National Security

No Empire Strikes Back

The days of unilateral imperial action are gone—American power is not enough to solve the conflicts in Egypt and Syria.  

AP Images/British Official photo
AP Images/British Official Photo A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942 ; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état. In the days of empires, superpowers could deal with Middle Eastern...

Let's Avoid the Fog of War

The benefits of a U.S. military strike against Syria don't outweigh the costs.

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta
As the Obama administration considers military action against Syria as retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it’s important to consider what such strikes could actually accomplish, and at what cost. As I understand them, the two main arguments for strikes are: 1) Having set a red line, the credibility of the United States now requires that the Bashar al-Assad regime be punished for crossing it; 2) Military action is necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons and to deter future use. The first case is fairly easy to dismiss. Supporters of military intervention tend to place a great deal of weight on “credibility,” which is almost exclusively defined as “a willingness to bomb something.” As this argument goes, the United States needs to use deadly force to maintain its table image, to use a poker term. If we get caught bluffing, other players will be more likely to call or raise us in the future. But there’s just not a lot of real-world evidence...

Bill Kristol Is Getting the Band Back Together

We haven't started a new war in years, but Bill Kristol knows what to do about that. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Back when George W. Bush was president, William Kristol—editor of the Weekly Standard , former Dan Quayle chief of staff, and general conservative man-about-town—co-founded something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, whose purpose was to beat the war drums until the American government and public saw the wisdom of an invasion. Kristol was eventually mocked not only for his status as a "chickenhawk"—like nearly all the war's most visible boosters, he was eager to send other people to fight and die, but had avoided military service during the Vietnam War—but for his confidently offered yet comically wrong predictions about Iraq, like "This is going to be a two-month war" or his immortal assertion that there was no reason to think there'd be any conflict between Sunnis and Shias since "Iraq's always been very secular." In the end, Kristol and his allies got what they wanted, and that Iraq thing turned out great for everybody involved. And now, in case you were on the fence...

The Chemical-Weapon Taboo and America's Next War

A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)
Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria , it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions. Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not...

Back to the Future in Egypt

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
It’s too soon to say whether the Egyptian coup that overthrew the elected government of Islamist Mohamed Morsi—and the ensuing crackdown that has now killed more than a thousand people—has squashed any chance for democratic reform in Egypt. I think it’s safe to say that its short-term prognosis is grim. What seems clear, however, is that the Egyptian military crackdown has ended talk of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” At the very least, it has revealed that many of its supporters weren’t that serious about it to begin with. One of the great (and little-noticed) ironies of the post-9/11 era is that, in an effort to justify its grandly transformative policies in the Middle East, the Bush administration and its supporters latched upon a leftist critique of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, America’s interest in stability in the Middle East had led it to support a set of undemocratic, authoritarian regimes that promised to keep the peace if we didn't bother them about human rights. The...

Ed Davis's Minority Report

AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye
AP Photo/Matt Rourke W hen two homemade bombs derailed the Boston Marathon on April 15, longtime Mayor Thomas Menino was laid up in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from his latest setback in a string of recent ailments. The mayor of two decades immediately checked out of critical care to attend police and media briefings; but in a wheelchair with his medical bracelet still snug around his wrist, Menino couldn't deliver the sort of reassuring rhetoric that Rudy Giuliani did for New Yorkers after September 11, when he stood with rage and pride atop a mountain of World Trade Center wreckage. With Hizzoner on the sidelines, Americans sought answers from a number of surrogate authority figures, none of whom calmed the public quite like Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Ed Davis. Tall and awkward but confident, with an endearing New England brogue, Davis reached through the news cameras, wrapped his meaty arms around America, and promised a swift response. In the time...

The NSA Can't Be Trusted

flickr/Sparky
flickr/Alex Ellison O n August 9, President Obama gave a news conference at which he defended his administration's record on surveillance while proposing some modest reforms. Predictably, it got mixed reviews from observers concerned about civil liberties. Less than a week later, The Washington Post published an important story about the National Security Agency (NSA) that makes it clear more reforms are necessary—and undermine Obama's defense of his record. The key finding of the story, by Scott Wilson and Zachary Goldfarb: An internal audit found 2,776 "incidents" in which NSA surveillance breached rules between April 2011 and March 2012. Even worse, the rates of illegal "incidents" have been increasing. As the Post 's Timothy Lee says , "We now know that President Obama’s assurances that the NSA wasn’t ‘actually abusing’ its surveillance programs are untrue." The only question is whether Obama deliberately misled the public, or whether he was unaware of these violations. Neither...

President Obama Wants to Talk to You

President Obama at today's press conference, talking about talking.
When Barack Obama made remarks about the Trayvon Martin case, saying there isn't much value in "national conversations" led by a president, it was an unusual kind of candor. After all, having a national conversation is a great way to not do anything about a problem—particularly one that seems nearly impossible to solve. (If there's a problem that's quite possible to solve but would require politically difficult steps, one appoints a commission to study it.) I thought of that watching his press conference today, when he was asked about the various surveillance programs that have come to light as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations. After a somewhat rambling discussion of all the safeguards already in place to make sure nothing bad could possibly come of the government tracking your phone and Internet traffic, Obama said he's "looking forward to having a conversation" about these matters with all kinds of people who have an interest in the topic. A conversation! In fairness, the...

Neocons vs. Non-Interventionists: Let the Games Begin!

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta Senators Rand Paul and John McCain T he intraparty fight among Republicans over foreign policy escalated further this week when former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said that it was time to take stock of failed U.S. military interventions over the past decade, and acknowledge key anti-interventionist critics as important voices within the party. Gingrich told the Washington Times in an interview he still considers himself a neoconservative, but said that “at some point, even if you are a neoconservative, you need to take a deep breath to ask if our strategies in the Middle East have succeeded.” Questioning the approach of exporting democracy through the barrel of a gun, Gingrich went on, “I think it would be healthy to go back and war-game what alternative strategies would have been better, and I like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul because they are talking about this.” Gingrich’s comments are less interesting because of his reconsideration...

Threat of Terrorism Still Making People Stupid

Save us from this man.
When you're a partisan, you have a certain obligation to be, well, partisan. That means you have to put the things your side does in the best light and the things the other side does in the worst light. Their motives are always suspect while your are always pure, and if anything goes wrong it was obviously their fault, while if anything goes right they had nothing to do with it. But just how far does this obligation extend? How far beyond the borders of logic and reason can you ride it? The unfortunate answer is, pretty darn far. As you've heard, the administration ordered a number of embassies, mostly in the Middle East, closed for a few days because of some "chatter" relating to a potential al Qaeda attack. Republican Congressman Peter King said that this demonstrates that "Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11," which is kind of like saying that the fact that the Backstreet Boys are currently touring shows that they're even more popular than they were in the...

Kerry's Heavy Lifting Begins on Israel-Palestine

Preliminary peace talks begin in Washington next week amid hopes that the U.S.'s efforts will engender much-needed change in the region. 

 

AP Images/ Fadi Arouri
Defying the skeptics, Secretary of State John Kerry announced last Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had “established a basis” to return to peace talks, which have stalled since 2010. Kerry is wisely keeping a close hold on details so as not to create opportunities for spoilers in advance of negotiations actually taking place, but the latest is that preliminary talks, in which the Palestinians will be represented by longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israelis by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s “personal envoy” Yitzhak Molcho , will begin in Washington next Tuesday . Now that new talks are imminent, critics are hard at work detailing the challenges ahead. As Daniel Levy noted in a recent piece, “Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth.” The more important question now is whether, having successfully brought the parties back to the table, Kerry will be...

Pray the Atheists Away

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, Raul R. Rubiera Earlier this week, two Democratic representatives felt the sting of the old adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Earlier this summer, Colorado representative Jared Polis and New Jersey representative Robert Andrews tried to push through an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act—a large defense budget bill—that would allow the Department of Defense to add nonreligious chaplains to the ranks of the military. Not only did the amendment fail, its opponents were so incensed that they introduced their own amendment, requiring any chaplain appointed to the military to be sponsored by an “endorsing agency,” all of which are religious. The new measure passed resoundingly, 253 to 173. Republicans seemed simultaneously baffled and horrified by the notion that nonreligious chaplains might have something to offer service members. “They don’t believe anything,” explained Representative Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, during a...

Congress Tells NSA to Keep Up the Good Work

National Security Agency headquarters.
What with the important news of a baby being born in England and the further adventures of Anthony Weiner's penis dominating our attention, you probably didn't notice the failure yesterday of an amendment in the House to end the NSA's program collecting phone records on you, your neighbors, and every other American. Keep in mind that, as Sen. Ron Wyden has intimated , there are almost certainly other NSA surveillance programs that we would also be shocked to hear about, but remain secret. That this amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash, got a vote at all is somewhat surprising, but from all appearances , Speaker John Boehner saw it as a way to allow the more libertarian members of his caucus to let off some steam and take a stand against government surveillance. It may not have ever had much of a chance of passing both the House and Senate, but the Obama administration pushed for a no vote and General Keith Alexander himself went to Capitol Hill to lobby against it, and...

Liz and Dick

With the help of her powerful father, Liz Cheney is running for Senate and setting off the next round of an intra-GOP fight over foreign policy. 

AP Images/Cliff Owen
AP Images/Cliff Owen It’s not much of a surprise that Liz Cheney has decided to run for office, as she announced yesterday. With the help of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and access to his considerable network of donors and supporters, she’s been building a national profile herself, mainly on national security issues, for several years. What is surprising is that she would challenge a sitting Republican Senator in Wyoming, rather than the state in which she’s spent most of her time over the last decade. “When I heard Liz Cheney was running for Senate I wondered if she was running in her home state of Virginia,” said Senator Rand Paul in response to the news that Cheney would challenge incumbent Mike Enzi. The problem isn’t that a primary fight could weaken the GOP in Wyoming. As Jonathan Chait noted yesterday, there’s little real danger of a Democratic upset in reliably-red Wyoming. The problem, Chait continued, is that “Cheney is nuts—a spokesman of the deranged wing...

Transatlantic Trouble

How much has America's spying on European allies damaged the transatlantic trade deal once thought to be one of Obama's best opportunities for shaping his foreign policy legacy?

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
Recent revelations that the U.S. government had been spying on European allies continue to rile public sentiment on the continent, just as officials from both sides of the Atlantic sit down for talks in Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a wide-ranging deal that the Obama administration has been pushing as a key foreign policy initiative. If successful, TTIP would deepen the economic ties between North America and the European Union and represent the biggest trade deal in over two decades. But with public trust in the United States ebbing throughout the core countries of the European Union, President Obama will probably have to do more than simply downplay the scandal as a hyped-up, misunderstood policy detail. Old school Atlanticists have long touted the wisdom of deeper economic integration between the United States and the European Union, which is already vast and significant. U.S.-EU trade in goods and services totals about one trillion...

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