World

The Strategy that Dare Not Speak Its Name

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
A s the past weeks of debate over action in Syria have shown, it’s nearly impossible to discuss U.S. policy toward the Middle East without discussing Iran, and concerns over the possibility that it could obtain a nuclear weapon. Over the past three decades, the U.S. approach to the region has been, if not entirely defined by the tension between Americans and Islamic Republic, then strongly colored by it. For its part, Iran has, to a considerable extent, defined itself in opposition to the United States, the sponsor of the oppressive Shah who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. A key foreign policy goal of the Islamic Republic is undermining and rolling back the U.S.’s influence in the neighborhood which it considers itself the natural hegemon of. That bid for regional influence was given a generous boost by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which removed Iran’s bitterest foe, Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Iran in 1980 sparked the massively destructive eight-year war that...

American Public Oddly Reasonable on Syrian War

President Obama addressing the nation on Syria.
When public opinion is running against the position you've taken on something, it's natural to conclude either that the people just haven't yet heard your argument clearly, or even that opinion doesn't matter. And in one sense, it doesn't. If you're right, you're right, even if most Americans disagree. Not long ago, most Americans had a problem with people of different races to get married; they were wrong about that even if they were in the majority. Of course, that's a matter of substance, which is distinct from matters of politics, which can constrain your behavior whether you're substantively in the right or not. So I wonder what Barack Obama thinks of public opinion on Syria these days. I doubt that he's like George W. Bush, who was forever certain that "history" would judge the Iraq War to be a smashing success. By now Obama may have concluded that he'll probably never win the public over on this question, so he should just try to move things along as best he can. There's a new...

America's Exception Deception

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster I n a democracy, politicians seldom counsel the public to be modest. They flatter and praise the voters, telling them that they are just and wise, hardworking and principled, possessed of boundless vision and common sense. And here in America at least, they also generalize those virtues from the people to the nation itself. America, Americans are endlessly reassured, is unique and special among the world's countries. It i sn't just that we're the most important country, which is undeniable, since we have the biggest economy, the biggest (and most frequently deployed) military, and the most influential popular culture. Those things could change someday. Instead, what voters are told over and over again is that we're "exceptional." We're not just stronger or richer; we're better. Indeed, we're stronger and richer because we're better. And we may well be exceptional in how often we're told that we're exceptional. My knowledge of the electoral politics of other...

Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis

AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty T wo million refugees from Syria. The figure was announced last week and easily missed amid headlines about the Tomahawks that would or would not be fired at targets dear to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Refugees are less dramatic than cruise missiles, less dramatic even than wrangling about a Security Council resolution on Syria's poison-gas arsenal. Yet the exodus from the civil war-torn country represents a humanitarian crisis no less stark, a moral demand no less pressing, than the use of chemical weapons. It is a crisis which has policy responses that do not involve bombs, that do not require a debate about America and Europe re-entering the Middle East's wars. They do, however, demand spending money and a willingness to take in refugees on a new and much larger scale. In the end, these costs pale in comparison to the costs of war. Two million refugees, in truth, is a careful understatement. It's the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees...

The Rapid Rise and Humiliating Fall of a Middle East "Expert"

One of Elizabeth O'Bagy's many appearances on Fox News.
It seems as though every few months, some Washington institution—a government agency, a think tank, or the like —finds themselves surprised when one of the people working for them turns out to be a fraud, a purveyor of offensive ideas, or otherwise an embarrassment. After a few days of controversy, the person's resignation is accepted, and they disappear forever. Back in July, a guy working for Rand Paul turned out to be a neo-Confederate. In May, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Jason Richwine, turned out to have some colorful ideas about Hispanics and IQ. The latest, and one of the strangest, is the case of Elizabeth O'Bagy, an expert on Syria employed by the Institute for the Study of War, a right-leaning think tank. This often happens when the person achieves precisely the goal they've been working for: wide dissemination of their ideas, and an elevation in their visibility. It's that sudden visibility that leads people who disagree with those ideas to say, "Who is this...

Mobile Phones Continue Inexorable Conquest of Globe

Flickr/Kohei314
Yesterday, Apple released its new iPhones, one a slightly updated version of the iPhone 5 with a fingerprint reader, and one a cheaper version ("unapologetically plastic," in the term the PR wizards came up with) meant to attract new customers in developing countries. In case you didn't catch any of the eight zillion articles written about the release, minds remained rather unblown. Apple may still be an unstoppable engine of profit, but there are only so many times you can tweak a product and convince people it's totally revolutionary (not that that will stop Apple cultists from standing in line to get the latest version). In any case, this is as good a time as any to step back and look at the remarkable spread of mobile phones across the Earth. There are few other technologies that have found their way into so many hands in so short a time. Mobile phones actually date back to the 1940s, when AT&T set up a system that would allow truckers to make calls from certain cities and...

Playing Russian Roulette with Syria

The strategy outlined in President Obama’s speech Tuesday night was 180 degrees from where it stood when it was announced he would address the nation, so much so that it’s worth asking why he went ahead and went on prime time. As I wrote last week in the Prospect , going to Congress was a way for Obama to build domestic support that could in turn generate greater international support for military action. With the Syria resolution all but dead, and the Russians and Syrians saying yes to John Kerry’s maybe-serious-maybe-not plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under Russian auspices, it now looks like the course of action has been reversed. Last night the president announced that he had asked leaders of Congress to postpone the vote while his administration worked to build international support around the proposed plan, the admittedly complicated details of which are still being worked out. If that process fails, or simply proves, as many reasonably suspect, to be a Russian stalling...

Iraq Is Still Burning

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban
In the debate over whether we should bomb Syria, a name has come up that we hadn't heard in a while: Iraq. There are all kinds of overly simplistic comparisons you could make between 2003 and 2013, but they really are nothing alike, most particularly in that George Bush wanted and got a great big war, while Barack Obama plainly doesn't want any such thing. And of course, Iraq was just kind of sitting there, while today Syria is engulfed in a bloody civil war. But this is a good time to remember that when we finally left Iraq two years ago, things didn't exactly become all unicorns and rainbows. Not that it would be any better if our troops were still there getting shot at, but the country remains awash in sectarian violence. For some perspective, think about the Boston bombing—not just the reaction of the authorities, which included shutting down a major city for most of a day, but how much we talked and thought about it, learned about the victims, debated what it meant and didn't...

Obama Punts to Congress on Syria—and Scores

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Evan Vucci P resident Obama just might pull off his proposed Syria attack. And a limited strike to punish Assad, take out much of his air force, and deter future chemical attacks just might be the least bad of the available options, none of which are good. The strategy might also be astute domestic politics, since it exposes the opportunistic fault lines in the Republican Party and could cast the president as a strong leader for once. One intriguing question that follows from the Syria politicking is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and then appears so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics writ large. More on that in a moment. Six days ago, Obama looked like he’d wimped out again. He had overruled most of his staff, who were counseling a quick strike based on his commander-in-chief authority. Instead, Obama, a reluctant warrior, punted to Congress. The surprise move...

Information Sharing Is Caring

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster M any members of Congress are either yahoos who couldn’t find Syria on a map or partisan hacks who make policy choices purely based on political expediency. And yet: The best thing about President Barack Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike against the government of President Bashar Assad is that it increases the chances that the eventual road taken by the United States in Syria will be a good one. In fact, cases such as this one demonstrate the advantages of a more democratic system when it comes to achieving smart policy over a system which relies purely on the rule of experts. The problem for the presidency is always one of information. How do presidents know what policy to follow? In almost all cases, the president cannot fall back on his own personal knowledge. And, as with most presidents, Barack Obama’s personal expertise was quite limited before he entered the White House. So in the first instance, Obama must turn to the departments...

Leave the Munich Pact Out of This, John Kerry

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
Somewhat at odds with its place in western political lore as the ultimate symbol of appeasement and betrayal, Munich is actually a really nice city. (Really, how could any city whose cultural life is significantly arranged around the appreciation of beer not be?) Visiting in 2011 I was taken on a group tour of the city that terminated at the Konigsplatz, the plaza that’s become the center of Munich’s museum and art gallery district. Our guide led us past a group of breakdancing teens to the Fuhrerbau, the former Nazi Party Headquarters which sits at the edge of the plaza. Now home to a music and theater academy, the Fuhrerbau is the building where the infamous Munich pact —the 1938 agreement recognizing Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, which convinced Adolph Hitler that European leaders were not willing to risk war to stop German expansionism—was signed. “And here,” our guide said, leading us inside, around the building’s grand staircase and into a...

Syria Turns into a Political Story

President Obama announcing his intention to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. (White House video)
So last night I was watching NBC News, and a report on Syria came on, in which Andrea Mitchell spent five minutes talking about whether going to Congress for affirmation of his decision to attack the Syrian government makes Barack Obama "look weak." Mitchell is the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent," which is what you call someone who stays in nice hotels and gets talking points from top officials when she travels with the secretary of State to foreign countries. The news is full of this kind of discussion, about whether Obama is weak, whether he "bungled" the decision-making process, how this might affect the 2014 elections, and pretty much anything except whether a strike on Syria is genuinely a good idea or not. Here's The Washington Post 's Chris Cillizza talking up the "massive gamble" Obama is taking—not a gamble on what will happen in Syria, mind you, but a political gamble. Here's Chuck Todd and the rest of the NBC politics crew gushing that this is "a great...

No Empire Strikes Back

The days of unilateral imperial action are gone—American power is not enough to solve the conflicts in Egypt and Syria.  

AP Images/British Official photo
AP Images/British Official Photo A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942 ; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état. In the days of empires, superpowers could deal with Middle Eastern...

Let's Avoid the Fog of War

The benefits of a U.S. military strike against Syria don't outweigh the costs.

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta
As the Obama administration considers military action against Syria as retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it’s important to consider what such strikes could actually accomplish, and at what cost. As I understand them, the two main arguments for strikes are: 1) Having set a red line, the credibility of the United States now requires that the Bashar al-Assad regime be punished for crossing it; 2) Military action is necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons and to deter future use. The first case is fairly easy to dismiss. Supporters of military intervention tend to place a great deal of weight on “credibility,” which is almost exclusively defined as “a willingness to bomb something.” As this argument goes, the United States needs to use deadly force to maintain its table image, to use a poker term. If we get caught bluffing, other players will be more likely to call or raise us in the future. But there’s just not a lot of real-world evidence...

The Chemical-Weapon Taboo and America's Next War

A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)
Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria , it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions. Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not...

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