The international system is not all gloom and doom

My friend Stuart was telling me the other day that he enjoys reading this blog, but he complained that there's never any good news. That's not entirely true, but I take the point. Of course, realists don't expect to see a lot of good news in the conduct of world politics, and I'm by nature more inclined to comment about issues where I think things are screwed up instead of spending a lot of time talking about what's going well. "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is not my theme song (except when professional threat-mongers are at work).

But despite current economic woes, the long-term implications of climate change, and the looming fiscal problems facing states, local governments, and plenty of other countries too, there is plenty of good news out there as well. Amid all the insecurity and tragedy of modern life, there is much to celebrate. Every day, all around the world, millions of people are finding love, expressing joy, dissolving in peals of laughter, making a new discovery, or enjoying the quiet satisfaction of doing a job well and with purpose. Every day, countless anonymous acts of kindness and respect are binding diverse and complicated societies together, and help thwart those who would rather drive us into our separate tribes and keep us isolated and afraid.

So in that spirit, today I wanted to highlight five "good news" stories in the current world scene, in no particular order of importance.

1. Poland lives! The long-suffering country of Poland received a body blow in April, when a plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other Polish officials crashed in a forest in Russia. The loss of the head of state and many other top leaders might have been paralyzing, but instead the relatively young Polish democracy has shown remarkable resilience in the face of this tragedy. An election to select Kaczynski's successor was held in June, leading to a run-off election in which Bronislaw Komorowski defeated Kaczynski's twin brother. Despite some signs of continued political tension (the defeated candidate did not attend the swearing-in ceremony), the positive response to an otherwise tragic set of events is grounds for hope.

2. Osama bin Laden doesn't have many friends. According to the University of Maryland survey of six Arab countries, Osama bin Laden is less and less popular (and in political terms, increasingly irrelevant). Back in 2003, "confidence" in bin Laden was well into double digits in many Arab countries. By 2008, however, only 14 percent of those surveyed in six Arab countries said bin Laden was the leader they admired most. This year, that number has fallen to a mere 6 percent. Still too high, as far as I'm concerned, but the trend is undiluted good news.

3. Global terrorism is less lethal? There's no question that global terrorism remains a serious problem, and civil violence continues to claim many lives in places like Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Insurgent groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda in Iraq are still killing innocent civilians and U.S. and NATO troops, and the trends in both places are worrisome. But amid that genuine bad news are some encouraging nuggets too. For example, the U.S. State Department reported earlier this month that in 2009, only 27 American civilians were victims of global terrorism (nine dead, 14 injured, and four kidnapped). Moreover, nine of these incidents occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is hardly surprising. While these deaths are obviously regrettable, the low numbers suggest that conventional terrorism does not pose an especially profound threat to U.S. civilians. Cold comfort to those who still live in war-torn societies, but still a piece of good news that Americans shouldn't forget.

4. U.S.-Indonesia ties continue to improve. Despite my criticisms of the administration's handling of certain issues, President Obama has presided over a dramatic and thus far lasting improvement in America's global image in every part of the world (except the Middle East, of course). They have also moved recently to expand U.S. ties with Indonesia, a country that is likely to loom large in America's strategic calculations as Sino-American rivalry in East Asia heats up. (If you want to know why, just look at a map of the region and notice how most of the key sea lines of communication run near or through the Indonesian archipelago). From a U.S. perspective, this is a good development, and I'd argue that it's a positive trend for Indonesia too.

5. The human costs of war are less than we thought? War and civil violence continue to cause great misery in many parts of the world, and I'd be the last person to want to minimize awareness of that suffering. Nonetheless, this report from the Human Security Project concludes that, in their words: "wartime mortality, from disease and malnutrition, as well as war-inflicted injuries, has been driven downwards by significant changes in the nature of warfare -- evident in the 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War, and more than 30 years of highly effective health interventions in poor countries in peacetime -- which have cut death tolls from disease during wartime."

To be sure, this finding remains contested, and I haven't gotten to the bottom of the (mostly methodological) dispute involved. But even if the report is only partly correct, it is a bit of encouraging news about an otherwise bleak aspect of the human condition (i.e., our propensity for violent conflict).

Lastly, we shouldn't lose sight of some pretty bad things that could have happened but didn't. Russia and Georgia didn't fight another war, and neither did India and Pakistan. The U.S. hasn't bombed Iran. The world economy didn't melt down completely, and the euro didn't collapse. The drug lords haven't taken over Mexico. Hezbollah and Israel haven't gone another round in Lebanon. The Underwear and Times Square bombers were incompetent blunderers and didn't manage to hurt anyone except their cause. Although there's a whole lot that could be better, things could also be much worse.

But before I get too cheerful, there's also this, this, and this.


Stephen M. Walt

Mainstreaming war with Iran

If you are worried that the United States might be foolish enough to attack Iran, then you might take comfort from Jeffrey Goldberg's lengthy and alarmist Atlantic article on the subject. Based on a flock of mostly anonymous interviews, Goldberg has concluded that odds are better than 50-50 that Israel will attack Iran sometime next spring. Given his track record as a Middle East analyst -- particularly when it comes to the wisdom of using force -- you might be justified in viewing that prediction as a sign that war was in fact quite unlikely.

I've said plenty already about the reasons why Iran is not a grave threat that justifies preemptive war, and why neither the United States nor Israel should be thinking about a military strike, so I don't feel compelled to dismantle Goldberg's restating of the hawks' case yet again. And I don't have to, because others have already done so quite ably.

Instead, I'd just like to highlight what's really going on here. Although Goldberg does not explicitly call for the United States to attack Iran and is careful to acknowledge the potential downsides of this option, the tone and thrust of the article is clearly intended to nudge the Obama administration toward an attack. He emphasizes that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities would be very difficult for Israel (some analysts think it is it is essentially impossible), but says it would be easy for the United States. He reminds us that Obama has repeatedly said that Iran with nuclear weapons would be "unacceptable," and suggests that both Israel and various Arab states have real doubts about Obama's toughness.  

The implication is clear: "If you meant what you said, Mr. President, and you don't want people to think you're a wimp, you'd better get serious about military force."

In short, a central purpose of this article is to mainstream the idea that an attack on Iran is likely to happen and savvy people-in-the-know should start getting accustomed to the idea.  In other words, a preemptive strike on Iran should be seen not as a remote or far-fetched possibility, but rather as something that is just "business-as-usual" in the Middle East strategic environment. If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized.  If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.

You'll recall that a similar process of "mainstreaming" occurred over Iraq: What at first seemed like the far-fetched dream of a handful of out-of-power neoconservatives in 1998 had become a serious option by 2001. By 2003, aided in no small part by the efforts of journalists such as Goldberg, the idea had been embraced by liberals and others who should have known better.  

Thus, articles like this one (and some other recent sallies), are intended to box Obama in, and create a win-win situation for the war party. If Obama eventually caves, they get the attack on Iran that they (wrongly) believe is necessary to ensure Israel's survival. If Obama doesn't take the bait, they can beat him up for being spineless. And by portraying him as soft on Iran, they make it even more difficult for Obama to exert the kind of pressure on both sides that is necessary to bring about a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

In our 2007 book on the Israel lobby, John Mearsheimer and I wrote (emphasis added):

Although there is still some chance that President Bush will decide to attack Iran before he leaves office, it is impossible to know for sure. There is also some possibility, given the inflexible rhetoric of the presidential candidates, that his successor will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hard-liners there continue to predominate. If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel's behalf, and the lobby will bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy."

As one would expect, Goldberg wrote a rather hysterical negative review of the book when it came out, and he enjoys calling us names and leveling unfounded accusations. It is therefore somewhat surprising that he is now doing his best to demonstrate how right we were.