The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
Over the past year, and in the past month in particular, there have been a number of pieces evaluating Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and contrasting her performance with that of her successor, John Kerry. (See, for example, Michael Hirsh in Foreign Affairs, David Rohde in the Atlantic and Susan Glasser at POLITICO Magazine.) There is a general consensus among these authors that goes roughly as follows: Clinton was a good, but not great, diplomat. She was a competent manager of the State Department, but took few risks and made little effort to solve major international problems. As Aaron David Miller, quoted in Glasser’s article, says, “She was a fine [secretary of state] but not consequential.” Conversely, Kerry has been much more of a risk-taker, throwing himself aggressively into efforts to negotiate a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, bring about a truce in the Syrian civil war, and resolve the dispute between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear activities.
There is a fair bit of truth to this portrait. But two points are worth adding to the discussion. First, some of the risks Kerry has taken have been largely the result of changes in the international environment. The best example of this is in Iran, where Hassan Rouhani was elected president to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Paul Pillar wrote shortly after Rouhani’s election, his victory brought “to Iran’s presidency the candidate who was least associated with attributes of the Iranian regime that the West finds most offensive.” Pillar also noted that the election result was “a vote in favor of flexibility and going the extra mile to reach agreement in the nuclear negotiations.” This analysis was borne out by the process of negotiations that led to last month’s interim agreement. It’s hard to imagine that this deal could have been reached under Ahmadinejad or a successor with a similarly hard-line worldview. The fact that the two countries reached the deal says more about Iran than it does about any real differences between Clinton and Kerry.
Second, and more importantly, is that there is one major subject that gets short shrift in all of these assessments of Clinton: Afghanistan. Glasser only mentions the country once, in passing. Rohde and Hirsh both mention her support for the thirty-thousand-troop “surge” that President Obama ordered in his first year in office, but neither goes into much detail on the matter. None of them suggest that this decision ought to factor in significantly in our overall evaluation of Clinton’s time as secretary of state.
This is a real oversight. The 2009 decision to send thousands of additional troops and commit billions more dollars to Afghanistan was one of the most consequential foreign-policy decisions of President Obama’s first term in office. It also might have been his biggest foreign-policy mistake. The administration never had a plausible theory for how its eighteen-month surge would realistically lead to a meaningfully better long-term outcome for the country. The problems that plagued Afghanistan prior to the surge—among them an ineffectual government, endemic corruption, and safe havens across the border in Pakistan—were not ones that the United States had the means to remedy, short of engaging in a decades-long military occupation of the country. The result, as Stephen Walt wrote in 2012, is “that the extra effort isn’t going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted.”
Along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the uniformed military command, Clinton was one of the biggest supporters within the administration’s national-security team for escalating in Afghanistan. As Bob Woodward recounted in Obama’s Wars, as Obama conducted his Afghan review leading up to his decision, Clinton repeatedly and forcefully advocated for General Stanley McChrystal’s request for an additional forty thousand soldiers. She said in one Situation Room meeting of McChrystal’s plan, “I wholeheartedly endorse the approach, and think it can make a difference.”
The Afghan war doesn’t get much attention these days, and the reasons why are fairly straightforward. The administration would like to remove its troops from the country as quickly as possible, but also wants to avoid a worst-case outcome such as the complete collapse of the Afghan state. Some hawkish Republicans continue to criticize Obama for “abandoning” Afghanistan, but given how little public support there is for the war, there’s not much political incentive for the GOP to make this a major line of attack.
But we shouldn’t forget the war, and we shouldn’t forget the surge. The escalation that President Obama ordered was one of the most important decisions of his five years in office, and it led to the greatest new commitment of lives and resources the United States has made overseas during that time. In the years since, the costs of this choice have been high and the gains have been minimal. As we assess Obama’s foreign-policy legacy as president and Clinton’s as secretary of state, this fact deserves to be front and center, not glossed over or ignored.
In the latest edition of “Aircraft Carrier Wars” my friend Dr. James Holmes takes issue with my riposte to Tom Ricks’ Washington Post commentary last week. Jim is a crack mind on matters naval, as his regular columns and articles attests. He and I tend to agree on most things, which make our disagreements that much more fun. And I would like to say that we disagree here, but that would imply that we were talking about the same thing. As I read his piece in The Diplomat, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that he read something other than my work, or perhaps read it so quickly that it confirmed existing biases. In the interest of full disclosure, the gist of his argument has been repeated elsewhere, by others I respect greatly, and so perhaps my original work may not have been as clear as I thought it was.
Holmes focuses first on my having taken issue with Ricks’ assertion that somehow the carrier’s obsolescence was at least in part, because it looks like its ancestors did. He then walks us through a valuable discussion of radar basics. What he does not do is address my argument, which was that there are plenty of examples of platforms and capabilities in our arsenal that look much as their predecessors did decades ago, yet we still value their contributions. In the case of the land-based airfield, I submit that the threats to it have moved much faster and have been far more manifest than those that have faced the carrier. No one suggests doing away with land based air. While I agree with the Professor that the carrier is not exactly a stealthy platform, it never has been. It has relied on other attributes, namely speed, endurance, and a screen of ships for its protection. Oh, that’s right, this theory has never been tested. And this is where Dr. Holmes must have been reading something other than my work.
In my piece, I never suggested, hinted, intimated, whispered or postulated that the US Navy had either A) taken on the Soviets in combat or B) prevailed in such a contest. No jigs were danced, no huzzah’s were shouted. My entire (perhaps unclear—you be the judge) position was that the US Navy had responded to threats to the carrier through a number of counters, rather than just packing it in and agreeing that the carrier was obsolete, as some (not Professor Holmes) would have us believe (then, and now). That decision (pursuing counters, building more carriers)—in light of there having been no combat against the Soviets—resulted in decades of options for Presidents to deter, assure, punish, pre-empt, and aid in countless situations. “But did the U.S. Navy really beat the Soviet maritime threat, as Bryan and kindred navalists opine? How would we know?” Not only did Bryan not opine this, he didn’t think it. He doesn’t think it. Nor does he “…assume that whoever won must’ve gotten the tactics and hardware right.” I think nothing of the sort. What Bryan thinks and opines is that the business of finding and targeting carriers is more difficult than Ricks asserts, and that we remain capable of developing counters to emerging threats that will render the carrier of continuing utility for decades to come—just as we did decades ago in the face of those threats. If war comes, those counters and the risks they are designed to mitigate, will be put to the test. In the interim, we will reap the benefit of those platforms and the real service they provide.
Bryan McGrath is the Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, and is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consultancy.
I am grateful to Jamie Kirchick for his lengthy response to my comments about gay rights in Russia, and about how the United States government should respond to Russia’s new antigay law. Kirchick argues that the U.S. should use the Magnitsky Act to sanction Russian individuals and legislators who have carried out or endorsed harsh persecution of gays. Unfortunately, his arguments remain unpersuasive.
Much of Kirchick’s case hinges on the utility of sanctions in advancing human-rights goals. “If history is any guide,” he states, “imposing a cost for human rights abuses will, in the long run, weaken Russia’s authoritarian regime.” Kirchick thus invokes the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which blocked full trade relations with the Soviet Union over its restrictions on emigration by its Jewish citizens. Jackson-Vanik, he says, “is today widely acknowledged as having played a significant role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.” This is too sweeping. Communism was the real author of the Soviet collapse. A planned economy was never going to last, no matter how many dissidents were imprisoned in mental hospitals or the Gulag.
If Jackson-Vanik did not bring down the Soviet Union, what did it accomplish? Alas, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union actually fell when Jackson-Vanik was passed, and Jackson-Vanik did not prevent that emigration from slowing to a trickle in the 1980s. Whether it had any positive impact at all remains a subject of some controversy. Kirchick, in responding to my warning that American legal pressure under the Magnitsky Act might provoke further antigay violence by extremists and stiffer antigay laws from the government (the latter with precedent, since the Russian Duma responded to other uses of the Magnitsky Act with restrictions on Russian orphans), announces, “What we do know is that the steps the West has taken thus far – righteous denunciations, pouring Stolichnaya down sewer drains – have done nothing to arrest the ever-darkening situation in Russia.”
Yet the ineffectiveness of prior measures doesn’t mean we should take different measures, willy-nilly. The actions Kirchick proposes may be emotionally satisfying, but they may accomplish less than those righteous denunciations. They will also likely provoke a reaction from the Duma. They will likely strengthen Putin, who, having just announced he’s divorcing his wife, has decided to present himself as a guardian of traditional Russian morality. The cold, hard truth is that the Russian public broadly agrees with Putin’s view of gay rights—one of few issues on which he enjoys such support—and it is hard to see why minor foreign sanctions would convince them otherwise. And Putin would score easy points by pointing out that large swaths of the world treat gays far worse, yet face no similar sanctions.
I have nothing but admiration for Kirchick’s audacious move during an appearance on Moscow-funded agitprop network RT, where he wore a gaudy pair of rainbow suspenders and denounced the new laws. Stunts, though, are not an appropriate or effective tool of statecraft. Quite the contrary. Kirchick’s proposed course of action with Russia would have little impact—and what impact it did would be negative, both for U.S.-Russian relations and for LGBT rights in Russia.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Peter Gray. CC BY-SA 2.0.
President Obama shook hands with Cuban dictator Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral yesterday. Memorials for iconic world leaders seem to always produce such incidents - for example, the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II saw Israeli president Moshe Katsav shake hands with Iranian president Mohammed Khatami. (Born two years and about an hour’s drive apart in central Iran, the two leaders found themselves seated just feet from one another, and had an exchange in Persian.) Katsav and Khatami came under fire for their alleged grip-and-grin, with Khatami quoted denying the encounter in the official press - “This claim is like other baseless claims made by the Zionist media in the past.” And Obama’s brief grab with the lesser Castro brought criticism, too - Cuban American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called it “nauseating” and “a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” while Senator Marco Rubio said that Obama “should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba.”
Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio were echoing a theme in the U.S. foreign-policy discussion: What level of nicety should the president show to nasty leaders? It has to be more than zero: after all, if diplomats could never meet with those with whom we don’t get along, the most important diplomacy could not be done. Our embassies would shutter themselves, to be replaced with Bureaus of Consular Affairs, Cultural Relations and Cocktails. Yet Ros-Lehtinen is right that it can sometimes be a mistake for an American president to meet publicly with another head of state. America is not merely one country among many - mighty in its own right, it also heads the world’s most powerful network of alliances and commands significant moral authority. Little could prove a leader’s importance more than an audience with the leader of the free world.
Conversely, as the head of a sovereign and powerful state, our president must never appear deferential to other leaders, especially not to enemies; given the utility of America’s reputation as a generally benevolent country, our president should also avoid needlessly tarnishing that reputation. And when fragile or multiple governments hold authority, the questions become thornier. To give up on the fading Republic of China in 1949 would have been a stab in the back to an ally; to continue to recognize Taipei as the legitimate government of all China in 2013 would be a pointless absurdity.
A recent article by Jay Nordlinger in National Review took the preservation of presidential pomp to excess. Nordlinger complained that several of Obama’s recent statements on Iran have referred to Ali Khamenei as the “Supreme Leader.” “Was that really necessary, for the president of the United States?...[Obama] also referred to the country - twice - as ‘the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ as the mullahs style the country. Iranian democrats, many of whom are in jail, don’t see it that way.” Nordlinger goes on, “Referring to Rouhani, I have put ‘president’ in quotation marks, because ‘president’ is one of those titles that non-democrats, or anti-democrats, like to claim for themselves. It puts them on equal footing with, say, the president of the United States.”
This being a nation which, unlike Iran, has a free press, Nordlinger may refer to Khamenei, Iran and Rouhani however he pleases. Yet it would be silly for the U.S. government to follow his lead - rather than avoiding deference, it would be avoiding reality. The government of Iran has been in continuous power for more than three decades, surviving a horrific war, economic ruin and internal intrigue. For better, but mostly for worse, the regime is not going anywhere. Denial will not change it, and it is a needless source of friction in a relationship that already has enough troubles.
Further, refusing to recognize Iran’s government would send mixed signals. Rouhani rose to the presidency in an election which, for its many flaws, was at least not predetermined. And the governmental system that calls itself the “Islamic Republic” at least operates in vague accord with a constitution, and the man who calls himself Supreme Leader at least operates in vague accord with his position’s prescribed role in that constitution. Many countries cannot say this about their own systems. As vile and lawless as Iran’s actions often are, its present system of government offers a better foundation for eventual democracy than, say, Saudi Arabia’s.
This is hardly the first time Obama’s been attacked for his handling of relations with Iran and other unpleasant countries. As a candidate in 2008, his proposal for a meeting “without preconditions” with leaders of Iran and other rogue states became a focal point, first for Hillary Clinton and then for John McCain. Of course, some preconditions are always necessary in talks - venue, agenda, media presence, etc. - which meant that the Obama campaign had to do some retroactive exegesis. But Obama’s critics over Iran then, and over the Castro handshake now, take Ros-Lehtinen’s insight to an extreme. In this view, for the president to meet with a leader is a concession. The president’s presence is a gift and his absence is, in candidate Obama’s own words, a “punishment.” And when the president calls a leader by a title, it validates that title. We might call this the God-King View of the Presidency, for in practical terms there’s little daylight between it and how we’d conduct diplomacy if we thought our president were, say, an incarnation of Horus. It is, to put it lightly, a rather unrepublican view - and, given that the exalted one is presently Obama, an un-Republican view to boot.
We’d be wise to ditch the God-King View, while keeping the gravity of the office in mind. (Yes, Mr. President, that means no more bowing to foreign monarchs.) Perhaps we can take a page from Israeli president Shimon Peres. Asked recently if he’d be willing to meet Rouhani, he said, “Why not? I don’t have enemies; it’s not a matter of a person but of a policy. The purpose is to convert enemies into friends.” He expressed appropriate skepticism about the good faith of the Iranian government, noting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps “spreads terror all over the world and I’m not so sure they support the president.” Yet he concluded, “We have to see the balance of the situation.” Iran rejected Peres’ overture in rude terms. Yet Peres gave himself and his country the moral high ground. Peres’ approach is the correct one: while there are ethical and tactical elements to be navigated in meeting and addressing foreign leaders, these elements must always be grounded in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Our own democratic system and our own freedoms are not endangered by a meeting between our president and a dictator. But they are if we start to think of our president as a god, and our diplomacy as his gift.
“The mistreatment of the LGBT community is rightly viewed as a canary in the coalmine: a warning that democracy has gone off the tracks.” So say Andras Simonyi, once a top Hungarian diplomat, and Jamie Kirchick, a prominent conservative writer, in an essay on how the United States should respond to Russia’s new antigay laws, which have created an uproar in the West. These laws and the upcoming Sochi Olympics have put a spotlight on the treatment of gays in Russia.
Simonyi and Kirchick see laws like this as a fundamental “dividing line between liberal and illiberal societies...a litmus test of societal decency.” “This is going to be the dividing line between grown-up nations and those that will be left behind,” said Simonyi on Friday. Speaking at a panel entitled “LGBT Rights: A Geostrategic Issue for Democracies,” the pair urged the United States to use visa and asset freezes under 2012’s Magnitsky Act against Russian individuals involved in “gross violations” of the human rights of gays. And they warned that Russia intends to use gay rights as a wedge to strengthen its influence in its neighborhood, at America’s expense. “The homophobia of this regime is part of the neoimperialism of the Russian government,” said Kirchick Friday. “They’re using it to stir up anti-EU sentiment in Ukraine right now.... The Putin regime can tell Ukrainians, ‘you wanna protect Orthodox Christianity, you stay with Moscow.’ And he’s using this all throughout the former Soviet space. So this is a geostrategic issue for him, which is why it needs to be a geostrategic issue for us.” One panelist at the Friday event even complained that the State Department “appears to care more about the START treaty [reducing nuclear arms], the Syrian chemical weapons ban, and so forth, than it does about democracy in Ukraine or LGBT rights.”
This kind of approach to gay rights in foreign policy has many problems—problems identical to any human-rights-based foreign policy. First, should we, as the last panelist suggested, place the human rights of foreigners on foreign soil on par with grave issues like the threat of weapons of mass destruction? Are gay rights, and human rights more broadly, truly “geostrategic”? Second, do we as a country have the moral standing on gay rights to create, as the panelists repeatedly suggested, “teaching moments” with other states, with us in the role of teacher? Third, a closely related matter: do we intend to internationalize a newly acquired feature of our culture? Fourth, the most important of all, would Kirchick and Simonyi’s approach actually improve gay rights in places like Russia?
Those who advocate a prominent role for human rights in American foreign policy usually embrace a common argument—that disrespect for human rights at home is a warning sign that a country will promote instability beyond its borders, while countries pushed to respect human rights will behave more constructively. Thus, for instance, the Rwandan genocide was followed by a bloodletting throughout the African Great Lakes region, with the Rwandan government (drawn from the side of the victims) an active sponsor of violence in neighboring states. Thus, Saudi Arabia rules repressively at home and supports Islamic extremism abroad. Thus, Nazi Germany went from Kristallnacht to launching a continental war and an international campaign of genocide.
Yet human rights remain separable from international aggression. Even a human-rights-free approach to international security is plausible—for example, if the United States were to ignore domestic human-rights violations altogether, but respond forcefully and resolutely to aggression across borders, the world would surely not come to an end. And human rights certainly deserve a role in U.S. foreign policy. Our closest allies share our values; relations with allies that don’t are testier and more reversible. We would like to think of ourselves as a force for good in the world, and our global leadership is strengthened when other states see us as a lawful, fair and generally benevolent power. Yet that doesn’t mean that we must make human rights a central priority, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we should be willing to put vital interests like stopping the spread of nuclear weapons on equal footing with them.
In the case of gay rights, all this is even clearer. Kirchick and Simonyi’s claim that gay rights are a “canary in a coal mine” for democracy is questionable. Most democracies for much of their history have had antigay laws that were backed by antigay cultures. It is a moral outrage, for example, that Britain’s sodomy laws drove a national hero, computer scientist Alan Turing, to suicide. Yet Britain at the time was a stable and fully democratic country, and it was a reliable ally of the United States. We zealously punished and marginalized gay Americans for decades—and committed more serious and systematic abuses against African Americans, Japanese Americans, and others. Yet to argue that the United States was not a democracy prior to, say, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011 is mere dogmatism.
A second point. With widespread support for gay rights having arisen in America only in the last few years, it would be strange for us to claim moral authority over other states. Our own president, after all, opposed gay marriage until 2012, and his multiyear “evolution” on the issue reeked of political opportunism. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) with strong bipartisan support in 1996; our executive branch defended its lawfulness until 2011; and it was only put out of action—by a 5-4 split decision in the Supreme Court, not by a vote in Congress—in June of this year. And this law had real and severe effects on gay Americans—for example, on the binational couple in this video. One of the panelists, former Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch, even said that “we had a law...that was as horrible as any law you can ever imagine short of having to kill gay people for being gay...it said you people, because of who you are, will get no federal benefits.... Technically Russia, up until we got rid of DOMA, was better than us on the books. So I don’t think we should have a tremendous amount of arrogance about how we treat our gay people.”
While Birch’s reading of DOMA is rather extreme—and failing to extend federal recognition to gay couples, however wide those benefits may be, is simply not on par with what Russia and other countries are actively doing—it would be strange for us to make Russia’s odious measure a central sticking point in the relationship given our own recent history. Other countries know our views and laws have changed so recently, and will discount our claims of urgency and moral authority accordingly.
Third, we must recognize that the issue of gay rights is laden with cultural baggage. Our foreign policy already asks countries to adopt our political system (heck, we even criticize the human-rights situation in Sweden). Should it also ask other countries to adopt our culture—indeed, a feature of our culture that very large numbers of Americans (myself not included) still oppose?
This is closely tied to the final point, the practical impact of policy goals like those suggested by Simonyi and Kirchick. If the United States, through legal measures like the Magnitsky Act and through loud public rhetoric, attempts to push other states to become more gay-friendly, will that make life easier or harder for gays in those countries? Will it make their eventual acceptance more or less likely? Audience members at the panel noted that the prospect of Western legal measures is a deeply divisive issue among LGBT activists in Russia for this very reason.
Kirchick and Simonyi suggest that the Russian elite longs to be seen as Western, as civilized, and that they can accordingly be pushed toward the West’s new position on gay rights. Yet opposition to gay rights permeates Russian society—even if the elite moves, much work will remain. And the United States cannot push Russia in a vacuum, with no consequences. There will inevitably be backlash if a country widely perceived as a rival attempts to tell Russia that its values are wrong. Some of the backlash will be legal. Russia responded to the Magnitsky Law by banning adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens. European countries that have considered Magnitsky-like measures have been threatened with a similar ban. These adoption bans do far more harm to vulnerable Russians—children seeking adoption—than they do to Americans, who can simply adopt from other countries. Moscow has shown itself willing to cut off its nose to spite its face. If we take firm measures intended to protect Russian gays, we should not be surprised if the Russians take measures that harm them—and Russia has far more power to harm its gay citizens than we have to help them. Among the people, the practical consequence of a Western progay campaign could be even worse. Extreme nationalists are behind the most serious antigay violence. Nationalists, as a rule, do not appreciate other countries telling them what to do. They might only step up their kidnappings and torture.
But it is the alleged geostrategic element of gay rights where Kirchick and Simonyi’s proposal threatens the most severe backlash. As Kirchick pointed out, pro-Russian forces in places like the Ukraine have publicly promoted the notion that associating with Europe will lead to gay marriage. Kirchick suggests that this is a deliberate move by Putin and Russia, and that because Putin has made gay rights a geostrategic issue, we must as well. Yet this would mean fighting Putin on ground where he clearly thinks he has the advantage. And it would confirm nationalist narratives that the decadent West wishes to impose its values on the Slavic world. To paraphrase Lenin, we would be heightening the contradictions between East and West. Those who favor friendly relations with the West but who hold traditional attitudes about sexuality might be driven away. It’s hard to see how all this is good for America’s interests—or for Russia’s gays.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Stefan Botez. CC BY-SA 2.5.
Here Bashar al Assad goes again. Joining the throngs of world leaders eulogizing the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the Syrian presidency recently released a statement on its Facebook page declaring that Mandela’s “history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world, in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.” Emanating from the regime of a dictator who has presided over the multi-year – and seemingly unending – slaughter of “his own people,” few could overlook the statement’s profoundly offensive irony.
The absurdity of such a statement being issued by the Syrian regime suggests that Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke – and indeed, he is. What’s more is that this is only the latest iteration in a longstanding pattern of caustic comedy by the Duck of Damascus.
In October, after the Norwegian Nobel Committee made its regrettable decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons", Assad proclaimed that the prize “should have been mine” because of his acceptance of the Russian-sponsored plan to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal. After the deal was struck, Assad even had the audacity to ask the UN to equip his troops and supply armored trucks to ship out Syria's chemical materiel, a request that was rightly rejected outright: “There is no way that the regime will be supplied with equipment that could be used by the army to kill more innocent Syrians,” said one Western diplomat.
When massive demonstrations erupted in Egypt last summer against then president Mohammed Morsi, Mr. Assad, oddly enough, came out in support of the Egyptian protestors. “This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests,” he said. Assad’s information minister, Omran Zoabi, told the Syrian state-owned news agency SANA that the “crisis can be overcome if Mohamed Mursi realizes that the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people reject him and are calling on him to go.” Again with the hypocritical irony.
Not all of Assad's wisecracks are intended for public consumption, though. In a series of leaked emails composed over the last few years, written both before and during the uprising, Assad ridiculed the notion of domestic political reform in Syria, mocked the Arab League monitors who were then in Syria, and made a number of sexist jokes.
People generally tell jokes in an attempt to make others laugh. After all, a joke isn’t a joke if the only person laughing is the one who told it. Yet, as should be abundantly clear by now, Assad doesn’t want us to laugh with him – he wants to laugh at us. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Dictators have long excelled at stridently expressing their defiance and perceived unassailability, and Assad is no exception. What sets him apart from many of history’s other tyrants is his penchant for doing so via twisted quips and banter.
What sets Assad apart from real comedians, though, is that he is the opposite of funny. But so far, the joke appears to be on everyone else.
In his well-known book Special Providence, Walter Russell Mead laid out a typology that divided American foreign-policy thinking into four broad schools: the big-government, pro-business Hamiltonians; the Wilsonians, determined to spread U.S. values around the world; the Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with preserving America’s identity at home; and a group that he dubbed the Jacksonians. While the first three are readily identifiable—and well represented within the Washington elite (especially the the first two)—the Jacksonian school is at once the most difficult to describe and the most interesting. Mead calls it a “large populist school” that “believes that the most important goal of the U.S. government in foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people.” Its adherents believe that America should not seek out foreign wars. But should it become involved in them, then “there is no substitute for victory,” in the words of Douglas MacArthur.
If you want to get a sense of how Jacksonian America sees international affairs, as good a place as any to start is the Pew Research Center’s latest version of its “America’s Place in the World” survey, released earlier this week. The quadrennial study polls both the general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The full results of the 2013 survey show a strong current of Jacksonian thinking in the public across a wide range of foreign-policy issues.
The main headline that some observers have grabbed on to in the Pew poll is that the number of people who say both that the United States “does too much” in helping to solve world problems and that it plays “a less important role” as a world leader are at record highs. But it’s not quite that simple. The “less important role” that the U.S. public envisions its government playing abroad still involves doing quite a lot of things. 56 percent think “U.S. policies [should] try to keep it so America is the only military superpower,” and on average Americans want to preserve current levels of defense spending. Large majorities said that “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” (83 percent) and “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” (73 percent) should be “top priorities” among U.S. long-range goals.
This is a public, in short, that cares deeply about maintaining an overwhelmingly powerful military and taking decisive action against what it sees as core threats to American security—both central tenets of Jacksonian thinking. What the public doesn’t see as top priorities are things like “helping improve living standards in developing nations” (23 percent), “promoting democracy in other countries” (18 percent), and “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” (33 percent).
In the Pew survey, the public breaks most decisively with CFR members on issues like economics, trade and immigration. The public is far more likely (82 percent) than CFR members (29 percent) to consider “protecting the jobs of American workers” to be a top priority. The same is true when it comes to “reducing illegal immigration” (48 percent versus 11 percent, respectively). These are deep and enduring divides that are reflected in how consistent these numbers have been over the past twenty years. This, too, tracks with Mead’s description of the Jacksonian school. As he wrote in Special Providence:
Jacksonian opinion is instinctively protectionist, seeking trade privileges for American goods abroad and hoping to withhold those privileges from foreign exports. . . . They see the preservation of American jobs, even at the cost of some unspecified degree of “economic efficiency,” as the natural and obvious task of the federal government’s trade policy.
Likewise, Mead says that Jacksonians “are also skeptical, on both cultural and economic grounds, of the benefits of immigration,” seeing it as “endangering the cohesion of the folk community and introducing new, low-wage competition for jobs.”
This doesn’t mean that the public is wholeheartedly opposed to immigration or trade. Indeed, one section of the Pew study found a significant level of enthusiasm for increased economic engagement with the rest of the world. What it does mean is that their views on these issues are often based principally on their concern for American jobs. One measure of this is that while the public believes that “more foreign companies setting up operations in the U.S.” would help rather than hurt the U.S. economy (by a 62 to 32 percent margin), they decisively oppose “more U.S. companies setting up operations overseas,” with 73 percent saying they thought it would hurt the economy. This is in direct contrast to the CFR members, 73 percent of whom think that more U.S. companies setting up operations overseas would benefit the economy.
All this suggests that the Jacksonian influence remains a powerful one in shaping Americans’ views of the world. Yet at the same time, it also helps to demonstrate the limitations of this influence. One might use the data above to try to argue that because there are these key issues on which public and elite opinion diverge, there would be potential political rewards for a party that better aligned itself with the Jacksonian sensibility. But it’s hard to imagine that either foreign policy in general or issues like trade in particular would rank high enough on the list of issues that concern the electorate for this to make much of a difference. More likely, candidates will continue to pander to Jacksonian America on the campaign trail and then ignore those promises once safely in office. As Daniel Drezner put it during the 2012 presidential campaign, “You campaign as a mercantilist; you govern as a free trader.”
In the end, one overriding fact is worth keeping in mind: Americans are perennially unhappy with the direction of world affairs. Nine times over the past twenty years, Pew has asked, “All in all, would you say that you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the world these days?” Every time, between 64 and 81 percent have said they were dissatisfied, with only 12 to 28 percent satisfied. This year was no exception, with only 16 percent satisfied and 78 percent dissatisfied. The reason for this is anyone’s guess. Maybe the U.S. public just has unrealistic expectations about the world. Or maybe it’s because international news coverage is dominated by crises and disasters, and not by long-term positive trends like declines in global poverty and violence. But there’s at least one other potential explanation: the persistent gap between the outlook of Jacksonian America and that of the (usually Hamiltonian or Wilsonian) representatives that generally make up the country’s foreign-policy establishment.
As events continue to unfold surrounding China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), Vice President Joe Biden began his visit to Asia this week in Japan where he condemned China’s actions as “increase[ing] the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” His visit during these tense times in Northeast Asia demonstrates the United States’ vested interests in maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet the White House isn't making it clear it fully appreciates those interests.
This was on display on November 20, when White House national-security adviser Susan Rice outlined the future of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific during a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Rice gave a comprehensive overview of current and future areas of cooperation between the United States and Asian countries in a variety of areas, from security to economic prosperity to ensuring human dignity. However, concerns remain that the United States a) is not committed to the region in light of ongoing crises in the Middle East and b) does not reliably to commit to foreign policy objectives in light of the recent government shutdown. Ambassador Rice failed to address either of these issues outright, calling the pivot’s viability into question by the very countries the Administration is trying to reassure.
Ambassador Rice reiterated the commitment that the Obama administration has toward the Asia-Pacific region, which remains a “cornerstone” of American foreign policy regardless of other “hotspots” that will emerge, stating that “nowhere are the challenges and the opportunities we face so great as in the Asia-Pacific region.” Expressing the administration’s disappointment that President Obama was unable to visit during the government shutdown in October, Ambassador Rice announced that the President will visit Asia in April “to continue strengthening our ties across the region.”
Ambassador Rice devoted the bulk of her speech to the security dimension of the rebalance. By 2020, 60 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet will be based in the Asia-Pacific, where it will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as well as deterrence against conventional and non-conventional threats. The United States is diversifying its alliances and strategic partnerships as well as encouraging those countries to cooperate more amongst themselves. Addressing the ongoing territorial disputes, she emphasized the need for a code of conduct on the South China Sea that would be a “harbinger of their ability to shape their shared security future.” Each of these statements were supposed to allay our allies' fears.
Thus far, the United States has had a mixed record of making good on these commitments. Its greatest recent triumph has been its rapid and comprehensive response to the natural disaster in the Philippines; to date, the United States has sent fifty ships and aircraft to the region for a humanitarian and disaster relief operation. Such commitment will not only strengthen ties between the two countries but also help reinforce the United States’ security framework in the region should military cooperation with the Philippines increase in the future.
Maintaining stability for the future is also on the administration’s agenda, with Vice President Biden meeting with leaders in Japan, China and South Korea to address the ongoing tensions in the East China Sea. In addition to joining in solidarity with Japan and condemning China’s ADIZ, Biden also met with Chinese president Xi Jinping to ease tensions in the meeting. During a meeting that took place today, Biden described the U.S.-China relationship as “hugely consequential” to affecting the course of world events. This timely and multifaceted approach to addressing tensions in the Asia-Pacific demonstrates that the United States remains concerned about the region and believes that it has a part to play in making sure its allies and partners can resolve this issue peacefully.
But the United States should not only use reactive events such as natural disasters or stability concerns to demonstrate its commitment to the region. There remain concerns that the United States will continue to remain more committed militarily to the Middle East rather than to mitigating threats posed by North Korea or the territorial disputes. Along with this “strategic neglect,” many countries see the planned U.S. defense budget cuts over the next five years as hindering any planned commitments the United States has made. When coupled with the recent government shutdown, there is pessimism in the region that the United States, in addition to having less passion for the region, is actually incapable of commitment given its inability to keep its own government running.
There can be little argument that the Asia-Pacific region remains vital to U.S. foreign policy as a whole and that relations with countries in the region are generally positive. However, such security agreements were around before the “pivot to Asia” and are unlikely to disappear if the pivot/re-balance proves to be a failure. The rise of the Syrian crisis coupled with the ongoing issues the United States is facing in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the post-Arab Spring countries has led many to question if the United States can truly afford to shift its security apparatus to focus more on the Pacific by 2020. Furthermore, the government shutdown in October made it abundantly clear that in the face of domestic turmoil, U.S. foreign-policy objectives take a back seat. The fact that Ambassador Rice took the opportunity to announce the President’s visit during her speech shows that the Administration was aware of the backlash that followed Obama’s cancelled trip. Biden’s visit is another attempt to demonstrate commitment to the region. But without acknowledging outright that there are concerns about the pivot/rebalance and making generally positive statements about U.S. policy in the region, the administration does not appear to be listening to its allies and partners’ legitimate concerns. Actions speak louder than words, and if the actions do not materialize in a timely fashion, the trips will not matter and the speeches will seem like little more than empty rhetoric.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the US has official Washington all but calling for his head. Senator Dianne Feinstein says he is “a cipher.” Tom Donilon, President Obama’s former national security adviser, says he is “reckless.” They’re right: Karzai is all of these things, and then some.
After Afghanistan’s traditional decision-making body, the Loya Jirga, gave the BSA their blessing, Karzai refused to sign it unless Washington moves to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and guarantees that the U.S. military will no longer raid Afghan homes. On the former matter, Karzai is living in an alternative reality: the United States has been trying to get a recalcitrant Karzai to consent to peace talks for years. On the latter issue, he conveniently ignores that his own security forces and the Taliban represent the greatest threats to Afghan civilians. And, as recent events have shown, he is not too keen to criticize either party, preferring to instead turn his ire on the foreigners who have kept the lights on for his opium republic with their own blood and treasure since 2002.
Karzai has surrounded himself with mendacious, corrupt criminals and warlords, and indulges his government’s worst traits. It therefore fails to surprise this observer that the “zero option”—that is, the removal of all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan after 2014 and provision of little if any financial aid to Karzai’s government—is being seriously considered in Washington—and not just as a negotiating technique, in the wake of Susan Rice’s failed browbeating in Kabul.
Yet, as frustrating as it is to watch Karzai aim a pistol at his own country’s head, the United States must not let its ire for Afghanistan’s jester-in-chief jeopardize its main interests in the region: promoting stability and countering transnational terrorist networks. Unfortunately, neither of these objectives will be well-served by a hasty total withdrawal from the Hindu Kush.
The United States cannot expect to effectively counter and combat transnational militant groups without a special operations and intelligence infrastructure in Afghanistan—which the zero option would uproot—that provides physical and signals intelligence reach into Pakistan and other parts of the region.
As the last Department of Defense-issued report on security and stability in Afghanistan said, "Assessing whether the gains to date will be sustainable will be difficult to do until the exact size and structure of the post-2014 US and NATO presence is determined." In the absence of U.S. financial support and a U.S. military presence of some sort, the gains of the last few years will collapse. If the United States were to keep financial and military aid flowing to the Afghan security forces without some troops on the ground, our oversight mechanisms would thereby perhaps evaporate entirely, leading to even worse corruption. If financial support were cut, the Afghan National Security Forces, now numbering nearly 350,000 members, might fracture into a plethora of disgruntled, unpaid militias. True, as I have argued elsewhere, some fragmentation of the security forces may be inevitable, but with continuing U.S. support, fragmentation would likely be limited to the south and the east, and the army would be less affected than would be the police. The zero option could thus lead to chaos across all of Afghanistan.
Such instability would inevitably bleed over into Pakistan—a nuclear-armed power and a hotbed of anti-Americanism and extremism—and strengthen groups like the Pakistani Taliban in their quest to usurp the state. It would reinforce Islamabad’s reliance on armed non-state proxies, used by Pakistan to try to impose or negotiate a semblance of stability on their northwestern flank, as it attempted to do in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan when it favored the installation of its then-favorite son, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
So what good would the zero option bring? A sense of relief? If so, the reprieve would be ephemeral, for it would take little time for Afghanistan to become a regional—and likely a global—problem once again.
Mr. President: grit your teeth and work with Karzai to ink a deal before Christmas. Close political involvement in Afghanistan, respectful of Afghan sovereignty concerns, can assist in facilitating smooth presidential elections next year—the best way to get rid of America’s Karzai problem.
We Westerners love a good liberation. Whenever protests or rebellion spring up in an autocracy, we cheer on the underdog, the weaker party, the ones facing down the shock troops and riot police of the government—pardon, of the regime. It’s an attractive vision—after all, so much of Eastern Europe freed itself from Soviet-backed tyranny like this, turning their states into some of the West’s staunchest allies. Yet other underdogs we’ve loved have turned out to be less lovable. Egypt’s revolution saw liberals sidelined by the Muslim Brotherhood, which made cack-handed power plays until overthrown by a military dictatorship that’s turning out harsher than Mubarak—and less friendly to Washington, too. Protests in Syria turned over a rock, and found lots of bugs, Al Qaeda among them. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame turned out to be an autocrat and an exporter of violence. Ahmed Chalabi and the Free Iraqi Forces barely turned out at all, except when the chance to loot was involved. We usually ignored the awkward questions about all of them until it was too late, content in a belief that those against dictatorship are for freedom.
The same thing is now happening in Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych passed up the chance to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, a step that would have tilted the country toward the West and away from Russia. Yanukovych’s motives were impure: drawing closer to the EU would have required more political openness, potentially creating an opening for his opponents and a platform for jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. And so outraged Ukrainians have poured into the streets in the hundreds of thousands, calling for Yanukovych to step out and the EU to step in. Riot police responded with violence—and the demonstrations continued. The West knows whom it wants to win. The press is breathless. It’s easy to come away with the impression that we’re witnessing a struggle between freedom and tyranny, between European openness and Putinist autocracy, between peaceful protesters and jackbooted thugs.
But sometimes the jackboot is on the other foot. Western coverage of the protests has ignored or downplayed the role of the crypto-fascist All-Ukrainian Union party, “Svoboda.” Its presence, however, is obvious—banners with its three-fingered symbol appear in many photographs from Independence Square in Kyiv. A man in a Svoboda jacket can be seen (at 1:26) in footage of an attack on police protecting a statue. And Svoboda’s leaders have associated themselves with the protest’s most radical action—the occupation and barricading of the Kyiv City Hall. The press noted a Svoboda leader’s claim that the protesters were merely there to warm up, and helpfully pointed out that it was four degrees Celsius outside. Meanwhile, Svoboda head Oleh Tyahnybok declared the City Hall a “temporary headquarters” for the revolution, announced that similar headquarters should be set up around the country, and condemned alleged government plans to restore government control of government buildings. He’s called for “a total social and national revolution,” and urged his supporters to “block and sabotage the work of the local councils where most of the deputies are not patriots. We are starting to rock the boat of the regime. In order to oust this regime, we must lock the entire operation of the state.” All that might count as pertinent information in reports that Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov’s claimed that the protests show “all the signs of a coup d'etat.” Yet it’s absent.
Media outlets also have been cagey about identifying Svoboda’s ideological aims—when mentioned at all, the party’s often branded as merely “nationalist.” Yet they can only be described as national socialists—that is, as members of the statist, ethnocentric, totalitarian family of political movements that have included Italy’s fascists and Germany’s Nazis. Indeed, they were founded under the name Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine, and their official political program should sound familiar to those versed in old fascist manifestos like the Nazis’ Twenty-Five Points. The ideological similarities are deeper than mere ethnonationalism—other fascist hobbyhorses like the empowerment of the military, recapture of irredenta, the return of the diaspora, a central role for the state in the economy and the public settling of old historical grievances are there, too. Svoboda’s logo until about a decade ago was a rune that had once appeared on the crests of several SS divisions, and which is now illegal to display in Germany.
Tyahnybok has tried to clean up the party’s image since his rise to leadership, pushing the most obvious neo-Nazis out (before allying with the groups they then formed) and drawing less attention to contact with other fascist groups. Yet he’s hardly made Svoboda cuddly. It’s rallied against Jewish pilgrims in the city of Uman and branded a gay-rights march “the Sabbath of 50 perverts.” Tyahnybok has complained of a “Moscow-Jewish mafia which today runs Ukraine” and warned of Jewish plans for “genocide” against Christian Ukrainians. And a Svoboda parliamentarian once ranted that Chernivtsi-born American actress Mila Kunis was a “dirty Jewess.”
Of course, the protesters in Kyiv aren’t all fascists, and they have legitimate grievances. Ukraine’s deep east-west split and its ethnic divisions are the real issue. A western Ukrainian has little reason to back Yanukovych; an eastern Ukrainian or an ethnic Russian has little reason to back Tymoshenko. The EU agreement is merely a proxy for this deeper fight. Yet the Western press seems only dimly aware of that. Ignorant of local politics or blinded by preconceived notions, we’ve reflexively cast Kyiv as a battle between East and West, democracy and dictatorship, good and evil. We hype violence by the police, even though they’ve sometimes shown restraint; we silently pass over violence by the demonstrators. We cheer for revolution without considering the value of the order, however troubling, that it aims to replace. And maintaining this simple moral universe sometimes requires us to pretend we don’t see the bad guys, banners streaming and Molotovs at the ready, right in the middle of the good guys’ parade.