Tag: American foreign policy

Nothing New Under the Sun, Diplomacy Edition

A second-term American president begins a diplomatic opening with a long-time adversary. Neoconservatives, citing the adversary’s interpretation of the agreement, suggest that diplomacy harms US interests and tips the balance of power, perhaps irreversibly, in favor of the other party. They cultivate a sense of growing threat and a weakening America. The president responds by suggesting that those opposed to diplomacy seem to believe war is inevitable, and that they fail to appreciate that diplomacy provides an opportunity to avoid such a war, benefiting US interests. His opponents counter by accusing him of appeasement and a lack of will, calling him a “useful idiot for [enemy] propaganda.”

It’s 1988, and Ronald Reagan has just negotiated the INF treaty.

The parallel, of course, is to the current garment-rending over the interim deal negotiated between the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran. There is absolutely no plausible interpretation of this deal that puts Iran with or closer to a nuclear weapon at the end of the six month period covered by the deal. At worst, it either puts 4-6 weeks onto the breakout time frame, or else Iran cheats and that cheating is detected, given the increased inspection schedules in the deal. As the New York Times’ account notes:

The interim agreement is, in effect, an elaborate pause button that provides a basis for pursuing a larger accord. It adds at least several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb if it decided to pursue a military option, but it can be reversed if either side changes its mind.

Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that is sufficient for energy production but not for a bomb. The country’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons-grade fuel, will be diluted or converted to oxide so that it cannot be readily prepared for military purposes.

Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities. The agreement does not, however, require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5 percent, or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.

Increasing Iran’s more highly enriched stockpile of uranium is a necessary condition for their acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This deal either will reduce that stockpile, or the deal is off. Those are the possible outcomes.*

Objections to this interim agreement are really hard to understand on the merits. Supporters of the current Menendez-Kirk bill, which would preemptively hang more sanctions over the Iranians’ heads, insist they support diplomacy, but given that the Iranians have said repeatedly they’ll walk if the bill passes—and given that if they do walk, there are going to be a lot more calls for military strikes—that’s tough to believe. Only two Senate Republicans have yet to sign onto the bill–Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky–both of whom had supported previous sanctions legislation but are exhibiting the conservative values of caution and prudence while diplomacy (and diminution of Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium) ensues.

Then again, it is also hard to understand on the merits the neoconservative objections to the INF treaty (and to diplomacy with the Soviet Union altogether), and that turned out okay. Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail. Again.

* Some observers have worried about a nuclear facility whose location we don’t know at present. This is indeed a concern, although it is the same concern with or without the nuclear deal.

Obsession with Syria Obscures Other Middle East Problems and Pertinent Lessons

The Obama administration and most of the U.S. foreign policy community have become so obsessed with Syria that other important developments around the world are receiving inadequate attention. In a piece over at the National Interest Online, I describe some of the key trends in South Asia and East Asia, two regions that are more important than the Middle East to long-term U.S. security and economic interests.

Crucial events include India’s growing financial woes, the simmering tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and Japan’s increased willingness (in large part because of its problems with China) to boost its military spending and adopt a more confrontational stance toward Beijing. 

I also note that Syria is hardly the only source of worry in the Middle East itself. The renewed sectarian violence next door in Iraq is escalating at a frightening pace, Sunni-Shiite tensions in Bahrain are moving from a simmer to a boil, Libya is imploding, and Egypt is perched on the brink of civil war. The problems in Iraq and Libya hold pertinent lessons for those Americans who are eager to embark on a war against Syria. After all, those were Washington’s last two military crusades to oust odious dictators. And to be blunt, they have not turned out well.

Since the early spring, the level of bloodshed in Iraq has reached alarming proportions. And much of the violence reflects bitter sectarian divisions similar to those that make Syria such a fragile political entity. Iraq after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein has not turned out to be the peaceful, democratic, multi-religious society that George W. Bush’s administration touted as the goal of U.S. policy. 

The situation in Libya is even worse. Overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi has led to an awful aftermath. The horrifying September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was an early symptom of the chaos that has made Libya a thoroughly dysfunctional country. Today, a growing number of militias (many of which have rabidly Islamist orientations) have established small fiefdoms throughout the country, and the national government in Tripoli becomes increasingly impotent. Libya’s oil production has plunged, and with it the government’s principal source of revenue. 

Given the dismal outcomes of Washington’s last two military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa, one would think that proponents of a crusade in Syria would be sobered by the experience. But warhawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Representative Peter King, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol appear to have learned nothing from those debacles. More prudent figures in Congress and the broader foreign policy community need to overrule their wishes.

After bin Laden

As Chris Preble noted early Monday morning, Osama bin Laden is dead. In addition to celebrating V-OBL Day, we should take a moment to reflect on wars of the last decade and the civil liberties we have sacrificed since September 11, 2001. Malou Innocent makes the case for reconsidering our foreign policy, and Jim Harper asks if he can have his airport back. We lay out these thoughts in more detail in this Cato video, After bin Laden.

The phrase “after bin Laden” has a nice ring to it. Cato held counterterrorism conferences in 2009 and 2010, and there’s more Cato work on counterterrorism and homeland security here.

The Trouble with Doctrines

Many presidential foreign policy doctrines ago, George Kennan figured out what was wrong with them. In my latest post for The Skeptics, I rely on his insight to try to stop pundits from inventing an Obama Doctrine.

The national effort to discern an Obama Doctrine from our attack on Libya is likely to be futile. If it succeeds, it will be harmful. No one can make foreign policy without some theory or strategy. But as Kennan’s lament about the Truman Doctrine points out, doctrines tend to be post-hoc rationales of actions that confuse policy later. If taken seriously, they typically encourage foolish wars.

Kennan attributed the American desire for doctrines to our love of law and rules. I see it more as a product of divided power, which heightens the need for sales. Doctrines have a pseudo-scientific air that helps legitimate policy. They endow the messy process of presidential decision-making with false order. They over-generalize.

The rest of the post briefly applies this formula to all our presidential doctrines, from Monroe to Bush. With the exception of Nixon’s, almost all arose to justify military action and thus tend to encourage war. While I can imagine doctrines, like Weinberger-Powell, that might marginally help keep us out of trouble, even that substitutes a formula for careful consideration of action based on theory.

So I propose the Kennan Doctrine, which says don’t have a doctrine.

Should Washington Pick Egypt’s Next Leader?

The turmoil in Egypt, specifically in Cairo, turned violent in the past 36 hours as anti-government protesters clashed with pro-Mubarak groups.  During this period, and specifically today, the government crackdown widened to targeting foreign media.  Journalists and their crews were arrested, prevented from reporting, and beaten.  The anti-government protesters are pointing to Friday as a possible climax in what they are calling the “Friday of departure.”

President Mubarak, in an interview with ABC, said he would like to relinquish power now, but claims chaos will erupt if he did.  If he were to step down, or if he follows through on his promise not to run in the presidential election, the million dollar question in Washington becomes: who would the United States like to see as the new leader of Egypt?  And should Washington act to influence the outcome?

Over at The Skeptics, I address this by asking: Might it be better if the United States were to avoid micromanaging Egyptian politics altogether?  Whenever a crisis erupts in the world, policymakers usually approach the problem with the premise that Washington has to “do something.”  But must that include anointing another leader?

…Washington’s “do something” impulse seems to be overpowering common sense. Having backed the wrong person for too long, there is now a countervailing urge to correct our past error by backing the “right” person this time around.

I have a different idea. We should step back and consider that our close relationship with Mubarak over the years created a vicious cycle, one that inclined us to cling tighter and tighter to him as opposition to him grew. And as the relationship deepened, U.S. policy seems to have become nearly paralyzed by the fear that the building anger at Mubarak’s regime would inevitably be directed at us.

We can’t undo our past policies of cozying up to foreign autocrats (the problem extends well beyond Egypt) over the years. And we won’t make things right by simply shifting – or doubling or tripling – U.S. foreign aid to a new leader. We should instead be open to the idea that an arms-length relationship might be the best one of all.

Click here to read the entire post.

Protests in Egypt Continue

The new Egyptian cabinet was sworn in today amidst a seventh day of protests across the country.  For the White House, the continual tweaking of their response to the crisis, and declining to call for Mubarak to step-down, has left many in Egypt and the region wondering if the United States does in fact want to see the arrival of democracy to Cairo, or if it is simply content with allowing the status-quo to remain, with minor reforms.  Or perhaps they are just waiting for the chips to fall where they may.

This illustrates the conundrum facing the Obama administration.  Over at The Skeptics, I examine this a bit further:

The Obama administration is stuck with a policy not entirely of its own making – decades of U.S. taxpayer support for the Mubarak regime – but it also seems trapped by the dominant worldview in Washington that is preoccupied with finding a solution to every problem in the world. This global view flows from deeply flawed assumptions about the likelihood of a worst-case scenario transpiring in every case, and then exaggerating the impact of that worst-case on U.S. security. In many instances, the impact is presumed to be nearly catastrophic. In actuality, they almost never are.

Might Egypt be an exception? It is an important country in its own right, traditionally a center of the Arab world. Its population of 80 million people is larger than that of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon combined. Egypt is the second leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind only Israel, and it straddles one of the most important choke points in the world, the Suez Canal. Given its size, influence and location, there is the possibility that this spreads elsewhere. Protests have also broken out in Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan. The Saudis and Jordanians are nervous.

So how should the U.S. respond? In the short-term, the U.S. government needs to strike a balance, and not be seen as pushing too hard for Mubarak’s ouster; but Washington should not anoint a would-be successor, either. The message should be: this is for the Egyptian people to decide.

Click here to read the entire post.

Wikileaks Sheds Light on Government Ineptitude

For years I have told anybody who would listen how U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan contribute to Pakistan’s slow-motion collapse. Well it appears that my take on the situation was not so over-the-top. Amid some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower Wikileaks, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson warned in cable traffic that U.S. policy in South Asia “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.”

On one level, this cable underscores what a disaster American foreign policy has become. But on another level, the leak of this and other cables strikes me as completely odd and slightly scary. How did Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet and handing them to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, obtain access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

After 9/11, the government made an effort to link up separate archives of government information. In theory, anyone in the State Department or the U.S. military can access these archives if he has: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance. As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

I’m all for less government secrecy, particularly when U.S. officials are doing bizarre things like tabulating the biometric data of various UN officials, the heads of other international institutions, and African heads of state. That these supposedly “confidential” communications were so easily leaked highlights the appalling ineptitude of our unwieldy national security bureaucracy. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikileaks says as much about government policy as it does about government incompetence.