Tag: foreign policy

Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

Should Realists Denounce Trump’s Foreign Policy?

The 2016 election season continues to unfold in increasingly bizarre ways. Donald Trump’s latest attempt to construct a coherent foreign policy speech may have failed to impress, but his campaign’s use of the word ‘realism’ led once again to calls for realists to openly denounce the Republican candidate and his views. As Dan Drezner argues over at the Washington Post,

In the interest of political self-preservation, realists need to get out in front on this. Because the thing about Trump is that every foreign policy position he touches has become less popular over the past calendar year. If realism gets lumped together with Trumpism, that is very, very bad for realists.

There are a bunch of problems with this argument, starting with the fact that Trump really isn’t espousing a realist worldview. To be sure, the Republican candidate has said a couple of things that are more restrained than his party’s foreign policy has been in recent years. Skepticism of nation-building and the idea that American allies should contribute more to their own defense are relatively uncontroversial (and generally popular) ideas that would move U.S. foreign policy in a more restrained direction. Most of Trump’s other proposals, however, including his ill-defined strategy to combat ISIS, his determination to reverse the nuclear deal with Iran, his apparent and disturbing willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons, and his eagerness for trade wars, are not.

As many have noted, Trump’s foreign policy is best defined as incoherent. Monday’s speech provides another case in point: though the campaign described it as a return to “foreign policy realism,” the approach outlined by the candidate sounded more like a form of nationalist imperialism – complete with the seizure of natural resources from distressed countries – than anything else. Frankly, the only major similarity between Trump’s policy proposals and realism is his willingness to view the world in a win/loss framework. As a theory, realism is more than cost-benefit analysis, but one can see why a simplistic understanding of it would appeal to the candidate.

Here’s another problem with the demand that realists should repudiate Trump: they already have, loudly and repeatedly. In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt admonished Donald Trump to “keep your hands off the foreign policy ideas I believe in.” Cato’s own Trevor Thrall highlighted Trump’s know-nothing approach to foreign policy here. Many others have done likewise. As I wrote back in April, the primary defining characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy is not restraint, but inconsistency.   

And there is no evidence that realists (or restrainers) support Donald Trump. Reporters from Defense News recently tried to ascertain who a potential Trump administration might call on to staff key positions. It’s unlikely that John Bolton, recently suggested by Trump as a potential Secretary of State, will be mistaken for a realist any time soon. Not only did they find no realists willing to take such positions – one prominent advocate of restraint is mentioned in a purely speculative way – but they found few foreign policy experts willing to consider it, period.

Finally, the notion that realists can only repudiate Trump specifically by signing an open letter is unhelpful. The first open letter of the campaign season – signed by over 120 Republican foreign policy specialists – was valuable, signaling their broad disgust for their party’s nominee and his policies. But it was narrowly written, and since that time at least four other open letters have been published, each with a slightly different rationale, and slightly different signatory lists. Indeed, most have already been signed by prominent advocates of both restraint and realism. And there are a variety of reasons why some realists might not have signed the prior letters: they may not agree with everything proposed, they may be barred by professional or legal obligations from supporting or opposing political candidates, or perhaps they are simply not Republicans! Another open letter will not solve these problems.

Such criticism often comes with the implicit – or explicit – demand that realists endorse Hillary Clinton. Yet Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy approach is also problematic. Her support for the interventions in Iraq and Libya, and her continued support for unwise ideas like a no-fly zone in Syria remain concerning. Ultimately, those who call for realists to denounce Trump may be right about one thing: for realists, this election is a lose-lose proposition. 

Trump Versus the World

In 2015 we witnessed an astonishing sight: by the end of the year news coverage of Donald Trump in major U.S. newspapers eclipsed coverage of every major world hotspot and the dreaded Islamic State.

 

At the most basic level, this reflects the American tendency to focus on domestic politics during presidential campaigns. Foreign affairs often fade from view as the presidential campaign season heats up and economic and social issues take the fore. But this year foreign policy has in fact been a major focus of the campaign, making this a less powerful effect than in most years.

More importantly, the news flow is a function of Trump’s uncanny ability to set the news agenda. This ability stems only in part from the fact that he holds a commanding lead in the polls. More critical is his tendency to make outrageous statements, tapping into anger and frustration in the electorate, which has not only stimulated outrage and concern on left and right but also discussion about what the Trump phenomenon means beyond the election itself. In December Trump appeared in twice as many stories as both Ted Cruz, his closest competitor in both the polls and coverage, and President Obama. Simply put, Trump is incredibly newsworthy given the way in which American news outlets define news and given the news Americans appear to want.

But less obviously, this pattern also reflects the long-term shrinking of the international news hole in the United States. Since the late 1980s the share of American news devoted to international affairs has shrunk by as much as half in major U.S. newspapers and broadcast television news. With occasional and temporary reversals, this trend has persisted despite increasing globalization, despite constant U.S. military intervention abroad since the early 1990s, and despite 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

Star Wars, Science Fiction, and Foreign Policy

Happy Star Wars launch day! As the newest film in the Star Wars franchise is exciting fans around the globe, it’s also offering a unique opportunity for foreign policy scholars: attempting to shoehorn Star Wars parallels and metaphors into foreign policy debates.

It’s certainly easy to do. Over at Foreign Policy, authors examine why the rebel victory at Endor may not have been the decisive battle it initially appeared:

Much of the chaos following the Rebel Alliance’s victory was predictable. Its wartime leaders were overwhelmingly focused on avoiding missteps and destroying their vastly more powerful enemy while ignoring the problems of violence, factionalism, and criminality that plague post-conflict environments across the universe.

You don’t have to work hard to see the clumsy historical metaphor here: the rebellion’s victory gave way to a ‘failed democratic transition,’ with the Rebel Alliance unable to turn their victory into a durable political settlement. In a post-Arab Spring world, the parallels are obvious.

The Interventionist Itch

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released its 2015 survey documenting American foreign policy attitudes. Entitled “America Divided: Political Partisanship and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the Council’s report emphasizes the stark disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over foreign policy goals and the means for achieving them. While there are certainly important differences between the two camps, there is a dangerous underlying consensus today that unites left and right: Americans of all stripes suffer from an “interventionist itch.” With respect to fighting terrorism and the Islamic State, Americans are far too supportive of the kinds of military intervention that have proved ineffective and counterproductive in the past.

As 9/11 receded and the war in Iraq descended in to insurgency, Americans became less interested in having the United States play an active role in world affairs and more wary of military intervention. Over the past year, however, as concerns have mounted over the Islamic State, so has the public’s willingness to support various measures to combat terrorism. Drawing on the CCGA survey, Table One reveals public support across party lines for a host of interventionist activities. In addition, the CCGA report notes, a majority of Americans would support cyberattacks and airstrikes (though not the use of ground troops) against Iran should Iran renege on the nuclear agreement.

American Support for Military Intervention: In order to combat international terrorism, please say whether you favor or oppose each of the following measures (% favor)*

 

Democrats

Independents

Republicans

Overall

US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities

78

73

85

77

Using drone strikes to assassinate individual terrorist leaders

77

71

86

76

Assassination of individual terrorist leaders

74

68

83

73

Attacks by US ground troops against terrorist training camps and other facilities

55

55

73

60

Providing military assistance to Arab governments to combat violent Islamic extremists groups

59

55

64

58

Keeping some US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 for training and counterterrorism

51

49

68

54

These figures suggest several sobering conclusions. First, they clearly indicate a stable interventionist consensus that includes both obvious advocates (Republicans) and less obvious advocates (Democrats and even Independents). Such a consensus is somewhat surprising considering all evidence from the past 14 years of intervention makes clear just how poorly such tactics have worked and because the public has repeatedly come to oppose the interventions they previously favored after they prove ineffective. On the other hand, the presence of this consensus is understandable given the interventionist agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations and the vocal support from both Republican and Democratic leaders for more intervention of various kinds.

Second, the consensus illustrates the degree to which the threat of terrorism has come to dominate the U.S. conversation about national security. The 2015 CCGA study finds no increase in support for the use of military force to aid Taiwan, or Israel, or South Korea. But terrorism, even 14 years after 9/11, remains a lighting rod capable of inducing overheated rhetoric and overheated fears.

Finally, these figures indicate that interventionist cries from the candidates will find a receptive audience as we approach the 2016 elections. All of the Republican candidates (Rand Paul aside) as well as Hillary Clinton have staked out positions arguing for more intervention. There is thus every reason to believe that the United States will find itself further entangled in the Middle East in the near future.


*Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “America Divided,” 2015. http://www.thechicagocouncil.org

Voters Deserve a Better Debate

We had our second debate of the primary season on Wednesday, a grueling five hour affair pitting fifteen Republican hopefuls against each other in two debate sessions. When CNN’s hosts weren’t asking inane questions – i.e., whether candidates had considered their Secret Service nickname or whether they would trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes – they did find some time to focus on foreign policy issues. I have a piece over at the National Interest discussing the debate, and highlighting some of the misleading narratives underlying much of the GOP debate.

Though there were some factual errors, the bigger problem was the reliance of most candidates on fundamental ideas which are effectively untrue, like the idea that the U.S. military is weak or small compared to that of other nations:

Ben Carson noted that “our Air Force is incapable of doing the same things that it did a few years ago. Carly Fiorina argued that “we need the strongest military on the face of the planet,” while Marco Rubio noted that “… we are eviscerating our military.” Such claims are entirely false: the U.S. military is among the world’s largest, spending more than the next 13 countries combined in 2013 (including China and Russia)!  Today, the United States makes up 38.4% of all global military spending, and spends substantially more on the military than it did on average during the Cold War.

Many candidates also expressed support for the idea that it is U.S. absence from conflicts which creates problems, rather than U.S. intervention itself. Again, this narrative has proven to be demonstrably false in the last ten years, as examples from Libya, Iraq and elsewhere show:

Jeb Bush noted that “when we pull back, voids are created. We left Iraq… and now we have the creation of ISIS.” Again, this narrative is convenient for many candidates, allowing them to blame President Obama’s troop withdrawals, rather than the initial disastrous decision to invade Iraq, for the rise of ISIS. Unfortunately, it is similarly false: Iraq’s sectarian problems existed long before the U.S. withdrawal of troops in 2011, and the rise of ISIS is at least partly a result of the Bush administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army.

When we base our foreign policy debates on such misleading ideas, candidates will present policy options which are unworkable or even counterproductive. Voters deserve a better debate, one which acknowledges the nuance and complexity of foreign affairs. You can read the whole piece here

A Blinkered Foreign Policy Debate

Foreign policy didn’t get a lot of air time in last night’s GOP debate, which often seemed to focus primarily on Donald Trump and the fact that John Kasich’s dad was a mailman. The candidates appeared worryingly ill-prepared to discuss foreign policy issues, with confused and misleading statements, incorrect facts, and a few truly bizarre comments.

There is a lot of great news coverage - see here or here for examples - highlighting these statements, from Jim Gilmore’s call for the U.S. to create a Middle Eastern NATO, to Ted Cruz’s decision to describe the opinions of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, as nonsense. At least one candidate conflated Iran with ISIS. The first debate included a baffling discussion of ‘cyberwalls,’ a never-before heard term that seemed to encompass both the Great Firewall of China, and the refusal of private companies like Google to hand over data to the U.S. government.

The bigger problem with the debate, however, was the mass oversimplification of foreign policy. Only one candidate, Carly Fiorina, acknowledged that foreign policy can be complicated, a statement immediately undermined when she noted that some issues are black and white, and promised to tear up the Iran deal on her first day in office. Unfortunately, foreign affairs is actually complex. Take the Middle East, where the United States is involved in conflicts both in opposition to, and in alignment with Iranian proxies. Or our relationship with Russia, which isn’t limited to confrontation in Ukraine, but includes cooperation on the Iranian nuclear deal and Syrian issues. Debates, with their reliance on manufactured soundbites, aren’t the best place to delve into these complexities. But no candidate on the stage gave any indication of a willingness to engage with the complicated nuances of foreign policy.