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Tag: "foreign policy"

Cole’s Case For Intervention In Libya

[ 105 ] March 27, 2011 |

Juan Cole has another argument in favor of Allied intervention into Libya. As an open-to-persuasion skeptic, I would like to raise a couple points. First, I’m suspicious of this characterization of the opposing arguments:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)
2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).
3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.

We can quibble over whether this is a litany of strawmen — I suppose there are people who fall into these categories — but they certainly don’t represent counter-arguments in their strongest form. Let’s make clear up front that there are no absolutes, that there are cases in which military attacks by world powers can be justified on humanitarian grounds. It’s still neither here not there in terms of whether any particular intervention is justified. I agree that every potential intervention needs to be evaluated on its own merits. So how strong is the case here? Well, here’s the key point for me:

Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding.

This may well be right. But, er, that’s a hell of an assumption, isn’t it? What happens if 90 days of bombing doesn’t succeed in removing Qaddafi? What happens if a more successful revolution leads to anarchy or civil war or a regime that key officials in the United States government don’t like? Obviously, if you assume that the intervention will be short and effective it’s easy to make the case, but I don’t think that it’s prudent to make that assumption. I think we need to consider what happens in non-best-case scenarios, and certainly Cole doesn’t have good answers to these questions. So I hope that he’s right that the strikes on Libya will be short-term and efficacious, but I remain skeptical.


Blind Squirrel Hunting

[ 3 ] March 14, 2011 |

It’s rather disconcerting that of the two Libya op-eds in the Times this morning Ross Douthat’s is easily the more sensible and persuasive. In particular, I think Slaughter lacks a good answer to the question of what happens if the no-fly zones don’t work.

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I’ve Said it Before…

[ 8 ] February 28, 2011 |

I really like this Peter Beinart much more than the guy with the same name who used to edit The New Republic.

Sources of Foreign Policy

[ 15 ] February 10, 2011 |


People generally understand that the domestic politics of a large liberal democracy reflect a contending set of interests in which the controlling coalition need have no relationship to the true interests of the nation. America’s agriculture policy, for example, reflects the interests of ranchers, corn, soybean, and cotton farmers rather than vegetable growers or food consumers. But this same thing happens in foreign policy…

This kind of thinking can sometimes reflect an accurate assessment of what’s good for the country. But it’s also redolent with interest group capture. When the USA assembles a large coalition of allies that is, among other things, a large coalition of customers for American defense contractors. What’s more, the allies then often need defending, both in terms of military bases and general expeditionary capabilities. So we have a controlling domestic political coalition that’s defined our “interests” in the Middle East as consisting of collecting a large and diversified portfolio of local allied regimes who we then directly and indirectly subsidize. But the proposition that this reflects the real interests of the American population is contestable. The connection to real interests is that the price of gasoline is very important to the welfare of the average American household, and that Middle Eastern politics are important to the price of gasoline.

What Yglesias is suggesting is that there’s no such thing as the “national interest”; rather, different groups within society have different foreign policy interests. There may be broad swaths of agreement on certain interests, but even in these cases distributional preferences may differ. That this point is incredibly obvious and cannot be whispered by anyone with a serious interest in working for the United States government is unfortunate, but not particularly contradictory. I tend to find explanation of US government policy that center on “the Village” and other similar constructs sloppy and prone to over-explanation, but surely the uncontested idea that there IS a national interest that can be pursued without reference to interest group politics stands as pillar of elite domination of foreign policy debate.

The LCS, Apple Pie, and What Not

[ 73 ] January 4, 2011 |

First off, let me recommend some reading on a couple of defense issues. Galrahn has an excellent post (really, the latest of a long, long series of excellent posts) on the dual Littoral Combat Ship buy. See also UltimaRatioReg who, with typically purple prose, raises legitimate questions about the point of the LCS. Then, see this old Bill Sweetman article on the Tu-22 Backfire bomber. It’s a masterpiece of military writing. It includes close technical analysis based on available intelligence, an elaboration of the political and strategic consequences of tactical development, and an evaluation of the causes and consequences of misunderstandings about the capabilities of the Tu-22.

These pieces share the project of working through the political implications of choices about military hardware and doctrine. I’m recommending them here because I continue to believe that progressives consistently underestimate the importance of discussions about military doctrine and technology. More importantly, I think that progressives can and should commit themselves to making more of a contribution on these debates. I believe that, right now, progressives have evacuated the field on questions of military doctrine and technology (with a couple of important exceptions, as noted below), leaving the conversation to conservatives and “centrists”. Effectively, this means that the “left” side of the US debate on the composition (rather than the size) of the defense budget is represented by people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, or (at very best) by the folks at the Center for American Progress. Finally, I think that we are approaching a political reality in which real cuts to defense spending will become possible, and that staking out genuinely progressive positions on issues of military doctrine and technology actually have a chance of affecting the composition of US military forces.

I think that progressives agree on two broad lines of thought about US defense.  The first is that the United States should refrain from fighting stupid, random wars, while the second is that the US defense budget is far, far too high.  A corollary to both of these is that the United States ought to stop acting in an “imperial” manner, regularly interfering in the politics of foreign countries and so forth.  These broad concepts are far more radical than they should be in American political discourse; a substantial portion of the institutional Democratic Party disagrees with one or both, the Beltway establishment (to the extent it is legitimate to attribute direct political views to it) isn’t on board with either, and of the major foreign policy think tanks there’s not wide agreement on either concept (I think that CAP is on board with a weak version of both arguments, and perhaps CATO for different reasons).  Of course, there are more radical critiques of US defense policy (US only needs a Coast Guard, US defense budget should be zeroed out, etc.) but while these critiques influence the mainstream of progressive thought, I wouldn’t say that they’re representative of progressives as a whole.

These two broad points of agreement are fine as far as they go; in the context of the modern American defense debate, they remain depressingly radical and marginalized.  I can understand why there’s a general reluctance to go beyond these two arguments into the details of defense procurement and military doctrine.  To the extent that progressives think very much about either of these, the two major themes discussed about dominate discussion; we discuss COIN in terms of its implications for remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we think about cutting the F-22 in terms of budgetary impact.  This is to say that thinking about optimal US defense posture, or more broadly thinking about the role that the US military ought to play in the world, takes a backseat to the two main points of progressive thought on military policy.

There’s no question that these lines of inquiry have been productive.  In my view, progressive critics of COIN have done a much better, more nuanced job than right wing critics, even if we’ve gotten some big things (the tactical successes of the Surge, for example) wrong.  I often find progressive thought on COIN somewhat frustrating, since much of the body of work seems to assume that COIN was invented in 2006 as a way to keep the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the best progressive critiques of operational and tactical issues are very, very good.  Moreover, I think that progressives have done some good work on identifying systematic problems in defense budgeting and procurement.

But here is the problem: If the United States withdrew from Iraq, and Afghanistan, ceased drone incursions into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and reduced defense expenditure to the Japanese level (1.3%, which is below the European norm), the United States would still have the world’s largest military budget, and would probably field the world’s most capable military forces.  At some point China would pass the US in overall expenditure, but the US would still lead in many metrics of training, technology, and effectiveness.  While I’m not sure that it would be correct to call the US the “indispensable nation” in military affairs in such a situation, the United States would obviously remain a very important piece of the global military picture.

In this context, I think it’s important for progressives to ask ourselves two related questions.  The first is “What role should the United States military play in the world?”, and the second is “What should US force structure and military doctrine look like?”  Obviously, the first needs to inform the second, and is probably the more complicated of the two.   Nevertheless, the second is important; US decisions on how many Littoral Combat Ships, amphibious warships, F-35s, in-flight tankers, and deployable soldiers to purchase and train have deep implications for the ability of the United States military to undertake successful operations. Most importantly, a working knowledge of US doctrine and technology is useful for both questions. If you envision the ideal US military as performing a “hegemony light” role, including disaster relief, anti-smuggling and anti-piracy, certain forms of counter-terrorism, and similar missions, then the Littoral Combat Ship is a very interesting and potential useful piece of equipment. If you envision the role of the US military as primarily about territorial defense (potentially extended to certain allies) this has different implications for a platform like the LCS.

Moreover, answers to the second question can affect the first. Although strategy can dictate capabilities, capabilities also limit strategy. A military with minimal expeditionary capabilities obviously will have difficulty fighting expeditionary wars. Small land forces make large scale overseas deployments difficult. The absence of counter-insurgency capabilities may reduce the ability of the military to wage long term anti-guerrilla campaigns, although it may not. To the extent that progressives are interested in arguing for a particular vision of US foreign policy, they can use military doctrine and technology as tools in that fight; conservatives do so all the time.

So what I’m asking for is this: Progressives should start making arguments framed around the question of whether or not the F-35 (or the LCS, or whatever you feel like) is the kind of weapon that could underpin a progressive vision of US foreign policy.  I don’t ask for any particular foreign policy vision, or any particular view of the specific weapons in question (I’m feel rather ambiguous about both, and my own preferred “vision” would be something along the lines of “hegemony light”), but rather for arguments that attempt to interpret the characteristics of weapon systems and of doctrinal choices in the light of progressive political preferences.  This means taking some time to learn about weapons and doctrine, and making some effort to put forth progressive views on these subjects.  Deriving the position of AEI or Heritage on a given weapon isn’t particularly difficult, even beyond the “buy more” baseline; apart from its budget impact, I have not the faintest what CAP thinks of the F-35 or the LCS.  This is a problem.

I do understand the temptation to wall ourselves off from these arguments; since key progressive goals on both the budget and on foreign policy are not likely to be met in the near or medium term, it can seem like a waste to put arguments on them together.  Moreover, participation in the discussion runs the risk of legitimating outcomes that we don’t approve of.  My answer is twofold.  First, the US defense budget (and broader US foreign policy) is more malleable than we often think.  We’re only twenty years removed from a very substantial downsizing of the American military establishment, and we may well be entering political conditions that will allow similar reductions.  Second, the people who currently make defense policy don’t give a damn about whether they’re legitimated or not.  Being the “left” voice on defense policy is good for Michael O’Hanlon, and represents a great situation for the Heritage Foundation.  Strategic boycott only makes sense if those boycotted care about being delegitimized, and in this case they don’t.  Analysts, institutions, and politicians tend to respond to the arguments they see, rather than those that they don’t.  Progressives have been excluded from even informal discussions of most questions of military doctrine and technology, but have also made themselves absent from those discussions .

As I suggested above, we are approaching a political and economic situation in which real reductions (depending, I suppose, on how we characterize “real”) to defense spending can become possible.  Consequently, I think it’s very important that progressives start thinking through the details of defense issues now.  Non-partisan blogs like Information Dissemination and the USNI blog have commenter communities that are both well informed about defense issues and lean strongly right; there is no good reason for this situation to persist.  Institutions like CAP should continue to contribute on Afghanistan and Iraq, but should also give greater attention to what US military doctrine should look like in five years, and to how progressives can and should shape overall US military capabilities.  Robust, consequential progressive work on technology and doctrine will be good for progressives, and good for debates on US military capabilities.

/end pious lecture on why people should think the stuff I do is really important

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Fractured China

[ 0 ] November 17, 2010 |

At WPR, I bloviate on theoretical and empirical issues regarding China’s fractured foreign policy:

What does China want? Unfortunately, this is a terrible way to approach the problem.

China is full of many people who want many different things. Like the U.S. national security apparatus, the Chinese government harbors a plethora of different foreign-policy perspectives, some focused on trade, others on power, and still others guided by domestic political concerns. Moreover, the Chinese government is no longer the only actor of consequence in China. Chinese public opinion increasingly constrains policymakers, and can even force them into action they don’t want to take. Like all states, China is fractured. Recognizing its fractured nature is the key to developing an effective U.S. policy toward China’s rise.

In the column I mention this SIPRI report on the emerging structure of PRC foreign policy decision-making, which is worth giving and extra-super recommendation. Check it out.

Cooperative Maritime Strategy

[ 1 ] September 14, 2010 |

I have an article up at World Politics Review on the Naval Operations Concept and the Cooperative Maritime Strategy. The article is part of a feature on maritime security, including Abraham Denmark and Zachary Hosford’s piece on China’s naval buildup and Mark Valencia’s examination of the Proliferation Security Initiative. My argument in a nutshell:

In June of this year, the United States Navy published the 2010 Naval Operations Concept (.pdf) (NOC), designed as the operational fulfillment of the Cooperative Maritime Strategy (.pdf) (CS-21) released in 2007. The 112-page NOC is an elaboration of the concepts set forth in the 20-page Cooperative Strategy, with detailed discussion of how the missions laid forth in the earlier document can be accomplished with the forces available to the United States Navy. CS-21 itself is a curious document. Deceptively modest, it was developed as the Navy’s strategic answer to the post-Cold War environment. But whether intentionally, as some have suggested, or not, it may have helped structure America’s grand strategic approach to the emergence of new powers on the Pacific Rim and elsewhere.

CS-21, and the NOC that gives it flesh, provide a liberal internationalist frame for how the United States should interpret the rise of Chinese naval power. This frame suggests that naval competition between the United States and China could be positive sum, rather than zero sum — the United States could actually benefit in some ways from the expansion of the Chinese navy. This stands in tension with more traditional and, in many ways, more accepted theories about the role and impact of navies in great power competition.

The Cooperative Strategy is one of the documents that I’ve argued progressives should pay more attention to. Long story short, I believe that the Cooperative Strategy represents, intentionally or not, a progressive framework for thinking about the relevance of US military power and US “hegemony” in the 21st century. I think that this is true not simply for the “liberal hawk” wing of foreign policy thought, but also for genuine progressives interested in engaging with the reality of US global military leadership. The Cooperative Strategy outlines a world in which maritime power is effectively positive sum, while also taking account of potentially destructive security dilemma dynamics. It wasn’t designed by progressives or for progressives, but I think that it can be fit into a progressive approach to US foreign policy.

WikiLeaks and the First Amendment

[ 40 ] August 2, 2010 |

I don’t have enough knowledge about the contents of the Afghan War Diaries to engage in informed commentary about their contents, so what I’m saying here is more a way of striving discussion about some of the questions raised by the leaks as opposed to a definitive conclusion.

Since we were speaking recently of the right-wing’s most recent Greatest Monster Hugo Black, I’m reminded that when thinking about national security and freedom of the press, I always return to his concurrence in the Pentagon Papers case. Because it involved prior restraint, N.Y. Times was a very easy case and its holding isn’t directly relevant here, but some of Black’s broader analysis remains relevant:

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

A few points in the spirit of applying these principles to the current controversy:

  • A clear distinction should be drawn between the leakers and people who publish leaked material (in whatever forum.)    Although I think Ellsburg was a hero and I’m glad that the Nixon administration’s authoritarianism prevented him from being convicted, prosecuting him was defensible.   Trying to suppress the Pentagon Papers or punish people for publishing them would not have been.     Based on what we know, I can’t imagine any scenario under which prosecuting Assange would be consistent with contemporary First Amendment values.
  • Prosecuting Assange under vague, authoritarian laws passed under the Wilson administration definitely doesn’t count.
  • Whether as a legal or pragmatic argument, I’m very leery of arguments that leakers have done something wrong based on threats to “national security.”     As Black went on to say, “[t]he word “security” is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment.”    This isn’t to say that such arguments are always wrong, but — especially when they’re self-serving claims made by state officials — they should be treated with a very substantial degree of skepticism.
  • This is particularly true in cases like this because arguments from “national security” have a strong tendency to treat secrecy and the shielding of both decision-making processes and the costs of war as ends in themselves.  As Stephen Holmes has argued in persuasive detail, the last decade has been most unkind to assumptions that secrecy and unilateral decision-making enhance national security.

As we learn more about the Afghan Diares, I think these principles should be kept in mind.

Troubling Nonsense Coming Out of CNAS

[ 12 ] March 25, 2010 |

Why try to pretend that this should be taken seriously?

Second, it’s not just about drugs. The Venezuelan alliance is almost a classic geopolitical attempt to deny the US access to Latin America — probably including Mexico — and to gain access to our southern border. FARC is not only the world’s largest producer of cocaine, but continues to be a murderous terrorist insurgency. The cartels, which are fast becoming a worldwide concern, are not only about drugs, but also about control of territory and other criminal activities — murder, kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting, money laundering, among others. This is emphatically not the old, “comfortable” Mafia, and legalizing drugs, even if it were possible, would not make these trans-national criminal organizations go away, particularly when they have the support of narco-states like Venezuela has become. They will just shift to other sources of income.

I quite like Tom Ricks, but really, what’s with letting your blog become a platform for this nonsense? Venezuela and Iran are trying to seize control of Mexico and gain access to our southern border? “Narco-states” like Venezuela “will just shift to other sources of income” if drugs are legalized? What sources of income would those be? And how precisely are Venezuela and Iran and Cuba supposed to “deny US access” to Latin America, much less Mexico? Is it worth noting, at all, that Mexico has a population and economy which are each 4 times as large as those of Venezuela? And yet we’re supposed to be worried about magical narco-terror networks that can just create money whenever they want?

Why would anyone ever bother to pretend that any of this makes sense? It worries me that this garbage is coming out under the CNAS banner.

Statecraft and the State

[ 6 ] March 17, 2010 |

Yglesias links to an interesting article by Sheri Berman on the relevance of early modern state-building to policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it would be fantastic if some school of diplomacy and/or international commerce offered a course bringing together the statebuilding literature and the Afghanistan/Iraq policy literature…

What if Iran Got the Bomb Redux

[ 6 ] March 15, 2010 |

Y’know, the idea that there are meaningful similarities between the rhetoric used to describe the Chinese nuclear program in the 1960s and the Iranian nuclear program of the last decade is kind of interesting… or at least it was six months ago, when I wrote about it at Foreign Policy. Just sayin’.

Current “Current Intelligence”

[ 0 ] March 13, 2010 |

It’s been a busy week for me adjusting to new blog formats in multiple spaces. So while LGM readers wait for their heads to stop spinning at this site’s facelift, I encourage them to hop on over and check out the new Current Intelligence site, also just renovated this week.

Current Intelligence
, where I post from time to time about the laws of war, used to be an off-shoot of Complex Terrain Lab but is now an online journal with a blog, a set of more formal foreign policy columnists including my Duck of Minerva co-blogger Jon Western, and a “Letters from Abroad” series in which the site’s bloggers report from places they visit, like Durban, South Africa and Varanasi, India. Our illustrious editor actually convinced me to contribute a piece on New Orleans as a “letter from abroad” – something you can actually do at an online journal where political community is understood to be delimited by something other than sovereign territorial boundaries. Snippet:

“It was corporate hotel culture I and my colleagues visited, not New Orleans per se.The gap between physical and social place-ness struck me all week, just as it does when I “pass through” sovereign territorial-legal spaces while never leaving the neo-medieval corridors of international airports – each of which aims to present a caricature of national culture but all of which function as carriers instead of a global culture, one characterized by spaces of liminality and heterogeneity. And yet one’s experience in such spaces borders on strictly homogeneous from a class perspective. We find ourselves compartmentalized from others around us not by geography or language but by norms, rules, uniforms and political economies… Transnational conference sites are like this too. They are hyped up as opportunities to visit a locale, interface with a population, affect local understandings, but they are actually transnational sites in which cleavages are based on capital.”

Anyway. Current Intelligence covers foreign affairs, asymmetric conflict, war law and post-Westphalian political geography. It’s a fabulous community that includes a number of excellent bloggers such as Chris Albon (ConflictHealth is one of the finest human security sites I know of), Tim Stevens who also blogs at Ubiwar, and of course Mike Innes who blogs at Monkwire and is behind the whole thing.

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]

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