Why aren't we threatening preventive war against Laos?

Here's a puzzle for you to ponder. For more than a decade, Americans have been repeatedly told that Iran is a Grave, Imminent, Deadly Serious Threat to us, our allies, and the security of the whole world. Why? Because it is enriching uranium, which it is entitled to do as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. intelligence services still maintain that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. Even if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon someday, it couldn't do anything with it without courting its own destruction at the hands of the United States, Israel, or possibly some other countries. Possession of a few bombs wouldn't give Tehran any more leverage than the United States gets from having a vast nuclear arsenal, and we get hardly any. Yet in response to this vastly inflated danger, the U.S. has organized an extensive program of multilateral sanctions, conducted aggressive covert action programs, and repeatedly hinted that it might launch a preventive war if Iran crossed some ill-specified "red line."

Meanwhile, the government of Laos has announced that it has broken ground for a giant dam on the Lower Mekong River, a step that many experts believe will permanently harm the ecology of the Mekong Delta and affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. What Laos is openly doing poses a more immediate and pressing danger to human well-being than the hypothetical possibility that Iran might someday acquire a small nuclear deterrent. So my question is: Why isn't the United States organizing "crippling" sanctions against Laos, conducting cyberattacks on the civil engineering firms who are planning the dam, and threatening to bomb the construction sites if Laos continues the work?

Of course, I don't think the United States should do any of these things. I'm not in favor of war with Iran either. But why do some hypothetical possibilities get enormous (and counterproductive) attention, while some real and tangible problems remain on the backpages?


Stephen M. Walt

After the election: Now what?

Needless to say, I enjoyed last night. Partly because Obama's victory wasn't a nailbiter, partly because Karl Rove looked like a fool on Fox, and partly because most of the other elections I cared about went the right way too. (Watching McMahon, Akin, and Mourdock get spanked by the voters while Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Kennedy III won was deeply gratifying.) And while Sheldon Adelson may be a brilliantly successful casino mogul, last night also proved he's not much of a talent scout when it comes to picking politicians (first Gingrich, then Romney).

Two thoughts keep my sense of satisfaction within bounds. First, Obama is still going to face plenty of opposition, and I see no sign that the GOP is going to be any more cooperative in a second term than it was in his first. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell failed in his stated goal to make Obama a one-term president, but does anyone seriously believe he won't redouble his efforts to deny Obama any meaningful accomplishments? Which means continued wrangling on the budget, and anything else the GOP can think up.

Second, instead of empowering the president to take bolder steps on foreign policy, I fear that re-election will convince his team that they've basically got the right formula: drones, special forces, covert action, secrecy, etc., combined with a very cautious approach to diplomacy. This is certainly preferable to the follies of the Bush administration, but it also means that the U.S. will be engaged in lots of trouble spots but unable to resolve any of them. Two-term administrations also tend to suffer from battle-fatigue, especially if there isn't a deep bench of new players you can bring to key positions. So my fear today is oddly similar to my forecast back in 2009: The foreign policy agenda at the end of Obama's second term will look surprisingly like the agenda he faced when he took office. Iraq won't be a friend, Afghanistan will still be a mess (though we may be out), Iran will still be a challenge, Israel-Palestine will still be a headache, the world economy will still be stumbling, climate change issues will still be kicked down the road, and the United States will still see itself as responsible for addressing all of these problems while our allies around the world continue to either free-ride or to do their best to drag us into their troubles (or both).

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