Personal favorites from 2011

As 2011 comes to a close, I decide to spend a couple of hours looking back over the year's posts and picking my personal favorites.  Of course, the one that I'd take back was my January 16 entry on "Why the Tunisian Revolution Won't Spread," but you can read my defense of this error here.

As for the rest, here are my personal favorites from 2011:

1. American Exceptionalism.  Ok, technically not a blog post, but I'm still glad that FP asked me to write this and I still stand by the the main points.  And please note: I wasn't saying the United States was a terrible country; we're just not as virtuous, special, or divinely-blessed as we think we are.

2. Wishful Thinking.  My reaction to re-reading this post was simple: it's a pretty good guide to the foreign policy pathologies of the current GOP candidates.  Especially #10 ("Everything Will Be Fine after the Next Election").

3. End of the American Era/Offshore Balancing  For a more complete version of this argument, go here.

4. Does Europe Have a Future?    I wrote a lot about Europe and its troubles this year (who didn't?), but this was my favorite take on the situation.  I still think the EU can escape its current morass only if it can generate economic growth in the trouble southern zone.  But even if it manages this miracle, I'm betting that: 1) Europe will get weaker relative to other regions, 2) European unity will remain fragile or decline, and 3) the highwater mark of transatlantic cooperation is behind us.

5. Attack Iran?  Are You Kidding Me?   A recurring theme in this year's postings was my continued opposition to a war with Iran.  For other comments on this issue, go here, here, and here.

6. Power Corrupts (especially if you're male)   Lord Acton was sounding like a realist when he said "absolute power corrupts absolutely."   Especially when you're dealing with men.

7. Who's Winning in the Arab Spring?  Who's Losing?   I hadn't read this one since I'd posted it, and I thought it held up pretty well.   Maybe it makes up for missing the initial wave.

8. Nationalism Rocks!   Actually, nationalism has upsides and downsides.  But you can't ignore it, unless you want to get lots of things wrong. 

9. Why We (Keep) Fighting.   I could have added a sixth reason: because some of the loudest cheerleaders for war have learned nothing from the past decade.  But Matt Duss got there first.

10. Oh yeah...that "special relationship."  As you might expect, I wrote a number of pieces on US Middle East policy and U.S.-Israel relations.  As always, these posts tended to generate the most vociferous reactions (on both sides), a phenomenon that is itself worthy ofnote (and a little disturbing).   In any case, this post was my favorite, even if I was aiming at a pretty fat target.

11. What's going on in Asia?  These two posts should be read together, as they pretty much summarize how my thinking on Asia is evolving.  But I'm not done thinking yet.

12. Peace.  Because I remain an optimist, even if it opens me up to repeated disappointments. 

And my New Year's Resolution?   To read more and to write just as much.  What I haven't figured out yet is what I'm going to cut out.   Because time and resources are finite (something most American strategists have yet to learn), and successful grand strategy is all about setting priorities and deploying resources effectively.  So unless you're a war-monger, human rights abuser, criminal gang leader, international terrorist or corrupt financier,  I hope all of you manage to do that in 2012 too. 

 Gorshkov25, Shutterstock

Stephen M. Walt

What is a war now anyways?

Sometimes you can learn more about a government from how it handles failure than from how it deals with success.  For this reason, I'm going to be interested to see how the Turkish government deals with the accidental killing of 35 civilians in misguided bombing raid yesterday.  The raid was supposedly targeting Kurdish extremists (aka "terrorists"); instead, the victims were civilians (probably engaged in smuggling), a good many of them reportedly in their late teens.

Despite certain misgivings, I've been impressed by Turkey's progress in recent years, and by the political sophistication of its leadership.   Turkey's economic growth has exceeded 5 percent over the past decade, and it staged a sharp recovery from the 2007-2008 financial crisis (growing roughly 11 percent in 2010).  The AKP has emphasized education, enacted significant constitutional reforms, and won nearly 50% of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections.  On the negative side, there are growing concerns about press independence in Turkey and the government's protracted, wide-ranging, and still-unresolved investigation of an alleged military coup plot (the so-called Ergenekon trials) has raised serious questions about the politicization of the investigation and prosecution.

In foreign policy, the AKP government has won plaudits for its energetic (some might say, hyperactive) regional diplomacy, and despite some recent setbacks, by an ability to chart a principled but flexible course consistent with its own long-term interests.  In addition to strongly backing global efforts to press the Assad government in Syria (a formerly close ally), Turkey was especially critical of Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on Gaza.  It also lowered its diplomatic relations with Israel this past year when the Netanyahu government refused to apologize for the killing of several Turkish citizens during the IDF raid on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara.   Not surprisingly, these responses helped make Prime Minister Erdogan the most admired figure in the Arab world, according to some recent surveys.

Which puts the Turkish government in the hot seat now.  If you're going to be critical of other countries' over-reliance on military force (correctly, in my view), and if you're going to demand apologies and/or policy changes when these actions lead to the loss of innocent life, then you'd better be willing to live up to similar standards when the shoe is on the other foot.  To their credit, Prime Minister Erdogan has already expressed regret for the incident and President Abdullah Gul has offered his own condolences, though neither has yet offered a full-fledged apology.  An official investigation is reportedly underway, but it remains to be seen whether those responsible will be held to account.   But if Turkey doesn't respond to this event in a convincing manner,  it will lose some of the moral authority that its recent stances have earned.

More generally, this incident reminds us that air-power remains a crude policy instrument, and one that almost inevitably leads to embarrassing and/tragic results.   As we've seen repeatedly in recent years, even highly sophisticated military organizations can make big mistakes when they try to impose their will solely through bombing campaigns.  Sometimes you hit a foreign embassy by mistake.  At other times you bomb your putative allies, or even your own troops.   And as we've seen repeatedly in the Af/Pak theater, even strict rules of engagement and the most sophisticated sensors and precision weapons cannot prevent civilians from being struck by accident or becoming unavoidable "collateral damage."

It also makes me wonder we aren't seeing a further blurring of the lines between war and peace.  This isn't the first time Turkey has bombed suspected Kurdish rebels across the border in Iraq, but you wouldn't say that Turkey was actually at war with Baghdad.  Similarly, the United States is waging an expansive drone war against suspected terrorists and other suspected bad guys in several different countries--none of whom we are officially "at war" with--and ordinary Americans don't even know the full extent of what we are doing.  Why?  As Glenn Greenwald notes, it's because the Obama Administration refuses to tell us. In short, we don't "declare war" anymore: we wage it in the shadows and most of us don't really know what's going on.

As I've noted before, if more and more countries are killing people through actions that are not-quite-war-but-certainly-not peace, then we are likely to under-estimate the overall level of conflict in the world and we will fail to appreciate the underlying reasons why some groups are angry at us or our allies.  And one wonders what it might take to get different governments-including the leaders in Washington and Ankara--to ask whether the instruments they are relying on aren't the right ones.