The Campaign Non-Debate on Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

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

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseGrand StrategyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Breaking the West Bank Deadlock

The Buzz

Is the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dead? Over the past few months, a growing number of commentators have suggested so. In April, Gideon Levy declared, “It's time to raise the white flag, to admit publicly that the two-state solution has been foiled.” Robert Wright concurred, saying it was “on its deathbed.” And in the cover story of TNI’s most recent issue, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar examined in detail the demographic and political changes in Israel making such a solution increasingly unlikely.

Now Jonathan Tepperman has a new article up at the Atlantic proposing a way out to break this deadlock. His title says it all: “Why Israel Should Withdraw From the West Bank—Now.” In short, he suggests Israel unilaterally disengage from the West Bank as it did from Gaza in 2005.

Tepperman cites a number of prospective advantages to this plan. First are the financial benefits that would come from eliminating the costs of the occupation—around $6.3 billion a year.  Second, he says it would help Israel’s image internationally, depriving its enemies “of their biggest rhetorical weapon.” Along these lines, it would also aid Israel on security issues. Arab leaders who might like to partner with Israel in opposing Iran, for example, but are loath to do so because of Israel’s image in their countries, might find it easier if Israel ended the occupation.

One suspects that Tepperman knows his proposal is a political nonstarter, especially in the current Israeli political environment. There are a host of potential objections—for example, that the Palestinians might just pocket the concession and do nothing else, or that it would expose Israel to additional security risks—that make it difficult to imagine the Israeli government taking this kind of step anytime soon.

Nevertheless, this piece is a welcome, bold idea in a debate that often seems to retread the same familiar ground. The conflict has long been deadlocked, with the two sides simply too far apart on the core issues and not under any real urgency to come to an agreement. Tepperman’s proposal, while imperfect, is a notable one that might just prove to be attractive to a future Israeli government as it drags on.

TopicsPeacekeeping RegionsIsrael

Why Empires Fail

Paul Pillar

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

TopicsDemocracyGrand StrategyHumanitarian Intervention RegionsUnited States

The Neocon War Against Robert Zoellick

Jacob Heilbrunn

Jennifer Rubin is the Tiger Mom of the neocon movement. She exhorts her charges forward and reacts ferociously to anyone who threatens her brood. A few years ago, she was in the forefront of the chorus decrying President Obama's selection of Charles Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to head the National Intelligence Council. Freeman had made some sloppy statements about Israel and was vulnerable. A kind of wilding took place in which Freeman was depicted as an implacable anti-Semite. After the Obama administration remained silent, Freeman withdrew, and the neocons had claimed a fresh scalp.

Now Rubin and other conservatives have a new and more formidable target in their sights, one they can denounce but not dislodge. It is Robert Zoellick, the former head of the World Bank whom Mitt Romney has deputed to head his presidential campaign's foreign-affairs unit, the somewhat portentously named "Project Readiness." It seems, however, that neocons are not ready for Zoellick. Instead, he is being accused of delinquency on a number of foreign-affairs issues, including Israel. He is seen as a realist, a reincarnation of the old-establishment GOP that believes in diplomacy first.

In her Washington Post blog "Right Turn," Rubin says that "for foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema." So she proceeds to anathematize him. Rubin declares,

As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.

It's not easy to know where to begin here. Was Baker really "infamous" for his allegedly "anti-Israel stance"? Or was he simply trying to promote the peace process with the Palestinians by discouraging Israel from building further settlements in the West Bank? Then there are Rubin's canards about the Soviet Union. The notion that Zoellick was "weak on pressuring" the Soviet Union defies logic. The Kremlin essentially capitulated at the end of the Cold War, surrendering its entire East European empire as well as the Baltic States. Germany was reunited and remained a member of NATO. Zoellick was the point person negotiating the 2 + 4 agreement with the Soviet Union that led to the peaceful unification of Germany. Eventually, NATO even expanded eastward, to the discomfiture of the Kremlin. Would Rubin have demanded that Zoellick insist upon official stationing rights for an American antiballistic missile system around Moscow's perimeter?  And when it comes to China, Zoellick's sentiments are understandable. China has dialed down what Rubin deems its "aggressive conduct" in the past year. Whether it will prove friend or foe is an open question. But it makes no sense to antagonize it cavalierly. Zoellick is a friend of prudence, not adventurism.

But Rubin's complains are not isolated ones. As Foreign Policy's assiduous Josh Rogin reports, the Zoellick affair is creating convulsions in conservative circles. In his new post, Zoellick will be vetting the possible national-security members of a new Romney administration. The campaign says that he will not be determining policy. But of course Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of state in the George H. W. Bush administration, is no stranger to bare-knuckles political combat. He is surely aiming for a top position—secretary of state or defense secretary—and would most likely get it. And why shouldn't he? Zoellick has been a remarkably effective official, someone with political savvy and a keen understanding of international politics.

It is precisely Zoellick's negotiating prowess, however, that has some neocons worried. Rogin notes that neocons complain that,

"Bob Zoellick couldn't be more conservative in the branch of the GOP he represents," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's pro-China to the point of mania, he's an establishment guy, he's a trade-first guy. He's basically a George H.W. Bush, old-school Republican."

Well, yes. No Republican president—no prudent one, that is—would rely solely on the neocons for foreign-policy advice. Presidents tend to have different camps in their administrations. Ronald Reagan had both neocons and realists, and to the vexation of the neocons he reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev to sign sweeping arms-control treaties—treaties that they denounced as tantamount to appeasement. What's more, George H. W. Bush's reputation keeps rising. He wound down the Iraq War before America could get enmeshed in Baghdad. He ended the Cold War without firing a shot. As he mulls over his foreign-policy course, Mitt Romney could do worse than to consider his example. His selection of Zoellick suggests that he is. Good for Romney.

TopicsThe Presidency

Olympic Patriotism Cops

The Buzz

It’s no secret that Fox News can be over-the-top, but a recent segment with David Webb criticizing American gymnast Gabby Douglas’ “lack of patriotism” was beyond ridiculous.

Douglas, who is both a gold medalist and—lest we forget—a child, is attacked by Webb for not wearing patriotic enough attire when competing or standing on the podium. He asks of Douglas “What’s wrong with showing pride? What we’re seeing is the kind of soft anti-American feeling, that Americans can’t show our exceptionalism.” What was the kid supposed to do? Break out red-white-and-blue Zubaz pants to spread liberty around the world? Nevermind that team gear is standard issue and that each athlete wears the apparel given to him or her by our country’s Olympic committee. 

According to Webb, it is through sport that we should illustrate our superiority to the world. Among other grievances, we are apparently guilty of not singing the national anthem as vociferously as we used to at baseball games and saying the pledge of allegiance less frequently. 

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf takes Webb down easily:

What's especially crazy about all this is that after Gabby Douglas won the gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around, she stood waving up at the crowd clad in a red, white, and blue jacket with USA written on the back. Later during the medal ceremony she wore a gray jacket with an American flag patch on the shoulder, stood atop the podium, and listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" as an American flag was hoisted up above her. Even if that weren't all true David Webb's commentary would be nonsense, but the fact that it is all true adds to the comic ambivalence about factual accuracy that characterizes so much of what people say on Fox News.

Friedersdorf’s clincher says it best: “What other enterprise would turn Olympic gold for America into an opportunity to make Americans anxious and upset about allegedly waning patriotism?”

The Atlantic’s piece is a smart take on an unfortunate segment of cable news.