December 04, 2016
Trump’s Foreign Policy: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
In this most memorable of U.S. elections, it has become generally received wisdom that Donald Trump will have us slouching towards a dangerously erratic, populist authoritarianism with profoundly negative implications for the U.S.'s standing in the world, with attendant deleterious shocks to the broader international system. Will it be that dire? Perhaps, but with myriad commentators rhetorical overdrive running at fuller throttle than perhaps ever before, it seems advisable to have a closer look at what Trump’s policy—at least to the extent we can divine it--might portend for the global scene. I will begin with the ‘good’, and proceed to the more unsavory aspects.
The Good: Trump has at least three generally positive core insights that can be ascertained from perusing his (haphazardly improvised, being polite) foreign policy musings:
1) The United States cannot have the same foreign policy some ~$20 trillion in debt as it did during the period when it enjoyed a far more robust creditor-nation position. Period. Full stop. The serial fantasies of nation-building in the far-away environs of Fallujah and Kandahar, the billions upon billions of squandered aid (including to unreliable, supposed client-state allies), the thousands of lives shattered essentially for naught—all this neo-Wilsonian and neo-conservative reverie must end in favor of more realism, as well as nation-building at home. Trump’s (re)-adopted America First moniker is of course highly unfortunate given its Lindberghian historical connotations, but there’s a reason it struck a nerve (along with his signature ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan) amidst the lumpen-proletariat in America’s heartland dealing with structural declines in labor participation, stagnating middle class wages, and increasingly decrepit infrastructure. And while it’s charming we have thousands of ‘analysts’ in their Washington habitats essentially blindly advising how to ‘destroy the village to save it’ across the far-flung neo-colonial archipelagos, any self-respecting industry would have seen these tired voices shown the door long ago. The American public is exhausted by these endless follies and squandering of blood and treasure.
2) With America’s ‘hyper-puissance’ moment behind it (lasting roughly from the halcyon days of the end of the Cold War to the 9/11 overreactions, most notably the miserable blunder of Iraq) we are inexorably moving towards a geopolitical era defined more by regional security architecture. Trump has been widely derided for his somewhat mercantilist and transactional view of inter-state relations. Much of this derision may well have been merited, at least on occasion. And yet, amidst the mockery about how he might be just fine with a nuclear-armed Japan or South Korea or such (arguably a bit exaggerated, if one reads the transcripts in question more judiciously in overall context), there is actually a deeper insight afoot. As Henry Kissinger has written in his ‘World Order’, the “contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another” (emphasis in original).
The point here is that the United States can no longer pose and preen as some grand behemoth upholding an indomitable Pax America bestriding the entire globe. Countries of true scope and power like China and Russia have compelling, core interests they will defend to the end. Barring risking a major power conflict or such, the U.S. must re-calibrate the scope of its ambitions to defend its interests by better interrelating regional security understandings to each other. We have seen the dangers of our clumsy over-reach in Russia’s ‘near abroad’ and we may risk seeing it in not dissimilar fashion with respect to China. Put differently, we cannot persuasively be the world’s policeman given resource constraints--and by playing pretend we still nonetheless are--we not only aggravate situations by too exuberantly emboldening the supposed ‘good guys' to dangerously over-reach, but also avoid the necessary work of re-ordering the global system to the new realities.
While somewhat heretical, I know, this may mean that we will not have, for instance, large American troop presences in South Korea and Japan for decades hence in de facto perpetuity (although I am certainly not recommending some immediate, precipitous withdrawal--or even one short to medium-term--especially given the very sensitive North Korean situation as well as the still considerable room for continued Sino-Japanese misunderstandings, among other geopolitical headwinds in Asia). It may also mean we will stop breathlessly cheer-leading ceaseless expansion of treaty commitments in Russia’s ‘near abroad’, to the actual detriment of those to whom we falsely advertise we’ll parachute the cavalry in, but come crunch-time, don't or wouldn't, of which I address related themes more below. Similar logic could also be extrapolated with regard to our apparently ceaseless presence in theaters like Iraq, not to mention Afghanistan.
3) Trump’s skepticism of NATO is not unmerited, especially given NATO expansion was pursued too vaingloriously after the Cold War. It is sometimes difficult to put oneself in another’s shoes and peruse the world from a materially different vantage point, such as Russia’s. Yet few exercises can prove as valuable in forging better diplomatic understandings. George Kennan, perhaps the greatest of American diplomats, intuited late in his life after a distinguished career in the trenches of Soviet-American diplomacy that NATO expansion would be a terrible blunder vis-à-vis its dire, long-term implications to the bilateral relationship with Moscow. Currently, Washington’s provincial self-echoing chambers have become consumed by anti-Russian hysteria, romanticizing neighboring ‘front-line’ states, and never deigning to examine the deeper historical forces driving Putin’s annexation of Crimea (or more of a ‘de-annexation’, at least to the Russian mind). More specifically, the Administration’s transparent meddling in Kiev constituted a ‘red-line’ for Putin, especially given the manner his client was ingloriously defenestrated, reminiscent of regime change on the heels of the U.S.-Russian misunderstandings around Libya, and points beyond. Behind this, of course, were also fears of eventual NATO expansion into a Ukraine deeply entwined with Russia over many centuries, and often seen as something of a pan-Slavic cordon sanitaire by many in Moscow.
More broadly than the Ukraine example, and since the end of the Cold War, various countries have merrily queued up to join the alliance, often providing a small fig-leaf of soldiers to an American deployment to help guarantee they are on, say, a Don Rumsfeld’s or Ash Carter’s ‘good list’. Such show-boating masks the deeper reality that NATO is not really ‘fit for purpose’ as per its prior incarnation to fend off the Warsaw Pact and its aggrandizement has needlessly rankled the Russians. Indeed, it has become something of a bloated, often dysfunctional alliance, with membership rustled up more for parochial self-interested ends than any particularly noble purpose and very few countries reliably anteing up the full 2% GDP target commitment.
In short, while Trump’s rhetoric has veered into over-casualness on this issue (among many others), the fundamental thrust of his overall posture described in the above “1” through “3” is far from indefensible, namely, a recognition of America’s imperiled finances and urgent needs at home, that regional actors are assiduously cobbling together security architecture we cannot over the long-term rival and/or wholly control (albeit Trump's recent Taiwan phone kerfuffle and follow-on 'diplomacy-by-tweets' doesn't bode well here) and that we are needlessly antagonizing Russia and China over issues like NATO ‘front-line’ states and/or the specter of more intrusive U.S. naval activity in the South China Sea (again, however, both areas where Trump's policy hasn't yet 'settled').
Irrespective, here’s the huge catch: while the above may point to an under-rated worldview it will only bear real fruit (and not risk clumsy conflagrations) if and only if properly executed. As T.S. Eliot put it in The Hollow Men: between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, or for our purposes here the exigencies of competent foreign policy execution.
This, in turn, brings us to ‘the bad’.
The Bad: The bad in my mind is quite simple. Trump is mostly improvising on the world’s greatest stage with little appetite to truly grapple with the issues beyond his high level ‘gut’ instincts (we see this in his foreign policy interviews with the New York Times and Washington Post where he mouths his policies in highly improvised fashion and then pauses seeking approbation as if still unsure of fundamental moorings buttressing his putative world vision). And despite some of his instincts potentially being positive, given he is a neophyte in this realm by any serious measure, it is imperative that Trump would be surrounded by top quality advisors providing best-in-class advice. It is tempting to imagine somehow the likes of Brent Scowcroft (for geopolitical strategy), James Baker (for helping translate Trump’s deal-making skills from the wild hurly-burly of 1980’s New York real estate to the international scene, or even a Jon Hunstman (to potentially help soften Trump’s policy rough edges, not least on PRC-related policy matters--as we dramatically saw with Taiwan last week--although it must be said Huntsman's attempted damage control in context of his desire for SecState didn't exactly enhance his loftiness).
There are myriad other examples of this policy execution risk. For instance, and laudably, Trump suggests he wants to assiduously tackle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (at least to the extent it isn't all but dead and buried). Yet he talks of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which would represent the death knell of any deal (unless arguably simultaneously accompanied by a second U.S. Embassy to Palestine in Arab East Jerusalem, as Jerusalem represents the thorniest of so-called ‘final status’ issues, not good fare for ‘shoot from the hip’, up-front rigmarole). Or Trump assures us of his many “friends” and deep understanding of China, but appears unaware--or seriously under-appreciates--the foundational tenets of the One-China policy, Taiwan Relations Act, and/or how critical a core interest, even near existential, the Taiwan issue is for Beijing. We also see room for regression around loose talk of possibly torpedoing the Iran deal, although it appears Trump is minded to focus more on rhetoric around policing the effort more robustly than actually dismantling the accord.
Instead, however, of buttressing his ranks with top-shelf players as mentioned above (though I will confess none of them are getting any younger, to include Henry Kissinger) we instead have been presented with the specter of highly sub-optimal human capital being brought to bear. As aggravating factor too, we have had broad-scale defections from Trump of the so-called GOP 'Never Trump' types (the serried ranks of foreign policy ‘experts’, increasingly more a self-reverential, group-think herd). They have been splendid at crying ‘shocked, shocked’ from the sidelines whilst conveniently neglecting their own pivotal roles in helping create Trumpism by stoking a gross over-reaction to 9/11. Without re-litigating these manifold hypocrisies here, in this vacuum we have seen the more Jacksonian pugilistic types rally around Trump, whether General Mike Flynn, the detestable Don Rumsfeld and still fevered Dick Cheney, a folie de grandeur infused Newt Gingrich, the uber-interventionist John Bolton, among others. Meantime candidates making the rounds for the critical post of Secretary of State impress little more. Mitt Romney has the superficial ‘look’ of a Secretary of State (if an oleaginous plutocratic sheen counts as such), but is a craven opportunist with little real foreign policy gravitas. Meantime, David Petraeus would seem far too focused on counter-insurgency fancy in MENA, and irrespective a ‘troika of Generals’ across State, Defense and the NSA would seem like at least one too many military men manning the commanding civilian heights. Related, a hyper-militaristic view of the ISIS challenge (see, Rudy Giuliani) could translate to Curtis LeMay type bombing campaigns through ‘Syraq’ and risk slipping dangerously towards a civilizational conflict underpinned by heady doses of Islamophobia.
More fundamentally, who among say a Romney, Petraeus or certainly Bolton would have the necessary high-level deal-making skills and nuanced foreign policy gravitas to forge fundamentally re-fashioned relations with Beijing or Moscow? So while Trump may occasionally have worthy instincts on some matters whom will help him translate them into a responsibly calibrated worldview rather than a pugnacious nationalism that could risk badly backfiring? Might a Secretary of State Jon Huntsman (or Bob Corker), perhaps accompanied by a Deputy Secretary Richard Haass? Maybe, but this seems a long-shot regardless (Update: Rumors of Rex Tillerson however are more auspicious, a proven board-room player with seasoned real world experience could prove a powerful antidote to the tyranny of adolescently armchair, policy-paper fantasy, albeit much would depend too on the selection for Deputy Secretary).
The Ugly: Last, we have 'the ugly'. Foremost for me, Trump has glibly and odiously cheer-led the return of torture tactics (before backtracking that such measures would have to be legal, albeit he’d look at changing the laws, and then subsequently signaling after a recent meeting with General Mattis that he may be reappraising the efficacy of torture leading to his possibly dropping his obscenely ill-advised advocacy of it). This is a civilizational red-line for any post-Enlightenment society, torture must be relegated to the ash-heap of any self-respecting polity as with, say, slavery or piracy.
Beyond this Trump has engaged in absurd musings that he would ban adherents of one of the world three great monotheistic religions, Islam, from entering the United States for some period until such ostensible time as a Trump Administration would deign to give the all-clear. This is absurd on multiple levels (not least that it represents approximately a quarter of humanity) and he’s tried to back-track in favor of discussing ‘extreme vetting’ from certain (as yet unspecified, save hapless Syria) countries--but along with his signature 'Mexico wall’ issue--the implications of flirting with religious tests for entry to the United States, or the depressing symbolism of building some 'Great Wall' across our southern border, all are body-shocks to the image of the United States as a shining city on the hill welcoming the world’s weak and oppressed.
Yes, a nation must have non-negligible, well enforceable borders and must ensure its basic security, but no, a crude lock-down is not the answer and would be toxic vis-à-vis America’s heretofore DNA. Let us hope and pray Defense Secretary-designate Mattis' views on torture will prevail, that Trump will avoid the hideousness of Muslim registries and bans, and that the border issue will be handled, if robustly enough regarding fulfilling aspects of his campaign promises regarding border security, without reversion to too primitive a vision of Fortress America.
Finally, of course, we have the climate change denialism. Can one extract some comfort from reports Trump's daughter is galvanized by the issue, or that he recently met Al Gore to discuss the issue? No one really knows, and as with so many of the matters at play, we have a work in production regarding 'firming' policy and can presume we will see many 'one step forward, two steps back' type dynamics as the Administration takes power.
Where Does This Leave Us?
So, given the mixed bag above, what might all this portend? Can one really realistically conjure some best case where, perhaps, Trump is ultimately just some Rockefeller Republican in nativist drag who focuses his ‘tough guy’ act mostly on trade deals but on ‘high politics’ around international security issues ultimately tacks more towards a nuanced realism than some crude Jacksonian nationalism? There are positive glimmers, such as his apparent enthusiasm to forge a much overdue rapprochement with Russia, but he doesn’t yet appear to have the advisors to help seriously accomplish same, and then of course we also have the ‘red-lines’ for any civilized actor on issues like torture. But given the reality of Trump’s victory (which I suspected might well occur--given the epic blunders of Iraq vainly fought by ‘flyover’ non-elites, booked-ended by the debauched self-dealing of elites around the global financial crisis; not to mention the extremely underwhelming prospect of a de haut en bas Clinton restoration) we may have to work to help wean him towards the better directions his instincts might take him, rather than the worst. It’s our collective destiny as a nation, after all, and sitting it all out in transfixed revulsion does not appear the wisest option at hand.
March 14, 2015
Realistic Appraisal of Russia's Policy Isn't Tantamount to a Putin Apologia
Gideon Rachman is perhaps the most perceptive foreign affairs columnist writing today, but he gets it badly wrong in his column (“Vladimir Putin’s survival strategy is lies and violence”, March 2), succumbing to speculation in the wake of Boris Nemtsov’s tragic murder.
Mr. Rachman seeks to tar as Putin “apologist” anyone who believes the Russian President is driven by legitimate national interests. Instead, Putin is solely out to “save his own skin” with this the “red thread” driving all his actions (including Mr. Nemtsov’s murder, it is all but pronounced). As with the Soviet Union, we must now adopt a containment policy with Russia, his argument goes.
This would be a historic tragedy, but one from which we can still step back. To avoid Pavlovian recourse to neo-containment we must cease spilling endless ink castigating a noxious Mr. Putin (as Henry Kissinger has written, “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”). Instead we should adopt a broader purview that elevates policy-making away from serial recrimination, perhaps with some of the below three observations to inform us.
First, realism advises one avoiding protracted cogitations around the potential motivations of statesman. Behind the niceties of myriad communiques & pronouncements, international politics remain rooted in interests defined by power, and in precincts well beyond the walls of The Kremlin. Policy should be guided by this reality, rather than heated speculations around the precise motivations of individual statesman.
Second, we should be reminded that Putin, as a Western-facing Saint Petersburgian, proffered his hand to the West in the past (indeed, even Mr. Nemtsov previously supported Putin). We saw this openness after 9/11 when Putin assisted the U.S. in its anti-terror campaign, notably with respect to Afghanistan. Alas, rather than build on such momentum, Putin was paid back with rounds of NATO expansion, a pull-out from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the overstepping of U.N. authorizations in both Iraq and Libya, and cookie dispensations in Maidan.
Third, a shaky cease-fire will likely ultimately fail—to Ukraine’s grave detriment—unless world powers move from tactical crisis management to more strategic conflict resolution. This must involve Ukraine forsaking NATO membership in return for restoration of its borders (ex-Crimea), as well as provision of bona fide language and minority rights in a decentralized Donbass. Not least given the paramount NATO issue, one suspects the U.S. cannot continue to get away with largely subcontracting its Ukraine policy to Angela Merkel.
Today the rhetoric from Washington and London (thankfully not yet from the White House) resounds with the dogs of war: arming Ukraine, “frontline states” with NATO “command & control centers”, essentially a renewed military trip-wire bestriding Moscow’s (shrunken) frontiers. How do we expect a declining, humiliated power to respond in the circumstances? Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are very high for a reason beyond able propaganda. Deeper historic currents and realities are afoot that we ignore at our own peril.
January 28, 2015
Arming Ukraine Would Be Folly
Ivo Daalder’s Financial Times op-ed yesterday (Arm Ukraine to show Russia conflict has a cost) constitutes one of the most ill-advised foreign policy recommendations I can recall in many years, and this during an era which has seen many. With European unity already at a delicate juncture given Syriza’s victory in Greece—and material cohesion risks looming across both the EU’s economic and foreign policies--now is not the time to throw more kindling on the fire. Mr. Daalder couches arming Ukraine—as good-hearted, liberal interventionists are wont to do--as only “enhancing Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.” Yet provision of anti-armour missiles to Kiev (or, eventually, collaborative paramilitaries) would be viewed as a virtual act of war towards Russian-affiliated proxies in the Donbass. This will be sure to earn the ire of The Kremlin precipitating not de-escalation, but precisely the opposite.
How did we get here? A Hitler-like madman on the loose, in the ribald telling of too many in the West, fueling a revanchist Russia that may show up at the gates of Prague before too long? Or through Russia’s steady humiliation (real or perceived) after the Cold War, whether via the relentless drum-beat of NATO expansion, EU enlargement or, relatedly, myriad ‘civil society promotion’ initiatives? Sentient, historically-cognizant voices would better recognize the latter as major contributory cause(s). When these forces coalesced in Ukraine--as they did in Georgia before it--they conspired so that the Russian side concluded red-lines had been crossed and essentially declared: ‘no more’. Or, as Putin memorably put in a major address last year after the Crimean incursion: “(if) you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.”
The most casual perusal of Russian history explains why Ukraine is of such immense import to Moscow. Historic Kievan Rus is the spiritual fountainhead of Russia’s very origins. As Georgy Fedotov once commented: “Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.” Later, her wide plains led direct to the soft underbelly of the Russian heartland and saw Napoleon and Hitler’s (the real one) armies hold perilous, probing sway. Ukraine is thus something of a cordon sanitaire in the Russian worldview. More recently, there are also the legitimate grievances of Eastern Ukrainians whom felt deeply disenfranchised amidst the sturm und drang of Maidan, many of whom feel genuine ties of kinship to Mother Russia.
There is a conceit in some capitals like Washington DC that an age of unfettered, rules-based liberal internationalism is nigh, and that such interests are relics of a more primitive age of our remote ancestors. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented after the Crimean events (without a trace of self-knowing irony given the Iraq misadventure): “(y)ou just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped –up pretext.” But states retain key geopolitical strategic interests and are still quite galvanized to protect core ones. While Vladimir Putin is not desirous of a long war and costly occupation, he is a formidable strategist infrequently disposed to buckling under. Pressured more, he will call the West’s bluff, in the process causing more havoc for Ukraine.
What to do? The outlines of a deal are clear. First, most critically, Putin must be given face and room for a climb-down. A summit should be held with not only Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also President Barack Obama. Ukraine must agree to never join NATO. Federalization schemes and Russian-minority language rights must be brokered for Ukraine’s East. Sanctions must be reversed. In return, Putin must withdraw all military support from the Donbass, and exert robust political pressure on the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics to accept Kiev’s broad writ. While EU Membership need not be wholly taken off the table as like NATO, it is high time for the airy proselytization and cookie dispensations reminiscent of the ‘color revolutions’ to cease. (Crimea may contemplate an internationally-supervised referendum on its status a decade or so hence, but must be wholly ‘separate-tracked.’ In any event, and to the vast majority of Russians--including many resident in Crimea itself--Khrushchev’s gifting of it to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine smacks more of historical accident, with the recent re-incorporation of Crimea akin more to a ‘de-annexation’ in this view).
We may not like such realpolitik-style deal-making, with the hard-headed trade-offs it entails. Many in Kiev will grumble, but major economic aid from all the key protagonists should figure in any peace deal and help mollify sentiment. Regardless, such a resolution ultimately is preferable to a Novorossiya linked up to Trans-Dniester, say, with a land-bridge to Crimea and Odessa en passant in Russian hands. Beyond the risks of such greater Ukrainian dismemberment—or simply the pains of a long, drawn-out ‘partisan’ war--the alternative is likely a new Cold War II, and with it an increasingly fractured Europe. Mr. Daalder’s prescriptions badly fail on any serious measure tethered to the realities of the situation. Arming Ukraine would be a dangerous folly that none of us can afford. As a wise former American diplomat George Ball once commented about Vietnam: “(o)nce on the tiger’s back, we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.”
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January 18, 2015
Kissinger's "World Order"
Henry Kissinger’s “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” weighs in around 400 pages but the main substance of the book is contained in fewer than 50 pages (almost exclusively in the final two chapters: Chapter 9 on “Technology, Equilibrium, and Human Consciousness” and the conclusory Chapter 10 “World Order in Our Time?”). The remainder of the book is well-traversed terrain we have largely seen in previous Kissinger work, whether a tour d'horizon of the European balance-of-power system, discussion of Asian geopolitics, or the U.S.’s ostensible mission civilisatrice (additionally, and rather oddly, Kissinger devotes an entire chapter solely to Iran, beyond a broader one on Islamism).
While such production is well enviable in one’s nineties and Kissinger is doubtless the most substantial American national security player alive today, the book is not really a fount of fresh thinking and will hold little by way of blindingly new insight for most readers reasonably versed in international relations. There is also a frustrating aspect with Kissinger’s occasional succumbing to courtier-mode, as when he writes of George W. Bush: “…I want to express here my continuing respect and personal affection for President [Bush] who guided America with courage, dignity and conviction in an unsteady time.” Too often, this tendency to indulge in too ingratiating politesse mitigates the blunter-edged message Kissinger likely wishes to relay on topics such as the limits of American power (of which more below). Still, there is much here to reward the attentive reader, even if Kissinger does not attain the prophetic mantle of a George Kennan.
Kissinger begins World Order retelling how in 1961 as a “young academic” he called on Harry Truman asking the former President what had made him most proud. Truman responded: “(t)hat we totally defeated our enemies and then brought them back to the community of nations. I would like to think that only America could have done this.” This same introductory chapter is concluded with a vignette from a Kissinger-Zhou Enlai exchange, on the occasion of Kissinger’s first visit to Beijing in 1971. Kissinger stated to Zhou that “to the American delegation China was a ‘land of mystery’ “, to which Zhou responded: “You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not seem so mysterious as before.” These bookends to Kissinger’s introductory chapter not only capture some of the highlights of his life (few if any public personages captivated Kissinger like Zhou Enlai), but also presage tensions in Kissinger’s world-view: ultimately skeptical of American exceptionalism he nonetheless adopts Truman’s sense of America's singularity, albeit counterbalanced by his deep sense of the import of the historic and cultural realities of other great powers.
Before turning to a possible prescription for buttressing global order going forward, Kissinger engages in a thinly-veiled lament at the gross superficiality of much of today’s conduct of foreign policy. As something of a scene-setter, he quotes T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:
Where is the Life we have lost in Living?
Essentially Kissinger is contending that the titanic reams of information we are bombarded with daily (see your putative Twitter feed) “shrinks perspective.” As Kissinger elaborates: “(b)ecause information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant.” He goes on to caution that policymakers therefore might too frequently “regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum” so that “manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.” One need look no further than the riotously adolescent policy adventurism around Libya (R2P histrionics with Benghazi as an incipient Srebrenica), Ghouta/Syria (almost full-bore into the Levant’s mire on a fuzzily, red-lined whim) or Russia (Pavlovian slap-stick sanctions post-Foggy Bottom egging on recklessly unmoored Ukrainian nationalism) as good examples of this phenomenon. As Kissinger writes: “the new diplomacy risks indiscriminate intervention disconnected from strategy.”
Similarly, we might recall the halcyon days of the early Arab Spring, when Western journalists parachuted into Egypt eager to chronicle the Google generation’s intrepid use of social media to magically catapult a pre-Enlightenment, economically underdeveloped region characterized by entrenched authoritarianism into the world of Montesquieu, Jefferson and Rousseau, seemingly solely on the strength of Tweets from Tahrir Square. Again, we have a superficial spectacle characterized by the “overriding imperative of endorsing a mood of the moment”—see Samantha Power or Susan Rice’s Twitter feeds for near daily, rich evidence of same—ignoring that “the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy”.
In Kissinger’s final chapter he attempts to sketch a strategic approach regarding advancing world order in this new century. We are embarking on an era beyond that which prevailed from the end of WWII to perhaps around 9/11: “when one could speak of an incipient global order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional concepts of balance of power.” Kissinger does not quite say it directly but appears to believe the U.S. must more assiduously seek to unwind any post-Cold War hyper-power pretense that pointed briefly towards a unitary hegemon bestriding the globe unchallenged. Beyond China (whose rise Kissinger compares to 20th Century Germany’s in the context of presenting a “comparable structural challenge in the 21st Century”) Kissinger sees material challenges from Russia, the Middle East, and perhaps, a scuttled European project leading to unpredictable instabilities on the Continent. For Kissinger, the risk is less about increasing multi-polarity in and of itself, but rather “a world of increasingly contradictory realities”, one which we cannot assume “left unattended” will “reconcile automatically to a world of balance and cooperation—or even any order at all.”
What is to be done? Kissinger describes the essence of statesmanship as striking a balance between “the two aspects of order”, namely: “power and legitimacy”. Such an already challenging balancing act must be fashioned in the context of profound differences between the post-Renaissance Western tradition focused on reality "external to the observer" versus other great civilizations where reality is “conceived as internal to the observer, defined by psychological, philosophical, or religious convictions” (Chinese culture, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably, Russian Slavophilism). What is more, Kissinger sees four factors posing challenges to assembly of a 21st Century Order: 1) the state itself, the international system’s fundamental building-block, is under siege (pan-national projects like the Euro-zone, failed states, etc.); 2) economic globalization has outpaced political integration (see the financial crisis, or periphery contagion risks in Europe today); 3) unconvincing mechanisms for great power coordination exist which permit “little beyond designing a formal communique—at best, a discussion of pending tactical issues, and, at worst, a new form of summitry as ‘social media’ event”); and 4) American leadership being withdrawn from the international scene.
Putting aside aspects of the merits of this diagnosis: is it possible to reconstruct an international system in this challenging context (what Kissinger calls the “ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time”)? Kissinger suggests—and this is arguably the most important and telling sentence of the book—that the “contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another” [bolded portion emphasized in original]. In other words, Kissinger is politely sounding the death-knell for an age of American pan-regional supremacy all the while bemoaning the United States’ supposedly less engaged posture of late. Yet despite Kissinger’s thinly-veiled incantations for Washington to ‘step up’ (as Beltway simpletons often put it) he nonetheless evokes Edmund Burke urging us to disabuse ourselves of maximalist goals so as “to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect.”
I suspect Kissinger is suggesting as part of this regional ordering we must be more accommodative of powers like China and Russia (or, even, Islamist resurgence in some areas), whilst seeking, in turn, to then painstakingly work towards better integrating said regional orders into a revamped global international system. Acknowledging that “world order cannot be achieved by any one country alone” Kissinger suggests we need a “second culture that is global, structural, and juridical—a concept of order that transcends the perspective of any one region or nation.” A tall order: the closest Kissinger comes to a more concrete prescription is “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary realities”, which leaves much to the imagination.
In the late autumn of his life, Kissinger tacks more modestly than the heretofore brash commanding heights of Nixon and Ford's Washington, concluding (in an apparent, en passant, rebuff to Francis Fukuyama): “(l)ong ago, in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce on “The Meaning of History.” I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared.” Unsurprisingly, there is no specific roadmap contained in World Order that provides real comfort we will be able to avoid “the dogs of war” amidst the “rushing stream of history”. Perhaps one can only hope more subtle appreciation and understanding of other key powers’ differing cultural, historic, geopolitical and philosophical premises will better help create ‘zones of stability’ within regions. With the Panglossian figment of a providential Pax Americana fading into history, key international actors will need to embark on a difficult journey towards helping re-balance an international system away from the giddy American triumphalism of the post-War and post-Cold War eras. At minimum, one hopes the reader will come away hungering for more substance in foreign policy-making, married to greater humility of goals within more strategically disciplined and structurally sound approaches to staunching erosion of world order. With some luck, we might even espy the gradual creation of an updated Westphalian model which captures the hugely greater complexities of our globally interconnected time than existed in 17th Century Europe. However, a "Present at the Creation" leadership moment characterized by inspired Achesonian aplomb seems rather a stretch, and Kissinger inviting us to midwife more regionally-scaled blocs--at least on an interim basis--seems to acknowledge this reality.
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August 24, 2014
What Tom Friedman's Interview Revealed About Obama's Foreign Policy
In a recent interview with Tom Friedman (worth listening to in full) President Obama held forth for almost an hour on various foreign policy topics. Below I highlight a couple fascinating exchanges that I believe help illustrate some of Obama’s shortcomings as a foreign policy leader.
The first relates to Russia. Friedman, to his credit, prefaces the Russia discussion energetically making the case that post-Cold War NATO expansion was a terrible blunder (“we traded Russia for the Czech Navy", Friedman quips). Obama sits somewhat stoically through Friedman’s brief anti-NATO expansion soliloquy refusing to take the bait, at which point Friedman (almost slightly embarrassed) moves the conversation along stating that “it was before your [Obama’s] time...” Friedman then asks Obama point blank whether it’s time for urgent summitry among Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and himself to provide Putin a “ladder” as they sort through the Ukraine crisis (see the 31:40 minute mark). Rather than respond to Friedman’s entreaty for urgent crisis diplomacy (read: statesmanship) Obama goes into a lengthy disquisition on his view of how the U.S.-Russian relationship has suffered, waxing a bit nostalgic about Medvedev’s Presidency and such (during Obama’s first term), Putin’s “almost Tsarist attitude” during his last campaign and how the Ukraine situation “caught [Putin] by surprise….this wasn’t some grand strategy” (as if that last really matters regarding the current state of play, perhaps better to leave to the historians, no?). Obama then goes on to say he believes Putin post-annexation of Crimea finds himself with a “smaller and smaller circle around him” with “fierce Russian nationalists having his ear." While Obama acknowledges Putin’s poll numbers are “very high”, he apparently attributes that to Putin and his media having “stirred Russians into a frenzy” so that finding an “off-ramp” for him is “more challenging.”
We can debate much of the above, which I personally find an overly simplistic narrative that is too convenient in painting Putin as the sole bad guy in this affair (as Henry Kissinger has written, “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one"). But it is what comes next in the interview which I found most fascinating: Friedman asks Obama if a deal with Putin is still possible? Obama responds thusly: “a deal should be possible but one of the things I have discovered during the course of my Presidency is just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it actually happens.” O.K., fair enough, but mightn’t we ask why not? Might it sometimes be because Obama has a second (if not third)-tier foreign policy team, incapable of executing serious foreign policy beyond airy posturing a la Susan Rice, Samantha Power etc., or the hyper-kinetic travels of John Kerry that while impressive regarding ‘road warrior’ cred, often amount to disjointed, haphazard efforts devoid of follow-through, disciplined vision and finally, true strategic backdrop?
Still, Obama himself is a not unimpressive personage, clearly an intelligent man. Why could he not like prior Presidents who have effectively engaged with foes (see for instance Richard Nixon with the PRC or Ronald Reagan with the Soviets, putting aside whatever else we make of these two former Presidents) be more directly and personally engaged? As of today's writing, Angela Merkel has had 33 phone calls with Putin since the Crimea crisis. Obama? Just five. The point is not that myriad phone calls are a prerequisite to effective statesmanship, of course. But too often Obama appears a study in passivity when it comes to convincingly helping spear-head ambitious foreign policy initiatives, as if he’s tuned out some and has become a bit fatigued of the Presidency and the concomitant world stage it commands.
A bit earlier in the interview, Friedman asks a similar question when it come to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis (see the 28:45 minute mark). Friedman, very accurately, points out that often Tel Aviv and Ramallah have historically needed the “American President to play the heavy”, so they can go back to their respective constituencies and basically say, the White House needs us to play ball here, let’s step up and make the requested concessions. Again, as with the Russia crisis above, Friedman suggests POTUS himself needs to energetically wade in. Obama’s response? He states: “we have been doing that behind the scenes…I’ve had some pretty tense conversations with both sides throughout this process.” I’m afraid this is rather underwhelming fare, so that one fairly might conclude Obama simply does not want—or apparently cannot really envision—grasping the nettle with more alacrity. Sometimes you have to do more than “send John”, after all, no? What follows after (again, similarly to the Putin-fare recounted above) is another lengthy disquisition on Bibi’s poll numbers, Abu Mazen’s weakness, concluding (as Obama puts it, a bit tritely and lackadaisically for my taste, especially given the gravity of the crisis and daily carnage in Gaza): “you can lead folks to water, but they have to drink.” And so it goes, the “peace process” or even robust enough cease-fire efforts (as with true summitry towards defusing the Ukraine crisis) appear relegated to the proverbial backburner.
Near the end of the interview, Friedman asks Obama what his main take-away has been from the Presidency so far. Obama reflects at some length, and ends up discoursing on three take-aways. One is how too often bright-spots are being overlooked (he cites Africa, places like Chile and Peru, even—somewhat unconvincingly—his supposed Asia pivot and deepening relations in Asia-Pac). Take-away number two is a bit of a Libya post-mortem, shockingly, Obama apparently needed the Libya adventure to be reminded that when we intervene militarily there are “unintended consequences” and that it’s critical to ask: “do we have an answer for the day after” (one might have thought this lesson was well illustrated by his predecessor’s calamitous Iraq misadventure, but I suppose one needs to learn lessons more personally for them to better resonate). But it is perhaps Obama’s final take-away which is most revelatory. He waxes rhapsodic about the U.S., clearly believing (and later in the interview explicitly stating) that we are “exceptional”, before baldly stating that “things don’t run unless we’re there.”
Putting aside the merits of a somewhat saccharine-infused belief in American exceptionalism (see the end of the interview where he overly simplistically caricatures the PRC as pure-play free-riders, and at the 59:20 mark seems a bit teary-eyed even about American ‘exceptionalism’) let us pause and reflect on Obama’s contention that “things don’t run unless we’re there”. Perhaps true. The peace process pauses, maybe dies. The Ukraine conflagration grows, maybe even more dangerously explodes, depending on Merkel’s diplomacy, Kiev’s posture, and Putin’s ultimate responses. Coups don’t get called coups, caliphates get created, China sees containment rather than an innocuous pivot, with potentially profound consequences. Things don’t run unless we’re there. So be 'there', then!
It is very easy to take cheap pot-shots at Obama. We must recall the alternatives would have been tragically worse. Even within his own party, as Hillary Clinton’s recent comments to Jeffrey Goldberg make clear, breezy certitudes around play-pretend muscularity are meant to showcase greater foreign policy gravitas, but actually too often indicate precisely the opposite. Indeed, we should commend Obama his caution, his rationality, his use of scalpels rather than hammers. By this I mean that a period of American retrenchment was well needed—almost inevitable—after the gross excesses of the post 9/11 Bush years. But Obama’s tragedy is that he has not accompanied a period of American retrenchment, even decline, with strategic panache (for instance, Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to China on the heels of the disastrous Vietnam War). He does not seem appropriately seized of the possibilities his office affords. Perhaps he would benefit from better thought partners, Joe Biden and John Kerry might be decent enough men, but neither are true foreign policy visionaries. And regarding his National Security Advisor, the less said likely the better, save that personally I would immediately terminate her given what appears to be near zero value-add emitting from that office.
Finally, I suppose, Obama can either essentially ‘run out the clock’, or urgently re-boot his flagging foreign policy. If the Friedman interview is any indication, one cannot help fearing the former is likelier. It is not that Obama is not a good man with good intentions. But many expected more than decency and 'lesser evil' plaudits, hoping for a more transformative greatness. Shame on those of us who did, I suppose, and better to keep expectations better in check moving forward.
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July 07, 2014
The Peace Process Ends: Not With a Bang, But a Whimper
I read Barak Ravid’s excellent “peace process” post-mortem with a sense of deep dismay. In fairness, however, one might first note a modest cause for optimism and a preliminary caveat. Optimism, you say? Well, as far as it goes, there is at least a "Framework Document" now on the shelf (or in a Foggy Bottom safe). Perhaps, although I’m dubious, it won't just gather dust for years and effectively be relegated to the dust-bin. As for the caveat, Ravid's is but one journalist’s accounting, nor should one cheaply denigrate John Kerry, Martin Indyk and their respective staff's sweat equity invested into trying to get a deal across the line over nine months, especially in the context of arm-chair quarterbacking from afar.
And yet, what paucity of great power diplomatic imagination, verve and resolve is revealed in this reportage! More than anything, the negotiations were in the main solely with the Israeli-side. The Palestinians were effectively absent in the equation (more on this critical factor below). To boot, the U.S. was effectively ‘negotiating with itself’ in that we were merely gently pressuring the Israelis to claw-back positions that had largely already been successfully broached with predecessor Israeli Governments (see notably Camp David 2000 vintage + Taba, both post the Wye River Memorandum). Is this where the rather risible ‘honest broker’ descriptor has gotten us to, really?
Best I can make out, many months were squandered by such moments: ‘Pretty please, Israelis, may we have the ’67 lines + related swap(s) be the principle buttressing the negotiations?’ You mean, a cynic might say, the cornerstone ‘land for peace’ formulation that dates to U.N. Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973)? This elemental principle—almost half a century old now--masquerades as some large concession! And, even here, Ravid’s reportage makes clear Netanyahu would not entertain details behind the principle—let alone pulling out maps to get into the potential nitty-gritty of precise borders and exchanges—but even broaching such discussions on a theoretical level.
Or, pretty please, Israelis, may we (after we effectively agreed on the Palestinian’s behalf to their having a demilitarized state and a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan River Valley), may we also get your agreement that some international troops could stay behind as face-save ‘internationalization’ sop for the Palestinians? Please, on the U.S. tax-payers dime, doubtless? Would you terribly mind?
Or, pretty please, Israelis, can we perhaps not mention a “Jewish State” full–stop, but “nation-state of the Jewish people”? This will make minorities within ’48 Israel so much more comfortable, especially as Israel also reportedly agreed to emphasize that “the equality of rights of the minorities in Israel will not be infringed in any peace agreement.” And let us not concern ourselves too much with the painful symbolism this Jewish nation-state engenders for the Palestinians with regard to their effectively forsaking forever former ’48-era lands, especially in the context of the de minimis concessions offered up regarding ‘right of return’.
As for the Jerusalem issue, U.S. negotiators at least understood the language required would have Jerusalem described as capital of both states. Yet here Netanyahu would not budge an inch, save to possibly agree there was a “future aspiration in this regard, or a general sentence to the effect that it would not be possible to achieve a final agreement without resolving the Jerusalem issue.” But if the Palestinians are meant to effectively relinquish any meaningful right of return plus recognize Israel as "nation-state of the Jewish people", you can be assured the price of such compromises will be a modest portion of East Jerusalem (at minimum including some of the Muslim Holy sites) becoming the capital of Palestine. After all, it takes two to cut a deal.
All this is painful enough: that months of diplomatic capital were squandered on what should have been low-hanging fruit given legacy negotiations. But the kicker is that the Framework Document was essentially only being shown to one side, if you believe Ravid’s reporting! It points to the incestuousness of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, where as ever dutiful legal counsel, we sought to ‘dot I’s/cross T’s, tweak language to help Netanyahu with his hardliners (who get worse by the day)—but little to none of the time deigning to share the draft with the other side—save perhaps little verbal 'teasers' and such semi-disclosures. I don’t know about other readers with experience in either the public or private sectors negotiating deals—but from my experience it is unfathomable that you don’t show the other side the deal documentation; perhaps not necessarily every single iteration given tactical reasons--but none of the developing drafts for months and months?
It’s frankly almost emblematic of a caricatured ‘Orientalist’ bias, after the Western sophisticates have battened down the document in the hifalutin’ conference rooms, we’ll let those somewhat dim 'Middle Easterners' in on the document and patronizingly explain to them what miracles our exertions wrought on their behalf. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian side was not impressed. As Ravid reports: “At this time, drafts of the document were being exchanged between Washington and Jerusalem on a daily basis. The Palestinians’ response, when they grasped what was going on, was that they were being duped. So great was their suspiciousness and so intense their frustration with the Americans that they lost interest in the process completely.”
The ‘peace process’ has become a phrase now almost of ribald derision in many quarters, a moniker for seemingly endless cycles of aimless discussion mired in its own rituals, positions, talking points, coteries of drafters and scriveners that come and go, like the seasons. And beyond this, the conventional wisdom has developed into a burgeoning sense that—with everything else afoot in MENA—does Israeli-Palestinian peace really even matter all that much? Deep down, however, true friends of Israel realize it very much does. The continued quashing of the dignity of an occupied people is eroding Israel’s national soul as heretofore soi disant enlightened democracy. Israel is descending into pre-Enlightenment brutishness day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by year. Like its enemies, it begins to wax rhapsodic about irredentist strategies, annexation of lands, ethnic cleansing, ‘eye-for-an-eye’ tactics (see the barbarism of teens slain on both sides this past week). Its basic legitimacy is inexorably compromised because of the original sin of the occupation.
Alas, Yigal Amir’s bullet constituted one of the most catastrophically effective political assassinations of modern times, bringing down arguably the greatest leader and peacemaker Israel had in Yitzhak Rabin. As ‘peacemaking fatigue’ sets in and the clock runs on, legalistic huddles around Framework documents that constitute but begrudging ‘pulling along’ on the most basic matters will not meaningfully resuscitate chances for a real peace. What is needed is a convincing leader of a great power (hello, Barack) to tell his client—politely but firmly—that its many untold billions upon billions of aid come with a small price, meaning, a modicum of respect for its patron.
Here instead, we are being played for fools, negotiating with ourselves for the privilege of trying to help a client who pays us too little heed back. Even the hapless Palestinians 'waiting for Godot' in Ramallah could not tolerate this theater of transparent chicanery this go around. A ‘process’ like this is indeed a mockery. What is required is an end to the tyranny of such incremental process obsession, instead tabling firmly before the counterparties what everyone knows are the broad parameters of a deal, and exerting real pressure (including suspension of material components of financial and military aid) until people get serious about inking the real deal (see too the levity around this time being ‘serious’ in Ravid’s reporting, an inauspicious harbinger that helped foretell the outcome).
What is this deal, you ask? It's quite simple: the Palestinians agree 1) Israel proper is the "nation-state of the Jewish people", and 2) that right of return will only mean refugees can one of: A) stay where they are or go to 3rd countries; B) 'repatriate' to the '67 lines' putative new Palestinian state or C) on a highly selective case-by-case 'humanitarian' basis have Israel in its sole discretion look at possible bona fide repatriation to '48 lands; 3) Jerusalem will be a shared capital of both Israel and Palestine (special arrangements around the Temple Mount); 4) Palestine will be broadly demilitarized (but generally control its airspace and have robust security forces) with a continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan River Valley and 'emergency access' protocols; 4) approximately 93-96% of '67 Occupied Territory will form the Palestinian nation-state (broadly contiguous), with land swaps to account for the most 'institutionalized' settlements which would be annexed by Israel (with concomitant swaps); and 5) assuming 80% of settlers now under Israeli ambit, the remainder would be relocated should they desire.
But my expectations are tremendously low for such a broadly fair, all things considered, resolution. How can they not be given past as prologue? But make no mistake, more than anything, this is Israel’s loss first and foremost. The Palestinians have nursed their wounds for decades. Their beleaguered polity—often hate-infected as it is--reflects their state of historic development and national narrative, one which showcases they’ve essentially stalled out. But Israel’s current trajectory is even worse, in that it’s heading backwards. It is one of history’s cruel ironies that so many so-called ‘friends of Israel’ are so blind to this. Indeed, how sad and meek that the United States, the power that subsidizes her Israeli client--cannot summon the requisite will to nudge Israel more firmly towards the imperative strategic objectives that must be seized if Israel is to stave off further de-legitimization and anti-democratic decay. The path to resolution is relatively clear, but a limping and ultimately ministerial 'process for process's sake' essentially ending by underwhelming 'whimper' is not a persuasive way forward or commensurate with convincing statecraft.
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June 22, 2014
The Horror: Iraq Class of '03 Mounts Rerun
In an orgy of public preening, the Iraq ‘Class of '03’ flooded print and television media post Mosul’s capture by ISIS forces in Iraq last week. If one had hoped for the merest dose of humility given the calamitous missteps this hearty band of adventurers had presided over, manifold disappointment was instead in the offing.
Here was Jerry Bremer--he of the Timberland boots dutifully donned for the neo-colonial rigors (and whose De-Ba’athification campaign was a signal contributing factor to the disaster that is today’s Iraq)--breezily stating: “I’m not in favor of sending combat forces into Iraq at the moment…but I can well imagine that we would have to have some troops on the ground [my emphasis].” Meantime, an uncommonly robust Erin Burnett interview had Mr. Bremer parroting electricity production statistics like an obstinate, defensive school-boy.
Elsewhere, Fouad Ajami, Hoover Institute lyricist and Paul Wolfowitz confrere, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to remonstrate President Obama for having insufficiently expressed appreciation for the travails of Bush 43: “(n)or did he [Obama] possess the generosity of spirit to give his predecessors the credit they deserved for what they had done in that treacherous landscape.” Cursed ingrates! [Update: At the time of writing Sunday 22nd Hong Kong time, news of Mr. Ajami's death to cancer was not yet made public. B.D. extends condolences to his family.]
Still in the Journal, Dick Cheney along with chère fille Liz unfurled their Wyoming BB Gun to write: “(r)arely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” Alas, Mr. Cheney and his failed Senate candidate Wyoming carpet-bagger daughter were writing about the current President, not the predecessor dauphin that Tricky Dick V. 2 (first as tragedy, then farce…) had too often gamed as manipulative courtier. The Cheneys--after the obligatory Ronald Reagan quote—go on to conclude: “President Obama is on track to securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom.”
This from the man who was critical in implementing torture as an instrument of American national security policy, a taboo akin to slavery and piracy that should be wholly banished from any respectable Enlightenment society. Cheney was once a talented man with an uncommon degree of Washington instincts and skill-sets, he is now a despicable blight best kept under tight supervision during his faux-brio infused hunting escapades.
But this was perhaps not quite the worst of it. As revelatory capstone, Paul Wolfowitz (indulged with an interview by Chuck Todd for reasons that mystify), took chutzpah to new extremes of execrable gall effectively stating that the U.S. people were too dim to comprehend ISIS was effectively al-Qaeda (incidentally, untrue), or to understand the convoluted vagaries of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, and so on. Andrew Sullivan well noted the key and most mendacious verbiage: “We should say al Qaeda. ISIS sounds like some obscure thing; it’s even more obscure when you say Shia and Sunni … It means nothing to Americans whereas al Qaeda means everything to Americans”.
Yes, just like we should ‘settle’ on WMD for the ’03 vintage casus belli as this engendered the most support across the policy-making spectrum. Meantime Wolfowitz, for good measure en passant, essentially threw ‘ruthless little bastard’ Rummy (Richard Nixon’s spot-on descriptor, not mine) under the bus—intimating if he’d been the “architect” of the Iraq War--things would have gone quite swimmingly.
There are quite a few other examples (see Kristol et al.) but you get the noxious picture, this is a coterie that cannot muster the merest smidgen of shame, and Stephen Walt is instructive in explaining why they get to perennially subject us to this parade of recycled claptrap ad nauseam.
Of course, the facts that will be borne out by history are these: The Iraq War was an epic bungle premised on lies that cost ~$2 trillion, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, almost 5,000 U.S. fatalities, many hundreds more from the ‘coalition of the willing’ (such as it was), not to mention tens of thousands of horrific injuries and myriad PTSD legacy conditions.
Iraqi society was torn asunder, with De-Ba’athification and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army titanic errors. Let us not forget that despite legions of civil servants in the Ba'ath party with no blood on their hands, Bremer and Co. relied on Ahmad Chalabi (who argued that allowing Ba’athists to stay in power would be equivalent to “allowing Nazis into the German government after WWII”) to actually lead a large-scale, revanchist-style De-Ba’athification effort. While spiritedly sacking the Mesopotamian ‘Nazis’, Chalabi was sure to steer some large-scale reconstruction contracts to entities where he had interests. Just one more local schemer who played us for suckers.
Yes, yes, there was the much ballyhooed ‘surge’ and 'Anbar Awakening', where effectively Sunni tribes were paid-off to play nice and keep their Shi'a-facing powder-dry for another day. The reality is while violence materially abated amidst the surge there were many other factors at play beyond an uptick in U.S. forces, whether Moktada al-Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire (probably at the Iranian’s urging to hasten a U.S. exit), the ample ethnic cleansing which had already occurred in parts of Baghdad and beyond, or better use of intelligence for covert operations against radical terror groups operating at the time. Most important, the surge was meant to buy time to force broad-based, sustainable political conciliation, manifestly this failed, and not because Obama didn’t leave a gaggle of troops behind several years back.
A solution for Iraq will ultimately have to take root locally, likely via serial conflict exhaustion among varied parties, among other factors. There is also space for intrepid diplomacy trying to forge understandings among Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and others re: containing the spiraling crisis. But the solution does not reside with more ignorant American swashbuckling through Iraq. Been there, done that.
Nor with the empty incantations that a better Maliki (or Karzai in nearby Afghanistan) needs to take the reins. There is no Iraqi Mandela waiting in the wings, I'm afraid. And the torrent of Shi'a-Sunni tensions--as well as Kurdish tensions exemplified by Kirkuk--will not be solved by 300 military advisors, or indeed, 300,000. The solution is not Washington's to proffer, midwife or dictate. It is beyond our control, unless we plan a Korea-like troop presence for half a century. We don't, so let's stop playing pretend.
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March 06, 2014
An Epidemic of Putin Derangement Syndrome
Washington D.C., points beyond and assorted ‘elite opinion’ appear to be undergoing another period best described as a moronic inferno (if memory serves, an old Martin Amis phrase). The immediate cause of this epidemic of hysteria is of course Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea. Mr. Putin’s actions have been compared to Adolf Hitler’s, with former Secretary of State, putative next Democratic President and dynastic doyenne Hillary Clinton peddling such comparisons (at a private fundraiser in California, of course!). Sharp—if somewhat Russophobe—voices like Zbigniew Brzezinski have made similarly hyperbolic statements--showcasing the perils of too breezy historical analogizing by even some of the brightest lights among us. It has come to the point that the Washington Post published yesterday something of a non-tongue-in-cheek primer, addressing whether dastardly Vladimir is or isn’t a “modern-day Hitler” (one positively squirms imagining impressionable imbeciles on The Hill reading such fare). And no, Crimea is not Sudetenland, nor even would potential incursions into southeastern Ukraine constitute something akin to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (marching into Kiev—rather than exerting influence from more afar--would be a different matter, but this is not happening, nor is fanciful talk of the soi disant now newly imperiled Baltic States being invaded by Vlad the Impaler).
Subsequent to the Crimean incursion (sorry, Anschluss), Putin gave a press conference. This set-off another cacophony of mockery, piggy-backing on a phrase attributed to Angela Merkel (the meaning was probably materially distorted) that Putin was “in another world”. It was as if a madman were on the loose, and the entire planet in peril. Over at the New Republic, a hastily turned and chirpily self-assured piece of hackery poked fun at the presser. As this piece was linked to by arguably my favorite foreign affairs columnist—Gideon Rachman—I asked him via Twitter whether he was endorsing such ribald claptrap. No, Mr. Rachman advised, he doesn’t “endorse” anything (more than fair, imagine if all our links constituted endorsements, thus the near-universal and boilerplate RT ≠ endorsement caveat), but found it “an interesting take.” Well, indeed it was, to a fashion. Over at Strobe Talbott’s Twitter account—lest we forget, a former Deputy Secretary of State, Russia expert and head of an important ‘think-tank’--Mr. Talbott approvingly linked to a piece that contained this gem of hi-falutin’ fare: “perhaps, just to break the ice, Obama should solemnly promise Putin that he won’t have to have sex with a gay guy.” Impressive! Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, David Brooks weighed in on Putin’s horrific apostasy against the diktats of the West. “Putin Can’t Stop”, the piece was titled (not smoking pot, mind you), but evidently being on the cusp of becoming a “Russian ayatollah” potentially captured by a “messianic ideology” that “point(s) to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage” (if that mélange sounds somewhat familiar, congrats, you’re old enough to remember the Bush 43 years kids).
This is not the time or place to re-hash the overarching bill of equities here. Any fair observer must have sympathy for the more moderate revolutionaries of Maidan struggling for national dignity, self-determination and, perhaps more than anything, less corruption. But, alas, we must also remember hard-scrabble inhabitants of places such as Kharkiv or Donetsk; let alone Sevastopol or Simferopol, many of whom place their primary kinship with Mother Russia. Indeed, it was certainly unfortunate that one of the first acts of the new Government in Kiev was to repeal a 2012 law recognizing Russian as an official regional language. Nor does it help that Svoboda party members hold posts in the new Government, including Chairman of the National Security Council Andriy Parubiy, who worth mentioning, has a deputy (Dmytro Yarosh) who is the chief of the extreme group Right Sector.
Irrespective of the above, some quick facts require highlighting as well: Russia has profound (yes, truly, profound) historical interests in Ukraine, especially Crimea and Southern and Eastern portions of the country. Our imbecilic zero-sum policy cheerleading Kiev pivoting wholly westward was bound to cause such trouble, even before the inglorious denouement with Yanukovych’s defenestration. Amidst the radicalization of Maidan and events constituting a de facto coup d’etat in Kiev from Moscow’s vantage point (Putin had likely already written off Yanukovynch but wanted a window of time to better protect Russian interests), I began to suspect that Putin would feel he had no choice but to intervene (as I Tweeted at the time, see my linked piece above).
And more facts which must be grappled with: the United States—and even Europe’s—interests in Ukraine are far less than Russia’s. The EU and U.S. will not wholly see eye-to-eye on all the policy choices in coming days. Nor does anyone in the West have the appetite to go to war over Ukraine. So we can hand-wring about the 21st Century and international boundaries and such (albeit with our standing to do so grievously harmed by the Dubya Administration’s rogue actions in Iraq) but the fact is Crimea was a part of Russia proper as recently as 1954 (not to mention has a majority—not minority mind you—Russian population). Much like Mikheil Saakashvili’s stupendously idiotic provocations in Georgia circa 2008, Putin felt compelled pursuant to his geo-strategic framework and interests to take action in Crimea, as he’d done in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a half decade before. These have all been quite calibrated actions, and perhaps literally without a shot being fired Putin has reclaimed Crimea for Russia.
Meantime he observes the spectacle of more NATO overflights in the Baltics, or whether the storied legacy G-7 members will deign to keep Russia in the Club, or lots of loose talk about sanctions that, deep down, none of the key powers involved really want to implement (let us see if countries like Spain and Italy—or even Germany, France and the UK—end up playing ball regarding executing truly robust sanctions). If Putin continues to see a spectacle of provocative incompetence (including NATO saber-rattling, particularly counter-productive as this is one of the key historical sensitivity points and ‘victor’s justice’ lietmotifs of the end of the Cold War, and also why influence on Ukraine's future is considered an existential issue by many in Moscow), he might be likelier to escalate. He doesn’t really care a whit about the G-8, or NATO overflights in Latvia. He might care some regarding Iran-style sanctions, but as above, these will be difficult to implement, will involve blow-back risk, as well the Russians will have ample options to circumvent them. The point is it is high time to cease this empty theater.
But, make no mistake, this is a perilous moment. Inhabitants of Donetsk might be the next to ‘call’ for help (whether genuine or fabricated, or likeliest, a combination of both). What is needed instead is treating Putin like an adult—with real interests—and de-escalating the situation by forcing compromises (real ones, not Potemkin ones) from the new authorities in Kiev too, not just from Moscow, regarding special arrangements and protections for Eastern Ukraine. Putin will respond better to such serious policy, rather than gratuitous insults and peevish half-measures that will not amount to much. The reality is—and it pains me to say this as the man is deeply corrupt and an autocrat—Putin is likeliest the most exacting leader--with the possible exception of Xi Jinping--on the world stage today. With a very weak hand given the secular decline in Russia’s fortunes, where he has seen key interests (Syria, Georgia, now Ukraine) and/or propaganda value at play (Edward Snowden) he has quite consistently outmaneuvered his opponents. We are witnessing the same now.
So no, Putin is not Hitler. He is not looking to exterminate a race, march into the Baltics and/or Eastern and Central Europe, or even retake all of Ukraine, and/or otherwise act like a genocidal maniac intent on taking over an entire Continent (incidentally, how insulting these comparisons to Hitler must be to Russian ears, given their immense sacrifices beating back Nazism, far greater than America’s in terms of loss of life). He is a quite able tactician protecting key interests when he has reached a limit of patience, in ’08 with Georgia, today with Crimea given the events in Kiev. The entire focus now needs to be focused on restraining Putin from entering Eastern Ukraine proper (forget about bona fide ‘observers’ in Crimea for now, that’s done!) to mitigate further room for miscalculation and gross bloodshed such an expansion of military action could engender. If Dr. Kissinger were younger, we might dare to hope we could nominate him for such a complex task. In his absence, retire the list-icles and schoolmarm remonstrations and let us get to the hard-work of interfacing with our opponent intelligently. The stakes are high, and President Obama—whatever you make of him too—must become directly involved even more, to include further dialogue at his level with Putin, and the new authorities in Kiev.
Given the schism that has plagued Ukraine for decades and longer (between its Catholic Ukrainian speaking West and its Orthodox Russian-speaking East) federalization and/or de-centralization schemes may ultimately need to be implemented to forge a sustainable solution, as well perhaps ultimately securing an explicit commitment that Ukraine (no part of it) will ever join NATO. Maximalist incantations that Ukraine will chose all aspects of its national destiny and enjoy unfettered dominion over every square inch of its erstwhile territory, given the above realities, are simply pretense. Reality matters in geopolitics, as does pursuing policy in pursuit of a coherent end-game, not as a clanging tantrum.
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March 03, 2014
What To Do--And Not Do--About Ukraine
“Yet, Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.”
“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”
“Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.”
--Title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical.
Few could be unmoved by the revolutionary spectacle of Maidan Square these past weeks. The desire for national dignity was palpable, and the protestors courageous. Too many paid for this courage with their blood. And yet, revolutions are never orderly, nor the equities ever as simple as many might prefer. And, as we are witnessing with the Arab Spring, they often have painful, and unforeseen, denouements.
Related, one need not be a Putin apologist to recognize some salient facts: 1) the Maidan movement included ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists, 2) the Yanukovych transition deal was crudely scuppered leaving the Russian side caught unawares and looking flat-footed (never appreciated by Vladimir Putin); and 3) this was followed by deeply provocative measures by the new Government in Kiev to move to extinguish Russian minority language rights. More assertiveness was surely on tap, as the mood was manifestly one of triumphalism.
This all occurred in the backdrop of a still painful chapter in post-Soviet history with Russia in continued secular decline, a former superpower having suffered deep humiliation through the post-Gorbachev era. In particular, NATO’s relentless Eastern expansion has been a deeply provocative, perennial leitmotif for Moscow. Additionally, Putin has felt double-crossed when he has recently cooperated with the West (see Libya), and now here again, when the Yankovych deal was ingloriously pulled: no European or North American chancelleries rose to defend the integrity of the deal, not deigning to restrain the hyper-nationalist mood one whit. From Moscow, it felt like a coup d’etat engineered to deny Russia any meaningful role in post-revolutionary Ukraine, including areas of deeply legitimate interest such as Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
Given this backdrop, as well as the massive import Ukraine holds in Russian national, religious, and cultural narratives—as the above quotes I hope help illustrate—I was increasingly queasy in the past days that Putin was going to await the end of the Sochi Olympics and look to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine militarily (as I tweeted at the time). So he did. For the time being, one might hope having created ‘facts on the ground’ in Crimea, he will simply stop there and use this reality as leverage to force a more conciliatory posture from Kiev regarding Russia’s other interests in Ukraine. However, I am highly concerned that Putin may calculate he needs to enter Eastern Ukraine as well, which will then materially enhance the (already high) chances of sparking a horrific civil war.
Amidst this inflammatory cauldron, a chorus has arisen among the Washington DC cottage industry of bien pensants that something be done. No less a foreign policy authority than Marco Rubio has regaled us with eight steps to Ukraine policy glory, of which at least six are either deeply flawed or will have no impact or most often, both. In more high-brow quarters, personages such as Ivo Daalder and Nicholas Burns pound the mantle about NATO coming to the rescue (just solidarity-wise mind you, not sending in the cavalry per se), which will only aggravate matters further vis-à-vis Moscow.
Indeed, the incredible cacophony that Obama faces (throw the bum out of the G-8, freeze assets, restrict travel, apply harsh sanctions, even, train and equip the Ukrainian Army, send in flotillas to the Black Sea, or hell, cut off the Dardanelles!) is almost comical in its desperate desire to do something, anything, to not look like wimps, preserve ‘credibility’ and/or avoid another Sudetenland ‘Munich moment’, and so on. But amidst all this sturm und drang that we be mightily Churchillian, we must grapple with some basic realities: 1) The West has no real appetite for a military slugfest with Russia over Ukraine (and while Ukraine could go it alone, perhaps even valiantly, they will not ultimately prevail in any military contest); 2) the U.S. and EU do not always see eye-to-eye on matters Ukraine (putting it nicely, remember the charming bon mot from our Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Victoria ‘fuck the EU’ Nuland?); and most fundamentally 3) Ukraine matters to Moscow exponentially more than it does to any Western power.
None of these factors advantage the West in the looming showdown over Ukraine, quite the contrary, they all run to the benefit of Putin. And if we play pretend we’re tough—and double down with sanctions and eviction from the G-8 and freezing transit and accounts and all the rest of it—you can be assured the chances of Putin calling our bluff and invading Eastern Ukraine full-bore will increase materially. Putin after all is not a donkey, and the brandishing of ‘sticks’ will not cow him, but rather in my view further embolden him, even if in a fit of pique and indignation that could involve miscalculation. Put differently, Putin is not an inconsequential figure, he must be engaged with, not wholly ostracized.
So, what is to be done, sit back, pass the popcorn, and see Vladimir do whatever he damn well pleases? No, of course not, but—and I cannot stress this enough—most policymaking should now be focused not on hectoring and ‘punishing Putin’ (all escalatory, generally mindlessly so) but rather moves aimed at showing we respect Russia’s legitimate interests with a view towards de-escalating the situation.
In this, Germany has a special role to play as go-between given her historical relationships with key regional powers like Ukraine, Poland and, of course, Russia. In coordinated fashion, key capitals like Berlin need to ensure Ukraine ratchets down the rhetoric with Moscow, of course no small feat given the emotion unleashed by the Crimean incursion (today’s comments from Kiev that it will “never give up” Crimea are not helpful). Indeed, further aid to Ukraine should likely be made conditional on ensuring minority rights in Eastern and Southern Ukraine are better respected, and critically, that no preemptive military activity by Kiev in those areas take place.
Beyond this regarding more Moscow-facing policy, we cannot breezily assume OSCE monitors or the like will prove a speedy panacea allowing for Putin to vacate Crimea (reportedly one idea making the rounds). This is a deeply unrealistic goal, as Putin understandably is suspicious organizations like the OSCE are beholden to their (majority) political masters in Western capitals, and thus overly in cahoots with the new regime in Kiev. For now, the focus must be--as with Kiev from the other side--to pursue productive diplomatic channels that help persuade Putin to stand-back from the precipice regarding a military option in Eastern/Southern Ukraine.
In short, by moving to soften the tone and policy in Kiev, better respecting Russia’s historic interests (please let us retire talk of NATO Membership Action Plans and such), offering honest broker type conflict resolution channels (not bidding up an East-West show-down in Pavlovian fashion as if inevitable) the following goals could possibly be accomplished in the short-term: 1) delaying or ideally preventing formal annexation of Crimea; 2) restraining Putin from invading Eastern Ukraine and 3) most important, helping defuse the specter of a horrible civil war in the heart of Europe’s eastern flank.
This is a time for sobriety and respect for one’s opponent and—dare I say—even a bit of gravitas—not think-tank ‘menus’ of punitive action to take in a huff, mostly as feel good nostrums. Yes too, I cannot help mentioning these are the bitter, dangerous fruits of locker-room 6th Floor Foggy Bottom talk of Yats and Klitsch, the bovine and myopic view of Ukraine through a zero-sum prism of winners and losers (Obama has been recently quoted saying he doesn’t “really even need George Kennan right now,” perhaps he should re-appraise this sentiment given the caliber of most of his policymakers ex Deputy Secretary Bill Burns). Putin shoulders huge blame too, of course, trying to thuggishly strong-arm Ukraine as a client, but we cannot pretend we have avoided all culpability given our own ineptitudes.
The broad middle of the Ukrainian people yearn for neither the dangerous hyper-nationalism of some in the Maidan movement nor being subjected to a revivified neo-Soviet yoke. To help deliver such a middle way, less bluster and more humility are in order, as well far more historical perspective than, say, the tidy supposed certitudes of the ’94 Budapest Memorandum. Ultimately if the current crisis can be defused—and more bloodshed averted—discussions around de-centralization (parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine) and possibly autonomous arrangements (Crimea) can be constructively explored to all the parties’ ultimate benefit.
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January 28, 2014
Hyper-Nationalist Hysteria in Egypt
Our 'non-coup' tax-dollars at work in Cairo (photo credit: Reuters):
September 11, 2013
In-House Note: Sanity Check
Andrew Sullivan writes that rhetorical flourishes may have gotten the better of me in my last post. He says that I was "far, far too caustic about the extremely difficult choices Obama had to confront in the past few months and too breezily dismissive of the breach of the chemical weapons taboo." He may well be right. Foreign policy-making is messy. While I stand behind the basic thrust of my commentary across all its content, I have decided to stop commenting on Syria for at least a couple weeks, likely into October. This may help lend a fresher, perhaps revised view. I can't promise I won't tweet on Syria, but there will be no longer pieces for a spell. Please know I frankly do not relish criticizing U.S. foreign policy-making from afar. I do so because--despite it all--I have a deep pride and respect for the United States. I suppose therefore I care, and so try to enunciate my concerns (yes, sometimes too grandiloquently, the perils of my writing style). But I try to call them like I see them, and this Syria effort to date candidly has seemed a grotesque failure to me. That said, it's easy to carp from the sidelines, and I will 'hit pause' and see how matters progress in an effort to be more magnanimous and gain perspective. Thanks for your understanding.
Farce as Foreign Policy: The Syria Debacle
The gyrations in Syria policy the past week have been simply staggering, beyond the missteps previously chronicled here and the still inadequately proven and/or publicized intelligence I attempted to describe here. On September 5th the United States Ambassador to the United Nations accused Russia of holding “hostage” the UN Security Council given its ‘patronage’ of Syria (as if the United States has never showered patronage on her clients, for instance, myriad vetoes and assorted abstentions on any matter of Israel-related fare). Yet, just five days later, Russia was front and center having cleverly outmaneuvered the American diplomatic apparatus, largely by leaping on a reportedly off-the-cuff, ‘rhetorical’ ultimatum by Secretary of State John Kerry and nimbly re-fashioning it with dispatch into a fig-leaf diplomatic gambit which will likely stave off U.S. airstrikes (of course, its primary, if not sole, objective). The supreme irony is that it is not clear whether Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov rendered more of a favor to their client in Damascus via these Machiavellian machinations, or rather to the U.S. President who appeared on the cusp of a resounding rejection of his unconvincing military cogitations by the American Congress, to say nothing of the lion’s share of his putative allies.
So how did we get to this inglorious impasse? For, make no mistake, Moscow and Damascus will now look to play out the clock and use every trick in the playbook to ensure, first and foremost, that Assad remain in power, second that Franco-American military power is not deployed against Assad’s chemical weapons (“CW”) program, and third that Assad’s CW program is not wholly destroyed, dismantled or otherwise put under convincing, full-bore international supervision (particularly in the context that a raging civil war is underway in that country). Meantime, the notion that this was not ‘gaffe diplomacy’ but the product of months of intricate dialogue with Moscow that belatedly came to fruit is credulity-challenging in the extreme, not least given the State Department’s immediate attempts to walk back Kerry’s remarks, but also broader context like the Obama-Putin summit being canceled in a fit of Edward Snowden pique as weightier agenda items like Syria languished after the NSA-related hissy-fit. Regardless, for those interested in a quick peek at a midstream post-mortem, several key factors helped contribute to this dismally embarrassing episode in U.S. foreign policy history:
1) The President’s Decision to go to Congress Smelled like a Panic Move: Having witnessed the UK Parliamentary debacle, and likely himself possibly looking for an out, Obama’s 45 minute walk-about with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough signaled indecision (not only to his blindsided national security team, but also the entire international community). And while I would have welcomed a sincere attempt to obtain the imprimatur of the legislature’s approval for a possible Syria military action, Obama effectively eviscerated the basic integrity and bona fides of the exercise by simultaneously saying he did not strictly require it as a legal matter given his ‘Commander-in-Chief’ authorities. The 11th and a half hour decision instead simply appeared borne of chaos, drift and indecision passing as policy, one already ridden by painfully apparent prior missteps. The world continued to take due note.
2) The Long Shadow of Iraq: While the UN Ambassador was busily breezily querying the basic cornerstone underpinnings of the post WWII security architecture (e.g. the role of the UN Security Council, which like it or not, if wholly shunted aside without replacement international infrastructure, could eventually lead to far greater perils than any single CW attack), such myopically fanatical R2P adherents apparently did not engage in the merest bit of navel-gazing amidst the festival of frenzied outrage. Post-Iraq, was ‘high confidence’ good enough to launch a war, rather than confirmation? Why were the fatality counts in Ghouta so wildly different among different intelligence services? And why this “absurdly over-precise number” (CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman’s words) tally of 1429 dead? All this speaks to basic credibility, and one could be forgiven for being truly astounded that the Administration did not better realize how much higher the burden of proof needed to be post the Mesopotamian morass.
3) Double Standards: Nor did the policy-makers in their Washington DC and Turtle Bay habitats evidently deign to pause and wonder: might we look hypocritical to some, given how selective this bout of mighty, amped-up outrage? After all, how many civilians were killed during Israel’s brutal Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a campaign leading to a similar fatality count as alleged in Ghouta--both in terms of civilian adults and children tallies of dead--amidst horrific onslaughts in massively densely populated civilian areas, whether caused by conventional weaponry or not (worth noting, and whether strictly considered CW or not, Cast Lead entailed the use of white phosphorus munitions). And are the grim realities of bloodless corpses of a CW attack really that different than the ‘collateral damage’ visited by myriad drone strikes, or the ancillary damage of ‘shock and awe’ during the Iraq fiasco, or for that matter, the near thousand Sisi massacred in Egypt, still courtesy of our tax-dollars, before the bulldozers subsequently swept the corpses away? Regardless, and beyond these hypocrisies (of which one could catalogue many more) and the niceties of upholding norms apart (which when convenient we wholly ignored—even quietly supported their very violation--as with Saddam’s use of CW against Iranians), old-fashioned conventional weapons-based killing has frankly been a much more horrifying specter these past two and a half years of the Syria conflict than any use of CW. The bout of outrage appeared more of the Cambridge faculty room variety than the cruel realities of the blood spilled through this volatile region these past many years, with monstrously hyperbolic parallels to Hitler’s use of gas during the Holocaust an insult to any rational observer.
4) An Epidemic of Telegraphing Intent to the Enemy, or, the Cheerio Campaign: Never in recent memory was a possible military campaign so parsed, leaked, aired, tweeted, blogged, phoned, generally, a total ‘flood the zone’ phenomenon that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘open kimono’. Any element of surprise was removed, doubtless to the dismay of any sentient observer in the entire US military. Beyond this, Assad received all but an engraved invitation to wait out a putative attack, told alternatively that the action would be: a “shot across the bow”, “unbelievably small”; “just muscular enough not to get mocked”, or (perhaps the winner for most ribald): “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.” This was high camp playing pretend at soi disant norm-protection.
5) Keystone Kops Prevents Serious Alliance-Building: The above factors, taken together, led to at best a lukewarm reception to the Administration’s plans, everywhere but Ankara, Riyadh and (rapidly diminishing portions of) Paris. After all, when an Administration is lurching chaotically, has not adequately confirmed the intelligence, sanctimoniously and hyperbolically caricatures Syria as the greatest threat to international stability since Munich, and has no persuasive military, diplomatic or other strategic roadmap for what might follow the Tomahawks: well, would you go along? An indicative barometer of how hard the international sales job would prove was the flagging domestic lobbying effort-- even with 800-pound gorilla AIPAC now behind the Administration’s exertions--the Syria authorization still appeared destined for defeat domestically, even among The Hill’s ever-willing, serried lumpenproletariat ranks. Little wonder then that the going would be even tougher internationally, with the Arab League offering only tepid support short of military action (jaw-jaw about an “international global red line”, the redundancy of the verbiage meant to put lipstick on the pig of the empty rhetoric) with erstwhile allies in the grips of hyper-nationalist anti-Islamist hysteria like Egypt effectively opposed, all but rooting Bashar on. Or that our near zero ROI in Iraq was yet again revealed by comments such as these by Maliki: “History will not have mercy on us if we encourage a military attack against any Arab country or any member of the Arab League… Our brothers — the leaders of Arab countries and their peoples — should not forget that supporting a military strike against Syria will set a precedent that [can be] enforced on all Arab countries. If we accepted the strike on Syria, we would be legitimizing any prospective aggression and accepting the conducting of strikes against Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen and all other Arab countries without exception. This is something we do not wish to befall any Arab country”. Finally, a unanimous G-20 statement could not even be cobbled together in St. Petersburg, with no BRICs support in the offing (even for rather a weak statement, China and Russia apart, Brazil and India would not play ball) and important countries like Indonesia and South Africa indicated opposition to military action as well. The emperor—even after (or perhaps partly because of) the risible saber-rattling—was effectively revealed to have no clothes, and no one but the most directly self-interested parties really wanted to come along for the ride.
6) Vlad & Sergei to the Rescue!: Amidst this veritable spectacular of incompetence, a last (to date, at least) act of loose-lipped amateurism via a John Kerry gaffe actually provided a possibly salvageable denouement via the near providential dispensation of handy exit ramp-offs. Apparently musing casually like a sententious orator in the Senate Chamber, rather than, well, a Secretary of State, and in response to a journalist's query in London, Kerry suggested immediate disarmament by Assad of his CW could stave off an attack. The Russians jumped into the abysmal policy vacuum presented by Washington’s wild bungling and corralled the Syrian Foreign Minister to make noises such an inspection and disarmament regime might be acceptable to Damascus. They will now play out the clock and steadily dilute any semblance of an international ‘coalition’ that Obama was pitiably attempting to cobble together to defend a norm he’d already abdicated defending previously on various occasions, until YouTubes finally woke him up from his slumbering disaster of a two year old train-wreck of a Syria non-policy.
Little matter. At this stage, one can only hope the shrieks, protestations and inanity of the latest Washington ‘obsession du jour’ will start to fade with the next news cycle. Otherwise, Obama must be careful lest the Syria matter consume much of the bandwidth of his second term, such as it is. He should pivot to a ‘containment-lite’ posture on Syria, effectively allowing the charade of the Russian proposal to play itself out, button-holing it best he can on the margins, despite how ultimately ineffective it will likely prove for a whole variety of factors, not least given there is a raging civil war afoot (but by all means, send in the inspectors!). If there is one smidgen of a silver lining here, the disgusting liar Assad—even as he likely ends up maintaining most of his CW stockpiles—will think quite carefully about using them again. We should count ourselves lucky that this plausible result may have resulted from such serial mismanagement. Obama should count himself similarly fortunate, before launching into a war he had nary a clue how to prosecute after first contact with the enemy in a tinderbox region on the cusp of even larger conflagrations. He should do his best to make up with Vladimir, declare something akin to victory, and move on. Basic self-respect demands it given how near total the fiasco he’s presided over. Meantime, the noisy commotion in the predictable precincts will go on (Are the Russians being honest? Or leading us on? Are we being tough enough? Etc.), speaking more to an insular provincialism seemingly unawares of how bumbling our exertions appear to most outside the Beltway. George Kennan, for one, would have wept.
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September 03, 2013
We Need Hard Confirmation on Syrian CW, Not Just "High Confidence"
Since the rigmarole passing for Syria policy described here, there have been two notable events: 1) John Kerry’s recent comments at the State Department effectively making the case for war against the regime in Damascus (or at least punitive action); and 2) President Obama’s stunning act of political jujitsu belatedly introducing the legislative branch into the late summer Washington pièce de théâtre. Neither development portends well or particularly ameliorates the overall conundrum presented by our flailing Syria policy. I will focus on “1” here, and hopefully turn to “2” shortly. Kerry’s remarks had as rhetorical showpiece a spirited refrain of what “we know” regarding Syrian alleged chemical weapons (“CW”) use. Delivered in a stirring--if overly forced--falsetto, the former Assistant District Attorney of Massachusetts presented the bill of particulars as if mounting a closing argument to a rapt jury box in the environs of Beacon Hill. But the stakes, stage and substantiation needed here are exponentially higher. And behind the spectacle of a bespoke suit, St. Paul’s baritone, ample Boston Brahmin chin, and silver-haired mane, Kerry’s comments ultimately rang hollow. As with Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, he ‘doth protest too much, methinks’.
In a relatively short statement, the Secretary of State managed to use the word “know” some nearly two-score times. Yet we really know with certainty far less than was portrayed with such assurance. After the grotesque failed WMD intelligence debacle of Iraq—a dismal stain on the United States--we have zero margin for error with respect to attenuated conjecture or trumped-up circumstantial “evidence.” Nor even does “high confidence” suffice. Indeed, before embarking on another Middle Eastern adventure (other merits of the proposed intervention apart), we must demand hard evidence--amply aired to the public--at very minimum established beyond a reasonable doubt and optimally wholly air-tight. This is not only to ensure we have proven culpability around the brutish crime of Ghouta, but also equally if not more important, to begin the hard work of restoring our credibility on such matters in the international arena. Put simply, a restoration of credibility demands conclusive proof; this means confirmation, full stop.
The following items gave pause in Kerry’s statement:
1) Kerry spoke of “thousands of sources”. This is hyperbolic, as it reflects myriad social media sources. To state the obvious, not all social media is created equal, especially when establishing culpability around war crimes, as opposed to deciding whom to ‘favorite’, ‘face-time’, or ‘friend’;
2) Kerry spoke of a “verdict reached by our intelligence community”, there was no such thing, there was a determination of “high confidence” regarding an intelligence assessment; this is no “verdict”, but rather, a finding;
3) While sympathetic to a degree regarding protecting intelligence sources, Kerry’s comment that “some things we do know we can't talk about publicly” leaves me underwhelmed, notably given the disgraceful Iraq back-drop, unless our global commons is to be relegated to so many supine sheep, we must and deserve more and better by way of publically disclosed information;
4) Kerry then pivoted to asking: “so what do we really know that we can talk about?”, which ended up being rather a lengthy recitation of circumstantial fare: A) that the Assad regime has the largest CW stockpile in MENA; B) that the regime used them previously this year on smaller scale and near the site of the Ghouta event; C) that the regime was “specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition” and “was frustrated that it hadn't succeeded in doing so”; D) that for three days before the alleged regime attack” Syrian forces were “on the ground in the area making preparations”, and E) that Syrian regime “elements” before the attack were warned to don gas masks and take “precautions associated with chemical weapons.” This is all quite interesting background fare, but none of it—none of it—conclusively proves the regime ordered this atrocity (please know I say that as someone who firmly believes the Assad regime was behind this odious attack, and if we had a competent team and policy in place--which we manifestly do not--should be made to pay the consequences dearly); and
5) Only after this lengthy preamble, Kerry began to move into more interesting terrain, finally getting to the meat (read: evidentiary crux) of the matter. He said the following: “We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.” But reading the intelligence assessment does not provide the detail on the “specific instructions”, and speaks only of “satellite detections” regarding the rockets provenance. Here again, we need more, and it must be made public, even if in carefully redacted form. Or will we be content only to have Congressional lickspittles, our soi disant “representatives”, give a ministerial ‘all-clear’ on the intelligence, much as they were asleep at the switch on Iraq, or more recently, the egregious NSA over-reaching (at least until they were shamed by Edward Snowden’s revelations to awaken from their insouciant slumber)?
After laying this mostly rhetorical groundwork, Kerry went on to say what we all know, that “all hell broke loose in the social media” after the attacks. Indeed, it did, and yet, we require conclusive proof of the origins of the attack, beyond horrific footage of the grisly aftermath. After all, this speaks only to something horrible having happened, as did reports by respected NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but it does not firmly evidence regime culpability. Similarly, sarin samples obtained from first responders proves the existence of said neurotoxic agent on the scene, but not necessarily who delivered it, precisely how, and exactly where.
There are other issues besides, when analyzing the balance of Kerry’s comments. As this McClatchy reporting details, there are pretty wildly differing fatality counts making the rounds, whether the ones trumpeted by the United States, or far lower ones: France (281 fatalities confirmed), the United Kingdom (“at least 350 fatalities”), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights figures (approximately 500, so that they are reportedly requesting the names of others in the US Government's tally to reconcile an apparently 1,000 strong delta), etc. Regardless, as CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman stated, it does appear Kerry was “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” (1429!), again, this presents deleterious and predictable spill-over implications to our credibility (Cordesman has more well worth reading here, incidentally).
Nor does it help that Kerry has also—before the U.N. investigation is even released—effectively pooh-poohed it in advance, decreeing: “when the UN inspectors finally gained access, that access, as we now know, was restricted and controlled.” Are we concerned about what the United Nations’ investigative team’s findings will be? I mean, what is it with our seeming concern around prejudging same? As for his statement: “(w)e know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered”, while intriguing, the international community will be forgiven wanting to hear more concrete details regarding same (I suspect, rank speculation of course, that this is an Israeli intelligence intercept we are being told by Tel Aviv must be kept under wraps). Additionally, while noteworthy that the Syrian regime reportedly shelled the affected areas “at a rate four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days” (it is suggested in part to destroy evidence), this is more circumstantial fare than some resounding evidentiary capstone to Kerry’s “case.” Finally, and certainly worth noting too, some outside experts are unwilling to make definitive conclusions regarding CW usage by the regime, such as this impressively researched view.
Let me be abundantly clear: I believe the Assad regime is despicable in the extreme and that they indeed knowingly ordered the use of CW in Ghouta up and down the chain of command. I think the regime was feeling increasingly emboldened given Obama’s reticence in not enforcing the ‘red-line’ previously, given too the lack of tangible follow-through on arming the opposition, and lest we forget, the amazing spectacle of fecklessness with respect to Sisi’s massacres of approximately 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (still courtesy of our tax dollars, as we can’t even summon a suspension of aid in the face of a bald-faced coup in keeping with U.S. law; perhaps bulldozed, bloody corpses seems less galling than ones without any marks and scratches, niceties of ‘norms’ apart?).
But we have no choice but to reckon that we labor under the legacy of the terrible blunder that was the ginned-up intelligence that caused trillions of dollars wasted, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, thousands of American ones, the epic disgraces of Abu Ghraib, and such grievous harm dealt the United States' global repute. We must recall all this was premised on lies. So, like it or not, evidentiary hurdles moving forward must be higher. This is critical to better bolster regional and global credibility, alliance dynamics, and more. Rapidly cobbled together 'quick and dirty' presentations to allow the Tomahawks be launched post-haste simply do not suffice. Indeed, before embarking on an adventure to Iraq’s legacy Baathist neighbor to the immediate West, particularly based on intelligence assessments again, it is incumbent to have, and forgive the phrase, a slam-dunk case, although let us please call it something else: conclusive proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or if you prefer, firm confirmation.
Mr. Kerry is of course an impressive personage on the American political scene of long-standing, and a talented diplomat as already evidenced by his resuscitation of the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he did not deliver such a case. Quite the contrary, his presentation begged more questions than it answered. We must demand more and better information. Our times—and recent debacles--require this. The stakes are too high for atmospheric speeches and Sunday green-room ministrations to carry the day. Else we have learned nothing.
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August 30, 2013
Make It Stop
Several days ago I wrote I was extremely conflicted on the question of punitive action in Syria, but no longer. I am now staunchly opposed having better detected an utter lack of true seriousness by the Obama Administration. The myriad leaks around what type of mission, the palpable trigger-happiness among some, the British debacle (they won't even have their poodle this time, the cat-calls will ring!) and the ‘shot across the bow’ nonsense showcases an Administration unready for an invigorated course correction of its flailing Syria policy. Frankly, I am astonished by the lack of seriousness and mediocrity on display. Our NSA Advisor has taken to Twitter to issue inanely faux-imperious pronunciamentos that would embarrass prior occupants of the office like Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Scowcroft, while abdicating an inter-agency coordination role that would actually bottoms-up a credible policy (memo to Susan Rice: calling foreign leaders to lobby coalitions is the easy work—if their Parliaments are another matter--having a convincing strategic end-game the true value-add, so perhaps you might tweet about the former less often). Defense Secretary Hagel is likely biting his tongue and saluting best he can but fundamentally opposed. And I don’t even need to speculate about what CJCS Martin Dempsey is thinking. Secretary of State Kerry, with respect, will be pulled in too many directions and himself is opposed to the pin-prick approach, which is essentially what is in the offing. In short, the team is not ready for prime time.
The incredibly publicized, telegraphed theater around how this will be a deterrent mission to slap bad-boy Bashar’s wrist for his alleged use of CW (as we break international law ourselves via the putative response despite the typical legal mumbo-jumbo the lawyers will be commandeered to produce) has been an epic embarrassment, unless Barack wished all the preamble noise and spectacle serve as the deterrent itself. Perhaps he did, if so, he should follow his instinct, hang up his spurs and allow his Syria fireworks show to never see the light of day. I expected more from this President given his obvious charisma, intellect and oratory, but it appears not married to strategic execution of complex statecraft. In this, he is no Dick Nixon, whom for all his many flaws, at least was capable of geopolitical panache and intrepid diplomacy on occasion. What we are seeing here is a festival of superficiality about the humanitarian imperative presented by Ghouta. It is an unbridled tantrum masquerading as moral righteousness.
If you mean it for real, however, you quietly go about your business planning a deterrent response that Bashar won’t simply hunker down through, you wait for the UN inspectors to issue their report on reasonable timing (would be graceful, no, at very least given the risks they undertook during their mission?), you at least try to have robust UNSC dialogue (let the Russians be on record that they are opposed, as we know they’ll be, but put in the effort regardless!) you cease with the constant leaks and descriptions and explications of what the policy might be or won’t or whether it will be no fly or no drive or cruise or no cruise or this or that, you don’t force allies to rush ham-handed into Parliamentary debates half-assed even before the UN investigation report finalized, and speaking of Parliaments, you deign to seek some imprimatur of legitimacy from yours; in short, you quietly execute, lay groundwork and let your opponent wonder what the hell is coming after his ostensibly despicable actions, rather than this gussied-up R2P prom-night feel-good gesture. The benefits of protecting the norm are outweighed by the feeble lack of coherence of the contemplated response.
These past 72-96 hours have been a titanic embarrassment for anyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy. It appears a rush job to beat the St. Petersburg summitry on a quiet August weekend that everyone hopes will be quickly forgotten, except for the mighty 'lesson' learned. It’s worse than unprofessional and cowardly. It’s contemptible in the extreme. Make it stop. Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished! Better than risking gross unintended consequences by a team that, alternatively, does not really have the stomach for the fight, or are simply not up to it strategy-wise, and in the President's case, perhaps both.
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August 27, 2013
The Syria Conundrum (Cont).
I truly cannot recall a foreign policy challenge in recent memory as confounding as the Syria conundrum. There are no good options, as we are all painfully aware. I have been on the record since April 2011 that once Bashar began massacring his own people, his legitimacy evaporated and he would ultimately be swept from power. I still believe this, quite apart from what the U.S. and its allies may or may not do in the coming days. I also attempted some time ago, to sketch out the beginnings of a more robust, internationalized response, including buffer zones near the Turkish border, working to better consolidate the Syrian opposition, as well more unrelenting diplomacy with both friends and foes on the dossier. Events since have only rendered talk of easy fixes more fantastical. We have seen the radicalization of many fighters on the ground, an obdurate Russian stance rendering diplomacy frustrating, as well as an arguably unexpectedly high degree of support from Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, among other impeding factors.
As the months of conflict turned to years, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions has mushroomed, with approximately 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons, not to mention over 100,000 dead. Somehow, a larger regional conflagration has not erupted (yet) in the midst of this terrible specter of violence and displacement, although clearly Iraq’s security has deteriorated (mostly but not only because of U.S. troop withdrawals), Jordan is under tremendous strain, Lebanon looks inordinately fragile even by its perennial standard of fragility, Israel is on hair-trigger, while Turkey’s Syria border has been a matter of steadily increasing concern for Ankara. Still, despite these growing risks, Washington and other Western chancelleries were mostly content to lean back amidst mostly vapid efforts and half-hearted action.
A supposed exception was the initial hullabaloo around so-called ‘red-lines’, originally depicted by the Obama Administration as not only use of chemical weapons (“CW”) but even merely movement of CW. This red line turned pink likely in Q4 2012, given reported CW usage by regime forces in Homs. Even after protracted ‘chain of custody’ cogitations that appeared to evidence regime CW usage, the Obama Administration still more or less did nothing, except a tepid decision to arm the rebels--delayed and ultimately still today an unconvincing policy change. Important to note too, I suspect it was the fall of Qusayr--with the regime and Hezbollah increasingly cleaning up the battlefield at the time with vigor --that had panicked some in Washington to begin arming the rebels directly, rather than the initial ‘red-line’ violations. Regardless, we were certainly not witnessing a robust policy with convincing strategic purpose.
Much of the above backdrop looks set to change with the apparent CW usage in Ghouta last week on a far larger scale than anything witnessed to date in Syria. Assuming the Assad regime is behind the attack—of which I have little doubt given the apparent delivery mechanism making a ‘false flag’ operation immensely doubtful—even a transparently reluctant President has been thrust into the vortex of imminent military action. Before turning to whether one might think military action warranted, or not, first, some quick predictions on what is likely to happen in the next days:
• Obama will make a statement to the nation touting the U.N. inspectors findings, our own investigative work (already a “near air-tight circumstantial case”, we are told), how broad the coalition supporting action (there will be countries beyond the usual suspects like U.K. France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc., if not the El Salvadors this go around) and the legal grounds (around violations of international legal ‘norms’—if not laws—given the Syrians not a signatory of the CW Convention, bonus points also for any non-ironic mentions of Geneva Convention), while perhaps making token mention of retroactive Congressional authorization given timing imperatives;
• He will go on to say given robust legitimacy/authorizations per “1” above he has directed limited, calibrated strikes in response to Assad’s regime odious violation of the international taboo against CW usage, a military action that will involve cruise missiles (easiest) and possibly long-range bombers (still reasonably low risk), and likely include U.S., U.K. and French direct action (I would be surprised this is cloaked as a NATO operation as that would only unduly humiliate the Russians more, quite unwise, as I’ll touch on below);
• The targets will likely include artillery batteries such as those used to deliver the CW into the environs of Ghouta, similar type ‘delivery’/transport/logistical military assets elsewhere, but will not include ‘shock and awe’ type direct hits on extremely strategic/high prestige regime targets, nor large-scale destruction of the air force, airports, air-defense systems and such (calibrated to try to not overly agitate the Iranians, who rely on air transport to aid the Syrians, nor overly rub it in the face of Moscow), although final target selection may well include some limited degree of air-force related assets as warning salvo;
• Obama will go on to message that the military action has been undertaken to protect something akin to the ‘core interests’ of, not only the United States, but also the entire civilized world, in that we cannot accept a 21st Century in which states—including non-signatories to the CW Convention—feel emboldened to use such hideous weapons (even if this has sometimes been exaggerated), and that Assad has hereby been warned should he do so again increasingly ‘high-value’ targets will be decimated (to keep a moving forward deterrent effect in place); and
• Finally, Obama will make mention that he well understands the U.S. public is tired of Middle East wars, this was the last thing he wanted to do, especially given critical tasks at home, etc. but that he has successfully deescalated us from Iraq and (supposedly) Afghanistan, and that given the egregious implications to standards of international conduct Ghouta presented, he had no choice but to lead the international community (drawing a line on the ‘leading from behind’ Libya precedent while he’s at it) in something akin to a ‘coalition of conscience’, by buttressing the strict taboo against chemical weapons use.
While this all sounds fine and dandy, the problems are many, although I will highlight just a few:
o Even such a calibrated initial campaign (say lasting approximately 36-48 hours) may lead to reactions from Moscow, Tehran or Hezbollah that may materially differ from our expectations (unless we are reaching private understandings in advance whereby Moscow is beginning to drop its client, for example), leading to the risk of greater geopolitical shocks;
o The Assad regime has effectively already gone rogue, and could become more desperate. Despite regime momentum these past months around Qusayr, Homs etc, the past weeks have seen a rebounding resiliency by the opposition, this in conjunction with Obama’s dismal reaction to Sisi’s massacre in Egypt may have led to Damascus’ miscalculation and overly cocksure use of CW, but now feeling more cornered and enfeebled it may calculate it has little to lose via additional, unpredictable actions even post-strikes (I worry about trying to change the ‘narrative’ via ‘damn the torpedoes’ adventurism in Israel, for example);
o It is important that a strategic roadmap be maintained for possible negotiations in Geneva, while no one can snap their fingers and resurrect a Dayton II (hard to believe, but a diplomatic resolution to the Syria conflict would be far more complex than ending the Bosnian conflict for a variety of reasons, nor is Dick Holbrooke around, may he RIP), we should not completely vitiate the prospects of resurrecting a diplomatic track because of the military action we are apparently imminently undertaking;
o There will doubtless be non-military casualties at the hands of American bombs, so-called ‘collateral damage’. Yes, holding Assad accountable for his ghastly CW use is certainly not an ignoble cause, but a death is a death however it comes about, and make no mistake, civilians will die (recall there was a fatality even in Bill Clinton’s dead-of-night pin-prick attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical facility); and
o What else we just don’t know. Once the die is cast, in what is arguably the most volatile tinder-box on the planet these days, we would be naïve not to expect the unexpected. Most of the time, alas, these are negative, complicating dynamics, not helpful extra tidings of good luck.
All this said, why do I find myself ever so slightly contemplating an apparent bias towards action despite my disgust at the palpable excitement emitting from Washington about our latest Middle East adventure (my Twitter feed will likely soon start updating me on specific national security team member's bowel-movements and what they might portend for Syria war coordination & planning) and trying my best to reckon head-on with our apparent tendency to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?
Here are a half-dozen reasons:
1) I do believe indiscriminate CW use against innocent civilians a terrible disgrace in our day and age, one which cannot be tolerated, even in the context of the painful hypocrisies that more likely died at Sisi’s hands in Rabaa than Assad’s at Ghouta, and we cannot even bring ourselves to suspend aid re the former, whilst we effectively go to war re the latter!;
2) The constant whinging around “credibility” apart (it is true we exaggerate and trot it out too willy-nilly), Assad all but dared Obama on this one, using CW a year after the red-line speech to the very day; to have not done anything would have truly revealed the emperor to have no clothes and sooner or later precipitated an even larger mass chemical attack (read: a ‘Srebrenica moment’);
3) I fear the IDP and refugee flows are becoming so large, and given the additional context of growing instability in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and points beyond, we’d have had to grapple with the Syria situation sooner rather than later regardless, so that if the strikes can achieve some deterrent while providing the rebels greater short-term momentum this could achieve dynamics on the ground more amenable to diplomatic follow-on;
4) With most U.S. troops out of Iraq and Israel prepared to deal Hezbollah a devastatingly brutal retaliatory blow, I do not see particularly easy options for Iran to retaliate, nor do I think Rouhani would be keen to do so regardless;
5) I believe Moscow can be mollified if the strikes are contained, proportionate and we energetically attempt to reinsert Moscow into the Geneva process to try to forge some U.S.-Russian condominium on a post-Assad Syria at some future point once the dust settles; and
6) Assad might find himself so consumed with self-preservation he may rein in any temptation towards regional trouble-making (also to try to keep his Russian patron on side as more pliable, predictable client), and revert back to more conventional tactics mostly aimed at literally saving his own skin, as in the end, he could well suffer an inglorious Gadaffi-like, brutish end, while perhaps refraining from more CW-use to avoid further military action from the West.
In short, you might say I could be persuaded the risks of inaction (or, perhaps better stated, long-term implications of doing nothing) could be worse—or at least run neck in neck--with doing something, but I say this frankly extremely torn, very concerned and with tremendous humility looking at our misadventures since 9/11 in each of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and points beyond. This is truly a problem from hell, but I do not believe we can dither from the sidelines any longer, unless we are prepared to more or less wipe our hands of the entire sorry affair. However, cosmetic, feel-good strikes without concerted strategic follow through on pressing issues such as more of a U.S. leadership role and ‘adult supervision’ over the sourcing, training, equipping, funding, and logistics around rebel assistance, aimed at building up the moderates’ capacities as contrasted with the more radical groups (less to necessarily assure 'victory' by the 'good guys'--all moronic concepts here--more to create leverage for resurrection of diplomatic initiatives by pressuring Damascus more on our terms), as well related painstaking diplomatic initiatives revamped at an appropriate juncture and heightened humanitarian assistance, all of these and more will be critical.
We responsibly should not simply bomb for 36 hours, and then go away again. This would likely prove worse than doing nothing. We need to re-engage in a holistic Syria policy that squarely grapples with broader regional dynamics and that ultimately leads to a negotiated solution, a task we’d shirked, but where Assad’s use of CW appears to have forced a reluctant President to more forcefully engage. So if we are going in, we’re going in for more than a few Tomahawks so everyone can get a late August pat on the back that ‘something was done’. It’s not quite Colin Powell’s old so-called Pottery Barn rule: ‘you break it, you own it’. It’s perhaps more here, ‘you bomb it, the breakage is yours too’. Are we up to this? Our national security team? The strategic follow-through? The countless hours of spade-work with allies and, yes, foes? I just don’t know. I am straddling the fence and unsure, but it is one man ultimately who will decide. My thoughts are with him, this may be a more momentous decision than he may wholly realize. I would not begrudge him standing aside, if he feels the ‘roll-in the cavalry’ noises to date have caused Assad to blink already creating a sufficient enough deterrent impact (though this is dubious). He must also ask himself, when he thinks honestly taking his private counsel, whether he believes he and his team really have the appetite and abilities once embarking on this course to actually succeed in it. These are not easy questions. Yet they demand answers and realistic appraisal. As part of that analysis, one must honestly reckon too with the emerging school of thought that we can bifurcate a military action aimed purely to deter on CW, but without enmeshing ourselves in the conflict and attempting to influence broader outcomes. One doubts it could play out so neatly, and such assumptions should be amply stress-tested.
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August 21, 2013
An epidemic in the usage of a locution rendered increasingly meaningless, whether uttered by Presidents, Secretaries of State, U.N. officials, and/or other Western chancelleries. This is just a 'quick and dirty' partial list, there are many more. But it's particularly notable--even in the dog-days of August--how often said phrase has been trotted out for various Egyptian going-ons by Washington players. However, pending further confirmation around the reported chemical attack(s) near Damascus--particularly in respect of the soi disant 'red-line'--this latest statement of deep concern may well be the most egregiously lackadaisical trotting out of the apparently standard-issue verbiage to date.
UPDATE: Re: Syria, we have now moved to "grave concern".
August 17, 2013
August 15, 2013
Obama's Foreign Policy: A Season of Disappointments
It has become a season of disappointments with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It appears adrift, unserious, above all, lacking any strategic underpinnings, direction, or execution. A quick glance around the globe helps buttress the contention that something is rotten in American foreign policy, urgently requiring redress. But few seem to care, and expectations must remain low. Unsurprisingly, it is most fitting to observe the situation in the wider Middle East. Syria is perhaps most instructive, although Egypt has been calamitous too. Yes, of course, Syria presents the proverbial ‘problem from hell’. The ethnic, sectarian and religious fault-lines of the Levant are maddening in their complexity. Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran (and her main proxy Hezbollah), among others, have critical interests at play. Yet we seem to have all but wholly abdicated the scene, rolling our hands up in despair.
A noteworthy example was the supposed “red line” around chemical weapons use. After extensive ‘chain of custody’ cogitations, Washington concluded chemical weapons were indeed used by the Syrian regime. But the Administration response seems to indicate it was not this “red line” that precipitated Washington being reluctantly dragged into possibly broader involvement, but the fact that the Syrian regime (along with its ally Hezbollah) had overtaken the pivotal town of Qusayr a couple months back. This victory better allowed for a band of territorial contiguity from Damascus to the Alawite coastal heartlands, while rendering Homs more vulnerable to regime re-conquest. This stark reality, rather than any ‘red-line’, was what appeared to put Washington on more of an activist footing, followed by the decision to have the rebels armed (I suppose I am purposefully using the passive voice here). Whatever one makes of this decision, here too it became a bit of a shambles, with de minimis provision of arms like MANPADs that might make a difference (albeit given prior experience in such equipping forays one understands the reservations), with mostly small arms proffered up instead. Even in this watered down variant, long delivery delays ensued as well.
The net effect was one of small conviction and spine but much contrivance and theatre: was there really a red-line, or was it the fall of Qusayr; were we going to robustly arm the rebels, or kind of half-ass it? And so on. Amidst all the policy-making as directionless, incremental half-measures, nowhere did one get a sense of convincing strategic purpose. Could we more creatively engage with, not only the Jordanians, but also the Turks, in creating safe-zones near those borders that would provide more international legitimacy to the opposition (disparate as it is), and create at least somewhat greater leverage and control over rebel elements, rather than the hardened al-Qaeda affiliated radicals whom through their brute courage and determination are now winning at least some hearts and minds? Was our diplomacy with Moscow robust and creative enough (deal-making around Tartous, as one example), or did it lack imagination and energy?
Yes, it’s easy to be an arm-chair critic, but it’s truly hard to avoid sensing that our Syria policy lacks any strategic direction undergirding it. If we wish to wash our hands of the affair, so be it, and let’s do so. At least this would be honest. But if we mean to have influence on the outcome, the mish-mash of “policy” we have seen to date is something of a mockery; playing pretend we are doing something convincing when really we are doing anything but.
But we should not have been surprised. We have seen similar cynical behavior before from this Administration. One example was of course Afghanistan. While Obama should certainly be lauded for looking to extricate us from this morass (which has now lasted longer than WWI and WWII combined), he did so only after a "surge" implemented after he already knew nothing remotely commensurate with a “victory” was attainable. Frankly every American service-person who died as part of said surge died not for a mistake we only learned about later, but one that was already assuredly clear to the Commander-in-Chief (indeed he’d prominently campaigned on such very themes). As Obama's own Secretary of State said many decades ago about another conflict in a far-away land: how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Meantime, in Iraq, again we must laud Obama for forging and executing a robust exit strategy. And yet, all sentient observers were aware to pull out the vast majority of U.S. forces would leave a tremendous security vacuum. To help alleviate the risks of radicals (both Sunni and Shi’a) looking to re-enter the fray, at a minimum the Administration should if anything have been doubly focused on the deteriorating situation in Syria, not least given the spill-over impact (in both directions) to Iraq. And East of Iraq, rather than West, we have seen a screaming lack of creativity with regard to engagement with Iran, even after the Rouhani victory. All the Beltway mavens certainly have earned their A minuses and B pluses for sanctions implementation, but to what end? Iran is closer to a bomb, our influence as negligible as ever, with the persons suffering the most Iranians on the street not complicit in the regime’s crimes.
Elsewhere in the broader MENA region, the latest policy foibles have been simply disgraceful with respect to Egypt. Egyptian security forces now on three occasions have mowed down innocent protestors in cold blood, the last episode constituting something of an Egyptian Tiananmen. There has been much handwringing behind closed doors in Washington, doubtless, but foreign policy on the matter to date has been delegated out to the Deputies level (albeit the extremely able Deputy Secretary William Burns) as well reportedly circular, non-productive calls between Secretary of Defense Hagel and the de facto Egyptian leader, Sisi. The National Security Advisor –whose skill-sets do not appear particularly compelling---does not appear to be brokering an inter-agency policy of any ingenuity or note, though she does ring up the President with bad news on the Vineyard ably. Meantime, the Secretary of State waded into the morass with the offensively off-base comment that the Egyptian Army was “restoring democracy”, when the truth was quite the opposite, given they have engaged in tactics that reek of a crude, fascistic crushing of dissent. Such Washington tea-leaves apart, fundamentally, did Sisi simply take the measure of Obama, and calculate he could massacre half a thousand (and counting) souls in cold blood, and not pay any real consequence for it beyond wrist-slaps to placate critics and such feel-good empty gestures?
What would matter to Sisi, or at least get his attention, is to put an end to the masquerade that we have not witnessed a bald-faced coup. Through it all, alas, apparently overly jittery about the implications to Israeli security (Sinai, Camp David Accords, Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas cousins), as well the damage that too much non-ancien regime 'fluidity' in Egypt might visit on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (a rare recent success, with kudos due the Secretary of State, though Israel’s perennially poorly timed continued settlement expansion is not helping the lift-off much), we have not dared call the coup a coup. Legally, of course, the events of July 3rd were prima facie a coup, and morally too we should now feel well obligated with these latest mass killings to strip the Egyptian Army of the pretense there is some democratic interim governance in place beyond a fig-leaf masking the Army's brute putsch (see too the recent reinstitution of various military and Mubarak legacy cronies in key positions), all predictable fodder that I'd touched on before here. Regardless, however, if moral or legal arguments do not sway, even on realist grounds we should be designating the events a coup, as the brazen robbery of the Brotherhood’s ballot box victory--at such a critical juncture in the Arab uprisings—will now resonate profoundly with respect to the Islamic disenfranchisement narrative, with clear and present ‘blow-back’ risks to our interests, especially in the face of such horrific massacres.
Beyond MENA, the Administration’s track record has been little better. Any return on investment regarding one of the Administration's most touted 'signature' initiatives, the so-called Russia ‘re-set’, has been largely laid to waste in a fit of Edward Snowden pique (don't buy the spin other reasons were material to the decision to cancel the summit). Meantime, the NSA revelations have further harmed our moral standing (we clearly care not a whit about the privacy rights of ‘fur’ners’, as our friends in Europe and Latin America have learned), and Obama’s inability to execute on his pledge to close Guantanamo is not a tale of manifold complexity rendering it impossible, but ultimately a contemptible inability to grasp the nettle, strategically execute, and get the bloody job done. On China, the “pivot” too often smells like neo-containment to Beijing, and too little fulsome dialogue between the parties exists to provide a more constructive basis for trust-building between the existing “superpower” and its nearest rival. The point here is that strategic missteps (or, at best, disjointed, suboptimal execution) is not just a tale of MENA woes amidst the wild cauldron of the Arab uprisings, but has manifested itself in more 'structured' major power relationships as well, whether Beijing, Moscow, or others.
All this said, the President does have one thing going in his favor. The opposition party would have mounted an even more disastrous foreign policy, I suspect, proactively blundering about saber-rattling with the usual recycled neo-con nostrums, bogging us down in even more theaters than at present. Obama at least has spared us these indignities, ‘leading from behind’ adventures like Libya (and its ugly hangovers) apart. But it is not a particularly proud legacy to say ‘at least I was better than the other guy would have been’. This is not the stuff of a great Presidency, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Of course, there has been and is much work to accomplish at home, and while not the topic here, whether jobs, infrastructure, Wall Street reform, and more; we should not conclude the Administration necessarily covered itself in glory there either, beyond the easy myths that 'but for' pork-infested stimulus, QE-infinity and serial bailouts Great Depression II beckoned (this is not to take away from the gravity of the economic situation we faced in late '08 and early '09, nor some of the Administration's crisis management at the time, or indeed, the prior Administration's). But while I understand a great power can only remain so from a base of strongly rooted strength at home, and Obama’s apparent focus on domestic politics therefore is not ill-advised, it is another thing to look alternatively peeved, bored, listless and simply largely adrift on foreign policy. Leaders, whether Sisi or Putin, have noticed. We simply must do better, and please, this does not mean better, or more, speeches. It means strategic execution of statecraft in a turbulent epoch of geopolitical transition, one of the Presidency’s most solemn responsibilities, or at least one might hope, a solemn aspiration. And its manifest absence represents a season of disappointments the international community can ill afford at this juncture.
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July 27, 2013
The Interior Minister Speaketh
UPDATE: Important related context from the FT here.
A Coup That Will Resonate Far Beyond Tahrir
The mood was festive as the dim, bearded President Morsi and his equally bovine Muslim Brotherhood cadres--or so the caricature we are told by comme il faut Cairenes--were carted out on the backs of a supposed Revolution 2.0 on June 30th. The buffoonish Egyptian press went into jubilant tizzy, the Tamarrod twitterers into an orgy of self-righteous contentment (strikingly unawares of their abject kow-towing to the military and deep state behind), and the West looked on, at best with cautious incrementalism, at worst in abject cluelessness. For good measure, David Brooks helpfully chimed in, averring that Islamists "lack the mental equipment to govern" (left unsaid was what this showcased about other's ''mental equipment").
As developments progressed amidst these assorted enthusiasms, the prima facie proof this was a coup full stop was clear to all but those purposefully deluding themselves. Still, to the annals of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ or such Orwellian verbal mish-mash, we can now add the notion of a ‘popular impeachment’. Hill notables issued such clap-trap. The Administration, perhaps priding itself on a dose of Scowcroftian realpolitik (deluded, if so), instead retreated into a disingenuous bunker of silence, no one daring utter the dreaded “c” word. Israel lobbied, of course, that such a designation not be made (Morsi too cozy with their Hamas cousins, Sinai security risks, and in a worst case scenario, sacrosanct pillars like Camp David coming into starker relief). But even cynical observers must have been surprised by the Administration’s ultimate tack, wholly avoiding having to designate it a coup or not, as go figure, we simply wouldn’t broach the issue! Call it the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ school of foreign policy. As Noah Feldman reminds us, however, the President of the United States does have an obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” (well, I suppose that ship had already sailed, ex-legacy con law trappings).
As Washington cowers, with wrist-slaps on delayed F-16 deliveries and such, while Sisi and Co. are doubtless told to ‘hold tight’ and ‘course correct’ the revolution (by a reactionary counter-revolution!), the Egyptian Army is getting down to old-fashioned, brass-tacks business on the boulevards of Egypt’s cities. In tactics that will make Bashar al-Asad feel Damascus and Cairo are enjoying kindred moments amidst the hot summer months, snipers are shooting to kill, and doing quite well at it, with scores dead on Egypt’s streets (to date, at least, Egypt’s Army only uses its airpower to wow the Tahrir bevy with air shows, not bombardments a la Bashar). These massacres carry the stench of a brutish military trying to quash the opposition because they realize that the teeming slums of Egypt’s cities reveal much support for President Morsi, now under protracted arrest whereabouts unknown, but likely now housed near former President Mubarak, in a neat historical touch. After all, the man won 52% of the vote, like it or not. As for his bungling performance in office, what sentient individual in these United States wouldn’t have liked to mount a ‘popular impeachment’ amidst Dubya’s strikingly horrific stewardship of the levers of power, whether Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld’s dereliction, and Cheney’s despicable usurpation of the Executive? But, alas, one must wait for elections, at least if we are going to play pretend we are in the throes of a democratic “liberal” revolution.
Why should we care? These going-ons are taking place in far-away Arab lands, and summer entertainment might be more easily had by the pitiable Carlos Danger's vying for ink for sexting near-minors and such, like incredibly needy cretins. Well, for one, Egypt represents the beating epicenter of the entire Arab world and is the paramount, central actor in the denouement of the Arab Spring, such as it is. The enthusiasm by which Riyadh turned on the dollar spigot to Sisi’s gang should tell us all we need to know regarding the reactive forces at play. As blood spills, trumped up charges that are bogus in the extreme are lobbed at Morsi, and the crack-down intensifies in general, is the risk of mass Islamic disenchantment during the most high profile episode of the Arab uprisings not manifestly clear?
Of course, this is a mug’s game, and whatever the U.S. did (or didn’t) each side will be dissatisfied. But the singular implications of the Egyptian uprising all but demanded a more robust American reaction defending the integrity of the ballot-box, even if just pretending to muster some spine, rather than speaking of a naked coup as constituting some enlightened “second chance” for the revolution. How is an effective putsch to accomplish that, no matter how Westernized the technocrats that will preen about the instrumentalities of government power looking to unlock IMF funds, while Sisi and the Army control the real levers?
Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the White House will delude themselves that we are retaining ‘leverage’ over Sisi and will control outcomes, but our supine compliance to date has spoken volumes. The Generals get it, and they are getting on with it. The Islamists, if Egypt doesn’t descend into full-bore civil war, will remember, as they go into ‘hiding’. Another chapter in Islamist rejection is being written, this time vividly with respect to participatory democracy given their victory was stolen, and while we were never meant to be central players, and indeed must be cautious, there are nonetheless times where fecklessness of this magnitude will backfire to our detriment.
It is a quiet summer weekend down in Washington, and I shudder to think about the quality of the ‘Egypt discussion’ on the Sunday shows (to extent even broached), but this much is clear: the violence committed today, whether dozens, scores, over a hundred or more dead; was grotesque and unwarranted. It speaks to a military conscious of its eroding legitimacy (and this already during the immediate post-June 30th honeymoon period), likely increasingly fearful of the specter of civil war and, irrespective, feeling far too entitled to use brute force to quash dissent to try to avoid greater tumult. It is high time to signal to Egypt’s real power brokers (not some risibly figure-head President) that the implications of such continued conduct will have real ramifications, starting by what all but the willfully blind across the world know to be true: have the cojones to call a coup a coup.
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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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