Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy new year, etcetera

As 2011 draws to a close (it's already drawn to a close in some parts of the world), I would like to thank everyone who has stopped by here this year -- especially the small group of regular or semi-regular readers -- and wish all of you a good 2012.

This blog had roughly 2,500 'unique visitors' in 2011, which is the traffic that some other blogs get in a single day or a single week. Still, it represents about a 50 percent increase over the traffic here in 2010, no doubt partly because I did more posting in 2011 (there having been a lot, obviously, to write about).

I'd been hoping to put up the long post I've been promising before the end of 2011; however, that's not going to happen. So it will appear in early January.

Bonne année!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Iraq: the clouded crystal ball

U.S. military forces have left Iraq, but it is evident that the U.S. will be dealing with the consequences of the Iraq war for some years to come. The widely-reported recent political turmoil and the increase in violence raise questions about the country's stability, while kidnapping threats issued against U.S. civilian workers in Baghdad suggest that conditions may be less than propitious for the kind of future U.S. civilian operation that the Obama administration envisages. The Green Zone, home to the largest U.S. embassy in the world, may be as much a space of confinement, albeit -- for at least some -- apparently rather luxurious confinement, in 2012 and beyond as it was during the previous years. And unresolved issues between the U.S. and Iraq's government persist, including the fate of the Iranians in the MEK group, resident in Iraq since 1986 and protected by the U.S. military until 2009. A UN-arranged deal for their voluntary emigration is in the works, but the linked article indicates that complications remain.

Four U.S. veterans of the Iraq war were interviewed on the PBS NewsHour tonight. Asked if it was "worth it" and if they would do it again, two basically answered in the negative and other two -- the two Marines on the panel -- said yes. All four agreed that there was a "disconnect" (and imbalance of sacrifice) between veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, less than one percent of the U.S. population, and the rest of society.

The debate about the Iraq war will probably never end, just as the debate about the Vietnam war has never really ended. It is doubtless possible to pile up anecdotes on both sides of the question. For every story about tens (or was it hundreds?) of thousands of dollars that were wasted in translating classics of American literature into Arabic (the books ended up in an unused pile behind an Iraqi school), there are probably stories about development projects that worked. For every instance of U.S. soldiers mistreating or even (in at least a few cases) deliberately and premeditatedly killing Iraqi civilians, there are probably cases of kindness toward and support for civilians.

It seems clear enough to me that the Iraq war was a tragic, unnecessary venture whose original justifications were either flimsy or fabricated and whose costs -- in lives, money and disruption -- could not be outweighed by the removal of Saddam Hussein, awful as he was, and by his replacement by what may or may not turn out to be a functioning polity and society. But it is, in a sense, easy for someone who sat at home and observed things from a distance to reach this judgment. Even the very well-informed journalists who covered the conflict at first hand and wrote books about it (Packer, Filkins, Chandrasekaran, et al.) probably cannot be viewed as having produced much more than, as the cliché has it, the first draft of history. It's difficult to engage in the careful comparative weighing of misery, which, along with painstaking research, is what any more definitive judgment on the conflict will require. But one thing that seems fairly certain is that it will be a long time before the U.S. embarks on another such undertaking.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Airline carbon emissions tax: latest EU-U.S. dispute

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently upheld the EU's levying of a carbon emissions tax on non-EU planes flying to EU destinations. The U.S., Canada, and China strongly object, with the U.S. arguing that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the proper body to deal with this.

A couple of thoughts. First, when it comes to concerns over climate change versus concerns over the balance sheets of U.S. airlines, the latter wins out in the Obama admin, it seems. Second, whatever objections are being advanced to the ECJ's ruling, it is probably hard to fault the court's reasoning that sovereignty is not in question here: the planes are flying into EU airspace, after all. But large amounts of money are apparently involved, so this dispute will no doubt continue.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Kroenig on Iran

It's a bad article. I've commented on it at Duck of Minerva (where you can find other relevant links), so I won't repeat myself here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What are the worst U.S. foreign policy decisions of the last 50 years?

As a first cut and being very telegraphic:

1. Vietnam 1965
2. Cambodia 1969-70
3. Chile 1973
4. Iraq 2003
5. Nicaragua and El Salvador 1980s

Number 5 is a series of decisions (or course of policy) rather than a discrete decision. Same for what might be my number 6, the backing of the resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan and then forgetting about the country after that (until 9/11). Number 7 might be the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide.

Update to the list: The Bay of Pigs (as Hank mentions) and subsequent Cuba policy. Some might want to throw in the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission, but that was a question more of implementation/execution or just bad luck, I think. Open to correction though. Then there are the omissions rather than the acts, e.g., failure to do anything very effective about al Qaeda until after 9/11.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bangladesh is 40

This past Friday was the fortieth anniversary of Bangladesh's independence: Dec. 16, 1971 was the day on which the war of liberation ended. Unfortunately the celebrations were marred by some violence.

Regular readers of this blog may be aware of my interest in the country, which stems from having lived there as a child in the early '60s (when it was still East Pakistan). As a 14-year-old in the U.S., I was aware of and followed the events that led to Bangladesh's independence. The infamous Nixon-Kissinger "tilt" toward Pakistan, at time when its ruler Yahya Khan was engaged in a brutal, indeed quasi-genocidal effort to put down the independence movement, partly reflected the way in which so much in the Nixon White House was seen through the lens of Cold War politics, even in the era of detente. (See, e.g., Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger, pp. 341-42 [these two pages are available on Google Books]).

I have not been following developments in Bangladesh very closely (maybe switching my home page back to the BBC would help), but on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of its independence I extend an obscure blogger's best wishes and the hope that there will be many more anniversaries.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Add reference to "instability," stir, season to taste

Sunday night here, and I take a last check of the news before shutting off the computer, which I probably should have done a while ago.

What do I find? An AP story informing me that Kim Jong Il has died and going on to say that the S. Korean military is on high alert and that Asian stock markets have moved down, fearful that this may mean increased "instability" on the Korean peninsula. N. Korea is of course a closed, highly authoritarian regime in which the leader had already handpicked a successor, who happens to be one of his sons. There may be jockeying for power among factions of N. Korea's elite, and the son in question is rather young. So what? Why should this mean more instability on the Korean peninsula? Does anyone actually think about these things or is this just a pre-scripted quasi-robotic scenario in which an editor on the AP desk says to one of his subordinates: "Hey Joe (or Mary, or Pedro, or Li or whoever), make sure you throw in the word 'instability'." And the subordinate replies: "aye aye sir, one reference to 'instability', coming right up."

Addendum (added later): Commentary over the last couple of days indicates people see various reasons for concern, including possible difficulties of the 'great successor' in consolidating his power. Guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Update: defense bill

The U.S. DOD authorization bill, containing detention provisions that I blogged about earlier, has now cleared both houses of Congress and is headed to the Pres.'s desk, the detention provisions having been reworked just enough, apparently, to avoid a veto. The measure includes sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, application of which, according to the linked WaPo piece, threatens to disrupt oil supplies and to cause shortages and price increases. Good one.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Abstract of the day

(That's a variation on Quote of the Day, in case you were wondering)

Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler, "A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States," Perspectives on Politics (Dec. 2011). I haven't read the article, but here's the abstract:
What kind of policy can the United States pursue that ensures its security while minimizing the likelihood of war? We describe and defend a realist theory of foreign policy to guide American decision makers. Briefly, the theory says that if they want to ensure their security, great powers such as the United States should balance against other great powers. They should also take a relaxed view toward developments involving minor powers and, at most, should balance against hostile minor powers that inhabit strategically important regions of the world. We then show that had the great powers followed our theory's prescriptions, some of the most important wars of the past century might have been averted. Specifically, the world wars might not have occurred, and the United States might not have gone to war in either Vietnam or Iraq. In other words, realism as we conceive it offers the prospect of security without war. At the same time, we also argue that if the United States adopts an alternative liberal foreign policy, this is likely to result in more, rather than fewer, wars. We conclude by offering some theoretically-based proposals about how US decision makers should deal with China and Iran.
Stop the presses!! Did you know that if the great powers had balanced against Nazi Germany before '39, WW2 might have been averted?! Film at 11!! (or maybe that should be: Newsreel at 11!)

Ok, I'm sorry (sort of) for the sarcasm, but there were reasons -- very understandable ones in the historical context -- that there wasn't more balancing in the '30s. (Maybe the authors make that point and there wasn't space to put it in the abstract.) And I know, it's unfair to dump on an article solely on the basis of the abstract. (Blogging means having to say you're sorry ... again and again...)

The question at the beginning is, to be serious, a good one: "
What kind of policy can the United States pursue that ensures its security while minimizing the likelihood of war?"

Here is, arguably, a better question: "In a world in which the likelihood of great-power war is vanishingly small, how should the U.S. reorient its foreign and defense policy to: (1) take account of that reality, (2) stop acting as if it's 1947 instead of 2011, and (3) generally come to its senses?"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The new European treaty vs. social democracy

C. Bertram:

The Euro treaty..., assuming it goes ahead as planned and is enforced, mandates balanced budgets and empowers the Eurocrats to vet national budgets and punish offenders. Social democracy is thereby effectively rendered illegal in the Eurozone in both its “social” and “democracy” aspects.

Whole post here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Should we wish for an Obama-Gingrich contest?

Michael Kazin thinks so. He writes that Gingrich-Obama debates would be a true clash of ideas that would "expose the moral and logical defects of the conservative ideology that has been mostly dominant in the U.S. since 1980, even under Democratic presidents. Then, perhaps, a true liberal revival could begin."

I'm not completely convinced. From a selfish standpoint, I can't stand listening to Gingrich and the idea of having to endure his yammering for an entire general election campaign is hardly pleasing. But something a little more substantive seems to be bothering me about this, though at the moment I'm not sure exactly what it is.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

More on Kennan

I heard a talk by Gaddis this afternoon about his Kennan bio (save the first ten minutes or so, which I missed). On the question of Kennan's feelings about America (raised by a commenter here on an earlier post), Gaddis (and I assume this is also what he says in the book) views Kennan's critique of American culture (i.e., materialism, consumerism, the automobile, advertising, all of which Kennan loathed) as being akin to that of a "prophet" who holds his country to "an impossibly high standard." But Kennan did not "hate America," in Gaddis's view, quite the contrary. Personally I think the question whether Kennan "hated" or "loved" America is actually not a very interesting question. His criticisms of American culture are interesting, however, and one author (not Gaddis) has suggested that Kennan would have found some of the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School (esp. Adorno and Horkheimer) congenial, had he read it. (More on this later, perhaps.)

A couple of other points that struck me as noteworthy from the talk: Gaddis emphasized how deeply Kennan was influenced by Russian literature, above all Chekhov, in the way he formulated his thoughts about the future evolution of the USSR, e.g. in the X article. (Don't have time to go into the details now.) The other thing that struck me was Gaddis's statement that although Kennan despised Ronald Reagan, the latter was actually the president who came closest to implementing Kennan's strategic vision. This I found, to put it mildly, less than persuasive (or at least very debatable), and I was tempted to ask Gaddis a question about it, but I didn't. (Which was probably just as well.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gaddis interview on ATC

I stopped by the All Things Considered site for another reason, and I found that they just aired an interview with Gaddis about his Kennan biography. Haven't had a chance to listen to it yet (I'm planning to do so this weekend if not before), but here's the link for those who might be interested.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Quote of the day

Peter Tomsen, in the Fall 2011 World Policy Journal (p.89):
A more realistic and tougher American policy towards Pakistan should take into account a number of regional geopolitical trends.... Duplicating a geopolitical pattern in the 1990s, the closer the predominantly Pashtun Taliban get to the Amu Darya River, dividing Afghanistan from the former Soviet Stans, the more Russia, Central Asian states, India, and Iran will coordinate to assist Afghan Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara anti-Taliban resistance groups.... Counterproductive results of Pakistan's proxy wars in Afghanistan will also be felt at home as Pakistan surrenders the extensive regional economic benefits an Afghan peace accord could deliver to Pakistan.
There's also some other interesting material in the same issue, e.g. "Kenya: Phoning It In" (on the transforming effects of money transfers by cell phone in Kenya -- pp. 8 and 9 of the hard-copy issue).

Monday, December 5, 2011

A tale of two candidates and one ambassador

Gingrich and Romney are calling on the Obama administration to fire the U.S. ambassador to Belgium. His transgression, from what I can gather from this article, seems to have been (at most) perhaps some bad choice of words when describing the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on attitudes among Muslims in Europe.

The article quotes him as saying:
"Throughout the Muslim communities that I visit, and indeed throughout Europe, there is significant anger and resentment and, yes, perhaps sometimes hatred and indeed sometimes an all-too-growing intimidation and violence directed at Jews generally as a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories and other Arab neighbors in the Middle East."
This quote doesn't excuse the anger, resentment, and "perhaps sometimes hatred"; it simply describes his perception. Ditto for another quote in the article in which Amb. Gutman appears to be simply describing the cycle of violence in the Middle East. His mistake was to use the charged word "anti-Semitism." (If he had made the same remarks without reference to "two forms of anti-Semitism," the remarks probably would have passed without too much notice.) The article says the ambassador has now issued a statement on his website, regretting that his remarks might have been misconstrued, etc.

In addition to the reactions from Romney and Gingrich, the remarks have prompted other reactions, including (again according to the Wash. Post article) a statement from the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors that refers to the "ongoing campaign by the White House to undermine Israel."

The U.S. gives Israel on the order of $3 billion a year, a very large portion of which, I believe, is military/security assistance. Obama administration officials, from Hillary Clinton on down, have said repeatedly that the U.S. is firmly and unwaveringly committed to ensuring that Israel maintains its QME (that's 'qualitative military edge'). Pres. Obama himself has made this clear on more than one occasion. The Obama administration wasted (in retrospect) about a year-and-a-half or so urging Israel to curtail construction of settlements. There was a brief-ish moratorium, after which settlement construction resumed (though perhaps at a slower pace than before). The admin appointed former Sen. George Mitchell its special envoy to the region tasked with bringing the conflict to a resolution, as he had in N. Ireland. Sen. Mitchell butted his head against brick walls for a while and then resigned. As long as the $3 billion per year remains untouchable, which it does because Congress sees to that, nothing the Obama administration says can in any way "undermine" Israel because everyone understands that the administration's words, unlike some words in international politics, are empty. No leverage will be brought to bear in connection with them. Since the Six Day War, Israel has been primus inter pares among U.S. allies. This has been true no matter who is in the White House and no matter what they have said about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The word "undermining" in the statement quoted seems to mean "ineffectually disagreeing with certain aspects of Israeli government policy while tacitly communicating that such disagreement is indeed ineffectual because it will not be accompanied by any actions of consequence."

There are very good reasons for the U.S. to support Israel. Whether there are good reasons for the U.S. to support Israel in the particular way that it does is a legitimate subject of public debate (although if you try to debate it you will have all kinds of accusations leveled at you; viz. Walt and Mearsheimer). In any case, the charge that the Obama administration has an "ongoing campaign" to "undermine" Israel is, to put it mildly, groundless.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Question for Stephen Walt: Who is a "genuine" realist?

Stephen Walt, in a recent post at his blog, applauds (with some qualifications) Peter Beinart for endorsing offshore balancing as a U.S. strategy, but bemoans the fact that Beinart fails to mention the various scholars (e.g., Mearsheimer, Layne, Porter, Walt himself, etc.) who have been advocating offshore balancing for the last decade or more.

Walt is upset by Beinart's omission because he claims it contributes to the continuing "marginalization" of realists in U.S. foreign policy debates. Walt seems to think that realists represent a distinctive position in those debates, being less inclined to "hubristic" interventionism than necons on the one hand and liberal internationalists on the other. Walt says that there are no "genuine" realists writing for any major media outlet in the United States. I guess he must not consider Kissinger, who writes (or least use to write) quite regular op-eds in the Wash. Post, a "genuine" realist.

Walt would better off, IMHO, if he advocated his preferred policies -- with many of which I'm largely in agreement -- without trying to appropriate the label "realism" exclusively for himself and those with whom he agrees. This muddies the waters without clarifying much and also distorts the disciplinary history of International Relations, a fairly cursory glance at which makes clear that there is far more encompassed by "realism" than is dreamt of in Walt's philosophy. Realism has meant different things to different people in different contexts, and for Walt to effectively narrow its meaning to "people in the U.S. academy who agree with me about the merits of a particular grand strategy [i.e., offshore balancing] " is itself arguably somewhat hubristic. Notice how he sneaks in the adjective "genuine" to qualify "realist". Presumably a genuine realist is someone who agrees with Walt and a false realist is someone who doesn't.

The maxims and phrases typically associated with realism, and especially its emphasis on the national interest, are so vague that they can accommodate a range of policy views. George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Dean Acheson, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Hans Morgenthau were all realists, and as Joel Rosenthal has argued (Righteous Realists, 1991) they might have shared certain assumptions, e.g. that power brings with it responsibility (itself not the most specific of notions), but they certainly did not always agree on U.S. foreign policy. Walt's effort to associate realism with a particular set of policy prescriptions ignores that realism, like several other 'isms' one might mention, is too slippery and elusive a designation to be tied down in this way. I don't object to Walt's calling himself a realist ("a realist in an ideological age," as his blog's masthead proclaims). I object to his implication that he is a genuine realist and that others who might want to use the label, but who might disagree with him on some policy matter or other, are not genuine realists. This risks inviting fruitless discussions and detracting attention from the very policy prescriptions Walt wants to advance.

P.s. To further illustrate my point about the protean character of realism, consider this description, from a publisher's recent catalog, of The Realist Case for Global Reform, by William Scheuerman (whose book on Morgenthau, by the way, I think is very good). According to the Polity Books catalog description, Scheuerman reveals "a neglected tradition of Progressive Realism" and "concludes by considering how Progressive Realism informs the foreign policies of US President Barack Obama." So the President who one scholar (Walt) considers too influenced by liberal internationalism, another scholar (Scheuerman) sees as influenced by a version of realism! I rest my case (for now, at least).