Former State Department official Christian Whiton's book Smart Power is a needed and useful book on "the missing middle" in American foreign policy. Relying on history as well as the tried and true understanding of the term diplomacy before it was neutered by time-servers, place-seekers and the McGovernite left, Whiton outlines an approach that urges policymakers to adopt tactics that fall between the extremes of simply dialoging and a shooting war. Importantly, he argues persuasively that smart power is not only a matter of tactics that are part of a well-laid strategy; it is also a mindset about defending one's country and its interests everywhere and at all times. Personally, I think the book is a good read for those who are desperately in need of a little bit of self-reflection on whether or not they are cut out for foreign policy officialdom.
Whiton begins the book by relaying stories about the use of tactics short of U.S. military force but much more involved than simply issuing démarches and convening conferences during the early years of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan and his allies abroad and in the United States (Democrats and Republicans) were masterful at bringing down the communist system, but the policy foundations of U.S. resistance to Soviet aggression were set long before by Truman and Eisenhower when we fought in various ways to keep Western Europe free. The Soviets knew we would resist and that we would not just talk but act to support our allies and the underground freedom fighters in whatever way was necessary to ensure their success--including supplying bags of cash and inventing ways to broadcast real news into closed states, all in an effort to harm the Soviets' ability to capture nations. Communist leaders knew how the U.S. defined its interests and they experienced measured pain in response to their efforts to deny us the fulfillment of our goals.
Whiton contrasts this success story by showing how things are different now that we've had thirty years of an academic-inspired approach that assumes that the United Nations and international lawyering will somehow cause everyone to work out differences and establish peace. The problem with this approach is that it most obviously does not work very often and so the only thing left in the basket of tools is to drone or bomb or invade. Whiton argues that we have done the latter far too often, or our officials on the left and the right have argued for that, when smart power thinking and tactics would have been the wiser choice.
Mining his time in the Bush '43 State Department for examples of missed opportunities, Whiton tells of poor judgment and careerist-thinking (both among political appointees and FSOs) that left the U.S. with only two options: convene a conference or bomb someone. Missing were a thorough examination of who are real enemies are, our interests over time, the setting of goals (short, mid-range and long-term), and the choosing of appropriate tactics to achieve each.
It is worth noting that smart power is not "soft power" because the latter almost never means the use of force in any form. Whiton argues that there are various forms of persuasion as well as force short of war that should be available to policymakers to complement the use of whatever Foggy Bottom means by "soft power."
Whiton and I served together and I experienced some of what he laments firsthand in my work on the Freedom Agenda. I believe President George W. Bush had the right mindset and knew U.S. interests well, but especially in the second term he was ill-served at times by some political appointees who were captured by the career officials who wanted a return to the old system of démarche and convene. This is especially unfortunate given the development of the Freedom Agenda and all the good theory and practice (that drew on successful experiences of the Cold War) that it entailed. We were stymied more than once and the president was in turn frustrated by the failure to achieve his goals. I am not as critical of neoconservatives as is Whiton because I think he and most of them share not only the same goals but also a similar approach and mindset. The few whom he considers trigger-happy do not discredit the whole lot. Besides, those too quick to bomb have been moved by frustration at the return of the lawyering and conferencing approach to foreign policy. If there were more tools to choose from-smart power tools-they would readily embrace them. As to Whiton's judgment of the (Ron) Paulist isolationsists, I share his views wholly.
Whiton's book is useful in reminding us that embracing smart power not only has facts and logic on its side, it has a successful track record borne out by history. But it is worth stressing once more: if policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches do not have the right mindset and attitude about the role and interests of the United States in the world, they will never move beyond the current approach practiced with vigor by the Obama administration. They will be reluctant to do anything but what is considered the polite and genteel approach to foreign policy which his to démarche and convene. And then when that fails, as it so often does, they will be moved to use exceedingly large amounts of force with all the political, diplomatic and collateral damage that comes with it. The public will react negatively and our alliances will be harmed. It's time to get smart again.
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Since last month's large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria injected a new sense of urgency in Barack Obama's administration regarding America's declining fortunes in the Middle East, I have repeatedly urged the administration to articulate a coherent strategy for the region (see here, here, here, and here). The administration had a Middle East strategy -- what I called a "no more Iraqs" strategy -- but it was played out. It was prone to errors of omission that were leaving U.S. interests in the region in far worse shape than they had been even five years ago.
Today, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama offered something of a sneak peek at the administration's latest thinking about Middle East strategy. Alas, too much of the new thinking looks like the old thinking. One is left wondering how candid the administration's internal strategy sessions really have been.
The president still talks naively about "ending" wars, when all he has really accomplished is ending U.S. involvement in the wars. Iraq is arguably in worse shape today than it was when Obama took office. The trajectory for Afghanistan is very uncertain, but if Afghanistan declines as Iraq has declined since Obama withdrew U.S. combat troops, the forecast is bleak. Despite that, in his speech Obama actually declared mission accomplished in Afghanistan: "Next year, an international coalition will end its war in Afghanistan, having achieved its mission of dismantling the core of al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11." [Emphasis added.]
Some of Obama's claims are suspect, but in the usual "White House spin" way that everyone recognizes and automatically discounts, e.g., his claim that he is "working diligently to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay." Other claims seem almost like a pathological dare to the fact-checkers, e.g. his odd boast that "we have limited the use of drones" when the world knows that Obama substantially expanded the use of drones.
The heart of the problem is Obama's boast: "The world is more stable than it was five years ago." One could argue that the global economic crisis is a bit more stable, though there are good reasons to fear that this is but a lull in a storm that has by no means exhausted itself. However, it is not really possible to argue that the Middle East, the subject of the president's speech, is more stable. On the contrary, virtually every state is in a more perilous condition than it was when Obama took office. How can he hope to fashion a coherent strategy when he struggles with the very first stage of strategy formulation: ascertaining the global environment?
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This past Saturday, Iran inaugurated a new president -- former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani. And while there is rightly a consensus that Rouhani's victory will do little to change Iran's foreign policy, domestic policy is another matter. Indeed, there are strong indications that Rouhani plans to pursue a new domestic agenda to increase the regime's diminishing popularity among Iranians.
Specifically, Rouhani, who has portrayed himself as a populist reformer, may try to cosmetically improve the human rights situation in Iran. At the same time, the regime may use such action to present itself to the world as "changed," and buy precious time to complete its nuclear program. The international community must not allow this to happen.
A word about the Iranian nuclear program: Most everyone agrees that Iran is getting closer and closer to having the nuclear weapons capability it has long sought. While there are differing opinions on when it will reach fruition, the bottom line is that the program is advancing, and this event is not a decade away, but one poised to happen in the near future.
Time is of the essence, and the current trajectory has to change. This is why Americans should be highly concerned about the disaster that could come from the international community buying into a Rouhani-led charm offensive and easing the current pressure on Iran.
From Rouhani's perspective, Iran's human rights situation is the perfect area to claim to be reforming. Iran's treatment of its own citizens is absolutely appalling, as citizens are commonly denied free speech, fair trials, and personal liberties. Iranians are targeted and punished for their religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Hundreds are executed, some publicly by construction crane or gallows, for minor or nonexistent offenses. Journalists and dissidents are increasingly being monitored, imprisoned, beaten, and in some cases killed.
The Iranian regime behaves abysmally in many ways, but its human rights abuses are unique in that they cannot be blamed on the West. The regime commonly faults the West and sanctions for the dismal economic situation in Iran, ignoring its own economic mismanagement and kleptocratic structures. Likewise, it carries out international terror attacks and threatens military strikes, claiming that it is defending itself from Western aggression. Yet when it comes to beating, torturing, and killing Iranians without due process, there is no external boogeyman for the regime to blame.
This is in fact a crucial reason why the international community needs to continue to uncover and highlight the regime's abuses -- doing so shows the Iranian people that the world sees the cruel nature of the men that unjustly rule them. It also strengthens the case for why the international community should ratchet up sanctions and do what it takes to prevent this violent and aggressive regime from having a nuclear weapon at its disposal.
The Iranian regime has, through its intransigence, turned the entire world against it. As former George W. Bush-era officials on U.N. matters who are typically not optimistic about the body's ability to affect change, we were particularly astounded to see that even the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva took action by appointing a Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, to report on the human rights situation in the country.
In truth, sanctions and international pressure have been quite effective at economically isolating Iran. Iran's economy is in freefall and countries, banks, and companies around the world have sworn off business with the regime. The climate for pressuring Iran is exponentially better than it was just a few years ago.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, clearly knows that his people are fed up with the current situation and blame their leadership. He also appears willing to go along with some trappings of change instead of risking a more significant uprising among the population. It is quite plausible that Khamenei will allow Rouhani to take cosmetic steps to appear to improve the human rights situation in Iran, for the same reasons he went along with Rouhani's electoral victory in the first place.
And therein lies the most immediate problem. Khamenei and Rouhani will be glad to see a tamping down of the current restiveness in the country, but they are also likely to portray such "improvements" to the rest of the world as evidence of change and buy time to continue their nuclear program and try to roll back or stall current sanctions.
It is imperative that the international community not fall for this trick. No real change will occur under this theocracy. Cosmetic change is not a reason to give the regime economic relief, and the time it needs to finish its nuclear program.
Mark P. Lagon is a former U.S. ambassador to combat trafficking in persons, a Georgetown University professor in the practice on international affairs, and a Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow. Mark D. Wallace is CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, representative for U.N. management and reform.
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The weekend's reading in the Washington Post turned up two intriguing bits that could profitably be explored in Senator Hagel's forthcoming confirmation hearings. Neither is a game-changer or a show-stopper. I continue to believe he will be confirmed and I expect he will have plausible answers to both of these questions. But it would be revealing to hear those answers and the process of thinking them through might even help him be a better secretary of defense.
First, what does the Obama administration consider to be the necessary legal conditions for the use of force abroad? The question arises out of an interesting bit in Saturday's story about internal deliberations over whether and how much to assist the French in the Mali operation. There are numerous legal hurdles, including some domestic ones related to assisting governments after a coup (among its myriad troubles, Mali suffered a coup last year). But the part that interested me was this brief reference to other international legal hurdles:
"At the same time, U.S. officials were unsure whether they could legally aid France's military operations without a United Nations or other international mandate."
Now, I well understand the political desirability of international mandates, and I also know what the UN Charter stipulates. Since the Mali government asked for aid -- no, begged for aid -- the self-defense exception of the UN charter would seem to be easily met. Perhaps there was some legal confusion regarding whether a post-coup Mali regime was more legitimate than the militant islamists attacking the government from the north? Or perhaps there was something else at work, with the Obama administration entertaining a more stringent standard than U.S. governments had hitherto required for military action? If the latter, that would seem to be quite newsworthy with profound implications for coercive diplomacy in other settings: does the Obama administration believe it has the requisite legal predicate for military action in Iran (setting aside the policy wisdom of such action), or would it require a new and specific UNSCR or NATO authorization? What are legal options if we have neither a new UNSCR nor NATO authorization?
Second, what specifically did Senator Hagel find lacking about civilian control of the military during the past 6 years? This question arises out of a quote attributed to Hagel from today's opinion piece by Bob Woodward: "'The president has not had commander-in-chief control of the Pentagon since Bush senior was president,' Hagel said privately in 2011."
Now Hagel's quote covers a lot of history, including the stormy 1990s when serious questions were raised about the quality of civilian control. While an historical disquisition on the evolution of civilian control since 1992 from the secretary-nominee would be fascinating, for the sake of time and focus I would encourage the Senators to ask Hagel to answer just with respect to the last several years, covering the tenure of Secretaries Gates and Panetta. In what ways does Hagel consider the Pentagon to have been out of "commander-in-chief control" during that period?
This second question might be the more important one. After all, Hagel is not the lawyer who will be deciding the Obama administration's interpretation of international law. His hearings do provide an important opportunity for Congress to ask such questions to key officials under oath, however, so it is worth asking.
But the second question goes to the very heart of Hagel's job. As secretary of defense, he will be the interface between the political White House and the uniformed military -- something like the ball-bearings or even the grease in the ball-bearings of civil-military relations. He will be the single most important civilian working 24-7 on the civilian control issue. Understanding his theory of civil-military relations is crucial for helping the Pentagon (both civilian and military tribes therein) prepare for his arrival. And I can think of few better ways to clarify his expectations than for him to explain how he believes Gates and Panetta failed to bring the Pentagon under "commander-in-chief control."
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Will Inboden has kicked off an excellent discussion with his post on how to succeed in a foreign-policy career. I've been asked this question more than once, so I have a scripted answer ready to share. Herewith is my Advice to Aspiring Foreign Policy Wonks:
1. Join the military. The proportion of the U.S. population who are veterans of the armed forces is something near an all-time low in the post-World War II era. If you want to stand out and be truly distinctive, serve your country in uniform for a couple years. You don't have to make it a career; just a two- or four-year stint will broaden your horizons, let you see a bit of the world, sharpen your mission focus and personal discipline, teach you a few of the military's innumerable acronyms, make you more credible when you work alongside active-duty personnel in the future, and get you some fresh air and exercise. If you are young, healthy, and single, I daresay the burden should be on you to explain why you haven't joined up yet.
2. Get a Masters degree. In the 1940s, something like 5 percent of Americans had a four-year Bachelor's Degree. Today, that number is close to 40 percent-but only 5 percent of Americans have a Masters Degree. In other words, the Masters is today what the Bachelor's was two generations ago. I view a Masters as a basic requirement for advancement in a knowledge-oriented career: you absolutely must have one. That said, there really isn't a specific field you have to study. I think Will is right: study what you love. But mostly...
3. Study history and philosophy. Henry Kissinger wrote somewhere that real statesmen don't study politics. They study history and philosophy. They steep themselves in the knowledge of the world and in the realm of ideas. I'd add that philosophy (and theology) is the best intellectual training ground I know. If you can master -- or even competently grapple with -- the toughest ideas and concepts in the entire range of human knowledge, then contemplating grand strategy begins to look easier.
4. Learn a language. Along with studying history and studying specific regions and areas, learn a language. That makes you a serious expert that will distinguish you from those (ahem, like me) "experts" who are really just dilettantes. Speaking a language opens up a whole new world for you, lets you learn a culture with a depth simply unavailable to others, and gives you credibility with foreign interlocutors.
5. Travel and work abroad.
6. Don't get a PhD. A PhD is a professional credential for aspiring professors, in the same way an MD and a JD are credentials for doctors and lawyers. Do you want to be a professor? Get a PhD. Do you want to be the Secretary of State? Don't get a PhD.
7. Care passionately about your work. I once heard an acquaintance half-jokingly celebrate the rise of counter-terrorism careers. He didn't think the massive surge in attention to counter-terrorism was justified, but "I'm going to ride this gravy train all the way until retirement," he said. I couldn't imagine a faster way to lose respect for myself. Believe in the importance of what you're doing, or you'll find yourself burnt out, disillusioned, bored, and bitter. If you find yourself losing interest in what you're doing (not just for a few months, but for a few years), don't do it.
8. Have integrity. Will yammered on about having a pleasant "personality" and being "nice" to "people." I suppose that's a good idea, although I'm not exactly the expert on it. Let me add that, in dealing with people, be truthful, loyal, and decent. There is a myth that to get ahead in DC you have to be manipulative and self-promoting; that once you've laid down your opinion you have to ensure you get your way lest you lose credibility; that brusqueness, a sharp tone, or a short-temper in the service of a bureaucratic fight are acceptable. I disagree. Human decency is more effective, especially when disagreeing with someone.
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The conflict unfolding in the Gaza Strip takes place against a starkly different regional backdrop than the last round of fighting in late 2008 and early 2009. The old regional order that existed then has been swept away, replaced with a new order which is uncertain and, until now, untested. This emerging crisis will be the first such test, and will reveal much about how the recent years' uprisings have affected key regional actors and the relations among them.
The old order in the Middle East was founded on mutual interests, and looked something like a hub-and-spoke alliance system with the United States at its center. U.S. allies in the region shared, above all, an interest in stability and economic prosperity, though each defined stability differently. For Washington, stability required political and economic reform; for our allies, it often meant the preservation of an increasingly shaky status quo.
Israel was a key part of this alliance, and cooperated openly with some regional states, and tacitly with others, through the good offices of the United States. Israel and Washington's Arab allies largely shared a desire to counter and deter Iran and its proxies and combat terrorist groups in the region; many applauded privately or openly when Israel dealt a blow to Hezbollah in the first days of the 2006 Lebanon war or destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007.
The new regional order in the Middle East is different, but precisely how and how much is unclear. Two things in particular are uncertain. First, how do leaders in the region -- especially new leaders such as Egyptian President Morsi -- now perceive their national interests? In important ways, these interests have not changed with the Arab uprisings. Armed militias in the Sinai, for example, are just as apt to target Egyptian soldiers and interests as they are Israel, and the perception of instability or extremist sentiment in the region will deter investment and tourism desperately needed to revive the Egyptian economy.
On the other hand, President Morsi's political calculations and the ideology of his Muslim Brotherhood faction militate against even tacit cooperation with Israel. Morsi and his government had appeared to be leaning in the direction of pragmatism until now, but sending Prime Minister Kandil to Gaza -- like Turkey's dispatch of a flotilla to Gaza in 2010 -- is more stunt than strategy. The Gaza crisis will test whether Morsi , along with other leaders in the region, will place ideology over interests.
The second question lingering about the new regional order concerns the U.S. place in it. Washington's diffidence in the face of the turmoil in the Middle East over the last two years, combined with the "pivot" to Asia, has conveyed the impression that the US is not prepared to continue its brokering role in the region. This suits some regional leaders just fine; the leaders of Egypt and Iran disagree on many things, but they share a desire to see American influence in the Middle East recede. For U.S. allies, however, it raises the troubling question as to whether Washington can be counted on to act firmly to advance our mutual interests.
This uncertainty has already led to the deterioration of the "hub and spoke" system, which has been replaced, roughly speaking, by the formation of smaller regional coalitions acting independently (for example, the GCC intervening in Bahrain) and jockeying with one another for preeminence. This is most evident in the case of Turkey, which rather than turning West or East has sought regional leadership, which has meant repudiating its erstwhile alliance with Israel.
While the first signs of this strategic shift in the region are evident, it is not inevitable that it should continue. Washington should craft its response to the Gaza crisis to reinforce its position and alliances in the region.
First, the United States should demonstrate strong support for Israel. The Obama administration took a welcome first step in this direction by issuing statements affirming Israel's right to defend itself and holding Hamas accountable for the fighting and for the suffering of Palestinians under their misrule. Behind the scenes, the administration will need to work closely with Israel to help it to define concrete objectives for the operation and accomplish them quickly and decisively. Once the fighting stops, the United States and Israel should privately develop a realistic and shared approach to Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Second, Washington should practice some realpolitik with Egypt, Turkey, and other regional allies. Any strong alliance is based on shared interests. Given the changes in the region, we should not simply assume that the region's new leaders share our conception of these shared interests, but should enumerate them explicitly through strategic bilateral dialogues. Identifying such mutual interests should not be difficult -- issues like terrorism and Iranian support for the Syrian regime are of concern to both the United States and our regional partners. The United States should insist, however, that our allies act on the basis of these interests rather than simply acknowledging them in private, especially in times of crisis. It is in this context that discussions of aid should take place. Our economic and military assistance should be seen -- in Washington and abroad -- neither as charity or compensation for furthering American interests, but as a policy tool to further shared interests.
Third, the United States should offer energetic and determined leadership throughout the crisis to ensure that its conclusion advances our interests and those of our allies. The Obama administration's first steps have been positive, but there will be much more work to do at the United Nations to ensure that any eventual ceasefire is sustainable and enhances regional security; to encourage Arab allies in the short term to press Hamas to de-escalate and take responsibility for the activities of terrorist groups within Gaza, and in the longer term to shift all of their support to the Palestinian Authority; and in doing so, ensure that the ultimate result of the conflict is to put Israelis and Palestinians alike closer to peace and security, rather than deeper in turmoil.
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Amid the coverage of the massacre of American personnel in Libya and the Obama administration's response that has led to charges of a cover-up, little else in foreign policy has made the news. But out of the U.N. on October 2, we learned how the U.N. bureaucracy is thinking about these incidents, and in so doing we learn what the U.N. thinks it has accomplished with regard to the existence of human rights. In the person of Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, we can understand how out of touch the U.N. leadership is regarding the concept of human rights and their origins, not to mention history and political theory.
Eliasson, a much respected Swedish diplomat, held a press conference earlier in the month on a range of issues, but he also talked about the infamous video that offended Muslims and he did so in the context of the continuing efforts of some Islamic member states to pass a "blasphemy" resolution. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the U.N. leadership generally have implied that they support the notion that the exercise of free speech -- which the U.N. is pledged to uphold -- carries with it dangers to the peace and so not only should people be wary of this problem, but the U.N. should have a role in mitigating the damage that could ensue.
That's bad enough, that the U.N., which affirms the right of every human being to speak freely should at the same time warn, discourage, and perhaps even try to legislate against those who exercise that right if someone is offended to the point that they can't control themselves from engaging in retributive violence. But then Eliasson, in his remarks at the press conference, went very far off course, delving into matters of political theory and philosophy that made him and the U.N. look not just scary, but foolish. To borrow from Talleyrand, "it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder."
In the quote from the presser below, Eliasson is trying to explain how we should all think about the issue of free speech in the global context. Even as he affirms the basic human right of free speech and expression, he delves deeper to opine on the consequences that can ensue from the exercise of the right when some can take offense at what they hear. In doing this, he reveals why so many in the West, particularly in the United States, perceive the U.N. and its bureaucracy as hostile to American notions of rights.
Eliasson says that in respecting the rights of others to speak freely, we should remember that:
...the respect for the value and beauty of this right, that provocations, a lack of respect towards others, in a world where there is enough of contradictions, antagonism and even hatred, that we should recognize that you have this gift given to us by the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights, but it also implies some type of responsibility to use that in such a way that you don't cause situations; which brings me to the third point, namely, of course, always strong reactions, condemnations of the violence, as a result of the provocation. So you have to have to keep in mind, yes, this is the basis for, I hope, most of the countries in the world -- the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, since this is in the Universal Declaration -- but that this also is a privilege that we have, which in my view involves also the need for respect, the need to avoid provocations, in a world where we have enough of contradictions and hatred; but that when you respond to the provocations, and actually those who wanted to provoke had succeeded with the violence and the results of the violence.
Did you catch that? The human right of free speech and expression is a "gift" of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, it is a "privilege" to be able to speak freely, a privilege apparently afforded to us by the U.N.
Put aside for a moment that Eliasson makes the typical mush of things (as did the president, our U.N. ambassador and our secretary of state) by implying a moral equivalency argument to the video and the violence. What is most striking is the assertion that our rights come from the U.N. and that they are a privilege granted to us. That is not something even the Charter or the Declaration assert, and for good reason since none of the drafters believed any such thing.
I expect the U.N. leadership to speak in ways that suggest a moral equivalence between the video and the violence that erupted in the Muslim world. If our current administration does that, certainly the U.N would. But what is breathtaking -- and quite revealing -- is that the number two at the U.N. would articulate boldly what he knows perfectly well no American leader thinks (or at least would dare to say, no matter how far to the left he or she is). American political theory, indeed that of Western Civilization as it developed via the Anglo-American and even the (non-violent) French Enlightenments, holds that our rights are bequeathed to us by God or at least by Nature and that they are not the gift of any government. Government has one and only one role in them: to recognize them and ensure that they are respected. It is a dangerous flirtation with tyranny to suggest that any governing authority can extend or revoke these rights (no matter how weak and ineffectual it is, as in the case of the U.N.).
It is not a stretch to believe Eliasson thinks rights come from governments and that he meant what he said; after all, he's a smart man and an accomplished diplomat. What is sad and depressing is that the United States government did not immediately issue a rejoinder and set the record straight on what the United States understands the U.N. Charter and the Declaration to be all about. I suppose we'll have to wait for the next administration to set the record straight.
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The North Koreans don't care much for democracy, but they sure enjoy negotiating with democracies in an election year -- especially when they detect that mission number one in Washington is to avoid troubling foreign policy headlines until after November 6. The Obama administration actually started out with a pretty tough stance on North Korea, captured in an impressive statement of policy issued by Hillary Clinton while in Thailand in July 2009. By about mid-2011, however, the administration began getting nervous that its lack of "engagement" might tempt Pyongyang to conduct nuclear or missile tests. Once again, engagement slipped from being a marginally useful means to the end of the policy in itself. After a flurry of negotiations the North agreed in the February 29 "Leap Year" deal that it would stop nuclear and missile tests for a while and let IAEA inspectors back at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for food aid (now euphemistically called "nutritional assistance"). Nobody in the administration was convinced this was a breakthrough, but it seemed to kick the North Korea problem down the road for a while. Problem solved.
Well, not quite. Within days of the agreement evidence mounted that the North might go ahead with a missile test anyway. The White House rushed off a high level delegation to Pyongyang in early March to warn that a test would scuttle the food aid deal. That "secret" mission soon became widely known because of clearance requests made for the plane across the U.S., Korean and Japanese governments. It did not matter anyway, since the North Koreans ignored the White House entreaties and went ahead with their ballistic missile test a few days later.
It was obvious to a number of us (see my previous posts) that North Korea intended to test missile and nuclear weapons in 2012 under almost any circumstances. I said as much to colleagues in the administration and warned that we were pinning too much on this agreement, which I did not oppose, but did not think would hold for very long. Hopeful North Korea watchers in and out of government acknowledged any agreement with the North is tenuous at best, but seemed genuinely perplexed that Pyongyang would violate this one so quickly. It makes sense, though. A series of negotiations had yielded the outlines of an agreement with the North in December that probably would have been announced that month if Kim Jong Il had not died suddenly. By March, IAEA inspectors would have been on the ground in Yongbyon investigating the North's showcase uranium enrichment facility. After a test would the international community have supported U.S. sanctions that would have forced the inspectors out? Kim Jong Un is new at the job and went with the original plan anyway -- cut the deal and then test. It just turned out that the gap between deal and no deal was shortened.
We should know by now that the main point for North Korea is developing the missile and nuclear capability; not the diplomatic agreements. Within months of its last two missile tests, Pyongyang tested nuclear devices. Sure enough, last week the North changed the preamble of its constitution to declare itself a full nuclear weapons state (as promised for years but dismissed a feint by hopeful observers). A third nuclear test within 2012 seems likely. If it is a higher plutonium yield (the last one was about 4-5 kilotons), that is bad. If it is a successful test of a uranium-based device, that is worse.
The administration is now entirely in reactive mode. They went for a lesser Presidential Statement (PRST) from the UNSC in response to the missile launch so that they would have their one North Korea UNSC Resolution bullet ready for a nuclear test when that comes. That gives the president a talking point after the next test, but it is not clear what else. Beijing, which had supported some slightly tougher language in the PRST, is now to calling on all parties to be restrained and return to the February 29 agreement.
A proactive strategy to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem would have looked entirely different. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) attempting to "engage" the North Koreans out of conducting a test, the administration could have done any number of things, including: supporting South Korean and Japanese requests to go to the UNSC to pressure Pyongyang before the launch; pressing China to actually implement sanctions under UNSC 1874 by spotlighting Chinese firms in violation (like the one that sold the North the mobile missile TEL that was paraded in the streets of Pyongyang recently); working with friends and allies to inspect any ships that have docked in North Korea in the previous 120 days (hundreds of such ships are estimated to pull into South Korean ports alone each year); cracking down on North Korean uses of "flags of convenience;" maintaining spending on missile defenses; keeping a more open mind on South Korean requests to extend their own surface-to-surface missile ranges so they can counterstrike deeper into North Korea...and the list goes on. None of these are radical proposals in light of North Korea's obvious intent to keep developing nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Yet I doubt the administration will do even half of these in response to another North Korean nuclear test. I do not fault the administration for talking to the North, but talk is cheap if it isn't backed by muscle.
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Bashir al Assad's government killed another 90 civilians on Saturday, firing artillery shells into a village and following up with gunshot-to-the-temple executions. At least 32 children under the age of 10 were among the victims. If you have the stomach to bear witness to the Syrian people's grief, most major news outlets have posted pictures.
The reaction of the Free World's leaders reads like a parody of fecklessness, but here are the actual quotes from the New York Times article:
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on what she described as the "vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighborhood."
"Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account," she said in a statement. "And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end."
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, issued a statement accusing Syria's government of committing "new massacres" and added that France would organize a meeting of the roughly 80-member Friends of Syria group as soon as possible.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Britain was looking for a strong international response and hoped to convene an "urgent" session of the United Nations Security Council "in the coming days."
The New York Times explains that the Obama administration is working with Russia to ease Assad out of power, and that "Mr. Obama, administration officials said, will press the proposal with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next month...." But it also reveals that Obama administration National Security Advisor Tom Donilon raised the same proposals in Moscow more than three weeks ago. The massacre in Houla is what we have to show for it.
The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad's government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.
In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.
While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia's vote in the U.N. Security Council.
So while Assad's forces shell neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, Secretary Clinton promises communications equipment to the disparate Syrian opposition. Make no mistake: Syrians are paying the price for our diplomatic nicety. They understand it, and those who would challenge despotism elsewhere understand that the United States is moving slowly enough that the Assad government may well succeed in breaking the resistance before we are of any help.
In fact, the Assad government seems to believe they're close to crushing the resistance: Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi declared as much last week, and the April 10th timeline agreed to by Assad for the U.N. peace plan is probably intended to allow consolidation of government gains against the resistance.
By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities -- multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.
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President Obama used his visit to Seoul this week for the Nuclear Security Summit to warn North Korea not to go through with its provocative plan to launch a long-range ballistic missile in April. The launch would only "further isolate" Pyongyang, he declared, and would bring neither "the security" nor "the respect" the regime seeks.
All the right words, and yet once again the United States is playing tactical catch-up in response to a strategic move by the North. It appears that the administration was genuinely surprised by the North's announcement on March 16 that it would go ahead with the missile launch. The launch would clearly violate existing U.N. Security Council resolutions and the recent U.S.-DPRK agreement of February 29 in which the United States was to provide food aid (well, "nutritional assistance") in exchange for the North halting provocative missile and nuclear tests and allowing IAEA inspectors into some of its Yongbyon facilities. The administration furled its collective brow and avoided celebrating the February 29 agreement as a breakthrough, but appeared convinced that they had kicked the North Korea can down the road past the nuclear summit and the presidential elections here and in South Korea. The North, no doubt sniffing a certain tactical desperation, has raised the ante.
It is surprising that the administration seems so surprised. As I pointed out in previous postings and in op-eds in the Washington Post and elsewhere last December when Kim Jong Il died, the North has been propagandizing for years about its intentions to become a "full nuclear weapons state" in 2012...predictably around the April 15 hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Speculation that the North's most recent escalation represents a power struggle between hardliners and internationalists in Pyongyang is silly. The North has been consistent and transparent about its intent to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them -- through missiles and/or transfer to third countries (the latter threat was made repeatedly to U.S. negotiators in 2003 and the capability demonstrated with the El Kibar reactor in Syria). Everything else the North does is a secondary tactical move within that longer-term objective, which they see as indispensable to regime survival.
The temptation in the White House will be to continue threatening to throw Pyongyang in the rhetorical briar patch of "international isolation" so that United States and our allies can focus our limited hard power on the more immediate problem of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. However, Tehran will take note of the U.S. response to North Korea. We should assume that the Mullahs have seen the video tape of Bill Clinton declaring in 1994 that he would not allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
The U.N. sanctions now in place from the North's previous missile and nuclear tests are not being fully enforced -- particularly by Beijing -- and there is pressure short of war that the administration can bring to bear on Pyongyang if necessary. If there are no consequences for the ballistic missile launch, the regime will come to expect minimal consequences for another nuclear test...or another transfer of nuclear related technology. And Tehran will definitely take note.
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Here we go again.
President Obama has reportedly asked for military options in Syria, including "humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring of Syria and the establishment of a no-fly zone, among other possibilities," according to the New York Times.
If the Syrian people are morally justified in fighting against their own government, then it is permissible (though not necessarily prudent) for the United States and other international actors to come to their aid. That is why the United States is and should be at least rhetorically and diplomatically on the side of the protesters and rebels. Further assistance might take the form of humanitarian assistance and money, with training and weapons a next step. But should it include a U.S. military deployment?
It's a hard case to make. Just because the Syrians have a just cause doesn't make it our fight. It becomes our fight if intervening in Syria a) would further U.S. national security interests, b) at an acceptable cost, c) with a reasonable chance of creating a situation in Syria better than the present one.
We certainly have a greater national security stake in Syria than we did in Libya, but is it enough to justify an intervention? Here's the best case I can make: we are fighting a 30-year Cold War against Iran, and anything we can do to contain and limit Iran's influence is good. Toppling the regime in Syria eliminates Iran's main regional ally and a major transit route for weapons and Hezbollah. Therefore, we should take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Syrian uprising affords us and make regime change in Damascus official U.S. policy. Fellow Shadow Government contributor John Hannah made a similar argument last year.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that's a sufficiently vital interest; I'll revisit it in a little bit. We still have to ask if an intervention is achievable and cost-effective. Here the argument for intervention becomes even harder. There is no international coalition supporting an intervention in Syria, making it harder to assure the Syrians of the benevolence of any intervention. The split in Syria is alarmingly along sectarian lines, suggesting there would be little chance of forming a national unity government after the fall of Assad and risking a replay of the 2006-7 Iraqi civil war. The nature of the fighting in Syria makes an outside intervention harder: rebels control no territory, a no-fly zone would be simply irrelevant, a no-drive zone would be tantamount to invasion.
Furthermore, Obama showed in Libya that he is willing to topple a regime and then walk away, leaving the hard work of peacebuilding to others and casting serious doubt on the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. That precedent bodes ill for a post-Assad Syria. Additionally, the domestic political pressure to reduce U.S. spending makes it hard for Obama, or any American policymaker, to push for the kind of large-scale reconstruction and stabilization assistance that a post-war Syrian would need. In short, there is a sadly low probability that we could overthrow Assad, replace him with something better, and avoid chaos.
More broadly, I doubt that we have the kind of political will necessary to make an intervention of this sort effective. I admit this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more we write about how little political will we have, the less political will we have). I especially hate it when this kind of argument is leveled against the intervention in Afghanistan, a place where we have demonstrated astonishing political will for more than a decade. And I dislike the argument because it implies a defeatist, pessimistic take on American capabilities. I tend to agree with Robert Kagan that the stories of our decline and fall are greatly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, some realistic pessimism is appropriate in this particular case. Does anyone think the Obama administration, or the American foreign policy establishment generally, has what it takes to do a Syrian intervention right? I want to believe that we can do this because it is almost a textbook-perfect case of where our interests and our ideals have aligned with rare harmony. But if I, the last champion of nation-building, am skeptical, is anyone else going to believe it is possible?
Now let's return to our interests at stake in Syria. Our involvement in Syria would essentially be a proxy fight in our broader campaign against Iran. But there is a danger in choosing to make Syria a battlefield. We might sink time, money, troops, and energy into regime change in Syrian; meanwhile, Iran successfully completes and weaponizes the nuclear cycle. Syria would be a pyrrhic victory. We run the risk of confusing a sideshow with the main event. The main event is Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Will intervening in Syria prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Who is an intervention most likely to slow down: Iran, or the United States?
Given the difficulty of doing a Syrian intervention right and the fact that it is not the primary U.S. interest in the region, I am not currently persuaded that an intervention would be good U.S. policy. (I know it is heretical to say that anything that happens in the Middle East is not absolutely vital to American interests. But I am increasingly convinced that this particular emperor is naked.) That may change if, for example, the Syrian uprising demonstrates much greater capacity and unity, if the international community begins to coalesce around an anti-Assad position, or if Assad himself starts to look for a way out, the achievement of which should be the focus our diplomatic strategy. Until then, masterly inactivity might be our best military strategy.
Meanwhile, take a moment to reflect: Syria is precisely the sort of mission we should be able to do, but Obama's decision that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" effectively takes it off the table. The fact that we lack the capacity and the will to act when it would be both in our own self-interest and in defense of humanitarian ideals is one of the most damning things that can be said about Obama's defense strategy. That he is now asking for military options for Syria suggests he knows it.
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How to explain the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian government's continuing killing spree against its own people? What strategic interest or moral imperative dominates their thinking?
Officially, Russia and China claim to be preventing the international community from doing another Libya; they are insisting on patience and "balance." The U.S., UK, France, the rest of the Security Council and pretty much the rest of the world, including the Arab League, beg to differ. Those speaking out the most forcefully don't buy what they consider excuse making for a bloody dictator.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice finds no ethical stance that can justify it, calling the vetoes "disgusting" and "shameful" and warning that the blame for the future deaths of Syrian civilians is on Russia and China. Amb. Rice does not comment on what strategic interests the vetoing states might be pursuing, though we can certainly speculate.
For Russia, Syria's dictatorship is its last client left standing in the Middle East, both political and economic since Syria provides a warm seaport and buys Russian weaponry. To watch it fall means ceding the field largely to the U.S. and the EU, and losing revenue. The stakes are indeed high for Russia. For China, the best explanation is inertia; China defines its national interest -- apart from its freedom to engage in commerce wherever it can -- according to the principle of non-intervention. Its reaction to the Syria situation is like its reaction to every other such situation: everyone should mind his own business, we like things as they are. (That China seems to contradict itself when it comes to Filipino, Vietnamese, or Japanese territorial interests requires a little semantic gymnastics.)
But let's look at this matter from thirty thousand feet. This latest turn in the Syrian tragedy reminds one of Talleyrand's famous comment applied to Napoleon's judicial murder of a noble: "[I]t was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." That is, the stance the Russians and the Chinese are taking hinders them from attaining the very goal they seek: to be seen as legitimate world leaders on par with the U.S. and the EU. When the West and the Arab League are on the same page, and most of the second and third ranking powers and beyond are with them, any state taking Bashar al-Assad's side is hard-pressed to stake a claim for world leadership. Syria's blatant violation of the norms of the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights is patently obvious, as was the late Muammar Qaddafi's. For Russia and China to fail to recognize that and join the rest of the world in condemning it and seeking an end to these violations is in some ways worse: We expect tyrants like al-Assad to do what he is doing, but since the democracy revolutions and the Arab Spring, we rightly expect a different reaction from members of the Security Council entrusted with the only international organizational authority to do something about it.
No one expects Russia to lightly watch an ally go down, or for China to acquiesce in what it considers the violation of the most important international relations principle. Neither country wants to see further precedents being set of the average citizen rising up to challenge the established power. But I'd use their own words against them, the words they used in announcing their veto regarding the need in the resolution for "balance." There was a certain logic to calls for "balance" during the Cold War no matter how clanging it sounded. Much of international relations was a zero-sum game. But the Cold War is over. The publics of the Middle East are all in various stages of uprising and rebellion against centuries of tyranny, and they are aided by technology and social media in a way that means they will not be deterred short of death. That is a fact. Therefore, to oppose them and call for "balance" or "restraint" is to side with those who would without compunction kill as many of their citizens as they have to in order to stay in power; we're talking genocide now as a matter of course and endless instability. The democracy genie is out of the bottle.
So now the logic of "balance" is moot; urging acceptance of the democracy-crushing status quo is a spent force. International prestige and legitimate claims to world leadership now rest on those who accept that history has indeed ended in this sense: People want the dignity of self-government and they have the technological means to perpetually bring once unshakeable dictators to the nightmare scenario. Would-be world leaders should choose the right side now. After all, both ethics and logic point the way clearly now. That's the real "reset" that is needed, and it is good to see the Obama administration's diplomats at the UN representing it.
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A word about Lebanon. Given everything else happening in the Middle East, it's easy to lose track of that country's plight. The last time most Americans tuned in back in January, Hezbollah -- backed by Syria and Iran -- had successfully engineered a bloodless coup, using threats of violence and intimidation to collapse the democratically-elected government of Saad Hariri and nominate its own candidate for prime minister. The fact that they chose to do so at precisely the moment that the pro-Western Hariri was being hosted in the Oval Office by President Obama only underscored the extent to which the maneuver was not simply an assault on Lebanon's democracy and independence, but a calculated effort to undermine U.S. interests and power in the Levant. For many, it looked to be the final nail in the coffin of Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, the popular uprising in 2005 that ended three decades of Syrian military occupation and brought Hariri's March 14th coalition to power. Lebanon, it appeared, had truly gone dark.
But not so fast. Bloodied and bruised, March 14th is not yet cowed. In mid-February, on the sixth anniversary of the bombing that killed his legendary father, Hariri strongly denounced Hezbollah's coup and declared that March 14th would re-constitute itself as a full-fledged opposition to the Iranian/Syrian/Hezbollah project in Lebanon. He vowed to fight their effort to derail the international tribunal investigating his father's murder, which is widely expected to unveil indictments in the near future fingering Hezbollah's central role in the conspiracy. Even more daringly, Hariri recently doubled down when he announced that the disarmament of Hezbollah would be resurrected as the centerpiece of March 14th's political program to save Lebanon's democracy, sovereignty, and independence. True to his word, March 14th yesterday released "Independence 2011," a new political manifesto aimed at securing Lebanon's freedom by bringing Hezbollah's arms under state control and bringing Hariri-père's killers to justice.
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Calls are now ranging far and wide for the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent the government from continuing to use air power to attack rebel forces fighting to unseat Muammar Qaddafi. In addition to our domestic debate, Libyan ministers until recently part of the Qaddafi government (including their former interior minister and deputy U.N. ambassador) are urgently calling for it, the Gulf Cooperation Council supported it, the British and French have drafted and are pushing a U.N. Security Council resolution, and the Arab League ambassador in Washington has even suggested that organization will endorse a no-fly zone within a week.
If the Obama administration decides a no-fly zone needs doing, it ought not to jump from there to the United States establishing and enforcing it. Instead of taking up the call to provide the military force, the United States should instead pull together a coalition to undertake the work, one in which we play a minor operational role but undertake to recruit, organize, and manage the force necessary to do the job successfully. Such a role is consistent with our interests and has the potential to share broadly the burden such operations entail.
The coalition build will be complicated by the unlikelihood of getting a U.N. Security Council mandate -- and there will be a certain irony in the Obama administration orchestrating a coalition of the willing after their condemnation of the practice in the George W. Bush administration. But it appears there will be plenty of countries willing to advocate the undertaking.
The administration should do more than have their support, it should have their participation. It ought to seek a formal mandate from the Arab League sanctioning the operation, which would be a first for that organization working with the U.S. and support the administration's National Security Strategy vision for strengthening multilateral institutions.
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The calls by liberals like John Kerry, and some not-so-liberal types like John McCain, have prompted a reaction from both the administration, which prefers meaningless pronouncements over concrete action to influence events on the ground, as well as from solid conservatives like my colleague and friend Kori Schake, who worry about the true nature and intentions of the Libyan opposition. In the meantime, however, Muammar al-Qaddafi continues both to profit from oil revenues -- Libya is still exporting oil -- and to kill his own people. His aircraft continue flying with impunity, and bombing targets on the ground. Just as the Obama administration's bluster has had no effect whatsoever on the course of the civil war, so too have the much vaunted sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council done little to unseat the Libyan madman.
Some of Libya's rebels are saying they do not want U.S. intervention; others are pleading for it. And it is true that no one knows who these rebels really are. So there is much to the argument that arming these people -- who in any event have managed to obtain arms on their own -- may not be a terribly good idea. In addition, since at least some of the rebels themselves have stated that they oppose American air strikes, much less any sort of intervention on the ground, there is no reason for the United States, or any of its reluctant allies, to contemplate such actions.
At the same time, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Pentagon have gone much further: they insist that any kind of military action -- even a no-fly zone -- simply places excessive demands on U.S. resources. Libya's air defenses would first have to be demolished, they posit, and even then, the country is just too big. And, they argue, any action by the United States must be taken in conjunction with its allies -- meaning NATO. Since several NATO states, notably Turkey, are averse to interfering with Mr. Qaddafi's bloodletting, nothing will happen. How convenient.
The Obama administration appears unclear about why a no-fly zone is called for. It is not just a matter of the rebels' interests; it is, first and foremost, in U.S. interests. After all, what if Qaddafi were to defeat the rebels because there was no interference with his air strikes against them, which are increasing with every passing day. Would his victory serve U.S. interests?
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The sanctions which have been placed on Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, his family members, and his senior officials are strong. They include asset freezes, travel bans, and threats of criminal prosecution. All of which add up to a powerful signal to the Libyan regime that the war it is waging on its own people is illegitimate and unacceptable, and to the Libyan people that our sympathy is with them and we will act to prevent their national assets from being pillaged. The world is now a considerably less inviting place for Libyan officials, who have been known to carouse in the capitals of Europe, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
But therein a problem lies. The strategy followed thus far by the United States and its allies may persuade many Libyan officials that there is no future in following Qaddafi and therefore, defection to the opposition or negotiating an exit from Libya altogether is the most sensible course of action. But for others, especially those closest to Qaddafi, the sanctions and threats of international prosecution, combined with the advance of opposition forces, may convince them that they have little choice but to hunker down in Tripoli and Sirte and fight.
To deal with this possibility that Qaddafi and his loyalists will use all of the force at their disposal before giving in, and that the violence in Libya may therefore get considerably worse, further international action is needed. The United States and EU should seek U.N. Security Council authorization for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya.
We have heard much from U.S. officials in recent days about the risks of imposing a no-fly zone, but inaction also has its consequences.
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Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today's press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to say about Libya and was determined not to say it.
I am not expecting the White House spokesman to make policy from the podium, but I did expect the White House to be further ahead of the curve today than they were yesterday or the day before, thus giving Carney more material to work with. I can think of only two plausible explanations for the weak White House response thus far:
Either explanation is plausible or perhaps both are in play. If the first explanation is the correct one, I think the White House's stance is understandable but exceedingly risky. Making concessions to virtual hostage-takers only makes sense as a temporary tactic in a larger strategy that quickly turns to a more forceful intervention. (By the way, if the hostage scenario is correct, the issue of U.N. authorization before military force is moot. It still may not make sense to escalate immediately to military action, but President Obama would have a substantially freer hand in terms of what options would be legitimate). If the second explanation is correct, this is an important test of the president's mettle. He needs to decide the matter and establish a clear policy ... and soon.
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It is not fair to criticize the Obama administration too harshly for its failure to come up with a single, robust policy regarding the spreading street unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has been playing catch-up and has often been a step or two behind, but I think that is inevitable when one is confronting revolutionary cascades. Moreover, the region is dotted with very different governments, ranging from friendly autocrats who have been liberalizing (albeit too slowly) to thuggish despots who used almost every tool at their disposal to oppress their people and frustrate U.S. interests in the region. The popular movements rising in the region may share some features in common, but the regimes they are threatening are very different. It would be very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy that would endure given these conditions.
So I have some sympathy for the way the Obama administration has handled, for instance, the situation in Bahrain. The regime there has supported key U.S. policies over the years, and securing long-term access to the home port of the 5th Fleet is an important U.S. national interest. The ethnic mix in Bahrain is volatile, and the Sunni rulers have good reason to fear Iranian adventurism -- long a staple in the region. For precisely those reasons, however, the administration is right to use its influence to pressure the regime into avoiding bloodshed and accommodating legitimate political grievances of the protesters. Calibrating the pressure and the message is hard, but the core U.S. interests involved are fairly straightforward.
I have less sympathy for the same equivocation with regard to Libya. The Qaddafi regime is no friend of the United States. While Qaddafi did make a major concession on WMD in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is likely that that deal would be honored (or an even better one secured) by any regime installed after its ouster. Moreover, the level of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon the street protesters goes well beyond what the other regional autocrats have done. Full-throated condemnation would seem an easy call for the administration. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes in a tough column today, the U.S. message has not been all that full-throated, not yet anyway.
The Obama administration needs to do more, but I would not go as far as some who advocate having U.S. forces impose a no-fly zone. I share their outrage at the way Qaddafi had his Air Force strafe defenseless citizens, but involving the U.S. military in this way would constitute a major escalation and it would be hard to walk back if the situation further unraveled. What if Qaddafi shifted to tanks? Would we then be obligated to have our planes destroy the tanks? And without U.N. authorization, the United States would be entirely on its own. Not even our European allies, who otherwise would join in condemning the Qaddafi regime, would approve of U.S. military action without U.N. authorization.
The United States has acted without U.N. authorization before and rightly so, most famously in the Kosovo war of 1999, although there we were joined by all of our NATO allies. (Academics also debate whether the 16 prior UNSC resolutions on Iraq provided adequate legal cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq or whether the Bush administration needed a 17th.) But in these cases, the action came after considerable diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other avenues of pressure were tried and found wanting, and only then was a resort to extraordinary force taken.
As Wolfowitz and others note, there is much the United States can do and pressure other states into doing short of unilateral military actions. The Obama administration should take those steps, and quickly.
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I'd like to take a short break from my running critique of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy to laud him for supporting India's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. I don't know what the administration's rationale was for the shift in U.S. policy, but I think there is a strong realist case for expanding the Security Council to include not just India, but also Japan, Germany, and Brazil.
International institutions like the United Nations are mostly useless. At their best, they oversell their relevance. They do not exert much independent influence on world events distinct from the states that comprise their membership. What needs doing gets done by states, not by institutions. At their worst, institutions waste time and money on ill-advised causes. But institutions do serve a purpose. They provide regularity to the interaction between states. They enshrine norms and patterns of behavior. They provide a reliable talk-shop. They make it easier to conduct multilateral talks and negotiations. They (sometimes) provide a credible, neutral, third-party voice. They can become useful stores of expertise and data on highly specialized issues.
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In response to my last post about why realists should support nation building, some readers responded with a curious argument: Afghanistan (they believe) is failing, therefore nation building is impossible. Set aside the fact that this is does not respond to my argument -- which was not about Afghanistan and did not argue that nation building is easy, only that it can serve our interests when done right -- it strikes me as a lazy argument to condemn nation building on the basis of a single example. I call this the Somalia Fallacy.
According to the Somalia Fallacy, the failure of the U.N.'s effort to rebuild Somalia in the 1990s proves that all nation building interventions are doomed to fail. It is the favored argument of pundits who want to argue against overseas interventions. Fareed Zakaria gave perfect expression to the Somalia Fallacy in a Washington Post column in July. "The trouble with trying to fix failed states is that it implicates the United States in a vast nation building effort in countries where the odds of success are low and the risk of unintended consequences is very high. Consider Somalia..." Zakaria then retells the recent history of that unfortunate state, and concludes "Somalia highlights the complexity of almost every approach to failed states."
Well, no, it doesn't. Somalia is not a useful historical analogy from which to generalize about failed states (and neither is Afghanistan). To make a useful generalization, you'd want to start with a typical failed state, or, better yet, several of them. Somalia is not a typical failed state: it is an extreme outlier. It has been the most completely failed state on earth for almost two decades. On top of that, the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s was not a typical U.N. intervention: it was a singularly, uniquely inept one. Deploy an inept U.N. mission to the most failed state and you have the recipe for a famous catastrophe, not have a blueprint for how all interventions are doomed to play out.
The freedom section of President Obama's address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday deserves applause -- two cheers at least. It was the most extensive, fulsome, and compelling defense of human rights and democracy of his presidency, and it strategically placed political freedom in the context of economic freedom and development. To be sure, it was also a long overdue statement; Obama's relative silence and inaction on such issues until now has been a major disappointment. Whatever the reasons may have been for the prior reticence -- an immature "Anything But Bush" reflex, a relative disinterest in foreign policy, an enervated and miscast "realism," -- they have now been supplanted. With this speech, the historically bipartisan U.S. commitment to supporting liberty and human dignity abroad has returned, and on the world stage of the United Nations General Assembly.
Why not three cheers? While presidential rhetoric matters, to have enduring meaning it must be backed up by action. As strong as it was as a statement of principles, President Obama's speech did not point to a policy course going forward. Tellingly, the first third of his speech in the "what we have done" section reviewing his first two years contained not a word on the cause of freedom. It was only in the looking ahead, "what are we trying to build" section at the end that he turned to human rights and democracy.
But it is a welcome turn, and fortunately comes at what could be a propitious time for the advance of liberty. As powerful as the presidency is, it is still in the service of events. George W. Bush did not set out to be a wartime president until September 11th; Harry Truman did not assume office intending to be America's first Cold War president. The challenge a president faces is to read events and respond by seizing the initiative, to steer history's tides rather than merely be swept along.
What of events today? Even a cursory glance around the globe shows a number of nations that are in tyranny's crucible, and whose citizens may find the possibility of freedom within their grasp. Sometimes this grasp can be aided by presidential attention or even a few strategic gestures that tip the scales. Such can be the opportunity for President Obama.
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The U.N. secretary-general is hosting a high-level meeting this week in New York calling on governments to remain committed to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by 2015. It is clear that in the midst of a world economic crisis, the United Nations is hoping to use the MDGs to garner billions of dollars in additional financial commitments.
The United States is not a formal signatory to the MDGs (established in September 2000), but broadly agrees with the eight targets and uses them as "indicators, but not a strategy" (as Laura Hall and Elizabeth Cutler point out over at the Stimson Center blog; see also Laura’s take on the importance of implementation here).
Both the United States and Britain have in large part continued to lead the developed world in fighting poverty and bringing positive change to the developing world. Programs such as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Malaria Initiative, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, access to education, and Debt Relief for Africa all charted new paths for partnering with the developing world to provide opportunities for millions. The Obama administration has largely remained committed to the paths set forth by President Bush.
Yesterday during his speech to the U.S. General Assembly, President Obama said that foreign assistance should be focused on development, not dependence. Obama went on to say that, "Secretary of State Clinton is leading a review to strengthen and better coordinate our diplomacy and our development efforts." He further said that his administration is rebuilding the United States Agency for International Development (USIAD).
This rebuilding of USAID has been mired with challenges and problems. Phil Levy highlights below that it took more than a year for an USAID administrator to be appointed. Today, USAID still has vacancies in the majority of its top political posts. Even if the White House were to nominate appointees now, these individuals will have little affect on USAID policies and programs in the short term.
To add to the confusion, the administration is still undergoing an internal review of development assistance grappling with who actually controls the budget mechanisms to implement foreign aid. The development community continues to express its frustration that there is no clear strategy.
While governments, foundations, businesses and civil society groups continue to rally around the MDGs' call to action to slash poverty, hunger and disease by 2015, the Obama administration needs to demonstrate it is serious about foreign assistance and its overall development policy.
The infighting between the White House and the State Department should stop, and the administration must provide clear inter-agency guidelines through the White House's Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7) or the State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).
We will fail to make the grade on the world stage if we can't get our own house in order.
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After rumors that the Obama administration might back down in the face of Chinese pressure, the Pentagon confirmed on July 14 that the United States and the Republic of Korea would in fact go ahead with joint naval exercises off both coasts of the Korean peninsula in response to North Korea's March 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan. Time will tell, but this could be the moment that Barack Obama finally found his inner realist when it comes to China strategy.
From the beginning, the Obama administration has had a schizophrenic view of China's growing power and influence. On the one hand, realists in the administration continued the prevailing "Armitage-Nye" strategy (named after former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage and former Clinton Defense official Joe Nye) of engaging China while maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region through tighter relations with U.S. allies. Consistent with that strategy, Obama made a point of inviting Japanese Premier Taro Aso for the first bilateral summit in the Oval Office and Secretary of State Clinton made Japan her first overseas stop last March.
At the same time, however, other senior members of the Obama administration argued that balance-of-power logic was inimical to the kind of accommodation the United States would have to make towards China in order to deal with new transnational challenges such as climate change. They argued in a formula that undermined the realists' approach that no major international challenge could be resolved without China's cooperation -- a message that was internalized in Beijing as meaning that China had earned a veto on all major international issues from the Obama administration. When Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement last November in Beijing, the two leaders acknowledged each others' "core interests." Since then, the Chinese side has steadily expanded the list of Chinese "core interests" to include U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and suzerainty over the South China Sea while yielding virtually nothing in terms of military transparency, human rights or curbing North Korea's nuclear program.
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I have a few more musings on the
the war clocks" issue, specifically the question of accelerating the
Afghan battle clock by getting more help from Pakistan. What might the
outlines of a deal with Pakistan look like? I don't have specifics, but I
can think of some design features and suggest some out-of-the-box things to
think about. In the spirit of stimulating the strategic policy planners
who have better access to the information necessary to do this exercise right,
here are some considerations.
General Design Features
The absolutely essential element is explicit quid pro quo. It is fine for us to offer intangible, mood-setting quids, but their quo better be tangible and clearly spelled out in advance. The entire deal would not have to be public; indeed perhaps some elements would have to stay confidential. But the deal would have to be worth it to risk the inevitable leaks and set-backs and it is only worth it if Pakistan delivers concrete action.
The United States would also have to be willing to step back from the deal if
the other players are not doing their part. This is harder to do than it
sounds because, once established, every "deal" develops political
inertia and American leaders can be reluctant to break it off even when it is
clearly not delivering.
What should we ask for?
I would let General McChrystal draw up the list of asks, but I am pretty sure it would involve the movement of sizable Pakistani military units to put pressure on the areas that most affect the Taliban's freedom of movement as well as the sharing of intelligence that would substantially change the local balance of power on either side of the Durand line.
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For too long, Beijing has coddled, excused, shielded, subsidized, and appeased the indefensible -- Kim Jong-Il's nightmarish regime in North Korea.
China is the key to solving the Korean quandary. The Middle Kingdom is North Korea's largest trade partner, most generous aid donor, and only real friend. Without help from China, North Korea is not viable -- if such an impoverished and benighted nation can be said to be so. In what should be an embarrassment to modern business and political leaders in Beijing, relations between China and North Korea are still conducted by their recondite and fossilized Communist Parties.
Again, the North has crossed the line of civilized behavior -- if indeed it has ever resided on the proper side of that boundary -- by torpedoing a South Korean ship and killing 46 sailors. This is not new behavior. In October 1983, North Korean agents attempted to blow up South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan during a wreath-laying ceremony in Burma. The attempt failed, but killed 21 people, including several of Chun's cabinet. In the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea kidnapped dozens, if not hundreds of Japanese and South Korean citizens, ripping them from their families to exploit them for their knowledge of the outside world. In the 1990s, Pyongyang's policies of meeting military needs first and autarky starved more than 1 million North Koreans. Later, North Korea exported nuclear weapons material and technology to Libya and Syria.
In response to the North's latest atrocity, Chinese Premier Dai Bingguo toured Northeast Asia, urging restraint and maintaining studied neutrality between the aggressor and the aggrieved. Surely, this is a prelude to asking the United States, Japan, and South Korea to make further concessions to Pyongyang. At the same time, North Korea seems to be implementing plans for Kim Jong-Eun to succeed his father, perhaps after a period of regency. Undoubtedly, Pyongyang consulted its Chinese patrons on this plan. But rather than perpetuating this monstrous dynasty, Beijing should seize the opportunity for change.
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The U.N. Security Council today passed resolution 1929 attaching further sanctions to Iran for pursuance of nuclear programs condemned by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Obama administration is doing its best to put a good face on a major disappointment: After sixteen months' effort, they have succeeded in delivering less international support than did the Bush administration for a problem everyone agrees is growing rapidly worse.
Sanctions have been the centerpiece of the Obama administration's approach. Secretary Clinton proclaimed last summer we would coalesce the international community around "crippling sanctions." President Obama more recently reaffirmed that sanctions would be "significant." Yet the sanctions outlined in Resolution 1929 are so modest that even the White House sounded sheepish in its announcement of the resolution's passage:
The resolution reaffirms the international community's willingness to resolve international concerns over Iran's nuclear program through negotiations, while laying out the steps that Iran must take to restore international confidence in its nuclear program, thereby allowing for the suspension or termination of these sanctions.
The Resolution does show the handiwork of Stuart Levy's superb team at the Department of Treasury: the Iranian Central Bank is mentioned, companies linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are cited, and the lead scientist in the Iranian nuclear program is listed by name. But even though the number of entities ostensibly affected is twice that previously listed in U.N. resolutions, Tehran should be celebrating all it achieved.
Russia's vote was bought by exempting Russian firms from the restrictions. President Putin has announced the Bushehr reactor will come on line with Russia's continued assistance this summer. Russian Parliamentarian Mikhail Margelov, Head of the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee even said the deal will permit deployment of S-300 missile systems to Iran, which the Untied States has worked for years to prevent. All this in addition to canceling NATO missile defense deployments and going silent on the strangulation of freedoms within Russia.
Turkey and Brazil voted against the resolution, Lebanon abstained. A treaty ally of the United States whose territory borders on Iran, and which President Obama visited to showcase his new approach to the so-called muslim world could not be persuaded by the Obama Administration to cast its vote with us.
And the Administration seems to have no strategy for what to do next. Sanctions aren't a strategy, they're a tool for achieving the strategic objective of preventing Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. We're over-reliant on sanctions to deliver that weighty objective and need to be thinking much more creatively about how to impose costs on the Iranian government -- internationally and domestically -- for their choices.
When pressed to accede to his country being ruled by Macedonia, the Greek statesman Demosthenes refused, saying "I do not purchase regret at such a price." It could be that the Security Council Resolution will do the trick and Tehran will reconsider its current course. But I doubt it. It seems instead that we have purchased regret at the price of re-establishing Russian cooperation with Iran's nuclear and missile programs, demonstrating our inability to deliver both a NATO ally and an increasingly important rising power, and revealing that we have no cards to play except enfeebled sanctions.
This past week marked yet another of 2009's 20th anniversaries highlighting the challenges we face to protect the world's afflicted. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), passed in 1989, has now been ratified by 193 countries -- except the United States and Somalia. Its 20th anniversary prompted the usual round of calls on the United States to ratify it, but ratification would not necessarily improve the lives of the world's children. The Obama administration says it is reviewing the CRC, but the reality is that like some other human rights treaties, the technicalities of U.S. law and problems with some aspects of the CRC make ratification anytime soon unlikely.
Vulnerable children are a common denominator in many foreign policy challenges today -- whether an orphan who needs to be adopted, a child soldier or trafficking victim who needs to be reunited, an unaccompanied minor refugee who needs to go home, or a poor child whose family needs support to stay together. Instead of the CRC, a far more productive focus for child advocates would be to urge Secretary Clinton to fix the broken U.S. policy and aid apparatus on global children's issues. A good start would be to designate someone at the State Department, ambassador-level or higher, to coordinate all child protection issues across the U.S. government.
International children's issues currently fall afoul of the U.S. government's dysfunctional foreign aid system. There is bipartisan consensus that the system is broken. Secretary Rice attempted foreign assistance reform through transformational diplomacy, and the Obama administration has its State-led Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and pending legislation on the Hill. But I doubt change is imminent. For the foreseeable future, gaps will remain in culture, approach, and purpose between State, USAID, and other U.S. agencies with international programs -- and vulnerable children around the world will continue to fall through the cracks.
Every child's right to a family, their best protection against abuse, is enshrined in the CRC. But protecting that right requires finding permanent solutions for each orphan, abandoned or separated child. From a U.S. policy perspective, responsibility for each category of children as well as the solutions available to them are spread across numerous offices and departments from State, to USAID, to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and others. The divisions run wide and deep, but the issue where American foreign policy interests come together around children -- or more often collide -- is over inter-country adoption.
Americans adopt more children from abroad than any other nation and international adoptions have more than doubled since 1989. Adoption is not right for every child without a family nor is it the full solution to the orphan crisis brought on by HIV/AIDS. But for many needy children adoption is the only way to have a permanent family. Yet adoptions must be done right. Unfortunately, weak laws and regulations in developing countries, preferences for infants over older children, and the money involved can lead to inappropriate adoptions and, in extreme cases, baby selling. Such problems have forced the State Department's Office of Children's Issues to stop adoptions from specific countries like Cambodia and Guatemala until officials could ensure that they were legitimate -- a necessary but tragic outcome for families and children caught in the pipeline.
As a member of the Policy Planning Staff under Secretary Rice, I developed an initiative that would have improved interagency coordination and created bilateral partnerships and a trust fund at UNICEF to help countries strengthen their own child protection systems. Though there was wide support including from the Secretary herself, the initiative was derailed by petty turf issues, scarce resources and resistance to new approaches -- all common bureaucratic dysfunctions. Opposition to international adoption also played a role. A USAID officer told me that he maintains a firm wall between international adoptions and any assistance he oversees for orphans to keep it from being "tainted." The problem is that the same authorities in developing countries in charge of adoptions are also in charge of other vulnerable children. The bureaucratic wall helps no one -- not the abandoned child languishing in an institution even though a family is willing to adopt him or the government official trying to stop bad adoptions and place children safely into families in her own country. It needs to come down.
It will take a mandate from the top to push the bureaucracy past these problems and Secretary Clinton is perfectly placed to direct it. As a former Senator and long-time child advocate, she knows of the strong bipartisan support in Congress for adoption and orphan issues. The secretary can task someone on her staff, possibly an existing assistant secretary, with the mandate to implement a comprehensive strategy to protect children globally. An "ambassador for children" could chair a senior policy coordinating group to include HHS and others to oversee strategic diplomacy, technical assistance, exchanges, and public-private partnerships to help developing countries improve child protection systems and provide better oversight of all adoptions. An effective coordinating mechanism could unlock significant resources from Congress, the private sector, faith-based groups, and other international partners.
Assisting countries that want to improve their own governance is the best way to reduce the abuse, exploitation and neglect of orphans and vulnerable children anywhere. It doesn't require ratifying a new treaty, just some leadership and more effective cooperation.
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There is an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the efforts of many members of the U.N. General Assembly to undermine the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This idea, which was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, says, in essence, that governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from grave human rights abuses like genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity -- and that if or when they fail, the international community, working through the Security Council, has a responsibility to act. Many countries believe this concept will invite Western meddling in internal affairs, and so General Assembly President D'Escoto and former Indian Permanent Representative Sen have rallied a coalition in opposition to the concept.
There was one line in the Times piece that, I think, bears correcting. The author says that the Bush administration "disliked the doctrine on the ground that it might tie American hands in foreign policy decisions." In fact, the Bush administration endorsed R2P in 2005 and worked throughout the administration to see the principle put into practice. Secretary Rice, for example, cited R2P in calling on the Security Council to act in Darfur, and has many times cited her disappointment that we were not more successful in ensuring effective R2P action. We worked with other Security Council members to reaffirm R2P in U.N. Security Council resolution 1674, and as an assistant secretary of state, I endorsed the concept publicly many times.
If anything, I think the Bush team was more aggressive than most U.S. administrations in pressing both the responsibility of states to protect their citizens from human rights abuses and the responsibility of the Security Council to act when governments fail. For most of U.S. history, the human rights abuses in Burma, for example, would not have fit within the U.S. government's definition of a "threat to international peace and security" sufficient to trigger U.N. Security Council jurisdiction. President Bush believed that human rights abuses may meet this standard, and so we led the effort to place Burma on the Security Council's agenda for the first time in history and even pressed a Security Council Resolution on the subject to the point of provoking a double Russian-Chinese veto.
Whatever the outcome of the General Assembly debate, the U.S. should continue to work to defend and strengthen the international community's ability to take action under R2P. Columbia Law School professor Matthew Waxman is currently finishing a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, due out this fall, with a number of important recommendations on how the U.S. can move ahead on R2P.
I have one modest suggestion to throw into the mix: The U.S. should make clear that it will not support any country for U.N. Security Council permanent membership without a demonstrated commitment to R2P. This means countries that have worked to shield Burma and Zimbabwe and Iran from international scrutiny need not apply. (Congress should also make clear that this is a requirement of U.S. ratification of any Security Council expansion proposal.) R2P action is challenging enough under the current membership. If the Obama administration is serious about supporting R2P, it needs a Security Council with members fully committed to effective action.
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.