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February 01, 2009

The Post-Politics Of Military Force
Posted by David Shorr

In the last few months I've spoken to local World Affairs Councils in Juneau, Anchorage, Kansas City, and St. Louis (together with DA founder Suzanne Nossel). My main theme has been a reoriented foreign policy of international cooperation aimed at fostering a stronger international community. (My entire spiel, audio and powerpoint, is available through the Alaskan World Affairs Council web site.) I really enjoy these events, each of which has included an excellent set of questions from attendees. Earlier this week in Kansas City, one of the questions seemed to show a way to break out of one of the circular political debates that has hampered constructive policy debate -- i.e. toward the post-politics of foreign policy.

I was really glad when a young servicemember at the Kansas City event pointed out that the oath he had taken did not include a duty to serve the global greater good. The question triggered memories of back-and-forths over whether American forces should (or did) serve under UN or other foreign commanders (e.g. Somalia). From what I recall of the 1990s, that was kind of a polarizing, go-nowhere debate, so I tried to step back and talk more broadly about the nature and extent of American interests.

The way I see it, we serve US international aims through three sets of considerations: national self-interests (security and economic), alliances and alignments (being a dependable friend), and the global spread of peace, prosperity, freedom, and good governance. These categories aren't divided by bright lines, but different actions or policies will serve one or another of these considerations to different degrees. My point is that a foreign policy focused narrowly on the first set (or first two) will not serve American interests or values very well. Or, as Suzanne and I argue, the United States has a "stake in the international system."

What the soldier in Kansas City wanted to know was whether there is a hierarchy of these impulses, and of course defending traditional national and strategic interests is a stronger imperative than the global commonweal. I should quickly add, though, the importance of guarding against over-stretching the concept of national interest. So what did this little colloquy have to do with "post-politics" and the new pragmatism (a hardy perennial here on DA)? Steering our foreign policy with all three of these impulses in mind will hardly result in a Hegelian synthesis devoid of hard choices. But post-politics does offer the chance for those who are more mindful of national interests than global interests -- or vice versa -- to engage in a constructive debate over how to strike the right balance, and perhaps lay the basis for a more effective policy. I expect that similar questions will arise over at TPM Cafe Book Club this week, where a few of us will be discussing Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power


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There is this old contractarian idea that people enter into cooperative arrangements because it is in their interest to do so. They bind themselves to others by making promises, and those promises create obligations that may exact costs or the risk of costs. But the reason they make these promises is because they judge that their interests are better served by enjoying the benefits that flow from being part of the cooperative organization, costs notwithstanding, than they would be by preserving more independence, but foregoing the benefits of cooperation. And once they make these promises, the reason they keep them is that their promises are one of the main currencies they own, and preserving the value of that currency requires keeping the promises. If we don't keep the promises we make, nobody will accept those promises in exchange for anything else.

So I don't see why the soldier should have a problem with the idea that his duty may extend to honoring commitments to others that the United States might make in order to advance its own interets; the same principle is the basis of all defensive alliances and security commitments.

There is such a thing as the global interest, and morally concerned individuals may try to seek it as their chief aim and concern. But the way to pursue the global interest in an arena filled with generally self-interested nation states is not to try to generate enthusiasm at the national government level for morally heroic commitments to the common good, even when the common good conflicts with the national interest. Rather, the approach should be to show each country the benefits, from the standpoint of their own national interest, of cooperation in the pursuit of common aims.

I have recently been arguing in favor of taking an "outside-in" approach to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, one that focuses on developing a consensus among a community of the most powerful nations, rather than putting faith in yet another round of negotiations between the warring parties. Not only is the internationalist approach the most promising approach to the specific problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; but a not insignificant side benefit of pursuing the internationalist approach in this particular matter is that success would restore and build confidence in the capacity of a UN-based international security order.

If, for political reasons, Hamas can't be a participant in direct talks with the US government and its envoy, then we need to organize a process that excludes both Palestinian factions and the Israelis, and that isn't so reliant on US mediation. What is needed at this point in this interminable conflict is not another negotiation-based peace process, but rather a binding international resolution developed by everyone in the world besides the two warring parties. No bazaar; no horsetrading. Instead we rely on international law, order, and justice, and the firm determination of the community of nations. To be blunt, what we need now is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to be made to sit in the corner and wait: Likud, Hamas, Kadima, Fatah, Meretz, the Palestinian Authority - all of them must be made to sit still wait.

Here are the needed steps:

1. Organize a special commission under UN and Security Council auspices, a UN Special Commission for a Final Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

2. Conduct a series of commission meetings and hearings in the region at a permanent commission headquarters in a neutral country - most likely in Cairo or Amman.

3. Make it clear at the outset that this is not a negotiation of any kind, but a process of fact-finding, deliberation and adjudication through which the international community, guided by the Security Council, intends to develop a plan and implementation policy for the enduring pacification of the region.

4. At the outset of the process, it will be necessary to freeze the facts on the ground in place. No settlement expansion for Israel, not even for the purposes of "natural growth"; no arms smuggling for Hamas. UN troops should be brought in to police the situation in the occupied territories and Gaza, and maintain the freeze.

5. Ban Ki-Moon, or an appointed Special Commissioner, can invite statements and presentations from all interested parties, including Hamas. If the United States representative feels compelled to be absent from the sessions at which the Hamas representatives provide testimony, so be it. But since the point of the sessions is to acquire evidence, not negotiate, there should be no objection in principle to taking evidence from Hamas. The US would not be negotiating with terrorists.

6. Following the hearings, which should be public and broadcast, the special commissioners should retire along with the regular UN representatives from Security Council members into private meetings to hammer out the most workable plan. It will be understood that the implementation will eventually require the Palestinians' top Arab and Muslim allies to take tough steps toward the Palestinians, and require the US and other Israeli allies to take tough steps with the Israelis.

7. A consensus having been reached, present the plan to the world in a united front, and pass the plan through the Security Council. We should expect this plan to be highly detailed, and leave very little room for negotiated details. It should attempt to settle borders down to the neighborhood level. And what details remain to be resolved should by resolved through a quasi-judicial process established as part of the plan, not a bilateral negotiation.

8. Bring the result to the parties, now representing the unanimous and fixed determination of the international community, speaking with one voice. While I'm sure some pleasant diplomatic language can be found, the idea is to impose this plan on the parties. Establish benchmarks, timetables and sanctions to be imposed on either party, by the entire international community, for failure to comply. Recall we are talking about very small territories and populations. If the international community is truly united behind implementation, the contending parties will have little choice but to comply.

In artistic training, people learn to adjust their vision and shift attention from positive to negative space with a change of gestalt. The chief problem with this conflict for so long has not been the parties, located in a relatively small piece of positive space that is the obsessive center of everyone's attention. The problem is with everybody else in the vast negative international space that surrounds it. The world outside the conflict is riven by divisions, distrust and intrigues on this issue, and an absence of diplomatic consensus, clarity and precision. This despite the fact that almost all other countries have bigger fish to fry. Let us reorient our vision and attention and make this international arena the new positive space in the foreground of the conflict. It is time for the international community, grounded in the UN Charter, to summon the will to do the job is was meant to do: promote global peace and security.

One reason for favoring an internationalist, outward-in process is that it is much more difficult politically for Israeli or Palestinian leaders to give up anything significant in bilateral negotiations than it is to give those things up in response to overwhelming international pressure. In negotiations, there is always some more extreme political party, or more uncompromising national resistance group waiting in the wings to shout "betrayal!" if the negotiating partner goes to far. That ties the hands of the negotiators.

But if Israeli or Palestinian leaders are forced to give up something in response to a united international front, one threatening sanctions for non-compliance, these leaders can justifiably go to their respective publics and say, "What else could I do? Our hands were tied." They may grumble and complain publicly about the injustice of the pressure, but be secretly thankful for the political cover provided by the outside intervention.

So I believe that before we involve the Israelis and Palestinians in yet another peace process, a preliminary process needs to be in place that is aimed at building a strong international consensus and resolve on the shape of a solution, along with mutual public commitments to the use of sanctions against either of the two contending parties for failure to cooperate. Yes, that is a certainly a challenge. But it is less of a challenge for states outside the region, for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fundamentally an annoying foreign policy problem, than it is for the two combatants who have their whole world's at stake in the middle of the maelstrom.

Dan-- Let's stipulate that you have drawn up a carefully crafted approach to Middle East peace that accommodates interests on the various sides. Your real challenge to me is the proposition that any international cooperation rests on case-by-case calculation of interest rather than a more general community mindedness. Yes, these are my constructivist colors showing. It could be that anyone who has made their living as an advocate for so long -- by definition believing in the potential power of appeals to do the right thing -- will share the constructivist view that international societal norms exert influence over behavior. At any rate, I believe the way I couch the argument for cooperation squares with 21st Century realities of interdependence.

Dan-- Let's stipulate that you have drawn up a carefully crafted approach to Middle East peace that accommodates interests on the various side

Dan-- Let's stipulate that you have drawn up a carefully crafted approach to Middle East peace that accommodates interests on the various side

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The Russian military no longer has a clear security goal. At one level it is a national defense force without a clear enemy. At another level it is a force for marinating Russia's sphere of influence. At another level it is an internal security force...

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