Category Archives: Foreign Affairs

In Defense of Chas

Jon Chait really has it in for Chas Freeman, Obama’s presumptive head of the National Intelligence Council:

The most extreme manifestation of Freeman’s realist ideology came out in a leaked e-mail he sent to a foreign policy Internet mailing list. Freeman wrote that his only problem with what most of us call “the Tiananmen Square Massacre” was an excess of restraint:

“[T]he truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than — as would have been both wise and efficacious — to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at ‘Tian’anmen’ stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action. . . .

“I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ ‘Bonus Army’ or a ‘student uprising’ on behalf of ‘the goddess of democracy’ should expect to be displaced with despatch [sic] from the ground they occupy.”

This is the portrait of a mind so deep in the grip of realist ideology that it follows the premises straight through to their reductio ad absurdum. Maybe you suppose the National Intelligence Council job is so technocratic that Freeman’s rigid ideology won’t have any serious consequences. But think back to the neocon ideologues whom Bush appointed to such positions. That didn’t work out very well, did it?

I’m kind of flabbergasted by this characterization of Freeman’s arguments (full text of the Tiananmen email here). Granted, it’s not popular to come out against spontaneous mass movements (this decidedly mixed episode comes to mind), but has it occurred to Chait that Freeman’s views might actually be informed by a fairly nuanced evaluation of the Tiananmen massacre? Nascent democratic revolutions are always chancy propositions, so why is it beyond the pale to suggest that certain countries simply aren’t ready for popular self-government?

I’m in no position to evaluate the merits of Freeman’s assesment of Tiananmen, but the argument itself is quite defensible: the prospects for a smooth democratic transition in China circa 1989 were not bright, and nipping the Tiananmen protests in the bud would have averted significant loss of life without incurring any lasting political cost.

Had China been on the verge of transforming into a mature liberal democracy in 1989, Freeman’s views would indeed seem short-sighted. But of course that’s not the case, and the actual text of the e-mail shows that Freeman weighed the costs and benefits of the Chinese government’s decision to allow the Tiananmen protests to reach critical mass before responding and concluded that intervening earlier would have resulted in significantly less bloodshed.

Most observers will undoubtedly ignore the logic of Freeman’s position and conclude that anyone opposed to self-determination, democracy, and student protest is unworthy of serious intelligence-gathering. Personally, I think we could do with less buzzword-driven policy and more hard-headed analysis.


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Against Guesswork

Johnathan Chait and Alan Wolfe are back to arguing about Saddam Hussein’s state of mind before the Iraq War. Now, I have no special insight into the thought processes of a deceased Arab dictator, but I’m pretty sure Wolfe and Chait are in the same boat. Much like the debate preceding the invasion over Saddam’s intentions, we’re left to argue about the mind of an inscrutable autocrat with little in the way of actual facts. And yet decisions about war and peace frequently hinge on what amounts to amateur psychology.

One of the reasons I’m sympathetic to the realist paradigm is that it takes the guesswork out of international politics. Many observers assumed that Saddam’s peculiar personality rendered traditional realist predictions unusable.  But now that the invasion’s over, we know his actions fit quite comfortably within the realist paradigm: Saddam chose not to restart a WMD program because his capabilities were limited and because he feared US retaliation. In other words, a straightforward weighing of interests would have saved us a great deal of trouble.

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Israeli Elections Update

Ace reporter and former debate partner Scott continues his series on the Israeli elections:

Exit polls currently show Kadima with a slight lead in the overall vote count while Likud is a razor’s edge behind. It’s difficult to get accurate information about the Israeli election results thus far, but I can tell you one thing – I don’t trust the exit polls. As a general rule, exit polls are just bad statistics. They are frequently not randomized (as appears to be the case here, more on that in a second), always have a higher intrinsic margin of error (approaching unusable), and often aren’t weighted by the proper metrics. In our own election, the final results were far different from the ones predicted by the exit polls (at least in terms of actual numbers, if not the predicted winner).

Most of the exit polls I’ve seen quoted are from densely populated urban centers like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This makes sense, as it’s easier to develop a large pool of respondents where there are more people voting. But it’s my understanding that these urban centers skew toward the center-left and left (much like our own urban centers). That’s not to say that Jerusalem is as liberal as Washington D.C., far from it. However, I think that the political climate in these cities is far more sympathetic to Kadima and Labor. What I’m getting at is that the available exit polls do not represent random samples, and I’ve seen no descriptions of their methodology, leaving me to conclude that it’s more likely than not that compensation for this geographic bias through mathematical weighting is not happening.

While recent polls showed Kadima closing the gap with Likud, none of them gave Kadima a lead, and I still think Likud is going to take the day. Over at the American Scene, Noah Millman has a smart post up on the various coalition possibilities taking shape. He concludes that a unity government (between Likud, Kadima, and/or Labor) is the most likely outcome. I disagree. Assuming Likud wins, they have no incentive to add an opposing party to their coalition when Lieberman could give them a majority without adding a potentially paralyzing political ally. Moreover, any Netanyahu-led unity government would be ideologically incoherent, and therefore more likely to collapse.

If Kadima wins, the story is much sadder. They can either try to pull some of the smaller hardline parties (like Shas) into a ragtag coalition of disparate partners (like the last coalition, only more unstable), or they can try the unity government route. Assuming Kadima wins, I think a unity government is more likely (Millman thinks the exit polls are right and Kadima will win, which probably explains his conclusions), if only because it allows the Left to blame Likud when the government inevitably collapses. Either way, a Kadima win heralds a weak government that may not last very long. Which, in the end, also strengthens the hardliners. Damned if you do…

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(Israeli) Elections Round-Up

Scott, my former debate partner and all-around ass clown who cost us God knows how many rounds good guy, kindly put together a primer for the blog on Israel’s upcoming elections. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his analysis, but he was the Mary Washington policy debate squad’s point man for Israel on last year’s Middle East topic and a pretty sharp dude in his own right:

Full disclosure: I’m not sure I would be considered an expert on Israel by any yardstick. I just happen to follow Israeli politics pretty closely.

For those that don’t know, the Israeli election is tomorrow. First, a quick rundown of the basics: Israel is a proportionally represented multi-party democracy. This means that their legislative body, the Kenneset, is composed of 120 seats divided among various parties based on the percentage of votes each party received. The parties then have to cooperate to form coalitions – the purpose of the coalition is to control at least half the seats in the legislature . This means that all coalition parties have a hand in running the government. If one decides to leave, the ruling coalition no longer has a majority and the government dissolves.

Major parties include: Labor (liberal) – headed by Ehud Barak, former prime minister and current defense minister; Likud (conservative) – headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister; and Kadima (centrist, with a leftist lean) – currently headed by Tzipi Livni, who served as foreign minster under the previous head of the Kadima party (and former prime minister) Ehud Olmert. After a series of political scandals and an approval rating in the teens, Olmert stepped down. When Livni became prime minister, she had a certain amount of time to try and keep her coalition together. She was, however, unable to do this. One of the smaller parties, Shas, which had joined the previous coalition formed by Kadima and Labor, decided not to rejoin the coalition. The government promptly dissolved and new elections were scheduled. These new elections will in theory change the proportion of seats each party controls and thus strengthen or weaken each party’s bargaining position. The IHT has put together a decent Q&A on the mechanics of this transition. MSNBC also has some coverage on the campaign front – the ads and the personalities of the campaign, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Now that the crash course in comparative government is over, let’s talk implications. Polls are showing that Likud is likely to make big gains, with Kadima coming in close behind. Until recently, Likud was the smallest of the three major parties, as many of its members broke off to form the centrist Kadima party under Ariel Sharon. Likud is known for its hardline positions on issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, Iranian nuclearization, and Syrian relations. Another group anticipating major gains is the (previously) small party Yisrael Beiteinu (whose support come mainly from the growing population of Russian immigrants).  This party is also conservative, and if gains in both parties are big enough, they could easily find themselves paired with the aforementioned Shas party (usually conservative, the party of the ultra-orthodox) as part of a ruling coalition.

My read on the Israeli political climate is that the needle has been pushed toward the center-right, especially since the Second Lebanon War of 2006. The recent Gaza offensive has solidified the security issue as foremost in the public’s mind. Most polls in the run up to the election reflect this new political reality, showing Likud as the favorite. This has also provoked some interesting speculation. One op-ed seems to argue that the prospect of the far-right coalition will mobilize more votes for the centrist and/or leftist parties. Even if this is true, I’m skeptical that the impact will be electorally significant.

If Likud keeps its lead, it can either form a unity coalition with its rivals (unlikely) or form a right-wing coalition. And even if Kadima wins, prospects are still grim. Labor’s proportion is likely to have shrunk substantially. That means Kadima will have to try and get some of the hardliner parties on board. They tried and failed this approach last election cycle with Shas, and political conditions were more favorable then than they are now. If they do manage to form an alliance, that still leaves the fate of the coalition at the mercy of the smallest party, much like it was with Shas in the last coalition. Olmert knew he couldn’t put the city of Jerusalem on the table in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks because Shas would leave and sink his coalition. When rumors surfaced that Livni (then Foreign Minister) was doing just that, Shas threatened to jump ship. In my mind, that’s also why they decided not to rejoin the coalition when she took charge.

That said, it seems inevitable that Israeli politics is drifting right, in stark contrast with the political trajectory of its closest ally, the United States. The Obama Administration would doubtless prefer a more centrist Israel. They’re also hoping for a less turbulent Middle East, particularly if the Administration begins a troop drawdown in Iraq and a initiates more diplomatic approach to Iran. If Netanyahu takes the helm, he will likely pursue hardline positions towards the Palestinians, Iranians, and Syrians. One thing to hope for is that the souring economy takes precedence over some of the more aggressive foreign policy measures Mr. Netanyahu has in mind, as has happened in the U.S. But I’d wager that Israel is about to light a foreign policy signal fire – which may shake off the United States’ domestic focus in the coming months and perhaps be the first real international test of the new Obama Administration

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We’re Number One

Walter Russell Mead surveys America’s great power competitors and finds them wanting.

Cataloguing the early losses from the financial crisis, it’s hard not to conclude that the central capitalist nations will weather the storm far better than those not so central. Emerging markets have been hit harder by the financial crisis than developed ones as investors around the world seek the safe haven provided by U.S. Treasury bills, and commodity-producing economies have suffered extraordinary shocks as commodity prices crashed from their record, boom-time highs. Countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Iran, which hoped to use oil revenue to mount a serious political challenge to American power and the existing world order, face serious new constraints. Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must now spend less time planning big international moves and think a little bit harder about domestic stability. Far from being the last nail in America’s coffin, the financial crisis may actually resuscitate U.S. power relative to its rivals.

While I think his analysis is basically correct, it’s important to distinguish between criticisms of US hegemony that emphasize our unsustainable position vis-à-vis rising peer competitors and criticisms of US hegemony that emphasize the fundamental limitation of US power. After our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’d venture that most critics of the status quo fall into the latter category. It’s quite possible that US hegemony persists well into the latter half of the 21st century. The question then becomes whether this unipolar arrangement is actually desirable.

UPDATE: Some people are more concerned with rising peer competitors than others. Shadow Government’s Dan Twining, for example, casually reminds us that “China [is] preparing for war.” By way of rejoinder, I’ll direct you to this convenient pie chart from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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Cheap Shot

Peter Wehner:

To the vast majority of Americans, to most other nations, and even to the United Nations, the U.S. war in Afghanistan was a just use of force. The Taliban regime, after all, was allowing Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for al Qaeda, a place for training and planning and launching attacks. The United States, in the eyes of most of the world, was fully justified in overthrowing the Taliban regime in an effort to uproot al Qaeda and break the back of that terrorist network. Our response was deemed as proportional in part because of the good being defended and the possible good that may result from the action (among the standards comprising the just war theory).

Israel is acting along the same ethical lines – yet when Israel does it, its actions are met with almost universal condemnation. The transparent double standard that is applied to Israel – a state that acts with extraordinary care to protect enemy noncombatants – is deeply troubling. Let’s just say if the nation we were talking about was non-Jewish, the response from many quarters would be dramatically different and far more sympathetic.

Some of Israel’s more vocal critics are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, but I think this argument is a straw man. Most people recognize that no nation has an unconditional right to military retaliation. The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan garnered broad support because a) the September 11 attacks were incredibly devastating and b) it was pretty plausible that Al Qaeda would continue to attack civilian targets absent some sort of military response. Weighed against the risk of collateral damage in Afghanistan, this rationale was very compelling to most reasonably objective observers.

The Gaza invasion, on the other hand, has incurred more civilian casualties than Hamas’s rocket attacks. There are also serious doubts about the ability of the Israeli military to defeat Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure. I think there are several responses (compelling and otherwise) to this point, but it strikes me as a straightforward empirical debate, not a question of anti-Semitism. Added to this confusion is Israel’s treatment of Gaza over the past few years and you have a situation that is dramatically different – both strategically and morally – than the United States’ posture after September 11. Needless to say, I think we should be able to engage in a debate about the merits of Israel’s strategic choices without resorting to accusations of anti-Semitism.

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The crazy thing about this Michael Goldfarb post is that he concedes aerial bombardment rarely works (“It’s true that there are very few examples in 20th century history of a bombing campaign that actually broke the morale of a people at war . . .”)  while simultaneously reaffirming his support for the latest round of Israeli air strikes. His justification?

These people willingly send their own children to their deaths simply to make a statement — to accomplish nothing but the murder of two Israeli civilians and signal their commitment to the fight. The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it’s not clear that they are rational, at least not like us.

This, I think, reveals the logic of collective punishment. No one who supports Israeli military action calls it collective punishment, of course, but if you believe that Hamas’s murderous ideology represents the Palestinian mindset, it becomes easier to rationalize a military response that risks significant collateral damage. Describing the Palestinians as uniformly hateful and irrational devalues the moral significance of Palestinian casualties. Civilian deaths can then be written off as an inevitable consequence of our enemy’s irrational choices.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time we’ve dehumanized enemies to further policy objectives that would be considered repugnant under any other circumstances. The torture debate, for example, was dominated by a perverse vocabulary that dismissed the fundamental humanity of detainees before they were even brought to trial. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Daniel Larison’s indispensable post on torture at the ACLU’s website:

Having labeled someone a terrorist, whether it has grounds for this or not, the government takes it for granted that all terrorists are irrational actors. Enemies have been excluded from the realm of the rational, and necessarily terrorists must be irrational, else they would not be terrorists and would not be our enemies — no rational person could be our enemy, as the tautology would have it. Now rationality is one of the basic marks of humanity, and in stripping the enemy of this the government strips him of his humanity, and thus of any claim to humane treatment in the eyes of his captors. Never mind that humans would owe humane treatment even to those who are not human — the perverse and simple logic of dehumanization is quite effective in silencing such doubts. With this process of dehumanization of captives, it becomes easier to abandon restraint and conscience.

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