Messy Realities and the Unhelpful Debate on U.S. Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

Much current debate in the United States about foreign policy can be boiled down—at the risk of the sort of oversimplification that too often characterizes the debate itself—to the following. On one side are calls for the United States to do more (exactly what it is supposed to do more of often does not seem to matter) in response to untoward happenings in hot spots such as Iraq, Syria, or Ukraine. On the other side, which includes most of the time the Obama administration, is a tempered restraint based on the limitations and complications of trying to do anything more in such places.

This line-up has some similarities to age-old confrontations between hedgehogs, who know (or think they know) one big thing, and foxes, who pay attention to a lot of things without having any one big idea. The nature of the debate has even more to do with the highly asymmetric nature of any argument between incumbent policy-makers, who have the burden of taking real action with real consequences and of dealing with all the messy and costly details, and of outside critics, who have the luxury of bemoaning bad things happening in the world without actually having to take any practical steps to do anything about them, and without having responsibility for the consequences.

This asymmetry has seemed especially marked with the current president, and not only because some of the biggest burdens of his foreign policy have involved cleaning up leftovers from his predecessor's foreign policy (including the premiere threat du jour, the group usually known as ISIS, whose birth was a direct consequence of the Iraq War). The current clear preference of the American public to avoid new entangling military encounters naturally gives rise to the charge that President Obama is merely bowing to that public opinion rather than exerting leadership.

The principal features of the non-incumbent side of the debate are seen over and over again, even if looking beyond such prominent and stalwart members of that side as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who never met an entangling military encounter they didn't like. One sees these features in the pronouncements of, for example, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, or of the Washington Post editorial page, which has beaten its drum particularly hard for getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. One familiar feature is the implicit assumption that if there is a nasty situation out there, the United States ought to be able to do something to solve it, coupled with the further assumption that the more actively involved the Untied States becomes in the problem, the more good will come out of the situation.

Another feature is a fondness for applying (again without supporting analysis) the most optimistic assumptions about how some hypothetical alternative policy in the past would have come out. E.g., the idea that if only the United States had done more earlier to assist a “moderate” opposition in Syria, we wouldn't have Assad, or ISIS, or both to deal with today. Or, if only we had come down harder on Putin he wouldn't be mucking around in eastern Ukraine today. Yet another repeated feature is an equation of leadership with forceful action, especially military action—as illustrated by Corker's charge that President Obama is “uncomfortable being commander in chief”.

Also recurrent is the invoking of very hedgehog-like calls for a single “coherent strategy” or “organizing principle” or some such thing, with those making the calls secure in the knowledge that rhetorically such formulations always have an advantage over anything that can be belittled as ad hoc or reactive. The oversimplification involved is grossest when applied to U.S. policy toward the entire world, but there is still oversimplification when such a call is applied even to a single country. We hear, for example, that problems of U.S. policy toward Iraq are a simple matter of deciding whether the United State has a mission of stabilizing Iraq. Actually, it's not really anywhere near that simple. Instability in Iraq has many different facets, some of which should concern the United States and some of which should not, and some of which are amenable to U.S. influence and some of which are not.

Hillary Clinton, whose recent pronouncements must be dismaying to progressive realists fearing they will not have any acceptable choice at the top of the ballot in November 2016, has been talking in the same mode. She tells us that not doing stupid stuff is not an “organizing principle,” and a great nation like the United States needs an organizing principle for its foreign policy. Two things about that comment make it, well, not quite smart. One is that the world is a very disorganized place, and any single organizing principle is too simple to be effective in dealing with all, or even most, of the problems the world throws at us.

The other thing wrong with that comment is that not doing stupid stuff is so important that it deserves to be at the top of any president's checklist, just as Hippocrates taught that “first do no harm” should be at the top of any physician's checklist. Think about the Middle East, and ask what development, whether involving an action or inaction by the United States, has had the biggest effects, for good or for ill, on U.S. interests in recent years. The answer has to be—firmly implanted on the “for ill” side of the ledger—the Iraq War. The most important thing any U.S. president should do is not to do stupid stuff like that, or to get into a position with a serious risk of sliding into something like that.

Mr. Obama's interview with Tom Friedman last week was a clear statement of the other side of the foreign policy debate. Friedman writes that “the president has a take on the world, born of many lessons over the last six years, and he has feisty answers for all his foreign policy critics.” The president's observations reflected at least as comprehensive view of the world as those throwing out the buzz phrases of comprehensive strategy and organizing principle, coupled with an awareness of the unavoidable complexities whether one is dealing with the whole world or with a single troubling country. His answers were not just feisty but insightful, such as explaining why the idea that putting more arms in the hands of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” was never going to be a solution to the problems of Syria, and why in Iraq the incentives for political deal-makers in Baghdad will have at least as much to do with that country's future stability as munitions in Nineveh. The least persuasive aspect of his comments concerned his unwillingness to recognize intervention in Libya as a mistake.

One should hope that Mr. Obama, as a second term president, will not let his policies over the next two years be diverted by ill-aimed screeching of hawks. Even if he doesn't, however, the shape and tenor of current debate risks creating a narrative, the effects of which might not be felt until the next administration, that most of the world's maladies exist because the United States didn't do something more, whatever that something might be.

Image: White House Flickr.                                             

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Russia: The World's Second-Largest Immigration Haven

The Buzz

“Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity”—President Obama recently stated in an interview with The Economist, while making a larger point about Russia’s receding role in the world. While much of his commentary on the overall state of affairs in Russia was accurate, his comments on a lack of immigrants in Moscow revealed a blind spot in his view of global-migration movements—immigrants have been rushing to Moscow for the last twenty years, and not only to Moscow, but to cities all over Russia.

According to UN Population Division estimates, as of 2013,  the Russian Federation was second only to the United States in the sheer number of immigrants. This is a fact that continues to elude many Americans as, justifiably or not, Russia is commonly thought of as a place to leave rather than a place to which to move. And while it’s true that Russian citizens are emigrating in increasing numbers in recent years (a phenomenon that has been compared to the brain drain of the early 1990s), significantly larger flows of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have been entering Russia for the last twenty years.

So, why are they coming? While Russia’s economy has risen and fallen over the last two decades, an aging population and high mortality rates have kept the demand for labor steady and even growing in some cities. Many of the immigrants coming to Russia are able to earn much higher wages than they could in their home countries. While life for the average labor migrant in Russia is hard, to say the least, the conditions they leave behind are almost always much worse. If there are no jobs in your town in Uzbekistan or Kyrgystan (which are among the major sending countries according to both UN and Russian official statistics), trying your luck in Russia is likely your best option. While experiences differ widely, migrants I interviewed in cities across Russia ranging from Moscow to Irkutsk often noted the appreciably better standard of living than in their home countries.

In addition to labor migrants, Russia has also received many refugees over the last twenty years. In the early 1990s, Armenians and Azerbaijanis fled to Russia after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as Meskhetian Turks from Uzbekistan after ethnic violence there. Citizens of Tajikistan fled civil war in the 1990s, relocating to Russia as well as to other former Soviet republics. It is difficult to measure the true volume of refugees who entered during much of the nineties, but the number of ethnic conflicts in Central Asia certainly was the source of large flows. More recently, the 2005 Andijan Massacre in Uzbekistan also brought many refugees to Russia. Currently, there are many asylum-seekers in Russia from Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, and growing numbers of refugees from eastern Ukraine.  

My emphasis on the presence of labor migrants and refugees in Russia is by no means intended to downplay the multitude of problems that are faced by immigrants and native-born citizens in Russia alike. Those problems are real and the focus of much study and journalism. However, as many of the immigrants to Russia are labor migrants from poverty-stricken, neighboring countries or refugees of ethnic violence and war, the term “opportunity” that President Obama used may not be appropriate. Is it an “opportunity” if you are coming in order to survive? This sentiment should ring true in the United States as the economic gap between our country and those south of our border is analogous to Russia’s economy compared to those of its neighboring countries and former Soviet republics.

A stark example of the effects such a gap can have is the child refugee crisis the United States continues to struggle with week after week. President Obama’s remarks about immigrants (or a lack of immigrants) in Russia coincide with the latest immigration debate that boiled over with the influx of child refugees at the border. It is ironic that in the process of drawing attention to Russia’s dwindling relevancy in the world, President Obama indirectly referenced one of the most complex and troubling issues of his presidency—the inability thus far to pass comprehensive immigration reform.     

President Obama seemed to be trying to demonstrate Russia’s waning relevance to the United States, keeping it “in perspective,” as he said, but, it is clear from the crisis in Ukraine and the ripple effects on all of Europe that Russia is as relevant as ever. Shouldn’t our goal then be to engage Russia and the broader region more productively? One way we could do this would be to recognize migration as an area where our two countries, the United States and Russia—numbers one and two, respectively, in terms of immigrant destinations—could work together and learn from each other. Though the United States has been an immigration destination for much longer than Russia, we are clearly still far from figuring out what works best. Both countries continue to struggle with what to do about masses of undocumented workers, detention centers, public health concerns, fervent anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as many other issues related to immigration.

Though it might not be feasible for the highest levels of government of the United States and Russia to work together on this issue at this time, at least there is collaboration between the two countries at the local level. People-to-people diplomacy continues with multiple U.S.-Russia working groups on various topics, including migration, and the U.S. government has had the vision to fund such crucial programs. I feel fortunate to have been involved in two research groups, one funded by the National Science Foundation and the other by the U.S.-Russia Social Expertise Exchange, which had both Russian and U.S. participants, studying migration issues in both countries. Through such initiatives, it becomes clear just how many similar problems the United States and Russia face. Keeping these lines of communication open helps U.S. and Russian citizens alike gain a real understanding of the on-the-ground situations in their respective countries, no matter what statements our political leaders make.

Mary Elizabeth Malinkin is a program associate of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center.

Image: Flickr/DavidDennisPhotos/CC by-sa 2.0

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsRussia

China's Growing Military Might Has Japan on Edge: Tokyo Responds

The Buzz

Earlier this week, Japan released its annual defense white paper. It comes amidst a number of initiatives by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to adjust Japan’s defense policy, including most recently a reinterpretation of the constitution to allow the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) to exercise the right of collective self-defense. In light of Abe’s visit to Australia last month and the agreement to enhance bilateral defense cooperation, it’s worth analyzing this document.

Overall, the white paper reaffirms both the Abe government’s increased concern about China’s strategic trajectory and changes to the JSDF’s force posture already announced in other documents after Abe’s re-election in December 2012. The 2013 defense white paper was already noteworthy for its harsher tone against China. The new version argues “security issues and destabilizing factors in the Asia-Pacific region including the area surrounding Japan are becoming more serious.” It directly criticizes China’s establishment of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in November 2013 as a “profoundly dangerous” act designed to “unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea.” For the first time it also mentions the problem of “gray-zone” situations which are “neither purely peacetime nor contingencies over territory, sovereignty and maritime economic interests”—another reference to China’s low-level maritime coercion activities in the East and South China Sea.

China’s growing military challenge is the biggest driver for JSDF modernization, followed by North Korea’s missile program. The new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) of December 2013 provided defense-planning guidance for the next five years. They built on the 2010 NDPG, which called for the development of a “Dynamic Defense Force,” that is, a more mobile force better capable of defending the Japanese archipelago against new emerging threats. The 2013 NDPG introduced the concept of a “Dynamic Joint Defense Force,” which paves the way for greater cooperation within a heretofore largely disjointed force. It also announced new capabilities to strengthen Japan’s air-maritime denial capabilities:

·       The Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) Navy is set to acquire 23 new P-1 long-range maritime patrol aircraft to replace the existing P-3C Orions. A further aim is to increase the number of destroyers from 48 to 54. The new destroyers will be smaller, more modular and fitted with minesweeping equipment. At the same time, the number of minesweepers will be reduced by 25%. There will also be ballistic missile defense (BMD) software upgrades for the two Aegis destroyers of the Atago-class as well as acquisition of two more ships, bringing the BMD-capable destroyer force to eight. The submarine fleet is to increase from 16 to 22, as announced in 2010.

·       The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) will deploy more F-15 fighters closer to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and will double its Airborne Early Warning Squadrons. It will also expand the number of fighter squadrons, not least through the acquisition of 42 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.

·       The Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) will continue its build-up of an amphibious brigade around the Western Army Infantry Regiment. It will acquire new amphibious assault vehicles as well as 17 V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft. Moreover, the GSDF will further reduce its number of tanks, invest in a new mobile combat vehicle and establish coastal observation and area security units through the Ryukyu Islands. Finally, Japan will also develop nine anti-ship missile companies, which could be forward deployed.

·       The 2014 defense white paper confirms all of those defense equipment plans.

So, what does it all mean? Under Abe, Japan continues to modernize what is fundamentally still a defensive military posture. It’s about making the JSDF more mobile and resilient in the defense of the archipelago whilst remaining predominantly in a supporting role to US forces based in Japan. In this context, analysts have rightly noted (here and here) that the recent move towards exercising the right of collective defense came with major caveats. Essentially, it’s about allowing the JSDF to support its U.S. ally helping to defend Japan against a major military threat.

Moreover, it’s still far from clear whether the JSDF will be able to meet the new white paper’s ambitions. One structural impediment is the defense budget. This year, Japan will spend about US$ 46.9 billion—a growth of 2.2% compared to 2013. Yet, that’s still well below spending in the early 2000s. And a look at the budget breakdown reveals that rising personnel costs, life-extension programs, and upgrading facilities absorb a large part of the budget. If Japan’s economic problems continue more money for defense is hardly likely to be forthcoming.

Even more important is that Abe is fighting an uphill battle in his attempts to initiate lasting change in Japan’s defense policy. As Brad Glosserman points out, the public seems largely skeptical about his vision for a Japan reasserting its power, being content with the current process of “decent stagnation.” In this context, a recent opinion poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of Japanese is still unclear as to why the government decided to reinterpret the constitution in order to exercise the right of collective self-defense. Abe will need to secure another term in office if he hopes to lock-in his changes. Even then, barring a major external shock, Japan’s defense policy will remain fundamentally defensive.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsJapan

Palestine's ICC Threat: Pluses and Minuses for Mahmoud Abbas

The Buzz

The shooting has resumed in Gaza. But where will things go when it ends? Inevitably, in each operation in Gaza since 2008 there is a "Goldstone-ification" on the Palestinian side—a shift from the kinetic to the diplomatic. Legal experts hover, investigations launch, initiatives get underway in courts around the world. Some yield results for the Palestinians. Some don’t. But this time, there may be a game changer. The Palestinians may plead their case against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

The threat of going to the ICC is by now a common one from the Palestinian leadership in the past couple of years. With little leverage on other fronts, the Palestinian leaders have threatened to sue the Israelis for war crimes several times, presumably over settlement construction.  In April, Mahmoud Abbas gave the Israelis an extra jolt when he announced that the Palestinians would sign on to fifteen international conventions, including the Geneva Convention. This came on the heels of his successful recognition of the “State of Palestine” at the UN General Assembly in 2012. Palestinian officials claimed that the fifteen were just the first cluster in a group of international conventions and organizations that numbered closer to sixty-three. Palestinians asserted that, depending on Israel’s actions, they would keep progressing in that list until they reached the sixty-third: the Rome Statute and ICC.

This was the plan before the conflict in Gaza erupted in early July. The ICC was originally intended as a last resort for the Palestinians. But now, with the death toll in Gaza sparking international outrage, the Palestinian leadership may skip all of the other conventions and jump right into the deep end. 

The reasons for this have just as much to do with Palestinian politics as the Palestinian demands for justice. Throughout the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, the role of West Bank-based Mahmoud Abbas has been severely diminished on the Palestinian street. Hamas’s calls for protests in the West Bank prompted large crowds to take to the streets. But Abbas, a longstanding proponent of nonviolence, refused to endorse a full-blown intifada. With the conflict raging, Abbas clung to his vision of presiding over both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as the sole representative of the Palestinians. This was despite the fact that Hamas continues to demonstrate its full control over Gaza.

In other words, the Gaza war may have given Hamas a spike in popularity, but he also knows they will not likely emerge stronger after taking a pounding militarily. The Egyptians are also not likely to cede to their demands in the ceasefire talks in Cairo. So, Abbas is taking this opportunity to regain the mantle of the top Palestinian leader. Abbas knows that his international campaign is popular—a June poll showed almost 80 percent of Palestinians support going to the ICC. When the calls for the ICC became louder and louder as the operation dragged on, Abbas sent Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal a copy of the plans for the ICC. Days later, Saeb Erekat, the top negotiator, reiterated his boss’s claims and called on all Palestinian factions to approve the plan to go the ICC.

On August 5, Abbas dispatched the Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad al-Maliki, to The Hague to meet and discuss steps for joining the ICC. This was a bluff. The Palestinians know the process and procedure for joining the ICC is complex—they’ve been studying it for years. The true purpose of the trip came in al-Maliki’s comments after the meeting, where he issued this threat: "Everything that has happened in the last twenty-eight days is clear evidence of war crimes committed by Israel, amounting to crimes against humanity. There is no difficulty for us to show or build the case. Evidence is there ... Israel is in clear violation of international law."

When asked if the Palestinians were worried with a counter-suit from Israel, al-Maliki shrugged it off, saying the Palestinians were willing to accept that because: “nothing compares to the atrocities, the carnage, committed by Israel.”

But this could all backfire on Abbas. In seeking the consent of all Palestinian factions for joining the ICC, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad—terrorist groups that regularly carry out war crimes—Abbas risks exposing himself to the type of counter-suit that could negate his attempts to gain leverage over Israel. An investigation into war crimes reveals the actions of all the actors on the battlefield. Any amount of scrutiny into the events of the past month—the tunnels, the rocket fire from civilian areas, the suicide bombings—is sure to create headaches Palestinians. For Abbas, it could become a race to the bottom on a spectacular stage.

Nevertheless, Palestinians and their supporters continue to demand justice for the last month of hostilities. Now that Abbas has raised the threat of the ICC to a new level, can he back away?

Grant Rumley is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Image: World Economic Forum. CC BY-NC-SA.

TopicsInternational Law RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

The Twin Crises of 1956 and 2014

Paul Pillar

At or near the top of the list of foreign policy challenges that U.S. and European statesmen have had to handle the past couple of months are the escalation of tensions with Russia over events in eastern Ukraine and the war in the Gaza Strip. These two problems clamoring for attention at the same time bring to mind one of the most memorable pairs of simultaneous crises, which occurred in October and November of 1956: the Hungarian revolt and crushing of it by Soviet military force, and the Suez crisis brought on by an Israeli-French-British scheme to invade Egypt and seize the Suez Canal.

The crises of 1956 had some obvious parallels with those of 2014, besides the simultaneity factor. In each case one of the problems involved questions of the extent to which Soviet or Russian power would hold sway over an East European state and the extent to which Moscow would act forcefully to prevent rollback of its sphere of influence. In each case the other problem involved an Israeli military assault against neighboring Arabs. (The tripartite plan that precipitated the Suez crisis involved Israel beginning the war with an invasion and then France and Britain intervening under the guise of separating Israeli and Egyptian forces and protecting the canal.) There were important differences, too. The sort of neutrality that would make for a stable solution in Ukraine today is nothing like the domination the Soviets were enforcing over Hungary and other Warsaw Pact states in the 1950s. In the Middle East, Arab postures toward Israel have changed significantly from where they were in 1956, while Israeli military power relative to that of the Arabs has grown significantly, as has the amount of land Israel has seized and occupied through military force.

Facing two major crises simultaneously makes it harder to respond effectively to either one. This was generally seen to be the case in the autumn of 1956. One problem concerns consistency of standards of international behavior and the difficulty of mustering international support for enforcement of a standard if one appears to be flouting it elsewhere. This was a source of anguish for many in Britain who wanted to stand up to the Soviets for what they were doing in Hungary but recognized the difficulty of doing so while Britain was participating in what was being done to Egypt. A prominent member of the Liberal Party, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, said, “We cannot order Soviet Russia to obey the edict of the United Nations which we ourselves have defied, nor to withdraw her tanks and guns from Hungary while we are bombing and invading Egypt. Today we are standing in the dock with Russia.”

In the same vein, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon later observed, “We couldn't on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.” It was partly for that reason that President Eisenhower did not approve of what Britain, France, and Israel were doing but instead called for an immediate withdrawal of Israel's forces from Egyptian territory and for United Nations-approved economic sanctions against it if it did not comply. Eisenhower encountered Congressional opposition to pressuring Israel, and in the U.N. Security Council Britain and France vetoed resolutions calling for withdrawal.

A few echoes of this can be discerned in this year's crises. The European economic interests that matter most today involve not the Suez canal but rather trade and energy relationships with Russia. Possibly those interests made sanctions against Russia weaker and slower in coming than they otherwise would have been. In the same respect and bearing in mind the role of consistency, there was less of a constituency for sanctioning Israel than there might otherwise have been.

Although this year Britain has not had a direct military role in connivance with Israel as it did with the Suez affair, there are similarly disturbed consciences within Britain about what Israel was doing and whether the British government had done enough to stop it. A Conservative member of the cabinet (and the only Muslim member), Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, resigned over the issue. Now the Liberal Democrats are calling for suspension of all British arms sales to Israel.

Simultaneous crises also may be difficult to deal with because of the limits of time, attention, and priorities. Statesmen, including those of 1956, usually would say that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. But bandwidth in policy-making has been a problem since before the term bandwidth existed. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has said that insufficient attention by senior Carter administration policy-makers to the Iranian revolution during its early stages was partly due to their circuits being overloaded at the time by other matters, including the Camp David negotiations and some U.S.-Soviet arms control issues.

The problem is not just a simple one of a limited number of hours in a policy-maker's working day. It also is a matter of expenditure of energy and of political chits, with everything this implies for the necessary bargaining and horse-trading involved in winning support for a position or major initiative. The most effective U.S. response to the tragedy in Gaza would have necessitated tackling head-on the underlying issues of occupation of the Palestinian territories. That would have required very large expenditure of energy and political chits, and John Kerry is still recovering from exhaustion from his last unsuccessful stab at the subject. This in turn is related to another significant difference between 1956 and now: the growth in power of the Israel lobby, which accounts for why the Gaza crisis has been discussed so differently in the United States than it has been in Britain. The resistance Eisenhower encountered in Congress was mild compared to what any president today would face, which is why it seems inconceivable that any president today would try to do what he did.

Statesmen do not get to choose when crises will happen, except for the ones they manufacture themselves. Usually they would prefer not to have more than one crisis going on at once, but sometimes that will happen. The fact that their attention may sometimes get divided in this way should be an additional reason for caution in undertaking big new initiatives or commitments. An initiative that might work satisfactorily if it gets undivided attention is more likely to encounter problems if it does not. There also is the drain on chits and bargaining power that any one commitment entails, making it that much harder to deal with some other challenge at the same time, not to mention the problem of winning support when it looks like one is applying standards inconsistently. Just as a rainy day fund for unknown future expenses is a good idea, so is the conservation of some political capital for handling crises that have not yet arisen.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsRussia Ukraine Israel Egypt Palestinian Territories RegionsEurope Middle East