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July 01, 2008

The Grand Strategy Debate
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I really enjoyed reading the last few posts on "grand strategy." I largely agree with Ilan and Shawn. However, I share David's concerns about a strategy that fails to point “toward worthy ultimate objectives” or one without “the kind of heart and soul with which we can inspire a nation.”

At a deeper level, any strategic reassessment must look at the question of foundational principles. What kind of country do we aspire to be? What are the ideals which drive us, and to what extent are we willing to uphold them? A reassessment also requires that we take a hard look at what we have done. For a country that wishes to use its power for good, to what extent have we used our power for the opposite? We must err on the side of self-criticism, because there is, sadly, much to criticize. 

Ilan says that “the goal of American foreign policy should be to sustain the international system that that has served the United States and mankind so well for the past 60 years.” Yes, there was much in that system to be proud of, and it is tragic that it has been systematically dismantled in the last eight years. But the danger of the Bush experience is that it makes us look with perhaps excessive affection for pre-9/11 strategies – strategies that were largely designed to maintain the status quo in critical areas (i.e. the Middle East). The international system served us well, but to what extent did it serve others well? Here, the picture is less clear. 

So, yes, I was concerned by David’s conclusion that “we are indeed reorienting America from being a revolutionary power toward being a status quo power, and properly so.” If this is indeed true – and if this is really what progressives want – then I’m really, really confused and more than a bit worried. Of course, we shouldn’t be a revolutionary power – in the sense that that revolutions are usually disrupting and often violent – but if we aspire to reinstate the status quo, let us just recall that the status quo wasn’t all that great for a lot of people.

It would be hard for anyone to argue that the Middle East was a beneficiary of the once-predominant internationalism that reigned supreme. And it was this bi-partisan approach to U.S. policy that gave us the Middle East we have today – one beset by political violence, terrorism, sectarianism, anti-Americanism and often brutal authoritarian regimes. The Bush administration made it much worse, but it would be a mistake to think that things were going well when Democrats (or Bush senior) were in power.

In some sense, the Middle East is the primary (but certainly not the only) exception to the 50-year long relative success of the pre-9/11 era. But it is also a particularly important one, in that our successes and failures in that region have a disproportionate effect on our vital interests, not to mention on how others perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves. I’ve begun to notice much more now that commentators are saying that we should de-emphasize the Middle East and concentrate more attention to rising powers like China and Russia. And, of course, they’re right (about the second part), but the danger here is that we will fail to take corrective action – action that is sorely needed - in the world’s most undemocratic and dangerous region. We can give up on the Middle East – and that is a certainly a better option than invading it – but if we if we wash our hands of responsibility for the fate of the Middle East, then I think history – to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims – will judge us harshly.   


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Shadi scores again.

I'm not certain that I can agree with this premise:

It would be hard for anyone to argue that the Middle East was a beneficiary of the once-predominant internationalism that reigned supreme.

I suppose it depends on how one defines one's terms, “Middle East”, “internationalism”, “beneficiary”. If the claim is that the aggregate wealth of the region is no greater than it was 60 years ago and there's been little change in the region over the last 60 years, that's claptrap.

If the claim is that there are still a lot of poor people in the region, it's true.

If the claim is that had the U. S. withdrawn to its pre-world war position, the entire Middle East would have been better off, it's debateable. I think that, given the revelations of the last dozen years on the actions of Soviet operatives in the region, that a considerable portion of the region would be Soviet republics now and, well, look around at how well-off the members of the USSwere are today.

So, what do you mean?

Seems like I should clear up the record on 'status quo power.' I mean the American interest in the strength of the system as a system, not a preference to keep world conditions just as they are. A status quo power is generally content with the terms of the international social contract, doesn't feel they're in need of radical revision. As principal author of the post-WWII order, that's how the United States should feel -- hastening to add that not insignificant adjustments are needed to reflect power shifts and a fast-changing world. Even so, the fundamentals of the current rules based order are basically sound.

And, as a matter of fact, those fundamentals do indeed call for the spread of democracy. The status of that general norm of democracy illustrates my point about how a status quo power -- happy with most of the rules -- can be unhappy and activist about the status quo in terms of global levels of freedom. For an excellent treatment of this, see Kofi Annan's 2005 In Larger Freedom report. For more thooughts on caution and prudential considerations in the spread of demoracy, see my "Give Me Liberty..." post.

Dave, here are some of the indicators I'm looking at:

1. There has been little, if any, progress on democratic reform in the region. In fact, countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia have become more authoritarian and repressive over time. In the late 80s, in both Egypt and Jordan, people were predicting a democratic breakthrough. It was not to be. Today, as we speak, the major opposition groups - the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Jordanian IAF - have been on the receiving end of greater government repression and restrictions on political activity. The autocrats are emboldened, in part b/c Jordan remains the second largest per capital recipient of aid in the world, while Egypt is the second largest recipient in absolute terms. Even in supposedly one of the most promising countries, Morocco, its freedom house scores are significantly worse today than they were in the early-to-mid 1970s.

2. The Middle East has become the primary exporter of international terrorism.

3. Radical groups are empowered (Salafis and jihadists). Even moderate groups may be becoming less moderate, in the sense that they're beginning to question whether political participation has brought them any real benefits. These groups - largely Islamist - made a strategic decision to commit themselves to the political process, but they have been rewarded with more repression (Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia) or an almost total unwillingness on the part of ruling regimes to share power or significantly open up the political system (Morocco, Yemen).

3. The Middle East is, I would argue, less stable today. Nearly every country in the region is governed by autocratic, and often illegitimate ruling cliques. If you think autocracy is a permanent solution, then this is fine. But, as we've seen in other regions, autocracies don't last forever, so we should be worried about the day after. For example, Hosni Mubarak is 80 today. What happens when he's no longer around? There is no vice-president or any accepted succession mechanism. That's pretty scary.

4. Three of the most important polities in the region - Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine - continue to be riddled by sectarian strife, political violence, civil war or near-civil war.

Keep in mind that all 4 of these problems are not simply products of the last 8 years.

I couldn't disagree with any of those points, Shadi. Are these indicators rising because the countries in the region haven't been the beneficiaries of the system of internationalism or because they have. I think rather the latter.

One simple example. 60 years ago although travel between, say, Los Angeles and New York was a commonplace, travel between Jeddah and Paris was quite rare. The two pairs of destinations are nearly the same distance from one another. I think the greater instability is a consequence of increased contact and that is part and parcel of the international system.

Shadi - What do you make of the investments in education in Saudi Arabia, together with the building of huge new cities? Do you think these efforts will move the next generation of that country into a more educated and highly skilled way of life?

The best that the United States could do is to promote the development of civic society in the Middle East and talk to members of political groups such as the Muslim brotherhood. This is the European approach to dealing with the Middle East, and seems to be supported by Parag Khanna in his new book "The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order." I personally believe the approach taken by Khanna and the the Europeans is the right one because if the Middle East suddenly democratizes than radicals could easily take control such as what happaned during the French and Russian revolutions. But if a civil society is promoted by the bottom up than the radicals political work would be devoted to local affairs and not grandiose ideological dreams.

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I would say most importantly, the debate over form and grand strategy is, as FLG argues, exceedingly meta. But understanding form and structure, however abstract, is a necessary step for evaluating historical results of strategy and policy–as well as the expectations we should have about our own capacity for strategic decisionmaking...

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