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July 30, 2011

An Open Letter to the Rest of the World
Posted by David Shorr


Dear onlookers around the world,

As politics in my country becomes dominated by a reckless tantrum over the simple matter of paying our debts, many of us are all too conscious of the doubts and concerns this is raising for the rest of you. Speaking as someone who has spent an entire career advocating for an American foreign policy of benevolent global leadership, I feel I should try to explain how our political system got here.

The simple explanation is polarization of the two parties, but that makes it sound like a problem of Republicans and Democrats moving farther apart from one another -- one party toward the right and the other leftward. No, the real problem is the steady rightward drift of the Republican Party over the last two or three decades.

Which wouldn't be bad in itself if the political culture stayed alert and aware, watching as the far-right wing veered out of the mainstream. After all if the rest of the system remains sensible, there's only so much harm that a highly ideological minority can do. Unfortunately, the extreme right took the mainstream with them. Not the mainstream views of average Americans, mind you, but the perceived political center of gravity. 

In other words, a segment of opinion that's roughly quarter or a third of the public enjoys influence far beyond its actual numbers -- and has for many years now. In addition to their shameless propaganda and talking points often completely disconnected from the facts, the far-right wing has enjoyed two other advantages. For one thing, the political elite class and especially the media have indulged them, continually stretching the definition of what are considered reasonable arguments. The other thing that's helped the extreme right -- and hurt the country -- is the political reality that our most influential voters are those paying the least attention.

Let's talk about conservative hero President Ronald Reagan for a moment. He's been mentioned a lot lately, mostly because he raised the federal debt ceiling 17 times in his presidency. But that is hardly the only issue on which today's Republican party stands far to the right of Reagan. There are also his tax increases, tax rates, arms control treaties (yes plural), rapprochement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and reluctance to use force. Reagan would easily qualify as a moderate in today's context.

Continue reading "An Open Letter to the Rest of the World" »

July 29, 2011

Debt Brinksmen Are Encouraging American Decline
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Eric Cantor CAP's Nina Hachigian surveys the world's reaction to the manufactured crisis surrounding American debt, and comes to some staggering conclusions.

On the signal this episode sends for democracy as a form of government:

For the Chinese, this has to be a rich but unsettling role reversal. They have been on the receiving end of countless American entreaties to be more responsible themselves. Some in China are even citing the budget impasse as evidence of the shortcomings of democracy as a political system. As the Xinhua report asks, “How can Washington shake off electoral politics and get difficult jobs done more efficiently?”

On the effects this sort of political theatre will have on American power, deal or no deal:

Sadly, even if Washington manages to avert disaster, we will pay a price for this moment. The calls for a new international reserve currency, which gained momentum after the global financial crisis, are only going to get stronger. China and others will shift away from dollar-denominated assets as soon as they can. And another pillar of U.S. power will begin to erode.

On how the very people who beat their chests about American exceptionalism don't understand the sources of that exceptionalism, or what is needed to ensure the effectiveness--indeed, the greatness--of the American model:

Ironically, it’s the same right-wing choir that (falsely) accuses President Obama of not adequately embracing American exceptionalism that are pushing proposals with no chance of passage. Moreover, their proposals eviscerate diplomatic resources as well as domestic investments into future American greatness, thwarting our long-term ability to reclaim our role as an economic, political, and moral leader around the globe. They do not seem to understand that an exceptional future is what we need, not just an exceptional past.

When the accounting for this crisis and its effects is done, it will be clear who was advocating for policies that would hasten the decline of American power.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Photoillustration: Flickr

July 28, 2011

Gates on Why Foreign Policy Won’t Work for the GOP in 2012
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Gates scorn Over at Shadow Government, Will Inboden explains how he thinks the GOP should attack the president on foreign policy issues as we move into the 2012 campaign. The piece attempts to muster a somber and stately tone by quoting former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying:

“I've spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position … It didn't have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time … To tell you the truth, that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."

Inboden then tries to implicate Obama's foreign policy as the cause of that sentiment. The problem with this is Inboden failed to read the next quotation in the piece, where Gates pins conservatives for being the cause of a breakdown of the consensus on foreign policy:

“Congress is all over the place,” Gates says at one point. “And the Republicans are a perfect example. I mean, you’ve got the budget hawks and then you’ve got the defense hawks within the same party. And so I think there is no consensus on a role in the world.” 

And therein lies the problem with the GOP using foreign policy as a message in 2012: The two wings of the party come from two very different places, and beyond the hackneyed incantations about American leadership -- in other words, when the rubber hits the road -- there’s not much policy overlap.

Photo: DoD

July 26, 2011

Breivik and the Anti-Muslim Right
Posted by Michael Cohen

I, for one, am shocked, shocked to read that anti-Muslim bigots are defending themselvesagainst charges of culpability in the heinous terrorist acts of Anders Behring Breivik, by hiding behind the narrow reed that they never specifically advocated violence against children.

I was even more surprised that my good friend and colleague, Josh Foust, is making a similar argument, claiming that "In reality, no one really understands why they or anyone else behaves the way they do" and that "it does not follow that [anti-Muslim] writers should be linked to and blamed for his attacks. All of them, to a person, have distanced themselves from and condemned Breivik's actions." This strikes me as a far too generous read on the damage being wrought, both directly and indirectly, by the propagation of anti-Muslim narratives not just in Europe, but certainly also in the United States.

Certainly these writers don't deserve direct blame for Breivik's horrific actions (and it doesn't mean one should put restrictions on their right to free speech). However the notion that hate-filled words and paranoid assertions about Islamic "takeover" somehow operate in a vacuum and don't inform, inspire or, above all, validate the views of sociopaths likeBrievik runs counter to well-understood links between extreme and paranoid narratives and activism and violence. Individuals who are prone to paranoia, fetishize violence, demonstrate anti-social or sociopathic behavior or externalize blame can certainly be susceptible to conspiratorial and eliminationist narratives. 

Honestly, is anyone really shocked that as anti-Muslim attitudes have increased in recent years (on both sides of the Atlantic) that something like this has happened? It's like being shocked that as anti-government attitudes took on greater prominence in the early 1990s, Oklahoma City happened. (The only thing most surprising is that Breivik's actual violence was perpetrated against non-Muslims).

Indeed, Breivik's own manifesto, apes the hate-filled fear mongering of Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and other anti-Muslim bigots. He cites both writers and other anti-Islamistfearmongers in his 1,500 page manifesto that was released at approximately the same moment that he was engaging in one of the worst acts of mass violence in Europe since WWII. He is, as Toby Archer in Foreign Policy said a clear product of "predominantly web-based community of anti-Muslim, anti-government, and anti-immigration bloggers, writers, and activists." Again, Breivik and his views didn't just emerge from the ether.

Similarly as Brian Fishman nicely points out, Breivik's actions coincide with the rise of radical right extremists and incipient revanchist nationalism across Europe. It stretches credulity to argue that this is all just a coincidence or that Breivik's actions were in no way influenced or his beliefs validated by extremist narratives about Islam andmulti-culturalism that present these as some sort of existential threat to European civilization. Indeed, at his court hearing today Breivik plead not guilty, because he “believes that he needed to carry out these acts to save Norway” and western Europe from “cultural Marxism and Muslim domination.” 

Of course, such rhetoric is clearly not restricted to Islam - and especially in the UnitedStates. We see it when pro-life advocates describe abortion doctors as "murderers"; we see it when political leaders warn that their opponents are seeking to 'destroy America'; we see it when some of those same leaders talk about their political opponents with the use of eliminationist rhetoric. Stoking hatred and presenting opponents as not simply wrong, but immoral is the sort of speech that is and should be protected - but also should be recognized for what it is, deeply dangerous. (Peter Daou has a great post on this here). After the Gabrielle Giffords a lot of commentators jumped to false conclusions about what drove Jared Loughner to violence - but in a sense trying to find that connection was almost secondary in importance. Loughner may not have been influenced by Sarah Palin puttingcrosshairs over the names of vulnerable Democratic officeholders; it doesn't mean such speech isn't reckless and irresponsible.

Again, none of this means that those who might have inspired or influenced Breivik are responsible for his actions. And we certainly can't know for sure if Breivik would have acted the way he did even if not for the anti-Muslims rantings of others (though it does appear on the surface that these words served as validation for his own toxic views). 

But it also doesn't mean that we should be blind to the consequences of hate-filled language. 

If anything it should lead to greater scrutiny of how such words are being interpreted and even harsher condemnation for them.  And that goes for both hate-mongers and political leaders, like the majority of Republicans running for President who have warned of creeping sharia - a stance that casually plays on anti-Muslim attitudes for electoral gain. Arguing that bigoted and prejudice speech is a value neutral exercise because it is not accompanied by calls for violence is, for a lack of a better term, a bit of cop-out.

Speech matters and those who would traffic in eliminationist, extremist narratives don't get a pass when violent psychopaths take such rhetoric to a not illogical, violent end.


July 23, 2011

Those Wacky Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee*
Posted by David Shorr

Ros-lehtinenAs a foreign policy complement to the main insanity over the debt ceiling (see David Brooks' analysis), we have a flurry of ideological and self-indulgent Republican amendments this week to the House Foreign Affairs Committee's authorization bill (see Josh Rogin's reporting). Here's the money quote Josh got from the Committee's ranking Democratic member Rep. Howard Berman:

"The thinking [on the GOP side] is, ‘something happens I don't like, and the way to deal with it is I throw a tantrum.' It's a series of tantrums," Berman said. "It's an absence of a notion between what we're doing and what the consequences of what we're doing are. It's operating from a gut instinct and them not using their heads."

Republicans loaded the bill up with all of their pet causes from the so-called "Mexico City" gag order anti-abortion restrictions to undermining the US Agency for International Development. I want to focus on a move to which Josh devoted a separate post: cutting the US contribution to the Organization of American States. 

Apparently HFAC Republicans think they can get back at the OAS for its failure to toe the United States' line. Actually, this attempt at petty retribution is a theme of many of the Committee majority's amendments -- hence Berman's term, tantrum. Setting aside whether this approach is wise or effective statecraft in relations with the governments of other nations (it isn't), this is especially ridiculous when applied to intergovernmental forums like the OAS.

At least when you're lashing out petulantly at one foreign government (at a time, that is), you're arguably targeting a single stand-alone actor. By comparison, to aim your payback at a multilateral body is the closest thing to taking your bat and ball and going home. You're frustrated that deliberations among a bunch of countries haven't gone your way, and so phooey on the whole thing. It's an inversion on what Groucho Marx used to say about belonging to clubs; by the Republicans' reasoning, the United States shouldn't take part in any association that doesn't comply with our every wish. 

Look, none of us wants the United States to be played for a chump. For much of our agenda, we have a pretty strong case in terms of a healthy international system. But is it reasonable to insist that others simply snap into line? Since when does it really work to throw your weight around, when they can simply resist you actively or passively? I mean, let's put a little effort into winning the argument on the merits.

*With apologies to Michael Cohen.

July 22, 2011

America First
Posted by Jacob Stokes

America FirstAs the debate rages over whether President Obama has a grand strategy – Dan Drezner explored the issue in Foreign Affairs this issue; Fareed Zakaria also weighed in recently – a few other recent pieces begin to explore what American strategy going forward might look like.

In Democracy Journal last quarter, Anatol Lieven of New America reviewed Charlie Kupchan’s book “How Enemies Become Friends.” The piece, titled “Strength Through Restraint,” explained what Lieven see as the lessons of the book:

However, if liberals wish to formulate a practical strategy that is clearly distinguished from that of the neoconservatives (and the liberal hawks, who are neoconservatives in sheep’s clothing), then they need to learn the following lessons from Kupchan: That democracy around the world is a long-term goal, not a short-term tactic; that in the short-to-medium term, peace and international cooperation (especially on climate change) have to be prioritized, which means accommodation with authoritarian regimes; and that this accommodation will require a conscious, deliberate, and clear scaling back of American ambitions and strategic posture in certain areas of the world. 

This approach will be deeply uncomfortable for many Americans, including liberals. But the alternative is for the United States to exhaust itself in a hopeless attempt at maintaining global primacy, while at the same time destroying the possibility of peaceful cooperation with China and other powers. Such a future would be bad for the United States, bad for peace, and bad for the world. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim the need to accommodate authoritarian regimes; that’s a step too far. Instead, it seems we need to take a clear-eyed look at the cost and efficacy of military regime change-tactics and find creative, cost-effective ways to achieve American goals.

Anyway, Richard Haass has a new piece out in Time, arguing for, it not the same thing as Lieven suggests, a strategy that rhymes. He calls it a “restoration” strategy”:

The goal would be to rebalance the resources devoted to domestic challenges, as opposed to international ones, in favor of the former. Doing so would not only address critical domestic needs but also rebuild the foundation of this country's strength so it would be in a better position to stave off potential strategic challengers or be better prepared should they emerge all the same. 

My term for such a doctrine is restoration: a U.S. foreign policy based on restoring this country's strength and replenishing its resources—economic, human and physical. 

Restoration is not isolationism. Isolationism is the willful turning away from the world even when a rigorous assessment of U.S. interests argues for acting. Isolationism makes no sense in a world in which the U.S. cannot wall itself off from terrorism, proliferation, protectionism, pandemic disease, climate change or a loss of access to financial, energy and mineral resources. An embrace of isolationism would accelerate the emergence of a more disorderly and dangerous and less prosperous and free world. 

Restoration is very different. The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy—to create international arrangements to manage the challenges inherent in globalization, to invigorate alliances and partnerships, to deal with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a nuclear-armed Iran and a failing Pakistan.

But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice—armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. 

Both of these narratives are derivative of what journalist Peter Beinart called a “solvency doctrine” back in 2009. He wrote, “No matter what grand visions Obama may harbor to remake the world, the central mission of his foreign policy--at least at first--will be to get it out of the red.” None of these plans or explanations is perfect, of course, but taken together, they seem to me good starting points for what a grand strategy for the U.S. should look like, namely a focus on tending to the sources of American power rather than on making more commitments that draw on it.

Photo Credit:

July 20, 2011

The Libya Intervention: Why Retrospection Is Premature
Posted by Eric Martin

I welcome David's recent post, and the opportunity it provides to clarify my position, and to move this discussion forward. 

First, as something of an aside, I would like to set the record straight that I do not contend that our intervention in Libya has actually "harmed" our reputation in the region, but, rather, that it has failed to deliver the boon promised by proponents of US military involvement.

Now, for the more germane portion of David's critique. He asks opponents of intervention, "What would we say about Gadaffi's bloodbath in Benghazi, that it wasn't our business?" 

Since, as David would no doubt acknowledge, the international community makes just such a response with remarkable frequency when confronted with far worse episodes of government sanctioned/led violence (see, ie, North Korea, Rwanda, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Syria, etc.), such an answer would be neither unusual nor unprecedented - if still morally unsatisfying on some level.  Simply put, the vast majority of internal, state violence goes unaddressed by outside military intervention, and there are very good reasons for that neglect. 

When states make an accounting of their respective financial and military means, logistical capacity, their ability to successfully curb the violence and the durability of political will in support of intervention, most come to the correct conclusion that intervention is not feasible, even if the human suffering is real and regrettable. (I would submit that there are far less expensive, more efficient means available for the international community to aid beleagured populations (mosquito nets are cheap!) that don't involve the same high risk of blowback/killing of less favored local factions, but that's another story).

Next, he asks, "Should the international community...opt out of the intervention business?"  I would say that, at the very least, the "international community" should recognize that the "military intervention business" is one that is almost always massively costly, time/resource intensive, difficult to wind-down in a satisfactory manner and often leads to myriad negative consequences (both unforeseen and predicted), such as a conflict expansion/regional spillover. 

Also, the "international community" might want to assess whether it has the means to actually engage in a protracted conflict absent significant US logistical support, if not the US playing a lead role in the fight itself.  While many European leaders were vocal about their desire to commence military action in Libya, few, if any, had the means to do so without US assistance.

Thus, if not out of the business entirely, the international community should limit its interventions to the following circumstances, using a three-pronged test: (a) the most egregious, pressing humanitarian crises; (b) where military intervention has a high probability of succeeding both in the short term (averting the crisis) AND long term (leading to a durable, manageable political outcome); and (c) where the intervening parties are reasonably certain that they can maintain the political will, and provide the military and non-military resources necessary, to achieve (b).

David might rightly argue that (b) and (c) are implicitly folded into his "practicability of an effective response" prong, but by fleshing out what was an otherwise vague iteration, we can better assess the wisdom of the Libya intervention. 

Continue reading "The Libya Intervention: Why Retrospection Is Premature" »

July 18, 2011

The Libya Intervention in Retrospect
Posted by David Shorr

5510265191_743e224e93We probably don't have enough intramural debate here at DA, so let me take this opening. Eric aims his critique of the Libya intervention mainly at Shadi. But since I too supported the move, let me say it was for different reasons than the ones Eric hammers in his post. 

He points out that the NATO campaign against Gaddafi has harmed rather than enhanced America's reputation among Arab publics in the region. As a general matter, I view international goodwill toward the United States as an important consideration and concern. For me, this was a decision about how to respond when a brutal dictator threatens wholesale slaughter. I was mindful of comparisons to Milosevic, Mladic, Taylor, Bagasora, and Habyarimana, rather than Mubarak, Ben Ali, Sale, or Assad.

As I argued (and would still argue), it's a question of the outside world's ability to thwart mass indiscriminate killing. An intervention on humanitarian grounds must meet two tests -- threats of the worst forms of abuse, not just any form of repression, and the practicability of an effective response -- and Eric is correct that this makes consistency a difficult thing to achieve. 

But I also posed questions to the opponents of intervention. What would we say about Gadaffi's bloodbath in Benghazi, that it wasn't our business? That it was a Libyan thing, between the tribes? Should the international community (let's not forget that the US hardly acted alone here) opt out of the intervention business?

If Libya isn't a case that meets my two main tests above, then I don't know what is. I don't buy that the cure is always worse than the disease. The confrontation with Gaddafi obviously has yet to fully play out. By my reckoning, though, we're nowhere near a set of unintended consequences that outweights the carnage that would have resulted from a failure to resist Gaddafi.

Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

July 14, 2011

The Non-Return of Isolationism
Posted by Michael Cohen

Taft So over the Atlantic I'm beating the isolationist drum again . . . and when I saw beating the drum I mean pointing out that charges of incipient isolationism are a giant canard:

Seemingly everyone in Washington is being characterized as an isolationist. That the word has apparently become such a slur is revealing, largely because most of those accused of "isolationism" appear to be anything but. Aside from Ron Paul, who has unashamedly called for ending America's military engagements, disbanding NATO, pulling out of the United Nations, and slashing "hundreds of billions" out of the "military-industrial complex," it's next to impossible to find a single prominent U.S. politician who is calling for the country to reduce its preeminent role on the world stage.

No major political figure and certainly no presidential aspirant is calling for the U.S. to end its membership NATO or other international institutions; none are suggesting that the U.S. bring troops home from East Asia, where more than 60,000 US troops are stationed, predominately in South Korea and Japan; and few are talking about closing down overseas U.S. military bases. Even in a time of economic uncertainty, calls for greater protectionism or an end to trade agreements are few and far between. If anything, expanding trade seems to be one area where Congressional Republicans and the White House are on the same page.

When it comes to the defense budget, few political leaders are pushing for military spending to be cut. Republicans balked at Obama's call for $400 billion in Pentagon savings over ten years, accusing him of insufficient fortitude in maintaining American defenses. Just last week, the House, with only 12 dissenting GOP voices, passed a defense spending bill that would increase the Pentagon budget by $17 billion. There seem to be more warnings today about incipient isolationism than actual examples.

Read the whole thing here

July 13, 2011

The Bombs that Will Bring Us Together?
Posted by Eric Martin

Recent polling data casts doubt on claims by advocates of military intervention in Libya that our participation would improve perceptions of the U.S. in the region.  Proponents of intervention claimed that this would be achieved, in part, by dispelling notions that the U.S. supports anti-democratic despots that suit U.S. interests. 

According to the polls, conducted in six Arab countries by James Zogby's Arab American Institute Foundation (via Adam Serwer), the United States' favorability rating now is "lower than at the end of the Bush Administration, and lower than Iran's favorable ratings."  Of particular relevance:

The U.S. role in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya receives a positive rating only in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but, as an issue, it is the lowest priority.

As previously argued, the notion that our military intervention against a despotic regime (that we had never supported to begin with) would somehow convince the Arab street that we don't back non-democratic regimes in the region when convenient, was a highly dubious contention.  After all, even if we did intervene in Libya on the side of anti-regime elements, we would be continuing our support for often brutal, non-democratic regimes in places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen - with the jury still out on how Egypt tacks. 

The Arab street seems to have noticed the lack of consistency, and come away unimpressed (at least in the nations polled). 

Like Iraq, our involvement in Libya was susceptible to being viewed, not as a principled defense of democracy and freedom, but rather as a selective, opportunistic attempt to target a regime that was, at various intervals, unfriendly and highly problematic - thus reinforcing our image as a country intent on pursuing its interests above and beyond other considerations.

Even when looked at as a stand-alone policy, in which we acted on the "right" side of a given conflict even if not to convince the local populations of some new U.S. alignment vis-a-vis monarchs and despots in the region, its impact in terms of improving our image has been minuscule, overwhelmed by the real drivers of public opinion in the region. 

War-as-public relations is a tool of extremely limited efficacy, especially in this context, where other issues deemed vastly more important by the region's inhabitants remain unresolved if not entirely unaddressed.

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