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March 25, 2010

Another Round on American Exceptionalism
Posted by Michael Cohen

A couple of weeks ago I got into a blog dust-up with one David Rieff about the nature and implications of American exceptionalism. Damon Linker, over at TNR, has drafted the response that I wish I had written at the time:

Despite what one might conclude from the disastrous presidency of that liberal moralist George W. Bush, the imperative to support and encourage liberalism abroad does not necessitate stupidity. On the contrary, it demands intelligence and sobriety about how best to affect liberal change in divergent places at different historical moments. It demands that we temper our longing to fulfill our liberal duties with a clear-headed assessment of the possible unintended consequences of our actions. It demands that we remain forever mindful of the efficacy, as well as the limits, of our power (both hard and soft). It demands, in sum, that we combine grandly idealistic ends with cunningly realistic means, just as Niebuhr called on us to do, and as Lincoln showed us how to do. 

That we have often failed to achieve this synthesis is evidence of human (and American) imperfection as well as of the recalcitrance of a complicated, heartrending world. (Niebuhr thought it was also evidence of original sin, which is possible, though it's equally possible to make sense of tragedy in rigorously secular terms.) The proper response to these failures is redoubled resolution to do better, to be smarter, to choose more efficacious means, in the future. It is most certainly not to give up on the ends, as Rieff appears prepared to do.

This is a very smart way for progressives to talk about exceptionalism and one that highlights the flaw in Rieff's deterministic - and depressing - notion that American exceptionalism has led to terrible excesses in the past  . . . and thus will always lead to terrible excesses in the future. Now to be fair, Rieff does have history on his side; a point that he never ceases to make. But to follow his argument to its apparent conclusion is to believe that the best course of action for the US is simply to vacate the field because in the end we are likely do more harm than good. Certainly this is a legitimate point of view, but it's not terribly helpful or illuminating from a policy perspective (and indeed if there is a policy prescription hiding out in Rieff's recent blog posts perhaps others can help me locate it).

I like Linker's idea a bit more; "redoubled resolution to do better, to be smarter, to choose more efficacious means." Here are a few suggestions on how to achieve Linker's goal. Here are a few others. They are offered with the recognition that Rieff's pessimism is well-founded . . . but then pessimism isn't really a strategy.

March 24, 2010

Restructuring the US National Security Architecture
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at World Politics Review, I have a new piece highlighting the various obstacles to an effective US national security strategy and what steps I believe the Obama Administration should take to right the ship:

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama famously declared that he was running for the nation's highest office not simply to end the war in Iraq, but to change the mindset that got America involved in Iraq in the first place. More than a year into his presidency, he is discovering that such a seminal transformation is far easier said than done.

From Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay to repairing America's impaired global image, precious energy and political capital is being spent extricating America from the disastrous impact of the Bush administration's stewardship of U.S. foreign policy. But as catastrophic as the individual policies were, the greatest damage of the Bush years may have been in diverting U.S. attention away from the fundamental transformations taking place in the global arena, changes on which Obama and his foreign policy team are now being forced to play catch-up.

More and more, the underpinnings of American power are being challenged by a host of aggressive and increasingly prominent transnational and non-state forces. While the U.S. maintains its fixation on the threat of jihadist terror, a new and arguably more pressing set of global issues have emerged -- including climate change, migration, global health pandemics, cybersecurity threats, nuclear proliferation and illicit criminal networks. A 21st-century national security strategy must prioritize these issues and place them front and center in the policymaking process.

But in both focus and capabilities, the United States is increasingly ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with these emerging challenges. Instead of charting a desperately needed new course, current U.S. national security strategy -- driven by inflated conceptions of U.S. power and interests -- is impeding the need for real and lasting reform. At a moment in history when the changing dynamics of global politics demand a new foreign policy toolbox and mindset, the United States remains handcuffed by a national security infrastructure and strategy that is deeply mired in 20th-century thinking.

March 22, 2010

Will Passing Health Care Affect US-Middle East Policy?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Yesterday, I did a short piece for the Huffington Post on whether health care reform would affect our Middle East policy:

Obama -- to the surprise of many, myself included -- has been weak on narrative. As of a couple week ago, the emerging narrative, at home and abroad, was that he was weak, aloof, and lacked the courage of his convictions. Now, a new narrative is being created, and it's been interesting to watch it gain currency in real-time. Marc Ambinder seems to have both captured and propelled the new storyline (one that appears to have little grounding in objective reality):

And it fortifies, indirectly, the argument that Obama is uniquely courageous: his stubbornness in the face of public opinion, in the face of advisers who begged him to move on, in the face of a revolt from his base, is based upon his own conviction that what he's doing is the right thing to do, primarily, and upon electoral politics secondarily.
(Does anyone still doubt that passing health care was in Democrats' electoral interest?). Ambinder continues: "But don't ever, ever call the guy a wimp." This is the new storyline. Obama the tough guy. And now Obama the tough guy -- rather than the dour, feckless Obama of two weeks ago -- will be conducting U.S. foreign policy.

Drawing the Right Lessons From Iraq
Posted by Michael Cohen

In my column this week for AOLNews, I argue that on the seventh anniversary of the Iraq War it's critical that policymakers draw the right lessons from that conflict . . . and it's not that they should learn to do counter-insurgency more effectively:

For all the recent good news, nothing could be more dangerous than for policymakers to draw the lesson from the U.S. war in Iraq that the ends somehow justify the means. After well over a trillion dollars in direct and indirect costs to the United States, resources and energy diverted from more pressing foreign policy challenges, the reputational and strategic damage to the U.S., and above all the loss of more than 4,300 American lives (as well as the approximately 100,000 Iraqi lives lost and millions others disrupted), the proper lesson from the Iraq war is that the United States never should have chosen to fight it in the first place.

Read the whole thing here.

March 21, 2010

How Will the Health Care Vote Affect National Security?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

More than you think, actually.

1.  An international boost. Israeli, Russian and Chinese leaders and elites have all let it be known more or less quietly that they treat Obama as if he is weak abroad because they perceive him as weak at home.  I heard a fabulous story about a senior Iranian official explaining off-the-record to a Westerner how Obama wouldn't accomplish anything this year "in analysis that would have sounded right at home on FOX."  Those elites follow American politics closely and will understand that this is a big, big win.  They'll also get the message that Obama doesn't go away easily.

2.  Momentum.  Internationally, it looks as if this long drawn  out process will close just before we finally get a new START Treaty, a mark of both serious steps down the road to reducing the nuclear threat and a success in renovating the US-Russian relationship.  That in turn will be followed by a signature Obama initiative, the 43-nation Nuclear Security Summit, which will build new momentum for international action against the supply side of nuclear materials.  After that, Iraq will confound the skeptics by putting a government together -- not elegantly, but successfully.

3.  Space and Oxygen.  As my colleague Paul Eaton discussed with the Times' Peter Baker earlier this weekend, many international issues have been off the agenda while health care burned bright.  There will be more bandwidth for other, merely vital, issues now -- from Afghanistan to foreign assistance reform to human rights and democratization.  This has a downside, though:  with the healthcare debate lost, the opponents of a sane, pragmatic foreign policy will have more oxygen to ramp up the volume on Iran and other issues. 

4.  Ambition.  Just the progress to this point threw Obama's approval rating back over 50%.  Progressives both in and outside government have been needing a little boost of energy.  This moment should give us lots of case studies about 1) how the Administration likes to work and will work when the crunch is on and 2) how to advocate to the Administration effectively -- and ineffectively.  (HT to Adam Serwer on that approval number -- and I know Adam's got plenty of ideas for putting the ambition to good use...)

Why Autocracy is Bad: Anecdotes from the Arab World
Posted by Shadi Hamid

A lot of us act as if democracy being a good thing is so self-evident that it needs no further elaboration. Most Americans, I’m sure, agree that democracy is a good thing. But it’s not always easy to articulate why, in part because most of us have never experienced its opposite. 

I can’t even begin to convey the daily travails of living under autocracy. If I was living in, say, Jordan and things got really bad, I could always just leave. I have an escape clause. Hundreds of millions of Arabs don’t. I will never be able to truly comprehend the powerlessness they feel, the helplessness that is the inevitable product of living under a society where others all too often determine your fate, and without your consent.

My father grew up under the brutality of Nasser regime in Egypt. He was apolitical, probably because he had to be. That was the price of success – not to question, not to conceive of what a different society might look like. If there is one thing such rulers feared more than anything else, it was citizens who were capable of imagination. It took my father years to become comfortable exercising his right to vote. It took just as long - 8 years of political awakening under Bush - to realize what his vote meant.

In any case, how does this powerlessness manifest itself? That is what I turn to now. I'll just relay a simple, and relatively trivial, anecdote. When I lived in Jordan in 2008, I frequented a Starbucks on Wakalat street, in a posh area of Sweifieh. I would park my laptop, get some drip coffee, and write. Needless to say, I would occasionally need to use the bathroom. Even though this street was meant to be a magnet for Jordan's young, secular elite (with Mango and Zara stores), there were two badly-maintained public bathrooms. Perhaps more problematically, neither had any soap. If this was the U.S., we might contact the relevant local authority and inform them there wasn't any soap. But, in Jordan, it was unclear what was to be done. Was there a relevant "local authority" and, if there was, how did one contact it or get it to listen to you, particularly as it would have been an unelected, and therefore unaccountable, body?

Because I couldn't answer these questions, I took matters into my own hands and bought a bar of soap and put it on the sink. I was proud of myself for fighting back in my own little way. Until I came back the next day and saw that my bar of soap was no longer there.

March 17, 2010

In Dubai, Kissing a Girl on the Cheek Can Land You in Jail
Posted by Shadi Hamid

A friend just told me that his flatmate, a British citizen named Ayman Najafi, is facing a month in jail and deportation for allegedly kissing someone in a Dubai restaurant. I met Ayman a couple months ago in Dubai and we hung out a bit. It’s weird to find out that someone you know is being tried – and going through an undoubtedly difficult personal ordeal – for what he has told the court was nothing more than a peck on the cheek. This is more than a bit frightening: most American expats living in the Gulf, myself included, kiss on the cheek as a customary greeting with members of the opposite sex. Even that, now, can be grounds for arrest.

Most, if not all, Arab countries lack what we would call “rule of law.” Invariably, there is perpetual confusion regarding what is allowed and what isn’t, and, perhaps more importantly, who it’s allowed for. Not all citizens are treated equally, to say nothing of situations where the majority of legal residents aren't even citizens in the first place. I live in Qatar now, and I find that no one knows for sure the exact rules on “public indecency.” When I lived in Jordan, the matter of criticizing the monarchy – something I’ve done on a number of occasions – was always a bit hazy. When did it become illegal, and how exactly would know when you had crossed the mysterious “red line”? One time, an American friend of mine living in Amman didn’t get the red lines right: he was wisked away by the secret police, blindfolded, and interrogated for taking pictures outside a government building.

This is the trouble with countries that are far from democratic, where the “citizen” is at the mercy of arbitrary rules that are often imposed at a whim by an always shifting assortment of largely unaccountable leaders. What this produces is fear mixed with uncertainty - a toxic combination - the sense that everything you’ve earned can be taken away from you in a moment. And you will probably not be granted anything resembling due process.

Dubai has been trying to have it both ways: essentially importing/buying/ and otherwise appropriating what they think makes the West great without accepting the liberal democratic institutions which served as the catalyst and foundation for much of that success. This is a recipe for a unique, and ultimately destructive, kind of schizophrenia.   

March 16, 2010

Israel Flap & Iran Diplomacy
Posted by David Shorr

Now that Josh Rogin has given us a window into the post - Biden-Netanyahu pressure being applied by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, I want to parse the prominent this-undercuts-efforts-on-Iran piece of the argument. The way I see it, the administration's current diplomatic full court press is laboring mightily to send a strong international message that Iran faces a choice is between implementing the agreed October 1 uranium deal or being isolated. Whether or not conservatives share this assessment -- and I've heard Robert Kagan credit the effort with making Iran the issue, rather than the US -- it is a separate analytical question to ask how US-Israeli relations play into the dynamic. In that light, it's hard to see how tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv pose make it any harder to keep the pressure on Iran.

The name of the game in the nuclear diplomacy and the push for a new UN sanctions resolution is to gain the support of key governments that are reluctant to apply strong pressure on Iran. It feels silly to have to say it, but Israel does not fall into that category. Politics, whether domestic or international, is about expectations and surprises. It's a surprise and thus a significant development when, say, Russia calls for sanctions on Iran. Israel's position on the matter of Iran's nuclear program is, um, pretty well known.

In fact, when framing the Iranian nuclear issue diplomatically, you could argue that Israel's security -- while always a prominent concern for the United States -- it is not the best basis for building a broad international coalition. (Why do I feel like I'm, in the words of Denzel Washington's character in Philadelphia, "explaining it to you like you're four"?) Anyone who believes we can line up a lot of international support on the grounds of ensuring Israel's security needs to get out more. Again, the issue isn't America's reasons for stopping Iran's nuclear program but the rest of the world's reasons, which have to do with the breakdown of the nuclear nonproliferation norm, a wider regional arms race, and heightened instability in the Middle East.

This is obviously a tricky moment in the US-Israeli relationship and the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Trying to claim that the new tensions undercut the Iran effort is a stretch, at best, and intellectually dishonest at worst.

March 15, 2010

Why Horse-Trading on the Terror Trials is a Bad Idea
Posted by David Shorr

Is it just me, or does it seem really bizarre to be considering backpedaling on counterterror policy at the same time that it's having notable success in finding, killing, or capturing terrorists (oh, and also getting credit for it in the polls)? Here's my real question: do progressive poliitical figures realize how a shift to military commissions would undercut progressives' ability to present an alternative to tough-talking conservatives? I see an astounding disconnect between the way that "going to the dark side" was so discredited just a few years ago, and yet somehow its arguments still carry so much weight in the current debate.

Why am I so exercised about this? Well, let's look at what was said on the Sunday shows on the subject:

Well, obviously there are a series of things that have to weigh. You are right, the original decision was to try him in New York. Local authorities were receptive there at the beginning, they changed their view on that. That has to influence our thinking. The question becomes what are their -- what possible venues would there be? And is it worth reviewing the entire decision? The attorney general said at the beginning, when he announced those -- the venue and the trial in Article 3 courts that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, under the protocols that he and the Department of Defense had developed, could have been tried in either a military commission or an Article 3 court. So we have a range of options.

White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod on CNN’s “State of the Union”

It's not just about KSM coming back into military court, it was a major misstep to put him in civilian court in NY, it made no sense. We need laws on the books that will allow terrorist detainees to be held without trial, give them due process, treat them as prisoners, not common criminals.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) on ABC’s “This Week”

When I put these two together, what I come up with is that reversing the civilian trial decision would be a big fat, "what were we thinking?" What progressives really should be saying is "we refuse to let our justice system be terrorized." What a shameful spectacle for such a strong republic -- a two-centuries old system of government by law -- to go to such lengths and give a bunch of gruesome glory-seekers special treatment. Should we really be pulling these guys (and gals too, we know now) out of the shadows in which they hide and then give them a venue all their own? We've got this totally backwards; this is a chance for the United States to show the contrast between the majesty of justice being done and despicable sadists with the delusion that they can remake the world by murdering innocents.

Supposedly, a lot of this horse-trading is focused on a deal to close the Gitmo detention facility. Again, does this really make sense, to remove a symbol of misguided US efforts to work outside the bounds of law at the price of another fear-driven end run? If Senator Graham believes Gitmo should be closed, then there shouldn't be a need to trade for it.

While we're at it, since when is every defendant or prisoner in our justice system a common criminal? Is this a flaw that we're just noticing? Do we need a new system to deal with mass murderers? And this is the real point, the military commissions have a troubled history and virtually no track record of success in prosecuting terrorists. It really is ridiculous that a court system that has proven its ability to prosecute terrorists, including handling sensitive evidence, should be discussed so skeptically. It should be the other way around.

Sometimes You Got To Call It Like You See It
Posted by Michael Cohen

I've been meaning to write something about Ross Douthat's really toxic op-ed in the New York Times today about Iraq, but Daniel Larison has done my handiwork for me. Douthat argues that: 

Our nation might be less divided, and our debates less poisonous, if more artists were capable of showing us the ironies, ambiguities and tragedies inherent in our politics — rather than comforting us with portraits of a world divided cleanly into good and evil.

I don't really disagree with Douthat's underlying argument - too often the machinations of American politics is shown in the most simplistic terms imaginable. But here's the thing: Iraq or as I like to call it "the worst foreign policy disaster in American history" is not the test case that proves Douthat's point. Cue Larison:
Yes, the problem might be that we do not have artists capable of rendering contemporary architects of a war of aggression that was based on shoddy intelligence, ideological fervor and deceit in a sufficiently subtle, even-handed manner. If only Hollywood were better at portraying the depth and complexity of people who unleashed hell on a nation of 24 million people out of an absurd fear of a non-existent threat! Life is so unfair to warmongers, is it not? Then again, the reason our debates are so poisonous and our nation so divided might have something to do with the existence of utterly unaccountable members of the political class that can launch such a war, suffer no real consequences, and then reliably expect to be defended as “decent” and “well-intentioned” people who made understandable mistakes. The unfortunate truth of our existence is that villains do not have to come out of central casting for comic book movies. They are ordinary, “decent” people who commit grave errors and terrible crimes for any number of reasons. Many great evils have found their origins in a group’s belief that they were doing the right thing and were therefore entitled and permitted to use extraordinary means.
Exactly. There is some serious whitewashing of history for Douthat to complain that Hollywood is simplifying the history of the Iraq War by portraying it in black and white terms, when this is pretty much the exact way that the Bush Administration sold the war in 2002/2003 . . . as a simplistic good vs. evil narrative.  If Douthat is really confused as why our political debates are so coarsened, perhaps he might want to dwell more on that irony.

FWIW, I would also add that I don't think George Bush is an evil man; instead he's a dim witted, intellectually incurious, close-minded, dry drunk bully who believed that by going to war in Iraq he was protecting the American people . . . and chose to ignore every available piece of evidence that indicated that his 'strongly-held beliefs' were wrong. I don't think Condi Rice and Colin Powell are evil people; I think they are cowardly individuals who deep down in the heart probably knew that the war in Iraq was a mistake, but for largely personal and professional reasons allowed themselves to be complicit in this terrible conflict. (In some ways both of these individuals seem far worse than Bush, which I'll admit is a strange emotion).

Is that evil behavior along the lines of Hitler, Stalin or Mao - of course not. But is it horrible behavior that should be judged in the harshest possible terms? Yes. And should those responsible for the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people be excused because their intentions were pure? 

Do I really have to answer that?

Douthat complains that "radical sympathy, extended even to people who presided over grave disasters, is in short supply all across America at the moment." What's unclear to me is why this should even be considered a problem. My sympathy extends to the lives of those Iraqis and Americans who were gravely affected by the "decent, well-intentioned" actions of Bush Administration officials. As for those officials responsible for that war - and for the lying, misleading, lack of post-war planning and failure to admit mistakes and change course that defined that conflict - to hell with them. 

The more opprobrium the better.

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