Third Time's the Charm?

The Buzz

Though it does not come as a surprise that the regime in Pyongyang just completed its third nuclear-weapons test, it certainly does not make anyone feel better. Initial confirmation of North Korea's third nuclear test came when international monitors detected an unusual seismic event that registered 4.9 on the Richter scale.

President Barack Obama labeled the test a "highly provocative act" and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the test a "grave threat." What is making some people stop and take notice though is that China, arguably North Korea's only ally, has joined the chorus to condemn this latest test. Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi called in North Korea's ambassador to explain how "strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed" to the test China was. This comes at a time when there appear to be more and more voices within China calling for a reexamination of its current policy towards a country that it believed was once as close to it as "lips and teeth."

There was widespread speculation that North Korea would conduct this particular test prior to the inauguration of the new South Korean president Park Geun-hye on February 25. This would serve not only as a sort of final thumb in the eye to current President Lee Myung-bak, whose more hard-line tactics have engendered some extreme hyperbolic vitriol from Pyongyang, but would also not totally hamstring president-elect Park when she takes office from considering new negotiation tactics with her neighbor to the North.

Yet shouldn’t this latest nuclear provocation make us all stop and take a beat? Whatever the international community is, or isn’t, doing with regard to North Korea simply isn’t working. U.N. Security Council resolutions, sanctions and being made into an international pariah have done very little to stop one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear provocateurs. What is more, they keep getting better at it, or so it would appear. This test seems to be larger than those of 2006 and 2009, and this comes on the heels of the December 12, 2012 Unha-3 rocket launch of a long-range ballistic missile.

We need to collectively put on our creative-thinking caps to come up with a more effective policy towards North Korea. Our current playbook is growing increasingly tired.

TopicsNuclear ProliferationSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Grand Strategy and the Dominant Paranoia

Paul Pillar

The foreign policy speech that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave at the Heritage Foundation last week has received significant attention, and appropriately so. Robert Merry's mostly sympathetic treatment in these spaces describes the speech as “seminal.” Paul's statement indeed represents a significant divergence from the foreign policy thinking that has come to dominate the political party to which he belongs. An interesting comparison, however, is provided by Robert Kagan's less sympathetic take on the speech. Kagan commends Paul's desire to spark a serious foreign policy debate in his party and in the country, but he sees Paul as hewing to more conventional views, and breaking less specific new ground, than Paul might want us to believe.

Kagan underestimates the full implications of how Paul's speech, even if it was light on specific policy prescriptions, departs from the neoconservative-dominated thinking that is currently part of the Republican mainstream. After all, it only takes one equivalent of the Iraq War not to be launched to make a big difference. Moreover, some of where Paul was less bold in the speech than he might otherwise have been can be attributed to observing the limits of political viability, perhaps with a future presidential run in mind. In noting, for example, Paul's subscribing to the mantra of “keeping all options on the table” for dealing with Iran, Kagan observes, “A true dissenter would have the temerity to declare that a nuclear Iran, although unfortunate, is nevertheless tolerable and that the military option ought not to be on the table.” Kagan's observation is correct, and the true dissenter's view on this subject would also be correct. But that view unfortunately is still politically incorrect enough to endanger the electability of anyone who expresses it. Unless we expect Barack Obama to challenge that bit of political correctness (and we should), it is probably unfair to expect Rand Paul to challenge it.

Kagan, however, accurately puts his finger on a central theme in Paul's speech that is not a departure at all—from what is mainstream thinking not only in his own party but across the political spectrum. On this theme, Kagan writes,

Paul sounds conventional. He calls himself a “realist,” but unlike many realists, he sees the overriding threat to America as “radical Islam,” which he describes as a “relentless force” of “unlimited zeal,” “supported by radicalized nations such as Iran” and with which the United States is indeed at “war” and will be for a long time. Unlike critics during the Cold War, who argued that anti-communist “paranoia” produced a self-destructive foreign policy, Paul embraces the dominant “paranoia” of the post-9/11 era. He...shares the average American’s view that radical Islam is today what Soviet Communism was during the Cold War — “an ideology with worldwide reach” that must, like communism, be met by “counterforce at a series of constantly shifting worldwide points.”

In the speech, Paul does indeed play up the comparison to communism and the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, repeatedly invoking George Kennan. He also does some of the homogenizing of purported threats that became familiar during the Cold War. Although at one point he chides those prone to lumping very different scary Muslims together—by noting how many Americans still mistakenly believe Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attack—he does a lot of lumping himself. The Iranian regime, Saudi Wahhabists and terrorist cells in Western Europe are all put under the single label of “radical Islam.”

But this subject isn't anything like the challenge from the USSR and communism during the Cold War, and “radical Islam” really does involve a lot of paranoia on our part. There is nothing remotely comparable to a superpower armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. There are no “radical Islamist” states or possible states that have any chance of challenging U.S. military power even locally, let alone globally. There is nothing that at all resembles the parallel political and military threats to Western Europe when it faced both Red Army divisions on the Elbe and communist parties that commanded many times more support and parliamentary seats than “radical Islam” could ever hope to achieve. There isn't even as much international and transnational connectivity and unity of purpose on the adversary side as there was during the Cold War—and even that was less than we, to our cost and discomfort, believed at the time. There is no “radical Islam” Comintern.

The paranoia and the framing of “radical Islam” as a single grand threat has two main sources (in addition to more parochial but politically significant drivers, such as the Israeli government). One is the enormous national trauma inflicted by a single terrorist operation: 9/11. Look at the history of American public opinion and discourse about “radical Islam” and how it changed in a single day from insignificance to an overriding national preoccupation. The preoccupation really was about terrorism, and terrorism that was not the product of states or foreign insurgencies. And the preoccupation was about the death toll of 9/11, not about some less emotional and more objective measure of how even terrorism poses a threat. There was plenty of official attention prior to 9/11 to threats from radical Islamist terrorism. But it did not become a big national concern and continuing preoccupation until one bunch of terrorists hit a high-casualty jackpot on the U.S. mainland.

The other major source is the strong urge to define foreign policy in terms of a simplifying, seemingly easy-to-understand grand theme—even though the world presents lots of problems and challenges that do not really fit under any one grand theme. Standing up to some single named threat or adversary is the kind of theme that can most readily fill this role. Confrontation against Soviet communism provided the requisite theme for more than four decades. In the decade after that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, would-be George Kennans fumbled for some new grand, all-defining theme. No one really came up with anything that caught on among grand strategy aficionados. Meanwhile, the general public didn't worry too much about this conceptual gap while enjoying the prosperity of the 1990s. Then along came 9/11 and instantly both the grand strategists and the public had a new theme that readily caught fire. Initially that theme was defined as a “war on terror.” Then after enough people came to realize the silliness of postulating a war on a tactic, it elided into a war of sorts against what most Americans saw as the face of terrorism, which was “radical Islam.”

Let us, along with both Merry and Kagan, welcome whatever energizing of foreign policy debate comes from Rand Paul's speech and any other statements like it. There is enough meat and enough difference in what he says that if his views could displace, or even significantly erode, the dominant neoconservative influence in the Republican Party this would be a very significant (and positive) development. But a truly sweeping redo of thinking about U.S. grand strategy and America's place in the world will have to await a loosening of the embrace of the dominant paranoia of the post-9/11 era. Until that happens, ideas such as Paul's will always be at a political disadvantage compared with the tough-guy stance of those arguing that we should forcefully confront the object of that paranoia wherever and whenever it appears.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsIdeologyGrand StrategyPublic OpinionReligionTerrorism RegionsIranUnited States

Drones and Double Standards

The Buzz

Last Friday, MSNBC’s “The Cycle” co-host Krystal Ball attempted to take on the argument that, as she puts it, “if you feel any differently about the drone program under President Obama than you would have under George W. Bush, you are an utter, hopeless hypocrite.” In response, she makes the following case:

I voted for President Obama because I trust his values and his judgment and believe that he is a fundamentally responsible person. Without gratuitously slamming an ex-president, I think Bush displayed extraordinary lapses in judgment in executing his primary responsibility as commander-in-chief and put troops in harm’s way imprudently. President Obama would have exercised better judgment and he has exercised better judgment. . . . So yeah, I feel a whole lot better about the program when the decider is President Obama.

Ball’s position may not be hypocritical, but it is completely wrong. It is at least logically consistent in that if you believe that one president has exercised better judgment than another, there is some reason for you to be more comfortable with the first one having certain powers. But what Ball apparently fails to realize is that when you agree to trust one president with a kind of power, you are necessarily entrusting all of his or her successors with that power. At some point in the future, the United States will probably elect a president whose judgment Ball thinks is faulty. If, say, Sarah Palin or Herman Cain were elected in 2016, there is no mechanism by which Ball or anyone who agrees with her could conceivably “withdraw” the powers Obama has exercised in overseeing the drone program.

This only becomes clearer when you look at the analogy Ball uses to make her point. In her words:

How would you feel about a Madeleine Albright panel on women and body image? OK. Now, how do you feel about the Larry Flynt panel on women and body image? Uh huh. How do you feel about your kid in Dr. Ruth’s sex ed class versus Todd Akin’s? Do you feel differently about Warren Buffet penning standards for financial ethics versus Bernie Madoff? Of course you do. Because you’re normal.

Of course, the reason this analogy breaks down is that in each of these cases, there is no reason why the first of these things ever has to imply the second. They are all totally independent of each other. Conversely, in the case of the drone program, granting power to Barack Obama necessarily means granting it to future presidents for whom one has not voted and whose judgment one does not trust.

For what it’s worth, this writer agrees with Ball that President Obama has generally shown better judgment than Bush did on foreign and defense policy. But that’s beside the point. The debate about whether we are comfortable with the drone program and its resulting impact on executive authority should be independent of who happens to be the current resident of the White House.

TopicsDefenseThe PresidencyState of the MilitaryPoliticsSecurity RegionsUnited States

A Killing Court

Paul Pillar

In John Brennan's confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, committee chair Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said she would explore with Congressional colleagues the possible creation of a special court to review candidates for assassination by armed drones. The idea is worth exploring. Such a judicial mechanism could be a way of meeting the well-justified concerns of many that the drone program is too much a matter of executive discretion. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can serve as a successful model of how such a court might work. If we are to involve the judiciary before tapping a person's telephone (even when the target of the tap is a foreigner), why shouldn't we involve courts before killing the person?

Even if a drone court does not materialize, Congressional consideration of one would give a healthy boost to the hitherto insufficient discussion and debate about applying the rule of law to aerial assassination. Before establishing any such court, however, Congress should carefully weigh one other thing such a court would do and some things it would not do.

Creating the court would further institutionalize—in an even more prominent way than “playbooks” used within the executive branch—assassination of individuals overseas as a continuing function of the United States government. Is that something Americans really want to do, and is it consistent with what Americans think they stand for?

A court would not weigh the pros and cons of either individual killings or the entire program on any criteria other than those that could be made justiciable. Presumably the court would make judgments regarding whether evidence presented to it shows that a given individual is willing and able to participate in anti-U.S. terrorist attacks. One could not expect a court to weigh whether on balance the killing program is reducing the terrorist threat to the United States more than it is increasing it by stimulating more angry individuals to resort to terrorism. That troubling question has been hanging around now for years, going back to before armed drones were the heavily relied upon tool they have become and to when Donald Rumsfeld ruminated aloud about whether we were creating more terrorists than we were eliminating. We still lack a satisfactory answer to that question that would constitute a justification for the drone program. (It is presumably this lack that leads David Brooks to suggest creating, in addition to a court, “an independent panel of former military and intelligence officers issuing reports on the program’s efficacy.”)

A court also would not consider other damage (or conceivably benefits) to U.S. policy and interests that goes beyond terrorism and the creation of more terrorists. We were reminded of the broader consequences when the Pakistani ambassador complained publicly this week that drone strikes were a clear violation of international law and her nation's sovereignty and threatened U.S.-Pakistani relations. Of course, we need to apply many grains of salt to such a complaint from the envoy of the country where Osama bin Laden was living under official noses and where other reporting suggests that at least some of the drone strikes have been privately welcomed by Pakistani leaders even though they publicly complain about all of them. Nonetheless, widespread negative reactions to the strikes and their collateral damage affect popular attitudes, in Pakistan and elsewhere, toward the United States and ipso facto affect the posture of governments toward the United States.

A couple of years ago I gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which I mentioned the two-faced Pakistani approach on this subject, with private attitudes not always matching the public rhetoric. The one point on which the committee chairman, John Kerry, differed with my testimony was that he believed, based on his own conversations with Pakistani officials, that genuine attitudes toward the drone strikes were more strongly negative than I may have suggested. I take his comment then as a good sign that the new secretary of state will give proper attention to the broader consequences of the aerial assassinations.

TopicsCongressDefenseInternational LawPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited StatesPakistan

How Not to Make a Point

The Buzz

At the American Conservative, Scott Galupo calls out one of the more obnoxious recent tics in our foreign-policy discourse. He quotes this line from James Inhofe at Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing:

The question I’d like to ask you and you can answer for the record if you’d like is, why do you think that the Iranian foreign ministry so strongly supports your nomination for Secretary of Defense?

As a second example, he quotes Lindsey Graham, who criticized the looming sequester by saying, “I'm sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration.”

On a substantive level, this seems deeply confused. The defense sequester would have all kinds of negative consequences for our military, but even after sequestration, the U.S. military would still absolutely dwarf Iran’s in terms of both their respective budgets and capabilities. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Washington’s ability to achieve any of its potential future military goals vis-à-vis Iran was seriously put into question by the sequester.

But the more basic point is that rhetorically, this is a dangerous way of arguing with and smearing one’s political opponents. Galupo gets it exactly right when he says, “This is childish.” To suggest that either Chuck Hagel or those who support sequestration are somehow advancing the goals of Ayatollah Khamenei is insulting both to those people and to the intelligence of anyone listening.

It’s also worth noting briefly that this whole line of argument implies a zero-sum attitude that provides a recipe for constant hostility. To continue using the Iranian example, if there is ever to be a diplomatic deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, it is going to have to involve some level of concessions from both sides. On the American side, that might include accepting a degree of very limited enrichment (subject to stringent international monitoring) and, as the process moves on, gradual sanctions relief. These are both things that the Iranian leadership would “support.” But if those concessions are opposed on the grounds that Iran supports them, a deal will only become less and less likely—even if that prospective deal is in our national interest as well as Iran’s.

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose either Chuck Hagel’s nomination or sequestration. But as far as this line of thinking goes, Galupo is dead-on when he says, “It’s fair to say that ‘Iran likes it’ belongs in the same file as ‘The terrorists will win.’”

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDefensePoliticsSecurity RegionsIranUnited States