The Disengagers

Kerry, Hagel, and the end of American military adventurism?

This Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Nixon. Conventional wisdom says Nixon was brought down by Watergate. The reality was that he was undone as much by the divisiveness of the Vietnam years as by any of the marked and material flaws in his character. Distrust of the Washington establishment and of the ugly, costly war into which it had mismanaged America created a polarized, volatile atmosphere. Nixon gave his enemies the sword they needed to undo him and produce the kind of wrenching change the era seemed to demand. 

John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are two products of that era. By extension so, too, is their new patron and soon-to-be boss: Barack Obama (even though Nixon's resignation took place just five days after Obama's 13th birthday). Obama's choices for secretary of state and defense, respectively, Kerry and Hagel are both veterans of the Vietnam war, and although one became a liberal Democrat and the other a conservative Republican, both were defined by their Vietnam experience. Both developed a willingness to challenge conventional military wisdom and a desire to avoid more Vietnams in the future.  For Hagel, this ultimately meant breaking with his own party when he saw America's involvement in Iraq heading in a dangerous direction.

For Obama, whose political bar mitzvah, or coming of age if you will, took place in the America of Vietnam, his career has been largely shaped by the liberal traditions that arose in response to and in the wake of that war. Certainly, that seemed clear during the 2008 campaign, when Obama took the more dovish stance in the primaries versus then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But it has seemed less evident during his presidency, when not only did Obama bring Clinton and Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates into his cabinet, but he also undertook a number of initiatives that suggested a deviation from that liberal tradition, from redoubling America's commitment to Afghanistan to military intervention in Libya to a major escalation in America's use of drone warfare, cyber warfare and special operations to project power worldwide.

The big question surrounding Obama and his second-term national security cabinet is whether the new team will reveal which of the seemingly contradictory impulses displayed by the president in his first term will ultimately be seen as his legacy. Are there clues in these choices that suggest an answer?

Picking liberal Kerry and conservative Hagel, who had a lifetime Senate rating of 85 from the American Conservative Union, might suggest that Obama is at his heart as balanced as his first-term policies seemed to be. Picking two military veterans plus close counterterrorism advisor and 25-year CIA professional John Brennan, architect of the administration's drone wars, suggests that perhaps the seemingly liberal president is actually a bit of a closet hawk. Perhaps the president who drew GOP contempt for what was seen as his capitulating, cozying-up-to-enemies approach of "engagement" in 2008, is at heart an American exceptionalist tough guy to warm a neocon heart (if neocons had hearts).

But the reality is that for all the differences among the members of this national security team -- East Coast liberal Kerry, heartland Republican Hagel, career CIA Brennan, tough, shoot-from-the-lip Susan Rice, strategy-sensitive, process master Donilon -- there is one thing that links them all. It is not engagement. It is disengagement.

Even though Hagel voted for in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his defining stands on international security issues have come when he has-true to his Vietnam-era roots-resisted American intervention and sought to pull the country out of what he saw as costly, unwinnable engagements. Indeed, in terms of Iran policy, one of the things that has critics up in arms about the Pentagon appointment is Hagel's public resistance to an American military confrontation with that country over its nuclear program. Hagel, Kerry, and other members of the Obama team have all been actively working for the past few years to reduce America's military involvement in the Middle East to its bare minimum. Even Brennan's appointment as CIA director should be seen in that context; inside the administration the drone warfare that Brennan has advocated is viewed as part of a "light footprint" strategy in the region that allows America to reach out and touch its enemies with the smallest possible commitment of resources and the least risk.

There is plenty about such approaches to like, particularly when they are viewed in light of the huge costs associated with our catastrophic interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as the United States struggles with domestic economic challenges and looks to benefit from new resource discoveries at home that can lead to greater energy independence, disengagement from the Middle East now seems as much a historical imperative as it is a policy choice.

Indeed, disengagement is only a problem if it does not come simultaneously with new forms of engagement. The void created by withdrawing American hard power from the Middle East and other global trouble spots will collapse on us and cause great unrest if it is not filled with something else. Here, the president's 2008 focus on engaging enemies and his administration's increased reliance on restoring old alliances damaged during the Bush years and identifying new ones, especially with emerging powers from Turkey to India to Southeast Asia, is an encouraging sign. Kerry's own impulses toward diplomacy of a more traditional kind suggest that Obama's second-term national security team may indeed cement this kind of legacy for him, allowing him to be remembered as a president who made America strong again through cultivating friendships rather than flexing our muscles.

That said, this does represent a shift that will be materially different for allies like Israel that have depended on the threat of the use of force from the United States as one of their own foreign policy's primary tools. Choosing a guy like Hagel, who has sought with too little grace but with reasonable attention to America's real national interest to shrug off the influence of the Israel lobby, should not necessarily be seen as the reason Israel should be concerned. It is not up against one man with rogue views. The president will set his own policies. Hagel will work for him. But Israel is up against history and it ought to be focused on finding a way to ensure its security in the roiling environment of its tumultuous region based on an expectation that the America of tomorrow will not act precisely as the America of yesterday did.

Nixon broke the law. He was a paranoid, deeply flawed leader. He also certainly oversaw some of the most significant foreign policy successes of any president over the past 50 years. Not only did he ultimately get America out of Vietnam, he empowered his foreign policy team to reach out and cultivate new relationships with the era's other great powers, notably Russia and China. The challenges were different. But he was a man who offset military disengagement with active diplomatic engagement. It would be an interesting irony if Obama, Kerry, and Hagel ultimately ended up emulating this underappreciated aspect of the late, not-so-lamented president's legacy.


David Rothkopf

The Coming Year in Review

The headlines we'll be reading in 2013.

As that great geopolitical theorist Carly Simon once observed, "We can never know about the days to come but we think about them anyway, yay."  She then went on to say, as ketchup lovers everywhere remember, "Anticipation, anticipation, is making me late...is keepin' me waitin'."

Of course, the tortures of anticipation are well known to observers of the slow-motion train wreck that has been Washington's management of America's financial situation, or the recent, interminable U.S. presidential campaign, or the hideously slow path to oblivion followed by the Assad regime in Syria, or the painfully circular Eurofollies, not to mention the gradual but undeniable degradation of the planet's environment that goes on year in and year out despite our clear knowledge about how to avoid the damage.

The time has come to say "enough."  We live in an age in which the average consumer expects instant gratification. There is no reason those who are interested in the bigger issues taking place in the world shouldn't have it too. For that reason, we bring to you the top headlines that you will be looking back at when 2013 draws to a close 12 months from now.  Think of it as the year in review, before it happens. Yay: 

America Recovers

Forget the fiscal cliff or the debt ceiling.  Admittedly, that may seem difficult given the headlines of the moment. The clown show in Washington is diverting for inside the Beltway reporters and creates a kind of artificial drama that makes one periodically wonder if Kris Jenner were actually speaker of the House. But see the economy through the eyes of the market.  Washington dithers but hops to when it gets slapped around enough by traders. Meanwhile, there are winds at America's back: An energy boom.  Housing markets recovering. Signs of resurgent growth in key sectors. Other big markets a little soft and international investors looking to the United States as a secure place where the real protection of intellectual property can spur innovation. Growth in Canada and Mexico. Insourcing as a real trend bringing jobs back to the United States. That's why smart market observers like Laszlo Birinyi, who were early to call the current bull market, expect record stock market highs in 2013.  In his view, people are ready for the slump to be over and the prospect of a bull market will be irresistible.

This has its downsides, in particular the concern that too much growth will make Washington sloppy again, counting on a rebounding economy to make up for its spending sins.  But Washington has done us all a favor by becoming so feckless and irrelevant that no one is counting on the U.S. government to lead America out of the boom. Which will leave growth in the hands of people and companies who understand it.  Which for Barack Obama, John Boehner & Co. ought to have them remembering that old lyric from "Pippin": "it's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart."

China (and Some of the Rest of the World) Recovers

American growth will help even if it is modest. But the United States can no longer be the world's locomotive as it once was. It needs help. China hands I have spoken to think 8-9 percent (or even slightly higher) growth in 2013 is likely.  This would be a return to roughly 2011 growth levels after a 2012 slump that started to reverse during the second half of 2012. Europe experts think the worst of the crisis may be behind them. Some emerging markets (see below) may show signs of real life even as others (Brazil, Argentina, India) continue to struggle for a while. The net net: 2013 will be the year that the five-year slump associated with the Great Recession really comes to an end, even if many don't feel the benefits for some time to come.

Assad Collapses, Syria Festers, and the Mideast Trembles

Bashar al-Assad is toast. The Syrian leader's Iranian and Russian supporters are already desperately in Plan B mode. His local backers are shifting their last assets out of the country and heading for the hills. The problem is that with his downfall will come a period of transition to a new regime that may introduce a new term to the geopolitical lexicon: "the fog of peace." As many members of the very uncohesive opposition are bad guys, troublemakers, or potential Assads as there are any who seek a more democratic or at least vaguely civilized future for the revolution-torn country.  Instability in Syria means problems for its neighbors, including Jordan (where refugees add to growing threats to King Abdullah and his family's long reign in that country), Turkey, Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon. Perhaps most affected will be the latter two as Iran shifts its regional hegemony chips onto those spaces.  As for Iraq, the year should see more stirrings of trouble in the country the United States invaded a decade ago and about which George W. Bush once declared "mission accomplished." In fact, Obama and incoming Secretary of State John Kerry will find they spend much of the next four years trying to avoid having it look like both big American wars in the region actually resulted in on-the-ground realities that were the same or worse as the ones we found prior to going into those combat zones. Iran's doubling its bets on Hezbollah also, of course, will have implications for its other client in the neighborhood, Hamas, making Israel-Palestine peace talks harder. And, of course, the embarrassment of backing Assad won't look good for the regime in Tehran at home - especially at a time when economic sanctions are really taking a toll.  That'll make them more nervous and less predictable. (See below for the upside.)

Bibi Netanyahu Irritates the World

A key to good prognosticating is always to throw in a few sure things.  Predicting Bibi Netanyahu will irritate the world is like predicting that the U.S. Congress will fail to come to grips with America's deficit problem or that Lindsay Lohan will get in trouble with the law. We've seen this movie before.  We don't like it but when in doubt, the universe repeats itself.  The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, success breeds success, tomorrow's weather has an 85 percent likelihood of being the same as today's, and the Israeli prime minister is-no doubt with the best of intentions-a dependable pain in the world's tush.

No War with Iran

Iran has problems (see above). Sanctions will make them worse. They want time. Nobody wants a war. Iran will test the world's patience, push it to the brink, then "settle"...buying time until the next revelation it is not playing by the rules and the next cycle of brinksmanship. In the end, this approach is more than likely to ensure they will become "nuclear capable" and trigger a new arms race in the region and among emerging powers everywhere. But that won't happen in 2013. And that will pass as successful diplomacy -- until it turns out to have extraordinarily high hidden costs.

Meet the New Bosses, Same as the Old Bosses

In addition to Assad, 2013 will see the departure of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Syria, the fall of Assad will produce a power struggle and in the world's desire to produce stability, it is likely to bet on anyone tough enough to hold the place together. Which is likely to be a not very good guy. In Venezuela, the death of Chavez after his long battle with cancer will produce a successor regime that is increasingly weaker but attempts for the near term to ride sympathy for the departed Bolivarian bully.  In Iran, President Ahmadinejad was never in charge in the first place so while the guy who takes over the presidency may change, the power remains with the Ayatollah-in-Chief as it has since the revolution. In short, we won't miss these bad guys when they go, but we're likely to get new ones and new problems in their place, at least in the short term. In fact, with the Middle East a creeping mess and with developed countries focusing on bigger problems at home, we are in a period that may, like the 1960s, see the world's major powers inclined to buy into a new era of strongmen who will keep a lid on their countries even if a few basic human rights have to get violated along the way. (Don't worry, though, we'll have elections so that the 21st century bastards smell nicer than the ones we had back when colonialism was in its death throes.)

America Enacts Immigration and Gun Reforms

The U.S. Congress is dysfunctional-but it is not stupid. Ok, maybe it is stupid, too. But it is nothing if not self-interested. Some progress on some legislation will be made. Expect passage of bills on assault weapons and some ammo bans possibly even before we even get to the next round of fiscal brinksmanship. Expect movement on immigration reform, which has supporters in both parties and should be easier in an economy trending upward. On everything else, expect the usual collective exercise in goat husbandry.

Gold Bubble Bursts

It has to happen sooner or later. Strengthening economies will soon lead to strengthening currencies. Or at least less aggressive U.S., Chinese, and European efforts to devalue their currencies. And when that happens people will start to realize that even golden trees don't grow to the sky. In the United States, where buying gold has taken on a political tinge as some on the hard right and Paulistas buy gold as a way of expressing their hatred for the Fed, the central government, and modernity, the gold crash will hit one political side harder than the other. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of economic troglodytes.

Mexico and Indonesia are the "Next BRICs" Everyone Is Talking About

Mexico will be the Brazil of 2013. (I know this because it was already the Brazil of 2012.) New regime. Finally likely to get to some Pemex reforms. Fourth-largest shale gas reserves in the world.  Benefits as manufacturing facilities move from difficult-to-work-in China and back closer to the United States. As for Indonesia, this is the big country that emerging markets investors are starting think is showing renewed signs of life after a prolonged (15-year) struggle. Lots of people. Lots of energy. Low priced manufacturing. Close to big markets. And now, gradually, the government is starting to get its act together, somewhat. (Indonesia is still a state with strong anti-central government tendencies, which can work for many investors. Corruption does remain a problem, however.)

China Strains Against the Limitations of Its System

Look at China's recent hamfisted effort punish the New York Times for publishing the truth about corruption among its elites. Some see in China's recent moves efforts to echo U.S. "hard power" with expansion of its Navy and investments in next-generation forms of warfare from space to cyber to unmanned drones, and U.S. "soft power" through the use of their checkbook and the influence it buys. But most telling is what might be called their use of "brittle power": Denying visas, cracking down on Internet freedoms, squabbling with the Japanese over deserted rocks all fall into this category.  At first glance the power may seem hard enough but it is actually a sign of weakness, not strength, and it can crack and crumble away quickly, revealing the real structural problems the new leadership is going to have to find better ways of tackling.


The year 2013 will also see big stories that are easy to predict but hard to fill in the details-more climate-driven disasters, more scandals in financial markets and among emerging markets elites. And it will see stories more important than all those above that don't get enough ink. Climate change is one of these of course.

And Then, There Is the Greatest Social Failure of Our Era...

The larger looming story that troubles me even more is our continuing failure to protect women or their rights. The U.S. in particular is going to face some very difficult choices in the year(s) ahead on this point. Are we so eager for closure in Afghanistan or stability elsewhere that we are complicit with putting in power regimes that will continue to suppress the majority population, deny them education, deny them protection under the law, allow them to be abused under the protection of barbarous and indefensible "cultural traditions?"  Will countries like India continue their tradition of failing to enforce the law against rapists who prey on their women, as in the case of December's horrifying Delhi gang rape?  Will the gunmen who targeted Malala in Pakistan continue to seek to intimidate those who emulate the courageous schoolgirl? Will women continue to be under-represented economically and politically in almost every country in the world?  My fear is that the answer will be "yes" and that in the year ahead we will see even the world's most progressive and enlightened powers continue to feed the greatest global social failure of our age, by looking away and accepting the unacceptable.