A 'do over' in Afghanistan?

Contrary to what many (but not all) commentators seem to think, the firing of Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus is not that significant. To be more precise, it will only be a significant event if Obama uses this shift as an opportunity to move towards withdrawal. Otherwise, we'll just rearrange some deck chairs and watch the war effort continue to founder.

Until the Rolling Stone article surfaced, there was little sign that Obama was unhappy with McChrystal's handling of the war. (Gareth Porter of IPS reports that there was in fact growing discontent within the administration over the lack of progress, but it hadn't surfaced in any visible way.) More importantly, there was no sign that Petraeus had serious problems with McChrystal's performance or visible doubts about the need to continue the fight until "victory" was achieved. Don't forget that Petraeus's status and prestige is based on his knowledge of and commitment to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, and COIN is exactly what McChrystal was doing too. Unlike the "surge" in Iraq, which involved a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy and tactics, there is no reason to expect Petraeus to implement a fundamentally different approach in Afghanistan. The subhead in today's New York Times says it all: "Obama Says Afghan Policy Won't Change after Dismissal."  Uh-oh.

There is also no reason to believe Petraeus will achieve significantly different results because the problem in Afghanistan is not the quality of our generals. Bad leadership can hamper a war effort, of course, but it is a fallacy to think that all we need to do is get the right leader in place at the top and then all will be well. (Military history is often written in ways that glorifies the role of the "great captains," but there's a lot more to military success than just a smart and inspired commanders).

The real problem is that our campaign in Afghanistan is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The Karzai government is a liability, not an asset, and we have no way of making it perform better. Similarly, we have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open -- where they would be easy to beat -- when confronted by superior force, they simply melt away and wait us out. Although troop morale seems to be good, our forces have been fighting a long time and burnout is beginning to set in. Our NATO allies are leaving the field, and Americans are beginning to realize that the costs of continuing this fight exceed either the benefits of victory or the risks of withdrawal. "Victory" in Afghanistan -- whatever that might mean -- wouldn't make al Qaeda a lot weaker; and "failure" wouldn't make them much stronger either. Putting a new general in charge doesn't change that calculus at all.

Third, some prominent commentators like Andrew Sullivan now worry that Obama is in effect hostage to Petraeus, because the latter's stature and prestige will make it almost impossible for Obama to overrule him should he ask for more troops or seek to continue the war indefinitely. That is an obvious danger, but that same prestige and stature also makes Petraeus the best person to help Obama sell a prudent decision to cut our losses and get out.  Moreover, Petraeus' stature is based primarily on the supposed success of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, a campaign that achieved the tactical objective of lowering the level of violenace but did not achieve the strategic goal of political reconciliation. If Iraq goes south again as U.S. forces withdraw, some of Petraeus's current luster is bound to diminish and Obama's freedom of maneuver might increase.

In any case, the only important question here is what Obama is telling Petraeus to do. In essence, McChrystal's gaffe has given Obama a chance for a "do-over." He made the wrong choice in the fall of 2009, when he agreed to escalate the U.S. presence despite all the obvious pitfalls.  Has he learned from the results of the past nine months?  Does he now realize that he is not the master of events in Afghanistan, and that he cannot achieve success there simply by giving inspiring speeches and sending more troops? And has he begun to sense that this war might not be winnable at acceptable cost, and that continuing the fight is putting his entire presidency at risk?

If he has, he'll tell Petraeus that his mission isn't to pacify Afghanistan, build a stable central government there, or even "defeat, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda" (which isn't in Afghanistan anymore). Rather, his mission is to find a way for the United States to end this futile and unnecessary adventure in social engineering, so that we can turn our attention (and our finite resources) to more pressing problems. 

If Obama hasn't learned that lesson, then he will find himself stuck in the Afghan quagmire for the remainder of his time in office. As with Johnson in Vietnam and Bush in Iraq, the war will suck the life out of his presidency and make it impossible to achieve more urgent domestic and international priorities. And because he's now had two opportunities to chart a different course, it will have been entirely his own doing.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

The untied states of Europe

The following commentary is by Professor Sebastian Rosato of Notre Dame University, who offers a decidedly pessimistic take on the EU's future. His new book,  Europe United: Power Politics and the Making of the European Community, will be published by Cornell University Press in January 2011.

The Untied States of Europe
by Sebastian Rosato

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Europe's debt crisis. Optimists, such as Princeton political scientist Andrew Moravcsik, declare that "it is too soon to count Europe out." The European Union has survived plenty of crises in its time and will get through this one as well. Pessimists like Harvard historian Niall Ferguson disagree, arguing that what has happened in Greece is likely to happen elsewhere. To his mind, Europe could be on the verge of a "disastrous Europewide banking crisis" that has the potential to bring down the euro.

Given the amount of ink spilled on the Greek drama, it's easy to lose sight of the real tragedy here. Regardless of how the EU navigates the current mess, the dream of a United States of Europe -- a political, military, and economic union from Lisbon to Latvia and the Baltic to the Balkans -- is over. What most people don't realize is that this has been the case for almost twenty years.

Nothing can be done to salvage the dream because deep structural forces are at work. The Europeans formed their union during the cold war to counter the awesome power of the Soviet Union. So when the USSR collapsed in 1991 there was suddenly no need for a United States of Europe.

The events of the past two decades show clearly that the end of the cold war also signaled the end of the European dream. EU member states have made no significant move toward political or military union and have begun to unravel their economic union. Absent a serious external threat to Europe, this process will continue. In the future, the current crisis will be remembered as just another warning sign that the dream was ending.

Although calls for a European union go back centuries, they were never seriously entertained before 1945. Nation states like France and Germany jealously guarded their sovereignty -- their right to independence.

It was only in the context of the cold war that the Europeans took a big step toward creating a United States of Europe. In 1951, France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux states created the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1957, they extended the coal and steel model to the whole economy by forming the European Economic Community. Then, determined to preserve their new trading bloc, they fixed their currencies through the European Monetary Agreement. In less than a decade, they had established an economic union.

This remarkable arrangement was a direct response to the unprecedented danger posed by the Soviet Union. Here, for the first time in modern history, was a state so powerful that it could not be contained by a loose alliance like the ones that had defeated Napoleon and Hitler. Only a regional union would be mighty enough to stand up to the Soviets, and because World War II had demonstrated the importance of economic strength, economic unification was the logical place to start.

To form their union, the Europeans had to surrender sovereignty. But the very real alternative was Soviet domination. So they traded "liberty" for "life."

These countries also signed a treaty establishing a European Defense Community, which would have created a unified military and, perhaps, a single European state. But because surrendering political and military sovereignty was a bridge too far, France killed the project in 1954. Henceforth, the Europeans would rely on the United States and NATO for their military protection. Nevertheless, because they did not believe they could count on the United States to defend them indefinitely, they also formed the Western European Union, a purely European alliance that could be converted into a unified military in the event of an American withdrawal from the continent.

The period between 1960 and 1990 witnessed only incremental development in Europe. There were no further moves toward political or military unification. Meanwhile, the various economic agreements worked out in these years simply strengthened and extended the structure put in place in the 1950s. Even the decision to negotiate a single currency did not signal a seismic shift of the existing system, only a modification of it.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was no longer any need for a United States of Europe. The events of the past twenty years show this clearly.

Despite predictions to the contrary -- Commission President Romano Prodi once described the euro as the "antipasto" to political unification -- there has been no move toward political union. Europe's much touted Constitution contained nothing that would have advanced that cause, and even then French and Dutch voters roundly rejected it in 2005. EU enthusiasts also celebrated the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, claiming that Europe now had a "president." What they fail to acknowledge is that he is president of the European Council, the part of the European Union controlled by the member states.

Dreams of a military union to rival the United States have also proved to be wildly overblown. To be sure, the Europeans have created an alphabet soup of military institutions and even installed a "foreign minister." But there is no European army and all consequential foreign policy and defense decisions are subject to unanimity vote, which means that the member states run the show.

None of this is surprising. Nations only consider genuine political union when their survival is at stake. This is why the Europeans flirted with political and military union during the cold war. When the Soviet Union died, so did any prospect of Europe as a unified state. With no real threat on the horizon, this will remain the case.

Indeed, without an overarching geopolitical reason to keep it together, Europe's economic union has also begun to fray and it will continue to do so.

The inevitable demise of the economic union was delayed briefly by the prosperity of the 1990s. Given that the Europeans were experiencing robust growth and that leaders believed the introduction of the euro would perfect the single market, thereby making them even richer, no one had a good reason to kill the EU.

But as soon as economic conditions worsened at the turn of the millennium, France and Germany quickly put national interests ahead of those of the union. Beginning in 2001, they routinely refused to abide by the competition policy that was designed to promote a single European market. They also regularly violated the "stability and growth" pact underpinning the single currency and eventually rewrote it altogether. They even found the time to launch repeated attacks on the European Central Bank's policies and to kill attempts to create single markets in services and energy.

The revival of economic nationalism came into sharper focus as the financial crisis took hold in 2008. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel feuded openly about how to deal with the emergency and then rushed to protect their own industries and workers. Pleas by former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and others to desist from this "retrograde" behavior and "see the European market as a whole" fell on deaf ears.

The debt crisis is merely more evidence that member states are now willing to put their national interests ahead of those of the union. France and Germany are again at loggerheads. Rumor has it that Sarkozy threatened to pull out of the euro during a meeting to discuss Greece's aid package. France also wants a member-state-controlled economic government for Europe to balance the power of the independent European Central Bank.

For their part, the Germans have made it clear that they are tired of supporting their profligate partners. Ominously, interior minister Thomas de Maizière recently confirmed that the end of the cold war has left Germany free to pursue "its national interest with a lot of vigor."

As one commentator notes, member states simply "refuse to treat economic policy on a continental scale," preferring to view "it in a narrowly national perspective."

What happens next?

Everyone agrees that the current arrangement is unsustainable--the EU is not delivering prosperity and more crises are inevitable, courtesy of irresponsible economic policies and a shrinking and rapidly aging population.

Many argue that the answer is more union. The Commission wants members to "reject measures that promote national interests at the expense of the single European market." Several economists are recommending political union. If Europe becomes a single state, it is hoped, the current tensions will simply not arise.

The more likely outcome, however, is the end of the European dream. Eventually, the Europeans are going to acknowledge what they have known for some time: there's no reason to keep the union together. This is not to say that European Union members will stop cooperating, but they will do so as independent nation states. To the extent that the EU survives, it will be a union in name only.