Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bob Kagan

Obama Must Act Now on Egypt

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator. Read More

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator.

The Working Group on Egypt, co-chaired by Bob Kagan and Michele Dunn at Brookings, suggests a more muscular response. They urge Obama to “call for free and fair elections for president and for parliament to be held as soon as possible” and for the government to “immediately lift the state of emergency” and “publicly declare that Mr. Mubarak will agree not to run for re-election.” And just to drive the point home: “We further recommend that the Obama administration suspend all economic and military assistance to Egypt until the government accepts and implements these measures.”

That’s more like it. The one recommendation I am not sold on is immediate elections (though, admittedly, there’s wiggle room in the phrase “as soon as possible”). As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, elections that occur in an atmosphere of instability can exacerbate that instability. This is an especially tricky moment in Egypt because Mubarak has ruthlessly repressed the secular opposition. The only large nongovernmental organization in the country is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists would thus have an advantage in any immediate election, which could allow them to win, as Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, even though they have not been at the forefront of recent protests and most Egyptians would no doubt recoil from the imposition of an Iranian-style theocracy. (Whether the Brotherhood would in fact try to impose such a regime is unknown. Unfortunately, the only way to find out would be to let them take over.)

A safer alternative, to my mind, would be to call for Mubarak to step down immediately and hand over power to a transition government led by Mohammed ElBaradai, the secular technocrat who has recently returned to Egypt to become the most high-profile opposition leader. As is now happening in Tunisia, he could work with military support to prepare the way for elections in a suitable period of time — say in six months or a year.

But I think the Working Group is right to grasp that standing pat isn’t really an option anymore. In this case, the best advice was offered by a conservative Sicilian aristocrat, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in his great novel The Leopard (1958), where he wrote that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

In other words, if the U.S. is to have any hope of salvaging our alliance with Egypt, we need to embrace the change wanted by its people — not try to cling blindly to a past represented by Mubarak and his mini-me, the intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has just been appointed vice president and putative successor.

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Re: New START Treaty: Why It’s Not Much Ado About Nothing

Max, everything you say about the START treaty is sensible but one thing, and it’s the big thing. Treaties should not be entered into, or agreed to, or voted on, for reasons extraneous to the terms of the treaty itself. Which is to say: You don’t sign a binding treaty with a sovereign power governing your own conduct on military matters for decades to come because in doing so you might be able to get the other sovereign power to do something else you want. Getting the other sovereign power to do something you want is precisely what a treaty  is for — if there’s a quid pro quo for signing the treaty, it needs to be in the treaty itself or it doesn’t count. (That includes a promise from the administration to Republican senators to agree to spend money on nuclear modernization. That might happen or might not happen; the signing of the treaty is immaterial. And this shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in any case. If money is needed for nuclear modernization, Obama would be acting directly against the national interest to fail to agree to it out of pique that his treaty wasn’t properly supported. And for acting out of pique, he would be handing his opponents an issue against him.)

You don’t support a treaty for goodwill reasons. You don’t do it for conceptual reasons. It is binding law, and its imposition extends too far into the future for such trivialities. It cannot be overturned by a simple vote of the next Congress.

Nor should Republicans in the Senate vote to support it because, as Bob Kagan says, they will be accused of obstructionism if they don’t. That’s a terrible reason to sign a treaty. They should do it if they are convinced it is in the national interest. Because they are so powerful, treaties require exactly this sort of high-minded approach. That it won’t necessarily do any harm and who the hell knows, it might do a little good isn’t a good enough reason to sign a treaty — any treaty.

The best thing that can be said about this treaty is that it is basically unnecessary. The worst thing is that we are creating a parallelism between American strength and Russian strength that is a very, very bad precedent in terms of how we ourselves think about American power.

Max, everything you say about the START treaty is sensible but one thing, and it’s the big thing. Treaties should not be entered into, or agreed to, or voted on, for reasons extraneous to the terms of the treaty itself. Which is to say: You don’t sign a binding treaty with a sovereign power governing your own conduct on military matters for decades to come because in doing so you might be able to get the other sovereign power to do something else you want. Getting the other sovereign power to do something you want is precisely what a treaty  is for — if there’s a quid pro quo for signing the treaty, it needs to be in the treaty itself or it doesn’t count. (That includes a promise from the administration to Republican senators to agree to spend money on nuclear modernization. That might happen or might not happen; the signing of the treaty is immaterial. And this shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in any case. If money is needed for nuclear modernization, Obama would be acting directly against the national interest to fail to agree to it out of pique that his treaty wasn’t properly supported. And for acting out of pique, he would be handing his opponents an issue against him.)

You don’t support a treaty for goodwill reasons. You don’t do it for conceptual reasons. It is binding law, and its imposition extends too far into the future for such trivialities. It cannot be overturned by a simple vote of the next Congress.

Nor should Republicans in the Senate vote to support it because, as Bob Kagan says, they will be accused of obstructionism if they don’t. That’s a terrible reason to sign a treaty. They should do it if they are convinced it is in the national interest. Because they are so powerful, treaties require exactly this sort of high-minded approach. That it won’t necessarily do any harm and who the hell knows, it might do a little good isn’t a good enough reason to sign a treaty — any treaty.

The best thing that can be said about this treaty is that it is basically unnecessary. The worst thing is that we are creating a parallelism between American strength and Russian strength that is a very, very bad precedent in terms of how we ourselves think about American power.

Read Less

New START Treaty: Much Ado About Nothing

A lot of foreign-policy experts I respect — including John Bolton, Eric Edelman, John Yoo, and Jim Woolsey — have come out against the ratification of the New START treaty, which would decrease American and Russian nuclear arsenals. For my part, I’m with Bob Kagan in wondering what the fuss is all about.

Arms-control treaties between Moscow and Washington were a big deal during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was bent on global expansionism and the U.S. had to stand on the frontlines of freedom. But the Soviet Union is gone. Today’s Russia may be a local threat to its smaller neighbors, the likes of Georgia or Estonia, but on a global scale it’s more of a nuisance — certainly not an existential threat to the United States. Thus the continuing quest for arms-control treaties seems like a bit of an anachronism.

Yet it is an anachronism that has been pursued by both Republican and Democratic administrations. As this crib sheet from the Arms Control Association reminds us, George H.W. Bush signed START II in 1993, Bill Clinton followed with a START III framework (never completed) in 1997, and George W. Bush reached agreement on SORT (a.k.a. the Moscow Treaty) in 2002. Kagan sums up the results of all these treaties along with New START:

The START I agreement cut deployed strategic nuclear weapons on both sides roughly 50 percent, from between 10,000 and 12,000 down to 6,000. The never-ratified (but generally abided-by) START II Treaty cut forces by another 50 percent, down to between 3,000 and 3,500. The 2002 Moscow Treaty made further deep cuts, bringing each side down to between 1,700 and 2,200. And New START? It would bring the number on both sides down to 1,550.

The final figure of 1,550 warheads is plenty big enough to maintain America’s nuclear deterrence; actually, we will have more than that because for the purposes of the treaty B-2 and B-52, bombers are counted as one “warhead” even though they can carry dozens of nuclear warheads. Opponents of the treaty throw out all sorts of other objections, arguing that it would constrict the development of missile defenses or non-nuclear missiles; but no such prohibition is to be found in the language of the treaty.

Let me be clear. I do not buy the Obama administration’s rationales for the treaty. Administration officials cite the need to “reset” relations with Russian and to take a step toward the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. I very much doubt that this treaty will do anything substantial to achieve either goal. We are likely to continue clashing with Russia diplomatically as long as it remains an authoritarian state. As for the quixotic goal of eliminating nuclear weapons: Suffice it to say, reductions in the American arsenal are not going to encourage North Korea or Iran to give up their nuclear programs. But nor will relatively modest reductions in our nuclear forces prevent us from vaporizing Iran or North Korea, should they use nuclear weapons against us or our allies.

One of the important benefits of the treaty is that, in the course of negotiations over ratification, Senate Republicans have won assurances from the administration that it will spend $80 billion over 10 years to modernize our nuclear program. Yet this doesn’t seem to be enough. Sen. Jon Kyl, who has been the lead GOP negotiator, now says he doesn’t want to see a vote during the lame-duck session.

As Kagan suggests, this will allow the administration to blame Republican “obstructionism” if and when relations with Russia deteriorate. Therefore, Republican foot-dragging on ratification isn’t smart politics. It’s not necessary for the national defense either. Republicans should keep their powder dry to fight off attempts to slash the defense budget — an issue that really could imperil our security. That will be harder to do, however, because there are a number of Republicans who appear willing to go along with defense cuts, even as they’re taking pot shots at the (largely symbolic) New START treaty.

A lot of foreign-policy experts I respect — including John Bolton, Eric Edelman, John Yoo, and Jim Woolsey — have come out against the ratification of the New START treaty, which would decrease American and Russian nuclear arsenals. For my part, I’m with Bob Kagan in wondering what the fuss is all about.

Arms-control treaties between Moscow and Washington were a big deal during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was bent on global expansionism and the U.S. had to stand on the frontlines of freedom. But the Soviet Union is gone. Today’s Russia may be a local threat to its smaller neighbors, the likes of Georgia or Estonia, but on a global scale it’s more of a nuisance — certainly not an existential threat to the United States. Thus the continuing quest for arms-control treaties seems like a bit of an anachronism.

Yet it is an anachronism that has been pursued by both Republican and Democratic administrations. As this crib sheet from the Arms Control Association reminds us, George H.W. Bush signed START II in 1993, Bill Clinton followed with a START III framework (never completed) in 1997, and George W. Bush reached agreement on SORT (a.k.a. the Moscow Treaty) in 2002. Kagan sums up the results of all these treaties along with New START:

The START I agreement cut deployed strategic nuclear weapons on both sides roughly 50 percent, from between 10,000 and 12,000 down to 6,000. The never-ratified (but generally abided-by) START II Treaty cut forces by another 50 percent, down to between 3,000 and 3,500. The 2002 Moscow Treaty made further deep cuts, bringing each side down to between 1,700 and 2,200. And New START? It would bring the number on both sides down to 1,550.

The final figure of 1,550 warheads is plenty big enough to maintain America’s nuclear deterrence; actually, we will have more than that because for the purposes of the treaty B-2 and B-52, bombers are counted as one “warhead” even though they can carry dozens of nuclear warheads. Opponents of the treaty throw out all sorts of other objections, arguing that it would constrict the development of missile defenses or non-nuclear missiles; but no such prohibition is to be found in the language of the treaty.

Let me be clear. I do not buy the Obama administration’s rationales for the treaty. Administration officials cite the need to “reset” relations with Russian and to take a step toward the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. I very much doubt that this treaty will do anything substantial to achieve either goal. We are likely to continue clashing with Russia diplomatically as long as it remains an authoritarian state. As for the quixotic goal of eliminating nuclear weapons: Suffice it to say, reductions in the American arsenal are not going to encourage North Korea or Iran to give up their nuclear programs. But nor will relatively modest reductions in our nuclear forces prevent us from vaporizing Iran or North Korea, should they use nuclear weapons against us or our allies.

One of the important benefits of the treaty is that, in the course of negotiations over ratification, Senate Republicans have won assurances from the administration that it will spend $80 billion over 10 years to modernize our nuclear program. Yet this doesn’t seem to be enough. Sen. Jon Kyl, who has been the lead GOP negotiator, now says he doesn’t want to see a vote during the lame-duck session.

As Kagan suggests, this will allow the administration to blame Republican “obstructionism” if and when relations with Russia deteriorate. Therefore, Republican foot-dragging on ratification isn’t smart politics. It’s not necessary for the national defense either. Republicans should keep their powder dry to fight off attempts to slash the defense budget — an issue that really could imperil our security. That will be harder to do, however, because there are a number of Republicans who appear willing to go along with defense cuts, even as they’re taking pot shots at the (largely symbolic) New START treaty.

Read Less

Not Realpolitik

The New York Times and Rahm Emanuel were spinning this week that Obama was a practitioner of “realpolitik” in the style of George H.W. Bush. I suggested this was poppycock, for there is little that is realistic or hardheaded or frankly effective about the Obama foreign policy. Others agree. In a forum at Foreign Policy magazine, Peter Feaver opines:

Emanuel’s quote is puzzling. President Obama may be more “realpolitik” than George W. Bush in the sense that he has downgraded the place of human rights and support for democracy in his foreign policy. But it is certainly not “realpolitik” to slight the personal relationships of presidential diplomacy — and it would be hard to identify something more unlike George H.W. Bush than this feature of the Obama approach to foreign policy. In any case, the rewards for this alleged “realpolitik” turn are still hard to measure. President Obama is significantly more popular with the general publics in the other great powers (except possibly in Asia), but if measured cold-bloodedly by American “self-interest,” the last President Bush had at least as good and probably more effective and cooperative relations with the governments of those great powers (except possibly with Russia). Relations with Britain, China, France, Germany, India, and Japan were more troubled in 2009 than they were in 2008.

Bob Kagan – like Justice Potter Stewart on pornography (“I know it when I see it”) — says he thinks he knows “realpolitik,” and this isn’t it:

It is not a plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons through common agreement by all the world’s powers. And it is not a foreign policy built on the premise that if only the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, this will somehow persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or persuade China and other reluctant nations in the world to redouble their pressure on Iran to do so. That is idealism of a high order. It is a 21st-century Wilsonian vision. And it is precisely the kind of idealism that realists in the middle of the 20th century rose up to challenge. Realists would point out that the divergent interests of the great powers, not to mention those of Iran, will not be affected in the slightest by marginal cuts in American and Russian nuclear forces.

The confusion no doubt stems from the fact that President Obama is attempting to work with autocratic governments to achieve his ends. But that does not make him Henry Kissinger. When Kissinger pursued diplomacy with China, it was to gain strategic leverage over the Soviet Union. When he sought détente with the Soviets, it was to gain breathing space for the United States after Vietnam. Right or wrong, that was “realpolitik.” Global nuclear disarmament may or may not be a worthy goal, but it is nothing if not idealistic.

It is interesting that the Obami spinners seek refuge in Kissinger (or Metternich) for a role model for the supposedly high-minded, we-are-the-world president. It does, I think, convey a certain nervousness that the country, not to mention the rest of the world, might find the president, well, not very savvy or hard-headed. After all, he frittered away a year on Iranian engagement, is shrinking our defense budget as a share of federal expenditures, and has let lefty lawyers rewrite anti-terror policies from the ACLU handbook. So perhaps they are a bit worried that the president might get tagged as a run-of-the-mill weak-on-national-security liberal. So they’ve come up with label that is as ill-suited a description of Obama’s foreign policy as “moderate” was to describe his domestic policy predilections. And frankly, they aren’t fooling anyone this time around.

Realpolitik would be using the threat of force to corner the mullahs. Realpolitik would be eschewing time-wasting entreaties to the mullahs and instead promoting regime change in Iran. Realpolitik would be bolstering our missile defenses and enhancing our Eastern European alliances to check the Russian bear. Realpolitik would be enhancing rather than straining our relations with Britain, France, Israel, and India. In short, it’s doing what Obama is not.

The New York Times and Rahm Emanuel were spinning this week that Obama was a practitioner of “realpolitik” in the style of George H.W. Bush. I suggested this was poppycock, for there is little that is realistic or hardheaded or frankly effective about the Obama foreign policy. Others agree. In a forum at Foreign Policy magazine, Peter Feaver opines:

Emanuel’s quote is puzzling. President Obama may be more “realpolitik” than George W. Bush in the sense that he has downgraded the place of human rights and support for democracy in his foreign policy. But it is certainly not “realpolitik” to slight the personal relationships of presidential diplomacy — and it would be hard to identify something more unlike George H.W. Bush than this feature of the Obama approach to foreign policy. In any case, the rewards for this alleged “realpolitik” turn are still hard to measure. President Obama is significantly more popular with the general publics in the other great powers (except possibly in Asia), but if measured cold-bloodedly by American “self-interest,” the last President Bush had at least as good and probably more effective and cooperative relations with the governments of those great powers (except possibly with Russia). Relations with Britain, China, France, Germany, India, and Japan were more troubled in 2009 than they were in 2008.

Bob Kagan – like Justice Potter Stewart on pornography (“I know it when I see it”) — says he thinks he knows “realpolitik,” and this isn’t it:

It is not a plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons through common agreement by all the world’s powers. And it is not a foreign policy built on the premise that if only the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, this will somehow persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or persuade China and other reluctant nations in the world to redouble their pressure on Iran to do so. That is idealism of a high order. It is a 21st-century Wilsonian vision. And it is precisely the kind of idealism that realists in the middle of the 20th century rose up to challenge. Realists would point out that the divergent interests of the great powers, not to mention those of Iran, will not be affected in the slightest by marginal cuts in American and Russian nuclear forces.

The confusion no doubt stems from the fact that President Obama is attempting to work with autocratic governments to achieve his ends. But that does not make him Henry Kissinger. When Kissinger pursued diplomacy with China, it was to gain strategic leverage over the Soviet Union. When he sought détente with the Soviets, it was to gain breathing space for the United States after Vietnam. Right or wrong, that was “realpolitik.” Global nuclear disarmament may or may not be a worthy goal, but it is nothing if not idealistic.

It is interesting that the Obami spinners seek refuge in Kissinger (or Metternich) for a role model for the supposedly high-minded, we-are-the-world president. It does, I think, convey a certain nervousness that the country, not to mention the rest of the world, might find the president, well, not very savvy or hard-headed. After all, he frittered away a year on Iranian engagement, is shrinking our defense budget as a share of federal expenditures, and has let lefty lawyers rewrite anti-terror policies from the ACLU handbook. So perhaps they are a bit worried that the president might get tagged as a run-of-the-mill weak-on-national-security liberal. So they’ve come up with label that is as ill-suited a description of Obama’s foreign policy as “moderate” was to describe his domestic policy predilections. And frankly, they aren’t fooling anyone this time around.

Realpolitik would be using the threat of force to corner the mullahs. Realpolitik would be eschewing time-wasting entreaties to the mullahs and instead promoting regime change in Iran. Realpolitik would be bolstering our missile defenses and enhancing our Eastern European alliances to check the Russian bear. Realpolitik would be enhancing rather than straining our relations with Britain, France, Israel, and India. In short, it’s doing what Obama is not.

Read Less

Obama’s Iran Policy: A Dead End

Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, Danielle Pletka of AEI, and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations held a lively discussion, moderated by Bob Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Foreign Policy Initiative, at the FPI’s Iran program. It was, to say the least, a sobering discussion.

Takeyh led off by explaining that the Obama team has not yet given up on negotiations and sees sanctions now as means of getting the Iranians back to the bargaining table. However, Takeyh, like the other panelists, thinks that there is “no sanctions solution” to the problem of Iranian nuclear ambitions. And even if Iran returns to the table, at best we will have an inconclusive result. The ability of economic sanctions, especially of the modest type currently being contemplated, he contends, will not affect the calculation of the regime’s self-interest. Pletka concurred, “At this point sanctions are not going to deliver.”

She pointed out that rather than preparing for the Iranians’ inevitable rejection of our negotiating efforts, we seemingly frittered away the time. We are now “gobsmacked” that the Iranians have said no to our bargaining offers, and we are only now trying to cobble together a sanctions effort. Abrams pointed out that a sanctions approach might have made sense last Labor Day — our original deadline, when Obama was still fresh on the scene. But now the “U.S. position has been diminished,” and our relations with Britain, France, and India are worse, making a cohesive effort harder. As for unilateral sanctions, Pletka reports that the administration is putting pressure on “skeptics” in Congress to slow down the reconciliation process between the House and Senate sanctions bills. She doubts Congress is “willing to take on the administration,” which is adverse to a unilateral effort. The U.N. is where the action is for the administration.

The consensus of the group was that the watered-down sanctions, for which we are struggling to obtain Russian and Chinese agreement, will have no effect on the Iranians’ nuclear plans. Would a ban on importation of Iranian oil and on export to Iran of refined gasoline? Takeyh says yes, but the “international community won’t do it.”

Likewise, the panelists agreed that containment is a nonstarter. Abrams pointed out that the difference between deterrence before Iran gets the bomb and containment after is critical. (“Containment doesn’t guarantee anything, ” he noted.) After five years of saying a nuclear Iran was unacceptable, any containment policy, which would by necessity require use of force or threat of force to deter aggressive Iranian action, Abrams explained, would certainly lack credibility. Kagan summed up: “If they don’t want to use [military force] now, why would they use it when Iran has the bomb?”

Pletka argued that the acquisition of a nuclear weapon would enhance the regime’s staying power and deter efforts to undermine the regime. As for the Green Movement, Abrams noted allowing the regime to get the bomb would have a huge impact on morale. “The world would have been defeated,” he explains, and the regime would have achieved a great victory.

Abrams made several key points. First, he notes Israel desperately would prefer not to launch a military strike, but only if “there is another way to keep Iran from getting the bomb.” He notes that the Israelis are amazed at “how stupid” the U.S. has been in taking the military option off the table. “What leverage do you have?” he asked. “Even if you don’t believe it [that force would be used], why isn’t he saying” a military option would be no big deal? He imagines that some in the administration do not want to see the entire Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty system break down and would be willing to employ force, but this is not a view shared by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or the U.S. military.

Second, he notes that by inaction both under the Bush and Obama administrations, we have conveyed to Iran that there “is no price to be paid for killing Americans.” He said that despite Iranians killing Americans directly and indirectly in Iraq, “there was absolute insistence by the U.S. military” not to act against Iran, presumably on the theory that “there was already too much on the table.” The lesson learned by the Iranians, therefore, was that they can impose a price on the U.S. without brining any suffering on themselves.

Finally, he argues that we should be making an “all-fronts” effort to contest Iranian behavior in all international bodies — whether on the mullahs’ arming of Hezbollah, human rights atrocities, or violation of nuclear agreements. We should urge European parliaments to denounce the regime. “Put the regime on the defensive everywhere. Make it a pariah state,” he argues, noting ruefully that instead, Israel has become the pariah nation.

The conclusion one draws from the panel is not an optimistic one. The Obama team wasted a year on engagement, only serving to undermine the Green Movement’s effort to delegitimize the regime. The sanctions currently contemplated are too puny and too late. The administration has disclaimed use of force. So while the administration is not officially stating that its policy is to accept the “unacceptable,” the inevitable result of its policy decision is precisely that. We now face what was thought to be unimaginable: a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state. That will be the legacy of the Obama administration — a world infinitely more dangerous and unstable.

Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, Danielle Pletka of AEI, and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations held a lively discussion, moderated by Bob Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Foreign Policy Initiative, at the FPI’s Iran program. It was, to say the least, a sobering discussion.

Takeyh led off by explaining that the Obama team has not yet given up on negotiations and sees sanctions now as means of getting the Iranians back to the bargaining table. However, Takeyh, like the other panelists, thinks that there is “no sanctions solution” to the problem of Iranian nuclear ambitions. And even if Iran returns to the table, at best we will have an inconclusive result. The ability of economic sanctions, especially of the modest type currently being contemplated, he contends, will not affect the calculation of the regime’s self-interest. Pletka concurred, “At this point sanctions are not going to deliver.”

She pointed out that rather than preparing for the Iranians’ inevitable rejection of our negotiating efforts, we seemingly frittered away the time. We are now “gobsmacked” that the Iranians have said no to our bargaining offers, and we are only now trying to cobble together a sanctions effort. Abrams pointed out that a sanctions approach might have made sense last Labor Day — our original deadline, when Obama was still fresh on the scene. But now the “U.S. position has been diminished,” and our relations with Britain, France, and India are worse, making a cohesive effort harder. As for unilateral sanctions, Pletka reports that the administration is putting pressure on “skeptics” in Congress to slow down the reconciliation process between the House and Senate sanctions bills. She doubts Congress is “willing to take on the administration,” which is adverse to a unilateral effort. The U.N. is where the action is for the administration.

The consensus of the group was that the watered-down sanctions, for which we are struggling to obtain Russian and Chinese agreement, will have no effect on the Iranians’ nuclear plans. Would a ban on importation of Iranian oil and on export to Iran of refined gasoline? Takeyh says yes, but the “international community won’t do it.”

Likewise, the panelists agreed that containment is a nonstarter. Abrams pointed out that the difference between deterrence before Iran gets the bomb and containment after is critical. (“Containment doesn’t guarantee anything, ” he noted.) After five years of saying a nuclear Iran was unacceptable, any containment policy, which would by necessity require use of force or threat of force to deter aggressive Iranian action, Abrams explained, would certainly lack credibility. Kagan summed up: “If they don’t want to use [military force] now, why would they use it when Iran has the bomb?”

Pletka argued that the acquisition of a nuclear weapon would enhance the regime’s staying power and deter efforts to undermine the regime. As for the Green Movement, Abrams noted allowing the regime to get the bomb would have a huge impact on morale. “The world would have been defeated,” he explains, and the regime would have achieved a great victory.

Abrams made several key points. First, he notes Israel desperately would prefer not to launch a military strike, but only if “there is another way to keep Iran from getting the bomb.” He notes that the Israelis are amazed at “how stupid” the U.S. has been in taking the military option off the table. “What leverage do you have?” he asked. “Even if you don’t believe it [that force would be used], why isn’t he saying” a military option would be no big deal? He imagines that some in the administration do not want to see the entire Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty system break down and would be willing to employ force, but this is not a view shared by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or the U.S. military.

Second, he notes that by inaction both under the Bush and Obama administrations, we have conveyed to Iran that there “is no price to be paid for killing Americans.” He said that despite Iranians killing Americans directly and indirectly in Iraq, “there was absolute insistence by the U.S. military” not to act against Iran, presumably on the theory that “there was already too much on the table.” The lesson learned by the Iranians, therefore, was that they can impose a price on the U.S. without brining any suffering on themselves.

Finally, he argues that we should be making an “all-fronts” effort to contest Iranian behavior in all international bodies — whether on the mullahs’ arming of Hezbollah, human rights atrocities, or violation of nuclear agreements. We should urge European parliaments to denounce the regime. “Put the regime on the defensive everywhere. Make it a pariah state,” he argues, noting ruefully that instead, Israel has become the pariah nation.

The conclusion one draws from the panel is not an optimistic one. The Obama team wasted a year on engagement, only serving to undermine the Green Movement’s effort to delegitimize the regime. The sanctions currently contemplated are too puny and too late. The administration has disclaimed use of force. So while the administration is not officially stating that its policy is to accept the “unacceptable,” the inevitable result of its policy decision is precisely that. We now face what was thought to be unimaginable: a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state. That will be the legacy of the Obama administration — a world infinitely more dangerous and unstable.

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Finding His Inner Pol

Noemie Emery smartly observes, “Patrolling the world is not an idea that appeals to Obama by nature, nor one he can reach without strain.” She explains:

He was not taken, like Kennedy, to North Church as a toddler, and made to recite “Paul Revere’s Ride.” In more ways than one he grew up outside of the mainland, with an outsider’s view of America’s presence, and when he came here, he gravitated to its more radical critics. … If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, Obama is a liberal who is being mugged slowly by the realization that the weight of the world really does rest on his shoulders: That he is no longer an outsider or activist or a professor, but the real life commander in chief.

It isn’t yet clear that Obama has made that transition or is willing to put aside his lefty academic fixations. At West Point, he still couldn’t get out the word victory or avoid providing the netroots with a security blanket (i.e., a withdrawal date), which then had to be ripped from their clutches by the principal grown-up in the administration, Robert Gates. At West Point, Obama also felt compelled to prattle on about “prohibiting torture” (actually, he prohibited everything from a face slap to loud music; torture was illegal before) and closing Guantanamo. He’s still pressing ahead with the KSM civilian trial. All this suggests that he’s not quite able to give up the lure of leftist lawyers and activists, whose goal above all else is to demonstrate the Neanderthal-ness of the Bushies. Being commander in chief means fighting a war on terror against the terrorists, not the prior administration or our own intelligence community.

Meanwhile Obama seems blissfully unconcerned about Iran’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons and disdain for engagement. He seems to lack a viable Plan B. (Plan A was “Obama charms the mullahs by denigrating America.”) As Bob Kagan wrote recently, we don’t yet know whether Obama can play “hardball” with our enemies (the real ones, not Fox News and ObamaCare opponents).

But Obama is plainly a president in progress when it comes to foreign policy. He had no significant national-security or military experience before coming to the Oval Office, so it’s not surprising that he would treat war-planning like a negotiation over a public-works bill. Perhaps their all-consuming addiction to politics and desire to see foreign policy through the prism of domestic politics will, in this case, actually help the Obami get it right. After all, the public opposes a KSM civilian trial and the closing of Guantanamo, is willing to use military force to deprive the mullahs of nuclear weapons, and is supportive of a troop surge for Afghanistan. So if Obama can’t find his inner commander in chief, perhaps he can simply be a smart pol — something he’s quite practiced at.

Noemie Emery smartly observes, “Patrolling the world is not an idea that appeals to Obama by nature, nor one he can reach without strain.” She explains:

He was not taken, like Kennedy, to North Church as a toddler, and made to recite “Paul Revere’s Ride.” In more ways than one he grew up outside of the mainland, with an outsider’s view of America’s presence, and when he came here, he gravitated to its more radical critics. … If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, Obama is a liberal who is being mugged slowly by the realization that the weight of the world really does rest on his shoulders: That he is no longer an outsider or activist or a professor, but the real life commander in chief.

It isn’t yet clear that Obama has made that transition or is willing to put aside his lefty academic fixations. At West Point, he still couldn’t get out the word victory or avoid providing the netroots with a security blanket (i.e., a withdrawal date), which then had to be ripped from their clutches by the principal grown-up in the administration, Robert Gates. At West Point, Obama also felt compelled to prattle on about “prohibiting torture” (actually, he prohibited everything from a face slap to loud music; torture was illegal before) and closing Guantanamo. He’s still pressing ahead with the KSM civilian trial. All this suggests that he’s not quite able to give up the lure of leftist lawyers and activists, whose goal above all else is to demonstrate the Neanderthal-ness of the Bushies. Being commander in chief means fighting a war on terror against the terrorists, not the prior administration or our own intelligence community.

Meanwhile Obama seems blissfully unconcerned about Iran’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons and disdain for engagement. He seems to lack a viable Plan B. (Plan A was “Obama charms the mullahs by denigrating America.”) As Bob Kagan wrote recently, we don’t yet know whether Obama can play “hardball” with our enemies (the real ones, not Fox News and ObamaCare opponents).

But Obama is plainly a president in progress when it comes to foreign policy. He had no significant national-security or military experience before coming to the Oval Office, so it’s not surprising that he would treat war-planning like a negotiation over a public-works bill. Perhaps their all-consuming addiction to politics and desire to see foreign policy through the prism of domestic politics will, in this case, actually help the Obami get it right. After all, the public opposes a KSM civilian trial and the closing of Guantanamo, is willing to use military force to deprive the mullahs of nuclear weapons, and is supportive of a troop surge for Afghanistan. So if Obama can’t find his inner commander in chief, perhaps he can simply be a smart pol — something he’s quite practiced at.

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The Artificial Neocon

I know there are a few competing priorities, but at this moment in our long life as a nation I can think of no more urgent task for Congress than to pass emergency legislation banning the further use of the word “neocon.” At least until a committee of deep thinkers can get together to agree on a commonly accepted definition. (A starting point may be the Robert Kagan essay I referred to in an earlier posting.) Until that happens, its use will only continue to muddy and obfuscate the debate over otherwise important issues.

Exhibit 2,348,485 of this terminological confusion may be found on today’s front page of the New York Times. In an article entitled “2 Camps Trying to Influence McCain on Foreign Policy,” Times correspondents Elizabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter posit a nonexistent death struggle between John McCain’s “neocon” advisers (including yours truly) and those of a more “pragmatic” bent. Several bloggers have already noted the article’s shoddy sourcing and tendentious nature.

For my part, I’m simply mystified by how Bumiller and Rohter decided to assign certain personages and policies and not others to the “neocon” camp. Why, for instance, is John Bolton a neocon and John Lehman a “pragmatist” (as the graphic that accompanies the article has it)? I have no idea–and I bet Bolton doesn’t either, since he has repeatedly said he’s not a neocon. Indeed, he’s been a vocal opponent of the idea that democracy promotion should be at the center of American foreign policy (as many neocons argue). A conservative yes, even a hawkish conservative, but not a neocon.

Support for the Iraq War cannot be the test of “neocon-ness.” It was supported by virtually all conservatives, neo- and otherwise, and by many liberals as well. Aware of this difficulty, Bumiller and Rohter imply that pragmatists display their superior wisdom by criticizing the conduct of the war effort. In assigning Colin Powell and Richard Armitage to the pragmatist camp, for example, they write:

While Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage supported Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq while they were in office, they have become critics of the management of the war.

By that standard, I’m a “pragmatist” too. So are Bob Kagan, Bill Kristol, Fred Kagan, and just about every other “neocon” you can think of.

Another test that Bumiller and Rohter seem to apply is willingness “to work more closely with allies” –something that pragmatists are for and neocons are supposedly against. Bumiller and Rohter write that, in a recent Los Angeles speech, McCain hewed to the pragmatist path because he “rejected the unilateralism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in favor of what he called ‘being a good and reliable ally to our fellow democracies’.”

How do they square this with their earlier assertion that the “author who helped write much of the foreign policy speech that Mr. McCain delivered in Los Angeles on March 26″ was none other than arch-neocon Robert Kagan? Can it be that “neocons” might actually be in favor of working with other countries and not simply bombing them? What a revolutionary idea. Rest assured, it is not a thought that has ever entered the heads of the MSM–or at least affected their coverage.

I know there are a few competing priorities, but at this moment in our long life as a nation I can think of no more urgent task for Congress than to pass emergency legislation banning the further use of the word “neocon.” At least until a committee of deep thinkers can get together to agree on a commonly accepted definition. (A starting point may be the Robert Kagan essay I referred to in an earlier posting.) Until that happens, its use will only continue to muddy and obfuscate the debate over otherwise important issues.

Exhibit 2,348,485 of this terminological confusion may be found on today’s front page of the New York Times. In an article entitled “2 Camps Trying to Influence McCain on Foreign Policy,” Times correspondents Elizabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter posit a nonexistent death struggle between John McCain’s “neocon” advisers (including yours truly) and those of a more “pragmatic” bent. Several bloggers have already noted the article’s shoddy sourcing and tendentious nature.

For my part, I’m simply mystified by how Bumiller and Rohter decided to assign certain personages and policies and not others to the “neocon” camp. Why, for instance, is John Bolton a neocon and John Lehman a “pragmatist” (as the graphic that accompanies the article has it)? I have no idea–and I bet Bolton doesn’t either, since he has repeatedly said he’s not a neocon. Indeed, he’s been a vocal opponent of the idea that democracy promotion should be at the center of American foreign policy (as many neocons argue). A conservative yes, even a hawkish conservative, but not a neocon.

Support for the Iraq War cannot be the test of “neocon-ness.” It was supported by virtually all conservatives, neo- and otherwise, and by many liberals as well. Aware of this difficulty, Bumiller and Rohter imply that pragmatists display their superior wisdom by criticizing the conduct of the war effort. In assigning Colin Powell and Richard Armitage to the pragmatist camp, for example, they write:

While Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage supported Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq while they were in office, they have become critics of the management of the war.

By that standard, I’m a “pragmatist” too. So are Bob Kagan, Bill Kristol, Fred Kagan, and just about every other “neocon” you can think of.

Another test that Bumiller and Rohter seem to apply is willingness “to work more closely with allies” –something that pragmatists are for and neocons are supposedly against. Bumiller and Rohter write that, in a recent Los Angeles speech, McCain hewed to the pragmatist path because he “rejected the unilateralism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in favor of what he called ‘being a good and reliable ally to our fellow democracies’.”

How do they square this with their earlier assertion that the “author who helped write much of the foreign policy speech that Mr. McCain delivered in Los Angeles on March 26″ was none other than arch-neocon Robert Kagan? Can it be that “neocons” might actually be in favor of working with other countries and not simply bombing them? What a revolutionary idea. Rest assured, it is not a thought that has ever entered the heads of the MSM–or at least affected their coverage.

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The Secret History of Neoconservatism

The furor over the supposedly perfidious influence of “neocons” in the making of Bush foreign policy seems to have died down a bit. But it will nevertheless remain part of the lasting legend about this administration. Bob Kagan, one of our foremost foreign policy sages, has a must-read article on the subject in the latest issue of Lawrence Kaplan’s new foreign policy quarterly, World Affairs.

Kagan makes many valuable points, but in essence his argument is that there is absolutely nothing new or foreign about the “neocon” vision—combining power with idealism to make the defense of democracy a central tenet of American policy. The more fevered critics of the neocons insist on explaining their world view with reference to Leon Trotsky, Leo Strauss, and other philosophers of marginal influence in modern America. (I can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally have never read a single book by either Trotsky or Strauss.) They would be better advised, Kagan notes, to look to figures as varied as Alexander Hamilton, William Seward, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Dean Acheson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, all of whom advocated an expansive vision of America’s role in the world.

The opposing viewpoint—which denounces American “imperialism” and abjures the defense of liberty abroad—has an equally long history.  It lists among its proponents not only modern-day neocon-bashers such as Michael Moore and Pat Buchanan, but also such illustrious predecessors as the “progressive” historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams and realpolitik thinkers like Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann.

Nor is this the first time that the more fevered critics of the war effort have wound up charging that the country was “lied” into war by nefarious conspirators. Today it’s neocons. In the past it was banana companies, “merchants of death,” and international bankers. Such assertions have been heard about the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (In other words, after every conflict that has turned out to be tougher than anticipated.) Even when it came to World War II, some die-hard isolationists accused FDR of somehow forcing Japan to fight us and of deliberately not warning Pearl Harbor in advance of the attack.

Kagan does not deny that folly and miscalculation played a large role in planning the Iraq War. But, as he notes, there is nothing unique about America being overweening or imprudent in the pursuit of its ideals. The only way to avoid such setbacks is to pursue an isolationist or narrowly realpolitik agenda—which would wind up causing us far greater problems in the long run.

The furor over the supposedly perfidious influence of “neocons” in the making of Bush foreign policy seems to have died down a bit. But it will nevertheless remain part of the lasting legend about this administration. Bob Kagan, one of our foremost foreign policy sages, has a must-read article on the subject in the latest issue of Lawrence Kaplan’s new foreign policy quarterly, World Affairs.

Kagan makes many valuable points, but in essence his argument is that there is absolutely nothing new or foreign about the “neocon” vision—combining power with idealism to make the defense of democracy a central tenet of American policy. The more fevered critics of the neocons insist on explaining their world view with reference to Leon Trotsky, Leo Strauss, and other philosophers of marginal influence in modern America. (I can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally have never read a single book by either Trotsky or Strauss.) They would be better advised, Kagan notes, to look to figures as varied as Alexander Hamilton, William Seward, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Dean Acheson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, all of whom advocated an expansive vision of America’s role in the world.

The opposing viewpoint—which denounces American “imperialism” and abjures the defense of liberty abroad—has an equally long history.  It lists among its proponents not only modern-day neocon-bashers such as Michael Moore and Pat Buchanan, but also such illustrious predecessors as the “progressive” historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams and realpolitik thinkers like Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann.

Nor is this the first time that the more fevered critics of the war effort have wound up charging that the country was “lied” into war by nefarious conspirators. Today it’s neocons. In the past it was banana companies, “merchants of death,” and international bankers. Such assertions have been heard about the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (In other words, after every conflict that has turned out to be tougher than anticipated.) Even when it came to World War II, some die-hard isolationists accused FDR of somehow forcing Japan to fight us and of deliberately not warning Pearl Harbor in advance of the attack.

Kagan does not deny that folly and miscalculation played a large role in planning the Iraq War. But, as he notes, there is nothing unique about America being overweening or imprudent in the pursuit of its ideals. The only way to avoid such setbacks is to pursue an isolationist or narrowly realpolitik agenda—which would wind up causing us far greater problems in the long run.

Read Less




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