A Meeting of the AfPak Minds

President Obama sat down yesterday with his top national-security and intelligence minds to take stock of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, DNI James Clapper, VP Joe Biden and commander of forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus all took part in the regular review (Biden and Petraeus by video link). The meeting came as tensions continue to ratchet up between Washington and Islamabad, with the US criticizing Pakistan’s intelligence services for links to insurgents and Pakistan rejecting the assertions.

General Petraeus was actually in Pakistan yesterday to meet with the army chief there, General Ashfaq Kayani. The US embassy in Islamabad released a general statement about the sitdown that said the pair “discussed topics of mutual interest and ways to improve regional security.”

Elsewhere in the world, Chinese and US officials are planning for a May economic meeting. The relationship between Beijing and Washington has been rocky of late as the US debt piles up and criticisms of China’s currency policy continue to fly. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet with China’s Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo.

Obama's Failed Syria Policy

For years President Obama tried to play kissy-face with the opthamologist. But the not-so-wily ruler of Syria refused. Bashar al-Assad, once seen as a potential reformer, an ally of the West, a potential peace partner, is sending his tanks into the streets of Deraa to crush the opposition. In response America and its European allies are threatening sanctions. Britain, Italy, and France have suddenly begun to stake out activist foreign policy positions, but with little to back them up. Whatever happened to the Gallic shrug? It's being replaced by delusions of Napoleonic grandeur.

In any case, sanctions are usually no more than temporary. Obama himself said on Friday that the crackdown "must come to an end now." Why? The Syrian kleptocracy has cast its lot, not with America, but with the forces of repression. Anyway, Obama often likes to confuse verbal demands, as Yale professor David Bromwich has observed, with action. Soon enough the illusions will return should the Syrian dictator succeed in routing, at least for now, his opponents. The real loss for Assad isn't the prospect of sanctions but the fact that he is, increasingly, being drawn into Iran's orbit. He is becoming the puppet ruler of the Iranian mullahs, playing Hungary to their Soviet Union.

But this presumes that Assad will be able to cling to power. Iran is not the Soviet Union, a mighty empire that can dispose of its satellites as it wishes. Instead, Syria may well topple into anarchy. The army, for example, is displaying some cracks:

The Unelected Government

A proposal with bipartisan support of leadership in the Senate would trim by about 200 the number of positions in the executive branch that would require Senate confirmation. Supporters of the measure point to the often long time required for confirmation and to the many vacancies that invariably persist well after a new president takes office. Opponents argue that removing the Senate's role of advising and consenting to these appointments would add too much to presidential power unchecked by the legislative branch. Neither supporters nor opponents seem to be addressing a big underlying question: why should such a large proportion of the government be dismantled each time the presidency changes hands?

The United States is almost unique among advanced democracies in having a huge number of political appointees, filling jobs that change occupants with each change of presidential administration. The number of such positions, which has been growing faster than the federal government as a whole (and only some of which require Senate confirmation), was up to about 3,000 when President Obama entered office . The prevailing pattern in other democracies is a far smaller political layer, typically comprising in each department a minister, a couple of junior ministers, and small personal staff, atop a bureaucracy that extends up to someone with a title such as permanent undersecretary.

Did President Obama Become a Liberal Interventionist Because of Partisan Identity?

There’s a lot going on in Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article about the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but one thing that really stands out is how, right up front, the article reads as if Obama was an empty vessel on foreign policy until people told him what to think:

As an undergraduate, he took courses in history and international relations, but neither his academic life nor his work in Springfield gave him an especially profound grasp of foreign affairs. As he coasted toward winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, in 2004, he began to reach out to a broad range of foreign-policy experts—politicians, diplomats, academics, and journalists.

As a student during the Reagan years, Obama gravitated toward conventionally left-leaning positions. At Occidental, he demonstrated in favor of divesting from apartheid South Africa. At Columbia, he wrote a forgettable essay in Sundial, a campus publication, in favor of the nuclear-freeze movement. As a professor at the University of Chicago, he focussed on civil-rights law and race.

To Arm or Not To Arm?

As NATO fires on Qaddafi’s compound, Washington is considering its Libya options. So far, the administration is giving both political and economic support to rebels opposing Qaddafi, but it has not provided weapons to the opposition. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the rebels were doing alright with the weapons they have, and that the process would take some time: “It is natural and to be expected that it is going to take some time for them to be constituted into an effective fighting force.” Plus, Washington is still trying to feel the opposition out, and is, according to Rice, weighing the decision to arm the rebels “very carefully and deliberately.” Rice was appearing on Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, as Syrian troops try to quell uprisings in Dara’a by force, the Obama administration is wondering what to do to check Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One option on the table is sanctioning the regime, and administration officials are apparently working on a draft sanctions plan.

Was Stalin Crazy?

When it comes to pathological dictators, there doesn't really seem to be much dispute about whether they're nuts or not. It sort of comes with the territory, doesn't  it? Plus the pressures in this particular line of work are bound to have insalubrious consequences. There are constant plots to worry about, attack from abroad, even criticisms from your own family, as Stalin discovered when his first wife lashed into him. The British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore dates Stalin's real crackup from the time his wife committed suicide in 1932.

So how much stock should we put in the discovery of a diary by Alexander Myasnikov, who was one of the Generalissimo's doctors. According to the doctor,

The major atherosclerosis in the brain, which we found at the autopsy, should raise the question of how much this illness—which had clearly been developing over a number of years—affected Stalin's health, his character and his actions," Dr. Myasnikov wrote in his diaries, excerpts of which were published for the first time in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets yesterday. "Stalin may have lost his sense of good and bad, healthy and dangerous, permissible and impermissible, friend and enemy. Character traits can become exaggerated, so that a suspicious person becomes paranoid," the doctor wrote.

Libya and the Tragedy of Incremental Decision-Making

The allied military intervention in Libya, which may still be in only an early chapter of a possibly long story, already has displayed multiple decision-making pathologies. Some of those pathologies resemble patterns observed in earlier wars, or the in the run-up to earlier wars. There is, for example, the phenomenon of a mighty power (the United States) getting half-dragged into a conflict by lesser allies (France and the United Kingdom), which brings to mind the European crisis of 1914, in which the actions of Serbia and Austria-Hungary dragged Russia and Germany into what became World War I. Then there are the ghosts of past genocides and non-interventions, which constituted the other half of U.S. decision-making. This has been more a matter of emotion than of clear-eyed consideration of costs and benefits. It is the sort of redemptive, analogy-laden “never again” attitude that also has been in evidence in other decisions about war and peace, similar to the repeated invocations of Munich and the pre-World War II diplomacy that have contributed to earlier wars.

Hooliganism and the Milosevic of Tripoli

It was probably inevitable, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pulled out the Bosnia comparison in reference to Libya. Urging patience, Clinton reminded her audience yesterday that “the United States and other partners bombed targets in Serbia for 78 days,” and that though then–Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic remained in power, the Kosovar people were protected from atrocities. So it is in Libya, where “there are even reports that Kadhafi's forces may have used cluster bombs against their own people.” Clinton sat down yesterday with the Dutch foreign affairs minister, Uri Rosenthal, to discuss ways of pressuring the Libyan leader financially.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen also warned of a long slog. He said that the war was heading toward a stalemate and that Washington has given the OK to using Predator drones in Libya. In a spot of good news, he did note that there was no indication of any “al-Qaeda representation” in Libya at all.

Mission Creep in Libya

There's always been something a little odd about American involvement in Libya. President Obama explained that he was trying to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and that Col. Qaddafi must go. But Qaddafi has put up a much stiffer fight than Obama and his allies David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy ever anticipated. The rebels, meanwhile, are a motley crew, one that even Secretary of Hillary Clinton has trouble defining. No one really seems to know who they are, except that they probably include a goodly number of Islamic radicals in their ranks.

But why be concerned about that? Western prestige is now on the line. Hence the decision to employ armed drones in Libya, "deepening," as the Washington Post politely puts it, American involvement in what amounts to a civil war. Can you say mission creep?

One problem with American involvement in Libya is that it is, at bottom, a diversion from its mission in Afghanistan. Libya was once a source of terrorism. But it hasn't been for about a decade. Qaddafi had been largely tamed. Afghanistan, by contrast, remains a potent source of danger to America. Predator drones should be flying there, not over Libya.

David Ignatius points to another difficulty. According to Ignatius, "It brings a weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power into a theater next door to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the most promising events in a generation. It projects American power in the most negative possible way." The drones are symptomatic of America's desire to wage war via air power. Obama has no intention of inserting ground troops into Libya. He has, in other words, created the worst of all possible worlds. America has pledged to remove a dictator. But Obama is unwilling to enforce that pledge. Instead, he is prolonging the conflict.

Those Unsatisfying Terrorism Warning Systems

There is an unreal, artificial aspect of systems to warn the public about terrorist threats, the latest U.S. version of which the Department of Homeland Security announced this week. But American attitudes toward terrorism make some such system a political necessity. The public expects the government to be on top of terrorist threats, and a warning system is one way to look like it is. The public also wants to feel it is being kept informed rather than being kept in the dark. Such systems cater to the notion that a well-functioning government security apparatus ought to be able to recognize and to counter any terrorist threat.

So for the foreseeable future there will be some such public warning arrangement, with each version designed to mitigate the principal complaints about the previous one. The current version discards the much-maligned stoplight chart with its five color-coded levels of threat. In response to observations that the threat level in the old system rarely seemed to change, the new system incorporates a sunset provision that leads to cancellation of a warning after a predetermined period unless it is specifically renewed.

No amount of tinkering with the design can overcome the inherently self-negating element of any such warning system. If the authorities had detailed enough information to satisfy the public yearning for specificity, they probably would have detailed enough information to roll up the plot and preclude any warning at all. Even if the information is semi-specific regarding possible targets, there still is a self-negating element; a public warning that narrows the threat to certain types of targets is a cue to the terrorists to aim at a different target.

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April 16, 2014