an Israeli general turned politician, who actively seeks to improve the lives of Palestinians, is criticized for doing the very thing that can produce momentum. Certainly the tug of war that seems to always ensue between State and the White House over major foreign policy issues played a role in this dissonance, but it was more than that. It was the perennial refusal of modern diplomats' to understand that diplomacy for diplomacy's sake produces little good. Diplomacy is supposed to be the servant of policy goals and requires the good faith efforts of all parties who are earnestly seeking an agreement. Israel has yet to have a willing or able partner in achieving an agreement, and all diplomats would do well to understand that.
In the end, Bush and Sharon failed to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but not for lack of trying. They failed because Arab leaders failed to "love their children more than they hate [Jews]," to borrow from Golda Meir. That, and much more, comes through in Abrams' very good recounting.
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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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President Obama's second inaugural address contained an admirable homage to some of the greatest heroes of civil and political rights. We are treated to a vision of the United States that is rooted in the ideals those heroes struggled to achieve. And we celebrate their victory, even if we are not all in agreement about how much progress has been made or how much remains to be done. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, America achieved what has made it truly "the last best hope of the Earth" as Lincoln put it and Reagan reiterated. The stains of second-class citizenship and institutionalized prejudice have been removed. There is always more to do to help people take greater advantage of their birthright of freedom, but the birthright is enshrined in law in a country where law rules, not men -- in theory and most of the time in practice.
But such is not the case in many countries of the world, a world where the United States must exist and because of its size and influence, lead. Fecklessness and timidity disguised as false humility won't do; we are expected to lead whether we are asked to or want to. So given this, we as citizens have a right and even a duty, I think, to ask if during the next four years the administration will base U.S. foreign policy on those same ideals. After all, if the character and reputation we have and want to keep is one of a beacon of democracy and a friend to it everywhere, then surely we are obligated to put actions to our words. The president made clear yesterday that as far as his domestic agenda is concerned, he will continue to insist on his understanding of what it means to be a country founded upon the ideals of freedom and equality, and that will mean a larger government and more spending on entitlements with the costs born by overburdened taxpayers and by debt. I don't agree with that approach, but that's not germane to this post. But what of his foreign policy agenda? Shouldn't he also in these matters take care to promote the ideals that he believes make us a great nation? Shouldn't we, can't we, do more than we have done in the last four years to stand by democrats in their struggles, wherever they may be found?
I have been saddened and even alarmed to look over the last four years of the Obama administration's policies and see that support for democracy in word and deed has often been pushed aside to make room for withdrawal and accommodation. For example, one of the greatest threats to liberty and equality the world over are the radical Islamic terrorists and their supporters and funders, but the president and his highest officials, while taking victory laps over bin Laden's takedown by Seal Team 6, campaigned as though this was a diminishing problem and that al Qaeda had been "decimated." The truth is that even as the campaign was winding down Benghazi exposed their assertions as flawed. We know that al Qaeda is not only still powerful but thriving in North Africa and beyond. We stand by as the French take the lead in saving Mali, literally, from an al Qaeda takeover. That's right, the French. But then France has never been slow to assert itself where national interests are at stake. We could take a lesson from them.
And there are other examples where the administration has not taken care to secure our interests, such as its refusal to treat Russia as a bad actor where democracy is concerned and a supporter of those who share its authoritarian bent. Or Venezuela, where a dictator has been allowed to ruin his country, try to ruin others in the region and coddle and comfort our worst enemies with little resistance from us.
Let me tie two concepts together that I have been discussing and make this assertion: support for democracy is in our national interest. I'm glad the president said so yesterday in his second inaugural address. I just wish he'd say it more often and do something more concrete about it in the next four years.
A nation like ours cannot do other than promote democracy and support democrats. It is in our DNA and it is the only way our foreign policy can make sense. Our failure to do so from time to time is the exception that proves the rule. Why else is it noteworthy when we fail to do so? It is one of the reasons we are an exceptional nation.
Support for democracy and democrats means giving voice to our ideals and to take action to support those who share our ideals. We should never fail to talk about liberty and rights with all states who deny them to their citizens. Freedom House's latest report is a useful guide for knowing how to address these issues and with which countries. And we should take action, such as providing resources of various kinds to those men and women who ask for our help. Some of them are so oppressed that they need succor just to go on living; some need support because they are in a position to actually change their country for the better. Think of it as supporting both "hope and change."
Notice I said nothing about imposing democracy or nation-building; these are canards used by those who opposed the Iraq war or who deny our leadership role by hiding behind "state sovereignty" claims. In my years as a government official we never once imposed democracy on any country; it can't be done. What we did, what the United Nations and Europe and the Japanese and the Indians and many others have done, is to provide aid to people in dictatorships or failing states who asked for our help. Sometimes they are the majority of a country; sometimes they are the minority. Pointing out the objections of a dictator who murders and abuses his people and who is very often a disturber of the peace of his region or the world provides no excuse to deny help to his victims when we can. What legitimacy does such a dictator have to object to his would-be slaves asking free peoples to help them be free? By what right does he block the free world from trying to encourage the establishment of more free states, which is in their interest?
A world made up mostly of states where rights are respected and the law rules is surely in our interests as these states are less likely to be in serious conflict with states like them. It might take years or generations, but we should try, nonetheless.
And there are two more reasons to try. First, dictators vexed by dissidents at home are weakened. It is in our interests to make tyrants as miserable as we can; we have plenty of resources and agencies who can do this work. History has many lessons on this. It is a shame so many oppressors and enemies of freedom feel more secure today to work their wicked will at home and abroad than four years ago, especially all those whose behavior we can influence. Second, it makes no sense to hope for the day when a tyrant falls but to have done nothing to help the lovers of freedom be ready to take over. We learned a hard lesson in Egypt: Mubarak spent 30 years squelching the democratic opposition and thereby fulfilling his own prophecy that "it's me or the Brotherhood." We could have done more in Egypt.
I would like to take the president at his word yesterday when he made his single comment about supporting freedom around the world. I did not expect his second inaugural address to be like President George W. Bush's, but I'm glad at least that he mentioned it. And I will hope that he does more. There are many fine people both in the ranks of the political appointees and in the foreign and civil services who want to help democrats around the world, even if there are many who do not. He's the boss, he can have his way if he'll lead. He has an army ready to implement good programs that directly support -- dare I say it -- a freedom agenda.
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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.