While I was gone

It was a beautiful day on Sunday in Singapore, and I listened to a live-stream of the Patriots game against the Broncos. (As I typed this, Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes far, which was gratifying for us New Englanders but didn't make for a very exciting contest).

It's been an interesting trip, but I have the distinct impression of having left the U.S. just when a lot of things got interesting. I was off the grid a good part of the time, and it drove home to me just how addicted I've become to having access to a constant stream of news. I didn't start catching up on events until I got to the airport in Dubai on Friday evening, and picked up a Wifi connection in the lounge. 

Here's just a few items that I wish I could have commented on in real-time.

 1. The Euro takes on water: As many of us expected, ratings agencies have started to down-grade the credit-worthiness of several Eurozone countries, including France. These agencies aren't infallible of course (i.e., several of them were complicit in the mortgage scandals that caused the 2007-2008 financial crisis), but this event confirms that all the activity last year to bail out Europe's finances haven't convinced these agencies (or the markets) that the problem is solved. Quite the contrary, in fact, which is why I think 2012 will be even rockier.

And I can't help but see the tragic grounding of an Italian cruise liner the other day as an apt metaphor for Europe's dilemma. For in the end the problem facing the Euro also arose from poor navigation and incompetent command, as well as a failure to prepare for rough seas or unfortunate accidents. And if the Euro ends up on the rocks, the people who steered it there are going to end up with prominent places in the annals of modern history. And not in a good way

 2. More Insanity about Iran:  I haven't been able to keep up with all of it, but the debate over what to do about Iran's nuclear program seems to be getting more and more unhinged. Another Iranian nuclear scientist was murdered, which fits the standard U.S. definition of an act of terrorism, and is surely something we would regard as an act of war were someone to do something like it here on American soil. The Obama administration says we were not involved, which doesn't leave a whole lot of other likely candidates.

As one would expect, the most bizarre ideas on Iran keep emanating from places like Commentary or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Iran seems to be seen as a combination of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, but on steroids and raised to the Nth power. So WINEP's Patrick Clawson tells us that murdering Iranian scientists is a good thing because it might provoke Iran into doing something truly nasty, which would then provide us with a pretext to whack them. He used the examples of Pearl Harbor (!) and the sinking of the Lusitania as historical analogies (which is both inaccurate and suggests a remarkable indifference to the human consequences of blithely bombing other countries. And some people accuse realists of being amoral!) And let's not overlook the truly bizarre announcement that Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham intend to introduce a resolution that would seek to rule out a strategy of trying to "contain" Iran.  Needless to say, their goal isn't to facilitate accommodation, but to hold Obama's feet to the fire about increased sanctions, or maybe preventive war. Gee, I wonder why some people in Iran think they might need a nuclear deterrent…

The Obama administration deserves credit for having assembled a more effective set of economic sanctions on Iran, which is clearly putting the regime under more pressure. But I keep wondering what the endgame looks like, and whether the United States would be willing to accept anything less than a complete Iranian capitulation and/or regime change. In other words, is there any Iranian offer short of complete surrender that we would say "yes" to?  I can't tell. Unfortunately, a diplomatic compromise would probably require the U.S. to accept Iran having its own enrichment capability and thus the potential to develop weapons if it so chose.   

In other words, we'd have to accept that Iran has legal rights (and also obligations) under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Of course, both Israel and the Israel lobby here in the United States are dead-set against that sort of deal, which means that Washington isn't likely to go that route. The confrontation is bound to continue, therefore, and therein lies the long-term danger. As we saw with Iraq in the 1990s through 2003, if a conflict keeps going with no resolution, and if well-connected hawks keep beating the drums for war, sooner or later the stars may line up as they did after 9/11, and somebody will decide to roll the iron dice. I think war is unlikely in the short-term, but I can't rule such folly out forever.

 4.  More "Help" from the "Special Relationship:"   Of course, we wouldn't even be discussing war with Iran if we weren't being egged on by Israel and by its supporters in the United States. Which is what makes Mark Perry's blockbuster reporting of an Israeli "false flag" operation so interesting and so disturbing. According to Perry, Mossad agents posed as CIA operatives in order to recruit a Pakistani-based terrorist group called Jundallah to conduct attacks inside Iran. They did this without U.S. approval, of course, and the obvious threat to U.S. interests is that we end up getting blamed for what was in fact an independent Israeli operation.

No good realists should be surprised when countries do deceitful or underhanded things to try to advance their interests, and if that's the way the Israelis want to play it, so be it. But this sort of behavior helps you understand why more and more U.S. officials are questioning the "special relationship," no matter what they have to say in public to keep the lobby quiet. And it's just another reminder that all that rhetoric you hear about the U.S. and Israel having nearly identical interests is a lot of nonsense. The United States and Israel have certain interests in common, but there are also important issues on which our interests diverge. Unfortunately, you can't say that if you're running for office, or if you're somebody who wants to have a high-flying career in Washington. 

In any case, you owe it to yourself to read Perry's article, and also the interesting interview he gave to the Israeli online magazine +972 here.

 5.  Burma Opens Up?   A top story in today's International Herald Tribune is the Burmese government's decision to release assorted political prisoners, as part of their continuing effort to get economic sanctions lifted and to restore better relations with the West, and the subsequent U.S. decision to restore fully diplomatic relations with it. One needs to be careful about direct analogies or comparisons wth other cases, but doesn't this positive development tell us something about the value of sanctions, of diplomacy, and most of all, patience? Might similar lessons apply in the case of Iran? Outside pressure clearly played a key role in Burma's change of heart, but notice that nobody was talking about going to war with them in order to get them to alter their policy. Burma wasn't pursuing a nuclear research program, of course, and its foreign policy wasn't as directly at odds with Washington's regional preferences. But threatening other states with military force isn't a very good way to convince them to reduce their own military potential, and repeated military threats aren't a very good way to conduct diplomacy. One really does wonder what U.S. diplomats could accomplish if we could deal with Iran in a more creative and patient manner.  

6. Tarnishing Democracy?   I like living in a democracy, and I frankly can't imagine ever choosing to live somewhere that I couldn't write or say what I thought. I also think the evidence shows that they have better human rights records than most (all?) authoritarian states and tend to do a better job (on average) of encouraging economic growth and social welfare. But some of the conversations I've had on this trip suggest that the current state of Western democracy isn't helping sell this system in some parts of the world. Defenders of autocracy point to the corrosive role of money in contemporary American politics, the gridlock and sheer nastiness that infects Washington, the unimpressive credentials of many members of Congress, the opera bouffe behavior of leaders like Silvio Berlusconi or even Nicolas Sarkozy, and the inability of Western democracies to take decisive action in the face of mounting problems.   Of course, monarchies, military dictatorships, and one-party autocracies have their own share of dysfunctions, and you aren't going to hear me defending them as an alternative.  My point is simply that the current state of Western-style democracy is making it harder for people like me to persuade others that they should move in similar directions. As I think I've said before, a lot of attack-dog media jocks and for-sale-to-the-highest-bidder politicians like to trumpet their patriotism, but their various antics are doing more to damage our global image than most of our genuine adversaries could even dream of.


Stephen M. Walt

A new kind of NATO

Sean Kay offers the following guest post on the implications of the new Defense Guidance for the NATO alliance:

Last week, the U.S. Department of Defense announced new strategic guidance for force structure and budgets. Buried in the short public document is a single sentence, originally in italics for emphasis, which moves debates over European security after the Cold War into a new paradigm: "In keeping with this evolving strategic landscape, our posture in Europe must also evolve." If President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are faithful to their basic assumptions, then it is fair to anticipate dramatic, and highly appropriate, changes in America's role in NATO.

Three key elements of the new strategy make it hard to escape the logic of a major realignment in NATO. First, there is a clear statement that Asia is the priority for American national security planning. Second, major troop reductions are coming -- including shrinking the size of the U.S. Army from 570,000 to possibly as low as 490,000. These cuts have to come from somewhere and Europe is the obvious place to start. Third, the document states that (also with original italics): "Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities." If there is any place in America's global footprint where this approach is most immediately applicable, it is Europe.

America will not just "walk away" from its NATO allies. Rather, the challenge is to create new incentives for European members to assume lead responsibility for their own security. The strategic guidance asserts that the United States will "maintain our Article 5 commitments to allied security and promote enhanced capacity and interoperability for coalition operations. In this resource-constrained era, we will also work with NATO allies to develop a "Smart Defense" approach to pool, share, and specialize capabilities as needed to meet 21st century challenges."

NATO needs a radical new kind of American leadership if Europe is to be incentivized to assume new responsibilities in effective ways.  For generations, American officials have asked Europe to increase burden sharing and economize defense planning -- and repeatedly failed. George Kennan warned about this risk in 1948 when he wrote (in an internal memo for negotiators that were creating NATO): "Instead of the ability to divest ourselves gradually of the basic responsibility for the security of Western Europe, we will get a legal perpetuation of that responsibility. In the long-run, such a legalistic structure must crack up on the roots of reality; for a divided Europe is not permanently viable, and the political will of the U.S. people is not sufficient to enable us to support Western Europe indefinitely as a military appendage." Today, with the Eurozone in extended crisis, to expect "more" from Europe would be delusional.

What, then, might be done to align next steps policy with what the new guidance calls "a strategic opportunity to rebalance the U.S. military investment in Europe?"

First, declare victory! Europe is experiencing unprecedented sustained peace. If there ever was a moment to take advantage of that climate, it is now. The risks of defense re-nationalization are next to zero and potential conventional threats far over the horizon. Meanwhile, austerity programs are incentivizing Europe to economize military spending via deeper integration -- as Britain and France commenced in 2010. The European security dilemmas that required a heavy American military presence have long been resolved. As but just one recent example, late in 2011, Polish Foreign Minister Radislaw Sikorski stated that: "I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."

Second, the United States can, in recognizing this unique opportunity, lead NATO towards a new force structure which puts European allies squarely in the lead. This would be done by:

1. A clear statement from President Obama that over the next 2-3 years, America will work with the NATO allies to help them develop the integrative capacity they need to simultaneously conduct a Libya-style war and a Balkans-style peace support operation -- without the United States. Europe must now assume primary responsibility for security provision in and around its area.

2. Make clear that America's role in NATO will be limited to Article 5, collective defense, contingencies. In the current environment this means placing America's participation in reserve, as a hedge against great power tensions or shocks to transatlantic security interests. Operationally, this means limiting America's role in Europe to missile defense and liaison activity for consultation, intelligence sharing, planning, exercising, and base-access and deployment logistics.

3. Logic follows that this approach means major reductions in American military personnel stationed in Europe from many tens of thousands down to very low thousands or even hundreds. Some forces based at home would be allocated as reserves available to European contingencies.

4. Major American bases would be closed or transferred to allies for operation and funding and storage of pre-deployed equipment where appropriate. A symbolic start would be to relocate EUCOM from Germany to the United States with American command structures similar to CENTCOM.

5. Announce a clear time-table for this realignment of 2-3 years, with pooled cost-sharing in the NATO infrastructure fund to pay for associated near-term realignment costs that will eventually yield long-term savings. Additionally review the NATO international staff and determine what areas would be better managed through the European Union and which American positions can be handed over to Europeans, including SACEUR.

There will be incredible bureaucratic opposition to this kind of major realignment. This is, after all, asking America to be a wise great power and discard its jealous hold on primacy in European security matters. But the primary criticism, that Europe is needed as a transit point to other theaters just does not hold like it once did. Even in the Iraq war in 2003, most American troops transited through Shannon Airport in Ireland - a neutral country not in NATO. Where necessary bilateral U.S. strategic partnerships can enhance reassurance in places like Turkey and occasional exercises can reassure new NATO allies as in Poland and the Baltic countries. Other criticisms are emotional and driven by historicisms about World War II and the Cold War, not a realistic assessment of today's situation. After all, NATO is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself, and as the U.S. now states, "our posture in Europe must now evolve."   

If the United States cannot disengage from Europe now, then from where in the world can it? This is a unique moment to test assumptions about the role of power and international institutions in world politics. Will it be a "Back to the Future" realist scenario of nationalism and anarchy? Or will institutional norms and principles embedded across Europe hold the peace? We have an opportunity to test these assumptions in a benign environment. Success will, however, require a radical rethinking of how America leads NATO. For both America and Europe, the best case is worth going for. A more efficient kind of defense cooperation among European allies that can compliment American power and generate cost savings across the Atlantic.

Sean Kay has written extensively on NATO, including his first book NATO and the Future of European Security (1998). A professor of international relations at Ohio Wesleyan University he is Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. His most recent book is Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (2011).

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