World

Angela Merkel's Boring Brilliance

AP Images/Markus Schreiber
AP Images/Markus Schreiber F ew European politicians have survived the financial crisis of 2008 unscathed, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proved to be an extraordinary politician. While most of her counterparts across Europe have been swept away amidst the turmoil that has resulted from the euro crisis, Merkel keeps getting stronger. She just won her third general election, and this time, she brought her party within a hair of an absolute majority, something that hasn’t happened to the conservative Christian Democrats since 1957. She’s the first female chancellor in German history, and at the height of her power, which means her tried and true policy of slow, almost glacial change will continue. How boring. And how utterly genius. Not since Bismarck has a German politician managed to parry a dizzying array of domestic and international forces into a manageable agenda as well as she has. Known to friend and foe alike as “Mutti” (“mommy” in German), Merkel is not only the...

Hawks at Home—Obama and Rohani's Shared Obstacle

U nless you’re someone who relishes the prospect of U.S.-Iran conflict, President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday didn’t disappoint. Recognizing the opportunity presented by the new Iranian president, the speech marked a return to the conciliation of Obama’s first term, only this time backed up by several years’ worth of economic sanctions. While it’s easy to dismiss Obama’s reiteration of America’s commitment to the United Nations at the top of the speech as the usual internationalist boilerplate, the importance of robust American participation in multilateral institutions is something that has underpinned his administration’s approach to foreign policy. (For a wide-angle view of the speech, read John Judis’s excellent take .) It’s this approach—pursuing U.S. goals within a broader multilateral framework—that has facilitated the ongoing international effort to pressure and cajole Iran to address concerns over its nuclear program. Notably, the...

Obama’s Foreign-Policy Realism

AP Images/Meisam Hosseini
AP images/Meisam Hosseini President Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Iran and Syria takes him full circle, back to the Obama of the 2008 campaign and the Obama who was (prematurely) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Evidently the United States is now willing to foreswear the use of force if these still-nasty regimes will give up weapons of mass destruction. It’s both a remarkable shift, and a low bar. This new course presents a tricky set of diplomatic challenges. It falls squarely within the school of foreign policy known as realism: give up on ideals that are unattainable and focus on those that serve core national interests and that can be achieved at proportional cost, even if that means making peace with regimes you detest. In modern times, Henry Kissinger, sponsor of détente with China, was the great advocate of realism—with the notable exception of the failed crusade in Vietnam. Realism says that we should try to get along with even brutal status-quo powers, not topple them,...

Me, Myself, and Netanyahu

AP Photo/Ammar Awad, Pool
(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File) W hen Barack Obama looks at the White House appointment book and sees that Benjamin Netanyahu will come calling next Monday, I doubt he'll smile. Past meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister have come in two types: ones in which they publicly displayed the mutual distaste of brothers-in-law who wish they weren't in business together and ones in which they pretended for the cameras that they get along. Netanyahu's political soul is a hybrid of an early 21st- century Republican and a mid-20th- century Central European. In a certain place inside him, every day is September 30, 1938, when Britain sold out Czechoslovakia, and great-power perfidy is inevitable. A year ago, in his more contemporary mode, Netanyahu was publicly supporting Obama's electoral opponent, a detail neither man will mention on Monday. Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they...

The Strategy that Dare Not Speak Its Name

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
A s the past weeks of debate over action in Syria have shown, it’s nearly impossible to discuss U.S. policy toward the Middle East without discussing Iran, and concerns over the possibility that it could obtain a nuclear weapon. Over the past three decades, the U.S. approach to the region has been, if not entirely defined by the tension between Americans and Islamic Republic, then strongly colored by it. For its part, Iran has, to a considerable extent, defined itself in opposition to the United States, the sponsor of the oppressive Shah who was overthrown in the 1979 revolution. A key foreign policy goal of the Islamic Republic is undermining and rolling back the U.S.’s influence in the neighborhood which it considers itself the natural hegemon of. That bid for regional influence was given a generous boost by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which removed Iran’s bitterest foe, Saddam Hussein, whose invasion of Iran in 1980 sparked the massively destructive eight-year war that...

American Public Oddly Reasonable on Syrian War

President Obama addressing the nation on Syria.
When public opinion is running against the position you've taken on something, it's natural to conclude either that the people just haven't yet heard your argument clearly, or even that opinion doesn't matter. And in one sense, it doesn't. If you're right, you're right, even if most Americans disagree. Not long ago, most Americans had a problem with people of different races to get married; they were wrong about that even if they were in the majority. Of course, that's a matter of substance, which is distinct from matters of politics, which can constrain your behavior whether you're substantively in the right or not. So I wonder what Barack Obama thinks of public opinion on Syria these days. I doubt that he's like George W. Bush, who was forever certain that "history" would judge the Iraq War to be a smashing success. By now Obama may have concluded that he'll probably never win the public over on this question, so he should just try to move things along as best he can. There's a new...

America's Exception Deception

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster I n a democracy, politicians seldom counsel the public to be modest. They flatter and praise the voters, telling them that they are just and wise, hardworking and principled, possessed of boundless vision and common sense. And here in America at least, they also generalize those virtues from the people to the nation itself. America, Americans are endlessly reassured, is unique and special among the world's countries. It i sn't just that we're the most important country, which is undeniable, since we have the biggest economy, the biggest (and most frequently deployed) military, and the most influential popular culture. Those things could change someday. Instead, what voters are told over and over again is that we're "exceptional." We're not just stronger or richer; we're better. Indeed, we're stronger and richer because we're better. And we may well be exceptional in how often we're told that we're exceptional. My knowledge of the electoral politics of other...

Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis

AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty T wo million refugees from Syria. The figure was announced last week and easily missed amid headlines about the Tomahawks that would or would not be fired at targets dear to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Refugees are less dramatic than cruise missiles, less dramatic even than wrangling about a Security Council resolution on Syria's poison-gas arsenal. Yet the exodus from the civil war-torn country represents a humanitarian crisis no less stark, a moral demand no less pressing, than the use of chemical weapons. It is a crisis which has policy responses that do not involve bombs, that do not require a debate about America and Europe re-entering the Middle East's wars. They do, however, demand spending money and a willingness to take in refugees on a new and much larger scale. In the end, these costs pale in comparison to the costs of war. Two million refugees, in truth, is a careful understatement. It's the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees...

The Rapid Rise and Humiliating Fall of a Middle East "Expert"

One of Elizabeth O'Bagy's many appearances on Fox News.
It seems as though every few months, some Washington institution—a government agency, a think tank, or the like —finds themselves surprised when one of the people working for them turns out to be a fraud, a purveyor of offensive ideas, or otherwise an embarrassment. After a few days of controversy, the person's resignation is accepted, and they disappear forever. Back in July, a guy working for Rand Paul turned out to be a neo-Confederate. In May, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Jason Richwine, turned out to have some colorful ideas about Hispanics and IQ. The latest, and one of the strangest, is the case of Elizabeth O'Bagy, an expert on Syria employed by the Institute for the Study of War, a right-leaning think tank. This often happens when the person achieves precisely the goal they've been working for: wide dissemination of their ideas, and an elevation in their visibility. It's that sudden visibility that leads people who disagree with those ideas to say, "Who is this...

Mobile Phones Continue Inexorable Conquest of Globe

Flickr/Kohei314
Yesterday, Apple released its new iPhones, one a slightly updated version of the iPhone 5 with a fingerprint reader, and one a cheaper version ("unapologetically plastic," in the term the PR wizards came up with) meant to attract new customers in developing countries. In case you didn't catch any of the eight zillion articles written about the release, minds remained rather unblown. Apple may still be an unstoppable engine of profit, but there are only so many times you can tweak a product and convince people it's totally revolutionary (not that that will stop Apple cultists from standing in line to get the latest version). In any case, this is as good a time as any to step back and look at the remarkable spread of mobile phones across the Earth. There are few other technologies that have found their way into so many hands in so short a time. Mobile phones actually date back to the 1940s, when AT&T set up a system that would allow truckers to make calls from certain cities and...

Playing Russian Roulette with Syria

The strategy outlined in President Obama’s speech Tuesday night was 180 degrees from where it stood when it was announced he would address the nation, so much so that it’s worth asking why he went ahead and went on prime time. As I wrote last week in the Prospect , going to Congress was a way for Obama to build domestic support that could in turn generate greater international support for military action. With the Syria resolution all but dead, and the Russians and Syrians saying yes to John Kerry’s maybe-serious-maybe-not plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under Russian auspices, it now looks like the course of action has been reversed. Last night the president announced that he had asked leaders of Congress to postpone the vote while his administration worked to build international support around the proposed plan, the admittedly complicated details of which are still being worked out. If that process fails, or simply proves, as many reasonably suspect, to be a Russian stalling...

Iraq Is Still Burning

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban
In the debate over whether we should bomb Syria, a name has come up that we hadn't heard in a while: Iraq. There are all kinds of overly simplistic comparisons you could make between 2003 and 2013, but they really are nothing alike, most particularly in that George Bush wanted and got a great big war, while Barack Obama plainly doesn't want any such thing. And of course, Iraq was just kind of sitting there, while today Syria is engulfed in a bloody civil war. But this is a good time to remember that when we finally left Iraq two years ago, things didn't exactly become all unicorns and rainbows. Not that it would be any better if our troops were still there getting shot at, but the country remains awash in sectarian violence. For some perspective, think about the Boston bombing—not just the reaction of the authorities, which included shutting down a major city for most of a day, but how much we talked and thought about it, learned about the victims, debated what it meant and didn't...

Obama Punts to Congress on Syria—and Scores

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Evan Vucci P resident Obama just might pull off his proposed Syria attack. And a limited strike to punish Assad, take out much of his air force, and deter future chemical attacks just might be the least bad of the available options, none of which are good. The strategy might also be astute domestic politics, since it exposes the opportunistic fault lines in the Republican Party and could cast the president as a strong leader for once. One intriguing question that follows from the Syria politicking is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and then appears so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics writ large. More on that in a moment. Six days ago, Obama looked like he’d wimped out again. He had overruled most of his staff, who were counseling a quick strike based on his commander-in-chief authority. Instead, Obama, a reluctant warrior, punted to Congress. The surprise move...

Information Sharing Is Caring

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster M any members of Congress are either yahoos who couldn’t find Syria on a map or partisan hacks who make policy choices purely based on political expediency. And yet: The best thing about President Barack Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike against the government of President Bashar Assad is that it increases the chances that the eventual road taken by the United States in Syria will be a good one. In fact, cases such as this one demonstrate the advantages of a more democratic system when it comes to achieving smart policy over a system which relies purely on the rule of experts. The problem for the presidency is always one of information. How do presidents know what policy to follow? In almost all cases, the president cannot fall back on his own personal knowledge. And, as with most presidents, Barack Obama’s personal expertise was quite limited before he entered the White House. So in the first instance, Obama must turn to the departments...

Leave the Munich Pact Out of This, John Kerry

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
Somewhat at odds with its place in western political lore as the ultimate symbol of appeasement and betrayal, Munich is actually a really nice city. (Really, how could any city whose cultural life is significantly arranged around the appreciation of beer not be?) Visiting in 2011 I was taken on a group tour of the city that terminated at the Konigsplatz, the plaza that’s become the center of Munich’s museum and art gallery district. Our guide led us past a group of breakdancing teens to the Fuhrerbau, the former Nazi Party Headquarters which sits at the edge of the plaza. Now home to a music and theater academy, the Fuhrerbau is the building where the infamous Munich pact —the 1938 agreement recognizing Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, which convinced Adolph Hitler that European leaders were not willing to risk war to stop German expansionism—was signed. “And here,” our guide said, leading us inside, around the building’s grand staircase and into a...

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