National Security

Vital Animal Spirits

Biden and Ryan skip policy to show off their muscles.

Closely-fought presidential campaigns can confound expectations by constricting -- rather than broadening -- public debate about significant policy issues, a phenomenon most recently on display during the debate between Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Rep. Paul D. Ryan.

The two men, offering a preview of the foreign policy issues expected to arise at the Oct. 16 and Oct. 22 debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney, mostly competed to demonstrate the muscularity of their teams' approaches to a vexing set of international challenges.

Each vowed their party would play tough with Iran and stick by the current hard line leadership in Israel; spend whatever is needed for critical U.S. military operations and forces; safely extract U.S. troops from Afghanistan; and efficiently engineer the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Ryan argued that Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon has been relentless, and that it is closer now to achieving its goal than it was when Obama won election. Biden responded that Iran is more isolated now than ever before, and said international sanctions are seriously harming the Iranian economy.

Both men were actually right, but their convictions masked the fact that much mystery remains about how the drama over the Iranian program will play out.

Will the toll of tough sanctions eventually cause Iranian citizens to sack their leadership and reverse course? Could that happen soon? Will the sanctions -- or the threat of the government's ouster by its own citizens -- convince Iran's leaders never to mate fissile materials with the other components of a working bomb? Or will the heightened foreign pressures only goad Iran to move faster and farther along the nuclear path?

Public opinion polling on Iran is generally poor, and rife with tendentious or misleading questions. But there is general support for pursuing sanctions before undertaking any military action against Iran -- the course the administration is now on. At the same time, neither candidate was candid enough to say frankly, "Look, we don't know how this is going to turn out, and there are no guarantees."

Nor did either candidate say much about the consequences of what many politicians in Washington claim is the only alternative to sanctions, namely a sizable military attack on Iran. Biden skirted the question by asserting that "it is not in my purview to talk about classified information, but we feel quite confident we could deal a serious blow to the Iranians." He warned vaguely that the outcome "could prove catastrophic, if we didn't do it with precision," but did not explain how such strikes might be considered "precise" when some Iranian air defenses and other key targets are located near many Iranian civilians. Ryan ducked the issue entirely.

The contours of the debate were also too narrow to touch on claims by some intelligence and regional experts that Iran's attainment of a full or near-weapons capability might not be as dangerous as the Israeli leadership -- and Obama and Romney -- have asserted. Since Obama promised, as his campaign for reelection shifted into high gear, that America will not let Iran get a nuclear bomb, dissent over that absolutist posture has mostly been relegated to a few academic journals.

Citing Ambassador Chris Stevens' violent death in Benghazi, Libya, Ryan said that "what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy," which he said was making America less safe. Biden responded by trying to shift the topic to U.S. slaying of Osama Bin Laden, and by blaming the intelligence community for initially attributing Stevens' death to a mob, rather than a death squad.

What neither man said was that the political forces transforming the Middle East over the past two years have proved largely immune to U.S. political influence, and that the history of U.S. foreign policy is replete with interventions around the world that have had unpredictable consequences. Were those mistakes, or simply a reminder of the need for humility?

On the issue of defense spending, Ryan drew from a script shared with his Republican colleagues in the House. He misleadingly called the Obama administration's decision to halt a previously planned budget increase and keep Pentagon funding mostly level a devastating funding "cut." He also said his party believes "in peace through strength" -- a favorite phrase in at least eight Republican presidential platforms. "If these cuts go through, our Navy will be the smallest -- the smallest it has been since before World War I," Ryan said.

Biden responded indignantly that the budget changes embraced by Obama were requested by the military. But he did not mention that the military service chiefs did so only after Obama and his top national security advisers decided in 2011 -- as part of their new economic policies -- to shoehorn the Pentagon's decade-long spending plan into a box roughly 7 percent smaller.

Biden also did not mention that Panetta, in a letter to lawmakers last year, had himself cited the same statistic about the Navy while warning against further cuts that could be imposed early next year under a budget "sequestration" plan approved by both parties. The plan would come into effect if they failed to reach accord about tax hikes and other spending cuts.

Neither debater mentioned that the public -- after being informed about how much the United States is actually spending on the nation's defense -- overwhelmingly wants to cut it by more than the leaders of both political parties do. This support extends to all age groups, both genders, both parties, and residents of both red and blue congressional districts, according to an April survey by the Center for Public Integrity, the Stimson Center, and the Program for Public Consultation.

The two men also quarreled over the timing of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan: Ryan asserted that more soldiers should have stayed there this year to consolidate battlefield gains, and Biden responded that a quick pace was needed to pressure Afghanistan to assume responsibility for its own security and to meet a deadline for complete withdrawal by 2014.

As they strove to show how the war effort can still achieve its goals, neither debater mentioned how unpopular the war has become, or said what most Americans now believe, according to an Aug. 28 summary of public opinion polling by the Council on Foreign Relations: Namely, that it won't be successful, has not been worth the costs, and has not improved U.S. security.

In the Center's own survey, 85 percent of respondents expressed support for a statement that said in part, "it is time for the Afghan people to manage their own country and for us to bring our troops home." A majority of respondents backed an immediate cut, on average, of $38 billion in the war's existing $88 billion budget, or around 43 percent.

"In the context of presidential debates on foreign policy, candidates are often not genuinely engaging the policy questions, especially when it comes to questions about the use of military force," said Steven Kull, a political psychologist who runs the Program on International Policy Attitudes, affiliated with the University of Maryland. "Rather the goal is to project that they have vital animal spirits, expressed in their readiness to use military force, which will intimidate other nations. They will even take positions that are considerably more aggressive than those of the public-such as talking about a military strike against Iran -- to get this point across."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Eyes Off the Prize

The real question isn’t whether the European Union deserved its Nobel. The real question is: What is the EU going to do with it?

Contrary to the reams of mockery unleashed on Friday and over the weekend, the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is absolutely the right idea. The EU is one of the great achievements in human history, and its contribution to peace in Europe and elsewhere is beyond doubt.

The only problem is, the Nobel comes at completely the wrong time. It would have made perfect sense 20 years ago when the Cold War was over and Europe was whole, free and at peace for the first time in its history. But with the continent mired in its gravest social and economic crisis since the 1930s and the EU project in danger of unravelling, it feels like a consolation prize -- like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars or a retirement gift for decades of loyal service.

In his 1950 declaration that gave birth to what eventually became the present-day union, French foreign minister Robert Schuman called for the pooling of coal and steel to make war between France and Germany "not only unthinkable, but materially impossible." Today, a military conflict in the heart of Europe is indeed unimaginable -- as it is between other democratic trading nations like the United States and Canada or Australia and New Zealand.

Despite what the cynics say, the EU deserves much of the credit for this for devising a system in which European disputes are solved in drab Brussels boardrooms rather than on battlefields. But it did not act alone. As U.S. President Barack Obama said when accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, "The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world." The presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops helped keep the peace in Europe. NATO continues to supply a security umbrella for most European states. And globalization has bound countries ever closer together through trade and business ties.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee praised the EU for helping turn Europe "from a continent of war to a continent of peace." This is only partly true. While its members have kept the peace between themselves -- no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting -- the European Union's fringes have been anything but peaceful. In the last two decades alone, there have been wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing with the violent splintering of Yugoslavia.

"This is the hour of Europe," declared Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1992 as the Balkans started to burn. But instead of demonstrating Europe's strength, the conflicts in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and finally Kosovo highlighted Europe's impotence. A club with pretensions to become global a power could not even stop slaughter an hour's flight from its capital.

As storm clouds gathered over the Balkans in the early 1990s, EU leaders met in Maastricht to sign a treaty that is at the root of many of the bloc's problems today. Far from uniting Europeans -- one of the aims of the single currency that was unveiled in the 1992 treaty -- the euro has divided the continent and contributed to the EU's deepest crisis since its foundation.

It is cruelly ironic that on the day the peace prize was announced, the top four headlines on the European Union page of British broadcaster Channel 4's website were: "Greek government cracks down on foreigners," "Greek police clash with protestors during Merkel visit," "Spanish government set to unveil more cuts," and "Clashes in Greece as strikers protest austerity measures."

No wonder the decision was greeted with incredulity on the streets of Athens. "The leader of the E.U. is Germany, which is in an economic war with southern Europe," retired lawyer Stavros Polychronopoulos told the New York Times. "I consider this war equal to a real war. They don't help peace."

This is grossly unfair to Germany, which is helping to bail out the Greek economy. But it is a sign of the dangerous divisions that have resurfaced inside the EU after decades of "ever closer union." For peace is not just the absence of war. It is harmony between different peoples. It is tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. And it is solidarity between different classes and generations. The EU has constantly fostered these ideals, and authors such as Jeremy Rifkin have argued that these values represent some sort of "European Dream" to rival America's.

But in 2012, this European Dream lies in tatters. Partly as a result of Europe's economic woes and the threat to national identity posed by the EU, extremist parties advocating racism, nationalism, and intolerance are on the rise across the continent -- a fact recognized by Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland Friday when he warned: "We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating." Nobody would benefit from the re-Balkanisation of Europe, which is why Jagland called on Europeans to "focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization."

At its heart the EU was, and still is, a peace project. But it is an unfinished one. If the Nobel Prize serves any purpose, it should act as a call to responsibility to EU leaders who often adopt an adolescent approach to matters of war and peace. They complain about U.S. hegemony but are unprepared to pay for their nations' own defence. They lecture the world about European values but are either incapable or unwilling to stand up for them. And they talk of EU solidarity, knowing perfectly well the union has neither the duty nor the capacity to come to the aid of an attacked member -- or even, apparently, one whose economy is melting down, until it's nearly too late.

Whoever accepts the Nobel Prize on behalf of the EU should have the courage to say, as President Obama did in his 2009 speech, that well-meaning declarations are not enough to protect and promote cherished values. Sometimes, preserving peace means preparing for war -- as France and Britain understood in Libya. Sometimes, solidarity means writing checks, as well as delivering moral sermons. And sometimes, promoting stability in Europe -- for example by speeding up Turkey's EU entry -- means confronting prejudices and arguing that European values only make sense when applied.

The EU’s Nobel recipients should also have the vision to move beyond issues of war and peace entirely. Harking back to 1945 for a raison d’être is hardly the most forward-thinking philosophy for a 21st-century organization. Likewise, warning of a return to war if the euro fails, as some European leaders have, is not the greatest vote of confidence in the core values the bloc has supposedly embedded. If the EU wants to remain relevant in the world and connect with citizens who are rapidly losing faith in the European project, its leaders should use the Oslo award ceremony to offer a new central narrative for the union that resonates with a generation whose only knowledge of continental conflict comes from history books.

FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/GettyImages