Day: July 28, 2006

Testing the Walt / Mearsheimer Thesis

This month’s Foreign Policy has a forum on the Israel Lobby, building on Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s very much discussed article in the LRB on the power of the “Israel Lobby” in producing a narrow-interest based but sub-strategically optimal US Foreign Policy in the Middle East.

As I walked from the office with my mailbox back to my office, pondering the nice glossy cover on my copy of FP, I pondered the issues in the debate in the contemporary context– Lebanon.

Is the US supporting Israel in its attacks on Hezballah in Lebanon in a manner detrimental to US National Interest? Interesting question. The W/M Thesis would suggest yes.

Is it so?

The first issue is support– how much backing is the US giving Israel?

At the Rome Conference, the US was clearly espousing a position counter to all the rest of the attendees. Everyone wanted an immediate cease fire, but as the IHT reported:

[S]everal participants said it was U.S. pressure that kept the conference from calling for an immediate halt to the hostilities.

Here, it seemed, the US was giving Israel what it wanted– more time to pursue its military campaign against Hezbollah over the opposition of everyone else. Rice got what she wanted, a statement calling for “working toward” a cease-fire instead of simply calling for an immediate cease-fire.

But, Rice’s State Department was careful to keep Israel in-line, the WaPo says:

In a rare reprimand of Israel, the State Department Friday vehemently rejected Israel’s claim that the Rome conference had given the green light to continue its punishing bombardment of Lebanon. “Any such statement is outrageous,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters traveling with Rice.

“The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict,” said Ereli.

The State Department was responding to Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon’s comment that the international conference held in Rome Wednesday effectively gave permission for Israel to pursue Hezbollah weapons and guerrillas in Lebanon.

This, though, may be the exception that proves the rule. So the US boxed Israel’s corner in Rome. The real question for W/M, though, lies not in the US supporting Israel, but was this move harmful or helpful to US National Interest?

Clearly, some argue that the Bush Administration is doing long-term damage to US interests in the region, consistent with the W/M thesis:

The escalation in the region is not in the interest of the U.S. It strengthens anti-Americanism worldwide and fuels radicalism in the Arab and Muslim world. It also reverses hard-earned gains in the region, such as fledgling democracies in Palestine and Lebanon. The U.S. does not have to abandon Israel to defend its other interests in the region. All it has to do is use its enormous leverage to ensure that Israel’s policies are moderate and prudent and safeguard both Israeli and American interests.

The problem is that the US (like any state) has multiple interests in the region, one of which is that:

“We want a Lebanon free of militias and foreign interference,” Mr. Bush said.

The NYT lays out the issue quite clearly:

Certainly, she won the diplomatic battle in Rome: she squeezed out of world leaders extra time for Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah, arguing for a “sustainable” cease-fire including political elements rather than an immediate cease-fire. In the vision of Ms. Rice, who came here from Rome for a meeting with Asian leaders, that would shift the balance of power in the Middle East. The Lebanese government could finally assert its authority over its country. Syria and Iran, backers of Hezbollah, would see their influence diminish.

“I say to the Lebanese people, no one wants to see the spilling of Lebanese blood,” Ms. Rice said. “But I also don’t want to see the spilling of Lebanese blood three months from now because we allowed the situation to go back to the status quo ante.”

While many diplomats have called for an immediate cease-fire, they support the American package as the only way to cobble together a peace plan that shores up the government of Lebanon and leads to the disarmament of Hezbollah.

The Bush administration contends that such a package has more of a chance of working if Israeli forces are able militarily to degrade Hezbollah. But the path of sacrificing civilian lives now in hopes of a greater peace later holds potential peril — not only for the civilians caught between Hezbollah and Israel, but also politically, for Israel and the United States. Israel’s bombing campaign could strengthen Hezbollah, as Mr. Siniora suggested in an anguished speech to the Rome meeting.

“What fruit, other than one of pain, frustration, financial ruin and fanaticism can stem from this rubble?” he said.

For the United States, the path makes some sense, since the avenue of direct talks with Hezbollah or its backers, Iran and Syria, isn’t one administration officials are willing to take yet. But it risks further damage to America’s image internationally, and particularly in the Arab world.

The Bush Administration sees Lebanon as another nascent Middle Eastern Democracy threatened by militias and foreign influence– Hezbollah, as influenced by Syria and Iran. Iran is quite possibly green-lighting Hezbollah’s actions in response to its nuclear negotiations with the US and Europe. If Israel can eliminate, or at least vastly degrade, Hezbollah’s capability, then such an action fulfils two long-term US interests. First, it helps the Lebanese government consolidate its democratic revolution, furthering US policy there. Second, it vastly reduces Hezbollah itself, a rather potent terrorist organization. Third, it eliminates a one of Iran’s levers, reducing its ability to threaten regional stability as a way to upset negotiations over its nuclear program.

So who is right?

Both? Neither? It Depends…

Much of this depends on how one values and prioritizes US National Interests. As realists, Walt and Mearsheimer fall in the camp that you can objectively and discreetly rank national interests. In theory (and hindsight), perhaps– but in the messiness of the real world, its both much more complicated than that and fraught with risk. The Bush Administration thinks it knows what the US interests are, and in fact, if you put any stock in Democracy, they are elected to set US interests. Either way, as the NYT piece points out, the Bush Administration is taking a risk– some pain and suffering now will create the conditions for longer term stability more conducive to US interests in the long run–assuming that Israel can in fact defeat Hezbollah. The other side of that risk is of course that the pain and suffering now does more damage to the US in global public opinion and inspiring new terrorist attacks than the reduction (if any) in Hezbollah’s capability. Both cases are plausible, and quite powerful.

Here’s the rub: As realists, Walt and Mearsheimer shouldn’t really care about global public opinion or the image of the US in the Arab world. To a card carrying realist–especially Mearsheimer–all that matters is military capability.

From that perspective, US backing for Israel in Rome makes a lot of sense– disarm a capable foe, deprive another foe of a military proxy, and all you suffer is some collateral damage and a drop in the polls. For a realist, shouldn’t that be a winning scenario?

UPDATE: Or, maybe its just “Condi’s War.

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Nero’s empire


Photo courtesy whitehouse.gov

This is just a quick followup to my post last week about the risks of escalation in the current Middle Eastern conflict.

Israel is apparently ending its incursion into Gaza , but there is very little good news emerging from the region.

US Secretary of State Condi Rice is on the case, but she is employing an odd diplomatic style to say the least. News agencies pessimistically report “no sign of a cease-fire.”

So, is the worst-case still possible? And if we assume that the answer is “yes,” then what are the plausible scenarios?

How about we begin by pointing out the obvious — and tangible — American backing of Israel in this war, and then imagining a provocative Israeli attack on Syria? As Patrick has written here at the Duck, the possibility that NATO might enter the picture carries meaningful risk. Some neocons are apparently even pondering American troops in Lebanon.

If any of these events occur, then the situation might become quite explosive. Consider Iran’s threatened response to as Israeli attack on Syria, as reported in the Boston Globe July 14:

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatened “a very fierce response” if Israel attacks Syria.

“If the Zionist regime commits another stupid move and attacks Syria, this will be considered like attacking the whole Islamic world and this regime will receive a very fierce response,” Ahmadinejad said, Iranian state television reported last night.

Would Washington stand by if that happened?

Dr. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi recently opined that the recipe for disaster is already prepared:

Consequently, with the initial Israel-US goal of a swift crippling of Hezbollah fast turning into a nightmare quagmire in Lebanon, thus causing a major regional conflagration, the much-dreaded “wider war” seems all but inevitable – it is the wider “war on terrorism” that will bring both al-Qaeda and, by implication, the US back to the Lebanese theater of conflict.

The foreign policy establishment might not be ready to say “world war” but there are clear signs that they are worried.

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Failed state and the global war on terror

I had lunch yesterday with two of my colleagues at the Mershon Center, John Mueller and Markus Kornprobst. The conversation inevitably turned to the Middle East and the efficacy of US and Israeli policy. As the discussion progressed, I mentioned that when we got back I would be revising my chapter on the French Wars of Religion–a case of trans-national and trans-regional religious movements prompting decades of violent conflict. I said, somewhat flippantly, that I did not believe there were many lessons to draw from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe for current developments.

Of course, I don’t really believe that. I argue in the book that there are a variety of generalizable principles concerning religious conflict and the dynamics of imperial control. But these “lessons” tend to be rather indirect.

When we got back I returned to the process of converting the footnotes from plain text to Endnote (note to all dissertation writers: use citation software now; doing so will save you a lot of time later) and realized that I could draw one rather immediate and, in some ways, rather banal lesson: if your aim is to limit the impact of trans-national religious movements, then your focus should be on enhancing state capacity. As some analysts might put it, the best way to limit “networks” is to develop “hierarchies.”[1]

I don’t think it takes a lot of effort to recognize that failed and otherwise weak states present problems for the war on violent non-state actors, regardless of whether or not they have trans-national ties. Failed states not only often become staging grounds for violent non-state actors, but weak and failed states become incredibly vulnerable to non-state movements.

As John Mueller remarked to me about a number of African polities, “their central governments are so weak that they face serious threats from roving bands of two hundred or so thugs.” In fact, the relative strength of central power across early modern Europe was a decent, if imperfect, indicator of whether or not religious contention would fragment a polity. Early modern European states tended to be relatively weak, composite entities with imperfect, at best, monopolies on coercive military power. The fact that they developed in relatively centralized and strong states later on rendered them, all things being equal, both relatively resilient in the face of such threats and decreased the likelihood that such threats would emerge in the first place.

Although, as I’ve noted, this is all pretty trivial stuff, Israeli and American policy makers don’t seem to be thinking through the implications as they craft their policies.

Via Rob, I recently learned that the US is cutting aid to African states that don’t tow the Bush administration’s line on the ICC:

The Bush administration and Congress have slashed millions of dollars of military aid to African nations in recent years, moves that Pentagon officials and senior military commanders say have undermined American efforts to combat terrorist threats in Africa and to counter expanding Chinese influence there.

Since 2003, Washington has shut down Pentagon programs to train and equip militaries in a handful of African nations because they have declined to sign agreements exempting American troops from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But the policy, which was designed to protect American troops, has instead angered senior military officials, who say the cuts in military aid are shortsighted and have weakened counterterrorism efforts in places where the threat of international terrorism is said to be most acute.

As Rob notes,

Several of the states the US has severed military ties with have genuine terrorist problems. Believe it or not, the administration has cut support for Kenya and Mali, both of which have experienced radical Islamic terrorist attacks. Kenya, as you may recall, was the site of one of the embassy bombings in 1998. While allowing that the US military probably isn’t the best organization to teach counter-terrorist doctrine, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have US officers and non-coms teaching basic light infantry tactics. Many African military organizations are completely inept, which allows small, dedicated NGOs to carve out territorial space and resist government authority.

John Mueller reminded me that the US cut aid to a number of unpleasant African regimes–and erstwhile allies–after the Cold War, which contributed to a great ideal of instability and conflict in the region. Yes, they were unpleasant regimes, but US (and Soviet) aid provided just enough patronage and capacity to keep them afloat and limit deadly instability within their borders.

Israel’s policy of trying to compel the fragile Lebanese state to “take on” Hezballah not only seems to be failing at both the strategic and a “war of ideas” level, but, as I noted in my first attempt at videoblogging, looks almost like its designed to create a failed state–a consequence that would be far worse for Israel than intermittent low-level attacks from a relatively restrained (if odious) quasi-state organization in the country. Remember the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982? They drove out the PLO and got Hezballah in exchange.

Strong states, simply put, are a important firewalls against “global guerillas.” Destroying them for the express purpose of creating democracies? Not such a good idea.[2] Strong states make it less likely that regional, substate, and transnational non-state actors will threaten US interests. Even though some of those “strong” states (such as Iran) sponsor violent non-state actors (such as Hezballah) the ultimate threat from those movements is very much conditioned by the number of low-capacity states in the world. Moreover, strong states do have the capacity to limit the activities of their proxies, and present themselves as targets for coercive leverage of the kind that might actually reduce the resources and capabilities of their clients.

Israel, as Rob notes, risks repeating the same mistakes as Americans through its over-reliance on airpower and their “firepower” advantage. American strategy towards Iraq produced a failed state and, as we now know, a far worse strategic environment for the US and the region than existed before the invasion.John Mueller wrote last year in Foreign Affairs that: “From the start of the current Iraq war, the invading forces were too small to establish order, and some of the early administrative policies proved fatally misguided. In effect, the United States created an instant failed state, and clambering out of that condition would be difficult in the best of circumstances.”

Saddam Hussein’s regime was, without a doubt, a very bad one. But it was not particularly vulnerable to trans-national movements nor much in the way of a staging ground for anything other than low-level terrorism. In Afghanistan, the US had the opportunity to commit serious manpower and resources to trying to produce a (relatively) strong state, but lost interest and now faces a country divided between warlords with an extremely weak central government.

I believe, in fact, that these outcomes reflect a tension in US occupation policy between its “unite-and-rule” goals (e.g., the kind of intense “nation-building” that Bush derided in the 2000 campaign) and its commitment to providing the absolute minimal resources it can to the effort. This raises an interesting question: does a governing party have to be social-democratic or otherwise “statist” to do nation-building right?

Regardless, I’ll return to the notion that the Bush administration is doing “unite-and-rule” occupations on a “divide-and-rule” budget, and therefore producing the worst of both possible worlds, in a later post.

1The “networks versus hierarchies” theme obscures, in my view, more than it reveals. Networks, of course, may be more or less hierarchical; hierarchies are just, in network terms, a specific class of network structures.
2That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t promote democracy, just that we shouldn’t generally do it through invasions of states in regions where we have much to fear from political instability.

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Inclusive Friday Pet Blogging

In an attempt to lighten things up this morning I would like to try something new. Many readers are surely familiar with the practice of “Friday Cat Blogging”. Well, I don’t have a cat. However, I see no reason to limit this activity to felines. So in the interest of inclusiveness (and since I don’t have the time or the strength for a substantive post at the moment) I present to you–Quint:


My wife and I adopted him last year from a shelter near our home. As far as we know he is about 2 years-old and is a Pointer-Lab mix. And yes, our lives revolve around him.

I beseach my fellow members to help ring in this new era of inclusiveness–let us become the “big tent” of pet blogging!

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