Tag: Obama Administration (Page 1 of 2)

This op-ed shows what’s wrong with US foreign policy

Today, Ryan Crocker–career foreign service officer and former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan–wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing its criticism of the Afghanistan war he oversaw. He pointed to progress made in Afghanistan, which is fair (and doesn’t necessarily contradict anything in the Post’s reporting), but generally did little to directly undermine worries about the war. Beyond that, as I noted in a frustrated Twitter thread earlier today, he showed off a lot of what’s wrong with US foreign policy.

I spent 11 years in Washington, DC, doing the usual young professional DC thing. I worked for a defense contractor. I joined networking groups. I attended events at think tanks. During this time I saw a lot of speeches either promising a new direction in US foreign policy or defending its current direction. Both tended to be vague and defensive even as they refused to directly engage with the very real problems in our policies. I had a flashback to that as I read Crocker’s op-ed.

Continue reading

Nuland: Comic misunderstanding?

Have Duck readers been following the latest glitch in U.S.-European relations? Josh mentioned it in his recent roundup. Here’s how the Washington Post explained the story:

On Thursday, a video was posted on YouTube in which Victoria Nuland,, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, disparagingly dismissed European Union efforts to mediate the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine by bluntly saying, “F— the E.U.”

On Friday, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, through press attache Christiane Wirtz, described the gaffe as “absolutely unacceptable,” and defended the efforts of Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief. Continue reading


ICC Victory over Immunity in Recent Clash with al-Bashir

[Note:  This is a guest post by Andrew G. Reiter, Assistant Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College]

In 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur and expanded those charges to include genocide in 2010.  Yet al-Bashir recently claimed immunity as a head of state and requested a visa from the United States to travel freely to New York to participate in the UN General Assembly and return safely to the comfort of his palace in Khartoum.  In a “Marbury v. Madison” moment for the ICC, the battle between immunity and the reach of international criminal law was in the hands of the US.  A strong position by the US that it could not guarantee al-Bashir would not be arrested forced him to cancel his trip; a move that significantly advances international justice and helps the ICC come of age. Continue reading


What’s wrong with red lines?

obama pic

So everyone is bashing Obama’s use of red lines on Syria.  In Sunday’s New York Times, Daniel Byman took the concept of red lines to task because failure to act on them weakens America’s credibility and reputation:

…when deterrence fails, the United States looks weak and indecisive…. Moreover, not acting after issuing ultimatums harms America’s reputation.  As Mr. Rogers and others have argued, inaction makes it more likely that American red lines elsewhere in the region will be questioned, especially in Iran, which is facing pressure on its nuclear weapons program and watching Syria closely.

But here is the question:   Does the United States really look weak and indecisive if it fails to follow through on a bluff?   The United States uses force at a rate that is several times greater than others – it has already toppled regimes on Iran’s western border and on Iran’s eastern border – and somehow it is the lesson of Syria that is more salient for Iran?   More broadly: why should an occasional bluff matter?

Well, actually it doesn’t.   Robert Jervis demonstrated four decades ago that signaling is complex business.  Jon Mercer’s excellent book on reputation shows that we’ve spent far too much blood and treasure over the folly of preserving our credibility.  Daryl Press spent years trying to demonstrate the costs of lost credibility when a state fails to follow through on its threats.  His finding?  The conventional wisdom on credibility “is wrong.”  In his book Calculating Credibility:  How Leaders Assess Military Threats, Press writes:

A country’s credibility, at least during crises, is driven not by its past behavior but rather by power and interests.  If a country makes threats that it has the power to carry out – and an interst in doing so—those threats will be believed even if the country has bluffed in the past….When assessing credibility during crises, leaders focus on the “here and now,” not on their adversary’s past behavior.

He and Jenny Lind have a nice post on Steve Walt’s blog warning against using the idea that we have to intervene in Syria to defend American credibility in the wake of Obama’s red line.  We don’t.

But, this also raises another interesting question.  Continue reading


The Triumph of Liberal Internationalism?

Robert Golan-Viella reflects on a tectonic shift in partisan foreign-policy debate, i.e., the fact that the Democrats have the upper hand. He chalks this up to campaign politics: the key to a Republican victory runs through the economy. I agree that there are “strong critiques” of Obama foreign policy and that “leading Republicans aren’t making them.” But I don’t think this is “politically smart,” insofar as leading Republicans are making attacks on Obama foreign policy–just not very good ones.

As Blake Hounshell noted on twitter of the latest broadside from the Romney campaign:

I expect that I will return to this theme on a number of future occasions, but I should note that this is something quite similar to what’s been happening on the domestic politics front.

While there’s plenty of room to eviscerate Obama, the Republicans have painted themselves into an ideological corner from which they’re forced to make a lot of deeply questionable claims. This is what happens when you’ve convinced your base that the label “socialist” is broad enough to include a center-right President whose major domestic initiatives — national Romneycare, a tax-cut and infrastructure oriented stimulus, a cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions — were mainstream Republican positions only four years ago.

Indeed, the fact is that Obama foreign policy doesn’t look that much different from what Bush was doing in the later part of his second term. Sure, the Obama Administration cancelled an inferior BMD program and replaced it with a better one (props to Sean Kay for that phrasing). But on Iraq and Afghanistan Obama largely followed the path developed toward the end of the Bush administration. Even its position on Iran is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Obama’s more explicit offer to engage with Iran  highlighted Teheran’s intransigence; to the extent that it “worked,” it did so by generating greater international support for tougher sanctions — it convinced other countries to get behind preexisting US policy. Even the “Israel” issue is often more about style than substance (cf. Erik Voeten on the status of Jerusalem).
In that sense, it isn’t surprising that Russia has become a focal point. The “reset” policy really was a break from Bush foreign policy. On the one hand, though, that “break” has worked to secure Bush administration objectives, such as expanded transit routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory. On the other hand, we can imagine that McCain administration might have been much more aggressive on Georgia and not have pursued New START. I can see a case for recalibration of the US policy toward Tbilisi, but August 2008 pretty much revealed the limitations of full-throttle support for Georgia.
Nuclear-weapons policy, however, provides an opening for real attack on the Obama Administration. But once again, we’re not getting substantive criticism about nuclear doctrine but rather blog-serious level discourse about selling out US interests to Moscow on BMD and the aggregate size of the US nuclear arsenal. Recall that US-Russians relations have deteriorated lately precisely because Washington won’t capitulate to Moscow on matters such as Syria policy or EPAA.

One lesson of this, I think, was that we didn’t need all of that “security Democrat” handwringing during the first five years after 9/11. Remember all those people who were in a tizzy about how liberals and progressives needed to come up with “new thinking” to respond to the neoconservative challenge? That all looks pretty silly now. The Obama Administration’s foreign policy fits pretty squarely within the broad liberal-internationalist tradition, albeit with, on some issues, a significant lean toward its “pragmatic realist” variant. Indeed, with a few exceptions — such as the aforementioned disaster that was US policy toward Georgia — the Bush administration basically abandoned neo-conservativism after the 2006 midterms.

That’s not to say that we won’t get another taste of neoconservative crusading bluster if Romney wins. My guess is that his impulses aren’t in that direction, but foreign-policy novices often go where their advisors take them. But I think what the record of the past two decades suggests is pretty clear: Republican and Democratic foreign-policy centrists never needed to “rethink” anything. Their ideas have acquitted themselves quite well. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy? Not so much. 


“Invisible” Wars?

World Politics Review has a feature section in this issue on the “invisibility” of contemporary US wars, fought through covert ops, drone strikes and cyber attack rather than on conventional battlespaces. The issue is a thought-provoking read: Thomas Barnett aims a verbal fusillade at Obama’s “one-night-stand” foreign policy; scalding expositions on the illegality and perverse side effects of drone strikes come from Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko, respectively; and Steven Metz confirms the new “invisibility” of US military strategy.

Naturally, my contribution unpacks the whole notion of “invisible” war, putting it into its socio-political context:

Much digital ink has been spilled over how cyber and unmanned technologies are changing the nature of war, allowing it to be fought more secretly, more subversively and with greater discretion. But the single biggest shift in the sociology of war in the past quarter-century has been not in the way it is fought, but in the relationship between its grim realities and the perceptions of those on the home front. Indeed, it is precisely the increasing visibility of ordinary warfare due to communications technology that is driving U.S. efforts to redefine the rules of engagement. And ironically, this is resulting in an unraveling of old normative understandings about how to achieve human security.

Check out the whole set of essays here.


How the US is Slowly Cultivating the Conditions for a Renewed International Order

Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk in Parliament in London this week offered useful insights into how the Obama administration and foreign policy analysts around it are thinking about shaping international order. As Director of Policy Planning in that administration from 2009-11 she spoke from experience about the mechanisms being used to implement international change. While she touched on Syria, drone strikes and other newsworthy issues, her wide-ranging discussion was more important for the glimpses it gave of the theoretical assumptions underlying how US policymakers understand change. There is a tremendously ambitious agenda at work. We must scrutinise the theory driving that agenda if we’re to understand US foreign policy.

Slaughter began by saying that structures are being put in place whose effects won’t be visible for some years. The structures the US is building are informed by the assumption that the biggest development in international relations is not the rise of the BRICs but the rise of society – “the people” – both within individual countries and across countries. The US must build structures that harness societies as agents in the international system. Slaughter returned to Putnam’s (1988) two-level game, the proposition that it is in the interaction of international and domestic politics that governments can play constituencies off against one another to find solutions to diplomatic and policy dilemmas. Slaughter took up this framework: the US administration must see a country as comprised of both its government and its society, work with both, and enable US society to engage other countries’ governments and societies. The latter involves the US acting not as “do-er” but as “convenor”, using social media and organising face-to-face platforms for citizens, civil society groups and companies to form intra- and international networks.

Critically, these two levels are flat. This took me by surprise. At the society level, citizens, civil society groups and companies are connected horizontally. No particular group or individual is afforded a priori centrality. Why is this a surprise? Public diplomacy experts have spent the last few years trying to target ‘influencers’ in societies. Influencers are political, religious or cultural figures who are listened to by others. This idea is informed by network analysis, marketing, and the idea that State Department messages are more credible in different parts of the world when mediated and delivered by a local influential figure than by Hillary Clinton on TV. Slaughter was not convinced by reliance on influencers, empirically or normatively. She argued that all the millions marketers have spent still hasn’t generated any clear knowledge about how influencers can be identified and utilised. Not only that, but it is surely preferable to try to engage whole societies and treat all individuals equally. That would flourish a greater democratic ethos than appealing to amenable clerics, companies, journalists and intellectuals in the hope they might spread the word downwards.

The long term goal of this foreign policy agenda is to create overseas publics who are receptive to the US in a low-level way, such that in a decade or two when the US might need to rely on these publics, it will at least be listened to. Slaughter quoted former Secretary of State George P. Shultz (1997). He suggested diplomacy is like gardening: “You get the weeds out when they are small. You also build confidence and understanding. Then, when a crisis arises, you have a solid base from which to work”. Slaughter praised the US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, who spends 20 percent of his working week on Twitter and his blog. Huebner writes about rugby and other issues of local interest rather than about US foreign policy. As a result, Slaughter said, he has a higher readership than New Zealand’s largest newspaper. The significance of this isn’t so much in quantitative metrics such as reach, but that he has built an audience by constructing a different quality of engagement. He is forming Schultz’s solid base.

An incremental, everyday-focused approach to engaging foreign publics might not strike up much publicity, but some US policy practitioners have been trying it for a few years now. In War and Media (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010) we discussed how since 2005 Capt. Frank Pascual and Capt. Eric Clark of the Media Engagement Team of CENTCOM, Dubai (the US Central Command base for the Middle East) had tried to engage Arabic-speaking audiences by becoming a regular presence on TV in the region, ’24 hours a day’:

Pascal: … We’ve had people come out from the Pentagon and look at this and say ‘wow’, really that’s been the word used because they realise how far forward we’re leading. There are times when, we basically have toothpaste and a toothbrush and not a lot more because things happen so quickly … I can’t allow Al-Jazeera or any other of the news media to get the high ground if we can seize it. Even if all I have is a piece of the information, or even if I don’t have anything to be able to say: ‘we’re investigating’, ‘we’re looking into that’ and at least give them something to go with, you know […] we will hold our people accountable for it and you can rely on that […] the American comedian Woody Allen said: ‘80 percent of life is showing up’, and that really is the word presence for us: being out there.

Unlike the ‘monks’ in their embassies, Pascal and Clark felt they were beginning to generate trust, initially with journalists but eventually with audiences. They acknowledged this was a slow process. Their temporal horizons for success appeared long term:

Pascal: There are a lot of people in our own government both on the military side and on the diplomatic side who would tell you: ‘what are you guys doing, you’re wasting your time with them’. It’s not wasted, the fact of the matter is that at least we got to say something on the air, live, and in fairness to them again it was not just 30 seconds, it was about five minutes of conversation, so it’s a real engagement, the ball gets moved very slowly sometimes and sometimes agonisingly slowly and I would argue that that’s the case here, but it’s moving.

This statecraft-as-gardening approach faces problems, Slaughter acknowledged. First, convening platforms for societies to communicate to each other and to foreign governments depends on a liberal faith that if you give people opportunities they will do more good than harm, and a quasi-Habermasian public sphere where everyone can and should have equal say. Slaughter conceded that the very technologies that allow publics to come together are the same technologies that allow states (and some non-state actors with particularistic agendas) to monitor and manipulate public debate, censor, and arrest dissenters. This was part of a “back and forth” struggle, Slaughter said, between people challenging their government using communications technologies that government can also use to restrict freedom – a struggle that long predates the Internet. So, there will be risks with this technology-led strategy and the open, free “townhall” model won’t emerge overnight.

Indeed, this approach assumes information is neutral and communication is a fundamental right. It is an approach that can easily slip into presenting a particular vision as natural and apolitical. Slaughter’s is a world where information should flow freely; it only gets political when people restrict it. If the US embassy in China tweets alternative air quality information to the Chinese government’s (LeVrine, 2010), “we were just tweeting information”, Slaughter said. No: information is being used to challenge Chinese state authority and make its expertise seem provisional and weak.

The second problem is that other major powers are trying to shape the international system at the same time. They may not share Slaughter’s theoretical premise that the fundamental relationships in international politics now involve the mutual interpenetration of numerous governments and societies. The EU and the BRICs have alternative ways of looking at the world, different levels of analysis, and their understandings of the individual, society and state can diverge fundamentally. It will take a lot of patience between foreign policymakers among these powers to identify conceptual and practical overlaps if the US approach is to be finessed with others.

Rival powers might also ask whether Slaughter’s approach is simply a new form of instrumentalism. Creating platforms for citizens and civil society groups to work together may seem attractive, but this is a means to the ends of US security. As Schultz said, the aim is to have a solid base of support overseas when crisis hits. And given that global pandemics, food and water shortages, terrorism and other security challenges depend on the responses of societies, “empowering” societies to address these issues may be a route to preventing crises and securing stability in the first place. Consequently, the classic tension in US foreign policy between pragmatism and idealism, documented again in Global Policy this week (Lilli, 2012), remains there to see.

It was generous of Slaughter to articulate so many of the assumptions and concepts underpinning US foreign policy and to provide detail on how those are being translated into policies and structures. US policymakers are aware of the problems identified here and it will be a long, patient process on their part to ensure those problems do not fatally undermine US efforts to empower citizens and cultivate support for the US around the world. Students of international affairs can expect to watch this renewed two-level game play out well beyond the current administration.

Cross-posted from the LSE journal Global Policy: https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/


Hoskins, A. and O’Loughlin, B. (2010) War and Media: The Emergence of Diffused War, Cambridge: Polity.

LeVrine, S. (2011) ‘China’s microblog furor over bad air days’, Foreign Policy, 10 November. Available at: https://oilandglory.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/11/10/chinas_microblog_furor_over_bad_air_days

Lilli, E. (2012) ‘Review: Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy by Martin S. Indyk et al’, Global Policy, 30 May. Available at: https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/30/05/2012/review-bending-history-barack-obama%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-martin-s-indyk-et-al

Putnam, R.D. (1988) ‘Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games’, International Organization, 42 (3), 427-460.

Schultz, G.P. (1997) ‘Diplomacy in the Information Age’. Paper presented at the Conference on Virtual Diplomacy, U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., April 1.


Obama’s “1967” Play

What to make of it? Was it significant, or just more of the same?

Of course it was significant — it is the first time a U.S. president has publicly claimed the “1967 lines” as the basis for negotiations and it came after an apparent “angry” phone call from Netanyahu to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding that the language be removed from the speech. It was clearly meant to send a signal.

For the past five months, the Obama administration’s reaction to the Arab spring has been a blend of soft rhetorical support with a wait-and-see approach. (This, by the way, was exactly the approach George H.W. Bush’s team took during the East European revolutions in 1989.)

But, we now have a better picture of where things are likely headed. And, while the Israeli-Palestinian issue was a non-factor in the Arab revolutions thus far, that’s about to change.

Liberal democratic neighbors might ultimately be good for Israel. But, we’re not likely to see any in the region any time soon — democratic transitions are long and difficult — and inherently unstable. New elites will emerge and exploit populist appeals and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is low-hanging fruit. The type of violence against the Palestinians that erupted last weekend, coupled with continued settlements are ready made for demagoguery and exploitation by new (and old) Arab politicians seeking to carve out political space and support. Given popular (median voter) opposition to Israel, any elections are likely to produce governments that are more skeptical and confrontational toward the Israelis.

At the Herzliya Conference in early February, Alex Mintz of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya warned that the strategic time-frame that used to be in Israel’s favor is now against it. With unstable revolutionary transitions, a weaker U.S. position in the region, and greater regional diplomatic energy coming from Ankara and Tehran, coupled with dysfunctional Israeli domestic institutions, significant gaps in Israeli society, and with problematic demographic trends, Israel is now, in many ways, in a more vulnerable position than at anytime since 1967.

Netanyahu and the American right have been banking on the status quo to create new realities on the ground — more settlements = new and better lines to negotiate from. That approach is now not only unsustainable, but will become increasingly more dangerous for the Israelis in the wake of the Arab revolutions. The strategic time-frame has shifted and it clearly is not on the Israeli side — that seems to be the gist of Obama’s “1967” play.


Quick Gitmo Post

Regarding the revelations in the latest diplo-document-dump, there are some good questions to be asked. Charli is wondering who actually did the leaking and Ben Wittes is concerned about the effect that this will have on not only the government, but the detainees themselves:

Should it most upset the government, for whom the story represents yet another devastating failure to keep important secrets? Or should it most upset detainee counsel, for whom this trove means the public release of huge amounts of unsubstantiated speculation about clients who have not been charged and against whom it is far easier to write down disparaging information in intelligence reports than it is to prove such allegations in court. For both intelligence and civil liberties reasons, there are very good reasons a lot of this material has not been made public.

I’m just going to say that there’s not a lot new here. As the New York Times itself writes:

The Guantánamo assessments seem unlikely to end the long-running debate about America’s most controversial prison. The documents can be mined for evidence supporting beliefs across the political spectrum about the relative perils posed by the detainees and whether the government’s system of holding most without trials is justified.

Basically, the story in the Times just highlights the already known facts: that many individuals are at Guantanamo because of shoddy evidence but cannot be returned to their home countries because they are either considered to be dangerous, whatever evidence was held against them was gained through torture, or there is a substantial chance that their home governments would torture them upon return. It also highlights the fact that the methodology/process for sorting out who should be sent to Guantanamo was flawed, at best.

Again, these are already things that were well known. The documents just seem to shed some light as to who is actually there. It really doesn’t offer us much information as to what to do with the hard cases of individuals like Khalid Sheik Mohammed who would seem to be guilty of major terrorist crimes, but who has been handled so poorly as to make a fair trial nearly impossible.

Right now, the only good I can see coming of this is reminding people that Gitmo is still there, that there are still people in it and that no one seems willing to do anything about it. But really, you have to wonder whether the ‘big issue’ here will be that of Gitmo  itself or that the documents were leaked in the first place. Right now I’m going to put my money on the later.

Benghazi: What were the signs?

Why did the Obama administration really intervene in Libya? Andrew Sullivan and Steve Walt both reject the administration’s claims (again) that we were on the verge of a mass slaughter in Libya if Qaddafi’s forces had been allowed to move into Benghazi. Walt also wants us to read Alan Kuperman’s op-ed “A False Pretense for War?”

As usual, Kuperman has an interesting take: First, he argues that there was no credible evidence of an imminent slaughter in Benghazi – and that, in fact, the signs point in the opposite direction – that Qaddafi has shown restraint with respect to attacking civilians. And second, because of this restraint, he contends we can infer that the real reason for the intervention was not humanitarian, but political — to save the rebels from defeat. Sullivan concludes something similar — that the Obama administration engaged in “fear mongering” to justify the war.

A couple of responses: On the first point, all of us agree that we don’t know for certain what would have happened in Benghazi because history was altered on March 18. This means that the evidence about what Qaddafi’s forces have done since March 18 doesn’t tell us much – for example have his forces shown restraint in Misurata because they are not predisposed to attack civilians, because they are not yet in a position to wage mass reprisal killings, or because they are being deterred by NATO? None of us know at this point. But, this is somewhat besides the point. We have to go back to the days in the run-up to the March 18 Security Council vote to analyze the situation as it looked from that point.

I’ve made my case on this here and here, so I’ll only add/reiterate a few points: Prior to my academic career, I was an intelligence analyst in INR at the State Department — in the office of Soviet and East European analysis. In 1992 and 1993, I served as the analyst for Bosnia, Croatia, and Poland. When the war in Bosnia broke out in March 1992, my portfolio was expanded to include the coordination of collection and analysis of war crimes and atrocities. Predicting a mass atrocity event in the midst of highly fluid events is not easy – and it certainly is not an exact science (all intelligence is probabilistic). Intelligence analysts and decisionmakers have to make judgments on the basis of incomplete information –made even more complicated by all the noise/propaganda in the system. I’m not privy to the intelligence assessments on Benghazi, but the factors that I would have looked for — the pace and flow of the battle, the disposition of the forces arrayed against Benghazi, the nature of Qaddafi’s regime, the nature of the rebel force and the fact that a large portion of it emerged out of a civilian demonstration movement, and the fact that the Benghazi uprising was the epicenter of the anti-Qaddafi revolution among others – all point to a credible (probabilistic) threat to the civilian population located there.

These factors also seem to have influenced the assessments of the human rights and humanitarian groups operating in Libya. For example, on March 16, ICG issued an open letter to the United Nations that began:

In light of the grave situation in Libya, we urge Security Council Members to take immediate effective action aimed at achieving a ceasefire in place and initiating negotiations to secure a transition to a legitimate and representative government. This action should be backed by the credible threat of appropriate military intervention, as a last resort, to prevent mass atrocities.

Finally, very few mass atrocity events are laid out according to some premeditated, master plan. More often than not – e.g. Sri Lanka, Guatemala, El Salvador, East Timor — they occur as a result of the exigencies of a particular battle or campaign and the reprisals that follow (or come near the) defeat of rebel forces.

The events of March 12 – March 18 included many signals that suggested Benghazi could have turned ugly very quickly. Whether or not that is the case, we’ll never know – but to summarily dismiss the potential threat is just wrong.

On the second point, Kuperman and Sullivan offer nothing more than simple conjecture about the administration’s motive for intervention — that it acted on false pretense and engaged in fear mongering to justify and sell the intervention. Again, we’ll have to wait for the record to be more fully revealed. For example, we don’t know how the intelligence community saw the situation and what they were telling the decisionmakers. We also don’t know exactly what the administration officials knew and believed — i.e., were they exploiting the humanitarian case or did they believe it? To date, we only have a few limited bits of data on what Obama’s advisers were thinking. Unlike Kuperman, Marc Lynch, for example, actually met with Obama’s advisers. His conclusion:

My conversations with administration officials, including but not limited to the one recounted by the indefatigable Laura Rozen, convinced me that they believed that a failure to act when and how they did would have led to a horrific slaughter in Benghazi and then across Libya.

So, it seems to me that there were credible (though certainly not absolute) reasons to conclude that we were on the verge of a mass atrocity event. And, we have several officials in the administration who apparently perceived that threat as imminent.

If this is the case, our task as analysts is to figure out how to reconcile the challenges and imperatives of preventing potential mass slaughter with the complexities, costs, and dangers of military interventions. It should not be to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the potential for mass violence doesn’t exist.


Why We Fight?

Steve Walt asks an interesting question: Is America addicted to war? He gives five reasons why we find ourselves in constant war:

1. Because we can
2. Because we have no serious enemies
3. The all volunteer force
4. It’s the establishment stupid
5. Congress has checked out

The first three and the last point all speak to the limited international and domestic structural constraints the United States faces on the use of force. The fourth speaks to the agency involved. On this point he argues:

the foreign-policy establishment is hard-wired in favor of “doing something.” Foreign-policy thinking in Washington is dominated either by neoconservatives (who openly proclaim the need to export “liberty” and never met a war they didn’t like) or by “liberal interventionists” who are just as enthusiastic about using military power to solve problems, provided they can engineer some sort of multilateral cover for it. Liberal interventionists sometimes concede that the United States can’t solve every problem (at least not at the same time), but they still think that the United States is the “indispensable” nation and they want us to solve as many of the world’s problems as we possibly can.

Walt’s hook for the piece is that Obama ran as an anti-war candidate and yet not only are we still in Iraq, but Obama escalated our troop presence in Afghanistan and now we are in Libya. Walt also challenges the core rationale for the Libyan intervention:

As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun… Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

First, Walt is right on the lack of structural constraints as major factors in the frequency of U.S. wars/interventions. We fight because we can — and we can do it, by historical standards, with limited international and domestic repercussions and costs

And, second, I think this is a fair question and I think that looking at the role of the foreign policy establishment is key. We do fight a lot of wars and we do so across administrations. The military, the defense industrial complex, and the foreign policy apparatus — government and think tanks — all seem to have been socialized to a significant degree behind the idea that war or the use of force is a normal condition.

But, I think there is a bigger challenge and set of questions that need to be considered in all of this. We live in a highly globalized world where both our actions and our inactions have real consequences. We spend most of our time focused on cases of U.S. military action. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense and I don’t want to minimize the costs and consequences of the use of force. But it also strikes me that if we are trying to understand and explain why the United States gets involved in wars and intervention, we have to study cases of non-intervention to see what factors or patterns emerge from those cases. Likewise, if we are going to evaluate the consequences of U.S. wars, we need to try to measure the consequences of not acting. And, we need to understand the use of American force in the larger global pattern of war.

In my own work, I look both at decisions of intervention and decisions of non-intervention — turns out there are more cases of the latter. (John Bolton would love us to bomb North Korea, Iran, and probably Syria too — and probably all on the same night). I’ve argued that intervention decisions are the result of political contests within the foreign policy establishment over when and where to intervene and how these battles play out through the media to influence public and political pressure for and against intervention. A number of factors such as elite consensus, executive branch information and propaganda advantages, and crisis duration are all important in these outcomes, but so too are the credibility of the arguments.

I think this is particularly important in any assessment of the influence of liberal interventionists on decision making. For the most part, humanitarian interventions are far less frequent than one would expect given the number of acute humanitarian crises that have occurred in the past two decades. In other words, and contrary to Leslie Gelb’s rant, liberal interventionists often lose their battles within the foreign policy establishment — partly because they are often internally conflicted on calling for the use of force and partly because the threat of violence to civilians is not always clear.

In the case of Libya, the liberal interventionists were able to prevail in their policy advocacy because there was a broad consensus at the United Nations, within the Arab League, in Europe, within the human rights and humanitarian NGO community, and within the White House that there was an imminent threat to civilians in Benghazi. In this regard, I think Walt’s characterization that there was no credible threat is wrong. (And, for the record, Alan Kuperman’s cut-and-paste-re-hashed-moral-hazards-everywhere op-ed in the USA today has not “shown” anything about this case.)

None of us are privy to the specific U.S. intelligence reports on Libya in the run-up to the March 18 Security Council decision, but both the CIA and the State Department now have strong war crimes and mass atrocity analysis units and we’ll have to wait for the FOIA release of their internal analysis to fully understand how the administration saw the situation unfolding. But, we can infer from a number of things that there was a broadly held view (beyond just the views of the “fiery” Samantha Power) that there were real and credible threats to civilians. In addition to my earlier post on this, we have the Arab League warning of serious threats to civilians, the United Nations Security Council has rarely acted as quickly as it did with UNSC Res 1973, and several human rights organizations issued specific warnings. In addition, both the ICRC and Medecins Sans Frontieres were forced to withdraw their personnel from Benghazi in the week before UNSC Res. 1973 was passed because of intensifying security concerns and both issued warnings about the peril s to civilian populations with the war spreading to the highly populated Benghazi.

Furthermore, we have some pretty good indicators of when episodes of mass political violence are most likely to occur. Barbara Harff’s 2003 APSR article tracks numerous instances of mass political killings — including the mass killing of civilians. Retributive politicide are strategies designed during or in the immediate aftermath of political rebellion and are often implemented by regimes when political rebellions have been defeated. We have plenty of cases of this phenomenon such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala, East Timor, Angola, and Sudan. Many of the warning signs of this type of impending violence existed in Libya — such as Qaddafi’s political ideology; the breadth and intensity of the political uprising against his rule; his prior record of violent repression against political rivals and dissidents; the tribal dimensions underlying the East-West divide in Libya (and the political opposition); and the scenario that if he prevailed by successfully using coercion as a means of regaining control, we would likely see the future use of intense repressive violence to maintain control.

Had these conditions not existed and had we not had a broad consensus on the threat to civilians, I’m confident that we wouldn’t be fighting in Libya today.

But, even more broadly, it’s not clear that the consequences of U.S. humanitarian interventions — or robust international peacekeeping missions — are all bad. We still may see a bad outcome in Libya, but the intervention decision itself is part of something broader in the world today. The use of force has been a constant in international relations for centuries, but as Joshua Goldstein argues in his forthcoming book Winning the War on War (due out in late summer from Dutton) the nature of war is changing — we are witnessing far fewer interstate wars and we are employing new approaches to the use of force to quell civil violence and to protect civilians — battlefield deaths have declined in every decade for the past five decades. Furthermore, as Ted Gurr noted noted over a decade ago, the decline of ethnic conflicts may well be attributable to the new ways the international system has been able to respond to episodes of mass violence and new tools for international conflict resolution and mitigation — much of which has come with significant U.S. military and diplomatic leadership. Lise Howard’s work and Page Fortna’s work on the efficacy of peacekeeping operations also suggest that our collective ability to deploy coercive force in selected instances may be a contributing factor to a reduction in global patterns of conflict.

AS evidenced by Walt’s post, there is considerable frustration today with the extent of American military engagement in the world — Iraq was one of the biggest strategic blunders in American history and I remain uncomfortable with the size of the defense budget and the extent to which American troops have become the face of America around the globe. I am also keenly aware of the challenges facing the international action in Libya today. Nonetheless, I’m also aware that the broader trends on conflict and war seem to be pointing in the right direction and American power (including the use of force) in some instances may be contributing to that trend.


Will R2P Survive?

So here’s a question: How do we evaluate whether or not a humanitarian intervention is successful? The obvious difficulty is that the intervention alters history and we are left with running various counterfactual thought experiments.

Here’s the Obama administration’s take on what would have happened in the absence of intervention. According to Laura Rozen, Dennis Ross and Derek Chollet told reporters that:

“We were looking at ‘Srebrenica on steroids’ —the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it,” Ross explained, according to one attendee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the administration is trying to keep its consultations private.

Russ Douthat dismisses the claim:

This is an audacious claim, to put it mildly. By way of comparison, in the Kosovo conflict, so often cited as a precedent for our Libyan intervention, the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign may have claimed 10,000 lives, while the widely-respected Iraq Body Count projects suggests that between 100,000 and 110,000 civilians have been killed in the eight years since we invaded in Iraq.

Err, well, no. The Libyan counterfactual (i.e., what might have happened without international intervention) can not be evaluated “by comparison” with two cases of international intervention/war. The Serbs killed thousands after the NATO bombing began — if we’re going to use Kosovo, we have to evaluate it in light of the counterfactual: how many more might have been killed if Serbs had launched a full-on effort to retake Kosovo without NATO airstrikes?

But, Douthat’s failure to make the correct comparison notwithstanding, his criticism does raise a broader set of questions about the future of R2P. We all want to know how many people need to be at risk before an intervention is justified. How real, credible, and direct do the threats have to be? How do we measure imminence — a priori? The architects of R2P have addressed many of these issues and how they might be operationalized. For example, on the question of pillar 3, Charli is right R2P has a high threshold for intervention. But, even with all of these well articulated, I’ve argued that it will nonetheless be difficult politically to create a viable and sustainable doctrine of R2P that can only be demonstrated to have worked through the use of counterfactuals.

R2P emerged out of the failures to prevent the Rwandan genocide — a case in which almost everyone concludes the international community should have acted to stop the genocide. The consensus on Rwanda is easy because we know that 850,000 Tutsis were slaughtered and because we know through extensive analysis (again after the fact) that there probably were many things the international community could have done.

But, the question is what were the clear and direct signals of mass atrocities that were visible to U.S. and international decision makers during the very early days of the violence — how clear and credible were the reports of mass atrocities, how well were those reports understood and appreciated, and how clear were the strategies for international action?

Even the strongest advocates for early intervention in Rwanda concede that US and international decision makers missed early signals. For a variety of reasons, leading decision makers were unable to accurately interpret the signals in early-to-mid April 1994 as clear evidence of (an imminent) genocide. As the violence escalated and intensified over the first two-to-three weeks, the reports of the magnitude of violence gradually increased. By the third week of April, things were clear — but by then nearly 100,000 people were already dead.

In other words, the situation was murky in the first few days, but it clarified over time.

This raises the question, if you believe the international community should have intervened in Rwanda — and apparently most people believe it should have — when should it have done so? Should it have intervened on April 7 – 14 when the mass slaughter initially began but when the signals were still somewhat mixed and few really understood or appreciated the potential for genocide? Or should the international community have waited until later in April when the situation was clarified but after more than 100,000 civilians had already been killed?

It seems to me that the signals of impending mass atrocity violence were clearer, more direct, and more imminent on March 17 – 19, 2011 in Libya than on April 7 – 14, 1994 in Rwanda. In Libya, armored tank columns with air and naval support were advancing on Benghazi — a city of nearly one million. Qaddafi had weathered the initial wave of demonstrations, his forces had re-grouped and counterattacked, and were rapidly advancing to re-assert control over the country that had been lost three weeks earlier to the combined efforts of a spontaneous mass civil protest movement and an ill-defined, rag-tag assemblage of former military, police, and civilians that loosely coalesced into a new rebel military force. Furthermore, Qaddafi’s ranting speech further signaled an escalation of the threat to civilians in Benghazi especially because of the political link between civilians engaged in non-violent protest actions and the newly formed rebel militia.

It strikes me that Libya on March 17 and 18 was about as clear as it gets in real world situations to evidence (prior to the fact) of an imminent threat to civilian populations to invoke R2P. The fact that this is challenged doesn’t bode well for the future of R2P.


This ain’t gonna cut it….

Friends at the National Priorities Project have a quick assessment on President Obama’s budget. Here’s their take on the defense and security budget:

Defense spending, which accounts for roughly 58 percent of discretionary spending and 20 percent of total federal spending (both based on FY 2011 estimates), will continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace than in recent years.

The $553 billion base-line Department of Defense request is approximately 3% higher than current funding levels. This figure does not include funding for nuclear weapons or $117.6 billion for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

…The chart below shows defense spending as 58% of all requested FY2011 discretionary spending (left bar) and security spending as 66% of the total (right bar).

This means that the projected freeze and subsequent savings on non-security discretionary spending in FY2012 will have to be absorbed by an even smaller percentage of the overall discretionary budget.


The “drug war” is over?

Over the years, the so-called global “war on terror” (or “war on terrorism”) has had its ups and downs as a foreign policy framing device. The George W. Bush administration, of course, relied upon the frame to sell virtually all its major foreign policies over a period of many years — even though the Pentagon at one point preferred “struggle against violent extremists.” Britain stopped using the phrase some years ago (at least in the Labor government).

Barack Obama’s administration allegedly abandoned the phrase very early in his term — in favor of alternatives like “overseas contingency operations.” However, with a little searching, it’s not difficult to find official spokespersons (like Robert Gibbs)  — or even the President himself — continuing to use those words after announcing that they wouldn’t.

Somehow, I missed the Obama administration’s similar early announcement that it was also going to stop using the phrase “war on drugs.” The Wall Street Journal reported this story May 14, 2009:

The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation’s drug issues.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

We haven’t discussed the “war on drugs” very much here at the Duck of Minerva, but it has long had a significant effect on public policy — especially domestic policy as recently demonstrated in a drug-themed issue of The Nation. This is an excellent summary of the costs from Ohio State Law Professor Michelle Alexander’s piece in that issue:

More than 30 million people have been arrested since 1982, when President Reagan turned Nixon’s rhetorical “war against drugs” into a literal war against poor people of color. During the past few decades, African-American men, in particular, have been arrested at stunning rates, primarily for nonviolent, relatively minor drug offenses—despite data indicating that people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison have been African-American, and when released they find themselves ushered into a parallel universe where they are stripped of many of the rights supposedly won during the civil rights movement. People labeled felons are often denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—relegated to a second-class status for life simply because they were once caught with drugs.

She put the economic cost of the war at “more than $1 trillion in the past few decades.”

Clearly, America’s “carceral state,” which Charli recently mentioned, reflects the outcome of the drug war. Of course “contact with the criminal justice system” is going to be a “significant predictor of civic and political disengagement and mistrust of government.” Felons are frequently denied the freedom to vote.

I recall more than 20 years ago thinking about writing a rhetorical analysis about George H.W. Bush’s use of the phrase “war on drugs” to rally support for his domestic and foreign initiatives. But I didn’t. The cold war was still raging, my dissertation concerned strategic defense — and I needed to find a tenure track job. Members of the IR Copenhagen School have long discussed the securitization of this issue, but few American IR scholars have taken it very seriously — even when it occasionally spilled over into “hot” rather than merely metaphorical war.

The Obama administration doesn’t use the phrase “war on terror,” but has escalated American intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The “war in Iraq” has ended, but 50,000 American troops remain to help provide security.

I suspect the decision to stop using the phrase “war on drug” will have similar policy consequences. Indeed, that recent issue of The Nation demonstrates the continued failings of U.S. policy in this area.


The World’s Most Dangerous Crisis

[cross-posted at Current Intelligence]

Earlier this week, President Obama announced the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq and pledged his commitment to begin drawing down American forces in Afghanistan beginning next summer. A key theme in his address to the nation was the need for the United States to redirect resources from nearly a decade of two wars and invest in the economy at home. Yet, although the President is trying to move away from an era of “perpetual war,” Washington is already abuzz about the next impending military action the region: an Israeli strike on Iran, which would likely disrupt US objectives and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and create enormous political, strategic, military, and economic costs to the United States around the globe.

Jeffrey Goldberg triggered the most recent discussion with his article “Israel is Getting Ready to Bomb Iran: How, Why – and What it Means” in the current issue of The Atlantic. Based on dozens of interviews over the past few years, Goldberg’s assessment is that most Israeli leaders (and citizens) now view a nuclear Iran as an existential threat and, as a result, there is “better than a 50 percent chance Israel will launch a strike on Iran by next July.”

I spent a couple of weeks in Israel in June also talking to senior Israeli political and military officials and I came away with a similar impression. The Israelis will not tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons and they will take military action to slow it if no one else does.

To be sure, there is a possibility that the Israeli government is sounding particularly hawkish as a signaling ploy to generate a stronger international response to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But I concur with Goldberg’s assessment that the current Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes the existence of the state of Israel and the entire Zionist movement is threatened by a nuclear Iran. They see the threat as both direct – a nuclear Iran will act more aggressively by unleashing Hezbollah and Hamas to launch direct attacks on Israeli cities – and indirect – as the next generation of educated Israelis will leave the country for the relative safety and comfort of the United States or Europe. As a result, both the security and demography of Israel will be irreparably changed.

Regardless of whether or not this is the true nature of the threat, and whether or not a nuclear Iran could be contained, the dominant view in the upper echelons of the Israeli government is that Iran with a nuclear weapon cannot (and will not) be tolerated.

I’ve spent the past twenty years studying decisionmaking and war. Decisions for war are often a confluence of heightened assessments of threat coupled with various psychological or ideological biases that discount the costs of war. In this sense, decisions for war are more likely when leaders perceive an enemy as a paper tiger – ferocious and dangerous if left unchecked, but easily dismantled by swift and concentrated military action. In these circumstances, war becomes more likely when it is seen as both a necessary and relatively low cost instrument.

What is striking about the debate in Israel today is that no one seems to be discounting the costs to Israel if it does strike Iran. The Israelis that I met with all agreed that Israel would be isolated in the world if it launched a preventive attack. It would trigger large-scale retaliations by enraged Iranians and radicalized Muslim populations against Jews and Jewish interests around the world. The Israelis also expect that an attack would imperil the Palestinian Authority’s statebuilding efforts on the West Bank and trigger counter attacks against Israel from Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and from Hamas in Gaza. Israeli intelligence officers told my group that it believes Hezbollah and Hamas have acquired somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 rockets from Iran in the past several years. These weapons are more sophisticated and longer range than Qasam rockets used by Hamas in Gaza and can now strike almost every city and town in Israel. This would compel a full-scale land campaign by the Israeli Defense Forces in both Gaza and Lebanon.

And, finally, the Israelis are conscious that a strike would trigger a reaction against American military personnel and interests throughout the Muslim world. This would profoundly affect all American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. More broadly, it could seriously destabilize the entire Persian Gulf and broader Middle East, and be disastrous to the global economy.

Even with this analysis in hand, many in the Israeli leadership appear to believe that striking Iran would be the best option if nothing else is done to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The challenge for the Obama administration in the coming months is to simultaneously deter Iran from moving forward on its nuclear weapons program while persuading the Israelis not to take matters into their own hands. This will not be easy. The Iranian regime has shown little sign of altering its course. Constraining the Israelis – difficult under any circumstances – will be considerably more difficult after the mid-term elections in November if the hawkish, pro-Israeli Republicans do as well as expected.

Obama entered office as the most boxed-in President since Harry Truman – facing two wars and a global financial crisis. But it is this situation that may be the biggest challenge for his Presidency, and the most dangerous. If Obama fails and the Israelis strike, the regional and global reaction to both Israel and the United States will be severe. We almost certainly will be looking at a fundamentally altered environment, in security and economic terms, for the next generation.


Preemption News

Search the current White House website for the phrase “Bush Doctrine” and “no results” are returned. However, as I’ve previously argued, that does not mean the Obama administration has abandoned the Bush view of “preemption” (which was really a rebranding of preventive war).

This week, the Pentagon has announced a new cyber-spin on “preemptive war”:

The Pentagon is contemplating an aggressive approach to defending its computer systems that includes pre-emptive actions such as knocking out parts of an adversary’s computer network overseas – but it is still wrestling with how to pursue the strategy legally.

The Washington Post reports that the Department is developing a range of weapons capabilities, including tools that would allow “attack and exploitation of adversary information systems” and that can “deceive, deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy” information and information systems, according to Defense Department budget documents.

General Keith Alexander, who leads the Pentagon’s new Cyber Command is quoted as saying “We have to have offensive capabilities, to, in real time, shut down somebody trying to attack us.” These attacks are more than just hypothetical, as detailed in the September/October 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs.

The Post article mentions clearly legal defensive measures the Pentagon could employ when it anticipates attacks — firewalls, password protection, etc. Plus, the U.S. could try to resolve potential disputes without force, with diplomacy perhaps. And, of course, General Alexander implies a retaliatory attack, which would presumably be legal.

But the notion of striking first seems to have been engrained in the defense community’s culture over this past decade.

Luckily, at least some bureaucrats within the administration still recall the illegality of preventive attacks:

Government lawyers and some officials question whether the Pentagon could take such action without violating international law or other countries’ sovereignty.

Apparently, the U.S. has already engaged in questionable cyber-preemptive attack:

The military’s dismantling in 2008 of a Saudi Web site that U.S. officials suspected of facilitating suicide bombers in Iraq also inadvertently disrupted more than 300 servers in Saudi Arabia, Germany and Texas, for example, and the Obama administration put a moratorium on such network warfare actions until clear rules could be established.

The CIA, by the way, is apparently upset that the Pentagon’s strikes would bound to be covert — and that domain belongs to CIA. Turf war!


The ticking clock(s) on Iran…

Apparently, containment of Iran is no longer an option and the Obama administration is showing signs of toughening its stance. In doing so, the administration appears to be shifting the anticipated costs and benefits (and the likelihood) of military strikes on Iran.

One of Israel’s leading commentators, Ehud Yaari, had this piece in yesterday’s Jerusalem Post:

I have solid information indicating that the top echelons of the administration – National Security Council, Pentagon, State Department – have reached the conclusion that the US cannot adopt the option of containing a nuclear Iran.

The option of accepting a nuclear Iran, unwillingly of course, and then trying to contain it, was advocated by many important players on the American foreign policy scene. This option is now apparently off the table.

There is a change of policy not only in terms of sanctions, both at the UN Security Council and those unilateral sanctions now imposed by both the US, EU and others, but also an understanding by the administration that in no way can Iran be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.

How do we know this? Among other things, because this is what the Americans have been telling Arab leaders over recent weeks.

And why have they changed their minds? Because of what the leaders of the Gulf states, including the king of Saudi Arabia, have been saying to Obama for some time now: “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.”

So, what to make of this?

During my recent trip to Israel, the group I was with met with Yaari. He is a smart voice in Israel and he has incredible access throughout the Middle East, so I trust he is on to something. He expressed concern that there are two clocks on Iran. The first is the clock on how long it will take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The second, and more worrisome, clock is the time it will take Iran to fully “bury” (hide and harden) its nuclear research and production facilities. He argued that it is this second clock that is the real trigger for Israeli military action – and it is moving more quickly than the first. His general sense is that it might be a year away, but that it is almost certainly coming and the Israelis will not accept it – a line we heard from multiple officials.

There has been a lot of conversation on what happens if, and when, Tehran does develop a nuclear weapon. But, a more significant danger is the possibility that Tehran may (mis)calculate that it can go to the brink of developing a weapon and stop short. This is particularly dangerous, because in doing so, it would almost certainly expire the second clock and trigger an Israeli strike.

This concern no doubt factors into the Obama administration’s current thinking. It obviously wants a reversal from Iran. But, it also does not want an Israeli strike and is looking for ways to constrain an Israeli attack which increasingly appears like it is in the works. But the Israelis are very distrustful of this administration and Obama doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage right now (a point Drezner also was able to identify on his second day in the country). The Obama administration also knows that Netanyahu has unequivocal support from several US constituencies – the Tea Partiers just introduced House Res. 1553 which may be a non-starter here, but is a strong signal to those in Jerusalem.

Hence, Obama’s shift appears to be an effort, in part, to demonstrate the administration’s toughness to the Israelis (and to constrain them) as much as to offer reassurances to the Gulf states. So right now, the current policy is premised on the hope that the new UN, US, and EU sanctions coupled with stepping up a stronger posture by the United States might compel Tehran to change it’s course on both the first and second clocks.

However, for those keeping score at home, Obama’s new tack also changes a lot of thinking on the cost-benefit ratio of U.S. military action.

We’ve all heard that a military strike would be very difficult and costly. It would almost certainly trigger Iranian nationalism (74 million strong) and lead to a significant escalation of terrorism and violence. We would almost certainly see an Iranian response against Israel coming from Hamas and Hezbollah which have spent the last couple of years stockpiling rocket and missile upgrades. And, the Iranians could raise all kinds of hell in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

But, with the Obama administration now telling folks that it will not accept a nuclear Iran — the perceived costs of inaction have just increased. The thinking that I’ve been hearing, both in Israel and more recently from friends close to the administration, is that if Iran went nuclear without a U.S. military response, we would see several things happen: 1) Iran would be emboldened to play an even greater destabilizing role throughout the region; 2) the US influence/relationships with the gulf states would collapse and trigger a wide range of regional reactions which would lead to a sharp spike in terrorism, the disruption of global oil production and distribution, and a collapse of an already vulnerable global economy (notice the second and third order effects built into the first assumption); 3) it would trigger a wave of destabilizing proliferation throughout the Middle East — both the Saudis and Egyptians have warned that they would move quickly to develop their own capabilities; 4) radicals would see this as a victory for Islamic fundamentalism and would launch assaults on all moderate Islamic and Arab parties; and 5) the Palestinians, currently looking at the U.S.-Iran situation for cues, would radicalize if Iran wins and launch more aggressive attacks against Israel. In short, the situation would lead to a global economic crisis, massive violence, and a radicalization of politics around the globe.

And, while I challenged my interlocutors on each point with both logical and empirical arguments, I don’t think I had much effect. It reminds me of the way in which the uncontested, casual assumptions emerged in pre-war Iraq discourse and fueled the groupthink.

Furthermore, the probability of war almost certainly increases when we couple this thinking with new “estimates” that the costs of war might be lower:

Other intelligence sources say that the U.S. Army’s Central Command, which is in charge of organizing military operations in the Middle East, has made some real progress in planning targeted air strikes — aided, in large part, by the vastly improved human-intelligence operations in the region. “There really wasn’t a military option a year ago,” an Israeli military source told me. “But they’ve gotten serious about the planning, and the option is real now.”

The general sense I have is that we have no more than a year before something will have to give. The multiple moving parts to this story are clearly dangerous and all of the various forms of brinksmanship that we’ll see in the coming months are ripe for miscalculation.


Iran’s setbacks: Buying time?

According to Gary Samore, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program has had some important recent setbacks. The AP, last week:

Setbacks in Iran’s uranium enrichment program have significantly delayed its progress toward building a nuclear weapon, President Barack Obama’s top nuclear adviser said Tuesday.

…On Iran’s enrichment program, Samore said that Tehran had been set back by problems with its centrifuges and by disclosure of an enrichment plant near Qom that the United States alleges was part of a secret nuclear program.

Samore said that because of the setbacks, “the nuclear clock is not ticking as quickly as some had feared.”

Samore’s lengthy title is “Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.” So he should know, right?

Samore seems to be saying that this threat is not yet technologically imminent. The statement is not quite as precise as the 2005 NIE, which reportedly said that Iran’s nuclear bomb was at least a decade away, but it’s still good news.

The comments seem to be directed at Iran hawks, of course, and also at the policy wonks who have recently been upset by Iran developments. For example, in a February blog post, my go-to source for proliferation information Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, emphasized the very bad news in Iran’s just-announced plans to enrich uranium to 20%.

If Iran enriches a significant amount of U235 to 20 percent — and that’s a stated goal right now, not yet an actual achievement — then Iran would be able to “top off” the enrichment [at] a small, clandestine facility like the one revealed near Qom.

In a comment to the Lewis post, Yale Simkin simplified the problem for those of us without a lot of nuclear physics:

Imagine a bowl with 1,000 ping-pong balls in it. 993 of the balls are green. 7 of the balls are red. The balls are at “0.7% Red Enrichment.”

Now imagine reaching in the bowl and pulling out unwanted green balls. You are doing “separative work”. You will be leaving the red balls in the bowl.

Remove 840 green balls, a long and tedious job. Now you have 153 green balls and 7 red balls.

You are now at “4.4% Red Enrichment”

Last step. This time remove only 152 green balls.

This leaves 7 red balls and 1 green ball or an “88% Red Enrichment.”

So note: It took EIGHT-FIVE percent of the work to go from 0.7% to 4.4%!

That is why “Peaceful” enrichment is a fraud…

What other wonks have been worried about Iran policy?

Back in February, the Leveretts argued that the Obama administration was dithering recklessly in the ongoing negotiations:

…the Obama Administration and its European partners have effectively rejected these Iranian positions—precisely because accepting them would mean that the Obama Administration would not have a year or more to sort through what it is prepared to do regarding the prospective substance of U.S.-Iranian engagement. Instead, the Administration would have to make strategic choices and develop real positions on important issues much sooner than it had contemplated. And, rather than do that, the Obama Administration is moving to embrace the same counterproductive and feckless policies aimed at isolating and pressing Tehran that the George W. Bush Administration employed.

I too have expressed fears that the Obama policy looks too much like the Bush Doctrine in the right light.

Sixteen months into this administration, the U.S. should clearly work “faster, please” to achieve results in the Iran negotiations. Election-year promises about bargaining without preconditions are beginning to fade from memory even as blustering threats are occasionally made public. The so-called “Zombie fuel swap” proposal may not be a sufficient solution.

In any event, this latest news is perhaps a sign that the world has more time to work out a reasonable compromise.


The Latest on U.S. Militarism

In my U.S. Foreign Policy class this semester, students read the latest book from historian Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008). As in his prior work, Bacevich is critical of the apparent militarism in American foreign policy. Primarily, he argues that the U.S. is too willing to use military force as an instrument of policy and that the American people and its leaders overestimate the effectiveness of military power.

Arguably, another indicator of American militarism is its willingness to place former top military leaders into security policy posts that could well be topped by civilians. Already, the top military brass is very influential on U.S. foreign policy in their roles as military leaders. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have made all the key U.S. decisions bout Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most recently, for example, Barack Obama has selected retired Major General Robert Harding to head the Transportation Security Administration. Why should TSA be headed by a former general?By the way, Harding started a company that apparently overbilled the government millions of dollars for “interrogation” work in Iraq, so his nomination might not be assured.

Independent of that potential scandal, why should former military officials also currently serve in other top security posts? The former generals and admirals may well be qualified, but the U.S. assures greater civilian control of security policy if it keeps these positions in civilian hands. Yet, the Director of National Intelligence is former Admiral Dennis Blair. The current National Security Advisor is retired Marine General James Jones.

The practice of placing former military leaders into security positions in U.S. foreign policy is not unique to the Obama administration.

On my personal blog, I often wrote posts highlighting the fact that many former military leaders opposed the U.S. war in Iraq. Thus, I don’t mean to argue that all these leaders are dangerous hawks that threaten American democracy. Nor was I previously trying to argue that military opinion should trump the ideas pursued by civilian policymakers. Indeed, in those years, President Bush often said that he listened to his active Generals in regard to Iraq, so “the military’s” views were presumably heard (as if “the military” singular existed).

In this particular instance, I’m worried about the lack of civilian input on security policy issues. I’m in favor of listening to the views of people with military experience, but I also think that diverse perspectives should play a prominent role.


Dissing Biden

OK, so not only did the Israeli Defense Ministry announce the permit for 112 new apartment units at Beiter Illit on the eve of Biden’s visit (which the Americans were reluctantly willing to overlook), but then the government announced the approval of construction of 1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem.

I’m not sure which is more surprising — the stupidity or the brazenness of the Israeli actions. I realize there are bureaucratic procedures in place for new settlement permits, but announcing the expansion of settlements not once, but twice, with the American Vice President in country is pretty special even for Netanyahu’s government.

We’ll see where this goes, but Biden was probably the last guy from this administration the Israelis should have dissed. From Laura Rosen this morning:

“People who heard what Biden said [to Israeli officials behind closed doors] were stunned,” the centrist Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported. “‘This is starting to get dangerous for us,’ Biden castigated his interlocutors. ‘What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.’”

The fact that Israeli officials were “stunned” speaks volumes about how casual their disrespect for the Obama administration has become. Biden’s language — explicitly tying Israeli settlements to the security of American troops operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — may well be a break through not only with the Israeli government and public, but also with Americans as well. We’ll see.

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