In almost any institutional setting—in government, business or elsewhere—it is considered good for a leader to have something that can explicitly be called a strategy and bad not to have such a thing. Woe to the senior executive who does not have a “strategic plan” in writing. (One of the pieces of ammunition used by the head of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors in attempting to oust the university's president, Teresa Sullivan, was that Sullivan had not produced a “strategic plan.”) It does not seem to matter if such a document—as is true of most such “strategic plans” that I encountered in government—is at best a re-expression of missions that are already well understood by the work force or priorities that already have been repeatedly communicated. The presumed goodness of distinctive or identifiable strategies often leads to accusations of “he doesn't have a strategy” when this really means “I don't like his policy on some things.”
So what exactly constitutes a strategy, and why—with particular reference to international relations and foreign policy—is acting in a way that can be pointed to as “having a strategy” supposedly superior to approaching foreign problems in some other way?
The question is raised by Leslie Gelb's article about President Obama's foreign policy. Gelb makes rather a big thing about the importance of having a strategy. In the first paragraph in which the subject comes up the words “strategy,” “strategies” or “strategic” are used eight times, and he hammers away at the theme later as well. Anyone of Leslie Gelb's acumen and experience can be expected to offer a wealth of insightful and valuable policy recommendations, and Gelb certainly does so in the article. But for all his emphasis on having a strategy, he never really defines what that means.
He does give us some clues. He criticizes Obama's approach toward Afghanistan as being “little more than a disjointed list of tactics.” It is unclear just what would make a set of tactics jointed rather than disjointed, but in any event Gelb's conception of strategy seems to place more emphasis on ultimate goals rather than immediate tactics.
He also tells us which of several recent presidents had a foreign-policy strategy in his view and which ones didn't. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush had strategies, he says, and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not. But in looking at what some of those presidents did and even at what Gelb specifically mentions they did, it is hard to distinguish something that stands out as a strategy from what is simply skillful responses to the particular opportunities and problems that happened to confront particular presidents at the times they were in office. Gelb defines the elder Bush's strategy as “end the Cold War without a hot war by helping Soviet leaders dismantle their empire.” Bush was indeed very successful in conducting his own country's part of the tumultuous events that happened on his watch, but the events didn't happen because of some strategy that Bush formulated, brought with him into office and applied. Robert Gates, in his account of this period (during most of which he was deputy national-security adviser), writes that the smartest thing Bush did as the Soviet empire was crumbling was simply to “play it cool.”
Having or not having a strategy hardly defines what made the elder Bush's foreign policy successful and the younger Bush's foreign policy a disaster. Indeed, the son may have had more of a strategy as Gelb seems to conceive of the term than the father did. The father acknowledged he had a problem with the “vision thing”; the son, who envisioned ending evil in the world, did not. Gelb says George W. Bush “seemed to believe that military assertiveness constituted a strategy.” Well, the younger Bush did believe that was at least a major part of his strategy, and it was a lousy strategy, but that is not the same as not having a strategy.
Truman was handed even more of a historic opportunity than the elder Bush was, and his response also was skillful. But the establishment of the post–World War II institutional order was a function more of that opportunity and the once-in-a-century need created by an extremely destructive global war than of some strategy hatched in the White House. Of the presidents Gelb mentions, Nixon was the one who most clearly brought with him into office a specific global strategy and who was more an initiator of revisions in the world order rather than a reactor to them. Even with Nixon, however, one could say there was something of an opportunity to which he was responding, which was the anomalous nature of Communist China's relationships with other powers and especially the United States.
Gelb gives us a further clue of what he means by a strategy by spelling out his own preferred strategy. It is based on the concepts of sharing responsibility with other powers for the handling of international problems such as Afghanistan, knowing both the capabilities and limitations of U.S. power, and appreciating the importance of U.S. economic strength for successful foreign policy. Those are all very sensible thoughts, and taking heed of them is more likely to produce good policy than bad policy. But in translating those principles into specific policies on many different individual issues, does that yield a pattern that is visibly more “strategic” than some other approach? How would we distinguish the result from one being guided by “common sense and flexibility,” which is what Gelb says Obama “appears to think” constitutes a strategy? Gelb's concept of mutual indispensability and responsibility, when applied not just to Afghanistan but to other problems as well, is likely to result in different types and degrees of U.S. involvement, and the resulting pattern probably will look basically the same as common sense and flexibility. And as for economic strength, given how prominent that is as a national objective in its own right, as reflected in the current political campaign, how would the incorporation of that factor more fully into a foreign-policy “strategy” look any different?
The title of Gelb's piece is “The Elusive Obama Doctrine.” Gelb himself did not necessarily come up with the title, but the implication is that “doctrine” is basically interchangeable with “strategy” as Gelb uses the latter term in the article. In any case, the way “doctrine” has generally been used and associated with past presidents does seem to be essentially the same as Gelb's concept of strategy that he says is essential for a president to have. In this regard, it is remarkable to recall one of the lessons that Gelb, in a book he wrote with Richard Betts more than three decades ago, drew from decision making on the Vietnam War (a subject that Gelb had studied in detail as leader of the team that wrote the Pentagon Papers):
If there is one lesson to emerge from the Vietnam War that might withstand the test of time, it is that America needs no new doctrines. New doctrines consecrate new truths, and new truths create new certainties, new compulsions—a new framework for necessity. Anything that becomes necessary to do in the first place becomes virtually impossible to undo thereafter. . . . Above all, presidents should eschew ambitious new conceptual and overall policy doctrines supported by new consensus. Doctrine and consensus are the midwives to necessity and the enemy of dissent and choice. They breed political paranoia and intellectual rigidity.
There are potential dangers and drawbacks both from inconsistency in a foreign policy and from too much effort to adhere conspicuously and faithfully to a guiding principle or objective, whether it is called a strategy or a doctrine or something else. In recent decades the United States has encountered at least as much trouble from the latter type of mistake as from the former. This is partly for the reasons Gelb mentioned in connection with the Vietnam War and partly because the world is a very complex place, for which one size, and one doctrine, does not fit all problems. Conducting U.S. foreign policy in a way that insulates a president from the familiar charge of not having a strategy does not necessarily mean producing a better foreign policy.
Two incidents last week underscored how broadly and deeply in Israeli society runs a streak of hatred against Palestinian Arabs. In one, seven Israeli teenagers, including two girls—one thirteen years old—were arrested for what witnesses described as an attempted lynching in West Jerusalem of several Palestinian youths, one of whom was beaten unconscious and is still hospitalized. In the same hospital lies one of the victims of the other incident: the Palestinian driver of a taxi that was firebombed near a West Bank settlement.
As with violent crimes elsewhere that involve hatred against particular ethnic, racial or religious groups—and for those eager to highlight commonalities between Israeli and American society, this unfortunately has to count as one of them, given the history of hate crimes in the United States—the specific manifestations of such hatred are varied. They range from full-blown terrorism to less violent actions. The unofficial resort by Israelis to force and violence against Palestinians has in recent years been most associated with West Bank settlers. (For an excellent analysis of this particular brand of Israeli terrorism, see the recent article on the subject by Daniel Byman and Natan Sachs.) As the assault in West Jerusalem demonstrated, however, the problem is not limited to settlers or to the occupied territories.
Also as with hate crimes elsewhere, there are multiple causes and explanations. Large-scale violence earlier this year against African migrants in Tel Aviv demonstrated that Palestinians or Arabs are not the only targets of Israeli hatred. That in turn suggests that one of the roots of what we are seeing is a generalized bigotry not unlike what we unfortunately have seen in the United States. But the very relevant and distinctively Israeli circumstance that has the most power to give rise to widely held hateful attitudes is the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. As a conflict that dates back to before the founding of Israel and that has accounted for so much of the violence that has been inflicted both on and by Israelis, it could not help but have that power.
It is not just a few radical settlers or violent teenagers who have gotten into a habit of regarding all Palestinians as dangerous aliens, as the enemy or as terrorists. The rightist Israeli governments of recent years, by making it quite apparent that they see no place for free Palestinians in a peaceful picture with Israel, have reinforced a nationwide tendency to view Palestinians as something less than human beings with inalienable human rights. And that tendency leads to a legitimization of violence against them. In speaking critically about the effects of such legitimization, Professor Gavriel Salomon of Haifa University notes, “Suddenly it's not so terrible to burn Arabs inside a taxi.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly condemned the latest violence, as he has earlier instances of it. But serious questions remain about the official posture toward the unofficial violence. Israeli policing of anti-Palestinian violence has been at best spotty. Former chief of staff of the Israeli Army Dan Halutz has stated that Israeli authorities have not done enough to crack down on the anti-Palestinian terrorists and vandals among West Bank settlers. “If we wanted,” said Halutz, “we could catch them and when we want to, we will.”
There also is incitement through inflammatory remarks by religious leaders associated with the Israeli government or governing parties. For example, the government-paid chief rabbi of settlements in Hebron and Kiryat Arba, in speaking at a conference last year, described Arabs as “wolves” and “savages.” The chief rabbi of Safed, also paid by the Israeli government, told reporters last year that “Arab culture is very cruel,” that “a Jew should chase away Arabs,” and that “expelling Arabs from Jewish neighborhoods is part of the strategy.” Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party—which is part of Netanyahu's governing coalition—has said in sermons that Palestinians are “evil, bitter, enemies” whom God ought to “perish from this world,” that “it is forbidden to be merciful” to Arabs, that Arabs are “evil and damnable,” and that “you must send missiles to them and annihilate them.” One wonders what Israeli government officials think of such remarks when they or others attempt to call to account Arab leaders for anti-Israeli invective voiced by anyone in their constituencies.
Amid an atmosphere fed by such comments, one does not need to look, as some Israelis are in searching for explanations for the latest incidents involving perpetrators so young, at such things as deficient parenting. Nimrod Aloni of the Institute for Educational Thought in Tel Aviv notes that a teenager acting as a member of a lynch mob “cannot just be an expression of something he has heard at home.” Aloni continues, “This is directly tied to national fundamentalism that is the same as the rhetoric of neo-Nazis, Taliban and K.K.K. This comes from an entire culture that has been escalating toward an open and blunt language based on us being the chosen people who are allowed to do whatever we like.”
Although the nonresolution of the conflict between Israelis and Arabs is the biggest single contributor to hatred on both sides of that conflict, Israel also has a built-in vulnerability to exhibiting ethnic and religious intolerance, as a state that is defined in ethnic and religious terms. The line between zealous patriotism and ethnic or religious bias is in greater danger of becoming blurred. And so Rabbi Yosef of Shas can say, “The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews. . . . Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world—only to serve the people of Israel.”
Nearly all of the rest of the world, including the assembled leaders of Arab states, has accepted Israel, and its status as the primary homeland of Jews, as legitimate. Hatred emanating from Israel will, of course, not be accepted as any more legitimate than hatred emanating from anyplace else. As with other conflicts, the bigots, haters and terrorists on both sides will, tragically, play off of each other.
Former British diplomat Peter Jenkins (who had been Britain's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency) notes a glaring but seldom remarked-upon aspect of the voluminous talk in Israel, the United States and other countries about a possible military attack aimed at Iran's nuclear program: such an attack would be a blatant, flagrant violation of international law. The charter of the United Nations is very clear in prohibiting the offensive use of military force, regardless of the nature of the underlying dispute. An armed attack conducted in the name of setting back a technical program that possibly could lead in the future to development of a weapon that other states, including the one doing the attacking, already have does not even come close to constituting self-defense as also mentioned in the U.N. charter. The international norm against offensive warfare, like certain other norms that also have become codified international law, reflects a broadly held moral standard. Not even the most inventive casuistry can justify, legally or morally, the launching of an offensive war to help maintain some other state's regional nuclear weapons monopoly.
But set aside for the moment any of those soft concerns about morality and obedience to the law for its own sake. Set aside as well all the other reasons that an armed attack on Iran would be folly. The flouting of the norm and the law about offensive war would have negative consequences that ought to get the attention of even the most amoral, hard-boiled cynic when it comes to things such as international law. Two sets of consequences in particular.
One is an accentuation of the opprobrium, condemnation and other directly negative reactions from the world community. The perpetrator would be seen not just as an arrogant bully but as an outlaw. This would apply to the United States whether it committed the act itself or was seen acquiescing in the deed being done by Israel. The specific repercussions would include countless bits of withheld cooperation and many intangible ways in which those who abhor the acts of an outlaw can make international life more difficult for him.
The other set of consequences involves weakening of the norm against offensive war and increasing the likelihood that others, including adversaries of the United States, would violate it. (Unfortunately the United States already delivered one of the bigger recent blows to the norm with its initiation of the Iraq War in 2003.) A world in which states are more likely to launch offensive wars would be more detrimental to U.S. interests than a world in which the rule against launching such wars is respected. A more war-prone world would entail more destruction, instability and undermining of an international order that for the most part works in favor of its most powerful member, the United States.
John Ikenberry has explained how submission to international rules, as embodied in international law and organizations, can be advantageous even for a state such as the United States that appears powerful enough to flout the rules and do as it likes. The advantages include greater efficiency (greater, that is, than repeated applications of brute force) in the operation of an international order that works in favor of the state in question, and perpetuation of that order even after that state's relative power might wane. Ikenberry's analysis is usually thought of as a liberal alternative to realist thinking, but the dependent variables he addresses—an individual great power's interests, the costs of advancing those interests, and how those interests can be upheld over time—are very much the sort of currency that realists understand. The advantages he describes of respecting international rules need to be taken into account before any exercise of power that would violate the rules.
Surely one of the most disconcerting trends in the now nearly eleven-year-old U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan has been the increase in attacks on NATO and especially American military personnel by supposed allies among the Afghan government forces. In the first eight months of 2012, 39 NATO service members have been killed in such “green-on-blue” attacks, which is more than in all of 2011 and more than for the entire period of 2007 through 2010. The phenomenon has become such a concern for U.S. commanders that, in an approach that could be called Curtis Sliwa with firepower, they have instituted a “Guardian Angel” program in which one or two American soldiers have the job of keeping an eye on their Afghan allies in every joint mission or meeting, with instructions to shoot first if another such attack starts to unfold.
Post-attack investigations have determined that only a small proportion of the incidents have involved infiltration by the Taliban of government forces or installations. The large majority of the attacks have been the work of individuals driven by whatever combination of emotions and beliefs would bring them to commit such an act. A U.S. officer tried to make sense of the attacks by observing, “There are simply more opportunities now because we are partnering so heavily.” But that can hardly explain all or even most of the upsurge in the killings.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta telephoned President Hamid Karzai to discuss the problem, calling for more intensive counterintelligence work and more thorough vetting of recruits into the Afghan army. Better vetting may identify some would-be G.I.-killers, but probably not most of them. It is doubtful that many of the perpetrators had previous patterns of behavior that would enable them to be flagged. The lethal actions of many of them were probably at least as much impulsive as planned.
We are seeing an almost inevitable by-product of the long-term conduct of military operations on someone else's soil, especially when the someone else is of a markedly different culture. People do not like what comes to look like a foreign military occupation. They do not like the collateral damage and casualties that occur even when those conducting the military operations try to conduct them with care. Being the lead military force in a long-running conflict means one gets blamed for much of the misery associated with the conflict. What may have initially been a welcome gets worn out over time, and eleven years is a long time.
The costs of such sentiments manifest themselves not only as lethal attacks among ostensible allies on military bases, and such sentiments are not unique to the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan may demonstrate how easily this kind of ill will, among those the United States is supposedly trying to help, can arise against U.S. military operations, given that Afghanistan was once an island of mostly positive feelings toward the United States in a sea of negative feelings throughout most of the Muslim world. The problem we are seeing with the green-on-blue attacks is a symptom of a deeper problem that is not likely to improve as the expedition in Afghanistan continues. It also flags a dimension that should be taken into account whenever the application of U.S. military force elsewhere is being considered.
An admirable characteristic of Israeli democracy has been the vigor and frankness with which those who are permitted to participate in it conduct political debate. There is a refreshing directness and openness that, on some of the very same topics, is usually missing from political discourse in the United States. The Israeli style of debate over policy is in full view every day in the opinion pages of Israeli publications, and there was an especially up-tempo version of it in a blast on Thursday from Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mofaz may have been in an irritated mood partly because the occasion was a special session of the Knesset called to approve the selection of former internal-security-service chief Avi Dichter as minister for defense of the home front. In taking this job, Dichter left the Kadima Party, which he had represented in the Knesset. And this all not long after Mofaz himself had left a short-lived coalition with Netanyahu and returned to be leader of the opposition.
Mofaz had harsh things to say about the government's policies on homeland security, the subject of Dichter's new portfolio, but he linked this to the latest burst of saber rattling against Iran by Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak. In referring to Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran,” Mofaz said:
You are headed for a rash confrontation at an unnecessary cost while abandoning the home front. Over the past few months, Israel has waged an extensive and relentless PR campaign with the sole objective of preparing the ground for a premature military adventure. This PR campaign has deeply penetrated the “zone of immunity” of our national security, threatens to weaken our deterrence, and our relations with our best friends. . . . [You are] making threats and sowing the seeds of fear and terror. Mr. prime minister, you are playing a dangerous and irresponsible game with the future of an entire nation...You're creating panic. You are trying to frighten us and terrify us. And in truth we are scared: scared by your lack of judgment, scared that you both lead and don’t lead, scared that you are executing a dangerous and irresponsible policy.
It would enormously improve U.S. debate on this same subject if American politicians could be this direct. But instead they operate in fear of being seen to stray at all from the established dogma that Iran with its nuclear program is The Greatest Threat in the World. The severe constraints on American debate on the subject contribute to ineffective policy, such as endlessly piling on sanctions without a diplomatic posture that would give the sanctions any chance to yield a favorable result. And the whole issue never gets put in proper perspective because no American politician is brave and honest enough to observe that if we have a crisis it is mostly because of Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran.”
As for the political game that prevents American debate on this subject from getting any better, Mofaz had some blunt and honest things to say about that too:
Mr. prime minister, you want a crude, rude, unprecedented, reckless, and risky intervention in the US elections. Tell us who you serve and for what? Why are you putting your hand deep into the ballot boxes of the American electorate?
Of course, this subject is even more strictly off limits for American politicians. Among the many ill effects of the topic's untouchable status is one we are seeing in the current presidential election campaign: one candidate appeals for votes (and maybe even more so, for dollars) by posing as the more unabashed lover of Israel even though on things that really contribute to Israel's security every recent U.S. presidential administration has continued unrelenting support no matter what Israel does. Isn't it ironic that Israeli politicians seem to be able to talk more freely and critically about subjects pertaining to Israel than American politicians are?
For the record, it should be noted that the Israeli ambassador to the United States stated earlier this year, in what has to be one of the most risible ambassadorial assertions we have heard lately, that “Israel does not interfere in internal political affairs of the United States.”
Much we still do not know about the background to the ouster of senior figures in the Egyptian military. Specifically, it is unclear to what extent President Mohamed Morsi enjoyed the approval or even the active cooperation of elements within the military. We know there has been discontent within the military ranks about the performance of the top brass, entirely apart from any larger political issues about the distribution of power. The recent incident at a border post in the Sinai, in which Egyptian soldiers were killed and military leaders were widely criticized for letting security deteriorate in that corner of the country, was a ready-made occasion for shaking up the top ranks. Whatever cards Morsi had been dealt, he evidently played them skillfully in making the changes in the military leadership positions as well as reclaiming for his office some powers that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had earlier claimed for itself. Beyond that, we are largely in the dark.
Even if we had a more complete picture of these events, it would be impossible to predict where this political drama leads or what the next chapter in Egypt's still-turbulent story will look like. The perceptions and emotions of the Egyptian public, not just the bilateral interchange between the president and the generals, will have a lot to do with this. In trying to interpret the drama and its larger significance, it does not help simply to mark a scorecard in which political Islamists including Morsi are regarded as the bad guys and to observe that in this instance the bad guys unfortunately seem to have scored some points. Nor is it helpful, starting with the same automatic aversion to anything Islamist, to try to analyze the political interplay in terms of formal but temporary constitutional powers by noting that Morsi had no constitutional authority to snatch certain powers back from the SCAF. Of course he didn't—and neither did the SCAF have any such authority to snatch them in the first place.
In Egypt today there is a bizarre coexistence between, on one hand, legal structures which sound familiar to us such as constitutions and courts, along with much discussion about legality or illegality within that framework, and on the other hand a dynamic of power and legitimacy that does not stay within that framework and plays out in large part outside it. We have seen something similar for years in Pakistan, where dark-suited lawyers have been prominent demonstrators in the streets and where the rulings of a constitutional court get lots of attention amid glaring extraconstitutional actions such as military coups. Marc Lynch has appropriately likened the political story that has been unfolding in Egypt over the past two years to Calvinball, a game played by a comic strip character who made up the rules as he went along.
Even constitutional structures that we are accustomed to thinking of as firmly standing on bedrock may ultimately depend on people having made up some rules as they went along. Consider, for example, the U.S. Constitution. We regard it as the foundation on which our political order rests, but what is the ultimate chain of authority on which the constitution itself rests? Following backwards the nearest thing we have to such a chain takes us to a concern in the first couple of years after the Revolutionary War among some Virginians, including most notably George Washington and James Madison, about the inability of existing political structures to foster commerce that affects more than one state. The Virginians reached some agreements with counterparts in Maryland regarding commerce in their part of the new nation, but they realized the geographic scope would need to be wider. So the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution in 1786 proposing a meeting of commissioners from all of the states “to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony.”
That led to the Annapolis Convention in September of the same year. Only five states—not even a majority—were represented at Annapolis. Despite (and in another sense, because of) that meager representation, the Annapolis commissioners did not make any substantive constitutional recommendations but called for another convention to meet the following May in Philadelphia and to consider not just the regulation of commerce but any “further provisions” needed “to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” In trying to justify this expansion from their original mandate, the Annapolis conferees pointedly noted that New Jersey had instructed its representatives to consider not just commercial regulations but also “other important matters.” Even with that effort at a justification, the men at Annapolis knew they were stretching things in making their recommendation, as far as their formal authority was concerned. In their concluding report they wrote:
If in expressing this wish, or in intimating any other sentiment, your Commissioners should seem to exceed the strict bounds of their appointment, they entertain a full confidence that a conduct dictated by an anxiety for the welfare of the United States will not fail to receive an indulgent construction.
The tenuousness of the chain of authority leading to the U.S. Constitution did not end there. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was supposed to propose revisions to the Articles of Confederation, which by their own terms could be amended only with the unanimous agreement of the states. The Virginia resolution and the report of the Annapolis Convention both explicitly mentioned unanimous approval as needed for any new arrangements. The writers of the new constitution nonetheless decided on their own that approval of only nine states would be necessary for their work to take effect.
The American constitutional experiment took root not because the new distribution of powers grew out of some previously established authorizing framework. It took root partly because of sheer necessity. It succeeded also because of a political culture bequeathed by the British whose rule had so recently been shaken off. The founding fathers were making up rules as they went along, but those rules and their implementation were based on something even more fundamental: habits of tolerance, accommodation and representation that were part of an Anglo-American culture that already was well established.
The makers of the new Egypt will necessarily be making up rules on the fly as well. What legitimacy the rule making will have will be based on whatever ad hoc legitimizing mechanisms become available, such as the presidential election that Morsi won. Whether Egypt achieves in the years ahead reasonable stability and something approaching democracy will not depend primarily on whether the president or the SCAF or anyone else has acted according to the letter of an interim constitution, which is Egypt's equivalent of the Articles of Confederation. Nor will it depend on whether a member of the Muslim Brotherhood holds high office. It will depend largely on whether Egyptians can forge from foreign examples, colonial residue and their own accelerated political development the sort of habits and attitudes that make stability and democracy possible.
To the extent that choices of vice-presidential running mates make any difference at all, one effect of Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan will be for foreign policy to recede even farther into the background in the presidential election campaign. As much commentary has already noted, with Ryan known chiefly for his austere budget plan, attention will intensify toward salient features of that plan, including proposals involving Medicare, discretionary spending and the definition of taxable income. Romney evidently is happy to be associated with those proposals, and Democrats certainly will be happy to sink their teeth more deeply into them. The more overriding attention these issues get, the less attention will be left over for everything else.
Possibly Democrats will question whether a forty-two-year-old who has spent most of his still-young adult life on Capitol Hill and has had no other involvement with foreign relations has sufficient experience to be entrusted with the duties of the presidency if he had to assume them and to respond to those proverbial 3:00 a.m. phone calls. This is unlikely to become a significant issue in the campaign. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin four years ago shifted the frame of reference for judging vice-presidential candidates along these lines. Ryan seems to be a smart and shrewd man and a quick learner, and any efforts to portray him otherwise probably would not gain traction.
Romney appears to have concluded, not surprisingly, that foreign policy does not offer him many potentially winning issues. Reactions to his foreign tour, which—fairly or unfairly—were disproportionately negative, probably firmed up that conclusion. It may be no accident that reportedly his choice of Ryan also firmed up about the time he was finishing the foreign trip.
This year's campaign probably was never going to be one of the better ones anyway for useful foreign-policy debate. Where President Obama should be most subject to challenge, on matters ranging from the war in Afghanistan to pressure on Iran to the kinetic approach to counterterrorism, meaningful challenges would have to come from a direction other than the Republicans. Romney's pronouncements on foreign policy have consisted in large part of statements that are delivered forcefully as if they were criticisms but substantively resemble restatements of current policy. The press and the commentariat are left to try to discern whatever pieces of daylight they can between the two presidential candidates. Expectations of how Romney would handle a situation differently from Obama are more a matter of conjecture and inference, and of applying Kremlinology-type analysis to Romney's roster of advisers, than of any openly stated positions. Romney evidently does believe he can gain votes through obsequiousness to the government of Israel, but the practical difference between him and Obama there is so far little more than a difference between always deferring to Benjamin Netanyahu and almost always deferring to him.
Maybe a second-term Barack Obama would do some significant things differently in foreign affairs than a first-term Barack Obama—or a first-term Mitt Romney. As Obama remarked earlier this year to Dmitri Medvedev, this will be his last election, and afterward he will have “more flexibility.” But this, too, is a matter of conjecture and inference and not of anything the president has felt it politically safe to say now.
Foreign policy has generally, of course, played less of a role in presidential campaigns than domestic and especially economic issues. The partial exceptions have come mostly amid major and costly wars such as those in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. In the remaining twelve weeks of this year's campaign there is still the possibility of some jolting event overseas that will force itself into the campaign. If so, the October 22 presidential candidates' debate that is reserved for foreign-policy issues could become interesting. But most likely this encounter, which will be the last of the candidates' debates and comes just fifteen days before the election, will determine few votes and not be remembered as a major event.
All of this is too bad, because there is no shortage of important foreign-policy issues that could use much more vigorous public debate than they have received. These include questions, such as Afghanistan and the U.S. military posture in the eastern Pacific, that are related to the overall role of the United States in the world. They also include matters, such as counterterrorist strategy and the economic war being waged against Iran, that involve assumptions that ought to be far more energetically questioned than they have been.
Image: Tony Alter
A lot was said about empires in some comments by Charles Hill that Robert Merry recently critiqued in these spaces. If I understand the gist of Hill's message, it is that an activist United States has long been the world's guardian of the state system and of open expression and free trade and that if the United States does not continue to play that role, the world will fracture into spheres of influence, which leads to empires, which is bad. Merry's comments about this are on the mark, with regard to how a role of active world guardianship has or has not played in American political traditions and how Hill seems to have difficulty keeping states and empires straight.
My main problem with Hill's ideas are that the value-laden assertiveness that he seems to be defending and that appears to be equivalent to modern neoconservatism involves acting like an empire rather than being an alternative to empires. Even the more gung-ho neoconservatives tend to eschew the term “empire” as applied to the United States, but observers from outside the United States do not hesitate to use the term that way. The British-born historian Niall Ferguson in an article in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, for example, argued that one of the reasons the twentieth century was exceptionally bloody was that empires were disintegrating. With fewer empires still around to disintegrate, this suggests the twenty-first century will have less bloodshed. But the one region where Ferguson says that favorable scenario does not apply is the Middle East, and one reason it does not apply is that there is still an empire there—the American one.
Insofar as the United States acts as an empire (as it especially has when under neoconservative influence), it behooves us to think about what makes for successful and unsuccessful empires. That question is analyzed in a book written by a German academic, Herfried Munkler, and translated into English a few years ago: Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. The main characteristic Munkler identifies that distinguishes successful empires, such as those of the Romans and ancient Han Chinese, from ones that quickly broke apart, such as the Macedonian and Mongol empires, is that at some point the imperial rulers determined that further expansion of the empire was unnecessary and that barbarism beyond its borders could be ignored except in very limited instances where it posed some kind of security problem. There is an important distinction, says Munkler, between imperialism and sound imperial rule. The Romans had decided by the time their empire had reached its greatest territorial extent under Emperor Trajan that they could let barbarians be barbarians and concentrate their own attention not on the periphery of the empire but on the prosperity of its central zone, which embraced most of the then-civilized Western world. The ancient Chinese had even more of a geographical basis to call a halt to further imperialism once their empire came to embrace most of the then-civilized Eastern world as the Chinese knew it and to disregard most of whatever was going on beyond the periphery of the empire.
It is harder to use such an approach in a more modern, interconnected world. It is harder to put down an imperialist, civilizing, humanitarian, value-expanding mission by which an empire has defined itself, without being seen—by those within the empire as well as by others—as in decline. “The United States today,” says Munkler, “finds itself facing just such a dilemma”:
The peaceful safeguarding of resources would imply not taking on too many global commitments. In order to hold its subglobal world, an astute imperial policy should keep out of the problems of the global world and protect itself from them by drawing “imperial boundaries with the barbarians.” But it is scarcely an option in the age of democracy and media saturation: it would continually contradict the imperial mission of the United States, and without such a projection of moral purpose, the U.S. empire would lose much of its strength. To put it plainly, it may be that the American empire will founder not on external enemies but on the moral overload associated with its mission, because this makes it impossible to maintain the required indifference to the external world.
It seems the only way out of the dilemma is to avoid the moral overload by not trying to act like an empire in the first place.
Munkler has an interesting observation about empires that also are democracies and what this means for choice of methods. “The burdens of empire are long-lasting,” he says, “but democracies have little time and are always in a hurry.” He cites in particular the impact of a four-year election cycle. As for what this means in the methods used:
Probably, Washington's growing tendency in recent years to use the military for problem-solving also has something to do with the time pressure built into democratic mechanisms. Military solutions offer themselves with a suggestion of speed and finality, so that an “empire in a hurry” may grasp at them more often than would be sensible or advisable.
Being an empire these days is tough. The difficulties do not go away by pretending one is not trying to be an empire.
Image: Jimmy Walker
Invalid reasons for getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war continue to be heard. One of the latest is in a front-page article in the Washington Post, which declares that America “increasingly is being viewed with suspicion and resentment for its failure to offer little more than verbal encouragement to the revolutionaries.” Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is cited in the article as arguing that unless the United States furnishes significant lethal aid to rebels, a virulently anti-American variety of Islamism could arise among disillusioned Syrians. If the United States maintains its current policy, “ultimately the political entity that comes to power is not going to be in U.S. interests,” says Tabler. “A secular and democratic Syria is what we're going to lose big-time.”
The Post's correspondent is no doubt reporting accurately some of the sentiments she is hearing from impatient rebels. And in a general sense, U.S. policies toward conflict-prone portions of the Middle East do significantly shape popular sentiments, and those sentiments do have significant implications for U.S. interests. But this is not just a matter of buying gratitude with lethal support.
The recent experiences of the United States with its most extensive efforts to intervene in (or to touch off) civil wars are instructive. The amount of U.S. aid and effort in them should have bought mountains of gratitude. One is the very long-running civil war in Afghanistan. Although it is not true, as some legend has it, that the United States created Al Qaeda with its aid to the jihad against the Soviets, and although the Afghan Taliban was Pakistan's child and not America's, U.S. support and involvement in Afghanistan do underlie much of what bedevils that country and the United States today. U.S. lethal support gave an important boost to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and it was even more important in developing into an effective fighting force the Haqqani group—which is now so much of an antagonist to the United States that it is the subject of Congressional resolutions urging the secretary of state to designate it formally as a foreign terrorist organization. Some gratitude.
Then there was the war in Iraq, sold partly on the idea that the United States would be lovingly showered with gratitude from Iraqis welcoming Americans as liberators. The war did not, of course, turn out anything like that. Even when events in Iraq have enjoyed an uptick or two, Iraqis have been slow to credit the United States for anything that has gone well and persistent in blaming the United States for much of what is still not going well.
Several things are happening to account for these results and can be expected to happen again if the United States were to immerse itself more deeply in the current conflict in Syria. One is that there never is much genuine gratitude in the first place. There is at most a tactical “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach by belligerents willing to take aid from the devil if it will help them to win the next street battle. When circumstances change (as they will when Bashar Assad falls), the illusion of friendship is dispelled.
Even as long as a common enemy remains and circumstances are largely unchanged, the provision of assistance creates the expectation of still more assistance. Failure to fulfill growing expectations leads to growing resentment. Attitudes tend to be shaped by asking “what have you done for me lately?”
Aiding any one set of contestants in such a conflict opens one up to resentment and anger from other contestants—even when they ostensibly are allies of the aid recipients but even more so when alignments change as a civil war and associated political struggles move into new phases. It is good advice to try not to play favorites, but that would be exceedingly difficult to do in the complicated Syrian situation.
The most important dynamic is that if the United States gets involved at all in a bloody mess, it tends to be seen as responsible for all of the bloodshed and mess, even beyond what is reasonably attributable to its actions. Even if the United States does not apply the Pottery Barn rule to itself, others do, and in an expansive and unfair way. This will be a major hazard with Syria, given the prospect of much bloodshed and mess there still to come.
The perceived power of the United States amplifies and sustains such sentiments, much more than the actual power of the United States enables it to shape and control circumstances for which it will be blamed. The United States will not lose a “secular and democratic Syria” no matter what it does, because such a thing is not America's to lose in the first place.
In many international conflicts some of the greatest potential for escalation and hindrance to de-escalation come not from the main parties to the conflict but from the fringe—from extremist groups that have no desire to be part of a plausible peaceful order and aim to spoil any progress toward establishing one. In Northern Ireland, for example, much of the slowness in moving toward a peace agreement even after the main IRA had decided to accept one was due to continued terrorist operations by die-hard groups that had splintered from the IRA. In South Asia, the pace of Indian-Pakistani detente has been set too often by terrorist groups rather than by the two governments. In the various dimensions of the conflict between Israelis and Arabs there also have been numerous instances of the extremist fringes of both sides exacerbating tension and impeding any lessening of it.
The attack Sunday in the northeast corner of the Sinai peninsula falls into the same mold. Armed gunmen overpowered an Egyptian border post and then used stolen Egyptian vehicles to race across the Israeli border before being stopped by Israeli airstrikes. The attack, by as yet unnamed militants in the Sinai, was against the interests of all of the major players in the area, and all of those players condemned it. Egypt had 16 of its soldiers killed as well as control of its sovereign territory challenged. Israel was the target of an armed assault across its border, even if a small one. For Hamas, the ruler of the Gaza Strip, the attack suspended a hoped-for expansion of its commerce with Egypt. One of the Egyptian responses to the incident was to close indefinitely the border crossing at Rafah, which has been almost the only point of significant relief from the Israeli blockade and isolation of Gaza.
One of the ways in which fringe-perpetrated incidents increase tensions among major players is by stimulating false accusations of responsibility. The incident in the Sinai is no exception. Statements from both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas suggested that it was somehow an Israeli operation. Meanwhile, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, perhaps operating on general instructions to blame Iran for anything it can possibly be blamed for, declared on Twitter and his Facebook page that “Iranian-backed terrorists” were the perpetrators. There was no more evidence for this than for Israeli involvement, and Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, later said the attackers were part of "apparently some kind of global jihad, with unclear connections"—which is probably the most that can be said about them so far.
The main parties to a long-running conflict should respond to an incident like this by using it as an opportunity to act on their shared interests, not to make propaganda. Egypt, Hamas and Israel all share an interest in curbing the extremists who—based not just on this incident but several others—appear to have made increasing use of the Sinai as a base of operations, especially since the beginning of the distractions and disorder in Egypt associated with the overthrow of Mubarak. Egypt and Hamas should show no tolerance for ludicrous accusations against Israel, such as that it engineered an attack that ended up being aimed at its own territory. Israel needs to do some more fundamental rethinking, especially regarding what it wants from its peace treaty with Egypt. Linked to that agreement were severe restrictions on what military forces Egypt could deploy in the eastern Sinai. Such restrictions made sense in the 1970s; they make less sense now, given a military balance that renders preposterous the idea of Egypt wanting a new war with Israel, along with internal security in this part of Egyptian territory having become a more serious concern for both countries. Israel has granted piecemeal permission to Egypt to increase its Sinai deployments somewhat beyond the limits originally established when the treaty was signed. This amounts to micromanaging how another country arranges its own military forces on its own territory. Evidently the Israelis are worried that a more wholesale revision of the deployment restrictions might cause the peace treaty itself to unravel. That would not be a problem if the other part of the Camp David accords were observed.
Israelis also need to realize that, just as even the closest allies have some conflicts of interest, even the bitterest of enemies have some shared interests. No provision for security in this corner of the Middle East can ever be complete without including whoever governs the Gaza Strip. Security problems illustrated by Sunday's incident on the border are reminders of how the policy of trying to strangle Hamas rather than dealing with it does not serve anyone's interests, including Israel's.