Archive for ‘United States’

April 15, 2013

Patriots’ Day

As a child of the Boston area, a word about Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts. The day is now celebrated as a holiday in Massachusetts on the third Monday of April (thus Monday, April 15, 2013), and is based on April 19, 1775, the day the American Revolution started at Lexington and Concord, MA. Capt John Parker, leader of the Minutemen gathered on the Lexington green, is reported to have said, “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

In the modern era the Massachusetts holiday includes reenactments of the first skirmishes (I still remember that President Gerald Ford and actual British regulars came to Lexington for the bicentennial year); a daytime Red Sox game; and the Boston Marathon. Growing up, it was always part of April school vacation week.

What a day it always was. Sadly, memories of marching Redcoats, pancake breakfasts, and Heartbreak Hill will now be joined by today’s tragedy.

March 1, 2012

Misperceptions, Foreign Policy, and Iran

A new post at the Monkey Cage, co-authored with my colleague Stephen Benedict Dyson:

In an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko rightfully draw attention to the way in which threats to U.S. national security appear overblown today. But because they understandably focus on demonstrating the relative safety of the United States, they do not give as much attention to research on the question of why threats get overblown. When they do turn to the cause, they underplay the central role of psychological factors.


February 7, 2012

“Will the US Restrain Israel on Iran? Unlikely”

I did a guest post over at the Monkey Cage: “Will the US Restrain Israel on Iran? Unlikely.”

January 27, 2012

Conference on Arab Uprisings, March 27 at UConn

If you are in the CT, New England, or NY area, come join us for a one-day conference at UConn in Storrs, CT:

“The Arab Uprisings and the Changing Global Order” (flyer)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Student Union 330 (Storrs, CT)

9:00 am — Opening remarks

Panel #1: Political Change in the Arab World
9:15 – 10:45 am

Issandr El Amrani, The Arabist
Eva Bellin, Brandeis University
Amaney Jamal, Princeton University

[coffee break]

Panel #2: Regional Dynamics
11:00 am – 12:30 pm

Robert Blecher, International Crisis Group
Gregory Gause, University of Vermont
Jillian Schwedler, University of Massachusetts

[lunch break]

Panel #3: The Uprisings and the United States
2:00 – 3:30 pm

Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress
Sarah Kreps, Cornell University
Malik Mufti, Tufts University

[coffee break]

Panel #4: Concluding Roundtable
3:45 – 4:30 pm

Sponsored by the Alan R. Bennett Professor, CLAS, and POLS.
Co-sponsored by the Human Rights Institute and Middle Eastern Studies.

For questions, please contact


December 30, 2011

The Idea of American Exceptionalism & US Intervention

The push for a much more restrained US foreign policy, whether in the Middle East (as Gregory Gause argued) or around the world (as Stephen Walt would have it) makes eminent sense.  But if pundits and policymakers are serious about moving the United States in that direction, it is going to require challenging two core beliefs: American exceptionalism and conditional sovereignty. Without challenging these pillars of American interventionism run amok, any shift toward restraint will be shallow and temporary.

The rise of the United States as a global power may have come about because of economic might, technological innovation, and military prowess, but it has also been intimately linked to a can-do attitude and a perception of inherent superiority. While a realist might emphasize that growth in US material power and what the US can do (see Monteiro here), we need to recognize that it has been married to an ideational commitment to using that power. From the moment the colonists prevailed over the mighty British Empire, this was a country that could overcome great odds and re-make the world in its image. We are the city on a hill, the arsenal of democracy, the indispensable nation. The American way is the best way.

History seemed only to add further proof of American supremacy.  US forces crushed the native population and gathered the survivors in reservations. Territory, whether through war or dealmaking, led to the great expansion west – the Louisiana Purchase, Texas and the southwest, Alaska, and even faraway islands in the Pacific Ocean. Our doughboys helped turn the tide in WWI, and we vanquished Nazi Germany in WWII. With Europe in tatters, America saved the day with the Marshall Plan and NATO.  Just 20 years ago, the United States won the Cold War, a massive accomplishment. In short, history is seen as proving that American expansion and intervention was good, necessary, and effective.

For U.S. political candidates, the idea of questioning America’s ability to be number one, to effect change, and to influence others remains a risky strategy. For the GOP presidential candidates this year, it has been an attack line against President Barack Obama. In the 2008 campaign, one thinks of the brouhaha when Michelle Obama said, “for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Critics pounced because expressing doubt about the United States was seen as unacceptable.

Of course since the United States has been a full-fledged superpower, the record has slipped in a way that you might think would lead to the “judicious” use of the U.S. military that then Gov. George W. Bush preached during the 2000 campaign. The military struggled in Korea and then more so in Vietnam. After the seeming redemption of the first Gulf War in 1991, the last decade has brought back the questions; Iraq and Afghanistan were and are a difficult slog. On the economic front, the 1950s and 1960s gave way to energy crises and the rise of other economic powers, whether Japan in the 1980s or China and India today.

Now if we were strict about sovereignty, we might have a problem meddling in countless countries. So hand in hand with American exceptionalism has been a commitment to the conditional nature of sovereignty. If Washington feels it needs to intervene, it does.

To be fair, sovereignty is not an impenetrable roadblock. International law makes exceptions for genocide, for example, and R2P is carving a much larger hole in sovereignty. Moreover, if the United States gets multilateral, regional, and/or UN blessing for proposed meddling, the sovereignty question fades even more from the debate.

The problem is that violations of sovereignty may come with a heavy price, a price far worse than the initial benefits. The US invasion of Iraq created a political vacuum that al-Qaeda exploited to the detriment of Iraqis and Americans. What is blowback, after all, if not US meddling coming back to bite Washington? When the United States kills 24 Pakistani soldiers or when a US drone crashes in Iran, we should all recognize the fluid take on sovereignty that such incidents represent and worry about the future implications of such behavior.

Aggressive internationalism, whether of the neoconservative or liberal variety, relies on a belief in U.S. effectiveness, on a missionary zeal (nicely captured by Dominic Tierney), and on the ability to waltz into and out of countries. So if the grand strategy needs rethinking, it will not be enough to simply table an alternative built on humility and restraint. It is going to take a much deeper debate about how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world and whether we are willing to reformulate our ideas. Is that a debate our polarized political system is ready to have?



December 5, 2011

New post on Iran and US Foreign Policy

Over at Mideast Matrix, I posted on the recent explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility and set it within the larger context of Obama foreign policy.

September 19, 2011

Palestinians at the UN

So finally the week of decision has arrived, and the Palestinian issue will be taken up at the United Nations. Claiming that the Palestinian appeal to the UN is bad for the peace process or is the death of Oslo rings hollow to me. There is no peace process right now if what one means by peace process is high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict. Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, we have only witnessed a few weeks of such talks. So it is bad for something that does not exist?

Moreover, criticizing President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA for turning to the UN because it is a unilateral move also seems odd because a) the UN is the world’s central multilateral institution and b) the UN stamp of approval in 1947 was and is a key building block for Israel’s statehood. In a related sense, if one wants the Palestinians to reject violence, shouldn’t they be permitted diplomatic, political, and legal moves?  A Fatah leader quoted in the excellent Crisis Group report: “The world is telling us that we should be doing only peaceful resistance, but what we are doing at the UN is not even resistance, it’s just a legal move, and we are being told that even that is illegitimate. Is there anything that would be considered legitimate?”

The reason we don’t have a peace process is interrelated Israeli and Palestinian opposition. Think of it like a Mobius strip. The Netanyahu government, and the majority of Israelis who support that government, don’t believe in a genuine two-state solution, as I explained here. They oppose a negotiated, genuine two-state solution  a) because it runs counter to the Greater Israel project in the West Bank including East Jerusalem – so ideological opposition – and b) because of Hamas. Israelis don’t think the PA can deliver a peaceful state of affairs given Hamas and the Hamas position suggests Palestinians are not ready for peace. The problems associated with the Oslo process (1993-2001) and Gaza Disengagement (2005) fuel and reinforce such sentiments.  Of course, Hamas holds some political power in part because Israel has been unwilling to stop settlements and expansion and, with its current government, is disinterested in a two-state solution. Round and round we go.

I have a hard time seeing that this Palestinian move at the UN leads anywhere productive except in one unlikely scenario: If enough Israelis turn on their government because of Israel’s intense political isolation around the world and strained relations with the Obama administration. (Tom Friedman goes house on the Israeli government.) Plausible but unlikely because more political isolation reinforces an Israeli perspective that sees the world as aligned against Israel regardless of Israeli policy.

What will Abbas do after the UN meetings? Abbas: “The Palestinian people and their leadership will pass through very difficult times after” the UN move. Okay, what does that mean? The Palestinians could lose a lot financially if Israel cuts off the return of Palestinian tax revenue that Israel collects and the U.S. Congress blocks aid to the PA. However, Israel might not want to cut off funds if that jeopardized Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation; there is no simple all-good or all-bad option here regardless of one’s interests and viewpoint. The Israeli government fears, and has planned for, mass Palestinian demonstrations and possible violence.

Is it too late to avert a showdown at the UN? Probably, but maybe someone will pull a rabbit out of a hat: a softer UN resolution, a Quartet statement in lieu of a UN debate, a renewal of bilateral talks. Still, it does not seem likely.

Just to make sure things look and feel bleak, let me close with this excerpt from the Crisis Group report (pages 37-38). It explains the PA’s situation even before any UN action:

This comes atop other worrying signals concerning the PA. Since Prime Minister Fayyad announced a cabinet reshuffle the day after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, he has been unable to form a new government. The West Bank economy, economists say, has been softening; corruption investigations against two ministers are ongoing; and Fayyad has been demoralised by the way he was treated in the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process. The PA’s financial crisis – acute even without a cut-off of U.S. aid or halt in Israel tax transfers – is causing distress among its employees, especially given that financial obligations are heightened during the summer. In addition delayed salary payments are becoming harder to bear, since many PA employees have taken out substantial loans.

At the same time, security coordination with Israel reportedly has decreased somewhat. The next in a sequence of National Security Forces battalions to be trained in Jordan under U.S. supervision has been delayed; granting of permission for Palestinian security forces to move between various areas in the West Bank has been slowed; and decisions that were taken by Israeli field commanders have been kicked up the chain. The PA seems as intent as ever on combating crime and Hamas, but forward movement on security reforms has ceased. All of this has further shaken popular confidence in their leader’s ability to deliver and in ministers’ faith in their ability to govern. The most difficult consequences may be yet to come: “Our budget situation is absolutely debilitating. We are now working on a very serious austerity budget that could fairly be described as draconian”, a senior PA official said.


September 8, 2011

September 11: Ten Years After (Panel)

On Friday, September 9, 2011, I will be moderating a panel at UConn on “September 11: Ten Years After.” The event will be streamed live. The event will take place from 12-1 pm EST.

Prof. Stephen Dyson will speak about how Bush, Blair, and Rumsfeld reacted on the day and what it meant for the next ten years of foreign policy.
Prof. Shareen Hertel will address the human rights origins and implications of 9/11.

August 31, 2011

The I-Get-Credit Contest for Libya

So Stephen Zunes warns against giving NATO too much credit and, furthermore, highlights the importance of the Libyan people’s non-violent resistance (in addition to the rebel fighters). Glenn Robinson agrees about the importance of the Libyan people:

Importantly, NATO did not free Libya from tyranny; the Libyan people did it themselves. NATO simply evened the playing field, which had pitted the trained and well-supplied military and security forces of the Libyan state against a civilian population forced to learn how to fight on the fly. The rebels always had more enthusiasm than competence, but it was clear they also had the support of the vast majority of the population.

Meanwhile, the Daily Beast gives a detailed list of how much MORE involved the United States was in toppling Qadhafi than had been widely reported. (close to $1 billion)

I must admit, I don’t get the either-or nature of this argument. In theory, it is certainly possible that Libyan non-violent action, Libyan violent action, and the NATO intervention all helped topple Qadhafi. Or that some aspects helped and hurt at the same time. Maybe Robinson is correct that NATO leveled the playing field and Zunes is correct that “foreign intervention…was successfully manipulated by Qaddafi to rally far more support to his side in his final months than would have been the case had he been faced with a largely nonviolent indigenous, civil insurrection.”

With a hated dictator gone, everyone wants a share of the credit. But what will happen if the Libyan domestic situation deteriorates in the coming months and years? Robinson concludes “any decent regime that emerges in Tripoli will be a huge improvement over Gadhafi’s reign of terror.” But that just begs the question: will a decent regime emerge? Let’s hope so.

Update #1: Though he hedges (“It was a unique case and is unlikely to be repeated”), Stewart Patrick sees Libya as the basis for more interventions down the road:

Libya has demonstrated the viability of a well-implemented RtoP intervention. Yet just because the doctrine has survived a significant test, one should not assume that the United States and its allies will apply it universally. As atrocities emerge in other contexts, the international community will need to cultivate and weigh other policy options against armed intervention, so it is not faced with stark choice of military action or inaction. The Obama administration’s PSD-10 is a step in that direction.

Update #2: Juan Cole on how it all unfolded and who was right and who was wrong.

August 25, 2011

Chomsky and the question of US Decline

In the new on-line English version of Al Akhbar (Lebanon), Noam Chomsky argues that the United States is in decline as a global force. He makes three points:

1. The high point of US power was just after WWII. (Contrast with Walt who argued 1990)

2. China and India will not rise: “in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power.” (He does not focus on this point and neither will I in my post.)

3. “American decline is in no small measure self-inflicted.”

The US share of global wealth has certainly declined from 1945 but to use that as a measure of US power in global affairs is misleading. The Soviet Union, Germany, and the rest of industrial Europe all were battered during WWII so of course the US share was around 50%. As those countries recovered, even to pre-WWII levels, the US share of wealth had to fall. More recently, China’s phenomenal growth has changed the relative picture.

But out of context, I am not sure how much that tells us about US power. These charts (here)(and here) offer a more nuanced picture.

I also worry about the conflation of power and influence. The United States needs power to have influence, but I do not think the (relative) decline of US economic power automatically leads to the decline of US influence in equal proportion. Arguments often get fuzzy at this point with examples of places where the United States is not getting its way used as proof of a decline in US influence. But one can always point to places where the United States government did not get its way. Is it the quantity of setbacks that distinguishes the situation today? The importance of the issues involved? Or something else?

Chomsky’s other metric to judge US decline seems to be the loss of areas, whether that means the loss of allies or the emergence of hostile powers. Going back decades, he cites the loss of China and SE Asia. More recently he adds S. America. I accept there was a historical loss of China, but today China is a capitalist powerhouse. Is China’s abandonment of communism as an economic system and embrace of the capitalist model a US loss or sign of the dominance of the global economic system long pushed by Washington? Sure Chavez’s Venezuela is a challenge for the United States, but what about Castro, the Sandanistas, or many other Latin American regimes of previous decades?

But let’s say I grant that some countries are independent or no longer part of the US sphere of influence. What about other countries that have become US allies or supportive of US policy? The collapse of the Soviet Union brought many states into NATO, including Poland and a unified Germany. The US-Israeli relationship is much tighter than it was in 1950 or 1960.

Moreover, if US decline is partially/largely self-inflicted, Chomsky should make explicit the logical implication: US decline could be reversed. Chomsky notes two key factors underlying the self-inflicted wound: 1) excessively low taxation and 2) corporate/elite disregard of the public’s policy preferences (related to deregulation, concentrated wealth, unequal political power, and the need for campaign money). So if the US went back to 1988 levels – where, according to Chomsky, tax revenue was 18.2% of GDP, rather than the 14.4% of 2011 – wouldn’t it have extensive resources for domestic and thus global rejuvenation? What if citizens followed Robert Reich’s argument for re-taking control of the political system? Likely, probably not. Plausible, yes.

I am not here to trumpet US dominance; the United States has surely faced many foreign policy setbacks in recent years. But I would like to see a more systematic presentation of how we know US influence on the global scene is in decline. The fact that so many people make the claim is not much evidence that the claim is accurate.

Finally, Chomsky and others make a plausible causal leap that I nonetheless wonder about. He assumes the loss of areas (allies? and US influence?) has been caused by the shrinking of US power since WWII. How exactly are the two connected? Do other countries see US relative decline and act more boldly? Has the United States stopped trying to influence as much? (I don’t see that) Is it an automatic process of structural change beyond the intent or perhaps even awareness of leaders, regimes, or governments? I would like to hear more about the connective tissue of global economic and political change.