Archive for category Foreign Policy
There are two realities. In one, President Obama has had a relatively scandal free Presidency. No major investigations or revelations have dogged him like they did his predecessors. No Whitewater, Monica, Iran-Contra, Iraq, etc. In another, Obama has been awash with scandals involving the IRS, Benghazi, where Obama was really born, gun running, etc. That second reality, however, is built on a house of cards. There is no real evidence, just suspicions drummed up by Obama’s opponents trying to do what they can to undercut the President.
For awhile the biggest and most threatening to Obama was the aftermath of the terror attack on Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Led by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republicans claimed that the US muffed the reaction, covered it up, didn’t do what could have been done to prevent or respond to the attack, and as late as March this year Graham claimed that Obama’s response to Benghazi was the reason Russia took Crimea.
Graham was adamant on Benghazi. It was symbolic of Obama’s “inability to lead,” “lies the administration told,” and ultimately “proof Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State at the time) is unqualified to be President.” He called the people at the White House “scumbags” who were “telling lies,” full of venomous accusations that we now all know were utterly baseless.
Saturday a Congressional report from a Republican led committee finally give the last word on Benghazi and guess what: the Obama Administration did nothing wrong. There was no evidence of anything close to a scandal, or that there is some trove of evidence that isn’t being released. In short, Graham was always just grandstanding.
That has caused me to lose all respect for Lindsey Graham and John McCain. To use a national tragedy like that not to unify the country but to try to undermine the President and manipulate the media is sick. When the US was attacked on 9-11, the US rallied behind President Bush. Even though the 9-11 Commission found plenty to fault the Bush Administration on in the run up to 9-11, it was deemed wrong to try to use that to politically attack the President. In crises things are fast moving and hindsight has 2020 vision. Alas, Graham and McCain were guided by neither ethics nor honesty.
The report drew no fanfare. Certainly the two did not apologize or admit defeat. Graham used attacks on Obama over Benghazi to shore up his conservative bona fides before his re-election, and has tried to use it to attack Obama’s foreign policy — one that is much more successful than the Bush foreign policy Graham supported.
In a just world Graham and McCain would stand on the Senate floor as rotten eggs were hurled at them, humiliated and ashamed. But they’ll move on. They are politicians. They’ll be shameless in attacking the President, and will probably wink and dance to avoid having to admit being wrong about Benghazi. I find it disgusting.
In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face. Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.
Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant. So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?
First he notes the nature of the changes taking place. The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure. He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions. The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system. This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions. Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.
And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily. In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit. Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny. Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.
Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states. For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system. He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.
I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete. Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead. After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world. It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world. The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.
Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order. Kissinger’s words:
To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?
For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. – Kissinger
This conclusion seems vague. It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization. Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics. One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work. The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail. The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression. This order could suffer a similar fate.
My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media. We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will. But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock. The world is in motion.
The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization. The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization. Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational. Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance. Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.
What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems. The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change. Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression. These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power. Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people. Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world. Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has spoken out about the challenges facing today’s world order. It’s worth reading. He notes that globalization and technology change are driving a break up of the old world order. Kissinger contends that that the global environment is fundamentally different than it was in his heyday, and that efforts to get back the old order are doomed to fail. New political structures and ideas are required. I’ll blog more about his ideas soon, today I want to write about Kissinger’s general world view.
Kissinger earned his Ph.D. studying Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who was in that role from 1809-48, also serving as Chancellor from 1821-48. Kissinger’s academic work was rooted in studying the world between 1814 – 1914, when there seemed to be order and stability in Europe – and he took those principles to ones that should work anywhere, taking into account local idiosyncratic conditions.
In any system there will be competition for power. That’s because resources are scarce, humans seem driven to compete, and humans are greedy. In the international system, with no real rule of law or enforcement, is an anarchy. In anarchy, brute force is the main principle, it’s survival of the fittest, domination by the strongest.
Luckily states can create stability despite anarchy through diplomacy, maintaining a balance of power, having leaders that recognize war ultimately is not in the best interest of any state, and stopping any “revolutionary” power hoping to alter the status quo. If states can agree to respect each other’s right to exist, agree that war should be a last option, and share some common goals, diplomacy should be able to solve any problem.
It won’t – Kissinger and realists argue that it takes “statesmanship” or the ability of leaders to understand that maintaining the status quo is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, and who can negotiate effectively, and then be willing to strike early and strong against those who would upend the system (like a Hitler). Realists admire how this seemed to work for 100 years, with only a few minor skirmishes intervening.
But there are flaws in Kissinger’s world view. Perhaps the reason there was no major European war for so long is because the Europeans were conquering the planet, imposing their standards across the globe, destroying indigenous cultures and taking whatever resources they could get their grubby hands on. Once the world was almost completely colonized the Europeans quickly turned on each other.
Moreover, such a system relied on common shared cultural values. The diplomats and leaders all spoke French had more in common with each other than the average citizens in their home states. In an era of globalization, that’s not likely to be replicated.
Finally the focus on power and order inherently means ignoring those without power. Kissinger’s most brilliant and successful policy was detente (a French word meaning a relaxation in tension), a policy that probably made a peaceful end of the Cold War possible. But in that policy we can see the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.
Kissinger, a brilliant academic was snatched up by Nixon when he became President in 1969. He started out as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and quickly became more powerful than the Secretary of State, William Rogers. He gained Nixon’s trust and crafted policy – and when Rogers left in 1973, Kissinger took on the role of Secretary of State.
He was relatively young, very charming, spoke with a distinct German accent, Jewish, and something of a playboy. He was known to cavort with a number of attractive women – I still remember a Mad Magazine set of song parodies that included “I wonder whose Kissinger now?”
He had a problem: The US was bogged down in a pointless war in Vietnam. The Soviets had achieved nuclear parity and communism was at its peak – the disease and decay that were already slowly destroying its sustainability were hid behind the iron curtain and streams of propaganda.
Kissinger decided the US had to change the Soviet Union to a status quo power the US could deal with. This include high level summits allowing Kissinger, Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to meet and “practice statesmanship.” It included triangulation – opening to China. China and the USSR hated each other, so the US getting friendly with one pressured the other. It worked. It led Moscow to pressure Hanoi to end the Vietnam war so the US could extricate itself (“Peace with Honor” was Nixon’s slogan). And suddenly the Cold War didn’t seem quite as scary.
In exchange for recognizing the reality of Communist rule in East Europe, the Soviets allowed more trade, visits, and connections to the West. The agreed that systemic order was more important than the US-Soviet rivalry, and thus could be dealt with. Kissinger left office in January 1977.
But while detente was based on the notion the Soviets could be a status quo power, Kissinger knew there would be rivalries and conflicts. So he also worked out a mostly unwritten agreement that proxy wars in the Third World were allowable, and that neither side would allow a third world conflict to lead to nuclear war. Kissinger would say that yes, those wars could be bad, and sending arms and weapons to African or Asian proxies did mean there would be death and destruction. But given the nature of world affairs, it’s the lesser of two evils. It helps make sure the US and Soviets don’t blow each other up.
Detente’s success – the exchanges brought western ideas more quickly into the East bloc, the Soviets felt smug in their status as a recognized legitimate world power, and as the inevitable economic collapse began, there were enough links with the West to give Gorbachev time to make radical changes that could not be undone. Some people credit Reagan and Gorbachev with the peaceful end of the Cold War, but Nixon and Kissinger set the stage.
The failure? Proxy wars and disregard for the third world. Looking only at power politics rather than the broad array of global problems allowed many former colonies to decay into corrupt, brutal regimes. African states were very young in the sixties – a supportive US might have allowed a transition to viable political and economic systems. Instead the super powers simply used those states as powerless puppets in a geopolitical struggle.
In maintaining proxies, the US supported brutal dictators in world hot spots like the Mideast. This helped assure that dictators would be able to hold power, not allowing real opportunity to their people, and setting up the anger and frustration young Arabs experience today.
The problems today ranging from Ebola to ISIS to terrorism have their roots in that neglect of the third world. Kissinger’s policies were brilliant in dealing with short term geopolitical crises, but failed by creating conditions which would lead to problems that threaten the very nature of world order.
The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis. 295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists. So where do we go from here?
Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych. Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine. Personally, I get the Crimea gambit. Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954. But the rest?
For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity. He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow. Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.
Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions. However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.
For awhile, it seemed to work. The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military. At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.
However, supporting a rebellion is tricky. While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause. Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.
So what now? First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU. While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.
The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated. Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable. If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.
Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular. Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy. German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests. The Cold War is long dead.
It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy. Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.
President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels. What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine. That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US. At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis. At first, things could spin out of control.
That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side. A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out. So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent. More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.
Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face. Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus. Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.
The blame game is going in full force. Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it. Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do. But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power. The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.
The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad. Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq. Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists. The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.” His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden. He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success. He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.
At first it worked brilliantly. Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans. By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos. At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.
He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq. In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals. The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests. Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave. In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam. The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South. Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat? If so, who’s to blame?
The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization. When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.
So what went wrong? Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government. In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail. Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization. With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.
So what can the US do? Very little. Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders. Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war. Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh. Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place. Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary. So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.
The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded. The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure. The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks. The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering. The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.
The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century. We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure. We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives. Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.
The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize. Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader. That era is over. Gone. Kaputt.
Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace. The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target. The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other. But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.
But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies. That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.
Why beat a dead issue that most voters don’t care about?
The weirdest thing about the GOP’s on going obsession with Benghazi is that it plays into the Democrats hands going into the Midterms. The Democrats will mock Republicans about their obsession with an event from two years ago, trying to manufacture a scandal in defiance of the actual evidence.
The Democrats will talk about jobs, health care, inequality, immigration, education, the economy and issues that actually matter to the public. Think back – Bill Clinton did give the Republicans a scandal over Monica Lewinsky. Yet as they obsessed on it and thought that self-evidently this would help them, Clinton’s job approval ratings went up — while Lewinsky investigator Kenneth Starr’s went way down. In this case, there isn’t even a real scandal!
So why do some on the right fixate on Benghazi in such a self-destructive manner? There is no evidence of a cover up, nothing remotely suggesting a scandal. There is evidence of poor decisions being made, and a State Department slow to understand what motivated the events. Therein lies the real reason – the State Department. The Secretary of State at the time was Hillary Clinton. She is now the leading contender for the Presidency in 2016. Most Republicans privately concede that it will be very, very, difficult to defeat her.
As Secretary of State, Clinton was taken aback by the way in which Congressional Republicans quickly politicized the Benghazi tragedy. On September 11, 2012, the US embassy in Benghazi was attacked by 125 to 150 armed insurgents, who were able to kill US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and one other person. Protests were taking place against an anti-Islamic video that had been released, and initially the CIA thought the two events were linked. As more information came out, it became clear that it was a planned terrorist raid. The US has made some arrests, and investigations continue.
So what’s the scandal? At first Republicans said that Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, had lied in linking the video to the attacks in an interview shortly after the raid. They claimed she wanted to mislead the public about the true nature of the attacks in order to help President Obama’s re-election. That claim has been completely debunked, and in fact was absurd on its face.
Not only had President Obama called it terrorism, but Susan Rice was acting with the data at the time in a fluid situation, and indeed alluded to the possibility of terrorism. Much like after 9-11, there was a lot of false information early on, though after a week a clearer picture occurred. As documents were released, it was clear that various agencies were confused on exactly what happened and why, but that as soon as they put the pieces together, the information was made public. Not only is there no evidence to support a cover up, but massive evidence to the contrary.
So then they tried to shift the scandal to saying the US didn’t reinforce the mission, or send help fast enough. Quickly these were debunked. The critics are left to imagine scandal by fantasy, hoping there is some new information out there.
So why suddenly jump on an innocuous e-mail uncovered, which doesn’t contradict any existing evidence, to bring the scandal back up? Surely the GOP insiders know that this isn’t a winner for them with the voters – and they have to be smart enough to know that no scandal exists. They are hoping that Clinton decides not to run for the Presidency, perhaps fearing that questions on Benghazi will haunt her.
In that, it is morphing from a GOP effort to find a scandal against Obama to an attack on Clinton’s competence. Any hearings that are held will focus on picking apart what the State Department did and finding anything to criticise. Even the fact she was not consulted on security before the attack is used against her – “in such a dangerous situation why weren’t you more engaged?” But it would be odd for the Secretary of State to be consulted on specific security details.
It won’t work. The GOP will not convince Clinton to eschew running in 2016. If anything this will get her more enthused; she’s not the kind of person to back down. She’s also smart enough to know that if the GOP use this against her in 2016, it gives her openings to fire back in ways that would help, rather than hurt her campaign.
She’s also not afraid to confront scandal head on. In the early years of her husband’s administration the far right tried to drum up a scandal about development deal called “Whitewater.” They failed. When she suffered personal loss when her attorney Vince Foster committed suicide, they said she had him killed. When US Treasury Secretary Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash in Croatia, many said she was behind it. Hillary’s dealt with the crazies before, and came out on top.
But that’s what this Benghazi side show is about – trying to pressure Hillary not to run. When she does run, they’ll use it try to tear her down. It won’t work – she’ll win or lose based on the larger campaign.
Yet it is sad that so many are willing to politicize the attack. To me the correct response is to try to learn what went wrong and how to prevent a future attack than to use 20/20 hindsight for political gang. Even more disgusting is the effort to try to turn this into a scandal. That shows just how dysfunctional the political culture in Washington has become.
A recent meme from the right has been that President Obama has failed at foreign policy. FOX News, Townhall, the Weekly Standard — the usual partisan suspects — say President Obama has a “non-existent” foreign policy and should take the blame when things go bad in Ukraine, Syria or Iraq. In what President Reagan once derided as a “blame America first” tendency, the critics want to blame Obama for everything that goes wrong in the world.
In reality, his Presidency has been a foreign policy success on a number of fronts, most importantly extricating the US from two costly wars and responding to a new multi-polar international environment wherein the role of the US is different than at any time in our history. That is what irks the critics; America’s role in the world is changing and they want to blame the President. That is misguided and hypocritical.
The criticisms from the right (I’ll deal with the left’s critique in a later post) fall in three categories:
1. Obama is not actively using American power. Obama is blamed for “enticing” Putin to act in Ukraine because he perceived Obama as weak or unwilling to act. Syria’s horrible civil war is Obama’s fault because the US has not been able to stop it. This criticism essentially says that the global villains sense Obama’s weakness and “detachment” from foreign affairs and thus are willing to stir up trouble.
2. Obama is siding with the wrong people. In Libya, when Obama did use force to end a civil war, he was accused of helping Islamic extremists who were part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition. Similarly, when the US didn’t come to the aid of Mubarak to keep him in power in Egypt, the critics said that embracing the Arab Spring would be to embrace Islamic extremism. Better to keep corrupt dictators in power than risk these rebellions. They point to the difficult transitions in the region as proof that it would have been better to keep the dictatorships in power.
3. Obama isn’t as supportive of Israel as he should be; his inability to get the peace process going again is a result of weakness. Never mind that the peace process fell apart during the Clinton Administration. While Bush was in office violence suicide bombing and war riveted the region. Nope, to the critics any lack of progress is all Obama’s fault. The same group has been vocal about Iran, saying Iran is akin to Nazi Germany, and not allowing Israel to take out its nuclear sites risks a future holocaust.
The first criticism comes primarily from neo-conservatives, people who supported the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not accept that the world now is one that the US can’t simply shape at will. That is what they thought we could do in Iraq – use US power to spread democracy and shape a region to better fit our values. The war against Iraq was won; the effort to reshape the region failed spectacularly. Many of these critics, such as Charles Krauthammer and the critics at the Weekly Standard, are in denial that their world view have been discredited by history.
Beyond that, the idea that somehow a “tough” President would have scared Putin away from Ukraine borders on the delusionally absurd. Putin acted out of weakness as his Ukraine policy fell apart with the ouster of Yanukovych. Rambo could be President and Putin would have felt compelled to take Crimea and pressure Ukraine. He knows the US and EU have no interest in war. Yet President Obama has worked with the EU to craft a response more likely to succeed. Russia’s future depends on connecting with the global economy; the USSR failed because it could not.
It’s also absurd to think the US should have tried to stop the Arab Spring or continue support for thugs like Mubarak. When a region with 50% of the population under 23, linked through the information revolution, show disgust for corrupt obsolete dictatorships, it would be disastrous for us to side with the dictators. That part of the world is undertaking a real transition – our best bet is to be on the right side of history.
So the critics have a very weak case against the President. They fail to offer viable alternatives, which is telling. Their real problem is an inability to accept that world where the US is no longer the dominant power. Over the last twenty years globalization has altered the nature of sovereignty and global politics. The economic crisis in the US revealed structural weaknesses thirty years in the making. The Iraq war showed the limits of US power and soured the public on interventionism. The world is fundamentally different than it was in 1994.
If President Bush had accomplished this, he’d have been lauded as a hero.
Obama’s successes – getting Iran to agree to give up its capacity to build nuclear weapons with UN oversight, extricating the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, getting a deal with Russia to destroy large numbers of nuclear missiles, killing Osama Bin Laden while weakening al qaeda, improving economic cooperation after the 2008 catastrophe, and re-orienting US foreign policy for the new multi-polar world – are profound. Obama’s multi-lateralism, hated especially by the neo-conservatives, is working. The US is more respected and in a better strategic position now than we have been at any time since the end of the Cold War. Despite inheriting two wars, the President has avoided any foreign policy debacle.
So all the critics can say is that “bad things happen in the world and we blame Obama.” *shrug*
Paul Kagame thinks so – or at least he made a case for it Monday as Rwanda marked twenty years since the outbreak of perhaps the most horrific genocide of history.
Within 100 days over 800,000 were killed, nearly three quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in Rwanda.
Rwanda had been colonized the Belgians who took a minor social distinction – whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi – and turned it into a way to privilege some over others. Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried and got along peacefully for centuries. Now the Belgians claimed the Tutsis were “more evolved” and thus were entrusted with positions of privilege and power. They helped run the colony for the Belgians, and soon looked down at the “lower” Hutus.
It wasn’t just Belgian racism, but also a rather smart way to keep a colony under control. The Tutsis were the minority, and thus had to rely on the Belgians for protection and support. Alas, once democracy and independence came, the Hutu majority quickly grabbed all power and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of mistreatment. This led to protected conflict for over three decades before Hutu extremists decided the final solution would be to simply eliminate all Tutsis from Rwanda.
They did not fear western intervention. After all, a year earlier the US left Somalia after 18 army Rangers were killed when their black-hawk helicopter went done. As their bodies were dragged through the streets Americans were furious that US military personnel were even over there. In any event, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the time, and it could gauge whether or not the UN had the stomach to intervene.
It almost worked. The UN had 3500 troops there to implement the Arusha accords designed to create a power sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis, but when the genocide began all but about 400 of those troops were pulled out. The US and UK wanted a complete withdrawal – UN blue helmet forces are not supposed to remain if there is no more peace to keep – but the UN mission commander General Romeo Dallaire refused to leave, since that would mean certain death to over 30,000 people under UN protection.
The story line usually goes like this: Dallaire begged for UN intervention to save Rwanda, the UN refused, and thus his small force with virtually no supplies could only protect a small portion of Tutsis. Salvation came when General Paul Kagame’s RPF – Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis who had fled Rwanda after independence – invaded from Uganda and defeated the Rwandan military – the RPG. This shameful acceptance of the fastest genocide in history – one undertaken with guns and machetes at close range by large groups of Hutus, especially teens – was justified by saying the Rwandan government had no control and the Interhamwe militia was doing the damage. In reality, the military and Interhamwe worked together. France in fact supported and even supplied the Rwandan military during the three month genocide.
But here’s what Kagame said in his speech:
Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state. Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up. We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate, with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood. We could have allowed the country to be physically divided, with groups deemed incompatible assigned to different corners. We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated. But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.
It appears that Kagame is saying that if the UN had intervened, it could now be a failed state – that it would have been impossible to create the kind of future Rwandans now consider possible – one where ethnicity no longer is supposed to matter, and the Rwandans are one people.
To be sure, Kagame’s government talks a better game than it walks. Ethnic Tutsis dominate, there are human rights abuses, corruption, and no viable opposition. Some consider Kagame a dictator, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Yet given the conditions Rwanda found itself in twenty years ago, on going Hutu extremism based in the Congo, and the need to create a foundation for a long term peace, it would be wrong to judge too harshly. After all, too quick a move to total democracy can be a disaster if a country is not ready.
More intriguing is the possibility that while the motives were wrong, UN inaction actually was better for Rwanda. A quick brutal climax to a century of ethnic hostility and violence might be what Rwanda needed to create conditions where they could move beyond the damage done by the European colonizers. Yes 800,000 died, but if the UN had stopped the genocide early, how many would be continually dying in on going ethnic strife?
I don’t know. To me Rwanda has always been a classic case proving that sometimes military intervention is justifiable – that humanity must agree to say “never again” to genocide, and act forcefully to stop it. I still believe that – but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures, creating conflicts where none had existed. It’s worth thinking about.
The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama. But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong. The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.
My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest. The reasons full into four categories: 1) Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.
Domestic Policy: The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year. It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis. There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad. But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.
Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century. He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009. He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs. Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008. Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.
He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift. He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive. Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.
Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more. Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.
Foreign Policy. The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations. He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence. Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008. Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.
Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War. President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws. That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation. Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.
Economic success. When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control. Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.
Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs. That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
Personal/cultural factors: Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency. He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy. He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse. Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.
The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change. They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies. He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift. The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes. He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path. He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.
Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory. Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.
The reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been swift and harsh. The EU and the US have unambiguously condemned the military action, and have talked of serious sanctions and consequences should Moscow not back down. However, as time passes and it becomes clear that there is no easy way to get Russia to back down, it may be necessary to seriously consider dividing Ukraine.
Its almost surreal how there is a kind of collective amnesia about the 2008 war in which Russia attacked the independent state of Georgia, a close US ally and participant in the Iraq war, taking the Russian-speaking territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those are still occupied by Russia almost six years late. The events on the ground, outside the control of the US, created a situation where Russian action was virtually inevitable no matter who was in office. Blaming Obama (or Bush in 2008) is ridiculous.
Second, this war represents the weakness of the Russian position. While critics want to paint Putin as Hitler incarnate, planning to swoop next into Poland, the reality is that he is struggling to keep Russian influence in places where Russia has been dominant for quite some time. When the USSR gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, there was no doubt where the power really lie – in Moscow. Kiev, like Tbilisi, was subservient to the Kremlin. That they can’t keep a fraction of their influence without using the military shows a country still in decline, not one resurgent.
Third, Republican attacks on the President are counter productive, shallow and objectively wrong. The response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula has been vitriolic among a few on the right. Senator McCain said the US had a “feckless foreign policy” and Senator Graham claimed that Obama is “weak and indecisive” and “invited aggression.”
Driven by talk radio, Fox News, and the right wing blogosphere, the right has convinced themselves that Obama is a bumbling idiot with no experience, who does everything wrong, and maybe should be impeached. That hyperbolic inbred Obama-phobia plays well among that group, but is both absurd and harmful to the country. We need to have a serious domestic discussion about our options, interests and goals in dealing with far away crises like this one. Consider:
1. What options does the US have? In reality, we’re not going to go to war over Crimea. Neither are the Europeans. Russia has troops on the ground and it’s in their backyard – their “near abroad.” This means that the only feasible response involves economic, symbolic and diplomatic action. This cannot be unilateral. Such actions are only effective if they are multilateral and enforced. That means the US has to work with the EU for a common position.
2. Is it wrong to consider having the Ukraine give up territory? Besides Georgia, Yugoslavia is another state where ethnic differences caused parts of that country to want independence from the core. The international community opposed separatists in Yugoslavia for a long time, but ultimately realized that the country was untenable as one state. Might it be untenable to have a Ukraine so divided between East and West – or Europe and Russia – that internal conflicts are unable to be settled? Might it not be better to have a clearly western Ukraine whose people support NATO and EU, and a new state representing parts of the east that want to be closer to Russia? Do we support existing lines on maps, or self-determination?
3. If Russia is in decline with Putin acting desperately, shouldn’t we also consider not just “piling on” like the international community is now doing, but giving Putin a way out? The Russians have a tradition of isolation from the West, and if Putin sees no choice he’ll play into that cultural history to keep a firm grip on power and assert regional Russian power. Russians often have seen “being Russian” as a spiritual identity that is exceptional and must not be sacrificed for western norms.
The problem with not giving Russia a way to save face or gain something is that more regional conflicts could emerge, spreading instability. Moreover, if Russia is isolated, any effort by the Russian people to try to open up their society would be endangered. If isolated, domestic oppression would grow. The hope of having economic interdependence ultimately open Russia’s politics would be dashed. Finally, sanctions and enmity between Moscow and the West would have economic costs; it’s ultimately in nobody’s interest.
Americans have to accept that the world doesn’t run by idealistic legalism, and geopolitical events overseas often reflect the local realities that can’t be countered with simple slogans.
I believe negotiations should start aimed at allowing Russian speaking regions of the Ukraine vote on autonomy or remaining with Ukraine. Right now this is not a popular position – the international community is piling on Russia, and domestic political name calling makes it hard to deal with the ambiguities and nuances of this case. But I doubt that a divided Ukraine is sustainable. Given globalization, there is no real benefit to controlling a bigger chunk of territory – whatever the nationalists in Kiev might say. That kind of thinking is obsolete.