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The State of the Union Speech: What I'd like to hear but won't

I don't expect President Obama to devote much time to foreign policy issues during his State of the Union address tomorrow, because other topics (health care, the economy, regulating Wall Street, etc.) are causing him the most trouble these days. Plus, if he was going to talk a lot about foreign policy, what exactly could he say? That we are making great strides in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Nope. That his Cairo speech has transformed our standing in the Middle East and brought us to the brink of Middle East peace? Hardly. That we have turned the corner on climate change, nuclear arms reductions, or relations with Iran? Um ... not exactly. That relations with allies like Japan have never been better? Well, no. That the Guantanamo prison has been closed on schedule, as he promised a year ago? Er. ... not quite. When you look at the list, you can see why he wants to talk about a discretionary spending freeze and other exciting topics like that.

To be fair, the absence of tangible achievements isn't entirely Barack's fault. As I've written elsewhere, there were few low-hanging fruit when he took office, and nobody should have expected him to fix all of these difficult challenges in a single year or even in a single term. (You may even recall that back when he assumed office, he warned us that it would take time to repair all that was broken). So even if he had done everything right -- and he hasn't -- a lot of big-ticket items on his foreign policy agenda were going to defy easy solution.

But what would I like to hear him say on Wednesday night? If I may indulge in a bit of (unrealistic) fantasy for the moment, here's an announcement he could make that would really make me sit up and take notice, and restore some of my flagging enthusiasm for his presidency. After the usual bromides about the challenges we face, our global responsibilities, our lofty ideals, the sacrifices made by our fighting men and women, the heartbreaking devastation in Haiti, etc., imagine him continuing as follows:

  • "Since I became president one year ago, no responsibility has weighed more heavily upon me than the protection of the American people and the preservation of our national security. Yet after a year in office, I have also discovered that this is a subject where conventional wisdom reigns supreme, and where it is difficult for creative new ideas to get a hearing. There is in fact little difference between Republicans and Democrats on most foreign policy issues: Both parties believe that the United States is beset by many ominous dangers, that it must continue to spend more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and that it has the right and the obligation to intervene in other countries whenever it wishes."
  • "And I have discovered that few members of the foreign policy establishment ever question whether these beliefs and the policies they inspire may be making us both less secure in the world and less well-off here at home. There is little genuine debate about foreign policy alternatives inside the Beltway, and some critical subjects remain taboo. As president, I have sought to encourage open debate and discussion within my administration, but even I have found it difficult to push our policy debates outside rather well-worn lines."
  • "Make no mistake: If America is going to respond effectively to the global challenges of this century, we need to have a more open debate about the strategic choices that we have made in the past and the policies we are committed to today. We need to ask if these choices and commitments still make sense for us now. We need to consider whether America is really more secure if it continues to pile up debt, continues to deny millions of citizens the same health insurance that other wealthy countries provide for their people, and freezes discretionary spending here at home while keeping military spending sacrosanct. We need to ask whether trying to engineer the lives of some 200 million Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan is necessary, or whether it is in fact a fool's errand. We need to consider how to rebuild the real foundations of America's global leadership -- our economy, our infrastructure, our educational system, and our moral principles-instead of equating security primarily with our capacity to blow things up via remote-control."
  • "These are not easy questions, and reasonable people can and will disagree about the answers. Yet despite having assembled an experienced and remarkably talented foreign policy team, I have found it hard to get clear and compelling answers to these questions or even to elicit much debate about them. Accordingly, I have decided to appoint an informal "Team B" to provide me with an alternative strategic vision over the remainder of my first term. This group will not have formal governing authority, but will provide me and my national security team with an alternative perspective on key foreign policy and strategic questions." 
  • "I am pleased to announce that this advisory panel will be chaired by Ambassador Charles B. Freeman, one of our finest and most experienced diplomats and a remarkably creative and independent thinker. The other members of Team B will include Professor Robert J. Art of Brandeis University, Professor Barry Posen of MIT, Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Professor John Mueller of Ohio State University, Dr. Gerhard Caspar, former president of Stanford University, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, former NSC official Hillary Mann Leverett, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Harvard Professor John G. Ruggie, Dr. Cindy Williams, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office's National Security division, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, independent blogger Glenn Greenwald, and Foreign Policy magazine editor Moises Naim."
  • "I am forming this advisory panel to supplement the analysis and advice that I receive from my regular foreign policy team, in whom I retain the greatest confidence.  Team B is not intended to replace the normal policymaking process; its assignment is to make sure that we are asking the right questions and that we do not adhere to misguided policies simply because they have become familiar."

Do I expect to hear those words -- or anything remotely like them -- on Wednesday?  Of course not; I said it was a fantasy, remember? I don't even expect to hear Obama admit that anything might be wrong with his approach to international affairs; that's not what the SOTU speech is for and not even this president readily admits error. The safe bet? Obama's foreign policy will continue along the same well-trod paths and with the same disappointing results.

P.S. Speaking of national security, I'll be spending Thursday and Friday as a guest of the U.S. Navy, observing a naval exercise. I expect to be duly impressed, but will do my best to maintain my scholarly independence. I won't have my laptop with me, however, so I won't be blogging between tomorrow and Friday.  Anchors aweigh!

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Nothing more dangerous than a recovering "realist?"

Back in 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a book by Kenneth Pollack (subsequently director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at Brookings), entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.  The book argued that Saddam Hussein was irrational and undeterrable and that the United States had no choice but to remove him from power. Part of the book’s effectiveness derived from Pollack’s portrayal of himself as a belated convert to preventive war: he had opposed using force in the past, he said, but was now convinced—oh so reluctantly—that no other course was prudent.  The book provided intellectual cover for all those liberal hawks who were looking for some way to justify supporting the war, and thus played an important role in a great national disaster.

Last week, CFR president Richard Haass appeared to be channeling his inner Pollack in a Newsweek column calling for regime change in Iran. Describing himself as a “card-carrying realist,” he sounded Pollackian notes of reluctance and resignation. He says that he normally thinks that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” and adds that he previously backed the Obama administration’s decision to try diplomacy first.

But now, he says, he’s “changed his mind.”  He’s convinced that Iran is trying to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (a carefully worded phrase, by the way, as having the capacity to build a nuke is not the same as actually building one and Iran may merely be seeking a latent capacity akin to Japan rather than an actual nuclear arsenal).  He also thinks -- from his lofty perch in New York City -- that Iran “may be closer to profound political change than at any other time since the revolution that ousted the Shah thirty years ago.” Although he doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion (which we don’t have the forces for anyway), he wants the U.S. and its allies to be more vocal about Iranian human rights violations and advocates slapping targeted sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Meanwhile, neither senior U.S. officials nor congressmen should have any dealings with the Iranian regime, and we ought to push hard for sanctions on refined petroleum products at the U.N. (where they won’t be approved). Somewhat inconsistently, he thinks “working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue,” even though he must know that there’s hardly any chance that they will succeed while we are doing all the other things he advocates.

While there is no question that Haass’ piece will help fuel America’s sense of self-righteousness -- look, we’re defending freedom! -- the course of action he lays out is foolish. No one in the United States can be confident that Iran is close to “profound political change”; we simply don’t have enough information to know what is happening in Tehran, and authoritarian regimes often hold on to power for decades despite widespread domestic discontent.

Moreover, as I’ve noted before, key members of the current opposition are strongly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, which means that there is little reason to think that Iran will abandon its nuclear program even if there is some sort of regime change. So if that's what's really bugging him -- and it appears to be -- then his prescribed course of action will just reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Acting as Haass prescribes could also weaken the opposition rather than strengthen it, by allowing the regime to discredit their adversaries as foreign puppets. He says the clerics and Revolutionary Guards are doing that already, but why give them more ammunition for the fight?

There are at least three other reasons why Haass’ new position is misguided.

First, after acknowledging that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” he assumes that anything would be preferable to what we have now. Maybe so, but our track record in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere suggests that U.S. meddling often makes things worse. Like the liberal interventionists he has sometimes sparred with in the past, Haass simply cannot imagine leaving well enough alone, and letting Iran’s own people determine their own political future. A hands-off approach is not an endorsement of the clerics or the brutal behavior of the Revolutionary Guards; it is merely recognition that further meddling on our part might be counterproductive.

Second, as Richard Silverstein points out on his blog, Haass’ approach lacks patience. Repairing the troubled U.S.-Iran relationship cannot be accomplished in a month or even a year, and the kind of posturing and pressure that Haass is calling for is more likely to retard progress than advance it. Ordinary Iranians are already convinced that the United States has long interfered in their affairs for various nefarious purposes -- and with some reason -- and putting on the full-court press isn’t going to reduce those concerns. Indeed, it will surely exacerbate them.

Third, a policy of “regime change-lite” puts us one step closer to actual war. Haass is saying in effect that Iran’s government has no legitimacy or standing and that we ought to help bring it down. Attacking Iran is not a practical goal right now, but getting rid of the regime ought to be. So what happens when sanctions and speeches and ostracism don’t work, and Iran continues to develop its enrichment program? Wait another year or two, and Haass will find himself sounding even more like Kenneth Pollack, telling us that he has ever so reluctantly concluded that we have no choice but to bomb. 

One would hope to see better analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations, especially in light of the fiasco in Iraq.  And if it is a harbinger of things to come, look out.

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 10: (AFP OUT) Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass speaks during a taping of a roundtable discussion of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios December 10, 2006 in Washington, DC. Haass discussed the findings of the Iraq Study Group report on the evaluation of the war in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)