My Top 5 List for 2014: 5 Biggest Foreign Policy Events for the US in Asia


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I love these hoky, end-of-the-year lists. But I don’t know much about genuinely interesting or cool stuff, like the top 5 classical music pieces or architectural masterpieces of the year. So before you read another list about the Kardashians’ top 5 lip glosses, or the 5 most repetitive comic movies of the year, here is an uber-wonky one that’s basically about the sustainability of the pivot.

I am constantly wondering whether the US can carry through on the ‘rebalance,’ whether we can actually shift out of the Middle East and Europe and pay more attention to the Asia-Pacific. I am skeptical, in part because I tend to see US commitments as opportunity costs of one another. In other words, if we are tangling with Putin or ISIS, then we don’t have much time for China or Maduro. But if you’re a neocon, then the pivot is no trouble. Getting involved in Asia doesn’t mean lessening commitments elsewhere, because the US should be globocop anyway, and US domestic expenses should be cut to fund to all this intervention.

The following post was originally put up at the Diplomat:

My November Diplomat Essay: If We can’t Stop Fighting in the Middle East, We’ll Never Pivot


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You think that guy to the left cares about China or ASEAN? Gimme a break.

This is a point I have made again and again on this blog: Asia does not activate the racial/cultural/religious paranoias of Americans, especially conservatives, evangelical Christians (who are around 45% of the country), and the GOP. This is why we won’t stop fighting in the Middle East. The ‘America is a Judeo-Christian country’ crowd absolutely wants to stay and fight it out against the jihadis, because it fears/hates them in a visceral way it never will feel about east Asian geopolitics. China may be threatening in a traditional, state-to-state kinda way, but that doesn’t move people’s deep fears/beliefs/angst though. But the idea that Muslims might bring sharia to the West, build a mosque near ground-zero, or see their holidays treated equally by Western public authorities is enough see a lot of Americans into a cultural panic. Hence the huge well of public opinion support to keep fighting and fighting in the Middle East.

This is what Huntington grasped a long time ago with the clash of civilizations, but China is too different for most Americans to get excited about in a personal way. But Islam does provoke Americans like this; just watch Fox. Its focus on Islam is relentless and astonishing. So yes, the long war is still the long war, and the Chinese can sit back and watch the GOP insist that the US fight endlessly in the Gulf.

The original essay is here; reprinted after the jump:

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Iraq 10 Years Later (3): Why the Neocon Theory behind the War Failed


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My first post on the Iraq War asked if academic IR had any responsibility to slow the march to war.

The second tried to formulate what the   neoconservative theory of the war was, because many of us, in retrospect of a conflict gone so badly, desperately want to un-remember that there really was a logic to the war, that it was at least somewhat intellectually defensible, and that a lot of us believed it. We may want to retroactively exculpate ourselves by suggesting it was just W the cowboy acting ridiculous, or a neocon hijacking of the policy process, or Halliburton oil imperialism, and all the other reasons so popular on the left. And some of that is true of course.

But it ducks the crucial point that the war was popular until it flew wildly off-the-rails, which in turn revealed the staggering incompetence of the Bush administration to act on the neocon logic the country had embraced by March 2003. In short, I argued that the Iraq invasion was not about WMD, preemption, or democracy, although that rationale was played up in the wake of the failure to find WMD. The real neocon goal was to scare the daylights out of the Arabs and their elites by punching one of their worst regimes in the face, thereby showing what was coming to rest of the region unless it cleaned up its act, i.e., crack down on salafism and liberalize so as to defuse the cultural extremism that lead to 9/11. (Read Ajami saying in January 2003 that the war is ‘to modernize the Arabs;’ that’s about as a good a pre-war summary of this logic as you’ll get.)

So what went wrong?

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Iraq 10 Years Later (2): What was the Neocon Theory behind the War?


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My first thoughts on the war’s ten year anniversary are here. There I asked if there was any defensible theory behind the war, anything that might explain what why we launched the war, because weapons of mass destruction were not really the reason. Paul Wolfowitz notoriously admitted they were just a pretext to rally the country behind the invasion. And it wasn’t really about pre-emption either; Iraq was hardly a looming military threat in 2003. So here’s my guess of the real neoconservative logic. I should say up front, I do not endorse this rationale. I’m just trying to lay it out what I think neocons were saying to each other in 2002:

The Iraq invasion was to serve two purposes. 1) It was to be a demonstration strike against the Arabs. Gulf anti-western pathologies lead to 9/11, so the Iraq invasion was a warning to Arabs, and Muslims generally, to never to attack the US like that again. As Cheney put it in the film W, ‘don’t ever f— with us again.’ 2) It was to be a hammer strike to break the frozen, horribly dysfunctional Arab political status quo which generated those pathologies; this would force the region toward democracy it would never attain on its own. This thinking was summarized in the widely used expression at the time, ‘drain the swamp.’

A lot of people will (and did) accuse the neocons of orientalism, racism, and US hegemonic arrogance. Nevertheless I’ve always thought this neocon argument was somewhat convincing to most Americans, especially the GOP. I’ve always thought it was the horribly botched execution of the war (‘fiasco’), not the idea itself of ‘draining the swamp,’ that cost the invasion American public opinion support. I also don’t think the neocon argument was ever properly made to the US public, probably because it sounds both orientalist and hubristic. This is not the sort of argument the Bush administration could make out loud; WMD was much easier to sell and far more direct, as Wolfowitz noted. But I think if you read neocons like Kristol, Krauthammer, Gerecht, or Podhoretz, as well as high profile area experts like Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, or Bernard Lewis, or the right-wing thinks-tanks that supported the war (AEI, Heritage, Foundation for Defense of Democracies), this is what you heard. (For example: this, this, this, this, or this). I once participated in the FDDs’ terrorism fellowship program, and this was pretty much the line we got.

So you may not like the argument, but at least there is one. The war cannot just be dismissed as US imperialism, an oil grab, or a PNAC/neocon cabal, which I think was too often the default position on the left, especially in Europe, during the war. Opponents should rebut this and not just stick to deriding W the swaggering cowboy, fun as that may be.

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Ranking US Allies: A Response to Stephen Walt, Andrew Sullivan & all those Canadians…


Who knew Canada could be so controversial…

 

Ok, this has gotta be my last response to the many comments from this sprawling series  (one, two, three, four, five) of posts on ranking US allies. Thanks for all the interest. Who knew Canada was so interesting or Canadians so passionate?

I’d like to thank Stephen Walt (whose blog I think is the best in IR) for linking this debate, and Andrew Sullivan for linking me twice. If you aren’t reading Sullivan yet, you’re at the wrong website. Thanks too to all those Canadians who came out of the woodwork to defend its boring relevance. Finally, who could fail to thank a website disturbingly entitled  f—-dgaijin.com?! (Yes, that’s the actual name; check it out for yourself; at least these guys know where we resident-foreigners stand in the East Asian racial food-chain – at the bottom.)

So here are some final thoughts on the many comments, but especially Walt and Sullivan:

1. I accept the arguments from several commenters that Turkey should be on the list. So here is a final list, a ‘top 12’ of US allies in order: Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, EU/NATO, Egypt, and Turkey.

2. I was please to see that Sullivan flagged – not necessarily approved, but just noted – my argument for Indonesia as America’s most important bridge to the Muslim world. I realize this is kinda off-beat, given that the ME is what dominates our perceptions of Islam and where Islamist pathologies are worst. (Here is a critic, a neocon perhaps, calling me ‘delusional’ for ranking Indonesia this way.) So here is a quick defense, more or less along the lines of what Secretary Clinton said a few years.

Indonesia is a syncretic model of pluralist Islam and politics; I think this is pretty widely accepted. No, it’s not as modern and liberal as we might like, but by the standards of the region, other developing countries, and the OIC, it is a paragon. Let’s be honest about that. It could easily be far, far worse (think Pakistan), which is why I find it unfortunate that we don’t pay attention much. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and a friendship with Indonesia doesn’t mean avoiding tough issues, just like engaging China doesn’t mean we should ignore human rights and other similar issues.

So in its own imperfect, struggling way, Indonesia represents the future of political Islam (speaking very broadly to be sure), not the past, which is a lot of what the ME represents and what Arab Spring is trying to break. If the flat-earth religious elites of places like Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia are allowed to dominate the global conversation on Islam, more conflict is likely. By contrast, Indonesia offers a possible model for Islam to live with both democratic politics and religious pluralism. That we should vigorously support such an effort, through some kind of alignment, strikes me as so self-evident, that I am amazed that we never talk about this.

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9/11 a Decade Later (1): The Apocalypse that Wasn’t…


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Part two of this post is here.

The 9/11 anniversary commentary will be endless, so here are a few I thought were good.

First, a few thoughts on what to avoid:

I am increasingly suspicious of stuff from the mainstream foreign affairs crowd: Council on Foreign Relations, CSIS, Brookings, and (especially) the conservative think-tank set. They are so Washington, predictable, and establishmentarian (because the all want gigs in the next administration of their choice), that you already know what you will read: no suggestion that the 20-year US massive presence in the Gulf infuriates Muslims and Arabs and helped catalyze 9/11; laundry lists of expensive ideas for the US to ‘do more in the region’ rather than to let locals be themselves; little hint that America’s relations with Muslims would improve dramatically if we were more even-handed on the Palestinians; no suggestion that America might have been better off doing much, much less in response to 9/11; full endorsement of the liberal internationalist-neocon position that 9/11 is a once-in-a-generation justification for continuing America’s massive globocop presence after the Cold War; minimal criticism of the massive Bush national security state overkill in response; shameless exploitation of 9/11 to prevent reductions in America’s gargantuan national security budget, etc. Stick with Foreign Policy, the American Review, the Atlantic, Slate or the New Republic (sometimes) for views that at least challenge the status quo and don’t just recycle what Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and the rest of the DC pundit class will tell you.

Next, avoid the emotional manipulative 9/11 retrospectives. This may sound callous – it was an awful day for everyone, and a truly horrible day for some. But far too often since 9/11, politicians, especially W, played to our emotions from that day, and used and manipulated them to support policy we would almost certainly not have agreed to otherwise, and which we will regret with shame in the future. Here’s the Wall Street Journal telling you that ‘Old Glory’ waved on 9/11 (you’re a patriot and love America, right?), and that’s why they called it the Patriot Act. But then the ACLU and Democrats sabotaged the GWoT, cause they hated W over the Florida recount. So the American left, completely out of power from 2000 to 2006, nonetheless made us ‘less safe’ – for a personal vendetta no less. This is Rovism, wrapped in the flag, but still manipulative and hardball. Further, I have little doubt that, just as we look back today in shame at the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII, we will do the same in 20-30 years when look at how we tortured people in the GWoT. Don’t let torture’s defenders – Yoo, Cheney, Thiessen – emotionally roll you by telling you they stopped the next 9/11 and more grieving widows by ‘legalizing’ waterboarding, ‘walling,’ and generally beating the s— out of people in the name of ‘America.’ Keep your wits (and it ain’t true anyway).

In line with this resistance to inevitable grandstanding, posturing, and macho heroics, my own sense is that 9/11’s importance is wildly over-exaggerated – perhaps because I live in Asia, and I increasingly see the Chinese challenge looming for decades to come. But know this – as just about any American living in Asia can tell you – the Chinese sure are happy that we got lost in the Middle East for a decade.

There are a million possible ‘lessons’ from 9/11, but the big one is actually a non-lesson – 9/11 actually changed very little (beyond the changes we made for ourselves, like Iraq and torture). As early as 2006, we were starting to realize just how much we had over-hyped 9/11. The tectonic plates of international relations change slowly. Al Qaeda could not in fact dent unipolarity. (China can, but that is another story.) The stock market didn’t crash. The US military didn’t suddenly collapse. The actual material loss on 9/11 was ‘only’ about $100B out of a $12T economy, and 2700 people from a citizenry of 300M+. (I don’t intend to sound cold; every life is ontologically unique and valuable. But from a national point of view, these numbers are small. Recall that almost 38,000 Americans died in car accidents in 2001.) 9/11 did not unravel NATO or US alliances. US GDP in the proximate quarters continued to expand. China and Russia did not suddenly become nice or nasty. Bin Laden’s much hoped-for Islamic revolution did not occur (one goal of the attack was to spark a global Muslim revolution with al Qaeda in a leninist ‘vanguard party’ role). The much-predicted ‘wave’ of terrorist attacks and plots against the US did not occur, at home or abroad. (Bush defenders will say this is because Bush improved US security at home, but what about the roughly 6M Americans living outside the US? If there really was a global Islamist conspiracy to kill us, there’d be kidnappings and assassinations of US businessmen, students, and tourists all over Eurasia. It never happened.) In the end, well over 99% of the population went to work the next day; unipolarity rolled on.

In short, from a national power perspective, 9/11 is more like Hurricane Katrina – an awful yet manageable one-time disaster – than Hiroshima – a city-breaking catastrophe that promised to be the first in a pattern leading to national collapse. 9/11 was a sucker-punch – a cheap shot al Qaeda managed to slip in because the US wasn’t paying attention (even though the CIA warned Rice and Bush a month earlier). 9/11 did not galvanize the Muslim world, nor provoke a fiery revolt. And given even reasonable homeland security measures (far less draconian than what we choose), repeat attacks at that magnitude are unlikely. In the end, the real reason 9/11 is seared into everyone’s mind is not its catalyst effect toward a global war or clash of civilizations – it is because it was a surprise attack, and because it targeted civilians.

That we permitted that one-shot sucker-punch to drive into us hysterics, to capture our dark imagination, zealous vengeance, and righteous fury is where 9/11 really changed things. American psychology – perhaps insulated too long from the world by US power and distance from Eurasia’s problems – is what changed, not the world.

Continue to part two.

Egyptian Revolution (1):We should Support the Uprising


Good lord, Beck really is insane…

 

Part 2 is here.

Like all of you in the last few weeks, I have been glued to CNN regarding Egypt. It is pretty inspiring, and I can only hope that Mubarak leaves and something more genuinely liberal and democratic takes his places. Here are a few thoughts.

1. Regarding the video selected above, I did plan to post a good pic from Egypt, but you’ve seen that a lot already, so that would not have added much new value. This you probably haven’t seen though, and it is ‘important’ for the sheer insanity about US conservatives’ foreign policy concerns in the ME it reveals. Apparently the Egyptian revolution is an islamist plot that will turn the Mediterranean into an Islamic lake, allow Russia to control Northern Europe, and China to control India and Pakistan. Don’t believe me? Beck’s sweeping hand movements will explain all…    h/t: Center for a New American Security.

2. This is one of those critical junctures when observers should to go on the record about what to do. If all this somehow goes wrong, everyone will blame Obama in 20/20 hindsight. That will inevitably be partisan and unfair, because the Obama administration is making decisions under huge uncertainty. Credibility requires one to go on record now, when information is limited and we all have to make our best guess.

That US conservatives are badly split signals this huge uncertainty. Absolute moral certainty is a central pose of the American right’s self-image (tax hikes are always bad, Iraq 2 was a good idea no matter what), so if even the Right –  which IMO takes foreign policy more seriously than domestic-focused US liberals – is divided, that tells you just how confused everyone really is. For the neo-con take that this really is about democracy, try Gerecht (excellent); for the gloomy realism that we should hew to the Egyptian military, try Krauthammer (depressing, but also good). And for the downright bizarre conspiratorial stuff, watch the above vid.

So here’s my line: I’ll say that Krauthammer and the realists are wrong. The Iran parallel is inaccurate; this will not lead to a Muslim Brothers’ dictatorship. Further, the support of democracy is, in itself, an important value. Even if there was a serious risk of an islamist takeover, we should still pressure Mubarak to get out, nor support a military oligarchy (Krauthammer). Who wants to look back in 10 years and say we supported yet another authoritarian in one of the worst governed places on earth, that we didn’t take the chance to push for something better, even if it was risky? How awful and embarrassing for the US; what a betrayal of all those heroic people we’ve seen on TV. And if they want islamists in the government, well, it is ultimately their country. So long as it remains a democracy (the difference between Turkey’s islamists’ participation, and Hamas’ budding oligarchy), then we have to allow them to disagree with us as is their right. Risking fanatics in government is part of democracy (witness, ahem, Sarah Palin). If we believe in it for ourselves, then we must be true to it for them. So, no, this is not a result of George Bush’s foreign policy, but we should support it anyway.

3. Israel should not drive our policy toward Egypt. Has anyone else noticed how much of this discussion has gotten hijacked by the ‘what-will-happen-to-Israel’ externality? (Try here, here, here, here, and here.) This is embarrassing and almost sycophantic. You can’t blame the Arabs for disbelieving we’re an honest broker when the fate of 6 million people in a different country outweighs the 85 million of the country that is actually the center of the story. Really? Should the US point of origin for yet another Middle East event be Israel’s benefit? We are two separate countries, right? Maybe we should care about the Egyptians themselves, right? Israel does have the finest military in the region, nuclear weapons, and a take-no-prisoners lobby in the US Congress, right? Don’t misunderstand me. I realize that Israel’s security is important for the US and that it is the only democracy in the region (although that is increasingly under question). I want Israel to be secure too; I’ve traveled there 3 times and unconditionally support its right to exist. If it would help, usher them into NATO or the EU, or extend formal US deterrence guarantees, even nuclear. But it’s long-overdue time that we break the habit looking over our shoulder to Israel on ME issues, and it’s extremely immoral to support continued Egyptian authoritarianism on the (likely correct) premise that a democratic Egypt will push Israel harder. That sells out the admirable sacrifice of 85 million for 6 million who voted for an openly provocative right-wing government.