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February 13, 2012

Where’s Romney? National Security Budgeting Edition
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Romney on the phoneThe president’s budget for FY 2013 drops today. We already know the outlines of what it will look like. For an overview, see here. But it’s worth comparing that budget to Mitt Romney’s plan for defense spending. Ezra Klein has a solid rundown of the effects of Romney’s fiscal plans, following Romney’s speech at CPAC. As Klein notes, “Romney has, essentially, made four significant fiscal promises: He has pledged to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP. He has pledged to cut taxes to about 17 percent of GDP. He has pledged to a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP. And he has pledged to balance the budget.” We’ll look at the defense portion, because that’s what we’re focused on here at DA.

But first, a note about Romney’s criticisms of the administration’s budget plans: Romney has alleged that Obama has cut a trillion dollars from the defense budget over the next 10 years and that he’s “hollowing out” our national defense. Already today the Romney camp has called Obama’s budget an “insult” to the American taxpayer. This is of course political speak for the Budget Control Act, which was passed by Congress in a bipartisan fashion – no one in the Obama administration has voiced support for actually imposing the cuts to defense that would occur under the “sequestration” portion of the BCA. The one trillion number is supposed to force a compromise.

What the Obama administration has supported is a $487 billion reduction in the growth of Pentagon spending over 10 years. Those reductions are based on a strategy, which was released last month. As for the hollowing out claim, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service says that term is “inappropriate” for the current circumstances. One can debate the merits of sequestration-size cuts, which are possible but would be stupid to implement the way the law is currently written (i.e. with a drastic cut in the near-term, levied across all accounts equally). But one cannot argue that the administration wants the second tranche of cuts to the defense budget that would happen under sequestration. It’s simply inaccurate – they want tax increases.

Now, the reductions in growth to the military budget that the administration wants are broadly accepted. As Thom Shanker and Elizabeth Bumiller of the Times reported last month, “There is broad agreement on the left, right and center that $450 billion in cuts over a decade — the amount that the White House and Pentagon agreed to last summer — is acceptable.” Some, such as Fred Kaplan and Lawrence Korb, have persuasively argued that the administration could go further with cuts, although again, the administration has gone to great pains to say they don’t support such reductions.

Now to Romney’s plan: The Romney team made the four percent pledge for defense spending in their foreign policy white paper. Remember, the four percent figure means pegging the size of the base defense budget to four percent of GDP and does not include supplemental war funding. (For why such an approach abandons strategy, see here.) Michael Linden over at CAP did the math on this promise. He writes: “Under current projections (with the adjustments described above), defense spending will be about $560 billion in 2016, or about 2.9 percent of GDP. But Romney has promised to ensure defense spending never drops lower than 4 percent of GDP. Keeping that promise will add more than $200 billion in additional federal spending in 2016.” That’s just the base budget; it does not include war funding. Romney’s plan for Afghanistan will entail a long-term, large-scale military presence costing billions more dollars; he also criticized the drawdown in Iraq, which also has significant budgetary implications.

The Romney campaign believes such a stance will benefit them politically. As Scott Conroy of RCP reports, “Key members of Romney's foreign policy team argue that no matter what happens in the months ahead, Obama will be vulnerable in November on defense spending, his shaky relationship with Israel's leaders, and a ‘reset’ policy with Russia that many observers see as ill-fated.”

Romney’s fellow conservatives aren’t so sure though. As George will writes

The U.S. defense budget is about 43 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than the combined defense spending of the next 17 nations, many of which are U.S. allies. Are Republicans really going to warn voters that America will be imperiled if the defense budget is cut 8 percent from projections over the next decade? In 2017, defense spending would still be more than that of the next 10 countries combined.

Will is arguing that Republicans will have hard time arguing against the administration’s plans. Imagine how much tougher that argument gets once you’re arguing for the massive increases, both in base defense spending and war spending, that Romney’s plans propose.

Photo: Mitt Romney Flickr

February 10, 2012

Has the US Gotten Its Groove Back in the Middle East?
Posted by Michael Cohen

How-Stella-Got-Her-Groove-Back-thumb-560xauto-24333Over the past couple of days a rather odd argument has developed around the question of international intervention in Syria - namely, that the whole process, and in fact US diplomacy in the region, has somehow been undermined by the heavy-handed manner in which the US and its NATO allies worked to topple Qaddafi in Libya.

Here's Stephen Walt's take:

Russia and China . . . supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." Our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.

Josh Foust makes a similar point and then says this:

The failure to gain international buy-in to do something -- not necessarily militarily but some response -- to the atrocities there is a direct consequence of interventionists ignoring politics in their rush to do good. Unfortunately, the people of Syria are now paying the price, and will continue to do so.

Walter Russell Mead and Scott Horton make much the same arguments. Now I should start off by saying that I was critical of US and NATO efforts in Libya and I am highly dubious about the efficacy of intervention in Syria so I'm sympathetic to the overall sentiments of these writers.

But having said I, generally speaking, find their arguments sort of ludicrous. I suppose it makes sense that Russia and China were angered about the way that NATO expanded its US mandate to topple Qaddafi, but the notion that Moscow and Beijing were surprised by this hardly seems credible. Even if Russia was shocked, shocked that NATO went further then a narrow mandate on Libya does anyone really believe that they would have then turned around and authorized a foreign military intervention in Syria - a country where Russia has very specific and long-standing strategic and economic interests.

And even if Security Council Resolution on Syria had passed it did not directly authorize the use of force and even if it did there is to date, no country that has signalled a great willingness to send troops to Syria. It likely would have changed very little on the ground. (I also can't help note the irony of complaints about the Syrian people "paying the price" over Libya being made by individuals who would have had the West do nothing in Libya).

The more obvious assessment of what happened in the UNSC is that Russia and China are using their "surprise" about Libya as an excuse for taking the morally dubious position of defending the heinous Assad regime - a position the Russians are trying somewhat half-heartedly to walk back. That otherwise intelligent US commentators are parroting the self-serving arguments of a couple of semi-authoritarian regimes like these two is a real head-scratcher.

Indeed, a more clear-eyed view of this situation might suggest that both China and Russia have not only played this whole situation rather poorly - they've been outfoxed by the United States. As Paul Bonicelli points out over at Foreign Policy, "The stance the Russians and the Chinese are taking hinders them from attaining the very goal they seek: to be seen as legitimate world leaders on par with the U.S. and the EU." 

Being on the same side as fading dictators like Assad is not exactly a high growth diplomatic strategy or one that will improve the political standing of either Moscow or Beijing. Both nations now look both isolated and even worse water carriers for some of the most loathsome regimes in the world. This is almost certainly why Russia is trying now to spearhead a diplomatic initiative with Damascus. If one didn't know better they might conclude that this whole bit of UN diplomacy has been a bit of a miscalculation for them.

For the United States, simply pushing the issue of a UNSC resolution on Syria, not to mention its actions around supporting democracy movements in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have had the precise opposite effect. Today the US finds itself in a much more advantageous diplomatic position in the region. It's not hard to imagine this will help the US build regional coalitions in the Middle East to isolate Iran, but also in the Far East to contain Chinese regional ambitions. And much of this has been accomplished by the United States leading from behind and by working in concert with like-minded allies

Broadly speaking after the diplomatic wreckage of the Bush years the United States has, for the most part, shown itself to be a friend of democracy in the Arab world - and at a rather opportune time.

To be sure, all of this is now possible not despite the US intervention in Libya, but because of it. 

Go back one year. You had democratic movements emerging across the Arab world - in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially Syria. How would it have looked for the US to have turned its back on anti-Qaddafi rebels then? We can't know the answer for sure, but one can hardly blame the Administration for viewing with great concern the possibility that US inaction in the face of a potential humanitarian catastrophe directed at the Libyan people would significantly have tarnished the US image in the region and left the US on the wrong side of an incipient democratic movement in the Middle East. 

For the United States to have done nothing in Libya might not only have short-circuited the Arab Spring but also left the US in the unenviable position of being where Russia is today - at least indirectly on the side of the region's dictators. (Can you imagine how hard it would have been for the US to diplomatically throwdown on Syria if they had nothing on Libya?)

By acting when it did and how it did the US consolidated its own position in the Arab world and strength end the emerging role of the Arab League as an organization dedicated to speaking and acting out against the more brutal dictators in its midst. Again, this isn't a perfect story. It doesn't excuse how the Obama Administration played fast and loose with congressional approval of the Libya operation; or the continued instability in Libya - and US dealings with the government in Bahrain and Yemen, to a not insignificant degree, undermine this argument. But the overall story is a positive one - and speaks to an improved US image in the region that would have been unimaginable three years ago. And it's been done at a rather minimal political and military cost. 

Libya was a very rare and extraordinary circumstance in which the stars aligned in favor of military intervention. It's not one that can be easily replicated in Syria; but that doesn't mean it hasn't proven beneficial to US interests - and hopefully over the long run those of the Arab world. In the end, critics seemingly obsessed with proving that the Libyan intervention was a mistake should perhaps broaden their perspective a bit.

The UNSC Syria Vote, Renewal of American Leadership, and the Case for a 2nd Obama Term
Posted by David Shorr

400_400_1A recent post over at The Economist's Democracy in America blog says the Syria showdown at the UN between the US, Russia, and China demonstrates a crucial yet underappreciated success of Obama foreign policy:

Ten years back, America often found itself isolated, struggling to pull together "coalitions of the willing" packed with small client states. Lately, we have been finding ourselves in the majority, along with the democratic world, while Russia and China front a dwindling coalition of the unwilling.

Yes, President Obama has shown a remarkable ability to forge a united international front   on issue after issue. The quantum increase in support for US positions and initiatives is a much bigger deal than media assessments have acknowledged. As other nations have become more welcoming toward the United States' global role, the president can make a strong claim to have rehabilitated American leadership.

Actually if I'd fault the Economist writer for anything, it's that s/he lacks the courage of her own optimism. I disagree when the blogger says it's too bad Obama can't use this part of his record as a plank in his reelection platform. Voters recognize the importance of international goodwill toward the United States just as readily as the writer does. If not, then why do you think the public was so horrified to see Bush and Cheney defiantly thumbing their noses at the rest of the world? (The big mystery to me is why on earth the current crop of candidates have tacked back toward Cheney-esque chest-thumping.) More to the point, though, all signals from the White House put this success in their "top three" foreign policy achievements of the first term: winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, decimating Al Qaeda, and greater receptivity and trust around the world of US leadership. 

Interestingly, James Fallows of The Atlantic makes the exact same underestimation of voters in his rigorous new assessment of Obama's presidency. Here's how he concludes a graf stressing the importance of America's improved standing in the world:

These changes can make a real difference for American ideals and interests, but it is hard to mention them in American political debates without sounding “French.”

Okay, let me try this in my very best American accent (whatever that is). It is very difficult and sometimes impossible to accomplish America's international aims -- disrupt terror networks, keep the global economy strong, stem the spread of nuclear weapons -- without the support and help of others. Is the common sense of this really so hard to get across to the voting public? 

One key point is how the importance of international support applies across a wide range of issues. You can see this within the Democracy in America post, which is ostensibly about the nations aligned with America in opposition to a butcherous Syrian regime but also notes the Southeast Asian countries grateful for US help in resisting China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. In other words, those who pigeonhole such forward-leaning diplomacy as "soft power" are missing the point. 

Which brings us to the problem of Iran. Whenever you hear about President Obama's success in ratcheting up the toughest set of sanctions ever imposed on Iran, you should think about the massive diplomatic effort required to accomplish this. And it is ongoing. Our friends at Center for American Progress, for instance, remind us that discussion of Iran with China has continued throughout the past three years and is bound to be on the agenda for Vice President Xi Jinping's visit next week

Given America's difficult history with Iran and close alliance with Israel, there's been a tendency in the international politics of the Iranian nuclear program to view the issue as a pet cause of the United States -- rather than a truly shared nuclear proliferation problem. This is the essence of the challenge, and of the Obama administration's success, in recasting American leadership. A measure of an effective foreign policy is to convince others that the United States is upholding important norms of the international community -- preserving a social contract -- and not just a big bad superpower. That's the point of President Obama's frequent references to the obligations and responsibilities of nations, including our own (e.g. the New START nuclear arms treaty).

After reading this skepticism in The Economist and The Atlantic about America's improved international image as a campaign theme, I looked back at some of my own posts from four years ago. In 2008, candidate Obama could aim his foreign policy argument at a public deeply unsettled at how out of step with the rest of the world we had gotten -- and acutely aware what trouble it could cause us. In 2012, President Obama runs for re-election having put these ideas about a more conscientious style of global leadership into action. And his record shows that they work.

February 07, 2012

From Hama to Homs, by way of Sarajevo, Kigali (but also Skopje and Nairobi)
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

It's thirty years this month since the father and brother of the current Syrian President Assad cracked down on a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama, Syria, killing somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000, according to Amnesty International's best guess.

If you wonder what the Assad family style of large-scale killing is like, here are some insights:

The fighting took two weeks; one to recapture the city from insurgents and two to "root out" insurgents and others.

The killing and destruction documented by Syrians and outsiders included dynamiting city blocks with people inside; pouring gasoline into underground tunnels and setting them on fire; aerial bombardment, extended shelling, torture.

Many Americans will remember their first encounter with this piece of history as a chapter, "Hama Rules," in Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem in which he cites the current president's uncle and then-president's brother, Rifaat Assad, as boasting that he had killed 38,000 people.

It is fair to ask, as we are presented with gruesome images of a Syrian government assault on another city tonight, whether anything other than the speed and ubiquity of information technology has changed in the intervening 30 years. In recent months, a number of UN debates, academic conferences, and policy task forces have asked this question in specialist language:  Whither R2P? Responsibility to Protect or Responsibility While Protecting? Humanitarian Response in a New Age...

I suggest that three major things have changed, in a manner which speaks well for the arc of history but terribly for families cowering in terror in Syria tonight.

1. Ignorance is No Longer an Excuse. It's worth re-reading Samantha Power's 2001 Atlantic article on Rwanda, in which she persuaded a number of rather senior Clinton Administration officials (my bosses) to say that they didn't know, or didn't understand, soon enough how widespread the genocidal killing was. Whether or not that is so, it's worth noting that 1994 is the last time a Western leader attempted to claim ignorance as an excuse for inaction. No one says s/he didn't know the threat to Kosovars in 1999, or to Macedonians (an overlooked success of peaceful intervention) in 2001; or for that matter to two abject failures, Congo and Sri Lanka. A web of NGO projects were founded specifically in order to end the ignorance defense, from the International Crisis Group to the Satellite Sentinel project for Sudan and South Sudan; we have nodes and offices and procedures within governments and at the UN.

2. Sovereignty Is No Longer Absolute. Just how different are international attitudes toward how rulers treat their citizens? In 1982, the New York Times reported that

The United States Ambassador, Robert Paganelli, was summoned to a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Nasir Qaddour at 1:30 A.M. to receive a strong protest over the State Department's statement Wednesday that Hama had been ''sealed off by Syrian authorities'' as a result of ''serious disturbances.''

Nowadays even Russia and China declare Assad's actions unacceptable. The core insight of twenty years' work -- and twenty years of UN acronyms -- that sovereignty over people entails responsibility toward them, responsibilities in which the rest of the world has a legitimate interest, is triumphant in word. In deed, not so much.

3. Accountability Has Meaning. Hafez Assad ruled Syria longer after Hama than before, dying of heart failure in 2000 as the Middle East's longest-serving ruler. His son is unlikely to be so fortunate. His former colleagues Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali are on trial in their own countries, Ben Ali in absentia since Saudi Arabia has declined to return him.  Liberian strongman Charles Taylor is awaiting the verdict from the Special Court for Sierra Leone on his role in sparking that horrific violence. Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack while on trial in the Hague. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has called for Assad to be brought up on charges by the International Criminal Court, and the Gulf Cooperation Council appears to be considering a similar step. This would leave Assad very little ability to travel outside Syria, even were he to be successful in suppressin protests and rebellion.

4. Pressure Mounts Over Time. In 1982, Hafez Assad faced little more international pressure in week three of his campaign than he did on day one. That is simply no longer imaginable. Power documents how in 1994, calls for action in Rwanda eventually mounted among smaller countries at the UN, and in some quarters in Washington, but never reached critical mass. In Bosnia, later that same year, UN and NATO embarrassment and public anguish did eventually lead to action that, in turn, led to an end to fighting and the Dayton Accords. (I have been re-reading Madeleine Albright on this; Richard Holbrooke is also instructive.) Kosovo and Libya were both instances where loud and ugly threats from dictators spurred action; Kenya and Macedonia, almost a decade apart, successful examples of non-violent prevention; Cote d'Ivoire an often-forgotten case that had languished before Libya but, in its aftermath, allowed a small show of force to end ugly and growing post-election violence.  The international community has sometimes gotten better at saving some lives; it has gotten less better more slowly at preventing any lives from being lost and a spiral of violence from starting in the first place.

None of this is much help to the Syrians who, tonight, stand in for our simple failure as human beings to control our own worst impulses, or each other's. The UN says it quit tallying deaths last month after 5400. We have reason to hope, non-interventionists, and arm-the-SNC and do-something-ers alike, that what we have achieved in the past thirty years will help us stop that tally before it gets to 25,000 or 40,000. But if the past thirty years have taught us anything it is that hope doesn't do it alone.

How to Respond to a Changing World: Stimulant or Anesthetic?
Posted by Jacob Stokes


Mitt Romney’s foreign policy platform rests on the notion that he will ensure another “American century,” and he has criticized Obama by saying the president “fundamentally believes that this next century is the post-American century.”

That formulation has drawn a sharp response over the last week. Fareed Zakaria argues in the Washington Post that Romney’s argument is based on a flawed reading of global politics:

This is a new world, very different from the America-centric one we got used to over the last generation. Obama has succeeded in preserving and even enhancing U.S. influence in this world precisely because he has recognized these new forces at work. He has traveled to the emerging nations and spoken admiringly of their rise. He replaced the old Western club and made the Group of 20 the central decision-making forum for global economic affairs. By emphasizing multilateral organizations, alliance structures and international legitimacy, he got results. It was Chinese and Russian cooperation that produced tougher sanctions against Iran. It was the Arab League’s formal request last year that made Western intervention in Libya uncontroversial.

Later, Zakaria blasts Romney’s criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy, saying Romney’s response ignores global realities:

By and large, you [Romney] have ridiculed this approach to foreign policy, arguing that you would instead expand the military, act unilaterally and talk unapologetically. That might appeal to Republican primary voters, but chest-thumping triumphalism won’t help you secure America’s interests or ideals in a world populated by powerful new players. You can call this new century whatever you like, but it won’t change reality. After all, just because we call it the World Series doesn’t make it one.

In Foreign Policy, Charles Kupchan expands on this second point, noting that accepting the recent and ongoing expansion and de-centralization of world power simply means accepting facts. Such a shift doesn’t equate to American “decline.” Instead, recognizing these shifts will allow the U.S. to identify the real challenges facing us in world affairs and then craft appropriate responses for husbanding American power:

To acknowledge the need for the United States to adjust to prospective shifts in the global distribution of power is not, as Duke University professor Bruce Jentleson recently pointed out in Democracy, to be a declinist or a pessimist. It is to be a realist. And safely guiding the United States through this coming transition requires seeing the world as it is rather than retreating toward the illusory comfort of denial…

Shepherding the transition to this more pluralistic world is arguably the defining challenge facing U.S. statecraft in the years ahead. Romney appears ready to pave over this challenge by denying that such change is afoot and attempting to portray Obama's policies as "an eloquently justified surrender of world leadership.”

To be sure, there’s an argument to be made that, as Tony Karon of TIME tweets, “nationalist political culture requires sustaining illusions.” In other words, Romney is in the middle of a fierce nomination fight and will likely carry the banner for the GOP in a heated general election. Drawing on themes of nationalism will almost surely help him prevail in those contests. Fair enough. Obama did much the same thing in his State of the Union speech and subsequent highly public embrace of Robert Kagan’s piece rejecting “decline.” (A tactic for which Rosa Brooks took the president to task.)

But the rhetoric has to meet reality somewhere, and that's where there’s a difference between progressive and conservative approaches to “greatness” and “decline” set of questions. As Bruce Jentleson wrote in that Democracy piece, progressives use the changing global landscape as a call to increase our ability to compete with the rest of world, confident that we can still be a—if not the—global leader across the spectrum of power (diplomatic, economic, military, soft power). As Jentleson writes, “It’s not that progressives don’t believe in American greatness; it’s that we invoke the past as stimulant not anesthetic. America can and should play a leading role in the twenty-first-century world. But to do so we need a foreign policy geared to how the world is, not how it used to be.”

In contrast, it seems Romney prefers the approach of ignoring reality. Hopefully he'll wake up. The world won’t wait.

Video: "Halftime in America" superbowl ad

February 03, 2012

Iran, Israel and Rock Star Prescience
Posted by David Shorr

RATM_at_CoachellaTrue story. In September 2008 I was waiting for a flight at Minneapolis airport. And so were the members of Rage Against the Machine. Which was how I found myself in a foreign policy discussion with Zack de la Rocha. (Our flight also gave me a chance to introduce Tom Morello to Ben Stein, but that's another story.)

The upshot of my chat with the RATM frontman was his observation that if Israel attacked Iran, that could pose big problems for us foreign policy establishment types. Not that de la Rocha and I would share views on Israel, but he could see tricky dilemmas down the road. Sure enough, here we are three plus years later, watching the Israeli government reaching for the lid of that very pandora's box. So a tip of the hat goes to Zack for his keen instinct.

The last few weeks have brought such a flood of analysis and commentary that there's a lot to choose from, but let me highlight and react to some of the points I found most interesting. Starting with Colin Kahl's excellent Foreign Affairs essay. Kahl offered some very useful reminders from the Iraq case. For instance, we know that bombing facilities will merely delay a nuclear program, rather than permanently halt it, because that's what happened after Israel bombed Osirak in 1981. It hardly prevented us from having to deal with the issue in the 1990s. I should quickly add that when people argue for the value of such a delay, that is hardly a strategic perspective.

The discussion of Israel's role in the first Gulf War in 1991 is quite interesting too from our current vantage point the perspective of Republicans' foreign policy message. Just to recall, President George H.W. Bush prevailed upon Israel to refrain from letting itself be pulled into the war -- despite Saddam's deliberate provocation of missile attacks on Israel. In return, Bush 41 helped shield Israel from the attacks with the Patriot anti-missile system, but the restraint shown by Israel was impressive. The main point of this restraint was that Israel's direct involvement would blur the stakes and distract from a clear focus on Iraq. In the geopolitics of the region, Israel brings added layers of conflict and sensitivity. In other words, we can't look only through the prism of America's own view of Israel as a close ally, but also the attitude and response of other players. As a matter of simple strategic calculus, duh. 

But wait, let's pause to note the huge disconnect between this kind of clear eyed-ness and the 2012 Republican competition over who can place themselves farthest to the right on the Israeli domestic political spectrum. We cannot highlight this crucial point enough. When the Republican candidates talk about the nation of Israel (see, support of) their rhetoric more accurately applies to a certain segment of opinion in Israel. One more time: the Israeli national security establishment and political elite are sharply divided over the wisdom of attacking Iran.

The other major issue, of course, is the prospect for a diplomatic resolution with Iran over its nuclear program. On this question, no one maps the terrain better than Trita Parsi, even if you don't completely agree with him. Trita has an excellent new book, A Single Roll of the Dice. But if you're not going to read the book, his blog post over at Fareed Zakarkia's Global Public Square blog lays out the core problems. 

Trita gives President Obama and his administration a lot of credit for placing Iran under heavy pressure, and for the deft diplomacy it took to build international support. His main critique concerns the trade-offs between exerting pressure (mainly sanctions) and leaving space for diplomatic negotiations. As he sees it, Obama's own so-called "pressure track" has boxed him in and potentially put a diplomatic solution out of reach. 

This is mainly a debate between different views of how to bring the Iranians to the table. From one vantage, Iran has a genuine interest in reaching an agreement, and the key things for the West are patience, diligence and a comprehensive agenda. My reading of Trita is that he sees the need for pressure, but also views it as essential to calibrate the pressure to give diplomacy enough time and patience for it to work. What these two views share is a worry that mounting Iranian mistrust may have reached a threshold that luring them to the negotiating table will be difficult to impossible. 

So where does the administration's policy come down on this question? The way I interpret it, the policy assumes Tehran is disposed against an agreement -- preferring the freedom of action to master the uranium enrichment process. Not that they're implacable and and unwilling to meet outside powers' demands for transparency and monitoring. Rather, it's an assumption that Iranian cooperation rests squarely on the cost associated with continued resistance. For critics who see an over-reliance on pressure, the administration is underestimating Iran's ability to withstand hardship. To which I'd respond that they might be overestimating it's ability to withstand isolation. Putting it another way, Iranian leaders know they can't sustain the same degree of autarky as North Korea's Kim family regime. As Iran moves closer to full-pariah status, they will start to alter their calculation.

Now finally to the core substantive quandary of this problem: whether a diplomatic solution would let Iran continue its uranium enrichment. As Trita explains, this question is actually a source of tension mainly between the United States and Israel. (Bill Keller delved into the wonkish practicalities of the issue in a recent post over at The Israelis take a very hard line against any ongoing future enrichment by Iran. 

This is where the issue tilts toward the need to accomodate Iran somewhat in order to reach a deal -- aka the complete fantasy under Obama's predecessor of a diplomatic outcome whereby Iran totally capitulates. As it happens, the authors of an op-ed on the subject in today's NYTimes (Ambassadors Tom Pickering and Bill Luers) told us nearly four years ago in a much-cited NY Review of Books essay that zero enrichment was, practically speaking, a non-starter. Now as we look into the abyss of a new war with Iran, let me put the question directly. If an agreement can be reached that permits some enrichment -- under close international supervision -- is that a prospect really worthy of going to war?

The rumors of war have significantly notched up the danger of a real catastrophe. Meanwhile, it's the same tangled mess it's always been. Even a rock star could see that.

Photo: thetripwirenyc

Premature Evacuation?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Afghan_troops_1029Over at Foreign Policy I have a new post up looking at the politics of Afghanistan withdrawal - and why ending not one not two wars a year before a presidential election is basically unheard of:

Barack Obama is nothing if not a trailblazing politician -- after all, when you're the first African-American elected to the nation's highest office, breaking the mold is sort of part of your political DNA. However, with the announcement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Tuesday, Feb. 1, that the Obama administration intends to end combat operations in Afghanistan in mid-2013 he is laying out another unique course -- seeking re-election this November as the architect of two drawdowns of U.S. military engagements. This is the kind of thing doesn't happen too often in American politics.

You can read the whole thing here.

But there is one smaller point I wanted to reference. Check out what Mitt Romney had to say about Panetta's announcement:

“The president’s mistakes, some of them are calculated on a philosophy that’s hard to understand and, sometimes, you scratch you head and say: How can he be so misguided and so naive?”

“Today, his secretary of defense unleashed such a policy,” said Romney. “The secretary of defense said that on a day certain, the middle of 2013, we’re going to pull out our combat troops from Afghanistan.”

He announced that. So the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it,” said Romney. “Why in the world do you go to the people that you’re fighting with and tell them the date you’re pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense.” 

First of all it's not true that the US is going to pull out combat troops in 2013; rather the US is going to be shifting away from a combat mission in 2013. That's an important distinction.

But here's the interesting part - look at what Romney said in June 2011 at a Republican debate:

It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they're able to defend themselves.

I suppose in fairness Romney didn't reveal the date that US troops would be leaving as soon as possible so I suppose he is in the clear here.

February 01, 2012

On Consistency, Precedents and Humanitarian Intervention
Posted by Eric Martin

Daniel Trombly wrote a thorough and well-argued critique of three recent pieces that advocate, or at least consider, the use of military force by Western powers in Syria. While the whole piece is well worth the read, there is a particular aspect that I wanted to highlight due to its relevancy to topics previously discussed on this site.

The following is from the Anne-Marie Slaughter article that Trombly takes issue with:

If the Arab League, the U.S., the European Union, Turkey, and the UN Secretary General spend a year wringing their hands as the death toll continues to mount, the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine will be exposed as a convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics, feeding precisely the cynicism and conspiracy theories in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. spends its public diplomacy budget and countless diplomatic hours trying to debunk.

Slaughter thus argues that by targeting the regime in Syria the US can debunk certain "conspiracy theories" rampant in the Middle East that claim that the United States cynically pursues its national interests, and places a higher priority on such interests than human rights concerns and democratic norms.

A variation of the argument was made in support of the Libya intervention, though it originally debuted as part of the case for invading Iraq. It remains just as dubious in each of its incarnations.

There are two primary reasons that this argument is deeply flawed:

First, it's not exactly a "conspiracy theory" to suggest that the US pursues its national interests with a certain degree of cynicism. Such a non-controversial contention is true not only of the US, but of most (if not all) other states, throughout known history.

For example, the US does actually support (and lavish aid on, and sell arms to, etc.) undemocratic states in the region with atrocious human rights records, including states like Yemen and Bahrain that violently suppressed pro-democracy movements during the recent, and ongoing, Arab Spring uprisings. Not only did we not have a responsibility to protect those beleaguered populations, apparently, but we feel justified in green-lighting large arms sales to at least one of the regimes in question.

Second, if the United States is trying to convince local populations that it has adopted a different approach whereby it prioritizes human rights and democracy over narrower self-interests, attacking an adversary like Syria (or Libya or Iraq), while continuing to support the same despotic regimes that earned it the reputation in the first place is unlikely to succeed.

If we are truly interested in setting a consistent precedent for the valuation of democracy and human rights ahead of other considerations (not that I'm suggesting that such an approach is necessarily prudent in all contexts), it seems that we should start by cutting off support for those despotic regimes that we consider "friendly" rather than using humanitarian concerns as a casus belli to target regimes that we otherwise find problematic when viewed through the prism of less sentimental national interests.

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