Tag: international relations

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.

How Much Do IR Academics and the Foreign Policy Community Disagree?

I was surprised but pleased to see that a blog post I wrote in 2009 started getting some attention yesterday. The post, which emerged from a paper I gave at the 2010 APSA, argued that there is a big gap between the views of U.S. grand strategy in the international relations academy versus the view in the foreign policy community (FPC), and that this gap is caused by domestic politics. In short, academics tend to think American strategy is unduly grandiose and FPC types think it’s great. Dan Drezner has a post up wondering whether this is generally true, or unique to the Iraq period.

To begin, I’m not sure why Drezner thinks that in order for my argument to be correct, “the foreign policy community should be united in dispatching military force at every opportunity since Iraq.” Neither the blog post nor the paper on which it was based argued that the foreign policy community should unanimously support every potential war, but rather that they were united around an activist strategy that produced Iraq.

That’s what made the recent article by Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and Bill Wohlforth so edifying. It was the first defense of American grand strategy I can recall reading that was sophisticated enough to be published in a journal like International Security. And the reason they wrote it? Because according to “many of the most prominent security studies scholars—and indeed most scholars who write on the future of U.S. grand strategy” retrenchment’s time has come.

It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of academics writing about grand strategy are realists, so that’s coloring the ideological content of what the academics are producing. Drezner has complained about realist victimhood before, but grand strategy is an elite sport, and even he admits that “America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik – though even here, things can be exaggerated.” Drezner then points to Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft as bearers of the realist flag, but even if you would lump Kissinger and Scowcroft in with Posen and Walt (I wouldn’t), both men are in their late 80s. There is no realist faction in the FPC, if by “realist” we mean “person whose views on strategy comport with leading academic realists.”

Think about members of the FPC who work on strategy and scholars in the academy who do so. Is a potential strategy debate between, say, a Democrat like Anne-Marie Slaughter and a Republican like Robert Kagan very interesting? I don’t think so. It’s fought between the seven and nine-yard lines at the primacy end of the field. Then consider a debate between, say, Barry Posen or John Mearsheimer, on the one hand, and Kagan or Slaughter on the other. Pass the popcorn.

You can reconcile this one of two ways. One, you can say that there’s a problem in the academy. Primacy is so obviously the optimal grand strategy for the United States that it reflects poorly on the ivory tower that so many strategists there don’t get it. Two, you can conclude that the strategy is not self-evidently optimal, so there’s something wrong with the consensus in Washington.

While we’re here, though, let’s take Drezner’s question about whether the disagreement over Iraq was an aberration. Let’s look at two of the biggest strategic questions facing Washington over the last five and next five years: Afghanistan and Iran.

Afghanistan — I had a fairly easy time pulling together signatures from academics for the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy’s letter to President Obama urging him not to surge into Afghanistan in 2009. Signatures from Beltway types were hard to come by. For his part, Columbia’s Jack Snyder characterized the view from the academy this way:

Pretty much everyone thinks that the conditions in Afghanistan are terrible, that the political situation is terrible, and thus that the conditions for successful counterinsurgency and state-building are inauspicious,” says Snyder, warning that the current war strategy “would be costly, would take a really long time, and might not work.

As always, more/better data would be better, but other than Stephen Biddle, I don’t know a lot of academics who thought Surge Part II was a movie worth seeing.

Iran — An awful lot of academics and others are saying we could live with a nuclear Iran without too much difficulty. The most recent TRIPs survey of IR academics had the “bomb Iran/live with a nuclear Iran” count at 20 percent to 80 percent. That’s not the order of battle in the FPC. Not in public, or in the political debate, anyway. For example, in a recent “national security insiders” poll from National Journal, a narrow majority of insiders did say—implicitly—that living with a nuclear Iran would be better than a war. But, importantly, those answers were given anonymously. And half of the public Beltway commentary over what to do about Iran does not say we could live with a nuclear Iran, which again points to the incentives facing defense intellectuals in Washington. People who appear to believe we could live with a nuclear Iran aren’t saying so forcefully, despite the important consequences. Why not?

The paper argues that domestic political factors are at work. I just uploaded the final edited version at SSRN, so give it a look and, as Drezner might ask, tell me what I’m missing.

What Is Waltz Up To on Iranian Nukes?

Paul Pillar, writing at the National Interest, has already mentioned the provocative Kenneth Waltz essay on Iranian nuclear weapons that has inflamed the segments of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment who bothered to read it. But I wanted to expand on a couple of additional points Waltz raises.

It probably bears observing, first, that when Waltz writes that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear arsenal “would probably be the best possible result,” he is defining “best possible result” in the exact opposite way that the Beltway foreign-policy establishment does.

As Waltz wrote in his debate with Scott Sagan on nuclear optimism versus nuclear pessimism, “a big reason for America’s resistance to the spread of nuclear weapons is that if weak countries have some they will cramp our style.” Iran is a weak country who, with a nuclear arsenal, would cramp our style. Waltz opposes America’s style. As he put it in a 1998 interview, “I’ve been a fierce critic of American military policy and spending and strategy, at least since the 1970s.”

Read in this context, then, what Waltz sees as a feature of an Iranian weapon is what the American foreign policy establishment sees as a bug: the fact that an Iranian bomb will cramp our—and Israel’s—style. The foreign-policy establishment desperately wants to preserve the option of doing an Iraq—or Iran—war every so often if they feel like it. An Iran with nukes makes invading Iran a totally different ballgame.

What Waltz is after is “stability.” He has long argued that nuclear balances produce stability because the prospect of escalation to war between nuclear states is so harrowing that states seeking survival—which he argues all states tend to do—peer into the abyss and back away.

Deborah Boucoyannis wrote a fascinating article in 2007 arguing that Waltzian realists, by dint of their appreciation and support for balancing power—and antipathy for unbalanced power—are in fact classical liberals in the same sense that America’s founding fathers were classical liberals. They were obsessed with drawing up a constitution that would balance the branches of the American government against one another, not because the presidency, or the Congress, or the courts was itself inherently malign, but because unbalanced power is dangerous anywhere. One can even see this theme in the writing of early American leaders’ thinking on foreign relations. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1815 of his desire that nations “which are overgrown may not advance beyond safe measures of power, [and] that a salutary balance may be ever maintained among nations.”

This is what Waltz sees in the Middle East today: unbalanced power. If what you value is stability, then pushing the region toward balance, where no one can start a war with anyone else without risking his own survival, looks good.

Two other points. First, in order to get Iranian nukes to act as a stabilizer, Waltz has to argue that the Iranian regime is not suicidal, and that the primary reason it might like a nuclear weapon is for survival. I agree with this argument, and it bears pointing out that people as far away from realism as the neoconservative writer Eli Lake seem to agree as well. Unfortunately, the din of nonsense emanating from Washington seems to have convinced the American people that Iran would nuke Israel. In the recent poll from Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino, 69 percent of those surveyed said that Iran would be “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to use nuclear weapons against Israel.

Finally, this has been a useful insight into how detached popular commentary in America is from scholarship on the subjects pundits discuss. It was precious, for example, to see Commentary’s Ira Stoll scrambling to figure out who Kenneth Waltz was. For those with interest, he ranked third in a survey of international relations scholars that asked for a ranking of scholars “who have had the greatest influence on the field of IR in the past 20 years.” It’s a good thing that our architects and bridge-builders have a closer relationship with the engineering field than our foreign-policy pundits do with international relations scholarship.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Obama on Human Rights in America

I’ve just sent a short post to ”The Corner” at NRO on the Obama State Department’s new report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on human rights conditions in the U.S.  In a word, we’ve got problems, especially concerning women, minorities, etc., but we’re trying to live up to the expectations of other human rights exemplars on the council – Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba.

Read and weep.

More on the Disconnect between IR Academics and Beltway People

Back in September I puzzled over the disconnect between international relations academics and the Washington foreign-policy establishment.  Back then, I wrote that

the two groups have been wildly at variance in terms of their views on important public policy issues.  Take the Iraq war, for example.  As anyone who was in Washington at the time knows, the [Foreign Policy Community] was extremely fond of the idea of invading Iraq.  To oppose it was to marginalize oneself for years.  Indeed, those who promoted the disastrous adventure have prospered, while those who (bravely or stupidly, depending on your point of view) opposed it remain huddled in the chilly, dusty alcoves of popular debate.

In the academy, meanwhile, there was hardly any debate over Iraq–almost 80 percent of IR academics opposed the war. [.pdf] To the extent academics did enter the public debate on the issue, it was to pay for an advertisement in the New York Times warning against the war. [.pdf] The only academics who spoke out in favor of the war (to my knowledge, anyway) were IR liberals like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who sought policy positions in Washington.  (Slaughter, of course, was rewarded with a spot as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, while to my knowledge none of the academic opponents of the war have gained Washington policy jobs.)

Today, Daniel Drezner describes his experience at

a small conference devoted to the idea of getting scholars and policymakers in the same room to talk about U.S. policy towards a Great Power That Shall Remain Nameless.  The idea was that policymakers could highlight issues that professors might have overlooked and vice versa.

Everything was going along swimmingly until one of the policymakers in the room complained that some of the academic memos that had been prepared for the conference were too long to be read by policymakers – which was true, except that wasn’t the purpose of these memos.  In response, a Smart and Well Respected Political Scientist went off on a serious and righteous rant.  Why didn’t policymakers or staffers in DC actually read what experts thought about a particular issue?  It wasn’t just that political scientists were being put on the sidelines – we were  being completely ignored.

While Drezner’s post centers on the blame senior academics deserve for stigmatizing policy pronouncement from untenured political scientists, I think it’s worth revisiting the fact that policymakers and IR academics just don’t agree about much, as I highlighted above.  And, as if on cue, Steven K. Metz of the Army War College crops up in comments (you have to scroll down), writing in part that:

I really believe the key is for academics to learn how to express themselves in a policy relevant way rather than expecting policymakers to work through academic style analysis and writing. Heck, I remember participating in a workshop early in the Bush administration that brought together the elite of security studies professors. The stated purpose was to develop policy relevant analysis. But all I heard over two days was that the Bush administration needed to jettison its worldview and adopt the one advocated by the speaker. (emphasis mine)

That is, when you got “the elite of security studies professors” in a room with senior policy people in DC, they wanted to use the opportunity to warn the DC people that their expertise led them to the conclusion that the policies we were following were, in fact, dumb.  I think everybody complaining about the gulf between the fields needs to come to some sort of grips with the fact that there are just big disagreements between the Beltway consensus and the IR academic views on many, many issues.  And unless and until either a) policymakers feel inclined to listen to scholars on those subjects or b) academics lose their interest in warning the policy community about their policies, just pushing them together in various arenas is not going to do much good.

Charles Krauthammer, Rocket Scientist

Last evening on FoxNews, host Bret Baier reported that the Iranians had launched a rocket carrying ”a mouse, two turtles, and a can of worms” into space. He asked the panelists to speculate on the implications.

Charles Krauthammer inveighed “if you can put a mouse into space, you can put a nuke in New York, in principle.” Given that they are clearly developing the technological capabilities that would allow them to nuke New York, Krauthammer concluded, “our only hope on the nuclear issue or any other is a revolution and to help that revolution ought to be our task.”

Well.

To her credit, Jennifer Loven of the AP wasn’t having any of it. “It’s an incredibly large leap,” she pointed out, ”between a mouse in space and a nuke in New York….[I]t’s a…ginormous gap.”

How “ginormous”? The analogies are imperfect, but I can throw a football a fair distance. In principle, I could start in the Super Bowl.

More seriously, there are modest parallels to the subject of my first book – the mythical missile gap of the late 1950s. The missile gap was precipitated by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Millions of Americans became convinced that the beeping silver sphere orbiting the earth signified that the Soviets could, in principle, drop a nuclear weapon on any city in the United States. This misconception was helped along by some opportunistic fearmongering by, chiefly, Democrats who delighted in embarassing President Dwight Eisenhower. And the ploy worked. The Dems rolled up huge victories in the mid-term election of 1958, and John F. Kennedy capitalized on the missile gap to help get elected president in 1960.

The actual missile gap – in the U.S. favor – was irrelevant. It would have been equally irrelevant if the roles were reversed, with the Soviets in possession of hundreds of ICBMs, and the U.S. with only a handful of shorter range weapons. Even if the Soviets had perfected the ability to throw a nuclear warhead onto U.S. territory, what ultimately prevented them from doing so was not technological but psychological – they were deterred by our vast arsenal. And they continued to be so deterred for decades until the entire edifice of Soviet power came crashing down, from within, without any significant assistance from the United States.

Would Krauthammer contend that Eisenhower’s refusal to overthrow the Soviet regime in 1958 was “an embarassing failure?” The Soviets did, after all, actually have nuclear weapons, many of them. The Iranians have none, and have not even mastered the enrichment cycle, let alone the long process toward weaponization.  By implying that the only thing that stops the Iranians from immediately nuking New York is their technical capabilities, Krauthammer demonstrates a shocking ignorance of some of the most basic principles of international relations, beginning with deterrence. This makes him a horrible political scientist.

But as a rocket scientist, he’s even worse.

Bush v. Obama on Diplomacy

The Hill’s Congress blog has a regular series that provides policy experts a forum to discuss current topics of the day. This week, the editors posed this question:

President Obama has taken a very different approach to diplomacy than President Bush. Does the new approach serve or undermine long-term U.S. interests?

My response:

What “very different approach?” Sure, President Bush implicitly scorned diplomacy in favor of toughness, particularly in his first term. But he sought UN Security Council authorization for tougher measures against Iraq; a truly unilateral approach would have bombed first and asked questions later. By the same token, President Obama has staffed his administration with people, including chief diplomat Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who favored military action against Iraq and Serbia in 1998 and 1999, respectively, and were undeterred by the UNSC’s refusal to endorse either intervention.

There are other similarities. George Bush advocated multilateral diplomacy with North Korea, despite his stated antipathy for Kim Jong Il. President Obama supports continued negotiations with the same odious regime that starves its own people. Bush administration officials met with the Iranians to discuss post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq. In the second term, President Bush even agreed in principle to high-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama likewise believes that the United States and Iran have a number of common interests, and he favors diplomacy over confrontation.

This continuity shouldn’t surprise us. Both men operate within a political environment that equates diplomacy with appeasement, without most people really understanding what either word means. Defined properly, diplomacy is synonymous with relations between states. As successive generations have learned the high costs and dubious benefits of that other form of international relations – war – most responsible leaders are rightly eager to engage in diplomacy. Perhaps the greater concern is that they feel the need to call it something else.